Memory and Hope

I am always on the lookout for those ‘cute and clever’ church signs that are supposed to get you think. They do, but probably not in the way the volunteer intended. Last week a church in town had the following ‘Looking back keeps you from moving forward’ Considering that we are in the season of Advent I couldn’t help but reflect this message.

Modern society is all about today, never yesterday. Not just today, but what today can do for tomorrow. The past is the past and isn’t that important; a curiosity at best, but irrelevant to my life now. It is truly all about the goals of tomorrow.  I have to plan, act, react and struggle today for what I have planned tomorrow. There is not much ‘enjoying the moment’ in society today.

There is no better example of this then the secular holiday season Xmas (Xmas as opposed to the holy celebration of Christmas). Hectic activity pointing towards a special day ahead of us.  Not just the great gift-giving day of Xmas, but the parties and events that lead up to it. Pressure, deadlines, responsibilities, and the ever-present fear of not being able to make that certain day special. We put up holiday lights, make holiday food and treats, listen to holiday music in an almost manic way. But to sit back and actually enjoy the moment, remember times past, relax and be at peace with the present – well – that is something in books and movies.

This so-called modern understanding is also why it is so hard for people to embrace the religious season of Advent. Two reasons come to mind:

The first reason is that the Advent season comes in middle of this secular Xmas Season. More accurately, Advent was always there but this manic secular season has pushed Advent out of the way.

The second reason is that Advent is counter intuitive to those who live within this ‘memory disconnect malady’ because Advent looks to the uncertain future with a certainty from what happened in the past. As we enter into the Advent Season the message we are confronted with are the last things of life: death, judgement, heaven and hell; but we are given an assured hope with the message Advent brings us towards the end – memory of our past. Christ the judge has already shown us His love and mercy by coming among us. He knows us and He desires a positive outcome for each of us. The Advent season brings the great and good news that what happened is still happening, and what will happen is already happening.

Christ, who came among us 2,000 years ago and showed us the way and His mercy, is among us today continuing to show His mercy and give us His grace. We are not alone on this journey to the final judgement, we still have the benefit of His presence. And, of course, the end of days, the final judgement, eternity, is not something that is to come so much as it is the end of what is happening now. We are living in eternity right now – Christ’s judgement is what is guiding us on the true path home. Christ gives us the knowledge of how to achieve Heaven, He gives us His love to strengthen and urge us on and His mercy when we stumble.

Brothers and sisters, Advent is the cure for this ‘memory disconnect malady’ that affects the world today. It gives us peace about the future because of what happened in the past. It brings joy to our hearts because of the knowledge that our past is with us in the present and won’t leave us in the future. The phrase that I saw on the Church sign can be answered with another phrase: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’[1]

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[1] HEB 13:8

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The Right Attitude

During his first three years as pope Francis has repeatedly used a few reflections, over and over again; and he should, they are important and people should hear them. One of these is ‘God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.[1]

The gospel we have just heard brings to light two completely different attitudes in regards to Pope Francis’ teaching on asking for forgiveness and it goes right to the heart of how we view our faith.

We see in the Pharisee a very jaded, comfortable view of faith.  This Pharisee, an elder religious figure in Judah invites this new and exciting prophet to his house.  On the surface this seems very good; but his actions speak otherwise. In this Pharisee we see a man who seems to be watching Jesus, scoping Him out, trying to judge whether He is worthy of his attention. At a great moment of mercy and love, Christ’s interaction with the sinful woman, the Pharisee passes judgement on Christ. , ‘”If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”[2] Then when Christ relates a parable to the Pharisee and asks him a question, the Pharisee’s response belies an almost uninterested attitude.  ‘The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.[3] This Pharisee is comfortable with his station in life, with his understanding of God, with his faith.  All events must fit within his self-structured reality of faith; Christ doesn’t fit in it, so he dismisses Him.

In the woman we see someone who is an undesirable in her community; ‘sinful woman’ is what the gospel calls her. She is a moral outcast. People look down on her, with derision and contempt. She is all too aware of not only the attitude of the people, but the reason for this judgement – she knows she is a sinful woman. She needs help, and she knows it. So much so that she crashes the Pharisee’s dinner looking for the one who can heal her. Her actions of basically throwing herself at the feet of Jesus shows us that she is desperate to be cleaned, healed, and Christ is the one who can help her – she throws herself at his mercy. But in addition we see someone who actively participates in her healing as she offers Christ the homage that she feels he is due.  She grovels as she opens herself up to show Him her sinfulness and pleads for his healing.

What about us? Do we see ourselves for who we truly are and Christ for who He truly is? Is our interaction with our savior like the Pharisee, where we allow Christ to enter our faith when it fits within our self-constructed reality; or is our interaction like this beautiful sinful woman, where we open the depths of our hearts, admit that we are far from perfect and allow Christ in to heal us. To put it another way: Do we view our faith as an acceptable self-help philosophy where we pick and choose; or is our faith an ongoing intimate relationship with our creator, healer, savior?

At least for me the choice is clear. I am far short of the kind of relationship I want with God – my pride and ego envelope me in a comfortable bubble of denial; if not always, then some of the time. How about you? Brothers and sisters, let’s break from this false security – let’s live our lives in constant pursuit of a healing relationship with our loving savior. Let’s follow the sinful woman’s example, and her desire for healing, not the Pharisee’s self-contented fantasy.

If King David, the most powerful ruler in Judah, can come before God and throw himself at His mercy then we should be able to do so as well.    Let’s desire what St. Paul writes so beautifully about in today second reading: ‘I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.[4]

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[1] Evangelii Gaudium
[2] LK 7:39
[3] LK 7:43
[4] GAL 2:20

General Absolution – False Mercy

It seems one result of this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is an increased chatter about General Absolution.  I have heard this discussed in two different deaneries. It is not just a Diocese of Joliet (in USA) discussion; immediately after the announcement of the Year of Mercy the internet was buzzing with the idea. In a nutshell General Absolution is ‘absolution without confession of all mortal sins[1].  It is allowed, but only in extraordinary cases. As far as I can tell the last time it was validly used in the U.S. was on ‘March 29, 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was in danger of exploding… Bishop Keeler of Harrisburg granted general absolution to the faithful since every individual person would not have had the chance to go to private confession’.[2] The core of these discussions seems to be this: since it is the Year of Mercy the bishop should offer General Absolution as part of the Church’s enthusiastic participation in God’s gift to His people.

There are many reasons (ecclesial, sacramental, canonical, psychological, and on and on) why this desire to offer General Absolution is misguided, even detrimental; I will leave these discussions to the experts. I, however, want to reflect on one misguided scriptural reasoning. One of the parables I have heard used to discuss the idea of General Absolution in this Year of Mercy is the Parable of the Prodigal Son[3].

‘It is wrongly named’, this logic goes; ‘it would be better named the Parable of the Merciful Father because it shows how the Father is always looking for the return of his son and accepts him back immediately with no conditions. In light of this parable this is what Holy Mother Church should do in this all-important year. Let’s show the world we follow what our Lord taught – mercy for all and what better way than to just forgive all sins’.

But is that what the Lord taught us in this parable. To a certain degree this is what the parable relates to us: the Father is always waiting for us. But what is incorrect is that there are no conditions for the Fathers acceptance – there are (as far as I can tell) at least 3 of them in this beautiful parable.

  • The son has to realize his errors.
    But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger![4]  It is the son who makes the first move at a homecoming.  The father is, as was stated, continually on the watch for his son; but the first move is the son’s – his realization that he alone is the cause of his suffering and alienation; he alone had removed himself from the joy of his father and this is not where he wants to be.
  • The son has to return to the Father.
    I will arise and go to my father…’[5]  It doesn’t matter that the son has realized the reason for his misery, his isolation and loneliness if he doesn’t move to remedy it. The son puts his realization into action; he moves from where he is back to his father.
  • The son puts himself at the discretion of his father.
    “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”[6] He submits himself up to whatever his father will do to him, and there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. Indeed, the son is hoping only to be able to abide near his father, not resume his old place as if nothing had happened. A servant is what he hopes to be; and this is enough; because he understands now what the psalmist sings: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.[7]

And of course, we see that with these conditions met, the son receives the fullness of his father’s mercy – he is made whole again.

What we see are two understandings of the same parable. One emphasizes only the merciful father to highlight His great love and mercy, but in doing so it strips away the dynamic of relationship and our responsibility in it. It speaks of an almost exclusively top down action with overtones of our right to, and expectation of, His forgiveness.

However, when the parable is viewed in its entirety we see a dynamic of relationship, indeed, a family relationship. There is upward action as well as top-down action.  Forgiveness is given to us from above, but it is desired by us as we look upward to repair our relationship with our loving Father. No expectation of, or an attitude of, ‘a right to’ forgiveness – it is a humble search for healing and mending. Viewed in its entirety Jesus’ parable is an explanation of the normal, individual method of Reconciliation.

Maybe our time would be better spent in helping those we know come to appreciate and participate in the fullness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God’s Mercy instead of trying to come up with quick fixes that appeal to the sentimentality of our minds instead of the totality of our hearts.

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[1] http://wdtprs.com/blog/2015/02/ass-of-u-s-catholic-priests-promotes-general-absolution-wherein-fr-z-rants/
[2] http://catholicherald.com/stories/Straight-Answers-Is-General-Absolution-Allowed,6730
[3] LK 15: 11-32 (RSV)
[4] LK 15:17 (RSV)
[5] LK 15:18 (RSV)
[6] LK 15:18-19 (RSV)
[7] PS 84:10 (RSV)

Four ‘Yesses’; Four Faces

(Divine Mercy Sunday – 2016)

This year, because of the liturgical calendar, we have a special alignment that speaks even more fully of God’s gift of mercy.  This year our celebration of Divine Mercy is wedged between two great acts of God’s Mercy, indeed it is situated between the beginning and the culmination of His gift of Mercy, albeit in chronologically reversed order – but still between them. The celebration of Divine Mercy, this year, rests between Easter Sunday and the Solemnity of the Annunciation (which we celebrate tomorrow). Normally, when Easter Sunday isn’t so early in the year, the Solemnity of the Annunciation falls within Lent.

Why is the Solemnity of the Annunciation tied so closely to Divine Mercy?  After all many would say, and rightly, that all celebrations are tied to Divine Mercy. But the Solemnity of the Annunciation is especially integral to this gift; Easter couldn’t have happened without the Annunciation.

Of course it is easy to understand why Easter is so connected to today’s celebration of Divine Mercy. The great Pascal Mystery; when through no merit of our own, due only to the love of the Lord mercy was shown to us, mercy opened the gates of hell; mercy healed the universe.  Easter is when the light of mercy explodes to those who seek it.  It is the culmination of this great gift from the Father. It is the reason for our joy.

But, again, why is the Annunciation closely connected to Divine Mercy?

The Solemnity of the Annunciation is usually almost forgotten among the celebration of Lent. If we look closely, this ‘hiddenness’ seems almost appropriate. Pope Benedict XVI commented on this at his March 25th 2007 general audience: ‘The Annunciation, recounted at the beginning of Saint Luke’s Gospel, is a humble, hidden event – no one saw it, no one except Mary knew of it – but at the same time it was crucial to the history of humanity.[1]  What is almost always overlooked is that at this small ‘backwater’ encounter there were two fiats, not one. Two acts of mercy happened at that meeting between the Archangel Gabriel and Mary, and both were needed to bring Divine Mercy among us. Mary’s yes to the will of God the Father; and first, the Son’s yes to His Father in doing Their merciful work by entering into the world. It was at the Annunciation that Mercy took a face.[2]

But there is another ‘yes’, another face.

Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, takes our Blessed Mother’s yes and adds hers to it.  The Church stands in front of the face of God and the faces of all the angels, and the heavenly hosts and proclaims her fiat. Her yes, to continuing to bring the face to mercy to mankind. Two millennia have seen this ever different yet never changing face of Divine Mercy. It is the face of each and every faithful who has and is doing Christ’s work. Holy Mother Church continues to give physicality to God’s mercy – through her we can see and hear and touch Divine Mercy.

And, there is a fourth ‘yes’ – ours.

As have those who preceded us in the mystical body, we need to allow our own face to project Christ’s face and shine as the face of mercy.  Our ‘yes’ needs to be added to the Church’s nearly 2,000 years of ‘yesses’.  It is our ‘yes’, our face of mercy that ‘completes what is lacking[3]. Our suffering for those around us, the action of mercy, that brings them to Christ through His bride.

My brothers and sisters, do we take up this mission and move forward? Do we add our individual fiat to that of the Church, and of Mary, and of Christ? Are we adding our face to Christ’s and radiating mercy to the world?

This week we have seen the passing of a great witness to the mercy of God. Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation went home to the Father after 92 years of pilgrimage and over 70 years of continual public fiat in doing His will.  By her faith in our merciful God she built the largest Catholic, indeed Christian, media network and spread God’s face throughout the world.  It was her EWTN television station that daily prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy so the world could become aware and appreciate its power and participate in it.  She has been called home – let’s take this milestone to recommit to our Merciful God and say yes to the mandate of Divine Mercy. Let’s embrace His mercy with our own fiat and in doing so let those who haven’t felt His mercy see His face in ours and by doing so instill in them the wisdom of the prodigal son when he finally realized who he truly was and where he should be.

Finally, friends, this Fiat of ours isn’t an annual celebration – it is a commitment to action, continual action. So as we add our ‘yes’ to the millennia of faithful let’s ask our Father to give us the strength to offer the mercy we received from Him to all we encounter.

Let your face shine through us Oh Lord, so that Your Mercy may bring light to our darkened world.

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[1] Pope Benedict XVI – 3/25/2007 General Audience.
[2] Inspired by: Pope Benedict XVI – 3/25/2007 General Audience.
[3] Col 1:24 (RSV)

Every Time

Bishop Javier Echevarría, in his February letter, writes about the blessings that God gives us with His mercy, especially during Lent, this great season of interior conversion and returning to the Lord’s embrace:

The invitation to a deep change is especially timely in the Year of Mercy, a special time of grace for all mankind. What trust and security it gives us to know that “God is always ready to give us his grace, and especially in these times; the grace for a new conversion, for rising higher on the supernatural plane: a greater self-giving, an advance in perfection, becoming more on fire.”[1][2]

In three short days we begin our Lenten journey. This time of Lent, if we use it wisely, is a time of challenges.

  • We are challenged to look within us in an ever deeper and more honest way. This can be threatening. We can be put off by the fear of seeing something that we have tried very hard to keep hidden, even from ourselves.
  • We are challenged by trying to give up something, at least for this Lenten season, to offer it to our Lord in love and thanksgiving for what He means to us. This can be very uncomforting and trying.
  • We are challenged by inadequacy, of the thought that we can never live up to what our Lord did for us. Our thoughts can veer towards whether our Lenten practices, even if done well, are enough to bring us closer to the love that God offers us?

But let’s go back to Bishop Echevarriá’s message; God is a God of mercy and because of that we can meet these challenges with the knowledge that He is embracing us in our struggles and He is helping us with them. He desires us to overcome these challenges and His desire is stronger than any doubt we have about our abilities. ‘Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.[3] St. John Chrysostom wrote.

Brothers and sisters, let’s take the lessons of this Year of Mercy and use them to enter our Lenten journey with the will to dive deeper within ourselves, look more intensely at our heart and mind, and come to a clearer understanding of who we are – beloved of Christ. Lets always remember that God is there to pick us up every time.

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[1] St. Josemaría Escrivá, Notes from a meditation – 3/2/1952
[2] Bishop Javier Echevarría, Opus Dei Prelate– February 2016 Letter
[3] St. John Chrysostom – Easter sermon (circa 400 AD)

Making People Hungry

This weekend we are back in Ordinary Time; but in spite of the change in liturgical seasons we are still contemplating what was started in the Christmas season – the great epiphanies of Christ. Today, we finish with the last of the four great events that, by the way, the Feast of the Epiphany originally celebrated. The Nativity of our Lord, the Visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River, and now the Wedding Feast at Cana.

We are also one month into the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. There has been quite a lot of interest and activity already, which is a good thing. My worry, however, is that if we are not careful this celebration of the Year of Mercy might cloud the great initiative already in progress – The New Evangelization. This would be a tragedy because they fit so well together – indeed they have the same goal. The initiative of the New Evangelization is to bring Christ to those who have forgotten Him; to bring the Face of Mercy Himself to those who have forgotten what God has to offer His creation.

With any ministry and mission we are always looking for ways to implement them; the New Evangelization is no different. As faithful disciples we should always look to Jesus and see how He accomplished His mission on earth; in order to gain insight into how we should participate with Him. In this case – how do we continue to bring His face of Mercy, and what it involves, to those who have forgotten or never knew Him. With these celebrations of the four Epiphanies we can go back and look at how Christ brought Himself to the world.

The Nativity in Bethlehem.
Christ comes first to a family. His presence, the presence of divine mercy enters mankind through a family. It is true that the love and mercy of a mother and father to their child was always there, and Mary and Joseph come to know what this love and mercy is about.  They feel it well up in them and pour it forth on this little and defenseless baby. They knew He was God – but I have to believe that in Bethlehem that realization took a back seat to the love of a parent for their child.  But Christ’s presence brings a holiness to this relationship of parent and child, as well as to the relationship of a family. His presence, His love and mercy, elevates the dynamic of a family to something different, something holy, sacred.

The Visit of the Magi.
The world, in the personage of the Magi, comes to the great king, announced by an amazing cosmic display. But when the meeting happens, I can’t help but believe it is just three tired, worried and worn out journeyman visiting a poor rural family with a toddler. And yet their hearts are moved by what they see; they are fulfilled. The world comes face to face with Mercy Himself as they enter this house of a family filled with sanctity.  These outsiders are affected by what radiates from a family, they are changed; or as St. Matthew states more poetically: ‘they departed for their country by another way[1] Mercy is introduced through a normal encounter– not the extraordinary.

The Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan.
Christ, now an adult, is shown to those at the river as a chosen one of God. Mercy is made known by God Himself. And though it comes in the form of a profound mysterious event it comes during an event with the townsfolk of the region. Christ comes to the river with them and comes out of the river as they do; He is one of them. Mercy is made known through a neighbor and human social activity.

The Wedding Feast of Cana.
Christ, now with a few followers makes His first outward act of a miracle. His changing the water into wine wipes away doubt from His disciples who came with Him that He is special. But, just what was the event that He used. Christ, used the event of a wedding, a special but still common occurrence; and not only that but He used six relatively common vessels used to hold water, to show that Mercy was among the people.  He took the ordinary and raised it to the Holy.

Our Model and Our Turn
Brothers and sisters, as we try to contemplate our part in this much needed New Evangelization let’s look to Christ’s actions in these epiphanies as our model. Christ, in all of these moments, took what he was experiencing, took His daily events and raised them, sanctified them by His actions.  Now, some you might be thinking that – well, He was God and He had special gifts that allowed Him to do this; but, I urge you to reread the second reading today. St. Paul tells the Corinthians and us that we too have been given talents to help the face of Mercy be made known. ‘There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.[2] St. Paul proclaims and then goes on to list a few of the inexhaustible gifts given to us. God has not left us without tools to reintroduce the face of mercy.

My friends – what these epiphanies show us is that our part of Christ’s mission to bring His face to everyone is to take normalcy and raise it to holiness – to always sanctify every moment of our day. This is our task, this is our obligation to He who showed us mercy first; not by clever words but by holy action. Sanctify the workplace, sanctify the home, sanctify the public square; with fearlessness and love. By these actions the people around us will hunger for what we have.

Out part is to make people hungry – Christ will feed them.

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[1] Mt 2:12
[2] 1 Cor 12:4

The Face of Mercy

One of the beauties of the liturgical year is that Holy Mother Church uses special events to highlight an aspect of the faith; this time it is the whole year. The Holy Father opened the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy a little over a month ago on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The theme of the year can make things look new, different, fresh, and uniquely beneficial for our journey Home. For instance this year I look at today’s feast of the Baptism of Lord in a new light, with new emphasis; and it has, for me, become a hermeneutic of sorts, a key, for understanding this special year.

Today marks the end of the Christmas Season which has reflected on the birth of Christ and some events during His so-called hidden years. Last week, of course, we see the Magi come to do Him homage; but that was only one of three events we know about in his youth. With the exception of the event of Anna and Simeon at His Presentation Christ lived His life, more or less, hidden way. Even when Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple surrounded by an astonished crowd, it was only they who knew who He truly was.

But today, today we see Jesus rise from the river; rise from the Jordan in the midst of a great crowd of people. As He rose out of the water with God the Father proclaiming ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.[1]; the crowd (and us) finally behold the face of mercy itself. The people of Judah are now becoming aware of ‘God among us’. No longer is mercy an abstract thought, an ideal, something to be meditated about, a goal to strive for; mercy has a face. It is true that from this face comes the ideal of mercy, the plan of a merciful life, a mercy-filled attitude; but mercy is first and foremost, as Father David preached about on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a person.

Brothers and sisters, as we dive into this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy let’s not forget that mercy is not something that we determine from our feelings or our intellect. It is not something that even the great and wise holy men and women throughout the history of Holy Mother Church have discovered from philosophical and theological reflection.

No, mercy is Jesus Christ; when we gaze upon Christ we see God’s mercy. This is the paradigm that this whole year should be viewed from: Mercy is Christ – all of Him. It is all too easy to allow clever arguments about mercy dictate how we understand it. It is all too easy to allow ourselves to ignore some teachings of Christ, to push aside truth, in favor of seeming kindness and call that mercy. But, that would be wrong – because that would be part of Christ and mercy is all of Him. So, let’s keep Him close to us; in our thoughts, our prayers, and our actions. His face will light our lives as we discern Him, discern about the true meaning of mercy. If we open ourselves to Him He will show us mercy in full. And maybe most importantly, let’s never forget that He will be our strength until He returns to us again.

On this last day of the Christmas Season – when we have celebrated the arrival of mercy among us; let me end with a quote from the great book ‘Imitation of Christ’; which for us, we can make a valuable prayer in our lives, especially in trying times:

How can I bear this life of misery
unless You comfort me
with Your mercy and grace?
Do not turn Your face from me.
Do not delay Your visitation.[2]

Merry Christmas

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[1] Luke 3:22 (RSV)
[2] Imitation of Christ – Thomas á Kempis et al – Book 3 Chapter 3