Saturday, November 23, 2013

Over Us, With Us, Ahead of Us (Christ the King.C)

The readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, our parish feast day, make my head spin.

The first reading, about King David, reminds us that Jesus is a shepherd-king—a king who leads his people like a shepherd leads his flock. It is a gentle and consoling image.

But then the Gospel reading tears us away from green pastures and shows Christ as a crucified King, hanging on a cross, not seated on a royal throne.

In between, St. Paul sets off theological fireworks in today's Epistle. First he celebrates not just the King but the Kingdom, which we share with the saints, our refuge from the powers of darkness. Jesus is not just “the” King, he is “our” King, since we belong to his Kingdom.

Then the Apostle tells us who Christ is: the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. He is before all things, because all things were created in him.

And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things—by the shedding of his blood on the cross.

What does all this mean to us? How can we apply these truths to our own lives?

I found this difficult, until I opened YOUCAT, the beautiful youth catechism that actually speaks to people of all ages. YOUCAT starts by giving us part of today’s second reading in plain language: “Jesus Christ is Lord of the world and Lord of history because everything was made for his sake. All men were redeemed by him and will be judged by him.”

Those are words with consequences, YOUCAT says. Because he is Lord and King of the Universe, Jesus is over us, with us, and ahead of us.

“He is over us, and the only One to whom we bend the knee in worship;” no-one and no thing is greater than Jesus, and no-one and no thing can rightly take his place in our lives.

“He is with us as head of his Church, in which the kingdom of God begins even now;” our King is not ruling from afar, but in our midst.

“He is ahead of us as Lord of History, in whom the powers of darkness are definitively overcome…” Christ’s reign looks to the future as well as the past and present—we have the assurance that he will never abdicate or be toppled from his throne. His rule is everlasting; it encompasses all that is still to come. We don’t fear a dark age without God; however godless his children may become, God continues to reign over them.

And eventually “He comes to meet us in glory, on a day we do not know, to renew and perfect the world.” Christ will one day bring to an end all earthly kingdoms, fulfilling creation and making of it an offering to his Father. (n. 110)

Knowing that this loving shepherd-king is over us and ahead of us and coming to meet us should give us great confidence and hope.

But what about God “with us?” The youth catechism says “He is with us as head of his Church, in which the kingdom of God begins even now.” How do we meet Christ the King with us?

YOUCAT gives a one-sentence answer that offers an ideal way to take stock of our parish on its annual feast day.

YOUCAT says that we can experience Christ with us “especially in God’s Word, in the reception of the sacraments, in caring for the poor, and wherever ‘two or three are gathered’” in his name.

So let’s look at Christ the Redeemer Parish in light of these four points. Of course, our community experiences Jesus in the Word of God proclaimed in the liturgy; it is clear from what you tell Father Xavier and me that you listen attentively at Mass and want to hear a clear and biblical message in Sunday homilies.

Attendance at Bible studies and adult faith programs is another positive sign that we seek God’s presence in his living Word.

Christ is near to us also in the sacraments. The Eucharist, of course, is chief among them, and our parish has tried to celebrate Mass in a way that helps us experience our Lord’s nearness. A great number of parishioners have also encountered Jesus very personally in the Sacrament of Penance, while others have felt his healing touch in the anointing of the sick. Jesus is never nearer to us than he is in the sacraments: our King dispenses grace and mercy with royal benevolence.

YOUCAT says we experience his nearness in caring for the poor. This has become a central experience for many parishioners at Christ the Redeemer. The efforts of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Believe Street Meal, STA food drives, and other initiatives aimed at helping the Door is Open, Sancta Maria House and Covenant House, among others, make the Kingdom of Christ more visible. And those who serve its King with such generosity find him easier to know and to love.

Your support for Syria, and the even greater support for the Philippines that has already started to pour in, is still another sign that this parish knows that its King is often encountered hungry, poor, and persecuted.

Finally, the youth catechism says that we find the Lord of the world near to us wherever two or three gather in his name. Our parish community is not perfect, but no-one can doubt that we gather in the name of Jesus, whether it is the faith study one young parishioner recently organized with four friends or a full church at Christmas or Easter.

We gather to worship, to study, and sometimes just to enjoy each other. But every time we are together, Jesus is with us and most of the time we realize that.

The Year of Faith ends today. We have celebrated this special year—begun by one Pope and finished by another—by sharing the gifts of faith God has showered on our community. One after another, parishioners young and old, male and female, bravely stood at the front of  the church to bear witness to God’s work in their lives.

On your behalf, I thank all of those who spoke, and I ask God to continue to strengthen them in faith.

We’re about to hear the last of these beautiful testimonies, and I must admit I wish they could carry on for another year. But I know that the inspiring words that we’ve heard—and are about to hear from Roy Gordon—will challenge all of us to become bolder witnesses not only in church, but in our daily lives.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Virtue Arms Us to Endure (33.C)

When was the last time you thought of the Second Coming?

Be honest—it was probably this time last year. The only reason I can answer “yesterday” is that I had to write this homily!

And yet Jesus makes it easy for us to think about the end of the world. He lists the signs that the end is coming: wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and the persecution of Christians.

When was the last time you thought about those things? Unless you spent the week in the woods, you’ve thought about them non-stop. The calamity in the Philippines is the most recent example, but we have plenty of others.

I had trouble with today’s Gospel when I was younger. Since all the signs seem present in our world all the time, how come the Lord has not returned to judge the living and the dead? But the more I studied the more I understood that people have been asking that question since the time of Jesus: after all, he predicts the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, which took place less than forty years after his death.

And Jesus seems to caution us against using these signs and portents to create a timetable for the end of the world. Notice what he says: “these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

So what is Jesus telling us with these dire predictions—and what do they have to do with the Second Coming, which he describes in the verses that follow those we read this morning?

Scripture experts say that “a positive message runs through what our Lord is saying."

First, Jesus promises God’s help: Although we must endure terrible things before his coming in glory, “divine providence takes into account all these difficulties, severe though they may be.” God permits them, since in his power he can use them for our good.” [The Navarre Bible: New Testament, 336.]

Second, Our Lord also promises special graces to those who suffer. Those under attack will be given the words and wisdom to defend themselves. We do not need to rely on our own resources in facing the challenges of Christian life in a hostile world. Whether we’re talking about martyrs standing before emperors, or pro-life advocates standing before judges, or average Catholics being challenged in the lunchroom at work, the Holy Spirit provides the words we can use to witness to our faith.

Third, and most important, is the promise of victory. Jesus says “not a hair of your head will perish” and “you will gain your souls.”

The path to victory is the path of virtue. Virtues are good habits that dispose us to perform good actions. We speak of faith, hope and charity as theological or supernatural virtues, part of the Christian life of grace after Baptism. But there are also natural or human virtues “which every good person needs.” [Evangelium: Participant’s Book, 37.] Chief among these are prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.

Today, Jesus speaks of endurance, which is closely connected to the virtue of fortitude, which strengthens us to do the right thing even when it is difficult. And fortitude requires patience. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas say that patience allows us to withstand suffering without loss of heart—that is, without sinking into sorrow.

St. Thomas explains very well why Jesus says that endurance will allow us to gain our souls—because it is through patience that we remain the master of our souls. It is through patient endurance that we are able to root out the worry and alarm that would deprive our souls of peace. (Summa, 2-2, 136, 2 ad 2, quoted in Navarre Bible, 337.]

The end is coming, that’s for certain. But Jesus wants us to live in the present moment with exactly the same confidence and courage that the Last Days will require. St. Augustine says “Let us not resist his first coming, so that we may not dread the second.” In plainer language, the lay evangelist Ralph Martin says “Remember the reward for perseverance is heaven!”

Since perseverance is really another name for endurance, I’d like to end with a prayer from Ralph Martin’s booklet “Don’t Give Up,” which we handed out to the parish a few years back.

Lord, thank you for teaching us about the importance of perseverance. Help us to break with sin and keep our eyes on the joy of heaven. Help us to keep on believing, keep on hoping, and keep on loving, no matter how difficult the circumstances become. We know you’ll never allow us to be tempted or tested beyond our strength. Help us to keep our eyes on you, to draw on your strength and your power and your constancy, so that we might, by your grace, by the power of your blood and mercy, persevere until the very end. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Children of the Resurrection (32 C)

On Easter Monday, 1917, the second day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a Canadian soldier was hit by machine gun fire. When the smoke cleared after the fierce fighting, his body was placed with many others to await burial.

The soldier had a brother in the next regiment, who was duly notified of his death and given his few personal effects.

The next day a company of soldiers was marching along the road beside the pile of corpses. Suddenly a soldier shouted out and pointed to the bodies—one of them was moving.

The officers realized that the body was not dead, and a medical crew was quickly called. The wounded man was rushed to a field hospital, where after many, many months he recovered, and returned to Canada at the end of the war.

That man, the man whom you might say came back to life, was my grandfather. If not for the sharp eyes of a weary soldier, neither my father nor I would ever have been born.

It’s a good story for Remembrance Day, isn’t it? In fact, one of my brothers turned it into a play with his grade six students, basing his script on my grandfather’s war diary, which he owns.

But compare that wounded man, thought to be dead but still alive, with Christ—Christ who was truly dead, but who returned to life in a glorious resurrection. Compare my grandfather, who did die in 1945, his life shortened by his war injury, with those Jesus calls “children of the resurrection”—those who cannot die any more.

The story of my grandfather pales by comparison to the story of Jesus; tomorrow is Remembrance Day, but today and every Sunday is Resurrection Day.

Today’s readings are not the kind a preacher likes to find when he opens the Sunday lectionary. The first reading is the short form of one of the most terrible stories in the Bible—it describes the torture and death of four of seven brothers. The whole story tells us that all seven died; before the youngest was killed his mother was told to speak to him and change his mind. She leaned close to him and said “Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”

Anyone like to step up and preach on that cheerful text?

The Gospel is an odd one, at least if we read the long form that includes the woman who had seven husbands. And if you don’t read the long form you’re a bit of a chicken.

How to make sense of all of that?

Actually, it’s not that difficult if we zero in on one thing: the resurrection of the dead. These readings are not directly about the resurrection of Jesus; they’re about the resurrection of those he judges worthy to share in his resurrection.

The mother of the seven sons was able to watch her sons die rather than break the Jewish law because by this time in the development of Israel’s faith pious Jews had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead. She was serenely confident of seeing her sons again.

Think for a moment about the strength of her faith in the resurrection—because this is before the time of Jesus. How much stronger should our faith be, as disciples of the Risen One?

The wife of seven husbands is just someone made up by the Pharisees, so she has nothing to teach us. But Jesus turns their trick question on its head in order to show that heaven is a place we can’t quite imagine, a place that doesn’t fit into all our earthly ideas and experiences.

We only get glimpses of heaven here and there n the Bible, but Christ’s words in this text give us some idea of what we will be like in heaven. Of course we cannot die any more, that’s obvious, but also we will be like Angels and sons and daughters of God.

But the most striking thing Jesus says is that we will be “children of the resurrection.” Could anything greater be promised us?

In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

The first reading and the Gospel tell us the same thing in more words. Those who are faithful to Christ will be given a place in the age to come, living forever beyond the reach of death.

No earthly suffering can rob us of our inheritance: on the contrary, when we unite our sufferings to Christ, we increase our claim to share his glory.

So these unusual texts have a simple enough message. Resurrection is not a word that only pertains to Easter Sunday. It’s a promise to every believer; it’s the hope of every Christian soul. It’s what encourages us when we’re living and consoles us when we’re dying. Faith in the resurrection of the body—a fundamental truth of our faith— allows us to accept the death of loved ones and makes grief easier to bear.

It’s a bit sad to think that we Christians could be less certain of the life to come than that brave martyr-mother who lived two hundred years before Christ rose from the dead. At this Mass, on Remembrance Day, and during the month of prayer for the Holy Souls, let us pray for a deeper faith in His resurrection, and in our own.