Sunday, March 31, 2013

Witnessing to Faith at Easter

This Easter we invited two parishioners to share their faith journey after the homily at two of the Masses, as the liturgical rules allow. We’ll be doing that every couple of weeks, beginning today, as the Church continues to celebrate the Year of Faith.

However, I was a bit disorganized and I didn’t line up anyone for this Mass. Thinking it over, I decided that maybe I could talk about my own faith journey—the first time in history that a priest has had to replace a lay person in the pulpit! But first let me share a little of what Steve and Eunice have to say in witnessing to God’s work in their lives.

Steve entered into full communion with the Catholic Church last night, and received the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist.  Although he’d been baptized as a child, he’d lived his adult life as an atheist. But through the Alpha Course and attending our men’s prayer group and RCIA , he found a spiritual home in the Catholic Church and pretty well glows when he speaks of his happiness in joining us.

Eunice was brought up in a faithful Catholic home, but like many young people she needed to make the jump from family faith to personal faith. Like many of her peers, she saw the Church more in terms of rules and regulations, not as a way to having a fuller and more abundant life. While on a mission trip after her third year at university, Eunice encountered Jesus as a person and began a true friendship with Him. In her own words, “I began to hear Him loud and clear and it completely changed me.”

My own story is closer to Eunice’s than to Steve’s. Our family life was solidly Catholic, and I never really doubted or denied the Faith. Like Eunice, my walk with Christ was founded in the teaching and example of my parents and other relatives. But the story of my spiritual life is also told very well in the readings we hear at Mass this morning.

In the first reading, St. Peter tells us why the Resurrection makes such a difference. If Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, his miracles of healing were just history. Instead, he is with us to the end of time, no less present than he was when he healed the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus isn’t “then;” he is “now.”

This matters in many ways, but for me the biggest one is forgiveness of sin. By believing in Jesus and trusting what he has said, I experience regularly the forgiveness of my sins, big and small. I’m frustrated, of course, that I don’t overcome sin in my life, but I have a solid peace that sin won’t sink me.

Strangely, I don’t recall going to confession that often when I was young—perhaps my Mom will tell you I was a perfect teenager!—but since my mid-twenties the sacrament of penance has kept me free from a great deal of fear and from the kind of guilt that destroys inner peace. I do not think I could stand with any confidence before the judge of the living and the dead without this sacrament, and I would have no confidence in this sacrament if Jesus had not triumphed that first Easter morning.

And certainly I could not stand here this morning fulfilling his command to preach about him and testify to him without the forgiveness of my own sins.  Think for a moment about who we hear preaching in the first reading. It’s St. Peter—the apostle who denied Jesus, who let him down, and who ran away. But in the power of the Resurrection, and knowing that Jesus has forgiven him, Peter is fearless.

I also find echoes of my own faith journey in the second reading . St. Paul—another sinner forgiven by the power of Christ—calls us to “seek the things above, where Christ is.”  He says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” My life as a Catholic has been rich partly because I have taken this seriously.

 “Faith seeking understanding” was the motto of the great theologian St. Anselm.  Long before I studied theology, I tried to know more about the faith of my childhood.  I read and attended talks about the Faith and the spiritual life, and this made a tremendous difference.

Catholic faith includes an element of feeling—our emotions are part of us, and God has used my emotions to deepen my relationship with him.  But it is also a well-reasoned faith, and some of the greatest minds in human history have helped me to understand better what I believe. I learn something new almost every day as I work at setting my mind on the things above and doing my best—not always successfully—to avoid thinking with the world.

Finally, my faith in Jesus has developed in ways that resemble what’s happening in this morning’s Gospel.  Like Mary Magdalene, I tend to get up early; also like her, I panic easily.  “Where’s the Lord?” I sometimes think. I run to others and ask them to help me figure out what’s happened.

And of course I connect with the story of Peter and John: I’m Peter, of course, since I always lose the race! I’m often a bit breathless and I’m not always in the best spiritual shape, so there are times when I do not understand what Scripture is telling me.  But once my heart stops thumping, I do see, and I do believe.

There is something else in my own faith story that connects to this morning’s beautiful account of the first Easter: the place of women. The Church gets knocked for having a male-only priesthood, but I think that is a side issue exploited mostly by her critics.  My experience of women in the Church comes closer to what we saw happen in the Gospel story: the women are first at the tomb, the women are asked by Jesus to tell the men what’s going on, and the women are quick to recognize Jesus when he appears.

In my family, in parish life and in my work at the Archdiocese, I have been blessed by the example and the witness of so many Mary Magdalenes—women whose faith was stronger than mine, and who shared with me the things the Lord had told them. I learned early on that it’s the Church, and not the world, that truly respects women and their role, despite anything I read in the papers.

Finally, because of my faith I have always lived with one eye on the world to come. Believing that there is a judge of the living and the dead has helped me make good moral decisions. Believing that I will share Christ’s glory some day is a powerful reason for living as his disciple. Believing the same about those I love has helped me over the years to grieve inevitable losses with great hope and even a certain joy.

Most of all, Christ’s Resurrection is the main reason I can believe all the other things said by him and about him in the Bible. St. Paul says “God works for good in all things,” and “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Well, I believe that not simply because he said it, but because Jesus rose from the dead—the ultimate proof of those claims.

At the back of the church today there is one lonely lily that hasn’t bloomed.  I was glad to see it: it’s a reminder that God is not finished with me—there are still great things to come.  And the same is true for every single person here this morning: the faithful flock, the Christmas and Easter Catholics, and the non-believing visitor.

We’re all on a journey, some of us running, some of us walking, some of us limping.  But to each one, I repeat the words of today’s responsorial psalm: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Spiritual Semites" at the Easter Vigil

I'm a bit reluctant to post this homily, because it is so closely based on the work of others who aren't well-credited in the text. However, here it is, with thanks to W. Patrick Cunningham, whose article “The Liturgical Pogrom,” appeared in the New Oxford Review, July-August 2000, and to the late Dom Adrian Nocent's scholarly work, The Liturgical Year, vol. 3. 

The first part of my text is taken virtually whole from the introduction of Mr. Cunningham's interesting essay, which can be found here.  I just ran out of time to insert the proper references and mark the many direct quotations. I don't really offer many original thoughts until I am addressing the catechumens!


I have never understood anti-Semitism. And I understand Christian anti-Semitism least of all, in the first place because Jesus, his Blessed Mother, and the twelve apostles were all Jews.

Beyond that, “Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and the vine has roots in the rich soil of the Judaic covenant and Israelite history.” As Pope Pius XI said, Christians are "spiritual Semites."

Tonight’s liturgy reminds us what it means to be spiritual Semites, children of Abraham.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all honour Abraham, the patriarch with whom God made a covenant.  He is held up as the model follower of God—the Roman liturgy calls him “our father in faith,” ready to obey God unconditionally, ready even to offer his own son in sacrifice (Gen. 22).

The Book of Deuteronomy told devout Israelites what to say when they presented an offering to the priest for sacrifice: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien...." Before the altar, they must identify themselves with Abraham and confess their dependence on the mercy of God. As they offer their sacrifices, the Bible commanded the Israelites to retell the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and how God delivered his people and led them to a land flowing with milk and honey.  (Deut. 26)

Nowhere in the story of Abraham is there a hint of "self-sufficiency." All that one has and is are gifts of God, and all that one offers to God is far less than what He is owed. This is the spirit of Abraham and the heritage he passes on to his spiritual heirs—the willingness to be taught and led by God

There is a direct line from Abraham to our mother Mary, who only gave one order in the Gospels: "Do whatever He tells you" (Jn. 2:5). And when God asked her to obey, she responded as readily as Abraham: "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk. 1:38).

These are our ancestors as "spiritual Semites" and brothers and sisters of Jesus.


It’s not surprising, then, that tonight’s Vigil can scarcely be understood without referring to Old Testament history and images. Easter is, of course, the Christian Passover feast; and St. Jerome writes that our Passover, like the Jewish one, is marked by the expectation of the Messiah’s coming in power. The Jewish Passover celebrates liberation and freedom, “and the idea of ‘passage’ is essential to it.”

The same is true for us tonight: we are delivered not from Egypt, but from sin—not from Pharaoh but from Satan’s power

I was fascinated—but not surprised—to discover that some early Christians saw Easter and Passover as being so closely connected that they wanted to celebrate it on the same night the Jews sacrificed the Passover lamb rather than on a Sunday.

Tonight’s liturgy would be three hours instead of two if I spend much more time talking about how the Vigil reminds us of the blood of the Passover lamb, or the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites through the night, or the waters that parted to save them from their pursuers. What I want to get across is this: we are the new Israel, and we too are on a journey guided by God. Like the ancient Jews and Jews today, we celebrate freedom given by God, and we hope for the final fulfillment of promises made by God.

As we will soon hear in the blessing of the baptismal water, the children of Abraham passed dry-shod through the Red Sea so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized. In baptism we pass over from our old life to a new one in Christ.

The second reading about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac helps us connect the Old Covenant to the New.  While we admire Abraham for his heroic obedience, we can also find distinctly Christian meanings in this story. One author states that “the sacrifice of Isaac, an only son, reminds us of the sacrifice of the Father’s only Son, while the rescue of Isaac turns our thoughts to the resurrection of Christ.” 

And of course the resurrection of Christ is what tonight is all about. As the Exultet proclaimed, “This is the night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death;” as we heard the angels say in tonight’s Gospel, “He is not here, but has risen.”

Earth’s long dark night of sin has, once and for all, been flooded with the light of the risen Lord, our Passover Lamb.


By now, our patient catechumens and candidates for full communion with the Church are wondering, “what about us?” I admit that I am taking my time, because the stage must be set before you can walk on and play your part. You are Abrahams for us tonight, obeying God’s call to offer sacrifice; you are Isaacs for us tonight, allowing yourselves to be offered to God within this Eucharist; by your courage in the face of a skeptical world, you lead us like Moses and remind us to walk on the dry ground of faith and not to get bogged down on our own journey. You are Miriams, leading us in a joyful song by your enthusiasm for the Faith.

And you play the parts of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who reported the news of the Resurrection to the apostles. Of course we who are baptized already believe this good news, but hearing the next generation of believers proclaim the good news strengthens and renews our faith.

You remind us that the Resurrection makes a difference—I might better say “all the difference.”  Why would any one of you be here tonight if you did not think that Christian faith would make your life better? What’s the point of your study and effort unless becoming a Catholic brings joy, peace and hope? And what is faith in Christ if he has not risen from the dead?

By making or renewing your baptismal promises in front of this assembly, you help us to remember our own journey from darkness to light and to claim our hope in the mercy of God that restores our fallen nature.

Tonight, dear friends, we pray with you and for you. We are confident that God who has begun this great work in you will bring it to completion.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

This morning I had tears in my eyes as I watched the grade seven students of St. Anthony’s School enact the Stations of the Cross. My reaction wasn't that surprising – the children played their parts with conviction and with emotion. And I noticed that I wasn't the only one wiping away a tear.

Still, it got me wondering: why does a dramatic presentation of Christ's suffering and death move me more deeply than liturgies that actually make those saving moments present? Wouldn't it make more sense to cry during tonight's liturgy, when the awesome love of Christ, who poured out his blood for us on the cross, is given to us in the Eucharist?

As I thought about this question, one answer came to me. If the sacraments engaged us with the full emotional effect of the mysteries that they represent, we would hardly be able to endure them.

If each Mass carried us back fully to the Upper Room, to the sight of Jesus, preparing to undergo his passion, we would be reduced to helplessness every Sunday.

Instead, God’s plan requires us to make an effort to enter into the mysteries we celebrate. We’re not meant to feel overwhelmed at every Eucharist, but to participate with our minds as well as our hearts.

We are invited to reflect, not simply react. We engage at Mass: not as mere spectators, but in a certain sense as actors.

I didn't need to prepare myself to watch the Stations of the Cross this morning. I simply showed up, and they moved me immediately.

At Mass, on the other hand, a short period of preparation, of reflection, helps us enter more fully into the mysteries we celebrate. A time of thanksgiving after Holy Communion also deepens our awareness of what the Lord has given us. And our active attention and participation makes an enormous difference to what we get out of attending Mass.

Tonight, of course, we have a special invitation – to enter into the upper room with the Lord. To enter with the apostles into that Cenacle where he shared the gift of himself with them and all the ages.

There are no costumes, no dramatic speeches tonight. And yet we will be moved in the very center of our being if we permit ourselves to be – if we open our hearts to the Lord who is inviting us to sit with him at table as he breaks the bread and blesses the cup.

The scripture scholar Cardinal Vanhoye reminds us that our natural tendency is to be concerned with ourselves. We worry about what we have to do, who we have to see, our strengths and our weaknesses, what we have and what we lack.

But tonight the Lord wants us to be concerned only with one thing: receiving his love, for our joy, for God's glory, for our good and the good of everyone around us.

Notice that last point: for the good of those around us. We do not attend Mass and receive Holy Communion for our own sake alone; it is what empowers us to serve the needs of others.

The Eucharist is the fuel of Christian charity.

It is the Eucharist that strengthens the members of our parish who visit the needy, take Communion to the sick, help street kids, and hand out sandwiches on the downtown Eastside. When Mass ends, a small army of generous volunteers leaves the church ready to serve—and not only in the many forms of outreach I’ve mentioned: we serve one another at home and in the parish itself.

Despite what I’ve just said about how the liturgy avoids dramatic gestures, tonight in a way we do imitate the grade 7 students by reenacting Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples.

By highlighting the humble service that Jesus performed for his disciples at the Last Supper, our liturgy leaves no doubt about the connection between the Eucharist and charity.

In a few moments, I will wash the feet of twelve men, not women. One reason for this is clear enough: we’re focusing on the tradition of Jesus washing the feet of his twelve apostles. We’re also obeying current liturgical rules, which clearly specify that men be chosen.

But you can bet that 2013 is probably the last year we won’t wash the feet of women as well, for that’s just what Pope Francis did in Rome today.

What might the Holy Father’s decision mean? It certainly doesn’t mean he disobeys liturgical laws; as the Church’s legislator, he is free to modify such laws. My guess is this: he has decided that right now it’s more important to look ahead than behind. He has decided to change the focus from what Jesus did to the apostles to what we will do to others, as Jesus taught.

In fact, the missal doesn’t actually mention “apostles” in connection with the washing of the feet, and a document issued in Rome some years ago explains the rite only in terms of “Christ’s gesture of service and charity,” a ministry obviously not limited to apostles.

As I have said, don’t be surprised if we wash the feet of some women on Holy Thursday; but at the same time, let us not be worked up about it one way or another. What’s important—crucially important—is that we hear Our Lord saying “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done…”

Whether we are members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society helping the poorest of the poor, or moms and dads washing the dirty faces of children, it is our heartfelt participation at Mass that gives us the strength we need to do what Jesus did.

The Triduum (Homily on Palm Sunday)

Not long after I was ordained, I started going to the Vancouver Symphony with another young priest. Since we never seemed to get enough sleep, half the time we’d slip out at intermission and not go back. An extra hour of sleep seemed more valuable than the concert.

Nowadays the same friend and I go to the opera instead of the symphony, and we never leave at half-time—the tickets are just too expensive! On top of that, an opera tells a story, and we want to hear how it ends.

Palm Sunday is like the first act of a great opera, or even its overture. The drama of Holy Week opens with Christ’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. Then we listen to the story of his anguish in the garden, his betrayal, the trial before Pilate, his suffering, crucifixion and death.

Great mysteries unfold in the Gospel we have just heard. But the whole story is not told today. Where is the Last Supper? Where are all the little details that St. John tells us but that St. Luke omits? Where, indeed, is our Blessed Mother?

The Church requires only that we return to Mass on Easter Sunday, when the sad story of Christ’s Passion is transformed by the glory of his Resurrection. But I have to tell you, in all honesty, that coming back to church only next Sunday is a bit like missing the middle act of a three-act opera. The Sacred Triduum, the three days in which our liturgies tell the whole story of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and keep a solemn vigil awaiting the Resurrection, is the summit of the liturgical life of the Catholic faith.

Not even Christmas Midnight Mass can compare with the power and intensity of these three celebrations.

On Holy Thursday, we live vividly the moment when Jesus gave us the Eucharist, and he shows us the connection between the Mass and charity.

On Good Friday, we stand at the cross and pour out our prayers for ourselves and the whole world.  We join our sufferings to those of Jesus. There is no Mass, only a solemn liturgical celebration, as we ponder the mystery of the crucified Lord. 

And then, we return to church on Saturday night to watch and wait until the light of Christ, the flame of faith, casts aside the darkness. We listen to the Word of God as it unfolds God’s plan for creation. And then the joyful news arrives—He is risen! All creation is made new.

At the Easter Vigil we see how the Resurrection changes lives. The faith of the catechumens as they die and rise with Jesus in the waters of baptism is more powerful than any homily. We witness fellow Christians profess the faith with us and enter into full communion with the Catholic faith and receive the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist.

Obviously, some of you cannot be present for one or even any of these liturgies. You may be like my friend and I were, needing sleep more than anything else. But today, I invite everyone to consider with great care the invitation to celebrate Holy Week to the full. I ask each and every one of you to consider participating in the beautiful liturgies of Thursday evening, Friday afternoon and Saturday night.