No Fooling! He Is Risen! Truly Risen!

This reflection is for Easter Sunday – The Resurrection of the Lord, Cycle B, 4/1/2018.

resurrection

Have you heard the Good News?! He is risen! No fooling, really, Jesus the Christ has conquered the grave! Death could not hold him. He has been raised by the glory of the Father! He is risen and the world will never be the same again! Today we celebrate the foundational proclamation of our faith in who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what that means for us and the whole world, namely, redemption, reconciliation, and salvation in the name of Jesus!

In his book, More Than A Carpenter, Josh McDowell (who follows the logic and repackages Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis) lays out the reason for our belief in the resurrection. He says that the world is confronted with three basic questions about Jesus’ person. Jesus, according to these authors, is either a liar, a lunatic, or indeed the Lord and savior of the universe. Also, you might like reading, The Case For Christ, by Lee Strobel, as he lays out the reason that lead him to an obvious conclusion–Jesus is Lord. All of these books seek to provide reasons to believe the testimony of those who were there. Their claim, of course, is that Jesus was more than a good man, more than a prophet, more than a miracle worker; he was, as they claim and as we believe, the Lord and savior of the human race.

I was quite surprised last week when one of my students asked me not if Jesus was God, but whether or not Jesus ever even really existed. Really? Is this what fake news has done to a generation of youths? Have we come to a point where a person’s physical existence is now even in doubt? What’s next, did Abraham Lincoln really ever exist?  If I’ve never met him, shouldn’t I have reason to doubt whether he ever was at all? Actually, there are a  number of extra-biblical accounts of Jesus’ true existence (Click here for an article with sources), but His being Messiah, and Lord, the Christ, is a matter of faith through reason. Not faith without reason, but instead we believe it is very reasonable to profess the faith of the Church, that Jesus triumphed over the grave and is Lord.

In fact, today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles seeks to offer the first reasoned response and a simple yet thorough explanation of the whole Gospel! According to Acts,

“Peter proceeded to speak and said: ‘You know what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.'”

That’s it! That’s the whole thing! Jesus is the anointed one of God (the Greek word for anointed is Christos, hence, Jesus the Christ), who came to earth filled with the Spirit and with power to do good by conquering evil wherever he found it! Peter says that he and the other apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ life, actions, and teachings, and most importantly stand as a witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He makes it clear that after Jesus rose FROM THE DEAD they broke bread together! That’s not a small matter! So, yes! Jesus really did exist. And yes! he was crucified and rose again! And, yes! the apostles and many others ate, drank, and walked with him–as all of the Gospel options for today’s Mass make quite clear (cf. John 20:1-9, Mark 16:1-7, Luke 24:13-35).

But I think the most important part for all of us is in the last few lines of Peter’s exhortation, namely, that Jesus commissioned them (and us) to preach to people and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead, and that everyone who believes in Jesus, will receive forgiveness of sins in his name. There is nothing that matters more than this simple truth. Sin causes separation from God and from others. It causes divisions within our selves and in our communities–but through Jesus, we can be reconciled within ourselves, within our families and communities, and in our world.

The message of wholeness and redemption is needed more today than ever. Young people and veterans are committing suicide in staggering numbers. Twenty-two veterans take their life each day in this country! Shocking amounts of young people need mental health counseling and drug and alcohol counseling. School shootings have become common place. Over half of marriages end in divorce, over three thousand abortions per day in the U.S., young people are being manipulated and abused through human trafficking, and countries never cease to do violence to humanity and the earth. In sum, we need Jesus. We need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We need those who are willing to courageously share Jesus with everyone they meet. We need evangelists today more than ever! Are you in?

The resurrection of Jesus is still Good News for so many living in darkness–but we who call Him Lord need to take that message of redemption, wholeness, and reconciliation to the world! Sin is real. Name it. Forgiveness of sin is real. Name Him and receive Life–and Life Eternal. Share that good news with someone today. Happy Easter everyone. He is risen. He is truly risen!

God Bless, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Faith That Works!

This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 3/11/18.

I once had a Catholic High school student who, while smiling fromar to ear, told me that she finally understood how our life on earth corresponded to our future in heaven. She had just returned from the college counselor with exactly which courses must be taken in high school to get her into the college of her dreams.

She said, “Mr. Valgos, I finally get it! While on earth we’re supposed to do all the right things: receive our Sacraments, go to Church, go to a retreat or two, says our prayers, go to confession, and help out at the homeless shelter, and by doing all of those things–just like taking all my necessary classes for college–we get into heaven when our time on earth is over!”

I said, “Congratulations, Haley! You’ve got it exactly right with regard to college, and exactly backwards with regard to heaven! I went on to tell her and the rest of the class that salvation isn’t something earned and owed to us by God for all the work we do here on earth. I told Haley, that that kind of attitude would attempt to place a claim on God. God would OWE us! The Creator would be a debtor to the creature!

No, salvation is not something owed to us by God (as though we could ever do enough to earn it!) but is instead pure gift from a loving, generous, and merciful God. God is crazy about us, but because of sin, we owe a debt that simply cannot be paid. The debt we owe is indeed paid–though not by us–but rather by God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Our only rule: to accept God’s offer, repent, and believe in this good news!

Today’s Gospel tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (JN 3:16-17)

I told Haley that in order to better understand salvation she might consider how amazing it would be if the college of her dreams contacted her during her 8th grade summer to give her not just acceptance into the school, but also free tuition, free books, and even free parking! The only stipulation is that she be willing to accept this amazing offer and then share with others how amazing this college is and how happy she is to be going there. That’s salvation!

We call the generous action of God “grace.” A priest friend of mine once explained to my 8th-graders that grace is “friendship with God.” We didn’t do anything to deserve it, but God freely offers it anyway. And our response to that offer of friendship is faith. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians stands as a witness to these truths taught by the Church. Paul teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” (2:8-9)

Faith is the relationship we have with the invisible God. Like any relationship, faith can be nourished through spending quality time, reading stories about that person, getting to know others who know him, serving him, and communicating with him. The relationship of faith, like a mustard seed, may start out so totally small, but in time we discover that it is has grown so much that it provides comfort and peace not only to ourselves but to those around us as well.

I asked Haley about what she thinks she might do, in our scenario, with the time she was given between her having been accepted into the college of her dreams and her actually first starting the school four years later. She said she would work her butt off making sure she was ready when the day came to leave! She would show her appreciation for the generous gift by learning everything she could in the short time she had. She wouldn’t want to squander a moment that she had left. Exactly. And neither should we.

God gives us an amazing gift of salvation based only on his generosity and love–not based on anything we have done or could ever do. That’s amazing grace! We respond in faith by believing, repenting, and loving him and our neighbor. Love lived out toward God and neighbor is hard work! Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, obedience, and sacrifice is the work of salvation. Not the work that earns salvation, but the work we do because of the gift of salvation through Christ Jesus, our Lord.

St. Paul, in the very next verse in Ephesians 2 says this, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (2:10)

God has called us into his light by grace, through faith, to do good works. And therein lies salvation and the response. What an amazing gift. Sadly, however, as the Gospel clearly shows in its final verses of today’s reading, “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil…But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (JN 3:19, 21)

So, it’s not a matter of works or no works, but what type of work will we do. We’ve been saved. Do good work. Don’t wait. You may be leaving for the college of your dreams soon. No time to lose.

God bless, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

The Commandments: Heaven’s Runway

This reflection is for the 3rd Sunday in Lent,Cycle B, 3/4/2018.

Airport RunwayHow do you feel about laws? While that probably depends largely on how big of a hurry you are in and whether or not you’ve got flashing red lights behind you, most of us recognize, and rightfully so, that laws are an important and integral part of a safe, peaceful, and prosperous society. Clearly, even the terms “outlaw,” “lawless” and “in law” have some pretty negative connotations! Ha-ha, okay, not the last one!

To appreciate the law, we have to also reflect on what it would be like to have no law at all. What is good? How do we treat people? What do we do when others harm and do violence to others? Many people have a negative opinion of the law because they feel that the law impounds their rights and sets limits on their freedom–and to a degree, that is true. The law exists to set bounds on our freedoms to the degree that our desire impounds or undermines the rights of our neighbor. The law is not binding on those who love their neighbor! But if one’s desire is inordinate; if one desires to advance oneself at the expense of his/her neighbor, then the law is good and sets limits where none exist for lawless people.

The law, then, can be rightly seen as a gift for peaceful and happy living. When the Church talks about the Law, she speaks of it in a few different ways–starting with most vague to most concrete. You can read the C.C.C.1950-1986 and 2030-2051 for reference.

The “Natural Law” is the law of God written on the human heart. Humanity has been created in God’s image and has the law of God imprinted on its heart. If we “look down deep inside” then we know what is good and what is not. We do this all the time when we speak to our kids. We say things like, “Honestly, down deep inside, didn’t you know that what you were doing was wrong?” And if the answer is, “No,” we we say, “Well, you should have known better!” What we are alluding to is the Natural Law. The good is there to be done, and evil shunned, just as plain as day for the one who is willing at all to look. We call this our conscience. Our conscience is God’s moral compass placed within us that teaches us the truth about what to do in concrete circumstances. It is a compass that leads toward life, truth, wholeness, and happiness in this life and in the next.

However, because we we sin, live in a world of sin, and because often times we are raised in a community or family that may have a pattern of living outside the law, many of us may need a little more guidance than “looking deep inside.” Our conscience may be so improperly formed that we need something a little more clearly stated. Here enters the written law, or the Revealed Law. God does not abandon us to vague notions and slippery slopes. He provides the Israelites, once guided by the laws of Egypt, a sure way to remain in His love. He provides the commandments to ensure that they have life to the full. He says that if they would just follow these laws and teach their children to do the same (form their children’s conscience by them), then they will surely have life and be blessed in this life and the next.

The revelation of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time taught the Jewish people of his day a much fuller understanding, application, and realization of the law through the person of Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus we have the fullness and perfection of the law. In Jesus’ life, and especially in the Sermon on the Mount, we see that “The Law” is only the minimum standard and Jesus is not at all a minimalist, but is instead a maximalist! Jesus does not want us looking for the line that we might not cross it, but instead wants us to enter fully into the game of love! Jesus never abolishes the Law of God, but rather completes it. He teaches, “Although you have heard…(minimalism), I say to you…(maximalism). Just one example from the Sermon will suffice. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (MT 5:21-22)

Jesus certainly did not intend to add more complexity to the law so he summed it up nicely and made it quite simple. He said if we would just love God and love our neighbor we would be following every law in the book! It’s simple really (not easy, but simple); love. Period. If we would just follow Jesus Law of Love we would experience joy in this life and the fullness of joy in the next!

Unfortunately, it is often not so easy to know how to love in this life, and Jesus establishes his Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to help us apply the law of love in every generation with its new challenges. The body of Christ gathered in every generation gifts us with Canon Law or Church Law so that we might have the guidance we need to experience the fullness of joy in our lives, teach our children what is right and good, and help to ensure their joy and happiness too!

It should now be quite clear that we have been given amazing gifts by God–all designed to help us get through this difficult desert. We have his law placed in our heart. The revealed law given first to Moses and brought to completion in Jesus, and then the ongoing practical application and guidance through the ministry of the Church.

These guides are what I like to refer to as the lights on the runway to heaven. God’s desire is that we “land” safely with him. He wants us to have a peaceful life here on earth and to spend eternity with him in the next. He wants us to land safely for our sake and for the sake of those under our care–such as our children, other people’s children, community members, employees, citizens of the state, and persons in the world! The law exists for but one purpose–to help us get to where we want and need to go. How juvenile of us to outwardly spurn the guide that ensures our greatest joy! We’d not only be “shooting ourselves in the foot” if we were to reject the law, we’d also be putting those under our care in jeopardy as well!

This outright rebellion against the good would be tantamount to a pilot coming in for a landing, having the runway lights lit up for him, and then deciding to “do his own thing,” to land on a runway of HIS choice at a time that was right for HIM. Naturally, with so many planes in the sky, so many planes on different runways, and so many dangers to a safe landing, that pilot would lose his license to fly! The pilot’s goal is to arrive safely at his destination. He wants the lights. He needs the guidance. And if he uses them he and his passengers will arrive safely at their destination.

And if we do the same…so will we. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love, period. Use the lights.

God bless, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

A Question of Authority

Peters keys.jpgHi. I received this question some time ago in the comments section and I’ve finally gotten around to answering it. I think it would be very instructive for everyone. What follows is the question and my response.

From Thomas: How much authority does church council have, from where does it derive that authority, and what do we do when Scripture and Church council appear to contradict? Certainly this is a question that Christians have wrestled with for centuries, and I would like to come to a better understanding of the subject.

From me: Hi Thomas! I’m so sorry that I’m only now responding to your question!  First let me recommend two very good and thorough books on the topic that will do so much more for your understanding than what I might deliver here. The first is by Mark Shea, and is titled, “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition,” and the second is by Richard R. Gaillardetz, and is titled, “By What Authority?: Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful.”

To your question, there is only one deposit of faith. Period. Catholics believe that the fullness of truth that God desired to make known to mankind was revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Of course, those teachings/that truth was first transmitted by word of mouth, or what is referred to as the “oral proclamation,” (up to 30yrs after Jesus’ death) and eventually came to be written down (30-60yrs) to be used as a form of Catechesis for those who desired to follow Jesus. Those teachings about Jesus, and the letters written by others were eventually accepted (and some rejected) and then compiled into what we today refer to as the New Testament. Whether oral or written, it is all one deposit of faith. Naturally, then, councils do not contradict Scripture, as Scripture itself was born out of councils. Truth does not contradict truth. If I recall, the New Testament Canon was debated at the Council of Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, and then finally approved by Pope Innocent in 405AD. Over the course of these years, books were debated, accepted, or rejected based upon their authorship, universality, and consistency with what was known to be true by the Catholic bishops and theologians at the council. For more about the books that were not chosen, see New Advent.org. This link will take you to both the Apocrapha of Jewish and of Christian origin. Apocrapha simply means, “outside the Canon,” as oppposed to the “canonical books” that were approved and make up the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments.

The Catholic Church’s claim is quite simple—we are not a Bible based church, but rather the Bible itself is anchored deeply within the Church. The Bible is ecclesial (churchical). Catholic theology cannot be “Bible based,” as that would assume that somehow Scripture preceded the Church and formed it. The opposite, of course, is true. Jesus formed the Church when he gathered those who would eventually become his herald and give witness to his resurrection. The Church, his herald and witness, shares the truth about Jesus and his teachings in every generation. This “passing on” of the teachings of Jesus is what we call tradition—from the Latin traditio, which literally means, “to hand on” or to “pass on.” A great example of this is found in 1COR 15:3-4 where St. Paul cites the Old Testament as evidence for what he has himself heard. He says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…”

When there appears to be a conflict between Scripture and Tradition, then it is only a matter of appearance of conflict as a result of an improper rendering of either sacred tradition or sacred scripture. The magisterium, made up of the college of bishops in union with the pope, is the official interpreter and teacher of the deposit of faith.

So, all of that to say, the greatest weight in the Catholic Church’s teachings come out of Ecumenical Councils where the bishops around the world gather in union with the pope. That’s a big deal, and the teachings that come out of that gathering with regard to the truths of faith and morals are therefore binding on the Catholic Christian community.

Finally, (and this is from the heart, I don’t have any ideas what Jesus said, or even less by what he meant with what he said. I was not there. I didn’t hear it, and he never explained it to me. There is no such thing as uninterpreted Scripture. The Bible doesn’t SAY anything. You and I have to believe either our own or someone else’s interpretation and teaching about what it “says” and what it means. That’s as close as we can get. With all respect, I rely not on my own holiness and scholarship with regard to Scripture. I have to trust somebody. That’s why I’m Catholic today. I don’t know who’s ultimately “right” in regard to Jesus’ teachings in total or those found only in Scripture, but the Catholic Church has the most claim to be right. The Bible didn’t fall from the sky. It was compiled by Holy men who sought to preserve for each generation what they knew to be true about their Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The successors of those men continue to teach and guide the Christian community today, and they are the Catholic bishops of the world led by the vicar of Christ on earth, the Pope.

Many great evangelists and teachers have appeared and blessed us with their amazing giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom—but none of them individually trumps the collective giftedness, holiness, knowledge, and wisdom of 2,000 years of bishops and popes in the Catholic Church. And so, Catholic Christian I remain today and forever.

To conclude, the place of Scripture in the Church is one of great weight and authority because it came out of councils—and all councils since have pointed to Sacred Scripture to stand as a witness to the truthfulness of their teaching. So, while the Catholic Church cannot be Bible-based, the Bible indeed stands witness in every generation to the teachings of the Church. For Catholics, it’s not Bible OR Tradition (councils, encyclicals, theologians, etc.), but rather Bible AND Tradition, as authoritatively interpreted by the Pope and the bishops in union with him. And of course, the authority of the Pope to guide and lead the Christian community derives from Jesus himself, when he, in the Gospel of Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So, the authority to teach in the name of Jesus comes from Jesus himself, and the teachings of Jesus make up the deposit of faith–safeguarded by Jesus’ faithful women and men for two millennia.

Again, sorry so long delayed in my reply. I hope this helps.

By catholicevangelist

Pray, Pay, and Obey?

This reflection is for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 3/18/2018.

I’ve often see young people wearing this logo. You may have seen it too. Ironically, (or sarcastically) it doesn’t mean to obey at all! Instead, it stands for a movement that makes a mockery of obedience. And, of course, their poster children are some of the worst dictators in history–not a hard sell when it comes to arguing for disobedience against tyrannical dictators! But surely we haven’t decided to disobey just for the sake of disobedience…have we? Yikes! I’m afraid maybe we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Today’s Gospel, far from teaching us to disobey, instead reveals the wonderful fruit of obedience, namely the resurrection and the hope of salvation for all who believe.

I was once told by a less-than-devout Catholic, “Pray, pay, and obey! That’s what the Church is all about!” She went on to say that God has given her a conscience, which means that she doesn’t have to listen to anyone but herself! She confidently told me that she doesn’t have to learn any of the Church’s teachings because she doesn’t need anyone telling her what to do! (I’m pretty sure she has an OBEY sweatshirt in her closet!) Incidentally, she really was on to something. The Church DOES teach that we have a conscience, and that we must listen to and obey our conscience. The C.C.C. teaches, “By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him ‘to do what is good and avoid what is evil.’ Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor” (1706). As I mentioned in an earlier post, each of us has the law of God written on our heart, and the Church teaches in the verse above, that we must obey that! The revealed law and church law do not seek to undermine or supplant that law written on our heart, but instead seek to clarify it, purify it, and apply it to the concrete situations in which we live. Listen, obedience is not bad! Obedience is very good! Obedience helps us to live undivided, fragmented, and broken lives. When we are whole, we can most easily love–and that’s Jesus’ great commandment!

Obedience in the Bible is all about love! Obedience is the fruit of love! Jesus himself, in John 14:15 says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (emphasis mine). When we know how much God loves us, and we love God in return, then we obey. In fact, to disobey is almost always a revolt against the good. It is a revolt against God. We are in effect saying, “God I know what I should do, I know what your Church teaches, law teaches, and my own conscience teaches, but I’m not interested. I want to do my own thing!” And at that point we are divided within ourselves, between ourselves and our neighbors, and between ourselves and God. That is what we call sin. Sin is not breaking the law, it is breaking the most important relationships we have. Sin is a failure to obey God’s law of love. Love God and love our neighbor as our self. All sin is personal, but no sin is private.

With a life of disobedience, we cannot please God. If God’s commandment is to love, and we refuse to do so (disobedience) then we simply cannot share in the Kingdom of God. God does not kick us out, we choose not to live there! At the point of disobedience we are actually doing violence to God’s kingdom. Sad. Jesus came to show us a better way. Jesus’ whole life is a testimony to what the undivided heart can accomplish. Jesus teaches us that a human soul perfectly united to God has amazing power! Power to forgive, to heal, to feed, to show mercy, and to offer oneself entirely to another. From beginning to end Jesus teaches humanity how to properly love and obey God. The C.C.C. teaches, “The Son of God, who came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him.” (606) Jesus himself affirms, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” (JN 4:34). In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “The Father loves me, because I lay down my life, for I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (JN 10:17) He shows us that it is possible to love and to sacrifice–not easy, but possible. If we find it too difficult to obey, we need only to draw closer to God.

Jesus’ whole life is marked by obedience to the will of His father on behalf of others. Do not think that this was not difficult for our Lord. We often excuse ourselves because we “are merely human” as though that somehow gets us off the hook! Jesus was human too…and he obeyed! He suffered and still obeyed. The letter to the Hebrews teaches very clearly that Jesus was entirely human and suffered greatly. We read, “In the days when Christ Jesus was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (HEB 5:7-9) In other words, in spite of the difficulty, he obeyed. In fact, it was through his suffering, that he was made perfect in his humanity!

Jesus knew something that many of us fail to ever truly discover, that the struggle, the suffering, the hardship, the dying to one’s own will, is precisely what is necessary for salvation. Jesus looked forward to the test. Jesus confronted to obstacle because he knew that it was only in the crucible of this earthly life that we are able to bind most perfectly to God. He knew that in the test our testimony comes to life. He knew that only in dying are we born to eternal life. Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (JN 12:24-25)

Therein lies the secret to obedience. Obedience recognizes something greater than oneself is at stake. Soldiers obey orders because they know that when they agreed to serve that there comes a time when their commanding officer gives orders that they may or may not like, but they do them anyway–because it is what must be done. Obedience means that you’re not in charge, but are instead part of something much greater and that each one of us has an important part to play. Jesus admitted that he wasn’t looking forward to the cross–but that his obedience to the will of his father revealed his love for the father, and that through his obedience others would come to know life as well. He continues in verse 27, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Jesus’ obedience brings life…and so does our own. When we obey God’s will, as difficult as that can sometimes be, we become a source of life for others. When we choose to love, choose to be generous, choose to sacrifice for our children, our spouse, our neighbor, we share in God’s work of salvation. What an honor. What a privilege. We should have the words of our savior always on our lips during difficult times. Every time we are challenged to obey God’s will to love, we must pray, “I am trouble now. But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Obedience is not a bad thing. Obedience saved the world from sin and death 2,000 years ago and every moment since. What will you say when hard times come your way? Will you

Blessings, Stephen

 

 

 

By catholicevangelist

Climbing the Mountain

This reflection is for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 2/25/2018.

You may have heard the expression “a mountain top experience” before. What exactly is a mountain top experience, anyway? Well, if you’ve ever been on a mountain top, you won’t need my explanation, but if you have not…well, you won’t get it anyway, as the saying goes, you’ve just got to be there! And I soooo want you to be there. It’s amazing.

Today’s gospel begins with, “Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.” Much ink has been spilled on why Jesus took Peter, James, and John, up the mountain instead of others, but today my point is not who Jesus took, but where he took them, as the intro suggests.

Let me just start by saying, if you’ve never climbed Half-Dome, in Yosemite National Park (it’s the picture above), you need to add that to your bucket list! It’s amazing! I have climbed that mountain many times, and I keep going because it still amazes me each and every time. The last time I went, we went as a family. I just wanted my sons, Mark and Luke, to know how amazing it is. As you might imagine, there was no small amount of complaining both on the way up and on the way back down! Blisters, sore feet, not enough water, not enough snacks, dangerous cliffs, the Merced River gorged and overflowing! Let me just tell you that we took a lot of breaks, shed a lot of tears, and someone may or may not have called C.P.S. on more than one occasion! But my wife, two boys (9 and 11 years old), and I made it safely up and back. It was amazing…again.

“Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain,” the Gospel teaches. Funny that the Gospel writer never talked about what we all know is true of getting to the top of high mountains! Did they have granola? Where did they carry their water? Did they have walking sticks? Who complained the most–Peter, James, or John? Did they get blisters? I had hiking boots, and I’m pretty sure wearing sandals must have been considerably harder on the ‘ol Harley Feetersons. Listen, mountains haven’t changed! It was hard. They suffered getting up that high mountain! It took a long time. It was dangerous. And it was no doubt unpleasant. I’m quite sure the disciples kept asking, “How much farther, Jesus? Are we there yet?”

But then they arrived! That must have been a very good feeling! The air is fresher on the mountain. The view is beautiful. Things that seem so big and overwhelming when you’re in the valley look small and almost insignificant when you have a higher perspective. Being on the mountain puts everything into perspective. To top it all off, Jesus gave his disciples a most wonderful gift while up there–he revealed the fullness of his glory to them. He conversed with Elijah and Moses, and things were so good that Peter offered to set up a few tents so that they could stay a while. Yes, it’s good to be on the mountain! But that’s not where they are to stay. Just like that, Jesus and the disciples are alone on the mountain, the transfiguration is over, and it’s time to head back down the hill to the valley below with its dirty air, the stench of cities, its overcrowding, poverty, and brokenness.

The truth is that some of us have in fact been on “the mountain top.” There are no words that could ever express the feeling of being in the presence of God. The rest of the world seems to disappear, and we have but for a brief moment while on earth, a foretaste of the eternal glory for which we hope to enter into fully one day. And this is why we share the Gospel, share the truth that we have come to know and experience about God. It’s amazing. And we love it. And we want to share what we love with others so they too can experience it and know it. And here is the rest of the truth: it takes courage to begin, commitment to see it through in spite of the difficulty and discomfort, and discipline to stay focused on the prize.

To climb the mountain to God requires courage to pursue a life of virtue, a life of holiness, and a willingness to be a bit different than others around us. Discipleship is not for the weak of heart. Discipleship requires commitment to begin over and over again. We must be humble because we will stumble, we will fall, and we must continually get back up, brush ourselves off and begin again. We become acutely aware of our weakness and failings. We must also be disciplined in our moral life, our prayer life, and our family life. We know that the prize is great and so we willingly endure great suffering and sacrifice much to purify our will and align it with God’s. There will be blisters, some tears, and some aching spiritual muscles, but, oh, the view! To be on the mountain with God is AMAZING and makes the effort worthwhile.

We’re not about “saving souls for Jesus,” as though that were our job. No, that’s God’s job. Our job is to share the joy that we’ve found in being Jesus’ disciple, invite others to join us on a journey up the mountain, enjoy the moment, and get back down into the trenches again. Jesus’ mountain top experience with his disciples didn’t end on the mountain. They went down the mountain, and so must we. We help with the poor, the broken, and the needy. We volunteer our time at juvenile and adult detention facilities. We advocate for those who have no voice–the marginalized, the incarcerated, the homeless, the unborn, the elderly, and the earth itself. We choose the poor and powerless as our companions, bind ourselves to them, and lift them up. This is what Jesus did, and it’s what we are called to do.

Ironically, it is in these trenches that we climb our mountain, and it is in these trenches that Jesus is transfigured before us in the poor and needy. So a wonderful gift to see Jesus in those we serve. Thank you, Jesus. And if we continue “to climb” while in these trenches, we will indeed spend eternity on the mountain. I hope God’s mountain is on your bucket list too. Join me.

Lenten blessings, as you climb your mountain this season.

Stephen

By catholicevangelist

A Second Helping of Desert, Anyone?

This reflection is for the 1st Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 2/18/2018.

Today’s Gospel begins with St. Mark telling us that, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts…”

Is it just me or…I mean, what the heck was the Spirit thinking?! No sooner is Jesus baptized, whereby God says “Yep! That’s my boy! He makes me so proud!” (I’m paraphrasing there) than does He have the Spirit drive his beloved son right out into the desert to drink only water, be surrounded by wild beasts, and tempted by Satan for 40 days! Someone call CPS!

FYI: Just because you’re a child of God, doesn’t mean that you won’t be surrounded by beasts at times, go through struggles at times, and be tempted by Satan all the time! In fact, I will submit that it is precisely because you’re a beloved child of God that Satan takes a particular interest in you. Have you ever been doing everything right and hardship comes your way? Yep. That’s the way that sucker works! When (not if) this happens, you just keep doin’ right and spurn the devil at every turn!

But before we go there, why would the Spirit drive Jesus out to the desert anyway? And why for so long? The “desert” is always a place of difficulty, of struggle, and of testing. Difficult times not only test our resolve, but they also change us in very important ways.

Not unlike steel that is placed into the furnace, hammered, and folded, and hammered again, God uses the desert to prepare us, to mold us, and even to save us by drawing closer to him in our times of trial. God loves us too much, and needs us too much to leave us as just hunks of steel.

No, God wants to transform us into weapons of righteousness, bringing light and love, and truth and goodness wherever we go and to whomever we meet! Let us never run from the deserts nor from the wild beasts that live there. When beasts come into our life, know that you are entering the crucible. God has important training for you there.

Let me be clear though, God is in no way the cause of human suffering. The Church is quite clear on this point. God does allow it, however, and is able to bring immeasurable good from it. Below I’ve referenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Providence and the Scandal of Evil paragraphs 310 (physical evil) and 311 (moral evil). For the full context click here.

310 But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.

311 Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:

For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself. ~St. Augustine

Jesus’ time in the desert from today’s Gospel illustrates all of the above perfectly. Jesus went into the desert a carpenter’s son beloved by God. He is tempted there, suffers there, remains faithful to God there, rejects Satan time and time again there, and ultimately, is consoled there, as the Gospel says, “and the angels ministered to him.”

God takes no joy in our suffering, but know this, he WILL use it to strengthen, prepare, and make us more effective witnesses of the power and greatness, love and mercy of God our Father.

Jesus returns from the desert after forty days, the king of Israel, the king of the universe and savior of the world–but it started with the desert.

Like Jesus, God has amazing plans for our earthly life. He knows our future and what it holds. He knows the trials that will inevitably come our way, and knows the kind of person it will take to get through them. And he knows also that you will come to the aid of others in their trial and pain, because you have been perfected through your own sorrows.

Let us never be afraid of, nor shy away from the discomforts life brings. Especially during this 40 days of Lent, pray that God transforms our weakness into strength, our strife into service, and our weeping into joy. And always be thankful for the angels He brings into your life–they bring a kind word, offer consolation, and help to mend our wounds. Thank you.

Lenten Blessings, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Y.O.L.O.

Originally posted in 2013 for Lent

And then God said to mankind, “YOLO!” Well, not really, but something like that. My students enjoy a new sort of saying today (You Only Live Once) that I believe is very true, although we have a very different way of interpreting its meaning. While my students will use it to justify irresponsible action that is potentially harmful to themselves and others, I believe that it is a wake-up call to love and accountability. That we only have one life to live is a painful reminder that life is short and it’s time to examine ourselves to discern whether what we are doing is consistent with the will of God.

St. Paul tells the Romans, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (12:2) We are not the Creator, after all, but the creature. We were created by God and for God, and find our true happiness only in His will.

Our Church celebrates this reminder of our mortality and the brevity of life on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of our 40-Day Lenten journey of transformation. My students say Y.O.L.O., but Scripture says it like this:

  • GN 2:5-7 When God made the Imageearth and the heavens—He formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.
  • GEN 18:27 Abraham speaks to God and says, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!”
  • PS 90:3 God says through the psalmist, “You return to dust, “Return, you mortals!.”
  • PS 104:29 When God hides His face, we are lost. When He takes away our breath, we perish and return to the dust from which we came.
  • ECCL 3:20 We are made from the dust, and to the dust we return.

In all these different ways God’s Word is a consistent reminder that we will not be on this earth forever–in fact, but for a short time! No one will make it out of here physically alive. Everyone you’ve known, everyone you know, and everyone you will know will ultimately “return to the dust.” This became painfully obvious to me when visiting Terceira, one of the Azores Islands, when I was a boy. I visited our family’s burial plot next to the old church. It was not fancy and very, very small. People had been buried in this tiny plot, about the size of a quarter of a football Imagefield, for generations. There were bones everywhere (hence the term “bone yard”) as each new generation reused the same plot to bury their dead where the previous generation had buried the ones that they loved years before. My friends, in short time we all return to dust.

The most common response I hear to why people get ashes on Wednesday is, “Well, I’m Catholic.” The conversation with the co-worker goes something like this, “What’s on your forehead?”

“Oh, those are Ashes.”

“That’s kind of weird. Why do you have ashes on your head?”

“Well, it’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m Catholic, so we’re supposed to get ashes today.”

I’m told that short of only Christmas and Easter, more Catholics attend Ash Wednesday services, than any other time of the year. The crazy thing is that Ash Wednesday is not even a Holy Day of Obligation, as are all Sundays and Holy Days of the year. Why would so many people get to Church before work, on their lunch break, or after work just to get ashes that many know nothing about? A cynical friend of mine assures me that it’s because that’s the only day the Church gives out anything for free!

Or maybe it’s because down deep we know that the teaching is true. We are prone to sickness, disease, brokenness, and death. We see it on the news, experience it in our towns, our schools, and in our families. WE ARE HUMAN and will die, but we have also been MADE DIVINE and the Spirit of God lives in us, and so we too are eternal.

Where we spend our eternity, either with God or separated from God, hangs in the delicate balance of how we choose to live our lives for this brief time on earth. We can either choose life and love, or brokenness and death. And we choose it with every decision we make, with every word and deed. Our bodies have come from the earth and will return to it, and none of us knows when. How should we live in light of the shortness of life and the great length of eternity? Reflect upon that as you receive your ashes today. God Bless.

Y.O.L.O.

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The Harder Way

This reflection is for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 2/11/2018.

Expelling the leper from our midst is certainly easier, but Christians have never been promised an easy row to hoe, now have we?

Today’s reading really challenge us to creatively and lovingly find a way to deal with those we’d rather just not have to see, those we’d rather just push to the margins, or maybe even lock up and throw away the key!

In the first reading, from the Book of Leviticus, we see a very sensible and easy solution to the problem with Leprosy in the community; 1. confirm the person is indeed unclean, 2. label them/publicly identify them as unclean, 3. keep them far away so as not to infect the rest of the community. Sounds a lot like our penal system doesn’t it? Or is it a correctional facility? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. No wonder Jesus taught his disciples to visit “him” there! (MT 25:31) If we don’t do anything, nothing is going to change!

The “Get ’em outta here!” approach makes PERFECT sense! It is indeed very difficult to argue with this approach, and I have argued for it many times in my own classroom. When someone in the community has the potential to infect the rest of us get rid of them! We even have some sayings to help reinforce this truth. Things like, “One bad apple spoils the bunch,” or in my case with Cuties from Costco, “One bad cutie ruins the bag.” It’s true! That’s why its so popular. If it’s cancerous, cut it out!

We love these idioms because they are so true. However, we have to be very careful when applying truthfulness about fruit (or infections, or cancer) to truthfulness about people. Said in another way, what we do with fruit might not be so effective when dealing with people. After all, rotten fruit has no possibility for transformation, renewal, and redemption–but people do.

As Christians, we have to look to Jesus–not stock phrases, or rely simply on Levitical Law to address our communities. Jesus himself shows us a better way in today’s Gospel. Far from expelling the leper, Jesus shows us that with His power, people can and do change. Really! They do! It’s true of me, many of my students, and maybe even of you. The Church even challenges us to use recourse to the death penalty ONLY in the rarest cases where there is no way to protect innocent life from the unjust aggressor that the sinner may in fact be converted, seek forgiveness and mercy, and be saved! (C.C.C. 2267)

As Christians we hold out every hope, and believe in the power of God to transform lives. We see quite clearly in the Gospels and in the witness over the centuries from the lives’ of the Saints, that God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace are possible at every moment of ours and others’ life, and often comes pouring in when we least expect it!

I wonder though, do we even expect it at all anymore? Do we still, like a child, pray for amazing miracles? Do we hope beyond hope and pray without ceasing for juveniles in our youth prisons? Are we working toward real change in the way we, as a society, deal with the homeless, the unemployed, the addicted, and/or the incarcerated? Or have we lost hope? Have we become no better or different that the haters and nay sayers that surround us at work and in the market place? Shame on us (I’m included in this).

Jesus told his disciples when they were looking for a limit, that his mercy and forgiveness (and theirs too, and ours too) must be limitless. “Not seven times, but seven times seventy,” he tells them. (MT 18:22)

I think if we’re going to call ourselves Followers of Jesus Christ, we must remove from our thought, language, and actions any trace of the throw away society in which we live. We must instead, with everyone and every situation, be open to the power of God to change hearts and minds, to make enemies friends, to make new roads through what appears to be a dead end. We must be always thinking about how God is going to make a miracle out of the mess. We must pray that God will open a way even we don’t see a way. We must be open and seeking for God’s grace. In other words, we must be faithful. Yep. There it is. We must be people of faith in the midst of a perverse and twisted generation. We must be like Jesus–lights in a world of darkness.

It’s a good thing Lent is near! We still have time for God to make an amazing transformation in us, in our families, in our communities, and especially in the least among us.

God Bless, Stephen

By catholicevangelist

Life Is Suffering, Highness

This reflection is for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 2/4/2018.

To quote one of my favorite lines, from one of my favorite movies is always a reason for joy! In The Princess Bride, Wesley (as the Man in Black) tells Princess Buttercup, as she complains about her sadness and suffering, “Life is pain, Highness! And anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” That’s just the truth.

Today’s first reading speaks of Job’s own sadness and suffering. Job (pronounced Jobe) laments that man’s life on earth is a drudgery. He sees himself as nothing more than a slave, with months of misery, troubled nights, and no hope for the dawn (Job 7:1-7). Sounds like Job and I might have the same job!

Once living high on the hog, poor Job begins to really feel the pain, the sadness, and the suffering of the human condition. All was good, Job was good, and then it was not, and he was not. I am often asked by “good people,” as they experience the trials of life, why good people suffer. My answer is clear–everyone suffers. Another one of my favorites is like it, “Why do good people suffer while bad people get away with everything?” Newsflash: Everyone suffers–the good and the bad alike. And every dog has his day. Jesus told the crowds, “The Heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (MT 5:45) And that’s just the way it is. The sooner we can come to terms with reality the better.

I teach my students (and my own boys) the Law of Reality, “The Cadet recognizes that life is difficult and often unfair. The Cadet refuses to play the role of the victim but chooses to honor the Cadet Pledge even in difficult situations.” The Cadet Pledge is, “I Pledge to respect myself by growing in wisdom and by living by core values, respect others by being kind and unselfish, and respect authority by obeying SMA rules and staff.”

As Christians, Jesus’ own life is a helpful guide here. The Romans nailed Jesus, an innocent man, to a cross while at the same time allowing Barabas, an admitted criminal, go free–life is difficult and often unfair.

Far from playing the victim, Jesus, without grumbling or complaint, endures his suffering and even forgives his persecutors. Crazy. Even the unjust are blessed by Jesus.

As we experience the difficulty of life (and we will) we have a choice to make. We can complain, become bitter, curse others, God, the situation, and make ourselves and everyone around us miserable, or we can choose to not play the victim. We can choose to honor ourselves, and others, we can remain faithful to God, and we can continue to love, forgive, and bless even as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the dawn!

Psalm 147 promises that God heals the broken-hearted! And says that we should praise in the midst of our broken-heartedness. Easy to do? No. Every bit of suffering sucks, and I’m not trying to minimize or trivialize it here, but suffering is universal to the human condition–and we’re not so special that we should be exempted.

Praise God for the blessings, praise God for the trials, and praise God when they’re over. Peace WILL come to all–sadly, for some, only in the end. So, love, period. Because everyone you know is going through something you know nothing about. Love…that’s it, rain or shine.

Blessings,

Stephen

By catholicevangelist