Monday, September 6, 2010

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Here is a bit of trivia for you… did you know that the letter to Philemon, from where the second reading of today is taken, is the shortest book in the bible? Just 400 words. In fact today is the only time in the 3 year cycle of readings that we get to hear parts of this letter. However this short work is one of the gems we have received from the Church of the first century. The letter concerns a young runaway slave called Onesimus who was the property of Philemon, a personal friend of Paul.
During St Paul’s times slavery was a common practice, and Christians being part of the culture of this time were forced to accept it as a normal way of life. We are not told why this slave ran away, but because of his social status, this young man had no hope to escape his condition, hence we can assume that he had a very good reason for leaving his master. While on the run Onesimus finds his way to Paul, who was imprisoned, probably in Rome. This encounter was instrumental to the young man’s conversion to Christianity, and with time he became an indispensable helper to the apostle.
We are not told how it happened but somehow Paul learned of his young companion’s situation and did what the social norms and the civil law of his times demanded of him. With great sorrow in his hart he felt obliged to return the slave to his master.
In this letter we hear Paul asking Philemon to “out of love” receive his young companion not as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Perhaps, he says, this is the reason why Onesimus was “Away for a while” so that he can return to his master not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. With these words Paul reminds Philemon that regardless of cultural practices, Christians are to love each other as members of a family. That this love goes beyond accepted social roles of master and slave, and that these roles have been gone away by the fact Jesus Christ has purchased every man, woman and child with his own blood.
It is interesting that after we hear such an appeal to Christian love, in the Gospel reading we hear Jesus exclaim “If anyone comes to me without hating his mother and his father, wife, children, brothers and sisters and even his own live they cannot be called my disciples.” How are we to reconcile these two readings? One speaking about love between brothers and another one about the necessity of hating friends, families even our own lives for the sake of the Gospel?
To answer these questions we need to look at who were the recipients of these words. When Paul writes to Philemon he knew his friend was a follower of the gospel already; Philemon knew what it meant to go against friends and family, to abandon possessions and social status for the sake of the kingdom of God. This is why Paul speaks to him in the way he did, and expects Philemon to out of love, do the right thing.
In the Gospel Jesus is speaking to “The crowds”, these were the people that followed him and were “on the fence” trying to decide if they should become his disciples or not. Jesus intension is not to scandalize them, or for that matter us, but to make sure we do not get the wrong idea about what it means to be a disciple. He is “telling it like it is”; becoming a disciple is like a man building a tower or a king planning a war, if we do not know what we are getting into, we can find ourselves in a lot of trouble. Being a disciple sometimes might mean having to go against anything or anyone that tries to prevent us from achieving this goal even to the cost of our own personal loss. The hatred Jesus speaks in the gospel should not be taken in the sense of hating specific persons but in the sense of what a specific person trying to stop us from becoming disciples represents. A friend, a spouse or a parent that is against us following the teachings of Church should be rejected by us, for the sake of our own eternal salvation, being a disciple of Jesus should be our number one priority in life.
In a sense Paul’s letter to Philemon is a reminder to us of this fact. When Onesimus accepted the gospel, he had to come to terms with the fact that he was not a freeman and that his destiny did not belong to himself or Paul but to his master; to be a Christian is to embrace our own personal crosses in humbleness. When Paul decided to send Onesimus back, even when this caused him great sorrow, he did it anyway; to be a Christian is to trust that God at the end of the day will work all things for the sake of the kingdom. When Philemon is reminded that as a brother in Christ, his runaway slave has gained the freedom of the children of God, he had to accept the fact that life as a Christian means to go against the norms of his society and culture for the sake of love.
The letter to Philemon is a gem for us Christians of the 21st century because it reminds us that we have been bought at a great price, and that if we consider ourselves disciples of the Lord we must not allow anything or anyone to stand between us and out eternal destiny even if this means, going against our loved ones, and our friend; it means to accept our daily crosses in humbleness, it means to sometimes sacrifice our personal well being and status for doing what is right, and good, and just.
The letter of Philemon is a gem because it was written for each one of us. Amen.

Assumption of the Blessed Mother

Today we are celebrating the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother. To be more specific, we celebrate the fact that (in the words of Pope Pius XXII) “When the course of her earthly life was finished, Mary the Mother of Jesus, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, to be exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she will be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death”
There are 4 Marian dogmas which the Church has declared Mary the Mother of God, Mary born without sin and sinless life, (What we call the Immaculate Conception), Mary’s perpetual virginity and of course what we are celebrating today, her bodily assumption into heaven to be exalted as queen over all things. These 4 teachings have been declared infallible dogmas which mean that they had been elevated to the same level of fundamental Catholic truths such as the belief that Jesus is God, that he died and rose again and that he is present body, blood soul and divinity in the Eucharist. To put it in simple terms, if we do not profess these beliefs we should not call ourselves Catholic.
Now I know what you might be thinking, nobody likes to be told what they should or should not believe, especially in religious matters. After all we are intelligent beings with freedom and reason, we do not need anyone to tell us what to think right?
Believe or not I honestly think that this it is very healthy attitude. It is very important for our faith to be questioned and even for us to struggle to believe and make sense of these infallible dogmas, because for believers doubt is one of the ways the Holy Spirit uses to prompt us into deepening in the knowledge our faith. The trick is to be humble enough to, at the end of day be able to say “I might not be convinced yet, but I trust in the Church’s divine wisdom more than I trust my own”
So today I will try to give some of the reasons why we should believe these 4 dogmas, but most importantly, what is the meaning of denying their truth.
Why it is so critical for me as catholic to believe that Mary was conceived without sin or that she was assumed body and soul into heaven. To get an answer to this question we must take a look at another infallible dogma of our faith: The incarnation. We believe that Jesus Christ the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Son of God the Father became a human being like you and me.
The Son of God took his human flesh from his mother. Nobody else contributed to this. God took part of Mary’s own flesh and molded a 100% human expression of his son from her flesh, and deposited this expression in her womb, to grow into a cell, zygote, a fetus, a baby, a child and a man. Mary is the true mother of Jesus which is true God and True man; the First Marian dogma. To say that Mary is the mother of God, confirms the dogma of the incarnation because if we say that Mary is not the mother of God or that, somehow she is the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God we say that Jesus us not who he said he is, and that worst, that our understanding of the incarnation is different than what have been revealed to the Church.
The second Marian dogma says that Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception and remained sinless all of her life. Let’s think about this for a moment. The flesh that was touched by the complete divinity of God, which made the incarnation possible, must have been a very special flesh. The book of Genesis tells us that God will make enemies of the serpent and “the woman” that will carry his offspring. The angel Gabriel called Mary 'full of grace'. If mortal sin is the complete absence of God's glory and grace, and the woman of genesis is the enemy of the tempter, it is proper to say that God had planned for Mary to conceive Jesus in a state of complete sinlessness. Which begs the question when did this sinlessness begin? It must have begun when her life began, at the moment of her own conception, since Jesus had not died yet to free creation from the yoke of original sin. Thus we believe that by a special act of grace, Mary was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her life. This is what we call the Immaculate Conception. To think that somehow the flesh that God had selected for the incarnation of His son, was somehow defiled by sin is to say that God appropriated for himself something that was less than was worthy of his majesty and dignity. The Immaculate Conception preserves our understanding of Jesus Divinity and Gods eternal majesty.
The Church also teaches that Mary continued in this state of perfection throughout her life, and that part of this perpetual state of purity was manifested by her decision to remain a virgin her whole life; which is the third of the Marian dogmas. To say that after Jesus was born, Mary rejected her special relationship with God, the fullness of grace the angel speaks about, by sinning is to say that somehow on Mary, the one person who was the closest to Jesus, who carried Him for nine months in her womb; her encounter with Jesus had little or no effect in her life. Mary’s long life without sin by the grace of God, and her perpetual virginity reaffirms the effect the incarnation had in her own life. She remained in this state because of the effect of the incarnation in her.
And now, finally, we arrive to the 4th Marian dogma: the assumption, which in my opinion has always been the easiest to explain. My brothers and sisters I want you to think about this for a second, if we say that we believe in the incarnation of Jesus as true god and true man; what we are saying is that our Lord had the same feelings towards His mother that we all have towards our own mothers, but with the added benefit of been God.
My own mother went to the Lord 5 years ago, there are times in which I wish I could talk to her and times in which I wish I could share the important moments of my life with her. To think that after he went to heaven in his glorified, resurrected body, the highest level of perfection a human being can achieve, our Lord will make Mary wait until the last day to give her, her just reward, especially after she lived a faithful life of service to him and his church, is to think that He is beyond the normal feelings of any human being. Our Lord Jesus has the power to do things we can only wish we could do!
To say that Mary died and that she is not participating in the Glory of her son with her own glorified body, is to say that Jesus somehow does not love his own mother as much as we can love our own. Is to believe that Jesus is a lesser man than us! The assumption confirms that in the mystery of the incarnation Jesus is in fact true man.
My brothers and sisters the 4 Marian dogmas have been defined not out of the desire to exalt Mary at the same level of Jesus, but because they flow and confirm what the Holy Spirit has revealed to the Church about the mystery of the incarnation. To deny any of these is to have a different understanding of who Jesus really is and what it means that he became flesh and dwelled among us.
I hope that my words today will inspire you to learn more about these beautiful mysteries of our faith so we can all love Mary as much as Jesus, true God and true man, loves her. Amen.

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What can we say about God? What I mean is: What does each one of us at a personal level can say about God. And I’m not talking about what we can recite from memory about God: God is the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. I want you to think about this; imagine yourself taking a walk in a mall or a park and God is walking next to you, pretty much like Abraham in today’s first reading. All of the sudden you meet a friend of a relative, and they ask you who is that person next to you. What would you do? What would you say? Think about it for a second… how would you introduce God to a friend?
I bring this up because in today’s gospel we heard the story of disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus, who was always in the presence of His father, takes this opportunity to introduce God, in a very personal and very human way. What I mean is that, he could have used one of the very elaborated descriptions of God’s majesty that are found in the psalms, or on one of the mighty displays of divine power that are found in the bible books like Exodus or Genesis, Instead he introduces God, His father in the same way we, any one of us, would introduce our own father’s to a friend.
Let me show you what I mean: There is kind of a pattern we all follow when we introduce some socially. Usually the first thing we say is the name and our relationship with this person. We might say “Hi this is Nanci, my wife” or “John my friend”. In today’s Gospel Jesus says: This is “Abba, who is in heaven”. Teaching His disciples that God’s preferred name is not Jehovah or Adonai , but the simple and familiar “daddy”.
Now, going back to how we introduce people socially, after communicating name and relation, we might say something that will give an idea of the kind of person we are presenting. Jesus says that “Abba” is so holy that even His name is holy and that his will extends throughout heaven and earth.
As I was reflecting in these first lines of the “Our Father”, it occurred to me that for Trinitarian believers like us, people who believe in a triune God, one God in three persons, this is one of the most significant passages in the scripture, because it reveals to us the deep and personal relationship between the first two persons of this Blessed Trinity. Before this moment in the history of Israel God has been thought of as a powerful, sometimes loving, sometimes scary, but always detached God. It is Jesus who reveals to us the true nature of the God head, like a friend we might meet in the street he tells us “ Hi…This is my dad”.
But that is not all, in today’s Gospel Jesus not only introduces His father to us but reminds us that He is our father to, that we can all share in the special relationship the three persons of the Trinity enjoy. He says: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" The Holy Spirit, the third person of the most blessed trinity is God’s presence among ourselves, always present were ever we go.
My brothers and sisters, when we pray the Our Father, we declare that the God of Jesus is our father to, that we depend on him for “our daily bread” and the forgiveness of our sins. When we ask God to send his Spirit to us we ask for his presence to always accompany us in the same way God the Father and God the Holy Spirit always accompanied Jesus.
Today, I asked you: If God were standing next to you, how would you introduce him to a friend? What would you say? I think that this is one of those questions without a correct answer. Each one of us have to look at our own relationships with God and look at how do we experience God in our lives to really been able to give an answer. My hope is that someday when we are called to do so, each one of us can give the same answer: Who is this God that is always by my side? Let me introduce him to you, He is my dad

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Sometimes it is easy to forget that our Lord Jesus is one of us. Yes, he is the son of God, the second person of the Most Holy Trinity, but he is also a very real human being. Week after week we listen to stories about how he healed the sick or walked over water… so many amazing and powerful stories that make us forget a simple fact; Jesus is as human as anyone of us, and that as a human being, when he lived among us, first and foremost he was a Jew.
Why should this be important to us? Well…Like every Jew of his time, Jesus loved Jerusalem; for Him Jerusalem was the center and the heart of the Jewish nation. It is difficult to understand what this feeling was for a Jew in the times of Jesus. In America (and perhaps the world) there is no place that will inspire the same kind of feelings. Jerusalem was the center of Jewish identity, not only the place in which a devout Jew could go to and worship God but the only place in which they could find forgiveness for their sins. For them the only connection between men and God was at the temple in Jerusalem. So you can imagine how fundamental to the Jewish identity the Holy City was.
But Jesus not only loved Jerusalem, he loved the Jewish nation. And this love is made very clear by the today’s words from the prophet Isaiah “I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent. As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”
In a day like today 4th of July, in which we celebrate the blessings of liberty and prosperity God has spread like a river over our own nation. It is very easy to identify with the same feelings of love that our Lord felt for His land and his countrymen.
This deep love is what drove Jesus to send his 72 disciples to preach the Gospel ahead of Him. But he did not do this blindly, he knew his countrymen very well, he knew some of them were going to reject His message, so he gave very specific instructions to his disciples. Preach the truth of the Gospel where ever you go, humbly embrace those who accept it, avoid those who ignore or contradict you. And know that by preaching the Gospel you are already living in the Kingdom of God.
I think that in a day like today we should take these simple instructions into our own lives. Because my brothers and sisters as disciples of Jesus he is sending us every day to live as “Lambs among wolves”. We Christians, especially Catholics, because of the way we live our lives, more and more are been ridiculed by those who abuse the liberties God has poured over our country. More and more we see efforts to push out of the public discourse, the message of the Gospel. Our views about family, life, God and country do not conform to the distorted ideas of liberty and happiness of small but vocal minority, so they actively seek to silence our voices. Jesus knew very well this is what his disciples should expect whenever they witness to the truth of the gospel.
Living like a lamb among wolves is not easy. It is very easy to get discouraged, or react by isolating ourselves, or by keeping our quiet when the gospel or the Church is attacked, or by not bringing attention to the fact that we are Catholic. But this is not how Jesus lived His life. He knew that the same people he was trying to save, the people he so deeply loved, at the end were going to crucify him. This did not stop him and should not stop us.
The 4th of July is a day to show how much we love our country. There is no better way to show this love by bringing the kingdom of God to our countrymen. This love we all feel for America should not end with the fireworks of tonight. If we truly love our country and we truly love our country man, we should commit every day to bring the truth of the Gospel to them. And not be afraid of the knowledge that many will not listen to us, and some even might persecute us. And if at any moment we get discouraged, remember the words of the savior: There is no greater love that the one who gives his life for the others. May in this 4th of July we find renewed strength and courage, from the Holy Spirit to show our love for our country and our countrymen in the way Jesus showed His own love for His, by giving our lives for the truth of the Gospel

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Imagine the scene 2000 years ago. Jesus the itinerant preacher of Nazareth is visiting our little town. For months we have heard the rumors, stories about miracles, how the crowds follow him, how they hang onto every word he says and how he preaches about God’s love and forgiveness. And tonight, Simon the Pharisee, one of the pillars of our community is throwing a big dinner in his honor! Everyone is here tonight!
Now let’s not forget this is no ordinary dinner. Pharisees are very careful about the people they allow into their homes; after all they have to be very conscientious about keeping their ritual purity, so they avoid contact with sinners, especially if the sinner is a woman. So by having Jesus over, and all the other outstanding men in our community, Simon is showing that there is some common ground between this Jesus and us.
The night has turned out to be wonderful affair. Our host is gracious, the food is exquisite, the guests are engaging and the conversation is invigorating. Simon has opened the doors so that the whole town can witness the event. All the important guest are sited at the table, while the town folk sits on the floor, stands against the walls or, look from the outside, through the windows. The servants have just cleared the table and everyone is getting ready to hear Jesus speak. Perhaps he will talk about the kingdom of God, perhaps he will entertain us with some of his wonderful stories, or perhaps he might even heal someone right in front of our own eyes! Everyone is expecting Jesus to do something truly memorable. When all of the sudden: SCANDAL! The last person we thought to see tonight is standing right next to Jesus! How could a woman enter into this banquet? Not only that, the town sinner! And she is anointing him with perfume! She is actually touching His feet! Everybody knows that the only woman allowed to touch a rabbi is his wife and only on certain times of the month! And now she is taking the tears that are running down her cheek and washing his feet! And drying them with her own hair!!
People are shocked, how can he allow this woman to touch him in such an intimate way? People are looking at Jesus as if he were a fraud, some are leaving, others are screaming. People are confused and angry, but among all this confusion and anger the figure of Jesus stands out like a beacon, to let us know how to deal with scandal in our lives.
Notice his approach: First he keeps a leveled head; he approaches the issue directly but discretely. He talks directly to his host “Simon, I have something to tell you” almost as an aside conversation between two friends. Second, he finds the root of the problem and derives a lesson from it. We see this clearly with the parable he communicated to his host.
Jesus shows Simon one of the great mysteries of the human condition. Those who love much are forgiven the most, but the ones to whom little is forgiven, love little. The more we love the more we are willing to forgive. When we are forgiven we have a chance to open ourselves to great love. Love and forgiveness go hand on hand. And most importantly the only way to deal with scandal is through love and forgiveness
This is a very important lesson my brothers and sisters, especially in times like ours in which our Church is been viciously attacked for the scandal caused by the sins of just a few. If you pick the newspapers or watch the news you would see that those persecuting the Church do not care about discretion or about deriving lessons from this scandal. By listening to then you would think that our church is filled with evil, depraved men that had never loved anyone but themselves and have never forgiven or asked for forgiveness. This attitude is not surprising this is the way the world always deals with its own scandals.
How are we to react to all this? To the irrationality, the persecution, the feeding frenzy attitude, the jokes, the innuendo and the plain lies about our priests, bishops and our Pope? The voice of our savior comes loud and clear in today’s gospel: with love and forgiveness. We have heard the words of the gospel “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you”. This is how we should answer to all this. The power of forgiveness comes from the capacity to love even those that are doing us wrong, and when we forgive them, we open ourselves to God’s own love and forgiveness.
Now I’m not saying that we should give a blind eye to the problems of the Church, but instead of getting depressed, angry or discouraged we should be as level headed as Jesus in today’s gospel and look for the root of our problems and derive the lesson in this scandal. I have thought long and hard about this and this is what I think: The root of our problems is that for far too long we Catholics have given the impression that our church is hotel for saints, but the reality is that the Church is hospital for sinners, and in this hospital we are all patients starting with me and ending with Benedict 16.
What we should do first then? Love and forgiveness; pray for those who persecute the Church, and pray for our leaders in the church. And then, remember that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and that even in Her brokenness, the Church is the one place in which we can all find healing for our wounds, and that there is no scandal that can ever change that. Amen.

Pentecost 2010

“Come Holy Spirit Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!”
My brothers and sisters today we are celebrating the great solemnity of Pentecost. In this day Catholics and others Christians celebrate the day in which God poured His Holy Spirit into the hearts of a band of scared fisherman and peasants, empowering them to boldly witness to the resurrection and by their preaching renew the face of the earth. What we might not realize is that today, there is another group of people celebrating. As a matter of fact they have been celebrating this day since they had their own encounter with the amazing power of God, way before Christians ever did. Of course I’m speaking of the Jewish people, which Fifty days after Passover celebrate the feast “Shavuot”.
I did a little bit of research about this feast and was struck by the connections between this ancient Jewish celebration and Pentecost. Let me share with you what I found. Christians believe that since the first Pentecost, every time the Spirit of God is poured into our hearts we receive the seven (Count them seven) gifts of the Holy Spirit which are wisdom, understanding, good judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and fear of offending God. Christians also believe that we are not supposed to keep these gifts for ourselves but that we are to return them to Him by living the Gospel message in our lives and preaching the good news wherever we go.
What do this has to do with the celebration of Shavout? Well… during this celebration the Jewish people hold a ceremony called “Bikkurim” which means “First Fruits”. This is not a well known ceremony these days (unlike the Passover) but it comes to us from the times of Moses. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read that God gave a new land to the people of Israel. We read that this land has been blessed with seven (count them seven) crops, crops for which this land is very fertile. He also commanded that on the day of Shavout (Fifty days after Passover) the first fruits of these seven crops, of these gifts given by God, were to be collected and offered back to Him in the temple. In the first Pentecost the men that were listening to the apostles and believed in their powerful message were in Jerusalem to offer their first fruits, instead they themselves became the first fruits of the Church.
But the story does not end there, why is Shavaut celebrated on the 50th day after the Jewish Passover and why use this day to give God the First Fruits? Because this day (The 6th day of the Jewish month of Sivan) is the day in which God gave the Torah (The 10 commandments and the law) to Moses in Mount Sinai. This is the day in which God’s own words were given to the Hebrews so that they would become a light for all the nations. This is the day in which God gave words that recreated a group of escaped slaves into the great Nation of Israel.
If you think about it my brothers and sisters, in this day in which these two great traditions celebrate Pentecost, we celebrate the same event; God giving his children a gift that will empower them, and His Children returning to him their first fruits.
Now there is one last comment I would like to make. Some people read today’s first reading and make the mistake of thinking that the gifts the apostles received in that first Pentecost somehow have been lost; I wish these people would have been here this morning or yesterday when 76 of our young people received the sacrament of confirmation. Ok perhaps, we did not get a strong wind, the tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues, but as someone that spend the last 9 months getting them ready for this day, I have to tell you, they would have seen 76 young adults filled with the spirit of God, eager to serve the church as ushers, lectors, Eucharistic, and music ministers. They would have seen the first fruits of a new generation of fully initiated Catholic Christians taking their rightful place in our community. A new generation ready to be recreated and eager to renew the face of the earth.