Sunday, October 18, 2015

29th Sunday per annum - Christ our Ransom

What is always the first indication in the movies that someone has been kidnapped? The victims, those who have lost the person who has been kidnapped, receive a ransom note demanding some sort of payment or some other demand in return for the kidnapped person. If we have paid attention, we will notice the word “ransom” used quite often within the liturgy and in the Scriptures in relation to Jesus. We hear in our gospel today Jesus proclaim Himself to serve as the ransom for many.  When we reach that glorious Mass of the Easter Vigil, we will hear in the Exultet how Christ has “paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father.”  What is this ransom, what is this payment of debt?
When humanity fell in the garden due to the first disobedience of our parents, we incurred a tremendous debt towards God. This debt is the debt of sin: sin which goes against the eternal plan of divine justice and divine providence. Compounding on that first sin, humanity seemingly continued to increase that debt each time it failed to live up to the demands and the expectations of God. The more that we sin, the further we are from God and the harder it is to return to Him on our own.  In fact, the debt becomes so great but no mere human being is truly capable of freeing themselves, let alone the rest of humanity, from that debt. In the light of this, what can humanity do to be saved, to be freed and released from this debt?
This is why Jesus came into this world: Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, came so that we would be freed from this debt of sin. This debt is so tremendous, only God is capable of removing it. Yet this debt was incurred by man, and man is the one who is meant to repay the debt. This is why the Second Person of the Trinity takes on our flesh, becomes a human being like one of us. The Word became flesh so that, in the flesh, he may bring about the payment, the ransom, which sin has left upon us and which only God is able to actually pay.
This is what the prophets foretold for centuries before the coming of Christ. These prophecies see their peak in what Isaiah tells us in his writings, most especially in the passage we here today. Our first reading today comes from what is commonly called the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah, in which we hear the prophet declare that God's servant will bear the guilt of his people, so that many may be justified.  This prophecy is fulfilled in the sufferings of Christ, in the passion which he endures, which He bears for our sins. Through the sufferings of Jesus, and the willing sacrifice He offers on the cross, we are relieved of that ransom, of that debt which we had incurred.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle shows us a different side of the price Christ pays for our ransom. Jesus is seen as the true High Priest offering the sacrifice which removes all sins. Priests in every religion are constituted to offer a sacrifice to the gods to bring the people closer to the gods and to appease the gods for whatever wrongs the people have committed.  Jesus is our priest who brings us closer to God in His very being: in the unity of humanity and divinity found within Him. He is also our priest in offering up the one sacrifice that actually accomplishes this appeasement of God: Jesus offers Himself as the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Having removed this ransom which has separated humanity from God and which has kept humanity enslaved to sin, Jesus calls us back to the original divine plan for humanity: the plan for true human happiness and fulfillment. But we are still capable of putting ourselves back into that slavery to sin. We are not forced or coerced into following Christ, into obeying God. Christ calls us to follow after Him, to take up our crosses and join Him. He calls us to a life of service, not a life of ease. He calls us now to warfare, but He promises to the faithful the reward of glory.
Let us rejoice, then, in everything God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Let us give thanks to God for winning us back from sin through Christ our ransom. But let us not put ourselves back in that ransom through our obstinacy or our unwillingness to seek God's forgiveness. Let us imitate Christ in serving God through a life of obedience and humility, not desiring to be served by God, but seeking to repay, in our own way, the good which God has done for us. May we be nourished by the body and blood of Christ, the price of our ransom, so as to remain free of that ransom and to be able to win for ourselves, with the help of God, the seat which God has prepared for us in his eternal kingdom.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

28th Sunday per annum (OF) - Gaining Eternal Life

If there is one thing that we humans fear most, one thing that we truly desire to avoid, it is the reality of death.  We fear that terrible day, that day of wrath in which our souls will be separated from our bodies and we shall be no more on this earth.  We will do anything to either delay that foreshadowed meeting or to even prevent it completely.  Many physicians today offer us pipe dreams of being able to live forever while computer scientists tell us that we will be able to transcend this physical limitation and live on not in the flesh, but in the machine.  But all of these things are bound to fail, and just as the leaves this time each year change their colors and die, so too will each one of us pass and reach “the undiscovered country from whose bourn” only one traveler has returned.
Jesus never promises that we shall avoid death, but He offers to us the opportunity of gaining eternal life.  And so we hear in our Gospel a young man ask our Lord about what must be done to gain eternal life.  The initial response from Jesus is rather surprising: He seemingly rebukes the questioner for calling Him “good” and declares that “no one is good but God alone.”  Some will see this as a denial by Jesus of His divinity, but that is not the case.  It is, rather, a different way of acknowledging His divine nature.  No human being can be called completely good due to the perpetual struggle within our nature between the grace and call of God to holiness and the weight of temptation which tries to drag us down and separate us from God.  Only God is completely and essentially good because He is the source of all goodness.  To call Jesus “good” is to acknowledge that He is God: that He is the Son of the God the Father, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” as we profess every Sunday.  Since Jesus is God, He can truly be the Good Master who knows completely and from within His being the right path to eternal life.
This right path which Jesus proclaims in answer to the young man’s question seems surprisingly simple: obey the commandments.  That’s it?!? That’s all one has to do?  Yes, it is, but it is not as simple as we may think.  We must plumb the depths of the commandments to understand what God asks of us in them.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we hear Christ clarify what is meant by the commandments.  Adultery, for example, means more than avoiding the single act of adultery, but each time we engage in a lustful glance or a lustful thought, we are committing adultery.  To kill does not mean merely murder in the body but also through our words and thoughts about others and to others.  The commandments, then, must be heeded not only in letter but in spirit.
If we want to have eternal life, we must live out the commandments completely, not merely at the basic level.  What we do in this world echoes unto eternity.  Every decision we make draws us towards either heaven or hell.  Each choice brings with it the ultimate consequence: either drawing us to the good God who awaits in heaven or pushing against and away from that same God and plummeting towards hell.  Jesus throughout the Gospels never promises a free ticket to us, nor does He assure us that it will be easy.  What He tells us is what it will take to gain heaven or to lose it all in hell.
But the young man has already been doing all this, and desires more.  He senses that what he has been doing is not enough, and he is correct.  Jesus tells the young man to sell everything, give it away, and to follow Him.  What God desires most of us is a contrite and humble heart which loves God totally and completely.  A robot can obey commandments. A dog can obey commandments. It is not enough merely to obey the commandments.  Our hearts must be aligned towards God and not towards anything else.
Many people throughout the history of the Church have taken these words to their deepest meaning and have left everything to follow Christ.  Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Benedict left the world behind and retreated into the wilderness to meditate on the Scriptures and to live a life of prayer and recollection, attracting many men and women to follow them into the monastic vocation.  Saint Francis of Assisi is famous for his radical renunciation of money in favor of Lady Poverty.  While not all of us are called to this most literal of interpretations, all of us are called to live in a spirit of poverty in which we are not possessed by material goods or wealth but truly belong to God.
This is only possible through the grace of God, as Jesus affirms to the disciples.  Without God’s help, we will not overcome the weight of wealth which burdens our hearts.  With God’s help, we are able to be transformed from a people weighed down by wealth or power or fame or whatever it is which we treasure in our hearts to a people who rise to meet God face to face, loving Him who first loved us.  How great, indeed, shall be the reward for those who are free for love, free for holiness, free for eternal life!
Let us pray to God that our hearts may be purged of all that holds us down.  Saint John of the Cross wrote that
The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel 11)
May our hearts be cut by God’s grace from everything which keeps us from flying.  May we seek the aid of Mary through the Rosary in being freed from sinful possession so that we may soar up to heaven.  Let the word of God pierce our hearts so that we may be free.  Let us desire the wisdom which is worth more than silver or gold, the wisdom which demonstrates to us that the only abiding treasure we can ever possess is the infinite and loving God who offers us eternal life.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

27th Sunday per annum (OF) - On the Family

If there is one topic which has been at the forefront of disagreements with the Catholic Church in recent years, it is on the subject of marriage and the family.  The recent push to legalize and legitimize so-called homosexual marriage in this country has brought almost violent opposition to Christians in general and to the Church in particular.  We are mocked and lambasted for our beliefs and are proclaimed intolerant, backwards, or unloving.  “If two people love each other,” we are asked, “why can’t that love be formally recognized?”  It is this false premise which shows the weakness of the pro-gay marriage argument and their misunderstanding of the plan God had for humanity from the very beginning.
In our first reading, we hear the account of Genesis on the creation of man and woman.  God reveals to us that we are not meant to be alone.  The poet John Donne wrote that “No man is an island,” and indeed that is rarely how we are meant to exist.  We are meant for community, the simplest and most fundamental community being the family.  In declaring Eve as being “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” Adam shows that the two are truly and completely meant for each other and their compatibility.  It is in their differing sexes that Adam and Eve are able to start the human community in the first family.  This community begins with the man and the woman uniting themselves, or, as the Scriptures put it, the two becoming one flesh.
But Our Lord further emphasizes the value of marriage in our Gospel today.  He rebukes the Pharisees and humanity in general in the need for divorce.  It is only in the hardness of our hearts that we are incapable of living out the vocation and the sacrament of marriage.  Speaking as the One who created Adam and Eve, as the One who instituted marriage, Jesus definitively declares for all generations not only the indissolubility of marriage but also defines marriage as between one man and one woman.  He reaffirms the work begun in the garden which was disastrously affected by the fall of the first family.  Man and wife are meant to be united in marriage until death separates the two.  The virulent spread of no-fault divorce within our country has helped to bring about the devaluing of marriage as a lifetime commitment and covenant between the two and has lead to the concept of marriage as only founded upon love.
In fact, those who promote the concept of gay marriage will say use this idea to promote their perversion of marriage.  And the Church certainly affirms the value and importance of love within marriage and the family; no family can subsist without love flowing from and between each of the members.  Yet it is the definition of love which differs between us.  When the Church speaks of love, she holds up the Cross as the definition of love.  In the Cross we see the complete meaning of love found in that famous passage of St. John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is the selfless and self-giving love of God which must be the model of love within the family, not the modern definition of love which resides in an emotional connection or a rejoicing in the pleasure found in the other.
This divine love is found most within marriages and the family in the love which brings forth new life.  Jesus proclaims, “Let the little children come to me,” reflecting the command of God to our first parents to “go forth and multiply.”  Each new life brought into the world is brought forth not merely upon the foundation of love between the husband and wife, but also upon the love which is found within God Himself in His great Trinity.  The love which binds and unites the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is what has lead to the existence of the universe and, in particular, the existence of humanity, upon whom God bestows the divine image and likeness.
It is this life-giving act of creative love which separates marriage as founded by God from marriage as declared by modern man.  A marriage founded on imitating the self-giving divine love which seeks the good of the other will bring forth lives of holiness and charity, both in the couple and in their children.  Yet the modern redefinition of marriage as founded on selfish love seeks to use the partner only as a personal good, as an object of pleasure, even if it brings forth new life.  What is most repugnant about homosexual acts in general and the idea of homosexual marriage is to say that no new life can be produced from the act that is committed!  It is only pleasure which is the goal of this modern marriage, and it is the reason why so many of these marriages, heterosexual or homosexual, end so quickly.
Marriage and the family are central to the Church because it is in the family that we see reflected before us the Trinity which loves unto into existence.  To do this requires a great commitment on the part of the couple to imitate the divine love courageously every day.  Hence the seriousness of the Church in marriage preparation: the Church wishes to be certain that the man and the woman understand and accept this task with a willing heart and according to the will of God.  God does not promise that it will be easy, but He promises that He is with each couple united in the bonds of matrimony.  Just as Jesus was made “perfect in suffering,” as the Apostle reminds us in our second reading, so too are the couple made perfect in the joys and the sufferings found within marriage.
If the sanctity of marriage is to be preserved within our families, it must begin with God as being at the heart of it all.  Only in the love found within and flowing from the Trinity can the human family find the source and model of love meant for each of us.  This is found primarily through prayer.  Fr. Patrick Peyton, a religious priest of the early 20th century, coined the phrase, “The family that prays together, stays together.”  Family prayer helps foster unity and concord among each member, most especially the holy rosary.  October being the month of the rosary, let us strive to foster love of God and of the Virgin Mary in our families by praying the rosary as a family.

Let us also strive each day to accept the commitment to love our families as God desires us to love.  Let us seek to right any wrongs we have committed against one another and to heal the wounds we may have fostered against our spouses or our children.  Let us be open every day to the desires of God for our families and seek to fulfill His will for each other. If we are in irregular or unrecognized marriages, let us seek the remedies of the Church so that we may be restored to the purity and holiness God desires for each of us.  The Church certainly recognizes the difficulties of those marriages where a commitment has been under false or wrong pretenses and strives to ease this burden where it is valid.  If you are divorced and remarried outside of the sacrament, come to me and talk with me about it so that we can seek to rectify your life before God.  Let us not fall easily into the wiles of those who seek to redefine marriage for themselves, but let us strive to follow our loving God in all that He desires for us, so that we may be made worthy of joining the entire family of humanity in the glories that await us in the Father’s house.