Sunday, January 20, 2019

Wedding Wine

January 20, 2019 –– 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 62:1–5 / Psalm 96 / 1 Corinthians 12:4–11 / John 2:1–11
Wedding Wine

Weddings carry a lot of weight in our society. Many prospective brides come to their plans with images that have simmered in their imaginations even before they became conscious of them. I have no idea what the financial outlay might be each year for the wedding industry, but I know it’s huge. Venues for the reception alone are easily in five figures for a single evening of celebration (and there is usually plenty of wine). All of this is symbolic of the hopes a newly married couple have for future happiness.

Marriage, at its best, offers some of greatest and deepest delights this world can give. Dashed marital dreams can inflict some of the deepest emotional pain. It is in this context that God speaks to his people through Isaiah after their hopes had seemingly been destroyed:

As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.

The image of God being married to his people is woven throughout Scripture. In the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ.

It is no accident that the first miracle of Jesus was at a wedding. Neither is it happenstance that the specific act was turning water into wine. There is more about this written by the Church Fathers than one can easily read; one observation by Saint Augustine is that water naturally turns into wine all the time, but usually through a gradual and natural process. Out of this Bishop Barron notes: “God delights in taking what we can contribute––and then lifting all of it up to a higher pitch through his grace.” 

Then there are all the Eucharistic implications of Jesus providing “miraculous wine” so far beyond this one event so long ago. Jesus gives us miraculous wine so that all we are naturally can be transformed into the glory of God. 

We are invited to bring the water of our lives to the Bridegroom who is able to change us into choice wine. What if we had a bride’s expectation each time we came before the altar to receive Jesus?

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Following Jesus in Baptism

[This is an edited repeat from several years ago, but some things need regular repetition.]

Sunday: January 13, 2019 –– The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 40:1–5; 9–11 / Psalm 104 / Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–7 / Luke 3:15–16, 21-22
Following Jesus in Baptism

Catholic identity is grounded in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. On this Sunday the Church celebrates The Baptism of the Lord. It's an event that is recorded in all four gospels, so we know it's important. But there's a question: Why was Jesus baptized?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptismal grace means forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, and birth into the new life by which a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ....  [CCC 1279].

Jesus didn't need any of those things! So, why was he baptized?

The baptism of Jesus is part of his mission, and his mission is clearly stated in the Scriptures: The angel told Joseph: he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:21).

How does Jesus save us? The Scriptures give more answers than I can include here. Today’s epistle reading is an extended treatise on salvation. More succinct verses tell us:

[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21).

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:7).

....all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)
This last verse makes an explicit connection of baptism with our salvation; it portrays dying to sin and rising to new life. But again, why did Jesus himself need to be baptized?

Here is the “heart” of what we need to grasp: To save us, Jesus goes ahead of us and gives us a path to follow. Particularly, in his death he was taking upon himself our death. In his resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of death. When we follow Jesus, we too die to sin and thus have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

This is the way we understand baptism. To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners so he could take the path to the cross to be our Savior. It was one more way the Son of God humbled himself to do for us what we could never do for ourselves..

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). This is at the heart of the historic Christian understanding of salvation: God became like us so that we could become like him. He became humanized so we could become “Divinized” (see 2 Peter 1:4). Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint––truly being like Jesus!

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added). It is sad that not all baptized people live up to their Baptism: “the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). Here is the issue for us on this day that we honor the baptism of our Lord: Am I living out of my Baptism?  

Being baptized into Jesus Christ is our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The implications are eternal.

As I progressed in my journey into the Church––as I began to understood more of the tangible things that mark Catholic life––I was pulled into the power of the Sacraments. I began to think more about my own Baptism. I came to understand that entering the church and making the sign of the cross with holy water was connected to my Baptism.

I want to renew a challenge I have given previously: Try to remember that as you enter the church, dip your finger in water, and make the sign of the cross, you are renewing your Baptism. It helps us to focus if we say a prayer––something like: I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters keep me clean and make me totally yours.

Jesus Christ gave his life for our salvation. He suffered death for every one of us. He rose from the dead to open the door of eternal life for all humanity. He initiated it all by being baptized. Christian Baptism marks who we are.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Light in the Darkness

December 25, 2018  –– Christmas
Isaiah 9:1–6 / Psalm 96 / Titus 2:11–14 / Luke 2:1–14
Light in the Darkness

Generally speaking, humans do not like darkness. Many people complain of Seasonal Affective Disorder and are depressed when days are short or overcast for too long. Of course, “darkness” is relative (actually, “darkness" only exists according to the degree to which light is decreased). We have ways of making “relative darkness” cozy and beautiful––a small lamp or a fire in the hearth in an otherwise dark room, or a display of lights on the outside of our houses to illumine a winter night during the Christmas season.

Still, we do not do well with an absence of light…. either physically or spiritually. Have you ever been in total darkness? Years ago I visited Mammoth Cave and I still remember when our group was assembled at the lowest part of the tour and the lights were turned off for a brief time––total darkness.

The Bible begins with that image and the contrast of God’s activity: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light (Genesis 1:1–3). Throughout the rest of Scripture there is an ongoing theme of darkness and light.

A disobedience to God allowed darkness to have an inordinate place in the world. The darkness of unbelief and rebellion has besieged people for so long that we can assume it is as eternal as God himself. but the power of darkness has no chance of domination. John tells us in his first letter that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). In Peter’s first letter we hear that God is always and forever the one who [is calling] you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

This is the promise Isaiah was making to God’s people after they had detoured into darkness and lost hope: The people who walked in darkness have see a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. The promise was fulfilled in the little town of Bethlehem. Luke gives the details of the story: Mary and Joseph, a first-born in a manger, shepherds, and angels…. and the Good News: a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.

St Paul tells Titus what it means: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways…. We reject godless ways when we turn away from any and every thing that extends the darkness of pain and despair and death. We see the reality of the grace of God whenever a bit of light shines on our path.

Christmas is the celebration that Jesus is that Light. God himself came to dwell among us and open the way to the fulness of Life . John opens his Gospel saying In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world…. [and] to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:5–12).

Like the Christmas lights that shine into these winter nights, we are immersed in a Light that darkness cannot overcome. This is why, on that night long ago, the angels illumined the sky and sang: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace those on whom his favor rests.

Through Jesus Christ, the favor of God rests on us. It is the gift of Light and Life.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Looking for the Day of Christ Jesus

December 9, 2018: 2nd Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1–9 / Psalm 126 / Philippians 1:4–6, 8–11 / Luke 3:1–6
Looking for the Day of Christ Jesus

One of the great verses of the Bible is Philippians 1:6 –– being confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. God is at work in our lives. It helps to keep in mind what God has done and what God is going to do. These are two crucial things. The first is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). A second thing is that Jesus is going to come again––the day of Christ Jesus, and it will bring the full effect of his death and resurrection to all of creation. Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for our salvation but the full effect is yet to come. We live “in between” what Jesus did in his first coming and what he will do in his second coming.

Christian life is lived in this tension of what God has done and will yet do. The great thing is this: What God starts, he will finish. Christians live in hope. That is why we live by faith; we believe that God has already done something incredible, and that he is going to finish it when Jesus is fully revealed as King of kings and Lord of lords––the day of Christ Jesus.

As Christians, everything we do and everything we value needs to be understood between these two fixed certainties of what God has done and what he is going to do. As Paul writes this Philippian letter, he is in prison; despite his circumstances his hope is in what God has done and what God is going to do. This is meant to be our model. We all live with threatening situations: An important relationship begins to unravel…. a loved one gets seriously ill or even dies…. hopes for our children get torpedoed…. we discover we have inherited dysfunctional living patterns…. our job (and thus our earthly security) is threatened…. What do we do? We hang on to what God has done and what he is going to do.

Now, while our faith is indeed rooted in what God has done through Jesus in his death and resurrection, that alone is not full salvation. This world has not yet come into the reality of God's rule. So Christians, like all others, still suffer. Christians, like all others, still physically die. The fullness of God's salvation is yet to come; it is what God will do. We live for what's coming. We prepare for what's coming. We make our decisions based on what's coming. We choose our values based on what's coming.

Here is what is coming: the day of Christ. This is in continuity with the Old Testament reading for today and prophecy that John quotes in the Gospel. This is the hope of every Christian who has chosen to trust God in spite of the pain, the tears and the death. Jesus is coming as God's King of the universe, and he is going to change this world to be all that God has promised.

It is more than we can imagine, so critics say this is a pathological diversion––“imaginary pie in the sky by and by.” It is said that this world is what matters, and it is implied only this world. Yes, there are many good things which call for our attention in this world. There are also other things which can distract us spiritually and even hurt us. So this is the question: is this world as we know it all there is? Is so, then there is nothing to Christian Faith. But if we grant Christian Faith, then there is something that makes sense of all the details that surround our live.

Now if we try to keep track of all those details in an attempt to get everything right by ourselves, we will only get bogged down and lose our way. As we make our way in this world we have one focus: the day of Christ is coming, and it will put everything right.

One winter day five boys were playing in the woods. They decided to see who could make the straightest set of tracks in the snow. Most of the boys very carefully watched their feet, putting one directly in front of the other. But when they had crossed a clearing in the woods and looked back, one track was curved, one was crooked and two were zig-zag. Only one boy had a straight track. When they asked him how he did it, he replied that he had not looked at his feet; instead, he had picked out a tree across the clearing and had walked straight toward it.

As we "walk" through the details of our lives in this world, we keep our spiritual eyes on what God has done and what he is going to do. That is what it means to live in faith. That is the way we can enter into the real meaning of Advent. We keep our eyes looking for Jesus…. until the day of Christ. He is coming!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Waiting for the Lord

December 2, 2018 –– The First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
Waiting for the Lord

Advent begins with this Gospel that reminds us of hard things because we live in a world that does indeed have terrible things. Christian Faith does not turn away from what is difficult; the message and model of Jesus invites us to call a thing what it is. But we do not dwell on the bad news. We believe that God is at work even in the darkest and most difficult times. Christians know that our Lord is at work in and beyond the threats and discouragements.

In Advent we are called to wait for the Lord. We believe that Jesus came to fulfill Jeremiah's promise of the righteous branch. He fed the hungry, he healed the sick, and gave himself a ransom for our sins. Jesus wants us to know that this world still belongs to God. Nothing must shake our faith nor weaken our resolve that God is in charge and that Jesus is coming again.

We can feel like it’s up to us to fix things. We can feel guilty if we don’t fix ourselves the way we think we should be. In Advent we remember that God is at work; he is going to make things right, even if it’s not the way we expect or on our time schedule.

Henri Nouwen wrote a book called Sabbatical Journeys. He tells about some friends of his who were trapeze artists. They told Nouwen that there's a special relationship between flyer and catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one that lets go, and the catcher is the one that catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air. His job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air. One of them told Nouwen, "The flyer must never try to catch the catcher." The flyer must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.

As our hearts desire the promise of Christmas, we need to learn to wait. We may feel that we’re suspended in mid-air––far beyond our comfort zone. Advent tells us that, in the midst of things that can make us impatient and even hurt, our Lord is with us on the journey. Wait on the Lord….

I suggest a little exercise for the next four weeks. When you sit in the soft glow of your Christmas tree some evening or when you enjoy the delicious food at a holiday party, at some point remind yourself that these things are not mere pleasant distractions. Holiday ambiance is not a brief opportunity to forget the world's troubles for a little while. Rather, it is a reminder that even as the darkness swirls around us, we live in the Light that shines in the darkness. It is a Light that no darkness can prevent from shining. As the holiday lights shine around us,  remember…. the Lord is near….. the Lord is here.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The King and His People

November 25, 2018: 34th (Last) Sunday in Ordinary Time: Solemnity of Christ the King
Daniel 7:13–14 / Psalm 93 / Revelation 1:5–8 / John 18:33b–37
The King and His People

You've seen the cartoons with space people: A little guy gets out of the spaceship, walks up to someone and says, "Take me to your leader." Christians know that whoever appears to be leader in this world is not the leader. We believe Jesus is the ruler over all the kings (and presidents) of the earth. On the day he comes back not only are those who knew it by faith going to be confirmed in that faith, but the people who doubted and the people who rebelled and the people who would have nothing to do with God are going to realize it when he comes in visible glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.

John has a vision of reality in Revelation, and as he writes these titles of Jesus his heart gets full: To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father…. Because Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth, there can only be one response: To him be glory and power. Amen.

As John expresses his praise he tells us these three things about Jesus. First of all, he loves us. Secondly, he has freed us from our sins. Thirdly, he has made us a kingdom and priests to serve his God. If we are going to be able to keep spiritual equilibrium in a world that is no friend of godliness, we need to come back over and over to who Jesus is.  That's why we read the Scriptures. That's why we come to the Church and confess the Creed. This is the Gloria in the early part of the Liturgy. That’s why we feed on Jesus in the Eucharist. We live in a world that does not understand and thus disdains such things; we are immersed in a bias that does not recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior and King of the world.

We need to keep coming back to this so that we don't lose touch with who we are. Jesus is a faithful witness. He told Pilate: for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. In a time when being able to know truth is ridiculed, we confess these truths every week: After being sentenced to death and going to the cross Jesus died and come back to life, he ascended into heaven, and was glorified at God's right hand; he is coming again. This is the framework out of which we live our lives. These are not words to be repeated mechanically when we confess our Faith with the Creed. This is life for our souls. We should awaken each morning and go through our days remembering that God has loved us through his Son. He has loved us so much that he has forgiven us our sins, and he has made us a kingdom and priests to serve him.

What does this mean? First it is a reminder that our allegiance is to God and his rule in contrast to any other earthly system that would seek our allegiance. The only thing that is worthy of our ultimate allegiance is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, the kingdom which is going to endure when all other kingdoms have fallen.

There is a description of Christians in Peter’s first letter that is rooted in the kingship of Jesus and our union with him: You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. Why? That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

As recipients of the Lord’s mercy, we are to be a kingdom and priests to God––we are called to model the life of Jesus in us. What happens when we do that? Other people find out who God is. What happens when other people find out who God really is? The whole world is transformed into the glory of God! That's what Daniel saw in his vision. It’s the goal towards which all of human history is progressing.

But for that to happen in us, we need to remember who Jesus is. We need to keep before us each day what Jesus has done. We need to give ourselves again and again to the one who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. God wants us to be his people. He wants us to be his witnesses. Through Jesus Christ, he has done everything for us that needs to be done. All we need to do is respond…. every day. 

So for today…. and tomorrow…. and every day thereafter… Let Jesus be the King of your heart!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thinking About The End Of The World

18 November, 2018 –– 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Daniel 12:1–3 / Psalm 16 / Hebrews 10:11–14, 18 / Mark 13:24–32
Thinking About The End Of The World (as we know it)

As the liturgical year approaches its close, the Scriptures increasingly focus our attention on what is traditionally referred to as the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, Hell. These are not popular topics for preaching. It seems that even in the Church there is a tendency to want to keep our attention on good things in this world. We do not like to be reminded that this world is passing away. 

Yet there is popular interest in trying to foretell the future. Some people use horoscopes and other occult practices that God has told his people to avoid. But many Christians try to use Scripture the same way with such things as the visions in Daniel’s prophecy and the imagery in the book of Revelation. That is not the focus of Christian Faith. Even Jesus’ words about the last-days do not give exact future details.

Jesus talks mostly about how his disciples should respond to the events going on around them. This is a wisdom that focuses on what we can do something about, not on the things beyond our control. We cannot do too much about the big catastrophes or way the world will end; the one thing you and I can do something about is our own response to the things that happen in and around our lives. How shall we respond to our world––even when it seems that it is falling apart? It is normal to fear for our comfort, our happiness, our security, and to wonder what might happen to us and our children.

Jesus' words in Mark 13 can be expressed in four short exhortations. 

The first one is: Don't be dazzled; be steady. Jesus warns not to let the world around us, with all its wonders, sweep us off our feet. Whatever it is that is so impressive, we must remember it will not last forever. We need to be steady in our assessment of the things around us; they will not last forever. Nothing in this world is forever. We will not be in this world forever.

A second guideline is: Don't be deceived; be studious. Jesus says that other people will claim to be the Christ. He says that people will say it is time for the end when it is not. Jesus gives the parable of a fig tree: just as one can look at a tree and discern which season it is, so can a disciple who is studious discern the signs for his coming––not so that we know exactly ‘when” but so that we can live wisely.

A third lesson here is: Don't be dismayed; be steadfast. In v13 he says, the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. In the face of opposition.... in the face of hate.... in the face of arrest, imprisonment or death––do not be dismayed; be steadfast. Jesus says we will only be saved as we stand firm. Be steadfast.

The fourth word is: Do not be distracted, but be still. Jesus says to be careful, to watch, to pray (vs35,36). In other words, to be still. God tells us through the Psalmist, Be still, and know that I am God

The reason we are to be still is so we can truly see what is going on around us and, in the imagery of the fig tree parable, discern the season around us. It is hard to be still. We so easily surround ourselves with distraction––some electronic device commanding our attention almost all the time. We stay in a hurry. We do not want to be alone. How can we hear the voice of God? How can we keep watch for the things which would distract us from the kingdom?

Jesus told his disciples these things because of what is someday going to happen: the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.... he will send his angels to gather his elect from the ends of the earth (v26,27). Yes, terrible things happen: wars, famines, wildfires and hurricanes and tornadoes, homicides, addictions that cause death.... The list goes on and on, but these things do not have the last word.

For God's people, these things are reminders of a greater reality: the world will not always be this way. Someday Jesus will return and make it new, but until then we are in a spiritual war; the demons of hell will fight like crazy to keep the world the way it is now. Jesus gives his disciples these words to help us understand what is happening around us, and to know how to respond.

In the face of threatening circumstances, here are four things ways to keep our spiritual equilibrium:

–– do not be dazzled, but be steady;
–– do not be deceived, but be studious;
–– do not be dismayed, but be steadfast;
–– do not be distracted, but be still.

The basic invitation is always the same: keep our hearts open to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As this life disintegrates, God's word is sure. This world is passing away; his kingdom is forever.

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