Saturday, June 25, 2011

Claiming Jesus as our own (Reflections on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, John 6:51-58)

“Excuse me, sir. Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I didn’t know how to react when a young man approached me with that question as I waited for my flight at the L.A. airport a couple of years ago. I’m sure some of you have had a similar experience.

It’s not something you’ll hear from ordinary Catholics like ourselves. But it’s a line our born-again Christian brothers and sisters, most of whom are Protestant, often use. We Catholics, however, just don’t talk that way.

Now in case you think this to be strange, consider the fact that you'll rarely hear an evangelical Christian use terms like "Trinity" or "Incarnation", though most would hardly deny the reality of these doctrines. The fact is, the followers of Christ do have their peculiar tastes when it comes to terminology.

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I guess I just didn’t know how exactly to respond to the young man's question. If I said ‘yes’, he probably would’ve just left me alone. But that wouldn’t be telling the truth. I mean, Jesus is the most important person in my life. He is, in fact, my Lord, my God, and yes, my Savior. I wouldn’t even be preaching this homily today if I hadn’t accepted Him into my life many years ago and handed over to Him complete rein over it—just like most of us, I’m sure. But we Catholics just don’t use expressions of the sort. And the philosopher in me was not quite willing to simply reply to something without the necessary qualification. Honesty demands it.

If I said ‘no’ to the kid, on the other hand, I’m sure he would’ve started quoting bible verses, to try and convince me to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior so I can be saved - the way he believes he has been.

My mom says she has a line she uses whenever someone approaches her with that question: “Go away! My son’s a Catholic priest!” She says it works even on Mormons who knock on her door.

In the end, I told that young man that my plane was ready to board, so I got up and walked as far away as I could. I made sure there was enough distance between us that he couldn’t see me or follow me.

Why are Catholics often uneasy when they hear questions like that? Why do we avoid people who ask those questions? I asked that question in class and a student raised his hand and said: “Because they’re crazy. Or at least most of us think they are”.

Was he totally wrong? We sometimes do tend to think people who go around quoting the bible and convincing everyone to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior are just a little way out there. They’re just too much for our Catholic sensibilities.

Unlike our more enthusiastic evangelical friends, we Catholics often seem to be less expressive of our faith. We tend to live most of it “at a distance”. A little is good; but not too much. Or perhaps, as my student said, while we respect people like that man at the airport, we also think they’re a little odd, even crazy.

The interesting thing is, in today’s gospel, the Jews who were listening to Jesus felt the same way about him. They thought he was crazy.

"Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life".

Was he serious? Eating his flesh. Drinking his blood. It sure sounded strange. They couldn’t take it. They were willing enough to follow him. But once his teachings became hard to accept, they moved away and kept their distance. A little is good; but not too much.

It sort of reminds you of Catholics who ask, “How little can I do and still be called ‘Catholic’?” or “What’s the minimum I have to believe and still be ‘Catholic’?”

While we can certainly live our faith that way. It’s really not the best way. Because just as the Jews failed to understand Jesus’ teaching by refusing to go the distance, we Catholics fail to appreciate our faith fully when we are satisfied with the bare minimum.

As long as we keep our distance from Christ, we may receive his Body and Blood every Sunday, but he will always remain outside us. He will never really be part of our lives. As long as we keep our distance from Christ, we will be like the Jews in the gospel, unable to fully understand his words: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life within you”.

A person who truly receives Christ, invites him into his heart and mind, body and soul. He begins to share his life with us. Christ becomes part of our own flesh and blood. He becomes the Lord and Master of our lives.

Today, just like every Sunday, we will again receive Christ in Holy Communion. While we may never be comfortable using the words of our evangelical friends, we could still ask ourselves whether we are ready to accept and live what Communion means, which, if you really think about it, boils down to the same thing.

Receiving Holy Communion means “receiving Jesus into our lives as our personal Lord and Savior”. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you”.

Are we ready to claim Christ as our own and let Christ claim us as his own? Or do we prefer to live our faith, always at a distance?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wind beneath our wings (Reflections on the Solemnity of Pentecost, John 20:9-23)

Last Friday, the 10th of June, the heaviest and most spacious civil aircraft ever built landed at the Miami International Airport amid great fanfare and a spectacular welcome. The inaugural flight into Miami had 526 passengers. The Airbus A380 is a 237-foot long, 79-foot high, 421-ton plane that can carry as much as 150 tons.

A couple years ago, when news that these flying behemoths were finally taking to the air, a ton of articles and TV features came out showing how some of these planes would have fitness centers, health spas, conference areas and actual beds. Folks who happened to be passing by the Miami airport last Friday afternoon say it was quite a sight to see this magnificent piece of human engineering in flight and eventually landing.

I remember visiting the Smithsonian in DC and seeing the exhibit of the Wright Brothers' plane. Looking at the flimsy-looking contraption, I thought it was mind-boggling to think how aviation has come a long way from that simple plane to the airliners today that carry immense loads at top speeds.

Just think of all the weight loaded into a plane whenever you fly. It’s amazing to think that these things even get off the ground.

The fact is, every time we fly, we sit in a marvel of human technology unthinkable just a hundred years ago. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s plane traveled a total of 20 feet in 12 seconds. That airbus that landed in Miami last Friday can fly more than 6,000 miles nonstop while carrying 421 tons of weight.

But what’s even more amazing is that both the very light Wright brothers’ plane and the monstrous A380 have one thing in common that makes both of them fly. It’s the wind beneath their wings. Wind, a very simple element of nature, is at the very heart of what gives lift to these marvels of human ingenuity. We don’t even notice it most of the time. And yet it is what carries a plane, allowing it to travel in air.

And yet, wind alone isn’t enough. Wind alone doesn’t explain how planes fly. Whether a hundred years ago or today, flying, longer, heavier and faster, is a combination of two things: human power and the power of nature. Human technology and the simple elements of nature work together and produce things that seem impossible.

What’s true of flight, is true of faith. If technology and wind give flight, God’s grace and our cooperation create faith and give it flight.

Today’s Feast of Pentecost, celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The first reading tells us that after Jesus had left, they were all gathered together in one place. Imagine what the sight must have been. There they were, huddled in one room, still fearful and feeling orphaned by Jesus’ departure

They were not yet the strong and brave men and women who would one day give their lives for the faith.

Suddenly though, a mighty wind blew and the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire. Suddenly, they felt empowered. They were no longer afraid. They burst out of that dark room and began preaching the gospel.

Like the giant Airbus 380, these men and women who had heavy hearts, suddenly felt lifted up by a mighty wind. Suddenly they felt tremendous power coursing through them. They felt they could do anything. It was a truly amazing transformation!

Pentecost is a celebration of the power that God gives us, like the wind that raises a plane and gives it lift, seeming to defy gravity itself.

God’s Spirit is the wind beneath our wings. It is he who gives us courage and strength to defy great odds and do great things. It is he who empowers us.

“Receive the Holy Spirit”, Christ tells us in the gospel. If we believe in those words, we will accomplish great things. And there is no limit to the wonders God can do through us.

For Pentecost is also an invitation for us to cooperate with God’s action in our lives. It invites us to leave our own dark rooms where we lock ourselves up sometimes, just like the disciples.

And we all have our dark rooms. For some it is fear, sadness, an addiction perhaps, despair, and anger. For others it is perhaps the dark room of betrayal, frustration, loneliness, selfishness and sin. Whatever it might be, Jesus invites us today to leave that room behind.

He sends us his Spirit and commands us as he once commanded Lazarus: “Come forth”.

He says to each one of us: "Come out and leave the darkened areas of your life behind. Receive the Spirit and feel God’s power coursing through you. Receive the Holy Spirit and however heavy your burdens, they will be made light. Receive the Holy Spirit and see your spirit take flight".

Like the mighty Airbus 380, the Spirit can raise us up beyond anything we can imagine. Pentecost tells us that God has empowered us; and that power is there for our taking. Let us accept it into our hearts. So that like the disciples, on that magnificent Pentecost, we can finally leave the darkened rooms of our lives, and proclaim with all the faith, courage, and trust we the Spirit has given us: “With God I can accomplish anything”.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tasked to be witnesses in a world that longs to know Christ (Reflections on the Lord's Ascension, Matthew 28:16-20)

It has got to be one of the most difficult experiences for parents to let go of their children when the time for them to 'leave the nest' comes, to set them free, and to allow them to explore and find their own place in the world. There’s always that fear that they won’t make it, or that the world will be too hard on them. On the part of a young man or woman leaving home, the situation isn’t any easier. There’s much more excitement perhaps, but the fear and the difficulty of saying goodbye to familiar and secure surroundings is just as real.

We all know how it is and how it feels to say goodbye. At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all found ourselves saying goodbye, perhaps to a good friend who’s leaving, a parent or child, or relative who’s dying, a girlfriend or boyfriend with whom we’ve decided that things aren’t working out, or perhaps a job we’ve loved for so long but must now leave in order to seek new opportunities.

Goodbye’s are never easy; but they’re a necessary part of life. We need change in order to grow, whether as children or adults. Without change, something inside us always remains asleep.

Years ago, there was a best-selling book entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I’m sure you’ve read it, or heard of it at least—it’s a very short read. It was a fairy tale about a young seagull’s growth from childhood to adulthood.

At a critical point in the story, two beautiful white seagulls appear and tell young Jonathan that it was time for him to take an important step in his life. It was time for him to learn to fly as high as he wants. Jonathan hesitates, but the two birds insist, saying to him: “one part of your life is over; the time has come for another part to begin.”

All of a sudden, Jonathan realizes that it is indeed time for him to leave familiar surroundings and to become accustomed to flying into the skies beyond the clouds. He takes one last look at his beloved home, says goodbye to it one last time, then soars into the sky and disappears behind the clouds.

There’s a striking resemblance between stories of goodbye, of growth, of endings, and the Feast we celebrate today, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Like the young seagull in our story, like those of us who find ourselves at turning points in our lives, Jesus too, in our gospel reading today, had finished an important phase in his life and was beginning another. He was leaving his disciples behind. And yet his departure did not signal the end of his work on earth, merely the completion of its first phase. Now he begins the second phase, to be continued by those he tasked to carry on his work.

There’s a story that when Jesus returned to heaven after his resurrection, the angel Gabriel was surprised to see him back so soon. After all, he had only been on earth 33 years and that was too short a time to accomplish such a big job like saving the world.

“Back so soon?” Gabriel asked Jesus.
“Well, I would’ve stayed longer, but they crucified me”, Jesus answered.
“Oh they crucified you?” said Gabriel. “I guess that means you failed huh”.
“No”, said Jesus. “You see I gathered a small group of disciples. And I’m sending them the Holy Spirit. They’ll continue my work”.
“But what if they fail?” asked Gabriel.
“Hmm”, Jesus replied, “then I guess that’s the end of it. You see, I don’t have other plans”.

Jesus preached for only three years and to a tiny nation called Israel. Today’s feast remembers and celebrates the expansion of that work, as he commissioned his twelve disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations and promised the Holy Spirit to continue guiding them.

But now the original twelve disciples are themselves gone; leaving us, Christ’s followers today, to continue the work they had begun two thousand years ago. As Jesus depended on the twelve after the Ascension, so he now depends in a very real way, on each one of us—to witness to him through our commitment to our faith and the goodness of the lives we live.

Being a witness to Christ is perhaps as daunting and challenging in our day and age as it was for his first disciples two thousand years ago. But it is an equally consoling as well as humbling thought that like them, we do our work with the knowledge that Jesus continues to lead and guide us.

Today’s Feast is an invitation for us to give ourselves completely to making this world just a little better for ourselves and for others. It is the only way to fulfill Christ’s command to be witnesses to the gospel.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but our job, as his followers, is right here. We must continue his work, preach the Good News through our lives, fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations and trust that he will be with us “until the end of the world”.

What we celebrate today is the fact that two-thousand years ago, on the day of his ascension, Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of being his witnesses, his representatives, his instruments. We celebrate the fact that Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of completing God’s work on earth: the work of preaching the Gospel, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of caring for those who are needy, those who are oppressed, those who are in pain.

In his book "The Song of the Bird", Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who came to understand what it means to be God’s instrument.

“On the street (he relates) I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of eating a decent meal. I became angry at God and said to him: “How could you allow this to happen? What are you doing about it?” But God didn’t answer me... Later that night, God did reply, quite suddenly. “How could you say I haven’t done anything about it? I certainly did something about it. I made you”.

This is what we celebrate today, you and I, we who are the church, we share this responsibility, and no one is exempted from it. Each one of us must decide how best to carry out our part in that responsibility. Because one day, we can be certain that it is how we are going to be judged.

“Then the Lord will say to those on his right: ‘Come. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me.’ Then the just will ask him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were sick or in prison? Then the Lord will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me’."

Let us end our reflection with a prayer.

Lord Jesus,
on this feast of your ascension into heaven,
Give us new eyes to see your face in the faces of those in need.
Give us new ears to hear your voice in the voices of those who cry in pain.
Give us new tongues to tell your story to those who need to be consoled.
Give us new hearts to share your love with those who need it most.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)