Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter Monday

Opening of the Provincial Assembly
of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny
Easter Monday, 24 March 2008,
Emmaus Centre, Torrecilla, Arima

In the Opening Prayer of this Easter Monday we find a really great prayer intention. Just a few moments ago we prayed: “Help us put into action in our lives the baptism we have received with faith.” As women religious, you know that your baptism finds its perfection in your religious consecration. The prayer intention, if you will, takes on deeper meaning in your lives by reason of your vows. And so with fervor we pray: “Help us put into action in our lives the baptism we have received with faith.”

The first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles is St. Peter’s big Pentecost witness which centers on King David’s prophecy that his descendant, namely Jesus, would not experience the corruption of the grave. The reading from Matthew’s Gospel for today partly overlaps and then sets forth the Gospel reading for this year from the Easter Vigil. We hear again that the first witnesses of the Resurrection were the women. They first discovered the Empty Tomb. They first encountered Jesus, the Risen One, Himself. They bowed down and clasped His Feet.

Regardless of what you, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, have for specific points on the agenda of your Provincial Assembly, which opens with this Holy Mass, such gatherings by their very nature have their meditative or reflective moments. Willed or not, we find ourselves looking around and taking stock of the family, of the other sisters younger and older yes, but also of your “together” as it presents itself at this moment in time. Where do we go from here? How are we doing? What more can we do? All kinds of hopes, really, fill the thoughts of those who are vowed to the apostolate.

At this particular moment and considering the situation in which our region here finds itself, there probably would be no greater gift that you sisters could give as a gift to our world either as a province or individually than to make the witness of those women, the first witnesses to the Resurrection, make that same witness actual in our day and time. I hope you will accept it from me, when I tell you that this is the optimal moment for each and every one of you, regardless of any other factors, to repeat the Easter experience of those women in the hostile environment of our day and time where once again as at the moment of Resurrection the powers that be hunch their backs and find other explanations for the Empty Tomb. Easter is your time and the Easter Proclamation is at the heart of your calling. Consecrated life and Easter Glory belong together as much or more than the vowed life and Lenten penance do.

Yours is the chance, in a very contrary and confused world, to say as those women did to all who are waiting for any news whatever and even to those with no particular expectations, “Be off and be on your way to Galilee where you will see Him!” Not the commander, not the soldier, but the witness rules the day.

The history of your Congregation’s work in this region can in part be summed up in all you have done to empower women. Yours is truly a success story. In all of that, the unreflective soul might have missed the point that the key or cornerstone to your contribution has always been your witness, your excitement over having encountered the Risen One. Back to basics, as they say, or concentrating on essentials is never a bad program – it works for getting sports teams back on their game; it works in life; it is Lent and Easter; it is baptismal renewal.

Alleluia! He is Risen as He said and will meet you in Galilee! Sisters, be on your way as witnesses! Do the Savior’s bidding as He stands before you in glory! Proclaim His victory over sin and death! Urge others to be on the way to His encounter!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Recognize your dignity, O Christian!

The Easter Vigil
22 March 2008 (During the Night)
Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

In the midst of this beautiful Easter night Vigil so full of words and ideas, let me share just a brief reflection inspired by the Epistle Reading taken from the 6th Chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I would be remiss if I didn’t share this thought relevant to St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism as a share in Christ’s death and thereby in His resurrection.

Just a short while ago we heard these words: “If in union with Christ we have imitated his death (through Baptism), we shall also imitate him in his resurrection. We must realize that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin.”

If daily Mass is part of your life as it has been of mine for way more than half the years which have passed since I first saw the light of day, then perhaps you too sense something awkward or wrenching about the Holy Saturday just past, the one day of the whole Church year with no public liturgy and no celebration of any sacrament outside of the context of giving someone the Last Rites.

An ancient homily on Holy Saturday found in the Breviary expresses this sentiment and explains the significance of what now fills our hearts with joy:

“The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory… He took (Adam) by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son… Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”

Maybe we cannot even get a handle on the wonder which is the Resurrection, but it is worth trying and I think that sharing the perspective of the Fathers of the Church who spent a lot of time reflecting on Jesus as the new Adam might be of help to us. Our Faith really is something “up close and personal” as the expression goes. Permit me to share an insight from my own life experience which helps me put flesh and bones on these highly exalted mysteries, that is, in some way to understand the dynamics of the way in which we were saved:

As the oldest of eight children and a boy, having been away from home in the seminary from my mid teens and maybe also for my temperament, when I was around my father or saw a picture of him, I drank in every detail especially of my father’s face. His smile, his laugh, and other expressions of emotion, plus just his face without any special expression, are here in my head to be called up from my memory as vivid pictures, even nearly 23 years after his death. Now that I am older and maybe even a bit jowly, there are times when I catch my own reflection out of the corner of my eye and I see his expression, the corner of his mouth in mine. What I used to blame on his dentures, I can now see was not the dentist’s fault. This little detail or experience makes me reflect on the moving experience older dads must have when they catch a glimpse of themselves in the face of an adult son.

That having been said, try to imagine the emotion of Adam on this night so many centuries ago, when looking up from the darkness and the shadow of death into which he and Eve had banished themselves, he saw himself in the glorious face of his Son, his Creator, his Savior!

“Rise, let us leave this place," Jesus, the Risen One, said to him, "for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”

Incarnation and Redemption – Christmas and Easter… How do I say it adequately? Understanding the implications of Easter, the consequences of our Baptism, should send us tumbling to our knees and by the same token jumping out of our skin for sheer joy. “You have put on Christ! You have become a new creation!” Recognize your dignity, O Christian! Recognize the favor shown to you! The Sun of Justice has dawned upon you, to take your hand, to lift you up and to take you to Himself. Ours is a life full of promise and blessing.

“If in union with Christ we have imitated his death (through Baptism), we shall also imitate him in his resurrection. We must realize that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin.”

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Contemplating His Wounds

Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
Good Friday, 21 March 2008
Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

“As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human – so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before: ‘Who could believe what we have heard, and to whom has the power of the Lord been revealed?’ (Isaiah)”

“This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.”

By the shedding of His precious Blood, by handing over His life in sacrifice to the Lord, Jesus won for us a happiness which will never end. He raised us up to new life with Him.

I happened upon a Psalm-prayer from the Breviary recently, which really spoke to me. I think it helps put today’s liturgy into context very nicely.

“God our Father, to show the way of salvation, you chose that the standard of the cross should go before us, and you fulfilled the ancient prophecies in Christ’s Passover from death to life. Do not let us rouse your burning indignation by sin, but rather, through the contemplation of his wounds, make us burn with zeal for the honor of your Church and with grateful love for you.”

Meditating on the Cross, contemplating Christ’s wounds, can fill us with love from the very top to the very bottom of our hearts. Choosing Christ above all is first and foremost a deliberate response to a grace given to us by God Himself. Those who here yesterday at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper here in Rosary Monastery heard me say, that in all of this, what matters is the direction our lives take, where we are headed. Where I am headed is what counts; moving off dead center, being moved by the Spirit of God is what counts. Being moved by the Spirit of God is not “moved” as in “all stirred up”, but “moved” in the sense of “set in motion”, of being pointed and set off in a direction. What is important in life and religion is the direction: we must bring the proper spirit to our every day living and to our participation in public worship, as we progress along the road to Christ and to our eternal salvation. We seek Jesus, the Crucified, in prayer, in life and in divine worship.

Today’s worship service is unique in the Church’s yearly calendar, it being the only day with a prescribed celebration other than the Eucharist and that so that we can focus directly on the historical event of Christ’s Sacrifice once and for all upon the Cross. I think Good Friday is a good time to face both pastors’ and parents’ anxiety about wanting to make worship attractive for the people and especially, as many parents would say, for our children so as to keep them coming to church. We need to exhort or admonish all those who seem to be seized by all kinds of fears, that one thing only is necessary.

“…through the contemplation of his wounds, make us burn with zeal for the honor of your Church and with grateful love for you.”

There are times when we think that liturgical renewal, making worship speak to the people of our day and time, is the thing at the present time. You’ll hear it said: “People didn’t have so many options back then… There weren’t so many other things to do with your Sunday once upon a time… Church was the social gathering years ago… Folks have to make more of a deliberate choice today also because there isn’t the social pressure to go to Sunday Mass that there used to be…” And we could go on with similar observations all pointing to the opinion that externals are what faith practice is all about, that because the entertainment options out there are numerous and impressive, not to mention being maybe fun, that it’s harder to be a practicing Catholic today than it ever has been…

I would like to respectfully disagree with that opinion. The Cross which Jesus invites us to carry with Him has not gotten bigger over the years. Life has not changed much really, even over the centuries. Look at the Exodus story from the Old Testament! Even an earth-shaking Theophany, God coming down in a cloud with thunder and lightning, couldn’t keep the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, with Moses almost within sight up on the mountain top talking with God, not even God’s own powerful presence in the desert could keep them from forging for themselves and worshiping a golden calf. As God’s Chosen People yearned for their stew-pots and kitchen gardens despite the slavery back in Egypt, so people in our day and time often miss the bigger picture and turn their backs on the practice of their Catholic faith for some other form of entertainment. It may be true that we’ve lost out in that competition, but that is not the point because it is not the core issue. Who ever said that Sunday Mass was a cultural exercise? No matter how polished, how dynamic, how entertaining Sunday worship could be… no matter how dynamic Father’s sermon and how pertinent his message, some folks would still stay away or wander off of a Sunday. The challenge to living a Catholic life, to embracing the faith in its fullness and clinging to Christ has never played out in the matter of externals.

What is at the heart of our faith? What made grandma and grandpa or mom and dad such faithful Catholics? What was it which made the difference for them and why don’t I have any excuse for not being the same kind of committed Catholic? What animates the life of a practicing Catholic? What is the soul of religion, what can and does sustain me in my faith if it isn’t a hearty greeting of peace, a great choir or a rousing sermon? That what, I think, is something we can call essential religion.

“…but rather, through the contemplation of his wounds, make us burn with zeal for the honor of your Church and with grateful love for you.”

We use the expressions: “Being a good citizen, being a good neighbor…” People used to say “being a good Christian” in the same breath. The thought is good but it is not the whole story. Remember: essential religion! Every tendency recorded in history to move away from the fullness of Catholic faith has been a denial of the central and essential importance of the Blood of Christ. This turning away from the contemplation of his wounds has corresponded to an attempt on the part of the powers that be in the world of that time, by whomever it was who was pulling the strings, to manage folk, to get the people to toe the line, to make “good Christian” synonymous with “good citizen”. What is central to our faith, what is essential however lies elsewhere; it is necessarily a part of Good Friday.

First and foremost a good Catholic is someone who has made the experience of Good Friday the hallmark of his or her life. The good Catholic has contemplated his wounds, Jesus’ Cross, and in a sense that spectacle is enough for him or for her. In the Cross of Christ my cup is filled to overflowing. The popular old Spiritual hymn, “Were you there when the crucified my Lord?”, says the same thing in a little different manner. The role of Calvary in my life can hardly be exaggerated.

The fullness of life and truth is hidden deep within His wounds. The prophet Isaiah spoke to us in prophecy of what is called the scandal of the Cross, “the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human”. Leaving aside almost the spectacle of violence, the Cross signals for those who do not take time to pause and reflect something truly gratuitous, something which goes beyond the limit and doesn’t make much sense. Some people just do not seem willing to face the fundamental question: To what extremes will God really go to touch my heart, to draw me back, to draw me to Himself? “To ransom a slave you gave away your son” we’ll sing tomorrow night!

God our Father, to show the way of salvation, you chose that the standard of the cross should go before us, and you fulfilled the ancient prophecies in Christ’s Passover from death to life. Do not let us rouse your burning indignation by sin, but rather, through the contemplation of his wounds, make us burn with zeal for the honor of your Church and with grateful love for you.”

Eyes and heart wide open, our ears filled with the powerful words of John’s Gospel account of the Passion, let us look to Jesus and let our choice of Him above all others be strong!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Where are you headed?

Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Holy Thursday, 20 March 2008
Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

“We pray that in this Eucharist we may find the fullness of love and life.” Thus the Opening Prayer of this Liturgy for Holy Thursday!

The Holy Week services contain a lot of theology, but for some they carry a very high emotional or devotional charge as well. The Easter Triduum is the high point of the whole year; it is really central for all those who are into Church, heart and soul. Perhaps that is why Holy Thursday and Good Friday are not days of precept: they are meant to draw people of their own accord; they are meant for those who have been working up to them through works of penance all Lent long.
Maybe it is just an annual Lenten thing, but I have the impression this year that there is more than the usual amount of talk going on in public (TV, radio, news) about WHO’S GOING TO CHURCH THESE DAYS AND WHO IS NOT. For instance, a big statistical study on the topic of Catholics and church attendance published in the United States not too many weeks ago caused quite a stir and just the other day I saw an article asking people on the street whether for St. Patrick’s Day they were planning on going to church or to the pub. In case you were wondering, even on the Emerald Isle the pub won out three to one.

Whether we are talking about a serious, scientific study or about the type of on-the-street-interview typically presented on a live television talk show or some kind of a radio thing, what follows, when people say they will be going anywhere but to church this Easter let’s say, is always a judgment call on the part of someone, be that person an analyst with an academic title or a talk show host. Somebody draws a conclusion from the behavior they record and says, “You see: people aren’t as Catholic as they used to be” or “You see: Church doesn’t play an important role in people’s lives any more”. While many people are scandalized by such, some people brush it off and others just remain silent. Thinking people usually cry “Foul!” and object, saying “Is that any way to judge where people’s hearts are?”

Leaving aside the issue of the fairness of the conclusions drawn, the question itself must be asked. But rather than pointing fingers at others, we should look to ourselves. Holy Thursday really is a good time to ask “Where is your heart? Where is my heart?” While on the one hand recognizing that the so-called “church mice” or the “bats in the belfry” are not what is meant by those who have followed Christ faithfully and stand as His witnesses before the world, we need to look and see whether we ourselves truly draw our water from the fountain of salvation or rather from the occasional pothole on our aimless path through life. Is ours the path of least resistance or indeed the road less traveled?

Today, Holy Thursday, the Church celebrates the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, as well as of the Priesthood, the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which assures that this Gift of Christ, of His Sacred Body and Blood offered up for us upon the Cross and given to us as food under the forms of bread and wine, will be available to the Church to strengthen us on our way until the end of time. Today we focus on the source and summit of Christian existence. Today’s optional ritual of the washing of feet and the passage we just heard from John’s Gospel recounting that event focus on the nature of genuine love, true love, of God-like, Christ-like love as self-sacrifice, as self-oblation, as laying down your life, as something more than just service to fellow human beings.

“We pray that in this Eucharist we may find the fullness of love and life.”

This prayer is essential because, truth to be told, there are lots of people who really miss the point of life, who seem oblivious to ultimate questions, to what might be considered core values or to what matters, to what is most important in life. There are more wrong-headed people in the world, I am afraid, than either you or I would like to believe.

Those studies, which talk about people who have stopped going to the Catholic Church, also tell us that most of these folks are not going much of anywhere instead. Those who claim that people abandon the Catholic Faith in search of something better should look again at the reality. Most of those who have stopped going to Mass on a Sunday aren’t going anywhere else. They aren’t disenchanted; they are not looking for something better; they can’t be classed as conscientious seekers of any kind. There doesn’t seem to be much of a hunger or thirst that wasn’t being met and which they are seeking to satisfy elsewhere. Many folks aren’t going anywhere and aren’t even looking. They are just sitting home of a Sunday. “Indifference” is and has been typical of Western society for quite some time.

There probably were just as many indifferent people in Jesus’ day and time as there are now, people in that very neighborhood of Jerusalem all around that Upper Room who were not celebrating the Passover as Jesus and His disciples were. We don’t know about them, because in a sense they don’t enter into the drama of life either for good or for bad. There are no Judases among them; there are no anguish-filled Peters either. The folks we are talking about are just kind of there but not in the picture, if you will. It would be a mistake, however, to consider them as neutral.

Evil is not threatened by indifference. It is perhaps its greatest ally. Fairy tales invariably describe evil as a great darkness or void. In point of fact, evil is probably not all that great. It’s the black hole at the center of something much more nebulous. Indifference, on the other hand, can be quite large and extensive. Although we cannot call indifference wicked, it certainly is not of the light and has nothing of love or life about it. The rich man, who ignored poor Lazarus at his gate and went to hell when he died, may not have done much else wrong in his life beyond satisfying his own needs and those of his blood relatives without a care for the less fortunate around him. He recognized only in his torment the fullness of love and life which he had not sought or shared here on earth. Jesus tells us that Abraham assured the rich man that if the Law and the Prophets couldn’t touch such stony hearts as his then neither would someone raised from the dead be able to rescue his brothers at home from sharing his fate.

Our drama or dilemma in life may not necessarily be crime but rather stupor. The guards which the enemies of Christ set at His Tomb to see that His disciples did not steal His Body slept through the Resurrection. Without horns or tails or pitchforks, they represent the opposite of the fullness of love and life, they are aligned with evil. Yes, they were aligned with the bad guys. They lost all hope by reason of their indifference.

“We pray that in this Eucharist we may find the fullness of love and life.”

In just a few days time we will be hearing an Easter refrain which invites the sleeper to rise with Christ. Oh, that we might do so! We pray that Lent has been for each of you a time to cast sin out of your lives and that tonight and in the memorable days of the Easter Triduum we will be drawn with eyes and heart wide open to Christ!

Catholic tradition teaches us that emotion is not a trustworthy measure of either sanctity or devotion. When I ask the question: “Where is my heart?” I am really asking a dynamic question, namely: “Where am I headed?” Some people are headed toward a bad end and many more do not know and do not care where they are going as long as it is not too uncomfortable. The Catholic way is another path through life and it might be quite sober. Our cross in life might have to be worshipping and praying without feeling any tugs at our heart-strings, no emotions, no fire. Catholic faith is not a tent revival. That may be hard, but if you are in touch with what matters in life, you will know that the direction you have chosen is much more important than the dust you might kick up as you go your way.

Where is your heart? Where are you headed in life? Do you know? Do you care? Jesus’ and Peter’s dialogue over the significance of the foot-washing is very telling. Peter is one big knot of emotions over the whole business, but Jesus sorts him out in no time. Whether we are torn by emotion or numb for whatever reason, whether you have been working up to tonight all Lent long or just somehow drifted in off the street, turn again to Jesus, turn as if for the first time to Jesus in the Eucharist. Discover Him for Who He is and become a part of Him in this great sacrament. Let Jesus wash your feet and bind you to Himself.

“We pray that in this Eucharist we may find the fullness of love and life.”