Sunday, April 20, 2014

Preposterous—Easter Sunday

This is a homily I prepared in case the bishop or other deacon did not have one for today. With so many services, we had a few moments of confusion and disarray, but all the clergy were ready with their parts regardless. What a weekend! Anyway, here's what I put together yesterday when it appeared that I might have to preach.

Acts: 10:34a, 37—43; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9

What is the most absurd claim that we as Catholics believe? I mean, we believe in some pretty outlandish stuff: we believe that the water of baptism removes the stain of sin, that saints in heaven intercede on our behalf, that a priest consecrates bread and wine and they become the body and blood of Christ. These and so many of our other beliefs sound preposterous to people of today’s secular, materialistic mindset.

When I was making my way back to the faith, these individual claims sounded just that to me: absurd, preposterous. But the most preposterous of all was this: that God became man, was crucified, and rose from the dead. All of the other stuff was miniscule compared to this. Sure, I could accept that God existed, set everything in motion, and had some vague presence in the universe today. I could accept that a man name Jesus walked the earth and taught a new way of living. None of those claims is difficult. But our creed doesn’t allow us to slip by this central tenet of our faith: God became man through the natural birth from a woman, was condemned and crucified, and on the third day after he was buried, cold and in the ground, he rose from the grave and was seen by those who knew and had followed him.

            The readings from Acts and the gospel today are all about witness: about reporting what has been seen and experienced. In Acts, Peter recounts Jesus’ deeds and the common knowledge everyone had of him: he came doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, those who were sick, blind, and dying. And everyone knew he had been put to death. Then he claims that this man, Jesus, was raised and appeared to them. And this Jesus sent them as witnesses to preach the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. In early Acts, this witness of Peter and the other Apostles leads to thousands of conversions, even among the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, Jesus’ staunchest enemies.

            In the Gospel of John, Mary of Magdala runs and informs Peter and another apostle that the tomb is empty. Peter and the apostle run to find an empty grave. This empty grave is the most compelling proof. Not everyone saw Jesus after death, though St. Paul says elsewhere that he appeared to at least 500 people at one time. But what no one could dispute was that Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found and that these apostles of Jesus were now doing all the same signs that he did: healing the sick, raising the dead, restoring those who were disabled.

            The witness of the Apostles we have from the first 30 to 50 years of the Church. What we don’t have are a lot of contrary voices disputing their claims. I could go through some of that history for you, but I think most of you would find it boring and academic. But it’s easy for us to look back in hindsight and turn our noses up at these historical claims that scripture makes. We could look at the Church now and think, “Well, of course, these apostles were simply looking for power and wealth.” But what did the apostles really gain by their witness? What they gained was persecution, exile, and many of them, death. All but one of them, our patron St. John the Evangelist, were martyred for their faith. That doesn’t sound like a big motivation to me. Why would a bunch of fisherman, tax collectors, and other notorious outcasts put themselves at odds with other Jews and with Roman authorities at the risk of death and ostracism? How could anyone do such a thing for such a preposterous, such an absurd story?

            There’s really only one plausible explanation: they believed what they saw with their own eyes. They were witnesses to the truth. It changed them, and they could not go back to how they lived before. No one could believe such things unless they were true.

Stranger than fiction but true

Contrary to common sense but true

Absolutely beyond our understanding but true

That’s what we come to celebrate today: something so outrageous that no one would ever have believed it, taught it, lived and died for it, unless it were absolutely true. That is the truth to which they are witness: something so mysterious, profound, and beyond belief that it has shaken the world to the core. It has torn the veil in the temple between us and God. It has wrenched human destiny out of the grip of Satan and repaired the rift we had with our Creator. After something like that, believing in the mystery of the Eucharist is a piece of cake.

What do we do with this fantastic, this audacious truth? What do we do with this incredible, life-transforming faith? We do what the apostles did. We become witnesses for it—martyrs for it. The word martyr actually means witness, so our witness is a martyrdom of a type, albeit not necessarily the kind of radical martyrdom that requires our death. St. Paul tells us what we are to do in his letter to the Corinthians. Remove the leaven of malice and wickedness, become unleavened. Shed the attitudes and attachments of this temporary life, and be unleavened bread for others. When we share in this Eucharistic mystery, we become this bread of life. We become the Body of Christ. We can then take our witness out into the world and feed it what it is lacking. Share your faith daily in your actions and sometimes even your words. Live your faith and show the world the joy of being a Christian.

Our preposterous faith

Our beautiful faith

Our Catholic faith

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Turn again, and strengthen your brethren—Palm Sunday—Cycle A

Every year during Lent, my wife and I watch the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ. Sometimes having the visual reminder of Christ’s passion helps us to get in the right penitential mindset. I don’t think you can watch that depiction of the events of the Passion and remain unmoved.
At one point in the movie, when the Sanhedrin have brought Jesus in front of Pilate to request that he be condemned, Pilate says something that does not appear in scripture but is certainly a pertinent question: “Isn’t he the prophet you welcomed into Jerusalem only five days ago? And now you want him dead? Can any of you explain this madness to me?”
Some of the controversies of today merit the same response: when people are run out of jobs for holding positions that were not even controversial 10 years ago, like the Mozilla founder and inventor of JavaScript who was pushed out of his new job as CEO last week because of his support for traditional marriage. Can you explain why something considered the norm for most of human history is now considered bigotry? Can you explain why good people are being dragged through the mud simply to sate the appetites of the intolerantly tolerant?
It’s the same illness as always. It’s that fatal flaw in us—that weakness we have for seeking not the highest good but the good that we can grasp right now, or more often, whatever feels good whether it’s truly good or not. That is the essence of the Tyranny of Relativism that our Pope Emeritus Benedict once spoke about, and Pope Francis also just this Friday commented on this dictatorship of thought that drives factions to kill the prophets of today.
In our two gospel readings, we get this same juxtaposition: the welcoming of the prophet followed within a week by his condemnation. Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but we also read of His Passion and death. The first reading from Isaiah presents the same contrast: the prophet with the well-trained tongue, who does not rebel against his vocation but is open to it, even thought his obedience is rewarded with buffeting and spitting. Isaiah’s suffering servant is fascinating enough, as it seems to portray so clearly a savior who is rejected and condemned some 800 years prior to our Savior’s death. In the responsorial Psalm today, we heard Psalm 22, which is the cry of one who even in death trusts the Lord. Jesus himself cries out the opening lines of this Psalm in the Passion narrative, and even the mockery he receives in the narrative points back to this Psalm written several hundreds of years before Jesus’ death.
Our scripture has this incredible quality where passages written during the time of the Israelites point forward to Jesus, and the gospels point back to those earlier writings. St. Augustine noted this when he said that the New Testament is hidden in the old, and the old is plainly visible in the new. And we see it most clearly right here in the passion narrative we read today. And this makes perfect sense because all of scripture, all of the Word of God, is about the Logos, the Word made Flesh—Jesus our savior.
I know that I would like to be brave like the prophet Isaiah, or to face threats to my life with Jesus’ resolve. I’m sure all of us would like to believe that we have it in us. Would we have followed Our Lord with courage like St. Thomas in last week’s reading, or would we be the ones asking at the Last Supper, “Surely, it is not I, Lord?” How many of us are, like Peter, so sure of our steadfast faith when words are easy, but so ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble? Will we have the courage of our convictions when we face persecution? Will we stand firm with our unpopular convictions when the costs are great? Maybe so, maybe not. If it happened to Peter, it could happen to me.
In Luke’s version of the passion, Jesus says to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail: and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus knew Peter would fail, but He still trusted that Peter would return to Him. Contrast this with Judas, who betrays Jesus, then despairs. Both of them are there at the Last Supper, but only one remains, turns back, becomes the Rock on which the Church is built.
We will all fall and have all fallen. But what we do after that is what matters. Will we repent? Will we seek to be reconciled, or will we double down on our error? Will we despair and give in to the voices of the secular world, or will we bow our heads and say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”? We turn back not only for ourselves but to strengthen each other.

We have four more days of Lent, and then we celebrate the Easter Triduum—the holiest days of our liturgical year. If you’ve had difficulty this Lent, there’s still time to put yourself in the spirit of this penitential season. Watch The Passion of Christ. Read the gospels. Spend some time in adoration or contemplating the crucifix. Pray the Stations of the Cross. And if you haven’t done so already, go to reconciliation. Reflect on the fact that Jesus did not turn away from this cup… but drank until it was finished. We can be sifted like wheat, or we can turn again, and strengthen our brethren.