Sunday, June 30, 2019

Made Free for Freedom

The Catholic Liturgy for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 30, 2019. Galatians 5:1-18. Theme: Made Free for Freedom

St. Paul speaks to us in today’s second reading about the beautiful gift of human freedom, the capacity God has given us to make rational free choices in our lives. This gift of freedom, both as individuals and as a united people, is at the heart of our identity as Americans. It is enshrined in our Constitution under the famous three-part declaration that we have a God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is what we celebrate every year on July 4 as we remember the struggle for independence and acclaim our national identity with food, parties and awesome displays of fireworks.

But St. Paul reminds us that in Christ we have been given freedom, not so that we can do whatever we please, but so that we can choose to do what is good and true and life-giving.  He warns us that if we misuse this gift we will end up becoming enslaved in a way that is much worse than physical or political oppression.  And this is precisely what has happened to a majority of us who live in this Land of the Free, according to psychologists and ministers who so often counsel people.

They say that we who enjoy American independence are in actuality among the highest in the world who suffer emotional and spiritual imprisonment and slavery because we refuse to forgive.  They say that the holding onto old wounds and nursing resentment is the #1 cause for such things as: anger issues, broken relationships and fractured families as well as many forms of depression and addiction. These are all ways in which we abuse the gift of freedom and fall into the slavery that St. Paul mentions when he cautions us to avoid verbally and emotionally biting and devouring one another.

Dr. Robert Enright, is a devout practicing Catholic and an internationally acclaimed psychologist, whom Time magazine called the “Trailblazer of Forgiveness”. He travels the world as part of the International Forgiveness Institute and has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to helping people achieve and experience real and full inner freedom in their lives. Here is how he describes forgiveness, a definition that could have been written by St. Paul himself:

“When you forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, you let go of resentment and the urge to seek revenge, no matter how deserving of these things the wrongdoer may be. You choose to give the great gifts of acceptance, generosity and love.  Forgiving is an act of mercy toward an offender, someone who does not necessarily deserve our mercy but you don’t let that stand in your way. Rather, you give because you have chosen to have a merciful heart.  A heart with the power to free yourself so you can live a better life.”  And often times our forgiveness also gives the one we have forgiven a freer and better life as well. (Here I tell the story of Alessandro Serenelli.  Available on the audio version of this homily)

Dr. Enright tells us 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 in order for forgiveness to be genuine.  Most of the time we will really struggle to forgive and will have to wrestle with the negativity that arises each time the memory of the hurt arises in our minds.  

But if, as St. Paul says to the Galatians, we surrender ourselves to the Spirit, then we will find a power greater than ourselves that will enable us to meet these memories with the intentional decision to forgive. And eventually, if we are sincere and ask God to accompany us on this forgiveness journey, we will reach a place of peace and serenity.  We will be able to truly let go of the hurts and experience what it means to be truly free from the inside out; what it means to blessed with a life rooted in liberty and truly open to the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Living Bread Come Down From Heaven

From the Catholic Liturgy for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 23, 2019. 1 Cor. 11:23-26Luke 9:11-17. Theme: The Living Bread Come Down From Heaven

When Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth and people encountered him, what they saw and smelled and touched and heard was an ordinary Jewish man, in his 30’s, fit and strong from his work as a laborer, speaking with a heavy Galilean accent, and covered with the dust of the road. But their senses did not, could not, experience the full reality of who he was. What they could not see in him was the glory and power of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Eternal Son of God the Father. But this reality of his divinity, of who he really was, was always there. It was just hidden from their senses by the physicality of flesh and bone.

The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist Jesus gave us is very much the same: we don’t grasp the reality behind what our eyes behold, what our hands touch and what our mouths taste. And yet, a genuine miracle takes place at every Mass and we heard St. Paul affirm this in today’s second reading about Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.  What was simply bread and wine becomes the very Body and Blood of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Though they continue to look and taste the same, Christ our God is in fact really and truly present in every morsel of what was once bread and in every drop of what was previously wine.

But God knows that every so often we need to be shown that what we believe is true. Every so often, God has changed not just the inner reality but the actual physicality of the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  There are over 130 of these documented Eucharistic miracles affirming for us that what we worship, what we receive and what we adore is truly Christ the Lord. No one need take just my word about these things. Anyone can go on a computer and in no time at all you can see the evidence, read test results and even watch videos of some of these Eucharistic miracles. Today I just want to share with you about two of them.

The first and most famous of these documented Eucharistic miracles took place in Lanciano, Italy in the year 700 AD. A priest celebrating Mass was having doubts about the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion.  During the words of consecration, the host he was holding began to literally turn into flesh in his hands, and the few drops of wine in the chalice were transformed into blood. And they have remained so throughout the past 1300 years. In 1971, Pope St. Paul VI permitted carefully guarded scientific studies to be carried out and scientists discovered the flesh was from the heart of a male and the content of the chalice was human blood type AB.

Jumping ahead to the 20th century, a host also turned into bloody flesh in Buenos Aires in 1996. The bishop at that time, who is today Pope Francis, sent it, under guard, to a reputable lab in New York for sampling.  Those who tested it were not told what it was or where it came from.  The man in charge of the study was Dr. Frederic Zugibe, a world-famous cardiologist and forensic pathologist.  The findings revealed it to be part of the heart muscle. The blood type was AB. A perfect match to the host of Lanciano.  And curiously, scientists say that these lab results match the very same blood type which they have found on the famous Shroud of Turin.

But the examination of the miraculous host resulted in an even more astounding and inexplicable fact.  When the lab samples were put under a microscope, Dr. Zugibe saw that the cells were moving, pulsating, beating, like a normal human heart!  The host was somehow living flesh! He declared it to be a mystery beyond the capability of science to explain. Here is a good link to this miracle:

This is because the Eucharist we receive is the body and blood of the living Risen Lord Jesus, not that of a dead and long-gone Savior. This is why our cantor sang Jesus’ words during the Alleluia today which proclaim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…”. The Living Bread.

I think we can see now why God, in his wisdom, chose to have the physicality of the Eucharist – what we see and touch and taste - remain bread and wine even though the reality of what and who it is changes. For who of us would go to receive Holy Communion if it looked and tasted like what it really is: the living flesh and blood of Christ? And yet, that is the awesome reality. We truly become one with the Risen Lord Jesus through this Sacrament of Love, this precious Gift to us from his most Sacred Heart.  

Just this morning from Rome, Pope Francis, who as I just mentioned was intimately involved with the Living Bread miracle of Buenos Aries, sent Catholics these words about the Eucharist for us to ponder on this Corpus Christi Sunday: “It is Jesus, it is the Jesus who saved us, it is the Jesus who comes to give us the strength to live. It is Jesus, Jesus alive.”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sharing in Divinity

From the Catholic Liturgy for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019. Gospel: John 16:12-15. Theme: Sharing in Divinity

Throughout human history every world religion has tried to grasp the reality of who God is and how the divine interacts with us.  The primitive tribal religions saw everything in nature as part of a Supreme Creator.  The ancient Greeks and Romans saw humans as kind of like checkers on a board-game and the gods as the players in control of their lives. The Eastern religions such as Hinduism vary greatly and can have hundreds of gods and goddesses, all influencing some aspect of human life.  Islam sees God as the All-Powerful Master and people as his slaves and servants.  Judaism worships God as Lord and King who has made a covenant with his people who prove their allegiance to him by obeying his commandments.

Amidst all this diversity what stands out most clearly is that all agree that there is Something or Someone greater than us, that transcends the limitations of our humanity.  All agree that it is right and just to give worship to Divinity. All agree that belief in Divinity has implications for our own behavior and choices in life. But what we also learn from all these differences about God is that, apart from the fact that a Supreme Intelligent Being exists, we cannot really know anything specific, anything more. That is, unless God chooses to reveal these things to us in person. And that is precisely the foundation and the unique message of Christianity.

Today, Trinity Sunday, calls us to reaffirm our faith in the revelation that God is love and that because God is love, there is a communion of persons in the One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And even more-so, since the nature of love is to give of itself, the Trinity reaches out to us, inviting us to enter into their relationship. They want to draw close to us and want us to draw close to them.  

Our God does not treat us like checkers on a game-board nor like slaves who live in fear of their Master. Never before or since, in any of the world’s religions, has God been thought of or taught about in such an intimate personal way.  And the only reason we know about this reality of who God is, is because Jesus of Nazareth, God-himself-come-in-the-flesh, has spoken and taught us about it.

Unlike other religions, the God of Christianity does not want us to remain apart from him as outsiders, as spectators. He came to us in the flesh, to share our humanity.  And in exchange, he invites us to come to him and share his divinity. Yes, Jesus wants us, invites us, makes it possible for us to share in his divinity.  That sounds so strange to many people, yet sharing in divinity is the solid teaching of both the New Testament and of the Catholic Church.  It is called salvation. It is called grace. It is called holiness. And those who make it the treasure and goal of their lives are called saints.

St. Paul wrote about it in today’s second reading where he says that God’s love is poured into us by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. You see, in the Trinity’s relationship the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son, and he is sent to us who are baptized as a link of connection, as the pathway into their divine relationship. This sharing in divinity that begins with baptism is deepened and intensified within us by the Holy Spirit through our reception of the other sacraments and by our commitment to prayer and to living the Gospel of Jesus in daily life.

Now, just so you don’t think that I am making this up or preaching some kind of Mormon doctrine in saying that God calls us to share in divinity, listen to this little prayer from the official liturgy of the Church.  It is recited at every Mass by the deacon while he pours water into the wine of the chalice getting it ready for consecration into the Blood of Christ:  By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

And this prayer for sharing divinity is intentionally said as we prepare for Holy Communion because it is through the Eucharist above all the sacraments that we most intimately share in divinity while still here on earth.  Jesus himself told us this in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, when he said those who eat the Bread of Life will participate in the relationship he has with the Father and have divine life within them.

Through worthy reception of Holy Communion, which means belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and having our consciences free from serious sin, this sharing in divinity deepens within us, so that we can become, day by day, more loving children of God the Father, more loyal disciples of God the Son, and more spiritually radiant temples of God the Holy Spirit.