Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday

                                    Easter Sunday

The Risen Lamb
Assumption Church, Fairfield CT
Click to enlarge*

The Church uses many different readings on Easter. The Vigil Mass has seven readings from the Old Testament; St. Paul's famous letter to the Romans--"Christ raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him:" and St. Luke's account of the empty tomb. "Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised." In the afternoon Mass we will have the account of the risen Lord's appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

This morning's Mass, however, begins with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching. Remember how prominently Peter appeared in the readings during Holy Week. Last Sunday he told Jesus that he would follow Him to prison, even to death. But our Lord predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock crows. Peter's subsequent denial is one of the few things reported in all four gospels.

Today it's a different Peter. He gives as good an account of the life and work of Jesus as you will find anywhere. Then he bears witness to His Resurrection,

            This man God raised on the third day and granted
            that He be us,...
            who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.

Finally, he makes the claim "that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name."

However, it's easy to imagine that Peter might have felt differently after the death of Jesus. He didn't know how the story was going to come out.What was there to believe? As St. John says in today's gospel, "they did not yet understand the Scripture that He had to rise from the dead." Not only had his Lord been brutally tortured and killed, but Peter had also turned his back on Jesus. He especially could have no hope of a resurrection or new day.  Wouldn't Peter think that his own sin, his own lack of faith could never be forgiven?

Then Mary Magdalene comes rushing in on the first Easter Sunday morning to tell them that the tomb is empty. Fearing that the Lord's body had been stolen Peter and John race to the tomb only to find the burial cloths neatly rolled up with no evidence of foul play. St. John tells us that "he saw and believed." St. Luke tells us that Peter was "amazed."

Is this why we're all here today on this Easter Sunday morning? Are we all here today to peer inside the empty tomb? The empty tomb itself means nothing. As St. Luke said last night we will not find our Lord among the dead. It's His appearances that matter. Over the next fifty days we'll hear about all of His appearances. He'll appear to Mary Magdalene in the garden; to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; to the Apostles in the upper room; to doubting Thomas; to the fishermen in Galilee; and to countless other witnesses. Finally, His Holy Spirit will come upon them at Pentecost..

As we listen to these witnesses we'll have to examine our own belief. After all, St. Paul said that "if Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain." In other words if Christ is not risen, there will be no resurrection for us. However, maybe some of us feel like we're in the same position as Peter. Maybe doubts have crept in, maybe we're too secure, maybe something has caused us to deny our Lord and turn our backs on Him.

The only way to rekindle our faith is to act differently. We have to realize that like the Apostles we are called to be witnesses of the Risen Christ. St. Paul calls us the "yeast" that leavens the dough. In our own little way each of us is called to bring Christ to each other. Last week during the reading of the Passion, our Lord said to Peter;

            Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded
            to sift all of you like wheat,
            but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail;
            and once you have turned back,
            you must strengthen your brothers.

The little Albanian nun who became Mother Teresa did not wait for someone else to pick up that little deserted child in the street and bathe his sores. She saw the Risen Christ in him and in all the others she helped. Did the young Polish priest who became John Paul II ever imagine when he took his first vows that he would bring the Risen Christ to more people than all the previous Popes put together?

The word "Easter" comes from a Germanic goddess of spring. Latin peoples use the word pasqua from the Jewish pasch or passover. When the Germanic peoples were converted the Church wisely associated the word for Springtime with the feast of the Risen Lord. All around us new life is springing from the dead of winter. And so, as St. Paul says,

            let us celebrate the feast,
            not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
            but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Reading 1. Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Reading II. Colossians 3: 1-4 or
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
Gospel. John 20: 1-9 (Easter).

* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Lord's Passion

Jesus Condemned by Pilate
Station 1: Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*
 Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

At the blessing of the palm branches before Mass began today we heard the famous account of the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Luke uses words similar to those which he had used to announce the birth of Jesus. The crowd proclaims:

       Blessed is the king who comes
       in the name of the Lord.
       Peace in heaven
       and glory in the highest.

It's hard not to wish that the story had ended here. The hero rides into town after preaching his wonderful message, healing the sick, and even raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead, and then receives a hero's welcome. We can all live happily ever after. Why does He have to go though with the Passion? Why does there have to be a "Passion of the Christ?"

In our society today we spend billions of dollars every year trying to make our lives free of pain and suffering. Our drugstore aisles are full of painkillers; we go to Florida in the winter to avoid the cold; we would not think of buying a house or car without all the latest labor saving devices. We try to dull our psychological pain with drugs, both legal and illegal. We also shrink from spiritual pain.

For example, many regard Jesus primarily as a teacher, a good man whose words provide valuable advice for all whether religious or otherwise. Others see him as a kind of social worker who as St. Peter said, "went around doing good works." They see Him as providing an example for all in His care for the poor and the downtrodden. However, we can not regard Jesus as a loving teacher and caring brother and then shrink from the Jesus that is presented to us in today's readings.

As we enter into Passion week we will have to face the "suffering servant" presented to us in today's first reading from Isaiah:

       I gave my back to those who beat me,
       my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
       my face I did not shield
       from buffets and spitting.

We heard in the reading of the Passion that Jesus found it necessary to take up his Cross. He had warned us of this a few weeks ago at the Transfiguration, and told us that we would also have to take up our own crosses. Today's reading starts with the account of the Last Supper. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the Apostles, and said,

       This is my body, which will be given for you;
       do this in memory of me."

Then he took the cup and said:

       This cup is the new covenant in my blood'
       which will be shed for you."

His Body and Blood will be shed for us. From day one Christians believed that this sacrifice was the central part of their faith. Almost immediately after His death and resurrection they began to come together to bless the Bread and Wine and remember him. They believed as we still do today that the same sacrifice He offered on Calvary is still offered in every Mass. Of course, we don't believe that our Lord suffers over and over again. We believe that the Mass that we offer today is one and the same with the sacrifice He offered on Calvary. This is why we fill our churches with reminders of His Passion. Look at the Stations, the Windows and see the symbols of his journey to Calvary.

St. Paul always said that he preached "Christ crucified." In today's second reading he says that our Lord "humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."  The teaching of our Lord and the example He set is this--without suffering, there is no resurrection.

Christ Laid in the Tomb
Last Station: Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Luke 22: 14-23:56 (Passion)
Gospel at the Procession. Luke 19: 28-40.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Woman Caught in Adultery

                           5th Sunday of Lent

Remember last week when we read the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father said to his other son,

         we must celebrate and rejoice,
         because your brother was dead
         and has come to life again;
         he was lost and has been found.

That same theme is continued in today's readings. Isaiah speaks of the desert coming to life again in the same way that our own streets and yards are coming to life again now that springtime is beginning to flower and the dead of winter seems to be over. Isaiah tells the people of God to forget the past for the Lord is "doing something new."

Woman Caught in Adultery

If the subject of last week's gospel was the Prodigal Son, this week's could be the Prodigal Daughter. However, the story of the woman caught in adultery is not a parable. It is a real life occurrence with life and death consequences. Jewish law required that a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death. If she was married or engaged the man involved would also be put to death. If she was unattached, the man usually got off unpunished.

People in the ancient world did not think such discrimination unfair. This is one of the ways in which the teaching of Jesus represents such a break with the world before Christianity. Jesus and his followers raised women to equality with men and held men to the same standard.

In today's touching story Jesus literally saves the life of the accused woman. Next year at this time the reading for the 5th Sunday in Lent will be the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In many ways today's story is just as miraculous. Do you recall another incident where Jesus was dealing with a paralyzed man. He told the poor man that his sins were forgiven but the onlookers murmured in disbelief. In reply, he asked them what was easier to do--to forgive sins or to work a miraculous cure? To prove that he had the power to do both he told the man to pick up his mat and walk.

Today, he saves the woman's life by freeing her from her accusers. "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he saves her life from her past. St. John tells us that when the crowd drifted away Jesus was left alone with the woman. This is probably one of the few times in the gospels when Jesus is left alone with anyone. Now it was a scandal in those days for a Jewish man, especially a rabbi, to converse in public with a woman. Nevertheless Jesus speaks with her.

Let's put ourselves in the picture and imagine that we are the woman. He asks, "Has no one condemned you?" We reply, "No one, sir." Then he wipes the slate clean. The past is forgotten, and a new life can begin. He says,

         Neither do I condemn you.
         Go, and from now on do not sin any more.

We live today in awe of psychology and psychoanalysis. Practically everyone who writes to Dear Abby or Ann Landers is told to see a counselor. Unfortunately too many of those counselors only encourage people to go back into the past and find the hidden causes of all their problems. Maybe you had an abusive or neglectful father, maybe a domineering mother. We are told that we cannot get on with our lives until our past life is encountered. For some people this means that they will never escape their past and the wrongs that they have committed or the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them.

This is why we should take a few moments to revisit today's difficult second reading from St. Paul. For Paul there is no looking back. All his past life, his training, his accomplishments, even his sins, he has come to regard as "so much rubbish." Like Isaiah, like the woman caught in adultery, he has been given a new life. He doesn't claim to be saved like a born again Christian. Rather, he has been given a chance to begin a new life. It will not be easy, he will have to endure suffering, he will make mistakes, and it will take a lifetime.

         Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
         but straining forward to what lies ahead,
         I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
         the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus. 

Reading 1. Isaiah 43: 16-21
Reading II. Philippians 3: 8-14
Gospel. John 8: 1-11 (Woman caught in Adultery).            

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Prodigal Son

                           4th Sunday of Lent

Now that we are more than half way through the penitential season of Lent, the Church interjects a moment of joy into the season. Today is traditionally called "Laetare" Sunday from the Latin word for joy. Just as he does on the third Sunday in Advent the priest will put aside his purple vestments signifying sorrow and penance and put on the pink or rose vestments which symbolize joy. Today we get a glimpse of the joy that will be experienced when we reach our final goal.

The first reading from the book of Joshua indicates that the people of God after 40 years of wandering in the desert have finally reached the promised land. Slavery in Egypt, that land of shame and depravity, has been left behind. The Lord tells Joshua, "I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you."

The theme of reconciliation and joy is continued in today's gospel account of the Prodigal Son. Try to think of a story in all of human literature that is more famous or well-known than this one. Take a moment.... War and Peace? I don't think so. Little Red Riding Hood? No. Hamlet? Who? Harry Potter? I'm sorry but no one will remember or read it 20 years from now. The Good Samaritan? Close, but I still give the nod to the Prodigal Son. Here we are in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of another Springtime, and the Church pulls out of its seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove, the greatest story of them all.

It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."

Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that  I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."

Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?

         Look, all these years I served you
         and not once did I disobey your orders;
         yet you never gave me even a young goat
         to feast on with my friends.
         But when your son returns
         who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
         to him you slaughter the fatted calf."

Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians is also about reconciliation. In fact, Paul says that God has "given us a ministry of reconciliation," and that He is "entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." Paul calls us "ambassadors for Christ."  Now in days gone by communication and transportation were no where near as quick or easy as they are today. In those days ambassadors played a much more important role than they do today. They stood in the place of the King or ruler who sent them. When they pled the case of the King in a foreign land, it was understood that it was the king himself who was speaking. An embassy was regarded then as it still is today as a part of the home country. That is why in diplomacy an attack on an American embassy abroad is the same as a direct attack on America.

As ambassadors of God we have a really important role. We represent Christ to the world about us. The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was converted by them. Our inheritance is not money or wealth. It is the gifts or talents that have been given us by God. Lent is the time for us to be reconciled to the Father so that we can take our part in restoring all things to Christ. ###

Reading 1. Joshua 5: 9a
Reading II. 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 (The Prodigal Son).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Parable of the Fig Tree

                                    3rd Sunday of Lent: C cycle

In today's first reading from the Book of Exodus we have the famous story of Moses and the burning bush. The Lord calls Moses from the fiery bush and tells him that He intends to free the people from their slavery and bring them to the promised land. Moses, however, is afraid that the Israelites might reject this news as well as his own leadership for the people would want to know who is sending him to lead them on this perilous journey. He says to the Lord, "if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?"

As we enter deeper into the holy season of Lent we should put ourselves into the place of the Israelites and ask the same question. First we must know that it was considered impious for an Israelite to even use the name of God. We find it easy today, for reasons we shall see later, but for the Jew it was a dangerous expression of familiarity. To ask the name of God was really to ask, Who or What are you?

God's reply, "I am who am," is best left to the theologians for an explanation. We can only imagine that Moses must have felt that he had encountered something that he had never heard of before in the land of Egypt. He could no longer believe that there were many gods, or that God was a kind of nature god like Zeus or Neptune. Still less could he believe God could be some kind of idol. Even today we still have childish or hopelessly inadequate notions of who God is. For many of us the God of Moses and the Israelites is the Father, pictured by artists as an old man with a long white beard. It's hard to get this image out of our minds. Some even lose their faith because they can only imagine God as an angry, vengeful power ready to zap us as soon as we step out of line.
Some people like to take natural catastrophes or great human tragedies like 9/11 as signs that an angry God is punishing us. Our Lord specifically rejects this superstition in today's gospel. Our Lord says that the Galileans whose bodies were cruelly desecrated by the Roman governor were not necessarily sinners. Often the good will meet the same fate. In the same way our Lord (who seems well up on the news of the day) indicates that those poor people who were killed when a tower fell on them were by no means "more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem."

In other words when tragedy strikes, whether natural or man-made, we should be careful not to draw the wrong lesson. Our Lord knows that we live in a dangerous world and that bad things can happen to us. He is telling us to live each day or year as if it will be our last and to make the most of it.

To drive the point home, our Lord tells the parable of the fig tree that would bear no fruit. This story always reminds me of something that occurred in my own life. Years ago I had an elderly Italian man as a client. Periodically I would visit him and his wife at their home to go over their financial situation. Like many Italians he loved his garden. His prize possession was the largest chestnut tree that I have ever seen. One day I happened to tell him that I loved chestnuts or castagnas and he gave me two little shoots to plant in my own back yard. I did and within a few years they had both grown to a good height. As the years went by however they bore no fruit and so one day I mentioned it to my client and he offered to come up and have a look at them. After I showed him the shells with no fruit inside, he walked around the trees a bit and said practically the same thing that the gardener said in today's parable:

            "leave it for this year also,
            and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
            it may bear fruit in the future."                 

To make a long story short, it worked and the tree began to bear fruit. Unlike the people we read about in today's newspapers, we have been given another chance to bear fruit. The time of Lent coincides with the coming of Spring. How many of us will be  buying our lawn fertilizers, and getting out our spreaders in the next few weeks? What's the best kind of fertilizer to get for our souls?

Being born Catholic is not enough. Reception of the sacraments in our youth is not enough. St. Paul tells us in the second reading of the Israelites who perished in the desert even though they had been baptized, and received the same spiritual food, and  the same spiritual drink. Just as we know that every year the lawn and the hedges are going to come up again, we know that life will present us with problems and opportunities each and every year.

In sports, last year's champion often fails to even make the playoffs this year. In business, your sales goals are reset every year and it doesn't matter what you did last year. Children, you might have been a big shot in junior high but now you are a lowly freshman in high school.

Therefore, let's take stock of our situation this Lent and start by being thankful that we have been granted another year to bear fruit. Because our Lord took flesh and died for our sins, we can now feel free to call Him by name. He is the gardener waiting to fertilize us with His grace. Let's follow St. Paul's advice:

            Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
            should take care not to fall.

Reading 1. Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Gospel. Luke 13: 1-9. (the unfruitful fig tree).