Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Kingdom Makes Repentance Attractive (Sunday 3.A)

Dale Carnegie published the self-help book How to Win Friends and to Influence People almost eighty years ago. And about sixty years ago there was a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that became a Broadway musical and a movie.

Imagine if Jesus asked those authors for some advice. Would he have started his ministry by saying “Repent”? It’s a fair bet the modern experts would have come up with a better opening line. After all, nobody wants to repent.

Or is that too quick a conclusion? Let’s look more closely at what Jesus said; perhaps repentance is more attractive than we might think.

And let’s also look at what happened when he said it: hardworking fishermen walked away from the security of their nets and followed him. Something clicked when they heard Christ’s call to repentance.

Jesus did not, of course, tell people to repent, period. He gave them a reason: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Books and books have been written about what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, but let’s think about what Peter and Andrew and James and John heard.

They heard a promise. Oppressors were the only earthly kings they knew about. The kingdom of heaven must have opened up the possibility of something wonderful—they could become subjects of a sovereign who was “out of this world,” to use the slang an earlier time.

And they saw Someone. They saw in the face of Jesus that heaven was a lot nearer than they had thought. There was a light shining there that excited these four fishermen. The kingdom of heaven was near because Jesus was near. Words alone couldn’t have captivated them so thoroughly.

When was the last time any of us thought about the kingdom of God? I heard about a bishop who was questioning a confirmation class about the kingdom of God, and the answers were so hopeless he gave up and asked, “Well, what did Jesus say about marriage?” This time he got a quick answer from one child who said “forgive them, for they know not what they do”!

We’d do better on the marriage question, I’m sure, but most of us have a pretty thin idea of the kingdom. And yet all the scripture scholars agree that “Jesus gives the kingdom of God the first place in his preaching.”* Obviously, this is something we need to understand.

It’s clear that the kingdom of heaven is not just another way of speaking about heaven, since Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” There is something immediate about the kingdom, even if it’s clear that there’s a future dimension as well.

As Pope Francis wrote in his letter on The Joy of the Gospel, “Let us believe the Gospel when it tells us that the kingdom of God is already present in this world and is growing, here and there, and in different ways: like the small seed which grows into a great tree (cf. Mt 13:31-32), like the measure of leaven that makes the dough rise (cf. Mt 13:33) and like the good seed that grows amid the weeds (cf. Mt 13, 24-30) and can always pleasantly surprise us.”

What the kingdom means is a profound mystery revealed only by Jesus, who makes it known step by step or piece by piece through his miracles, his parables, and his own life and death.

When Christians speak about “mystery,” they don’t mean a secret or a puzzle that has to be solved. But we do mean something that’s not obvious to everyone; in his preaching he distinguished those capable of understanding his teaching from those whose hardness of heart blocked their comprehension.

How can we know the meaning of the kingdom of heaven? How can we experience the promise that moved the first Apostles to follow Jesus without hesitating?

The answer’s fairly clear: we must repent. And not for fear of fire and brimstone, but in awe and wonder as we think about the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of light—St. Matthew helpfully spells that out by repeating the words of Isaiah. That light shines into the hearts of people when they repent.

One scholar puts this beautifully by explaining that Jesus was not content just to preach the kingdom of God. He began to make it a reality. He made it a reality by calling people to the conversion that made it possible to experience the freedom that is granted to citizens of his kingdom. He made it a reality by inviting humanity to turn away from those things that lead towards the kingdom of darkness instead of the kingdom of light.

The Pope’s letter on the Joy of the Gospel reminds us that the kingdom makes a difference not only to the individual but the entire community: “To the extent that [Christ] reigns within us,” the Holy Father says, “the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.”

In one short sentence, he sums it all up: “The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world.”

When you come down to it, isn’t that what it means to repent—to love God who reigns in our world? To repent is not to hang down your head in shame, but to lift it high and walk into the light. Perhaps repentance is more attractive than we think
* Dictionary of Biblical Theology, "Kingdom," p. 293.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptized? Then Pray! (Baptism of the Lord)

Father Larry Richards is the priestly equivalent of a drill sergeant or a very, very mean football coach. He hasn’t the slightest idea how to pull a punch. When a young parishioner told me that Father Richards’ book Be a Man had really shaken him up, I said “welcome to the club.”

He hits pretty hard at Catholics who don’t go to church. At least I got off easy on that one—and you do too, unless you’re just reading this homily on my blog!

But he’s also tough on Catholics who don’t find time to pray, and that’s a problem for a whole lot of us. In his blunt way, Father Richards says that people who don’t pray can end up being baptized pagans, Christians who go through the motions but aren’t really in touch with God.

Pope Francis is a little gentler, but not much. In October he said “The key that opens the door to the faith is prayer.” But he went on to say that keeping the key in your pocket can lead to arrogance, pride and a rigid faith or even to losing your faith.

This kind of tough talk isn’t really my style, perhaps because I know how often I neglect prayer myself. But on this feast of the Lord’s baptism, I think we all need to ask whether we’re unlocking the riches of our own baptism through daily contact with God.

We all know that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. We needed him to be baptized! What better way to understand the dignity, the importance and the meaning of this sacrament—especially for the great majority of us who were baptized as babies?

“The heavens were opened to him,” today’s Gospel says, but they were opened for us.

The Spirit descended on him, so that Jesus could be the source of the Spirit for us.

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is second only to Easter when it comes to thinking seriously about our own baptism and what it means. It’s so easy to take it for granted. Only a handful of us know the date of our baptism—I don’t—and many of us hardly give this decisive moment any thought.

Yet to be serious Christians, we must know and live both the dignity and the demands of our baptism.

We all remember learning as children that baptism washes away original sin; did we also learn that baptism makes the Christian a new creature, and adopted child of God, a sharer in the divine nature, a member of Christ and a co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit? (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1265)

Probably not: this is adult stuff. But these are truths you can get your teeth into—truths about our Christian dignity and what it demands from us.

A creature wants to know its Creator. An adopted child, like any child, wants to experience parental love, and to show love in return. A sharer in God’s own nature wants to enter into communion with him, since He himself is a communion of Persons.

And if we are members of Christ’s body and co-heirs with him, we want to hear the Father’s voice. We want to know we are his beloved sons and daughters.

Certainly if we are temples of the Holy Spirit, we need and we want to be aware of the indwelling Presence within us, and to experience its strength and comfort.

None of this will happen fully in our lives without prayer. We can read theology, we can receive the other sacraments, and we can lead good lives. But the full richness of our status as beloved children of God will remain hidden.

This sounds like bad news for those who do not pray. It doesn’t sound much better for those who—like me—find it hard to give prayer the time it deserves.

Actually, it’s good news. Good news because prayer is far simpler and easier than many of us think. Even the tough-talking Father Richards offers a five-minutes-a-day plan in his book Surrender. The wonderful examen prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola doesn’t need to take a whole lot more than that.

But it’s also good news because an ancient form of prayer is being rediscovered all through the Church. That prayer, which I mentioned at Christmas, is called lectio divina or sacred reading. It’s profound, that’s for sure, but it’s also simple.

Lectio divina is based on the meditative reading of scripture, so one of the beauties of this way of praying is that it puts us in direct contact with God’s living and active Word with its remarkable power to transform our hearts. Another is that lectio is an excellent way to pray for people like me who get easily distracted in prayer.

The basics of lectio divina are easy to learn. We’re going to try that for three evenings this month, beginning this Wednesday at 7 p.m. We’ll talk about the method for about half an hour, and then use it to pray for about the same length of time. In other words, we’re talking about no more than one hour.

The key to a closer relationship with the Lord is in your hand—and on Wednesday evening you have a chance to open a door

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gifts for Today: Epiphany

It’s a long way from Bethlehem to the frozen Canadian north. But that’s where I’d like us to go, with the help of a Canadian novel called Coppermine.

Coppermine is a story about an officer of the North West Mounted Police—later the RCMP—who is sent to investigate the death of two missionary priests in the far north. Since Corporal Jack Creed can’t speak the language of the Inuit First Nation, he takes along Angituk, a half-English, half-Inuit guide and interpreter.

While speaking at Christmas with two hunters, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, Jack Creed offers to tell them the story of Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. I will read you a bit of it, as translated by Angituk…

“When Jesus was born, his parents, Mary and Joseph, were travelling.”
“To new hunting grounds?”
“Well, yes, sort of.”
“And the baby was coming and there was no room in the inn, or…the big igloo, so they had to go to the stable…or little igloo, and have the baby there, surrounded by cows and sheep.”
“Tell us, what are cows and sheep?”
Creed was beginning to warm to the telling. “Actually, they were caribou and husky dogs, and they loved the baby. And three wise men came, who has seen a star that marked the birth of Jesus”
“Wise men?”
“Shaman,” Angituk ventured.
“Absolutely. Powerful shamans who saw the star, and they brought gifts.”
Angituk prompted him. “Walrus oil. Narwhal tusk. Hard wood.”
“And then the shepherds came,” Jack continued.
“What are shepherds?”
“Seal hunters,” Angituk suggested quietly.
“Did I say shepherds? I meant seal hunters. A bunch of seal hunters came in from the ice edge to see the baby, because good spirits had come to them and told them that Jesus was born. But then there were enemies.”
Creed now had the hunters fully engaged in his narrative. Angituk too.
“There was a king, an evil shaman named Herod, who was jealous and sent hunters to kill the child.”
“Probably Cree,” Sinnisiak ventured, looking at Uluksuk, who nodded.
“Could be. But the seal hunters and the shamans protected the baby and the bad hunters didn’t find him, so there is a happy ending to the story of Jesus’ birth. He went on to be a great man. A teacher and the best hunter of all.”

I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know its message. But this brief passage tells us something about today’s feast of the Epiphany: it needs some translation.

We know the story well, and we know the meaning of sheep and cows and shepherds. But do we really know what is happening when those three kings lay down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Ancient translators have helped us understand—gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for a man who was to die. But perhaps we need to understand the story in terms a bit closer to home.

So let’s leave symbolism aside this year, and be as direct as Corporal Creed was with the hunters: because every one of us can understand giving and receiving.

Today let’s look at two simple questions: What have you received from God? And what have you given back to God?

I can’t answer these questions: each person must give his own reply. But let's try to answer the first one together. What have we received from God?

In a poem for children, Robert Louis Stevenson said “the world is so full of a number of things/I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

We adults can be tempted to miss some of those things, which is one reason we’re blessed to live in this area where the gift of creation is so easy to see. We might be tempted to take credit for a lot of the good things around us—and people from Toronto think we do—but truly all of us see the beauty of the created world as a gift.

There are other gifts we enjoy some of the time: health, friends, family, peace in society... freedom from the sort of oppression and violence that greeted Jesus at his birth.

And our first and second readings today remind us of our spiritual gifts also. We have received the dawning brightness that the ancient prophets longed and hungered for, because the light has come, and the Lord’s glory has appeared. The mystery that was long hidden has been made known to us.

When Christ took on our human nature, St. Paul tells us, he gave us a share in his divine nature, heirs to all that God has promised.

All these things come to us, more or less obviously, from the hand of God. We might take credit for our friends, for our success—though we shouldn’t—but we sure can’t do that for most other blessings. As St. Paul said in his First Letter to the Corinthians, what do you possess that was not given to you? And if you possess it as a gift, why take the credit to yourself?

And so the next question arises: what do we give to God in gratitude for all he has given to us?

I don't suspect the three wise men are an easy act to follow... yet we're never empty handed: the wise men simply gave what they had; the gifts they placed before Jesus were simply symbols of who they were and what they had.

And we must do the same thing.

For starters, at Mass. So much of the symbolism of the Offertory is stolen by the collection! (Not that we plan to abolish it). The offering of money may seem to be the moment when we give back to God in gratitude... and so it is, to an extent. But the big moments are the procession of the bread and wine, and the offering of those gifts on the altar.

We lift up to God the gifts to be transformed into Christ's body and blood... but we lift up ourselves too, equally to be transformed in a different sense into the presence of Christ in our world.

That transformation should make us more grateful still, and eager to find ways of giving to others what we have ourselves received. The deep sense of volunteerism, by no means restricted to Christians, is something that arises from gratitude deep in the human spirit. How much more should we Christians seek to serve, we who have been so richly blessed with hope and healing by the revelation of the Word made human flesh?

And giving what we have received also means witnessing to our faith, sharing it with others, inviting them to discover more, reflecting in our lives and speech the wonders we live each week at Mass.

If I was translating today’s Gospel to someone today who had never heard of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I might rewrite the story like this: they knelt down and paid him homage. Opening their calendars, they offered him gifts of time. They told him of the people they had gently invited to the Alpha Course, and of the Monday evenings they’d spent cooking and cleaning up after the Alpha dinner.

Or they might tell of their efforts to help new parents prepare for the baptism of a child, or to share the Word of God with children or adults as a catechist.

If we understand the Epiphany in simple terms—what have I received, and what have I offered—the feast really doesn’t need a translator or a theologian. I know, for a fact, that everyone in the church this morning has received blessings from the Lord, even those who suffer, even those who may be somewhat on the outs with him.

And I know that you know—some may be more grateful and devout, some less naturally religious, but everyone here knows in his or her heart what I'm talking about: whether you're a new mother or father, a skier who just came back from Whistler, or just a prayerful soul who really felt the meaning of Christmas this year.

We know what we’ve got, and we know pretty much where it came from.

Like that Mountie and his guide, let’s bring Bethlehem closer to home. Each Sunday let us place before the altar, or place on the altar of our lives, some time, talent or treasure as our homage to Christ.

(The image above is from William Kurelek's beautiful book, A Northern Nativity.)