Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ is Risen!

El Greco, The Resurrection
My pastor told a great story in his homily last night at the Easter Vigil that I’d like to share with you.  Unlike in the West where we say, “Happy Easter,” the Easter greeting in the Eastern Christian tradition is “Christ is Risen,” to which the faithful respond: “He is truly risen.”  One day, there was a public debate between an Orthodox Patriarch and an atheist about the Resurrection.  The atheist went first, presenting a long discourse on how Christ’s resurrection is scientifically and logically impossible.  When it came time for the Patriarch to speak, he stood before the assembled crowd and proclaimed, “Christ is Risen!  Without missing a beat, the audience responded, “He is truly Risen.”  The people had spoken, and the Patriarch sat down. 

The fact is that the Resurrection is the sine qua non of the Christian faith.  Without it, Christianity is meaningless.  Christ either rose from the dead, or he did not.  There’s no middle ground.  As Bishop Robert Barron puts it, “It comes down to this:  if Jesus was not raised from death, Christianity is a fraud and a joke.  But if he did rise from death, then Christianity is the fullness of God’s revelation, and Jesus must be the absolute center of our lives.  There is no third option.”[1]

          It should be no surprise to the readers of this blog that I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  While I’ve spent a considerable amount of time weighing the evidence and studying the arguments put forth by the Church, atheists and scientists, the most profound, the most convincing evidence I have come across is the voice of the people.  For nearly 2,000 years, billions of people have believed that Christ is Risen, including my forebears, my parents, my grandparents and generations of Meyers, Gallos and O’Boyles before them.  In the end, faith is a matter of trust:  trust in God; trust in ourselves and trust in our teachers, mentors and role models.  They have spoken, and I believe that Christ is Risen.  He is truly Risen!

[1] Bishop Robert Barron, Lenten Gospel Reflections, April 15, 2017.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Passion

                About ten years ago, I started a Good Friday tradition of watching The Passion of the Christ, the 2004 Mel Gibson-directed film starring James Caviezel as Jesus.  It’s a powerful movie that I recommend highly, but be warned, it’s brutally graphic.  So much so, that my tradition only lasted a few years.  As I became more and more familiar with the movie, I started to anticipate the rough scenes and found myself preemptively closing my eyes to shield myself from the horrors of the crucifixion.  Well, if I’m going to close my eyes for two-thirds of the movie, what’s the purpose of watching it?

                It’s embarrassing to think that if I can’t handle the crucifixion in a movie, how would I have handled the real thing?  As much as I’d like to think that I’d bravely join Mary and John at the foot of the cross, I suspect that I would have been one of the disciples who ran away and hid. 

                It’s easy for us today to be numb to the horrors of the crucifixion.  We didn’t witness it for ourselves, and we know that the story has a happy ending.  Besides, who wants to think of such things when they remind us that Jesus wouldn’t have had to go through it if we weren’t a sinful people in the first place?  It’s much easier to focus on the resurrection than it is to contemplate Good Friday.  But as the saying goes, without Good Friday, there’s no Easter Sunday.  The resurrection only makes sense in the full context of Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection.  We need to consider Good Friday in order to understand what Easter Sunday really means.

          Since I’ve wimped out of watching The Passion of the Christ, I try to take some time on Good Friday to imagine how Jesus felt.  What it felt like to be falsely accused and condemned to death, scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, crushed under the weight of his instrument of execution, stripped, and nailed to the cross.  Of course, I can't really imagine what it was like for Jesus, but this little meditation certainly helps put my own Good Friday “sufferings” in context:  when I’m feeling tired from hours of liturgies; when I'm hangry from fasting for a few hours; and when I grouse about not having enough time to get things done.  It’s humbling to think that Jesus’ Good Friday was much worse than mine could ever be.  And a little humility seems to make Easter Sunday all the more meaningful.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Boundless Love

For the third time in his four-year papacy, Pope Francis has taken the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to prison.  Shunning the majestic confines of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis has traditionally brought today’s special Mass to those most in need of God’s love at the margins of our society – to the poor, the sick and, especially, the imprisoned.  The Pope’s gesture is particularly appropriate because the Mass of the Lord’s Supper kicks off the Triduum – the most sacred three days of our liturgical year when we celebrate Jesus’ greatest gift to us; his boundless love.

When we think of the Lord’s Supper we usually think of the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus offering himself to us in the bread and wine consecrated into his body and blood.  It may seem strange, then, that at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, our Gospel reading doesn’t mention the Eucharist at all.  We hear of the Jewish Passover in our first reading from Exodus, and we have a brief mention of the Eucharist in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, but our Gospel, the very voice of Christ himself, recalls Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  Only one Gospel mentions the washing of feet at the Last Supper – the Gospel of John that we read; the other three focus on the institution of the Eucharist.  With three out of four Gospels pointing to the Eucharist, why did the Church choose the washing of the feet as our message for today?

 Jesus’ entire life is meant to be our best example of a life well-lived, a life lived the way God intends for us to live it.  So in washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus is teaching us by humble example that our whole purpose in life is to love God by loving our neighbor.  Washing the feet of guests was a common ritual in Jesus’ time because guests often traveled to their hosts’ homes on foot through the dusty roads of the Holy Land.  Interestingly, though, it was servants and slaves who washed the guests’ feet, not the host.  Yet, Jesus, the host of the Passover meal, washed his disciples’ feet.  As Pope Francis so beautifully explained, “The love that Jesus has for us is so big that he became a slave to serve us, to take care of us, to purify us.”[1]  Now, that’s boundless love.   
Jesus gave of himself both in charitable service and in the Eucharist, so the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of feet at the Last Supper are inseparable.  We need Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist to strengthen us to carry out his mission of loving our neighbor through humble service.  Whether we’re tall, short, handsome (like me), or not so good looking, healthy, sick, rich, poor, free and yes, even imprisoned, every one of us, no matter what our circumstance, can love our neighbor because Jesus, no matter what our circumstance, loves us with God’s boundless love.  Whether it be through heroic works of charity, prayer, or even a simple smile, every one of us can change someone’s life for the better by sharing the boundless love we receive from Jesus with others.  
          I was blessed today with the opportunity to bring Jesus in the Eucharist to inmates in our local prison.  I explained to them that when Pope Francis visits prisons on Holy Thursday, he follows the ancient tradition of washing the feet of twelve inmates, and makes a point of telling the inmates that the twelve whose feet will be washed represent all prisoners everywhere.  I also told them that our pastor will wash the feet of twelve parishioners at our Mass tonight.  Those twelve represent all of our parishioners, including those in prison.  We do this to remind ourselves that Christ’s love extends to everyone, that all of us, no matter our circumstance, deserve to have Christ’s love shared with us, and that we all have an obligation to share Christ’s love with others.  We do this because Christ’s love is boundless love.

[1] Pope Francis, Holy Thursday Homily, April 2, 2015.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Ministry of Presen[ce][ts] – Stations of the Cross for Children

I was blessed to lead the Stations of the Cross for Children this evening at our Church.  I gave a spontaneous homily, so here’s a summary of what I said:

                The Stations of the Cross is an ancient and beautiful tradition in our Church, but it seems a little strange to celebrate Stations of the Cross for Children.  Jesus’ passion and death is a difficult story; it’s sad and even scary, so we have to ask ourselves why we have a children’s version of the Stations of the Cross.  Well, I’ll try to explain with a story from Winnie the Pooh.

                Do you remember when Winnie the Pooh went to visit Rabbit’s “Howse”?  He helped himself to so much of Rabbit’s honey that his belly grew really big – so big that when he tried to leave, he got stuck in the rabbit hole.  Rabbit had a back entrance, so he ran outside to try to pull Pooh Bear out, but that didn’t work.  He ran back inside and tried to push him through, but that didn’t work either.  Winnie the Pooh was stuck.  Rabbit, of course, made the best out of the situation by using Winnie the Pooh’s backside as a decoration for his living room – he drew a smiley face and stuck some antlers on Winnie the Pooh’s bottom and balanced a mantle across his legs where he placed a candelabra and some knick knacks.  As for Winnie the Pooh, he’d just have to wait until he burned off some of that honey to get free. 

                That’s when something very special happened:  Christopher Robin came to read a book to Winnie the Pooh while they waited for his belly to shrink.  When there was nothing else he could do, Christopher Robin spent time with Winnie the Pooh.  That’s one way of looking at the Stations of the Cross.  The most important thing we can do is to spend time with Jesus and with each other.  Walking the Stations with Jesus is spending time with him in his suffering.  It’s our way of letting him know that we're with him, and we care. 

Now, spending time with Jesus and with each other is something that everyone can do.  No matter how old or how young we may be, each one of us can give our time to be with Jesus and with each other.  We call this a “ministry of presence.”  Now the older folks here probably understood what I meant when I said “presence” – staying with someone.  But you may have thought that I meant “presents” like Christmas or birthday presents.  Well, in this case, they’re really the same thing because our presence is the best present we can give to Jesus and to each other, especially when there’s nothing we can do to ease someone’s pain or suffering.

          Thank you for walking the Stations of the Cross with us this evening.  Your presence was the best present of all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Write of Passage

                Earlier today, I came across a Catholic World Report interview of James V. Schall, S.J., my erstwhile political philosophy professor at Georgetown.  Father Schall is a brilliant thinker and a gifted writer, so his interview, entitled “The Creative Catholic: Fr. James V. Schall S.J. on the Art and Vocation of Writing,” quickly caught my eye and my interest.  Thought-provoking as always, Father Schall got me a-thinkin’ about my own writing.  Why do I write?  How do I write?  For me, you could say it’s a “write of passage.”

                Why do I write?  I discovered my love for words and language in second grade in a little book called Maundala.  It was written entirely in an African language (I don’t know which) and it had no translation.  I never knew exactly what it said; I simply discerned its meaning through pictures and patterns of speech.  And I loved it – so much so that once my name filled the library card, my teacher banned me from borrowing it ever again.  Little did she know that I would concentrate my studies on foreign languages in high school and college, where my love for words and languages would grow exponentially through the classic beauty of French, the expressive rhythm of Spanish and the enigmatic strata of Japanese.

Above all, I credit my love of writing to my mother, who read to me and always corrected my grammar, and to three teachers of my native tongue:  Mrs. Gagliano, who taught me to appreciate good grammar; Mrs. Young, who taught me precision in writing and attention to detail; and Mrs. Nadler, who taught me to read what I like and to write what I think.  Together, they taught me that words are powerful, and that I had something worth saying.[1] 
How do I write?  Writing, for me, always starts with reading.  Books, news, articles, essays, fiction, non-fiction, I read a lot.  My problem is that I’m a very slow reader because my mind swirls with questions, thoughts, memories and ideas while I read.  As a result, I never read as much as I’d like, but I get lots of ideas of things to write about. 

Once I have an idea, I let it percolate; I tease it out; I research it; I hone my message; and I try to find ways to express what I really want to say.  If it’s a good idea (at least in my mind), it won’t go away, it keeps coming back to me.  Sometimes this process can take a matter of minutes, sometimes days.  If I allow the process to run its due course, putting my ideas to paper usually turns out to be relatively quick and easy.  If not, not so much.  That said, it normally takes me 12 to 15 hours to prepare a homily and 2 to 3 hours to write a blog post (like this one).  I’m a slow writer, too, largely because I agonize over every word and sentence.  The upside to my agony is that I tend to have few edits when I’m finished.

          The greatest challenge for me in writing is the vulnerability of it.  As Father Schall so aptly admits in his interview, “Writing is an act of blind faith that out there, somewhere, someone will read and enjoy, understand, what an author wants to say.”  Every time I put something out there, I’m vulnerable; I open myself to criticism – or worse yet, to silence.  For sensitive types like me, delivering a homily or publishing a blog post can be pretty unnerving.  But they’re also opportunities for me to learn and to grow.  I grow from my mistakes and from the questions, comments and criticism that my writing may provoke.  Writing challenges me to grow.  In that respect, you could say that writing, for me, is a “write of passage.”

[1] I’ve long fretted that one of my English teachers would read this blog and be disappointed with my decidedly-colloquial writing style.  For the record, I write my homilies and blog postings colloquially because I want to engage my (few) listeners/readers conversationally.  That said, I never use contractions, begin sentences with conjunctions or end sentences with prepositions in my professional or formal writing, I swear!  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Just What I Needed

I confess:  I wasn’t all that thrilled about having to go to my daughter’s Confirmation retreat today.  Being a Deacon doesn’t give me special benefits or dispensations (OK, I have a key to the bell tower, which is pretty cool, but that’s it), so like every other eighth grade parent, I had to attend the Confirmation retreat with my daughter this afternoon.  Today, I just wasn’t in the mood.  It was the last thing I needed, and I wasn’t thrilled.  Then I met Colleen Rayner.

An enthusiastic, funny, motivational speaker, Colleen Rayner is the new evangelizer par excellence who led today’s 3-hour retreat.  Her love for God is palpable, and her powerful message is aflame with the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, that’s Colleen’s powerful message in a nutshell – Each of us, empowered by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, can change the world.  Boy, did she change mine.

You see, ministry, like all earthly endeavors, has its ups and downs:  good days and bad days; days when I feel like I’ve done some good, and days when I feel like I should hang up the stole.  For some reason, I’ve allowed the “downs” to take center stage in the recesses of my mind for the past few weeks.  As Colleen would say, I’ve been stuck in Good Friday.  With that frame of mind, I really wasn’t in the mood for a touchy feely, Kumbaya lecture about how God loves me.  “Prove it,” I say.  Well, he did. 

As I listened to her speak, I realized that Colleen was putting into words the very truths that led me to ministry in the first place.  Colleen pointed out that no matter what we do, no matter what we want to be, we will always be one thing for the rest of our lives:  children of God.  She told us that as children of God, we have the power to “light up the world” for the good, so we need to put the time and effort into being the best children of God we can be.  She confirmed that our joy is in God alone – if we want joy in our lives, we need God in our lives. 

One comment in particular really hit home with me, though.  Colleen noted that if we want to criticize the choir for singing off-key or the priest for a boring homily, we’d better be willing to get up there and do it ourselves.  At that point, she pointed to me and jokingly said, “Do you think people really wanted that guy to be a Deacon?  He’s the only one who was willing to step up!”  I laughed so hard I cried.  Colleen’s words brought me back to the time when I was discerning my call to the diaconate, when I had a profound feeling that I should become a deacon because I could.  I remembered the steadfast conviction that God had given me certain talents that I needed to use to build up his Kingdom here on earth.  I remembered being aflame with the Holy Spirit, so much so that I just had to share it with others.  Those feelings came rushing back to me today as I listened to Colleen, and I was thrilled.  I’m certain that God sent Colleen to me today to rekindle that flame in me. 

Colleen Rayner could have picked another career.  She could have passed up the opportunity to speak at our parish today, or she could have called in sick.  She didn’t.  She answered God’s call to spread his Word, and the Holy Spirit worked through her to reach me at that Confirmation retreat today.  That’s how I know that God loves me.  He gave me just what I needed.

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.