Ambassadors for Christ

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Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday makes one’s faith very visible and public. Not offensively — but also not easy to miss — the sign of our faith shows up in the office, at school, on buses and subways, in lines at the grocery store, or at the gas station. This small symbol of the cross of ashes on our foreheads expresses an important truth: Faith doesn’t happen only at church, but lives among us, in public, every day.

The Scripture texts for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday do not only remind us of sin and death; they are a loud call to overcome sin, to be converted to Christ and the Gospel and to prepare for the new life of Easter. I would like to offer some reflections on what it means to be reconciled to God, to be an “Ambassador for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21), and the meaning of authentic piety and devotion as outlined in Matthew’s Gospel text for today’s liturgy (6:1-6, 16-18). I will conclude with some thoughts on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s profound 2010 Lenten reflection on God’s justice.

Be reconciled to God!

Today — the liturgy tells us — is the “acceptable time” for our reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is a gratuitous gift of God. Reconciliation must involve everyone: individuals, families, nations and peoples.

In the passage from 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Paul encouraged the fractious Corinthian community to recognize that God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). Paul speaks of “the new creation in Christ” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17) and goes on to tell us: “God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding individuals’ faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that we are reconciled. [...] The appeal we make in Christ’s name is: be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). [Read more...]

Barnabas and Paul: Contentious Collaborators

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Today’s memorial of St. Barnabas presents us with one of Paul’s great collaborators who played a very significant role in the initial evangelization.  I would like to share with you some reflections about these two men and apostles.  First some thoughts from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 11:21b-26; 12:1-3. Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) or “son of consolation”. He was a Levite Jew and a native of Cyprus.  Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord’s Resurrection. With great generosity, he sold a field, which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church’s needs (Acts 4:37).

Barnabas spent a whole year with Paul in Antioch, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city.  In the Antioch Church, Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13:1).  At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, Barnabas realized that Saul’s hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. We could say that Barnabas was in some way Paul’s agent!  He presented Paul back to the Church as the great apostle to the Gentiles.

The Church of Antioch then sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle’s first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas’ missionary voyage since Barnabas was in charge and Paul had joined him as a collaborator as they visited the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, along with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.  A wonderful friendship between Paul and Barnabas was born on that journey. Later on, when a second campaign was planned, Barnabas proposed taking Mark as a helper, but Paul resisted the idea.

The New Testament indicates that a “sharp contention” developed between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). They could not reach an agreement, and so they split up. As far as we know, these two remarkable men never saw one another again.  It is a sad story that can teach us much.  Who was right – Paul or Barnabas?  We simply don’t know. Some argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. We read that the church in Antioch “commended” Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40), but nothing is said about any commendation of Barnabas and Mark.

This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was not over a doctrinal issue. The rupture involved a personal dispute based upon a judgment call. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas let the conflict distract them from their respective efforts of spreading the Gospel.  Even in our day, there will always be times when men and women of good will disagree in matters of opinion.  But we must agree to disagree in charity, especially if we are ministers of the Gospel.

What can we learn from these stories of Paul and Barnabas?  First of all we know what they had in common.  They were in love with the same man: Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. Despite their human frailty and because of it, they kept focused on doing the will of Christ.  They took the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

Even in the midst of human tensions and wounded friendships, because they loved the Lord and were loved by the Lord, even more work was accomplished for the sake of the Gospel because of the manner in which their disagreements and frailty were handled.  We learn from them that there can be disputes, disagreements, controversies and sinfulness among the saints! Paul and Barnabas are people like us who often complicate life because of our frailty and problems.  Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.

The fact that the personal conflict of these two apostles are openly displayed on the pages of the New Testament is evidence that the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists in writing the story of the early Church. No account, however irrelevant it may appear to be, is without importance. They offer us lessons to be mastered, not only about the New Testament, but also about our own personal histories. St. Paul and St. Barnabas, pray for us.

The Living Heart of Jesus: The Incarnate Love of God

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The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus presents us with the opportunity to reflect on the relevance of this venerable symbol in our daily lives. The image of the Sacred Heart is never mentioned as such in Sacred Scripture, but its meaning can be found spanning each page from Genesis to Revelation.

Today’s readings point to this fact and frame the Sacred Heart in terms of two central themes: love and closeness. They speak of the love of God is a shepherdly love, an involved love, a powerful love; a love that is up-close and personal, that seeks out the lost, heals the afflicted, strengthens the contrite, upholds the humble, and calls men and women of every time and place to be all they can be, to love in return, to have life in abundance: to be holy. We see here that the image of the Sacred Heart is intimately linked with the image of the Good Shepherd. The first reading, where the God of Israel Testament speaks to Ezekiel of how He Himself will tend the sheep of His flock; how He will “gather them from foreign lands” and “lead them out from among the peoples,” pasturing them on verdant mountains, that they may lie down and be at rest. These words are echoed in today’s psalm, the renowned and beloved Psalm 23, which conveys the profound peace of a sheep of God’s flock. The Gospel for today’s solemnity extends this theme and gives it its full depth. It is the story of the lost sheep; but above all, it is the story of the Shepherd, who leaves the ninety nine in search of the one.

This is precisely what the Church celebrates today, a love so profound, so immediate but immense that it defies human reason. It goes beyond any logical constructs and extends beyond our faculty to comprehend. The Sacred Heart is the symbol of God’s incarnate love, a shepherdly love, a dynamic love: a love brought to life by the Incarnation of Jesus. In Christ we realize that our God cares for His sheep not in a general or indifferent way, like a rich uncle who sends cheques but never calls or comes to visit. His love isn’t just an overall affection for humanity. Rather it is an intense solicitude for each and every sheep, each and every one of us that desires relationship and intimacy. God so desires this intimate relationship that He willed to humble Himself and enter the human drama. He chose not just to admire the sheep from afar, but dwell in there midst, to smell as they smell and devote His entire life and livelihood to their care. In this way the Incarnation is the ultimate seal of God’s desire to be close; the ultimate sign that God’s love reaches out to us, invites us, draws us—personally. There is no red tape between us and the love of God. For by the coming Christ and the wounds of His death all boundaries and all barriers have been torn asunder. Thus it is appropriate that Incarnation and Passion both feature in the depiction of the Sacred Heart. The heart depicted is a human heart, a fleshly heart, a living heart; but it is also a pierced heart, a bleeding heart, encircled with a crown of thorns and punctured by the blade of a spear.

Jesus’ heart reaches out for us, it goes out in search of us; it pines after us as a shepherd for a lost sheep. Let us take a moment today to imagine ourselves as that lost sheep of Luke’s Gospel. As a sheep loved by the Shepherd, whose loving heart follows after it wherever it may go always seeking the good of His fold, gathering them together in love, and leading them in peace by His gentle voice. Each of us is the lost sheep: as individuals, as communities, as a human family. God seeks to reconcile us to Himself and loves us so much that He sends Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in search of us, to bear us on His shoulders and bring us back rejoicing to the eternal pastures of the New Jerusalem.

And so today let us take to heart the rich meaning of this ancient devotion; let us allow ourselves to be struck by the love of Christ. In the ordinary moments of our lives, the simple as much as the spectacular, the majestic as well as the mundane, may we be transformed by the knowledge that we are loved and respond with gratitude to love in return. May our hearts beat along with the heart of Jesus, be conformed unto His, and in doing so become channels of His intense, intimate love for each person; that our hearts too may be afire with the incarnate love of God.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart are Ez. 34:11-16; Ps. 23; Rom. 5:5b-11; Lk. 15:3-7.]

Evangelizing the Elizabeths, Propelled to the Peripheries

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“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” (Lk. 1:39-45)

The story of the Visitation presents us with profound insight into the life and mission of the Christian. Mary, having received in her womb the mystery of the Word made flesh, does not contain this awesome mystery, she does not withdraw for nine months of solitude and private contemplation. Rather she sets off “with haste,” propelled by the Holy Spirit to radiate the reality of Emmanuel, God with us. Encountering God leads her to encounter others so that they too may experience the joy of knowing God in Jesus Christ. In this way the Visitation is Mary’s response to the Incarnation, the indwelling of God: a response that calls her outwards, to the outskirts, to the hill country.

This is the power of the Word of God; a word that is potent, vibrant, and alive. It is a Word that pushes us outside ourselves, propelling us to set out towards others in a spirit of service, humility, and charity. This is the essence of evangelization, being transformed and being an agent of transformation in the lives of others. Like Mary, our radical experience of Jesus cannot be stifled; our relationship with Christ must be lived in the context of the world and in relationship with others. Not so that it may be diluted but so that it might bear fruit. This is the mission of the Church, the Body of Christ, to go out from Jesus, immersed in his presence that we might bear this presence to others. As Catholics, we receive the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and are sent forth at the end of each liturgy to go, to love, to serve; to carry Christ with us into the concrete circumstances of our lives.

In the General Congregations that preceded the recent conclave, then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke the following words on the nature of the New Evangelization:

“Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

This mission to the peripheries, the “periferia” in Italian is precisely what Mary shows us by her Visitation to Elizabeth. Let us ask ourselves, what are the peripheries and hill countries of our lives? Who are our Elizabeths and what are we doing to bring them Jesus? Certainly our own family and relatives, our friends and coworkers; but also the stranger we pass on the street, the neighbour we wish we didn’t have, the people we have to go out of our way in order to appreciate, and the people who cause us to “travel” some distance in order to visit. To all of these we must bring the gift of Jesus; that their hearts like Elizabeth may exclaim with wonder, and their souls like John the Baptist leap for joy. The Church like the Blessed Mother, and we as its members, must be the mysterium lunae, the moon that radiates not its own light but the light of Christ. His presence, his light, and his love we must bear to our brothers and sisters and evangelize in such a way that we are driven to the peripheries, where we encounter God in the Elizabeths and bring the Elizabeths to encounter God. Let us never fear or be reticent, for it is the Lord who draws us to this mission, accompanies us on it, and shows us where we are to go. On this feast of the Visitation, may we too “set out and go with haste” to the hill countries to reach out, to bring Christ, to bring joy, and be propelled by the presence of God’s Word alive in our midst; in short, to evangelize.

(Text courtesy of Oremus Bible Browser and Vatican Radio; Photo courtesy of life.remixed)

I am with you always, to the end of the age

A reflection on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year B
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40
Psalm 33 “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen as his heritage”
Romans 8:14-17
Matthew 28:16-20

“I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That has got to be one of my favourite passages of scripture. God is with us always, to the end of the age. That’s good news. If you won’t remember anything that I am going to write, at least remember that.

My name is Pedro, which is Peter in Spanish, and growing up, I was always very proud that my patron was the first Pope, St. Peter. But my middle name is Emmanuel – which means “God with us” – now that’s a special name. I was even more proud of my middle name. I love the idea that God is with us. Our God is not a God who is far away, sitting on a throne in heaven somewhere; our God is a God with us. And that is also good news! Today we celebrate a great feast: Today is the solemnity of the most Holy Trinity. Trinity is a fancy word that means “three” and it refers to the reality that our God is one God, three persons.

God is one God, three persons. It’s not three gods. He’s ONE God: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4), three persons. It’s not three aspects of God, or three qualities of God: Creator, redeemer, sanctifier. No, it’s three PERSONS: One God, three persons. It’s hard to understand. That’s why we call it a mystery. But it’s not a mystery like a murder mystery, an Agatha Christie or Scooby Doo mystery that we have to solve. No, when the Church talks about mystery, it means something that’s so amazing, so wonderful that it cannot be fully described in human terms. It cannot be fully understood. It can be partially understood, but never fully. And we use that word, ‘mysteries’ a lot. At Mass you’ll hear the priest speak of “these mysteries that we celebrate”. We also proclaim, “the mystery of faith”. We pray the “Mysteries of the Rosary” and in fact, the word in Greek for sacraments is “mysteries.” So we use that word a lot. And we have a few mysteries: The mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Cross… and the mystery of the Trinity is probably the hardest one to understand: ONE God; THREE persons. But we don’t have to understand it. Still, I think that looking at the Trinity tells us something about the reality of God, about the nature of God, which in turn, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, tells us something about our nature as created human beings.

In the first reading, Moses uses several ways to describe God. There are no words to describe God fully, but throughout scripture people use different images to describe God. Moses describes him in terms of what God does: God is creator, God speaks out of a fire, God saves the nation of Israel. By showing what God has done, Moses shows how awesome God is. But God is not just a God who does. God is a being. God is not a ‘doing’. God is a being and because we are created in the image of God, it means that we are beings as well. We are not human ‘doings’, we are human beings. We are not defined by what we do or by what we are capable of doing; we get our dignity by who we are: Created beings, in the image and likeness of God. But God is also not just a force of nature, or THE FORCE, like in Star Wars. God is not a life force or energy, God is not a concept (despite what John Lennon says); God is a person. You can have a personal relationship with God. God is a person and we too are persons. We are persons from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. No matter what you have done, no matter whether you are in a coma, or whether you suffer from an intellectual disability, whether you are conscious or not, you are a person. But God is not just A person; God is THREE persons.

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St. Jerome Emiliani: Place your trust in God alone

Jerome Emiliani
A few weeks ago, during a homily, I suggested that we should take the opportunity of this Year of Faith to do what the Holy Father has proposed: That we learn about our Faith; that we live our Faith and that we share our Faith. Soon after, I thought, ‘why don’t we make this a challenge?’  And so began the Great Year of Faith Challenge (#faithchallenge). Every week starting this week I will be posting a new challenge, to help us learn about, live and share our faith. You can visit my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter to learn more and to check out the weekly challenges.

The first challenge has to do with finding a quote from a Saint and using it to pray with every day. And so I have spent the week with a keen awareness of what a Saint may have said – but with a new sensitivity. It is no longer, “that’s a nice quote,” but “these are truly words to live by.”
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Three important priestly saints

Throughout this past week in the daily gospel readings for mass, we have been working our way through Chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel, a passage known as Jesus’ great priestly prayer. Quite providentially, these readings bring us up to the feast days of three important “priestly” saints: St. Bede the Venerable, Pope St. GregoryVII, and St. Philip Neri. In reflecting on the lives of these three saints, we are able to see modeled the holiness to which we are all called, as well as the three-fold office of Christ’s priesthood (Priest, Prophet and King) lived out concretely.

St. Bede the Venerable (feast day: May 25) is known as a great historian whose writings have contributed so much to the Church that he is recognized as a Doctor of the Church. His work Ecclesiastical History of the English People is regarded as the foremost source for the history of the Catholic Church in England. It is not only because of his writings, however, that the Church venerates Bede; rather, his ascetic and pious lifestyle makes him a model of virtuous living. St. Bede the Venerable captures for us Christ as priest.
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Readings for November 8, 2011

Tuesday of the Thirty-Second Week in Ordinary Time

Reading 1 Wis 2:23:3:9
Responsorial Psalm Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19
Gospel Lk 17:7-10

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