Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cross and Passover

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In today’s gospel, we hear about the Transfiguration of the Lord—it is that unique miracle when the even the Lord’s skin because resplendent with light and the heavenly father again spoke publicly of His son.  I say that it is a unique miracle because it is the only miracle in the gospel other than the resurrection and the ascension that happens to Jesus himself.  All his other miracles involve healing or feeding other people.

I want to focus on something particular that happened during that Transfiguration.  As you know, both Moses and Elijah appear talking to Jesus.  But what does the Gospel say that they are talking to him ABOUT?  The gospel says that they appear in glory to talk to Jesus about the Exodus that he is going to accomplish in Jerusalem.  That is very significant, and we shouldn’t discount it too easily.  What is meant by “exodus”? 

We know the event that they are referring to in the life of Jesus, at least.  What is going to happen in Jerusalem is that Jesus is going to go on trial, be falsely condemned, crucified, killed, buried three days and then rise again.  But what does this have to do with the Exodus?

The Exodus generally refers to how the Israelites left their slavery in Egypt pursued by enemies across the desert, led by Moses, who led them to the promised land after forty years while being taken care of in various ways by God himself. 

The question is what does THIS exodus have to do with the events at the end of Jesus’s life?  How are those events an exodus?

Y’all, this gets into deeper theology than I can possibly go into here, but let me just briefly compare the two.  First of all, one of the major jewish expectations of the new messiah is that somehow he would lead a new exodus of the jewish people.  They were not sure exactly what this was going to be.  But Jesus does indeed release us from the principal slavery of the human race – the slavery to sin. 

In the first exodus, the law was given to Moses.  In the second exodus, Jesus fulfills the law by giving them the new commandments of love.

There was also an expectation that the new messiah was supposed to give them a new temple.  And this Jesus did as well.  Except it was the temple of his body that is the primary focus of our worship rather than a building.

And perhaps most importantly, just like Moses institututed the Passover meal for the Jews and they were also given manna from heaven to feed them, the new messiah was supposed to also give them new bread from heaven and feed them with the new Passover.  Jesus does exactly this in the Last Supper with the institution of the Eucharist. 

I know that some of that may be a little deep for a few of you, but I want you to understand how much Jesus was connected to the prophecies of the Old Testament, and how much he truly fulfilled the expectations of the Messiah, even though it was in a way that no one could have ever imagined.  Who could have imagined that Jesus meant an exodus out of the darkness of sin?  Who could have imagined that the new Passover would feed us with his body?  Who could have imagined that the new law would be about love alone, or that Jesus himself would be the temple?  It boggles the mind, but this is in fact what we teach.

Maybe the key question is how do we make this exodus with Jesus?  How can we be transfigured with him? 

Paul tells us today in the letter to the Philippians, “for many people, as I have often told you, and even now tell you with tears conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Now who might those people be? We might not jump immediately to the conclusion that we are enemies of the cross of Christ.  Who wants to think that? If we look at the letter in context, we see that these so-called enemies have their stomach as their God and think about worldly things to the neglect of the things of God. They are incredibly anxious about success, food and money and give little thought to giving thanks and praise to God.  When we think about it this way, we may fall a little bit more into Paul’s ” enemy” category more than we would like. 

It is interesting that St. Paul does not say that these people are enemies of Jesus Christ.  He specifically says that there are many, even among believers, that are enemies of the CROSS of Jesus Christ.  I find that very significant.  There are many who forget that in order to reign with him, we need to be crucified with him.  In order to make the exodus with him, we need to make a long, arduous journey with him.  In order to be saved by him, we need to be fed daily by him.  In order to rise with him, we have to die with him.  This is what can be easily forgotten.  The CROSS.  There are preachers on radio and TV that try to make us believe that we will live perfect lives blessed by God as long as we go to church on Sunday and give a little money.  But there is very little evidence for that sort of theology in Scripture and Tradition.  The shadow of the cross looms over us because that is the price of our sin, and we cannot escape it without Him.  Our world is trying to remove that shadow from us by saying it does not exist, that we are not guilty, that everything we do is ok and that we are our own masters.  This is the very theology of hell, and hell is where it leads.

The cross changes everything — even what love looks like.  Ask most people to paint an image of love, and many will point to something from romantic Hollywood–couples embracing and kissing, and say “This is love.”  But the cross?  Christianity?  God points to a beaten, bloody, naked man hanging on a tree and says, “THAT is love.”   

What did Jesus say?:  “Unless you daily pick up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.  Unless you deny your very self and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.  Unless you forsake everything and prefer me above all else, you cannot be my disciple.” 

Y’all, I am not overly thrilled about the message of the cross, either.  I can be lazy and spoiled.  But I’m also not stupid.  Scripture and Tradition bear witness to the truth of the cross, and it cannot be ignored – well, I guess it COULD be.  But it is ignored only at the risk of not really being true Christians.

Is the cross bad news?  I don’t really think it is.  My point is not to plunge you into clinical depression when you leave this church. Because what else do we tell someone who is trying to be faithful to God but still feeling crushed beneath burdens, dejected, lonely and lost?  The fact is that I have often confronted good Christians (and even my own heart) who felt these emotions and then thought that they were crazy or evil for feeling them.  But doesn’t the truth of the cross teach us that these feelings might actually be COMPLETELY NORMAL???  Isn’t it GOOD NEWS that I might not be crazy when I feel these emotions after all; I might actually be faithful to following my Lord, who Himself felt these emotions because of the cross he bore for others? 

You know, I actually made the pilgrimage up Mt. Tabor where the Lord was transfigured.  We drove most of the way up with a guide, who drove so fast around a hundred hairpin curves that I was truly in fear for my life.  When we got out of the van I fell to my knees and kissed the ground in thanks.  It is quite a high mountain.  It would have taken Jesus, Peter, James and John all day to climb up there and it is rough going.

But that is where Jesus took his best friends – in a rough climb up a high mountain.  I don’t suppose that we can expect to be treated differently.  Christian life can be hard.  And shortly afterward he told them that there was no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.  And not many years afterward, all three of them spent the rest of their lives, and two of them a bloody martyrdom, in order to prove that friendship.  Up the mountain is where Jesus took his friends.  And when I climbed up there I found myself praying that Jesus allow me to be in that small group of friends that he takes with him.  Because those who climb with him with their crosses, those who go on exodus with him, also get to see him transfigured.  They are the ones who get to see the miracles.  And they are the ones who will reign with him forever. 

My prayer for you and for myself is that I will see you on that mountain with him as well.  Amen.

Fr. Basil, February 25, 2013

 

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Poverty of Spirit and the Temptations of Christ

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Our culture seems to be addicted to doing things easy and fast.  We want our internet connections easy.  My nieces go into seizures if connecting to the internet takes longer than five seconds.  We want setting up our computers to be easy.  We want using our cellphones to be easy.  We want our food fast.  We even want mass to go fast.

 

The temptations of Christ show us that sometimes the fast and easy way is not only bad for you, but it could be positively demonic. Who is Jesus Christ to us?  I would like to submit for your consideration that the temptations of Jesus in the desert give us a privileged insight into what kind of Savior he was to us.  It would stand to reason that the better we know the identity of our Savior, the better worshippers and followers we will be of that Savior.  I would like to suggest that the great virtue that Jesus exhibits in these temptations could be called POVERTY OF SPIRIT. 

 

 

First, I will quickly review the temptations so that they are all fixed firmly in our minds.

 

In the first temptation, Satan asks Jesus to use his divine power to escape his physical hunger.  Jesus had not eaten for forty days, and so Satan asks him to transform a stone into a loaf of bread. 

 

In the second temptation, Satan shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and tells Jesus that he will hand over those kingdoms if he will fall down and worship him. 

 

In the third temptation, Satan takes Jesus to the top of the temple and demands that Jesus perform a little show for him to prove that he is God–throw yourself down and then have angels catch you. 

 

What do all these temptations have in common?  In all these temptations, Satan asks Jesus to compromise.  He asks Jesus to take the easy way out.  We know that Jesus can transform water into wine, he can make a few loaves multiply into a few thousand, and he can change his own body into nourishment.  There is no lack of nutritional miracles in the Gospel.  So what’s the big deal about one little stone to bread for himself?  That’s the key.  If Jesus would have changed that stone into a loaf of bread, it would have been completely selfish–for him alone.  Those other miracles that have to do with nourishment are for the sake of the faith and salvation of other people.  Jesus did not come to the world for himself, but for others.  And he reminds Satan that there is more than one way that we can be nourished.  “One does not live on bread alone.”

 

The first dimension of poverty of spirit is a total reliance upon the heavenly father to nourish us.  Life can be hard.  We are often tempted to take shortcuts by nourishing ourselves with games, sex, food or any number of distractions.  But to be nourished by those means that we no longer have God nourishing us–and you are what you eat.  If you sustain your soul with junk then do not be surprised that you feel as if you have a sluggish, confused soul.  Nourish yourself with prayer, fasting and works of charity, and then BE surprised by feeling peace, joy and love. 

 

In the second temptation, Satan tells Jesus that he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus simply worships him.  At first, this may sound like a strange compromise–of course Jesus would never worship Satan.  But what if you look at it this way.  Satan tells Jesus that all those kingdoms are his.  They will go to hell.  They are part of my kingdom.  But if you worship me, I will give them to youCompromise.  Cut corners.  No one’s watching.  You want a kingdom.  You don’t have to die for it.”    I could see the God of love being tempted by such a suggestion–the possibility that if he worships Satan, he might actually save a number of people from eternal damnation.

 

Let me explain further.  I find that it is interesting that Jesus does not dispute with Satan about the fact that the kingdoms of the world have been handed over to Satan.  Ever notice that?  The reason why Jesus came to earth was to establish the kingdom of God in the middle of the kingdom of the Evil One.  And how does he do that?  He does that by suffering and dying on a cross, not by fighting for a throne and lording it over others.  

 

So the second aspect of poverty of spirit is the willingness to suffer as we live out our vocation, not compromising by worshipping other false gods in order to take short cuts. 

 

The third temptation involves Jesus throwing himself down from the temple so that angels can catch him.  This is another easy way out – Satan says, “You want worshippers?  I’ll show you how to get worshippers.  Do something flashy and dramatic.  Throw yourself down and have angels catch you.  Then you’ll have worshippers.  Who needs a lousy cross when you can have angels?”  Like I said, this is another short cut.  Jesus knows that his gospel is going to be a hard one to hear and even harder to accept.  This temptation makes me call to mind that there are many churches that are filling up because they provide something flashy and dramatic rather than the sacrifice of the cross.  They are full of people who have been duped by this particular temptation of Satan.  Instead, what a Catholic mass offers is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  It seems that Jesus was tempted by the possibility that if he used his miracles to be flashy and dramatic, he would save more souls?  Try to take note of how Jesus uses his miraculous powers.  It is always simply to heal or to build the faith of those around him.  As a matter of fact, there are many times that Jesus performs a miracle and then demands that the healed person stay QUIET about it.

 

The third temptation says “no” to worldly prestige.  Jesus responds to Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  The one with poverty of spirit does not demand that God perform miracles in order to believe.  The one with poverty of spirit uses his or her talents only to build up another, not to build up one’s self to be noticed. 

 

I think what I find that all three temptations have in common most of all is this:  they all suggest that Jesus take his cross and throw it down:   feed on bread, wealth, and worldly prestige.  Take the short cut.  Use your divine power to get what you want.  Compromise your identity and worship something else alongside the Father, and I’ll give you what you want. 

 

And what is the opposite of that?  What was Jesus called to do?  He took up his cross and was nourished by doing the will of his heavenly father.  He used his powers for the good of others, taking no wealth or prestige for himself, even though he deserved everything in the world.  We deserve much less than Jesus deserves, and yet we often ask for much more out of life than he ever dared to ask.  Without compromise, Jesus focused on his mission to serve and save others.  But what about us?  Have we lost sight of the fact that we are supposed to pick up our cross daily and follow him?  Have we lost sight of the fact that we were put on this earth not just to save ourselves, but to help others into heaven?

 

Ultimately, the reason why poverty of spirit is such a great virtue is this:  it is through this kind of renunciation and sacrifice that we empty ourselves of selfishness and actually become vessels that actually bear the spirit of God.  Satan fears that.  And that is why Satan tries to fill us up with everything else BUT that.  A flute needs to be empty to play music.  The tabernacle needs to be empty to hold the body of Christ.  And sometimes our hearts need to empty out if they are to bear the Spirit of God.

 

With this in mind, I would like to give y’all a little homework.  It is quite simple.  I would like each of you to sit quietly somewhere the next time you get the chance and place yourself in the desert with Jesus during his forty days–because that is indeed where we are during these forty days of Lent.  You find yourself confronted by Satan who proposes three things that take you away from your cross and your mission in this life, something that takes you away from being nourished by your heavenly father and worshipping him alone.  Maybe pray about those things in this very mass, and even share the ones that aren’t too sensitive with family and friends  What are those three temptations

 

Because once you know what they are, you know what you need to address for the rest of this season.  May God grant us all the grace of poverty of spirit.

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Repent! Ash Wednesday Homily

In today’s reading, we hear the Lord’s recommendation for praying and fasting.  Try to be discreet about it.  Do it in secret so that your reward will be in heaven and not here on earth, because if everybody sees you praying and fasting and you get congratulated for it, you have already, in effect, received a reward for it.  But I’m not going to go any further into the meaning of the Lord’s recommendations because I think they are fairly self-explanatory.  What I would like to comment about is an even deeper assuming.  In this reading, the Lord is assuming that we ARE praying and fasting.  That is a pretty big assumption, isn’t it?  Is it really true?  Is praying and fasting really a part of our regular life as Christians or do we think that we are doing God a favor just by being here to receive ashes today, and then smugly give ourselves a spiritual pat on the back for being so faithful?  I am thrilled that all of you are here, both Catholic and Protestant.  It is a sign that you feel the call of the Holy Spirit in your hearts to return to the Lord, and that is a noble, wonderful thing.  But if you walk out of this church and fail to give up some of the worst sins on your list, or fail to somehow foster your relationship with God with some kind of prayer and fasting, then your presence here is essentially an empty gesture.

The prophet Joel tells us today to “return to the Lord with your whole heart.”  St. Paul practically begs us in the readings, “We implore you on behalf of Jesus Christ, be reconciled to God.”  In the office of readings today, they are even more convicting.  God answers the question concerning why we might fast and pray, but still the Lord does not seem to hear us and we do not feel his presence.  Then, he gives us a reason for why this might be so.  He says, “Because on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and it ends in quarreling and fighting….  The fast I desire is to release those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, breaking every chain, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”  What was one of the primary messages of both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ himself, “REPENT and believe the gospel.”  REPENT means to turn away from any thought, emotion or deed that is not consistent with the gospel of God.

Our society is pretty expert at trying to emphasize God’s love and mercy and then turning around only to continue holding fast to the worst sins on our list, or at least to not truly change our behavior into people who truly believe that following Jesus Christ is the most important thing we can possibly do in our lives–which means fasting and praying, because if we were convinced that Jesus Christ died for our sins, I guarantee you that we would fast and pray.  We forget that St. John says that “he who says that I know him but does not do what God commands is a liar.”  We forget that what St. Paul says about heaven is that eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard the wonders that God has prepared for those who love him.  The scripture doesn’t say that God has prepared heaven for everybody who just manages NOT to be a murderer and a rapist in their life.  He says that heaven is prepared for those who love him.  And how do we prove love?  We prove love by daily sacrifice, not by pretending love with pretty words or throwing God a bone by managing just to show up in church on special feast days.  What else does the Lord say?  Why do you call me Lord but not do what I sayNot everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, but only the one who does the will of my heavenly father.  These are darned good reasons to fast and pray, y’all.  How else do we prove our love?  How else do we find out the will of the heavenly father but by growing closer to him in our fasting and our praying?

When I was praying I got an image that I just can’t quite get out of my head.  Our relationship with God is supposed to be extremely intimate– scripture testifies that it should be like the relationship of a father to a child or even a husband with his wife.  If someone in THIS intimate of a relationship says that they love the other, but never talks to them, writes them, or sacrifices for them; or when they do it, it is only every once in awhile and very half-hearted, then what is that person?

That person is a liar.  Let’s just be honest about it.  So with that in mind, what are we doing for the Lord?  What can we do this Lent that might change our half-heartedness?

So why else do we fast?  We have to remember that because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we have received a fallen nature that is never satisfied with itself, with God, or with the world.  The soul itself is a restless hunger to make sure that we get what is coming to us.  The Catholic tradition calls this by the fancy name of concupiscence.  In its wider meaning, concupiscence means the yearning for anything that we consider good for us.  It is not really a bad thing when considered generally like this.  We were built to experience desire for things that fulfill us as human beings, both physically and spiritually.  The problem is that this yearning, this hunger, has become unhealthy, renegade, and at times even downright unmanageable. So we have to discipline that hunger.

One of the reasons why we fast is to get this renegade hunger under control.  A person who is extravagant with one thing will usually be extravagant with another.  If you overeat, you are much more susceptible to oversleep.  If you are lustful, you will likely also be angry.  There is only one source and seat for this renegade hunger – it actually doesn’t matter exactly what you do to feed it, just so long as it gets fed.

We can all easily find images for this kind of hunger.  Think about it this way.  If you make a habit of eating junk food, will you really nourish yourself on healthy food?  Let me answer that question for you — no you will not.  One of the reasons why we hold fast to our sins and lukewarm practices is that we are afraid that the Lord will not sustain us if we truly do what the gospel says.  But he promises that he will.  The saints testify that he indeed does.  He follows through with his promise to sustain us.  But will we come to HIS table to be sustained, or will we continue to make our own spread and eat our own junk and then wonder why we feel so lukewarm, spiritually weak and unhealthy?

This is not brain surgery or rocket science, y’all –it’s pretty simple and straightforward.  It should be simple to understand, yet hard to say and harder to do.  But that is what we are called to.  That is what repentance means.  It is what the gospel demands.

What should you do for Lent?  You should starve whatever demon is taking you away from God, whatever it takes.  Stop feeding it.  Discipline it, starve it, and kill it.  That what fasting is for.  Engage in any sacrifice that makes you a more disciplined Christian with the ability to say “no” to your renegade desires.  And you should add whatever prayer practice keeps you connected with doing the will of your heavenly father.  It’s that simple.  And if we do that, God promises us this through Isaiah:  “Then light shall shine forth for you in darkness, and the Lord will guide you always.  He will renew your strength and you shall be like a watered garden; your wound shall quickly be healed and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guards.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say:  ‘Here I am‘!”

 

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