Easter – Pentecost (Year B)

So often when we look at today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, with its description of tongues of fire and the sound of something like a whirlwind, we expect that this is the hallmark of the movement of the Holy Spirit.  We look to see God’s activity in the world as monumental or spectacular.  It’s as if we are saying, ‘if the Holy Spirit is active in my life, surely that would be accompanied by sights and sounds and actions that are certain to amaze and impress.’  The logical conclusion to this would be, of course, that in the little things, the ‘ordinariness’ of our lives, that the Holy Spirit of God is not active or moving through us.

But nothing could be further from the truth.  Of course God can move and inspire us to great heights, and throughout salvation history, God performed great signs and wonders – we can think of things like the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus of the Israelites when they left Egypt; or Jesus calming the stormy sea with a word – but more often, God’s presence and the action of the Holy Spirit appear in less dramatic fashion – think of the prophet Elijah and God’s revealing of self to him in the still, small breeze; or perhaps the resurrected Jesus walking quietly beside the disciples on the road to Emmaus as an unknown stranger.

We should never confuse the outward flash and show of something (or someone) with importance.  We have two accounts today in our readings of the Holy Spirit being received by the Apostles – the first from the Acts, with the whirlwinds and fire and the result of the Apostles being filled with courage and conviction and going out and preaching to the crowds in Jerusalem; no longer afraid and remaining in hiding, but boldly proclaiming the resurrected Jesus.

Contrast that account with the passage from St. John’s Gospel – Jesus appearing to his disciples in the upper room where they are still hiding, and breathing on them, saying ‘receive the Holy Spirit’;  here we have God in the person of Jesus, the Son, imparting the Holy Spirit in a quiet, calm and intimate way;  quite apparently unspectacular.

But the results are most certainly spectacular; here this small group in Jerusalem will take this Gospel – this Good News of Salvation through Jesus – and spread it throughout the Roman Empire and beyond in a few short decades.

All because they are moved, inspired, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, given to them.

We might see these examples from Scripture, though, and whether we look at the ‘big production’ of Pentecost in Acts, or the low-key handing on of the Spirit in St. John, we might be tempted to think that the movement of the Spirit is restricted only to historic figures that had a physical encounter with Jesus, or perhaps the great saints in the history of the Church who undertook and performed great works.

We might think that the movement of the Spirit is something outside our experience or our own ‘reach’ because, quite honestly, our lives are ordinary, or unspectacular.

Don’t sell yourselves or the Holy Spirit short.  In the first letter to the Corinthians, our second reading today, the Apostle tells us, “No one can say, ’Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.’

In other words, just the urge to pray aloud or affirm that we believe Jesus is God, is a movement of the Holy Spirit within.  It may not seem spectacular, or feel particularly exciting immediately, but it is a movement of the Spirit just the same.

There’s perhaps something that we need to understand at this point as well.  As rational, practical beings, humans are given to thought and analysis and problem-solving through a whole process.  In a strictly rational, practical existence, it would make absolutely no sense to pray.

And yet, we do.  Often times we feel moved to have that conversation with our Creator God – and this conversation, this is what prayer is; and it is this prayer that is certainly not a rational exercise.

We feel a need or desire to converse with the One who loved us into existence; and it is this very desire which in and of itself, is a movement within us of the Holy Spirit.  And when we surrender to this movement, the deeper we feel invited into this relationship; and the deeper we are drawn into this relationship, the more we show outwardly our inner journey with God – the more we are inclined to show in our actions and our words that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – a claim that we can make only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And while we may not immediately see some spectacular or dazzling result in our circumstances from this movement, there will most definitely be an influence on others around us – and it is in that influence that the Spirit continues to move outward, reaching out through us, drawing us and others closer to God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.  That is indeed something spectacular and amazing.

Every time we participate in the Mass; any time we spend in prayer; each time we reach out to help a neighbour- to feed the hungry; to shelter those who have no place to live; to comfort someone in sorrow; to support those suffering emotional or physical illness – each time we do any of these things, we are responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us.

We are living out the inheritance that was first given to the disciples by the very breath of Jesus as He breathed on them –  this breath of Christ is the breath of God; the same breath of God that gave life ‘in the beginning’ ;the same breath which gives life as the Church is born on that feast of Pentecost;  that breath is the Holy Spirit and continues to move – to breathe -through the Church and all of her members – through you and me, urging us to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’ in so many ways – and every one of these ways is extraordinary, because they are inspired by God; and in that, in each of us,  there is greatness in the Holy Spirit.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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Easter – 6th Sunday (Year B)

There’s a little commercial phrase that we see pop up this time of year on coffee mugs, t-shirts, picture frames, and other gift-shop items;

“God couldn’t be everywhere, so He created mothers.”

It can be a heartwarming little phrase, even if it is really ‘off’ theologically.  We believe God is everywhere – and it has been my experience that most mothers, particularly those who work outside the home, wish they could be in more than one place at a time, but can’t.

Maybe it would be more appropriate for us to say that God is everywhere, but to make His love more visible, He gave us the gift of motherhood.

(this is not to discount the gift of fatherhood, but this weekend the secular world observes Mother’s Day – Father’s day is next month, and someone else is preaching then.)

Mother’s are (sometimes exclusively) the first teachers of their children.  They teach them how to talk and to walk; to develop their motor and social skills.  They eventually set the standard of right and wrong that their children will learn – and that standard is often set by example.

But mothers always give advice; sometimes that advice is not appreciated at the moment by their children, but as we grow, often we recall in our daily circumstances the wisdom that our mother’s passed on to us. Sometimes we can almost hear our mothers say, ’if you loved me, you would listen to my advice.”

And it’s more than remembering to always wear clean underwear when we go out, or to say “please” and “thank you”.

Often it is in how we treat other human beings, or relate to God.

In our Gospel today from St. John, we continue to recount Jesus words during his Last supper.  Jesus, who at this point knows He is to suffer terribly and die for all people, and rise again on the third day, says to his disciples, ‘if you will keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Jesus makes the connection between his love and his teaching – that true disciples, those who claim to follow and love Jesus, must live out his teaching.  To do otherwise, is truly inauthentic.

The same writer of this Gospel, St. John, phrases it even more bluntly and directly in his first letter: ‘ whoever says he loves Him and does not keep His commands is a liar.”

And what are these commands? Well basically it is all of the teaching of Jesus; all of the teaching and commands of God handed down through the ages, through the Prophets, the law and through Jesus himself; but ultimately all of these commands and laws are boiled down to two points, or two categories if you want.

The first is ‘you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul’

The second is ‘you will love your neighbor as yourself’

Jesus said all of the commandments and the laws rest on these two commands.  And one is reflected in the other, and balanced with the other:

We express our love for God in having a relationship with Him; in worshipping Him; in spending time in prayer, in reading His Word, in learning more about Him.

But most clearly, we express our love for God in showing love for our neighbor.

It is in feeding the hungry, in clothing the naked, in spending time with the lonely or the lost, in caring for the sick – in all of these things and more – these acts of charity that we show our neighbor is how we show our love for God.

And Jesus does not make this optional; He makes this a command.  And these acts in which we show this love do not have to be tremendous or extraordinary;  it is in the common, day-to-day acts of simple kindness and consideration that we can show our love for our neighbor; holding a door for someone; helping someone who is struggling with a load; encouraging someone who is having difficulty at work or at school.

And it is just the opposite in how we do not show our love for God; in neglecting others; in unkind or uncharitable words; in treating others as a means to an end; each time we do this, we are placing ourselves in that group that Jesus describes;” whoever does not love me does not keep my words,”

And we have to be just as careful here, not to think that in doing good deeds or works, that somehow we ‘earn’ our way into God’s good books; that somehow it is through the work we do that we ‘earn’ salvation;  it is not that at all;

Salvation is a gift from God; Love is a gift from God; and when we accept those gifts, we live out those commands of Jesus, not because we have to, but because we want to. Our outward expressions of charity and kindness and goodness and holiness are an outward response to God working in our lives. Our obedience to His commands is an expression of love for Him; and our acts of love to others are an expression of that obedience.

We have all kinds of guidance and direction from God that we can look to: we have the Ten Commandments; we have the teachings of the Old Testament Prophets; we have the words of Jesus; we have the teaching of the Church:  but we live in a world that says all of these commands are somehow a restriction on our freedoms – that the commandments and all that follow are a ‘limit’ imposed upon us; in essence, that which is good – the laws of God – are a bad thing when seen through the ‘secular’ lens; when in reality, all of these commands are to prevent us from self-destruction;  think about it’ thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not commit adultery; honor your mother and father,” how are these bad? These are guides to live; to prevent us from imploding; to prevent our society and ourselves from collapsing in on ourselves. That is true freedom.  But to follow them means we have to take responsibility for our own actions, and that might even mean making an effort.

Sometimes, we can become a little frightened or intimidated; we might think – “some of my ‘neighbors’ or people in my parish or community are really difficult, and I don’t know if I can always express charity and kindness to them.”

This is where Jesus again expresses to us the generosity and goodness of God; St. John records Jesus saying ‘the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  In other words, the Holy Spirit will be our strength and guidance in living out those commands to love God and neighbor, even in the most difficult of times; if we are open to Him, and believe the promises that Jesus made and continues to make to us.

God the Father gives us the Holy Spirit to inspire and keep us in His ways. Jesus gave us the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to continue to teach, and guide and direct us; and God gave us mothers: not because he couldn’t be everywhere – but precisely because He is everywhere, always showing His gifts of love and charity and guidance in our everyday lives, and inviting us to love Him in return.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter- 5th Sunday (Year B)

Springtime is a time for preparing and dressing and pruning vines and other plants. Sometimes we enjoy this work – sometimes not so much. But this season gives a graphic example, at least for gardeners particularly, of the meaning of the teaching of Jesus in today’s message from the gospel of St. John; the dead, disconnected growth that will not bear fruit or flowers is cut away and discarded. The main healthy branches are left to receive even more of the life-giving energy that comes from the main vine. We can look at the ‘pruning’ analogy that Jesus gives in the Gospel in two ways; one way would be God pruning the branches that bear fruit; that they will bear still more fruit; generosity of spirit, joy, peace, love for God and others.

A second way of looking at the ‘pruning analogy’, is that we too have to trim our own branches in our faith lives; if there is an activity or something that we know prevents us from growing closer to God; if there is a choice we make that we know is contrary to the commandments or the teachings of the Church, we need to remove those things, to prune them off, in our own lives. Jesus says He is the True Vine; and reminds us that apart from Him we can do nothing.

St. John writes both our gospel and our second reading from his first letter. In both, we hear about the desire to remain close to God. St. John uses the word ‘abide ‘ in both the gospel and his letter; abiding is much more than just saying we are a part of something, like a member of a group or a club – it means living out what we believe; abiding means to be in a state where our words and actions are influenced by that state of being.

In his first letter, St. John speaks of those who abide in God; that they keep His commandments – and that is how we know we abide in God; by a desire to abide in Him and a desire to keep His commandments. Do we fall short? Most certainly,and in this lifetime, on this earth, there is no one who does not fall short of perfection and total union with God ., and anyone who thinks or says otherwise is deluding themselves… there is only one who is perfect in word, and action and thought, and that is God…the greatest Saints in the Church didn’t think or act or speak as if they had ‘made it’…they lived in humility, recognizing that they too were only human and prone to falling short of complete and total union with God in this life; that’s what sin is – it’s a falling short in our relationship with God by deliberately putting other things first – things which interfere with our connection with God… …we can strive for the ideal of perfection, but even this striving is inadequate; we can never reach this goal through our own efforts – it is only through the Grace of God that we can come near Him. It is only through God’s reaching out to us, moving us by His Spirit and drawing us closer to Himself through Jesus that we come near Him, it is only when we are ‘connected’ to God that we abide in Him.

Motherhood is a perfect example; think of the pre-born child, from conception through the early stages of pregnancy; the child’s survival depends totally on the mother; life, warmth, nutrition – all is drawn from this growth within and connection to Mom…separated from Mom at this stage, the child has no source of the necessities of physical life.

During our life on earth, as we grow towards eternity with God and develop our relationship with Him, we are like those children in the womb in a sense; born into this life, born into adopted childhood of God in baptism, but not yet born into eternity; we draw our very life, from God through Jesus; but when we deliberately separate ourselves from God we kill that life within us. And we can separate ourselves in a whole variety of ways – certainly by our actions and words, but also by our thoughts or even our lack of action; refusing to follow the commands of Jesus to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves; and just like the unborn child in the mother’s womb, if we become disconnected from the one who gives us life, the life of God within us cannot survive. We become like those branches that have been removed from the vine…we wither.

But like the child growing in the womb, or like healthy shoots of a plant, when we remain connected to the vine, the fruit we bear becomes apparent; and not only to ourselves, but to those around us. It is the example in our outward actions and words that will draw others, not to us, but ultimately to Christ. And this is what it means to be a fruitful branch of the vine…not simply being good so we can go to heaven; but being a living witness to the love of Christ – inviting others into relationship with Him, and doing so for the glory of God; a God who loved us into existence and continues to grant us the graces we need to grow ever closer to Him.

To abide in God, we need to remain faithful to Jesus in all that He instructed us to do (after all, His instructions were teachings to draw us and keep us closer to God) and follow His commands which are handed down to us in the teaching of the Church; the Church didn’t make up Sacraments; Jesus did all these things ; He gave us the Sacraments and He gave us the Church to grant us the graces to live in, or to abide in Him. To abide in God, we need to constantly remain in contact with God; we do that first of all with prayer; by maintaining and deepening our own prayer lives, and pruning away the things that keep us at a distance from God; we can’t stay connected with someone we love or desire to spend time with if we never talk to them or listen to them, and God is no different. Connected to God through all of these gifts, we can truly live and breathe and move and grow to our full potential as sons and daughters of God – to satisfy our own desire to remain closer to God; to live as branches of Jesus, the One True Vine.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

Easter – 4th Sunday

Any parent with small children, or recalls what it was like to have young children will be familiar with something we call, ‘the head count’ – when our children were much younger, my wife Kathi and I were continually turning and sometimes audibly counting heads to make sure we had all of our five children with us whenever we were on a trip or outing.

This applies as well to those charged with the care in any way of children – teachers, drivers, resource people, day care providers – and it extends beyond that – parents with a group of children going to a birthday party, to a day at a park or a beach; people with the responsibility of delivering a group of people from one place to another; people with tour groups, sports teams, pilgrims;

We turn around and almost on reflex repeatedly take stock of the numbers of those in our care- we count and re-count several times to make sure we have everyone with us who is supposed to be with us – so that no one becomes lost and no one is left behind.  And anyone who has ever experienced the absence of a child – when they lose track of them, even if only for a few moments- experiences that icy terrible dread that we feel right through the depths of our heart when we think, even if only for the briefest of times, that we have lost one of these little ones in our care.

That no one is left behind, abandoned, or forgotten.  This is the message of our Gospel today; the message of the Good Shepherd; this beautiful, often-quoted passage from St. John’s Gospel speaks to each of us of the care, concern and deep love that Jesus has for each of His sheep- for those who hear His voice and respond to Him.

Shepherds in Jesus time on earth were really outcasts; their work kept them outside the towns and villages; they were occupied in a dirty trade, and were prevented from participating in day to day social activities, including worship in the synagogues and temples- but it provided them with an income; yet here we have the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – choosing to set aside His own comforts, His own life; setting himself apart to be in the company of His sheep; not for pay or compensation – but purely out of love. And because He gives up everything for His sheep, the sheep know and trust and follow Him. And He reunites us with God as we were meant to be from the beginning.

In essence, Our Lord describes Himself continually doing the ‘head count’, not wanting a single sheep he has called to be left behind or lost.          And as much as we know how we can feel that sense of dread when we fear someone in our care has been ‘left behind’, we can only imagine how God, who loves every one of His children – every member of the entire human race since time began – feels the loss of each and every person who chooses not to be reunited with Him.

This deep desire that no one be abandoned or left behind; this is a desire – this is a responsibility that is taken up by every person who seeks to minister to others in the name of Christ; we think of the obvious examples of good shepherds in our own day, and usually we come to think of the Pope; we think of our bishops with their croziers or staffs, shaped sometimes like a shepherd’s crook – leading and guiding us towards a deeper relationship that God calls each of us to. We think of our pastors who lead us on a parish level – we might think of deacons who assist in guiding and teaching in a ministry of service, or those who lead in the many and varied lay ministries within our Church.

This Sunday marks the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  It is a time to remind us that we should ask God, as St. Therese of Lisieux called Him ‘ The Lord of the Harvest’ ‘ to send more laborers into His harvest.’ It is a time for those who are perhaps considering a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life, to seriously listen to that voice whispering in their ear.  I would encourage those considering priesthood ; many seminaries have ‘Come and See’ weekends that you are welcome to attend;   for any men who have considered serving God and their community as permanent deacons, attend an information presentation on the diaconate; There are religious communities of men and that are open to having those considering a vocation in the consecrated life visit and experience a bit of the life of their orders, to help discern a calling from Our Lord.

But there is so much to be done in leading and guiding the people of God – every baptized Christian has a role to play in bringing others into this wonderful reunion with God – from those who teach about our faith – to parents, to grandparents, even children – whether we lead others as clergy; as religious; as teachers, in public service, as supervisors in a workplace; as mentors to those less experienced in our trades, wherever and whenever we are in a position of trust and responsibility for others, we are all shepherds and as Catholics we are all responsible for taking up our roles of guiding others , by our word and example, to come to know Christ and enter into a deeper relationship with God.

But Jesus warned us that there would be thieves and bandits who would try to guide us away from Him, from His love – who would try to lure us away from living out our baptismal call to holiness as children of God – and we see so many examples of that in our own society; voices that place individual comfort and gain ahead of everything else; voices that tell us God is irrelevant- that the Church is out of touch with our lives; voices that tell us that rather than give people the dignity they deserve, they are to be used as a means to an end for profit or pleasure; that caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless are someone else’s problem.

And just like with the head count of children there is a double-edged sword here; I speak for myself, but this is true of all who deeply love God and want to share that love with everyone; Sometimes we have to remind our sisters and brothers – and be reminded ourselves- of teachings and guidance that some of us would rather not hear  – much the same as parents and teachers who have to make some unpopular decisions at times – but when we do this, it is done out of love and charity, following the example of the Good Shepherd, so that none may be lost.

And while there is a tremendous sense of joy when God uses us to draw someone into the faith, or uses us to help someone return to Him or come closer to Him – there is just as tremendous a sense of personal loss each time we witness someone separate themselves or distance themselves from the faith; the departure of so many from the Church – from attendance at Mass – from putting their faith into practice in their daily lives – this really is a tragedy of immense  proportions; it is a huge loss and it is something that we all mourn and we grieve over.

I am quite confident that every person reading this knows at least one Catholic who has not been to Mass in a long time, or no longer receives the Sacraments.  It is in that imitation of our Good Shepherd that each of us is expected to encourage, in charity, these brothers and sisters of ours to ‘come home’; to offer in all sincerity an atmosphere of welcome to them on behalf of Our Lord.  It is up to each of us to give voice to Christ’s invitation to each of them to return to celebrate and worship with us; what kind of a response will we get? We may think, “well, if I ask someone to come back to church, they’ll probably say no”- but they won’t say ‘yes’ if we don’t invite them.

We can all serve as reminders that no matter how many times we may wander away from God’s will; that how many times we become lost, that Our Lord never abandons us; that He is always calling and guiding us, if only we will respond to His Call; to His voice.

The voice of the good shepherd, calling each of us; he takes an interest in each and every one of us on an individual level; it is to each one of us individually that he extends His invitation to follow Him; so that we may “have life, and have it abundantly”; He calls each of us to lead others to Him – to become part of His body – The Church; as Shepherds after His own example.

So again I ask you – no I beg you – for those who feel a calling to follow God, particularly in the consecrated life as sisters or brothers, as priests or deacons – please take the time to prayerfully and seriously consider following the Good Shepherd’s voice… Join in the harvest – help with the ‘head count’ – For those who do not feel that particular calling, please pray for those who serve you and God, and pray for more vocations – that God will give us, His people, true and holy shepherds to lead and guide and protect us, so that none will be left behind; that none will be lost.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!