“For to me life is Christ, and death is gain,” says St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. At first glance, this comment can seem rather morose or psychotic. Does Paul see death as something to which we should be attracted or desiring? On the contrary, to be a follow of Christ, to be a true Christian is to be a person who imitates Christ, follows in Christ’s footsteps. Christ, as only Son of the eternal Father, “Did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross…”(Phil 2, 6) The love, mercy, and deep compassion of God for all of humanity is poured forth through Christ who goes to the point of death to show us how much the Father loves us. Therefore, when Paul says that “Death is gain” what he is referring to is entering into the very death of Christ. And, as St. Ignatius stresses in the Spiritual Exercises, “If are willing to share in Christ’s suffering, then we will also share in Christ’s resurrection.” Death is gain because we are drawn into divine love, the unconditional love God pours forth for humanity. This love is that which gives us dignity, lifts us to the fullness of who we can be, and carries us through our most severe trials singing the heavenly praises of our eternal Father. Thus, to imitate Christ is as today’s Gospel says, to humble ourselves, even to the point of dying, daily, to our self-absorbed and immediate satisfactions, for the grace of exaltation through the cross of our Lord.
Memorial of Saint Monica
Did Monica see the talents of her son, Augustine, even when he was a boy and seemingly squandering his time and waywardly wasting his talents? Like all good mothers, Monica must have wanted what was best for her son and deeply desired that he would eventually learn his lesson and conform his life to the path of virtue. Even deeper, Monica greatly hoped that the alcoholism of her husband, Patricius, would not consume Augustine as well. What sets Monica apart, however, is her almost foolish faithfulness and dedicated prayers that The Lord would penetrate into Augustine’s heart, flood him with love, and use him as a vessel of His love and wisdom. Did she see talents and gifts that only needed purification and guidance? Was Augustine the servant in today’s Gospel from Matthew 25 who was given the five talents and who slowly figured out how to work with them as St. Monica fervently prayed for his conversion?
On the other hand, was Augustine the fool that God chose to shame the wise, which St. Paul speaks of in the first reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians? After all, it was only later when Augustine could write in the most famous lines from The Confessions
“Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient ever new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours…”
What Monica did provide Augustine with is a model of faithfulness and prayerfulness. She became a voice for the Lord to call and even shout at Augustine to break through his deafness and to guide him along the path of holiness. Let us allow the Lord to use us to carry out His missions in this world so to use our gifts and talents to the full. And, through St. Monica’s continuous prayers for us, may we, like St. Augustine be flooded by the grace and goodness of the Lord.
Friday of the Twenty-First Week in Ordinary Time
Foolishness. Both of the readings today focus on foolishness. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reflects on the seeming foolishness of the cross. To all the world, the cross is an instrument of torture, a tool for destruction, and a means to eliminate the dangerous criminals of society. And yet, the most fundamental aspect of Christianity is that the cross is the means to our salvation the way by which humanity is drawn into the wisdom, love, and glory of the divinity. To our human understanding and worldly reasoning, this is a contradiction, a great mistake, absolute foolishness. And yet, as with the Eucharist, all of the other Sacraments, and the basic tenets of our faith, we are called to “look beyond” what we see and grasp physically and be drawn into that which is meta-physical, the transcendent reality, the fullness of the Truth, Jesus Christ Himself. The wisdom of God far surpasses that of humanity’s knowledge.
How do we acquire this Wisdom? Prayer is the key. Book knowledge, degrees, and good test-taking skills will not do it. The wise virgins in today’s gospel had reserve oil for their lamps so as to be attentive to the Lord’s arrival. Prayer is this oil. Prayer makes us attentive to, aware of, and open to the presence of the Lord in our lives. In the midst of the many obligations that fill our days, let us be sure that our lives are directed by divine wisdom, a love that surpasses the foolishness in which we can become ensnared. Let us be drawn to the cross of our salvation. May our words, thoughts, and actions be reflections of this divine wisdom.
“They shall come and see my glory” Isaiah prophesies, “They shall come and see my glory.” This passage is taken from the last chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah and from a section known as the “Third Isaiah” or the Trito Isaiah. The poetic passage is presumed to have been written by the followers of the original prophet and is directed to the people of Isreal returning to their land from the Babylonian Exile which lasted from 598 to 538 BC. The people of Judah were returning to their native land and finding it destroyed and abandoned after they had been in captivity for the past sixty years. In the midst of this sadness, despair, and seemingly insurmountable challenges, the prophetic message from the Lord is that “They shall come and see my glory.” More than that, the Lord will call forth people to be signs of God’s fidelity and commitment to be with his people always. These people who are signs of God’s love will inspire hope into this lost and sorrowful people of Judah. God does not promise that he will take away the people’s many challenges, but he does promise that he will be with them through the challenges and rebuilding years, guiding them along the path of purity and holiness once again.
The Letter to the Hebrews, the second reading, points out the hard reality that the Lord disciplines those whom He loves. To be a child of God is not the easy life or the problem free philosophy, but the life of discipline, perseverance, and fidelity amidst the challenges, sorrows, and persecution. Ultimately, as Jesus emphasizes in our Gospel today, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate”. This narrow gate is the life of discipline, is the life of perseverance and fidelity even against the times of hardship; is the life of an unconditional surrender to the will of the Lord so as to live the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ. All of us face many challenges in our lives. The question that we must remind ourselves is how will we respond to these challenges and tribulations of life? Will we succumb to the many distractions and the overwhelming sense of fear, or, will we strive for the narrow gate of discipline which forms and fashions us into disciples? What Christ says to motivate us is that the end of all of the challenges and discipline is a peaceful place in the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven. At this feast we shall look upon the face of the heavenly Father and praise, reverence, and serve him. “They shall come and see my glory.” There is nothing better.
The Spiritual Exercises, first experienced by St. Ignatius and then shared to all of the Society of Jesus and to the whole Church concludes with an exercise called the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God”. In this exercise, Ignatius outlines the very definition of love itself. First, love manifests itself in deeds more than words, and second, consists of a mutual sharing of goods. The exercise ends with the famous deeply challenging prayer known as the Suscipe; “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.” St. Aloysius is a young man in the sixteenth century who lived this prayer to the full. As part of a wealthy noble family, there was no reason for him to get involved with the least Society of Jesus. And yet, the Lord instilled in him this divine love of an unconditional surrender for the sake of a cause so much bigger than any selfish motivations. And, surrender he did as he spent his life ministering to plague victims in Rome before he became ill and quickly died at age twenty-three. Through the life of the saints we see this divine love manifest in the midst of our humanity. As we pray the Suscipe, may our words, thoughts, and especially actions bring forth this divine love into the world that is in desperate need of this saving love.
St. Francis DeSales wrote the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life, in which he addresses the “Philothea” or lover of God and teaches instructions and exercises needed to lead the soul from its disordered desires to the fulfilment of the fully devout soul to God. In this book he says that “There is no nature so good that it cannot be perverted to evil by vicious habits; there is none so perverse that it cannot, first by God’s grace and secondly by our own labor and care, be brought under control and overcome.” We all hold our biases of the world we live in and with the relationships that we have. We all make judgements that are not completely and carefully thought out. The logs and splinters in our eyes can seem to overwhelm us and over-power us, leading us along the paths of sin and dissipation. However, the more we become aware of these biases and judgmental mentalities, the more we come to see the true nature of God, those with whom we interact, and those of my own family. Then, through the grace of God we can take action that leads to unification, compassion, and holiness.
Do you realize how many books have been written about Jesus Christ in the past 2000 years? We take for granted the Gospels, but there are millions and millions of books about Jesus. Whether these books be speculations about the historical Jesus, contemplations on the divinity of Jesus, devotionals about the sacred heart of Jesus; there are explorations about Jesus and the Church, Jesus before the Church, Jesus and the whole Trinity, the mission of Jesus… the books are countless. Most recently, the best books that came out are N.T. Wright’s Jesus, the Victory of God, Gerard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth, and Cardinal Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth. So much has been said about the life, the times, the history, the effects, the possible descriptions, and the interpretations of the scripture of Jesus who apparently never wrote a word himself, except maybe some words in the sand once, and who died at the age of about thirty-three, around two-thousand years ago. The effects that this Jesus has had on the history of humanity is unfathomable. It is St. John’s Gospel that ends with the line that if all of the accounts of what Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.
Who is this Jesus? Who do the crowds say that I am? Who do you say that Jesus is? Yes, this question is posed to each one of us. There are all of these books and all of these descriptions and all of these speculations, and yet when the question is really posed to us and we really think about it and consider it, we can be left wondering, questioning, and caught speechless.
What our readings propose today is that we do not know this Jesus, and, actually, cannot know this Jesus unless we have confronted suffering in our own lives. As Jesus told his disciples, the cost of following him is nothing short of carrying the Roman torture device known as the cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about and then lived out entirely, “When Christ calls a person, he is calling this person to die…”(The Cost of Discipleship) Through prayer, the participation in the Sacraments, the contemplation of scripture, and ultimately, our perseverance through our suffering, even the small acts of daily suffering, let us be intentional about answering this question, who is this Jesus?
Deep down, as faithful Christians, we all have the same desire that the Apostle Philip expresses in today’s Gospel, which is coming from the last supper discourses in the Gospel of John. We all want to see the Father. We all want to come to know the Father. As Christians, we find it very helpful to have reminders, images, and glimpses of the divine in our human experiential realm. Thus, we have the crucifix in prominent locations in our churches, homes, schools, and communities. We have icons and statues of the saints surrounding us, in stained glass windows, and even in our cars. The Sacraments always include matter and form, of which the matter is something tangible, concrete, that which can be sensed and understood. Jesus, the Christ, is someone we can trust, speak to, and with whom we can develop a relationship because Jesus is human, like us. Jesus is relatable. We have an image of Jesus and in a most real way, can touch Jesus in the Eucharist, the eternal sign of His love for us. However, when it comes to the Father, whom Jesus is always telling us about, we do not have any way to relate to the Father or even to imagine the Father. So, Philip expresses our deepest desire to Jesus. “Show us the Father, Lord!” What does Jesus tell us but,
How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…
It was St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians who helped explain this reality even more as he said, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”(1,15). Thus, we have to believe that when we see the works of Jesus, hear the words that Jesus teaches, and feel the presence of Jesus in our lives, these are all the work, action, and love of the Father in the world. We do know the Father because we believe and are convinced that Jesus is the Christ and that the works of Jesus are the manifestation of the Father’s love in the world today.
We have been reading about the many “acts” of the apostles throughout these weeks of Easter from the book of “The Acts of the Apostles.” Today’s reading is no exception. We hear Paul preaching to the Jewish people of Antioch in their synagogue. What Paul is proclaiming to these Jews is a decent teaching homily most of us would hope to hear on a typical day in our own church about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, we are reading about this homily of St. Paul’s today, in the modern day, that was originally preached thousands of years ago. The very fact that we are still able to quote St. Paul’s homily after so long is a sign that he must have been quite the inspiring and captivating homilist. Most priests today hope that people leaving mass can remember just a word, phrase, or general idea of what the homily was about that day! And yet, more than who is ever doing the preaching, who the preaching is about is more the reason why homilies are so memorable. As Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples in the Gospel, which is a short excerpt from the Gospel of John’s last supper discourses; Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus is the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Jesus is the one who inspires and makes every homily worth while and every word, thought, and action of ours come to fulfillment. And in the end, Jesus is the one who we all must put our faith, hope, and trust into because he has promised us that he has prepared a place for us in the eternal city of heaven. What greater message is there for us to hear? Let us follow in the footsteps of St. Paul and the other apostles in performing the “Acts” that proclaim the goodness and salvation of Jesus Christ, who is the timeless good news of great joy.
Thursday of the Fourth Week of Easter
Now into this Fourth Week of Easter we can begin to notice that the graces, energy, hope, and joy we experienced when coming out of the Easter Vigil or upon witnessing a baptism on Easter morning are diminishing. This Easter season is a long and drawn-out time to reflect and contemplate on the meaning of resurrection. And yet, the gospel for today launches us back to the situation that we had experienced on the evening of Holy Thursday. We are revisiting the intimate yet awkward moment of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Why are we bringing up these memories and perspectives now, in the Fourth Week of Easter?
To reflect upon what the humble act of service, that of washing feet, now, in the light of the resurrection is truly remarkable. Jesus, who, before the passion, death, and resurrection, had been known to be a wise, holy, humble, teacher who cured the sick, raised the dead, and brought comfort to the poor, the sinner, and the lost. Now, after we have come to believe that Jesus, the Christ, has conquered death, we see how this humble foot washer is in-fact the Savior of the World. Jesus, the Christ, has overcome death, sin, and the clutches of evil. This Savior and Lord is the very same one who is washing his disciples’ feet. Reflecting back on this selfless act of unconditional love, Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet establishes his humble, holy, and generous care for all. This intimate, humble, and complete gift of God’s love for us provides for us a glimpse into the divine love. Let us have open and receptive hearts to Jesus, our Messiah and Lord, who has come into the world to cleanse us, set us free, and draw us into himself, which is unification with the Father.