Monday, August 27, 2018

A foretaste of heaven in a messy world

Homily: 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
          A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Of all of the amazing things that I saw and was able to experience, one of the highlights was my visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which was built over the site of Mary’s childhood home and was the place in which she received the message from the archangel Gabriel, announcing that she would become the mother of God’s Son.  I remember reflecting about my experience there.  “In that place,” I said to myself, “the God who created everything, and whose existence cannot be contained even in the vast universe, somehow encapsulated himself in human flesh.”  For me, among all of the other experiences on that trip, standing in the place where the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” was an awe-inspiring moment.
          I remember reflecting on the absurdity of it all: that God, who is limitless, would subject himself to the limits of his creation simply out of love for what he had created.  Nonetheless, as we’ve been reading in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, I’m often struck that this same Son of God then took the absurdity even further by claiming that for anyone to have life within them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  On the surface, it’s a crazy statement, right?  I mean, Jesus is asking his followers to be cannibals: to eat human flesh and drink human blood!  Although our familiarity with it may mean that it no longer strikes us as odd, we need to grapple with the fact that this statement from Jesus is polarizing: either he is who he says he is (that is, the Son of God) and, thus, we have to give credence to what he says, or he’s not (and, therefore, he’s a madman) and we should run away immediately.
          Perhaps not many of us have thought about it in these terms, but this is one of those things about which, as Christians, we cannot be neutral: rather, we need to decide on which side we are.  If you need some help deciding on which side you are, I will offer this criteria: that if Jesus is crazy about one thing then he’s crazy about everything; but if he’s not crazy about everything, then he’s not crazy about anything.  I think that it’s safe for me to say that we don’t think that he’s crazy about everything.  Therefore, he must not be crazy about this one thing, and so we have to give it credence, no matter how crazy it sounds.
          And so, when Jesus says, “I am the living bread” and “the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” we have to strive to believe that he is talking about the Eucharist: for the bread that we present is not “living” bread: that is, bread that is alive, as if it were something out of some B-rated horror film.  No, it is not “living” bread until it is given life when, through the words of consecration at the altar, its very substance changes and it becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus.  Although it still appears to be lifeless bread, it is in reality the flesh of Jesus, who lives; thus, it becomes “bread that lives” and makes it possible for us to eat his flesh without becoming cannibals.
          On the surface, of course, this is still incredible and, frankly, it cannot be accepted outright.  If any otherwise rational person came to you and said, “I promise you that you will live forever if you eat my flesh and drink my blood; and, by the way, you’ll be able to do that if you eat this thing that looks like bread and drink this cup filled with what looks like wine,” you’d immediately doubt all that you knew about that person.  Accepting something like this—something that pushes you beyond the bounds of understanding—comes only after a bridge of trust has been built with the person who is making this claim.  Just look at our Gospel reading today: “Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” it says.  And later it goes on to say “as a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”  These disciples had been only loosely connected with Jesus and had not yet built a “bridge of trust” with him.  Therefore, when he made this seemingly absurd claim, their fragile faith in him was shaken and fell apart.  They concluded that he must be crazy and so they turned away from him.
          The twelve Apostles, on the other hand, stayed with Jesus.  They had experienced so much more from him and, therefore, had built a bridge of trust that supported their faith.  And so, even if they didn’t understand what it was about which he was talking, they refused to write him off as a madman, but instead recommitted themselves to him: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
          So where do we go from here?  You know, I am convinced that those who leave the Church must not be persons who believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Otherwise, how could they walk away from it?  Peter and the other Apostles believed that Jesus was the Holy One of God and so could not be swayed to abandon him, even when he taught such incredible things.  In the same way, it does not seem possible that someone would acknowledge the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and yet still feel as if he or she could go somewhere where it is not.
          Nonetheless, many have walked away; and the great tragedy is that many of those have walked away because of the sins committed against them by leaders in the Church: men who they called “Father”.  This is an enormous tragedy: first, because it discredits the Gospel, but second because it turns people away from the Eucharist: the Eucharist, which is the event in which we literally commune with God, offering him our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, remembering the great work he has done to bring us to salvation, calling down the Holy Spirit to strengthen us for our mission on earth, and partaking in a sacred meal, which is a foretaste of the eternal banquet in heaven.
          My brothers and sisters, I get it if some of you (or some people that you may know who are not here) find it hard to look at the failures of bishops and priests and not think “Can we really trust these men who have failed us so horrendously, and, therefore Christ and his Church?”  I urge you, however, to remember Christ’s words: that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you do not have life within you” and, thus, to hold in tension the sacred actions of the priest, in which he stands in the person of Christ so that his Body and Blood and his healing mercy is made present to us, with the worldly actions of the man, weak and fallible as he is and subject to the attacks of the evil one: holding him accountable for his failures while supporting him in his efforts to grow in holiness.  This so that not one more of us would be separated from this foretaste of the eternal banquet, which strengthens us and preserves us for eternal life.
          I pray, therefore, my friends, that we would make it our task to seek out our brothers and sisters who need this grace from the Father to believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, in spite of the sometimes serious failures of the men through whom it is provided; and to help them, with our prayers and companionship, to open their hearts to this grace, so that we all might be joined together at this Holy Table, the foretaste of the eternal banquet prepared for us in heaven, to feast on the Bread of Life: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 26, 2015

Monday, August 20, 2018

Communion with Christ brings us true comfort

Homily: 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
In my six-plus years as a priest, I’ve celebrated a good number of funerals.  It is a graced experience to walk with families who have lost loved ones and to help them say “goodbye” in a sacred way.  There is one thing, in particular, about celebrating funerals that has stood out to me as interesting: that as we mourn the death of a loved one and after we celebrate his or her life in the funeral liturgy, we gather to share a meal; and that this is somehow comforting to us.
Of course, there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for this.  The death of a loved one is often stressful and full of negative feelings of loss and separation.  When we eat—especially when we eat warm food that we enjoy to eat—our body releases chemicals, called endorphins, that help relieve the stress our bodies have been under and help us to relax and so give us a feeling of comfort.  Yet, we are more than just bodily creatures.  Rather, we are also spiritual.  And so there has to be something more than just the biological to explain why eating provides comfort.  Indeed, there is.
Sharing a meal with others creates or renews spiritual bonds that last long after the food and the endorphins disappear.  Those feelings of comfort caused by eating become associated in our hearts with the presence of those with who shared the meal, and a bond, a relationship, perhaps we could even say a communion is formed.  And it is this sense of communion, I would argue, that causes our true comfort. ///
As we continue to reflect on the “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s Gospel, we come to face the notion that the Eucharist is a Sacred Meal.  Beyond—or, better yet, in tension with—the notion that the Eucharist is Sacrifice, Anamnesis, and Epiclesis, we must also hold that the Eucharist is a meal: a sacred meal in which the bonds of relationship are either forged or strengthened.
Every week, we gather around this object that is both the altar of sacrifice and the table of communion.  And every week, as we gather as a people set apart by God, we renew our relationship to one another as the People of God when we share in the meal we receive from this altar.  But this is not only a renewal of our relationships with each other.  For when we receive the meal offered on this table, we receive also Christ, who makes of himself the meal that we share, and so renew our relationship—our communion—with him, too.
The Church teaches us that this renewal of communion is actually the sole purpose of our gathering.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it says that “the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion” (CCC 1382).  What this reveals is that the communion we receive in the Eucharist is first and foremost communion with Christ, and that it is through our communion with him that we experience communion with all those who likewise receive him. ///
As I mentioned last week, most of us struggle, to some degree or another, with believing that the bread and wine that we offer on this altar truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ that we then receive in communion.  I also said that, if we have doubts, our responsibility is to bring those doubts to God in prayer and to ask him to reveal the truth about the Eucharist to us.  For those of you who heard my homily last week, hopefully you’ve been practicing that prayer.  If you didn’t (or if you haven’t been practicing it) our readings today invite you again to see the truth about what we receive from this altar
In the first reading, the author of the book of Proverbs describes a scene in which “Wisdom”-- who is the personification of the creative force of God by which he designed and ordered the world rightly (and who could be referred to equally as “Logos” or “The Word”, as in “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us...” in other words, an image of Jesus)--sets her table in order to invite those who are simple to come and receive from her the riches of wisdom.  “Come,” she says, “and partake at my table that we might be in communion with one another.”  For the ancient Jews who lived before Christ, “wisdom” was sought and valued as the way to live in communion with God.  To feast at Wisdom’s table, and, thus, to be in communion with her, was, therefore, to enter into that desired for communion with God.
In the Gospel reading we should immediately hear the connection: Jesus has set the table of his Flesh and Blood so that those who partake of it can be in communion with him: and, through him, with the Father in heaven with who he is eternally in communion.  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.  Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  In the Last Supper narratives Jesus will show us how he will give us his flesh to eat and blood to drink when he takes the bread and says “This is my Body, take and eat...” and the wine and says “This is my Blood, take and drink...”
My brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ presents us with this same offer today.  He desires greatly to be in communion with us and so he invites us to this table to partake of this “living bread that came down from heaven”: his Body and Blood.  And so, we should not be afraid to step forward even if we have some doubts.  Rather, we should let our “Amen” be shorthand for “Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.”  If we can say even that much, then we can feel confident that we have the faith that we need to receive the communion that Christ so deeply desires to have with us. ///
Friends, in our grief over the scandals that continue to plague the Church we gather here in this sacred meal called the Eucharist to seek comfort in our pain.  May our communion with Christ and, through Christ, with one another provide us with the humility, courage, and fortitude to remain hopeful in the midst of darkness; and so continue to proclaim the Good News: that life beyond this life of suffering and pain is possible through Christ, the true Bread of Life.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral Parish: Lafayette, IN
August 18th & 19th, 2018

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Eucharist opens us to the Holy Spirit

Homily: 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B

          Ever since I was ordained to the priesthood, I’ve felt called to build relationships with the leaders of different Christian communities.  Primarily because I see the divisions between Christians as a great scandal: one that diminishes the power of the Gospel.  Jesus himself once said: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand” and so I want to be part of the solution.  But also because so many of those other Christian communities are populated with “former” Catholics.  I figure that if I can build relationships with the leaders from those places and participate in some “inter-community” events, some of those Catholics who have left the Church might be inspired to come back home.

          Beyond these two points, however, I’ve been blessed by trying to grow in relationship with these folks who, like me, seek to know, love, and serve God, through the ministry of the Gospel.  As I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve always been impressed by the radical simplicity of the message that most of them proclaim, which often points to two things that they see as most important: 1) that they are completely committed to authentically living their faith, and 2) that they have a great sense of urgency about their call to bring others to Christ.  As Christians they are excited and on fire for Christ and so feel a great sense of urgency to bring Him to others, especially those who are un-churched.  As Christians on fire for Christ, they are also deeply committed to living out their convictions as authentically as possible: that is, they strive to remain as true to the movements of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Sacred Scripture in their daily lives as they were when the Holy Spirit first moved them to faith.  I have to say, I admire them for both of these things.

          It reminds me of what we know about the early Church from Sacred Scriptures.  When we read the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul, we see that sense of urgency that the Apostles had when spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  They knew not when Christ would return, but they thought it would be soon and so wasted no time in fulfilling their mission to bring Christ to the world.  These men and women were moved by the Spirit of God to faith and so strove to live that faith authentically by remaining docile to the Spirit even as they sought to quickly spread God’s Word.  They often called on the Holy Spirit in prayer.  And when men and women approached them with expressions of faith, they would call down the Holy Spirit upon them by laying hands on them.  And when they sent others out on mission they would do the same thing, calling the Holy Spirit down on those men and women to guide them and strengthen them in their work.  This is an action with which we are familiar today, though perhaps only a few of us would know that it has a name: that is, Epiclesis.

          In fact, our whole sacramental life is peppered with Epiclesis.  In Baptism, the priest extends his hands over the Baptismal waters and calls down the Holy Spirit upon them, praying that they may cleanse those to be baptized from all stain of sin.  In Confirmation, the bishop or priest extends his hands over those to be confirmed, calling the Holy Spirit down upon them and praying that the Holy Spirit will fill them with his seven-fold gift of grace.  And, yes, in the Eucharist, the priest extends his hands over the gifts of bread and wine presented on the altar and calls the Holy Spirit down upon them, asking that they be made into the Body and Blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  And all of this to remind us that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that grace is made available to us. /// Yet, Epiclesis is not magic.  The priest does not “command God” as if he has some power over His grace.  Epiclesis, rather, is an act of faith by all of us: that is, it is an act of opening ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.  God is always ready to pour out the grace of the Holy Spirit in us.  These acts of Epiclesis make us open to receive it.

          You know, when it comes to the doctrine of the Eucharist, I’ve found that Catholics generally fall into one of two categories: those who at some level struggle with believing it completely (and that includes those who are convicted of its truth) and those who, frankly, just don’t care enough to bother.  This is because the doctrine of the Eucharist is, well, difficult to swallow (pun intended).  On first hearing it, we might all have reacted as those ancient Jews reacted, asking “Who is this guy? How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  Yet when we understand the Eucharist as Epiclesis, we can begin to see how our senses have been deceived and how what still looks like ordinary bread and wine has now become the Body and Blood of Christ, Our Lord.  Yet, so many of us continue to struggle to believe or, on the flipside, just dismiss it completely.

          My brothers and sisters, whether you continue to struggle to believe in the truth about the Eucharist or you never bothered even to try, the fact of the matter is that God wants you to know the truth about the Eucharist.  Now, I can stand here and talk to you until I am blue in the face about all of the reasons why we should believe, but until each of us takes the initiative to pray to God and to ask him to reveal this truth to us, any conviction (or lack thereof) that we may have will only be in our minds: it will never be in our hearts.  As professed followers of Christ, this cannot be.  If we are to be authentic followers of Christ, then we must be convicted of this truth in our hearts, because, as our retired Holy Father Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said:
Without the Eucharist the Church simply would not exist. It is the Eucharist in fact that makes a human community a mystery of communion, able to bring God to the world and the world to God. The Holy Spirit, which transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, also transforms into members of the Body of Christ those who receive it with faith, so that the Church is truly the sacrament of the unity of men with God and of men with each other.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, it is imperative that we pray to God to remove all doubts we may have about the Eucharist, that we call down the Holy Spirit upon us either to renew our conviction or to “help our unbelief.”  And it is so imperative that before we go any further in this liturgy, we are going to pray here together, each of us asking in our hearts for God to show us the truth that he has taught us about the Eucharist—that it is the real Body and real Blood of his Son, Jesus—and that we may know this truth always in our hearts.

          What I will model for you here is just an example of one way you can make this prayer.  I invite you to use it or any other style of prayer with which you feel comfortable as you pray each day for the grace of the Holy Spirit to know more deeply the truth about this most central mystery of our faith and so inspire in you the joyful desire and a sense of urgency to bring others to an encounter with that truth… an encounter with Christ, Our Savior.  And now I invite you all to kneel if you are able and to pray for this grace.

Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 12th, 2018

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Deja vu and the Eucharist

Homily: 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle B
If you’ve ever had the experience of déjà vu, you’ll know that it can be somewhat unsettling.  For those who may not have experienced it, the phenomenon known as “déjà vu” is when one has an experience of believing that he or she has seen something that is currently happening as having already happened in the past.  In fact, the words “déjà vu” translate literally from French into “already seen.”  For the most part, it can be a confusing experience because it often occurs when there is no rational reason to believe that the event had occurred already in the past.  I know that I’ve had quite a few occurrences of it in my life and each time I’ve walked away from the experience with more questions than answers.
Interestingly enough, for some the attempt to invoke an experience similar to déjà vu is part of their regular routine.  The Jewish religion, for example, ritually attempts to re-create the events of the past so that it would be as if those events were occurring again for the first time in their midst.  The Jewish Passover feast is a perfect example of this.  It is a “ritual remembering” of the original Passover meal, recreating and in a way re-presenting the events of that night when God slew the first born of the Egyptians and led them out of slavery towards freedom.  In other words, it is a way for them to remember God’s saving acts in the past so as to acknowledge that God’s same saving help continues to be with them today.  This type of remembering—of “making present again” God’s saving acts—is called anamnesis.
You know, I don’t think that we’d have to look too hard to see that we do this kind of remembering all of the time.  Couples—married or otherwise—will often return to the place of their first date on their anniversary to remember what it was like to fall in love and to enkindle those feelings anew.  Families will gather around pictures and slide shows of holidays or vacations together to remember the joy that they shared so as to strengthen their bonds as a family.  Even individuals (perhaps, however, only the introverted ones) will return to that private spot in the park or the woods where they found comfort or peace so as to find it again.  And all this to remember—to try and “make present again”—the good moments that we’ve experienced in our lives.
    In the reading from the Book of Exodus that we heard today, we find the ancient Israelites only a short time into their journey out of slavery in Egypt towards the land of freedom into which God had promised to lead them.  Nonetheless, they seem to have forgotten both the powerful miracles that God had done that freed them from slavery and the oppressive hardships that they endured as we find them grumbling against God and Moses: the suffering of traveling through the desert appearing to them to be worse than what they had endured in Egypt.  In order to remind them of his mighty works—and, thus, his care for them—God provides them with miraculous food from heaven: birds that flock into the camp at night and bread that appears from the morning frost over the ground in the morning.  These daily miracles will occur until they enter the promised land as a reminder of that exhilarating moment when God led them out of slavery and into freedom.
In the Gospel reading, we see the people who had eaten from the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish seek out Jesus and ask him for more signs.  Jesus uses this opportunity to teach them that his miraculous works were not only meant to feed them in their hunger, but also to remind them of their utter dependence on God.  Jesus, in a sense, commends the people for remembering how God provided bread in the desert for their ancestors, but then clarifies for them that it was not Moses who provided the bread for them, but rather God the Father—who is his Father: and who is the same Father who has provided the “food that endures for eternal life”, his Son Jesus the Christ.  In the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, and in this teaching, Jesus is showing the people that he, in his very person, is “making present again” God’s saving work.
     Hopefully, it won’t be too much of a stretch then when I tell you that the Eucharist that we celebrate here is also, in part, anamnesis.  As all of you know, I’m sure, (and if you don’t know, you’re going to learn right now) the Mass is celebrated in two distinct parts: the Liturgy of the Word, when we hear readings from Holy Scripture that remind us of the sacred events of salvation history and recall the teachings of Jesus and how they apply to us today, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when we celebrate the holy meal in which Christ’s body and blood is made present to us and we offer them to God as the one perfect and enduring sacrifice that atones for our sins.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read that…
Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present.  The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated.  It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. (1104)
And so, this remembering through re-enacting the events of nearly 2000 years ago makes present for us again Christ’s enduring act of our salvation so as to assure us that God’s saving work continues to be present to us today.
Many of the ancient Jews missed out on Jesus their Savior because they couldn’t imagine that God would make bread come down from heaven again.  They forgot anamnesis and only remembered the manna as something that had happened in the past and was finished.  We do the same thing if we come here and think that this celebration is only an empty ritual memorializing events of the past that have no impact on what is happening today.  But if we come here acknowledging that we, too, are pilgrims wandering through a desert, we will find that God’s Word is not some dead ink on a piece of paper, but a living word, ready to meet us here and to give us guidance.  And if we come here crying out as the ancient Israelites did, “Would that we had died... in Egypt!” then we will find that bread has again come down from heaven onto this altar to strengthen us for our continued journey.
My brothers and sisters, our experience in the mass ought to give us a feeling of déjà vu.  In other words, we ought to feel as if what we experience here today is something that we’ve already experienced before.  When we do, then we will have truly entered into the mystery of what takes place in this liturgy: the blurring of the lines between time and eternity.  May God, who always remains close to us, help us with his grace so that we can truly see the mystery we celebrate and thus be lead to the praise worthy of him, the offering of our selves united to his Son’s eternal sacrifice here on this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – August 4th & 5th, 2018