Easter – 5th Sunday

“Don’t make me come down there!”

When I was a child, if play got a bit, ‘out of hand’ and turned into arguments – and noisy arguments at that – in the basement of our house, one of the most serious means to quiet us down would be to hear my father’s or mother’s voice calling down from the upper floor, ‘don’t make me come down there!’ 

Similarly in high school, (I went to a Catholic boy’s school) if we were making noise in our seats, causing distractions during an assembly – when we knew we were supposed to be quiet or paying attention– all it would take to restore silence and attentiveness immediately would be for the principal to stand up, point down to the offending parties and say, ‘don’t make me come down there!’

The distance of time helps to form a better understanding of the experiences in our lives that have made us who were are today.  When I reflect through the hindsight of being a parent with active children, or any times I have been in a classroom setting also with active kids, it is easy to understand how, sometimes, our frustrations can give way to words that sound more like threats. “Don’t make me come down there,” can give rise to the question, ‘what will happen if you do come down here?’

This response, in frustration, usually comes from the belief that children should ‘know better’ or are at least on the path to ‘knowing better’ when it comes to living with, interacting with, and cooperating with each other.  That arguing, bickering and fighting are not only the result of selfishness or self-interest; but arguing, bickering and fighting are quite often counterproductive.  In a family setting, in a fight, nobody wins really; there are usually hurt feelings, resentment and distancing; and it doesn’t just happen in families – it happens in schools, workplaces, and even in church parish communities.

Perhaps approached a different way, the words, ‘don’t make me come down there’ can take on a less threatening tone if we reflect on them through God’s lens.  From the beginning of salvation history, God invited His people to live in harmony with each other and with Him; the purpose of His interaction through the Law with His chosen people was to help guide them into together into right relationship with Him.

One of the ways He did this was to pass on rules for living, summarized in the Ten Commandments – these were a means for living out a relationship of harmony and love with God and with each other. (The Commandments are separated into categories really that deal specifically with how we respond to God, and how we live with each other)

These were never meant as threats – they were meant as boundaries to keep us in right relationship – in a relationship of love, to prevent harm.

And God is very serious about having us live in that relationship of love: they are called Commandments – not ‘suggestions’.

But of course, throughout history, time and again, God’s children proved we were not able to live within the framework of those Commandments; our tendency towards self-centeredness and self-destruction proved we weren’t capable on our own of getting along with each other, or with God.

In response to our actions, God ‘came down here’; but it was not in a threatening or angry way – it was in the most loving and self-emptying way of all.  He came down here in the person of Jesus, living among us, as one of us, to give an example and to lead us in living as we should, in harmony and love with each other.

But He was serious in what He taught, and in the words He used.  In our Gospel passage today from St. John, Jesus uses the word, “commandment’.  First off, that means He is illustrating His authority, as God, in giving a New Commandment (like the other Ten) – to love one another as He loves us.

Second, the choice of the word ‘commandment’ means this is not an option or a suggestion; it means ‘commandment’!  It is His instruction on how we return to that relationship in harmony with God and with each other.

His example was an example for all of us of total self-emptying.  Were there people He argued with? Yes, but it was out of love to instruct them in the Truth.   Were there people that didn’t get along with Jesus?  Obviously, as some rejected everything about Him to the point of handing Him over to death. 

God knows all of our faults, weaknesses and failings.  He knows we aren’t going to consider every person, even in our parish, our favorite people or even someone we want to spend all of our time engaged with; but what is commanded is that we get along.  We are commanded not to gossip, not to fight amongst ourselves, not to seek gain at the expense of others, not to place our own self-interests above God. We are commanded to hold each other up in prayer; to support each other as a community of faith, and to empty ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters who most need our assistance and support.

That, Jesus said, is how others will know (and how we will know) that we are His disciples; by our love for each other and our love for God.

And for that, we can be eternally grateful, as God’s children; that God’s love for us, made Him ‘come down here.’

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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Easter – 4th Sunday

The interesting thing about sheep, or any animal for that matter, is that when training them from a young age, they need to hear the voice of the one they will follow repeatedly.  They build up a trusting response; they hear the voice of the one who feeds and tends and cares for them, and they follow wherever they hear that voice call to them.  They may not respond to that voice the first time they hear it, but over time, if they hear it regularly – and its call is reinforced with satisfying their real needs – they will gladly come to that voice when it calls.

They might follow another voice, if it provides immediate reward; but over time, if that voice doesn’t really tend, love and care for them, they become confused, sometimes hostile, and don’t know what voice to follow anymore; they become lost.

Today, we hear Jesus say, “my sheep know my voice.”

In our world we are surrounded by different voices – voices that offer and invite; voices that ask and challenge; voices that express emotion and voices that call for calm.  We hear voices that attempt to draw us in their direction – voices that invite us to follow a path of self-gratification and self-indulgence. We hear other voices that suggest we ignore the needs of others and reject those who aren’t in our ‘social standing’.  We hear voices that tell us to ignore truth and beauty and real love, and move into some artificial and materialistic lifestyle.

These voices call to us continually and invite us to move away from that voice which promises life and wholeness; the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares not for himself, but for us, His followers, His sheep.  He provides life and truth and beauty and authentic love; His voice is heard in His teaching and Sacraments, handed down to His Apostles, and then handed down to us, in turn, through His Church.

And in the analogy provided by Jesus, as sheep following a shepherd, we grow and recognize His voice by continually hearing it and responding to it, participating in the life of the Church in caring for others; the poor, the marginalized, the neglected and forgotten – doing all these things and more as part of the life of the flock that the Good Shepherd founded.

But we cannot grow in His ‘flock’ if we do not regularly participate in the ‘life’ of the ‘flock’, listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd drawing us more deeply into His life and His love.

Any voice that calls us away from Him, is neither good, nor is it caring. It may be attractive at first, but it will leave us empty, cold and hollow.

We are called to follow the voice that leads us to Christ, leads us to life – a life that is whole, complete, truthful and beautiful; a life that is complete when it rests in the Father’s hands – where, as Jesus says, we will not be ‘snatched away.’

If we spend time in prayer, the sacraments and the life of the Church, we will recognize His call; we will be the sheep who know and follow His voice.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…pray and work…

I love yard work, particularly gardening in the spring.  There is something very therapeutic and nurturing about digging in the dirt, clearing away debris, and pruning off deadwood. 

I have found though, in my own pilgrim journey, a very practical, prayerful side to this as well – and I draw upon two spiritual greats to bridge a couple of practices in deepening my own spirituality.

St. Benedict and St. Ignatius of Loyola.

While they lived in different times and under completely different circumstances, there is something from each that I have found quite helpful; hopefully this combination of practices will help you – if not, maybe someone you know.

Be forewarned, however; this will actually take a little effort and some reflection!

Ignatius, in his ‘Exercises’ has a practice that is essentially this: make a chart listing the days of the week.  Draw a line across the chart, dividing the days into morning and evening.  Now comes the effort and reflection part.

Each day, pause at some point mid-day and examine your conscience from your waking moments to that mid-day point. If you are aware of any major sins, make a large dot for each one.  If you are aware of any minor sins, make a small dot for each one.  Then, in the evening, examine your conscience again from mid-day to that evening, and do the same on the second half of the day on your chart (large dots and small dots).

At the end of the week, sit, reflect and review your chart; you will notice there are patterns there – perhaps one point where there are a lot of dots; or a point where there were very few or maybe even none at all.  Reflect on your week, and see if you can determine what you were doing or where you were (your circumstances) when you had these patterns of a lot or few dots. 

This gives you an idea of the areas in life you need to avoid, or the areas in life that require a greater reliance on God in your activities.

Now that’s Ignatian – but what does that have to do with St. Benedict?

Well, as I said, I used this technique a number of years ago, during the spring gardening season; and I found those times when I actually had no dots to be times when I had prayed my liturgy of the hours, worked in the garden or the yard, and prayed my rosary at the same time…it was , for me, a very liberating experience (almost like a mini-retreat each time I was outside).  And it reminded me of the maxim of St. Benedict:

‘Ora et labora’….pray and work.

It doesn’t have to be outside physical manual labour; it could be any of a million daily chores or activities each of us is involved in (but physical work provides a more ‘human’ balance I think).  If we approach it in a balance with prayer (and balance is the key here), any of our daily efforts can become an exercise in deepening our spirituality and thus, our relationship with God and the world around us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be going now – Someone is waiting to talk to me in the garden.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

…to tell the truth,…

“But if I tell the truth, they won’t like me…”

Been there. Heard it. Said it. Witnessed it.

There is something incredibly human in this statement.  We all like to be liked. We don’t like to make others feel uncomfortable.  We don’t like feeling uncomfortable.

But sometimes, it just cannot be avoided, if we are honest with ourselves and honest with others. Sometimes, even acknowledging that the truth will cost us somehow, is enough to tempt us to remain silent – even when we know better.  Speaking the truth is not a popular thing to do, because there will always be those who don’t want to hear the truth.  They fear it will cost them something too.

I’ve been considering this in light of all of the events of the past week in the media when held up against the daily Mass readings this week. For those not familiar, the readings have been from the Acts of the Apostles, tracing the life of the early Church post-Ascension; more specifically the last couple of days have focussed on the story of St. Stephen – one of the first seven deacons , and the first Christian martyr (and my last name and the fact that I am a deacon may just produce a slight bias in my fascination with his story).

Even more specifically, I am drawn to what the moment was that ‘clinched’ it for St. Stephen – the comment that ultimately cost him his life.

Before I go to that remark though, a little background; the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are the same person, and both works are really two back-to-back volumes. Acts picks up where Luke leaves off.  The trial of St. Stephen occurs within recent memory of the trial of Jesus, and is paralleled before the ‘council’.   Now think back to Jesus’ trial;  when questioned, (Luke 22:69) about whether or not he is the Messiah, at one point Jesus says, “…from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God’.  From this, the council replied ‘so you are the Son of God then?’ and Jesus is ‘convicted’ of blasphemy and handed over to the Romans…

Now back to St. Stephen; (Act. 7:54) in his trial before the council, it appears witnesses gave false testimony and contradicted each other; under questioning and debate his wisdom cannot be refuted – now remember, he’s before the Sanhedrin, the same body that ‘convicted Jesus’ – and when they grow infuriated at him, St. Stephen looked ‘intently up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,”

This time, they didn’t wait to hand someone over to the Romans. The Acts says they grabbed him, took him out of the city and stoned him to death right then and there.  Stephen knew what was true. He knew what was right.

But in that choice of words, he surely also must have known what it would cost him.  To say what he said, addressing it to the same group that handed Jesus over to death, surely Stephen must have at least considered what the repercussions would have been.

And yet, he spoke those words.  He told the truth.

And if that wasn’t enough, even in his final moments, as he was being stoned, we are told he cried out in a loud voice, “Lord , do not hold this sin against them,’ imitating the Master to his last breath.

Whether it be in response to a culture of death, societal pressures to ‘get with the times’ on moral and ethical issues, or even something as simple as treating others with the dignity that is due them as children of God; speaking out in school when someone is being bullied or treated cruelly- speaking out at work when someone is being treated unjustly – speaking out in social circles when someone is being victimized by gossip or rumours- in all of these and more, we are left with the example of St. Stephen in unflinchingly holding to the truth – and speaking that wherever and whenever it may cost us most dearly.

For us, then, considering St. Stephen’s story, worrying that some people ‘won’t like us’ if we speak the truth really doesn’t seem to be that big a deal in comparison.

St. Stephen, pray for us.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – 3rd Sunday

Ignorance is bliss, they say; that sometimes when we don’t know something, we’re better off.  We see stories of world events in the mass media that make us depressed, frightened or angry; we somehow think that closing ourselves off might make us happier, or a least, less anxious.  But closing ourselves off, ‘hiding out’ deprives us of opportunities to hear about tremendous and good things too.  Avoiding the ‘real world’, trying to stay in some kind of artificial ‘comfort zone’ is really contrary to our mission as Church.  Trying to forget the challenges that face us is really a futile exercise; once we genuinely experience something, we can never totally forget it.

In last Sunday’s passage from this same Gospel, we heard Jesus tell the Apostles gathered in hiding on that first Easter evening, ‘as the Father sent me so I send you’. He gave them a mission; to bear witness to His Resurrection; to go out to the world and share this message of hope, of salvation for all people.  He had removed any excuse for doubt from them when he showed them the wounds of his crucifixion, that he was indeed completely risen from the dead.  He didn’t tell them to go back to their old lives and old way of doing things.  ‘Things’ had completely changed, forever.

And yet for some unknown reason – St. John does not go into any depth about why – Peter  and Thomas, James and John, Nathanael, and ‘two other disciples’ return to Galilee, where they first encountered Jesus; and they go back to fishing on the Sea of Galilee – back to where they were when they first met Jesus.  It’s almost as if the past three years hadn’t happened.  They were, it seems, ready to forget what they had seen, what they had heard, what they had experienced.

But Jesus, it is clear, had not forgotten about them.  He goes to the place where they are – he ‘shows up’ where they have gone, back to the place where they perhaps feel most comfortable after the whirlwind of emotion and experiences of Holy Week and Easter.

This meeting at the Sea of Galilee seems almost a ‘re-run’ of some of the high points of the encounters between the Apostles and Jesus – as if Jesus is using their own attempt to go back to ‘business as usual’ as an opportunity to remind them of where they have come from, and where they are going.

Just as He did at the beginning of His ministry, when He first met Simon Peter, Jesus tells them, after an unsuccessful attempt at fishing, where to put their nets, and they make a great catch!  It is in this that they recognize Jesus, and rejoice and hurry to meet Him.

Peter, who is still as impetuous and excitable as ever, leaps out of the boat, into the waters, to swim to Jesus – confident that it really is Jesus. The last time Peter got out of a boat at sea was to walk on water towards Jesus, yet his fear at the forces of nature caused him to lose his focus on Christ and he started to sink.

Jesus is the host of the meal set before them on the shore; and as he did at the last supper, when he instituted the Eucharist and the sacramental priesthood, it says “Jesus took the bread and gave it to them…”

It is in his following conversation with Peter, that Jesus makes it clear that once we have had an authentic encounter with the Risen Christ, we can’t simply go back to ‘business as usual’.  We can go back to familiar places, familiar surroundings, even familiar situations; but none of these will ever be the same – we will always view them through the experience of that authentic encounter with Jesus.

And when we have that view, we cannot help but be changed forever.  Peter was still as excitable and impetuous as he was before meeting Jesus; but that energy and zeal would now be put to use in spreading the love of Jesus to everyone Peter would come in contact with for the rest of his life.  God would use the talents and abilities and characteristics that Peter had been born with, and would use them to spread the Gospel – even to the point of surrendering his own life in witness to Christ.

We are quick to complain about those who have fallen away from a practice of their faith; whether it be acquaintances, friends, relatives or immediate family members.  We often read statistics and bemoan the fact that attendance at church has declined, and that participation in the Sacraments is down.  But this particular epilogue from St. John’s Gospel should leave us with at least two thoughts in this regard;

– Those who have had an authentic encounter with the Risen Christ, can never go completely back to ‘business as usual’ and even if they try to forget about Him, He will never forget about them, and will always place reminders of His love in their life’s path.

– We have a mission, just as the Apostles did, to go out and spread the Gospel to all people – especially those who need to be reminded of the love of Christ; we can’t keep our faith confined to a ‘hiding place’ or ‘familiar surroundings’. Jesus’ instruction to the Apostles ‘as the Father sent me so I send you’ is for all the baptized.

Our lives are to witness to the Resurrection; everything that Jesus said and taught, handed down through His Apostles, applies to us too – we are to be living examples of our faith in Christ; we are to use the abilities and talents that God has already given us to spread the Gospel; but we are to do that beyond the buildings that we worship in.  We have to take Christ with us into the world; into our homes, yes – but to our greater communities, our workplaces, our schools; we should desire to leap out of the boat as Peter did, prepared to bring our love for Jesus into everything we do – even in those places where we may not get a very warm welcome.

Try as they might, the disciples could not go back to ‘business as usual’; they couldn’t simply pick up their lives where they left off; before meeting Jesus, travelling with Jesus, listening to Jesus, following Jesus.  Their lives were forever changed.  They were to spend the rest of their lives bringing the Resurrected Christ to the rest of the world.

So too it is with anyone who has had an authentic encounter in their lives with Jesus.  This is the mission He gives to us – to allow others to have an authentic encounter with Him through each of us; through our words and our actions.

Because once someone genuinely encounters Christ, they can’t ever forget that.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – 2nd Sunday

“Peace be with you.”

 In the Gospel of St. John, these are the first words spoken by Jesus after his resurrection to the apostles, gathered in hiding.

“Peace be with you.”

We read on Easter Sunday from this same Gospel how on the morning of the first day of the week – Sunday – Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb, tells the disciples the body of Jesus is gone, and Peter and John run to see the empty tomb as well.  But after they leave the cemetery, Mary encounters the risen Lord, and how he instructs her to go and tell the apostles that He has risen as He promised.

So she told them – and other than Peter and John running to the tomb, we are not told in the Gospel what the Apostle’s reactions were; all we are told is that they remained together in hiding, when that same evening – the evening of that first Easter Sunday – Jesus appeared in their midst; in the midst of those who were afraid, who were grieving the loss of their friend in a brutal and violent death only three days earlier; who were confused; disillusioned, angry, feeling guilty or ashamed at having abandoned him; He appeared in their midst and the first words to them are, ‘Peace be with you’.

But it is in this ‘hiding’ that Jesus appears to his disciples; and in the midst of this wide range of emotions, His first words to them are ‘Peace be with you’ and then He sends them out into the world to be messengers of hope, of peace and of love.

Of course, in this particular passage we encounter St. Thomas, who happens to be absent on that first Easter evening – and we are not told why: who knows where Thomas was when the rest were in hiding; but by omitting that detail, St. John is telling us that it really isn’t important why Thomas wasn’t there, it is important to know that he simply was not present.  When the disciples later tell him that they have seen Jesus, St. Thomas expresses his doubts, and forever earns himself the nickname,’ Doubting Thomas’.

 And this is where, I think, Thomas gets a bad, even an unfair reputation:  Thomas is no different than the other Apostles in not understanding what Jesus said about dying and rising again.  Thomas says to the apostles, ‘I don’t believe what you are telling me – I need some proof’.  He’s using his rational, God-given ability to reason and wants some assurance to back up this story; he’s going through grief, just as the rest of the Apostles; Thomas then makes the famous demand about needing to see and to touch the wounds from the crucifixion.

Most of us focus on this description of Thomas, and we tend to class him as inept, confused, or weak.  We forget that earlier in the same Gospel of St. John, in the story of Jesus going to Bethany to heal Lazarus, all of the apostles tried to talk Jesus out of going there because the people had earlier tried to stone him.  It is only Thomas, who encourages the other apostles to go where Jesus is going ‘let us go and die with Him’ Thomas is quoted as saying.  So Thomas isn’t some weak-minded coward; he is loyal to Jesus;

And when Jesus reappears the following week, and shows Thomas his wounds, Thomas makes a declaration that no other Apostle makes in all the Gospels up to that point;  he calls Jesus ‘My Lord and My God”  – no one else has called Jesus ‘My God’ before that.

Thomas would eventually proclaim the Gospel; traditions tell us he took the Gospel all the way to the west coast of India, before being martyred there; dying as a witness to his faith in Jesus.

 Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas (or any of the other apostles for that matter) for doubting or questioning.  He holds up rather, those who have not seen and yet believe in Him. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.’

This sounds much like a new beatitude (blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor, blessed are the pure of heart); this is a message for all who will hear and receive the Gospel that Jesus has died and has risen and has opened the way to salvation for all people.  This is a message for all generations from the time of Christ, to our time, and for generations yet to come.  It is a message of encouragement; it is an exhortation to not give up hope or trust in God that all will ultimately be well.

We are the ones Jesus is speaking to and about, when He says ‘blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe”. That’s why this chapter of St. John’s Gospel ends with ‘these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in His name.”

The Church – the Body of Christ – has survived for two thousand years, and has seen, endured and lived through some tremendous times of peace, hope and joy; she has also experienced periods of great darkness, doubt, scandal and sorrow. 

But in all of these times Jesus Himself has been present in His Church, and has always reminded us through His Sacred Word, His Sacraments and His faithful ministers that He is always with us.

And that He continues to speak His words of comfort and encouragement to us and continually says,

‘Peace be with you’.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!