7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Imagine a large city, where a major sports event has just occurred – the sport doesn’t really matter – but the hometown crowd takes to the streets after a game, and jubilantly shouts in the streets at the tops of their voices ,” We’re number FOUR!”

Or perhaps we can think of dropping a child off before a test, or exam, or a tryout for a competitive team or activity, and giving them this advice, “ Now I want you to go in there and try to be just barely adequate.”  Or even ourselves in our workplaces with this thought – I deserve a promotion or a raise because my performance is the absolute minimum.” 

That’s hardly the case.  In reality, we put so much effort, and try so hard to encourage those close to us, to perform to the best of their abilities when it comes to improving their lot in life, to being the best performer, to being the one with the most opportunities to chose from; unfortunately most of these are more about ‘having’ than ‘being’…it’s more about having more money to buy more things and have more ‘stuff’ – or having a position of greater strength or power, or control over others for our own benefit. 

Being the best in sports, the best in school or academics, the best in the business world or in industry or the arts or science…we divert so much of our energy ‘striving’ for these things, always trying to improve, to be the best; to be perfect .

And yet, we know that no matter how hard we try in any of our endeavours, even if we meet the pinnacle of success, there will always come a day when someone will break that record, or achieve a higher score, or a higher salary:  but we don’t stop trying.

‘Being’ is not the same as ‘having’.  Being the best person we can be – the most compassionate; the most caring; the most generous or charitable or loving:  These things are more about being – but they don’t seem to be uppermost in our minds when we think about ‘achieving’ or ‘striving’.

We encourage our children to be the ‘best they can be’ at whatever they choose to become in life;

How often do we, as Christians, apply that same standard to our relationship with God?  How much effort do we honestly put into that ‘striving’ to grow towards our Creator? 

In our passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus tells his listeners to ‘be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”  To be perfect just like God;  that’s a pretty tall order, and we might at first glance see that as an impossible suggestion from Jesus;

 Look at the examples he cites of perfection;

-if someone strikes you on your right cheek turn and offer your left

-pray for those who persecute you, for your enemies

He’s building on the Beatitudes; if we suffer persecutions and pray for our enemies – if we put our faith on the line and live what we preach – we will be the children of God. We will be an image of God in the world.

As children we will be moving towards the perfection that Jesus talks about. 

It’s not a perfection that we equate in some worldly fashion; like having some artificial cosmetic standards – the perfect smile or the perfect physique or the perfect house: it’s the perfection of the ultimate goal of every soul – a return to God who loved every soul into existence.

Every person was created in the image and likeness of God;  that ‘likeness’ or ‘resemblance’ is very much like a mirror, reflecting God who is the ultimate in perfection; God who is Truth, God who is Love, God who is Mercy and Goodness and Life;  during the course of our lives though, we allow things to cloud that mirror – our own desires, ambitions, attachments : and quite often we allow that relationship or reflection of God, to become clouded; that mirror becomes distorted, very much like a mirror in a carnival funhouse – our likeness becomes distorted and misshapen, and can end up bearing very little resemblance to, or likeness of, God.

But as children of God through baptism, we know that we have the opportunity to ‘straighten out’ or ‘reform’ that mirror within us.  That the all-merciful God is always there to help us, to give us the grace to clean and polish that mirror from within;  it is the one thing in this lifetime, the one ‘perfection’ that really is worth striving for, because from this ‘likeness’, everything else in our lives will flow outward.

We can become like God; merciful in all things; just and charitable to all people; loving unconditionally.  Jesus illustrates how unconditionally God loves all He has created; “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and unrighteous.”   God continually gives opportunities to everyone to come back into relationship with Him;  and when we are tempted to feel that some of those people He blesses are undeserving, because maybe they have been unkind to us, or have criticized our Church, or have publicly denied God;  we realize just how far from ‘perfect’ our ‘likeness’ of God really is – that we still have work to do on polishing our own mirrors, because in that type of attitude, we fail to contemplate the generosity of God – a God who always calls his children back to Him no matter what they have done.

We forget that God has been and is always as generous with each of us, no matter how many times we ourselves have failed Him and have hurt others in our lives, and yet He has always been there to forgive us and help and guide us.

There is a cost though, to this perfection; to move toward it, we have to want it.

Instinctively within, our souls know they were created to be reunited with God.  It’s what has been referred to by some writers as a ‘Holy Longing,”.  We may not understand it or realize it all the time on a rational level, but it is still there, burning within us.  At times, we become aware of it on an emotional level, and it is at those times, that our desire to unite with God becomes even stronger, that the instinctive ‘want’ grows within us.  We can come to a greater awareness of this every time we seriously enter into prayer, into conversation with God; any time we prayerfully receive the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and Reconciliation.

And the more we are aware of this longing, the more we desire it, the more we strive after it.  But here is the great paradox in this – the only work we have to do, is open our hearts and minds enough to say, yes to God, and let the Holy Spirit do all the work. 

We can begin a return to that ‘likeness’ by simply saying “yes God, I desire to return to you, to be a true reflection of you in all things. I recognize that I cannot do this by my own efforts, but only through your goodness, your mercy, and your love.”

That’s a perfection that is truly worth striving for.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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6th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

Our society seems to have a really difficult time when it comes to admitting that sometimes one thing is better than the other (unless it’s a sports competition like the Olympics).  Rather than encouraging our young people to strive to excel at school, for example, we minimize the achievements of some, so that others won’t feel less successful; instead of holding out the example of excellence, we celebrate mediocrity so that no one ‘feels bad’ – as if we can shield them from disappointment or struggles their entire lives.  This attitude permeates our entire culture.

This attitude is often reflected in our personal relationships with God.  We seem to act as if we can be minimalist in our approach to our Creator.

We may hear someone say, ‘well I’ve never sinned; I haven’t killed anyone or robbed a bank’ as if this is the threshold of acceptable behavior or sin.  I’m sure we can all agree that there are things short of killing someone that are not acceptable – or other ways of stealing that may be less than robbing a bank; and I’m sure we can all agree that these ‘lesser’ offences are no less offensive.  But if we continually use the extreme as the example or threshold of what we can ‘get away with’, then we do the opposite of what we are called to in our spiritual life (and indeed in our Christian journey); we fall into a trap – a mindset where we rationalize our own words and actions to minimize the damage they do to our own relationship with others, and to somehow fool ourselves into thinking that we are not distancing ourselves from a relationship of deep love with God.

We know the consequences of our actions, whether we choose to openly admit it or not; if we continually speak in anger or uncharitably to another, eventually that relationship will be beyond repair – if we look outside our relationships with lust, eventually that will have a damaging effect on the relationships we are in.  And God allows us to freely choose; in the first reading from Sirach, we hear, “Before each person are life and death, good and evil, and whichever one chooses, that will be given.”  God doesn’t force us to truly love him or to truly love others; but there is a responsibility we face for all of our choices and an accountability for them; it says a little later in this same passage, God “has not given anyone permission to sin.”

Perhaps we need to reacquaint ourselves with the word ‘sin’; we don’t like the word, however we have come to know its meaning; but just ignoring it because we don’t like it doesn’t deny its existence.  In its simplest terms, sin means anything – thoughts, words, actions – in which we deliberately choose those things which draw us away from God, towards our selves.

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives pretty serious examples – and then shows how much higher that bar should be raised; he refers to the Law of Moses, and says it basically presents us with a threshold for our exterior actions; but it’s a minimum threshold if we are truly serious about living a life in complete and total union with God.  The Law says not to commit adultery, but then Jesus says if we look at another person with lust, we have already committed adultery in our hearts; the Law says not to murder, but then Jesus says if we are angry or insulting in our words to others, we will face judgment.  It sounds like an impossible task for our fallen human nature – and it is. This whole Gospel passage underscores our need to rely on God’s grace in helping us to live and act in union with Him and with each other.

While these words from Jesus sound very harsh, there is also great love in them.  He is reminding all of us that rather than satisfy ourselves with some ‘minimalist’ threshold of thought or action, we are called for nobler, greater, and far more wondrous things than we could possibly imagine; and it all starts with the intentions of our hearts.  If our thoughts and words and actions constantly center on ourselves, our wants, our personal desires, then eventually we will find ourselves drawn deeper into ourselves and further away from God and others. If our desire is fixed on God, and we nurture that desire, then we will be drawn more and more towards that union of great and deep and awesome love; and that union will find itself expressed more and more in our own thoughts and words and actions; and those external expressions will find us growing more deeply in our relationship with all of those around us.

While Jesus’ words are words of warning, they are also words of encouragement and support; rather than trying to rationalize selfish behaviours (and that’s very hard work), we can simply admit to ourselves that we cannot possibly attain God without His love and the help that Christ holds out to us.  That admission frees us from all of the other ‘work’ and ‘weight’ of trying to rationalize our own actions, and opens us up to the grace of God’s strength and love.  And we cannot imagine what that relationship holds out for us.  Because as the author of 1st Corinthians tell us, “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

5th Sunday Ordinary Time (Year A)

We often hear people complimented with terms like,’ she’s so pleasant, she can light up a room full of people just by walking in,’ or ‘he’s so nice to others and hardworking, he’s just the salt of the earth.’

Because these are used in our day as compliments, sometimes it’s difficult for us to see past the surface of these analogies, ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’ when we read the particular passage from St. Matthew that is our Gospel reading today. We have to understand that in this context, Jesus, speaking directly to his disciples – anyone who is his follower – is not simply paying a compliment or patting them on the back.  He’s giving a command – giving direction; he’s calling on them – and us – to live out fully the potential his followers have; to be a force for good in the world and to continually draw closer to God, and bring others closer to God by a lived example.

In other words, Jesus is saying to anyone who claims to be his follower – be authentic – don’t just say you are my follower; live as one of my followers.

Live an authentic life in witnessing to the Gospel.  To be authentic means not to say one thing and do another, but to live out the two greatest commandments; to love God above all else, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

To fulfill the potential we have as sons and daughters of God..

In Palestine, at the time of Jesus, the salt used was a course, large crystalline substance, something like the salt we use to melt ice…and it wasn’t used to season food to taste – it was used to preserve foods like fish and meat – this was long before refrigerators and vacuum sealed plastic packaging.

The trouble with this type of salt, was that if it was left in the open, or exposed to the elements, it could lose its ‘saltiness’ – it’s flavour and its ability to preserve fish and meats from spoiling, from becoming corrupted.  And once this salt lost its effectiveness, it was tossed outside on the ground; somewhat like crushed gravel that we have in some driveways and walkways.  The only thing this salt was good for at this point, was for walking on –‘trampling underfoot’.

While the use of the salt metaphor in this parable may not be quite clear to us today in its context, the meaning was very clear to the disciples of Jesus in first century Palestine.  The world is in need of ‘preservation’ – is in need of something to protect it from ‘spoiling’ – from ‘decay’, from ‘corruption’.  The absorption with worldly possessions and power, displacing love of God and neighbour, this is the true corruption or spoilage of humanity in the world.  Jesus tells his disciples – all of his disciples; from St. Matthew’s audience to us today – that we are to be that ‘salt’ – that ‘preservative’; influencing all people for good, by our lived example in coming to know and love the One True God.

But there’s a caution here in being called ‘salt’; in essence, Jesus is saying, “you are my disciples – go be a sign of my love to others, and don’t give up; persist and persevere. ”

Because, like salt, if we lose our ‘flavour’ the interior zeal for God that gives us purpose, then we lose our effectiveness.  And if we have lost our effectiveness, then, Jesus asks, how can we authentically spread the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God?

That can sound rather daunting – but that is why we need to keep these two metaphors of salt and light together in this particular passage.

We may feel at times that it’s almost a lost cause to keep struggling with living the Gospel in our world – in a world that is increasingly hostile to the Church, to Christ, to God Himself.  How can we each persevere and persist in trying to participate in Jesus’ mission of salvation for all people, when the world doesn’t seem to want or care about God?  How can we be authentic disciples in the midst of this?

Because Jesus tells us that not only are we the salt of the earth…He calls His followers the light of the world; he paints a picture with words of a city on a hill that cannot be hidden; of a lamp lit on a stand giving light to a whole room – those things which give light in the midst of the darkness cannot be contained; their light always shines forth.

It’s the same with true disciples of Christ; They have a love for God within that is a real light in the darkness; a light that shines against the darkness of fear, the darkness of ignorance, of greed and despair.  As Catholics, we fan the flame of that light by being present to God in prayer, with Christ’s presence in the Sacraments, with Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

The love of God cannot be contained…it will shine forth, whether we want it to or not….it can’t be concealed, but will show itself in all sorts of wondrous ways in our own lives and encounters with others.

All we have to do is think of a time we have been in love.  We might deny that there is anything different about us, but those around us, particularly those who know us well, will say there is something different about us; how we react when a ‘certain someone’ comes up in conversation; when we are in the company of that ‘special person’; love always reaches out beyond the one in love.

It is the same when we open ourselves to the love of God;

It isn’t simply a matter of walking around with a silly grin on our faces, seeming detached from the troubles and woes around us in our world or daily routine. But the love we have for God will transform our interior life, which in turn will transform our exterior actions;

This transformation will become self-evident in the love we have for those around us: it will increasingly show in our words and actions.

As we read from the prophet Isaiah in our first reading,

“if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then your light shall rise in the darkness…”

If we live a truly authentic life in Christ, as disciples of Christ, as sons and daughters of God, then we will bring light to the world; we will be the salt of the earth – maybe not in grand, dramatic world-wide gestures; but at the very least to those immediately around us at home, at work, at school – and living as authentic sons and daughters of God, all we have to do is bring that light to just one other person; because that light will spread – it’s the nature of light against the darkness.

One of my favourite saints, St. Catherine of Siena, summed it up quite nicely this way,

“If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire…”

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Presentation of the Lord (year A)

We have so many things in our busy lives that compete for our attention, for our time, and even our affection.  Often, God places a distant second or third – or even lower on our priority scale.  Yet as children of God, we are called to give the best that we can of ourselves and what we have back to God.

What does it mean to give our best to the Lord?

In the book of Exodus, we read how God commanded Israel that the first born male of any family was to be consecrated to the Lord  (Exodus 13:2), and that the mother of any child had to make an offering of purification fourty days after her child was born.

A burnt offering lamb and one turtledove or pigeon was required under the law, given by God through Moses. If the family could not afford a lamb, then instead of one dove or pigeon, they were to offer a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

Mary and Joseph weren’t ‘cheaping out’ on the Lord. They were making the only offering they could afford.  We can easily infer from this Sunday’s passage of St. Luke’s Gospel that they were poor; it was not as if they would deny anything to God – they had agreed to give up everything in their lives to follow God’s will; Mary in agreeing to be the Mother of God’s own Son, and Joseph in agreeing to take her into his home before the betrothal time was done.  They had left their homes, their families, their livelihoods and familiar surroundings, even placing themselves in harm’s way to protect Jesus.  They held nothing else back from God – so why would they do so now?  They weren’t holding anything back; in their offering, of two turtledoves, they gave all that they had.

Sometimes we get caught up in our relation with God and with the Church whenever the subject of ‘giving back to God’ comes up.  We fixate on material things only. We often think only about the size of our offertory envelope, or donations to the building fund – and we often phrase it to ourselves in this way – ‘can I afford to give something’ to the Church, or this particular mission or charity;  often times, though, what we are really saying is, ‘if I give something, how will this impact my own lifestyle?’

We do this not only materially, but spiritually and communally.  Do we really give God all that we can in terms of our prayer life?  Are we more concerned that more prayer time will result in less ‘me’ time?  Do we really not have any more time to spend time in God’s presence?  In terms of our brothers and sisters in need, do we really have no time to visit or help out in ministries of outreach or support?  Do we really have no patience or friendship left over in our day to offer those who need it most? Do we really give all that we can?

These are hard questions; but they are no harder than the ones faced by Mary and Joseph, particularly as they understood that the eventual fulfillment of their promise in dedicating Jesus to God would ultimately mean surrendering Him to death.

This episode from the Gospel closes with the proclamation by Simeon, identifying the child Jesus as the promise of salvation; Simeon put his whole life on hold, waiting for the Lord’s promise; Simeon, an old man who wanted nothing more than to see the dawning of that salvation in his lifetime, praises God, saying , “now you are dismissing your servant in peace…”  Simeon is ready to pass from this life, to surrender it because he has been privileged to witness God’s fulfillment of His promise to send a Redeemer.  In that moment, Simeon becomes involved in God’s promise of salvation, because He is proclaiming that Good News in the only way he can.  He is bearing witness in his words and his life to the reliability of God’s promises.  He has been permitted to play a role in the salvation of others.

We too are invited to be part of the fulfillment of the salvation of all people, as members of the Church, and as disciples of Jesus.  We are invited to share everything we are and have to build up the Church, the Body of Christ by drawing others into that relationship, and serving God and others to the best of our ability, to give from all we have been given.   That is a pretty privileged position – to be included as an instrument of salvation.  Do we recognize how honoured we are?

What are we prepared to give in gratitude for that privilege?

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!