Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Just one question... (Easter homily)

One question: Did Jesus rise from the dead? That’s all the matters.

If he did not – which is entirely reasonable – 
people do not rise from the dead, 
especially after such a violent death, and being sealed in a tomb …

…Then this is just a pleasant spring morning, 
and what are we doing here?

But what if Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Let me be as clear as possible.

I don’t mean, what if we Christians imagine he rose from the dead…
Or, what if we feel he rose “in our hearts”…
Or, he “rose spiritually” for believers.

No, I mean, his broken, dead body coming back to life. Reanimated.
He left that tomb under his own power. 
He appeared to many people – Saint Paul tells us, 
elsewhere in Scripture, 
that he appeared to at least 500 people at one time.

What if that happened? What then?

Perhaps you would like to know some details of what happened…

- Jesus certainly died. He took a horrible beating, 
and was nailed to the cross. 
The job of the Romans was to make sure he died. 
Who thinks they didn’t do their job well?

- He was buried in haste, because the Sabbath was about to begin. 
That means his grave was near the place of execution, 
which is what Scripture says. 

- People knew where the tomb was. 
The Romans knew, because Roman guards were placed there. 
The Jewish leaders who sought Jesus’ death knew – 
they asked for the Roman guard. 
And the disciples knew. Scripture tells us that Mary Magdalene, among others, 
was there when the tomb was sealed.

- When Peter and John came back very early on Sunday morning, 
they looked in, and saw no body, but they did see the cloths in which Jesus’ body was wrapped. What’s not entirely clear in the English translation, 
but what the Greek suggests, 
was that the cloths were in the exact position 
they’d been in when Jesus was laid on the stone. 
That is to say, the cloths themselves hadn’t moved; 
the body had simply left them! 
That’s what Peter and John and the others saw 
when they looked in the tomb.

- Sometimes people suppose the followers of Jesus 
were inclined to believe. But what do you think? 
If you believed he was the Messiah, the conquering king,
 and then he gets arrested, 
and executed in the most humiliating way possible, 
and then someone comes and tells you, oh, he’s alive, 
would you really be all that ready to believe such a story?

In any case, what the Gospels tell us is that they didn’t believe. 
Peter doubted. Thomas doubted. 
The two who were walking on the road to Emmaus doubted. 

What made them believe? Why should they have believed?

And even more confounding, why, would Peter, James, and John, 
the other James, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, 
Thomas, Matthew, Simon and Jude 
all spend the rest of their lives telling everyone 
Jesus rose from the dead – at the cost of everything they had, 
with all but one of them dying terrible deaths? 

Peter himself was crucified in Rome – 
we know this, because we have his bones, buried in Rome, 
under the Vatican, found again in the 1940s, 
precisely where ancient tradition said they were, 
they were found in Rome, 
and his bones had absolutely no reason being in Rome 
unless he went there to preach Jesus Christ.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?

What changes for you if he did?

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The long road to the Covenant (Easter Vigil homily)

I want you to use your imagination. 
Imagine you were standing on a mountain. 
You got there by a very long journey. What an ordeal! 
Now you are catching your breath, and taking in the breathtaking view. 
Your gaze follows the slope of the mountain, 
down to the table-land below. 
Your eyes trace out the path you came, across valleys and rivers, 
until they spy out the far horizon, hazy in the distance.

And now, imagine that – in taking in this scene, 
you aren’t just looking at your own journey, 
but you are recalling a journey through time. 
And not just your own journey, but the journey of humanity; 
you are able to cast your gaze all the way back to man’s beginning.

You see, that’s what the readings tonight are helping us to do. 
Yes, these readings were an ordeal! 
Some parishes will cut out some of the readings, 
and try to make it “brief,” 
but that defeats the whole point of this Mass, 
which is unlike any other Mass all year long. 
This Mass is about the journey of man; 
or, more precisely, God’s journey with man, 
from the Creation to Redemption.

Two scholars I respect – Scott Hahn and John Bergsma – 
have aptly identified the theme that links all these passages, 
indeed, all the Old Testament, together: 
and that is the theme of covenant.

What is a covenant?
We can understand a covenant better 
when we contrast it with a contract. 
If you need someone to cut the grass, maybe you put out a sign, 
and a young person comes and knocks at your door, 
and you offer him the job. 
“Show up twice a week, here’s the mower, and I’ll pay you each week.”
If that college kid gets a better job, he’ll quit; 
and if he doesn’t show up reliably, you’ll let him go. 
That’s how a contract works.

But with a covenant, there’s no “quitting” or being fired. 
A covenant is forever. 

And a covenant is total. 
With a contract, all that student owes you 
is a few hours a week of work; the rest of the time is his own.
All you owe is the money you promised, and nothing more.

But with a covenant, each gives all to the other. 
Employment isn’t a covenant, but family is; and so is marriage. 
I belong to you, you belong to me, all in all, 
and we belong to each other forever. That’s a covenant.

And the first covenant began with creation. 
As Pope Benedict pointed out, 
the climax of Creation is the Sabbath;
later in the Book of Exodus, we read, 
“the Israelites [shall] observe the Sabbath 
throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant” (31:16-17). 

Also, notice God makes man in his “image” and likeness.” 
What does this sound like? 
It doesn’t sound like employer-to-employee, 
or even Creator to creature. But it does sound like father to child. 
Family. Family is a covenant.
After this we have the story of Abraham and Isaac, 
foreshadowing the Cross. 
Then the exodus from Egypt, 
which is also about the rejection of the false gods of Egypt, 
passing through the waters of the Red Sea to communion with God at Mount Sinai – 
another covenant.

And did you notice? We also heard Isaiah prophesy this:

All you who are thirsty, come to the water!
You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat…
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.

Why is God talking about food? 
What does that have to do with covenant? 
Notice he says, “I will renew with you the everlasting covenant…” 
What could he mean? Stay tuned…

As I said at the outset, 
we’re retracing our steps along a long, winding path. 
That path winds its way upward, up a hill – to Calvary. To Good Friday.

But the story of salvation doesn’t just lead from Creation to the Cross; 
it leads all the way to us. It leads to our own baptism, 
when we passed through the waters 
and were adopted as God’s children. 
To our confirmation, when we received the Holy Spirit 
promised by Ezekiel; 
and to the new and everlasting covenant, 
which we share in the grain that becomes the Body of Christ, 
the wine that becomes his true Blood. “Rich fare” indeed!

See that? The story of salvation leads right to this place, 
to this altar, to tonight!

This Mass tonight is not like any other Mass we celebrate. 
It is the culmination of this Holy Week, 
and the Holy Three Nights we’ve kept together. 
Thursday night when Jesus began his Passover, 
offering himself as the Lamb on the cross 
the next evening, Good Friday.

And there was a detail I meant to mention yesterday. 
Do you know that when Jesus died on the Cross, 
the evening sacrifice was taking place in the Temple? 
And do you know what they were praying for? 
We actually have some idea about this from ancient writings. 
Among the things they prayed for were:

- Redemption
- Forgiveness of Sins
- The coming of the Messiah, and
- The resurrection from the dead

And that brings us to this night. 
All the promises made, all the sacrifices offered; 
all the repentance and all the hope, 
all mean nothing if that tomb is not empty!

I began by proposing we are on a journey, 
but of course that journey does not end on this night. 
The empty tomb, the Risen Lamb, the Risen Lord, leads us on. 
He will lead us to the Father. That was the promise at the beginning.

That was what Adam lost, and which the New Adam brought back to us.
Humanity wandered a long way from the Garden to the Cross.

You and I have spent 40 days of penance and sacrifice. 
Tonight we return to the font and source of our Faith, 
which is Jesus, the slain Lamb, the victorious Lamb, 
who conquered death and hell 
and returned from the dead to lead us on. 
Tonight ends our mourning and begins our rejoicing. 

We are not at heaven yet, but this night, this Easter, 
and this Holy Mass is our taste of heaven. 
God has created us, claimed us, redeemed us, and called us. 
We’re headed home!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

This is our Passover (Holy Thursday homily)

It’s important to peel back the centuries of our own tradition 
to reveal what lies at the root of what we do tonight.

The first reading describes the Passover, 
celebrated by the Jewish People. 
It speaks of the “the fourteenth day of the month” – 
that is, fourteen days after a new moon, which means, a full moon. 
Did you see what is overhead? A full moon.

The lamb was one year old and “without blemish”; 
and notice, the lamb was obtained several days before, 
and lived with the family until the day of sacrifice? 
Why is this important? 
Because it symbolized the lamb being part of the household. 

Then, with the whole assembly present, the lamb was slaughtered. 
Elsewhere in Scripture, it makes clear, not a bone is to be broken.

The blood of the lamb is then spread over the doorposts, 
to symbolize protection from divine judgment. 
Scripture scholar Brant Pitre – 
whose work I draw on for these details – 
points out that when the blood was spread on the doorposts, 
it would stain the wood, providing a permanent sign.

And then, finally, the flesh of the lamb was eaten. 
This completed the sacrifice.

At the same meal, there were “bitter herbs” recalling slavery in Egypt, 
and unleavened bread and wine.

On Sunday, we recalled how Jesus entered Jerusalem, 
along with probably a million other faithful to keep the Passover. 
The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, 
says there may have been as many as two million. 
With such numbers, that means quite a lot of lambs were sacrificed: 
perhaps two hundred thousand or more. 

History records that 
all the thousands of priests of Israel were present, 
and they had a well-practiced system of doing this. 
Without being too graphic, just stop and realize: 
there would have been a lot of blood. 
It would have been powerfully present.

Now, I want to compare all that with what happened 
when Jesus gathered with his apostles. 
In all that Jesus said and did at the supper, 
he never mentions the lamb. 
Instead, he takes the bread, and says, 
“this is my body, given up for you.” 

If you were listening closely to the Passion of Luke on Sunday, 
you heard mention of Jesus taking a cup of wine not once, but twice. 
In fact, in the Passover meal, there were four cups of wine shared.

The first cup that was prepared: I say, “prepared,” 
because it was mixed with water. Does that ring a bell? 
Watch what I do at the altar in a few minutes. 
This was called the “cup of sanctification,” 
and the father began the meal with a prayer, over this cup, 
and the food is brought to the table.

The second was the cup of “proclamation” – it was prepared, 
but not drunk right away; because then the account 
of what God did for his people in Egypt, in the exodus, was recounted, 
and the father would explain the meaning of what they did. 
And isn’t that what I’m doing now?

After this, the meal would be eaten. 
And then when the meal was finished, the father would share the “cup of blessing.” 
Then those present would sing several psalms, 
and then the Passover was concluded with the fourth cup, 
called the “cup of praise,” and it completed the sacrificial meal.

If you noticed what Paul just told us, 
Jesus took the cup “after supper” – 
meaning, this was the third cup. 
Which raises a question that scholars wrestle with:  
what about the fourth and final cup?

Well, if you are here tomorrow, Good Friday, 
you will hear these words in the Passion we will all read together:

After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled,
Jesus said, “I thirst.” There was a vessel filled with common wine.
So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.

I want you to notice that tonight, we will not finish this Mass. 
There will be no final blessing. 
We will go on a procession – recalling Jesus and the Apostles leaving the Upper Room, 
and going to the Garden of Gethsemane. 
In turns, we will keep watch with the Lord all night. 
Tomorrow, we will recall how the Lamb of God was slain.

Oh, I meant to give you one more detail. 
In Jesus’ time, when the lamb was prepared for the meal, 
in order to roast it, do you know how they did it? 
They took two skewers, made of wood. 
One was speared through the torso, from head to tail. 
The other was speared through both shoulders. A cross.

Tomorrow we will worship the Cross on which our Savior, 
our Lamb of God, was slain. This is our Passover. It begins tonight. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Entering the Holy of Holies of our Faith (Palm Sunday homily)

With the long readings for Palm Sunday,
it behooves me to keep my homily brief. 
So, I will just point out a few details.

Let’s begin with the entrance into Jerusalem. 
First, you should know that huge numbers of people 
were present for the Passover. At least a million people! 
And second, because this was a sacred pilgrimage, 
it was a strong tradition 
that you did not approach the city except on foot. 

Add to that, the Prophet Zechariah had described 
the Messiah entering Jerusalem on a donkey.
So what Jesus did wasn’t just a curiosity; 
it would have caused tremendous excitement. 
It would have turned the city upside down.

Next, notice that the passage from Isaiah, 
and the psalm we prayed, are also prophecies. 
You do realize that what we heard from Isaiah 
was written probably 600 or so years before Jesus was born? 
And the words from the psalm might be from a thousand years before? 
Just stop and think about that. 
The details of Jesus’ life, his miracles, and his suffering and death, 
were all foretold centuries before!

I want to share something from Scripture scholar John Bergsma
about what we heard from Saint Paul. 
He says that “St. Paul probably has in mind here 
the ancient ritual of the Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur. 

And what happened was that, like the Passover, 
huge numbers of worshippers would be gathered in Jerusalem. 
The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies 
and make atonement for the nation. 
And when he exited, he would give a blessing; 
and in that blessing, he would do what otherwise no Jew would ever do: 
he would pronounce the Divine Name of God over all the people. 
And when he did that, the entire assembly, as one man, 
would fall to their faces to hear the Name of God.

For us, that is the name of Jesus! 
And notice what we did a moment ago, 
as we heard the account of Jesus’s death: we fell to our knees.

This week, and especially the Three Nights 
of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, 
are the Holy of Holies for us. 
Let us pray for one another, 
especially for those who may need a boost of faith, during this week. 

And never forget what happened for the criminal beside Jesus: 
all he had to do was ask for mercy, and Jesus said, 
“This day you will be with me in Paradise”! 
Jesus is always ready to give complete mercy and restoration 
to anyone. All we have to do is ask!

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Confession is necessary if we want the Promised Land (Sunday homily)

Maybe you’re wondering just why the first reading was included – 
what it means for us. 

The point of the first reading is that it is about us, and our journey. 
We are the people who are wandering in the wilderness. 
God wants to bring us to the Promised Land of heaven. 
Those who cooperate with his grace will get there. 
Those who are stiff-necked and hard-hearted and stubborn 
are those who fell along the way. 

As we make our way, we are sustained by the sacraments, 
like the Manna; in heaven, we will have God himself.

When the Children of Israel were in the desert,
God kept confronting them about being stiff-necked and stubborn. 
Am I stiff-necked? Are you? 
It occurred to me that the real problem 
isn’t the stubbornness I know about; it’s the things I don’t even see! 

Do we want to get to the Promised Land? 
Will we do anything to get there? Will we sacrifice? 
Will we change our lives? 
Will we let go of anything that holds us back?

This is why frequent confession is so critical. 
Because we don’t see what we need to see right away; 
we don’t recognize what we need to let go of all at once. 
And when we do see it, 
it can take awhile before we finally peel each finger away and let it go. 
Change comes slowly.

Father Amberger, from time to time, 
would take homily time to review the examination of conscience. 
That’s what I’m going to do today. 
You can take out the books with the readings – 
the booklet is in the back – and follow along, beginning on page 29. 
I will be delicate about certain matters; 
there are some grown-up words in this examination. 

Father Amberger also created these purple booklets; 
many of you have it. 
There are some in the front entrance, near the baptismal font, 
and some at the side entrance. 
This is very good at answering all the questions you may have.

Let me talk about mortal and venial sins. 
It’s a good idea to bring all sins to confession, 
but we must bring mortal sins. 
“Mortal” means they deal a deadly blow to our relationship with God. 
It’s a lot like a couple, or a friendship. 
There are little annoyances and slights that don’t help, 
but they don’t wreck the relationship. 

But some things we say or do can’t be overlooked. 
And they have to be spoken out loud, and repented of, 
before restoration takes place. 
The prodigal son understood that; and the Father, did too. 
So when we confess mortal sins, 
we also specify the number as best we can. 
That’s part of being truly honest with God and ourselves.

The First Commandment is God comes first. 
There are lots of ways we treat other things 
as more important than God, such as work or the cares of the world. 

When we openly and explicitly deny a teaching of the Church, 
doing so is a mortal sin; as is any false worship, 
which is what the occult and fortune telling and astrology are. 
Receiving holy communion while in a state of mortal sin 
is itself a mortal sin. 
Lying or concealing mortal sins in confession is a mortal sin.

The second commandment: not taking God’s name in vain. 
This sin becomes mortal when the harm we cause is grave: 
when our insult to God or what is sacred is deliberate. 

The third commandment is about the Lord’s Day. 
Missing Mass for no good reason – 
let me say that again, for no good reason – is a mortal sin. 
Some people misunderstand this. 
If you are sick or don’t have a ride or the weather is bad 
or you have someone at home to care for: these are good reasons. 
That said, it is disrespectful of Mass to leave early, 
again, without a good reason. 
And one way we trust our Father, rather than disdain him, 
is by setting aside Sunday as a day of rest and spiritual renewal – 
trusting that the other six days will be enough for what we need to do.

The fourth commandment is about respect, humility and gratitude. 
If you have trouble obeying your parents, 
or doing your part to help the family, ask yourself: 
what are you grateful for regarding your family? 
The flaws and failures of our family are easy to see.
Our own? Not so much! 

The fifth commandment: you shall not kill. 
Obviously this is about destroying human life – including in the womb. 
It also includes when we injure other people. 
These become mortal sins when the injury is serious. 
But don’t forget the way we hate and “kill” each other 
with words and in our hearts. God sees these, too. 

The sixth commandment is about honoring marriage. 
Sex is for husbands and wives; that’s where it belongs. 
Not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good and sacred. 
Before marriage? No. Outside marriage? No. Alone? No. 
With the lifegiving part deliberately left out? No. 
Seeking to create life in a laboratory, rather than in an act of love? No. 
Pictures I won’t describe or the wrong sort of entertainment? No. 
All these are mortal sins because they do grave harm. 

The seventh commandment: you shall not steal. 
Not paying our taxes – no, I don’t like it either – is stealing. 
Not paying employees a fair wage – 
and I think that includes tipping waiters and waitresses, 
because that’s part of their wage – is a sin. 
Not doing our own work is stealing. 
So is destroying someone’s property. 
Neglecting to help the needy is stealing from the poor. 
When what we steal is a significant amount, that makes it a mortal sin.

The eighth commandment: you shall not lie. 
Anytime we misuse our words and harm others – 
even with the truth, if we didn’t have a good reason – that is a sin. 
If the harm is great, that’s a mortal sin.

The ninth and tenth commandments are about coveting – 
which means they are about being content with what we have. 
This was the sin that led the prodigal son away from his Father.
And one way to combat this sin – which is also the sin of envy – 
is to remind ourselves of what we have, instead of what we lack. 

Sometimes it seems so hard to go to confession, but it really is easy. 
You don’t have to come to me, if that’s an issue; 
you can go to any priest. Remember you can go anonymously. 

The prodigal son took a long time to come to his senses. 
And, I suspect, as he trudged home, 
he reproached himself over and over; 
he worried about what Father would say, 
and how bad it might be. 
Maybe even he thought about turning around.

But he did come home – 
and his Father caught sight of him “a long way off.” 
God sees us a long way off – and rushes to embrace us. 
When God’s mercy surrounds us – that’s what happens in confession – 
that is a taste of the Promised Land.