Mass on the Move – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

N.B. There is a video version of this homily below

In today’s Gospel we encounter two discouraged and broken men making their way to Emmaus. The text describes them as “downcast.” That is to say, their eyes are cast on the ground, their heads are hung low. Their Lord and Messiah has been killed, the one they had thought would finally liberate Israel. Some women had claimed that He was alive, but these disciples have discredited those reports and are now leaving Jerusalem. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is sinking low.

They are also moving in the wrong direction, West, away from Jerusalem, away form the resurrection. They have their backs to the Lord, rising in the East.

The men cannot see or understand God’s plan. They cannot “see” that He must be alive, just as they were told. They are quite blind as to the glorious things that happened hours before. In this, they are much like us, who also struggle to see and understand that we have already won the victory. Too easily our eyes are cast downward in depression rather than upward in faith.

How will the Lord give them vision? How will He reorient them, turn them in the right direction? How will He enable them to see His risen glory? How will He encourage them to look up from their downward focus and behold new life?

If you are prepared to “see” it, the Lord will celebrate Holy Mass with them. In the context of a sacred meal we call the Mass, He will open their eyes and they will recognize Him; they will see glory and new life.

Note that the entire gospel, not just the last part, is in the form of a Mass. There is a gathering, a penitential rite, a Liturgy of the Word, intercessory prayers, a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and an ite missa est. In this manner of a whole Mass, they have their eyes opened to Him and to glory. They will fulfill the psalm that says, Taste, and see, the goodness of the Lord (Psalm 34:8).

Let’s examine this Mass, which opens their eyes, and ponder how we also taste and see in every Mass.

Stage One: Gathering Rite – The curtain rises on this Mass with two disciples having gathered together on a journey: Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus (Lk 24:13). We have already discussed above that they are in the midst of a serious struggle and are downcast. We only know one of them by name, Cleopas. Who is the other? If you are prepared to accept it, the other is you. So, they have gathered. This is what we do as the preliminary act of every Mass. We who are pilgrims on a journey come together on our journey.

It so happens for these two disciples that Jesus joins them: And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them (Luke 24:15). The text goes on to tell us that they did not recognize Jesus yet.

The Lord walks with us, too. It is essential to acknowledge by faith that when we gather together at Mass the Lord Jesus is with us. Scripture says, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). For many of us, too, although Jesus is present we do not recognize Him. Yet he is no less among us than He was present to these two disciples who fail to recognize Him.

Liturgically, we acknowledge the presence of the Lord at the beginning of the Mass in two ways. First, as the priest processes down the aisle the congregation sings a hymn of praise. It is not “Fr. Jones” they praise; it is Jesus, whom “Fr. Jones” represents. Once at the chair the celebrant (who is really Christ) says, “The Lord be with you.” In so doing He announces the presence of Christ among us promised by the Scriptures.

The Mass has now begun and our two disciples are gathered; the Lord is with them. So, too, for us at every Mass. The two disciples still struggle to see the Lord, to experience new life, and to realize that the victory has already been won. So, too, do some of us who gather for Mass. The fact that these disciples are gathered is already the beginning of the solution. Mass has begun. Help is on the way!

Stage Two: Penitential Rite – The two disciples seem troubled and the Lord inquires of them the source of their distress: What are you discussing as you walk along? (Lk 24:17). In effect, the Lord invites them to speak with Him about what is troubling them. It may also be a gentle rebuke from the Lord that the two of them are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the site of the resurrection.

Clearly their sorrow and distress are governing their behavior. Even though they have already heard evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (cf 24:22-24), they seem hopeless and have turned away from this good news.

Thus the Lord engages them in a kind of gentle penitential rite, engages them about their negativity.

So, too, for us at Mass. The penitential rite is a moment when the celebrant (who is really Christ) invites us to lay down our burdens and sins before the Lord, who alone can heal us. We, too, often enter the presence of God looking downcast and carrying many burdens and sins. Like these disciples, we may be walking in the wrong direction. In effect, the Lord says to us, “What are thinking about and doing as you walk along? Where are you going with your life?”

The Lord asks them to articulate their struggles. This calling to mind of struggles, for them that day and for us in the penitential rite, is a first step to healing and recovery of sight.

Again, we see in this story about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Mass that is so familiar to us.

Stage Three: Liturgy of the Word – In response to their concerns and struggles, the Lord breaks open the Word of God, the Scriptures: Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).

Not only does the Lord refer to Scripture, He interprets it for them. Hence the Word is not merely read; there is a homily, an explanation and application of the Scripture to the men’s struggles. The homily must have been a good one, too, for the disciples later remark, Were not our hearts burning (within us) while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)

So, too, for us at Mass. Whatever struggles we may have brought, the Lord bids us to listen to His Word as the Scriptures are proclaimed. Then the homilist (who is really Christ) interprets and applies the Word to our life. Although the Lord works through a weak human agent (the priest or deacon), He can write straight with crooked lines. As long as the homilist is orthodox, it is Christ who speaks. Pray for your homilist to be an obedient and useful instrument for Christ at the homily moment.

Notice, too, that although the disciples do not yet fully see, their downcast attitude is gone; their hearts are now on fire. Pray God, that it will be so for us who come to Mass each week and hear from God that the victory is already ours in Christ Jesus. God reminds us, through Scripture passages that repeat every three years, that although the cross is part of our life, the resurrection surely is, too. We are carrying our crosses to an eternal Easter victory. If we are faithful to listening to God’s Word, hope and joy build within our hearts and we come, through being transformed by Christ in the Liturgy, to be men and women of hope and confidence.

Stage Four: Intercessory Prayers After the homily, we usually make prayers and requests of Christ. We do this based on the hope, provided by His Word, that He lives, loves us, and is able. So it is that we also see these two disciples request of Christ, Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over (Luke 24:29).

Is this not what we are doing when we say, in so many words, “Stay with us, Lord, for it is sometimes dark in our lives and the shadows are growing long. Stay with us, Lord, and with those we love, so that we will not be alone in the dark. In our darkest hours, be to us a light, O Lord, a light that never fades away”?

Indeed, it is already getting brighter, for we are already more than halfway through the Mass!

Stage Five: Liturgy of the Eucharist – Christ does stay with them. Then come the lines that no Catholic could miss: And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them (Luke 24:30). Yes, it is the Mass to be sure. All the basic actions of the Eucharist are there: He took, blessed, broke, and gave. They are the same actions that took place at the Last Supper and that we repeat at every Mass. Later, the two disciples refer back to this moment as the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35), a clear biblical reference to the Holy Eucharist.

The words of Mass immediately come to mind: “While they were at supper, He took the bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples, and said, “Take this all of you and eat it. This is my Body, which will be given up for you.”

A fascinating thing then occurs: With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:31).

It is the very act of consecration that opens their eyes. Is this not what Holy Communion is to do for us? Are we not to learn to recognize Christ by the very mysteries we celebrate? Are we not to “taste and see”?

The liturgy and the sacraments are not mere rituals; they are encounters with Jesus Christ. Through our repeated celebration of the holy mysteries, our eyes are increasingly opened, if we are faithful. We learn to see and hear Christ in the liturgy, to experience his ministry to us.

The fact that Jesus vanishes from their sight teaches us that He is no longer seen with the eyes of the flesh, but with the eyes of faith and the eyes of the heart. Although He is gone from our earthly, fleshly, carnal sight, He is now to be seen in the sacrament of the altar and experienced in the Liturgy and in other sacraments. The Mass has reached its pinnacle for these two disciples and for us. They have tasted and now they see.

Consider these two men who began this Gospel quite downcast. Their hearts are on fire and they now see. The Lord has celebrated Mass in order to get them to this point. So, too, for us: the Lord celebrates Mass in order to set our hearts on fire and open our eyes to glory. We need to taste in order to see.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. … Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:4-8).

Yes, blessed are we if we faithfully taste in order to see, every Sunday at Mass.

Stage Six: Ite Missa Est – Not able to contain their joy or hide their experience, the two disciples run seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell their brethren what has happened and how they encountered Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They want to, they must speak of the Christ they have encountered, what He said and what He did.

Note that this liturgy has reoriented them. They are now heading back east, toward the Risen Son.

How about us? At the end of every Mass, the priest or deacon says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” This does not mean, “We’re done, go home and have nice day.” It means, “Go into the world and bring the Christ you have received to others. Tell them what you have seen and heard here, what you have experienced. Share with others the joy and hope that this Liturgy gives.”

Have you ever noticed that part of the word “mission” is in the word “dismissal”? You are being commissioned, sent on a mission to announce Christ to others.

Finally, the Lucan text says of these two disciples, So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them … Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:33,35). How about us? Does our Mass finish that well, that enthusiastically? Can you tell others that you have come to Christ in “the breaking of the bread,” in the Mass?

Jesus has used the Mass to drawn them from gloom to glory, from downcast to delighted, from darkness to light. It was the Mass. Do you “see” it there? It is the Mass. What else could it be?

Here is a video version of this homily

Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.

I. PowerJesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”

Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).

No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.

If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.

Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.

If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.

If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.

Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!

This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.

III. Perfection – [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).

If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.

We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.

One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.

IV. Peace – [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.

For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.

So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?

Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.

Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.

This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.

Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.

It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.

I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.

Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. The aorist tense of the verb (used in the Greek translation) indicates something that has begun and is underway. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.

Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?

Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).

In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.

Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.

This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.

II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.

The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.

The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,

      • We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
      • As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).

In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.

Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.

III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.

Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.

Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.

Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.

Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.

The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.

This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.

Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.

Here are some of the lyrics from the song “Love Lifted Me”:

Souls in danger look above, Jesus completely saves,
He will lift you by His love, out of the angry waves.
He’s the Master of the sea, billows His will obey,
He your Savior wants to be, be saved today.

Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!

Here is a video of a performance of it:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

What Did Jesus Call Us? – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

The Lord says, “My sheep hear my voice.” That’s right, He called us sheep. Get a little indignant with me here! The Lord is comparing us not to majestic eagles, beautiful gazelles, swift horses, mighty lions, or clever doges, but to sheep. While reality may hurt, the truth can liberate. Although sheep are considered somewhat lowly animals, they are valuable as well. Let’s consider today’s Gospel in three stages.

I. THE SIGN OF THE SHEEP What does the Lord mean in using sheep as a sign for us? Here are some qualities of sheep that may help illustrate what He is teaching.

Sheep are WAYWARD – They tend to wander off. A sheep will graze for a while and then look around and seem to wonder, “Where am I?” He doesn’t know how to get back to the fold unless the shepherd goes out and brings him back. Sheep just keep on going and don’t come back. Dogs and cats can find their way home, horses can find the barn, but sheep can’t manage to find their way back without the shepherd seeking them out and guiding them.

Don’t tell me that doesn’t describe us! Like sheep, we have gone astray, each to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). Yes, we easily become lost. We need the sheepfold of the Church; we need Christ the Shepherd, ministering through His Pope, bishops, and priests. Without that we would just wander here and there.

Sheep are WITLESS – Sheep are just not that bright. We train dogs, birds, horses, and even lions, but you don’t hear about trained sheep too frequently!

We human sheep like to think we’re smart. Sure, we’ve been to the moon, and we have all this advanced technology, but too many of us aren’t even bright enough to pray every day, go to Mass on Sundays, and follow God’s basic directions for life.

We’re so witless that we do things that we know will harm us. Even the simplest directions from God we either confuse or stubbornly refuse to follow. We cop an attitude and say, “We know a few things too.” That’s right, we know very few things.

In fact, we’re so dumb that we think we’re smarter than God! We think our way is better than His way. Now that is really dumb!

Sheep are WEAK – Sheep have no way to protect themselves. Mules can kick, cats can scratch, dogs can bite, rabbits can run away, and skunks—well, you know what they can do—but without the care of the shepherd and the help of sheep dogs, sheep are doomed! The wolf comes and all they can do is stand there get devoured.

So it is with us. If it were not for the care of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we’d be cornered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If it were not for the Lord and the power of His grace, we would be toast!

We like to think we’re strong; we have armies, political power, monetary power, and star power that can feed that illusion. Then at the slightest temptation we fall! We need the Lord and His grace and mercy, or we don’t stand a chance. We are weak and prone to sin.

YET …

Sheep are WORTHWHILE – In Jesus’ day, many a man counted his wealth by the number of sheep he owned. Shepherds made many sacrifices to breed, herd, and protect these valuable animals, which provided meat, milk, and wool. So it is with us. At times we may not feel worthy, but apparently we were worth saving because the Lord paid the price of our redemption. He knew the price and paid it all—not with silver and gold but with His own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Sheep WALK together – Sheep flock together and are safer that way. To be a solitary sheep is dangerous; it’s a good way to get eaten.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Scripture also says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10). Sheep are not supposed to go off on their own, and neither are we.

We are called to part of a flock and to be under the care of a shepherd. Most of us realize this in a parish setting, but in the wider sense, each of us is under the care of a bishop and ultimately the care of the Pope, who is the chief shepherd and Vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

The Lord Jesus said that there is to be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). God wants us to be in the protection of the flock with a shepherd watching over us. An old spiritual says, “Walk together, children. Don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.” Too many like to point out that the Pope doesn’t know this or that, but please consider that to wander from the care of the flock and the shepherd is a mighty dangerous thing.

Sheep are WARY – In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:11-14).

Sheep have the remarkable quality of knowing their master’s voice and of instinctively fearing any other.

In this matter, sheep are smarter than most of us, for we do not flee voices contrary to Christ’s. Instead, we draw close to those voices and ask, “Tell me more.” In fact, we spend a lot of time and money to listen to those other voices. We buy televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend large amounts of time watching television, listening to the radio, and perusing the Internet.

Yes, we can so easily be drawn to the enemy’s voice. Not only do we not flee from it, we feast upon it. Instead of rebuking it, we rebuke the voice of God. We put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial.

We must be more wary, like sheep, and respond only to one voice: that of the Lord speaking though His Church. We must flee every other voice.

II. THE SAFETY OF THE SHEEP – Jesus goes on to say, my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.

Note Jesus’ promise that He will not be overpowered, no one can snatch from His hand. The Book of Daniel says, His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that shall not be destroyed, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:14). In no way can the devil have power over Jesus or His flock.

This is all predicated on what’s been said: if we want protection and safety, we have to know only Jesus’ voice and stop running after all sorts of false shepherds and contrary voices. We have to stay with the true Shepherd, Jesus, and within the protection of His flock. If you want safety, stay in the shelter of Jesus’ shepherding.

Let us be clear on this point: no weapon waged against us can ever prosper (Isaiah 54:17). Satan cannot harm us unless we open the door. Satan is like a dog on a leash: he can only harm us if we get too close to him through our own foolish decisions! Satan is a chained dog; do not stray into his range or territory!

Yet so many people do! They savor the darkness of pop culture, visit pornographic Internet sites, consume a steady diet of revengeful “action” movies, and are drawn in by commercials telling them to buy the latest product with its promises of empty fulfillment. A steady stream of polluted water and then we wonder why we are sick and weak, full of the parasites of sin.

Is it any wonder that our thinking is distorted, unbiblical, dark, and foolish? At least sheep know to flee a false shepherd. Too many of us are intrigued by the ranting of false shepherds. We glamorize evil and fill our minds with false teaching and improper priorities.

Thus, while no one can snatch from Jesus’ hand, this is not some magical protection that prevents us from foolishly and sinfully walking away from Him. If we do walk away, woe to us; if we stray, our strength will fail!

Pay attention, fellow sheep: do not stray from the Shepherd. The protection of the Lord is only for those who desire and freely choose such protection. He can protect you, but not if you live a double life or open the door to your heart to Satan. The Lord is not a slave owner; He is a lover who invites us to freely accept His offer of new life rooted in a loving and trusting relationship with Him.

Do you know His voice? Do you know only His voice? Do you run form every voice contrary to His, or do you seek counselors who tell you what your itching ears want to hear? (cf 2 Tim 4:3) If you remain true, you have the protection of the Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing will ever harm you (Luke 10:19)—but if you stray, be not surprised at the presence of wolves.

III. THE SALVATION OF THE SHEEP – The text goes on to say, I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.

For the flock of the Lord there is the gift of “eternal life.” Too many Christians equate this with some distant future that they vaguely hope to attain.

Eternal life does mean the capacity to “live forever and never die,” but it is so much more than that! “Eternal” refers not only to length of life but to its fullness.

In this sense, eternal life is now, as we become ever more aware that If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Of this I am a witness, being far more alive in my fifties than I ever was in my twenties! My body ages, but my soul is younger and more vibrant than ever.

Here is the promise to lay hold of: those who are in the shepherd’s care come, in stages, to experience life more fully, to become more fully alive. Jesus our Shepherd promises us eternal life, but this does not wait until Heaven—it is now. We sheep are brought to salvation, to healing, if we will accept it. If we choose freedom and the Shepherd’s cares, it is ours! If we reject some or all of it, then we live apart from His care and vision and become easy prey for savage wolves.

Are you smarter than a sheep? Do you know how to recognize the Shepherd’s voice and follow only Him, or are you foolishly running after worldly advice and sinful priorities? On this Good Shepherd Sunday, strive to be good sheep.

Yes, He called us that—sheep. Sheep have this going for them: they recognize only their shepherd’s voice and run from any other.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Did Jesus Call Us? – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

Back to the Future – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

This Sunday’s Gospel is remarkable in that although the apostles have seen the resurrected Jesus several times, they seem to be retreating into the past. Jesus must summon them—if you’ll pardon the expression—back to the future.

They were going to return to fishing, but the Lord calls them away and points them to the future, in which they go out to all the nations and summon them to saving faith.

This Gospel shows Jesus summoning the apostles back to their crucial call, one focused not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believers, if this had not gone the right way, our faith might well have been in jeopardy. We are the future that Jesus sought to preserve. Our coming to the faith depended on Jesus successfully summoning Peter and the other apostles back to the future.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in four stages.

I. Regrettable Reversal At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Peter had no business going back to fishing. The Lord had clearly called him away from fishing (e.g., And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him (Mat 4:19)).

In today’s Gospel we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. This is not recreational fishing; the commercial nets are out. It is astonishing that after having encountered Jesus risen from the dead on at least two occasions he’s going back to fishing!

We often think that if only we were to witness a miracle our faith would be strong, but there is little evidence for this. Many who see signs and wonders ponder whether what they have seen can be topped. Their fascination is engaged but not their faith. Ultimately, faith produces miracles; miracles do not produce faith.

Peter’s return to fishing is not only regrettable, it is scandalous, for in so doing it leads others say to him, “We will also go with you.” When we backslide we often bring others with us. Looking at it more positively, when we grow in holiness we also bring others with us. Sadly, Peter has regressed and others follow him. As we shall see, though, the Lord will not abandon His Church.

While we may wonder at St. Peter’s relapse, we should recognize that we too easily do the same. We praise Jesus with the same mouth that sometimes curses and gossips. We claim that we belong to Christ and are one body with Him, that we are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet with that same body comes forth fornication and other sexual impurity. We say that God is love, yet from us too easily comes anger, hatred, and a lack of love for the poor and troubled.

We too easily run back to the things from which we have been called away. The Lord points us forward, but we run backward.

Just as He did with the apostles in this Gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters and call us out of the past and back to the future, one of holiness and perfection. Too easily we run from this. Yes, the Lord is faithful and stands on the shore calling us back. Would that we could say, in the words of an old gospel song, “Goodbye world, I stay no longer with you, goodbye pleasures of sin, I stayed along with you! I’ve made up my mind to go God’s way the rest of my life”! Another gospel song from the 1940s says, “No more, no more! I’ll never turn back no more! I’m going to keep on crossing till I reach the other shore. Rains may come, floods may roar, storms may race, and winds may blow, but I’ll never turn back, no more!”

Would that this were the case! The Lord keeps calling us, calling from the shore, out across the waves of our discontent.

II. Redeeming ReminderWhen it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

The Lord stands on the shore and does again for them what he had done some three years earlier, when He called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them; He does not call them fools or some other epithet. He calls out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Rather than rebuking them, He asks them to assess the situation, to consider whether their course of action has yielded anything; they admit that they’ve caught nothing.

Strangely, this whole incident seems familiar. The Lord tells them that if they cast the net over the other side of the boat, they will find something. Suddenly the nets are full! Oh, how this spoke to their hearts; it was just what happened three years ago! Scripture says,

And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:4ff).

In today’s Gospel, John draws the obvious conclusion: “It is the Lord!” The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them; he only reminds them. In effect, He says, “Come out of the past. Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations and announcing the gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish; it is about humanity!”

What reminders has the Lord put in your life? How has He stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible or maybe a hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps it was a funeral or a wedding.

In moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call and asks you to consider whether your present course is doing anything for you whatsoever; often it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise there is little else to show for it.

The Lord calls us back to the future, a future (and a present) oriented toward Heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).

In the words of a popular hymn, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me. See on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me; Come home, come home! Ye who are weary come home! Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling oh sinner come home!”

Here, then, is a redeeming reminder that Jesus is calling, softly and tenderly: “Come out of the past. Come away from commercial fishing. Look to the future, the future of saving souls!”

III. Reorienting Repast When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Notice three basic elements through which the Lord reorients them. To reorient (re (again) + oriens (East)) literally means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the darkness.

FISH

The fish are hauled in; their number is plentiful. The specific number, 153, has significance more for humanity than for fish. While much has been written on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. Hence, that exactly 153 fish are caught seems to be the Lord’s way of saying that it’s not the fish but all humanity, all the nations. God can use even our backsliding, our sins, to call us away from them. Yes, He can use our sins as a teachable moment.

FIRE

As Peter comes ashore, he sees a fire. Though the text is silent on this, surely it must have unnerved him, for here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire that was in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest, where Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Unnerved by the recognition of what he had done—or rather failed to do—Peter felt unworthy. Yes, this fire reminded him of his denial of the Lord.

Yet even Peter’s repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem that he wonders, “How could I have done this, I, who promised the Lord to be with Him even if all should rage against Him!” In moment of cowardice, he had denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to the fire and looks at Peter much as He had in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter had denied Him for the third time, He turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothers Peter!

FRANKNESS

Now comes a tender and powerful conversation. To us who read the text in English, the conversation focuses on the fact that the Lord asks Peter the same question three times: “Do you love me?” In Greek, there are subtleties that do not come through in the English translation.

In the English translation, the Lord asks Peter simply, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” The Greek text, however, is both more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asks, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων? (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?) Jesus has asked about “agape” love. However, Peter replies, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se. – Lord, you know that I have brotherly love for you.)

The Lord asked for agape love, the highest love, wherein we love God above all things and all people, including ourselves. Peter does not answer with agape love. Rather, he replies that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (philo) way. This is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize that there are debates about the Greek used in this passage, but I am convinced that the use of the two different words is significant. I have written further on this topic here: Agape vs Philo in John 21.)

In spite of Peter’s response of imperfect love, the Lord still has something important for him to do: Feed my lambs.

A second time, the same dialogue sets up. Again, the Lord asks for unconditional, ultimate love (agape), but Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love (philo), a sort of affection. Again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts Peter’s response and tells him, Tend my sheep.

On the third occasion, Jesus asks Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have brotherly affection (phileis) for me? This third question strikes Peter to the heart and causes him to exclaim that he (only) has brotherly love. Yet again, the Lord does not reject him, but rather assigns him a task: Feed my lambs.

This is one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looks with love to a disciple and asks him for the highest love; that disciple honestly answers that he has only imperfect love to offer. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter is being absolutely honest. There is no more posing, no more bragging—only an honest answer, born out of sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer, for honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer and (as we shall see) promises him that his heart will expand so that one day he will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things and all people.

What about you? Are you honest with the Lord? Have you experienced His love in spite of your sin? Do you know that if you are honest with Him, He can use you even in your weakness?

IV. Required Remedy “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk or badger Peter. Rather, it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, to point him back to the future, one filled with evangelical fervor and sacrificial love. Peter is weak now, but the Lord will give him strength. Within ten days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.

Even then, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for He speaks of the day when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day when someone will tie him fast and lead him where he would rather not go—but Peter will go, and he will die for Christ.

In the end, Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, “I love you, Lord, totally, with agape love. I love you above all things, above all people, and above even my own life.”

For now, Peter is not ready, but the Lord will lead him by stages and get him ready.

How will Peter get there? How will we get there? The Lord simply says, Follow me.

So, fellow disciples, the Lord is leading you to a deeper love, an unconditional love, a love above all other loves. Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter—a hard case, actually—and He can do it for you.

For now, though, He is standing on the shore and calling us to a richer future:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Back to the Future – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

God’s Perfect Mercy – A Meditation for Divine Mercy Sunday

We live in times in which mercy, like so many other things, has become a detached concept in people’s minds, separated from the things that really help us to understand it. For indeed, mercy makes sense and is necessary because we are sinners in desperate shape. Yet many today think it unkind and unmerciful to speak of sin as sin. Many think that mercy is a declaration that God doesn’t really care about sin, or that sin is not a relevant concept.

On the contrary, mercy means that sin does exist. Thanks be to God for the glory, the beauty, and the gift of His mercy! Without it, we don’t stand a chance. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly going to need boatloads of grace and mercy to make it. Only through grace and mercy can we be freed from sin and healed from its effects, or ever hope to enter the presence of God’s glory in Heaven, of which Scripture says, But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false (Rev 21:27). Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!”

Mercy does not mean there is no judgment; mercy exists because there is a day of judgment. Mercy does not mean there is no Hell; mercy exists because Hell does. Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” Without mercy we are lost. With it we stand a chance, but only if we accept our need for it. Mercy, Lord, have mercy!

Oh, thanks be to God for mercy! So let’s consider the glory and the gift of mercy on this Sunday of divine mercy. The Gospel for today’s Mass speaks both to the need for mercy and the glory of it. Let’s look at four teachings on mercy, God’s perfect mercy.

I. The Prelude to Mercy – There is an old saying that if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. And thus as this Gospel opens we enter a room where ten Apostles are gathered in fear; the doors are locked. These are broken, troubled, and disturbed men. All of them but John had fled, deserting the Lord. One of them had denied even knowing Jesus, not once but three times. Here they are, humiliated, downcast, and sinfully without faith. Never mind that Jesus had told them on numerous occasions that He would rise on the third day. Even though several women and two disciples from Emmaus had said they had seen Him alive, on this the third day, these men persist in sinfully rejecting this news that conformed to His promise. Yes, we enter a locked room of fearful men who are downcast, disgraced, and disbelieving.

But it is here that we find the prelude to mercy! They are about to blessed and to experience profound mercy. But don’t miss this prelude. Again, if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news; so don’t miss this picture.

One of the great errors of our day is the proclamation of mercy without repentance, without reference to our sinful condition. So many pulpits have gone silent on sin! And therefore are silent on the true glory of mercy and the astonishing gift that it is! Ah, mercy! Divine mercy! Perfect mercy!

But the point of mercy is not to go out and tell others how terrible they are, but rather to tell them about the forgiveness of sin! Now this is why we need a mercy Sunday. On the one hand we’re living in rebellious times, times in which many are dismissive of sin and have refashioned God into just a nice fellow who doesn’t really care all that much about sin (despite what His own scriptures say to the contrary), reducing mercy is to mere kindness and a sort of blindness on God’s part.

On the other hand these are also times when many are scared and angry with God, rejecting His judgments and glorious moral vision. A lot of people know that their lives are in disorder: their families are broken; they are confused; greed, materialism, lust, and other sinful drives are taking a heavy toll. Many are angry with the Church because deep down they know we are right; they don’t like being reminded that people don’t have any business calling good what God calls sinful.

But most of all, many are confused and angry because they don’t know forgiveness. Consider what Psalm 32 says so beautifully:

Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is forgiven, to whom the Lord imputes no guilt!As long as I would not speak of my sin, my bones wasted away and your hand was heavy upon me. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I did not hide, and you took away the guilt of my sin!

You see, the key to having this blessed state is the acknowledgement of sin.

The Lord said to St. Faustina,

You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).

Now some reading this sort of text think, “There goes that Catholic guilt thing again.” But let’s be honest, it’s not really an exaggeration. The truth is that most of us can be thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, un-prayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And even if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many of them do. In addition, even that long list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital ‘S’ and we need serious help.

And thus, just as Psalm 32 says, the glory of mercy is unlocked by the acknowledgment of sin. Jesus said further to St. Faustina,

My love and my mercy [for you] know no bounds! … The graces I grant are not for you alone, but for a great number of other souls as well. … The greater the sinner the greater the right he has to my mercy (Diary II.723).

Do not forget this necessary prelude to mercy: the acknowledgement of our sin. If you don’t know the bad news, the good new is no news.

II. The Peace of mercy – Into this upper room filled with men who are dejected, disgraced, doubting, humiliated, hurt, sinful, and sorrowful, the Lord came. The text says, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.

Do you see the glory and the gift of this moment? The Lord says to them, “Peace be with you.” Now I don’t know about you, but if I had been hiding out, denying Him, and running from responsibility at the critical moment, and then suddenly the Lord whom I had let down and offended appeared, I might be a little nervous! But what does the Lord say to these embarrassed and dejected men? “Peace be with you!”

What is peace? It is more than the absence of conflict or division. Peace is the presence in a relationship of all that should be there: justice, integrity, reciprocity, mutuality, and so forth. The Greek word used is eirḗnē, which is from the root eirō meaning “to join or tie together into a whole.” So it means wholeness, a state in which all essential parts are joined together. Peace is God’s gift of wholeness.

Do you see the glory of this moment? The Lord does not merely say, “I will not punish you for what you have done.” He says, “Between you and my Father there is now peace, there is wholeness, there is completeness, there is present in the relationship all that should be there, there is justice.” The Lord does not merely overlook what a mess we are, He makes us whole and pleasing to His Father.

All is well, all is complete, all that is necessary is supplied by my atoning death and resurrection!

Such mercy, such a grace, such a gift!

In English, the text says that they rejoiced. But here, too, the English translation does not capture the richness of the Greek word ἐχάρησαν (echarēsan), which means to delight in God’s grace. It means to powerfully experience God’s grace (favor), to be conscious of and astonished by (glad for) His grace! This is no mere passing happiness. This is abiding astonishment at the sheer gift of God’s mercy and grace. The Apostles do not just get happy for a moment; they are given the gift of stable, serene, confident joy at the unfathomable gift of God’s mercy and goodness. They had sinned and yielded to fear; they had run from the Lord and ignored His teaching; but the Lord stands before them and says “Shalom, Peace be with you. May the full favor of the Lord be with you. May you experience that God is pleased that you are well and seeks to draw you more deeply into His love.”

Here is mercy; sweet, beautiful, soul-saving mercy; and astonishing and unexpected grace! There is shalom; there is peace; there is deep, abiding, and confident mercy. It is a joy and mercy that is unmerited. It is stable because it is rooted in the stable and abiding love of God.

III. The Priesthood of Mercy – The text says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

There is not time here to develop a full apologetic of the Sacrament of Confession entrusted to the Church. But to those who say, “I don’t have tell my sins to any priest, I can just go straight to God,” the Lord Jesus never got your little memo. He gave the power to forgive sins to the Apostles and their successors. That is clear in this passage. The Lord does not do pointless, foolish things; what He says here is to be taken seriously. He tells these imperfect men, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

There is something deeply personal, even if imperfect (on account of the imperfection of priests), in the way the Lord wants us to experience his mercy. But the emphasis is on the personal.

There is a beautiful story of St. John Paul and a fallen bishop. The bishop had fallen from grace; he had had an affair with a woman, and although he ended it, the story came out later and he resigned. Some months later he was called to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul. As he waited to see the Pope, he was nervous. Had the Pope called him to rebuke him? He sat alone, waiting for the Pope to enter. The door opened and the sainted pope walked across the room and greeted the fallen bishop. “I have one question to ask you,” said Pope John Paul. “Are you at peace?” “Yes,” he replied. “Thanks be to God!” said Pope John Paul. The fallen bishop took the joy of that mercy into the remainder of his life and went on to care quietly for the spiritual needs of religious who were underserved in a certain part of this country. He never forgot the mercy he experienced and the story was told at his funeral, for he himself told it often.

There is just nothing that surpasses the way the Lord can convey his mercy in the deeply personal way of the confessional. There is nothing more precious than those words that conclude every confession: “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace. Thanks be to God!”

The Lord did not want his mercy to depend on some self-generated notion that mercy was extended. He wanted us, for whom faith comes by hearing, to hear those precious words: “I absolve you from your sins … Go in peace.” There is nothing more wonderful and certain than those words spoken by the Lord through His priests.

IV. The Prerequisite of Mercy – But one of the Apostles, Thomas, was missing. Here was the most wounded of all the Apostles, so wounded that he drew back from the only place mercy could be found, for where two or three were gathered the risen Lord appeared in the midst of them. In drawing back, Thomas blocked his blessings.

The point is this: the Lord unfailingly offers His mercy. He says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).

The question is, will we call on him? There is only this one need, this one requirement for mercy: that we ask for it. Jesus says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). The door to our heart and to repentance must be opened from the inside. The Lord will not force His mercy. This is why there is a Hell. Without God’s mercy we are doomed; we don’t stand a chance. His mercy is free except for this price: we must surrender our pride, admit our need, and open the door.

Thanks be to God that St. Thomas did not persist in his impenitent stance, but instead rejoined the community where mercy and the Lord were to be found. Sure enough, where two or three were gathered the Lord appeared once again and St. Thomas found mercy. The Lord rebuked Thomas’ lack of faith but rewarded his penitence.

St. Thomas opened the door from the inside of his heart. The Lord lovingly entered and built up his faith so that never again would Thomas think that he could find the Lord on his own terms. Rather, Thomas would seek the Lord where He could be found: in the Church, among those gathered in His name. Mercy is found where God is found. He knocks but it is we who must open the door and receive Him into our hearts on His terms not ours.

St. Thomas fell to his knees, astonished by the Lord’s mercy; such mercy, such a glorious gift. “My Lord and my God!” The Lord never stopped calling Thomas. The Lord did not give up but waited until Thomas answered the door. “Peace, Shalom, Thomas. I am glad you are here. Now never again stop believing in my mercy and love for you. Never again draw back thinking I am lost to you. I love you with an everlasting Love. I have called you and you are mine. Peace to you, and mercy, Thomas.”

Mercy! So great, so divine, so perfect. It is a mercy that does not deny the need for its own existence. When humbly received, it conveys peace through the priesthood that Christ Himself established. It is a mercy which, as a prerequisite, respectfully knocks and waits for our “yes.” Lord, give us your perfect mercy.

I have it on the best of authority that Thomas sang a song later that night, a song that sang of the Lord’s mercy and persistence, of His abiding call when we would give up. Yes, I have it on the best of authority that he sang,

I almost let go;
I felt like I just couldn’t take life any more.
My problems had me bound;
Depression weighed me down;
But God held me close
so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me;
so I wouldn’t let go

I almost gave up;
I was right at the edge of a break through,
but couldn’t see it.
The devil really had me,
but Jesus came and grabbed me,
and He held me close,
so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go.

So I’m here to day because God kept me
I’m A live today only because of His grace
Oh He kept me, God kept me
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go

God’s perfect mercy: divine, healing, calling, converting, and soul-saving. Mercy, yes, perfect mercy.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Perfect Mercy – A Meditation for Divine Mercy Sunday

Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

The Gospels of the Easter Octave describe not just an event but even more so a journey. It is tempting to think that the disciples and apostles, having seen the risen Lord, were immediately confirmed in their faith, stripped of all doubt.

That is not the case, however. Nearly all the resurrection accounts make it clear that although seeing the risen Lord was “mind-blowing,” it was only a beginning. As it is with any human experience, no matter how intense, encountering the risen Lord was something that the disciples needed to process. They needed to come to live its implications in stages.

This description of a journey, of a coming to resurrection faith in stages, is presented in the resurrection accounts. We notice that the first awareness occurred “when it was still dark” and “at the rising of the sun.” It does not suddenly become fully light at dawn, however. Rather, the light manifests itself and increases over time; so it is with awareness of the resurrection. It begins to “dawn” on the disciples that He is Risen, truly; He has appeared to Simon.

The first reports are sketchy and there is a lot of running around: Mary Magdalene to Peter and John, Peter and John to the tomb, the women to the rest of the apostles. Yes, there is an awful lot of running about! It is still dark, and the cobwebs of recent sleep aren’t completely gone; the light is just dawning, not yet at full strength.

The disciples wonder what it all means and how it has changed/will change their lives. The answers to questions like these will require a journey; they are not to be answered in a mere moment.

In Matthew’s Gospel there is a beautiful line that describes the experience well:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed (Matt 28:8).

Yes, such a beautiful description: fearful yet overjoyed (φόβου καὶ χαρᾶς μεγάλης (phobou kai charas megans, which means fearful and of great joy))!

What is one to make of all this? Yes, He is alive, but what does it mean? One’s life is changed, but how? One is filled with joy yet draws back in a kind of reverential fear at the unknown, the unexperienced.

So we see the women, encountering the risen Jesus on the road, and they are fearful yet overjoyed. Again, while we might suppose that such an appearance would “seal the deal,” it is not that simple. Consider the following occurrences in the aftermath of the resurrection appearances and notice that a journey of sorts is required to make sense of it all.

  • Mary Magdalene doesn’t even recognize Jesus at first. Her eyes must be adjusted by the faith that comes from hearing—in this case, hearing her name, Mary, spoken by Jesus.
  • Mary also has to make the journey from merely clinging to Jesus as “Rabboni” and running to others to proclaim Him by saying, “I have seen The LORD.”
  • The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus at all until their eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread.
  • When the apostles first see Jesus, they draw back, thinking He is a ghost. Jesus has to reassure them and clarify things for them.
  • Simon Peter, even after seeing the Lord several times, falls away from his mission and announces to the others that he is going back to fishing. The Lord has to stand on the shore and call him anew from his commercial nets to the sacred shepherding of the Petrine ministry.
  • Even after witnessing forty days of appearances by Jesus and having been summoned to the mountain of the ascension, some still doubt.
  • After the ascension, the day of Pentecost still finds the apostles and disciples huddled together behind closed doors. It is only after the coming of the Holy Spirit that they are really empowered to go forth.

Yes, there is more to experiencing the resurrection than merely seeing it. Faith comes by hearing and deepens by experience. They have to make a journey to resurrection life and so must we.

Even for us who were born in the teaching of the resurrection, the truer and deeper meaning of it all is not something that can be learned simply by the reading the Catechism; it must be grasped through a journey.

As a priest and disciple, I have both observed and experienced that Good Friday is powerful and moving for many people. Most of us know the cross; we have experienced its blows and its presence is quite real and plain to us. On Good Friday there are often tears shed during the Stations of the Cross, the Trae Horae, and the evening service of the Lord’s Passion.

Come Easter Sunday, though, the experience seems less certain. People are joyful yet somewhat unsure of why or how. The joy of Easter seems more remote than the brooding presence of Good Friday or the gloomy silence of Holy Saturday. Although those days are unpleasant, they are familiar—Easter Sunday is different. What does it mean to rise from the dead? What are we to do in response? During Lent we fasted and undertook practices designed to focus us. Easter is more open and vacuous: Joy! Alleluia! Now what?

It remains for us to lay hold of this new life that the Lord is offering. It is not enough to think of or see the resurrection as an event of the distant past. It is that, but it is so much more. It is new life for us. We rise with Christ.

How and what does this mean? That is discovered through the journey. It is the deeper and more personal experience of the historical event that the Lord accomplished for us. He has raised us to new life.

In my own journey I have had to move from the event itself to a deeper, more personal, truer experience of that event. I have come to experience the new life that Jesus died and rose to give me. I have seen sins put death and new graces come alive. I am more chaste, generous, joyful, hopeful, serene, and zealous. My mind is clearer; it is new. My priorities are in better order and I have clearer vision. My heart is more spacious. I have learned more deeply of God’s love and mercy for me and can thus show it more easily to others.

So, Easter is an event, but it is also a journey. The faint light of early dawn gives way in stages to ever-brighter awareness as we lay hold of the new life that Christ died and rose to give us. There is a beautiful line in the King James translation of the Bible that captures Simon Peter’s journey, which at that time was only just beginning:

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulcher; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass (Luke 24:12).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  Fearful Yet Overjoyed – The Journey to Resurrection Faith

From Fear to Faith – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter

Risen Christ Appears to Disciples, Duccio (1308-11)

In Sunday’s Gospel, the risen Lord appeared to the Apostles, who were gathered together in one place. The fact that they were gathered in one place is not without significance, for it is there that the Lord chose to appear to them. One of them was not there and thus missed the blessing of seeing and experiencing the risen Lord. It might be said that Thomas, the absent Apostle, blocked his blessing.

Some people want Jesus without the Church. No can do. Jesus is found in His Church, among those who have gathered. There is surely joy to be found in a personal relationship with Jesus, but the Lord also announced a special presence whenever two or three are gathered in His name. It is essential for us to discover how Mass attendance is essential for us if we want to experience the healing and blessing of the Lord. This Gospel has a lot to say to us about the need to gather together to find the Lord’s blessing in the community of the Church, in His Word, and in the sacraments. Let’s look at today’s Gospel in five stages.

I. Fearful Fellowship – Notice how the text describes the gathering of the Apostles: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews …. These men are frightened, but they are in the right place. It is Sunday, the first day of the week, and they have gathered together. The text says nothing about what they are doing, only that they have gathered, but in a sense this is all we need to know, for this will set the stage for blessings and for the presence of the Lord.

These are men who need a blessing! The locked doors signify their fear of the Jewish authorities. One may also assume that they are discouraged, lacking in hope, and maybe even angry. They have experienced the earthquake that Jesus’ crucifixion was for them. Some of the women in their midst claim to have seen Him alive, but now it is night and they have heard of no other sightings.

Thanks be to God, they have gathered. It is not uncommon for those who have “stuff” going on in their lives to retreat, withdraw, and even hide. This is probably the worst thing that one can do. It would seem that Thomas has taken this approach, though his absence is not explained. Their gathering is an essential part of the solution to everything that afflicts them. This gathering is the place in which their new hope, new hearts, and new minds will dawn.

So it is for us, too, afflicted as we are in so many ways, troubled at some times and joyful at others. It is critical importance that we gather each Sunday, each first day of the week. In every Mass the Lord prepares blessings for us. I am powerfully aware that every Mass I celebrate, especially Sunday Mass, is a source of blessings for me. Not only does God instruct me with His Word and feed me with His Body and Blood, He also helps form me through the presence and praise of others: the people I have been privileged to serve. I don’t know where I’d be if it were not for the steady support of the people of God: their prayers, their praise, their witness, and their encouragement.

The Book of Hebrews states well the purpose and blessing of our liturgical gatherings:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:22-25).

So the Apostles are meeting together, encouraging one another. They are about to be blessed, but the blessing occurs only in the context of the gathering, so Thomas will miss it. This blessing is only for those who are there. So it is for us, too, who also have blessings waiting but only if we are present, gathered for Holy Mass. Don’t block your blessings!

II. Fabulous Fact – Then comes the blessing: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt 18:20). The text from today’s Gospel says, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”

Suddenly there is a completely new reality, a new hope, a new vision. Note that there is also a new serenity, a peace, a shalom. Not only do they see and come to experience an entirely new reality, they also receive an inner peace. Observe again that this is only for those who are present.

This is a basic purpose of the gathering we call the Sacred Liturgy. It is here that we are invited to encounter the living Lord, who ministers to us and offers us peace. Through His Word, we are increasingly enabled to see things in a new way, one that gives us hope, clarity, and confidence. Our lives are reordered. Inwardly, too, a greater peace is meant to come upon us as the truth of this newer vision begins to transform us, giving us a new mind and heart. Looking to the altar, I draw confidence that the Lord has prepared a table for me in the sight of my enemies and my cup is overflowing (Ps 23). The Eucharist is thus the sign of our victory and our election. As we receive the Body and the Blood of the Lord, we are gradually transformed into the very likeness of Christ.

Is this your experience of the gathering we call the Mass? Is it a transformative reality or just a tedious ritual?

As for me, I can say that I am being changed, transformed into a new man, into Christ, by this weekly—indeed daily—gathering we call the Mass. I have seen my mind and heart changed and renewed. I see things more clearly and have greater hope, joy, and serenity. I cannot imagine what my life would be like were it not for this gathering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where Jesus is present to me and says, “Shalom, peace be with you.” Over the years, I am a changed man.

Yes, the Mass works. It transforms; it gives a new mind and heart. Don’t block your blessings; be there every Sunday.

III. Forgiving Fidelity – Next comes something quite extraordinary, something that simply cannot take place within a private notion of faith. The text says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

In this remarkable moment, the Lord gives the Apostles the power to forgive sin. Note that He is not simply giving them the ability to announce that we are forgiven; He is giving them the juridical power to forgive or in certain cases to withhold/delay forgiveness. This is extraordinary! Not only has He given this authority to men (cf Matt 9:8), He has given it to the very men who abandoned Him (with the exception of John) at His crucifixion. These are men who are well aware of their shortcomings. Perhaps it is only because Jesus knows of their awareness that He can truly trust them with such power.

There are those who deny that Confession is a biblical sacrament, but here it is in today’s Gospel. There are other texts in Scripture showing Confession to be quite biblical:

  • Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices (Acts 19:18).
  • Is any one of you sick? He should call the presbyters of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:14-16).

Many consider it sufficient to speak to God privately about their sins, but the Scriptures instruct us away from such a solitary notion and bid us to approach the Church. The Lord gives the Apostles the authority to adjudicate and then to absolve or retain sins, but this presupposes that someone has first approached them for such absolution. St. Paul was approached by the believers in Ephesus, who made open declaration of their sins. The Book of James also places the forgiveness of sins in the context of the calling of the presbyters, the priests of the Church, and sees this as the fulfillment of this passage: declare your sins to one another … the prayer of the righteous man has great power (James 5:16).

Thus, again, there is a communal context for blessing, not merely a private one. I have written more on the biblical roots of Confession here: The Sacrament of Confession.

IV. Faltering Fellowship – We have already noted that Thomas blocked his blessing by not being present. The text says, Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas exhibits faltering fellowship in two ways:

First, he is not with the other Apostles on resurrection evening, thus he misses the blessing of seeing and experiencing the resurrection and the Lord.

Second, Thomas exhibits faltering fellowship by refusing to believe the testimony of the Church that the Lord has risen.

One of the most problematic aspects of many people’s faith is that they do not understand that the Church is an object of faith. In the Creed every Sunday we profess to believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, and to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. But we are not done yet. We go on to say that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We know and believe what we do about Jesus Christ on the basis of what the Church hands on from the Apostles. Some say, “No, I believe in what the Bible says,” but the Bible is a book of the Church. God has given it to us through the Church who, by God’s grace, collected and compiled its contents and vouches for the veracity of the Scriptures. Without the Church there would be no Bible.

Therefore, in rejecting the testimony of the Church, Thomas is breaking fellowship and refusing to believe in what the Church, established by Christ to speak in His name (e.g. Lk 24:48; Lk 10:16; Matt 18:17; Jn 14:26; 1 Tim 3:15; inter al.), teaches. We, too, falter in our fellowship with the Church if we refuse to believe the testimony of the Church in matters of faith and morals. This a privatization of faith, a rejection of fellowship, and a refusal to gather with the Church and accept what she proclaims through her Scriptures, Tradition, and the catechism.

Note that as long as Thomas is not present, he has blocked his blessings. He must return to gather with the others in order to overcome his struggle with the faith.

V. Firmer Faith – Thomas then returns to fellowship with the other Apostles. Just as we do not know the reason for his absence, his return is also unexplained. Some may wish to chalk up his absence to some insignificant factor such as being busy, or in ill health, or some other largely neutral factor, but John seldom provides us detail for no reason. Further, Thomas does refuse to believe the testimony of the others, which is not a neutral fact.

Praise God, Thomas is now back with the others and in the proper place for a blessing. Whatever his struggle with the faith, he has chosen to work it out in the context of fellowship with the Church. He has gathered with the others. Now comes the blessing.

You know the story, but the point here is that regardless of our doubts and difficulties with the faith, we need to keep gathering with the Church. In some ways faith is like a stained glass window that is best appreciated from inside the church. From the outside there may seem very little about it that is beautiful. It may even look dirty and leaden, but once one ventures inside and adjusts to the light, one can see that the window radiates beauty.

It is often this way with the faith. I have found that I could only really appreciate some of the more difficult teachings of the Church after years of fellowship and instruction by the Church, in the liturgy and in other ways. As my fellowship and communion have grown more intense, my faith has become clearer and more firm.

Now that he is inside the room, Thomas sees the Lord. When he was outside, he did not see and so he doubted. The eyes of our faith see far more than our fleshly eyes, but in order to see and experience our blessings we must gather; we must be in the Church.

Finally, it is a provocative but essential truth that Christ is found in the Church. Some want Christ without the Church. No can do. He is found in the gathering of the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of those called out. Any aspects of His presence that are found outside the Church are mere glimpses, shadows emanating from the Church. He must be sought where He is found, among sinners in His Church. The Church is His Body and His Bride. It is here that He is found. “Feeling” His presence while alone on some mountaintop can never compare to hearing the priest say, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

Thomas found Him, but only when he gathered with the others. It is Christ’s will to gather us and unite us (Jn 17:21). Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor (The love of Christ has gathered us in one).

Note: This Sunday is also Divine Mercy Sunday. I published a homily in the past (Perfect Mercy) with this focus.