Today marks the end of the Christmas season and provides another moment for us to reflect and receive the gift of the Incarnation. When I was in High School in the late 1980s, everyone searched for and clung to an identity within the school community. Maybe it’s the same now, but back in the 80s there were the athletes, or “the Jocks,” the good students, or “the Nerds,” those who liked Heavy Metal music, or the “Head bangers,” those who dressed in the newest fashions, or “the Preppies,” and those who liked Punk music, or “the Punks.” Certainly not an exhaustive list, but what is clear are two things. First, we all search for an identity, and second, once we find it, we cling to it with great tenacity. This is because every human being yearns to belong, to have a sense of community and a place within it. If this desire is so universal within our hearts, then it must be from God. At the same time, however, while we may have particular identities, some short and other long lasting, no identity articulated in this world is ultimately who we are. Who we are can only be found in and through God.
With the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, God reveals and gives to us our true and eternal identity. After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and he came out of the water, the scripture tells us that a voice from the heavens spoke. God the Father proclaimed that “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We may think that it makes perfect sense for God the Father to say this of God the Son, but how do these words affect us? The Church teaches that through the humanity of the Lord, through his Incarnation, we are drawn by the Son into the relationship he shares with the Father. This means that the words the Father spoke to and of the Son, so too are those words spoken to and of us. Through Christ we have become the children of God. Through Christ it is revealed to us that God is “well pleased” by us, that we are his delight. Here then is our identity. It is not given or confirmed by others, it is given eternally to us by God. It is an identity that may be denied by us, but can never be lost. God is the guarantor. This truth is of the utmost importance for us. As God tells us in Isaiah: “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”
God Bless and Take Care,
Photo by Yohan Cho on Unsplash
I cannot imagine my life without Jesus Christ. He shows me the way things truly are. To a person like me who can easily be negative and judgemental when looking at the world - be nearly filled with confusion, objection and cynicism - I remember the words of the Lord: “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” Or if I look at myself, how often I wish I could be different, wish I could be more. I can be quickly filled by disappointment, dejection and frustration. But then I remember God’s Word in Saint Paul: “And then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.” Jesus Christ is everything to us, he is indeed the “hidden treasure” and the “pearl of great value.”
This week the Lord gives two parables to describe the kingdom of heaven. In the first, Jesus says that God’s Kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field. Even though most are unable to see it and recognize its value, some do. Thus one goes, sells everything one has and buys the field with the hidden treasure. The second parable is similar. A person finds a “pearl of great value” and likewise, sells everything in order to have it. In both parables, the person who is able to see what other’s seem unable or unwilling to see, experiences a powerful response. They are transformed as persons. Their minds and hearts have been changed. The things that they had once valued, the goals that once drove them have been left behind. These things and goals fail in comparison to the hidden treasure or the pearl. As Psalm 42 says, “My soul thirsts for God, the God of life; when shall I go to see the face of God.” What could be so powerful as to transform a person so completely? It is Jesus Christ.
When we read and hear the Gospel, we are shown the “face of God.” We may not always feel confident in a world marked by a “new normal.” We may not consistently grasp that we are the children of the Father. But in Christ we see and hear the true story, the way things truly are. We see our God empty himself . . . for us. We see our God proclaim his kingdom though “foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” . . . this too is for us. We see our God hanging on a tree . . . for us. We see the Eternal God raised from the dead so that we may always know and have love. If God has done all this for us, then we must be bold in our honesty. Are we not then God’s treasure? Are we not God’s pearl of great value? It is from seeing God’s face in Christ that our lives are delightfully turned upside down. We spend our whole lives seeking peace, relationship, joy and love. The treasure is not hidden from us. He has made our eyes to see and our ears to hear. All that we seek and long for are given to us. We are given God himself. And he is our “treasure hidden in a field.” He is our “pearl of great value.” Jesus Christ is everything to us.
God Bless and Take Care. Fr. John
When I first read the Gospel for this week, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, I was surprised by the passage the Church had chosen. I assumed it would be something similar to John 14, where the Lord says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Or a few verses later, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.” With these two verses, we have clear indication of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In place of the passage like the above, the Church instead gives us God’s reason for the Incarnation. In response to Nicodemus, Jesus reveals that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Though I may have had different expectations, in truth, the Church could not have chosen a more perfect Gospel for our understanding and worship of the Triune God.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises presents an image for the eternal moment in which God sends the Son. He writes:
Here it is how the three Divine Persons gazed on the whole surface or circuit of the world, full of people; and how . . . they decide in their eternity that the Second Person should become a human being, in order to save the human race. And thus, when the fullness of time had come, they sent the angel St. Gabriel to Our Lady.
What becomes visible and understandable to us is the reason the Father sends the Son. He is moved that we be saved, that is, God is moved by love of humanity. In the face of humanity’s suffering God does not remain silent and still. Rather God acts and acts for our benefit. As Christians, we truly have an “embarrassment of riches.” The revelation of God in Jesus Christ and our freedom to receive it through the Holy Spirit draws a picture of God that is beyond our notions of goodness, beauty, compassion, mercy and love. That God gives God’s very self for us is the “pearl of great price.” His gift of his infinite love is our most vital and precious possession. Through the Incarnation, we are also able to see more clearly the type of God our God is.
When God became flesh in Christ, he became “the image of the unseen God” for us. It is only through the Lord that we are able to proclaim as St. John did, that “God is love.” And we know this because in Jesus we see and experience that we are being loved. This allows us to glimpse the life within the Triune God. As a communion of relations, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in pure act, is perfect and eternal love. When we are created by Father, Son and Holy Spirit we are created by this communion of love. This means that in being made and formed by the One God in Three Persons, we are made and formed by love. Sometimes we may wonder what it’s all about, what’s the meaning of life? The answer emerges from where we come – if made by love then we are made for love. It is for this that John can write in his Epistle: “Let us love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” If “God is love” then rejoice and be heart-filled, for you are children of perfect, eternal love.
In the Collect or Opening Prayer of today’s Mass, the Church asks the Father, “make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation.” During the days of Easter and the Easter Season, most of our focus is on the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost. And rightfully so. At the same time, however, we can miss the beautiful gift God gives in the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. How is Christ’s Ascension “our exaltation?” When I think of the Ascension, I can think of it from a most human perspective. It is as if the Lord came to our world to do a job, to redeem and save humanity. He left our world, his Ascension, when the job was finished. In addition, I can think of the Ascension as the Lord’s moment of freedom from us, of no longer having to be with sinful and unfaithful humanity. Not much “to see here,” not much to celebrate. This understanding of the Ascension, however, is utterly incomplete, it is completely wrong. In an address from 2012, Pope Benedict said of the Ascension: “In his humanity, he took man with him into the intimacy of the Father.” In other words, within the very life of God is now glorified humanity.
My incomplete understanding of the Ascension leaves little possibility that this feast involves “our exaltation.” It rather cannot but connote a sense of God wanting to maintain his distance from us. But the words of Pope Benedict make clear that the truth is the opposite. God is perfect and lacks nothing. Yet, with the Ascension, the Risen Lord brings to the Father and the inner life of God, our humanity which he assumed when he was “born of the Virgin Mary.” It is not enough for God that we be redeemed and saved only. Human salvation freely given by God is not merely about our righteousness. It is also about God’s incomprehensible love for us. Be it the gift of Easter and the possibility of eternal life, of being with God face to face. Or, of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit, of God dwelling within us. Or, of the Ascension of the Risen Lord to the Father, of glorified humanity dwelling within the very life of God. With these we are able to see an almost disconcerting truth – God has done all this for us. In addition, I think we are also able to glimpse God’s desire. It seems inescapable not to conclude that the desire of God is to have us with him, that is, God wants his children to be near him, to be with him always. God wants us close to him, not far. He sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts and brings Resurrected humanity to dwell in his heart. We now live within the “intimacy of the Father.” It is difficult for us to accept, let alone receive, how much we are loved by God. It may be incomprehensible to us, but with the Ascension of the Lord, it is also an inescapable Divine truth. And so this Sunday is indeed a day of great devotion and rejoicing, “for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation.”
God Bless and Take Care.
We have a religious sensibility which informs and guides how we relate to God. I think it is most common for us to believe that since God has made us, and that God is all-perfect and all-powerful, then our part in the relationship with Him, “our part of the deal,” is that we are made to serve Him. As an imperfect and limited creature, it is my duty and responsibility to serve the perfect and infinite Creator. It makes sense and it is certainly a central part of our faith that we are to serve, but our service, because of Jesus Christ, is no longer simply based on God’s greatness and our meekness. Rather, our desire to serve the Lord emerges from the recognition and growing awareness that God in Christ has, in fact, come to serve us. There are many things in our faith that are hard to comprehend. This, however, that God serves us, is perhaps one of the most difficult. Saint Peter, in the Second Reading, wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.” Since we were children, we’ve been taught by our families and teachers in Sunday school that Jesus died for our sins. Our understanding of what this teaching means can be helped by this week’s Gospel of Jesus the Shepherd.
In the Gospel from Saint John, we hear the Lord describe himself as a shepherd. He also contrasts the shepherd from a thief and bandit. The thief come to steal, to exploit another for one’s own gain. A bandit comes to steal but, in addition, does so with violence. A bandit often does bodily harm. The shepherd, however, does neither of these and so the shepherd is familiar to the sheep and is thus trusted by them. Jesus says that the shepherd calls them by name and they follow him because they know his voice. The shepherd goes ahead of the sheep and will be the first to encounter danger. He protects them. At the end of the passage, Christ says, “a thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” The Lord is telling us that he has come because of us. He has come to serve us. When he “bore our sins in his body upon the cross” he reveals the way things truly stand between ourselves and God. We may think that humanity is a “lost cause,” that we are really nothing but a failure for God. We remember the Fall of Adam and Eve, the injustice and cruelty in history and our own transgressions from God’s commands. We may in response “throw up our hands” in frustration and futility. We may wonder, “What’s the point?” The point is that another voice is speaking. And we know the voice and know, deep down, the voice is true. It is God speaking to us. Christ the Good Shepherd has come to serve us. He has come, through his life, death and resurrection, to bear our sins in his body on the cross. By looking at him on the cross, we cannot help but understand – understand that we are loved forever by God. The psalmist wrote, the “Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . . my cup overflows.” No matter what has happened or will happen in our lives, especially during these days of isolation, we do not want and our cup very much overflows because in Christ, God has us and we have him. And that’s exactly how God wants it.
God Bless and take care,
I didn’t use to spend much time in thinking about the Resurrection. I knew that it was central in our Christian faith and celebrated at Easter. I also knew that the Risen Lord made possible our being given eternal life. But it was as if the benefit or reward of Easter, of life in heaven, lay at some unknowable time in the future. As a consequence, in the living of my daily life the Resurrection did not have a place of great importance. The words of the Mass, “Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free,” I knew to be true but did not understand their meaning. The Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the central moment in human history. The moment in which God changed permanently the course and content of our lives. It is the moment from which we gain “life and life in abundance.” Or as Saint Peter said in the Second Reading, “You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.” These “ways of life” can be seen through the Gospel story of the two disciples and the Risen Lord on the way to Emmaus.
The two disciples were walking to Emmaus, a small village near Jerusalem. They were speaking of the Passion and death of the Lord. We can imagine their confusion and sadness. They had thought that Jesus was a “Prophet mighty in deed and word.” They had hoped that he was the Messiah, “the one to redeem Israel” by liberating them from foreign or Roman occupation. Their thoughts and hopes were not baseless – they had seen and listened to him for several years and all signs indicated that we was indeed the Messiah. And yet, they must have been wrong. Jesus of Nazareth had not freed them from the Romans, rather, the Romans had put him to death. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be another failure, another false promise. But when the Risen Lord joined their conversation, the hearts of the defeated disciples began to burn with life.
The Risen Lord explained to them that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.” Captivated by his words, they invited him to stay and join them for a meal. The Risen Lord is no longer on the periphery from the two disciples, asking questions and listening to their responses, he is now at the centre, he is the source. When he blesses and breaks the bread, the two disciples were finally able to see who it was among them – “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” No longer were they confused or sad. In fact, the Scripture says, at “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.” This means that the very moment they recognized the Risen Lord, and he vanished from their sight, was the moment that they got up to go back to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles and the other disciples. Where now is their confusion, sadness and a fear that made them leave Jerusalem in the first place? When the Risen Lord broke the bread, they recognized both him and who he is. They understood that God’s Kingdom is not about which army occupies a particular land, but that God’s Kingdom occupies our hearts. They understood that in his breaking he is broken for them, that they were “ransomed . . . not by perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” And, to God’s delight, they understood why he had undergone all these things. Namely, for love. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor; so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The Resurrection is everything to us. It isn’t on the periphery but in the centre of our daily lives. It is the source of life because it is not only love, but love eternal.
God Bless and Take Care
This Sunday's Gospel: John 20.19-31
We all understand “cause and effect.” If we do some action then we know that some result will happen. For example, if I eat chocolate cake every day, I know that the result will be an even bigger stomach than I already have. This Sunday we are given just such a “cause and effect” passage from John’s Gospel. We hear in the story that it is Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead. The disciples were together in a locked room. They were afraid that they too would be arrested and put to death. The Risen Lord, however, then appeared to them. Saint John writes, “Jesus came and stood among them . . . he showed them his hands and his side.” And the Lord said to them “Peace be with you” which he repeated two times. We are also told that Jesus gave to them the Holy Spirit, he “breathed on them.” Here we have the original situation of the disciples – they were locked away, they were hiding and filled with fear. But with the visit of the Risen Lord, their situation dramatically changes. As a consequence of his appearing to them, we hear that in the following week the disciples no longer locked the door nor were they afraid. We see the effect of the Risen Lord upon them. What had changed within the hearts of the disciples?
When the Risen Lord said “Peace be with you” to the disciples, he was not offering a greeting. He was, rather, proclaiming the new reality. Things have changed in the New Age of the Resurrection. The Risen Lord has given to us a share and participation in his own relationship with God the Father. A participation in his own Sonship. This means that in the New Age, through the Risen Lord, we have become the children of the Father, God’s daughters and sons. His gift to us is not merely the bestowing of a title, but it is the sharing of relationship, it is being given and receiving the love of the Father as the Father’s child. It is this experience that so moved the disciples to transcend fear to boldness. It isn’t as if the danger disappeared, nor that they were infused with courage. They were given both the reality and experience of the Father’s unquenchable love for them. As a result, the disciples began to be inspired by a different power within their hearts. No longer were they preoccupied by danger and fear, no longer did they lock their door, no longer did they hide. The pouring out of the Father’s love through the Risen Lord overflowed from the disciples’ heart: “Through [their] believing [they] have life in his name.”
Though much time has passed and we do not have the same privilege of seeing the Risen Lord in the flesh as the disciples then did, we have not been left neglected. In addition to the community of the Church and its sacramental life, Saint John says that the Gospel has been written so that we may have access to the Lord. We can read and then reflect and pray with Jesus’ words, teachings and actions. Through the Holy Spirit we can imagine ourselves in need of healing, either physically like the man born blind or spiritually like Saint Matthew the Tax Collector. We can imagine ourselves being forgiven, of receiving mercy like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We can imagine ourselves in the presence of Mary and seeing her singular devotion to her God. We can imagine Jesus carrying the Cross and being crucified on Calvary. And we can imagine coming to the tomb, filled with sadness, but then seeing the stone rolled away. With God’s grace, and our growing openness and freedom to receive, the gift of his Resurrection can be ours as much now as it was for the disciples then. In all things, our responsibility is to foster the love of the Father within our hearts and to persevere in this singular devotion. For he has come to give you life and life in abundance. It may seem an intimidating responsibility but he is always at work within us. As he said to Saint Thomas and to each of you, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
As Christians when we think of the Kingdom of God and the establishment of God’s reign, we often focus on things external to ourselves. We may realize with a holy boldness that unjust structures will no longer have a place of toleration in God’s Kingdom. We may decide that economic stability will not overwhelm the necessity of compassion and charity for those who are suffering within our society. We will no longer “turn a blind eye” but will labour and struggle indefatigably, and suffer patiently for the establishment of God’s reign. While these are always a constitutive part of our Christian faith, what do we do when we are shut in our homes, what are we to do when we have been told that the most helpful thing to do is to do nothing? How do we labour in building God’s Kingdom when we can’t leave our homes except to buy food or pick up medicine?
The answer to these questions resides in the full reality of the reign of God, a reality that is growing both outside of and within ourselves. Perhaps given the lives we are all currently living, this Palm Sunday and Holy Week is a moment to shift focus and attention. Perhaps this year it is a privileged time to look to the growth of God’s Kingdom within our hearts, to attend to the gift of life, through love, that God gives to us in the Crucified and Risen Lord.
When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds greet him with great enthusiasm. Many cheered his entrance. Many waved palms above their heads in celebration. Many put cloaks on the road over which he was to travel. They had heard that people considered him the promised Messiah. They had heard of his wondrous actions – just a few days ago he had brought a man named Lazarus back to life! This was the moment, the moment that God would make all things right, the moment that God would fix what has gone wrong. But with each passing step he took farther into Jerusalem, the moment of apparent triumph faded further and further.
I find it of the most incredible beauty that Christ’s days in Jerusalem are not marked by acts of power, such as the giving of sight to the man born blind. It is not that I want God to be merely human like me, nor to be only a moral teacher, but that I want to see that which I need and want more than anything. I want to see and be given eternal love, a love that never goes away. Throughout his life, from his birth in Bethlehem to his public ministry in Galilee, Samaria and Judea, right up to his entrance into Jerusalem, Christ has been spending himself for us. As St. Paul writes,
"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross."
When Christ entered Jerusalem, the time of acts of power had past. It was now time to proclaim most clearly the heart of his message in a way that we would most understand. In emptying himself, Christ has given us everything he has and possesses. And now in Jerusalem he gives us the last thing he has – he gives us his life.
"Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
We help God grow his Kingdom within our hearts when we grow in our understanding what Christ has done for us. That he has given us his very life, that he has given us eternal love. In these days of feeling a little trapped in our homes, in reality, we are truly being set free, set free to be loved and to love.
This is the second time in my life as a priest that I’ve been at a church that has been closed by government order. The first time was when I was in Jamaica in 2010. The Jamaican government ordered the army to control West Kingston to locate and take into custody a gang leader, and declared martial law. Along with everything else, all churches in Kingston were closed because of security concerns which meant people could not leave their homes. Two of us remained at the Jesuit church which was in the middle of the fighting between the army and the gangs. In many ways. I found that experience much easier than the experience we’re all now going through. Then, there was clarity – the Christian action was to remain faithful, to remain present within the violence. This also made me feel courageous, like a hero. But now the feeling is different.
Things aren’t nearly as clear and concrete. I don’t feel like a hero – I’ve locked the doors of the church and closed the Food Bank! We are told by our government leaders that with our actions we can “flatten the curve,” that is, to hopefully limit the number of victims to the virus. At the same time, perhaps harder to discern through press conferences, staggering numbers, graphs for the best and worst case scenarios is the Christian voice. As the psalmist writes this week, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning.” When all “non-essential” businesses were closed last week, I was immediately angry by the explicit insult. How can the Church and the practice of one’s faith through the sacraments be judged as “non-essential?” When we gather as a community to worship God, to give him thanks and to pray for his help, we’re not playing make believe. We are doing something that is necessary, is real and is powerful. Yet, after the initial anger, I was able to understand the health concerns and care shown by the government. But as Christians, we do not simply wait out the crisis in accordance with instructions. Rather we look for the meaning that God is giving in this time. We “wait for the Lord” and seek to work with him in the building of his Kingdom.
Last Sunday we heard the story of the man born blind and how God gave meaning to the man’s suffering through the revelation that Jesus is Lord. Likewise, the story this week also reveals the divinity and glory of Christ. In a similar way, in these days of “lockdown” our Christian mission remain – to reveal the Kingship of the Lord Jesus. The difficulty is that our Christian activity doesn’t appear to us as courageous or heroic. It seems that our Christian duty, to love God and our neighbour, entails to do nothing, to isolate ourselves from others in our homes. This time holds in embryo the most powerful moment of Christian opportunity. In this moment of global suffering, God is giving us a momentous call – faith filled love that cannot be seen. In other words, to be transformed by Christ and into Christ. As St. Paul writes, “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Our isolation, our fasting from the sacraments is not self-protection, it is powerful and uncompromising loving. We isolate from friends and even older family members from love. We give a love that does not require a return of affection. We isolate from co-workers or fellow students from love. We give a love that does not require a return of recognition. We isolate ourselves from the sacraments from love. We give love to God for God’s own sake, so we are not just “twiddling our thumbs.” We are listening to God’s voice. We are obeying God’s Word. We are responding to Christ’s question – “I am the resurrection and the life. . . Do you believe this?” Through our loving, we are saying in action what Martha said in words: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” In this time perhaps the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola best express our mission: “Dear Lord, teach me to be generous; teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.”