Sunday, March 26, 2023

Come to Believe and Be Unbound!


Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2023. Gospel of John 11:1-45. Theme: Come to Believe and Be Unbound! 

The Raising of Lazarus was Jesus’ premiere miracle but it was also His most expensive one because it cost Him His very life! You see, it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” as far as the Pharisees were concerned. From that day forward, they became more determined than ever to put an end to this mysterious man from Nazareth Who lowered their prestige in the eyes of the people and threatened their position of power. In addition, Jesus’ opponents had to deal with the problem of Lazarus himself because he was literally living proof of Who Jesus was and What He could do. And so, they decided to also silence him permanently. 

Today’s Gospel makes a point of telling us that Jesus intentionally permitted his good friend Lazarus to fall into the sleep of death so that this miracle could take place. Christ saw it as an unforgettable opportunity to deepen people’s faith in Him and in his mission. But He also intended that the raising and unbinding of Lazarus should convey a two-part message. First, that physical death is not an end to our existence, but only a kind of sleep from which we will awaken to live a glorious eternal life. And second, that Jesus has the power to set us free to live a new life, not just at our future resurrection from the dead, but right here and right now. It all depends upon our faith, our trust, in Him. Which is precisely why He gave us the miracle of Lazarus. 

The Scriptures proclaim that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. So what this means for us is that if Jesus can unbind and set Lazarus free in the past, then He is also able to do the same for us here and now in the present. He can liberate us from any and all kinds of death, not just the physical. I think many people forget, and perhaps some have never been told, that there is more to us than just our mortal bodies. We also possess spiritual souls and so there is the real possibility of suffering spiritual death. We can look and feel great physically with a strong beating heart, healthy lungs and vibrant blood coursing through our veins…and yet we can be spiritually dead inside, really only half-alive. 

We can walk this earth as part of the “living dead”, that is, as people who are enclosed in tombs, not made of stone but built of our own making. We can be all bound up like a mummy because of destructive choices we have made and buried in such spiritual graves as losing our direction in life, being trapped in habits of sinful behavior, shackled by various addictions, struggling with obsessions or being consumed by the lure of materialism. And if we wonder how Christ reacts to seeing us trapped in these self-made tombs, all we have to do is look at today’s Gospel and see that He is deeply distressed and weeps over our condition as He did for Lazarus. 

But He says to us the same powerful words that He spoke to Lazarus, “Come forth! Be unbound!" He calls us to come forth from the tomb of sinful behavior and be unbound from spiritual slavery. To come forth from the tomb of materialism and be unbound from the deception that we are only worth what we look like and what we possess. To come forth from the tomb of isolation and be unbound from loneliness. To come forth from the tomb of anger and grudges and be unbound from broken relationships. To come forth from the tomb of anxiety and panic and be unbound from fear and worry. To come forth from the tomb of addiction and codependency and be unbound from self- destruction. 
Now, if we’re not totally sure that we have the faith it takes for us to come forth from our tomb and be unbound, we can draw hope from the example of Lazarus’ sister, Martha. Did you notice that St. John tells us that she had to “come to believe” that Jesus was Who He said He was? Those three words “come to believe '' should give us great encouragement! They tell us that Martha was still growing, open to Jesus and willing to trust him, but yet not quite there. And I am sure the same can be said of us. Perhaps we are “not quite there” yet. Perhaps some of us have more to absorb, more to experience about Christ so that we can “come to believe”. But that doesn’t mean we lack any faith or any hope whatsoever. It simply means we’re not quite there but we’re on the way. And Jesus can and will work with wherever we are in our relationship with Him. 

Martha shows us that we can begin to trust in Jesus’ power even before understanding fully who he is; even before really grasping the extent of what he wishes to do for us. She demonstrates that faith grows as our experience of Jesus grows. She shows us that our relationship with Christ, like all relationships, is a dynamic ever-deepening reality. She never gave up growing in her understanding of Jesus and she reached the goal. She was able to finally proclaim, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.” 

And now through this gospel she invites each one of us to come to believe as well. She invites each one of us to reach out to Jesus and trust in Him. All we need to do to come forth from our tomb and be unbound is to acknowledge our need, ask Him for this grace and then take the first steps forward in faith. And as we emerge from the cold darkness of our tombs, the trappings holding us bound will become loosened and begin to fall off one-by-one. Gradually, grace will flood our lives and we’ll discover that we are beginning to live a new life, free and reborn from the inside out.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

'Twas Blind But Now I See!


Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday), March 19, 2023. Gospel of St. John 9:1-41. Theme: ‘Twas Blind But Now I See! 

Last Sunday St. John took us to Samaria to learn about thirsting for God’s. In today’s Gospel he takes us south of Samaria, to the holy city of Jerusalem, where he will teach us about spiritual blindness and coming to know Jesus in stages. He will show us that our understanding of who Jesus is deepens each time that we give witness to Him. St. John will bring us from Sight to Insight to Faith. 

At first the Man Born Blind is simply going by Sight and describes Jesus as “that man”. He says that he was healed by “that man called Jesus”, and he reports on his healing in a short and simple re-telling of the events: “he put mud on my eyes, told me to wash and now I can see.” His understanding of Jesus is very basic and incomplete. Is this where we are at in our own personal understanding of Jesus? Are we at this basic “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” level? Perhaps we know the basic facts about Christ from Bible stories, but is that pretty much the extent of our knowledge and faith-relationship with him? Are we looking at Him only with ordinary Sight, much the same way we would think about the admirable hero of history? 

Then the Man Born Blind is brought before the Jewish leaders and for the first time he faces social pressure and rejection for his association with Jesus. He has to make a conscious choice to stand up for Christ and this leads him to look deeper and he somehow begins to see his Healer as more than just an ordinary man. He now says about Jesus, “He is a prophet…he is devout…he does God’s will…God is with him!” He is progressing from Sight to Insight, the light is getting a bit brighter but there’s still some cloudiness in his spiritual vision of Christ. Does this level describe our relationship with and understanding of Jesus? Have we gone from Sight to Insight, realizing that He radiates the Power and Presence of God? Can we see that He may be more than just that, but that He just might be God come among us in the flesh? 

Finally, the Man Born Blind goes from Insight to Faith. As a blessing for his courage to stand up for Christ, he receives the gift of faith and comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God and Savior. His faith and his loyalty are under pressure and persecution has cost him something, but in return Jesus Himself seeks the man out for a deeper personal encounter. The light is shining so brilliantly now that the Man Born Blind now exclaims, “I do believe, Lord!” and he worships Jesus right then and there. His spiritual journey, reflected in his physical healing, has brought him out of the darkness and into the light that gives eternal life. Have we reached this level of solid personal friendship with Jesus in our own lives? Have we decided once for all to become intentional disciples no matter what the cost? Are we willing to embrace life as authentic Christians and be done with half-baked, half-hearted attempts to have one foot in each world? 

Along with the Man Born Blind, St. John also wants us to learn a lesson from the Pharisee leaders. They saw the same Jesus that the Man Born Blind saw, but their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing Him in the same way. I think that the Pharisees can stand for those today who find themselves in the presence of the divine but are totally unable to recognize it. I have encountered many who cannot let go of their “own truth” (as people like to say these days) in order to see the stark reality before them. Quite often such people declare that they have open minds and are tolerant of various ideas, but in reality their minds are quite closed and their vision extremely near-sighted. They reject the miraculous that is clear and present for them to see. 

For example, I have discussed with them that there is no explicable way that the photographic-negative image on the Shroud of Turin could have been made before the era of photography with totally accurate anatomy. And that scientists cannot discover or explain how that image remains for centuries on the Shroud without being integrated into its fibers. Yet they remain unmoved and spiritually blind. I have told them of x-rays that document missing body parts that were suddenly found to exist on a previously disabled person after emerging from the miraculous waters of Lourdes. Yet they still remain unmoved and spiritually blind. I have shared with them the laboratory findings of Eucharistic Hosts transformed into physical flesh and blood, confirmed as fact by scientists. Yet they still remain unmoved and spiritually blind like the Pharisees. 

But, you know, that really shouldn’t surprise me because facts cannot bring about an act of faith or restore spiritual vision. This can only be done by God alone. We have proof of this in today’s Gospel. A man has been blind his whole life long. Then Jesus comes along and suddenly he can see. Yet the Pharisees remain unmoved in their convictions and spiritually blind in their stubbornness of mind. St. John is telling us that what makes us come to real faith is experiencing the touch of Jesus Christ in our life, whatever that may look like and however we may need it. And when that happens then like the Man born Blind we will find ourselves saying, “I do believe” and we will fall down and worship the Lord.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Springs of Life-giving Water!


Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent. March 12, 2023, Gospel of St. John 4:5-42. Theme: Springs of Living Water!

In today’s gospel St. John takes us to a section of Israel called Samaria, a place inhabited by a people who were considered to be heretics and traitors to the Covenant God made with Moses. The Jewish people despised the Samaritans as morally unclean and spiritually unworthy of God’s blessings. And it’s there in that godforsaken land that we meet a woman who is considered to be unclean and unworthy even by her own townsfolk. She is an outcast among a people who are themselves considered outcasts. You cannot get much lower than that in the mind of the 1st century Jews who first heard this gospel story. And this is precisely what St. John wants us to keep in mind as the story unfolds. 

We are told that the woman went to Jacob’s well at noon. Now, this would strike the hearers of the story as extremely odd because they all knew that women go to wells at dawn or dusk so that they can escape the intense heat of the desert sun. There is only one reason why this outcast woman would go to the well at noon: to avoid the condemning stares and shunning silence of her peers. But what made her such an outcast? It was her reputation. She was living with a man who was 5th in a string of lovers who had replaced her original husband and so she is considered by the village women to be someone who is beyond the reach of God. It seems that St. John wants us to understand that her life was as empty and dry as the water-jug she was carrying; that she was desperately thirsty for love and acceptance. Her spiritual poverty and her emotional needs were so great that she was willing to compromise herself into situations which she knew were morally wrong. Who among us can’t relate to that in one way or another in our lives? 

And this is where St. John wants us to “connect the dots”, so to speak, and realize that this Samaritan woman represents each one of us, both you and me. She stands for all who sense an emptiness inside themselves that only God can fill. She represents each person who, perhaps even without realizing it, is looking for love in all the wrong places. She is a symbol of each person who stands in need of inner healing and real wholeness, the kind that brings us true inner peace and serenity. St. John wants us to put ourselves in her place and know that just as Jesus reached out to her, so also He reaches out to us. Just as Jesus knew all the details of her past, so He knows all of ours as well. And as with the Samaritan woman, He doesn’t care what we were or what we have been. He is interested in what we can become. He wants to free us from whatever it is that is holding us bound in mind, body or spirit because He is the Savior who has come to set us free. 

St. John wants us to know that a real transformation of our hearts and lives is possible if we follow the example of the Samaritan woman. If we are willing to face the truth about ourselves, acknowledge our wrong-doings and bring our inner wounds to Jesus for healing then we, too, can drink His Living Water and experience a renewal of our hearts. This Living Water is a symbol of the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us, as St. Paul says in our second reading. And when we become consciously aware of this unconditional love God that has for us and trust in Jesus as our Merciful Savior, then the floodgates of Living Water are opened up and the grace of the Holy Spirit can flow freely within us, carrying out His work of transformation. 

We see this wonderful change happening to the Samaritan woman. As she comes to understand more clearly who Jesus really is and sincerely asks Him for the Living Water, it starts to gush through her and transform her. Recall that before she encountered Jesus she went to the well at noon in order to avoid her neighbors. But after experiencing the personal love that Christ has for her she is filled with joy and runs off to go to the very same people whom she had been avoiding! She is no longer bound and defined by her sins. She is no longer preoccupied with what others might think about her. She no longer treats herself as an outcast because she has tasted the Living Water of God’s love and it has begun to change her. She now becomes an apostle, a missionary, an evangelizer for Christ, eager to share with her neighbors the Good News that she has found the Messiah who can make life worth living again! 

St. John wants us to connect this Gospel story with our Baptism because that is when we were first given the Living Water of the Holy Spirit. But Baptism was just the start and our whole Christian lives are meant to be watered by the grace of God through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us! So we need to consciously deepen our devotion to Him and open our hearts more fully to the Spirit Who has been given to us. And then the flow of Living Water can start gushing through us and we, too, like the Samaritan woman, will come to discover that we no longer need to quench our thirst in the old ways that we had been doing. Instead, we will find ourselves more and more drawn by an inner desire to satisfy our thirst and find our joy in the bottomless Fountain of God’s love which springs forth from the Heart of Jesus.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Sharing the Message of the Transfiguration Today


Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2023. Gospel of St. Matthew 17:1-9. Theme: Sharing the Message of the Transfiguration 

Today In today’s gospel, we find ourselves at the Transfiguration of Jesus. For a brief moment, the humanity of Jesus is lifted and the disciples get a dazzling glimpse of Who He really is: the Beloved Son of God. The fact that this event happened on Mt. Tabor was in no way an accident. It was an important sacred place to the Jews because it was the site of a great military victory where God showed Himself to be their protector and savior. So this was the perfect place - and a perfect time coming shortly before his Passion - for Jesus to straighten out his disciples about their mistaken idea of how the Messiah would save Israel and indeed all people. 

You see, many Jews of the time believed that the Messiah promised by God was to be a great Warrior-King who would free them from Roman tyranny. They believed that the Messiah would give Israel another military victory, even greater than the one made famous on Mt. Tabor about one thousand years before the time of Christ. That this divinely sent National-Hero would be arrested and put to death by the Romans was the polar opposite of their expectations! That the liberation which he would bring to them would be spiritual and not political didn't even enter their minds. Neither of these things fit in with their pre-conceptions of what the Messiah would be or do. 

Like their peers, the disciples were also expecting a political Warrior-King. On Mt. Tabor, Jesus showed them that he was, indeed, the promised Hero but not in the way that they had thought him to be. To better illustrate this lesson, two other national heroes of Israel appeared with Christ on Mt. Tabor. But they were not political-military figures such as Joshua, Deborah, King Saul or King David. Rather, they were the spiritual warriors of Israel. There was Moses, who received the Ten Commandments and led the Hebrew Exodus out of slavery in Egypt. And with him stood Elijah the Great Prophet of the Living God. Moses and Elijah were there to show that the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament were being brought to their intended fulfillment through Jesus the Christ. 

Through the Transfiguration, Jesus was visually telling his disciples that yes, he was the Messiah, but no, not in the way that they had imagined. He was God come-in-the-flesh and his victory would not be military but spiritual. This triumph would come about through the Exodus of the Messiah, which means his passing from death to life. He would claim victory in the spiritual battle over Satan, sin and death through the power of the Cross and the triumph of His Resurrection. And as Messiah, the Anointed Savior, He would bestow this freedom from sin and death upon all who trust in Him as the One sent by God. It would be an eternal victory! 

When they came down from that mountain, Jesus told Peter, James and John that after His Resurrection they could share what they had personally experienced. You see, the Transfiguration with its message of hope and victory over evil was not something they were to keep privately to themselves. And it’s a good thing for us that they spoke out! Their testimony helped to form the very foundation of the Church and to produce the Gospels that have given witness to Jesus to billions of people ever since. By not keeping quiet about it, they literally did their part in bringing hope to others and changing countless lives and cultures throughout the centuries. And each one of us is called to become an active part of this on-going message of the Transfiguration. 

There are times when God has somehow allowed us to see Jesus, with spiritual vision, with greater clarity and deeper understanding. These brief grace-filled moments that can come to us in prayer or during times of reflection are like having our own mini-transfigurations. We somehow come to understand a bit better just who Jesus is and what He wishes to do with us and for us. Afterwards, like those disciples we are not meant to keep this spiritual treasure to ourselves. Like them, we are also to let people know that God loves them and invites them to share life with Him in His Kingdom. By being open about what Jesus means to us and how our faith-relationship with him helps us, we can assist others in discovering Christ as the ultimate Hero and Liberator of their own lives. 

There are many ways and opportunities for us to do this. But it doesn’t mean that we are going around preaching to people at work or at home - although this might be necessary every now and then. The best way we can evangelize, which means witnessing to Jesus, is in our normal everyday activities. Quite often this happens organically, naturally, by simply being open in our conversations about our experience of Jesus through prayer and in Holy Communion. We can share with them how wounded relationships have been healed or healthy relationships strengthened by speaking with Christ and trusting in Him. 

Our honesty and openness can bring hope to those who are struggling, which means everyone. Perhaps by our personal testimony they will be encouraged to give it a try themselves and listen for the voice of the Beloved Son speaking to them. Perhaps by our personal witnessing we can help reveal to them the true Jesus, the real Jesus, in whom they will find the love, the acceptance and the peace of heart that they have been seeking.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Are You Ready To Fight?


Homily for The First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2023. Gospel of St. Matthew 4:1-11. Theme: Are You Ready to Fight? 

Every year the Season of Lent calls us to a deeper relationship with God which includes, of course, a more intentional love for our neighbor. And both of these things not just in theory, but in fact and deed. Scripture and the experience of the saints teach us that the three spiritual practices of Lent - prayer, almsgiving and fasting - are immensely helpful for us in this regard. Prayer brings us into conscious contact with God as we converse with Him from our hearts. Fasting empowers us to say “no” to ourselves so that we can say “yes” to the needs of others. And almsgiving teaches us generosity and builds up within us a sense of gratitude to God for the blessings we have received. 

But the thing to remember when planning out these Lenten practices for ourselves is that they must be personalized. This means that if they are to be effective in helping us grow in love, they have to focus on our own particular struggles in living the Christian life. This is why the Church doesn’t mandate that we all say the exact same prayers, or abstain from the exact same foods, or give our alms to the exact same charities. Our Lenten penances must be tailor made for us so that they become truly useful weapons for us in the spiritual battle that is at the heart of today’s Gospel. And that brings me to the one thing that we will all have in common this Lent. 

We will each have to face the ancient Enemy of the human race who doesn’t want to see these good things happen in our lives. As we see in the Genesis story, Satan is a cunning liar who is envious of our relationship with God, a relationship that he freely gave up. It’s a choice that torments him for all eternity and his overriding goal is to entice us to make the same horrible decision. To this end, he and his demon-minions will surely but slyly attack our well-intentioned Lenten resolutions. He will try to convince us that we already pray enough and that, after all, we’re not monks or nuns living in a monastery. He will work at weakening our decision to give up whatever we have chosen as our Lenten penance, making us think that we deserve a break now and then. And of course, that last thing he wants is for us to become more generous by giving alms because greed is one of his specialties. 

But we need not fear facing the Ancient Enemy because we will not be fighting this spiritual battle alone. Through the blessed ashes that we received last Wednesday, we were called to recommit to Christ, to repent of sin and believe in the Gospel. If we are living our Lent with sincerity and faith in our hearts then we will have with us the ever-abiding presence of Jesus as Brother and Companion. He lived in total solidarity with us including temptation, real temptation. He wasn’t just play-acting or pretending to be one of us. He leads us into the battle and shows us how to fight so as to win. So let’s keep our eyes on Him and our ears open to the words He speaks to us in today’s Gospel. 

Jesus said: “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” There is spiritual nourishment and supernatural power in the Word of God. Scripture makes the Lord present to us in a mystical but very real way. It’s hard for us to comprehend this mystery, but the saints tell us to reverence and receive the Word with the same kind of devotion that we show towards the Eucharist, for both are ways in which we come into the Divine Presence. There are many ways for us to do this. For example, we can hear it proclaimed in the liturgy or meditate on it privately while reading the Bible in our own homes. And it’s a good idea to find a verse of Scripture that deals with a particular vice or struggle in our lives and then prayerfully repeat this verse when tempted, trusting in the power of God's Word. 

Which brings us to the next declaration that Jesus spoke to Satan: “It is written: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” We test people whom we do not trust. It seems to me that Jesus is telling us here to work on building up a relationship of trust in God. We need to be firm in the conviction that He really does want only what is best and good for us. We must reject the devil’s lies, so often repeated by our media and our culture, that tell us that God is a tyrant, a bully, out to ruin our fun and restrict our freedom. This is the deception that is behind every temptation and it’s the ancient lie that Satan has been whispering into the ears of the human race ever since the days of Adam and Eve. So, in times of temptation the best, the easiest and the most powerful response, the most powerful prayer to keep repeating is this: “Jesus, I trust in You.” 

Lastly, Jesus proclaimed : “It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Satan’s third temptation is an enticement to worship ourselves instead of our Creator; to decide for ourselves what is true or not, to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. He wants us to place ourselves upon the altar of self-promotion and then to worship there. It’s the same old tactic he used on Adam and Eve by telling them that they could become like gods if only they would eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. But we expose this lie every time we bow in spirit before God and confess our sins with a humble honest heart. We defeat this temptation every time we gather for Mass to offer true worship to the Father, through his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. By our heartfelt worship we not only trample upon this temptation but we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus and stronger in the spiritual power he holds out to us. 

Today’s Gospel promises that we can all share in the victory of Jesus over temptation in our lives. We can each be filled with the power of the Risen Christ by opening our hearts to the graces that God wants to pour into us through daily prayer, through generosity towards others, and through fidelity to our Lenten penance. We can each confidently face the Ancient Enemy armed with the Word of God, strengthened by trust in Jesus, and spiritually energized by true worship. Temptations will never ever go away. They are part and parcel of human life as we all know and they are found everywhere. Victory over temptation, however, is not found everywhere but comes only through, with and in a personal relationship with Jesus the Messiah, Son of God and Savior. To Him be glory and praise forever. Amen.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Radical Love of Christianity


Homily for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, February 19, 2023. Gospel of St. Matthew 5:38-48. Theme: The Radical Love of Christianity 

In the Gospel we just read, Jesus is teaching us that the only way to end the vicious cycle of hatred in our lives is for someone to pull the plug on it. We Christians call pulling this plug “forgiveness” and it's something we must be willing to do - or to at least be working towards - if we want to truly call ourselves Christian. This call to forgiveness is really a continuation of what Jesus has been saying to us over the past few Sundays in His Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the merciful; you must be salt and light for the world; and goodness begins within the heart. And today He also goes to the very core of the human person, deep into our gut where the reaction we have to our enemies is to get even. 

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died as a martyr in a Nazi concentration camp, had a personal motto on this very teaching of Christ. He would often say, “Hatred destroys, love alone gives life. So love without limit!” And Kolbe walked the walk and lived those words to the day he died in Auschwitz, assisting fellow inmates as best he could in their suffering and urging them to forgive the Nazis, not to hate them. He kept reminding them that hatred would only change them for the worse on the inside and make them similar to their enemies. It takes a spiritually strong person to pull that plug of forgiveness, but Jesus promises us the grace to accomplish it. Kolbe got this strength from his personal love for Jesus Christ, from his reception and adoration of the Eucharist and from the true devotion he had for the Blessed Mother. The Gospel was his daily guide to love and forgiveness. 

Forgiveness requires good intention, moral courage, emotional maturity and spiritual muscle. Striking back verbally or physically and hurting someone is actually so very childish…it happens on every school yard throughout the world. And yet there are plenty of adults who remain emotionally childish and hold on to every single hurt that has ever been committed against them! Those of us who know such people can attest that they gradually become very bitter, more resentful and increasingly unpleasant to be around. Like hatred, they become toxic to us. And toxic is exactly what hatred is for us, corroding the heart and eventually killing our emotional and spiritual lives. Forgiveness - made possible by the grace of Christ - is the antidote to this poison and the remedy that will eventually heal the wound. 

Dr. Robert Enright, is an internationally acclaimed Catholic psychologist known as the “Trailblazer of Forgiveness”. He travels the world as part of the International Forgiveness Institute and has dedicated the past 30 years of his life to helping people achieve the freedom from hatred, rejecting revenge and retaliation. Here is how he describes forgiveness, a definition that actually could have been written by Jesus himself: 

 When you forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, it means that you let go of resentment and the urge to seek revenge, no matter how deserving of these things the wrongdoer may be. You choose instead to give the great gifts of acceptance, generosity and love. Forgiving is an act of mercy toward an offender, someone who others say does not deserve our mercy, but you don’t let that stand in your way. Rather, you forgive because you have freely and intentionally chosen to have a merciful heart. 

Dr. Enright is careful to point out that forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation with the person who has offended us. That may never come about but it doesn’t have to happen in order for forgiveness to be genuine. Most of the time we will really struggle to forgive as we wrestle with the negativity that arises each time the memory of a hurt resurfaces. But we need to remember that Jesus did not say that we had to like the offender or ignore as insignificant what was done to us. He simply said that we had to let go of the hurt and strive to forgive the one who caused it. 

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t say that our forgiveness must happen immediately although it certainly must be our ultimate goal. The best we might be able to do in the beginning is to show our good intention by asking God for at least the desire to want to forgive. This is a good start and eventually, if we are sincere with that prayer, we will reach a place of actual forgiveness. Then once we are able to finally let go of the hurt we can begin to experience the inner peace and serenity that flows from forgiveness. We will be on our way to understanding what it means to be free from the inside out.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A New Heart & A New Spirit


Homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 12, 2023. Gospel of St. Matthew 5:17-37. Theme: A New Heart & A New Spirit 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins his lengthy Sermon on the Mount by assuring us that He has not come to do away with the religion of Israel, what we Christian call the Old Testament, but to bring it to its completion. You see, there are many people who think that Jesus came to make a clean break with Judaism and to establish in its place a completely brand new religion. But this simply isn’t true and Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel make this perfectly clear. He came to fulfill, not to destroy. 

What He is saying is that in God’s plan Judaism was meant to develop into Christianity. With the coming of the Messiah there was meant to be a transition of the Old Israel into the New Israel, with membership no longer restricted just to Jews but now open to all who place their trust in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord. And, indeed, it originally started out that way but, as we all know, it didn’t end up that way due to human sinfulness and religious infighting. By the end of the first century after Christ, Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah were expelled from the synagogues through the Mediterranean world and Christianity began to arise as a separate and distinct religion. 

I think it’s important for us to know our roots and to realize that Jesus came to reform and renew the religion of Israel not to replace it. Because we, too, are the spiritual children of Abraham and the Old Testament is part of our story. That’s why we still read from it in our liturgies and why we revere it as being the inspired Word of God along with the New Testament. But there is a huge difference between us when it comes to the role of the Law, which means the Commandments, in our relationship with God and this is what Jesus is focusing on in today’s Gospel. 

You see, over the centuries, the Law became everything to the Jewish people because it preserved their identity in the midst of a pagan world that was closing in all around them. Being Jewish became intimately tied up with external actions and if you ask Orthodox Jews today they will tell you that Judaism is more about what you do rather than what you believe. This emphasis upon rules of identity became so important that the original 10 Commandments were expanded over time to become 613 laws of proper Jewish behavior. And to assure compliance, the people were constantly spied upon, watched very closely by the Jewish leadership, to make sure that they were observing every little detail of the Law. We see this happening all the time in the Gospels when Jesus has his many encounters with the Scribes and Pharisees. 

Jesus was constantly preaching that the Commandments were never intended to be a set of detailed laws that were a burden too heavy for anyone to carry! And in today’s Gospel He breathes new life into them, calling us back to their original purpose. He reminds us that our observance of them must come from the heart if it is to be more genuine than that of the Jewish leaders. You see, their idea of morality was totally legalistic, based on going through the motions. If on the outside everything looked good, if everything was done according to the letter of the Law, they considered themselves righteous or holy. Where their hearts might be in all of this didn’t come into the picture. This was the false understanding of Commandments, the corruption of religious observance, that Jesus came to reform and renew. 

He taught them in a new way that went much deeper than simply obeying the letter of the law. For example, as we just heard in the Gospel, He told us not to be satisfied simply because we have not murdered anyone, but to dig deeper and see if we are harboring anger or resentment in our hearts. He said to not be satisfied just because we haven’t committed perjury, but to dig deeper and see if we are guilty of gossip or lying, of using the gift of speech to build people up or to tear them down. And in our marriages, the Lord informs us to think beyond the physical parameters of adultery and dig deeper to see if we are being faithful emotionally, internally, towards the one to whom we have pledged our love. So you see, He is not doing away with good external behavior, but is telling us that we will be hypocrites if the outside doesn’t match what’s on the inside. 

Jesus calls us to embrace and live the Commandments with a new outlook, with a new mindset. He tells us that if we truly want to observe the law of God and be His reflection to others, then we need to begin by focusing on the reform and renewal of our hearts. But He knows that we cannot do this of our own power. He knows that while our intentions may be good, the lure of sin and selfishness within us pulls us down and so He gives us a share in the Holy Spirit who makes us new from the inside out. That the Messiah would do this for us was prophesied 600 years before Christ by the prophet Ezekiel who said: “He will give you a new heart and place a new Spirit within you; He will exchange your heart of sin for a heart of love and put his Spirit within you to enable you to follow his decrees”. (Ez 36:26-27) 

Jesus first gave us this Spirit at Baptism and increased His presence within us at Confirmation. But He and the Spirit continue making our transformation possible every time we go to Mass and worship with open hearts. In a little while you'll see Father place his hands over the gifts of bread and wine, and you will see me bow as he does so, because this is when we welcome the Spirit, who comes down upon the gifts to begin their transformation into the Sacrament of the Real Presence of Christ. And then when we receive Holy Communion with mindfulness and devotion, that same Spirit continues his work of transforming us from the inside out through the Body and Blood of Christ, who enters us as medicine for our spiritual sickness, healing balm for our wounded souls and strength in our human weakness.