FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD, May 29, 2019:
There is such a beautiful symmetry in our celebration today of the Ascension of Jesus. As we gather in this Church today, it has been 40 days since we celebrated the Easter Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We know that God does great things in 40s. The world was renewed through the 40 days of the flood. God’s Chosen People were prepared to enter the Promised Land through 40 years in the desert. Jesus Himself spent 40 days in the desert before beginning His public ministry. We just spent 40 days of Lent preparing for Easter and now today, 40 days later, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. As a side note, is it just me or do the 40 days of Lent feel so much longer than the 40 days from Easter to today?
Jesus appeared to His disciples for 40 days after rising from the dead. Forty days of teaching them, 40 days of being with them, and now He has returned to be seated at the right hand of His Father. And because Jesus likes to spoil us there is still more to come; 10 more days of the Easter season; 10 more days to sit and pray with the wonder of Resurrection; 10 days to ready ourselves to celebrate the arrival of Christ’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost which will then bring our Easter season to a close.
Let me say a word about ascension. In the Church year, we celebrate two feasts that sound similar – the Ascension of the Lord, and in August the Assumption of Mary, when she returned bodily to Heaven. So, what’s the difference between Ascension and Assumption? Well, it all comes down to who does the heavy lifting. Since Jesus is God, He does not need to be taken up – or assumed – into Heaven. He has the power to do this on His own, so under His own power, He simply ascends to Heaven. Mary of course, is not God, and does not have that power to ascend on her own. Someone else must bring her to Heaven and so God assumes her body and soul into Heaven. The same activity, but a different active party. But, they both point to the same reality – that we are all destined for Heaven; that Heaven is our truest home; that when we are saved, when we achieve the Kingdom that God has prepared, we will all be re-united in Heaven.
There is a story about the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton. After his conversion to Catholicism, a friend of his asked a simple question, “Now that you are a Catholic, what do you want to be?” Merton said simply, “I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” His friend said, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint!” Merton said incredulously, “How do you expect me to become a saint?!” His friend responded, “By wanting to. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don't you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
My friends, we don’t gather here to simply commemorate Jesus journey to the Father. We gather tonight in anticipation of our own sainthood. In one of his last statements before retirement, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us of just this. He said, “You were made for greatness!” Pope Francis has also picked up the theme, saying, “Do not be content to live a mediocre Christian life: walk with determination along the path of holiness.” If we believe all that we have heard these last 40 plus days – the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus – if we believe that He did those things for us then we must also believe that just as He returned to the Father in Heaven, we will too. And if we believe that we will return to Heaven; then we believe that God desires to make us saints because that is all that a saint is – someone who’s worthy of life in Heaven. Let us desire to be saints!
Jesus shows us what is possible if we live in His love, live in His ways. He gives us a command, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” It is as simple as that. Our mission is to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone. We’re called to remember our commission; we’re called to be renewed in that mission today; to evaluate our lives in the light of that mission. After all, that is the only criteria for a successful life that matters. It doesn’t matter how much money we make or things we accrue. God’s only question will be how have you loved? How have you lived the Gospel, preached the Gospel in word and in deed? Have you desired to be a saint? Let us walk with determination on the path of holiness so that where Jesus has gone, we too may follow.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 26, 2019:
There was a man who wanted to tell soldiers on a military base about Christ's love for them. But, he was prohibited from going on the base to spread his message. So instead, he came up with a creative solution. He had several thousand hand mirrors delivered as gifts to the soldiers. On the back, was the message from John 3.16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” A message below that text read, “If you wish to see whom God loves, turn to the other side.”
In our Gospel today, Jesus also gives us a mirror of sorts to remind us of His love for each us. As Jesus nears the events that will lead to His death on the Cross and Resurrection, He reminds us that He will never leave us alone. Instead, He will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will always be by our side. Jesus says these words in the sermon that we find in John’s Gospel during the Last Supper. He announced His impending departure and this left the disciples nervous, anxious, even afraid. But, Jesus made sure they knew that what He had begun in them would continue – through this gift of His Holy Spirit.
And He gives a specific name to the Holy Spirit. He tells them He will send “The Advocate.” This names comes to us from the Greek, Paraclete which literally describes someone who is called to stand beside a client; what we would think of as an attorney. But this Advocate is much more than an attorney. Probably the best word that we use today that captures the meaning is “coach.” The Advocate is our coach, always by our side, to instruct and correct us when we make mistakes, to encourage and motivate us when we feel down, to challenge and inspire us to be the best we can be, to defend us and fight for us when the world is unfair. In short, the Advocate is for us what Jesus was for the disciples.
Why do we need an Advocate? For the same reason that athletes and sports people need coaches. No matter how good they are, athletes always need coaches. Even Dustin Pedroia, JD Martinez, and Mookie Betts – all need a coach to help them be the best players they can be. The same is true for us. Left on our own, we are prone to mistakes and errors. Without God we can do nothing. We need an Advocate who brings out the best in us, and keeps us on the path that God wants us to be on.
In the 5th century, there was a British thinker named Pelagius who taught that human beings have the ability to fulfill God's commands all by themselves. The church condemned his teaching as heresy, insisting that we always need God's grace in order to fulfill His will. Pelagianism is the belief that we can fulfill our destiny all by ourselves, and that we don’t need the grace of God that comes through faith, prayer, the sacraments, or the church. It’s obvious today that Pelagnianism isn’t relegated to the 5th century. It’s alive and well today. Many people today are Pelagians without even knowing it. Too many people today think they can live their lives without God, without the sacraments, without the church. Pope Francis addressed this last summer. He said, “Prevalent in the church are many new forms of Pelagianism. There is no room for God and God’s grace in this framework. Salvation and holiness get reduced to our own power, success, and action.”
Jesus reminds us that we stand in constant need of divine help. We all need the divine Helper, the Holy Spirit who stands always by our side, the Advocate. We receive this all-important Advocate by striving to live according to the law of Christ, as He said today, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our dwelling with them.” After the Ascension of Our Lord, the disciples “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” retired to the upper room to wait and pray for the promised Holy Spirit. We cannot do better than follow their example. We must do as they did and invite this Advocate into our lives. The Holy Spirit will not enter uninvited. He waits for an invitation. But, once invited, He will lead us into truth. He guarantees we are God's children. He helps us pray. He offers us hope. He empowers us to help other believers. He aids us to be like Him. He gives us spiritual strength.
Pope Francis said, “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” God wants us to be saints, and He sends us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to lead us and guide us and inspire us on that journey to holiness.
A poet sums up the Spirit well: “Eternally the Holy Spirit is love between the Father and the Son but historically the Holy Spirit is love between God and the world.” Come, Holy Spirit, the Advocate, into our lives and help us to be saints!
May the Lord give you peace.
HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 19, 2019:
Consider this statement, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This is a quote by Dorothy Day, the holy woman who was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who lived a life dedicated to reaching out to those whom society had cast off. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Or as Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” Let those words ruminate as we unpack today’s readings.
As much as Easter is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season also focuses our attention on another central figure, St. Paul and the life-changing effect of his encounter with the Resurrected Christ. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he established are read most Sundays throughout the year.
I think that the church gives us Paul during the Easter season as a point of connection between the great events we recall from so long ago and our own life here today. In other words, we are Paul. We relate to him in his struggles, in his doubt, even in his disbelief. And, if we can relate to him in those moments, then we can perhaps also relate to him in his conversion; we can relate to him in his zeal to grow in faith, and to share that faith with anyone he encountered. Our life of faith, after all, is not about a life of perfect adherence from womb to tomb. God knows that we often struggle with our faith; struggle with our practice; struggle to maintain God’s place in our life. We are in need of constant resurrection, newness, constant change, constant return. And Paul reminds us that this is okay. That no matter how far away we sometimes feel from God, we can always return. There is no place that is too far from God for us.
When we encounter St. Paul in Acts, he was still a fresh convert to the faith and new at being a Christian. Previously, he was the chief persecutor of these new Christians. Elsewhere Acts tells us that Paul had been “breathing murderous threats” against the followers of Jesus. The early Christian community knew who this guy was and what he did. Nobody trusted him. They even feared him. That brings us back to Dorothy Day, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
This very mean Paul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, of course, he had a direct encounter with the Risen Jesus, so stunning that we’re told that the encounter knocked Paul to the ground. But, it wasn’t just that moment that changed everything. There was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more in him. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul and his conversion. Today’s reading shows them together proclaiming the good news. Without Barnabas, there would not be a St. Paul. After Paul’s conversion, Barnabas became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. Barnabas embraced this man everyone else feared because he knew with God all things would be possible. Barnabas personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Years later, when Paul wrote his famous passage to the Corinthians about love – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I think he was really talking about this kind of love. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Paul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner, a persecutor, even a Christian-hunter, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul who through this encouragement grew into the Saint Paul we revere.
To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too, it can raise us every day – right out of whatever weighs us down.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into holiness and a saintly life. “As I have loved you, so you should also love one another.”
My friends, let us pray today that we too might be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else, for those who are far off, for those who no one else seems to love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement making our way to Heaven and bringing everyone else along with us.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER (GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY), May 12, 2019:
As a teenager, I was not terribly strong in my faith. In fact, I had only the merest spark of faith. A well-named Doubting Thomas, I simply did not yet know the Lord in any real or personal sense. But, then in my early 20s, I felt drawn for the first time in my life to the Mass and specifically to the Eucharist. And when I began going to Mass, I started to have powerful experiences of God’s true presence there. The Mass began to speak to me in ways it never had before. I felt the presence of Jesus that I had never felt before. I remember receiving the Eucharist at one of these Masses and in a spiritual sense this was my first Communion because it was the first time that I truly believed and knew in my heart that this was Jesus; and that He was real. And when I met Him personally, for the first time, in that Eucharist, He began to show me who He wanted me to be. It was through meeting Jesus in the Eucharist that I discovered my vocation, my calling, my place in God’s Kingdom.
“I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” Jesus today tells us something so essential about who He is and about our relationship with Him. Jesus shows us in this simple image that He does not want to interact with us in a hierarchical way – top down; but He wants to interact with us in a relational way, in an intimate way. As Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel, “Yet not one of you has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” God loves us specifically, personally, individually, intimately. Jesus reminds us that what He wants more than anything is to know us, and that we intimately know Him.
When Jesus uses this image of the Shepherd, it is an image the people of His time would understand well. In Jesus’ time, there were basically two kinds of shepherds. First, there was the hired hand for whom keeping the sheep was just a job. He moved from flock to flock depending on the conditions of service and he would not risk his life for them in a dangerous situation. Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same sheep all his life. He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and knows everything about each of his sheep. He knows which ones are strong, which are weak; which ones might stray from the flock and would keep an eye on them. When in danger, he would risk his life to defend his sheep.
Jesus tells us that this is the kind of shepherd He is. He knows each one of us individually. He knows the cares and concerns of our lives. He knows our needs. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows what we can be. And this is where our personal stories intersect with the Good Shepherd, and with what we gather for here today – this Eucharist. It is here in this and every Eucharist that we encounter our Good Shepherd who wants to show us who we are called to be in God’s sight.
But we need to listen to what God is saying to us. “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.” Of course God knows us intimately, but we must take the time to get to know God just as intimately. “My sheep know me.” God can only reveal His plan for our lives if our eyes are open, our hearts are tuned, and we are seeking that answer, that direction. Our challenge is to create environments that allows us to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, so that we can follow where He leads.
The Good Shepherd is calling all of us to something, and the answer to what that is lies right before our eyes in the Eucharist. St. Claire of Assisi would say that the Eucharist is a kind of mirror for us. The more we gaze into that mirror, the more we will see what God is asking of us reflected back. Her prayer before the Eucharist was always, “Gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate Christ.” It is a reminder that we may begin today on the surface merely gazing, but the more deeply we look into Jesus, the more we will eventually reflect Him to the world.
St. Francis of Assisi said, “You are what You are before God. That and nothing more.” And nothing less. The Good Shepherd helps us to see ourselves through the eyes of faith – as God’s sons and daughters. In this Mass we discover that identity. Receiving the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, tells us something about Jesus, but also something about ourselves. When we enter into that personal relationship with Jesus that we can only have in the Eucharist, Jesus helps us to discover who He calls us to be. In fact, we are never more clearly ourselves than we are right here; gathered around the Table of the Lord for the Eucharist. If you want to know what Jesus asks of you; if you want to know what Jesus wants you to do; if you want to know your truest destiny – meet Jesus here and he will reveal it to you.
“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep, and my sheep know me.”
May the Lord give you peace.