Saturday, June 22, 2013

Too Big to Ignore (11.C)

The homily this week is rather brief and not quite blog-worthy! However, I happened to look back to my homily on this Sunday in 2011 and thought it might bear a second posting.

As Christians we can never take our eyes from the cross; if we do, we’re done for.

Feel-good Christianity—Christianity without the cross—is very tempting. You get a nice group of people to pray with, the calm and peace of liturgy, and the occasional good homily. It’s like a good club where dues are voluntary.

Feel-good Catholicism, the ancient Faith stripped of the duties or teachings that are most inconvenient or most in conflict with modern thinking, is equally tempting. But we’re blessed with a visual reminder that it’s not the real thing: the large crucifix hanging above the altar tells us better than any sermon that cafeteria Catholicism is not what Jesus died for.

In this parish, as in most churches, the cross is just too big to ignore.

That’s the message of our readings this morning/afternoon. The cross looms too large in our faith for us to ignore it. Zechariah wasn’t prophesying only about Jerusalem when he said they would “look on the one whom they have pierced.” Centuries after the death of Christ, every one of his disciples is called to look on him and to contemplate his wounds and reflect on his suffering.

One way we do this is by observing Friday as a special day. It’s not by accident that our two weekly prayer groups meet on Friday. And since the men’s group meets at 6 a.m., I like to remind them that it’s not only about prayer, it’s also about penance—at least for the younger members who find it hard to get up so early.

Friday penance has almost vanished since the Church relaxed the law about not eating meat on Fridays. Many good Catholics think that rule no longer exists. But it does, even in a gentler form.

What Church law requires is this: all Catholics fourteen years of age and over should abstain from meat every Friday, except for the major feast days we call solemnities. However, a Catholic may choose to substitute other forms of penance on Friday, such as giving up alcohol or dessert, or may do a special act of charity, like visiting the sick, or prayers like the Rosary.

The important thing is not what we do but why we do it. Friday penance makes us think about the One our sins have pierced. It keeps us from taking the saving death of Jesus for granted.

It’s true that Sunday Mass is centered on the Resurrection. But Jesus would not have risen if he had not first suffered and died for us. Easter Sunday would have no meaning without Good Friday.

The Gospel this morning/afternoon has two things to say about cross-less Christianity. The first comes when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say I am?” The answers he gets remind us that the truth isn’t decided by opinion polls. The truth, easy or tough, has been revealed to the Church, not decided by the Church.

In fact, it seems that everyone’s got it wrong except Peter, speaking for the other disciples. There’s only one right answer to the question, not three. John the Baptist, Elijah and the other ancient prophets were fine figures, but Jesus is not one of them. The wrong answers might even be called flattering, but they’re still wrong.

Peter spoke the truth then, and his successor speaks the truth today. It can be an unpopular truth, which is when we must look to the cross and accept that Christian faith is not easy and sometimes is very difficult.

The second message is a tough one. We don’t just look at the cross, we carry the cross. Contemplating Christ crucified takes more than prayer, it also means imitating him. Jesus says that a disciple is not greater than his master; he’s telling us that we’ll also have our cross to carry.

What will that cross be? Jesus gives us a hint when he calls his followers to pick up their cross daily. Our cross, it seems, won’t usually be dramatic like his. Our cross isn’t likely to be one great moment of pain but an everyday thing.

The cross we pick up is simply the tough side of life: the things no-one can avoid, but which the Christian can embrace. Things that are part and parcel of a sinful world, but which are the raw material of holiness.

Certainly a minority of us have crosses that would fit on Calvary—some do face great troubles, terrible sufferings, even in our own parish. But for most of us, picking up the cross means accepting life’s inevitable trials, disappointments, and difficulties.

In other words, while some endure the pain of being nailed to a cross, for many people picking up the cross means living with splinters, smaller hurts that are still painful.

Just this month [June 2011] a young professional athlete gave us a good example of what it means to pick up an ordinary cross with extraordinary grace.

Armando Galarraga is a 28-year old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers. From what I can gather, he’s not exactly a star pitcher, and he hasn’t played very long in the major league. But on the second of June, he pitched a perfect game—for those of you who aren’t baseball fans, that’s a game where no opposing player gets on base. In other words, no hits, no walks. Every batter out.

It’s only happened twenty times in 110 years. But in the ninth inning, Armando Galarraga was on his way to the record books, with just one more out to go. The batter hits the ball. The first baseman fields it. He throws it the pitcher, who beats the batter to first base. Batter out!

A perfect game! Except the umpire blows the call. He calls the runner safe.

Even I can understand Gallaraga’s disappointment, and I can’t throw a baseball from here to the choir loft. It belongs in a category all by itself. “Crushing disappointment” wouldn’t come close to describing it.

What happened next makes Armando our guest preacher this morning. As Peggy Noonan writes, it’s what follows the umpire’s blunder that makes the story great: “When Galarraga hears the call, he looks puzzled, surprised. But he's composed and calm, and he smiles, as if accepting fate. Others run to the ump and begin to yell, but Galarraga just walks back to the mound to finish the job. Which he does, grounding out the next batter.”

After the game, the pitcher praises the disgraced umpire for his immediate apology. He tells reporters he feels worse for the umpire than he does for himself.

There’s today’s Gospel in action. Armando Gallaraga chose understanding over anger. He picked up the cross. He chose the humble path—he denied himself. He took the high road—the way of the cross.

The lesson he taught isn’t complicated. Accept what happens—don’t whine, don’t shout, don’t give up. And allow God’s providence to deal with what you can’t change.

Sometimes the results of acceptance will be immediate. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this pitcher’s place in the history books will be better than if he’d got his perfect game. His story will be told long after those perfect games are forgotten.

Sometimes, we won’t see things working out. But we’ll know we did what followers of Christ are called to do, and that should be enough reward.

Sometimes our cross will be so heavy that only God’s abundant help can stop it from crushing us. More often than not, though, we’re called to cope with splinters—our everyday troubles—by accepting the things we cannot change and courageously working to change the things we can.

Either way, we live with confidence in the words of Jesus. By saving our life, we lose it, but by losing it for his sake, we save it. He is promising us happiness in heaven, and a great deal of peace here and now.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Putting Ourselves in the Picture (11.C)

I started my first high-tech diet last week. It’s like nothing I’ve tried before—I weigh-in with a wireless scales, a gizmo on my belt tracks my exercise, and I record everything I eat on my iPhone. I’m enjoying this new weight loss program—it’s working and it’s kind of fun. My only problem is that when I type in what I’m having for dinner I look like a teenager texting at the table.

Of course any diet has its drawbacks.  When I started to meditate on the dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, my first question was “I wonder what they’re having for dinner?”

You know, that’s not as silly as it sounds. One of the best ways of praying is to put ourselves in the scene when reading the Bible, especially the Gospels. We picture ourselves walking or talking—or eating—with Jesus. We can put ourselves in the place of one of the participants, one of those to whom our Lord is talking. We can see and hear him speaking to us, and we can speak with him.

This method of prayer is often called lectio divina—sacred reading—and there are helpful guides to it in the internet.* But it’s not much different from the approach St. Ignatius teaches in his Spiritual Exercises, where he speaks of a “visible contemplation or meditation.” He invites the retreatant to see a place with the mind’s eye and to use the imagination to experience what’s happening there as a starting point for prayer. Ignatius even suggests we use our five senses to enter more fully into the scene we’re contemplating.

So perhaps my reaction to the Gospel today isn’t as funny as it sounds. Perhaps it would be good to wonder what’s on the menu at Simon’s house, to listen to the buzz of conversation, and to sit down at the table with Jesus.

Through whose eyes should we view the scene—Simon’s?  The woman with the alabaster jar? A servant standing at the kitchen door?

Any of those perspectives could open our hearts and minds to the message of today’s Gospel. I could picture myself at the feet of Jesus, expressing my sorrow and receiving his love in return. Or I could hear the stinging rebuke Jesus gave to Simon as if he were speaking directly to me.

But as I thought about how to put myself in the picture, I went in an entirely different direction. Instead of joining Jesus at the table, I put myself in the parable—I decided to be one of the debtors. Prayer, of course, is always flexible, and we can use the method of lectio divina or St. Ignatius just as easily with a parable as we can with an actual event.

So I left the house of Simon the Pharisee, and travelled in prayer into the presence of a certain creditor, a money-lender who was dealing with two overdue loans. One borrower owed big money: a year and a half’s wages for a labourer. The other had a more manageable debt, ten per cent of the other debtor’s loan.
Which deadbeat am I? Was I forgiven a huge debt, or a modest one?

I’m not going to tell you! But just asking the question is a powerful prayer.  Some of us may have done something terribly wrong in our lives; we may have caused grave harm to ourselves or someone we love. God’s forgiveness of our sin puts us right in the shoes of the man who owed five hundred days wages.

Some of us may have lived pretty good lives; we haven’t betrayed anyone, committed crimes, or turned away from God.  We’re pretty sure that only a small debt has been cancelled for us. But is that something to brag about? In the first place, Jesus tells us that those who have been forgiven more find it easier to love more.

As we stand in front of the generous money-lender (and “generous money lender” is pretty much an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms to speak of a generous money-lender at the time of Jesus: better we should imagine a loan shark) we might ask whether it really matters which debtor we imagine ourselves to be.
There’s not much difference whether you owe 500 denarii or 50 if you can’t pay. The result’s not much different. Bankruptcy is bankruptcy, and debtor’s prison is debtor’s prison.

To know our debt has been cancelled—to experience the mercy that this parable is all about—leads us to love the Lord like that weeping woman. The amount is a detail, but it’s not the whole story.

The fact is, “We all need five hundred days’ wages worth of forgiveness, but we may be blind to our sinfulness” or to proud to admit we cannot pay our debt. “And then we are chained by our guilt, which keeps us from the freedom of love.” [Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 952]

Breaking that chain can be as simple as taking today’s Gospel reading to prayer, and letting our prayer lead us to the feet of Jesus in his sacrament of reconciliation. For it’s not only in our mind’s eye that we can hear him speaking to us, and that we can speak with him.
 * The American Bible Society has a weekly lectio on the Sunday readings prepared by a priest from Spain. The Carmelites offer a daily lection on their website.  I am sure there are others.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Preaching Responsibly (10.C)

I'm preaching today to the candidates for the permanent diaconate and their wives, so the homily reflects that. It's posted for those who might find it of some interest nonetheless.

I was wandering around the internet this week when I found a website devoted to book titles—it had a long list of eye-catching or distinctive book titles.

Many of these were books I’d never heard of, and which I was glad I’d never heard of, like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and “The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse.”  If the list had a category for “titles guaranteed to make sure I’d never buy the book,” I think the winner would be “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”

Odd though it was, the list had a serious point: the title of a book is crucial if you want people to read. I’ve always wondered why priests and deacons almost never give their homilies a title like many Protestant preachers do; many times I’ve driven by one of their churches and wished I could drop in on Sunday to hear the sermon.

But, as the saying goes, I digress! There’s a reason I’m rambling about book titles.  When I sat down to prepare my homily, the first thing that came into my mind—and the thing that stayed with me as I thought about what to say—was the title of a book I’ve never read.

More than that, it’s a book that I never read 35 years ago. So you can guess it was a catchy title!

The title was “Ten Responsible Minutes: A Pleasant Approach to Homily Headaches,” by a Redemptorist named Joseph Manton. And it wasn’t the subtitle about homily headaches that has stayed in my mind but the words “Ten Responsible Minutes.”

That phrase emphasizes something about preaching that we must never, never forget. It is a very serious responsibility of the deacon or priest, never to be taken lightly; each minute of the homily is, to some extent, given to us by the congregation, and never to be taken for granted. Contrary to the occasional joke, we do not have “a captive audience.”  If once we did, we certainly don’t now; the irresponsible preacher will drive his hearers away, either physically—they’ll find another parish or none at all—or at least mentally, since they will retreat to planning their summer vacations while trying to appear interested in what you’re saying.
“Ten responsible minutes” could be a motto that would deter us from sloppy or no preparation, but that’s a subject for another day. The reason I thought of the preacher’s responsibility today has all to do with the Gospel, and with our grave responsibility never to do more harm than good.

We’ve all heard homilies that would only help the listener if the Holy Spirit descended directly upon them. What I’m talking about this morning is the rarer phenomenon of a homily that does harm; and this we must never do. An old Latin motto is still used in the medical profession “primum non nocere—first, do no harm.” And while it’s easier to do harm as a doctor than as a preacher, we must not discount the power of the pulpit to injure.

With that long introduction, let us turn to the text of this morning’s Gospel, with a side glance at the first reading.

What happens is easy enough to summarize: a poor widow loses her only son, Jesus takes pity one her and raises him from the dead. In response, the people acclaim him and praise God.

A similar story unfolds between Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, with an added note of the prophet’s duty towards his poor benefactor, who has fed and housed him during the great drought. Unlike the widow of Nain, she has something of a claim on the prophet’s miraculous powers.

It seems easy enough to connect the passages and leave our listeners with a message about God’s compassion and healing will.

But if the homilist does not use all ten minutes responsibly, it also easy to leave some vulnerable members of the congregation hurt and confused. In most large parishes, there are families who have lost a child; in my parish, there are two.

What are they to think if we fail to handle responsibly the question of miraculous healing?

No-one today is likely to pray that a dead loved one be brought back to life; but almost everyone faced with the serious or terminal illness of a young person prays for a miracle, yet these are extremely rare. How do we preach the miracles in today’s Scripture readings in a way that is faithful to the Gospel and Catholic tradition without leaving people feeling abandoned or even punished since they did not obtain the miracle for which they prayed?

This is not a theoretical question. I once heard a famous “healing priest”–now a famous “ex-priest”–speak about healing to a stadium full of people.  Although I was still young and hadn’t studied the Bible or theology, I knew even then that some people would hear his message as “pray hard enough and God will work a miracle for you.”  It’s a short distance between that and “you didn’t pray hard enough, so your son or daughter died.”

Don’t think I am going to show you how I would handle these texts this morning:  there isn’t time, and you are not an ordinary Sunday congregation. My point today is simply that we must recognize that our words have consequences—not, perhaps, for everyone or even for many, but certainly for some. And thus we are responsible for the impact of our words, especially on people who are grieving or who may be lacking in sophistication or even in intelligence.

At the same time, we must not rob the miracles of their force or attempt to downplay them. In this morning’s Gospel, the raising of the dead boy is an act of Christ’s power; it shows clearly that God has visited His people. It shows the Kingdom breaking through the clouds of death. This is a sign of hope for all who grieve, and we need to proclaim that hope to them.

But responsibly: taking care to anticipate the power of our words, and recognizing that what we say is not always what our brothers and sisters will hear.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Corpus Christi: The Big Questions

Pope Francis is going to take a bit of getting used to! A Pope who regularly preaches off the cuff is something very new to the Church, and it’s only a matter of time, I think, before he is photographed in soccer gear or at least in running shoes.

On Wednesday I told the schoolchildren about the homily the Pope gave last Sunday in an ordinary parish. The students seemed to enjoy it, though I’m not sure if they realized just how astonishing it is to have a Pope saying “Hands up!”, “Okay!” and “Louder!”

The Pope’s homily was about the Trinity, of course, since it was Trinity Sunday. Towards the end, he asked the children what Jesus does. After one of them said that Jesus walks with us, the Pope asked “What does he do when he walks with us?” and added “This is a tough one—whoever gets it wins the Derby!”

It is a tough question—and certainly you should win a prize if you know that he was talking about a big Italian soccer game and not an American horserace!

But let’s go back to the important question. What does Jesus do when he walks with us? (I won’t shout “louder” at you—just think about it for a moment.)

The children had good answers for the Pope. One said, “He helps us.” Another said “he leads us,” to which the Holy Father responded “very good.”

Then the Pope added that Jesus also gives us the strength to work and sustains us in difficulty—“even with our homework”!

“He supports us, he helps us, he leads us, and he sustains us.”

“There it is!” the Pope exclaimed, “Jesus is always with us. Okay. But listen, Jesus gives us strength. How does he give us strength? You know how! Louder, I can’t hear you!

“In Communion he gives us strength, he really helps us with strength. He comes to us. But when you say, “he gives us Communion,” does a piece of bread make you so strong? Isn’t it bread? Is it bread? Or isn’t it bread? It seems to be bread. But it really isn’t bread.”

By this point my head was spinning! But Pope Francis sure had my attention. Finally he said, “What is it? It is the Body of Jesus. Jesus comes into our hearts.”

This somewhat bewildering homily was delivered to children, but its message is for all of us on this great feast of Corpus Christi. Each of us must answer the Pope’s questions in the silence of our hearts. Is it bread? Or isn’t it bread?

More profoundly, do we believe like eager children that we receive the Body of Jesus in Holy Communion? Does the Eucharist bring us strength—real strength in every difficulty and trial, from homework to chemotherapy?

The readings today are somewhat more historical than theological. Obviously the Eucharist is prefigured in the encounter between Melchizedek—the priest who came out of nowhere—and Abram, soon to be Abraham, our father in faith.

In the second reading, St. Paul simply recounts the Church’s tradition, and reminds us that the Eucharist is founded on the death of Christ and anticipates his return in glory.

The Gospel, of course, is a beautiful reminder of the abundance of grace we receive in Holy Communion, of the great multitude nourished by the Lord each Sunday, and of the way Jesus calls his disciples to feed the hungry both spiritually and materially. The miracle of the loaves and fishes also prefigures the Last Supper, not to mention the breaking of bread that allowed the disciples on the road to Emmaus to recognize their risen Lord.

Any of these passages could serve as the foundation for a fine homily. But they do not challenge us personally the way the Pope challenges us with his direct questions. And many Catholics today need that direct challenge.

A number of years ago I saw a survey of young American Catholics who said that they preferred a personal faith to the institutional Church.

That sounded great to me. If you prefer the institutional Church to personal faith, you are in deep trouble!

Sadly, things went downhill from there. These young adults who say they believe, don’t believe much in going to Mass. 64 per cent of them say you can be a good Catholic without going to Mass.

At the same time, they say they believe strongly in what the survey calls “core Christian beliefs.” Well, I have news for them: the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the saving power of the Mass, is a core Christian belief for Catholics.

Unless someone asked you lately to take a survey, the Pope’s questions might be the first time in a while that you’ve thought about what you believe about the Eucharist. But you’ve probably answered the question without words. And actions speak louder than words…

You’ve answered “I believe” by faithfully attending Mass, missing the Sunday celebration only for reasons such as sickness, necessary travel, or other serious circumstances, and putting up with the stress of getting the whole family out the door each week. You’ve answered “not quite sure” if Mass attendance is hit and miss.

You’ve answered “Jesus comes into our hearts” if you abstain from receiving Holy Communion in the circumstances spelled out in Church teaching and law. You’ve answered “well….” if you receive when conscious of serious sin that you haven’t confessed or if you receive paying no attention to what you’re doing.

We answer “it is the Body of Jesus” when we speak and act reverently in church, where the Real Presence in the Tabernacle invites us to worship. We answer “maybe yes, maybe no” when we treat the church like an ordinary meeting hall.

What if you’re not completely sure what you believe about Christ’s Body and Blood? The answer is simple enough: act as though you have faith and the faith you have will increase. Don’t miss Mass, don’t receive Communion when you shouldn’t, and show reverence for the Real Presence—in time, your belief will deepen.

And there’s always a shortcut to deeper faith: prepare for Mass and Holy Communion with either the traditional prayers for this purpose or by a fervent personal prayer while waiting to receive. I make this promise: five minutes of preparation before Mass or five minutes of thanksgiving afterwards will double your awareness of Christ in the Eucharist.

A humble faith and a contrite heart are enough to allow the Sacrament to bear its fruits in our lives. The first fruit, of course, is intimacy with Christ, who is the source of the strength we need in illness, disappointments, bereavement, anxiety and every other kind of trial. As the Catechism says, “Life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet.” [1391]

Other fruits that come from the worthy reception of Holy Communion are forgiveness from venial sin, strength to resist temptation, unity with the Church and other Christians, and commitment to charity, especially towards the poor.

Those who receive the Eucharist worthily are never far from Jesus. As the Holy Father said last week, “He supports us, he helps us, he leads us, and he sustains us.”

Even with our homework.