Sunday, March 27, 2016

Death Had Nowhere to Hide (Easter Morning)

I have a good friend who has a number of bright twenty-somethings working in his office. One of them asked him what he had planned for the Easter weekend.

“Church,” he said. “A lot of church.” 

“Really!” the young fellow replied. Well, yes, my friend told him, this is a big weekend for Christians. 

“As big as Christmas?” he asked with surprise.

“Bigger,” my friend said patiently, “Easter is the Super Bowl weekend for Christians.”

That’s not a bad shot at explaining the importance of this weekend to a non-believer. But where does one begin with believers? Every year priests preach about the Resurrection, but how often does our message come across as clearly as my friend’s words to his non-Christian colleague?

After all, every one of you already knows the basic story; and if by some chance you didn’t, the first reading gives you a summary—“they put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day”—and the Gospel fills in the details beautifully.

Our challenge is to go beyond the basic story so that we can understand what it really means. And that’s a lot tougher than pulling out a comparison to American football.

The Gospel today shows it can be hard to understand the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus, even for believers. John arrives at the empty tomb and, “he saw and believed.” However, the sentence continues: “as yet, they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

That’s a bit confusing. Some scholars think that John has a full-fledged faith in the Resurrection, even without seeing the risen Jesus. But other writers offer good reasons to think that St. John only has initial faith at this point. Maybe he simply believes that God has acted in some way. The form of the Greek verb “believe” can mean ‘began to believe’ and after all, it is John himself who has written that they did not yet understand the scriptural prophecies of the Resurrection. (Francis Martin, William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, p. 334)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the discovery of the empty tomb just “the first step for recognizing the very fact of the Resurrection”.

So even if everyone here believes the tomb was indeed empty on that first Easter, and even if no one believes that the body of Jesus had been taken away, as Mary Magdalene feared, we have some distance to travel before we can say we understand the meaning of this event.

When the Gospel account says the disciples did not yet “understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead,” it is referring to the Old Testament—to the prophecies of “the resurrection of the righteous, of God delivering his faithful ones from death, and of the vindication of the Suffering Servant” which we find in various places.

It wasn’t that they had missed a clear foretelling that the Messiah would rise again; rather they’d failed to grasp the whole of God’s plan for deliverance of his people (ibid.).

Even if we haven’t a doubt about the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, it’s quite possible we do not understand the consequences of the facts. We may have “initial faith.” Maybe we sincerely believe God has acted in some way, even a wonderful way. But we do not know what it’s got to do with us.

We need the Holy Spirit to lead us to a personal understanding of how the death and rising of Jesus matters to us individually. Every Easter we have a chance to discover or rediscover the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection in our lives.

Please don’t think that this is an impossible dream, something only for the pious. Just before Holy Week I was talking to a young parishioner, a man not unlike the clever twenty-somethings at my friend’s office.  His much-loved grandmother had been buried just a few days before.

He began by telling me about their last visit, as she lay dying in hospital. Driving home, heartbroken, he recalled the famous words of St. Paul “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” But he answered back “Right here God, right here.” He felt alone and angry, and frustrated by death.

When he learned in the middle of the night that his grandmother had died, he had the faith to pray for her and to ask God to have mercy on her. But he was still troubled.

However, when he got up for work the next morning he opened up the daily email sent out from Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” program, which suggested an activity every day in Lent. That day's was reading a passage from St. John: “In all truth I tell you, whoever listens to my words, and believes in the one who sent me, has eternal life….for the hour is coming when the dead will leave their graves at the sound of his voice:”

He found, in his own words “an answer to my prayer and some peace.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story any more than the disciples’ first look at the linen clothes was the end of the story. He read at the funeral Mass an Old Testament text that echoed the gospel message he’d been given in the email: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves….and you shall live.”

For what came next, I will let the young man’s own words tell the story.

“I looked up at my grandmother’s still coffin, at the head of which was the faintly flickering Easter candle. As my gaze broadened, I looked up to the altar and saw Father raising the consecrated host and declaring the foundation of our faith.

“At that moment, I looked back at the entire scene, and the whole of our Christian faith stretched out in front of me in divine juxtaposition.

“There was more life on that altar than there was in the entire church. As we went up to Communion, we passed the casket, united with my grandmother in her death, but, passing by the Easter candle, entering with her into life. There wasn’t a corner in that church where death could hide.

“In one week, my family and I experienced all of Lent and all of Easter. And God found a way to reach me as he always does. He reminded me of the “why” to our Christianity. I find it easy to get tangled up in small details or semantics of our Catholic faith, and it feels good to be stepping back this Easter and to just rest in the Lord. ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

That, dear friends, is what it means to understand the meaning and the power of the Resurrection. May we all be so blessed.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Baptism Calls Us to Martyrdom (Easter Vigil)

Tonight my words are all for you, Helen and Meghan, as you prepare for baptism. And for you, Andrew and Robin, candidates for full communion in the Catholic Church. And for you, Vincenzo, as you are confirmed and complete the sacraments of Christian initiation.

Everyone else here is just eavesdropping on us!

But you’ll need to be patient with me, dear friends, because I might disappoint you on this greatest of all nights. You might be expecting a message that matches your feelings, a festive homily full of the joy of this moment.

Instead, I am going to read to you from a handwritten letter written just three weeks ago. It’s neither festive nor joyful, at least in the usual way of thinking.

The letter is a report from the Missionaries of Charity—“Mother Teresa’s Sisters”— in Yemen. It begins in a very ordinary way: “Sisters had Mass, breakfast as usual. As usual Father stays back in chapel to say prayers then to fix things around the compound.”

“8 a.m.: Said apostolate prayer and then all five [Sisters] went to [the] Home.”

“8:30 a.m.: “ISIS dressed in blue came in, killed guard and driver. Five young Ethiopian men (Christian) began running to tell the Sisters ISIS was there to kill them. They killed them one by one. ”

“The Sisters ran two by two, because they have ladies and men’s home[s]. Four working women were screaming ‘Don’t kill the Sisters. Don’t kill the Sisters.’ One was the cook for 15 years. They killed them as well.”

The rest of the account is too painful to read. Four of the five sisters were murdered. The fate of the priest is still unknown.

You’re probably asking why I would dim the brightness of this holy night with such a story. Let me reply with a question of my own: “Why do you think these people were murdered?”

They weren’t murdered because they were Ethiopians. They weren’t murdered because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t shot and bludgeoned because they were Sisters.

They were murdered because they were baptized. Because they were Christians.

And that, dear Helen and Meghan, is what you are about to become. Christians.

Robin, Andrew and Vincenzo, you are already Christians. But you are about to become fully initiated—to move, so to speak, to the front lines.

Which leads to a question that would have seemed a bit silly even ten years ago, but which is very serious tonight: are you ready to be martyrs?

Are you ready to be witnesses—that’s what the Greek word martyr means—to the faith you will publicly profess tonight?

I can almost hear you thinking, ‘well, might as well say yes. Not very many terrorists in West Vancouver.’ But bearing witness doesn’t begin with facing terrorists; it begins with living our Christian life so faithfully that others can see us doing it.

The letter about the martyrs in Yemen makes a very interesting point. ISIS knew exactly how to find all the Sisters and the priest all at once: it was because they were faithful to their daily duties. ISIS knew just when they would say their prayers and just when they would leave the chapel to care for the sick.

You might wonder whether such faithfulness to routine was wise in a war zone. But the Missionaries of Charity see it very differently. In the words of the letter, “because of their faithfulness they were in the right place at the right time and were ready when the Bridegroom came.”

I do not wish you, dear friends, a martyr’s death. But as you step out in faith tonight, I do pray that because of your faithfulness to the Gospel you will always be in the right place at the right time, ready when the Bridegroom comes.

Because, as I’ve told you before, Christianity is a matter of life and death. The world has tried for centuries to water down the story, and to some extent it’s succeeded. But every Easter the Church reasserts that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Every Easter we proclaim that those who are united with Christ in a death like his will be united with him in a resurrection like his.

St. Paul tells us that this life and death story includes being dead to sin and alive to God. That is a glorious part of tonight’s liturgy—our passover from the darkness of sin into the light of life. The last of the Old Testament readings we heard contains a promise of deliverance, not only from slavery but from all our impurity, from all the idols that lead us along false paths.

We’re promised a spirit of truth that will help us follow the truth in how we live, the way that leads to life.

And all of this is anchored in the greatest life-and-death reality of all: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The angels ask the women a question that we must answer ourselves: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Despite the cruelest of tortures and an unjust execution, Christ lives. And because he lives, we live—for dying he destroyed our death, and by rising restored our life.

The story of Sister Anselm, Sister Marguerite, Sister Judith and Sister Reginette is not a story of death; it is a story of life—the same new life that Christ offers you tonight.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Crushed for the Sheep (Good Friday)

Pope Francis has told priests that they should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” That’s no great challenge to a pastor on the North Shore. The flock showers regularly and smells just fine.

But of course that’s not what the Holy Father is talking about. He’s calling priests to care deeply about what’s going on with those they serve.

He said we are “to rejoice with couples who marry; we are to laugh with the children brought to the baptismal font; we are to accompany young fianc├ęs and families; we are to suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds; we are to mourn with those burying a loved one” (Chrism Mass homily, 2015).

The challenging things Pope Francis says often make me feel uncomfortable. After all, my house is bigger than his and so’s my car.

But when it comes to caring about parishioners, my conscience is clear. When you rejoice, I rejoice. And most of all, when you suffer, I suffer.

I feel personally the anxiety of every unemployed parishioner. I share in the worries of parents about rebellious teenagers and kids who won’t come to church. I share the sorrow of penitents who can’t seem to kick a habit of sin. I grieve over the divisions in marriages and families. And I mourn the deaths of those whose funerals I celebrate.

Much as I dislike my habit of choking up in the pulpit, I’m sort of grateful for such concrete proof—for me and for you—that what I’m saying is true. In the Pope's words, I put my own skin and my own heart on the line in my ministry as a priest.

But this solidarity in suffering only goes so far.

If I shared your feelings completely, if I experienced your sins and sorrows to the same degree that you do, I would be crushed. I couldn’t begin to run the parish under that weight.

I’m sure you understand this. Common sense says that a priest must preserve some inner boundaries if he is to function in relationship to a community two or three hundred times bigger than a biological family.

So what has all this to do with Good Friday—with the crucifixion and death of our Lord?

I’ll tell you: our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, did not keep a boundary between us and him. He did not protect himself from being crushed by our sin and sorrow. He let it happen.

On the cross, he took on the full weight of all our suffering.

The Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that there’s a big difference between Jesus and every other priest. For one thing, he had no sins of his own for which to offer sacrifice; it was all about us.

At the same time, his sinless humanity was no obstacle to his solidarity with us. Earlier in the letter, the author reminds us that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (4:17a).

“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered,” the letter continues, “he is able to help those who are being tested” (4:18).

One scholar sums this up by saying that “Christians have in heaven a high priest with an unequalled capacity for sympathizing with them in all the dangers and sorrows and trials which come their way in life...” because Jesus, our brother, “was exposed to all of these experiences (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews).

Unlike any priest who ever existed, Jesus united himself with the sin and suffering of his flock. And he brought every bit of it to the cross.

Isaiah’s prophetic words in our first reading could not be any clearer: he was crushed for our iniquities. Crushed for my sins and yours. The punishment we deserved fell on his shoulders.

Let’s not forget that the infirmities and sorrows and sufferings that Jesus brought to the cross weren’t just our sins. Since all human suffering has its root in the sin of our first parents, he carried that too—every illness, every disappointment, every failure and, ultimately, death itself (since death too came into the world through sin).

Father Paul and I are deeply touched that the people of our parish are quick to share their problems with us—to ask for our prayers, to seek some comfort, to ask if we can lighten their load.

But first and foremost, we must all remember this central truth of Good Friday: that another priest, a perfect priest, has done much more than we could ever ask or expect. So we must “approach the throne of grace with boldness”—with complete confidence we should stand before the cross, even at this very moment, and find the help and strength we need in each and every difficulty of life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Email Flood is Drowning Us

I rarely use my blog to forward links to articles, but this one from the Harvard Business Review strikes me as very important. (Unfortunately, it does a better job of pinpointing the seriousness of the problem than it does resolving it.)

The writer diagnoses two ways in which email is harming productivity—and, much more important, harming us.

First, this incessant communication fragments attention, leaving only small stretches left in which to attempt to think deeply, apply your skills at a high level, or otherwise perform well the core activity of knowledge work: extracting value from information. To make matters worse, cognitive performance during these stretches is further reduced by the “attention residue” left from the frequent context switching required to “just check” if something important arrived.

The second harm is more personal. As more knowledge workers now acknowledge, the inbox-bound lifestyle created by an unstructured workflow is exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Humans are not wired to exist in a constant state of divided attention, and we need the ability to gain distance from work to reflect and recharge. Put simply, this workflow, which can transform even the highest skilled knowledge workers into message-passing automatons, is making an entire sector of our economy miserable.

The drastic solution he proposes—replacing email with other systems for workplace communication—is beyond what I could implement as a pastor or even at the Archdiocese. In fact, another HBR article argues against such extreme measures.

But I know I have to do something, since there’s no doubt in my case that the daily torrent of emails is “exhausting and anxiety-provoking” and that their portability gravely impairs my ability to reflect and recharge, as the first article suggests.