Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Homily for Easter Wednesday on Luke 24, 13-35

Rembrandt (1606-1669) The Supper at Emmaus. 1648. Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris, France

Jesus had twelve Apostles, but he also had many other followers whom he called disciples. Jesus walked with his two of these disciples, Cleopas and his companion, along the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. St. Mark alludes to this event in his Gospel which St. Luke recounts with more details.

The disciples are downhearted, because they believed Jesus would free them from the power of the Romans, and they think he remains dead. Jesus wanted to comfort them and bring them to true faith in him and then to be his witnesses. But as they walked along, the disciples did not recognize him.

Jesus gradually reveals the resurrection to them. First, he explains all that referred to him in the Scripture. He showed how the promised Messiah would have to suffer, but then die and rise again.

As Catholics, we believe that the Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but we must understand Scripture as the Church understands it. Before there was a New Testament, there was the Church. The Church encourages us to read Sacred Scripture. In fact, St. Jerome said “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

As they are fed with the Word, Cleopas and his companion have new and lasting hope. Jesus pretends to continue along the road, but his disciples plead with him by saying “Stay with us.” Still, they don’t recognize him. It is only when he took the bread, blessed and broke it that the disciples recognized Jesus. The “breaking of the bread” was a term the early Christians used to describe the Eucharist.

At every Mass, Catholics have an experience similar to these disciples. First, we are fed with the Word of God. Then we are fed with the Eucharist in which we receive Jesus in his body, blood, souls and divinity.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 11). It is the source, because Jesus says “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15, 5). He also says “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood. You have no life in you” (John 6:53).

The Eucharist is the summit, because there is no more perfect union with Jesus which we can experience on this earth than receiving him in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus says “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" (John 6, 56).

The Eucharist is a pledge of eternal life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist worthily, he helps to separate us from sin, cleanses us of venial sins, strengthens virtue, prevents future mortal sins, renews, strengthens and deepens our incorporation into the Church – Christ’s Mystical Body, compels us to work for unity among Christians and commits us to the poor. The most vulnerable of the poor are the unborn babies, whose lives are not respected, or protected, and are threatened by the violence of abortion. The Eucharist should commit us to building a culture of life, and protecting human life at all stages of development and conditions.

The disciples were strengthened through the Word which Jesus explained to them. They recognized Jesus in the “breaking of the bread”. Now they return to Jerusalem to let the Eleven remaining Apostles know what has happened. When we leave the Mass we go into the world. We should seek opportunities to tell people what God has done for us, and what happens at every Mass, when we have an opportunity to be fed by the Word of God, to be united with Our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist and to receive him who is our pledge of eternal life.

Homily for Easter Tuesday on John 20, 11-18

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-c.1319) Maestà. Noli Me Tangere (1308-11) Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus draws her to the tomb of Jesus while it is still dark. She discovers that the stone has been rolled away and assumes his body is stolen. She runs to tell Peter and John, they come and see the empty tomb and the burial cloths rolled up neatly. If someone were to rob the grave why would they roll up the burial cloths? Peter and John begin to believe what Jesus had told them about his rising from the dead, but they’re still not sure and so they go home.

Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb weeping. Psalm 34, 19 says “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirit is crushed.” The monks of the Eastern Church pray for gift of tears. For them it is a sign that the Holy Spirit is alive in their hearts, convicting them of sin and inspiring them to a deeper love and devotion to God.

The first Psalm priests are called to recite each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours is Psalm 95 which contains the words “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the desert.” Hardness of heart is the greatest obstacle to living an authentic spiritual life.

As Mary is weeping, Jesus begins to reveals himself to her by saying “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Thinking he was the gardener, Mary asks Jesus where he has laid the body. His glorified body appeared different to her. His body was now glorious, immortal and indestructible.

When Jesus calls her by name she recognizes him.She must have begun to hug him since she was so overjoyed, but Jesus says “Do not cling to me. For I have not yet ascended to my Father.”

St. Thomas Aquinas says that Mary had some faith. She calls him by the Hebrew word "Rab-bo'ni" (which means teacher), but she had not yet come to understand that Jesus was equal to the Father and one with God.

St. John Chrysostom says that Mary thought that Jesus was simply in the same state as before his Passion. She thought he was simply resuscitated, still subject to death and would continue life just as before. To correct this impression, Christ says “Do not cling to me. For I have not yet ascended to my Father. St. John says “It was like saying: Although you see me remaining here, it is not because my flesh is not glorified but because I have not yet ascended to my Father. For before he ascended he wanted to strengthen in the hearts of the apostles their faith in his resurrection and in his divinity.”

Jesus then gives Mary a mission to tell his brothers to go before him to Galilee where they will see him. He calls them brothers even though most of them had abandoned him in his darkest hour. He says to tell them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." He says this because Jesus is the Son of God by nature, whereas we are sons and daughters of God by adoption.

Mary does as Jesus says and tells the Apostles “I have seen the Lord!” Anyone who has a true encounter with the Living Lord in faith will have a need to tell others. They can’t contain themselves. They don’t need to be told to evangelize. Pray that like Mary God will open our hearts that we may be truly sorry for all our sins and that we may have an encounter with the Living Christ in the sacraments. Then, like St. Mary Magdalene, we can lead others to Jesus so that they can experience his love and forgiveness too.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Homily for Easter Monday on Matthew 28, 8-15

Giotto(c. 1267-1337) The Resurrection 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy

Scripture tells us "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is not believing things that are contrary to reason, but above and beyond reason. The Christian faith is based on events that actually happened, from the testimony of eye-witnesses whom we believe to be trustworthy.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an historical fact and the chief object of the Christian faith. That is why St. Augustine writes: "It is no great thing to believe that Christ died; for this is something that is also believed by pagans and Jews and by all the wicked: everyone believes that He died. The Christians' faith is in Christ's resurrection; that is what we hold to be a great thing--to believe that He rose" ("Enarrationes in Psalmos", 120).

If anyone could ever prove that the Resurrection did not happen it would completely undermine the Christian faith. St. Paul says:
…if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1Cor. 15, 13-19).

The Gospel reports that it was women who were the first witnesses. This is remarkable since in first-century Palestine a woman’s testimony was considered worthless and they weren’t even able to be witnesses in a Jewish court of law. If the story was really invented why choose women to the first witnesses?

The attempt by the chief priests to cover up the facts of the Resurrection only reinforced that there was an empty tomb and a missing body. They try to say that the disciples had taken the body, but St. Matthew reports earlier in his Gospel that the disciples had fled Jerusalem.

These same Apostles, who a few days earlier fled in fear, would later become courageous and tireless preachers of the Resurrection after they saw Jesus, touched him and ate and drank with him.

St. Paul says:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15, 3-9).

By his resurrection, Christ proved his Divinity. He was not simply raised, but that He rose by His own power. Jesus said: 'I lay down My life, that I may take it again ....I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again' (John 10:17-18). He also told the Jewish leaders " 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up' (John 2:19-20).

When Christ rose from the dead, it was not a return to his previous earthly existence. His body appeared as it had to his disciples at the time of the Transfiguration. His body is now glorious, immortal and indestructible. Christ’s body shares in the glory he had from the beginning, when he was present with the Father before Creation.

Christ's resurrection completed the work of our Redemption. By his death, Jesus freed us from sins, but by his resurrection he restored us all that we had lost through sin and opened for us the gates of eternal life (cf. Romans 4:25).

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the source of hope for all Christians. May the Lord strengthen our faith in this central mystery of our faith. May our faith inspire us to a greater love of God and neighbor. Pray that through our deep faith in the Resurrection we may radiate this hope to others who are in despair.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Good Friday Homily

Giotto. The Crucifixion. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.

Jesus, the author of life, was led away to die, but his death brought about a different result than his enemies intended. By his death he destroyed the power of death. Condemned, though he was innocent, he accepted the punishment our sins deserved.

In the Book of Isaiah, written about 700 years before Christ, we read a prophecy of the future suffering of Jesus “… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53, 5)

Though he was without sin, Jesus took upon Himself the burden of our sins and allowed Himself to be led to the slaughter like a lamb. Oppressed and afflicted, he did not open His mouth to defend Himself against His aggressors. (cf. Isaiah 53, 7)

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Jesuits, urges us to meditate for a week on the Passion of Christ. He realized that all our ambition to become holy, is only as valuable as our willingness to carry the cross. If we are going to follow in Christ’s footsteps, striving to become holy like Him, we’ve got no other option. We then must be willing to carry our cross in union with Him.

From the cross, Jesus gave us the gift of his mother when he said to St. John the Apostle “Behold, your mother.” In May, I will visit Ephesus, Turkey and see what is believed to be the reconstruction of the house the Blessed Virgin Mary lived in, after St. John the Apostle took her there for safety, after a persecution of Christians in Jerusalem in the First Century. It is believed that Mary had the Stations of the Cross marked out with stones a short distance from her house.

Most people would rather forget the most painful and traumatic events of their lives, but Mary often reflected on the events of her life and the events of the life of her Divine Son in her heart. She wanted to remember not only the most joyful moments, but also the depth of Christ’s love for her and the whole world by the suffering he endured on the cross.

Our modern world sees no value in suffering. It does everything it can to avoid, deny or anesthetize suffering regardless of the moral consequences. When the movie “The Passion” came out a few years ago, some condemned it as too morbid. It shocked people by the reality of the horrors of the scourging and crucifixion.

The Romans saw the cross as a sign of infamy. They used it to torture and kill those they regarded as criminals. Mere killing wasn’t enough. The lifting of the body from the earth was itself an insult, as if to say the condemned person was not worthy to walk the face of the earth. But Jesus predicted “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.” (John 12, 32)

Jesus used an instrument of torture, mockery and death to win for us the gift of eternal life. In the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, also called the Church in the Modern World, the Church teaches:

…whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.(GS #27)
Thus, those who condemned him, spit at him, beat him and killed him did more harm to themselves than they did to Jesus.

There is no other path to glory except through the cross. It is through the cross that God teaches us that he is able to draw good out of every human tragedy. What seemed like a victory for Satan, was actually his defeat. What bad men willed for evil God has drawn the greatest good, the gift of our eternal salvation. This is also a great consolation for us who seek to defeat the culture of death and build a culture of life. Death will not have the last word. Just as surely as the Resurrection followed Good Friday, a culture of life will supplant a culture of death.

The whole of Jesus’ life was directed to this one supreme moment when he would demonstrate his love and obedience to the Father and his love for all humankind, by making of himself a sacrificial offering to pay the price for our sins.

In the year 565, a young Italian poet who would later become St. Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, undertook a grueling pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours after being miraculously cured of a disease of his eye. As he traveled he witnessed many signs of material and cultural decay due to the collapse of the Roman Empire. He probably could not have imagined the glorious Catholic civilization that would arise in Europe in the High Middle Ages. Despite the signs of decay all around him, he didn’t lose hope and he wrote a hymn that is still sung in the Liturgy of the Hours today which begins:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He in flesh, our flesh Who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.
In the passion story according to St. John, the last words that Jesus said on the cross before he bowed his head and died is "It is finished" (John 19:30). In the original Greek it is just one word, tetelestai.

Scholars were able to give us more insight into the meaning of this expression a few years ago after some archaeologists in the Holy Land dug up a tax collector's office that was almost completely intact. Even the tax records were preserved. One of two stacks of tax records had the word tetelestai written on top. The word tetelestai in this context meant that these people didn’t owe any more tax. They were "paid in full."

Jesus used the language of business to speak of our relationship to God and neighbor. The Jews thought of sin as a debt that we owe to God that must be repaid in some way. Since everything we have comes from God, there is no way we could have ever paid the price for our own sins. Thus God himself had to take on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and offer himself up as an innocent Lamb to pay the price of our sins.

When he uttered the words “It is finished” or tetelestai was a cry of victory. His mission had been accomplished and the debt we incurred because of our sins had been paid in full.

This is why Mary never wanted to forget what Jesus endured for us on the cross. This is why St. Ignatius as well as so many other saints, throughout the ages, have urged us to meditate on Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is why we call this Friday “Good”!

Don’t be afraid of the cross. The cross is the door to paradise. We need to meditate often on the suffering and death of Jesus. Every Catholic home should have a crucifix in a prominent place. Some families have a crucifix in every room. We should meditate often on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, read the accounts of Christ’s Passion from the Bible and make the Stations of the Cross.

We should contemplate Jesus dying to make the full payment for our sins. We must respond to the love Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross by our willingness to make sacrifices for his sake.

Jesus calls us today to take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to die to our former life of sin and live a new life based on his teaching of the Gospel. He calls us to put our love for God and neighbor above our attachment to the things of this world, to be zealous in our proclamation of the Gospel, to build up his Kingdom and to create a new culture of life. With St. Paul we should be able to say “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Galatians 2, 19-20)

We should continually give thanks to him who gave his life to make full payment for the immeasurable debt we owe to God and opened up for us the gates of paradise.

(Homily Given by Fr. Peter West, Associate Director of Priests For Life on Good Friday April 2, 2010 at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Bremerton, Washington.)