23rd Sunday Ordinary Time

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel from St. Luke (14: 25-33) are pretty stark: “ whoever comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even their life itself cannot be my disciple.”  He doesn’t leave room for discussion; he doesn’t back away from this.  Putting God first is non-negotiable.  .  Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ to illustrate that when it comes to God, we cannot love anyone or anything more than God if we expect or hope to spend eternity in heaven.

To enter completely into relationship with God, we cannot put anything else first:  God must be first – our possessions: our jobs and our social positions; even our family and friends didn’t create and sanctify and redeem us:  God did; and He continues to do that through the action of His Holy Spirit, through the sacrifice of Jesus;  our response is to be detached from anything that would prevent us entering into that relationship.  A relationship where God puts us above all creation – more important to Him than the angels and everything else in the universe: so important that he invites us into the most intimate relationship of love; the relationship of being His own children.

If we had a condition of employment that said ”you have to put your job ahead of your immortal soul,” or perhaps a club membership that said,” give up faith in God and turn your attention only to the club activities”  how would we respond?  Wouldn’t we find that kind of an expectation very wrong?

If we had family members or friends who insisted, “you must put me ahead of God in your life.” Wouldn’t we find that equally dysfunctional?

Yet, we have a world and a society that pushes the notion that love and worship of God, and obedience to His laws and commandments are counterproductive; even an infringement on our rights – and this is the big lie of the new ‘atheism’ which is rapidly spreading through the public forum in our own country.  Even something as basic as the “Ten Commandments” is decried as ‘restrictive’ or ‘backward’ or even ‘discriminatory’.    This thinking takes something which is totally good ( commandments from God to help us grow and keep in closer relationship with Him and others) and turns it on its head; turning it, at least in the eyes of our society, from a positive into a negative:

The sixth commandment; you shall not commit adultery – society sees that as an infringement on the rights of ‘consenting adults’

The third commandment; you shall keep the Lord’s day holy – that’s pretty relative now, because we have all of these activities that are now scheduled on Sunday – no time for church or worship:  well these activities don’t schedule themselves – how long would they be scheduled on Sunday mornings if families insisted that they would only participate later in the day on not on Sunday mornings at all?

The fifth commandment; you shall not kill – well this one seems negotiable too, particularly when it comes to abortion and euthanasia;  the lifestyle and choices of one or two individuals seem to be the main factor in determining whether another person even gets to live.

In all of these examples and more, we show how we love God less and less as a society:  A society that doesn’t want to move closer to God because it means putting the other ahead of ourselves; it also means expressing love in its truest sense.

Humans over the past decades have really changed the meaning of a lot of words, and perhaps none more than the word ‘love’.  Love has come to mean romance or ‘feelings’ or an emotional response to a specific stimulus; physical attraction that might last two years, two months, or only 24 hours.

But real, true love is not a feeling or emotional response.  True love is a conscious decision; a conscious choice.  Sept. 5th was the feast day of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity.  There was no one in the 20th century who more visibly illustrated this conscious choice of love than this dynamic woman.  Who would think in the 20th century that love would be encountered in the filth and squalor of the slums of Calcutta; or that love would be revealed in the diseased bodies of lepers; or that love would be inspired in gathering the dying up off of the sides of roads or in the middle of a crowded street?

But that is exactly where Blessed Teresa found God; she discovered and encouraged others to discover Jesus in ‘the distressing disguise’ of the poor.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us in a rather back-handed way, to love God above all else.  But it is not a one-sided affair;  it is not, as atheists would have us believe, that we express a love to a non-existent ideal, or that we express love and devotion to a kind of cosmic ‘Santa Claus’ ; it is a return of love to the One who loves us above everything that He created. He loved us enough to give up everything for us; His divinity in taking on our humanity; His only Son in exchange for our reconciliation with Him; whenever we consider that we might express love for a God who did all of that for us, all we have to do is look upon the crucifix – to contemplate the Holy Eucharist as we share Christ’s Body and Blood- to hear God saying in these acts, “I love you too”.

Although his words in this Gospel are stark and shocking, there is nothing here that Jesus did not live out by example; as a human being he put everything, even His own divinity secondary to His love of the Father, including His own life; this is what he says it means to be a true disciple; and that sounds pretty daunting.

Those who would be His disciples must take up their cross daily and ‘follow’ Him.  He is not suggesting we take up our cares and sufferings and hurts and rejection by the world and wander along on our own; He leads by His own example; He is not asking us to do anything that He has not been willing to do Himself;   He says follow me – He leads the way, making the path for us; uniting our experiences with His own.  He brings us along to the Father, uniting in love to God, who is love, the creatures that His love has made.  We have a choice to place our own desires or feelings or preferences above God; or to place God above all else in our lives

But He won’t force us; He invites us to accept that the only way to truly enter into His life is to follow Jesus’ example of total, selfless love; but it is not negotiable – we either accept it, or we don’t.    But before we make that choice, we need to remember that God loves each of us unconditionally – and that too is non-negotiable.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

 

 

 

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.

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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!

4th Sunday of Advent

It’s easy, if we are watching and listening to any of the mass media – internet, radio, television – to get drawn into this sense that Christmas has been occurring for the last three weeks!  It’s as if we get caught up in the lights and parties and gift exchanges as the definition of Christmas itself, and skip completely over Advent, over this time of preparation and waiting for the Lord to make Himself known.  But children, they sense and know that we aren’t quite there yet.  There are packages to open – things that are hidden – that in some way signal that the time has arrived.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that the opening of gifts on Christmas Day is the principle point of the celebration; but the image of the concealed or hidden gift is helpful in considering today’s passage from St. Luke’s Gospel.

Reflecting on the infancy narrative in St. Luke, it becomes apparent how often it is through the ‘unseen’ that the influence of the Holy Spirit is most often felt, and how often it is through the little and hidden that the message of God’s great love is communicated.

When Mary has her encounter with the angel Gabriel, it does not say anywhere that she ‘saw’ the angel – only that she heard his message.  Imagine being in Mary’s situation; very young yet faithful, being presented with this news of her imminent pregnancy, and how it will fit in with God’s plan of salvation for all people – and only hearing a voice!  And yet, she is ‘full of grace’ and responds without hesitation, ‘be it done to me according to your word’! What great trust!

Later, when Mary visits Elizabeth, as we heard today, it is the unseen, unborn St. John the Baptist who leaps for joy in the presence of the unseen, unborn Jesus! This ‘leap’ signals the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Elizabeth who announces Mary as the ‘Mother of my Lord’!  Such bold courage to proclaim such a thing, with no visible evidence!

As Christians, we are to be present to that same Jesus who is also unseen – hidden in the eyes of the world; yet visible to those who look with eyes of faith, charity and compassion. (Some of you know of my connection to the Lay Missionaries of Charity in Canada as their National Spiritual Director – they are part of the family of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta)  Blessed Teresa had an expression she used often, referring to Jesus as being present in the ‘distressing disguise of the poor’ ;  she meant that Jesus was truly present in all of the poor – materially, socially, spiritually – the poorest of the poor, wherever they may be. But it was a disguise – a ‘being hidden’ unless we looked with eyes of love and trust to truly recognize His presence among us.

It is that same trust and bold courage instilled by the Holy Spirit, and illustrated by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth in the gospel, that moves each of us to find Christ in that ‘distressing disguise’.  Most importantly though, it is through the grace of that same good God, that we are given the strength to trust and boldly proclaim Him in our actions and our words.  That is the real gift – the gift of Jesus – that is the true gift this time of year.

The commercial message of this season, while sometimes entertaining, is quite clear; the happiness of the one receiving a gift is dependent on that particular gift.  We have to be careful here; careful that we don’t slip into believing this message in our own hearts, that somehow happiness – ours or another’s depends on something or someone; on temporary circumstances, opportunities, privileges or even power.  We ‘buy into’ the big yet subtle lie, that happiness comes from temporary things; but even our rational minds tell us temporary things can only bring temporary happiness, and then we need to endlessly search for more, and better and bigger things to bring us more temporary happiness.

The message of our Faith is equally clear though; the only way we can receive permanent, lasting happiness, is with the One who is permanent and lasting – and the only One who is permanent and lasting, is God.  The same God who created everything from nothing, and whose great love we celebrate with the approaching feast of Christmas – this great love that has the Lord of all things setting aside all of this greatness and splendor to enter into our existence in the most humble and helpless way – as a baby born in poverty in a small insignificant village; ‘hidden’ like a special, longed-for gift.

An unopened or hidden gift can cause excitement, even in the anticipation of opening it; hopefully as we await the celebration of the ‘hidden gift’ that is God-among-us, Emmanuel, we will all be open to that same Gift-Jesus- being revealed to us each day in the needs of those around us; and that understanding this ‘hidden gift’ is in our midst, we will be filled with just as much excitement and anticipation as we approach Him in our daily lives.

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Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!