Beer, Hockey, and God’s Free Gift

When at a hockey game with our sons, a fellow dad bought me a beer (for seven bucks!). When he handed it to me, I tried to insist on paying for it, as I honestly felt kind of guilty accepting it from him. But the other dad, for his part, was equally insistent that I accept it as a gift from a friend.

On later reflection, I realized that I had bought into the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” mentality that if someone does something nice for us, we need to pay them back. Or if we do something nice for someone else, we expect something in return. In practice, this means that when it comes to our relationships with other people, there are no free gifts of love or sacrifice. Only down payments. Or repayments. Either the other person is in debt to us, or we are in debt to them.

Unfortunately, this is a relationship killing mentality, both in relationships between people, and in our relationship God. This is what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel. He explains that we don’t serve God with the expectation that he’ll repay us or that we’ll be entitled to something in return. The truth is that God doesn’t need anything from us anyway. But the good news is that he’s happy to give us everything we need, not because he has to, but because he wants to- as his free gift.

Readings from today’s Mass:

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Be Prepared, and Be Not Afraid (Ordinary 32)

A few years back my family sat down and made a plan about what we would do should there be a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. We determined where we’ll meet, where we’ll go, who our out-of-town contact will be, how much food and water and other supplies we need to stockpile, and we decided to get one of those hand-crank radios and cell-phone rechargers. After having lived through 9/11, the anthrax scare, that hurricane that knocked out our power and water for days, and in light of all the talk about avian bird flu, we want to be prepared as best we can, should something ever happen again.

As citizens, our government tells us that we should all be prepared. As Christians, however, it’s even more important that we prepare for the second coming of our Lord. This is the central message of today’s gospel parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Because while a terrorist attack or a natural disaster may never affect us, we know for a fact that one day Jesus will indeed come again in power and glory, to judge the living and the dead, and to establish his kingdom in its fullness. We “know neither the day nor the hour,” as Jesus said. But his return is guaranteed, and we need to be prepared.

But are we prepared? Ask yourself this: If you knew that Jesus would be returning later today, what would you do? Would you rush to tell certain people that you love them, especially those you hadn’t told in a while? Would you go to church; pray your rosary; open your Bible; or make an act of contrition? Are there people to whom you would apologize? Is there a favorite charity to which you’d make a hasty donation? Would you start refining your excuses for when you met Jesus face-to-face? Would you weep with regret? Would you be afraid? Or would you be overcome with joy and go out to greet theLord, just as the wise virgins ran out to meet the bridegroom when they heard he was coming? How we answer this question is probably a good indication of whether we’re really prepared for Jesus’ return or not.

It’s been said before that we should live every day as if it’s the first day of the rest of our lives. And that’s not necessarily bad advice. But from a Christian perspective, maybe it’s better to say that we should live each day as if it’s the last day of our life. Because it might just be! And if it is, there might be some things we need to do in order to truly be prepared. For instance, is there a sin we need to confess? A wound we need to heal? A restitution to make? Priorities we need to shift? A habit we need to kick? A resentment to let go of? A good intention we need to act upon? A relationship to restore? If there are, we should never put off until tomorrow what we can do today. Because when it comes to preparing for the Lord’s return, there is no better time than the present.

Preparing for Jesus’ second coming will involve challenge, change, and some painful sacrifice on our part. However, Jesus’ return is not something we should anticipate with fear. Instead, we should look forward to it with joy and eager expectation. This is why the New Testament ends with the prayer: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” This is also why, at every Mass, at the end of the Our Father, the priest offers a prayer that says “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Today’s gospel parable spoke of Jesus’ return in terms of a bridegroom coming to begin a wonderful wedding banquet to which all of us have been invited. Surely, that is a celebration that we should want to begin sooner, and not later. As St. Augustine once wrote, “When (that day) puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.”

Sometimes, however, people are afraid of the prospect of Jesus’ return. This may be because they know in their heart that they just aren’t prepared. Or maybe it’s because they imagine Jesus, not as a merciful, loving Lord, but as one who seeks only to destroy and condemn. Or it may be because they misunderstand the Bible. We saw this misunderstanding a great deal amongst some Christian groups as the year 2000 approached, as they preached a message of fear and coming calamity.

But do you remember what Pope John Paul II did before the year 2000? He encouraged everyone to prepare for the third Christian millennium with more fervent prayer, greater devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a renewed love for the Mass, and greater acts of justice and charity for the poor. But he didn’t forecast doom or preach a message of fear. Instead, he told us all to “Be not afraid!” and he declared 2000 to be a “Jubilee Year” – a special year of celebration and grace. And when 2000 finally came, he led us in joyful prayer, and then he enjoyed the fireworks in Rome.

Pope John Paul’s approach to the coming of the new millennium is a model for how we should anticipate Jesus’ return. We do need to prepare, but with hope and joy, not worry and fear. Because if we’re really prepared, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Consider St. Francis of Assisi. While he was working in a garden, someone asked what he would do if he knew that today was the last day of his life. He smiled and said, “I’d keep hoeing this row of beans!” He was so well prepared that the prospect of meeting his Lord didn’t change his plans one bit. May we be as well prepared, as together we say: “Come, Lord Jesus!”

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Not Just a Number

Have you ever felt like just another face in the crowd? A very small fish in a very big pond? Just a number?

If you have, you’re not alone. Many people have struggled with the feeling that they’re worthless or insignificant. As Mother Theresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody.”

However, whenever we think this way, we can take heart from today’s gospel, because it tells us that everyone is important and significant to Jesus. Especially those who are lost. Especially those who feel lost.

Through his parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus tells us what we’re worth to him. If we’re lost, he’s not going to shrug his shoulders. He’s going to find us and carry us back on his shoulders. And then there’s going to be a celebration!

In Jesus’ eyes, we aren’t just one of the crowd, we’re one of a kind, and he loves us in a way words can’t even begin to describe. As St. Augustine once wrote, “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.”

Readings for today’s Mass:

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Hopeful Possibility (All Souls)

Every morning, as I get ready for my day, I pray by name for all the people who have died in my or my wife’s family. Many of them weren’t Catholic; some weren’t even Christian; and a few did some pretty terrible things. Yet I pray for them, because our Catholic faith teaches that we can hope that all of them might ultimately be saved.

Other religions and other Christian traditions might say with great confidence that some or even all of my relatives and in-laws are now separated from God for all eternity in hell. But that’s not how we understand things. We do believe in the possibility of hell. Yet there is another possibility too. As Pope John Paul II wrote, there is “a real possibility of salvation in Christ for all humanity.” Because God is love. Because love hopes all things. Because God desires everyone to be saved. Because Jesus died and rose again.

We might say that this possibility is possible, however, only because of the reality of purgatory. Heaven is only for the perfect. And no one, when thy die, is perfect-even the saints.  Everyone needs to be purified…to be made whole…to be stripped of all that is ungodly. Change like this can sometimes be painful, because we’re defensive, proud, stubborn, addicted, angry. That’s why tradition speaks of the pains of purgatory. Yet at the same time, those in purgatory are friends of God, and they know it.

And so we have hope for “all souls” who have gone before us in death. That is why we celebrate this Mass. And that is why we pray for them, every day.

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Be a Saint!

Imagine my wife’s surprise when, after Mass on All Saints Day two years ago, a bishop walked straight up to her and said with a smile: “Be a saint.” As she did not know this bishop, she was surprised, to say the least. But she took the message to heart as a serious call to holiness.

Jesus challenges each one of us today to be a saint. Today of course is All Saints’ Day, when we celebrate the “holy men and women of every time and place,” and ask their prayers that we might become saints ourselves.

But what is a saint? A young boy once asked this question of his parish priest as they were standing together in church. The priest pointed to the saints on the stained glass windows and said, “The saints are those people who let God’s light shine through.”

I think that’s a good a definition as any. Pope Benedict agrees. “Nothing can bring us into close contact with Christ himself,” wrote the Holy Father, “other than the…light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”

Today, the whole company of saints says to us: “Be a saint.” The light of Christ shone from their faces. And the light of Christ can shine from ours.

Readings for today’s Mass:

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Don’t Look Down

As the great English Catholic G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” Chesterton was trying to be witty, of course, but his point was that humility is a hallmark of holiness- both for angels, and for us.

Consider an episode from the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and now a candidate for sainthood. Sociologist Robert Coles once went to meet her at one of the soup kitchens she ran. When he arrived, Dorothy Day was in a conversation with a homeless woman who was drunk and mentally ill. The woman rambled on and on in a loud voice and kept nervously touching a large mole on her face. Only when the woman was finished did Dorothy Day politely excuse herself. She walked over to Coles and asked, “Do you wish to speak with one of us?”

Coles was astonished. He had expected her to say, “Do you wish to speak with me?” as we might have been tempted to do. But Dorothy Day was humble, and she didn’t assume that she was somehow more important than the homeless woman.

Jesus speaks of humility in today’s gospel, and promises that the humble will be exalted. In his parable about taking the lowest seat at a wedding banquet, Jesus warns us not to think too highly of ourselves at the expense of others. Because if we do, we’ll find it difficult to truly love other people. When we look down on other people, we might pity them, but pity is not love. And if we don’t think that they look up to us as we think they should, we’ll get huffy and bent out of shape.

In short, arrogance alienates, but it’s love that unites. And people that are full of love, are never full of themselves.

Readings for today’s Mass:

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Neighbors, as Ourselves (Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

We live in a very competitive culture, don’t we? This competitiveness is reflected, I think, in the popularity of today’s reality TV shows, in which people try to beat each other through raw power, manipulation, and humiliation. Just consider their names: “Survivor,” “The Biggest Loser.”

Don’t get me wrong: competition can be a good thing. The down side, however, is that it can make us think that life is all about getting ahead of others. This worldview turns us into very selfish people, who concerned only about our needs and our goals. We encounter this selfishness today when children, the sick, or the elderly are seen as burdens who get in the way of our plans or our lifestyle. We see it in the resentment, envy, and depression people struggle with today because they don’t think they’re getting everything they deserve. And we see it reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer people these days enter the “service” professions of teacher, nurse, or priest- jobs concerned with giving, instead of getting.

This selfishness can also affect our relationship with God. It makes religion and spirituality nothing more than an exercise in self-fulfillment and self-discovery. It reduces forgiveness to a therapy which we do only when we’re ready, and only so we can be at peace after having been hurt. It turns helping people in need into an effort to feel good about ourselves.  And I heard a bishop recently complain that whenever he preaches about Christian sacrifice today, he feels a need to explain what its benefits are, because so many people are concerned only with “What’s in it for me?”

Such selfishness can make us lonely, because it leads us to view other people as either the competition to be beaten or as the means to an end- our end. And if we don’t think they’re helping us to achieve our goals, we drop them like a hot potato. That’s why the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis once described hell, not as a fiery pit, but as an existence of supreme selfishness, in which people become more and more separated from each other, until they wind up in a terrible, eternal isolation.

Of course, selfishness is by no means unique to our culture. A tendency toward selfishness is a universal quality of our fallen, sinful human nature. That’s why in today’s gospel Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourself. Love is the antidote to selfishness- and the loneliness that comes with it. However, because selfishness can be such a powerful force in our lives, Jesus had to actually command us to love.

When I was younger I didn’t understand how love could be a commandment. But that’s because I was confusing “love” with being “in love.” Being in love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be a selfish thing, because by it we feel needed, wanted, accepted, and loved. However, the being “in love experience” doesn’t last forever, and it usually lasts less than two years. It’s when it ends that the real work of love begins- the love Jesus commands us to give. This love is not a feeling, but a choice. It’s a gift of our self that we make for the benefit of others so they can become the people God created them to be. It’s a choice to meet another’s person’s need, instead of focusing exclusively on our own. It’s sacrificial, not selfish.

Today’s gospel challenges us to give this kind of love. We should ask ourselves: Do we love others as much as we love ourselves? Consider the people in your life. Do we serve them, or do we expect them to serve us? Do we ever consider their needs? Do we even know what they really are? And if we do know, what should we do to meet those needs?

For instance, do we need to spend quality time with them? Do we just need to be with them- instead of being somewhere else? Do we need to talk with them and share our feelings? Do we need to really listen without judging, interrupting, or giving advice? Do we need to give them a hug or physical affection? Do we need to tell them that we love them? Do they need our forgiveness? Maybe they need us to help with the kids, repair the house, or read them a story. Maybe they need us to get professional help for a problem or addiction. Maybe they need a token of our love- a little gift, a night out, a note.

Everyone’s needs for love are somewhat different. We can’t just assume we know what they are. And we can’t assume that they’re the same as hours. We have to ask, then we have to act. Even if doing those things doesn’t come naturally to us. Even if we don’t feel like doing them. Even if we don’t think the people we’re doing them for really deserve them.

Sometimes it’s hard to love other people this way when they’re being difficult, or when we feel they don’t love us back. It’s tempting to withhold our love from them or shut ourselves off from them, because that’s a way we can punish them. But Jesus hasn’t called us to punish. He has commanded us to love. Let’s face it: Lovable people are easy to love. Difficult people are hard to love. Sometimes they require tough love. As disciples of Jesus, however, they are the measure of our love.

Loving others can indeed be a challenge. Our selfishness tries to prevent us from considering others’ needs in addition to our own. That’s why Jesus commands us to make the choice to love. Because life is not about getting ahead of others. And life is not just about us. As Christians, life is about loving- in the same way that Jesus loves us.

Readings for today’s Mass:

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Seize the Day

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Never leave that ‘till tomorrow which you can do today.” It’s good advice, and it also happens to be Jesus’ message in today’s gospel. First he told us to look at the signs of the times and see that the kingdom of God is at hand. Then he spoke of the need to settle with one’s opponent before it’s too late, and we be thrown into prison. This was Jesus’ way of saying that when it comes to matters of faith, religion, and conscience, don’t put off until tomorrow what we should do today. For instance,

·         Do we have a sins we need to confess?

·         A wound we need to heal?

·         A restitution to make?

·         A good intention to act upon?

·         Priorities to shift?

·         A relationship to restore?

If so, Jesus says to us: “What are you waiting for?” Do what you need to do today! Because one day, there will be no tomorrow.

Readings for today’s Mass: