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.”

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Talking Back to Satan (Lent 1.C)

“Man does not live by bread alone.”

And that’s a good thing, since I gave up bread for Lent! (Well, after breakfast, anyway.)

Of course Jesus isn’t speaking about what we eat but about how we live. And in today’s Gospel he is showing us a priceless method of living according to his example and teaching.

I don’t really need to point out what’s happening in the exchange between Jesus and the devil. Just after his baptism in the Jordan, and just before he begins his public ministry, Jesus is tested and tempted.

The temptations are familiar to each one of us. The offer of food is the temptation to gratify the senses, whether by gluttony or lust. The offer of kingdoms of the world appeals to our greed for power and possessions, and jumping off the top of the temple is a temptation to pride.

In his first letter, St. John sums up these three as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, [and] the pride in riches.”

There’s nothing new there. These invitations to sin appear in the Garden of Eden, all through the Bible, and in our own lives.

What’s new here is the method of fighting evil that Jesus models for us. He uses no special power that we don’t have. He doesn’t toss Satan off the roof. He works no miracle.

What Jesus does is use Scripture. Our Lord handles the devil in a way that any one of us is perfectly capable of doing.  He takes up what St. Paul calls “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).

You might think that’s perfectly obvious.  Well, if it is, I’m a bit slow. I’ve read this story dozens of times, but this is the first time I figured out exactly what Jesus was showing us.

I can’t take any credit for figuring it out. I owe it to a fourth-century monk called Evagrius Ponticus (or Evagrius of Pontus). Evagrius gave a name to what Jesus is doing in his encounter with the devil: he called it “contradiction”—the use of a verse of Scripture to confound the devil.

But a recent translation of Evagrius’ work uses an even better name: “talking back.” Responding to evil thoughts with the Word of God is talking back to the devil.

St. Benedict, born about 150 years after Evagrius, picks up this idea in his Rule for monks. He tells them—and us—to catch hold of temptations and “dash them against Christ.” Christ is the immovable rock that shatters the hardest temptation, just as he does in the Gospel we’ve heard this morning.

There’s a big challenge here. Talking back to the devil with God’s Word requires something: we need to know what the Word says.

Standing at the top of the Temple, Jesus did not tell Satan, “Hold on, I need to look something up in my Bible.” And that’s not only because he didn’t own a Bible. The verb “dash” suggests something done quickly—in fact, St. Benedict says to do it while our temptations are still “young” (RB, Prologue, 28).

In Sunday School, many Protestants learned to memorize Scripture.  When I was young, all we memorized was catechism answers. As adults, it may be time to memorize at least a few key verses from the Bible that we can quickly use to talk back to temptation.

We could start, of course, by memorizing the three Old Testament verses that Jesus uses in his confrontation with Satan. We may not be tempted the same way, but these scriptures answer many of the devil’s standard opening lines.

I mentioned the book Talking Back. It lists dozens of short Scripture passages that Evagrius suggests we use to contradict specific temptations. If the devil tells you this, you tell him that. 

(You can take a look at Evagrius's work on-line here.) Some of the Bible quotations are a bit obscure, but why can’t we make our own little talking back book, listing the things the devil likes to tell us and matching them up with a contradictory verse from the Bible?

If you’re looking for a Lenten project that’s more interesting than giving up bread or chocolate, grab a Bible and start thinking about how it can help you talk back against Satan and stay strong in the fight against temptation and sin.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Survey Sunday! (8.C)

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

We’ve all heard that saying, from our coaches, bosses or teachers.

Today we hear it from the apostle Paul. He says “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.” In other words, hang on, stand fast, and keep up your good work.
 But his encouragement is no mere pep talk. St. Paul’s words come after he’s reminded us that we are not ordinary “winners,” but men and women who are victors over even death itself, sharers in the victory won by Jesus Christ.

If death has been defeated, what else can take us down?

That’s not a rhetorical question in these difficult times. Can scandals in the Church defeat us? Can shame and disappointment overpower our faith in God and in his Church? Can our own sins shake us so badly that we quit believing?

Paul gives an answer in his letter to the Romans, where he writes “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He concludes “I am convinced that neither death, nor life… nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

When the going gets tough, the Christian turns to Christ. As St. Peter said to Jesus when many other disciples turned away, “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Just before I left on holiday, we told you about our Member Engagement Survey—a tool developed by the Gallup organization to help measure the engagement of the members of our parish. While I was away, I considered whether we should postpone the survey in the face of the worldwide crisis in the Church.

Everyone I consulted by email said no. What better time than now, they told me, to plan for a strong future led by engaged and active members of our parish community? 

Their advice was pretty much what we heard St. Paul say in the second reading today: “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.”

The ME 25 survey is part of our effort to excel in the work of the Lord at Christ the Redeemer parish. So in a spirit of hope—and of gratitude for all God has already done for our parish—I would like to ask you to complete the short survey questionnaire now.
There are some limits that Gallup asks us to observe so that the information will be highly relevant to our own community. If you are a visitor or you are under 18, we can’t submit your survey. By all means take a copy, and even fill it out, but take the copy home—please do not submit it.

Your answers are confidential, so please answer honestly.  Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. If a question is unclear, don’t ask your neighbour—just answer it the way you understand it best.

We will give you some time to complete the survey, and then the ministers of welcome will collect them from you. The surveys are in envelopes at the ends of each pew—would the folks at the end please pass out the pens and surveys now?

If you can’t finish in time, hang on to the survey and finish it after Mass.

* * *

I’m going to ask the ministers of welcome to collect the surveys now. I remind you that if you are a visitor or haven’t turned 18 that we’re asking you not to hand your survey in. We sure don’t mean to insult the younger teens, but Gallup is a professional organization that must have its reasons for this. And we try to listen to our young people in other ways.

Thank you for participating in the survey; it will give us crucial information to get going as a parish family that will "bear good fruit."