Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Vigil Makes Catechumens of us All

Father Giovanni started his homily on Holy Thursday by saying “On Sundays, I am nervous preaching.” He got a good laugh when he added “But tonight, I am one hundred per cent scared!

Tonight it's my turn to be scared—though perhaps not a hundred per cent—because Father Giovanni is a world-class expert on the Easter Vigil. Preaching in front of him on this subject is a real challenge.

There's a good reason a young priest knows more than I do about this subject: Father Giovanni belongs to a movement in the Church that is centered on the Easter Vigil. It’s called the Neocatechumenal Way. The movement began in the slums of Spain in 1964, spread to Rome by 1968, and is now found all over the world.

Neocatechumenal Way is a difficult name, but it describes a simple idea: namely, that every Christian, even the majority of us who were baptized as babies, needs to make the same journey of faith that our two catechumens, John and Jeannie, have made.

The movement is dedicated to “the rediscovery of Christian initiation by baptized adults.” (Statutes, art. 5, 1)

And so, not surprisingly, the Easter Vigil and its baptismal spirituality is the focal point of the Neocatechumenal Way, which proclaims that “the brilliance of the Sacred Triduum fills the whole liturgical year with light.” (Statutes, art. 12, 1)

Every Sunday celebration of the Neocatechumenal crowd mirrors the Easter Vigil—their Masses are held on Saturday night, and they are not short.  But their Easter Vigil itself is celebrated in its ancient splendour. There are no shortcuts: all the readings are read, and their liturgy tonight will begin well after ours has ended and continue until well after midnight.

In some places, it begins at midnight and ends at dawn, as it did in the early Church.

So if you want a taste of that, there's still time to join Father Giovanni—he's heading over town as soon as this Mass finishes.

If you are not hardy enough (personally, I'm not too likely to join a movement that starts Mass after my bedtime), I can offer you another opportunity to rediscover Christian initiation with the wide-eyed wonder of catechumens preparing for baptism.

I can offer you that opportunity tonight.

In the first place, you can join me in reflecting with fresh eyes and ears on the readings we've just heard . Let's take the time to step back and think about them like catechumens just waiting to be baptized. Because the readings were chosen for them—and we need to think like them to get the whole message.

Why did we start with a reading from Genesis, a long account of the creation of the world? Talk about starting at the beginning. The reason is clear enough: we're pondering the goodness of creation on the night when we celebrate the even greater marvel of re-creation in Christ.

We all know the part of the Genesis story that we didn't hear tonight: the fall of our first parents, the loss of Paradise, the sin that “brought death into our world, and all our woe,” as the poet Milton wrote.

The next reading, the story of Abraham and Isaac, draws us into the drama of the paschal mystery, which begins with the suffering and death of God's only Son. Abraham provides the catechumens with a model of obedient faith, calling them to sacrifice their will to God's will. 

More powerfully still, the story of Abraham and Isaac reminds us that God did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for us all, as St. Paul later writes in his Letter to the Romans. Baptism is just a ritual if we do not know “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death,” as Paul says in tonight's Epistle.

I preached on this connection between our baptism and Christ's death yesterday, Good Friday, but tonight our catechumens rejoice in the rest of the story: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Easter, for those preparing for baptism, is very, very personal; but so it should be for each one of us.

Most of us aren't quite as energetic as Fr. Giovanni—who, by the way, started attending the five-hour Easter Vigil with his family at the age of seven—so the Church allows us to omit some of the seven Old Testament readings tonight. But the instructions says that the third reading is never omitted. And it's obvious why that is: God saves the chosen people from death and slavery by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea; he does the same thing through the waters of baptism so that, as the Epistle says, “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Again I cheated a little in my Good Friday homily by quoting tonight's reading from St. Paul. But there was something I didn't say then that I will say now: the destruction of sin that Christ brought about through his suffering, death and rising is not a promise that we will be sinless people. 

I am sure that more than one newly-baptized person was deeply disappointed the first time he or she fell into an old sin.

What Christ destroyed was the power of sin. The freedom we receive through baptism is a freedom from the bondage and the deathly effects of sin. We remain sinners, but the enemy that is pursuing us no longer has the power to take us captive.

That's what our soon-to-be baptized brother and sister are singing in their hearts together with the prophet Miriam: we belong to the Lord and no longer to the Pharaohs of this world. We no longer rely on ourselves but on the Lord, who is our strength and our salvation.

Those of us who were baptized long ago need to reclaim the victory that is ours through the waters of rebirth. The passage of time should not dim the memory of what God has done for us, lest we go backwards and return to the slavery from which we have been set free.

That Exodus reading is my favourite, since freedom from the slavery of sin is so important to me and to many people with whom I pray. But the reading tonight from Isaiah would probably be my favourite if I was sitting in the pew, waiting for baptism, praying that the homily would end!

In the first place, Isaiah makes the catechumens salivate spiritually, if that's not an indelicate thing to say.  He awakens their appetite with images of food and wine, telling them the Paschal fast is over and the hour of baptism has arrived. But once the prophet has our attention, he creates a sense of great urgency—“seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.

That's no problem for John and Jeannie, or for Erin as she prepares for Confirmation and her First Holy Communion. But do the rest of us share their longing for the Lord's gifts—for the bread of his Word and the Bread of Life? Do we recognize that there is only one time that matters with the Lord, and that time is now?

Do we recognize that God's way is not our human way, or do we expect him to conform to our way of thinking?  The catechumens have chosen a different way; in the words of the poet Robert Frost, they have chosen to take the road less traveled. Are some of us too comfortable on the well-travelled road of the world?

About 1200 words ago, I said, “in the first place.” Well, I don't intend to continue our vigil until dawn, even if it would make Fr. Giovanni very happy. So I will give you the second place in very few words.

In the second place, we can all live the joy of the newly-baptized by one simple thing—by keeping in mind the fact that Christ has died, risen and will come again. We need to move the events of these three days from history to our hearts—daily, weekly and of course at this sacred time.

A final story illustrates this. We priests heard a fine talk on Wednesday from a young Dominican priest. He told the story of a conversation he had with a Moslem friend.

The Moslem asked him why he didn't join Islam.  Apparently that's a common question Moslems will pose even to Christian friends.

The Dominican didn't answer with elaborate words from St. Thomas Aquinas.  He said simply “because I'm a sinner.

“I'm a sinner, so I need a saviour. And Jesus Christ is the only one who died to save me.

That’s the kind of thinking that has brought our two catechumens to the baptismal font. And with such clarity of faith each and every one of us can rediscover the reality, the power, and the purpose of Easter.

Friday, March 30, 2018

We WERE There When They Crucified the Lord (Good Friday)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? 

That haunting question comes from an American spiritual that was likely composed in the nineteenth century by African-American slaves, people who knew a great deal about sorrow and suffering.

The power of the hymn is seen in an interesting fact: it was a favourite of the great Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi.

The hymn helps us to stand at the foot of the cross with Mary and Mary Magdalene and St. John, and to enter into Christ's passion not only with our heads but our hearts as well. 

The words "were you there when they crucified my Lord?" are so moving that I once gave an entire homily on them. But today I would like to change them from a question to a statement: you were there when they crucified the Lord.

Every man, woman and child in church this afternoon was there on Calvary--not standing at the foot of the cross, but hanging on the cross with Christ. We were there when they crucified the Lord.

That may sound surprising. But it comes straight from St. Paul. If you are lucky enough to be with us for the Easter Vigil tomorrow, you will hear him say plainly in the Letter to the Romans that "we have died with Christ."

The Apostle tells us that "our old self was crucified with him." Can we hear those words and doubt that we were there, that our humanity hung on the cross in Christ?

The Letter to the Hebrews explains how this is possible. In the second chapter, it says Jesus "had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest... to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people."

In today's liturgy the Letter to the Hebrews anticipates an objection. We think that Jesus, the great high priest, must be unlike us in order to offer himself on our behalf. It anticipates the reaction of the Jewish people, who read in the Old Testament that the priest had to be set apart so he could relate to God.

These reactions are understandable, today's reading from Hebrews says, but they are wrong. Our priest, though he is the Son of God, is human in every way that we are, though without sin. He shared our flesh and blood, our human nature, to make us truly his brothers and sisters.

And so, we were there. There in our weakness, there in our sinfulness, there in our human flesh. Jesus took it all to the cross.

If I have convinced you, if Scripture has convinced you, there's still a final question. What difference does it make that we were there, there in our old self that was crucified with him?

First, let me answer with exquisite words from St. Melito of Sardis, an Asian bishop of the second century.

"For the sake of suffering humanity [Christ] came down from heaven to earth, clothed himself in that humanity in the Virgin’s womb, and was born a man. Having then a body capable of suffering, he took the pain of fallen man upon himself; he triumphed over the diseases of soul and body that were its cause, and by his Spirit, which was incapable of dying, he dealt man’s destroyer, death, a fatal blow," the saintly bishop wrote.

What joy, then,  for us to be sharers in the cross of Christ--because it means we share also in his victory over sin and death, over fear and hopelessness.

At the Easter Vigil St. Paul has the last word on this. But I will give you a preview.  He writes that our old self was crucified with Christ for a reason: "so that our sinful body might be done away with" [NAB]. He died that we might be free, that "we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin" [NRSV].

We were there when they crucified our Lord. We were there when they laid him in the tomb. And we are there in his glorious resurrection, believing that if we have died with Christ we will also live with him, dead to sin and alive to God.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Non-homily for Palm Sunday (B)

I started to write a homily for Palm Sunday, but decided to take a different approach and ended up preaching without notes. But for those looking for some thoughts on yesterday's liturgy, I'm posting the homily I didn't deliver!

For many years I’ve heard the expression “we are Easter people and alleluia is our song.” And it annoyed me every time I heard it.  For some reason, it sounded like an advertising slogan or jingle.

But since the phrase came to my mind in connection with today’s homily, I decided to Google it and find out where it came from. I’m more than a little embarrassed to say that the first hit was St John Paul II – and even more embarrassed to admit that the second hit was St Augustine in the fifth century.

I guess there’s no accounting for tastes, and mine obviously aren’t that good.

But let me tell you why I was thinking about the phrase on Palm Sunday –  the Sunday when we read the account of the Lord's passion and think more about his suffering and death and than his resurrection.

Last week I opened for the first time a book that I bought, used, about 25 years ago.  It’s called The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, and it was written more than 50 years ago. The reason I turned to such a venerable volume was that there are very few books, even now, about the resurrection of Jesus – certainly far more has been written about his suffering and death.

In fact, the author of the book, a French Redemptorist named Durrwell, feared that we can almost forget that the resurrection is a necessary part of our redemption in Christ. Father Durrwell wrote that “there is a widespread idea that the resurrection is an epilogue – that the whole mystery of our redemption took place on Calvary.”

Partly because of the influence of his book, I don’t think that this idea is widespread among theologians anymore. But among ordinary Catholics like ourselves, it’s certainly a risk – which is why I was using a book about Easter while writing my homily for Passion Sunday.

I wanted to see if Father Durrwell would connect today's readings to the resurrection; and I was not disappointed. Actually, he doesn’t make the connection – he points out that Saint Paul does, in the second reading (Phil 2:6-11).

Here’s what he said “The Epistle to the Philippians, which gives the best account of the humiliations of the Son of God in the flesh, gives a parallel account of their repercussions in glory.”

The parallel is clear in the text we’ve just heard. The first two verses show how Christ’s humility and obedience lead him to the cross. But the next three verses– connected to the first by the word “therefore” – state that God has exalted Christ, making him the sovereign ruler of heaven, earth, and even the underworld.

We modern people have to struggle to get the full power of Paul’s description of Christ and glory. We have no great respect for rulers, and wouldn’t even think of genuflecting before them or bowing at their name. Paul, on the other hand, it’s writing at a time of absolute rulers who demanded absolute submission.

“The man who excepted humiliation of his own free will, is established at the very summit of creation, in the power and glory of God,” writes Durrwell.

Thus do we need to connect the painful story of the passion with the glorious exaltation of Jesus that completes the story for all time.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

It's All About Resurrection and Eternal Life (Third Scrutiny)

The morning paper has a story about a man who found his dream job. Rob Szpak was dazzled by a police dog when he was a kid, and now he runs the kennel for the Vancouver PD canine unit.

Not everyone loves their job. For centuries most people's work was too hard to love, and the hours too long. Now you meet many people who find meaning and fulfillment in their employment. Even social life can center on the workplace.

I hardly ever hear anyone point to the number one reason for going to work: to pay the bills.  To support yourself and your family. The primary reason is almost in the background.

The same goes for a house. Until modern times, only the rich saw their homes as places of gathering, of comfort and of status. For the vast majority, a house kept out the rain and sheltered from the cold. Now, we hardly think of those primary functions at all.

And, I am afraid, the same goes for the Church. We can focus on what is secondary to its mission, and ours. Parishes today are places of community, education, good works, and social life. The Church itself teaches wisdom on a host of subjects, ranging from the environment to family life. All good--indeed very good. But might we sometimes lose sight of what's most important of all, of the central reason and purpose of the Church?

Let's test this out.  I'll give you a few seconds to answer the question in your head. Why do I go to Church? What does my faith offer me?

I'm sure there are many good answers. But the perfect answer can only be "eternal life."  That's the answer our two catechumens gave during the rite that accepted them as candidates for baptism.

Today's Gospel puts aside all the good reasons to be Christian and reminds the catechumens and every one of us of the number one reason: to live forever. 

When's the last time you thought of that? Whether you are a young and healthy person, or a very old one with serious health challenges,  in today's Gospel Jesus  promises you the one thing that matters more than everything else: "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

The death of Billy Graham last month was front-page news. His preaching was fairly simple, and reached its climax with one question: "will you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?"

If you asked "Savior from who or what," Billy Graham might well have read you the story of the raising of Lazarus, in which Martha receives the promise of salvation on behalf of all of us.

And if you asked, "how do I know?", the famous evangelist could then have pointed you to what Jesus tells Martha : "I am the resurrection and the life." How do I know I will rise from death to live forever? Because Jesus rose first. 

This is our Q and A for the fifth Sunday of Lent. The Church invites those preparing for baptism--and every one of us who are already baptized--to turn to the fundamentals of faith.

It takes a long time to listen to the whole story of the raising of Lazarus, but only a sentence to sum up its lesson: Jesus promises that all who believe in him will live forever. When he makes that promise in Bethany, he secures it with the rising of Lazarus.

And when he makes the promise to us and all the world, he secures it with his own resurrection from the dead.

This is where a short homily would end. And it will, at the 11 o’clock Mass when we celebrate the third and final scrutiny with our two catechumens. But we have a little extra time, so let me add a secondary point.

We might ask ourselves why we fear death so much if we really believe that Jesus has conquered it. Do we lack faith?

The Gospel this morning doesn't suggest that Christians are supposed to laugh at death and deny its pain and sadness. We were created to live--as we know, God's original plan did not include death. So death remains something we naturally resist, even if our supernatural faith is strong.

Don't we see this in the tears Jesus sheds for Lazarus?

Don't we see this in the tears he sheds in the Garden of Gethsemani? Christ weeps not only about his passion, but about his death itself, despite his complete faith in the Father.

Shortly after the raising of Lazarus, Jesus contemplates his "hour," the hour of his death, and he says "Now my soul is troubled" (Jn. 12:27). And the Letter to the Hebrews says that he "offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death" (Heb. 5:7).

Our faith in Christ's resurrection, and in our own, gives us all we need to face death and sorrow with courage and hope; but it does not eliminate the sadness of death until we dwell in the heavenly city where  God will wipe away every tear and "death will be no more" (Rev. 21:4).

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Let's take the plunge (First Scrutiny)

I’m holding in my hand a lovely daily missal. It was printed when I was two years old, but the rite of baptism is exactly the same rite used when I was baptized.

I found three interesting things in the missal. The first was obvious: the sacrament was celebrated in Latin. But the other two were more remarkable. First, there was no special rite for an adult. More or less, an adult would be baptized in almost the same way as a baby.

And second, the missal makes it clear that the rite of baptism—taking perhaps fifteen minutes—was a boiled-down version of ancient ceremonies that developed during the centuries before infant baptism became the norm.

Even the short commentary in the missal swept me up into the drama of a baptism in the early Church, where a series of rites prepared the candidate for the amazing moment when he or she was baptized at the Easter Vigil. The rite for the baptism of infants seemed a very poor substitute for adults.

Happily, the Church eventually noticed the problem. In 1962, the Holy See provided new ceremonies for adults and began the restoration of the catechumenate, the period of preparation for baptism. Just a year later, the Second Vatican Council ordered further renewal of the rites of adult baptism and of the catechumenate.

Which brings us to the question: what does all that have to do with me? What does this mean for our parish in 2018?

You are about to find out. Because the renewal of the rites of adult baptism have as much to do with the parish community as they do with the person seeking baptism.

And because you’ve just heard one of the most obvious aspects of the reformed rites—the Gospel of the Samaritan woman, “the woman at the well.”

Other parishes, not blessed by someone seeking baptism at the Easter Vigil, didn’t read that story this morning. They listened to the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, with an entirely different message. But we are celebrating what’s called the first scrutiny, one of the restored rites for the Christian initiation of adults.

The scrutinies are rites that invite the catechumen—in our parish, John Lesow—to begin an intense process of self-searching and repentance. They are intended to strengthen John as he prepares for baptism—to deliver him from temptation, to help complete his conversion, and to ensure he perseveres in his decision “to love God above all.” (RCIA, 128)

At this Mass each Sunday we will offer special prayers for John, and I will bless him with a prayer of exorcism, praying he be freed from the effects of sin and given the grace of a pure heart.

And today and for the next two weeks, John and each of us will listen to the same three Gospels that the catechumens heard in the ancient Church on these Sundays of Lent.

Today’s gospel of the Samaritan woman shows us Christ, the living water that gushes up to eternal life. Next Sunday we read the story of the man born blind, in which Jesus reveals himself as the light of the world. And when we celebrate with John the third scrutiny, two Sundays from now, we will see Lazarus raised from the dead by Jesus, who reveals himself as the resurrection and the life.

As those three powerful stories enter deeply into our hearts, we will be praying for John to be filled with Christ, the living water, the light of the world, and the resurrection and the life. And we should—really we must—pray the same thing for ourselves.

Today we can ask whether the new life we received at baptism—as infants, most of us—is a gushing spring or a tiny trickle. If you’re in church this morning, the living water is probably still flowing, but is it really and truly satisfying your thirst?

I’ll give you a homespun example. A parishioner has a sauna at the back of his house, just above a stream that flows by his property. When he can’t take any more heat, he runs down to the stream to cool off. The only problem is that the stream’s only about two feet deep and he’s more than six feet tall.

So he has to lie down flat, which takes a lot of courage when the water’s freezing. I’m sure he’d love to build a dam—though he’d get in a lot of trouble—so that he could plunge into the water, so that he could be completely exhilarated by the experience.

Jesus wants our brother John and each of us to take the plunge, to be exhilarated by Holy Spirit and to experience deeply the Good News of our salvation. That’s the point of Lent, for both our catechumen and ourselves.

What Jesus promises the woman at the well is not a glass of lukewarm water in the heat of the noonday sun. It’s a cold, clear fountain of water that quenches her deepest thirst and hunger.

And what He promises the Samaritan woman he promises us.  If we’re not allowing the Holy Spirit to satisfy our thirst for joy, for peace, for clarity about our crazy lives, then we’re not drinking deeply from the well of salvation.

Let me close with the warning delivered in our first reading from the Book of Exodus.  Let’s look at the background to the angry complaining by the thirsty Israelites. Do you know the phrase “but what have you done for me lately”? That’s Israel’s complaint to the God who has delivered them from Egypt and given them victory over Pharaoh at the Red Sea.

That’s their complaint to God after he gave them fresh sweet water at Marah and Elim (Ex 15: 22-27), and quail and manna for forty years in the desert (Ex 16). Yet now they’re thirsty and quarrelling again.

It’s a bit ridiculous when you think about it, but I don’t really blame them—I confess that I sometimes find myself asking God “What have you done for me lately?”

The only answer God has to that is coming up fast—the saving passion, death, and resurrection of his Son, into which we are baptized and into which John will be baptized at the great and glorious Easter Vigil.