Saturday, February 15, 2014

Let's Not Cut and Paste the Gospel! (Sunday 6.A)

Thomas Jefferson was a remarkable man. He was a Founding Father of the United States of America, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third U.S. President.

It’s likely that Jefferson wrote some of the most famous words in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

And yet according to Wikipedia, Jefferson “owned hundreds of slaves and freed only a few of them.”

Another interesting thing about Jefferson was that he produced his own version of the New Testament.  In the days when “cut and paste” really meant cutting and pasting, he sliced up a Bible and glued the texts he wanted to keep into a book. He got rid of all the miracles, signs and anything that showed Jesus to be divine. (You can take a look at it here.)

The inconsistency between Jefferson’s professed opposition to slavery and his personal life is hard to figure. But his do-it-yourself Scriptures are very easy to understand. Even if most of us wouldn’t actually take an X-Acto knife to our Bibles, we’re tempted to edit it all the time.

Some of us have already cut-and-pasted the Word of God by ignoring teachings that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. And almost all of us take Jesus more seriously on some points than on others.

Today, the Church gives us a long version and a short version of the Gospel. I was very tempted to choose the short version, and not just because I’m still fighting the flu. The short version avoids some tough words of Jesus, words that might upset some folks.

It would be comforting to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson and edit the Scriptures. But it’s surely not what we want to do—because the Gospels aren’t mere words on a page, but an encounter with Christ in his living word. We can't “edit” that encounter to suit ourselves.

Years ago I read a book that said “The Scriptures offer no other basis for conversion than the personal magnetism of the Master.” It sounded good but something seemed missing. Then I realized that the magnetism is the magnetism of a teacher, a teacher like none other, a teacher who said outrageous things, who made outrageous demands, who asks us not merely to be attracted to him but to follow him even to the cross.

People in every generation failed at following Jesus.  Sin’s been with us from the start.  But many folks today redefine discipleship to suit their needs or convictions. Instead of acknowledging that we’ve been unable to meet the demands of Jesus, due to weaknesses that he understands well, we shout that the Church is out of step, or the Church is unfeeling, or the Church is oppressive.

A lot of the disagreement we have in the Church today is not so much about doctrine as about discipleship.  The wisdom of the world has caught our attention, and we fail to see that God's wisdom is not one choice among many, but a gift of truth that leads to freedom and peace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us at least four challenging moral teachings, depending how you count them. He tells us that anger and insults can be mortal sin. He tells us that we can sin gravely just by lustful thought. He abolishes the Jewish teaching on divorce by forbidding remarriage. And he calls Christians to a new standard of integrity when making promises.

I could give a homily on any of these, but most of us already know what these teachings are. My point today is more general: we are called to accept fully the authority of the Word of God in our lives.

This, of course, is not literalism or fundamentalism—otherwise we would be one-eyed and one-handed Christians after hearing what our Lord said in the Gospel today!

At the other extreme, someone might say “Well, since Jesus wasn’t serious about chopping off our hands, then maybe he didn’t mean what he said about divorce, either.”

Yet one of the graces we have as Catholics is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture by the Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has reflected on the words of Christ since he spoke them, and there are many places—the Catechism of the Catholic Church being one—where we can find that wisdom.

In computer terms, we may need Google to help us understand what pleases God, but we cannot cut-and-paste to please ourselves.

Jesus understood that we would sometimes fail to live according to what he taught, and he showed clearly on the cross and elsewhere that he is merciful. But if we want to be his disciples, we need to start by taking him at his word, not by doubting our duty to obey his commands.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Funeral Homily for Dr. Declan Lawlor, February 7, 2014

The presence in the church this morning of so many members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem is impossible to ignore. Although Declan was a man of many parts, his involvement and leadership role with this ancient Order was an important one.

At its beginnings more than nine centuries ago, the aim of the Order was to protect the shrines of the Holy Land and the pilgrims who visited them. Today it fosters the Christian life of its members, promotes the faith in the Holy Land, and helps to protect the Holy Places.

The male members of the Order are known as Knights, which struck me forcibly as I began to prepare this homily—because the title Knight differs greatly from similar honours. A King has a Kingdom to rule, a Prince a Principality, a Duke a Duchy—but a Knight has only a Lord to serve.

In the Middle Ages, such service demanded obedience and loyalty, even at the risk of life and limb.

But before loyalty could be sworn it was often tested. The first reading today speaks of those who “will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them.” (Wis. 3:5-6)

That Declan was tested by his illness is beyond doubt; that he was found worthy amidst it equally so, accepting with patience one setback after another, and faithfully coming to Mass each Sunday until it became literally impossible.

And once the Knight of old had proven himself, he did not then become a free-lancer—even that term springs from the medieval world. Sir Walter Scott used “freelance” to describe a mercenary: It didn’t mean his lance was available for free but that the warrior was not sworn to any particular Lord.

The true medieval knight placed himself at the service of only one Lord. A Knight could swear “fealty” to many different overlords, but gave “homage” to a single Lord, as he could not commit his military service to more than one. Such life and death commitments demanded obedience to the call.

Compare this ideal with what we heard a few moments ago in the second reading, from St Paul:

We do not live to ourselves,
and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord's.
(Rom 13:7-8)

That’s what chivalry looks like in the court of the King of Kings. Declan neither lived nor died to himself; for in another of his letters, St. Paul states flatly “you are not your own.” (1 Cor. 6:19)

This debt of loyalty, this willingness to serve, this sense that we are not our own—because we have been ransomed at a very high price, much like a captured warrior—is easy to paint with the colours of Knighthood and the ideals of chivalry. But that’s only because these were originally Christian ideals and a Christian code.

The fact is, everything I have said in connection with a knight can be said of any baptised person. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—and we are sworn to honour and defend it by our very baptismal vows, which are themselves promises of obedience.

St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us in his Spiritual Exercises that this means we should strive for a holy indifference. The Jesuit founder wrote “as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.”

“The same holds for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.” (n. 23)

And what is that end for which we were created, the ultimate purpose of life? The Gospel for this funeral Mass (Mt. 25: 31-46) supplies an answer: we were created to inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. The words of Jesus reveal clearly the sovereignty of God, the King of Kings, who will call the whole world to account. Jesus will return to reward the just, those who have lived the lives for which God made them.

In many aspects of his life, Declan lived according to the summary of Christian charity we heard in the Gospel: in his healing profession as a dentist, as a father and grandfather, and not least in his work to provide support and relief to our suffering brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

And we can make a final reference to the ancient code of chivalry: as I have already said, many aspects of it were inspired by Gospel teaching. The medieval Knight was sworn to come to the aid of the helpless and the vulnerable, and in modern society there are none more so than the unborn, whom Declan defended by his commitment to the pro-life cause.

Listening to the words of Jesus, we can have confidence that our brother will stand before the King of Kings with all the confidence of a Knight who fulfilled his sworn duties faithfully and well.

To conclude, I might note the Equestrian order has admitted women as full members for almost 150 years. Denise did battle with Declan not like the noble Ladies of old, left behind at home, but at his side throughout his life and illness, sharing his wounds and his worries.

No less than Declan did, she now must make the ancient motto of the Order her own daily prayer: Deus lo vult—God wills it.

We pray for you Denise, and for Tanya, Declan, Jill and the grandchildren, that your acceptance of this painful loss will bring you the peace that only God can give.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let Your Light Shine (Sunday 5A)

Russia has already won a gold medal at the Sochi Olympics—for the opening ceremony.

I hadn’t turned on a television since the day Father Xavier left for India, but completely by accident I caught the Sochi spectacle from start to finish.

As I watched, I felt sorry for South Korea, the next country to host the winter Olympics: it will be next to impossible to top this show.

At the same time, I felt a bit sorry for the Church. We believe Jesus is the Light of the World, but we have no fireworks. The most magnificent liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica doesn’t hold a candle, literally, to the Sochi pageant.

I felt sorry for the parish. Today’s Gospel tells us that each of us is also the light of the world, called to let our light—Christ’s light—shine for all the world to see. But we don’t even have a decent AV system, much less lasers and lights. It took more than twenty years to put a spotlight on our rooftop cross, thanks to a generous parishioner.

And I felt a bit sorry for myself. St. Paul, the great Apostle and teacher of the faith, says he came to preach in Corinth with fear and trembling, and without “plausible words of wisdom.” Where does that leave me, struggling to preach this morning?

Is it possible to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ in an effective way in a world that’s seen everything? How can a two-thousand year-old message be proclaimed with none of the things that I saw on TV Friday night?

I’m happy to say that a careful look at all three readings today gives us powerful answers to those questions.

First, the Gospel does have a supply of fireworks. Each believing Christian is a light ready to burst into the night sky of our darkened world. You are the light of the world, Jesus says—not as a compliment but as a mission. He tells us “let your light shine” so that others will see our good works and give glory to God.

As the final triumphant notes died out in Sochi, do you think there was massive conversion of TV-watchers, all wanting to become Russians? Even that brilliant glorification of Russian history and culture is most unlikely to have created a flood of applications for citizenship in the Russian Federation.

On the other hand, Jesus tells us, people will give glory to God if they see his light shining in us, particularly by the good things we do.

Sometimes you must feel that Christ the Redeemer Parish or the Archdiocese of Vancouver is one big second collection. Can’t we just worship God and leave our cheque books at home?

Yet the connection between charity and faith is unbreakable. Long before Jesus told us to let the world see the good works that our faith inspires, the prophet Isaiah told the people of Israel that their light “would break forth like the dawn” if they fed the hungry and clothed the poor.

Like fireworks, their light would rise in the darkness and brighten the shadows.

Some of us have the gift of answering questions about the faith, of engaging in good and respectful arguments that can change the minds and hearts of non-practicing Catholics or unbelievers. And some of us don’t. But Paul reminds everyone that Jesus Christ—indeed, the suffering Christ—is the starting point for all evangelization.

You don’t need to be a great debater to share the Gospel; sometimes it’s even a handicap. What you do need is to be salty—to show that the life of faith isn’t bland. What you need to be is bright—letting your face shine when you talk about the Lord or his Church.

Years ago I talked to a Catholic businessman in New York who decided to go to weekday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When the kiss of peace came, there was no-one in the pew beside him, so he turned around and found himself shaking hands with his boss! Neither knew the other was Catholic.

That shouldn’t happen. I’m pleased to say I kept in touch with that man, and there’s certainly no-one in his office today who doesn’t know him to be a man of faith.

And, of course, people called to be light to the world must let their light shine in the darkest places: places of poverty, disaster, and persecution. This we have done and are doing in our parish, even to the point where it can feel like a burden.

Yet each time our volunteers make a sandwich for the needy, each time we support another of those second collections, each time we show care and concern for the sick, each time we rally around someone in any kind of trouble, people have the chance to see our good works—and to give glory to our Father in heaven.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Thousand Thousand Points of Light (Presentation of the Lord)

Many of our parishioners are turning their attention south of the border today as our neighbours in Seattle set their hopes on the Super Bowl. I’m not paying much attention myself, since I hardly know the difference between a quarterback and a flashback.

But I did have the U.S. on my mind as I prepared my homily, because today’s Feast of the Presentation brought to mind the inauguration speech of President George H. Bush in 1988. In that speech, President Bush used the phrase “a thousand points of light,” comparing community organizations to stars spread throughout the country, doing good.

It turns out that the words come from the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis. In The Magician's Nephew, wrote: "One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out."

Today’s Gospel doesn’t talk about a thousand points of light, but only one: Jesus Christ, who is the light of the nations (cf. Lk 2:32).  Elsewhere, St. John’s Gospel tell us he is the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 9:5), the light of life (cf. Jn 8:12), the light that shines in the darkness (Jn 1:5), the true light that enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9).

Today is a good day to pause and ask ourselves whether knowing the light of Christ makes a difference or whether it’s just a beautiful religious image: because the question has been on the table since the First Sunday of Advent. On that first day of our liturgical year, the prophet Isaiah urged us “let us walk in the light of the Lord!” We also read St. Paul’s words “let us lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light.”

And of course Christmas challenged us further. At Midnight Mass we heard that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2) and we were reminded in the Gospel for the Mass during the day that the Word made flesh is “the light of the human race” (Jn 1:4).

Two months after the start of Advent and five weeks after Christmas, let's take stock. Is there still some darkness in our lives that’s waiting for the light to overpower it (cf. Jn 1:5)? Are we walking by the Word of God, allowing it guide our decisions like a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, as the psalm says (Ps 119:105)?

Often we think that we need to overcome the areas of darkness in our lives. That’s a bit like trying to get rid of the darkness in a room by vacuuming it. There’s only one way to remove darkness, and that’s by admitting the light.

We let the light shine in our hearts first by the sacraments. Confession turns the lights on in even the deepest shadows, while receiving the Eucharist fills us with the divine Presence. Prayer—especially prayer with Scripture—also banishes the night, because the power of the Word of God exposes to the light everything that’s hidden in our heart (cf. Heb 4:12-13).

But what’s true for us as individuals is also true for the whole world. In today’s Gospel, the elderly prophet Simeon proclaims Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”: in other words, a light for all nations, not only Israel—a light for everyone.

In his first audience of 2012, Pope Benedict underlined that this light shines on all humanity. “Christ’s coming,” he said, “dispels the shadows of the world.”

But here we’re confronted by a big question. How does this happen? How does the light shine on every person?

Our Pope Emeritus answered this by challenging individual Catholics not only to be transformed by Christ’s gift of light but to share it with the world. He invited  the whole Church, and each one of us, to become more aware of the mission and the responsibility we have to bring the new light of the Gospel to the world.

And that’s why today’s feast made me think of a thousand points of light. At Easter, we sing “Christ our light!” as we raise high the paschal candle. A single flame is shared passed through the pews until the whole church glows with light.

Before I talk about the wonder of this, I should mention that I spoke in a homily at the school Mass about how poorly I did in math and science. Afterwards, a parent said “I wish you wouldn’t do that!” When I asked why, she said “because you can be sure that the next time I tell my son to buckle down to his math homework he’ll say, ‘but look how well Monsignor managed without it’”!

So cover the children’s ears for a moment. I’m still so poor at science that one small flame increasing to a blaze is almost a miracle to me! But even if you do understand the physics, it’s a wonderful symbol of how Christians work to banish darkness in the world.

As we share the good news one-on-one, the flame spreads. We become points of light—not a thousand, but a thousand thousand (whatever that is, I told you I was no good at math). The true light that enlightens each person will spread from heart to heart.

The physics of flame may confuse me, but nothing could be simpler. First we make sure that the light burns brightly within us, and then by personal, gentle and dedicated evangelization we offer that light to others.