Sunday, May 12, 2019

Many Things on Mother's Day!

My aunt Denise spent a couple years as a religious Sister before she married and raised six kids. One day I was sitting with her in the kitchen as the sounds of fighting children came up from the basement.

She grinned at me and sighed, "I should have stayed in the convent."

Of course she was only kidding. But just in time for Mother's Day, I stumbled across a new book about women who do wish they'd never had kids.  It's called Regretting Motherhood: A Study, and it interviews with women who see no advantages in motherhood, or who judge that the negatives outweigh the positives.

It's a funny book to talk about on Mother's Day, but it helped me think not only about mothers but about fathers and even God himself.

It brought to mind two points.

The first is that that love can be a choice. None of us is lovable all the time--and yet our parents keep loving us, at least most of the time. Even the women in the book Regretting Motherhood seem to keep loving their children, despite their quiet regret.

The women in the book are a small minority for whom I feel sad, but they are heroes in their own way--I only read a short summary of their interviews, but it seems they care for their children much like other mothers. Making up your mind to love when you don't feel like loving is a tremendous thing.

And the second point is that love can be messy sometimes. Mothers aren't perfect. Children aren't perfect. Feelings, too, can be flawed and confusing.

Oddly enough, these thoughts turned my mind to today's Gospel. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep because they're his. He protects them because the Father entrusted the flock to him. What belongs to the Father belongs to the Son.

A sheep who strays doesn't forfeit God's love any more than a child forfeits a mother's love. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, who writes "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you."

God's love for us is a perfect love. But in the messy realities of a sinful world, he expresses it through imperfect people, particularly our priests, whom we think about on Good Shepherd Sunday. They are ordained to tend his flock, but sometimes they nod off, and in the worst cases even join the wolves.
Yet the deeper reality is there despite the confusion and sin of life, despite priestly and parental failures. The second reading reminds us that the Lamb of God is the real shepherd of the flock, the unfailing guide to springs of water and of life.

Somehow God is there amidst the sorrows and pains all of us experience some of the time, standing by to wipe away every tear, like a caring mother does for her child.

We face a challenge as members of Christ's flock and as members of human families. We need to live with our own human imperfection and with all human imperfection--without losing touch with the love that is all around us, sometimes unseen. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Because if our parish, the archdiocese and the universal Church aren't about Jesus, they're not about anything worth supporting, especially at a time of so much public failure and scandal.

This Sunday we kick off our annual Project Advance campaign.  This year's parish theme, "Open Wide the Doors to Christ," is connected to some of the things I've just said. 

In the first place, the theme reminds us of our desire to open the doors of welcome to all. The campaign will support Alpha and other ways we invite people to walk in and feel at home here.

In particular, we want young people to feel at home in the parish, so one of our major projects is refurnishing and refurbishing the youth room and adding modern audiovisual equipment.

In the second place, this year's Project Advance will open the door of generosity to a flock that's larger than our parish or even our Catholic community. We will make a grant to Harvest Project, the North Vancouver charity that offers "a hand up rather than a handout." We will give an equal amount to L'Arche Vancouver, in memory of L'Arche's founder Jean Vanier, who died this week.

And to express our commitment to the protection of the unborn and vulnerable, we will be making a donation to National Campus Life Network, which helps educate university students to deal with the so-called "pro-choice" arguments that dominate their campuses.

Finally, our theme of "Open Wide the Doors to Christ" was chosen to connect with our most visible project for this year: replacing the aging outside doors of the church, and adding window panes to all interior doors.

The new front doors are a necessity, since they are weathered and worn out. But completing the job of adding windows on all inside doors is both practical and symbolic of the need for a new spirit of transparency in the whole Church.

We'll talk more in the coming weeks about all the good your contribution to Project Advance does throughout the Archdiocese, but charity begins at home so I wanted to start with our own projects. There's lots more information about this in the bulletin and on the website.

Speaking of the bulletin, it has an insert with the annual financial report for the parish. We can't expect your support for Project Advance without showing you how money is spent at Christ the Redeemer, not to mention demonstrating our financial needs.

If you look at the report, you'll see that we are more than $700,000 in the hole! But don't be thrown by that for a second. Almost every penny of that was our contribution to the reconstruction of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and we had it already in the bank--thanks, in no small measure, to your past generosity to Project Advance.

If you have any other questions about the report, one of the finance council members or I would be more than happy to provide an answer.

I don't want to exhaust you by talking about so many things at once, but I have one final word about money. And, as always, it's not really about money--it's about an aspect of the Church's mission of which money is necessarily a part.

I'm referring to the fact that we have a second collection today for the Work of Vocations.
Today is not only Good Shepherd Sunday but also the world day of prayer for vocations. Support of the second collection, which helps educate future priests for the Archdiocese, comes second to prayer for them, but both are important. 

Rebuilding the Church will take a new generation of shepherds who will carry on Christ's work of guiding and guarding his flock. No present discouragement should overshadow our confident prayer that the Lord will give us such shepherds, formed in his own likeness.

The Church can disappoint us or weary us. Sometimes we have to choose to express our love for her. But like those disappointed mothers I mentioned at the beginning, we can make that choice, trusting that there’s something here much bigger than our feelings.

And on this Mother’s Day, let’s thank God—and our mothers—for their choice to love us.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Alpha or Else? (Easter 3.C)

Being defensive is one of my worst faults. I find it hard to take criticism.  But I got a complaint on Wednesday that made me smile. 

“It’s creepy how much you guys promote Alpha—sort of like Scientology!”

He said it with a smile, which helped.

The fact is, I was happy to hear someone react to our constant talk about Alpha—it means the message is beginning to be heard, even if not everyone’s pleased to hear it.

And this good-natured criticism from a new parishioner reminded me that both new and old members of the congregation deserve an explanation for the emphasis our parish places on Alpha.

So today, I am going to explain why Alpha is so important. 

It won’t sound much like a homily, but in a way I’m preaching on one sentence from the first reading: “we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

First, let me give you some background to the question “why are you always talking about Alpha?”

In 2012, the Archbishop followed the example of Caesar Augustus and decreed a census. But it was a very different census from the one that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem—it was a head count of all those attending Mass on two given Sundays in October. It’s been taken every year since.

That year, an average of 959 people came to Sunday Mass in our parish. Six years later, in 2018, the number was 763. That's a decrease of 20%.

Let’s look at the figures for just one year. In 2017, we had 813 at Mass; when we compare that to the 763 who attended in 2018, we see a drop of 5% in one year.

These declines may not seem drastic, since we spread out in the pews and enjoy more parking spaces.

It’s possible, perhaps, that the numbers are a just a result of housing prices and young people moving away. Maybe we’re really a thriving parish that just has to downsize and accommodate ourselves to changing demographics..

But I’m afraid there’s another set of numbers we have to deal with: the results from the ME25 survey we conducted in March. That professional survey was designed to measure member engagement—which is another term for the spiritual health of our parish.

The key result? Less than a third of our parishioners are engaged. Fully half are not engaged, and one in five is actively disengaged.

I can also give you those numbers as percentages. Twenty-eight percent of the members of our parish are engaged, 51% are disengaged, while 21% are actively disengaged.

Now don't panic—disappointing as those figures are, they’re fairly typical for both Catholic parishes and other churches overall. 

But think what it means: fewer than one in three members of Christ the Redeemer can be described as strongly connected, spiritually committed and—here’s where Alpha comes in—likely to invite friends, family members, and coworkers to parish events. Because thats what engaged means.
The survey got very specific on this last point. People were asked to respond to the statement “In the last month, I have invited someone to participate in my parish.” Forty-six percent strongly disagreed. Nine percent strongly agreed. And these results are not typical of other parishes, where the figures were significantly more encouraging.

I hope it’s becoming clear why Alpha looms so large in the parish plan. First, because we need to do something. But also because Alpha works.*

Father James Mallon, who wrote the book Divine Renovation, puts it this way: there may be a better tool than Alpha, but I haven’t found it yet. (cf. Divine Renovation, 142)

Until something better comes along, Alpha’s our best hope and the simplest way we can do something to change our parish and change our world by sharing the Good News with those who haven’t heard it.

We invite family and friends to Alpha because we are witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus, like Peter and the Apostles in the first reading. That’s what the Alpha film series is all about: the core message of Christianity.

Bringing people to Alpha is a concrete and practical way to obey the final commandment Jesus gave to his Church and every one of the baptized: “Make disciples of all nations...” (Mt. 28:19)

Last and least, the only way to reverse the decline in the membership of our parish is by inviting people to “come and see” what Jesus is doing here.

I hope I have made the “four-e” case for Alpha: it’s an effective and easy way to become engaged and to evangelize. But I do have something to say to the fellow who finds such a strong case a bit “creepy,” and to anyone else who worries that we oversell Alpha.

Although promoting something urgent has to be focused and frequent, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s “Alpha or else”!

It’s not.

Of course you can share your faith in numerous ways other than Alpha. Some of our parishioners have a tremendous gift for giving personal witness to Christ, even with strangers.

Of course you can invite people to Mass, especially at Christmas. One of the women I baptized at Easter began her journey when coworkers asked her to come with them to Midnight Mass.

But one-on-one evangelization is challenging for most of us—a lot more challenging than inviting someone to an Alpha dinner or coming out to help.

And of course you can offer your daily sufferings and prayers for the work of evangelization, especially if life is demanding and you have few opportunities to invite someone to Alpha, much less volunteer.

So it’s not “Alpha or else,” even if our enthusiasm sometimes makes it sound that way. What I have tried to get across is that doing something to share your faith, whether it’s through Alpha or not, is a duty. An obligation. A Christian commitment.

Hearing that is really what can rattle people, I think. Alpha just makes our duty hard to ignore, because it offers such an easy way to fulfill it.

An American pastor once said “if our vision is not so big that it scares the living daylights out of us, it may be insulting to God.” (Divine Renovation, 282)

I may have scared the fellow who fears we are secret Scientologists. But I know we have not insulted God by embracing a vision big enough to live up to our Christian call, change our Catholic culture, and renew our parish.

Because “we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Since 2012, we’ve welcomed over 1200 guests. Last year’s post-Easter Alpha attracted 150, and the current Alpha has 100—more of them unfamiliar faces than in the past.

We have three whole tables of younger adults, and 38 guests identified themselves as “searching/spiritual/skeptical" versus Catholic, a clear indication that this Alpha is starting to draw in "unchurched people and non-Catholics.”

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Promises Are Personal

Throughout Holy Week, many journalists connected the smoking rubble of Notre Dame to Easter. In a splendid editorial, the National Post observed “The joy the world felt at Notre Dame’s survival… is just a taste of the joy and thankfulness all Christians will know this Holy Week.”

I give these writers, especially in the Post, full credit for their efforts.

But today, fresh images of disaster replace those from Paris. Now our screens and newspapers show us something far worse than the Notre Dame fire—churches in Sri Lanka bombed just as our brothers and sisters gathered to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord.

This targeted attack on three Catholic churches in three different cities, along with bombs in luxury hotels, has already taken more than 200 lives, with numerous more injured.

All of a sudden, a burned building in Paris seems a weak metaphor for Easter faith.

The deaths of so many Christians this Easter Sunday is far more sobering than Monday’s fire—we’re no longer talking about a church rising symbolically from the ashes, but about people rising from the dead.

The families of those killed in Sri Lanka will surely draw strength from the Resurrection of Christ. They came to church to hear that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,” as St. Peter preached in the first reading.

They were ready to profess the Creed, in which we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of our own bodies—the belief that we also will rise from our graves on the last day.

These truths are light in darkness, and surely great consolations for those who mourn. But there is more, other consequences of the first Easter morning that are connected not only to times of tragedy but to our whole outlook on life.

The title of a book by Anglican priest Fleming Rutledge captures what we’re dealing with. It’s called The Undoing of Death. A parishioner gave me the book two years ago, and it’s shaped how I look at Easter ever since.

We need such books, because we can’t just listen to this morning’s Scripture readings; we need to unpack them. We don’t just need to believe them, we need to apply them to our individual lives.

That was how Father Giovanni approached Good Friday in his very fine homily. He stressed that no matter what is troubling us, we can take it to the Cross of Christ; we don’t need to bear our crosses alone, because Jesus bore our crosses as he carried his.

While I listened, I thought “he’s talking to me about how I’ve been feeling lately.” Then I talked yesterday to a parishioner who is caring for a sick family member, even though he’s ill himself. He said “that homily spoke right to us and our crosses.” Someone else said she hoped a friend struggling with depression was listening to the homily.

The truth is that the Resurrection is every bit as personal as the Crucifixion. Jesus not only bore our sins, he shared his victory with us—not only in the general resurrection of the dead, still to come, but here and now, in our particular needs and circumstances.

Fleming Rutledge exclaims “Changed! Our sinfulness exchanged for his righteousness, our mortality for his immortality, our sorrow for his joy, our bondage for his freedom, and our deteriorating human body for an altogether transformed one…”

She asks a question that each of us must answer: “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

And she answers: “On the contrary, we can scarcely begin to imagine it, for it does not come from human imagination but from God. All our sins wiped away, all evil done to death forever, the devil and his hosts destroyed, our loved ones restored to us, all the injustices and wrongs of human history made right in a new heaven and a new earth.” [p. 247]

I confess that I can be a bit black and white about some things. But it does seem to me that you can’t dodge the question this morning. You can, of course, deny the fact of Christ’s Resurrection, although the prophets foretold it, witnesses beheld it, and both Peter and Paul proclaimed it.

We are free women and men, and if we choose not to seek the things that are above, no one can force us. But it ought to be a conscious choice. Given all that’s promised this Easter Day—righteousness, immortality, joy, freedom from bondage, and a transformed body, how can we not at least look for an answer to the question, “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

Perhaps before now you’ve never thought very much about the consequences of Easter—what Jesus rising from the dead can mean for you personally. Maybe you’re a non-Christian visiting us, or a Catholic who was never given the chance to explore what Easter really meant for you personally.

It’s a bit tough to sort it all out on Easter morning. That’s why we invite you to share Easter with us in a more relaxed setting—but with the energy and excitement that Peter and John and Mary experienced at the tomb of Jesus.

We’re inviting you to attend an Alpha evening here this Thursday, April 25. Alpha begins at 6:30 with dinner followed by a lively film that introduces the big picture of Christian life.  No pressure, no preaching.

You can pick up an invitation at the table in the foyer. It comes from a community of friends that doesn’t want to push anything on you, but to help you find the answers to your own questions, and to discover how Easter can be a 24/7, 365-day blessing for you, whatever your particular hopes, fears, or needs may be.

Alpha costs nothing and expects nothing from you. But you can expect a chance to look for answers to your questions, and to the big question of Easter:  “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?”

This morning, I can’t imagine anything more terrible than sitting in church as hateful terrorists kill or injure those gathered to celebrate God’s love and mercy. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine anything better than the faith that promises hope and healing in this world, and life forever in the next.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil: A Tour of Unseen Realities

Eight weeks ago today, I marveled, not for the first time, at the magnificence of the cathedral church of Notre Dame in Paris. I gazed at the glorious rose windows, at the lofty gothic arches, and admired the statues.

But there was something hidden that I didn’t see, that almost no one saw until the tragic fire on Monday—the wooden beams that held up the roof. They were concealed from view, though they’re famous now for fueling the flames.

The beams were put in place eight hundred years ago, each made from a single tree, 13,000 of them. No forest in France contains such trees today.

As we know, the stone walls of the cathedral survived the destruction of the roof, and Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, rebuilt and strong.

No-one but historians and architects will really mourn the loss of all those unseen beams. But we should: they are a reminder of the invisible things that make visible things strong and durable.

Tonight, the Church gives us a tour of  the framework of our salvation. We know well the main story—the triumphant resurrection of Jesus is as central to our faith as Notre Dame to the city of Paris. 

But there are other stories that connect to Easter, and by listening to them we understand that God’s plan, however simple in its essentials, is far more glorious than the most magnificent of cathedrals.

The liturgy at this great Easter Vigil could easily begin where we left off on Good Friday.  Jesus has died, now let us hear the Gospel of his Resurrection. Yet the Church makes us wait for the whole story, and invites us to wonder as we wait.

Paying no attention to our impatience, the readings began at the dawn of creation—with the goodness of creation, the first expression of God’s love for us.

We responded in song, praising God for his works and wonders. But the psalm’s antiphon, “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth” expresses the fact that what God created needs renewal: a new creation is called for.

The second reading presents the source of the new creation: it will be a sacrifice. The sacrifice of an only son.

That’s enough to make us afraid, so in the psalm we renew our confidence in God, who will keep us safe and strong, and bring joy regardless. God kept his promises to Abraham, and he will keep his promises to us.

The third reading offers further encouragement to the hesitant and fearful.  God not only keeps his promises, he keeps them with power and might. We’re not part of a TV show called Survivor; a reality show about Christians would be called Victor.

Our fourth reading moves from history to our own hearts. Isaiah invites everyone here tonight to take stock. Are we thirsty and hungry? The prophet knows that only the foolish are fully satisfied with life; he promises on God’s behalf what the heart most longs for—a relationship that fulfills our deepest desires and answers our most troubling questions.

We use Isaiah's own words in response—we “will draw water joyfully from the spring of salvation.”  Lowering our buckets into the well of salvation is the source of the greatest joy imaginable. Tomorrow I will invite our many Easter visitors to experience that joy, by putting Alpha on their bucket list—not for the future, but for this coming Thursday.

I will promise them the joy that comes from knowing Jesus if they will take the simple step of seeking the Lord while he may be found, in an evening of welcome, fellowship, and hope in God.

I don’t need to talk much about that tonight, because three of our five catechumens and confirmation candidates, attended Alpha, heard an invitation from Jesus, and came to know him better through the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA. These three—and many others—can tell you about the joy of drinking living water from the well of salvation.

Not all of us have quenched our thirst with Christ, but our final Old Testament reading brings everyone God’s promise of water that washes us clean. The cleansing water of baptism brings a new heart, a heart that beats with love for God and neighbour. Ezekiel speaks God’s promise of a new spirit that helps us live a new life according to God’s commands.

The psalm that follows is not triumphant like Miriam’s song after the crossing of the Red Sea; it’s not the loud shout of joy we sang in response to the promise of thirst-quenching and hunger-satisfying blessings.

No, our last response to this forest of Old Testament scriptures is that of a panting deer, at the edge of the babbling brook that will bring relief from exhaustion. 

Dear catechumens, you are almost there! You have a right to be a bit weary, a bit impatient. But very soon you “will go to the altar of God”; very soon you will be baptized and confirmed and receive the Eucharist for the first time.

I dare not hold you back any longer from the saving water of baptism, from the strengthening oil of confirmation, and the living bread of the Eucharist.

Let me just end by proclaiming that the sturdy oaks of the Old Testament are timbers that hold up the indestructible structure of the Resurrection of Christ, in which God’s creation is refashioned and his promises fulfilled. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What was most precious in Notre Dame? (Holy Thursday C)

As the flames licked through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday, firemen and others formed a human chain to rescue precious relics and other treasures of the ancient cathedral.

Most valuable of them all, in more ways than one, was the Crown of Thorns, said to have been worn by our Lord during his Passion.

Obviously, this relic is precious first and foremost because of its association with the suffering of Jesus. The Crown of Thorns was placed on Christ’s head in ridicule but became a symbol of his nobility and triumph.

But there is a more worldly reason why saving this relic was an obvious priority for those rescuing the priceless contents of the cathedral. Although a sacred relic, properly speaking, cannot be bought, the Crown of Thorns cost Louis IX, now known as St. Louis of France, what might now be called a king’s ransom – more than his own weight in gold.

The relic had been pawned as collateral for a massive loan to the Latin emperor of Constantinople, who was eager for closer ties to France. So, King Louis paid off the loan and took ownership of the Crown of Thorns.

I’m telling you this story to show that nothing movable in the great cathedral had greater religious, historic, or even monetary value. Nothing, that is, other than a metal container filled with flat wafers of unleavened bread.

Not bread, of course. Consecrated Hosts, kept in a tabernacle for distribution at Mass and to the sick. Those Hosts, the Body of Christ under the appearance of bread, dwarfed everything and anything else that could be found inside Notre Dame.

The fire department chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier, is heralded as a hero for his role in removing the sacred Hosts from the burning church. The newspaper says that his glasses even reflected the orange flames.

In the middle of flames and falling debris, he took the time to lift high the Eucharistic Presence and bless the burning church with it, praying that the Lord might help those seeking to save God’s house.

The story stirs the hearts of believers and may well even inspire some unbelievers. For me, however, it’s not really surprising, and it’s not really new. Father Raymond de Souza tells a similar story in yesterday’s National Post, though I have to tell you, I already knew it and intended to share it tonight before he beat me to it!*

It’s the story of the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Paul Comtois. When his official residence caught fire, he did the same thing as Father Fournier. Since there was a chapel in the mansion, after making sure his family was safe, he returned to the building to remove the Eucharist.

“He made it to the tabernacle and removed the Blessed Sacrament, but died as he left the upper floor, the stairway collapsing around him.”

Father de Souza calls him “a martyr for the Eucharist”.

I’m sure there are many who’d call him a fool. But they don’t believe what we are celebrating tonight, namely, that “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘this is my Body, that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

We are here because we believe what Jesus said when he told his disciples “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”. And we hold fast to his promise that “whoever eats of this bread will live forever”.

We, for whom these truths are central to our faith, and to our very being, understand well the heroism of Father Fournier and the Honourable Paul Comtois.

We may not be called to give our lives for the Blessed Sacrament. But we are called to live our lives for the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist calls us to action. Receiving Holy Communion is not a passive thing, like taking medicine. Rather, we enter into a communion of charity not only with God, but also with our brothers and sisters – not only those with whom we gather at Mass, but all those who need our love and care.

Given all the wonders the Eucharist contains, and the rich accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I marvel every Holy Thursday that the Church chooses to read St. John’s version of the story. No bread. No wine. The only detail is the washing of feet and the lesson of charity, forever connected to the Lord’s gift of himself in the Eucharist.

Rarely do we find ourselves called to wash one another’s feet. But just about every day we’re called to acts of service that we find irksome, or to put up patiently with people it would be easy to dismiss or reject.  

No doubt the people who built the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris had many motives. But at the top of the list was surely the belief that what happened inside more than deserved the majestic beauty its architects achieved.

We live in a different age. But we too are called to build a temple in which the Lord can dwell and be glorified. We build it with the same faith as medieval Christians, but instead of stone, mortar, and marble, we build it with charity – with our care for the poor, the sick, the dying, the disagreeable.

And all because we believe. 

On this sacred night, we celebrate what we believe, and recommit ourselves to the great construction project of Jesus, in whom we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (cf. Ephesians 2:22).

*A footnote: Father de Souza also tells the story of the 1823 fire at St. Paul's Outside the Walls - I lived across the street from the basilica during my years as a seminarian. That, too, was a story to which he beat me! If he wasn't so much smarter than I, I would risk the old line about "great minds thinking alike"... 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

What do the movies Peggy Sue Got Married, X-Men, Men in Black 3, Star Trek IV, and Back to the Future have in common?

The same thing the novels A Christmas Carol, Rip Van Winkle, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban have in common.

They all feature time travel, a popular device in film and fiction.

Time travel overcomes the limits of reality. Like the ancient human desire to fly, time travel frees us from one of the basic limitations of existence—and least for as long as it takes to finish the book or movie.

There’s precious little chance that science will ever make it possible for us to travel in time. But the spiritual life does; in fact, the Christian regularly lives events of the past and even of the future.

We’ve just listened to the Passion—not to be reminded of a story we all know, but to enter into the story.

We’re about to begin a week in which we are invited to share in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus—not as spectators, but as participants.

In the fourth century, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote “let us take our part in the Passover… not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect wat, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally.”

“If you are Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God.”

“If you are Joseph of Arimathea, go… ask for Christ’s body. …”

St. Gregory continues his invitation. “… bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning.”

And it’s not only the Gospel that allows us to enter fully the timeless events of two thousand years ago. With equal power, the liturgy takes us back to Calvary and leads us to the glory of Christ’s resurrection—and to our own, still to come.

There is nothing a Catholic Christian can do that is more powerful and fruitful than participating in the events of Holy Week. Because the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil—carry us back in reality and not merely in symbol.

This is especially clear on Holy Thursday.  We reenact the first Last Supper in symbol, washing feet as Jesus did; but we experience it in reality as we receive his Body and Blood just as the Apostles did.

On Good Friday, we stand at the cross no less than Mary and John did; we mourn our betrayal no less than Peter did. When we hear the haunting hymn “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” we answer, “Yes. I am there. I am here.” The liturgy makes this possible.

At the Easter Vigil, we wait and watch with those first anxious disciples. The long night of sin ends with the dawn of victory, a victory which we not only celebrate but live.

Thursday night. Friday afternoon. Saturday night. Three opportunities to travel back, back to our future.  

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Smoke Can Blind Us (Lent 4.A)

My father and his sister both played the piano, and from time to time they would do a four-hand duet at family gatherings. As far as I remember, they always played the same thing—Jerome Kern’s popular song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

I thought about that tune last summer, when the smoke from upcountry wildfires made my eyes sting and even made it hard for some people to breathe.
But smoke can have far more serious consequences. It can cause blindness. During a tour of a reconstructed native village in Ontario, I remember our guide saying that many indigenous women in the seventeenth century were virtually blind by the time they were 40 from tending the poorly ventilated fires constantly burning inside their houses.

Today, we live in an age filled with enough smoke to block the sun.

And if the smoke doesn’t blind us, it sure clouds our vision and causes us to lose our way in the gloom.

The blacks and white of times past—the confident knowledge of good choices versus bad—are now a bunch of greys we can hardly make out. On even the most basic decisions, many (especially the young) have trouble knowing right from wrong.

Much of this confusion comes from the breakdown of the moral consensus that once united western society. But some of it comes from within the Church itself. In 1972, Pope Paul VI said that “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”  How much truer are those words today; Satan’s smoke has obscured for many the beauty of the Gospel and the beauty of the Church, God’s temple.

What can drive out the smoke?  What can restore clear vision to the world? What can heal the blindness of hearts?

There is a one-word answer to these questions: Jesus. Jesus, the Son of Man. Jesus, the light of the world. Jesus who gives sight to the blind (see Luke 4:18 and Psalm 146:8).

If we are having trouble seeing our path, we need clarity about what Jesus offers and promises. If we have family members or friends who have lost their way in darkness of one kind or another, they need Christ’s vision of freedom and peace.

And if the world is to come out of its spiral of selfishness, fear and confusion, it needs the answers the Gospel gives. Clear and compassionate answers to life’s questions.

Where can we find that clarity? How can we share it with others?

I have another one-word answer: Alpha.

Take a look at this short video presentation—and then consider taking a closer look at the Alpha course we’re offering right here after Easter.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Thirst is a good thing (Lent 3C)

We start most Alpha evenings start with a lighthearted video—a great way to make our guests relax, and to remind them that Christianity isn’t dull and boring.

My all-time favorite is a YouTube clip by the clean comic Brian Regan. He has everyone laughing as he makes fun of buying a refrigerator.

“We have this refrigerator here,” the salesman says, “It keeps all your food cold, for six hundred.”

“And you’ve got this refrigerator over here. This keeps all your food cold—for eight hundred. Check this out—fourteen hundred. Keeps all your food cold.”

The comedian goes on, but you catch the drift.

However, every time I watch the routine, I find myself feeling a bit sorry for refrigerator salesmen. Because the joke was on me when I bought a refrigerator. What I wanted was something to keep food cold. But what I really needed was something more: one of those fancy fridges that dispenses ice water.

Our fridge stopped working soon after I came to the parish—just before I realized that almost everyone coming to see me wants water, especially young adults. When I was young, an offer of a drink before an appointment meant coffee or tea, or maybe a pop. Not water.

I think there may be a case of mass dehydration out there.

At least all those water-bottle-carrying Christians will find it easy to connect with today’s Scripture readings. In the first reading water gushes from a rock in the desert, in the second reading love is poured into our hearts, and of course the Gospel simply overflows with living water.

At the start of Mass I told you that our readings would be from the Mass for the First Scrutiny, not the Third Sunday of Lent. Now I’d like to explain why.

The reason is simple: our parish has two catechumens preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. On the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent the community gets a chance to meet them at Mass. These encounters with the catechumens are called scrutinies.

The Church pulls out all the stops for the catechumens, reading three spectacular passages from St. John’s Gospel on those three Sundays. They help those getting ready for baptism to make a full and final decision for Christ, who offers them living water (this Sunday), sight and insight (next Sunday) and finally eternal life.

The scrutinies this year will be at the 5 p.m. Mass. The Church permits us to use the special readings at all the Sunday Masses, so we will all feel connected to our friends preparing for baptism, and help them with our prayers. And it’s merciful to priests who preach more than once on a Sunday since it would be a tough to prepare two different homilies.

It’s not hard to figure out why catechumens have been told the story of the Samaritan woman since ancient times. Their long preparation for baptism was designed and intended to make them thirst for Christ. They’ve crossed the desert of sin and now the Church, the oasis of life, is in sight.

Our catechumens barely need a homily. Every word of Jesus and every word of the woman at the well speaks to their hearts.

Perhaps we, the already-baptized, need a homily more than they do. 

Because we may not know we’re dehydrated, and that can be a dangerous thing. Doctors and coaches regularly remind runners—and all of us—not to wait until you notice symptoms of dehydration to take action. 

Are you thirsting?  Let’s face it—despite the rain we love to complain about, we all live in a spiritual desert, at least some of the time. The sun beats down on all of us, and most of us know what it’s like sometimes to feel dry as dust in our spiritual lives.

Young people can lose their way in the desert—there are no landmarks to guide them. Middle-aged people can be wearied by the noonday heat: many places in the Scripture speak of the dangers of night, but Psalm 91 reminds us that the midday sun can also be destructive and make Christians lose heart.

Some find old age a desert, with the landscape around them slowly becoming barren as they lose friends, loved ones and give up familiar surroundings.

Whatever age we are, there are various ways we find ourselves in the desert. Sometimes we are even led there by the Spirit, as Jesus was. We didn’t ask for it; we can’t explain it; and we don't want to be in a dry and lonely place. But we meet God there, according to his plan for us.

Sometimes we are dumped in the desert by circumstances. We’re suffering from the death of a loved one, illness, unemployment or some other worry. When we look around we can’t see a single flower or tree, just a lot of prickly cactus bushes.

Temptations, too, can be a desert. One day we’re hiking up the spiritual mountain, enjoying the view, and then all of a sudden life is bleak, and we’re dying for something to relieve the monotony.
There’s one thing these different desert experiences have in common: they all make us thirsty. Dryness creates desire.

But here’s the important thing: there’s nothing wrong with being thirsty, as long as you have something to drink. Thirst in itself isn’t bad; in fact, when you're thirsty, there’s nothing better than a cold glass of water. The feeling is good. The water refreshes us.

Of course we can try to quench our thirst with the wrong things. Some drinks make us thirstier in the long run. But if we drink from the stream of life—if we drink the living water that Jesus promises—our thirst will have done us good.

So there’s nothing necessarily wrong about the desert. Just as thirst reminds us how much we depend on water, so the deserts of temptation and trial remind us how much we depend on grace.

I've talked about a number of the ways we can find ourselves in the desert. But sometimes we decide to spend time in the desert. That's what Lent can be: we leave the ‘city’ of our selfishness and retreat to the ‘desert’ of our hearts. We freely chose to step back from rushing around in what we call ‘the real world’ so we’ll have time and energy for the things that matter most.

All of this presumes we are ready to drink from Christ. It’s said that “when we drink from the world, we always thirst again, when we drink from Christ, we never thirst again.” In a world full of temporary things, we’ll find temporary satisfaction. Jesus alone satisfies the longing of the heart, and satisfies it reliably, consistently, and eternally.

But he doesn't give us his living water in plastic bottles. We must meet him personally where he can be found—and the desert is one sure place to find him.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Just wait! (2 Lent.C)

On Tuesday, our grade two students celebrated the Sacrament of Penance for the first time.

Some had the usual first Confession jitters, but they all seemed pretty happy by the time they headed back to class. One parent emailed me to say that her son told her “I like it when Monsignor tells funny stories! And Father Giovanni does too. Priests have good stories!”

That review from a young critic was very welcome—because it’s been a rough week. The cold I’d managed to shake before my vacation decided to come back with a vengeance, meetings and appointments seemed endless, and I felt more pressure than a certain Minister of Justice.

But a bad week and bad days can be a big help to good preaching. Because I really feel called to emphasize the darker side of our readings today.

The dark side of these Scripture texts, like the dark side of our lives, is rarely central. But it’s there, and I think we should take a look at it.

The first reading is about the glorious covenant God makes with Abraham and the Chosen People. But if we take a close look, we notice that it’s not all sweetness and light. As Abram sleeps, “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”

The Gospel is more glorious still, as Jesus reveals his glory and his plan for salvation—a second Exodus and a new covenant sealed in his own blood.

But smack in the middle of this awesome revelation, Peter, James and John are scared out of their wits: “they were terrified as they entered the cloud.”

Even the second reading, which grants us heavenly citizenship, a passport to paradise, speaks of “the body of our humiliation.” That phrase is also translated “our lowly body.” Until the glorious day when our bodies are transformed, we are weighed down by earthly reality.

And that reality includes the complex chemistry of our brains, our physical reaction to pain in mind our body, and other things that can be confused with our faith in God.

We sometimes think we’re entitled right now to the rewards Christ promised his disciples. I hear people say things like “I wouldn’t be depressed if my faith were stronger” or even “if God loved me I wouldn’t be living in this darkness.”

I don’t blame anyone for thinking this way; I think that way myself when I’m feeling miserable or things aren’t working out. Since we thank God for peaceful and blessed times, it’s not surprising that we blame him in dark and difficult times.

That’s especially true in times of physical illness and depression. We get confused about where God is, and what he is or isn’t doing. And then we blame ourselves for being confused.

The Psalm today is a spiritual reality check. Whoever wrote Psalm 27 was very human, even if it’s part of the inspired Word of God. First, he professes faith in God, who is his “light and salvation.” Half a second later he talks about being afraid, and crying aloud.

The Psalmist worries about God hiding his face and turning away in anger, even about being cast off. It’s a pretty good picture of depression.

And yet by the end, he affirms his faith—“I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”and offers us some powerful advice: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage.”

I don’t know if I would dare to say those words to someone in the grip of depression or a painful illness. The healthy must be careful what they say to the sick. But I could probably work up the courage to share one word, the word the Psalm repeats twice: “wait.”

Wait. It’s not over till it’s over. Yogi Berra spoke those words when his team seemed to have no chance of capturing the division title, though they went on to win. For us, the wait is longer—but the promise is surer.

Jesus gave his three disciples a glimpse of his glory for a reason. It was a powerful way of saying one word: wait. When you are terrified on Holy Thursday, wait. When you see me hanging on the cross, wait.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage.

It is not here on earth that God fulfills all his promises to us; we expect a Saviour from heaven who will transform our sorrows into joys, and bring peace to our troubled hearts.

There is no spiritual formula fancier than the two words at the end of St. Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: “stand firm.” Hang on.

In the meantime, we neither pretend the darkness is light nor rant against it.

I listened this week to the wonderful podcast called Way of the Heart with Jake Khym and Brett Powell. Brett quoted a line from the French writer and diplomat Paul Claudel. I want to end with it:

“Jesus didn’t come to do away with suffering or explain it. He came to fill it with his presence.”