Saturday, March 27, 2010

More than Words: Palm Sunday

There’s a famous scene in Shakespeare where Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading. Hamlet replies “Words, words, words.”

What have we read this morning? Certainly there were words and words in the long account of our Lord’s passion. But was there more than words? How is our reading of the passion—or of any Gospel—different from reading a history book, or a newspaper?

To answer this question, we need to start with the prologue of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Obviously, for Christians, “word” has more than one meaning. But these meanings are not unrelated.

Jesus is the Word of God; the Word of God is God. The Bible is the Word of God. And the written Word of God is made up of, obviously, words.

To discuss any one of these uses of the word “word” would take us longer than this morning’s Gospel. I only want to point out that the solemn reading of the Passion is not only about the words on the page; it is not only about the Word of God, the Scriptures. It is an encounter with the Word of God, God himself.

As we listened to the words of St. Luke, we were invited to enter into what we heard—not through the time travel of modern movies, but by the timeless travel of the heart and spirit.

Contemplating the Word himself as we hear the account of his passion, we can answer the question posed by the old spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

In an ancient sermon, St. Gregory Nazianzen invites us to “take our part in the Passover...not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally.”

He calls us to “sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honouring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified.”

He says that each of us has a role in this timeless Passion Play. “If you are a Simon of Cyrene,” St. Gregory says, “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 a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body. ... If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshipped God by night, 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. Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself.”

So, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

We answer yes. We were there, and we are there. The passion is not “then,” it is now.

We walk the way of the Cross with the Lord, and we share even now in his suffering and death. And we shall therefore share too in his Resurrection.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Resurrection and Life: Lent 5 A

In a quarter century of preaching, I have never had more trouble writing a homily than I did this weekend. What you’re hearing is my fourth try—assuming I don’t have to tear this up and try a fifth time.

I’m not sure why it’s been so difficult. Part of the reason, I think, is that death has loomed large in the parish this week. On Thursday night I got a call that an elderly parishioner had died without warning. A week earlier I administered the sacraments to another elderly woman; although she was not thought to be in any immediate danger, she died that night. And on Tuesday afternoon I anointed a 41-year old at the hospital, who died less than two hours later.

On top of that, someone I admire and like very much has been told that death is not that far away.

So the thought of saying one false word, of uttering platitudes, or failing to help people understand this crucial Gospel makes me shudder.

Last night I dropped in on the youth group as they watched the movie version of Narnia, the C.S. Lewis classic. It’s filled with special effects and all the wonders that modern technology can add to a children’s story. Right on cue I got a bit teary when Aslan, the slain lion, rises from the dead.

The story of the raising of Lazarus, by comparison, is tame. Jesus doesn’t roar like the victorious Aslan; he simply calls Lazarus from death to life.

Yet it’s the raising of Lazarus, not the lion, that should make us weep for joy. Because this story isn’t about Lazarus at all. It’s about me, and you, and everyone we’ve loved and lost or will ever lose.

In just two weeks we’ll once again be celebrating Christ’s victory over death. But the Church wants to make sure—even before Easter—that we know what this victory brings to us. The raising of Lazarus shows us that Jesus brings life. This is so important that Jesus allows his friends to suffer just so they—and we—would get the point.

The mourners would prefer Jesus to prevent death. But he shows a power much greater by conquering death.

Death, I believe, is an almost-universal fear. From childhood to old age, we worry about dying or losing those we love. From childhood I worried about losing my father too early, as he had lost his. On her engagement day, a dear friend confided to me her fear that the man she loved so much would one die have to die.

And as we age, death is never far from our thoughts.

To some extent, this is natural. Jesus recognizes ordinary human worry and sadness. He doesn’t scold Martha and Mary for their tears—he joins them. So don’t get me wrong. Christians have emotions, and those emotions include anxiety and grief. But we must balance those emotions with our faith in two things: first, the presence of Jesus in all our sorrows, and second, his promise of life that never ends.

Jesus had to permit Martha and Mary to suffer for the sake of his mission. But does he abandon them? Hardly—he’s right beside them in their grief. He consoles them and brings them to understand the mystery they are living out.

Jesus says “come out” to Lazarus. Come out of the darkness of your tomb. But most of all, come out to the light of faith your sisters and friends have found while you lay dead. Come out into the light that will never end, and receive the life that no illness can ever take away from you.

Jesus says the same to each of us. “Come out from your fear of death into the light of faith that overpowers fear with hope. Carry on the same heart to heart conversation with me that Mary did; tell me how you feel. Talk to me like Martha did, and learn from me that I am the resurrection.”

Christians bleed, and Christians die. But the Son of God did not come into the world to give them temporary relief or to patch them up. He promised instead no more death and no more weeping, in the Kingdom that even now has begun.

Jesus said to Martha “I am the resurrection.” When we see that proved at Easter, let’s remember the whole sentence. He is not only “the resurrection” but “the life.” Life for the world, life for the dying, and life for the dead.

If we can just carry that thought—Jesus, our resurrection and our life—I won’t need to try a fifth homily.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Growing in Faith: Lent 4A

On the first night of our parish mission, Father Daniel Mahan talked about gratitude. He said that being thankful is one of the keys to a rich and meaningful Christian life.

He sure got me thinking about the many things for which I’m grateful. One of which is my life at Christ the Redeemer.

Actually, I didn’t really need the mission to realize how thankful I am to be here. Having to be away in January and February was all it took. Considering that my travels were pleasant enough—if you consider Ontario and Saskatchewan pleasant in the middle of winter—I was surprised by how much it bothered me to be away from you.

I was torn between my desire to be celebrating the Sunday Eucharist at home with you and my other callings and obligations.

So why, you might ask, didn’t I simply stay home?

The answer is in those word “callings and obligations.”

Even though my primary work is right here with you, I have a calling beyond our parish boundaries. Even though my heart’s desire is to stay, sometimes my obligation is to go.

Sometimes the obligation to be away relates to serving the Church as a canon lawyer or using my abilities to support such national groups as Catholic Christian Outreach, as was the case one weekend in January.

But just as often, I have to answer a call to continue to grow as a person and a priest. As part of my call to be pastor, I spend time in continuing education, on retreat, at congresses and other gatherings.

Why? Because I’m committed to keep growing, despite the personal cost of being away from time to time. I recognize that I must continue to grow in order to serve you well. That’s why I attended the stewardship conference at which I first met Father Mahan. That’s why I made a retreat last month, at one of my busiest times. There’s an old saying: you can’t give what you ain’t got.

I studied in a seminary for four years, and in top-flight Catholic universities for five more. Yet I can’t deepen in faith and in my vocation without continuing intellectual and spiritual learning. Pope John Paul called this ongoing or permanent formation “the natural and absolutely necessary continuation of the process of building priestly personality” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 75 and 76).

More to the point, for me at least, he said it was “a duty also for priests of middle age”! (PDV, 77)

Why am I telling you all this? Simply because it’s not just me who needs outside stimulation in order to grow. It’s not just priests who need ongoing or permanent formation. It’s every Christian—every one of us.

In today’s Gospel we read about the healing of a blind man. Notice how the blind man’s sight develops: not in a flash, but rather in stages. First, he meets Jesus. Then he is sent off to wash. Only then does he see.

But of course the story isn’t only about the gift of sight. Most of all, it’s about the gift of faith. And look at how the healed man’s faith develops. Again, it’s in stages. At first, all he knows is the basic facts. Jesus told him to wash, he washed, and he saw. But as he speaks with the Pharisees, he moves past the basics and recognizes Jesus as a prophet. By the end of the story he worships Jesus as Lord.

We read this Gospel on the fourth Sunday of Lent in order to instruct those preparing for baptism. Their faith too will come in stages. But there’s message here for cradle Catholics as well. We can’t expect our faith to be fully formed just because we grew up Catholic. At every moment in our lives there is something more to learn, and some area in which our faith needs to be fostered.

Growth in faith comes from experiences, from reading, from absorbing solid Christian teaching, and from reflection and prayer. We need to be nourished constantly.

Yet many Catholics stopped their religious education at the end of grade school. In what other area of our lives would we be satisfied with what we learned as youngsters? In what other area would we assume that there’s nothing left to learn after 13 or at best 18? Usually it’s only teenagers themselves who think that, not the grownups!

The parish mission was a great success. The teaching was solid, practical and inspiring. And it was inspiring to see so many committed parishioners attending.

Still, no more than one parishioner in four attended the parish mission, and that’s well more than we usually get for teaching events. Maybe we need to ask ourselves whether we’re really making the sacrifices it takes to ensure our intellectual and spiritual growth in the faith.

Perhaps those who missed the mission might want to think about some of the other opportunities for personal formation that are around. Although our mission is over, there is one this week at St. Anthony’s with the priest-psychologist Father Lucien Larre. Those who missed Father Mahan may want to give this opportunity some serious thought.

In the foyer there’s a rack of excellent Catholic CDs that offer serious intellectual and spiritual formation inexpensively and conveniently. Our parish library is filled with classic and modern spiritual books that can really nourish our spiritual lives.

This week’s bulletin announces the annual CWL weekend retreat, and news of a retreat for single men in early April came in after we went to press. There’s a spiritual evening for women right here in the parish next Monday, March 22, and a half-day of recollection for women at St. Pius next Saturday, March 20.

And you’ll be hearing in the weeks ahead about a presentation in May on the Theology of the Body by the renowned speaker Christopher West.

In fact, just about every week the bulletin promotes an educational or spiritual opportunity somewhere in the diocese, not to mention all that happens in the parish, from Bible studies to youth events.

Our parish mission was about stewardship—stewardship of the gifts with which God has blessed us. It almost goes without saying that the most precious of all gifts is our faith—the gift of knowing Jesus is truly more precious than silver and gold.

When Father Mahan spoke about the stewardship of our spiritual gifts I heard echoes of St. Paul, who urged his friend Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have” (1 Tm. 4:14).

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you” (2 Tm. 1:6). Timothy must stir into flame the divine gift he has received, much as we might do with the embers of a fire. (see PDV, 70).

The apostle wasn’t just speaking to Timothy when he wrote those words. As stewards of the gift of faith, each and every one of us has the duty and the privilege to fan it into a flame that burns brightly within us.

One way we do this, practically speaking, is by taking adult faith formation seriously at every moment of life’s journey, despite the sacrifices it requires.

I'm grateful to hear that people say they miss me when I’m away. But I’d be happier still if my absences caused you to wonder whether it’s time for you also to travel outside your comfort zone in order to be challenged and inspired.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Living Water: Lent 3 A

Close your eyes and let your imagination take you back almost two thousand years.

You’re a Roman soldier—or perhaps his wife. You were raised in a respected family, raised in the traditions of ancient Rome and its empire. Caesar, the emperor, was venerated as a god both in military ceremonies and in the home.

But a friend, or a neighbour, or maybe a relative began to talk to you about a different God: not the emperor you see pass by on his chariot, but an all-powerful God who came to earth—as a Jewish man, of all things.

The more you learn about this Jew, killed by soldiers of your own army, and the more time you spend with his followers, the more sure you become—this is what you want. Freedom from the fear of ruthless pagan gods, a promise of life that will never end, a way of living that’s rooted in the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Eventually, you are ready to join this new and wonderful religion. Your new friends—they call themselves your brothers and sisters—say they will get you ready to take the plunge. And they mean that literally: to become a Christian you must be submerged in water in the dark of night. Baptism, they call it.

It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. Not that many years ago your regimental sergeant was executed when he refused to pay homage to the divine Caesar. The persecutions come and go, but at the very best your career is finished. For the family, things will likely become very tough as relatives and neighbours turn away.

You’re not entirely sure what all it will cost you, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re ready to die if that what it takes.

Do you have the picture in your minds? Now let’s ask ourselves: what did those Romans expect from baptism, at that price?

Would they have put their lives on the line for a “membership card”? For a friendly community in which to network? As an excuse for a party or a chance to put their children in a good school?

You know the answer as well as I do. The early Christians put their lives on the line because they were convinced that after baptism nothing would ever be the same again.

They expected something marvellous would happen as they arose from the baptismal font. They knew they might have to pay a great cost, but they anticipated something truly priceless.

Now fast forward from ancient Rome to Vancouver in 2010. What do we expect from baptism, that sacrament most of us received as infants, not as free-willed adults? Has it made all the difference to our lives? Can it?

Hope abounded in the hearts of catechumens partly because of the catechesis—the instruction—that the community provided them during their intense preparation. One of the key texts used was the Gospel we have just heard.

Today the Church still reads this Gospel to help our catechumens prepare for baptism. But the rest of us are not ignored. We may have been baptized as infants, but the life-changing grace of the sacrament must be welcomed throughout our lives if it’s to make all the difference.

Catechumens, candidates and Catholics: today we’re all invited to step into the sandals of the woman of Samaria.

Perhaps that seems strange—she lived long ago and far away. And yet few figures in the Bible are more universal, more modern, than that Samaritan woman. She’s not satisfied with things as they are, and she wants to know the truth. Isn’t that the human condition? St. Augustine certainly thought so, because he said “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.”

The problem is, some of us have been shoving aside our doubts and fears and desires for so long that we no longer think about our deeper hungers and thirsts. That’s why Jesus takes his time with the woman at the well. First, he awakens her thirst. Second, he offers to quench it.

The Samaritan woman does her part. She doesn’t turn and run—or argue or get defensive— when Jesus starts talking about her personal life. She asks the right questions. Step by step she lets Him explain that there is living water no ordinary well contains. But most of all, she admits her hunger and thirst for truth.

This is exactly what goes on in the lives of our catechumens as they prepare for baptism. They encounter Jesus. They acknowledge the truth about their lives. They ask the right questions. And they allow themselves to feel their hunger for truth and their thirst for the living water that wells up to eternal life.

But what about the rest of us, baptized as infants? Are we just onlookers as Jesus speaks to the woman of Samaria, as He speaks to our brothers and sisters preparing for their baptism?

Yesterday I hiked up to the Cleveland Dam with Daniel, our visiting seminarian from Alberta. I thought he would be impressed by the sight of the water cascading into the canyon, but it wasn’t that successful—he compared it to the waterslide at the West Edmonton Mall!

Well, wherever the water is gushing, it’s a perfect symbol of the abundant grace that flows into the hearts of the baptized. But torrents of water are probably not what come to mind when we think of our own baptism—more like a trickle: enough to keep us going, but not exactly Niagara Falls.

As Lent progresses, Jesus calls us to drink deeply of the living water. He wants us to admit that we’re parched most of the time, preoccupied with daily life, not the abundant life.

The Lord speaks to everyone here just as personally as he spoke to the Samaritan woman: If you knew the gift of God—the gift you have received, or are offered, in baptism—you would ask for living water. Water that washes away the daily grime of sin, water that refreshes, water as peaceful as a mountain creek and as powerful as a cascading falls.

Perhaps the image doesn’t quite work for us, accustomed as we are to indoor plumbing and plenty of fresh clean water. Then think about the biblical understanding to get the message: “Water is first of all the source and strength of life: without it the earth is nothing but an arid desert, a land of hunger and thirst, where men and beasts are doomed to death.” (1)

We drink deeply first of all that we may not die. The water of life is just that. But we drink deeply—that is to say we let the graces of baptism flow freely in our lives—that we might not live unsettled lives, lives of unfulfilled longing and fear. We’re meant to live with confidence, abundantly and fully; that was promised us in baptism.

God is faithful to his promises; the only question is whether we’re opening our hearts to the spiritual gifts we’ve already received—gifts and blessings that are dormant until we join the woman of Samaria in crying out “Give me this water so I may never be thirsty again.”

One of my favourite preachers says that if we don’t take the call of Lent to heart, then we can be like someone who is thirsty and reads about water, listens to talks about water, sings songs about water, and joins discussions groups about water—until finally one day, he or she dies of thirst. “What happened? He or she never drank the water.”

“Jesus has living water that will bring life to your life.” (2)

1) Dictionary of Biblical Theology, new revised ed., 644.
2) S. Joseph Krempa, Captured by Fire, Cycle A, p. 34).