Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Empty Tomb - Call and Response

Homily from Easter Sunday: The Resurrection of the Lord - Year A

If you were a movie director, and had to set the scene we just read in the Gospel to music, you’d probably select something very magnificent and triumphant.  In fact, I’d bet that if we took a poll of our congregation here as to what piece of music we’d choose, the overwhelming winner would be the classic Alleluiah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  You hear that chorus and you automatically think: “The tomb is empty, Jesus is risen.”

However, I’d like to suggest that perhaps there’s another genre of music that would be equally fitting to serve as the soundtrack to today’s Gospel.  A music genre that captures the joy, the excitement, the elation of the Resurrection of the Risen Savior, Jesus the Christ.  The music I’m thinking of… is jazz.
I know, it sounds crazy.  But jazz kind of works for today’s gospel for a couple of reasons.

You see, there are two key elements that make jazz, jazz.  First, jazz has distinctive voices.  You’ve got all sorts of different instruments playing in very different ways.  Miles Davis’ trumpet sings with a soft, muted whisper.  Benny Goodman’s clarinet swings with joyful glee.  And Dave Brubeck’s piano flies at a frenetic pace up and down the scale.  A bunch of different instruments, different voices, speaking in varied ways.

And the second element that makes jazz what it is, is that jazz is improvised music.  There really isn’t any sheet music.  The various musicians jump in and play their notes by a method called “call and response.”  One musician will begin playing a melody that will call out to another bandmember, and that bandmember will pick up the melody, adding his own voice and variation on the theme keeping the same melody, but adding nuance and style that brings out a fuller expression of the song.

A really good jazz band can continue improvising seemingly forever, literally creating music on the spot.  For you younger music fans out there who may not be familiar with jazz, a great example of a current band who does this in concert would be the Dave Matthews Band who will improvise one of their songs for 15, 20 or 30 minutes or more.

Today, we hear of three very different people coming to the empty tomb on Easter morning.  Like jazz musicians, they all have very different voices and very different life experiences.

Mary Magdalene is the first called to the empty tomb.  Scripture tells us that she had many demons in her past.  But she was profoundly changed by her encounter with Jesus who drove those demons from her.  She was the first called to the tomb to see the stone rolled away  And she responded by running to tell Peter and John.

John, was the beloved disciple; the one who was always by the Lord’s side.  As he and Jesus reclined at the table of the Last Supper, he leaned against Jesus’ chest to ask him secretly who the Lord’s betrayer would be.  It was John who stood by Jesus at the Cross on Calvary.  And it was John who took Mary into his home after the death of Jesus.  John responded to the call of the empty tomb by running there as fast as he could but paused for a moment to let Peter enter first.

Then there’s Peter.  The chief of the Apostles  The first one to confess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  The Rock upon which Christ builds His Church.  The one to whom Jesus gave the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It was also Peter, of course, who denied even knowing Jesus when the Lord was in his most desperate hour.  Yet, he was called to the empty tomb as well.  And this time, he responds without fear.

All of us at one time or another in our lives can identify with one of these three from the Gospel.  Perhaps we’re like Mary Magdalene, and we’ve had to overcome demons from our past or perhaps we continue to wrestle with demons today.  Like Mary, we are called to the empty tomb of Jesus regardless of our past.  And today, it’s our time to respond by encountering the risen Lord and receive new life from Him.

Perhaps we’re like John, and we’ve more or less been more or less quite faithful to the Lord all our lives.  We’ve stayed by the side of the Lord, never drifting too far.  Like John, we are called to the empty tomb.  And today it’s our time to respond as he does.  Perhaps we have to pause for a moment, to let a friend enter the tomb ahead of us.  This weekend we're actually minus one Mass since we won't have the LifeTeen Mass this evening.  So, we're packed in here this morning a little tighter than usual.  Perhaps, we weren't able to sit in our usual seat today, but like John, we gladly defer to others to go ahead of us.
Perhaps we’re like Peter, and maybe for a time, we’ve denied Christ and set ourselves apart from Him.  But like Peter, Jesus calls us to the empty tomb as well.  And today it’s our time to respond by entering the tomb without hesitation or fear.

To walk into the place of new life in Christ.  This Church, the place of new beginnings.  To see here with our very own eyes as Peter did, the evidence of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.  To look upon Him in His glory in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist about to made present on this very altar.

And to recognize and accept and embrace the fact, that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, our Brother and Best Friend rose from the dead precisely for you, precisely for me, precisely for all of us.  And now it’s our time to respond just like Peter, who returned to the temple again and again to celebrate the resurrection of Christ as we heard in our first reading.

Like Mary Magdalene, John and Peter (and like jazz musicians) we all have different experiences, different lives, different voices. 

But we all receive the same call - the one call from none other than Jesus Himself to the empty tomb and to new life and new beginnings in His Church.

And we all must give the same response.  We must run to the empty tomb, the sign of new life.  And to this Church the dwelling place of new life.  Today, and every day of his Resurrection, every Sunday.

Because this house is our truest home on earth.  And Jesus wants all of us to keep responding to His call; and to keep playing this song for as long as we live.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Homily from the Celebration of the Lord's Passion - Year A

Today we observe Good Friday.  It’s an ironic title for today.  I remember as a kid thinking, “What is good about today?”  It seems as though everything that happens today is the opposite of good.  Jesus is put on trial, convicted, tortured, crucified, dies and is buried.

Of course we know that Christ’s suffering and death saved us.  But do we understand how even the ugliness of His suffering and death was good?  Do we see Good Friday with eyes of faith?

Throughout the Gospel we just heard, we hear time and time again, various people making true, yet ironic, statements about Jesus.  But they fail to see the real truth of their statements because they do not see with eyes of faith.

Caiaphas, the high priest who leads the Sanhedrin’s trial against Jesus says that, “It was better that one man should die rather than the people.”  How ironic this statement is.  It is true and good that one man, Jesus, the Lamb of God, should offer His life in sacrifice rather than leaving the entire world to condemnation.  But Caiaphas cannot see the Lamb of God because he does not see with eyes of faith.
When Jesus tells Pontius Pilate that His mission is to testify to the truth, Pilate asks Him, “What is truth?’  How ironic this question is.  Because Pilate is looking Truth right in the face.  He is staring at the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  But Pilate cannot see the Truth because he does not see with eyes of faith.

Last Sunday, we heard the people say, as they were crying out for Jesus to be crucified, “His blood be upon us and on our children.”  How ironic this statement is.  Because the Blood of Jesus does fall upon the people and their children. 

However, as Pope Benedict points out in his new book Jesus of Nazareth – Part Two, the Blood of Christ “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment on the people; it brings reconciliation.  It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all.”  His Blood is upon us and our children; and it brings our salvation.  But the people do not see with eyes of faith. They think as men think, not as God thinks.

When Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it was the time when families would procure for themselves a lamb that they would eat on the Passover that Friday.  And the days between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion were the same days when the families would inspect their lambs to make sure it was a lamb without blemish.  If the lamb was found without blemish, it would be slaughtered at twilight on Friday.

When Jesus, the Lamb of God is brought before Pontius Pilate, he is inspected by the Roman governor.  And Pilate, seeing no blemish in Jesus, makes the ironic declaration, “I find no guilt in him.”  And then, Jesus is slaughtered at the same moment the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the temple.  But Pilate and the chief priests and the people cannot see the unblemished Lamb because they do not see with the eyes of faith.
In our own lives, we experience hardship and suffering and death.  And as difficult as it so often is, we must look upon suffering with eyes of faith.  If we believe in what the Cross of Jesus did for us, then we must also accept that taking up our own crosses means the same thing.

For the Cross of Christ and our daily crosses that follow His are redemptive – they offer salvation.  Suffering as grave as the terrible events in Japan is redemptive when it moves the entire world to compassion.  And suffering as common as cleaning up the house is redemptive when it is done with love.

Suffering can strengthen us, which is ironic, because often in our suffering we feel weak.  Suffering can draw us closer to God, which is ironic, because often in our suffering we feel far from God.  And suffering can be redemptive, which is ironic, because often in our suffering we feel condemned.

Suffering is redemptive when it is joined to the suffering of Christ and offered up to the Father.  Then, we can see even the ugliness of suffering with eyes of faith.  Then, suffering can take on new, even ironic, meaning.  Then, the “Fridays” of our suffering can become good.

He Loves His Own to the End

Homily from Holy Thursday - Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper - Year A

In the seminary, we began preaching classes right away in our first year of theology studies.  A priest preaches nearly every day at every Mass so they wanted to give us as much practice, teaching and correction as they could in the four years of theology studies.

The faculty priests teach these classes. And they teach us a number of techniques such as how to use illustrations to paint a picture for your imagination, how to interpret the scriptures in the light of your lives, how to preach without depending too much on notes, how to make eye contact, how to project well enough to be understood and so on.

However, the most important instruction I received for preaching came not from one of the priests but rather from a lay faculty member: Dr. Perry Cahall, who you may remember gave a talk here a few months ago on the Theology of the Body.

I asked Dr. Cahall, “What do you want to hear in a homily.”  Dr. Cahall thought for just a moment and said, “I want you to lead me to Jesus.  And I want to hear your love for Jesus and I want you to tell me about Jesus’ love for me.”

Today, of all days, demands such a message.  At the beginning of today’s Gospel we hear these wonderful words about Jesus: “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.”

Jesus loves us.  Jesus doesn’t just save us.  Jesus doesn’t just feed us.  He doesn’t just work miracles for us or just teach us how to pray.  Of course He does indeed do all these things.  But He does them, first and foremost, because He loves us.

He loves us because we are His own.  We belong to Him.  Through Him we were created.  In Him we have life.  And He draws us constantly through His Holy Spirit into union with Him and His Father because we are His own.

And He loves us to the end.  He loves us to the end of His life.  He is denied, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, scourged, mocked, spit upon, crowned with thorns, made to carry the cross, is crucified, died and buried… because He loves us to the end.

He also loves us to that end which is our destiny.  Our lives are not to end in suffering and death just as His life does not end in suffering and death.  It is His love which raises us up from death and into union with His Father in Heaven.

And lastly, He loves us to the end of time.  So He gives Himself to the Apostles in such a way that He may be given to all people forever.

On this night, on Holy Thursday in the Upper Room, Jesus shows the depths of His love for His Apostles by giving them Himself.  He gives them His very own Body and Blood.  On this night, Holy Thursday, Jesus gives the Apostles the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

And in order that He might love you and I in exactly the same way that He loved His Apostles, He commands them: “Do this in memory of me.”  In saying these words, Jesus tells the Apostles, “Now, you give Me to the world in the exact same way.  You give them My Body and Blood.”  On this night, Holy Thursday, Jesus gives the Apostles the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the ministerial priesthood.

He did this so that He could love you and I no less than He loved those who walked with Him and talked with Him 2,000 years ago.

He gives us the Eucharist, so that we can eat, in fact, His very Body and Blood just as the Apostles did.

He gives us the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that we can hear, in fact, the very voice of Jesus say to us, “I absolve you from your sins” just as the woman caught in adultery heard his voice.

He gives us the Sacrament of Confirmation so that we can receive, in fact, the gifts of the Holy Spirit just as the Apostles did on Pentecost.

He gives us the Sacrament of Baptism so that just as He died and entered the silence and darkness of the tomb, we can die to sin and enter the silence and darkness of the water, so that, like Him, we too can rise, in fact, into new life just as He did at the Resurrection.

He gives us the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick so that we can receive, in fact, spiritual healing, just as he gave to so many of his day who were spiritually dead.

He gives us the Sacrament of Matrimony so that he can be, in fact, present at your marriage just as he was at the wedding feast in Cana.

And he gives us the Sacrament of Holy Orders so that he can be, in fact, present to you through the priest whom he has chosen and commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, “As I have done for you, you should also do.”

Jesus gives us the Sacraments so that he can love us, his own in the world, and continue loving us to the end.  Through the Sacraments we experience and receive, in fact, Jesus’ love, in ways that cannot be experienced or received anywhere else.  Because in the Sacraments it is truly Jesus who is present.  And the Sacraments are where Jesus loves us most passionately.

And to our elect, those who will be received in the Church in just a couple of days at the Easter Vigil, I hope you feel like brides and grooms waiting excitedly for your wedding day. Because at the Easter Vigil, you are going to experience the love of Jesus as you never have before.

I know I speak for Monsignor John when I say it is the joy of our lives, as priests of Jesus Christ, to be Him for you.  To be an “alter Christus,” another Christ to you.  To be chosen by Him to love you as He loves you.  To be able to say those words:  “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  “I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my Body which will be given up for you.”

The priest is given the privileged and undeserved blessing of being put in the ecstatic position of being the point of contact of the love between Jesus and you!

You know how we all say, right before receiving the Eucharist, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.”  Trust me when I say, that what’s going through my mind at that moment is, “Lord, I am not worthy to give you.”

But Jesus does it anyway.  He allows Himself to be given and received by us, unworthy as we are.  And He does this for one reason and one reason only: He loves us.

He loves His own in the world and He loves them to the end.

See How You Are Loved

Homily from Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) - Year A

Today, on Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week.  It was Holy Week that ultimately led me to decide to enter the seminary.

A handful of years ago, I simply decided I wanted Jesus more a part of my life.  And I decided to get to know Jesus better by attending all of the Holy Week liturgies.  I went to Mass on Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral on Tuesday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, the Good Friday Service, And the greatest liturgical celebration of the whole year in the Church: the epic Great Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

It was during baptisms at the Easter Vigil that I decided to apply for the seminary.

This particular year, I was a parishoner at St. Pius X in Granger.  The pastor there is Monsignor Bill Schooler.  And for the baptisms, Monsignor Bill took off his chasuble, his shoes and his socks and walked into the knee deep water of the baptismal fount.  He called each of the people to be baptized into the water.  And as the elect entered, they got down on their knees so that the water was up to their chest.  Then Monsignor Bill took a pitcher, lowered it into the baptismal waters, filling it to the brim and poured it completely over their heads three times saying, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

As each person rose from the waters, reborn into the Body of Christ, the choir sang the "A word" which we're not allowed to say for a few more days so I'll let you figure that one out for yourselves.  Each baptism was triumphant and beautiful.

Then Monsignor Bill got to the last person to be baptized.  And it was a young boy who had trouble walking.  And it was very clear that this young man would not be able to walk down the steps of the baptismal font on his own, with the water swirling and so forth, without difficulty.

So, seeing this, Monsignor Bill reached over, picked the boy up in his arms, and lowered him three times into the water saying, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

The boy let out a joyful "Whoooaaahhhh!" as he was swept through the waters.  The choir started singing, trumpets were blaring, people were crying everywhere.

And I said to myself, "That's it.  That's what I want to do."  That's what a priest does.  That's what Jesus does.  Jesus takes His creation into His arms, claims us for Himself, and gives us new life.

Now, I know I don’t have to tell you that Holy Week can be useful for discovering God’s will for all of our lives, not just those discerning priesthood or religious life.  By entering into the Passion of Christ, we discover who Jesus really is.

We just heard in the Gospel that it was when the centurion saw the death of Jesus and the immediate effects of that death (the veil of the sanctuary torn from top to bottom, earthquakes, tombs opening up, the dead rising from the grave) then, the centurion saw who this was and said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

And when we discover who Jesus really is, we discover who we are. 

This Holy Week, we see the depths of Jesus’ love for us. 

On Holy Thursday, we see Jesus the Priest offer Himself to us under the form of bread and wine at the Last Supper and we see Jesus the Servant wash the feet of His Apostles.

On Good Friday, we see Jesus the Lamb of God, offer Himself in sacrifice on the wood of the cross, to take away the sins of the world.

And at the great Easter Vigil on Saturday evening and Easter Sunday morning, we see Jesus the King, rise triumphantly from the grave, victorious over sin and death.

Come… see Jesus each of these days.  See how loved you are by Him.

We are not despicable creatures.  We are loved by God.  And you will know who you truly are when you know you are loved by God.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Take Away the Stone

Homily from the 5th Sunday in Lent - Year A

When I was a little kid, one of the things I hated doing more than anything was cleaning under my bed.   I had tons of toys as a kid, mostly Star Wars stuff.  And I’d sit on the floor and play with the action figures, the vehicles, etc.  Toys would be strewn all over the place. 

I had the big Darth Vader helmet action figure carrying case.  But, when I was done playing, I wouldn’t put everything back in it’s proper place, I’d just shove everything under the bed.  Paper airplanes wouldn’t go in the trash – they’d get shoved under the bed.  Juice boxes, apple cores, half eaten pizza bagels – all under the bed.  I was a slob as a kid.

And, I was really good at making my bed in those days.  I’d get that comforter coming off the side of the bed just perfectly so the edge was resting just perfectly along the floor.  Why? Because mom would be walking by and I didn’t want her to see the mess under my bed.  But mom knew her son well. And every few weeks she’d peek under the bed.

One time I saw her lift up the comforter and her head snapped back like she had just walked into a brick wall.  "Get this cleaned up right now!” she’d bellow.  Then I’d retort with the time-honored protest of every 7 year old in the history of western civilization: “But mooooooom!!!”

Because I knew what torture it would be. To have to dig everything out. It acted like it was an impossible task.  I hated it so much, I would hem and haw and shuffle my feet and it would take me hours (it seemed) to clean up a mess that had only taken moments to create.

In the gospel today, Jesus stands in front of Lazarus’ tomb and says, “Take away the stone.”  And Martha retorts with her version of “But mooooooom!!!”  Martha says, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”

In those days, Jews believed that the soul of a dead person would hover around the body for three days.  But on the fourth day, the soul would take off, bodily deomposition would set in, and there was no hope of resuscitation of the dead person.

Martha, sees no hope for her brother Lazarus.  And when she hears Jesus say, “Take away the stone” she says, “No way, I don’t wan’t to go there.”  She’s like me at 7. “Please mom don’t make me clean out from under my bed. Don’t make me go under there.”

What is under your bed?  What have you shoved under there, year after year after year?  What have you concealed with the perfectly laid comforter that sits neatly against the floor so no one can see?  What dead things do we have hidden inside our tombs?

Jesus is saying something to us today.  He says to you and I, “Take away the stone.”  And perhaps our reaction is, “No Lord please. Don’t make me go there. By now there will be a stench. It’s been way too long. There’s no hope for me. It’s been four days. My spirit is gone.”

Jesus says something else to us.  The same thing he said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”

Jesus isn’t just talking about life after death.  He’s talking about new life right now. Today.

Take away the stone and let Jesus shout to you: “Come out!”  Don’t say, “No Lord, there will be a stench.”  Let him say “Come out” to you in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

When Lazarus came out of the tomb, he was bound with burial bands and his face wrapped in cloth. and Jesus said, “Untie him and let him go.”

Jesus gives the same command to every priest who hears your confession: “Untie him. Untie her from her sin… and let her go.”

You are not a hopeless situation, whether its been four days, four years or forty years.

Take away the stone.