Today we start a sort of Gospel marathon. This happens every few years, as the Church goes through the cycle of Sunday readings: we take a break from the Gospel of Mark and spend 5 weeks on one chapter from the Gospel of John.
Why do this? Why focus so much on this one section of John? Well, what we'll be looking at until the end of August is John, chapter 6 where Jesus speaks to us about the Bread of Life. This is one of the most important parts of the New Testament when it comes to understanding the Eucharist.
We start today with the multiplication of those loaves of bread and fish; then we'll hear Jesus identify Himself as the bread of life and tell the crowds that to have eternal life, they must eat His flesh and drink His blood; and finally, we will see many of his followers leave Him because of this teaching.
John 6 is such an important thing for us to hear and spend time understanding because it opens up for us the mystery of the Eucharist. So, brace yourselves. This is a challenging thing to listen to for a whole month - it's also challenging to preach on it for that long; but it is so important.
The Lord wants to speak to you about His gift of the Eucharist.
Now that we can see where we will be going, let's look briefly at the miracle that takes place in today's reading.
There is a hungry crowd and Jesus somehow provides food for them out of the small amount offered by the boy. In fact, when everyone has eaten, they have more bread - twelves baskets of bread fragments - than when they started.
It's a miracle. Jesus did something that would be impossible for any ordinary person and this sign is full of meaning. It would remind people that through Moses, God fed His people miraculous bread in the desert. That's why the people say "This is truly the Prophet" - they see Jesus as Moses' successor, the great prophet promised by God hundreds of years before.
They might have also remembered the story from our first reading. Elisha, the prophet, took 20 barley loaves and fed a hundred people; but now Jesus is feeding so many more.
It's an amazing event on its own, but as Catholics, we can look back and see that this sign is pointing us towards the even greater miracle of the Eucharist. There are two things in the reading that I would like to point out.
First, listen to how Jesus performs the miracle: "Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining ..." Those words should sound familiar because they match what the Lord does at the Last Supper when He gives the Eucharist to His disciples for the first time. This stands out in a particular way because John does not write about that part of the Last Supper in his gospel; this seems to take its place and point forward to what is coming.
Second, after everyone eats, Jesus says, "'Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.' So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat."
There is an abundance of bread - more than they could eat - and in a very real way, we are still eating that bread. When Jesus commanded His apostles to carry on what He did, to eat the bread and drink the wine, He showed us a far greater miracle than just filling our stomachs. He gave, and continues to give, Himself to us in the Eucharist. Millions of His followers throughout history and throughout the world have been fed the true Bread of Life since then.
In these next few weeks, we will hear about the peak of the Christian faith: Jesus, the Son of God, gave Himself completely for us on the cross and that sacrifice is made present for us again and again in the Eucharist. When we receive, we are being transformed. God is giving us His life.
Let's come with open minds and hearts to receive the gift Jesus has for us.
Right from the beginning, when he sent his disciples out into the world to share the good news, Jesus told them that they would be rejected:
"Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them."
The fact that people would refuse to hear God's word is nothing new. It's been a problem for humanity from the beginning. It's the reason sin exists in the world: God told us something we didn't like and we didn't want to obey.
There's another example in today's first reading. The prophet Amos is doing what God told him to do - prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel - but the people there don't want to hear it. Look at what Amaziah said to Amos: "Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel ..."
In other words, "please leave."
Now it's pretty easy to look at other people like that and point out where they reject God's Word, but the message of these readings is for all of us. I'm not just preaching about this because I'm the priest and I want you to listen to me. This is a danger for you and me: that God's word to us comes as a threat to our desires or our comfort. It's so much easier to just do the things we like regardless of whether they are good for us or not.
We often want to live for comfort, but we were not made for comfort. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, we are "created for greatness—for God himself" (Spe Salvi, 33), so choosing to listen to God's Word is not just about saying no to something, but saying yes to the greatest possible thing.
Hearing and obeying God's Word means taking in the challenging things He says to us because they are for our ultimate good. What God offers us and what comes from obeying Him is true happiness; so, it should be our priority to hear Him and to act on what we hear.
One way to do that is to hear His words in the Scriptures. The Bible isn't just another old book. Jesus is present to us in His words and we have to be willing to let Him speak to us. Read a chapter a day or look at each days readings for Mass. The Lord has something to say to you in the Scriptures.
Another important way for us to say "yes" to God's words to us is to take time to be silent before Him. I feel like I say it in every homily, but it is always true: we must have silence in our prayer. If we don't take time to listen to God, how will we ever hear Him?
Listening to God's word also means listening to the teachings of the Church despite our personal feelings or opinions. Being Catholic means embracing the fullness of the Faith, revealed by God in our Church, even though that puts us at odds with the culture in which we live. It means taking it seriously when our bishops call us to action to defend the poor or people who are strangers to us even if it seems to challenge our politics.
Just like the apostles, we may be rejected when we share the Gospel, but that doesn't take away our obligation to do so. Like the prophet Amos and the apostles, we are each chosen and sent by the Lord Jesus. Our lives are a witness to God's presence - so let's constantly listen to what He is saying and do what He asks us to do.
What does sin do to us?
Does it make us dirty? Does it put us in a sort of spiritual detention because we've broken a rule?
This is important to understand. If we are taught not to sin, but rather, to be holy, we should understand the consequences of sin.
Our first reading starts right in the aftermath of the first sin. At the serpent's instigation, Adam and Eve have just disobeyed the Lord's one commandment for them and eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now they find themselves in a new situation.
Before, they had lived in innocence and trust. Everything they needed was provided for and they lived in harmony with God, each other, and themselves.
How do things look after that original sin? They are afraid of God, they are self-conscious, and they immediately come into conflict with each other. Notice Adam's response when God asked him what happened: he blames Eve but also blames God. Though he was right with Eve during the serpent's temptation, he says: "The woman whom you put here with me— she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it." [emphasis mine]
When sin came into the world, the community God had created was immediately broken. That's what sin does: it separates us from God, from each other, and even from ourselves.
But God did not give up. Even in those first moments of a fallen world, he make a promise of salvation: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." Other translations even make it "... he will crush your head" and sometimes it is "she will crush your head" - something the Church has seen as pointing to Mary, the New Eve.
However it is translated, we can see that God has a plan. That plan came to fruition with the coming of Jesus. In today's gospel reading, we see how our savior reverses the effects of original sin.
This is a rich gospel story, but I see two important points that tie back to what we heard from Genesis.
First, Jesus' ministry of exorcism. The scribes from Jerusalem, some of Jesus' usual opponents, say that Jesus' power to cast out demons must come from Satan himself.
Jesus' response is clear: how could Satan work against himself? What is really happening is the fulfillment of the promise God made back in the garden. Jesus is the one who defeats the "strong man" and plunders his house. He not only defeats Satan, but wins us back and sets us free from sin.
Jesus still does this work in the Church today. Yes, it happens in exorcisms, but we are freed from evil in a more familiar way through the sacraments: when we are baptized, when we receive the Eucharist, when we confess our sins and are forgiven by God. The sacraments have so much power to set us free if we come to them with open hearts.
That is why He warns the crowd of the danger of what the scribes are doing. In the face of salvation, they accused Jesus of being evil. The unforgivable sin Jesus mentions is hardening your heart and refusing to recognize God's saving actions - you can't be forgiven if you refuse forgiveness!
After showing that He has come to crush Satan, His enemy, Jesus also begins to heal what was broken in the garden after original sin. When He is told that His family is looking for Him, Jesus replies, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
Is Jesus rejecting His family - rejecting Mary? Of course not! Name another human being who did God's will more perfectly than her!
Jesus is bringing the rest of us into the family. By doing God's will, we are elevated into a greater community. The broken relationships that came about because of sin are healed and made even more powerful through Jesus. Our family doesn't just consist of the people related to us by blood, but all those who are united by the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ.
Sin separates and isolates us. The grace that comes to us in Jesus brings us together - with ourselves, with each other, and with God. We can be together again without the suspicion, shame, and fear of sin. When we trust in God's mercy and follow His commands, the wounds of sin are undone.
The Beatles have a great song called "Hello, Goodbye" that you've probably heard before. The chorus goes, "You say goodbye and I say hello, hello, hello. I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello."
That song popped into my head as I thought about these readings for the Ascension of the Lord.
It's easy to forget about this important part of Jesus' mission. After His passion, death, and resurrection, He spent time with His disciples. He taught them, ate with them, and reassured them that it was really true: He was alive, more alive than anyone had ever been.
But the disciples were still waiting for something. They asked Him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" They were expecting Jesus, the son of David and the Messiah, to restore the Kingdom of David. They wanted Him to bring about this golden age for Israel.
Jesus tells them that the timing of the coming of God's kingdom was not their concern, that now they had work to do. These are last words He spoke to them before He ascended: "... you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Then He's gone.
But rather than being the end of the story, it is really a beginning. The kingdom that they had asked about was going to come, but in a bigger way than they could have imagined and it was their mission that would bring it about.
The Ascension is not about Jesus saying "goodbye" to his disciples - it is a "hello" a new phase of history. From now on, Christ's body is present in the world through His Church. The Kingdom of God is coming to fulfillment - in us, His body.
When the Holy Spirit comes down on these disciples, they will explode out of the upper room taking the Gospel all over the world. That same Spirit empowers us today to do our part.
Jesus still speaks to the world - through us, His Church.
He still comforts those who are mourning and heals the sick - with our hands and our voices.
He took his humanity into the presence of the Father so that, one day, we can be there too.
The angels asked the disciples why they were "standing there looking at the sky?" They could be asking us the same question. Christ had not abandoned His people. He is present with us still today.
One day, He will visibly return, just as He promised; but, until then, we should be utterly clear on what our purpose is. We are His witnesses responsible for proclaiming Him everywhere we go.
The people of Israel had been celebrating the Passover for generations before Jesus and His apostles gathered in the upper room to eat their meal shortly before Jesus' passion. They all would have grown up with it - year after year recreating the ritual meal that God commanded His people to eat way back in Egypt.
That first Passover was part of their path to freedom. They didn't just get together to eat a meal: they sacrificed that lamb and put its blood outside the doors of their homes. It signified that they were God's people - chosen by Him and soon to be liberated by Him from slavery.
They were to eat that meal, perform that sacrifice every year. Each time it drew them back to what God had done for them. Later, a priesthood was established for the people to offer this and other sacrifices that were part of their covenant with the Lord.
Priesthood and sacrifice always go together. The priests offered the blood of animals to symbolize the lives of the people. It's like saying to God, "We belong to You. Our very lives belong to You."
Now, Jesus and His closest followers are gathered together to eat that same Passover, but things are different this time. Jesus deviates from the normal course of things in two important and closely related ways: the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of His disciples' feet.
What we heard in the second reading from St. Paul is the earliest account of what Jesus said and did at the last supper. All of this is new to the Passover meal. What would the disciples have been thinking when Jesus said, "This is my body ..." and "This cup is the new covenant in my blood"?
Then, in our Gospel, we heard how Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.
Just on its surface, this is an incredible act of humility. In a culture where almost everyone walked everywhere in open sandals or simply barefoot, it was the job of the lowest slave to clean the filthy feet of their superiors. No teacher or master would stoop so low - but Jesus did. His whole life was an act of service and self-sacrifice, all leading to the cross.
But there is another meaning to this act of service. At the same supper where Jesus gave His disciples a new ritual meal to eat and commanded them "do this in remembrance of me" and "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" - at that same meal, he washed His disciples.
Just like the Passover itself, this should take us back to the time of the Exodus, when Moses washed Aaron and his sons before they entered into God's presence to serve as priests. You could see that washing and Jesus' washing of His disciples' feet as a kind of ordination.
And so we see in the Lord's Supper that Jesus is beginning a new priesthood - a priesthood that will offer a sacrifice of bread and wine that will somehow be more than just food, it will be Jesus Himself. It's by His command that we celebrate the Mass and by His words spoken by the priest that He continues to give us His Body and Blood.
Through the Eucharist offered by the priests of the Church, we all get to be present at Calvary. The blood that He shed on the cross does more than just mark the doors of our homes, it is given to us - He gives Himself to us - so that we can be one with Him.
That is what the Church calls us to mediate upon tonight as we we enter into the Sacred Triduum, these three days when the most important mysteries of our faith are laid before us.
Christ established the priesthood to continue His presence among the Church He founded especially through the Eucharist. This priesthood isn't one of power and self-promotion but one of service and self-sacrifice, symbolized by that final command of the Gospel: "If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."
So, I ask all of you tonight to pray for your priests - those of us here in this parish and priests everywhere. Pray that we can truly follow Christ's model of service, but especially that we can stay close to the Lord who called us to this vocation. If we are to make Him present in the world today through our ministry, then we need to truly know Him.
All of us, as people who receive the gift of Jesus' body and blood, are also called to live like Him. To love like Him. To serve others as He served. And to lay down our lives out of love.
What could we possibly say after hearing that story?
We heard so much in that one Gospel reading that it would be very difficult to focus on any one thing.
And this is only the beginning.
With Palm Sunday we enter into the most intense, most focused, and most important week of the whole year for Catholics. This is the time when we especially celebrate events that, while they happened hundreds of years ago, are pivotal in our own lives.
We will spend this week hearing about, celebrating, and meditating upon a week in Jesus' life - a week in which his whole purpose in living among us is made clear. Jesus didn't come to give us advice about being "good people" or dazzle us with miracles; He came to offer Himself to His Father on our behalf. He came to accept the consequences of our sins so that we could be set free. He died and rose so that we could too.
It's a lot to take in - and it's easy to go through Holy Week without stopping to appreciate just what it means - but we shouldn't take this opportunity for granted. Every year we are given the gift of remembering what Jesus has done for us. It's something to which we constantly need to return.
As we walk with Jesus this week, I encourage you to remember this: every step he took was for you. Whether it was celebrating the Last Supper or being betrayed and arrested or carrying the cross up to Calvary. He chose to do all of these things - He embraced them because of His love for you.
Let us take our steps out of love. Let's make this week holy, not just in what we call it, but in how we live.
At least once a week - but usually many more times than that - I find myself staring at the sky at night.
Something about seeing the heavens and how amazing and huge they are has always captured my attention. I remember a time in college when my friends and I decided to stay up all night to watch a meteor shower.
We camped out on a baseball field in winter coats and sleeping bags and watched hundreds of meteors streak across the sky. It was amazing. And I couldn't help but think, "God made that." To see the vast complexity of the universe and how we are just one small part of that reality is to be made aware of the greatness of God.
God's presence is written across all of creation, but you have to have the eyes to see it. You have to be like the magi who we hear about in today's gospel.
These men were not part of the chosen people - they were foreigners from the East. They were probably a mix of what we today call astronomers and astrologers. They studied the heavens but they also saw more than just lights in the sky; and using all the knowledge and wisdom they had, they came to the conclusion that a king had been born in the land of Israel.
And so they came. They traveled from their home to another country and, after finding out that Bethlehem was where the messiah was prophesied to be born, the followed the star to the end of their journey.
Today, people might say, “This story is impossible. That’s not how stars work.”
That is true: stars don’t ordinarily point to specific spots on the Earth; but something more, something supernatural is happening here.
What amazes me most about this story is what the wise men do when they find the Holy Family and the king they had been searching for: after searching the heavens for signs and following a miraculous star, they find a poor, seemingly ordinary baby.
Do they leave disappointed? Do they go looking for the real “king of the Jews”?
No. “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
These wise men can see what King Herod could not. Something special is here. Someone special is here.
I think that is the lesson for all of us on this feast of the Epiphany. God reveals Himself to us in different ways.
Sometimes it is in the grandeur of the universe. Beautiful things that capture our imagination and force us to acknowledge how small we are in the face of the Creator.
But at other times he meets us with humility. Can we see Him then?
Can we see Him in a child?
Can we see Him in the face of a stranger?
Can we find Him in our everyday, ordinary prayer?
Can we sense that God is with us when we look at the altar and see what appears to be just normal bread and wine.
The magi - the first of the nations to come to Jesus but not the last - they teach us to seek the Lord. To follow the signs He sends us, to listen to His words in the Scriptures - and then to accept Him with humility and openness when He appears.
The ancient Greeks had two different ideas of time: chronos and kairos.
Chronos is time the way that we think of it - minute after minute, moving forward. Chronos is "how many minutes until I'm done with work for the day?" or "there is only one more day until Christmas" or "I am 34 years old."
Kairos, on the other hand is about God's time. The word kairos literally means "opportunity," and it describes the way that God acts in our world. An example of kairos would be a person saying, "I met my spouse at just the right time in my life."
One of the best kairos moments for us should be when we come to celebrate the Mass: we step out of the normal flow of our lives and enter into this little pocket of eternity.
That's why you don't see a clock up here in the sanctuary. It's why I personally don't like celebrating Mass with a watch on - coming to Mass isn't the same thing as putting in 8 hours at work or doing a 30 minute workout. When we are in the liturgy, in a real way, we step out of time. We stand in eternity with God as He comes to us. We enter into kairos time and we shouldn't allow our ordinary way of thinking to take away from that.
It's so easy, because of the pace of our lives, to become blinded to kairos - to the way God shows Himself, the way kairos breaks into chronos. That's a normal struggle that all of us will face - but tonight/today is an opportunity to step away, to stand in a moment of eternity and see what God has for us in this opportune time; because today we celebrate when God came to us.
What we celebrate at Christmas, what we commemorate with lights and carols and Nativity scenes, is eternity breaking into time. We remember that, one night, two thousand years ago, God was born as one of us.
That's an astounding thing to say. In every other religion from ancient times until now, gods may have interacted with humanity or spoken to humanity but only Christians proclaim that God has taken on our humanity.
The One who created the universe is with us - as a helpless baby, born in poverty and homelessness.
The One who chose, out of love, to create creatures like Himself now makes Himself vulnerable to them, dependent on them, and lives with them.
As we can read at the beginning of the Gospel of John, "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."
We can never sing enough songs to celebrate this. We can never put enough enough lights to point out this truth.
God has given Himself to us. That is the real gift of Christmas.
So, how do we respond? What do we offer back to such a gift?
If God has chosen to pour Himself out for us, then we can do the same.
Jesus came into the mess of our world - let's invite Him into the lives, even when they are messy.
I encourage you to find a moment tonight/today - just a few minutes - when you can sit quietly. Put your phone on "do not disturb," shut off your tv, and open up your heart and mind to the God who loves you.
He came into this world for you - and still offers Himself. At this very Mass, He becomes present in a tangible way in the Eucharist because He wants you.
Don't take that gift for granted. Don't let it disappear into the busyness of every passing moment. Choose it. Accept it. Say yes to Him.
The God behind everything, the one who is, who was, and who is to come - He is the one who gives Himself to you tonight/today. He came long ago as a child and He still comes with that endless, vulnerable love. This Christmas, let us once more turn our hearts to His and love Him back.
Today we are given a command: rejoice!
That's what the name Gaudete Sunday means. It comes from the antiphon at the beginning of today's Mass: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice." We heard it again in the second reading from 1 Thessalonians: "Rejoice always."
That's what this third Sunday is about. We wear rose, we light the pink candle, and we are told to rejoice, because we're almost to Christmas.
But sometimes, it's hard to rejoice.
We don't feel so joyful when we're sick - or someone we love is sick.
It's hard to rejoice when we don't like our job - or we're afraid because we can't find a job and don't know what to do.
We don't feel like rejoicing if we're struggling in a relationship or if we're disappointed in ourselves.
Rejoicing can be difficult in a broken world full of broken, incomplete people; so what do we do with this command from the Lord to rejoice? I think we find the answer in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah:
"I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul ..."
God is the joy of my soul.
The only way to find true, lasting joy in the world is if that joy is based in God. I'm not talking about just happiness. So many things promise that they'll make us truly happy: money, sex, fame, health, even relationships with others. All of these are good things - but only temporarily. Money runs out, our health goes away ... even in the holiest marriage, those two people cannot offer each other eternal joy.
We only find that in God.
And so, in this season of Advent, when we've been hearing over and over again, "be vigilant, be watchful for the Lord," we should also examine ourselves.
Is God the joy of my soul? Or do I look to lesser things to give me happiness and fulfillment? If you want to live a disappointed, joyless life, make something less than God the center of it. It's only when we treat the One who is most important like He is that we will find joy that doesn't go away. It's only when God is the cause of our joy that we can really follow the Scriptures and "rejoice always."
Let's be like John the Baptist. He lived in poverty and rejected fame. When asked if he was the Messiah or if he was Elijah back from the dead, he simply pointed towards the Lord. Nothing was more important for him.
Let's live out what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians by giving thanks in every circumstance. Do you want to be more aware of God's presence in your life? Thank him for everything, even when things are hard. Gratitude is a path straight to joy.
We are in a season of joy, a joy that shines out even in the darkness of winter and the brokenness of the world. Let that joy live in the innermost part of your heart. Put God first and you will always be able to rejoice.
Today marks a day I have been looking forward to - not because of something happening but because of something finishing.
This fall has been one of those seasons of fairly constant busyness for me. That is not to say that it was bad - absolutely not - but it’s been full.
I just spend the last three days with around 30 of our high school students on a Kairos Retreat, something that we have been working on for months.
The preparation has required a lot of time as well as space in my head.
It went great. I am feeling fulfilled and inspired by what I was privileged to witness on retreat. High school ministry is so meaningful to me and moments like this just affirm to me how important it is.
But, now I find myself at a good moment to stop and think about everything that’s gone on this fall. This has been as far ahead as I’ve looked for quite a while, so it’s time to look back, look ahead, and see what God is saying.
Priests are often busy - I’m not alone in that; but I often need to remind myself to look at the big picture: to thank God for what he’s done and to trust in what he will do.
What exactly did Jesus do during His earthly life?
He preached, He healed people. He performed miracles, made prophecies. He suffered, died, and rose from the dead.
All of this is important; but one other incredibly important part of Jesus' life was forming a community. Right at the beginning of His public ministry, He began gathering a group of people around Him. It started with the Apostles whose names we know well - men He specifically called to join Him; but it kept growing as Jesus traveled the country and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.
Very quickly after Jesus ascended into Heaven, there is a community of disciples living and praying together - a community that still lives today.
We are the Church - the family Jesus started that has existed ever since He walked the earth. All of this tells us that living as a disciple is never meant to be done alone. We are all in this together.
While we all do have our own individual relationships with Jesus, we also have an ecclesial or communal one - together as a Church.
Being a Christian means being a part of this family; but like any family, sometimes we argue. Sometimes we hurt each other.
What Jesus lays out in today's Gospel is how we should respond to brother or sister Christian who sins against us: first, personally approach them; then, if that doesn't resolve the issue, bring a couple other members of the Church; finally, if that doesn't work, it becomes a matter for the whole Church with repercussions.
There are a few things we need to understand about this process that Jesus lays out:
- For Christians, everything is to be done from the perspective of love. As St. Paul says in today's second reading, "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."
None of what Jesus commands us to do here is about seeking retribution, shaming someone, or making ourselves look good. If that is what is in our hearts, we shouldn't be correcting anyone. The fraternal correction Jesus describes is entirely intended to reconcile a sinner to the love of God and the Church. It has nothing to do with revenge
- We should also recognize that Jesus' words have a particular meaning for the clergy of the Church. Following in the footsteps of the apostles, the bishops and the priests who assist them have a responsibility to call people away from sin and back into the communion of the Church.
This is not always a pleasant responsibility. Sometimes we are called to say rather unpopular things - to speak out against what our culture takes for granted as normal in good. In our time, these are usually issues about sexual morality. Or it may take the form of calling Catholics to live the Gospel and not conform themselves to our present age. No matter what it is, it is not easy or fun.
Sometimes this even requires the kind of public correction Jesus describes - that's when we hear the word "excommunication." But even that has been portrayed as some kind of punishment. In reality, telling someone that they have placed themselves outside of the communion of the Church is designed to encourage repentance. It means that we are called to evangelize and reach out to them.
Clergy are often called to be the watchmen Ezekiel heard about in the first reading: warning people when they are leading themselves into destruction. We will be held responsible for not proclaiming the truth.
Please pray for the pope, the bishops, and your priests - that we may always have the courage to proclaim Jesus' words, even when it is hard.
The point of all of this is that the Lord desires for His children to live in real communion. We are a family - His family - and it should break our hearts to see any one of our brothers or sisters wander away.
All of us are imperfect, but all of us are on the same journey. Let us support one another in repenting of our sins and always moving forward, more and more deeply into the love of God.
When I was growing up and was going to go hang out with friends somewhere, my parents might say to me, "Don't talk to strangers." Even today, when I'm traveling, they say it as a joke - and it's extra funny because, as a priest, I always end up talking to people I don't know.
But I think that idea is pretty common: stay away from strangers. The people we don't know - the people who don't belong to "us" - are somehow dangerous. Now, for my parents to tell me that as a kid is pretty good advice - it keeps a child safe; but it's not the mind of God when it comes to His people.
Our readings today are all about "foreigners" - those outside of God's chosen people of Israel. Isaiah the prophet tells us that one day, not only will these outsiders know God, but they will minister to Him and offer sacrifice in the Temple.
This is a pretty outrageous prophecy. If you look at much of the Old Testament, there is a clear distinction between Israel and the Gentiles. They are often enemies - but God doesn't want things to stay this way. He intends for His people to be a light to all the nations, a beacon that draws in these strangers to a relationship with the true God. As St. Paul says in the second reading from Romans, God wants to have mercy on all people.
We see the echoes of this tension in our Gospel reading from St. Matthew. In it, we find Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon - Gentile territory. So it should be no surprise when this Canaanite woman approaches Him. She is clearly an outsider - so, when she asks Jesus for help He doesn't immediately answer her and then when He does, He explains that His first mission is to the children of Israel.
All of this, and their next exchange, seems to be Jesus testing her faith. He is drawing out the belief and trust she has already shown in Him. That is the best way to understand the Lord comparing her and her people to the dogs who eat the children's scraps. She is outside of the community of Israel. She had no claim to the covenant that God has made with His people; but her response shows the trust she has in Jesus: "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
She is throwing herself on His mercy. Even thought she is outside of the chosen people of Israel, she is simply trusting that God will work through this man out of loving kindness. Jesus sees her great faith, and grants what she asks.
What are we to make of all of this?
First, there are no strangers to the love of God.
It's very easy for the Church to become inwardly focused - only worrying about maintaining the buildings and programs we have, and taking care of those of us who are already here. However, God's love is always seeking out more. We should never forget that our Church, from its founding and at its heart, is a missionary one. Our faith is one to be shared and the vast majority of that sharing happens not through the priests, but through you, the faithful people. By being open about your faith and striving to live that faith to its fullest, you welcome more people to the family of the Church.
Second, we should always remember that we are all strangers.
Even if we have been Catholic from the earliest days of our lives, everything we have as members of God's Church is a gift. There's nothing we did or nothing we can do to earn the grace of God. Each one of us is an adopted son or daughter - someone who God chose out of love.
Let's not ever start to think that somehow we deserve this. Everything is a gift - a gift we should constantly be thankful for and one that we should be excited and driven to share.
We live in a world that idolizes power.
It may be physical power - as in the skills of great athletes; or financial power - having the wealth to do whatever you want; or even the power of fame - people knowing you and valuing your opinions.
We hold up people with power as an ideal: "If only I could be like that, then my life would be perfect ... if I had that much money or if people would just listen to me." We can grow envious of people with power, feeling like somehow we've been cheated out of something that we deserve.
The world thinks that way - and because we live in the world, Christians can fall prey to that perspective. It happens when we think that a politician or a country or a party can bring about some kind of heaven on earth. Or when we start using the world's tactics of power to accomplish things we see as good, ignoring the very real people who may be hurt by our actions.
We may live in the world, but we shouldn't be of the world. We belong to the Kingdom of God, which, as we heard in our readings today, operates from a very different perspective.
In our first reading, from the prophet Zechariah, we heard about a conquering King, returning to Israel; but rather than coming on a war horse, He rides on a donkey - not an animal that you would ride into battle. In fact, he banishes chariots and horses and weapons of war from the land. "He shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth."
This victorious King shows us the kind of power that God expects in His kingdom - which is fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
In the Gospel, Jesus praises His Father that His message of salvation isn't something for the powerful and proud - "you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike."
Jesus, who is that victorious King that Zechariah foretold, rejoices that it is the small and the weak who are able to perceive the Kingdom of God while those who seem strong in the eyes of the world are unable to understand.
That is an incredibly important lesson for all of us.
There may be days when we feel pretty on top of our game - confident in ourselves and happy with who we are; but I suspect that, for most of us, we struggle with feeling inadequate when it comes to our relationship with God.
There are sins that we keep going back to over and over again, no matter how many times we confess it. We have bad habits that never seem to get any better. When we look at the lives of the saints or even other people that we know, we just think, "I'll never be like that."
In short, we feel weak.
Well, today I want to tell you that feeling weak is not a bad place to be. When we recognize our weakness, it's then that we really start to learn to depend on God.
Jesus didn't tell us, "Go! Be holy all on your own. I'll watch." He said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
Our Lord came to call those who are imperfect - those who can't make it on their own, and, good news, that is every single one of us. We can't do this alone. We have to be constantly returning to the Lord, in our weakness, and surrendering everything to Him - every single day of our lives.
For Christians, there is no time when we're suddenly done, no time when we can just put our spiritual lives in auto-pilot. Discipleship - and we are all disciples - is the work of a lifetime. Don't be discouraged that you're not done yet - we're not done until the end.
I learned about a new saint this week - St. Mark Ji Tianxiang. St. Mark was a Christian doctor in 19th century China who used his skills to serve the poor for free. When he became sick with a stomach problem, he began to treat himself with opium - something normal for the time - but eventually became addicted to the drug.
He would confess this over and over again, refusing to surrender to the addiction; but at that time addiction wasn't understood in the way we understand it now. The priest he confessed to saw him as an unrepentant sinner and told him he couldn't keep going to confession if he didn't intend to change his ways. That meant St. Mark couldn't receive the Eucharist either.
In this situation, it would be pretty understandable for him just to give up - to just give in to the hold this drug had on him - but he didn't. He just kept doing his best - he kept showing up and hoping that he would have the chance to lay down his life for the Lord. That chance came in 1900 when the Boxer Rebels arrested foreigners and Christians. Though Mark Ji Tianxiang struggled with his addiction to the end, he also died a martyr, singing a litany to the Blessed Mother.
Being a Christian is not about having the strength and willpower to be holy. It's about recognizing your weakness and relying on the Lord who saves us and makes us holy.
A few songs that make me think of Lent.
"God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms."
Pope Benedict said those words in his Christmas homily back in 2012.
And every year, as I prepare my Christmas homily, those words come back to me.
When you look at the history of salvation in the Bible, God's interactions with humanity, you can see that His presence is almost always overwhelming. He comes in fire and thunder; people are afraid that they will die if they see His face; the prophets often describe His coming as something terrifying to experience.
God is so much bigger, so much more than we can handle with our human minds and hearts.
That is why it is such an amazing, radical thing that we celebrate tonight.
We could never reach up to God. He's the One who made everything. The gulf between me and God is infinitely wider than between me and an ant. No matter how smart or how rich or how powerful we become, we could never grasp onto God.
So He came down to us.
And He didn't come in the power and majesty that is rightfully His; He came as a helpless baby.
God made Himself weak and vulnerable so that we could hold Him, so that we could love Him.
That's how much He loves us.
We say it and hear it so often that it's easy to forget the truth of it: God loves us. He loves us more than we could possibly imagine; more than we could ever love anything. He loves us so much that He puts Himself in our hands.
So tonight, or in the days to come, make sure you take some time to accept that love. Sit down with the nativity scene in your home. Quiet your mind, silence your phone, and accept the completely unmerited gift of love that Jesus is offering you.
He came here, to this broken, violent world - for you. With nothing but love for you.
Will you let that love into your heart? Will you let that love change you?
Don't let this Christmas pass by without thanking Jesus for loving you so much.
Early this morning in Rome, Mother Teresa was formally canonized as St. Teresa of Calcutta.
I've spoken about her in many homilies because she stands out for me as someone completely devoted to being a disciple of Jesus.
When she was 18, she left her home in Yugoslavia to join the Loreto Sisters in Ireland - a comunity of missionary sisters who educated young girls. She was later sent to India where she made her first vows and began the work of teaching which she did for 15 years.
But then, while riding on a train to go on a retreat, she heard the voice of Jesus calling her to a new vocation. This call was summed up in one of the last things Jesus said on the cross before He died: "I thirst." For Mother Teresa, this wasn't just a physical thirst; He the thirsted for love, He thirsted for our souls. She was being called to go out into the streets of Calcutta and satisfy Jesus' thirst by loving the poor people she found there.
She spent her life in that service, gathering around her other men and women who were called by God to give themselves to loving the poor. Her new community, the Missionaries of Charity with their distinctive blue and white robes, spread around the world and in every place, carried out Mother's calling of loving service.
As I've said before, you might assume that someone who is working so hard for the Lord and doing it with such joyful energy would have been feeling especially close to Him, but that was not the inner life of Mother Teresa. Soon after she began her work, she experienced a darkness and spiritual dryness that would last to the end of her life. She felt unloved and abandoned by Jesus, all the while desiring to love Him "as He's never been loved before" and not being able to.
Why didn't she quit? If Jesus had called her to this life - and then abandoned her - why didn't she just give up?
The answer is found in today's reading from the Gospel of Luke. Once again, Jesus gives us some extremely challenging and even frightening commands:
"If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple."
Why does He say this? It doesn't seem right.
First, we must understand how Jesus is speaking. He's using hyperbole - exaggerated language - to get our attention and make His point. What's the 4th commandment? "Honor your father and mother." Jesus wouldn't contradict the Law - something He says that He has come to fulfill. So what does He mean?
Jesus is telling us that we must love Him first - before our family and even our own life. He is making a claim that would have shocked the crowds listening to Him, because this is something only God can command. He must come first.
Then He goes further:
"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple."
In loving Him above everything else, we are then called to follow after Him - even in His suffering.
This is where we begin to understand the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She understood that following Jesus wasn't about worldly success or pleasure.
Suffering exists in this world and we will all face it.
As Christians, our response must be to join ourselves and our suffering to that of Jesus. Because we are members of the Church - supernaturally joined together as the Body of Christ - every suffering that we experience is connected to Jesus' sacrifice. It is given meaning through His suffering and He uses it for our salvation and the salvation of the world.
This is why Mother Teresa could say of her own darkness: "If my darkness and dryness can be a light to some soul let me be the first one to do that. If my life, if my suffering, is going to help souls to be saved, then I will prefer from the creation of the world to the end of time to suffer and die."
Mother Teresa took up her cross and followed Jesus - even when she felt alone and abandoned. We each have our own crosses. Let us follow our Lord, trusting that even the worst of our sufferings, even our darkest days, will help others and lead us to new life.
I'd like to close by reading you something St. Teresa wrote to her community a few years before she died:
My Dearest Children—Sisters, Brothers, and Fathers,
This letter being very personal, I wanted to write in my own hand—by there are so many things to say. Even if not in Mother’s hand, still it comes from Mother’s heart. Jesus wants me to tell you again, especially in this Holy Week, how much love He has for each one of you—beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel—but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus—not from books but from being with Him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words He speaks to you? Ask for the grace, He is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear Him saying “I thirst” in the hearts of the poor. Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person—not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say “I love you”—impossible.
Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe the air. If not, prayer is dead—meditation-only thinking. Jesus wants you each to hear Him—speaking in the silence of your heart. Be careful of all that can block that personal contact with the living Jesus. The devil may try to use the hurts of life, and sometimes our own mistakes—to make you feel it is impossible that Jesus really loves you, is really cleaving to you. This is a danger for all of us. And so sad, because it is completely opposite of what Jesus is really wanting, waiting to tell you. Not only that He loves you, but even more—He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close.
He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy. When not accepted by others, even by yourself sometimes—He is the one who always accepts you. My children, you don’t have to be different for Jesus to love you.
Only believe—You are precious to Him. Bring all you are suffering to His feet—only open your heart to be loved by Him as your are. He will do the rest.