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Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Careful Are We? (Feast of Corpus Christi, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

I want to take a moment to wish all of the dads present today a very happy Father’s day! Selfless Fatherhood is becoming increasingly rare in our world today but for all of you who have loved, guided, protected, and provided for your families as dads, thank you and God bless you!

Humans have a natural appreciation for things we believe are valuable or precious. When we encounter someone or something of great value, we are cautious, careful, taking whatever precautions are necessary. Consider a few examples: before a doctor goes in for surgery, what does he do? He changes out of his street clothes into clean scrubs, his arms and hands are thoroughly washed, special covers go over his shoes, and a mask goes over his face. The instruments to be used are sterilized, gloves are put on, and only then is the procedure begun.

Or what about the case of a newborn baby? Have you noticed how carefully people prepare to hold the newest bundle of joy? How they make sure their hands are clean and that they are not sick? How they cradle the child securely against their body and support the weight of the baby’s head? 

And how about a fine painting in a museum or private collection? No one in their right mind would walk up to a priceless masterpiece and drag their hands across it, or poke their finger through the canvas. And when you take your nice new car in to a good shop for maintenance or repairs, if the mechanic is considerate, he might put those protective mats on the floor to prevent the oil on his shoes from staining the inside of the car. 
I could give more examples but you get the point; when we are around precious and delicate things, we are careful, thoughtful, and deliberate. We pay attention to every detail of what what we are doing and how we will proceed out of respect for the beauty or value of what what we are encountering. Keep this principle in mind as we reflect on today’s beautiful feast of Corpus Christi, which is Latin for the “Body of Christ”. The Church gives us this feast as an opportunity to remember what a gift we have in the Eucharist. 

In the Eucharist, we are given the greatest privilege and honor we could imagine. Every time we come to Mass and receive Holy Communion, God says to us: “here is my precious Child, my only begotten Son, I am going to let you hold him, touch him, receive him so that you can become my child too and have the strength to follow me and love your neighbor.” In the Eucharist, God becomes vulnerable for us. How do we respond? Do we have the same care and concern for the Body and Blood of Christ as we do for a newborn infant? Can people see in us that same tenderness, awe, and attention to detail? Is it fair to say that we are at least as careful, diligent, respectful, and awestruck to the Body and Blood of Christ as we might be to an artistic masterpiece, celebrity, or exotic sports car? 
Fortunately for us, the Catholic Church gives us many traditions and procedures to help us maintain our piety and love for Jesus in Eucharist. For example, that is why we are asked to fast from all food or drink, except water or medicine, one hour before we take holy Communion. Our respect for the Eucharist is why we genuflect towards the tabernacle when we come into church. The same is true when we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus; we should bow as the person before us is receiving: when it is our turn we raise our hands before us, one on top of the other as a throne for the King of Kings. We should also feel comfortable receiving the Eucharist on our tongue, as this is still the normative way to receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. If we choose to receive the Precious Blood, the same reverence applies as we take a small sip of the Blood that was shed for us on Calvary. If we are aware of some serious sin that we have committed since our last confession, we should not receive the Eucharist until we have gone to confession. We should also pay attention to other details, like taking some time to prepare to receive the Lord, perhaps as we are driving or walking here to church, or even getting here a few minutes early so that we can set aside any distractions or worries that we brought with us. Finally, we should make sure that we never do things that appear disrespectful or careless when it comes to the Body and Blood of Jesus. We should never be chewing gum in church, playing on our phone, or taking Holy Communion without consuming it immediately.

Speaking again to our dads here in church, I believe the Eucharist, which we highlight today, is the perfect inspiration for all fathers. At every Mass, our spiritual father, the priest, repeats the words of Jesus at the last supper: “this is my body, given up for you”, “this is the chalice of my blood, poured out for you”. When I think of the fathers, both spiritual and natural who have impressed and inspired me, they have all imitated Jesus’ example of giving up and pouring out for the good of others. They did not focus on getting what they wanted or being the center of attention. Instead, they made and make tremendous sacrifices so that the ones they love and care for have what they need to be safe and flourish. What Jesus does in the Eucharist, every father is called to emulate. It’s certainly not easy but imagine the blessings that will come to our church and world as more and more men live out their fatherhood inspired by the Eucharist! 

In just a few minutes, we will be entrusted with God’s Son in the Eucharist. Let us be careful, let us be filled with awe, let our piety radiate as we receive this precious gift. May the Body and Blood of Jesus transform our lives and help us to grow even more in love with him!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Unity in Diversity ( 6/4/17, Pentecost, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

One of my favorite parts of having lots of siblings is getting to see how each of them has their own unique personality and talents. Even though we might be part of the same family, with the same parents and upbringing, all of us are very different. From an early age, you could see hints as to the type of person my siblings would grow up to be. Some are caregivers and peacemakers, others are gregarious and outgoing, a few are reflective and quiet, and several are fighters, ready to stick up for anyone they feel has been wronged. I see the same diverse patterns as an uncle and I love it! Some of my nieces and nephews are orderly and disciplined. Others are the life of the party and have to be disciplined. Some are open hearts, where tears and laughs come easily while others are stoic and leave you guessing at what they might be thinking. Many of them are laid back and happy to go with the flow while a few are the leaders of the pack, deciding which game will be played and who-sits-where at the kids’ table.  

This is not a unique human experience. Certainly all of you know what I am talking about as you think of similar instances with your friends and families. Even though different personalities might sometimes drive us crazy at home, in social circles or at work, it is that very diversity that makes life exciting, enriching, and enjoyable. It is one of the things I love most about my family. Imagine a home, a world, a church where everyone was exactly the same?! It would be terrible on so many levels! The most dynamic marriages, friendships, families, and parishes tend to be composed of very different personalities united by a shared goal or outlook. That is the bond which unifies two or more people who might seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

As a spiritual family here at St. Michael, we have that same wonderful mix of personalities, gifts, and talents. Some of you are naturally more outgoing, funny, emotive, or leadership-minded. Others tend to be serious, rational, level-headed, or easy going. Some of you are great planners, have the gift of hospitality, or can see the big picture. Others are detail-oriented, prefer to do things behind the scenes, or are not afraid to speak your mind. However, without something incredible in common, without something significant to unite us, we would be a disaster. Our different personalities and backgrounds would end up being a source of conflict rather than something we celebrate and enjoy. Of course, what brings and keeps us together is not just the fact that we live in Shrewsbury or grew up in the area or happen to love St. Michael parish. What really unites us and makes this little parish dynamic is Jesus Christ and his gift of the Holy Spirit, who blesses our individual gifts and personalities and transforms them into something purposeful. 

As we say goodbye to another Easter Season and prepare to enter ordinary time for the next 5 or so months, it is good for us to reflect on the birthday of the Church, the feast of Pentecost. For more than a billion people around the world, the Catholic Church is the bond that unites people of every race and nation. Today is the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the Apostles, empowering them to go out and gather people together in Christ. After they received the Holy Spirit, the apostles came to life. They begin to fire on all cylinders, their personalities and gifts were on display for the whole world to see. From this point on, they each go their separate ways with their unique talents but united by that one crucial message: “Jesus is risen; death and sin are defeated. Everyone deserves to hear this Good News so they can be saved.”

Each of the apostles would live out their faith in a slightly different way. Some would teach, others would heal and work miracles, while a few would write letters and gospels that we still reflect on today. All of them proclaimed the Good News in their own style, guided by the Holy Spirit but also true to their own personality and life experience. They didn’t become different people after Pentecost, they became transformed people. Their families and friends would have recognized them but would have noticed something new, deeper, more alive. 

The same is true here at St. Michael. God wants to bless the individual characteristics that make you who you are. He wants to transform them into the strengths that will enable you to proclaim the gospel in ways that no one else can or has before! He will do this through the gift of His Holy Spirit, first given in baptism and then more fully when we are confirmed. For our part we have two simple things to do. 

1)The first task is to invite the Holy Spirit to make his home in our heart. Even though he is God, the Holy Spirit is gentle and respectful when when it comes to us. He wants to be our welcomed guest and his gifts only work when they are received into a life that is docile and inviting. He won’t force his way into our hearts. So, please, say that simple, ancient prayer often, “come Holy Spirit.” That is all He needs, nothing fancy, just a heartfelt invitation to make his home in your soul. If you ask, he will answer, guaranteed!

2) The second responsibility we have is to develop the personality and gifts we were born with. Becoming a saint does not mean getting rid of these things; it just means we let God use them. If you have a sense of humor, if you are organized, if you love to lead, or study or take care of people or listen, or whatever your talent and disposition is, use it, refine it, and know that, more than likely it will be the way you live out your faith. There is no one way to be holy or serve God and others. In fact each of us will do it in a slightly different manner. That is why it is so important to discover and develop who we are humanly and spiritually.

If the twelve apostles were able to go out, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and change the world as we know it, imagine what the community of St. Michael could do?! As long as we remain friends of God, homes of the Holy Spirit, there is no limit to how He can use us to renew the face of the earth!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jesus' Last Words (Ascension, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

This year, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension speaks to me in a very personal way. Today Jesus is leaving the people he loves, the ones he has cared for, and spent every day with. He is leaving for something even greater, the next stage, a new chapter. Today, Jesus rejoins his Father in heaven and paves the way for the Holy Spirit to come down and abide with his believers forever. Something similar happens for the priest as he prepares for a new assignment, saying goodbye to people he has been with for years. One significant difference: I do not anticipate being taken up into the clouds as I make my way to Incarnate Word Parish! 

As Jesus ascends into heaven, he gives us a parting gift: He gives us his final words.

We normally take very seriously the last words our loved ones uttered to us; 
     - we turn those words over in our minds, 
     - we consider them carefully
     - we store them up in our hearts and ponder them - much as Mary stored up the words of the angel, the shepherds, and the magi in her heart after her encounters with them. 

If the last words of a loved one to us are uttered in the form of a command or wish, if they are uttered with any seriousness - in the knowledge that soon time and space will separate us, if they ask us to do something, we are inclined to do everything in our power to both remember those words and to do that which was asked of us.

Last words are indeed important words. Knowing that - today I want to reflect with you on the last words of Jesus while he was here on earth.

If you ask most people  what the last words of Jesus were, chances are they might tell you that his last words were: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" -- or perhaps - "Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit". When most people think of the last words that Jesus spoke here on earth we tend to think of those words that he spoke upon the cross - those words he spoke just before his death - and not of the words that he spoke to his disciples, and to all of the Church, after his resurrection, on the day he ascended into heaven.

The last words that Jesus uttered while still on earth, while still walking about in his resurrected body, were just read to us in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. As he prepared to join his Father in heaven, Jesus tell the Apostles and us: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But what does it mean to be his witnesses? The answer to that question can be found in today’s gospel from Matthew. Christ says quite simply, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” During this indefinite time between his ascension and his return in glory, Jesus wants the apostles to make the church grow, to spread the Good News of his victory over death, and to witness to his resurrection. He promised great signs and divine protection to those who follow his command. 

But Christ’s command to the apostles didn’t stop there; as a matter of fact, his mandate to “Go and make disciples of all nations” extends to you and me as well. Even though Christ has ascended into heaven, even though we are waiting for his return at any moment of every day, we are expected to evangelize and give witness to all we have received through the gift of our faith. All of us have received the gift of the Holy Spirit by virtue of our Baptism and those of us who have been confirmed have also received the graces of Pentecost within our souls. 

The Ascension reminds us that it is time to spread the gospel, whether we are a priest or parent, a teacher or laborer, professional or full-time student. This is our task in this time of waiting for Christ’s second coming; we are not just supposed to sit around idly, hoping that we are ready when Jesus returns. 

I point out this command to spread the Good News because far too often people think it is something reserved for deacons, priests, bishops, and these who have consecrated their lives completely to Christ. And while it is my full-time job to spread the gospel, it is yours as well. I believe that one of the reasons that people still do not know Christ, the reason that so many people do not live the gospel is because ordinary Christians do not realize the power of their witness and their ability to spread the saving message of Our Lord. In a special way, in a way that I cannot be, you are the apostles to the corporate world, the educational world, the retail world, the entertainment world, and so on. This is the beauty of the Christian vocation; all of you, through your everyday work, have the privilege and opportunity to be made holy and to bring others to Christ. The Ascension of our Lord compels and commands us to use this time, before he returns, as an opportunity to bring others to the Lord. It is not enough simply to take care of ourselves.

As we celebrate the Ascension , let us pay close attention to these last words of Christ. First, let us thank God for the gift of our faith, which was given to us by those following the Lord’s command to share the Good News. Second, let us resolve to spread our own faith to those we encounter in our lives by the joyful and peaceful ways we carry ourselves. Finally, let us recommit ourselves to the practice of personal prayer, that our witness to the gospel will not be mere words or empty showmanship but a genuine and passionate display of the life of the Holy Spirit. In this way, we will honor Christ by making disciples of all nations.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Actions Speak Louder Than Words (6th Sunday, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

The spoken word is an amazing thing. We hear in the beginning of John's gospel, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This Eternal Word is actually a person, Our Lord, the second person of the Holy Trinity. God's Word is so incredibly powerful and life-giving, that in the beginning of time, all it took was his words to create the universe, the earth, and all living creatures, including the most magnificent of all, the human person. But God's word is not the only word that has power. Even as humans, what we say can have an incredible effect. A word of forgiveness can transform a person’s life. A word of hope can bring new meaning to someone's existence. A word of love gives purpose to one's living; it makes life worthwhile. Inspiring words can even motivate someone to lay down their life for a cause or another person. Our words and God's are very, very powerful!

But more often than not, words only go so far. If we are not careful, honest, or sincere, no matter how beautiful or eloquent our words may be, they fall flat if not reinforced by our actions. There is nothing worse than someone who misuses their words for lies or empty flattery. In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us what it means to love God. Jesus does not say, “if you love me, say nice things to me or recite lots of prayers.” Instead, he says simply, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” This seems very simple on the surface, but anyone who has ever been in a meaningful relationship knows how difficult it can be to move from words to actions in loving another person. Talk is cheap but actions speak louder than words. Our friendship with God is not much different than our friendship with other people. What helps us to be a good friend to those around us will also apply in our friendship with God.

If loving God is tied directly to keeping his commandments, what are the commandments we need to keep? In the Mosaic law, there were many commandments; in fact there were 613 that every observant Jew was expected to know and observe. Jesus simplifies all of the Commandments into two basic laws. In order to prove our love for God we should love him above all things, with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole strength, with everything that we are. Secondly, we should love our neighbor as ourselves. All of the “rules of our Church are directed towards keeping these two commands. If we observe these two Commandments, we not only honor God but we prove that we love him. The flip side is that if we do not keep the Commandments we essentially tell God that we do not love him.

Now many people might try to argue with this point. Some will say, “how can God expect me to be perfect?” “I have every intention of loving God and being a good Christian, isn't that good enough?” Today's Gospel answers that objection with a resounding no! Most of us have probably heard of the saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that hell is full of people with good desires and wishes. Heaven is full of people who acted on those good intentions and made them a reality. It is not enough for us simply to want to love God or to be a good person. We actually have to carry out that desire by our actions.

So what does this look like in everyday practical terms? It means something like this: when I come to mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation, I'm telling God, I love you. When I obey and respect my parents and my teachers and those who have legitimate authority over me, I am showing God that I love him. And when I follow the church's teaching on marriage and family planning, God knows then that I love him. But when I lie, or gossip, or disobey or pick and choose which commandments I will respect and which ones I will ignore, when I do these things, I am telling God in no uncertain language, I do not love you. That's why sin is so serious, that's why we want to avoid committing a sin no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. Every single sin is an attack on God and on love.

The good news is even when we tell God by our actions that we don’t love him, he still loves us. In fact, God can never stop loving us, no matter what we do to him. He is infinitely patient and merciful and ready to love us when we will accept it. That's why the Church encourages us to go to confession on a regular basis. The sacrament of reconciliation is an opportunity to tell God we are sorry for our actions that are unloving and it is an opportunity to grow in love once again.

I want to encourage you this week to take some time and examine your actions. Is your behavior something that shows God you love him? Or does it show that you love someone or something more than God? Can people look at your example, the way you treat other people and know, this is a Christian, this is a person who keeps God’s commandments? More than likely, we all have some work to do. There are probably some things from our past that need God’s healing and mercy. Maybe there are some bad habits of laziness or wrong priorities that need to be straightened out. Whatever the case, don’t put it off, don’t leave it until the next day. God deserves your love; he deserves your best effort in keeping the two great commandments. Let us show the Lord that our love for him is much more than mere words, reinforcing it by our actions each and every day.

Monday, May 15, 2017

It Would've Been Enough! (5th Sunday of Easter, Year A)

To listen to this homily, click here.

Not only is today [this weekend] the 5th Sunday of Easter, but it is also Mother’s Day. So, before I begin the homily, I’d like to wish all moms here today a very happy Mother’s Day. Thanks to you who have brought forth and nurtured new life with generous hearts, for which we are eternally grateful. Thank you for your patience, guidance, and sacrifice in fulfilling your calling as moms. So much of what you do is quiet and unnoticed by anyone except God. I hope you all enjoy a wonderful and well-deserved Mother’s Day.    
On this day where we take time to give thanks for our moms, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the role of gratitude throughout our lives. As Christians, as humans, we have been saved by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. An innocent man, the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, laid down his life to rescue each and every one of us from the clutches of sin and death. This gift we received was completely undeserved and yet Jesus gave it anyway. What is our response? Gratitude should be central to our Life in Christ. In some way gratitude is our Life in Christ. You and I have nothing that we have not received: from our parents, from other people, and ultimately, from God. There are only two ways to respond to a gift: 1) with humble gratitude expressed by some form of “thank you” or 2) with an attitude of entitlement, which is manifested by the thinking “I deserve this”.
There is a humorous story about how much we have received and how little gratitude we often show: A grandmother takes her grandson to the beach. The boy goes out in a boat which tips over. The grandmother starts shouting for help. No one comes. Finally she prays, "Please, God, send someone to rescue my grandchild." As if out of nowhere a man appears, dives in the water and brings the boy, gasping, to shore. The grandmother comforts him and starts straightening out the boy's wet clothes, then stops, looks to heaven and says, "He had a hat!" 

We smile because we recognize our own selves. God has given us everything: life, health, family, friends, talents, material blessings, and so much more. What each of us have is certainly more than we deserve. Instead of constant gratitude we easily get upset when one thing goes wrong. Getting stuck in traffic, a negative comment, a bad meal, poor weather, or any other number of setbacks or inconveniences lead us to think negative thoughts about our life or God’s love for us. We've been given everything but easily become sad when one part is taken away. That is, unless we are in the habit of being grateful and counting our blessings rather than disappointments.

By way of contrast there is a Jewish prayer called Dayenu which means, "It would be sufficient” or “it would’ve been enough.” This prayer is part of the Passover celebration and I was reminded of it when I had the privilege of participating in a Christian seder meal just before Easter with our RCIA people. The prayer is a grateful listing of all the blessings God gave to his people throughout the ages. After each blessing is remembered, everyone at the table says, “dayenu”, meaning “it would have been enough”. So the prayer sounds something like this: If God had led us through the Red Sea, but not to Mount Sinai, it would have been enough. If God had given the manna, but not led us to the Promised Land, it would have been enough. If God sent us the prophets of truth and not made us a holy people, it would have been enough. This prayer of thanks goes on to observe 26 solemn blessings but I think you get the idea. 

When we look at our own lives with this same spirit of gratitude, we are both humbled by God’s incredible generosity and blown away by the sheer number of blessings we receive. If I say the “dayenu” prayer in terms of my own experience, it looks something like this: If God had opened heaven for me but not forgiven me over and over again, it would have been enough. If God had given me the Eucharist but not called me to the priesthood, where I become his presence for so many it would have been enough. If God had called me to be a priest but not a pastor, it would had been enough. And on and on would go my blessings. I cannot tell you how many nights I pause before bed and say, “thank you Lord for letting me pastor of this beautiful parish and these wonderful people.” Hopefully this is not the first time you have heard me say this!

I could easily say the same prayer in terms of my mom. If mom had given me life and not raised me, fed me, and taught me countless points of wisdom and virtue, it would have been enough. If mom had taught me those things but not reinforced them by example, it would have been enough. If mom had forgiven me for all the silliness and pettiness of childhood but not remained loving and supportive, it would have been enough. And of course, my list, and hopefully yours too, could go on and on!

For today, remember this: Gratitude builds faith. The more we say thank you to God for our blessings (both the big ones like faith, family, and friends and the little ones like good food, fun moments, and laughing till it hurts) the more our faith will grow. Rather than focus on what we are missing or what didn’t work out, remember what we actually have. Try to say the Dayenu prayer every day, in your own words for the specific blessings you recognize. I promise you, your eyes will be opened to how present Jesus is in your day. You will find yourself saying, “It is enough” or more appropriately, “God is Enough!”     

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Lord is My Shepherd (4th Sunday of Easter, Year A)

I’m not sure how much you know about sheep, but in case you haven’t studied this ovine species recently, I'll fill you in. Sheep are gentle and docile by nature. They tend to have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and they tend to congregate in flocks for safety and protection. Because they hate being alone, sheep are not independent; they need a shepherd to guide them to good, clean water and places of pasture. Sheep have poor vision but exceptional hearing, allowing them to hear and recognize the voice of their shepherd, even when they have drifted far away or are surrounded by the sheep of another flock. Sheep are not very intelligent but they are extremely loyal to their shepherd. Sheep rely heavily on their shepherd for care and protection. For example, if a sheep falls over onto its back, it is unable to get back on its feet and will die unless the shepherd comes and rolls it over.

You are getting a crash course in sheep because the fourth Sunday of Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Church gives us this feast, with these wonderful readings to continue our meditation on Easter as we hear of Christ as a loving shepherd. But if we are going to appreciate the metaphor of sheep and shepherd, used by Christ himself, we first have to know a little something about sheep. Most of us are so far removed from the care of animals like cows, sheep, and pigs that this metaphor loses some of its power.

In the ancient world, sheep were crucial for everyday life. They were a source of wool for clothing, their milk was used for cheese and nourishment. They could be slaughtered for meat, and even used for temple sacrifice. However, most sheep were raised for their wool and would live 8-10 years in the same flock, with the same shepherd.

But sheep were helpless without a shepherd. The shepherd was an essential figure in the ancient world. He would protect the sheep from wild dogs and wolves and he would find them places of pasture for grazing. The shepherd did not drive the sheep; he would actually walk before them and lead them to the place they were going. Shepherds would name each of their sheep; this helped him to know if one of the flock was missing. Finally, each night, if possible, the shepherd would lead his sheep to a sheepfold. This was an enclosure with walls to help protect the sheep at night from predators and thieves. There was only one opening for the animals to enter and exit. At night, the shepherd would lay down across this opening to block any predators from coming in. The shepherd literally laid down his own body to protect the sheep from thieves and wild animals.

This was the relationship that existed in the ancient world between sheep and shepherd. The sheep were lost without the shepherd; they relied on him totally for food, water, and protection. If they became lost, he would find them and bring them back. In short, the sheep put their trust completely in the shepherd. The shepherd, for his part, sacrificed himself for the good of the flock. He put himself in danger to protect them when wild animals approached. He spent long hours each day making sure all his sheep were accounted for. And he would always lead them, making sure that they would find places for food, water, and safety.

With this deeper understanding of the relationship between sheep and shepherd, we can begin to appreciate the notion of Christ as our shepherd and we as his sheep. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, independent, and intelligent; there are times for each of us, when we are confused, helpless, and lost in life. For some of us, our valley of darkness will be unhealthy personal relationships, for others it might be some sort of addiction or dependency. The shadow of death for us, for our spiritual lives might be experienced in the loss of a friend or family member, a personal struggle with greed or lust, or even some personal tragedy like a serious injury or grave illness.

Even though we live in the 21st century, even though we live in the United States with so many good things, we are often like sheep. We are still in need of a shepherd. We need someone who will guide us through the dangers and hazards of our everyday lives. We need a good shepherd, who will walk with us and lead us to fresh pastures. A good shepherd who will protect us from all spiritual dangers and will search us out and find us if we get lost.

Christ is that Good Shepherd. He leads us to the fresh waters of grace, especially in the sacraments. He takes us to green pastures, in a particular way here in the Eucharist. Christ knows each one of us by name. Like a good shepherd, he knows us and calls us ever closer to him. If we fall, and we all do, he lifts us up and puts us back on our feet through the sacrament of reconciliation. Finally, Jesus protects us. By giving us the Church, he makes sure that we have a sheepfold for rest and protection from the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil. Here in the Eucharist he lays down his own life; he sacrifices his very own body, so we might have life and have it more abundantly. In him our souls find contentment and peace.

We, for our part, must be good sheep. We must learn to hear and recognize the voice of our shepherd, Christ the Lord. There are many other voices that try to pull us away from Jesus and the flock of the Catholic Church. We must allow the Lord to lead us through the Church, the sacraments, and prayer. May we be people who follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, as he leads us to the green pastures of our heavenly homeland. May our hearts echo the words of the psalm today: “the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”

Sunday, April 30, 2017

What Are You Expecting (3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A)

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            Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in building things, fixing things, and learning how stuff works. As a result, tools have fascinated me since I was a kid. Between 5th and 8th grade, I would beg my parents to take me to the hardware store at least once a week. When I would enter this splendid shrine dedicated to hand tools, power tools, and other hardware accessories, I would take a deep breath and then slowly proceed down every single aisle, looking at the newest innovations, dreaming of the day when I could afford something as glorious as an air compressor, a nail gun, or a table saw. But it didn’t stop there. Every time my birthday or Christmas rolled around and I was asked what I would like, I just said: “more tools.” I received screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, tape measures, hammers, handsaws, and occasionally, if I behaved and promised to be careful, a coveted power tool.
            I was in the height of this “building” stage, when my twelfth birthday rolled around. After blowing out twelve candles and smiling through “happy birthday,” I was eagerly anticipating the newest addition to my workbench. My parents presented me with a small box, about this size, which was somewhat heavy. I just knew that it had to be some new drill bits and maybe even jigsaw blades. I was so excited; I ripped right through the wrapping paper and that’s when I saw them. My mouth dropped and I just stared at my parents in disbelief. My expression was a strange mixture of confusion, betrayal, and anger. Inside the box was not a tool, or drill bits, or saw blades. Instead there were four books, by J.R.R. Tolkien, which were the classic Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
These were really nice books and it was a thoughtful gift from my parents. But I didn’t like them and I wouldn’t read them for seven years (!!!!) because they weren’t what I was hoping for. Because I had set my expectations on something else, I wasn’t able to see the goodness of their gift! I was blind to what the Lord of the Rings had to offer me because I had made up my mind on what my gift should have looked like.
We see something similar in the gospel today. Two of the disciples are on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. The gospel tells us they were downcast and debating about the life and death of Christ. Jesus approaches them, but they do not recognize him. You can hear the frustration, dejection and confusion in their voices as they speak with this “stranger” on the road to Emmaus. These disciples were hurt and confused. They had such great expectations for Jesus; they had such high hopes for him but then he was crucified and all seemed lost.
During the entire walk of seven miles, the two disciples do not recognize Jesus next to them. Even after he explains the scriptures, they cannot see that this is the Lord. How can this be? Why were they so blind? The disciples are unable to see Jesus walking with them because of their own expectations of how his life should have played out. For them, it didn’t seem possible that the Messiah could redeem the world if he died. Their assumptions made them blind to the wisdom of God. It is not until the breaking of the bread that they recognize Jesus and begin to understand.

Doesn't this happen to us? Throughout our lives, we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, just like the two disciples. There are times when we are downcast, confused, disappointed, angry, hurt, you name it… because we expected one thing from God but got something entirely different. Perhaps it's the death of a loved one, a personal affliction or illness, difficulties at work or home. These hardships challenge the way we think of God; they can make us feel alone and abandoned. Because of our own expectations of God, we can be blind to the fact that he is walking right alongside us in our time of difficulty. We often have our own ideas of how God should act and what the plans for our lives should look like. When those don’t work out, it can cause us great distress, disappointment, and even anger.
 It's important to learn from our gospel today. Even in the darkest moments of our lives we should not despair; we should not give up. Christ is always walking alongside us during these moments but we may not recognize him right away. Like the disciples, we may walk quite a distance down our road of difficulty before we recognize the presence of Christ. And this healing, calming presence of our Lord may be found where we least expect it: in the kind words of a stranger, in the beauty of fine spring day, or the smile of a friend or family member.

            Finally, we can see our time here at Mass each week as our own journey to Emmaus. Here in this first part of the liturgy, we can bring all those things we have on our minds and present them to God. Here we have the Word of God, which is opened up and explained to us as it pertains to Christ. Jesus is working in these readings each and every week to show us how they point to him and his saving message. 
But Jesus doesn’t stop at explaining the scriptures. In a few minutes he will become present in the breaking of the bread here at the altar. It was this breaking of the bread that opened the eyes of the disciples and helped them to recognize the risen Christ in their midst who walked with them during their journey to Emmaus. He does the same thing for us. He wants our eyes to be opened, so we can see him working in each and every situation of our lives. He wants us to let go of our own expectations of God so we can believe and trust completely in his plan of salvation for us. 
My prayer is that we approach this Eucharist with the eyes of faith, a faith which sees Jesus walking alongside us, each and every step of our journey on earth. May we be a people who recognize the presence of Christ here in the breaking of the bread. May we, like the disciples, say to one another as we leave this church: Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”