Sunday, April 4, 2021

Encountering Jesus Easter Morning

 


Can you hurt an angel’s feelings?

Probably not. But I couldn’t blame the Easter angels for feeling rather unsuccessful.

They tell Mary Magdalene and the others that Jesus has risen from the dead, but they don’t get much of a response.

In this morning’s Gospel, Mary’s not reassured by the sight of the angels. And in Mark’s account, which we heard last night, the angel seems to make things worse. The women run out of the tomb in terror. Things go a little better in the Gospel of Matthew, but all in all the angels didn’t seem to get their message across.

What does convince Mary to announce—notice the verb—that Jesus has risen?

Very simple: Jesus himself appears and speaks with her. The same thing happens in Matthew, and a bit later in Mark.

St. Luke’s version adds a twist. Mary Magdalene and the other women do accept the angels’ words. But not at face value: Luke tells us that they remembered the words of Jesus. That’s what gave them confidence: the angels were reminding them of the things Jesus had taught them about his passion and resurrection.

Two simple conclusions emerge from these Gospel accounts of the first Easter morning. Simple, but at the heart of faith. If you don’t have faith, and would like to have faith, listen to these conclusions. If you have faith, and want it to be stronger, these conclusions matter to you also.

First: nothing can replace an encounter with Jesus, the risen and living Lord. Not historical arguments. Not theology. Not even angels.

Second: the words of Jesus—those he spoke, and the Scriptures as a whole lead to faith in him. They also play a big part in making it possible to meet Jesus as Mary Magdalene did. The Word of God is not ink on paper but, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”

To repeat: if you want the joy that Mary had, if you want to replace your deepest sorrows with hope, Easter shows you the path. Meet the Lord who is not dead but alive, not somewhere up there but here, waiting to encounter you.

If you want the peace that came to Mary and the women on that first Easter, remember the words of Jesus—or hear them for the first time. Read the prophecies about him that fill the Old Testament. Jesus himself used those Scriptures to fire up the hearts of the disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus.

I said these were simple conclusions, and so they are. But how on earth do we make them happen?

Before I answer that question, I apologize to the active Catholics who've heard many times what I'm about to say.  I don’t usually try to preach to you at Easter since Christmas and Easter are our chance to proclaim a message to those who are visiting or those who are curious.

This year is a bit different. I suspect we have fewer new faces online than we’d see on Easter Sunday in person. But I still ask the veteran members of our community to let me repeat myself for the benefit of our welcome visitors who are with us on this special day.

Still, what I have to say does matter for everyone, active and engaged or just checking church out. Because in the cold and barren religious climate in which we now live, all of us, though especially young Catholics and uncertain non-Catholics, need to encounter the risen Jesus the way Mary did—and to hear his saving words resonate in the hearts.

So, once again, I am going to try the patience of longstanding and faithful members of the congregation by addressing those who are still in the wings, watching and waiting.

How do we meet Jesus? How do we remember his words?

I’ll give you a one-word answer to those questions: Alpha.  Which is a good place to start, because Jesus himself says he’s the Alpha—the first letter of the Greek alphabet—and the Omega—the last. The beginning and the end.

Alpha is a video-based program that has the goal of introducing you to the person of Jesus, and to his desire to know you and to let you know him.

And I’ll give you a two-word answer: Faith Studies. The Discovery faith study uses scripture and small group discussion. Like Alpha, it helps you to Jesus and how we can let him work in our lives.

Both programs are staples of life in our parish. After Easter, we will offer both online.

Alpha and Discovery can make this Easter morning the beginning of a new life for you, just as it was for the disciples who discovered all that Jesus had taught them was true.

If you’re a regular parishioner, you’ve heard me say all this before. And of course, many of you have participated in one program or both. But many haven’t, so this year I want to offer a special challenge: even if you know the Lord, even if you’ve studied his word for years, please consider signing up for Alpha or a faith study.

Why? So, you can follow the wonderful and inspiring example of Mary Magdalene. When she saw the Lord, she told others. The news just had to be shared. You also can follow the example of all three women, whose knowledge of Jesus’ teaching was what they needed to accept his Resurrection in faith and tell others about it.

Nothing is more convincing to others than our personal testimony. Stories about angels only went so far, until Mary announced, “I have seen the Lord.”

The pandemic has made life so much more difficult, in so many ways. But it’s also made a few things easier. A very helpful survey just conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, in partnership with Cardus, the Christian think tank, tells us that online services are no substitute for gathering together. But most people who regularly attend religious services hope online options won’t disappear after the pandemic is over.

In the weeks and months ahead, the parish will be unpacking this important survey as we plan our future. But even now, it hints that online activities other than Mass can be a blessing to busy people.

Before, you had to drive to the church to attend or help at Alpha. Same for faith studies; even if they were in private homes, the participants had to head out to meet others.

So, if you’re a bit reluctant, if you’re very busy, or even just a bit shy—this could be the best time to take the plunge.

The pandemic has even faithful Christians asking some tough questions. Where is God in all this? What better way to look for answers than in safe and nonjudgmental conversation with others?

If you’re a visitor to our livestream, or a parishioner who feels disconnected, whether from God, the parish, or just from other people, Alpha and Discovery can make a huge difference in your life as this wretched situation continues.

But I don't want to finish by sounding like a commercial! It’s not so much Alpha and faith studies that make a huge difference. It’s Jesus, the Risen One, who has overcome death and shown the way to the fulness of life, here and now, and forever. 

Cheer up those disappointed Easter angelslisten to what they say, and prepare to meet the Lord.

Seeing is Proclaiming: Easter Vigil 2021

 


The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” That’s just what I hope we’re doing in this glorious Vigil.

But I am sure the Lord won’t mind if I take a few moments to talk about someone else—Mary Magdalene, a woman whom history has not always treated with the respect she richly deserves.

Since the sixteenth century, she has been identified with the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet in the Gospel of Luke, although St. Luke never names her. When she is named, it is as a friend of Jesus, and an eyewitness to his crucifixion and resurrection.

It would be easy to make a big mistake about Mary Magdalene tonight,  because the Gospel passage that we’ve just read, doesn’t flatter Mary. In the first place, she and the other women who go to anoint Jesus don’t have much of a plan—they have no idea who will move the heavy stone from the tomb.

More disappointing, as you’ve just heard, Mary Magdalene and the others ran away from the tomb, frightened and amazed.

St. Mark does set the record straight a few verses later, although we don’t read them tonight. A little later he tells us that when Jesus appeared to Mary, she went to tell the others; but only from St. John do we get the complete picture: when we read St. John’s Gospel tomorrow, we learn that Jesus directly commissions Mary to announce the resurrection to the disciples.

And that is just what she did—which is why Pope Francis has embraced her  title as “Apostle of the apostles.”

Why have we taken this short detour from our focus on Jesus? I had two reasons. First, I want to show the connection—the essential connection—between having faith in the Risen Lord and announcing it to others.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary tells the apostles the good news as soon as she hears it from the angel in the empty tomb, even before she encounters Jesus. In Mark and John, it’s after their meeting. Either way, we can’t miss the point: when you believe that Jesus has truly risen from the dead you go and tell others.

This essential connection between having faith and proclaiming it is a key message for our converts tonight.  You are here because people who believe Jesus overcame sin and death shared that belief with you.

And you will be faithful disciples only to the extent that you share this Easter faith with others, for the rest of your Christian lives.

The second reason I turned the spotlight on Mary was so I could give St. Mark a chance to shine. He may have been a bit weak on details when it comes to the Apostle of the apostles, but when it comes to the details of the resurrection his brief account is as rich as any of the Gospels.

As it happens, another Mary—who almost deserves to be called an apostle to the apostles—opened my eyes to the finer details of tonight’s Gospel like never before. Her name is Dr. Mary Healy, and she is quickly becoming one of the most important evangelists and teachers in the world.

Dr. Healy is showing the Church today needs the gifts of women just as much as the apostles needed the witness of Mary Magdalene. She teaches Scripture to future priests at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, is a respected author and international speaker. In 2014 Pope Francis appointed her as one of the first three women ever to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Most important of all, she is an intentional disciple with deep personal faith. You’ll know that already if you heard her speak at the Archdiocesan Upper Room conference last year.

So—like the other Mary, Dr. Healy has seen the Lord.

She begins her commentary on tonight’s Gospel with a few words about the three women coming to anoint the body of the Lord. “The faithfulness of the women in associating with the crucified Jesus contrasts with the faithlessness of Peter and the Twelve, who are conspicuous by their absence.”

A point I’d missed.

I’ve always noticed the connection between dawn and the resurrection; I even went to a few sunrise Easter services when I was in university. But Mary Healy takes us deeper into that, writing that St. “Mark’s mention that the sun had risen is the first hint that the darkness accompanying the death of Jesus—the apparent triumph of evil—has been definitively overcome.”

She helps us connect the very first reading we heard tonight, from the Book of Genesis, and the last, our Gospel: “It is the first day of the week, the day when God created light; the beginning of the new creation.”

The beginning of the new creation! And how can we fail to recall the words of the Easter proclamation with which we began our liturgy: “This is the night of which it is written: the night shall be bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.”

May it be so for our catechumens, for all of us watching, and for the whole world, especially in its darkest corners.

Maybe some folks can’t quite picture how something so great can be true for them. Dr. Healy says something that may help. She doesn’t call out the three devout women as poor planners because they wonder who will roll the heavy stone away.

Somehow it was part of God’s plan, because their “inability to roll back the stone is symbolic of the utter powerlessness of human resources against death, the most inescapable fact of human existence.”

“But looking up (a biblical image for recognizing God’s action), the women see that the seemingly impossible has been done. The stone is rolled back. God has entered the story, and has opened the grave.”

What an important thought, for all of us, and for the converts who are so close to my heart tonight.

We’re all wondering who will roll away the heavy weight of this pandemic from our world? Who will do the seemingly impossible?

Soney and Lukas, our soon-to-be-Catholics, you may be wondering how you will be able to live as disciples in a world so hostile to Christian faith and morality. Megan, Aileen, Carolina, Jacob, and Alex—you also face challenges to in living out the commitments you will make at your confirmation next month.

The answer to your worries can be found in the empty tomb. God has entered the story, and everything is possible.

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised.”

No longer in the tomb, Jesus is alive. Alive in the Church which our two catechumens will join next Sunday when they are baptized; alive in the hearts of the remaining members of the RCIA who will be confirmed at Pentecost.

A final detail from the wonderful pages of Dr. Healy’s commentary.  She points out that the young man whom the women meet in the empty tomb is dressed in a white robe. His garment makes us think of the ‘young man’ who had fled naked when Jesus was arrested.

That young man symbolized the shame of all those who had abandoned Jesus in his hour of trial.

The young man in tonight’s Gospel story—clearly an angel—is clothed in a heavenly garment. It is “a hint that God has intervened to reverse the disciples’ failure and restore their dignity.”

Our catechumens will wear a symbolic white garment when they are baptized next weekend.  This glorious sacrament restores lost dignity, washes faults away, and restores innocence to the fallen, as the Exultet proclaims.

Next Sunday I shall say “Soney and Lukas, you have become a new creation and have clothed yourselves in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have eternal life.”

But all of us who have been baptized wear that white robe; all of us are clothed like the angel in heavenly attire, so that we may have eternal life.

Without apology, I have handed over much of the homily to Dr. Mary Healy. So, it’s fitting I give her the last word: Although St. Mark’s account of the resurrection is remarkably brief, he invites us “to step into the story and [to] allow the Holy Spirit to bring about the unshakable conviction of faith in the risen Lord that has transformed his own life.”

Tonight, the Church invites you, Soney and Lukas, together with Megan, Aileen, Carolina, and Alex, to step into the story. Step into the story of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to transform your life.

And let us all keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. 

All quotations are from The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy. She is a series editor of this fine set of books on the New Testament.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Facing Squarely a Bad Week for Canada (Lent 4.B)


July 1, 2008. My first Canada Day as pastor at Christ the Redeemer.

To my delight, parishioners had invited me to go to Canada Place to hear their nephew sing in a popular musical group. I was really looking forward to the concert and the celebration.

Just before I left, the parishioner called to tell me there had been an accident on the Lions Gate bridge and it was closed. He told me to take the Second Narrows bridge instead.

But when I got to the bridge it was also closed: someone was threatening to jump off, and to help talk the person down, the police shut down all traffic, leaving the bridge full of cars on a hot summer afternoon. People could not go forward or backward for hours.

Almost all of you listening today live on the North Shore, so you know what this meant. Our entire community could not get to the city on one of the liveliest days of the year. More importantly, people missed planes, buses, and other engagements.

All because it was considered important enough to close down a bridge for six hours to try to save a life. 

To save the life of someone who, almost certainly, was deeply distressed or mentally ill.

Don't get me wrong—I was well and truly annoyed. Even now I think they could find a better method than closing the entire bridge to secure the area around the person threatening to jump. But not for a moment did I question the motives of the police. Not for a moment did I doubt the importance of doing whatever needed to be done to talk someone out of what has been called the only irreparable decision.

But now, less than 13 years later, the poor soul on the bridge could ask the same public authorities who saved his or her life to end it.

I don't want to talk about politics today. I don't want to talk about assisted suicide. Our readings are glorious, and they would give me more than enough material for an encouraging homily as we enter the home stretch of Lent.

And in the spirit of Laetare Sunday, traditionally a mini celebration amidst the penitential spirit of this season, I would like to preach joyfully this morning, especially since my homily two weeks ago was a frank confession of my own discouragement as the pandemic neared its one-year anniversary.

But I can't. How could I face the Lord—how could I face you—without saying something about the House ofCommons passing a law that permits people who are not dying of any illness to seek assistance in ending their lives?

If you've been a Catholic for the past 40 or 50 years, you've watched us lose many battles in the fight for human life, most notably that of abortion. And I used the word battle deliberately because you have probably been invited by priests and bishops and dedicated prolife defenders to take action: To vote for prolife candidates. To write letters to MPs. To donate to organizations.

And it didn't work. It was so unsuccessful, in the end, that there was very little fuss made about this legislation this time around.

Not because we're just all tired out, but because thanks to modern polling we now understand that the problem is not our politicians—although they are certainly not part of the solution! The problem is Canadians, a solid majority of whom support legalized assisted suicide.

Announcing the results of a survey last year, one pollster put it simply: “Based on these numbers, it's all green lights for the federal government to move ahead.”

Our politicians know that most active Catholics are opposed to this legislation. But they don't care, because the majority of all others support it so strongly.

I'm not proposing some course of political or social action at this point. What I'm talking about this morning is opening our eyes in this darkness and facing up to what has happened.

Rather than a call to action, I'm sounding a call to reflection. To specifically Christian reflection on what has taken place in our society, on what will be happening in our communities.

To permit people close to death to choose death immediately was morally unacceptable, as we all knew when these legal nightmares began only six years ago.

And now we are plunging down the slippery slope as the law prepares to open the door to assisted suicide for people who are not dying, but who are mentally or emotionally ill.

People who are seriously depressed need our support, love. compassionate care, and medical intervention—not some easy way to end what may well be terrible suffering.

I could make this more dramatic certainly, but I don't see the point. It should be obvious to every one of us that the licensed killing of people with mental and emotional problems takes us to a very, very dark place.

So, what do we do? Weep? Well, frankly that's not a bad idea: the responsorial Psalm today suggests just that. Psalm 137 is Israel’s lament, sung sadly in exile. It’s time for us to recognize the alienation between us and the post-Christian—indeed anti-Christian—society in which we’re living.

While weeping won’t get us anywhere, it does help us recognize just how bad things are—how this country we love is, in some respects, a foreign land in which we live in a sort of exile.

If the events in the House of Commons this week haven’t broken your heart, you might well pray for the gift of tears, or at least the grace of feeling more deeply what has happened.

The readings today also lead us to other places where we can stop and think. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul puts the focus on mercy. I don’t usually mention mercy except when I’m preaching about confession. But it’s a much bigger subject than that—mercy is part of who God is and how he works.

When we’re finished weeping, we need to ask God for mercy. Not just to ask him but to beg him. And not so much for ourselves as for others.

I’ve always preferred the Rosary to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, but from today until Pentecost I am going to say the Chaplet every day. As most of you know, the main prayer goes “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I am going to ask God to show mercy on Canadians, to be kind to us in Christ despite this latest act of national infidelity. Not just ask him but beg him.

This is not a fire and brimstone homily of judgment: today’s Gospel says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Still, people, even nations, are free to choose darkness over light—indeed to hate the light.

Therefore, now more than ever we need to let the light shine! We need to cling in hope to the words we read at the very beginning of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A great cloud has overshadowed our country, but it has not extinguished the light. Clouds can part and reveal the sun.

We don’t share the Gospel with our friends, neighbours, and family members so their lives will be a little richer, or even a lot happier. We evangelize and proclaim so they can walk out of the darkness of the age into God’s marvelous light, as St. Peter calls it (1 Peter 2:9).

Like the rebellious Israelites bitten by deadly serpents on their journey through the desert (Numbers 21: 4-9), Canadians have been poisoned by the falsehoods of the culture of death. Just like the Chosen People needed the antidote offered by looking at the bronze serpent lifted up on a pole, our brothers and sisters need the healing antidote that comes from looking at Jesus, lifted high on the Cross.

Canadians are perishing. But God in his love gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Lifted high on the cross, Jesus proclaims that suffering never has the last word.

My own last word today must be to those who live with mental illness, especially in our parish. They, and those who journey beside them, are my personal heroes as they face daily pain, often with more courage and perseverance than I can imagine having myself.

They are perhaps the Christians among us who are closest to Christ, who live out most intimately the Paschal Mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection.

I can only say to you, suffering brothers and sisters, that we recommit ourselves to support you in practical ways and with as much understanding and compassion as we can manage.

Together, we walk forward in hope that together we may have eternal life.

------------

You can find a summary of our national nightmare here.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Encouraging One Another Generously


My last homily was an effort to admit my own weariness without discouraging parishioners, while letting them know that I share at least some of their struggles. I received some remarkable responses and with the permission of the writers, I’m going to share them below.

I’m a bit hesitant to share some of the more flattering personal comments; I do so not to blow my own horn or Fr. Jeff’s, but rather to demonstrate how we can be strengthened by others.

It’s obvious that our parish community faces challenges in solidarity with one another. I can’t say how grateful I am for that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about your homily last Sunday, in which your empathy and concern for your parishioners was evident. When you said that your soul was tired, I instantly realized that as our pastor you also are bearing all our sufferings. I know that your compassion from which I personally have benefited is boundless. 

By encouraging us to share our ups and downs with God and experience his presence, you are leading us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Him, one that will help sustain us during difficult times.

Just the Saturday night prior to your homily I had poured out all my doubts, grumbles, and complaints and pain to the Lord, and after the tears had dissipated, I was at peace and could almost feel Him lulling me to sleep.

I pray that you too allow yourself to be embraced by the Father and let Him restore peace to your soul.

Thank you for all you do. May God bless you and keep you strong as you continue to serve Him faithfully.

When I responded, I received another heartwarming message…

Thank you for your warm response. Let us give thanks to God who allowed His Holy Spirit to prompt and guide me to reach out to you. When you uttered those words that your soul was tired, I was instantly moved by them and knew that I must try to find a way to offer encouragement.

If you believe my email will help others, please go ahead and share it.  I am happy that it has given you some measure of comfort. I will always be grateful to you for the many times you have helped me through sad and difficult situations.

My prayers for you continue. Take good care of yourself.

From another parishioner, who has affirmed us throughout the pandemic:

Your homily today was not only perfectly timed but, reminded us all that the solution for our Covid fatigue is readily at hand in Scripture.

We were reminded everything centers on faith, which ignites hope which we all struggle with today. The readings can transfigure our thinking in this different time to one where we feel renewed faith and hope, refilling our spiritual fuel tank. And, your reminder having faith includes an obligation to gather the courage to defend and stand up for it, is equally vital.

Along with Father Jeff, each of you gentlemen have consistently led the way for our parish family, relentlessly. Including having promptly and seamlessly delivered a top-flight digital faith center for our parish.

Thank you both for the ongoing stellar, inspirational leadership.

When I asked his permission to share his thoughts, minus some of the praise, he replied as follows. So the compliments stay in!

The thanks is to you and Fr. Jeff, and all those on your parish team that day-in-day-out keep us on track.

Yes, you are welcome to include my comments in your blog, providing you include the compliments...so deserved and well-earned!

Finally, when we shared the homily on Flocknote I received this short but sweet message from a bilingual friend.

Bon courage! 

May we all keep our spirits up with God's gift of fortitude.

 


Saturday, February 27, 2021

My Soul is Tired: But God Cares (Lent 2.B)


My great friend in Ireland, Father Barry Horan, is one of the happiest and most delightful priests you'll ever meet. I hope you will meet him when travelling is possible again.

But when Father Barry sends me a book, it’s usually a serious one—he's a very smart man who realizes that happiness is a serious problem.

For Christmas he sent me a book by the American writer Robert Wicks called Heartstorming: Creating a Place God Can Call Home. When I picked it up this week the book fell open to a chapter titled “My Soul is Tired.”

And that, dear friends, sums up how I feel this Second Sunday of Lent. My soul is tired.

I’m sure many of you feel the same way; in fact, I know many of you feel the same way, since you’ve told me what you’re dealing with. In the months since Christmas, there’s been more sorrow and struggle in the parish than there was in the first ten months of the pandemic.

This is not the place for details—but, trust me, there’s a lot of suffering out there.

Not all these rough things are a direct result of the pandemic. Some are just coincidence. But there’s much happening to make my own soul feel very weary.

Robert Wicks writes about the “gray” times in our lives. And he says that we can truly benefit from them if we don’t just ignore or play down our troubled feelings.

Our “low” points, he says, can bring spiritual blessings if we intentionally bring God into the times that are “difficult, disappointing, troubling, confusing… or sad.”

I don’t know about you, but my first thought is to ask God to get rid of these feelings, not to invite him in. But Wicks says by exploring them with God we can learn a great deal about ourselves and, more importantly, a great deal about God’s love.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul teaches that bad times are never the worst of times if we face them knowing God’s love. The apostle is writing about some of the terrible things he’s had to deal with—worse than what most of us face. Can misery separate us from the love of Christ? Is there anything so awful that it overwhelms God’s love in our hearts?

Paul all but shouts: No! No, whether life is all dark or just gray, God is with us, for us, and loving us.

He certainly knew Psalm 116, which we heard just before the second reading. He would have prayed it with conviction in all the many trials he faced: “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”

I want to be able to pray those words myself in every difficulty. I want to keep my own faith strong, even in the roughest of times. But how?

Paul offers a two-part answer: first, by trusting that God is for us, not against us. He wants our good and our happiness. Second, by understanding that God who gave his only Son for us—the greatest gift imaginable—will not now abandon us to our troubles.

In case we miss that message, the first reading underlines it in red with the story of Abraham and Isaac. It still sends a chill up our spines. We don’t know how God the Father felt about sending his Son for us, since that’s beyond human comprehension. But we can all imagine how Abraham felt. This ancient story helps us to appreciate how much love there is behind the incarnation and the suffering of Christ.

Knowing about such love, can we really think that God doesn’t care about our gray times, our low times, our hard times?

So where does the Gospel account of the Transfiguration fit in?

First, it reminds us that Jesus does care about how we feel. Since the Transfiguration is only a foretaste of the Resurrection, it’s important not for what happened but for why it happened. Jesus is strengthening these key disciples to face his suffering and death. He cares enough to want to strengthen them in advance with a preview of the happy ending to the story of his Passion.

He wants us also to be strengthened by his Resurrection from the dead—to be strong enough to face any and every trial. As today’s Psalm says, “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”

The Transfiguration also says something to us in our current circumstances. Jesus granted Peter and James and John more than knowledge; he gave them an experience—an experience not only of himself but of Elijah and Moses, who were so present on the mountain that Peter wanted to build them each a little chalet.

No less than on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus wants us to experience his glory, the Law and the Prophets, and each other. He wants to gather us around him, right here in this church.

Only he can’t—at least not without getting a ticket from the Health Authority.

Yet Christians are an experiential, incarnational, and existential community. We are meant to gather. It is not good to be together only virtually.

Patiently we have waited; obediently we have waited. But the closing of churches—without sufficient evidence to justify it—has gone on too long. I am very pleased to tell you that Archbishop Miller has filed a formal request for reconsideration of the health order that has kept us away from Mass. And I encourage you to read the letter he’s written to Catholics explaining the reason for his decision.

Let us pray hard for a just and favourable response to the Archbishop’s request. Let us pray that before much longer we’ll look around this church and pray, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

And between now and then, let’s do some heartstorming, asking God into our gray times so he can show us his love and peace.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ambassadors for Christ - Ash Wednesday

 


What are you doing a week from tomorrow?

If you’re like most of us, you’re doing the same thing tomorrow and next week and the week after that. No-one is heading to Hawaii, there are no birthday parties on our calendars, and nobody’s asked you over for dinner.

We all agree that an empty calendar is a disappointment. But it’s also an opportunity—an opportunity to have the best Lent ever.

“Best Lent Ever” is a powerful phrase coined by Matthew Kelly, the popular Catholic speaker and writer. Every year he offers a video series to help people grow in Lent through prayer.

This year, he says “it’s not what you give up this Lent, it’s who you become.”

Can I ask you to look at this in a slightly different way? The invitation sounds a little bit me-centered.  Now that’s okay—Christians need to grow in personal responsibility through prayer, penance, and almsgiving. But what if we zoomed out and said it’s not what we give up this Lent, it’s who we help?

It’s not a huge stretch to change our focus from me to we, if I can use a phrase from the unfortunate Kielburger brothers.  The second reading puts it right in front of us: we are ambassadors. We are people on a mission. And our own holiness can’t be separated from the needs of others.

 It’s hard to think of a time when people needed people more than they do right now. A Lent centered on self-improvement alone just doesn’t quite cut it.

This year we'd better not follow the readings too closely. If the prophet Joel’s words inspire us to assemble a congregation of the young and old, brides and grooms, we will get shut down by the health authority. If we urge and entreat our friends and neighbours in imitation of St. Paul, they will shut us down.

Instead, I suggest we offer people what they need—a path to return to the Lord, a path to return to his Church, and a path out of the isolation imposed by the pandemic.

Fr. Jeff and I were delighted to see many familiar faces as we distributed ashes today, and Holy Communion on Sundays. But there are many faces we don’t see, even on Zoom. Some are uncomfortable with the computer, some don’t drive, while others may be nervous just going out.

Would you be Christ’s ambassadors to these parishioners this Lent?

Instead of giving up, would you reach out?

There’s only so much the parish can do without the help of dozens or hundreds of you. You have a network of people you know from church and haven’t been in touch with since the lockdown. Could you phone or email them? Could you send a card?

Of course, you don’t know who’s been away from parish activities, so in order to connect with the people who need a connection most, you’ll need to work at this. But if Lent isn’t a time for dedicated service, what is?

On Sunday, Fr. Jeff will suggest some of the practical ways we can invite people to be part of parish life as it is at present.

Everyone knows the three-legged stool on which Lent rests: prayer, penance, and charity. Becoming a parish ambassador checks all three boxes. Obviously, what I’m proposing is an act of charity—one that not only offers emotional support but spiritual help too.

Of course, we must pray for God to guide us when deciding to whom we should reach out, and pray for those people when we do connect, and afterwards. We can even tell them we’re doing that.

But I think this Lenten project also ticks the box marked penance, at least for many of us. We can feel nervous reaching out—we might be uncomfortable contacting people we don’t know very well.

What’s wrong with that? What is fasting, what is giving up coffee or alcohol, but making ourselves feel uncomfortable for a purpose?

Maybe it’s not what we give up, but who we become: ambassadors for Christ, helping our brothers and sisters in the parish rediscover fellowship and joy this difficult Lent.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Called to Community (6.B)

 

Mrs. McMurtry from Christ the Redeemer and Mrs. Antonucci from St. Anthony’s Parish were bragging to each other about their pastors.

“My pastor can speak Italian,” Mrs. McMurtry boasted to Mrs. Antonucci, “but yours only speaks English.”

“Maybe so,” Mrs. Antonucci replied, “but my pastor speaks good English while your Monsignor speaks bad Italian.”

Okay, it’s not a true story. But my rusty Italian is good enough to spot the Italian origin of one of the pandemic’s top ten words: isolation. The first part of isolation, i-s-o-l-a is isola, the Italian word for island.

When someone with Covid symptoms is told to isolate, he or she is asked to stay on an island—a desert island, like a castaway.

But in the immortal words of the English poet John Donne, “No man is an island.” We're not built for isolation.

People who have had Covid tell us how difficult quarantine can be; they’ve felt disoriented and cut off. And it’s no surprise—humans are social, created in the image of God who is himself three persons in unity.

The same is true for countless elderly persons locked down in care facilities or hospitals.

In the Book of Genesis, God said, “it is not good for man to be alone,” and so he created Eve to join Adam—there is something fundamentally wrong with alone-ness.

When our first reading was written 2700 years ago, and when today’s Gospel unfolded 2000 years ago, the leper’s torment was as much the isolation and exclusion from society as the disease itself.

This reading from the book of Leviticus offers a grim picture of the leper’s fate.  Already afflicted by illness—which may or may not have been leprosy—he is ordered to turn himself into something out of a horror movie, ensuring no one would even think of approaching.

Before the invention of antibiotics, which today cure most cases of Hansen’s Disease, the modern name for leprosy, you could call it a fate worse than death.

The curse of leprosy in the ancient world was far grimmer than this pandemic, although it’s hard not to make a connection between the leper’s face covering and our masks, or with his isolation and current quarantine restrictions.

Can you blame the leper in the Gospel story for telling anyone who would listen that Jesus had healed him? What a burden the Lord lifted from him, body and soul! How do you keep joyful news like that to yourself?

So, what’s the key message for us in this morning’s Gospel? Is it that Jesus can work healing miracles, or is there something more?

I think the Word of God today might be telling us that Jesus wants to end our isolation. Even in a pandemic, he calls us into community.

In the first place, he invites us to community with God—to enter into relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Europe's oldest person, a French nun, survived Covid and a lengthy period of isolation, recovering in time to celebrate her 117th birthday last week.  I wasn’t surprised to read that prayer helped her face her illness and even the prospect of death itself with great peace.

Even cooped up in her room, she was never truly alone.

In the second place, Jesus wants us to experience Christian community—fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. No man, or woman, is an island in the Church. Almost everyone I have spoken to during the pandemic mentions losing what we might call “family ties” in the parish second only to the restriction of the sacraments themselves.

For some, it’s the after-Mass coffee they miss the most; for others, just the cheery greeting exchanged as the leave church. But for all, the pandemic has underlined the importance of being together on our journey as disciples of the Lord.

Strengthening our spirit of community must be a top priority in the parish as the pandemic drags on.

Solidarity is closely related to community. Christians are called to stand together, united even in our sinfulness. Each year, on Ash Wednesday, we line up together as fellow penitents to receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads.

This year, Ash Wednesday will look different. Instead of approaching the altar and hearing those famous words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” parishioners will stay in their cars and have the ashes sprinkled silently on their heads.

It will look different, but receiving the ashes is still an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters, uniting us in opposition to the isolation of sin.

I did a bit of research this week and discovered that there were more parishioners than I thought who don’t take part in the livestream Mass. Obviously, there is no commandment or Church law requiring people to watch. It’s certainly not the same as attending Mass.

However, the livestream—even without a coffee hour or folks to smile at—keeps alive our community connection. Receiving Holy Communion after the Mass gives us a brief but beautiful moment of physical connection with the parish. Most importantly, receiving the Eucharist deepens our community—our communion—with God.

Our Lenten plan for the parish aims to deepen our connection to one another as we deepen our love for the Lord. We’ll be telling you more in the days ahead.

But for now, just think about two things: First, is there someone you know has become somewhat isolated from the parish?

Second, are you feeling disconnected from the parish, even though you used to be involved?

Father Jeff and I will explore the answers to those questions with you in our homilies for Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent. Because it’s not good—and not part of God’s plan—for any Christian to be alone.