Tuesday, March 29, 2016

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Living in “Hollywood” we are very familiar with sequels.  When you have great characters involved in a great story, you almost naturally want to continue the journey… to see what happens next.  The same was true for Luke’s gospel.  After giving us the story of Jesus, perhaps the greatest story ever told, the people wanted to hear more.  So what does every author do when he knows he’s got a hit?  He gives us a sequel:  The Acts of the Apostles.  And one of the beauties of the Easter season is the opportunity we have to explore this story in place of the usual Hebrew Scriptures for our first reading.

Acts 5:12-16
Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24
Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19
John 20:19-31

In our first reading from Acts, we see Peter and the Apostles gathering in the Temple are (Solomon’s Portico).  None of the religious establishment dared to be present, but the people held them in great esteem.  The crowds continued to grow as they learned of the Apostles ability to heal their illnesses, just as Jesus did.  But like Jesus the Apostles didn’t do this for show, they did this out of love and mercy, thoughts reflected in our Psalm as we sing “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love is everlasting.”

Similar to how we will be spending the entire Easter season with the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading, our second reading for every Sunday this season under  Cycle C will be from the book of Revelation.  With its apocalyptic style, the book of Revelation can be difficult to understand and is often misinterpreted, so let us enjoy this opportunity to get a better understanding of its glorious message.  In this week’s passage, we start near the beginning of the book.  John, our author, is in prison on Patmos Island for having preached openly about Jesus.  While there he hears a voice “as loud as a trumpet” telling him to write down his visions.  He turns to see to whom the voice belongs to discover the glorified Jesus, who asks him write down what he is about to see.  No doubt this is going to be a wonderful and fantastic tale.

Our Gospel, this week and throughout the Easter season will be from John.  This week’s passage will sound familiar to many as we hear the story of Thomas, frequently referred to as “doubting Thomas” because he is the Apostle who refused to believe that Jesus had risen without seeing it for himself.  Jesus appears to the Apostles, who are gathered in the upper room, but for some reason Thomas was not with them.  As the others recount their experience to Thomas, he refuses to believe.  The following week the Apostles are gathered again in the upper room, but this time Thomas is among them.  This time when Jesus appears he approaches Thomas so that he may see for himself.  This story is one of our favorites because it resonates so deeply with us on two levels.  On the first level we are like Thomas.  As human beings we have an innate desire to see things for ourselves.  Yet Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  On the second level this is our reality of Christ… that we believe even though we have not seen.  Not everyone can or is willing to make that leap of faith.  We as Christians are willing to accept the testimony of those that came before us, and are charged to continue spreading that message to the next generation.

Final thoughts:
The second Sunday of Easter is celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.  It originated in the year 2000 in honor of the canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska.  Sr. Faustina, from Poland, was a Christian mystic and nun who experienced apparitions of Jesus.  She is known as the “Secretary of Divine Mercy” based on her writings that centered on the mercy of God, to trust in the abundant mercy of Christ, and to sho mercy to to others.  Her visions and her devotion to Divine Mercy is captured in a painting by artist Eugene Kazimierowski, which was painted under the direction of Sr. Faustina.  A version of this painting hangs in our own church in one of the North side altar shrines.  God’s mercy is what brought Christ to us, so it seems only fitting that we celebrate His divine mercy on this 2nd Sunday of Easter.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Pascal Triduum and Easter Sunday 2016

Growing up Catholic I was always lead to believe that Easter was our most important holiday, and for us Easter meant Easter Sunday.  After all, that’s when the Easter Bunny left us treats.  As I grew into adulthood, however, with an ever growing understanding into the depth and breadth of our faith, I learned that Easter Sunday wasn’t our most important Liturgical celebration.  Instead that distinction falls on the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening… the conclusion of our Pascal Triduum.

Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
Colossians 3:1-4, OR 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
John 20:1-9

While the readings for Easter Sunday are important, they are also just a very small piece of the story of our relationship with God.  It's like eating only one hors d'oeuvre at a banquet... it gives you a foretaste of the great food to come, but could hardly be considered nutritious or filling.  Unpacking the readings for this Sunday, like we do every week in our regular Adult Faith Formation sessions, gives me the same problem.  I can't really give you a sense of the importance of these readings without grounding them in the stories that precede them. 

This Sunday’s beautiful Gospel from John about how the tomb was found empty means nothing if not for our first reading from Acts of the Apostles, where Peter is explaining to Cornelius (a Roman Centurion) about who this Jesus fellow is.  But even that is not enough context to substantiate the wonder that is Easter.  At the very least, you need to allow yourself the opportunity... the retreat... the blessing of all Holy Week has to offer.  The Liturgies of Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum, are like a full three course meal.

The first course:  Holy Thursday and the Mass of the Lord's Supper, with the story of the Passover from Exodus, Paul's story of the institution of the Eucharist, and John's glorious Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his Apostles. 

Our second course:  Good Friday, where the prophet Isaiah tells us both the glory and the tragedy that faces God's servant, where Paul extols to the Romans how Jesus was a high priest who also understood weakness, and John's deeply moving story of Jesus' passion and death. 

Then comes our main course:  The Easter Vigil, where in darkness we re-tell the tale of our becoming a people of God, from Genesis, through Exodus, through the Isaiah and the other prophets, and through St. Paul.  By the time we're through with all these readings our Gospel of the Resurrection now has enough context to reveal it's radiance.  Easter Sunday, if you so wish, then becomes a nice aperitif, a delightful pallet cleanser for the amazing stories yet to come during the entire season of Easter.

So for this Easter, don't come just for one hors d'oeuvre on Easter Sunday.  Instead, come to the Feast that is Holy Week.  Only by knowing the whole story will you see why we believe when we find the tomb is empty.

Final thoughts:
When I think of Mass on Easter Sunday I am reminded of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:11):  “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”  We live in a multi-generational Church, which is, of course, representative of our lives.  Yet so much of our Catholic practice is rooted in an adult context.  When we share our faith with children, we need to take a simpler approach, to allow them to experience Christ where they are.  But as we grow mentally and physically we also need to grow in our relationship with God...  Grow to see the depth and richness of our faith and our traditions.  We need to allow ourselves to grow out of our understanding of Easter as just this one Sunday.  The true richness of Easter lies in the real feast that is in the full three-course celebration of the Triduum, culminating with the Easter Vigil. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

How quickly things can change.  One moment we are celebrating, and the next we are brought to shock and grief.  This is Palm Sunday.  The same crowd that cheered as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem is the same crowd that only a few days later is shouting for his execution.  How can this be?  Our own recent history has similar moments… the September 11th terror attacks, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger… for those who are older, the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor.  History defining moments that, for those who lived through them become emblazoned in their memories and can move an entire society to say, “everything is different now.”  This is Palm Sunday:

Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50:4-7
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2:6-11
Luke 22:14-23:56

As is our tradition, our gospel readings for Palm Sunday come from our Lectionary Cycle, which this year is from Luke (Cycle C).  This Sunday’s Mass begins with a prelude and procession which includes a passage from Luke’s gospel.  This is the story of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem.  As we read, we realize this was no spur-of-the-moment idea, but a moment that was carefully planned (as evidenced by the colt being ready for them).  His disciples reveled in the moment, but Jesus knew that it would be his last time entering the city.

Our first reading from Isaiah foreshadows the trouble to come.  In this well known verse from second Isaiah we are witness to the misery that comes with being a prophet of the Lord:  that of being given the gift of a “well trained tongue” but cursed with an audience who doesn’t care for what you have to say.  Yet it is the Lord who gives him strength to endure, because he “shall not be put to shame.”

Fittingly, our Psalm is what could be called “the leader’s lament” as we sing “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  As a tribute to King David, this Psalm reflects the misery any leader (or prophet) can feel in their times of need… a sense that the God he serves has abandoned him at the time when he is needed most.  While our faith teaches us that God never abandons us, our humanity has us never escaping this feeling of being left alone, that even our God has left us.

Our second reading is a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here Paul, at his poetic best, gives us a most excellent summary of the Christian experience.  When I hear this passage I can’t help but to think of the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It is in giving that we receive.”

Our Gospel, in which we play a part, is the story of the Passion according to Luke… a story we will visit again on Good Friday with the Passion according to John.  It’s a long reading, so it is customary in most parishes to proclaim this as a choral narrative.  Even we as the assembly take our part in this play as the voice of the crowd.  Admittedly, as followers of Jesus, we are not comfortable with our part.  Shouting “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  It makes us feel like one of the villains.  Yet there is a profound theological point being played out.  It’s not “they” who killed Jesus, it’s “we” who killed Jesus.  The collective we of humanity.  For years we tried to pass this blame off to the Jews (perhaps one of our greatest sins as Church), but as followers of Christ we have to admit our own culpability in this tragedy.  Ignoring what we know, what we’ve been taught as right, only to follow the crowd.  Group-think run amok amid selfish interests.  We do it every day, looking the other way when we see need and injustice, telling ourselves that this is someone else’s problem.  Even Jesus’ closest disciples abandoned him.  Thankfully, blessedly, we have a God not of vengeance, but of reconciliation… a God of abundant second chances.  As we play our part this Sunday as the crowd, we should not shy away from the troubling lines we have to read, but instead, revel in the opportunity to take stock of our lives, admit our mistakes, and seek out God for his forgiveness.

Final thoughts:
Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week… our Catholic “high holy days” culminating with the celebration of the Triduum.  It begins with Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, followed by Good Friday, and concludes with the Easter Vigil.  This is one continuous Liturgy meant to be celebrated in its entirety.  When we leave our services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we do not have the customary “dismissal.”  Instead, we are left with a moment of silence… a service that remains unfinished.  We are left waiting until we take up the next part of the service.  For the last part we then gather at the steps at the entry to the Church on Holy Saturday, at sunset, to sit in Vigil.  We bless the fire, we bless the Easter Candle, and we gather as family and listen to our story.  Then, like the miracle of the Resurrection itself, we sing Glory to God and celebrate Jesus’ victory over death.  Forget Easter Sunday my brothers and sisters… this is where the real action is.  Celebrating the Triduum in all its fullness is like taking a 3-day retreat.  All of us, especially those preparing for their Sacraments, should indulge in this Liturgical feast.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

5th Sunday of Lent - Cycle C

Practice what you preach.  Pope Francis, in declaring this the Jubilee Year of Mercy, is teaching us the importance of doing just that… being a living example of God’s love and mercy.  In our readings this week we learn that righteousness without mercy is nothing short of being a bullying… beating up on others without consideration for the humanity of another and the context of their situation.  What would Jesus do?

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

Our first reading is from Deutero or Second-Isaiah.  Israel is sitting in Exile in Babylon, and here the prophet is telling us that God sees the events of the past as just that… the past.  In other words, whatever sin the people of Israel may have committed in the past should be put aside.  God, who can make all things happen, sees a re-birth for his people.  “See, I am doing something new!”  God wants to end the cycle of sin and punishment and welcome his people back.  Like the father in last week’s Parable of the Prodigal Son, Israel has learned its lesson, and God is waiting for them.  This end to the Exile is sung with revelry in our Psalm as we sing, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!”

Our second reading also reflects the “newness” of living in God’s grace.  In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul is telling us that his life prior to finding Christ was “so much rubbish.”  His encounter with the risen Jesus gave him a new direction and a new purpose… the pursuit of the Gospel.  If we’re going to move forward with our lives, that means leaving our baggage behind.

Our Gospel this week deviates from our journey with Luke to give us a story unique to John’s Gospel.  Jesus is teaching in the Temple area when a group of scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to him who was caught in adultery.  They are testing him again, saying that the Law of Moses was clear in this matter… that she should be stoned.  The story says that Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground… an action that was considered to be utterly dismissive of their challenge (what he wrote is inconsequential as it’s the act of his dismissiveness that is the key).  Undeterred by his indifference, they press Jesus further.  After a moment, he stands and tells them “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus then takes his dismissive posture again, and one by one, the crowd begins to disburse.  Left alone with the woman, Jesus stands and asks, “Has no one condemned you?”  She replies, “No one, sir,” to which Jesus says “Neither do I,” telling her to go and sin no more (that phrase we hear during the Sacrament of Reconciliation).

Final thoughts:
What’s past is past.  This is the Christian ideal.  We’re all sinners.  We’ve all made mistakes.  Jesus showed us that a society focused on punishment is counter-productive.  Who better to understand the grace of mercy and reconciliation than those of us who follow Jesus.  We, the imperfect, ever striving for perfection in Christ.  Yet we see far too many people labeling themselves as “Christian” who spend far too much time casting stones instead of reaching out.  Beware these false prophets brothers and sisters.  None of us is without sin.  None of us in a position to cast stones.  It is only through mercy that we can find reconciliation and salvation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

4th Sunday of Lent - Cycle C

Reconciliation.  We Catholics know this word through the Sacrament of Reconciliation… what we used to call “confession” or “penance.”  The act of approaching God, through the priest, to seek forgiveness of our sins.  To let go of the baggage that prevents us from being in right relationship with God and his Church.  That reconciliation is what allows us to share in God’s glory, but seeking that reconciliation can also can be our greatest challenge.

Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

We open with a reading from the Book of Joshua.  Joshua, of course, the protégé of Moses who is tasked with leading the people into the Promised Land.  The passage opens with God telling Joshua “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”  What does that mean?  Some other English translations of the Bible use the word “disgrace” or “shame.”  In other words, shame of having to live in slavery has now been lifted.  The disgrace of having to wander the desert for forty years has ended.  Now, for the first time, standing in the Promised Land, they are truly free.  All previous sins are behind them as the look to a future with God in their new land.  They have been reconciled with God.  Their joy is reflected in our Psalm as we sing, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Our second reading is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Here Paul reminds us that through Christ, whatever we were before has passed away.  We are a new creation.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are reconciled to the Father… free of all past sins to live as ambassadors of Christ.

Our Gospel this week is a story familiar to many of us, and is unique to Luke’s Gospel… the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Jesus is speaking with a some tax collectors and sinners as group of Pharisees and scribes begin complaining about the company he is keeping.  In response, Jesus gives them three parables on this occasion… the Parable of the Lost Sheep (also found in Matthew), the Parable of the Lost Coin (also unique to Luke), and finally, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  What is it that these three parables share?  They are meant to demonstrate the great lengths to which God is willing to go to gather us all back to himself.  The Pharisees and the Scribes are chiding Jesus for preaching to sinners.  Jesus is telling them that these sinners, in fact, are those in most need of his message… in most need of God’s love and mercy. 

In the parable itself, it helps to know who the characters are.  The father in the story represents God, knowing that his son is not making the best choices, but understanding of the fact that he must seek the truth for himself.  Even though the father lets him go, he is concerned, hoping and waiting for his son’s return.  The younger son represents the tax collectors and sinners Jesus has been talking with,  those who have made some poor choices in their lives, but to whom Jesus is reminding that it’s never too late to make changes… to come back to God.  The older son in our story represents the Sadducees and the scribes, those who have followed God’s will dutifully but feel cheated when the father throws a party for his younger son’s return.  Jesus is reminding the Sadducees and scribes that because they are already following God, their salvation is assured.  As the parable says, “…you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.”

Final thoughts:
The reason this parable is so popular is because it resonates so strongly with everyone.  We can easily relate to the younger son, eager to throw off his current situation and make his own way in the world.  Many of us can also relate to him when things go wrong and he finds himself in desperation.  We can also relate to the older son, following the rules, behaving responsibly, but yet feel cheated when so much effort is paid to those who initially chose to run off.  And then there those, mostly parents, who relate to the father in our story, feeling the pain of their separation and their eternal hope that they will see the error of their ways and return.  This story has something for everyone, but during this Lenten season we are challenged to model the reconciliation in our readings.  To seek forgiveness.  To offer forgiveness.  To show mercy and to rejoice in the goodness that is God.