On the Goodness of Created Things—Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Isaiah 35:4–7a; James 2:1–5; Mark 7:31–37

I’m sure you’ve heard people comment negatively on the wealth of the Church and suggest that it really should sell everything off and give the proceeds to the poor. Of course, there will be plenty of time for that in the future. Pope emeritus Benedict predicted that the Church would become smaller and lose much of the grandeur of its glory days. We are, at least in the West, becoming a smaller Church. People are leaving… and it’s not just because of the horrific abuse scandal and the ham-handed way that some bishops have handled it. We’re also losing a sense of the good, the beautiful, and the mysterious—what can also be called the numinous. Part of that is because we are becoming too materialistic in many ways, but in others it’s because we don’t value the material enough. So I want to talk today about why the material matters, pun completely intended. And I want to talk about how the material world reveals the numinous—the mystery at the heart of our faith.

Our first reading is focused on the themes of liberation and healing. God will open the eyes of the blind, clear the ears of the deaf, and enable the mute or dumb to speak. The healing goes beyond human healing, to healing of the earth where those areas once arid will become wet and fruitful. Recall that in Genesis 1, God separates the waters from heavens, concentrates light, and brings forth land, vegetation, and finally animals and humanity, and He declares them all good. He declares Humanity very good. Now if the physical world does not matter, it’s not something that God would proclaim to be good, and not something worth redeeming. But scripture reveals to us both: that it was created and that He intended to redeem it. Our responsorial psalm reinforces this message, but also adds justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and release for prisoners. Note the healing begins with healing of two of the five senses—sight and hearing—two primary ways that we interact with and learn about the world. And He restores the ability to speak, so sound is actually represented twice, as if there were something particularly good about speaking or hearing. As a musician, I agree, and I would add singing to that list as well.

In our gospel reading, Jesus is traveling through the Decapolis—the region of the ten cities. These are ten Greek cities which mostly lie on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River. So the man who is brought to him may not be Judean. Jesus puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches the man’s tongue, and says, “Ephphatha” or “be opened.” If you’ve had a child baptized recently, you probably recall this moment where we sign the child’s ear to hear the Word of God and the child’s lips to proclaim it. This moment is called the Ephphatha for this reason. In our action, we are saying, “Be opened to the Word of God.”

But let’s back up again and look at the passage. There are three elements here to be aware of: the touch of Jesus’ fingers, the spittle he uses—which strikes us modern hearers as a bit icky—and the sound of His voice. All of these are material signs, and we see others in scripture as well. The sign of water during baptism, the use of oil in anointing, the offering of bread and wine at the last supper. So these material signs are part of what makes something sacramental. All sacraments require form, which is the words that affect the sacrament, and matter, which is whatever material substance is used during the sacrament: wine, bread, oil, the act of confessing and repenting, the physical exchange of selves and consent in the Rite of Matrimony.

Just as Jesus uses form and matter—material things—in his healing, He gives us material things as conduits of His grace to us. That is what a sacrament is: a visible sign instituted by Christ to give us invisible grace. And scripture abounds with these sacramental signs. God always reveals Himself to us in the material universe, in the morning sunrise, in the complex beauty of a flower or tree, in the beauty of the human body, which He deemed very good.

But there is an old strain of heresy that creeps into the mainstream from time to time. We refer to its early form as Gnosticism and is sort of a grouping of mystical traditions that shunned the material world and claimed that it was evil. Only the spiritual was good. It showed up again during the third, fourth, and fifth centuries under the name Manichaeism, and one of our greatest saints, St. Augustine, was for a time a follower, until he rejected it for neo-Platonism and finally Christianity. It popped up again during the late middle ages in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with  the Cathars or Albigensians. More recently, we can look at a lot of New Age mysticism that espouses the same sort of dualism. Even our separated Christian brothers and sisters in evangelical circles often seem to have this same notion of the body as simply a shell that we inhabit, a physical prison or “dirt suit” as some call it.

But how does that comport with God’s view that the body is very good? What do we make of the Incarnation, Jesus’ taking of a human body and redeeming fallen humanity by joining in the hypostatic union Divine and human natures? Simply put, an orthodox Christian cannot be a dualist. The body matters. The material world matters. It is what God has given us to communicate Himself to us. And here at this liturgy, He gives Himself daily to us in the forms of bread and wine that He transforms into His body and blood. And all of this is very good.

And all of that brings me back to the good, the beautiful, and the mysterious. We sit in a beautiful cathedral. If you’ve traveled anywhere abroad in Europe or in the Holy Land, you’ll also find churches and shrines of extraordinary beauty. You can’t help but to be touched by the exquisite works of stone and stained glass. And it’s here for everyone—not just the wealthy, not even just for believers. Just a few months ago, two Muslim girls came here to leave flowers and light candles in front of the statue of the Blessed Mother. We open our doors to everyone to come and sit in this splendor, as do churches, cathedrals, and shrines all over the world. Could we sell everything and feed the poor? Perhaps, but for how long? And then who would have these beautiful things? The wealthy? The elite? Where would the rest of us go to enjoy a piece of heaven? Where does the homeless person go to offer prayers to our Savior? This place is as much for the poor as it is for the wealthy. And that goes for all of the works of art and architecture held in trust by the Church. As such, it remains accessible to everyone. To sell it off would simply be to deprive the poor and disenfranchised even more. They need these places as much as we do.

We may one day go back to being home churches—hidden, secret churches. We should never take for granted what we have. And while we have the privilege of gathering here for our Eucharist, let the beauty speak to you something of God’s beauty, which is reflected in all the things He creates and deems very good.

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What is it?—Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

See the source image

1 Kings 18:44; Ephesians 4:30–5:2; John 6:41–51

That’s Hebrew for “What is it?” And that’s what the Hebrews said in last week’s reading from Exodus. You might recall the people of Israel, after grumbling about starving, are given bread in the morning and quail in the evening. They look at the “bread,” which is the evaporated dew that became a flakey bread-like substance, and they ask a very good question: what is this?

When we consider the Eucharist, we perhaps don’t consider this question nearly enough. What is this that we are about to receive? Are we receiving mere bread and wine? Are we simply making a symbolic communal act? Is the Eucharist itself merely a symbol of our unity, or is it something more?

I’m going to propose that every prefigurement of the Eucharist in the Old Testament—that is, every allusion that the Old Testament makes to the Eucharist—represents it as more than mere bread and wine, more than a symbolic communal act, and more than a symbol of unity. And these precursors are pointing from a position of lesser to greater. That hermeneutic or method of interpretation is, in fact, a common pattern in Jewish theology and is used throughout the Talmud. A lesser pattern or analogy proves a greater.

We can start with the offering of bread and wine of Melchizedek, the king of Salem. His name means “king of righteousness.” He offers a thanksgiving sacrifice on behalf of Abram. Note that our priests are ordained, not in the order of the Levites like the Hebrews, but in the Order of Melchizedek which means that their ordination is eternal. It is joined to and is an exercise of Christ’s priesthood.

Next in Exodus is the manna, the bread of Heaven as the Judeans in our Gospel reading call it. The word “manna” comes from the same root as the words man hu. Note that the Judeans are no closer to the truth about what manna is than their forefathers, who at least had the sense to ask, “What is this?” Jesus points out their ignorance, that they do not recognize the true source of this bread from Heaven, which is God the Father.

We can go a step further and talk about the bread offered in the temple in Jerusalem, the bread given as a todah (תודה) or thanksgiving offering. In Exodus 25:30 we see the first reference to it: lechem panim (לחם פנים). We usually see it translated as the “bread of the presence,” which itself seems a clear precursor to the Eucharist, but the actual translation of the Hebrew is the bread of the faces. When this bread is present, God is present.  How could that be? I don’t know. The bread of the thanksgiving offering was not the Eucharist, but somehow there is a presence, there is the face of God.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament, Elijah runs out of gas. He’s defeated all of Jezebel’s prophets of Ba’al, and now she is coming for him. He runs to the point of exhaustion to Mt. Horeb, plops himself down by a broom tree and asks God to take his life from him. Elijah is definitely not himself. Perhaps he needs a Snicker’s bar.

The Lord sends an angel who wakes Elijah and prompts him to eat from a hearth cake and drink from a jug of water. Elijah then gets up and walks forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. That’s some cake—don’t you wish you could just pop into 7-11 and grab a 960-hour Energy Cake?

Again, what is it? This is no ordinary food.

All of these images point forward to something greater than mere bread and wine and greater than an empty symbol. Jesus Himself points to something more when He teaches the words of the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples in Matthew 6:11: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Many scripture scholars have a problem with the translation of daily bread. St. Jerome thought the Greek word—epiousion—meant something that is more than what we need to sustain ourselves for a day or even a lifetime. It is the source of our eternal life.

Here’s the thing. The Old Testament always points to greater truths in future revelation. The New Testament always points back to signs in the Old Testament to attest to their truth. That is why St. Augustine said, “The New Testament is latent in the Old; the Old Testament is patent in the New.”

In our gospel reading today, Jesus has just called Himself “the bread that came down from heaven,” and the Jews murmur against Jesus, saying, “How can he say ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

“Stop murmuring among yourselves,” He responds. He’s not being gentle or cautious. Then He says something next that really blows their minds. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Those are bold words, and we know from the rest of the passage that it was too much for many of His followers to take. In verse 54, He says, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” but the word for eat here is more intense—trogein. It means “to gnaw” or “to chew.” He intensifies His language with each repetition. And the response from His disciples is telling. They couldn’t accept this hard saying, which they took quite literally. And make no mistake about it: Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively or symbolically. He meant what he said. They couldn’t accept his words, which means that they couldn’t accept the Word, Christ Himself. They would not let themselves be nourished by Him so that they could run the race as to finish, as St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians.

We need to be fed. We need to be fed spiritually to sustain ourselves when our faith wanes or when we become weary of witnessing to the truth. We need to be fed—not just on hearth cake and water, which was substantial enough for Elijah. We need to be fed on the Word Himself, Jesus Christ, the living bread. Elijah’s hearth cake enabled him to walk for forty days through a desert. What, then, could we do after being fed on Christ’s Body and Blood if we let it work in us? What do we do now when we come to the supper of the Lamb? Are we filled with Christ, or are we simply engaging in a symbol that doesn’t affect us after we walk out those doors? What is the point of having this living bread if it doesn’t inform and transform our lives, if it isn’t the life within us?

In a few minutes, we are going to come to the supper of the Lamb—not just to eat the Lamb’s supper, but to eat of the Lamb Himself. Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians that we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit; that we need to be cleansed of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and malice; that we must be kind, compassionate, and forgiving—imitators of Christ. We are to be what we have eaten—and not just here and now but out there in the world. We need to be bread to the world, to take the Bread of Life in word and deed to others. To take the Bread of Life in word and deed doesn’t mean, as James says, just to tell the poor to be warm and be fed It means that we are to feed them and to clothe them and to pray for them and sometimes to correct them. The Living Bread gives us life. And we can squander it here, or we can take it out into the world and be Christ’s hands and feet. Which do you plan to do?

Before I close, I do want to address another matter: the matter of corruption in the Church. There have been unsettling facts about people in the Church hierarchy coming to light, and we know from our own local experience that there have been people in the Church who have let us down, have betrayed us, and have harmed us physically and emotionally. We need to pray that all instances of such behavior come to light so it can be rooted out. Make this one of your daily prayers. But I also want to encourage you not to put your faith in individuals in the Church, however inspiring they might be. People will let you down. Our bishops, priests, and deacons will let you down. I will let you down. Do not put your faith in us but in the only one who saves, Christ Our Lord.

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You are a prophet—Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Amos 7:12–15; Eph. 1:3–14; Mark 6:7–13

Did you know that you were anointed priest, prophet, and king? Your baptism and confirmation join you to Christ—who is priest, prophet, and king—which makes you a partaker in those three offices: priesthood, kingship, and prophecy. Now, while you don’t see this phrase “priest, prophet, and king” in scripture, you do see these offices exercised by Jesus. And the Catechism tells us that we share in these offices with Him (CCC 897-913). We’re going to talk a bit today about our role as prophet.

You share Christ’s office as prophet. By prophet, I don’t necessarily mean someone who predicts future events but someone who is configured—that is enabled—to see and speak the Truth. Through your baptism and confirmation and with proper formation in the faith, you are given the ability to see, hear, and speak the truth about the faith and you have the right, with proper formation, to give your opinion about matters of faith so long as you do so with consideration for the common good and dignity of persons—that is, that you consider what is true, what is kind, and what is necessary. That’s from paragraph 907 of the Catechism.

So you are a prophet! That’s the good news. The bad news is that everyone seems to hate prophets. No, seriously. Look throughout scripture, and you won’t find a true prophet of God that is welcomed by the people to whom he is sent. The Book of Amos is a great example, especially for those who are prophets and don’t know it. Just look at our first reading. Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel tells Amos to go somewhere else to prophesy, suggesting that Amos is trying to profit from being a prophet, no pun intended.

But Amos says, hey, this isn’t my job! “I’m a shepherd and tender of sycamores.” A sycamore in the near and middle east is not like the ones we have in the US. They actually produce fruit. Amos tended sheep and farmed produce from sycamores. So Amos was someone who produced food for people, and that’s an important calling. But God called him to something else. He was called from his profession to deliver a message. That is the role of a prophet—to deliver a message and to proclaim the truth. A hired prophet, like one Amaziah considered Amos, just delivers the message of the one who pays him or her. But Amos makes it clear that he is not a professional. He is a lay person called to bring the truth to light.

In that sense, Amos is no less like you or me, lay or clergy. We are all called by our common baptism to be prophets. And that doesn’t mean anything more profound than being willing to speak the truth. In Christ we are chosen, in accord with God’s will, for a purpose. And we are universally called to holiness. Holiness is not just something for those extraordinary few, for saints, for clergy and religious. We are all supposed to strive for holiness, which is befitting for our enablement as priest, prophet, and king. And if we are to pursue holiness, we must pursue the truth, however unpopular it might be. I don’t think I need to tell you how much the world hates the truth right now. What we get mostly is truthiness: someone’s agenda, whether it’s on the left or the right. We cannot get the truth from the world! We can get facts from the world. We can get opinions from the world. But truth is not something worldly. Truth only comes from God.

As usual, the gospel reading presents the model, the way forward for the faithful. Jesus has already called the Twelve, and I can imagine they’re thinking it will be so great! They’ll be the emissaries of the Anointed One! The Prophet predicted by Moses! James and John even hoped that they would sit at His right and left sides. But that is not what it means to be the prophet of the Lord. That is not what it means to be a follower of Christ. Jesus Himself tells us that following Him leads to the cross, to trial, and to suffering. Which means that if we choose this way, it will not be a walk in the park.

So why is it that we so frequently hear something different from Christians? Why do we hear something other than the cross? Some Christian sects teach that being poor or sick or otherwise in adversity is a sign that you lack faith. You’ve probably heard of what is called the prosperity gospel—name it and claim it. This message is a favorite of many well-known televangelists. But there’s a problem with this way of thinking. It’s not what the gospel promises us. The gospel promises us rejection, discomfort, and sometimes outright persecution.

But, of course, it’s more than that. Jesus says in Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” How is it that the burden will be light amidst these trials? How is a yoke easy? [How many of you know what a yoke is? A yoke is a collar that is used to hitch an ox or horse  to a plow. You can also have a yoke for a team of oxen or horses—that is, two oxes or two horses.] But Jesus says that his yoke is easy. That’s because Jesus’ yoke is for two, and he’s the other part of our team. Jesus doesn’t give his yoke to us to bear. Jesus shares his own yoke with us.

And recall, the Apostles have already been with Him through many of His encounters with the sick, the possessed, the dying, or those who have already died. They have heard his Sermon on the Mount. They understand that the adversity they encounter now pales in comparison to the glory of what will be in the kingdom to come. They are not focused on the here and now but what will be. They are not clinging to the moment but focused on the prize.

And they know that Jesus is with them. That God is with them. That’s what Immanuel, one of the titles of Jesus, means: God with us. His name Jesus, or Yeshua, means God’s salvation. His very name is salvation. His name saves.

And He is here to live with us, to slog through the joy and pain in this life with us, to experience life with us. So the burden is light because He walks with us always. He is yoked to us. He pulls the plow along with us, and no doubt, He bears most of that burden.

Amos in our first reading and the Apostles in our gospel reading know that they have nothing without God. God sends Amos, a shepherd and dresser of Sycamores to Israel, with no credentials as a prophet. The Apostles—a motley assortment of fishermen, tax collectors, and political zealots—are sent to preach the good news, to cast out demons, and to cure the sick. They know that none of this comes from their own power, and they know that they are utterly dependent on God. But they also know God’s promise. They may have to undergo adversity and persecution, but they will also encounter the joy of letting God work through them.

And we can experience that same joy by allowing Jesus Christ to shine through us. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the joy we experience is merely the first installment of our inheritance. It is the tip of the iceberg of what God intends for us.

So let’s start here with the Eucharist that we celebrate here today—our offering of thanksgiving. Filled with its grace, let’s take Jesus out into our world, a world that so badly needs His gift of salvation. Jesus will be with us, sharing our burden as we share our joy.

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Spiritual Warfare—Fatima Benediction and Rosary: July 13, 2018

The message in this evening’s gospel reading is rather sobering. Jesus is sending His disciples out to preach the good news, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. He tells them to take nothing with them—no money, no extra clothing, no food. They are expected simply to trust that they will be provided what they need. And then the clincher: “I send you out as sheep among the wolves.” And it’s not just here! The Beatitudes largely tell us how we will be blessed in adversity. We’re told that we must pick up our cross and follow. St. Paul exhorts us in the first chapter of Colossians to complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

If you’re expecting your life as a Christian to be a tame affair, consider those words right from the mouth of our savior. You will be persecuted. You will be hated. There are some preachers who push the notion of prosperity as a sign of God’s favor, but Christ says nothing of the sort. If you seek salvation, climb right up here on this cross with me.

In the Diocese of Boise, we’re getting the message loud and clear. We have scandals in our parishes. We have division within parishes. We have priests suffering from physical injuries and mental and emotional illness. We are beset on all sides. We are in a time of spiritual battle.

And that means that we are doing something right. We are creating a threat to Satan large enough that he has to throw everything he has against us. And he is doing it. So we need to use the weapons we have at our disposal: the Rosary, our other sacramentals like the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and most of all, the sacraments themselves. They are the armor that prepares us for battle.

Brace yourself. We are seeing the beginning of what will be a chastisement but also a great cleansing. And we need to be willing to deal with the scorn of those who don’t understand our faith. We are sheep among wolves, and we need to be as shrewd as serpents. But the Holy Spirit will supply, if we have faith.

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Bound: 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Gen. 3:9–15; 2 Cor. 4:13–5:1; Mark 3:20–35

It’s been a long week, with work and ordinations, so my homily will be brief today—unless, of course, the Holy Spirit takes hold of me. Then we could be here for a long time.

There are two parallels in this weekend’s Old Testament and Gospel readings that I want to touch on. The first is that we fall into sin when we fail to defend the voice of our conscience, when we capitulate to external pressures to compromise our values. Once we’ve fallen, we become bound as it were to that failure. It opens a breach or weakness that we can’t repair without divine intervention.

The second is that our pride can make us unwilling to accept that we have, in fact, done something wrong. Maybe we know it but are ashamed to admit wrong doing. Maybe we don’t recognize our wrong doing as truly wrong. Or maybe we point the finger elsewhere. Whatever the reason for our willful refusal to see ourselves as sinners, it keeps us trapped and bound in our sinfulness. Our pride gets in the way of our repentance. That’s why pride is one of the deadly sins. It causes us to perpetuate our sinful dispositions. Until we surrender in humility to the one who breaks those bonds, we remain bound.

Commentaries that discuss Mark’s gospel note that Jesus is talking about binding Satan so that Satan’s house can be emptied, but understand that every spiritual principle has an inverse principle. Jesus can bind and loot Satan’s house. If we allow ourselves to be weakened through sin, Satan can bind us and loot our household as well. The Gospel lays out the model: bind the strong man, and then plunder at will. In the gospel reading, Jesus has bound the strong man. His ability to expel demons is due to the fact that He has the authority to bind and loose. He even grants this authority to His Apostles, and in some sense that authority devolves down to us. We have the ability to bind and loose in our own lives, unless we compromise our own defenses, and the way we do that is through sin. I’m speaking here, of course, primarily about mortal sin. When we sin, we open ourselves up to be manipulated and bound by Satan.

Our passage from Genesis is a great example. Adam and the Woman are hiding from God because of their shame. Note that I don’t call her Eve yet. She doesn’t become Eve until after the fall, when Adam renames her. But here they are hiding. They have already compromised their position. How did this happen? Let’s start first with who was responsible. Was it the Woman? Did God instruct her or Adam? Of course, God instructed Adam about the trees in the garden, so it was primarily his responsibility to defend against the serpent. And when you read the account, Adam is right there next to the Woman. He could have stepped in at any moment and sent the serpent packing. But he ignored the voice of his conscience, for whatever reason. The effect is immediate. They know that something in them has changed. They haven’t experienced immediate physical death, but something in them, the life of their relationship with God, has died.

When God came to walk in the garden with them as He usually did, He already knew what had happened. But he gave Adam and the Woman a chance to come clean. But what happened? Adam points to and blames the Woman first but then to God Himself, “The woman whom you put here with me….” Adam is not only blaming the Woman; he is blaming God. He is accusing God of being the author of his own sin, yet God has given Him everything good, and Adam knows it. And when Adam is called to account for his failure, he blames God for it.

In our gospel reading, the Pharisees see proof of God’s goodness—deliverance of people from possession. “By the prince of demons he casts out demons.” Jesus warns them that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Even in the face of Jesus’ miracles, the Pharisees in their pride refuse to believe.

St. Augustine wrote, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men angels.” Humans can’t literally become angels, of course. The point is that our pridefulness makes us susceptible to the belief that we can do without God. That was the suggestion to the Woman in the garden. That was the effect of the words of the Pharisees. If we can do without God, what need do we have for forgiveness? That’s how Satan binds us—with the chains of our own pride.

How, then, do we get unstuck? How do we get unbound? We cannot unbind ourselves.

Fortunately for us, sin is its own punishment. Sin has consequences. Sooner or later, we come face to face with our failings. We either develop a sense of humility be being honest with ourselves, or we suffer a humiliation that we can’t ignore. And the Church provides us the means by which we can return to right relationship with God—the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

If you’ve found yourself stuck in a pattern of sinfulness that you can’t break, don’t wait to confess your sins. The remedy is not to fix it first. It’s to submit and ask for the grace of the sacrament to give you strength to change. The Act of Contrition that we say following confession includes these words: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more.” Or in another form: “I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more.” The sacrament gives us the strength through God’s grace to stop sinning, so go to confession as soon as you find yourself in a pattern of sin.

We’re about to approach this altar in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Church teaches that we cannot approach unworthily, so any time we are aware of mortal sin in our lives, we must confess our sins before coming to the Eucharist. So don’t wait. The Sacrifice of Reconciliation is one of the greatest gifts that Christ gave us, and He gave it to restore us to communion with Him. Let His grace change you and make you more like Him.

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Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Mark 16: 15-20

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but apparently Jesus never really existed—or if He did, He’s just a copy of some other pagan god who already existed before Him.

Have you heard this claim? It’s a favorite of contemporary atheists, and you might hear them on occasion during Easter or Christmas on the History Channel, which I prefer to call the Heresy Channel when it comes to anything dealing with the Christian faith. They will often pull out examples from Pagan mythology: Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysius. Or they might compare Jesus with other savior figures like Mithras. They point out all the similarities among their stories, and they make a very compelling case at first blush that all of these parallels imply imitation—that since one thing came after the other, the one that followed is an imitation of the other. It’s only when you peel back the layers and look at each story and it’s dissimilarities that you see that you’re being snowed. We’re being told that Osiris and Dionysius are just like Jesus, except that they were never human beings who actually existed in human history. That’s the big difference between all these Pagan gods and our Lord. None of these mythologies suggest that these gods were human beings, but that is the claim we make for Jesus, and it is a claim that no reputable historian denies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. When someone has an agenda, they are going to bend the facts to their position. The best way to counter their arguments is to assess all the facts with a clear mind and to know your scripture.

Sadly, some scripture scholars and theologians engage in the same sleight of hand. They make a great deal about the “inconsistencies” among the gospels: the fact that Matthew has a donkey and its colt, while Luke only mentions the colt. Or differences in the resurrection accounts and how Mark says that the women ran away while John says that Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and John. And they will take these small inconsistencies to argue for a big claim: that Jesus never really appeared after His death, that these accounts in the gospel are simply theological musings on a “deeper” spiritual awakening that happened in the Apostles after Christ’s death that helped them to recognize Christ in each other—that they saw Jesus embodied in the faith of the community, in the breaking of the bread. It wasn’t really a bodily presence the Apostles encountered in the gospels, in Acts, in the letters of St. Paul. It was a recognition of a common communion in Christ that they all shared by faith. They point out the discrepancies, note that the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all seem to come from the same source, and then conclude that the bodily resurrection and appearance of Christ to His disciples after his burial never happened. And they claim that it all follows the evidence in scripture.

This interpretation has been bandied about in the last 200 years by some Protestant scripture scholars and has even been rather popular among some 20th century Catholic theologians who found the dogmas of the Catholic faith too restrictive for their intellectual freedom.

            The Ascension, the feast that we celebrate today, throws a bit of a wrench in the works of their claims. It underscores that Jesus dwelt on earth for a time after His death and resurrection, that He not only rose from the dead, but that He hung around to make the point about His bodily resurrection before ascending to Heaven. If we celebrate this day in all truth, then we celebrate it because Jesus rose from the dead, appeared in bodily form, and later  ascended. The Ascension makes no sense if there was no bodily resurrection.

It’s important to remember first and foremost that the gospel accounts are not merely stories or wishful thinking about our faith. They are eyewitness accounts. They are primarily historical, even if they are not history texts as we understand them in modern times. They and the New Testament letters record what the early Church witnessed and taught. Any purportedly Catholic theology that dispenses with these facts is false theology and contrary to the faith.

So the Ascension supports two facts:

–        Jesus rose from the dead bodily, albeit in a glorified body that possessed new properties: the ability to pass through locked doors, to appear and vanish at will.

–        After His resurrection, Jesus dwelt among the faithful for 40 days and continued to teach them.

Jesus’ body was not just  resuscitated but transformed. If Jesus had been merely resuscitated, He would’v been in pretty sorry shape as He would’ve still born the marks of His abuse prior to the crucifixion. There’s no suggestion that any of those marks remained, save the wounds from the nails and the spear in His side. But He ate and drank with the faithful, continued to teach them and encourage them, until He finally ascended to Heaven and promised to send the Holy Spirit.

Scriptural support for the Ascension comes primarily from the three gospels in which it’s mentioned, Mark, Luke, and John; from the first chapter of Acts; and from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Of these writings, the earliest is the letter of St. Paul, in which he recounts precisely what he passed on to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive. (1 Cor. 15:3–6).

St. Paul’s account written in the mid to late 50s leaves no question about what the Church taught in its earliest days—within 20 years of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. And in the same passage, St. Paul outlines why this belief is foundational: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” If there was no bodily resurrection, we have no ground for our faith.

Paragraph 659 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the resurrection and Ascension:

Christ’s body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys. But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity. Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand

That is the perpetual teaching of the Catholic Church from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the early Church Fathers, and affirmed by the magisterium in numerous councils.

            We Catholics are a resurrection people, and we have an amazing God—a God who loves us more than we can imagine, a God who feeds us with Himself, a God who died and rose again and promises the same to us. That message is something worth taking to the street and taking to the world.

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Christ’s Divine Mercy—Second Sunday of Easter 2018 (Cycle B)

Acts 4:32–35; 1 John 5:1–6; John 20:19–31

Divine Mercy is the theme this Sunday, and the readings explain how this mercy is manifested in the early Church. As Acts notes, the members of the Church shared what they had with each other, even to the point of selling their property and bringing it to the Church to disperse. Our American culture of individualism occasionally blinds us to the obvious: when people in free association with each other decide to share what they have for the common good, that’s simply good Christian charity on display. That is what motivated charity through the early Church and the middle ages. But in Acts and in general, Christian charity is voluntary. Otherwise, it’s not really charity and not an act of love. And it’s not an Act of charity if we perform it to gain something for ourselves. Later in Acts, a couple of land owners decided to pretend they were giving everything they owned while holding something back. So Acts teaches us that all charity should be voluntary and that we should not attempt to glean favor by giving it. Give your alms in silence, and you will have your reward in Heaven.

I’ve spoken many times on our need to show mercy, particularly in how we address the problems of need we encounter locally. We have an obligation to address such needs locally and not simply rely on government assistance. As John addresses it, “In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep His commandments.” And God commands us to love our neighbor and to care for his needs. So we don’t get to relegate that to the government. If we don’t help the poor ourselves, it’s on us.

The first letter of John approaches the question of mercy from a very different angle than Acts. John’s words fit so well with Christ’s own. They both speak with riddles and paradoxes: we have to become poor to be blessed; we have to die to really live. It sounds absurd, but we don’t really come to know life and the truth until we set our lives aside and live for others—in other words, until we die to ourselves and live for others. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” We show mercy, and in turn, God shows us His mercy.

First John highlights and espouses what one commentary on scripture calls the three inseparable dispositions: to love the children of God, to love God, and to keep his commandments. In these dispositions, we capture what the early Christian community was about. We have to love God by loving His children and obey His commandment to care for one another. In the chapter just before this one, John writes, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” So we must show mercy and care for one another if we truly love God.

Our gospel account relates two events: the first is the appearance of Jesus to 10 of the apostles, and the second is His reappearance to the apostles including Thomas. I want to focus on the first event as it relates to the theme of Divine Mercy. Jesus gives the disciples two missions here. First, He sends them and commissions them to preach the good news. This is the Great Commission. And what are they to preach? That Christ came, died, and rose again for the remission of sin—so that the way to salvation would be open to everyone. At the end of Matthew, Jesus sends them in like fashion, telling them to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Second, though, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Compare this to Matthew 16:18–19, when Jesus says to Simon,

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Now, whenever someone gets a new name in scripture, they also get a new mission. The woman becomes Eve; Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel. With each new name comes a new role. We should expect the same of Peter here. The keys of binding and loosing are the authority to excommunicate or to allow admittance to the Church. Jesus extends this authority to the rest of the Twelve Apostles in Matthew 18:18. But it can’t get any clearer than here in John that Jesus grants the Apostles the power to remit sin: whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained. These passages in scripture are the foundation for the Sacrament of Penance, what we also call the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation. This is one of the great sacraments of healing in our faith.

Christ is sent and becomes incarnate out of God’s great mercy for our redemption, and Christ commissions the Apostles to continue His mission of mercy, and one way that the Church demonstrates that mercy is through the Sacrament of Confession.

Some of us aren’t really wild about receiving this sacrament. Our Protestant brethren often don’t understand the need and question its necessity. Sadly some Catholics say the same thing: “Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest?” That’s like asking why you need to take medicine when you’re ill. It’s so you can be well again. The sacrament was founded by Christ not to cause us shame or to punish us.. but to heal us. And it is a perfect example of how God continues to extend His mercy to us through the Church.

Christ’s abundant mercy is right here in His sacraments: in this Eucharist which we will celebrate in a few minutes, in the words of scripture that we read, and in the Sacrament of Confession. What grieves Him more than anything is that so few people seek His mercy, and so few of us recognize our need for it. But His mercy is right here for the taking.

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