Sunday, March 19, 2017

Take the Plunge

          One of the many benefits of being a lifeguard as a teen was the opportunity to teach swimming lessons.  I really enjoyed helping the kids overcome their fears and develop confidence as their swimming skills improved.  One of the big milestones for every child in swimming lessons was jumping off the diving board for the first time.  At the end of each week, we’d take our classes to the “deep end” to see who wanted to give it try.  Some kids faced the challenge with indomitable courage, some needed reassurance and a little help.  In most cases, they went from frightened toe-dippers to happy cannonballers after just one jump.  All they had to do was take the plunge.  And that’s our invitation from today’s readings.

          This morning’s readings are overflowing with aquatic symbolism.  (“Overflowing” – get it?)  In our first reading and our psalm, we hear of how God slaked the thirst of the grumbling Israelites by miraculously producing water from the rock.  In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul reminds us that “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”  (Romans 5:5)  And in our Gospel, Jesus meets the woman at the well, offering her the living water that will become a spring welling up to eternal life.  

          So what’s with all the water?  Well (pun intended), “water is the primordial element of life.”[1]  Without it, we die.  The same can be said of God.  Without God, we wouldn’t exist.  That’s why the Jews “often spoke of the thirst of the soul for God; and . . .  of quenching that thirst with living water.”[2]  So when Jesus offers us his living water, he’s talking about the Holy Spirit, the one and only life-force that quenches our deepest thirst and gives us the fullness of life that we’re waiting for.[3]  It’s no surprise, then, that water figures so prominently in the sacramental life of the Church.  We’re buried with Christ in the living waters of Baptism only to rise with him to new life in the Spirit.  Did you know that the preferred method of baptism is total immersion?  While a sprinkle or a pour will do, the Church really wants us to take the plunge right from the start of our Christian initiation, so our thirst for God will be eternally quenched.

It’s human nature to thirst for God.  “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself.”[4]  So we’re not the only ones who thirst.  Think of the first words Jesus says to the woman at the well: “Give me a drink.” (John 4: 7)  Jesus thirsts for our faith, a thirst that “will reach its climax in the final moments of his life, when from the Cross he cries out, ‘I thirst!’”[5]  Jesus’ thirst arises from the depths of God’s desire for us.  Just like with the woman at the well, God seeks us first, asks us for a drink and offers us his living water in return.  Our thirst for God starts with God’s thirst for us. 

Our thirst for God manifests itself in our never-ending desire for something more out of life, something that can only be fulfilled in God.  But instead of turning to God to find it, we look elsewhere:  we seek happiness in a bigger house or the newest smartphone; we base truth on the latest Facebook post or the cleverest tweet; we look for love in all the wrong places; and we’re never satisfied.  We’re a stubborn lot who think we can do everything on our own, so we cling to our misguided self-sufficiency and to the things of this world and continue to live frightened, unhappy and dissatisfied lives.  

          Our challenge, then, is to recognize that what we’re really looking for, what we thirst for, is God.  I’ll bet that if each one of us were to plumb the depths of our hearts’ desire, casting aside our surface wants and needs and focusing on what we really want out of life, we’ll all arrive at the same things – truth, happiness, love, justice, peace.  All of these things can only be found in their fullness in God.  What we really want, then, is eternal life with God right now.  Well (pun intended again), “the woman at the well is a story about opening the well of eternal life [right] now.”[6]  It’s about a choice:  Will we be toe-dippers, or cannonballers?  There’s no middle ground.  It’s time to heed the words of our Psalmist: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  (Psalm 95: 7)  It’s time to meet Christ at the well, to immerse ourselves in the mystery of the Eucharist, to draw from the wellspring of Scripture and to wade into the deep waters of faith, hope and love.  It’s time to accept Christ’s offer of living waters and quench our thirst.  It’s time to take the plunge.

          Ajim was a toe-dipper for good reason – he tended to sink.  While he was strong enough to overcome that tendency, he didn’t believe it, so he spent most of his time in swimming lessons screaming at the top of his lungs for his mother to save him.  One fine day, Ajim’s mother insisted that he jump off of the diving board.  He was terrified.  So was I.  While a lifeguard colleague guided him to the end of the diving board, I treaded water in the diving well with my hands raised overhead, ready to catch him.  He refused to jump, so at his mother’s insistence, my colleague lowered him down to me.  As he squirmed to get free, he slipped through her hands, and his feet landed squarely on my shoulders, driving us both to the bottom of the diving well, twelve feet below.  As soon as the bubbles cleared enough for me to see, I grabbed him and rushed him to the surface, bracing for his blood-curdling scream.  Ajim sputtered a bit, and then his face broke out into the most joy-filled smile I’ve ever seen.  He did it.  He wasn’t afraid anymore.  Ajim was a happy cannonballer from that day forward.  Take the plunge.

Readings:  Exodus 17: 3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8; John 4: 5-42

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York, Doubleday, 2007) at 238.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol. 1 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) at 178-179.
[3] See Pope Benedict XVI at 241.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 27 (emphasis added).
[5] Homiletic Directory (Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014) at 37.
[6] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 116.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Color Blind

Check out this inspiring news story about Reddy and Jaxson, two color-blind boys in Kentucky.  When did we forget that our only difference is our hairstyle?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Everyone Makes Mistakes, Oh Yes They Do

                I couldn’t help but think of Sesame Street’s Big Bird this morning when I read the umpteenth headline about Envelope-Gate – the Best Picture Oscar mix-up at last Sunday’s Academy Awards.  Yesterday’s news announced that two PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants will be forever banned from the Oscars for the screw up, while today’s news reports that Oscar’s Producer Michael De Luca may be passed over for a Paramount gig because of the flub.  One article goes so far as to claim that “The epic envelope snafu that rocked the Oscars is still sending aftershocks through Hollywood.”  Epic?  Aftershocks?  Really?  It was a mistake.  Didn’t Big Bird teach us that everyone makes mistakes?

                I’m not sure why, but we’ve become so hyper-critical these days that the simplest of mistakes become earth-shattering news.  We pounce on others’ failures at the drop of a hat (or at the spill of milk, as the saying goes).  Human nature offers us three possible reactions to the mistakes of others:  indifference; sympathy/empathy; and outrage.  While outrage may be an appropriate response to willful negligence that actually hurts people, it’s not the right response to simple, harmless errors.  Yet, bombastic, high-grounded outrage seems to be the response du jour.  Interestingly, psychologists see feigned moral outrage as an attempt to focus attention on others' flaws while deflecting attention away from our own.  Hmm, perhaps there are a lot of guilty consciences out there these days.

                We would all do well to focus on our own foibles, rather than on the mistakes of others.  Christ admonishes us to “remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 5:7)  When others make harmless mistakes, a little sympathy or empathy can go a long way toward healing and forgiveness.  It’s time to give each other a break, assume positive intent, forgive and move on.  Remember, we could be next.  As Big Bird so wisely said, “Everyone makes mistakes, oh yes they do!”

Click here to listen to Everyone Makes Mistakes, by Big Bird

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rising from the Ashes

We’ve received our ashes.  We’ve sported them around all day proudly (perhaps some a bit sheepishly, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing).  We’ve taken care not to smudge them when our foreheads itched – why do foreheads itch more on Ash Wednesday than on any other day?  We’ve compared them at the water cooler, admiring the work of some ministers while deriding the clumsiness of others.  Now what? 

Now’s the time to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off (yes, you can wash off the ashes), and get to work on our Lenten disciplines.   Now’s the time to rise above the challenges in our lives and thank God for our many blessings.  Now’s the time to put down the mobile devices, lift our heads and look each other in the eyes.  Now’s the time to break from our daily routines, find what we really love to do and step up to do it for the benefit of others.  Now’s the time to rise from the ashes!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting My Affairs in Order

          No, I’m not dying.  Au contraire, Facebook just told me that I’m not going to die for another 48 years.  That said, the Goo Goo Cluster ice cream topped with chocolate-covered pretzels that I’m scarfing down in one last Fat Tuesday binge might hasten things a bit.  No, I’m getting my affairs in order for Ash Wednesday and Lent by thumbing through a little book made just for persnickety folks like me:  The Order of Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and Celebration of the Eucharist, a.k.a, The OrdoThe Ordo may well be the priest’s, deacon’s and compulsive liturgist’s best friend.  It tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the liturgies for every single day of the year – what prayers to pray; what readings to read; what color to wear; and a whole host of other handy factoids that keep our liturgies in good order.

          Among my favorite features of The Ordo are the instructions and reflections that precede each liturgical season.  The instructions provide a nice synopsis of the liturgical celebrations along with the “do’s and don’ts” of each season, which are especially important during the decidedly-subdued season of Lent.  The reflections help direct my mind and heart by giving me a better understanding of the upcoming season spiritually and liturgically.  I can now attest that reading the reflections while eating the aforementioned ice cream and chocolate covered pretzels is particularly enjoyable, albeit somewhat messy.    

This year’s Lenten reflection speaks of how the weekday readings during Lent fall into two parts.  The readings for the first part of Lent are intended to bring us to compunction.  Compunction, The Ordo tells us, “is etymologically related to the verb ‘to puncture’ and suggests the deflation of our inflated egos.”  These readings force us to confront our illusions about ourselves and make us profoundly aware of our need for salvation.  The readings for the second part of Lent lead us to the only one who can save us from ourselves and the power of sin, Jesus Christ.  So the message of our Lenten readings in a nutshell is:  “Jesus can only save those who know their need for salvation.”  
Lent is a call to humility, a time to get our affairs in order.  It begins on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes, an ancient act penitence in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Then, through the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are called to confront our sinfulness, to deflate our egos, and to repent and believe in the Gospel.  By doing so, we get our affairs in order; we empty ourselves of self, and open ourselves to receive the gift of salvation.

          On Ash Wednesday, The Ordo tells us that the color is violet; the Mass is Proper; the penitential act is omitted; that there are Lenten prefaces, the blessing and imposition of ashes and a prayer over the people.  More poignantly, it offers two options for the words we recite during the imposition of ashes: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  I tend to use the latter formula, not as an admonition to those who present themselves to me for ashes, but as a reminder to myself.  If past is prologue, I will be blessed to impose ashes on the foreheads of several hundred humble, faithful people.  As I repeat those words over and over again on Ash Wednesday, I'll  pray that I will also heed them this Lent by deflating my ego, repenting and getting my affairs in order.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Saint Valentine's Day

It is pretty amazing, maybe even miraculous, that we have very little information about a Saint who is known throughout the world as the Patron Saint of Lovers.  The Church recognizes one Saint Valentine, who died for the faith in Rome on February 14, 269 AD, but it is unclear whether he was a Roman priest, a bishop of Terni, a man who lived in Africa around the same time, or whether these three Valentines are one in the same person.  What is clear is that Saint Valentine’s feast day is celebrated all over the world by Christians and non-Christians as the day we take time to do something special for the people we love. 

The man we honor as Saint Valentine probably was a third century Roman priest, a dangerous vocation to have at that time.  For the first three hundred years after Christ died, it was illegal to be a Christian in Rome, so Christians had to hide their faith and celebrate the sacraments in secret.  If they were caught, they would be arrested, beaten and sometimes even killed.  The story goes that Emperor Claudius II enacted a law that prohibited young men from getting married so he would have more young men to serve as soldiers in his army.  Because the sacraments are so important to the Church, Valentine kept witnessing marriages and celebrating the sacraments even though it was against the law.  He was arrested and sent to prison.

The story continues that while in prison, Valentine was questioned about his faith by a judge named Asterius.  Asterius challenged Valentine to prove his faith by curing Asterius’ blind daughter.  Valentine prayed for the girl, laid his hands on her, and she was healed.  Asterius was so moved by God’s healing power that he released Valentine and forty other Christians from prison and became a Christian himself.  Valentine was arrested again for continuing to serve Jesus and his Church, but this time he was sent to Emperor Claudius.  Claudius liked Valentine, but he became so angry when Valentine tried to convince him to become a Christian that he sentenced Valentine to death.  Legend has it that Valentine sent a letter to Judge Asterius’ daughter on the day of his execution, signing it, “from your Valentine.”

We also do not know how Valentine’s Day began to be known as a day we celebrate love.  Some say that the tradition came about around the 5th century when several Roman priests encouraged the celebration of Saint Valentine’s feast day in place of a Roman holiday that fell on February 15.  Others say that Valentine’s Day has its origin in the medieval belief that birds choose their mates on February 14th.  Whatever the origin, there is no doubt that the popularity of Valentine’s Day is a tribute to the power of love.  The stories tell us that Saint Valentine lived a life of love – love for God and love for God’s people.  When we celebrate Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love, the greatest gift we receive from God, and the greatest gift we can share with others. 

Let us Pray:  Saint Valentine, pray that we may always love God and all we hold dear in our hearts.  Amen

Feast Day – February 14

Patron Saint of lovers, engaged couples, courtship

Symbols – Heart, roses, birds

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Spirit of the Law - Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

          On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing more than 3 million slaves in the ten Confederate States.  Many historians see Lincoln’s bold act as a “Second American Revolution.”  Professor Joseph Fornieri agrees, but only to the extent that it “means that Lincoln completed the unfinished work of 1776.”[1]  According to Fornieri, Lincoln didn’t abolish or supplant our nation’s founding principles; he clarified and extended them to all.  Abraham Lincoln did the right thing because understood both the letter and the Spirit of the Law.  Today’s readings challenge us to do the same.  

          Today’s readings seem to contradict each other.  On the one hand, our first reading and our Psalm urge us to “keep the commandments,” to “walk in the law of the Lord.”   But in our Gospel, Jesus seems to be rewriting the very law that the Old Testament authors encourage us to uphold while telling us that he has “come not to abolish but to fulfill” that law.  What does he mean? 

Well, we first have to understand that God communicates his “mysterious and hidden wisdom” to us gradually.  God didn’t just dump the whole of Revelation on us all at once; he prepares us to welcome his supernatural Revelation in stages,[2] in the manner and at the times that he knew were best for us to receive them.  God’s Revelation culminates in his incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.  In other words, Jesus came to finish the story.  So when Jesus tells us that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law, he does so by adding himself to it.  Jesus perfected the law by imbuing every action under the law with his very love.  Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection teach us the true meaning, the Spirit of God’s law, which is love.    

          In our Gospel, “Jesus looks for the spiritual intent behind the commandments and tells people that this is what the law really means.”[3]  While the commandments focus on the final act, Jesus focuses on the origin of each sinful act, what the rabbis called ‘evil imaginings.’[4]  When Jesus speaks against killing, he identifies anger at the root of this sin and commands us to cure it with love through forgiveness and reconciliation.  When he speaks against adultery, he points to lust at the root this sin and commands us to cure it with love even by drastic means, if necessary.  When he speaks against swearing oaths, he calls out our propensity to lie as the underlying sin and commands us to cure it with love by simply telling each other the truth.  “While the Pharisees kept the external requirements of the law, Jesus teaches us to interiorize the law and observe its spirit.”[5]  In each instance, Jesus teaches us to follow the commandments in letter and Spirit by curing the root cause of our sins with his love.  

          Therein lies our challenge.  To understand and follow the Spirit of God’s law, we have to dig deeper; we have to take the words of the commandments to heart, find Jesus in them and act on them with love.  As we examine our consciences in light of God’s law, we have to identify the root causes of our sins and discern Christ’s loving approach to curing them.  Discernment requires faith, self-awareness and a lot of courage.  It isn’t easy to find fault in ourselves, let alone to fix it.  So we pray together with the psalmist, “Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart.”  If we address every moral issue we face from the heart, if we discern Christ’s loving approach in all of the challenges we face, we will always follow God’s commandments in letter and in Spirit, just as Abraham Lincoln did in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln didn’t see himself as a revolutionary.  He didn’t set out to abolish or supplant the principles of our founding with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Through discernment and, no doubt, a lot of prayer, Lincoln grew to understand that there was more to our founding principles than mere words.  He “recognized the incompatibility between the principles of the Revolution and the practice of slavery.”[6]  Abraham Lincoln understood both the letter and the spirit of the law, and he acted upon them with love, freeing more than 3 million people from slavery.  Christ calls us to uphold both the letter and the Spirit of God’s law and to act on them with love so that we can free ourselves from slavery to sin.

[1] Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln:  Philosopher Statesman (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) at 23.
[2] See Catechism of the Catholic Church 53.
[3] Jude Winkler, New St. Joseph Handbook for Proclaimers of the Word, Liturgical Year A, 2017 (New Jersey, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2016) at 75.
[4] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as it is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 77.
[5] Winkler at 74.
[6] Fornieri at 24.