Sunday, January 29, 2017

4th Sunday per annum (OF)

Christianity leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many modern people. What is it that causes this? For the majority, it is the moral life. When outsiders think of Christianity, they think only marginally of Jesus Christ and mostly about the commandments and rules. It seems as if this religion wants to regulate everything. Can there be any fun? Can there be any joy? Indeed, if you look at those considered fundamentalist or extreme, it seems that there is no joy or happiness to our religion. Why become one?
Others will try to have the joy of the Gospel without the bad aftertaste of morality. They will lay claim that Jesus didn’t want to maintain a rigid structure of rules and regulations but desired a unity founded upon love. These are the “spiritual not religious” types who prefer working in vagueness. They will point to today’s Gospel and say that these Beatitudes demonstrate that Jesus wants something different than what organized religion offers. How do we respond?
The fundamental problem that modern man has with morality is that he sees it as an imposition against his freedom. Morality does not allow him to be whatever he wants to be. While there are some people who are fine with the loss of freedom if it means they are saved, for many that are formed in this framework, the Christian moral law seems a step backwards in man’s awakening of himself. However, Christianity is founded upon a different view of freedom. For the Christian, freedom means the ability to choose without coercion the good. The Catechism describes it as is “a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness” that can only attain its perfection in God (CCC 1731).
This means that we human beings are not free to do whatever comes into our minds. It means that we were meant to be oriented towards something that would give us true joy. It means that we were meant to be with God, who is all-good and all-holy. But it also means that we need to learn what it means to grow and mature in truth and goodness. This is where the commandments begin that growth, and where the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel show the full fruit of maturity in morality.
Think about children playing in the playground. They don’t merely define the boundaries of the game - where they are playing or which direction the game goes. They also establish rules. Some of these rules are prohibitions against certain actions, but the most important rules are how the game is won. Children are naturally competitive and also naturally just; they want to see fair competition as much as possible. God does the same for the great game of our lives.
The commandments help define the boundaries of our lives - where we can go or where we should avoid going - along with being the rules for fair conduct. But Jesus offers in this Gospel account those rules that show what it means to win the game of life. We Christians can oftentimes focus too much on observing the commandments, or at least the minimal observance. We’re like children who stand at the line at the edge of the playing field, wondering what would happen if we want beyond that line. Yet the game is happening behind us, and we’re missing out.
These Beatitudes are not meant to replace the commandments but are their fulfillment. The commandments alone do not allow us to draw nearer to Christ; they are the minimal law to be a decent human being. Most of them we know and obey instinctively. But the Beatitudes are revealed by Jesus so that we may know the true purpose of this life: union with God through Jesus Christ. These promises come to fruition in those who are open to hearing them and living them freely and completely.
But who are those that can do this? Who can live out these Beatitudes and reach the kingdom of heaven? Saint Paul tells us who in our second reading when he points out who has heard and answered the call to enter into the Church. It is the poor, the weak, the humble, the nothing who can do this, because they know that God will be there to help them. Many of the first converts to Christianity were not the philosophers or politicians or nobles, but they were slaves, women, the poor - those who were nothing in ancient Roman society. Yet God demonstrates His power and His sanctification through them, revealing the marvels that are possible through His grace.
Brethren, God does not wish us to be slaves. Nor does He wish us to be adrift in the turbulent seas of doubt and arrogance in which we find ourselves today. He sends His Son to show us the way of grace and truth, the way of the commandments and the Beatitudes which lead to the kingdom of heaven. Let us humble ourselves and enter into the joyful game of Christianity, not seeking the false goods past the field line, but the truth that is meant to set us free. Let us be poor and mournful and meek, let us hunger and thirst, let us be merciful and clean and peaceable, and let us endure the persecution of the ignorant and the arrogant, just as Jesus did all of that in His earthly life. Let us learn from the divine Master the joy of the Christian moral life, so that we may receive the reward of that virtuous life: the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

3rd Sunday per annum (OF)

What does it mean to be Catholic? And why should you be one? This is a question that has probably popped up in our minds at one point or another. What is the reason behind being in this church, in this religion? Why should we be Catholic instead of Protestant? Why this instead of Judaism or Islam or any number of other religions? Why even have a religion? How many of my generation who simply abandon religion for a vague and inactive spirituality, only occasionally remembering that the deity even exists. But why are they wrong to do this, and we right to remain here?
Saint Peter in his first letter exhorts the faithful to have a reason for their hope (1 Pt 3:15). Do we know that reason in our own hearts? Or do we struggle to understand why we should even still come in here and go through the motions? We sometimes feel like people have it easy when it comes to matters of faith, as if it is natural for them whereas we cannot find the answer and wrestle over the point of maintaining these exercises. Yet the truth is that we all have our times of struggle in the faith. No serious Christian is absent from that struggle, yet that struggle can and often does lead to a stronger faith and a greater understanding of why we are here.
I offer you the best example I know of this: my own life. I was not really raised in the Catholic faith. I was baptized Catholic, and I did receive my first Communion. But my family stopped going to church when I was eight or nine, and it didn’t really change much in my life, except make Sunday open for anything else. However, as I grew up, I desired something more. I kept searching for the answer to all of this, what the point of it all is. I would stare up at the stars at night wondering if this was really everything that could be, if this empty universe truly held all the answers. It was not a satisfying answer in my mind.
It was during college that I began to look into the Catholic faith which I ostensibly belonged to. I was inspired by the witness of a few people who were Catholics and Protestants, but were deeply committed to their faith. I read, I studied, I prayed, I went to Mass for the first time as an adult. I began to find an answer that was far more complete than what I had known before. I began to know Jesus Christ. The rest, as they say, is history.
Brothers and sisters, Catholicism is not an ethnic religion. We are called to share this faith with our families, but it is not something that is merely passed down. Our faith is ultimately a choice, an individual choice concerning Christ, a choice with consequences. To help us with that choice, Jesus reveals Himself, as we continue to see in these post-Epiphany Gospel accounts, and today is no less different. Jesus calls all to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, while He also calls Simon Peter and Andrew to come after Him. Jesus does the same for each one of us, calling us to make the choice to follow after Him.
But how many people are there from our parish who have left here, either to seek Him in another church or to ignore Him altogether? How many of our brothers and sisters have left and not returned? Can we ignore them or let them wander in the dark? And what about all our separated brethren in the various churches around us who seem to imitate the Corinthians in Saint Paul’s day, as we hear in the second reading? Can we sit by and let them proclaim, “I belong to Luther”, or “I belong to Calvin”, or “I belong to Wesley”, or “I follow the true Christ”? Do we sit on our laurels and make half-hearted prayers that God converts them? And this is without even considering the poor who do not have the Gospel, the drug-ridden, the helpless among us who struggle to eke out a basic living. Who shall tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand? Who shall give them the answer which their hearts seek, as I was seeking for so many years?
Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church to be just one among many other temples and churches. He is the Light of the World, meant to draw all people to Himself. But He does not work alone; the Lord called the Apostles and the early disciples to work with Him in spreading this message of repentance and truth to all the corners of the world. Jesus still calls men and women to work with Him to bear that light of truth in their lives, no matter their vocation. Shall we hear His call and answer it? Shall we find in Him the truth our hearts have been seeking, the answer to all our questions? Shall we repent and embrace the kingdom of heaven?
Brothers and sisters, I urge you: make the choice for Christ! Let us turn to the Light of the World to receive His light and His salvation. Let us turn to Him who calls each one of us to follow after Him. Follow Him who has been the one definitive answer for so many people over the past two millennia, and will be the one answer until the last day. May we indeed desire the kingdom of heaven brought to us in Christ Jesus, and seek to share the Light with all whom we meet so that all of us may enter that kingdom which shall endure for ever.