22nd Sunday Ordinary Time

Sometimes I think Catholics seem to take this reading too literally when they look for a seat in Church; they don’t want to ‘exalt’ themselves by taking the front pews, preferring instead to be very humble, sitting at the very back, perhaps waiting for the celebrant to shout out, “my friends, please come up here and sit in a place of greater prominence!’ (okay, okay; I’m trying to be charitable here…)

In the first century, during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry;  the place at which one was seated at a formal dinner was revealing of your social status;  in fact, the place you sat would even dictate what quality of food or wine you would eat.  – we have examples of historical writings from Roman feasts, where the guests of greatest importance had the best wine and the best cuts of meat; and as the importance of the guests descended, so did the quality of food they were served.  It was common in Jewish society that after these grand occasions, the ‘leftovers’ or ‘scraps’ were then distributed to the poor. But we can imagine how, if the best started with the most prominent guests, and then declined through the entire guest list, whatever was left for the poor was in some cases, not fit for human consumption.

There was something very socially important in who was invited as well:  this is something Jesus is alluding to in this passage from St. Luke’s Gospel – people were invited to dinner based on their social status;  you invited those who were of similar status or even perhaps  a bit higher – the purpose being to improve your own social standing; there was also an expectation that  when you were invited to dinner, you were bound to return the favour ; almost trying to out-do your host the next time you hosted the dinner.

It was taking the ancient cultural ideal of hospitality, (providing what was needed to those who needed it when they needed it) and turning it on its head – you didn’t invite people to feed them simply to be a great host; you invited them so that they would have to invite you in return; it had the potential of using the ‘disguise’ of hospitality to use other people as a means to an end, to help people climb the social ladder.

Jesus takes this opportunity to speak at a Sabbath dinner to turn this thinking back, not only on a particular group of Pharisees, but to the people of his time, and our time.  This example of a dinner invitation and the seating arrangements provides a ‘teaching moment’ for Jesus:  He is not simply scolding this particular group for their behaviour.  He uses this dinner as an opportunity for all people to learn how to imitate the selfless love of God, and to be more Christ-like:  to live out those two commands of love for God, and love for neighbour

Jesus says to invite the poor and those who have nothing precisely because they cannot return the favour; don’t give the leftover scraps to them, but share with them the best and the finest that we can; he is saying give to others, especially the poor, not for any expectation of return, but simply out of love for your neighbour.

But there’s another side to this; it is in the metaphor of the invitation and the seating arrangements of a banquet that Jesus illustrates God’s love and God’s saving action.

God invites all of humanity into his own ‘heavenly banquet’; He adopts us through the gift of Baptism and nourishes us with His Word; He gives us His Son Jesus to bring us into closer relationship with Him through His death and resurrection, a relationship we live out in participating in the Sacraments, and the life of the Church and in our own daily lives; and why does He invite us into this banquet?  Is it so that we can somehow repay Him?

What could we possibly do to repay God?

Nothing.

There is nothing we could possibly do to sufficiently repay God for His invitation and inclusion in his Kingdom, in His life.  Just think of the position we have as children of the Creator of Everything!  Imagine if we were an employee of some huge corporation, could we just pick up the phone anytime, anywhere and talk to the CEO?  If we worked for the government at some lower level, could we just drop in and visit the Prime Minister or Governor General whenever we felt like it, day or night?

Yet this is what the Creator of All things has done for us; we, a very small part in the immensity of all creation, can talk to our Creator about anything and everything at any time we please; we can share our sorrows and joys, our burdens and our triumphs in prayer at any time; we can approach our Lord in the Sacraments and in the life of the Church any time we like

This is God’s great invitation and kindness to us – and He gives it all out of love; not because we can repay His kindness to us; we can only choose to accept His invitation in gratitude, and share this gratitude in the way we treat others; when we recognize that we cannot repay God, and that all we have comes from God – that is when we become truly humble.  That’s true humility; and it is when we enter into this true humility, when we humble ourselves, that God exalts us by inviting us to live as His children, to become one with Him.  And when we become one with Him, it can’t help but be reflected in our actions.

We can provide for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable, not because they can repay us, or because we can somehow gain – we do it because we want to be like the Master; because we want to act like our Father; because in expressing our love for each other, we express our love for God.

congress day three 097

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Advertisements

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Several years ago I had the tremendous privilege, as their National Spiritual Director, of leading a retreat in Toronto for a number of Lay Missionaries of Charity, an association of lay people who are part of the ‘family’ of religious congregations founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.  As part of our exercises, we participated in periods of Eucharistic Adoration with a small number of Missionary of Charity sisters – they are easily recognizable by the habits that they wear: the white saris with blue trim;

These sisters live in an old house in the heart of ‘Parkdale’ in Toronto; an area in the inner city that has considerable poverty, crime, and a large number of residents with emotional and mental challenges.  The sisters provide meals every day for the poor of their neigbourhood from the basement of their modest house; and to give you an idea of how they embrace their vow of personal poverty; the sisters have only two saris each – that’s their entire wardrobe: two, so that they have something to wear when they wash the other: if the sari is ripped or damaged, they have to darn it themselves; they can’t replace it.  The sisters have to make their own pallets and then make mattresses to put on their pallets to sleep on: they don’t have “beds” as we would think of them:  and while all of this is amazing in itself, as I reflected while I was with the sisters and the lay missionaries, I found something even more incredible to consider:

All of the sisters in this house were from India, one of the poorest countries in the world: and yet, they had been sent by their order, to one of the richest countries in the world to help the poor there:  Canada – a country which is consistently rated in various studies as being in the top ten in the world for standard of living, for education, for health care, for quality of life:  and the biggest city in this wealthy country: a city that consistently promotes itself as ‘the economic engine’ that drives this country:  this small group of sisters had come from the poverty of India, not to seek a better life for themselves, but to serve the poor in Toronto.

All I could continually think of was ‘look at these tiny little women’; and yet I was taken with their absolute trust that God would provide what they needed as they continued ministering in this monumental task that they had undertaken in response to the call of God.

This is most certainly not the typical lifestyle that every person would choose: this is most certainly something inspiring, exceptional and rare:  this is not ‘following the crowd’ 

This is entering the narrow door.

Jesus tells us to ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door’

This is not a passive Christianity that Jesus is calling us to – to simply say, “oh yes we know Jesus and we believe in Him,” and that’s good enough.  There is an expectation in the words of the Gospel that Jesus is calling us to an active Christianity ; to go out and do something with our belief in Him; to deepen our relationship with Him in prayer and participating in the Sacraments, yes: but more than that – to get out there and get our hands ‘dirty’ to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked , to shelter the homeless, to uphold and protect the dignity and sacredness of all life: in other words to put the needs of others ahead of our own comforts and desires; to faithfully and fully participate in the life of the Church.

We live in a society that says this type of attitude or lifestyle is foolish: we are constantly bombarded with messages in the media and modern culture to get all that we can, when we can, any way that we can – that our comfort comes before all else – that it’s all about ‘me’ and that I am entitled to have what I want when I want it, and it doesn’t matter how I get it – if it means treating people as a means to an end, so be it.  A society and culture that encourages us to keep gathering ‘things’ as the means to all happiness (if I just get that new car, then I will be happy;  if I get that one more promotion, then I’ll be happy;  if I get another house that’s just a little bigger, then I’ll be happy) – a society that promotes the idea of being entitled to everything and anything we want, to the point that our wants and desires and egos turn into this big bloated mass  that , if it were a person or ‘baggage’ carried by us, could only enter anywhere through a very wide door.

That very wide door that says, it’s okay – get what you want at the expense of others; a very wide door that says – it doesn’t matter how we treat the poor in our midst; a very wide door that even says, I know who Jesus is and I kind of believe in Him, or I’m basically a good person, but I don’t really need to follow or listen to any of His teachings handed down to us;  I’m okay with Jesus but not with His Church.

Jesus is quite clear:  He says ‘strive’ to enter the narrow door. The word in the Greek St. Luke uses for ‘strive’ is the same root word for ‘agony’.  It implies that Jesus is telling us to suffer in order to enter into salvation’s ‘narrow door’. 

This is not about ‘earning’ our way into heaven. Jesus invites us into salvation freely:  but He does say by this that we cannot simply say ‘I’m a believer,’ or,’ I’m a good person’ and sit back and expect that to be enough: 

He talks of those who say ‘we ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets’ but the Lord will say, “I do not know where you come from’.  

In other words, simply being a casual acquaintance of Jesus is not enough to enter God’s Kingdom;  Jesus tells us that to enter the Kingdom we have to be Christ-like: that we are to be servants of God and servants of others:    He says ‘strive’ and He means it:  He’s saying to each of us that we have to ‘put an effort’ into living as a child of God, one of the baptized , in responding to his free gift of salvation:     that we can’t be caught up in the comforts and desires of this world, overburdened with them:  that we have to have a spirit of love for God and others, a detachment from the things of this world so that we can enter that narrow door into God’s Kingdom;

But we have to make a choice:  we have to choose to enter by the narrow door or go off through the wide door: He doesn’t force us through either door: He leaves that choice up to us, and we cannot blame God for the choices we make.

Our participation in the Mass is a good start – but it is just that, a start.  Passively sitting in the pews is not enough; occasionally receiving the Sacraments is not enough.  If we would truly follow where Christ leads, we need to make an effort to put the love of Christ into everything we do, everywhere we go, and with everyone we meet, each and every day.

We need to strive to enter that narrow door whenever it opens.

retreat2013 006

 

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

20th Sunday Ordinary Time

I had the opportunity this week to make my annual personal pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario – the shrine dedicated to eight Jesuit martyrs who died in the region in the mid-1600’s; it seems this visit always comes at a time when I begin to question my own ‘missionary zeal’ in living and proclaiming the Gospel, when I might feel discouraged in ministry or life, and when I wonder if the cost of speaking the Truth is really worth the effort.  All it takes is for me to pray at the gravesite of St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Gabriel Lalemant who were horribly tortured and killed for the Faith, to put into perspective what the ultimate cost of true missionary zeal can be.  It puts into perspective for me that my struggles are not even close to those confronted by those saints who truly gave up everything in this world, including their own lives, for the sake of lovingly following in Jesus’ footsteps.  We don’t need to look, though, into the lives of saints who lived hundreds of years ago to see what dedication to Jesus can cost.

We can look at the Christians in Egypt who are being killed and whose churches are being burned and desecrated by mobs; mobs who are directing their anger over the political situation there at the Christian minority – Christians who have lived in that country for centuries, and remain there, in their homeland. They take great personal risk in simply being Christian, and going to worship Christ as a faith community – and yet they continue to do so.

We look at those who, closer to home, promote the cause of Life – the protection and dignity of all life from conception to its natural end – and how they are denigrated and belittled because they believe and speak out the truth that every life is a gift from God and is worthy of preservation.

We look at those who speak out in defence of Church teaching, trying to remind all people, especially Catholics, of the deposit of faith and the commands handed down to us from Christ through the Apostles – and how they are often ignored, ridiculed or rejected simply because the message of the Gospel doesn’t ‘fit in’ with a particular lifestyle or political agenda.

How often in our own circumstances do we speak the words, ‘we shouldn’t do that’ or ‘this is wrong’ or even in a more positive way, ‘we should be doing this’?  How often have we found ourselves willing to risk being ‘outsiders’, even within our own families, for remaining true to the Faith?

Sometimes the thought that ‘doing the right thing’ or ‘speaking the truth’ may put us on the ‘outs’ with someone close to us can intimidate us or make us uncomfortable.  That discomfort can tempt us to do nothing, rather than risk ‘challenging’ someone and ‘causing conflict’.  If we react often enough in that way, we end up watering down the gospel, the Church’s teaching, and we lose that missionary zeal to spread the Gospel to all people as Jesus commanded us.  We lose that fire, because we are afraid of the consequences.

In today’s gospel from St. Luke, we hear Jesus speak, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the world? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

It’s not that the purpose of Jesus coming among us was to promote conflict – but He knew that, typical of our fallen human nature, His coming and message would result in division among people – even within households.  Some would accept His teaching and message, and others would not, sometimes violently opposing His message and those who bear it.  This is one of those ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus.  We would rather hear the ‘warm and fuzzy’ Jesus that talks about love and peace and green pastures and still meadows.

He is speaking of His impending Passion and Death and subsequent Resurrection; the fire of the Holy Spirit which He will send will engulf the world, consuming evil and inspiring and ‘inflaming’ the hearts of believers to live out the Gospel and spread it among all peoples; speaking the Truth with a ‘missionary zeal’.

We sometimes are lulled into this false sense that in the family dynamic, the ‘perfect’ family is one in which there are no challenges, no disagreements, no turmoil.  Reality, however, teaches us that there is often no growth without challenge or struggle. (Anyone who says that there is no ‘conflict’ in the perfect family has never said ‘no’ to a child.)

As Christians we are called to hold each other accountable, and to point out error when that error threatens to draw us or someone else further away from the relationship with God that we are all invited into.  Typically, though, we don’t like to be corrected.  We don’t like to have our errors pointed out to us.  If this ‘correction’ is not offered charitably, or accepted in humility, this most definitely can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and division.  Just as typically, we don’t like to correct others out of fear of being thought of us ‘snobbish’ or ‘high-handed’ or even ‘hypocritical’.

In His teaching, Jesus does not tell us to point out error or provide correction in a spirit of malice, being deliberately hurtful or thoughtless, or from some sense of superiority (He knows we all have our own faults and shortcomings).

But He does command His followers to speak and live the Truth, even when that Truth is in conflict with what our world, our culture, our society, even our own family members ,promote or engage in.  He gave commandments and teachings, and repeatedly taught that the true mark of His disciples was that they would follow His commandments and teachings regardless of the personal cost; that the true disciple’s first loyalty is to Him above all else, even family, friends and society.

The paradox is that the love given in devoted loyalty to Jesus expresses itself in the care and concern we have for others, in our words and actions.  On the other hand, complete devotion to specific people or to a specific culture or society does not often leave room for devotion to Christ.

As Christians we should desire that same fire that Jesus’ longed for! We should yearn for that missionary zeal to live as He lived and to love as He loved, speaking the Truth and deepening our own relationship with God and drawing all people, lovingly, into that relationship. We should hope and pray for the courage to be constant in our own circumstances, charitably challenging each other to live authentically as Catholics, and humbly accepting correction from each other in living out that authenticity.

retreat2013 022

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

19th Sunday Ordinary Time

“You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Many Scripture scholars, and other people who read this passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, often consider these words applying to the end of time, or at the very least the end of their own lives; that Christians need to ‘be ready’ to have a clear conscience and a pure heart for that time when God calls them to leave this life and enter into eternity.

While this is one way of considering this passage, there is another, equally valid way we can reflect on these words. We can consider these words applying to our meeting Jesus at the moment of our own death –and- we can consider these words applying to our meeting Jesus every day in every person we encounter.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta used to remind the members of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, and others, that every day we would meet Jesus in what she called ‘the distressing disguise of the poor,” and poor is a very broad term; it can mean the starving and the dying in the streets of Calcutta; it can also mean the poor or our own community or our own households – the materially poor; those who have no friends or family (the socially poor) ; those who have no relationship with God (the spiritually poor).

This particular Sunday is preceded by the feast day of two saints whose lives and deaths were very intertwined: Pope St. Sixtus II whose feast is August 7th, and St. Lawrence, whose feast is August 11th .

They lived in Rome during the persecution under the emperor Valerian in the middle of the 3rd century; one of the punishable crimes against the Christians was any public act of worship; Saint Sixtus was arrested as he was celebrating Mass out in the cemetery of St. Callistus, along with five of his deacons, including Lawrence. Sixtus and his deacons were well aware of the penalty for this public act, and they were prepared for the consequences; consequences which would mean execution; but would also mean being freed from the bonds of this world and meeting the Lord face to face. In his life and ministry, Sixtus was ready to meet the bridegroom for eternity.

Lawrence, on the other hand, was singled out by the Roman prefect and separated from the others. Lawrence was in charge of the church funds which were used for the care of the members of the church. The prefect demanded the ‘treasury’ but Lawrence did not have it with him. The prefect gave Lawrence three days to present him with the Church’s wealth. Sixtus and the other deacons were executed that day.

Lawrence worked often with the poor of the city of Rome, and it was to the poor that his actions were drawn; he took all of the sacred vessels and gathered up all of the funds that the church possessed and spent the next three days distributing everything among the poor, Christian and non-Christian alike. When the time came for him to make his presentation to the prefect, Lawrence gathered the poor, the sick and the lame of the city of Rome in the prefect’s courtyard and announced to him , “Behold the wealth of the Church.”

The prefect’s response was predictable; Lawrence was taken and executed in a most brutal fashion, roasted alive on a grid iron, and died a martyr of the Church; but it is in his actions and death that we see an example of how Lawrence was not only prepared to meet Jesus for eternity, but how he was prepared to meet Jesus every day in the poor and suffering; in every person he encountered. St. Lawrence is one of the patron saints of deacons, the patron saint of Rome, and the universal patron of the poor.

While we may not live in a country or culture where we are called to be ready to die a martyr’s death for our Catholic faith, we are called to be ready to be a witness to our faith in a culture that is hostile to it. We are called to be ready to meet Jesus in the poor and the suffering, the lonely and the lost; we are also called to be ready to witness to our faith – in our choice of entertainment; in the products that we buy, having a social conscience for how this impacts the environment and the poor of this world; in our social circumstances, when people and society tell us that everything is relative and that the Church’s teaching on marriage or contraception is out of date or out of touch: we witness in faithfulness to the teaching of Christ and the Church on the sanctity of marriage and the sacredness of human life from conception to its natural end.

Saint Sixtus was ready to meet Jesus for eternity and was willing to publicly profess his faith, knowing it would cost his life.

Saint Lawrence was ready to meet Jesus for eternity by meeting Jesus daily in those whom he served, the Church and the poor.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was ready to meet Jesus daily in dedicating her whole life to serving Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.

We may not die for witnessing to our faith, but we may suffer for this witness in other ways; limiting our social circle – not being popular or always included in gatherings or activities; losing out on a promotion or job opportunity; but in practicing and standing up for our faith; in living out our mission to love God and our neighbour –whoever that neighbour may be – we are like the servants in today’s parable, being ready for the Lord whenever and wherever He comes to us.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

18th Sunday Ordinary Time

There are many times in each of our lives, when our plans just don’t work out – when events that we might have set in motion, or circumstances beyond our control, take all of our schedules, activities and organizational goals and render them useless.  It might be an economic downturn wiping out a stock portfolio; it might be an injury which halts a career in sports; it might be putting a repair job off for another day, only to have a bigger repair job as a result. 

As Christians, we need to constantly be on guard that we have not put our ambitions, and goals for acquiring ‘things’ ahead of God.  We can have dreams, yes, and goals and hopes – but if our heart is set only on getting and having more and more, directed towards our selves – then this is the opposite of what God calls us to, and what Christ commands us to do.  We can acquire things or enjoy accomplishments, but if these are gained by exploiting others, then the law of God and the teaching of the Church tells us that this is wrong. 

This priority of relationship with God is reflected in our personal lives; we might say to ourselves – “I’m really busy building my career, or gathering property, taking care of my desires, but “someday, I’m going to visit an elderly relative;  someday, I’m going to do something nice for my neighbour;  someday, I’m going to do this or that activity with my children;  but as life so often tells us, and the parable of the rich man in today’s Gospel reminds us, ‘someday’ might never come at all.   

We might find ourselves saying, I want to work on my relationship with God; someday I’m going to go to the Sacrament of Confession; someday, I’m going to spend more time in prayer; someday, I’m going to clothe the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless; but then life changes literally in a heartbeat, and all of our plans to ‘someday’ grow closer to God are suddenly gone. 

We seem to forget the wisdom of our grandparents or parents who reminded us that when we have a real priority to attend to, that rather than putting it off, that there is no time like the present. 

In the 1500’s in Spain, a young man named Ignazio spend his life dreaming and planning of one day being a great knight; he came from a family of some means, which meant he could spend time at the royal courts, surrounded by people of wealth and privilege.  He spent his youth in pursuit of glory and honour in a military career; he loved to read and hear stories of adventure and valour – and although he was Catholic, his relationship with God was not particularly high on his priority list. 

Ignazio, as a soldier, participated in a number of skirmishes and battles that were part of the everyday life of Europe in that period in history – this was, after all, how one built a military career and advanced towards gathering a reputation and standing in that society.  But in one of these battles, he was struck by a cannon ball, which shattered his leg. 

In that instant, his life completely changed; due to events that he had set in motion, combined with circumstances beyond his control, Ignazio’s plans meant nothing.  He was taken from the battlefield, and after being treated for his injuries, went to the estate of a friend to recover.  He spent a considerable amount of time convalescing, and during this time, looked for something to read.  He was hoping to find books of adventure and romantic tales, but could only find stories of the life of Christ, and the lives of the Saints.  

Ignazio began reading these stories and found the beginnings of an inner stirring that would mark the start of a profound conversion in his life.  He would no longer seek out military honour, but would instead seek to move closer to God, to make a return to God in love for all that God had given him.  Over time Ignazio would dedicate himself completely to God, becoming a priest and founding a congregation of priests and brothers that would spread out as missionaries, traveling throughout the known world, the new world and the far east, covering the globe to spread the Gospel .  This congregation would be known as the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, and Ignazio, their founder, might be more familiar to us as St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day is celebrated July 31st

In today’s passage from St. Luke, Jesus reminds us in the parable of the rich man just how fragile our lives and circumstances are; how in an instant all of our circumstances can change, and the decisions and actions we take in this life will indeed have a bearing on our eternity. 

Our desire to be with God should not simply be based on a fear of punishment; our desire to be with God should be out of the instinct within our souls – to be with and love God simply because He loves us. The rich man set his heart on material wealth – on gaining more and more; the implication in the way Jesus teaches this parable is that the rich man gave no thought to the needs of others, or the justice of having far more than he could possibly use while others were in need, or even his relationship with God. 

Maybe he was thinking there would be other times to get to know God, or what God wanted in his life.  Perhaps he was thinking that there would be lots of opportunities once he accomplished his gathering of wealth to maybe give a little time to considering God.  We don’t know – this is not part of the story. 

Maybe this is reflected in our own lives – we can become so busy in business, in social climbing, in gathering ‘things’ that we may think nothing of God or very little of God – perhaps we are thinking there will be plenty of time for this later. 

Truly God’s love is without limit.  God’s mercy is also limitless.  But the opportunities we have to spend time in prayer; to participate in the Sacraments; to reach out in love to the poor and the marginalized in our world; to grow into a deeper relationship with God – these opportunities are limited by the fact that we are mortal, and in our lifetimes we do not have an unlimited number of days. 

We can choose, as did the rich man in this parable, to spend our lives completely absorbed in gaining more and more in material wealth, in privilege, in possessions, in power; or we can choose to accept all as a gift from God, and to base our life on a relationship with God.  That from this relationship we can determine what the real priorities are in our lives, and build our lives on those priorities – always keeping in mind that we were created to be united to Our Creator – that is why Jesus entered into our humanity – to offer Himself to re-unite us with God. 

Jesus doesn’t say we can’t have ‘things’, or not to make any kinds of plans;  what he does say, though, is that these ‘things’ and  ‘plans’ cannot take priority over our relationship with God, because we will not be spending eternity with our physical things or wealth.  In choosing a time to express our desire to grow closer and to spend eternity with God, there is no time “like the present”; in our participation at Mass; in our prayer; in our receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. 

Unlike the rich man in the parable, we need to be ‘rich for God’; to spend time in building or deepening our relationship with God – and rather than waiting for ‘some day’ to do this, we begin in the present moment, right now; in simply taking a moment in the depths of our hearts to say, “yes God, I do love You – help me to grow closer to You in my heart and my soul and my will.”   

birds over blowing rocks

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!