Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blessed Are We: Sunday 4A

Long ago in China there was an old farmer. One day his horse ran off. As news of this reached his neighbors, they visited the old man to express their sympathy: "What bad luck to lose your horse!"

The farmer thought for a moment and replied, 'Perhaps..."

The next morning the farmer awoke to find his horse had come back. What's more, several wild horses had followed his horse home. The neighbors rejoiced, and came by to tell the old farmer how happy they were for his sudden good fortune.

The old farmer paused and said "Perhaps..."

Shortly after, the farmer's son decided to ride one of the wild horses. Unaccustomed to a rider, the horse threw the boy off and the son broke his leg in the fall. Again, the neighbors arrived to offer their sympathies for the misfortune: "What a terrible run of bad luck you're having!"

The old farmer thought for a moment and said "Perhaps..."

The very next day, military officials came into the village with orders to draft young men for war. They went from house to house, rounding up all the young men. But when they got to the old farmer's house and saw his son with his broken leg they moved on, leaving the boy alone. Once again, neighbors came to share words of congratulations to the old farmer for the good fortune to have his son passed by.

Once again, the farmer paused and said… "Perhaps."

The story is an old Buddhist parable, but it could be used to illustrate one of the great verses of the Old Testament, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8, NAB). Natural human thinking isn't automatically right.

Equally, the parable can demonstrate a powerful New Testament teaching, St. Paul's hope-filled words "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…" (Romans 8:28).

And perhaps it opens a window to understanding this Sunday's Gospel, which is anything but natural human thinking. You could go through the entire Bible line by line without finding a text more difficult to accept and understand. And yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church says "The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching" (CCC 1716).

How can this be? Which of us associates anything good with mourning, one of the most truly painful of all human experiences? Who doesn't resent persecution, especially for doing right? Not to mention libels and slanders and evil gossip, which send us running to a lawyer.

I think I could buy the notion that Jesus is talking to the apostles, or to future saints, or perhaps to the persecuted Christians of Iraq or the Sudan. But you sure can't square that interpretation with the catechism teaching that "The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching."

However, in the same place the catechism explains itself by saying that the Beatitudes show us the face of Jesus. Given his willingness to suffer and even die for us, that makes sense. It's easy enough to accept the Beatitudes as a picture of Jesus. But then the catechism hits us square in the face with what his words actually mean to each of us: it says the Beatitudes express our calling. It says "they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life" (CCC 1717)

In other words, the Beatitudes are meant to be lived. By how we act and how we think. Every day.

I try to be honest in my preaching, so I'll tell you frankly that scares the heck out of me. I was writing my homily before dinner and thinking hard about the Beatitudes as an actual vocation took away my appetite—which, as you know, doesn't happen very often.

I'm really not sure where this homily would have gone if the catechism hadn't come to the rescue. It was almost like one of those "Good news, bad news" jokes. After terrifying us with the challenge of living the Beatitudes, our magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church calls them "the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations;" it says "they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples" (CCC 1717)

Talk about reassurance! Far from being unbearable demands, the Beatitudes are promises that keep hope alive in the darkest circumstances. They contain blessings and rewards already guaranteed, even if postponed for a time.

I said a few minutes ago that the Beatitudes contain much that goes against natural human instinct. The catechism turns that thought around completely, saying that "The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness." But of course the Church also teaches us that this "natural" desire is of divine origin: God placed it in our hearts in order to draw us to himself, the only One who can fulfill it (CCC 1718).

The Beatitudes take over where God's promises to the chosen people left off: they fulfill the promises not in terms of the Promised Land but something much greater, the Kingdom of heaven (CCC 1716).

There's simply nothing that should frighten or dismay us in this teaching, because it tells us the ending of our story. There's no suspense about how things will turn out. God calls us to his own beatitude (CCC 1719). In the face of that, all else is relative.

The catechism says we can already see the Beatitudes lived out, and the blessings they bestow, in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints. But I'll take that a step further: in our own parish community I see people sustained by the hope that springs from the "paradoxical promises" Jesus makes in the Beatitudes. I see them comforted as they mourn; I see them blessed as they accept disappointments and unfairness; I see them living here with eyes fixed on heaven.

With due respect to the wise old farmer, there's really no "perhaps" about it. Christ has promised and Christ is faithful.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Feast Full of Meaning: Baptism of the Lord

This week's big news story was that an Ontario Catholic school board was found guilty of discrimination when it cancelled a contract with Raelians, followers of a fellow whose website proclaims him to be a singer-songwriter, race-car driver, and—third on the list—the messenger to earth of its creators, a group of extraterrestrials.

I want to make it clear to any Raelians in the congregation this morning that I mean no disrespect to them. None at all. We've spent a fortune this week trying to repair the heating system and we cannot afford to be sued. I am sure Raelians are very nice people.

All the same, I am glad that I belong to a faith that started nearly two thousand years ago, and not to one that began in 1973, when its founder "had a dramatic encounter with a human being from another planet."

Not that there's anything wrong with belonging to a 37-year old religion! Again, I'm sure it's a very nice religion. But there are some splendid advantages to being part of an ancient faith, and one of them is simply that we benefit from centuries of accumulated wisdom .

Christian thinkers, many of them saints, have been pondering the truths of our faith from the days of the apostles. We call some of the earliest thinkers the Father of the Church, and we still gain profound insight from their writings.

This is particularly true of today's feast. If I had a year to prepare this morning's homily, and a double doctorate in liturgy and scripture, I couldn't come close to seeing the riches that ancient writers have found.

In fact, some of the connections they make are so startling that I'm sure they'd never occur to anyone without the help of the Holy Spirit. It's easy to see the connection in time between Christmas and the Epiphany, but not so easy to link Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

Yet the ancient writers treat them pretty much as one. In the fifth century, St. Maximus of Turin wrote "Reason demands that this feast of the Lord's baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord's birth… even though many years intervened between the two events."

Maximus becomes poetic as he continues:

"At Christmas, he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the virgin; today he is reborn in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him. The mother caresses the tender babe on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations."

St. Proclus of Constantinople, also writing in the fifth century, saw the Epiphany and the Baptism as one feast, even more wonder-filled than Christmas.

At Christmas, he wrote, "the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on the Epiphany it is the sea that is glad and leaps for joy; the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of the river Jordan.

"At Christmas we saw a weak baby, giving proof of our weakness. In today's feast [and he means the Epiphany!], we see a perfect man, hinting at the perfect Son who proceeds from the all-perfect Father. At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source enfolds and, as it were, clothes the river."

Is your head spinning a bit? There's nothing wrong with that—every once in a while we need to be reminded that we are just taking little sips from the gushing fountain. When we talk about the "mysteries" of the Christmas season we don't mean that they are mysterious or impossible to understand, but we do mean that God has revealed himself in truly wondrous ways, making known his plan for salvation.

Today we recognize that God has made himself known not only in the historical events we celebrate. He has also revealed himself in the sacraments. Through baptism "the believer enters into the mystery of God's saving plan and begins a life journey in, with, and through Christ crucified and risen to the fullness of eternal life."*

*Thomas D. McGonigle, "Mystery," The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, p. 677.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Epiphany: Rise Up!

My father was the best alarm clock I ever had. If I said "please wake me up at seven," he never forgot or got the time wrong, and unlike my battery-powered alarm, he never stopped ticking.

Of course there was a price to pay for such efficiency. He had an annoying tendency to knock on my bedroom door and say "rise and shine!" These are not words a teenager wants to hear. Rising's bad enough, but shining was out of the question.

But at the risk of annoying young and old, my message today is just that: rise and shine. Today we're challenged to respond to what we celebrated a week ago; the prophet Isaiah says it's now time to wake up and look at what's going on around us—something marvelous, something extraordinary.

Listen to those words of the prophet: they are an invitation to a deep and personal joy that he can barely describe. We will see and be radiant; our hearts will thrill and rejoice. We'll have wealth beyond measuring.

What does it all mean? I'd put it this way: If your Christmas was par for the course, it's time to change course. If you're not buzzing with the spiritual joy of this season, you need to arise—you need to look around and take stock. God's doing wonders all around us, and it would be a tragedy to miss out.

I'm saying this with some authority this Epiphany. I saw that star rising in the East, in Montreal to be exact! I was there with ten young adults from the parish attending "RiseUp," the annual Christmas conference of Catholic Christian Outreach, the university student movement. Without exaggerating, I can tell you that what I saw made me radiant, made my heart thrill, and my spirit rejoice.

Five hundred young people listened eagerly as powerful speakers proclaimed the Gospel without compromise. They lined up to be blessed. They lined up to go to confession. And they sang hymns of praise like a choir of thousands.

It was living proof, if any were needed, that the light truly has shone in the darkness. At a time of scandal, these students were spending their Christmas break praying and learning about Jesus; they filed past the tomb of the newly canonized St. André with the kind of devotion many think disappeared years ago; their faces, quite simply, shone.

I learned or re-learned three lessons during RiseUp. The first, of course, is that God never gets tired out! Throw a crisis of faith at Him, toss in a few wretched scandals, and He comes up with ever more abundant grace. Write off a generation, and then watch God renew and recharge them, raising up zealous leaders from the young themselves.

The second is that our faith cannot be—must not be—bland or routine. Our faith is glorious! Isaiah tells us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. He wasn't talking to wise men, or shepherds, or people of his own time. He was talking to people of all time. We're standing in a blaze of glory. How sad to think we might pull on sunglasses of boredom or convention and lower our expectations until they become modest at best.

We shouldn't let the historical side of Christmas obscure its timeless aspect. Certainly the star shone over the manger in Bethlehem, but it shines in our hearts today. So where do we get the idea that this great dawning has turned into a pale sunset?

The young look for what's exciting, not predictable. Many of the young people I saw kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in Montreal were no less overwhelmed by the mystery than were the wise men at Bethlehem.

A third lesson is that God really does plan the Church to be a Church of all nations. CCO was started in Saskatoon by a couple named André and Angèle Regnier. But despite their names, neither Regnier is a francophone, and the movement was firmly English-speaking for 15 years. When CCO's board, of which I'm a member, began to discuss the idea of moving into Quebec, it seemed highly impractical—there is a difference in culture much greater than the language barrier. Yet the leaders of CCO couldn't ignore Quebec, and step by step—beginning by a brave move of the headquarters from Saskatoon to Ottawa—we have become a truly national movement.

An interesting footnote: for some years after Vatican II, Latin seemed to divide the Church. It was the focus of some who were very unhappy with modern liturgical changes. Now, it seems that Latin is again becoming a force for unity in the Church, judging by the way it allowed French and English students to sing the parts of the Mass in a common language.

CCO has one main purpose: to evangelize university students, and to teach them to evangelize others. Despite this focus, it has sent teams of students to China and Africa on mission trips. And missionary societies of priests, sisters, and laity were all represented at the conference, challenging the young to share their gifts even in distant lands.

You might be thinking that I didn't have time to reflect on the readings today and so decided to talk about "how I spent my Christmas holidays." Not true. My experience at RiseUp helped me live the mystery of the Epiphany, helped me pay homage, and allowed me to see the light that shines from the faces of those who behold the Lord.

But you don't need to have gone to Montreal to experience this, any more than you need to be in Bethlehem. Toss aside a narrow view of Christmas. Look around and be radiant—allow yourself to look deeply into what we're celebrating: true and lasting freedom from all that enslaves and oppresses, light that banishes the darkness of death and the fear of death, and a future full of hope.

And if you're a worried parent or grandparent, rejoice that the Church is always finding new ways to bring the light of Christ to your children, even in the toughest times. And rejoice that next year's RiseUp will be here in Vancouver!

Let's all take time today let our heartbeats quicken with the overwhelming truth of what Christ has brought to earth. And then kneel down and pay Him homage.