Sunday, November 17, 2019

Maranatha Missionary Discipleship

Catholic Liturgy for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Nov. 17, 2019. Gospel of Luke 21:5-19. Theme: Maranatha!

When will the end of the world happen?  That’ what the people were asking Jesus in today’s Gospel and what many have been trying to figure for a very long time.  And this is because all of the confusion, violence and destruction that Jesus describes as being associated with the end has always been present in human history. These are part and parcel of the kind of world we have built with our greed and thirst for power, along with the whole host of human sins and selfishness. In every era people think that things can’t get much worse, so we must be nearing the end.

  • ·       The ancient Romans had a legend that it would be in 634 BC.
  • ·       Pope Sylvester II thought it might be the year 1000 AD, to coincide with the close of the first thousand years of Christianity.
  • ·       Martin Luther said the end would come no later than 1600AD, while Billy Graham preached that it would arrive in the 1950’s. 
  • ·    Just about 20 years ago, everyone thought the Y2K bug would cause a worldwide net catastrophe bringing about the end of the world as we knew it.
  • ·       And then there was that fad several years ago that interpreted the ancient Mayan calendar as foretelling that the end would be on Dec. 21, 2012. 

But the bottom is that we really do not know!  But what we do know from Jesus himself is that it will surely come.  And we Catholics have several other names for it besides “end of the world”: we also call it the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, or simply, the last day.

But no matter what it’s called, it was not something that the early Christians feared.  Rather, it was something that they eagerly prayed for! They longed and yearned for this end, knowing that it would really be a beginning because it would bring about a new world rooted in peace, justice and love.  They knew it would be the glorious conclusion to Jesus’ mission of establishing the Kingdom of God among us, and that all remnants of evil and sin would be destroyed once and for all. No more sorrow. No more suffering. No more death.

So, you see, the early Christians could not wait until the Risen Lord returned! As a matter of fact, besides the “Our Father”, the most ancient prayer that we have preserved from them is a simple one word prayer that goes like this: Maranatha! Which means “Come Lord Jesus!” 

But in the meantime, until the end finally does arrive, Christ expects us to be busy with laying the foundation for the Kingdom of God on earth. This means that we each do what we can, in our own place and in our own way, to promote peace where there is division; to seek justice and stand up for the voiceless and the vulnerable; to care with compassion for those who suffer in any way, and to build a culture of life and love that is consistent with the Gospel values he has given us.  

Jesus informs us in today’s Gospel that those of us who commit to building this Kingdom will indeed be persecuted just as he was.  He warns us that this persecution that can come even from family and friends who may exclude us or ridicule us or heckle us because of our faith in Christ and our attachment to his Church.  He doesn’t want to hide this truth from us but assures us that he will be with us through it all, encouraging us to not give up. He promises that the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit will give us the strength to keep on keeping on even when the going gets tough and others stand up against us.  We have a whole host of Christian heroes and martyrs who prove that his words were true.

If we do not have an intimate personal relationship with Jesus as our living Risen Lord, we will not be strong enough to keep on witnessing, to keep on building the Kingdom.  Simply put, we will not be prepared and able to withstand persecution of whatever kind that will come our way.  And so, we must each become very familiar with Jesus, through personal prayer, through his Eucharistic Real Presence, and through the Gospels by reading and reflecting on them often.  We must know them so well that we ourselves can become “living gospels”, which is perhaps the only form of a gospel that others will read, so to speak.  Then when people interact with us, they can be positively moved by their relationships with us and be drawn to learn more about this Jesus of Nazareth whom we follow. This is what Pope Francis hopes for and means when he repeatedly calls us to be “missionary disciples” witnessing to Jesus in every aspect of our lives.

At the end of every Mass, Jesus sends us out to be his witnesses among others. As a matter of fact, the very name for our worship, Mass, comes from the Latin word “missa” which means “sent out” which is, of course, the definition of a missionary. This is why every Mass ends with the deacon usually saying either “go and announce the gospel of the Lord” or “go in peace glorifying God by your life”?   

These are not simply polite ways to dismiss people from Mass.  These are words of mission, of being sending forth.  And they were intentionally put there to remind us of our baptismal calling to go out among others to witness to Christ, to build the Kingdom.  Having heard the Word of God proclaimed and explained, and having become one with Jesus truly present in Holy Communion, we are sent out from the Mass to invite others to share in this relationship with Christ.  

So, let’s ask the Lord today to make us truly committed missionary disciples among those with whom we live, work and socialize, because we love them and we want them to also share in the joy and fulfilment of the life to come when Jesus returns in glory.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Sure & Certain Hope

Catholic Liturgy for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Nov. 10, 2019. Gospel of Luke 20:27-38. Theme: A Sure and Certain Hope

Just a few years ago we were horrified to see a choreographed ISIS propaganda video of 21 Christian men, all dressed in orange jumpsuits, kneeling on a beach in Libya. One by one they were asked to deny Christ and one by one, to a man, they refused. Instead they began praying aloud, encouraging one another. Their executioners then did their evil deed. What would enable these men to choose martyrdom over denial? How could they choose death with such serenity as is seen on their faces?

The Gospel of Jesus we heard today and the words of faith spoken by the seven brothers in our first reading, answers these questions for us.  They remind us that the immortality of our souls and the future resurrection of our bodies from the grave are not a “maybe” or an “I hope so”; they are not fantasy nor wishful thinking, but are a sure and certain reality.

These 21 men professed their faith in this reality while kneeling on that beach.  And we profess our faith in this reality every Sunday when we stand to recite the Creed, declaring that we “believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Our liturgy this morning call our attention to a topic that is very much avoided by our culture: death and what happens to us afterwards. Actually, maybe I am wrong in saying that we avoid this topic. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that go to great lengths to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Our culture encourages us to deny our true age, masquerade our maturing looks, and manipulate anything that reminds us that we are on a trajectory that will bring our lives to their natural end on planet Earth.

Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with wanting to look our best, be fit and healthy, and make the most out of the gift of life. But we need to do these things with a realistic outlook and a firm faith in who we are as the children of God.  And as Christians, a healthy realistic outlook includes the sure and certain hope that physical death is not the end to our existence, but rather, the beginning of its fullness. It is the conviction that when the first part of our existence, our time on planet Earth, has ended, we move on to a new mode of living, a new way of being in relationship with God and one another.

Those 21 men boldly proclaimed with their lives that God has destroyed the sting, the power, of death for those who are in relationship with Christ.  He himself came in the flesh as one of us, so that precisely as one of us, fully human yet still fully divine, he could pass through death himself in order to conquer it by his Resurrection.  And an awesome part of this reality is that Christ gives this very same victory over death to all who become united with him by baptism. 

This is why it is so important for us to always remember that because of our baptismal relationship, a Christian does not merely die.  A Christian dies in Christ. And those two words, “in Christ” make all the difference in the world!  Because at baptism we were signed with the cross and claimed by Christ as his very own.  At baptism, God literally snatched us from the kingdom of darkness and death and transferred us into the Kingdom of Christ our Light and Life. This means that we do not belong to death. We belong to Christ!  This means that for the believing Christian death has been changed from a tragedy into a triumph!

And furthermore, our faith informs us that eventually this fuller life will include not just our immortal souls but also our glorified risen bodies! Because we belong the Christ and have become one with him in baptism, God who is all-powerful will raise us up just as he rose Christ up from the dead.   The New Testament assures us of this and informs us that we shall live a very real life in a very real place which the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth”.

It was this faith, this sure and certain hope of eternal life and resurrection, that enabled those 21 men kneeling on a Libyan beach to not be silent and afraid in the face of death, as are those who do not have faith.  With them we speak out with our voices and with our lives that we believe in the resurrection of the dead.  And we know that whatever we may have to endure for the sake of our fidelity to Jesus and his teachings in this world, is nothing compared to the glory, the joy and the total fulfilment awaiting us in the life to come.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

True Religion

Catholic Liturgy for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Nov. 3, 2019.  Gospel of Luke 19:1-10. Theme: True Religion

Over the past few weeks we have been meeting a lot of outcasts in the Sunday Gospels written by St. Luke. This is because he was a huge fan of Jesus’ ministry to those thought to be beyond the reaches of salvation. St. Luke never tires of trying to get across to us, in so many ways and stories, the fundamental teaching of Jesus that the real purpose of true religion is to reconnect people with God and with one another. And that no one, no matter who they are or what their present situation in life might be, is excluded from this reconnection. No one.

To better understand the impact of today’s story upon those who witnessed it, it helps to know that the Roman Oppressors levied high taxes on the people they conquered. And in order to collect this money they hired some of the locals to do their dirty work. These hired men were greedy scoundrels who cared more about money and themselves than they did the good of their nation or their neighbors.

Zacchaeus was one of those guys. He was extremely rich with his wealth having been built up by the suffering of his neighbors. But all Zacchaeus had was his riches, and that can never satisfy what the human heart truly yearns for and desires. He was ostracized, lonely, and despised by the Jews of Jericho.  Because you see, in addition to the Roman taxes, scoundrels like Zacchaeus added a hefty commission to the charges.  The people were left with very little on which to live until the next tax-day.

It’s no wonder that the people muttered when the miracle-working prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, chose to spend the evening as the guest of such a sinful man!  But despite the fact that Zacchaeus was both a traitor and a swindler – or maybe precisely because of this – Jesus’ merciful heart went out to him. And this love, expressed by Jesus treating Zacchaeus as a person worth spending time with, deeply touched the heart of this greedy tax collector.

Can you imagine what he must have thought when Jesus picked him, above all others, out of the crowd? “Me? Is he choosing to spend the evening with me?” He was overjoyed, deeply touched and transformed at the core! We can see why St. Luke tells us he was dramatically converted on the spot! After years of rejection he had found reconnection. And his story teaches us some important things about how reconnection with God and others can happen for anyone, for us.

First of all, we see that reconnection begins with God reaching out to us. Jesus took the active initiative to kick off the relationship with Zacchaeus. And he does the same for us if we have the ears of the soul open to hear his voice. By climbing up that sycamore tree, Zacchaeus shows his desire to encounter Jesus and connect with him. This reminds us that when God reaches out to us he respects our free will.  He never forces himself into anyone’s life. He awaits a sign from us, an opening no matter how small, to enter in and reconnect. But it all begins with him.

Secondly, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to make room for God in our lives.   Zacchaeus ignored the taunts and laughter of the crowd when he scurried up the sycamore tree. Seeing and knowing Jesus were more important than what others thought of him. That was the beginning of true religion entering into Zacchaeus’ life and making a difference. He did whatever it took to facilitate his reconnection with God. We must do the same.

Thirdly, our reconnection with God must show itself in reconnected relationships with others. Zacchaeus goes above and beyond what either Roman or Jewish law requires of him regarding restitution for the money he had extorted over the years. And he seems to find a real delight in making these amends to others, reconnecting with them in a positive way. This is what Pope Francis calls the “joy of the Gospel”; the happiness of an honest heart and a conscience made clean by the grace and mercy of Christ.

So, perhaps today’s Gospel of Zacchaeus can inspire us to examine ourselves honestly and identify what destructive or sinful behavior in our lives Jesus needs to seek out and save us from. And perhaps it can move our hearts and minds to see if there is anyone in our lives to whom we need to make amends and reconnect with in a positive way.

I think that a major take-away from the story of Zacchaeus is that our encounter with Christ must affect a positive change in who we are, in how we think and in how we interact with others. Otherwise, we have not really embraced true religion, a religion that makes a difference in our lives in this world and leads us to eternal life in the next.