The Meaning of the Cross

Homily, Eastertide Sunday 3A

As I was the youngest in my family for a very long time, I never became very good at picking out gifts for other people. I just wasn’t expected to for many years, so by the time my nieces and nephews started arriving, I was in over my head. Fr. Cimpl still makes fun of me for giving one of my nieces a little Christmas tree that I had here at the office for one of her birthday parties. Apparently the lights on it had stopped working as well. My other siblings are much better at giving presents. For the baptism of our nieces and nephews, one of my sisters often gives them a wall cross that looks like it’s made out of kids’ alphabet blocks—you may have seen one before—the blocks spell out “I ‘heart’ Jesus” and “Jesus hearts/loves me.” 

A very nice gift to hang in a child’s nursery, but I often think of how far removed it looks from what the actual and original experience of the cross was for those in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. Most of us grow up seeing crosses or crucifixes pretty much anywhere, in churches and in our homes, in cemeteries and in greeting cards. The cross has become a great sign and reminder of God’s love for us, but to understand why the Apostles and disciples seemed to struggle so much in coming to terms with what happened to Jesus, it’s helpful for us to keep in mind the original meaning of the cross. 

For those in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, the cross was the most shameful form of public execution. To be hanged naked for hours, on a hill where everyone in the city and in the surrounding areas would be able to see. The more modern gallows or electric chair would be much more humane. And those who died upon a cross were always seen as cursed by God and by man. It was unthinkable that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for and expecting all this time, the chosen and perfect One sent by God to redeem Israel, it was unthinkable that the Christ would die upon a cross. No one besides Jesus Himself was expecting it, so it’s not surprising that a few days later we have these two disciples on the road to Emmaus talking about the crucifixion and then saying, “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel,” taking as fairly obvious that anyone who dies on a cross is thereby disqualified from being the Messiah. The reports that he had risen from the dead seem only to add to their confusion. 

Now before we think that we would have caught on a lot sooner than these disciples, let’s think of all the times that we’ve experienced crosses in this life, illnesses, setbacks, tragedies, corrupt systems that seem to be stacked directly against us, and how many times do we almost immediately start to question, “What have I done to deserve this? God must be punishing me for something. He must not love me like I thought He did. Why would God put someone He loves through all this?”

You see, most of us, like the disciples before us, just can’t wrap our minds around the mystery of suffering, how any good can come from it. Most of us believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, in what is called the prosperity gospel or the theory of retribution, that those who do good and are faithful to God should enjoy God’s blessings and protection, even in this earthly life, and that if those blessings of health or wealth or prosperity are taken away, it’s because we’ve done something wrong, or God doesn’t love us like He used to. So for Jesus to die upon the cross seemed to be compelling evidence that He wasn’t actually as perfect or as innocent as everyone thought. 

So how does the Cross of Christ change for us from being an undeniable curse into being the greatest of gifts? Only real faith and a radical shift in our perspective can allow us to persevere in seeing God’s love amid the crosses of this life, to see God’s love for us expressed in a special way even through our sharing in the trials and sufferings of Christ. For the first disciples, it took the power of the Holy Spirit to open their minds to the meaning of Scripture. It took the power of Christ’s Resurrection to lift them up from their fears. I know in my own life, I used to be afraid of becoming too holy, drawing too close to God, because I saw how much the great Saints have suffered throughout history, but the love of God transforms our sufferings. So what’s holding you back from giving yourself completely to Christ? What comfort or convenience do we still love more than we love God? 

Angels Tremble at the Sight

Bulletin Letter, Divine Mercy Sunday A

During this past week, I visited one of the classrooms for religious education. The most interesting question I was asked was how God knows us, and knows what we’re going through, what we pray for, etc. It was an interesting question to me because I don’t often think about how God knows what He knows. God knows everything because He is God, because He is Truth, and because He constantly holds everything else in existence. He can’t help but know everything as it truly is, as He gives life and being to everything in each moment. We often talk about God ‘hearing’ our prayers or ‘seeing’ our affliction, but these are metaphors that try to give expression to something that is very mysterious to us.

As bodily creatures, we come to know things through the senses, through our physical experiences of existence, through sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. And it takes time for us to learn and to improve our knowledge of existing things through repeated experience and investigation. Because our own knowledge is gradual and tied so much to the senses, it is very difficult for us to imagine a purely spiritual mode of knowledge that is immediate, unmediated by the senses and without requiring the passage of any time. But for God—who has no body and, therefore, no physical senses in His divine nature—and for the angels who are also pure spirits, their knowledge of existing things is instantaneous, complete, and immediate. We talk about a sort of spiritual sight and spiritual senses, but these are obviously very different from our physical senses. Suffice it to say that God and His angels are much better and much faster at knowing reality as it truly is, beyond all appearances.

The Prefaces of the Eucharistic Prayer often speak of the angels as those who see and tremble. Throughout Scripture, human beings who realize that they have actually come into contact with angels are terrified by the experience, but in the presence of Almighty God, it is the angels who tremble and are filled with awe, and, as expressed in the Letter of St. James, “even the demons believe and tremble” at the thought of the One God (2:19).

I wonder at what the angels must ‘see’ at Mass. Without physical senses, they are perhaps more tuned in to what is really happening. The angels see bread and wine offered upon the altar, but as the priest pronounces the very words that Jesus used at the Last Supper, “This is my Body,” and, “This is the chalice of my Blood,” the bread and wine vanish from their sight. Taking their place, the King of all the Universe, Jesus Christ, is then the only One seen upon the altar by the angels, and seeing, they tremble in His Presence. God grant us that same spiritual vision, to know by faith what angels and saints know by sight—to know, and to tremble.

Yes, Angels tremble when they see
How changed is our humanity;
That Flesh hath purged what flesh had stained,
And God, the flesh of God, hath reigned. (From a 5th century Ascension hymn)

Happy First Communion to our second graders!

Searching for Jesus

Homily, Easter Sunday A

As I think back on what Easter morning was like for me when I was younger, I always remember trying to peek into our living room where the candy was hidden, to see if I could scope out a few pieces before delivering newspapers with the rest of my family. That way, when we finished delivering papers and were finally allowed to start collecting the candy, I would already have a few spots in mind as to where to start looking. This may have been cheating, but as the youngest in my family, I had to use any advantage I could.

Easter egg hunts are still quite popular today, and the theme of searching was already there on that first Easter. The disciples were looking—not for eggs or candy—but for the Body of Jesus. Now imagine their surprise when they couldn’t find it. They knew He was dead. They saw Him die. They saw the tomb where they put Him. A dead body should not be that hard to find. It’s not like it can get up and walk off to hide itself, so imagine how dumbfounded His disciples were, when instead of finding His dead Body, it was the Risen Christ who came to find them. And as they slowly started to see and to understand what this encounter with the Risen Lord meant, the disciples would resume their search, only now, looking for something very different than before.

Now they would search all the Scriptures, to find that all the promises and prophets of God were pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus. And the disciples would search their own memories of all that Jesus said and did, and they would find that from the beginning, the ultimate goal of the life of Christ was to die upon the Cross for us, and to conquer sin and death by His Resurrection.

The disciples also found in the Risen Christ, God’s ultimate answer to all the injustice in the world. That no matter what we suffer in this life, no matter how divided our country becomes, no matter what threats of ISIS or terrorism or violence, those who seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness will be defended by God Himself, just as Jesus was raised from the dead to suffer no more. What about us? What are we searching for today? What is our ultimate goal in life? Do we seek first the kingdom of God, or are we still searching for our own kingdom, serving first our own pride and comfort, our own reputation in this life? St. Paul tells us that if we have hoped in Christ for this life only, we are the most pathetic of all people (1 Cor. 15:19). Are we really searching for the Risen and Living Lord, or still just a dead body, merely a shell of Christianity, the respectability that Christianity brings without the sacrifice that it demands? God grant that we might search less for the things of this passing world, and more and more for the Risen Life of Christ that will never pass away.

Christ Present through the Ages

Homily, Holy Thursday

Because of the words that we just heard in our Gospel reading this evening, and because in a few minutes, Fr. Cimpl and I will be washing the feet of a number of parishioners, for many of us, when we think of Holy Thursday, we think of this scene from John’s Gospel, this beautiful expression of Christ’s humble and loving service as His washes the feet of his disciples, and His command that we love one another, but the most enduring expression of Christ’s love for us is and always will be the gift of the Holy Eucharist, the gift of His own Body and Blood that He continues to give us at each and every Mass.

Beyond being the evening when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, that night of the Last Supper was when Jesus instituted the Mass and the holy priesthood. That before He went to die upon the Cross for us, He wanted to ensure that His Apostles and their successors would be able to continue to make Him present in the world, through all the ages, not just in a spiritual sense by their love and service, but also by giving them the power to change bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. What a tremendous gift, but how difficult, to really believe, that Jesus is just as present to us today, as He was to His Apostles on the night of that Last Supper. Do we believe that? Do we recognize, not what, but Who this is upon the altar, after the words of consecration?

This is only the second Holy Thursday that I’ve celebrated as a priest, but already God has poured out so many blessings upon me that I can hardly even begin to repay him for the great gift of the priesthood, for allowing me to share—and to continue in the world today—His own ministry of proclaiming the Gospel, of healing souls of their sins, of washing and bringing to new birth so many sons and daughters of God through holy Baptism, and above all of celebrating Mass, continuing to offer the one perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world. I’m very thankful for having the privilege of serving here at Holy Spirit. Please pray for your priests. We need it. And pray that reverence and worship of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist might everywhere increase, that we might continue to strive in every age to fulfill His command to love one another, even as He has loved us. Jesus Himself, present in this Eucharist, is the only One who can equip us to love like that.

Holding Nothing Back

Homily, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion A

[Very long Gospel reading (the Passion of Christ according to Matthew), so a very short homily…]

Jesus gave everything. He held nothing back in His great love for us. God’s love is without limits, unconditional, and it deserves a response from us. How do we know if we belong to God? God enables us to love Him in the same way, without limits, unconditionally, and to love our neighbor, out of our love for God. But how often is our love for God far too measured and calculated? I’ll give God an hour on Sunday and maybe a few prayers during the week, but beyond that, my time and my life are my own. Or, I’ll believe in God as long as nothing bad ever happens to me or to my loved ones, as long as we’re always comfortable. I’ll believe in God as long as I don’t have to suffer too much. How much longer will God have to wait for us? How many more Good Fridays will we need to go through before we finally surrender to His will, before we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, without limits, unconditionally, as Christ first has loved us, to live no longer for ourselves but for Him who died and rose for us? Jesus continues to give us everything in this Eucharist. He holds nothing back. And He waits for our response.

Safeguarding Our Greatest Treasure

Bulletin Letter, Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion A

I remember growing up in a small town, always leaving our car doors unlocked. I’ve even heard that in some small towns, people used to leave their keys in the car, in case someone might need to borrow it. There used to be a level of trust in the good will and common sense of one’s neighbors that might sound unreasonable to us today. Now, it seems, there’s always someone to look out for or to guard against. Having safeguards, though, is nothing new. Even from thousands of years ago, in its very practical wisdom, the Book of Sirach advises us, “But of these things do not be ashamed […] of a key where there are many hands” (42:1, 6).

Personally, I try to be rather conscientious when it comes to basic security practices, not only to protect my own property or church property and confidential records, but also to shield others from accusation. If only a limited number of people have access, then everyone else can be free from suspicion in the event of something going missing. In recent years, a number of Catholic churches in Sioux Falls have had issues with security or vandalism. Even the Adoration Sisters felt the need to move their perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament to a more secure part of the Cathedral.

In light of these events, and with a view to the liturgical laws of the Church, we’ve looked at how we might improve our security here at Holy Spirit, especially in safeguarding our most precious Treasure, the Most Holy Eucharist. Many times, I’ve gone into the adoration chapel—at hours when the outside door is unlocked—to find that no one else is there with Jesus. Simply placing a veil over the monstrance is not the same as reposing the Blessed Sacrament in a locked tabernacle. The Church’s laws and an authentically Catholic instinct have never been alright with just leaving Jesus unattended upon the altar.

Considering the many hours that remain without scheduled adorers, and wanting to provide for the times when those who are scheduled or their subs are unable to make it due to weather or other factors, we’ve come up with a rather creative solution. Exposition tabernacles have already been in use in many places. Ours will be unique in that we’ve been able to modify the tabernacle that had been used at Holy Spirit for the many years before the latest renovations. One door of the tabernacle now has a window for exposition, and a veil will cover the other door and be able to slide over to cover the window side for any times when no one is available to adore. All the while, the Blessed Sacrament will remain safe behind the lock of the tabernacle fastened to its marble stand.

I realize that many will miss seeing the beautiful monstrance in the adoration chapel and that the new arrangement will take some getting used to, but we are excited to put back into use the original tabernacle and stand and to make the monstrance available for more solemn times of exposition and benediction with the school kids on first Fridays and for the Feast of Corpus Christi. “By the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). May we always revere and keep safe our Most Blessed Sacrament.

Preparing to Meet God

Homily, Lenten Sunday 5A

I sometimes wonder if Lazarus was ever upset with Jesus, for raising him from the dead. Almost all of us only have to die once, but someday, after the events in today’s Gospel, poor Lazarus would have to die a second time. Then again, maybe Lazarus was especially grateful to Jesus that he was given a sort of practice run the first time. Do you think Lazarus might have lived any differently—after experiencing death—from how he lived before?

We’ve probably all heard of people having near-death experiences. Some of us here may have even had a few ourselves. Consistent in almost every account is that these brushes with death often bring about a change in perspective. A heightened awareness that life is really very short and that death is always encroaching, that each one of us is terminal in a very real sense, no matter how healthy we might appear to be right now, this perspective can help us to better appreciate what a great gift every moment of life is, and how so many things that we tend to worry about and put so much time and energy into are really not all that important in the larger scheme of things. Personal comfort and convenience, entertainment, nice cars and bigger houses, even our reputation and social status, all these things will be pretty useless at the moment when we stand naked before the judgment seat of God. We won’t have any excuses to hide behind, only the truth of what we did or did not do with the life and the time that God entrusted to us.

So are you ready? Am I ready? Or are there still areas of our life where we are fighting against God, insisting on our own way or the way of the world rather than following in obedience the Way of Christ and His Church, the Way of the Cross? There’s a lot of talk today about various problems in the world, but so often our focus is on the symptoms and not the actual cause. We talk about corrupt systems of government and public policy, we talk about war and violence, terrorism, disease, and disasters. Even death itself is merely a symptom. But until we actually address the real cause of life’s problems, until we see sin for what it is, as the real problem, and our rebellion against God’s design and plan for us and for His creation as the root cause of all our other ills, we will not be able to move much closer to any actual solutions, to any lasting peace.

With the time that remains in this season of Lent, let’s move beyond just working on the symptoms of our disordered lives, for a temporary, cosmetic change, and instead, invite Jesus into the depths of our hearts, into the stench of the rottenness of our sins and habits of sin, that He might set us free and raise us to new life. The time of mercy is drawing to a close, and the end approaches quickly for each one of us. The opportunity is now. Let’s not waste it.