Sunday, September 23, 2007

Under the Banner of Love

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
23 September 2007
St. Michael R.C. Church Maracas Valley
(Parish Novena for Patronal Feast)
Theme: St. Michael, Guardian of His Holiness the Pope, Pray for Us.

“St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle, …”
What battle? The battle against Satan, against the devil, of course! And where is the “battle” being waged today? In front of the TV? On the Internet? In the schools? At home? On the streets? Where is the “battle” against the “wickedness and snares of the devil” being fought? Where is it that we ask Michael, the Archangel, to come into play for us? I am sure that we need to ask him for help on many fronts, but I want to focus on one in particular, the one which holds the key for all the others.

I don’t know if it is fair to do it this way, but let us ask the prophet Amos from our First Reading from the Old Testament today where the battle is being fought. No doubt he would answer and he’d probably say, “The battle is being waged and lost in the lives of those who turn their backs on the poor,” or to use his words, “the battle is raging and being lost where the needy of this world are being trampled upon”. The prophet, speaking in God’s Name, is very hard. Our First Reading today concludes: “The Lord swears it by the pride of Jacob, ‘Never will I forget a single thing you have done.’”

Who falls under Amos the Prophet’s (and therefore under God’s) condemnation today? Where are the poor and the needy being trampled upon today? Where is such happening today? There are certainly a lot of quick and very straightforward answers, which would hit politicians and big business people the hardest, but would also touch on the lesser responsibility each and every one of us has for the world around us. What are abortion and euthanasia if they are not violence against the defenseless poor of our society?

Condemning such things can’t be the total point of what you and I need to reflect upon today, however, because a given Sunday’s message is not set up to hit only one, two or even three categories of people square between the eyes. Sunday and its message is for everyone. No one can withdraw himself or herself from the two edged sword of God’s Word. What stake does each and every one of us then have in the battle? Where do you and I by our failures risk those terrible words: “The Lord swears it by the pride of Jacob, ‘Never will I forget a single thing you have done.’” Are our hands free from guilt and oppression or do we find ourselves over and against Michael, commander of the forces of the Lord of Hosts?

Let’s look at the Gospel for further indicators toward an answer to our question!

The Gospel for today seems hard to reconcile with Amos’ message as it switches from warning against swindling the poor to taking an admiring look at swindling the rich or so it would seem. We read: “For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light. …use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.” It would seem that the Gospel is on a very different wavelength. Not so! The difference is only apparent.

The two readings complement each other and have a single, straightforward message for us: If you foolishly fail to use money or other options which are yours in this world to win friends for yourself from among the less fortunate, the poor and the needy, if you are too busy to care for others and are seeking your own comfort in this life, there will be no one to speak on your behalf when the thrones are set up for judgment and the book of life is opened up.

We have heard it before (1 Cor 13): “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” The battle, St. Michael’s battle, is the battle for our hearts.

In the last year I relocated the chapel of the Nunciature into a larger room. For 25 years it had been in what was once upon a time a little porch in the old part of the house, but re-roofing that part of the house gave me a chance to take over a bigger room in the new part of the house for the chapel. Someday, if the lady who promised to work on them for me finds the time and I find someone with the money, we might even have stained glass windows in the new chapel and three of them will be dedicated to the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. As I say, for now, the project hasn’t really gotten serious, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been time for some thought on those windows and how the three greats of the heavenly host should be depicted. My first question was: what color says the most about each of the archangels? Raphael was easy. His color is green, the color of the theological virtue of Hope. Gabriel wasn’t quite so easy, but still no doubt in my mind that his color is white and his virtue is Faith. And Michael, the commander of the Heavenly Hosts, what is his color? It’s got to be red and his primary virtue has got to be Charity – Love. If you want to stand under the banner of the valiant Patron of your parish, St. Michael, then you’ll be standing under the banner of love! Love of God and love of neighbor will be your calling.

You know: life, our human life is anything but a passive, timid, indifferent sort of thing. We’re called to something quite radical in this world. St. Paul used imagery from athletics (running a race, boxing, working out) to make this point and in St. Michael, the Archangel, we meet the same in the imagery of a war of cosmic dimensions. St. Michael teaches us that the life of a person baptized into Christ is a life of struggle, it is a battle. If God is central in your life, that’s the way it is going to be. Without God, as so many people in our world are of course, it’s different.

In different countries and on different continents I’ve run into a fair number of people without God in their lives. The pattern is always about the same. These folks who live their lives without prayer, without church, without God can be quite refined and even polite, that is until you press them a bit and then “bang!” comes the reaction and many times also the rage. They push the other, the bother, the trouble, the burden away: most often they do so with violence but maybe they just run away. The way of divine love is quite different: it engages the other while fighting the battle within us against passion, against rage, even against the instinct to self-preservation, of wanting to climb to the top of the heap whatever it might cost others. Michael’s color is red and his virtue is love and his battle and ours along side him is to win the victory first over ourselves by laying down our lives with Christ.

What concretely is this trampling the needy? What is Amos condemning in our everyday lives? Where must we be if we want to stand on Michael’s side of the battle line? You tell me! Should we start the list? And where should we start it?

How much trampling goes on at home? Why are there so many more divorces and separations today? Why do so many people fail to marry and go from one relationship to another? Love demands that we stand with Michael and fight. Fight our selfishness, our willfulness and our pride, fight our anger, and fight all those things which have not yet been refined in the fire of Christ’s love. Years ago they used to talk about the old Irish woman, Molly, who stayed with that old drunk, Paddy, raised those children and never wavered. Molly knew that the book of life is written on the pages of other people’s hearts. Before the throne of judgment will stand Paddy and countless more who experienced Molly’s undying love in this life. She stepped on no one. She trampled no one. She fought along side Michael; she fought for love.

Even the lowliest among us have responsibility for others. Imagine that poor soul who opens the pages of his heart to God, saying: “Lord, you know that Bill always had time for me: I could talk to him and I knew I was not alone in my struggle to be a good husband and father. Lord, let Bill into heaven, he fought with Michael.”

On the pages of my heart are written accounts of children I taught in school, children who listened and tried to learn, and my heart remembers one child in particular who helped another child in class that everyone else had pushed away as some sort of a dummy. On Judgment Day one of the books which will be opened will be that of my heart which will read in their favor. We may forget, but it’s all written there and will once again come to light.

Where is the “battle” against the “wickedness and snares of the devil” being fought? Where is it that we ask Michael, the Archangel, to come into play for us? I am sure that we need to ask him for help on lots of fronts, but I want you to focus on this one in particular, the one which holds the key for all the others. It is right here within each and every one of us. Michael the Archangel’s battle ground is our hearts. Fight with Michael and leave a testimony for good written on the hearts of all in need. Trample them and you’ll be remembered in a very different way.

I surely hope you are all into this novena of preparation for your parish’s patronal feast. Some people think that preparing to celebrate is having enough food and drink on hand, the right music, etc. We all know that you’re not going to celebrate if your heart is not in it. A good examination of conscience and confession this week would probably do more for you than anything else in preparing you to celebrate with Michael. Valor in battle is a matter of the heart. Make sure yours is in the right place. Take advantage of the novena to get back to essentials and be thankful that you have such a great patron.

The Theme for today’s novena Mass is: “St. Michael, Guardian of His Holiness the Pope, Pray for Us.” So far in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has written us one encyclical letter, DEUS CARITAS EST, God is Love. It’s obvious that the Pope is with Michael and Michael is with him.

Most everything else in life pales in comparison with this struggle. Commit yourselves to it today. Do it out of fear of condemnation, for that is a good start. Then do it out of conviction, which is even better. We were taught in catechism that imperfect contrition (inspired by fear of punishment) was sufficient for the Sacrament of Penance to do its work, but we should all strive toward perfect sorrow for our sins, inspired by love of God.

“For the children of this world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light. …use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity.”

Be smart! Get on Michael’s side of the battle line. Don’t straddle the fence a day longer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Saints for us

Teresa of Calcutta, virgin,
Wednesday, 5 September 2007
Feast for the Missionaries of Charity

I’ve gotten myself involved in some rather interesting and important conversations with people these days over the stir in the press about the publication of letters Mother Teresa wrote to spiritual advisors concerning her longing for the Lord. That she would suffer being away from the Lord in this valley of tears people could understand. The problem seemed to be with the publication of those letters.

I hope my explanation of why such letters were published helped people. Namely, when someone is raised to the altars, presented to us officially by the Church for our veneration and edification, then that blessed or that saint belongs to us entirely. Their wishes concerning their private lives or their writings no longer hold.

The anguish of Teresa of Calcutta or of Therese of Lisieux becomes an aid to us as we seek to understand what it means to share in the sufferings of Christ. It’s not easy, just as it was not easy for the saint when he or she was going through it, but it is important for our own journey of faith and appreciation of what it means to follow Christ. This is part of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints and of the reason for the Church’s veneration for those who have gone before us in faith.

In the case of Mother, in a very special way we might say, in her letters recounting how much she suffered being away from the Lord, Jesus’ cry from Calvary, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabbactani,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” takes on new meaning for us who seek to understand her suffering. We learn more about Christ as experienced in exemplary fashion in the life of one of God’s chosen, one of His holy ones.

In this same vein, the readings and prayers for today’s liturgical feast of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta sum up exceptionally well her insight into what it means to follow Jesus, how we go about imitating Christ and thereby doing our part for the salvation of the world.

Permit me to mention some key words or ideas from the readings for the Mass of today.

“Love is strong as death” The Song of Solomon can be very pretty, but very puzzling unless you happen to be a Mother Teresa or someone else who understands Christ as the Bridegroom. For most of us older folks here, death might be terrifying, but I suspect what really blocks us, may terrify us, certainly burdens us, are death’s calling cards: illness, infirmity, suffering, the pains associated with these and with age. Memory loss, hearing loss, loss of sight, loss of mobility, these and other burdens, mental and physical, take us out of the loop and bring us face to face with what really matters and how we ought to live. There is no real consolation in this life; our consolation is with the Lord who first loved us and gave Himself up for us: “Love is strong as death”.

Today’s Response to the Psalm was: “O Lord, we thirst for the light of your Kingdom.” O Lord, we thirst, hopefully, as Jesus thirsted upon the Cross, not so much for water, but for the salvation of each and every one of us down through the ages. This thirst is that which plays such an important role in the life and spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity: “O Lord, we thirst…”

I am sure Mother Teresa lived her own longing for the Lord, that sense of emptiness which Christ alone could fill in her heart, as St. Paul expressed it to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face… Then I shall understand fully…” We live by faith and not by sight. Our focus must be on the world to come. Our dwelling place is not here and as such while not being indifferent about our surroundings and the people who are part of our lives according to the old axiom, here today and gone tomorrow, we must nevertheless know that heaven comes later. Life in its fullness will be ours beyond the grave when we are caught up to be with the Lord, when we share in His Resurrection.

Mother lived with conviction the Beatitudes; she conformed her will, and so must we, to Christ’s, so as to live as Jesus exhorts us in today’s Gospel: “Let your light so shine… that they may see… and give glory to your Father…” The newspapers everywhere are full of stories about personalities, from politics as well as from the world of entertainment, about their crises and nonsense. We kind of take their ups and downs in stride: that they go off for rehab or are picked up for some sort of substance abuse or other failure doesn’t really surprise us. The word “Fame” has more of a dark side than light. The way of the saints is another way: it is the path of light which leads to Light Eternal. In this sense, a sharing in the Cross of Christ is not an impediment or drag on the highway to heaven. Suffering is not an accident, a sidetrack or a detour. Oneness with Jesus in His suffering and death is the way. “Let your light so shine… that they may see… and give glory to your Father…”

My prayer for the sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, and for all of you here today is best summed up in the words of the Prayer after Communion:
“Lord God,
May this Eucharist renew our courage and strength.
May we remain close to you, like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, by accepting in our lives a share in the suffering of Jesus Christ,
Who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.”