Saturday, April 11, 2009

Baptism received and Baptism lived unto death

The Easter Vigil – 11 April 2009

Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word this evening we were invited to “listen attentively to the word of God, recalling how he saved his people throughout history and, in the fullness of time, sent his own Son to be our Redeemer”.

What is being saved or redeemed all about anyway? It’s about passing from death to life, about going, so to speak, where Christ has gone before us, namely about going home to God the Father and for all eternity in joy. It’s about coming into the light, waking up to God’s world, about coming to know the truth. It is not my own venture but rather it is about getting caught up in the whirlwind/the fiery chariot to heaven like the prophet Elijah. It is being immersed in the waters of the sea with Moses and God’s Chosen People and coming out of those waters to new life freed from the slavery of Egypt or, in our case, freed from the slavery of sin. Baptism received and Baptism faithfully lived unto death: that is being saved. It is being carried by God and His Church until we’re old enough, not to carry ourselves, no, until we are old enough to recognize that we are carried by God and then to thank Him on bended knee for His marvelous gift of self to each of us personally. It’s being carried by God as He carried His People of old and recognizing in thanksgiving that we too just like them, though in a more perfect way and unto a better end, are being carried. Salvation or Redemption is something ultimately accomplished not in this life but in and through death which opens the gates to life eternal, such that when standing before the Judgment Seat of God we hear those words, “Come ye blessed of My Father; come share your Lord’s joy!”

Those people, who don’t baptize their children as tiny babies, because they want them to have a choice, have not understood anything about the nature of salvation. They claim for themselves something we as human beings don’t have, namely the power to claim salvation for ourselves. We cannot save or redeem ourselves. Whether we are four days old or four decades old, we are carried or led by others to the font of Baptism. Baptism may be my choice, if I receive that sacrament as an adult, but only in a sense is it by my choice. I do not claim or demand Baptism from God’s Church. In truth, I am called to the font or I am presented at the baptismal font: infant, child, youth, adult, aged – it is all the same. With Baptism I am accepting the gift of God’s life freely given to me through the mediation of the Church which expresses God’s love for me in concrete fashion and gives me, gives me a share in His life this side of death and beyond for all eternity. No matter how bright or intelligent we might be, it is the Risen Christ Who extends His Hand to us; it is Jesus Who draws us out of the swamp; Jesus takes us to Himself. Even as an adult He embraces me; no one has his or her bearings well enough to manage this passage alone; I as much as any baby am in a sense lost in the ocean of God’s love for me in which He and His Church immerse me, me by name, me Thomas, me as He knows me, really better than I know myself. Baptism received and Baptism faithfully lived unto death does involve my responsibility, but as one who is part of the New Covenanted People, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. I am as much a part of God’s People the Church as Moses, Aaron, Miriam and others were part of the people God called out of slavery in Egypt; I am carried through life by His Church; I do not journey through life alone.

Let us think for a moment of the three women going to Jesus’ Tomb after the Sabbath to complete the anointing which there was no time to do at the moment of His hasty burial on Friday. “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” they ask. They soon learned that there was no need to worry. Not only had the stone been moved for them, but a young man waited to tell them: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen, he is not here.” The stone is rolled back. The Tomb is empty. Jesus, the Crucified One, is no longer within. He is risen as He said and goes before them. God saves His people! God saves His people!

What is salvation? What is redemption? It is God’s wonderful work. St. Paul in tonight’s Epistle, taken from his letter to the Romans says: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.” The big stone over the door of the tomb not only blocked the way to the dead Christ, but it certainly held locked there within that tomb the hearts and lives of those women and many others from among His disciples and followers. Christ’s death on the Cross had put an end to the hopes of His followers and disciples. In a very real sense they had been buried in the Tomb with Him; their hopes and dreams, to a great extent their very lives, their future had certainly been buried with Him on that Friday long ago. Keep reading St. Paul! “If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.” If Jesus’ Body had still been in the Tomb, the women would have completed His anointing, the stone would have been returned to its place and that would have been the end of it. However, that was not the case. They found the stone rolled back; Jesus was not there. His followers not only had their hearts and hopes back, they had much more. He is risen as He said and goes before them. God saves His people! God saves His people!

This is our Passover Feast when Christ the True Lamb was slain, Whose Blood consecrates the homes of all believers. The Easter Vigil we are celebrating is a celebration of watching and waiting, of listening and reflecting. “Alleluia” we say! Easter promise and Easter joy is now ours! We are saved; we have been redeemed in Christ; we have been drawn out of the waters of Baptism unto life eternal.

These days, the world financial crisis has further burdened the lives of many and brought anguish to some folks who thought they had it made. I won’t point fingers at anyone for placing all of his or her trust in stocks, bonds, or mutual funds, but in point of fact it has happened. No doubt you too, as do I, find it frightening how many lives have been touched by the misfortunes of the stock market and the shenanigans of greedy and dishonest people preying upon other people for all they are worth, profiting from other’s greed or envy, no matter if it be big or small. As much as we claim to scorn get-rich-quick schemes, we can probably find a friend or acquaintance who had money invested somewhere for an unbelievable return and lost it. Some of these same people who have managed to come away with at least a part still intact of their mad money or retirement investment are turning right around and giving out their money again to others who claim to give them the same high-yield return as those who yesterday drew down with them into the abyss of bankruptcy people expecting way too much from this life. It would seem that these folks are stuck on the here and now. They don’t seem to share the prophet Isaiah’s dream of life as part of God’s covenanted people:

“Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come! Buy corn without money, and eat, and, at no cost, wine and milk.”

What does it mean to be saved or redeemed? What do we mean by Easter joy? When we sing at Baptism “You have put on Christ”, what do we mean and where are we going? We’re going farther than a profession, or prestige, a successful marriage, a big money market investment account or even terribly bright and successful children can take us.

I hope you had a very successful Lent and were able to refocus or better concentrate your life on Christ. We need that. It’s too easy to lose track of that first question in the old catechism which has kept more than one generation of Catholics centered and happy. “Why did God make me? God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next.” Lent is over for another year and we have every reason to rejoice!

Alleluia! Easter joy!

Friday, April 10, 2009

To Ransom a Slave You gave away Your Son

Good Friday – 10 April 2009

Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

“This is the Wood of the Cross on which hung the Savior of the World.”

Our First Reading from the Prophet Isaiah struck me in a very particular way this year. Just think that it was written long before the time of Jesus.

“On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way, and the Lord burdened him with the sins of all of us.”

As prophecy Isaiah not only or not so much predicts what was to come in the life of Jesus as he highlights or explains the sense of Jesus’ sacrifice for us upon the Cross. God in effect prepared the people of the Old Testament not only for what was to come, but more importantly He prepared them for the “how” by which they were to be saved.

“His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content. By his sufferings shall my servant justify many taking their faults on himself.”

Jesus says it in John’s Gospel as He speaks of the glory to be His when He is lifted up on the Cross. Our Second Reading from the Book of Hebrews leaves us no doubt in understanding the import of today’s events.

“During his life on earth, he offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.”

Good Friday should really touch us. The events recalled cry out for a prophet’s explanation. The prophet must speak and help us understand: Jesus’ being handed over to sinners, the wrongful judgment pronounced against the Innocent One, His lonely and burdensome way through the city of Jerusalem shouldering the Cross up to Calvary, the Place of the Skull, His abandonment nailed to the Cross and deprived of basic human respect before He was deprived of His very life’s breath, and His hasty burial in a borrowed tomb. With the prophet’s help we can rescue these terrible events from being reduced to a mere human tragedy. Here much more is at stake than the life of an innocent man. We must see and understand the events of Good Friday for what they really are, namely, the way of our salvation. God spared not His only Son, but delivered Him up for the sake of all of us.

In the Easter Vigil we sing: “To ransom a slave you gave away your Son”. That is the simple truth which carries us where we can hardly imagine going. God loves us, each and every one; He loves us without call; He loves us to the extreme. For our English speaking world, the old spiritual says it quite poignantly: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? …Sometimes it causes me to tremble…”

As we pray today on Good Friday, a little extra silence is certainly appropriate. As we pray today, some inward trembling before the Divine Sacrifice which saves us from our sins is more than right. Good Friday is not every day; it is once a year.

Can you only kiss the Cross, venerate the Cross, once a year? I don’t know; I guess I wouldn’t say that is necessarily so. Quite a few years back now there was a popular campaign on to get people to always carry a small cross mounted on a prayer card in your pocket or purse and every now and then just touch it and remember how we were saved. Our own private kind of Good Friday devotion, embracing the Cross or kissing the Cross, just could be every day and, if it were done with proper devotion, it would do much to open our eyes and hearts to Jesus Who suffered and died for us.

“This is the Wood of the Cross on which hung the Savior of the World.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Do This in Memory of Me!

Holy Thursday – 9 April 2009

Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s

We just listened to the Passover account from the OT Book of Exodus:

“This day is to be a day of remembrance for you, and you must celebrate it as a feast in the Lord’s honour. For all generations you are to declare it a day of festival, for ever.” (Exodus 12: 14)

In this evening’s Second Reading St. Paul, describing the institution of the Eucharist, quotes the words of Jesus:

“…do this as a memorial of me.” (I Cor. 11:23-26)

The Washing of the Feet at the Last Supper was our Gospel Reading for this evening:

“I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15)

Remembrance for all generations, memorial, and an example you may copy: This evening, with the Church’s Liturgy of Holy Thursday, we have begun our annual Easter Triduum: three days focusing intensely on the events which brought us salvation. The Last Supper is today, the Cross is tomorrow, the day of Saturday is a silent meditation on the Body of Jesus in the Tomb and Saturday night is our celebration of Jesus’ Rising from the Dead to bring us Everlasting Life. From the darkness comes forth the light of Easter Sunday, Easter Joy.

Our connecting back to these tremendous three days in the life of Jesus or our memorial of them in union with the Church throughout the World, observing them as they have been handed down, is a ponderous remembrance; it is an earthshaking sort of thing meant to have a renewing effect on our faith. This remembrance in union with the Church also puts us on the map, if you will. Our sharing in these great events configures us to Christ and the events by which He saved us for God. The Easter Triduum (memorial, remembrance, ritual example) shows us again where we are at in the only world which counts; it shows us where we are at in the real world, in God’s world.

Let us focus for just a moment on tonight, on the celebration of the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Holy Thursday is for remembering the Last Supper in the Upper Room, but it is also important as a reminder to us that the order of worship we use today in the Church has been laid down with the same care given in laying down for God’s Chosen People the prescriptions for the celebration of the annual Passover meal. We can’t just make up as we go along what we do here tonight or for that matter at Sunday Mass or at any other time in church. We are part of something greater than ourselves. As St. Paul says: “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…” St. Paul assures the Corinthians and us that “on the same night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…” We do what Jesus did as a memorial; we do it tonight, as well as every Sunday and every other time we come together for Holy Mass; we do it by His command.

An important distinction must be made in this regard between what other people can do even in very solemn fashion and what we do in celebrating the Eucharist. I can “stage” a remembrance or a memorial or I can “observe” one: they are two very different things. The veterans, the military, the government and others stage Remembrance Day. What they do on that day to honor those who have fallen in battle in defense of truth, freedom and democracy is arranged and organized by their decision. Although each year’s ceremony is about the same there is nothing really to prohibit them from doing it otherwise. Divine Worship, the Mass and the Sacraments, are different: they constitute a memorial which I must observe not construct or invent. They come from the Lord. No matter whether Bishop, Priest or Pope, if I do not do what the Lord commanded in terms of this memorial feast then I’m doing something else and I’m doing wrong. Worship is for Church and it is for life.

The Washing of the Feet, which I will do in just a few more minutes, is different from the rest of Mass and what I usually do Sunday after Sunday in Divine Worship. The Washing of the Feet, as such, is a ritual action, a reenactment. It reminds us of Jesus’ example, but it also goes beyond the gesture or the ritual. It teaches mightily about how the Lord and Master comes among us as a servant not only in the Upper Room but for life and for our salvation. Outside of the Easter Triduum, the only other reenactment which is an option in worship would be the Palm Sunday Procession. If you have such a procession, you do so to recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the children waiving branches, the Lord and Master all meek and humble riding on a donkey. Passion plays, living Stations of the Cross performed by a youth group, just like living Crib Scenes at Christmas time can be very prayerful; they can be lovely and inspiring, but they do not compare with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. St. Paul assures the Corinthians and us that “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you… on the same night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…” Christ’s Presence here is evident and goes beyond anything experienced in the Old Testament: God ordered Moses to take off his sandals as he neared the burning bush; here we are in an entirely different league with signs and symbols which truly make present what they signify.

Be thankful for what is yours by Jesus’ command this evening! We do what He did by His command. Be thankful for the possibility to come to Holy Mass each Sunday and Holy Day! Be thankful for the many opportunities and at different hours at which daily Mass is available here in the city of Port of Spain! Be thankful for the many opportunities which are yours, if you are in the state of grace, to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion!

After Holy Communion this evening we move the Blessed Sacrament to a specially arranged Altar of Repose. Jesus is there for Holy Communion on Good Friday as well as for the Communion of those who may be near death. Different countries and peoples have different traditions attached to the Altar of Repose. In some big cities in Europe in this night people go from one church to another to make a visit to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. They do so also partly out of curiosity to see how the Altar was prepared. Different parishes sometimes compete in decorating their Altars of Repose. The reminder or thought to take from such a practice whether you know it or not is that just as we might strive with drapery, flowers and candles to make the loveliest Altar possible to receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, so also should we strive day in and day out to make our souls, our hearts, such an altar to receive Him.

Our Worship this evening is solemn and yet familiar. With no surprises it should give us time to wrap our minds and hearts around this great mystery and renew within ourselves our love for the Lord who “… on the same night he was betrayed… took bread…” Do this in memory of me, the priest prays, just like Jesus did in the Upper Room on the night He was betrayed.