Just as each of us has a natural birth from our mother’s womb and so can lead a natural life, so too, in baptism, each of us experiences a spiritual birth from the womb of our Mother, the Church, a birth which begins our supernatural life. Baptism is the first sacrament that we receive and it allows us to fruitfully receive the other sacraments of the Church as we grow ever deeper into the Christian faith. Because it is the basis of our whole Christian life it is known as the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door by which we have access to the other sacraments. If we imagine the Church to be like a mansion with many rooms that are beautiful and wonderful, then baptism would be like the front door that opens up the house to us. Before we explore and enjoy the other rooms of the mansion we first need to enter, and we do that by opening the front door and going through.
A number of important things happen to us through baptism. We are freed from sin, all sin (including original sin) and are reborn as children of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: this is why a great council of the Church called “Baptism, the sacrament of regeneration.”
All of this can make today’s Gospel seem very mysterious and, for many, difficult to understand. If baptism frees us from sin, makes us children of God, incorporates us into the mystical body of Christ, the Church, and allows us to share in her mission. Why should Christ have to be baptised? If he is the Son of God why should he have subjected himself to the baptism of John the Baptist, who is just a man? Christ did not need to be freed from sin because he was sinless, he does not need to be adopted as a Son of God, because he is the true Son of God, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.” He is the head of the Church, we are incorporated into him, he does not need to become part of the Church as we do. He baptises with the Holy Spirit, John only baptises with water. As the Baptist himself says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Why then should he have received a baptism from John the Baptist? He never seemed to need it. What was the point of it?
We have the answer in the Gospel of St. Matthew. When John protests that he is the one who needs to be baptised and not Jesus, our Blessed Lord answers him saying I should be baptised “to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus freely volunteered to John’s baptism, not because he needed it, but because he wanted to show his humility in this self emptying gesture. Just as he emptied himself in coming among us as a man and sharing our infirmity “by taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness”, so he would show his boundless humility by accepting a baptism at the hands of a human being, a baptism that was intended for sinners. Although without sin, Jesus associates himself with sinners, making it clear that he came to save us from our sins. He is the new Adam who would come to destroy the sin that the first Adam had brought into the world, and had been passed along to all generations of people afterwards; His humility in becoming man and associating with us makes up for the pride of Adam, who disobeyed God trying to make himself a god. This limitless humility of Christ is a joy to the Father who cannot contain his pleasure in the fact that his Son is so committed to carry out the task of redemption, that he would humbly accept John’s baptism of repentance. With joy as great as the Son’s humility, the Father tears apart the heavens, sends his Spirit upon him and says those words that we would all like to hear from our Father, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” this humility is a foretaste of the humility which would lead to Christ’s passion.
By his death he would open to all men the fountain of baptism. He himself speaks of the passion he has to endure as “a baptism with which he had to be baptised”. As St. Paul says in our second reading, “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible ‘to be born of the water and the Spirit’” in order to enter the kingdom of God. Centuries after Christ, near the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire a great theologian echoes St. Paul with this profound insight: “See where you are baptised, see where baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.”
The importance of the sacrament of baptism cannot be over-emphasised. It was important to our blessed Lord and it has been a primary concern of the Church since its very beginning at Pentecost. The Lord himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for all those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for the sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the importance of baptism in regards to our salvation: “The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that ensures entry into heaven; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptised are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”
Of course the necessity of baptism leads to certain questions. What about those who never had the opportunity to be baptised but have led good lives, or what of those who (through no fault of their own) never knew Christ. If baptism is so necessary for salvation what happens to them? This question and others like them are very common, and should be answered. There are two key ways in which someone that is not baptised by water might still gain salvation. The first is called a baptism of blood and the other is called a baptism of desire. The Church has always held the conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received baptism are in fact baptised by their death for and with Christ. This baptism of blood brings about the fruits of baptism without being a sacrament. The baptism by desire is when a person would desire to be baptised if they knew about its necessity. We have people at this mass who are studying the faith and hoping to receive baptism this Easter, they are a group known as the catechumens. If a person were to die while in the program as a catechumen their explicit desire to receive the sacrament, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them of the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament. Beyond those who are the catechumens it should be remembered that every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such people would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its importance.
What of children who have died without baptism? It is very important to have children baptised as soon as possible after they are born. This important sacrament should not be delayed. If a child does die before they receive baptism the Church entrusts them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. The Catechism says it most beautifully when it says “Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them’, allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism.”
The importance of baptism is made even clearer when we consider that while the ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, priest, or deacon, in a serious, life threatening emergency anyone can baptise. Once again I emphasise that the situation must be life threatening, such as an infant who has just been born and may not live - or an adult who asks for it on the verge of their death. In such situations anyone could baptise, even a person that is not baptised, because God’s saving will desires all to be saved. All the person needs is to have the intention of the Church, which is the desire to do what the Church does when she baptises, and say the following formula while pouring water over the person’s head “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” this of course only happens in exceptional circumstances, for virtually everyone in the Catholic Church receives baptism by a bishop, priest, or deacon.
Baptism is the sacrament of faith, and faith needs a community of believers in order to flourish. Baptism is the beginning of a faith that has to grow and develop. This is why, every Easter, we renew our baptismal promises as a community at mass. Our faith is kept strong by imitating Christ and growing in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, in Christ. We do this by living in a community of faith, members of the Mystical Body. When even one member of the body is ill or damaged, the whole body suffers, so too with the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. If anyone in the Church is weak or their faith is damaged, we all suffer. By growing in the faith we help all those in the Church and lead people into the Church. Our love and faith can conquer all the darkness of our world and bring many to believe in Christ. As St. Paul said to us today in the second reading, “and this is the victory that conquer the world, our faith.”
Next week we begin the season of advent, a time when we prepare our hearts to receive Christ who comes into the world at Christmas. Today we celebrate not his coming into the world for the first time but his breaking into the world for the second time. We both celebrate and are reminded of the second coming of Jesus Christ, this truth of the faith which we confess every Sunday in the creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
This second coming is both like and unlike his first coming into the world. In his first coming Jesus takes on the form of a slave and is born as a helpless baby, in his second coming he will come in glory as a great king sitting on a throne. His first coming went almost unnoticed, except for a few wise men and some shepherds, in his second coming he will be seen and acknowledged by all. In his first coming the angels proclaimed his birth to make him known, in the second they descend with him in glory to carry out his will. In his birth the kingdom of God begins, and by his coming again the kingdom is made complete. When Christ first came into our world it was to draw all men to the Father, a mission that will be definitively completed in his second coming. My brothers and sisters let us not resist his first coming so that we may not dread the second.
The prophet Ezekiel tells of a good shepherd who seeks out his sheep. This promise of a shepherd that seeks out his sheep and rescues them is made real and is actualised in Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. When he comes in glory (as he himself tells us, we know neither the day or the hour, all we do know is that he will come again) he will seek out his sheep and he will rescue them. He comes to seek, bring back, bind up, and strengthen those who belong to him. As for those sheep who are fat and strong, he will destroy them. This shepherd also judges between one and another, and separates the rams from the goats. We, of course, are those sheep that Ezekiel speaks of. Christ will come again in order to call to himself those who hear his voice and recognise it in their hearts, those who live out the beatitudes and have lived as people who are in the light, not as people who are in darkness. He comes to draw to the Father those who heeded his first coming and have become his disciples. At the same time however, he also judges those who have not lived in the light, but have preferred the darkness of sin to the light of Christ, those who have grown fat by taking advantage of those who are weak, lost, and wounded. In his justice Christ will separate the righteous from the sinful, those who are to enjoy eternal life from those who are to suffer eternal punishment.
Christ has promised that he will come again to establish his kingdom and to judge each one according to his deeds; it is a truth that the Church has always proclaimed and still does in her teaching, and in the liturgy. The truth that Jesus will come again, this time as a king in glory should not fill us with terror. The Church has always waited with an expectant joy for his return. It is to be a great and joyous occasion when the kingdom that he began in his first coming, a kingdom present in the Church as in a seed, will finally be complete. Justice and peace shall flourish and the righteous will finally see God, face to face, as he is. The rule of evil will be destroyed and in its place Christ the King will establish his kingdom of light, a kingdom that shall not come to an end. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully puts it: “Though already present in his Church, Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled ‘with power and great glory’ by the king’s return to earth. This reign is still under attack by the evil powers, even though they have been defeated definitively by Christ’s Passover. Until everything is subject to him ‘until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells, the pilgrim Church, in her sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God.’ That is why Christians pray, above all in the Eucharist, to hasten Christ’s return by saying to him: Maranatha! ‘Our Lord, come!’”
At every mass we pray for the coming of the kingdom and the return of Jesus, it is part of the mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.” These are just a few of the ways that we pray to hasten Christ’s return as king with the angels, in glory. Notice too, in all the proclamations that I just mentioned Christ’s return is linked to his cross and resurrection. In other words, the kingdom that he introduces through his death on the cross and the life that he now has in heaven is only made complete when all are raised with him in glory, when the entire world is completely brought under the rule of his kingdom. This is what St. Paul is hinting at in the second reading when he says, “as death came through a human, resurrection also comes through a human, as all die in Adam, so all are made alive in Christ.” When Christ comes he will finally unite all those that he has already won through his cross and resurrection. His return completes salvation history and his kingdom at the end crowns everything.
We do not know when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, but we do know that he will come. He promised that he would return with his angels in glory to give the righteous their reward and the wicked their punishment. Jesus tells us of this reality in the gospel we just heard.
As a great king he will sit on the throne of his glory and will gather the nations before him. He will judge the secret disposition of each man’s heart and will bring the truth of our lives to light. When Christ comes he will judge each of us by how we have either accepted or refused the grace of God. In other words he will come to judge impartially based on how open we have been to God’s love in our life. How well we have accepted or refused God’s friendship will be known by how we have treated our neighbour. When we love our neighbour, then we know that we love God. As St. Paul says, “he who claims to love God while hating his neighbour is a liar, in such a one there is no truth. “For those who Jesus welcomes into his kingdom of eternal life are those who saw his face in the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned, and cared for them. These are the righteous because they looked beyond their own selfish needs and took the time to care (as the Good Shepherd does) for those who are lost, and sick, and hungry. But he takes those who ignored their neighbour’s needs because of selfishness and laziness and places them on his left hand saying, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” These are powerful words from the Lord himself. They also tell us of the great dignity that each one of us has because we are created with free will. We are able to accept God’s love and help our neighbour, or contrariwise, ignore God and our neighbour as though neither one really mattered. In other words, we can freely accept or refuse the love of God. The decision we make then, counts. You see Jesus is not condemning a person to hell; he came to save all people. He is simply consenting to the judgment that a person has made about themselves. Each person determines their eternal life based on the decisions they make here in this world, in everyday affairs. Through our actions we are able to enjoy Christ’s love forever, or reject him and not be counted among the righteous, hearing those awful words “truly, I do not know you”.
Christ is the Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He acquired that right, St. Paul tells us, by his cross. “The Father has given all judgment to the Son.” Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save, and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one’s works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love.
We have nothing to fear when Christ comes, unless, as St. Augustine says, we love sin more than Christ. Let us then, hate sin and love Christ. In this is life.
Christianity, by its very nature, is a missionary religion. Through our baptism we are called by God himself to go into the world and spread the good news to everyone we meet there. We have the dignity of sharing in Christ’s mission of drawing all people to the Father. Today’s gospel tells us what a faithful disciple can expect when they spread the good news.
The first words of the gospel are profound and full of meaning for all of us here this morning (afternoon / evening). Here they are, “Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out.” Jesus chose and set apart, from the many disciples who followed him, twelve men who are known as the apostles. So the disciples are all the men and women who are with the master, while the twelve apostles are men chosen from among the disciples. They are sent to preach the kingdom of God, a task so vast and so important that the apostles appointed successors, men who will come after them and continue to preach the gospel faithfully until the end of the world, these successors are today known as bishops. This means that our bishops connect us historically to Jesus Christ himself and ensure that the message that is proclaimed in Toronto today is the same gospel that was preached in the temple two thousand years ago.
While the apostles are set apart from the disciples for a specific service to Christ we are all called, through our baptism, to preach the gospel and build up the kingdom. We are the disciples of Christ, we are his followers, and through baptism we ourselves are set apart by God to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone, in union with our bishops. Baptism is what sets us apart, changes us forever in the very depths of our being, to make us like Christ and to share his mission. The words we use when baptising infants makes our role as listeners and heralds of the gospel very clear. Touching the ears and mouth of the baby the priest says the following touching words: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” It is Jesus’ words that we listen to and proclaim, not our own – through our baptism we serve God.
It doesn’t matter how talented, or educated, or successful we are, or what we think our limitations might be, everyone of us is asked by Jesus Christ himself to be his voice to the world. There is no greater proof of this than the prophet Amos whom we heard about in the first reading. What was his occupation before he became a prophet? He was a shepherd: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” God’s ways are not our ways, he chose a shepherd to be a great prophet to Israel. If we were looking for a prophet we would seek him out in a great place of learning, or high on a lofty mountain, but God finds him in a field, tending sheep. When God calls us to serve him by preaching the gospel only one thing matters: that we say yes to him - as Amos did - no matter the cost.
When the apostles preached the gospel some people accepted it and, as Jesus warns them, some will reject it: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” When we preach the gospel some will accept it as well, but others will reject it. Why would anyone reject the good news? The good news is basically that Jesus loves you and me, that he gave his life for us that we might have life, and that he prepares a place for each one of us in heaven that we may share in the fullness of life forever.
Why would anyone reject that? The answer is pretty simple, and it’s contained in today’s gospel. After Jesus prepares them for their mission we hear the following words “So the twelve went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” Oh oh! There it is - that’s why some will not accept the gospel - because part of receiving Jesus into our lives is repentance. In other words, as disciples of Christ we have to examine our lives and change those things that are opposed to Jesus’ love. That’s not an easy thing to do. To admit that we have sinned, that we have not always done the right thing, and that I’m going to have to change the things in my life that displease God, is anything but easy. Repentance reminds us that Christianity Costs, that grace is not cheap. But repentance is really an act of love. When a man and woman are deeply in love they eliminate from their lives anything that could damage their relationship, anything that might displease the other person. (Example: sister swearing husband). All true love requires change, and that’s not always easy, but when we do love someone it’s easier to examine ourselves and courageously root out those things in our attitude that might hurt the other person. Repentance means changing our lives, because the way we’ve been leading them offends God and hurts our relationship with him. Not everyone wants to change though, just as some are unwilling to love sacrificially.
Whether or not people accept the good news though is not as important as spreading it through our words and actions, telling everyone we can that God loves us and without him we would be nothing. We will not always succeed, but what’s important is that we try. As Mother Teresa used to say, “we are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful.”
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ a great prophet named Zechariah proclaimed “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!...Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and glorious is he, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”
What a bizarre scenario. A great king who is glorious and triumphant is also humble and riding on a young donkey. All the great kings and triumphant heroes that are immortalised in history don’t ride on donkeys; they sit tall on elegantly powerful white stallions. Their humility is not usually the characteristic that best describes their attitude either. Kings that ride in triumph on white horses are more often than not proud because of their great deeds and abilities. The king that Zechariah commands the people of Israel to rejoice over is thus different then other earthly rulers and heroes. The long awaited Messiah that he speaks of in the first reading is humble and riding on a donkey.
And the kingdom that the Messiah brings about is also different from the kingdoms of this world for “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the warrior’s bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea.”
His kingdom is one of peace where the hatefulness of war and violence are not tolerated but are rather eliminated. The chariots, war horses, and bows – the instruments by which men oppress each other and rise to a fleeting power – are taken away; and in their place the king of all the ages establishes his age of peace and a kingdom that will never pass away.
Jesus is the fulfilment of this prophecy. He who is “gentle and humble of heart” will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday to humbly accept death so that we might be freed from sin and enter into the kingdom of God. Through this Jesus reveals something of the humility of God, for as he reminds us in today’s gospel “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” God does not force his love on anyone, although he could! He is humble enough to want people to come to him out of love, because they desire him. Jesus promises us his kingdom and if we take up his yoke humbly we will enjoy the peace it brings:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” How different is this kingdom from worldly kingdoms.
Yet in history nations continue to war with each other and neighbour draws sword upon neighbour. In the century that we have just emerged from, what is sometimes called the bloody century, humanity experienced two world wars, the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, as well as numberless holocausts and genocides. And even though we advance in the sciences and technology we grow more and more afraid that we may be destroyed by the very things that were supposed to liberate us. Some might well ask “what has happened to the kingdom of peace that Zechariah prophesied and Christ fulfilled...was it not supposed to bring all this hatred and fear to an end? Why does the world still seem so much like that of Zechariah’s, under the wheels of chariots and the heels of warriors?”
Although many reasons could be given I think part of the answer lies in today’s (this evening’s) gospel when Jesus says
“take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart.” Jesus asks us to learn from him; the problem is that too many in our world haven’t actually learned from him. As a matter of fact one of the dangers of our society and one of the reasons that the atrocities of the preceding century took place is precisely because not just individuals, but whole nations of people did not want to learn from Christ but rather rejected his message and his Church along with it. God and the Church are continually excluded from the pursuits of science and the efforts of governments to protect the common God. Humanity and human nature are seen as the source and goal of everything and God is forgotten. This is a very dangerous state of affairs because without God life loses its true meaning and humanity becomes less human. As the Russian author Solzhenitsyn has noted, “If today I were asked to summarise the main reason for the ruinous revolution that swallowed up almost 60 millions of my fellow country men and women, I could but repeat: ‘Human beings have forgotten God; that is the reason why it happened like that. Human conscience, deprived of its divine dimension, shows limits which had a determining role in the enormous crimes of our century...” Even if our western civilisation is far from the horrors of Stalinism we are still threatened by the dehumanisation that happens when people look only to this world for wisdom and not to God.
The great task of the Christian in the present age is to bring God back into the world through an example of life that proves we have learned from Christ and that we delight in his yoke. A lasting peace in this world can only come about when the hearts of people are changed - unless hearts are changed the cycle of violence and selfishness that has marked human history will continue. Our example of life can change hearts and give people the courage to believe. This is not done in extraordinary things but in little things done extraordinarily well. This is the simple, though profound, Little Way of St. Therese. No matter where we are or what we do each one of us has the ability to remind the world of God’s love and to build up his kingdom. When we are patient with the faults of those people we live with, when we speak of our faith at work, when we encourage someone who does a good job, when we are willing to defend life at all stages, when we try to live chaste lives, and when we are happy at the success of others, even those we don’t like all that much, then we are building up the kingdom and at last finding rest for our souls in the process.
Everyday there are many ways to proclaim the kingdom of God in our own lives and to make it a reality in the lives of others, just coming to this mass is already a sign of our desire to love God and to learn the way of peace from Christ. By taking advantage of these opportunities we finally come to realise that as Christ himself has said, “you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Today’s gospel relates one of the most delicate and beautiful scenes in all of the scriptures. The Angel Gabrielle gives Mary the message that she is to give birth to the saviour of the world, to Jesus the Son of God while keeping her virginity for all time. Through this meeting with the angel, Mary will be both Mother God and ever Virgin. From the moment she gave her “yes!” to the angel everything changed. God’s will was being done. The long awaited saviour of the world was coming into our world, for the sake of the world. The eternal Word would become flesh through the “yes” of one whom the angels call blessed.
Mary’s “yes” makes her the Mother of God; this is the greatest honour that any human being has ever had. And yet her “yes” also makes her the perfect disciple, it makes up for all the times in history that people had said “no” to God. Because her agreeing to God’s plan meant that the saviour of the world would be born from her womb, her unique “yes” becomes more important than the many “no’s” that mark humanities relationship to God. Mary’s “yes” is more powerful than the “no” of Adam and Eve, who as our first parents, lost for all people the heritage of God’s grace; it is more powerful than the “no” of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who would serve only their own perverted desires, it is more durable than the “no” of the children of Israel who traded in the God of the Covenant for an idol, it is more important than all of the “no’s” that we have said to God in our own thoughts and actions; because from her “yes” the fruit of her womb, Jesus, would destroy sin and death and open for all the way to the Father. By saying “whatever God says I accept” Mary reverses the common prayer of the world, which is “thy will be changed”. She prays the world’s greatest prayer “thy will be done.” Her “yes” means that salvation is coming and that God desires us more than we ever could have imagined.
Mary’s greatness then is not only found in the fact that she is the Mother of God, which itself is awesome, her greatness also lies in the fact that she is completely submissive to the will of God in her life, she carries out perfectly God’s plan which makes her the perfect disciple. Carrying out God’s will would lead her to give birth in the darkness of night in a stable, she would have to flee her country and become a refugee in a foreign land because a mad man named Herod wanted to snuff out the light of the world just after it was lit, she would lose her Son and not find him for days, she would see him misunderstood and mistreated by those who would not accept him, and eventually this beautiful Son, who never sinned or wronged would be hung from a tree as a criminal, a traitor. In all of this she remained faithful to God and trusted in his Word. She is the perfect disciple. God chose one who was weak, poor, and humble to show forth his might. As Mary, speaking of the wondrous fact that God has chosen her to bear the saviour of the world, says, “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Mary is our model of faith and trust because she did not believe that God would ever abandon her. She heard the word of God and acted on it, trusting in his faithfulness and mercy. In this she is the perfect disciple and our model for living the Christian life, especially at this time of year when we await Christ’s coming. Mary brings forth Christ from the womb, he only has one mother; but each of us, through our baptism, are able to bring forth Christ in faith. We do this when we respond to God’s word as Mary did, in faith. Our “yes” to God in our own lives should be like the “yes” of Mary, it should be quick, total, and generous.
Just as Christ first chose to come into the world through the cooperation of our Blessed Mother many centuries ago, so he chooses to enter into our world through our cooperation with his will. When we listen to his word and act on it then we can bring him to the people we meet in our day to day lives. As his disciples we imitate the way in which the perfect disciple Mary said “yes” to the Lord. How did Mary consent to the Lord’s wish for her?
First of all Mary was ready to receive God’s word. She was sinless and chaste, free to love God with all her being. If we are to receive the word of God and make it fruitful then we must be ready to receive it by leading upright lives that are chaste. Although God can work through pretty well anyone he wishes, he usually chooses to use people who are ready and open to carry out his will. Secondly, Mary says “yes” to God immediately. She does not need a huge explanation as to why he has chosen her; it is enough for her that God did choose her. Although she’s young and only engaged to be married when the angel comes and says she’ll be a mother, she takes a chance on God and trusts that he knows what he is doing. Although she could have been stoned to death because she became pregnant while being engaged to Joseph she does not let fear hold her back from saying “yes” to God, even though this meant risking her whole life. Mary does not let fear prevent her from responding to God’s word. Thirdly her response is generous. She gives up whatever dreams and ambitions she might have had in mind to carry out the will of God and be the Mother of the redeemer. She says to God “your will be done”, not “my will be done”.
If we are to receive Christ in at this time we should prepare our hearts to receive him, making honesty, prayer, and chastity our aim is one way to prepare to receive the saviour. Going to confession and loving our neighbour as ourselves is another clear way. If we are to be his disciples then we must be prepared to receive Christ into our lives. Now is the time to begin accepting God’s word in new ways and saying “yes” to his call to holiness. Finally, let us be generous in our discipleship. Let’s hold nothing back from God, but hand over our whole lives to the demands of the gospel, that we may be his instrument. This is the way to imitate Mary’s discipleship in faith and trust.
If we do this we give a new and strong “yes” to what God is asking of us then we are able to bring Christ into our world through faith, as Mary did, through her womb. Through our “yes” Christ still enters our world to draw all to the Father. “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”
Today we not only celebrate the motherhood of Mary, we also pray for peace in our world. Pope Paul VI declared January 1 the World Day of prayer for peace. Today each one of us should pray for peace in our world. Praying for peace is just as important today as it was during the life of Pope Paul VI, and, perhaps, it is even more important because we are living in a time of great anxiety, when certain nations are clamouring against each other.
Peace is more than just the absence of war or maintaining a balance of power between adversaries. Peace is a work of justice and a fruit of charity. The peace that we strive for on earth is an image of the peace of Christ who said “blessed are the peacemakers”. All of us as citizens and every government are obliged to work for peace. Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among people and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war. One way we can work for peace in a very clear way is to answer the call of Paul VI who asks us to pray for peace. Today set aside a little time and pray for peace between the nations of the world, that men may come together united in charity.
Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Is. 2:4).
At this time of year we journey to the town of Bethlehem, hoping to find the peace of Christ. Like the shepherds of today’s gospel we “go there to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” We too, have heard the message of peace that the angel of the Lord gave to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth”. Every year we make this journey of faith, and every year we find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. Here we see Jesus and behold the awesome power of God’s humility. We make this journey so that we might see and love the God who cannot be seen. We desire to find Jesus because, like the shepherds, we have heard the news that a saviour is born to us - that God is with us. God, in his mercy, is calling us to himself - inviting us to be caught up with love of him and to bow in humble adoration. When we finally get to Bethlehem and find the child, just as God said we would, we discover that he is not alone. His mother and father are there with him, and in her joy Mary treasures all of this in her heart. She looks upon her Son and he looks upon his Mother. Our journey to Bethlehem has led us not only to Christ, but also to his Blessed Mother Mary. When we search for Christ we are lead, almost inevitably to his Mother. Their bond is so powerful that love of one cannot be separated from love of the other. To love Christ is to meet Mary, and to meet Mary is to better know Christ. Today we celebrate this closeness between Jesus and his Mother, as well as our own closeness to her, in the feast of Mary, the Mother of God.
No one knows Jesus as his Mother does, no one on earth was ever closer to him than Mary. When he was born naked, it was Mary that clothed him; when he cried it was his Mother that wiped away his tears; when he fell and scrapped himself, Mary was there to comfort him; when he laughed, she laughed with him; she journeyed and guided her Son to his first words and his first steps, a journey that would lead to the cross, where, faithful to the end, Mary stood in faith. After the resurrection she prayed for her Son to send his Spirit on the Church at Pentecost, and the infant Church was born. When she left this world the Son, in love, took her up to heaven body and soul. Just as she was free from the corruption of sin in this life, so God would spare her body from corruption after her earthly life had finished. Now the Mother of God continues to be with her Son, sitting at his side. She now intercedes on our behalf because we have become her children in grace. In everything that Mary does she shows that her bond with him is total and unique.
Jesus loves us so much that he gave his life for us that we might once again have peace with God through the forgiveness of our sins. By coming among us as a human being Jesus begins the work of redemption that will lead to the shame of the cross and the glory of the resurrection and ascension. Never holding anything back from us he gave everything that he had for our sake, including the human life that Mary had given him for our salvation. Amazingly his generosity does not end there. On the cross Jesus even gives his Mother to us. When Jesus looked down from the cross and saw his mother standing there with the disciple he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “behold your mother!” (Jn. 19:26). The love of God that is made clear in the life of Christ is greater than we ever could have expected. In his moment of greatest pain he gives us a most generous gift, the gift of his own mother. We who are adopted as children of God are also adopted by Mary. She becomes our Mother by a gift of God. This gives even greater meaning to the words that Paul spoke to the Galatians in today’s second reading, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption as children.” All of us have a Father in heaven, and through his generosity, we have a Mother too, Mary. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council have said, “Mary cooperated in a unique way in Christ’s mission of saving souls, and thus becomes our mother in the order of grace.”
Mary may be Mother of God, but she herself is not God. She had to be redeemed like everyone one of us. But her participation in Christ’s work of salvation is so unique that she becomes our model and the person who we should both imitate and call upon for assistance. Through her complete adherence to the Father’s will, and her Son’s redemptive work, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit she becomes the Church’s model of faith and love. She shared more intimately in the work that Jesus came to do than anyone else ever did. Because of this she is now in heaven, for just as Christ the “new Adam” is raised from the dead to return to the Father, so too, Mary the “new Eve” was assumed into heaven body and soul where she continues to give us her motherly aid. As the Second Vatican Council says, “This Motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.”
Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Peace, pray for us.
If the history of God’s interaction with people had to be summarised in a single word; if the great drama of the history of salvation from the garden of Eden to the garden of Gethsemane, from the tree of life to the wood of the cross, from the fall of the old Adam to the rising of the new Adam had to be summed up in a single word, the word that describes it best might be the word “mercy”. God’s mercy, divine mercy.
The mercy of God is so important that on April 30th 2000 the Pope established the Sunday after Easter as a feast dedicated to the Divine Mercy. Today the liturgical calendar of all dioceses in the world now reflect that the Sunday after the Solemnity of Easter is the “Second Sunday of Easter”, or “Divine Mercy Sunday”.
Divine mercy is what gives St. Paul the courage to praise God in today’s second reading:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead:
a birth to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,...
for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In other words, before Christ death was the end. No man can save his own soul once he is dead, he does not have the power to. But thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God, and his sacrifice of divine obedience the gates of the underworld are smashed and the new life of the resurrection is the inheritance promised to each one of us who have also become children of God through baptism.
The mercy of God which inspired St. Paul to express such noble truths finds its most eloquent expression in the death and resurrection of Christ. His divine mercy is also at the heart of today’s gospel.
It was the evening on the day that Jesus rose from the dead,
and the doors of the house where the disciples had met,
were locked for fear of the authorities.
The disciples locked themselves in this house because they were afraid of persecution. They had lost hope. Fear and the instinct of self preservation at any cost outweighed their trust in the one who fed the five thousand and brought the dead to life. When Jesus comes to them though he does not condemn them for their selfishness; rather, he says “peace be with you.” He does not even mention the fact that they’re hidden away because they are afraid of speaking his name, instead he gives them his Spirit and asks them to share in his mission to bring all people to salvation “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, receive the Holy Spirit.”
Christ’s mercy doesn’t end here; poor Thomas was not with them at this time and as such did not see the risen Christ. So he said to them “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand into his side I will not believe.” In spite of the miracles he witnessed the master work, and in spite of the eyewitness accounts of his confreres Thomas still would not believe. He doubted the awesome power of God and refused to believe with the eyes of faith. His moment of disbelief is so infamous that even today we call someone who does not believe what we say “a doubting Thomas”. A week later our Blessed Lord comes back and stands before Thomas and the others. And the first words out of Christ’s mouth are not, as we might expect, words of frustration and anger; no, the first thing he says to him is “Peace be with you.” Then he shows him the marks on his hands and his side: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And what are these wounds if not the greatest expression of divine mercy? Thomas is not rebuked; he is simply shown the mercy of God. It is God’s love not our arguments that softens hearts, and gives men the courage to believe.
The mercy that Christ shows to his followers does not end in this house whose doors are shut. Instead it is from the locked doors of this house that the mercy of Christ will flow through his Church, because it is in this house that he institutes the sacrament of reconciliation - for it is here that he sends his Spirit upon the disciples so that they may have the power to forgive sins. “He breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” It is here that Christ gives to his Church the power to forgive sins and to continue his saving mercy throughout the ages. ”As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Sometimes we lock ourselves up through our sins, paralysed and afraid we can close the doors of our heart to Christ. It is then that we need mercy, the mercy of God that comes to us in confession - the sacrament of reconciliation. Sometimes I hear people say, “What do I need to go to confession for? Why go to a priest for confession, he’s just a man? Only God can forgive sins.” The Church agrees only God can forgive sins. But the way in which he chooses to forgive them is his decision. And he has given the Church, through her Apostles, the special work of forgiving sins not in their own name (since God alone can forgive sin) but in his name. If Christ did not give his priests the power to forgive sin they could not possess it. Something similar to this happens in our legal system. If a person commits a crime against the state a judge is delegated the authority to determine the persons degree of guilt and to decide how they will make up for what they have done. Now the judge is a fellow citizen, but in his official capacity he is delegated by the state and acts in the name of the state. In the confessional the priest is acting as another Christ, the person, in this sense, is forgiven by Christ himself. This is why the priest can speak of the penitent forgiveness in the first person singular “I” when Christ gives absolution through him: “I ‘absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ ” These words are perhaps the most consoling words that any of us will ever hear, because they tell us that our sins have been washed away in an instant.
I know how difficult confession can be. It does no good to pretend that it’s easy for us to admit that we sometimes offend God our Father and others through our selfishness and short-sightedness. This is tough, but the results of being reconciled are so wonderful and astounding that these outweigh our initial discomfort in confessing our sins. Through this sacrament our wounds are healed, we grow in self knowledge and self esteem, and through the grace of God are able to grow in virtue and love.
In the end the sacrament of reconciliation is nothing other than an experience of God, of divine mercy. Here the words of today’s Gospel re-echo in our ears Peace be with you. When we unlock the doors of our heart that are bound by sin and experience the mercy of God in the confessional we experience the joy of the resurrection. In the words of John Paul II, the Church lives an authentic life when she proclaims and professes mercy, the most stupendous attribute of the creator and the redeemer.
“Father, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy.” These are the words of the opening prayer that we just heard minutes ago. This should be our desire during this season of Advent, that God will prepare our hearts by removing those things that prevent us from receiving Christ with joy. In this holy season we ask God to help us be converted, turning away from the darkness of sin so that we may receive the light of Christ, both at Christmas and at his second coming.
To repent, to be converted, to change the entire direction of our lives, from sin and selfishness to the new life that Christ offers in his coming among us, is what Isaiah is calling us to in the first reading. Seven centuries before the birth of Christ this lonely figure cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Inspired by the Spirit of God Isaiah calls us to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness of our hearts and to make a straight path for him, that he may enter into the dryness of our souls. Christ wants to enter our lives and fill us with the joy of his presence, Isaiah is calling on us to clear the way for him by repenting of the things that prevent us receiving Christ into our lives. Advent is a time to look deep within ourselves so that we can find the areas of our life and relationships that are dominated by sin, so that we can rid ourselves of those habits and tendencies that bind us, preventing us from living in freedom as children of God. By examining our consciences and throwing off those things that make it difficult to receive Christ into our lives at Christmas he will burst into our lives giving us a joy and peace that the world cannot give. As Isaiah says, “then the glory of God shall be revealed.”
Yet advent is not only a time to prepare ourselves to receive Christ at Christmas it is also a time to make ourselves ready to meet him at his second coming. Although nearly two thousand years have passed since Christ ascended to his Father, he will return one day. St. Paul, in the second reading, says that the Lord is taking so long to come back because he wants to give us time to repent and be prepared to meet him: “The Lord is patient, and wants all to come to repentance.” Yet he will come. The exact time of his coming is a mystery, as he himself said “no one knows the day or the hour”; all we do know is that he will come at a time when we do not expect him. As St. Paul reminds us “The day of the Lord will come like a thief.” We should be prepared for his return by living lives that reflect the goodness and mercy of God. While we wait for his return let us strive to be at peace by living out the commandments that he gave us: loving God and our neighbour with all of our hearts. In this way we will not fear his return but actually desire it because when that day comes he will gather the lambs in his arms and lead us to our true home.
If our sins prevent us from receiving Christ at Christmas and in his second coming then we should change the direction of our lives so that we will be ready and eager to receive him into our hearts. We change the direction of our lives and make a straight path for the Lord when we recognise that our sins are preventing us from being the kind of people that God wants us to be and that we can be. When we see sin for what it is, something that must be expelled from our lives because it prevents us from loving God and our neighbour, then we are on the road to repentance. And repentance is necessary if we are to fully enjoy the divine life that God offers us.
The call to repentance begins “the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” John the Baptist is the messenger that goes before the Lord preaching repentance. The Gospel that we just heard begins with the clear need for repentance. Repentance of our sins and the conversion that follows are the necessary requirements for receiving Christ into our lives. John the Baptist is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” People from all walks of life, labourers, soldiers, professionals, religious men and women, are all coming to him confessing their sins and seeking God’s forgiveness. They are seeking God’s mercy by admitting that they have often failed to love God and neighbour in their lives. Yet only God can forgive sins, hence one more powerful then he is coming into the world. His baptism will be with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Messiah, who is Jesus, is the one who has the power to forgive sins. He wants to forgive sins and to reconcile us to God, if only we are humble enough to receive his mercy into our lives.
Repentance, real sorrow for the sins we have committed, would be useless if there was not someone to forgive us. That person who forgives is Jesus...and he continues to forgive us through the Church. Before departing from this world he entrusted the apostles with the joyous task of forgiving sins. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven….Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven them, and whoever’s sins you retain they are retained.” He gives to the apostles, the first bishops, the power to forgive sin. And so the Church desires above all else to do what Christ himself came to do, to reconcile us to the Father by the forgiveness of sins. The mercy of Christ’s forgiveness is given through the Church in many different ways. The three classical ways is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In prayer we can admit humbly, that we are not perfect and that we need God’s help and that we want to change our lives so that we can be free to love him. By fasting we try to free ourselves to love God by making room for his mercy. And by almsgiving we show that we resolve to do good and want to make up some how for the wrongs we have done. Yet the greatest and ordinary way that we are reconciled to God and experience his mercy is through the sacrament of reconciliation, often called confession.
When we sin we hurt our relationship with two different sources of life. Firstly, when we sin we weaken and sometimes even loose, as is the case of mortal sin, sanctifying grace; that is, our friendship with God; and secondly, we hurt the body of Christ, the Church. So when we repent we have to be welcomed back to friendship with both God and the Church. Sin is not only an offence to God it is also an offence against the Church, all the members of the faithful. The sacrament of reconciliation is what re-establishes and strengthens our friendship with God and the Church.
The most common objection I hear from people who do not want to be reconciled to God through confession is this: “only God can forgive sins! Why should I bother going to a priest to confess my sins - if only God can forgive sins? The Church agrees. Only God can forgive sins, but since it is his forgiveness to give he is able to determine how it is given, and this is done through the priest. If God did not give the priest the power to forgive sins he could not obtain it on his own. Christ uses the hands and mouth of the priest to reconcile us back to God and the Church. We see something like this in our legal system. If I commit a crime against the state it is a judge who, in his official capacity, is delegated authority by the state to determine my degree of guilt and the way in which I will make up for my crimes. In the sacrament of reconciliation the priest is delegated authority by God himself, to determine guilt and give forgiveness.
There is no point in pretending that confession is an easy process. It is often very difficult because nobly wants to admit that they have hurt God and their neighbour by what they have done. That is tough. But the benefits of being reconciled to God and the Church far outweigh this initial discomfort. By confessing our sins we not only receive the forgiveness of Christ, we are also strengthened so that we can live more easily the life of grace, we grow in the virtues, our minds are put at ease, and we realise the saving power of God that is in our midst. These are just a few of the other benefits derived from being reconciled to God through the sacrament. Let each of us resolve this Advent to be reconciled to God through this sacrament of new life. If we have not been to the sacrament in a long time, now is the time to experience in the fullest way possible on earth the merciful love of God.
If we do not go to confession we don not fully experience God’s mercy, and if we do not experience God’s mercy then we do not know God’s mercy, and if we do not know God’s mercy then we do not know God; because God is mercy. In the words of John Paul II, “the Church lives an authentic life when she proclaims and professes mercy, the most stupendous attribute of the creator and of the redeemer.”
For centuries, indeed from the very beginning of the New Covenant in his blood, Catholics have gathered together, Sunday after Sunday, to celebrate the Eucharist. Sometimes we have come together in glorious light filled Cathedrals, or in humble parish Churches, or secretly – in dark rooms – for fear of persecution. But no matter where it is celebrated, we have always come together for one simple reason, to receive Jesus into our lives in the Eucharist. In the Mass we encounter Jesus: body, blood, soul, and divinity, in what appears to be only a small piece of bread. We seek him in the Eucharist because we need him, because we love him and we know he is present there. The crowds who follow Jesus in today’s Gospel also seek Jesus Christ and experience his transforming power, yet while there are similarities between the multiplication of the loves and what happens in the Eucharist, there are also some striking differences.
In today’s Gospel the crowds are seeking Jesus as we do; in fact they follow him from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. Yet their motives for seeking him out are confused, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” They have seen his mighty deeds and follow him because he is sensational and powerful, and may be the liberator from Roman oppression that the prophets spoke of. We seek out Jesus, however for another reason, to share in his divine life in the Eucharist, to be in communion with him; we seek him out because he is our love and we want to be close to him.
Jesus revealed his power to the crowds who gathered to even just get a glimpse of him. He shows them his power through small and ordinary things, a few loaves and some fish. These he multiplies to feed the bulging crowd of at least five thousand. In the Eucharist he also does something powerful through ordinary things. Something as insignificant as simple bread and wine become, through the words of the priest who is acting in the person of Christ (by the power of Jesus), his very body and blood. Unlike the multiplication of loaves which was an increase of bread and fish, in the Eucharist a wonderful transformation takes place where the whole substance of the bread and wine is changed into the whole substance of Jesus body and blood. Isn’t that amazing!
The hungry crowds that gathered around our Blessed Lord were given bread to satisfy their hunger. Yet this was just ordinary bread. At the Eucharist we are also filled, but not with ordinary bread that leaves us wanting - no, we are filled with the bread of angels, with Jesus himself who alone satisfies our longing for communion with God and the eternal life that he offers. The Eucharist is the bread that truly satisfies our innermost desires and gives us the seed of eternal life that we may one day share fully in the eternal banquet of heaven.
After eating the bread that Jesus abundantly provided for them the crowds are not changed internally, they still view Jesus in human terms, and his kingdom as an earthly one: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” The crowds only see him as a political liberator from Roman oppression. When we, on the other hand, receive the Eucharist worthily we become changed, we become like him. In the Eucharist we feel the glorious exchange that takes place between God and us: we give him our time and he gives us his eternity, we give him our humanity and he gives us his divinity, we die to our lower selves and he gives us a higher life, we desire him and he gives himself to us.
Like the Trinity, the mystery of Christ’s real presence in what seems to be only bread and wine, is not the kind of mystery that we solve, it is the kind of mystery that is entered into, experienced, and lived. To understand Jesus presence properly we have to do a certain kind of theology - what I would call theology on our knees. Only prayer can make sense of so great a mystery.
Sometimes it is a good thing to remind ourselves of the things we should be doing in the presence of our Blessed Lord and how we should receive him with respect and courtesy.
A) Genuflecting before entering pew.
B) Point at which consecration happens.
C) Some act of reverence before receiving (I used to genuflect, many bow).
D) Receive in mouth (permission given) or on hand (if hand, correct way).
E) Clear and loud Amen (Like Mary’s Amen).
F) Consume the host in front of the priest.
G) Make a sign of the cross after receiving.
When I was in Rome I a seminarian who gives tours at St. Peter’s Basilica told me of an interesting incident. He was showing around a group of Japanese tourists who knew absolutely nothing of our faith. With particular care did he explain the great masterpieces of art, sculpture, and architecture, and finally concluded at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (where the Eucharist is adored), trying his best to explain what it was.
As the group dispersed an elderly man who had been particularly attentive, stayed behind and said, “Pardon me. Would you explain again this Blessed Sacrament?” The seminarian did, after which the man exclaimed, “Ah, if this is so, what is in this chapel is a greater work of art than anything else in this Basilica.”
It is this work of art, this masterpiece that is entrusted to the Church. Should we not value and appreciate its worth.
O sacrament Most Holy, O sacrament divine! All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine.
Jesus the Good Shepherd. Of all the images we have of our blessed Lord, such as the vine, the gatekeeper, the way, the truth, the New Adam, the Word – I find that none of them is as comforting and as beautiful as the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. All these images speak of some reality of Jesus; he is a reality so complex and meaningful that any one image fails to capture who he is. The image of the Good Shepherd who searches and finds the lost and weak sheep and gives his life for them is an image of divine love that gives one a sense of peace and inspires one to respond by loving him back.
We see the attitude of the Good Shepherd in today’s gospel. The apostles have returned from their mission of preaching the kingdom of God in twos. They are very excited but also very tired from all their apostolic labours, but their work hasn’t ended, the Gospel says that “many were coming and going; and they had no leisure even to eat.” It must have been quite a scene - imagine all the crowds who saw in Jesus something spectacular and different. Some were just curious, others wanted to see sensational miracles and still others were sincerely striving after the truth of Jesus, striving after faith. Two thousand years later, Jesus and his Church still attracts the same kinds of people, some are half hearted about their faith, curious about Christ but unwilling to live up to his demands, while others are very committed to Christ, discovering the mystery of who they are in his person. These crowds are large and have been buzzing around all day; Jesus and the apostles are understandably tired. He suggests that they “Come away to a deserted place for a little while - a deserted place by themselves.” Imagine that, the Son of God is tired, Jesus is exhausted and he needs to rest. Isn’t the humility of God a lesson to us, The God who created the world from nothing has to rest because he is dead tired from helping his creation? He is giving these people everything he has; this episode is a sort of preparation for the cross where he gives his all for us, even to the last drop of his blood.
So he gets into a boat with the apostles and heads toward a deserted place for a retreat. What happens? The people recognise where they are going and they go ahead of them, running along the shore, they beat them there and wait for Jesus and the apostles. Imagine what the apostles must have thought when they arrive at a remote shore expecting a little R & R, only to find thousands of people waiting for them, so that they might be cured of diseases and hear the words of the master. They must have been completely disappointed, like any of us would have been. What was Jesus reaction? The scriptures tell us, “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like a sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” You and I would have probably whined and complained about this situation, we would have felt ripped off because we were promised some time to ourselves and we never got it. All of us have experienced something like that. I’m sure every parent here has set aside a little time for themselves and then had it taken away by the needs of their children. That can be a little frustrating, but in the end a good parent makes the most of the situation and realises that it’s their duty to take care of their children, no matter what the cost. Jesus I think felt something like that. He came to fulfill the duty given him by the Father, to give his life for all of his wayward children. To be the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, not counting the cost to himself, but looking, always, for their good. No wonder so many in our world love Jesus.
He is such a contrast to the neglectful and self serving shepherds that Jeremiah speaks of in the first reading - shepherds that were supposed to take care of the sheep of Israel, but instead scattered them and destroyed them. Israel, at the time of the prophet was not lead by righteous shepherds who would lead them to green pastures and still waters, those poor people were lead by men who sheared and slaughtered them, without a care for the welfare of the flock. These people before Jesus are “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”, he would be their shepherd and he would teach them many things. He would show the true extent of his love for them by giving his life for them and for all of us on the cross. On the cross the Good Shepherd becomes the Lamb of God, making up in his own body for the sin of Adam that all the world carried. Amazingly, even as the Lamb he is still like a shepherd - for by his death and resurrection he leads us to the Father in heaven, where, as the Psalmist says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Jesus is the true shepherd and we, like sheep, may follow behind. Do not be fooled by others who pretend to be good shepherds but only lead one to sorrow and regret. The shepherds who play sounds like these on their pipes. Pleasure is the most important thing in life, it should be sought because it is good in itself; take more, and use more, consume more - you have earned it and you’ve worked hard for it, so get as much as you can; after all, life is short! There is no such thing as absolute truth that you have to conform your life too - what’s true for you is true for you, what’s true for me is true for me. These are the catch phrases of the shepherds who don’t care for the sheep, and any sheep that follow them soon find themselves wanting and starving and confused. Let us always follow the Good Shepherd, he is our life, he gave everything he had for us - even his own life. He loves us and will never mislead us. He is the only one who can lead us to the things that really satisfy our needs.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Today let our hearts be filled with joy as we honour the great apostles: Peter, our leader in the faith, and Paul, its fearless preacher. United in their love for Christ they strengthened the infant Church and gave their lives out of love for God. These men were chosen by Christ to be his apostles and to spread the good news of his death and resurrection to the whole world.
It would be hard to imagine two more different individuals than Ss. Peter and Paul. Peter was a fisherman, which meant that his education was minimal and he worked in a physically demanding job. Paul on the other hand was educated by the best minds of the day. He was not a labourer but a Pharisee. Peter was called from the outset of Jesus public ministry, and was fishing when Jesus burst into his life and called him to follow. Paul was also called in the midst of his work, but it was many years later and while he was on his way to Damascus persecute earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Before being called, Peter probably spent his whole life around the lake of Galilee and Jerusalem, Paul on the other hand was an international man who was not only well travelled but was even a citizen of Rome.
Why then do we celebrate these great apostles on the same day? Since they’re so different should they not each have separate feast days? Well, in spite of all their differences it is their acceptance of God’s love, their unity of mission and their love that we remember and celebrate today. In spite of all their differences they are still one. One in love, one in faith, and even one in death, for both were martyred.
The love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is what binds these two apostles together. Although Peter denied his master three times during Our Lord’s passion, he later affirms his love three times and gives the rest of his life to teaching and preaching the Gospel. Paul, the most severe opponent of the early Church becomes its greatest advocate and spreads the Gospel all over the ancient world. Both these men, each in his own way, strengthened the faith of the infant Church and kept her faithful to her spouse, Jesus Christ. Their unity is expressed most clearly in their deaths: both were martyred in the city of Rome. Peter was crucified upside down with his head close to the earth, the traditional method of execution for a slave, while Paul was beheaded. Although they began life in different ways they were united, despite all logic, by Christ’s love and the Spirit’s power. They shared the same mission, and even, the same death.
Christ’s method of calling people to serve him has not changed in the last two thousand years. He calls each and every one of us in the same way that he called Sts. Peter and Paul. First of all he calls people from every background to be part of his Church. Look around this Church this morning, every continent on earth is represented in this Church. Our differences of education, employment, and ethnicity are all much greater than that of St. Peter and St. Paul, and yet we are united in the Spirit as the Church. Some were born into the Church through baptism while they were still babies, others, like St. Paul heard the call later in life. Like the first apostles who were called in the midst of their work you and I are always called to a deeper intimacy with Jesus through the things that we do. He asks us to serve him through the work we do. Whether you are a teacher, a lawyer, a tradesman, a housewife, a healthcare worker, or a student God is calling us to grow in love of him and build up the kingdom like Ss. Peter and Paul did. We do this when we’re patient with those around us, when we look for their benefit - not waiting for someone in need to ask us for help, but anticipating their needs. This is how we act as true Disciples of Christ who are united by the power of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Isn’t that amazing - God is asking us to serve him through the duties and people that we sometimes take for granted.
Jesus has given us so many gifts to help us be united and faithful to him as a Church. He gave us his life, his Spirit, his own mother, and he also gave us the gift of St. Peter. In today’s Gospel Peter is set apart from the other apostles and is chosen by Jesus Christ himself to be the rock of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him as the shepherd of the whole flock. Christ did not give these privileges only to Peter so that his unique role in the Church would end at his death, that wouldn’t make very much sense. Every pope that follows after Peter, right up to John Paul II, is set apart by God for a special purpose - he is the visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church. Peter and his successors hold the Church together, they are not something additional to the Church - they are essential to the Church on earth. Without the pope the Catholic Church ceases to be. In the early centuries of the Church their was a saying that showed how important they thought the pope was, it goes like this, “Where Peter is, there the Church is”.
The pope is a pastor, a shepherd, not a dictator. He is the gift of Jesus Christ to his Church, keeping her faithful to him and uniting her in service and love. Our present Holy Father John Paul II is a great example of what a pope should be. Whenever the pope finishes writing an official document that teaches us about faith or morals he always signs the bottom “Servant of the servants of God”. This title of the Pope tells us everything about his role in the Church. Being pope is not just a position of power, although he does have that, it is a position of love that unites. He is like a bridge that unites us to God - a great gift of God’s only Son. Let us always love and accept God’s gift.
Every Sunday that we come together to celebrate mass as a community of believers we confess our common faith by reciting either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. These creeds express, amongst other things, certain essential truths about the life of our Lord: “He was born of the Virgin Mary, He suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died and was buried, He descended to the dead on the third day He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” His ascension into heaven is the mystery that the Church celebrates today on this the feast named ascension.
When the ascension takes place in the life of our Blessed Lord, is very important for understanding this great mystery of our faith. Christ, the eternal Word of God, who along with the Father and the Spirit created the whole universe, came among us as a man about 2000 years ago, taking a true human nature from his Mother Mary. God is not distant from us; he cares deeply for us and enters into human history as a man. At the age of thirty he begins his public ministry after his baptism by John in the Jordan. What happens now is very important for understanding the ascension. He gives up his life for us on the cross. And after his death “he descended to the dead”, freeing the just men and women from death. For now the gates of heaven, closed through the disobedience of the old Adam are opened by the New Adam on the Cross. Then, “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Yet he did not go directly to the Father. He spent the next forty days after his resurrection on earth and was seen by the women at the tomb, the disciples on the road, and by the apostles, including Thomas who at first doubted. Only after he had prepared the apostles for his return to the Father did he ascend to heaven, forty days after his death. His return to the Father, called the ascension is the feast we celebrate today. Ten days later he sent the Holy Spirit who descended upon Mary and the apostles. This day is called Pentecost because it happened fifty days after the death of Christ. This of course is not the end of the story either because we know that one day Christ will return in, what is called, his second coming, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”.
This time-line is very important because without it we cannot understand the significance of the order in which the resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost happens. So once again, Jesus dies - descends to the dead - three days after his death we have the resurrection - forty days after the resurrection we have the ascension - and ten days after that, fifty days after the death of Christ we have the feast of Pentecost.
The ascension is the entrance of Christ’s humanity into heaven. This has tremendous consequences for each of us who are members of his mystical body. Left to our own natural powers humanity does not have access to the Father’s house, to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open heaven to us, that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go to heaven, where he our head and our source has preceded us. So we, who share the life of Jesus in baptism, hope to one day be in heaven forever, sharing in the eternal life that Jesus now leads.
Today’s Gospel is the point at which Jesus ascends to his Father, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” Before ascending he gives a great commissioning to the apostles, he said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” These powerful words are the last words that Jesus spoke in his life on earth. And they are directed most obviously to the twelve, but also to each of us who have become his disciples through our baptism. Jesus wants the Church to continue the work he began in his short life on earth.
This command of Christ to preach the Gospel to all nations is true especially for the apostles, and their successors the bishops in communion with the Pope. But this mission extends still further, into the life of every member of the Church. Listen to the beautiful words of the Second Vatican Council: The whole “Church was founded to spread the kingdom of Christ over all the earth for the glory of God the Father, to make all men partakers in redemption and salvation. Every activity of the mystical body with this in view goes by the name of ‘apostolate’ (that is spreading the Good News, as the apostles had); the Church exercises it through all its members, though in various ways. In fact, the Christian vocation is, of its nature, a vocation to the apostolate as well (spreading the Good News). In the organism of a living body no member plays a purely passive part, sharing in the life of the body it shares at the same time in its activity. The same is true for the body of Christ, the Church: ‘the whole body achieves full growth in dependence on the full functioning of each part.’ Between the members of this body there exists, furthermore, such a unity and solidarity that a member who does not work at the growth of the body to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless to both the Church and to himself. In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a unity of mission. To the apostles and their successors (the bishops) Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world their own assignment in the mission of the whole people of God.”
The Church is not a human creation, it is established by Christ himself to do what he did, draw all men to the Father. Every baptised person therefore is called by Christ himself to go into the world and preach the Good News to all the world, drawing others into the life of the Trinity. This means our Catholicism cannot be something that is merely exercised one hour each week in Church; rather, it has to enter into everything that we say and do. This is the only way to spread the Good News and live up to the great expectations Christ has for every one of us. While I cannot possibly discuss everything a person can do to spread the Good News, I can think of two ways that each of us can build up the mystical body of Christ, of which we are members.
The first way is to be proud of our faith. At work, in the home, in everything we do. We should never be embarrassed of afraid to speak the name Jesus to anyone at work or anyone in our family. Even something as simple as saying grace before meals at a restaurant and crossing ourselves with a big cross can spread the Good News of Jesus. Speaking of the love we have for him and his Church and the way he has changed our lives is the essence of evangelisation.
The Second way is by believing the truths of the faith that the Church received from Christ himself. As Catholics we cannot pick and chose between the teachings of the Church that we like and the teachings that we don’t like. The Church does not make up teachings out of thin air - she is faithful to Christ and teaches only what she has been taught by him. As members of the mystical body we must support the body, rather than destroy it from within. Saying that life is precious at all stages, that marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman, that the gift of sex should be saved for marriage, that every person, no matter how poor, has a great dignity may not always be easy - it wasn’t easy for Christ either, he went to the cross for the truth, but these facts are the life giving realities revealed by truth itself, God - whose children we are. If we ourselves don’t believe in the Church and her teachings why would anyone else want to?
Spreading the Good News is never easy. It wasn’t easy for Christ, who was killed for the Truth he taught, or for the apostles, who, save for one, all became martyrs, or for the thousands of martyrs who have gone before us. Yet, in spite of the inevitable misunderstandings and accusations that will come with being a faithful disciple, we know that Christ will one day be waiting for us in heaven. There is no pain on earth that heaven cannot heal. And it is there, through his ascension, that he prepares a place for those who love him; for those who go forth and preach the Gospel everywhere. Today we are reminded to keep our hearts set on heaven while we spread the love of Christ on earth.
The coming of Jesus Christ into our world changes everything. Once the eternal word, who was present with the Father before anything was made, comes into the world that he himself created nothing is ever the same. The blind are able to see, the deaf hear, the mute speak; dull minds are enlightened, hard hearts are softened, wills are strengthened. The burden of sin that weighed humanity down from the time of Adam is removed, and death, the last enemy to be destroyed, will finally be conquered. The kingdom of God is in our midst. The question then could be asked, “how do we enter into this kingdom of God, How do we receive it?” We have the answer in today’s gospel, where we hear the first words of Christ that are ever written down. They are words that speak of his kingdom and of what is required if we are to receive it. “Jesus came, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom that Jesus inaugurates, or begins, can only be accepted if one repents and believes.
Repentance in the first place has to do with feeling sorrow for the sins we committed. When we realize that our sins hurt other people and, perhaps more importantly, when we understand that they that they offend God, who is all good and deserving of all our love, and when we resolve not to sin again, then we are experiencing repentance. This sorrow for sin is described in the first reading today. Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh that they should repent of the sins they had committed because God is offended by them and will punish them for their sins. The people hear the word of God that Jonah preaches and they feel such sorrow for their sins that they put on sackcloth and sit in ashes so that God’s punishment might be avoided and they might once again enjoy his friendship. They realized they sinned and needed God’s mercy. By feeling remorse for their sins and trying to show their inner sorrow by painful external acts they once again have God’s favour. They have changed the direction of their lives from sin and worldly things to virtue and the things of heaven. As it says in the book of Jonah “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, He did not bring calamity upon them”. The thing that saves the people of Nineveh is the fact that they turned from their evil ways. Turning from sin and embracing the life that God offers us is the other aspect of repentance, it is usually called conversion.
Conversion happens when one turns their life toward God - when one change the direction of one’s lives, from sin and selfishness, to the divine life that God offers them. Most often conversion is associated with becoming a Christian through baptism, this is indeed a true and very powerful conversion. Yet conversion also means turning away from sin on a daily basis and directing our desires and energies to God and the kingdom he offers us. When we turn our lives toward God and away from sin we always discover the mercy of God. Conversion to God always consists in discovering his mercy. Divine mercy. God’s mercy is felt when we turn to him and ask to be forgiven for the times we have messed up and offended him. Like the Father of the prodigal son, he is overjoyed to see us return to him. He wipes away our tears and desires that we never leave him again. “There are two conversions in the Church,” said a great saint, “”one by water and the other by tears, the water of baptism and the tears of repentance.” His love is greater than any force on earth. The only thing that can prevent us from experiencing his merciful love is ourselves. If we are too proud to ask for God’s mercy, or are presumptuous to believe that we do not need it, then we will not have it.
We should never be afraid to ask for God’s mercy by feeling sorrow for our sins - our sins are not greater than God’s mercy. That God’s mercy is infinitely greater than our sins and that he wants to give it to us is clear in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. The fourth Eucharistic prayer that we sometimes say before the bread and wine are consecrated and changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ tells us of the extent of God’s mercy, and why we know we can approach him now here’s what the prayer says: “Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death, but helped all men to seek and find you. Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation. Father, you so loved the world that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our saviour. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom, and to those in sorrow, joy. In fulfilment of your will he gave himself up to death; but by rising from the dead, he destroyed death and restored life. And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as his first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace.” The mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection shows us the extent of God’s mercy and the consequences of God’s love for us. He loves us so much that he sent his own son to save us by a painful cross while, says St. Paul, “we were still his enemies, because of sin.” If God loves us enough to offer himself up to death for us then we can expect that he wants to give us forgiveness and allow us to know his merciful love.
Knowledge of God’s mercy is a constant source of conversion. That God loves me enough to die for me, forgives me when I fail, and since he still loves me in spite of myself, should encourages us to always turn to him with the desire to please him and imitate the love of Jesus better than we did. God’s mercy calls us to a constant conversion. To be converted to God is not just a single momentary act, it is a permanent attitude. We often fail to love our neighbour and to love God as much as he deserves, or as much as we would like, and so we are always examining our lives in light of his mercy. When we find we have fallen short we trust in him and rely on his mercy. Every day there are many opportunities to see if we are living a life of fidelity to Jesus and the kingdom that he establishes.
Jesus describes himself as the truth. He shows us his Father, the God of truth and invites us to accept the truth that comes from him. The truth that Christ offers us is no mere intellectual truth that I only have to agree with in my mind. The truth that he offers us is the mystery of God’s love for us. Entering into this truth requires not just our minds but also our hearts, our entire being. To enter into the mystery of God’s love and to live it out in our lives is the ultimate experience of truth.
In Jesus Christ the whole of God’s truth has been made clear to every one of us “Full of grace and truth”, he comes as the “light of the world”, he is the Truth. “Whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness”. The disciple of Jesus follows his word so as to “know the truth that will make you free” and gives holiness. To follow Jesus is to live in “the Spirit of truth,” whom the Father sends in his name and who leads “into all the truth”. To his disciples Jesus teaches the unconditional love of truth.
All people desire truth and want to follow it. As the Catechism says, “Man is obliged to honour and bear witness to truth: ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons...are both impelled by their nature and bound by moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.” So every person seeks truth and once they find it they have to live up to the demands that it places on us. For instance, once I know a simple truth such as ‘you do not drive through an intersection when the traffic light is red’, I then have to change my behaviour to conform to that truth. That means that I will be careful not to drive my car through a red light. The truth of God however is much greater than the truth of a law and demands more of us as well - it requires not only our obedience, but our entire lives.
When we are upright in our action and speech this is known as truthfulness. Truth or truthfulness is a virtue that shows itself when we are true in deeds and truthful in words, its opposite is hypocrisy, which is always easy to spot because there is a gap between what one says and what one does, between the way a person should be and the way they are.
Truth is at the heart of all the readings we have listened to this morning (evening). Jesus, who himself is truth, is warning against the trading in of the truth of God for the falsehood of hypocrisy as the Pharisees had done. Our Blessed Lord warns the people to follow what the Pharisees say because they have the authority to teach the truth that Moses received from God, but to not behave as they do. Although they had lawful authority to teach Jesus warns the people and his disciples to distinguish the Law as read aloud and taught in the synagogues from the practical interpretations of the law to be seen in their leaders’ lifestyles. They place heavy burdens on people and do not help them to remove them. They do everything to be seen by others, from wearing gaudy clothes to looking for the places of honour. The Pharisees have perverted the truth because although they are aware of what it demands and expect others to follow it, they themselves do the contrary.
Such people are to be pitied because they have the truth but are not willing to live up to its demands, thus the very truth they preach proves the falsehood of their lives. The Pharisees are expected to live in the truth and confirm it with their lives. Instead they have perverted the truth to such a degree that rather than serving it, they have the truth serve them. Like their predecessors, the Levite priests, that we heard about in the first reading “they have turned aside from the way.” The problem with both the Pharisees and the Levites is that they have not taken the truth to heart and have not lived up to the requirements of the truth they proclaim. The damning testimony in the first reading sums up the whole situation “you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the Lord of hosts, “and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, in as much as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.” By not living the truth in their own lives these men have caused many to stumble and turn away from the Truth, rather than embrace it.
At our baptism we were baptised into the truth. Through the pouring of water and the words “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” our lives were changed forever, we became children of God and that is what we are. Unless we are to be Christians in name only we must live up to the great spiritual heritage that has been given us through baptism. To be a child of God is to act like his children, loving him and our neighbour with all of our hearts. When we do not live out the truth in our lives then we become no better than the Levites and Pharisees that are being condemned in today’s (this evening’s readings). Who can forget the observation of Ghandi regarding Christians who do not take to heart this dignity of being children of God “Christ, I love”, he said. “But I have never met a Christian to judge anything about them.” The point that he’s trying to make is that when we do not imitate Christ and live in the truth we become hypocrites, witnesses to nothing, and are then Christians in name only. If we do not live out the demands of truth we can expect that others will notice this fact and then we will be called hypocrites and our witness to Christ will be undermined.
As Christians we should take joy in living in the truth and live our lives in such a way that people will find the truth attractive and life giving. Living lives in accordance to the truth draws people into the faith and causes them to desire the faith, hope, and love that we have. Unless we live up to the expectations that come along with being Christians who live in the truth we will not be capable of witnessing the truth of the faith to others. As the Holy Father has noticed, holiness of life is the only way to convince people about the truth of our faith. People should know by our actions that we are Christians.
So we know we are not living in the truth when we openly criticise the fundamental teachings of the Church, when we look upon members of the other sex as mere objects to be exploited, when we don’t want to lead chaste lives, when we do not regard all life from conception to natural death as always being worthy of protection, when we find ourselves putting our own needs in front of our neighbours. When these things happen we are not living in the truth and are hypocrites.
We show the world that we are living in the truth when we live just as Christ lived. In the words of St. Anthony of Padua: “If your neighbour is blind because of his pride, open his eyes by your example of humility; if he is crippled by hypocrisy, rectify his twisted condition by showing him the truth; if he is afflicted with the leprosy of self indulgence, cleanse him by chaste words and deeds; if greed has made him deaf, place before him the example of Lady Poverty; if gluttony and drunkenness have made him lifeless, revive him by your practice of self-denial. This is the way to preach the life of Christ.”
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Christ came into our world to give us communion with the Blessed Trinity. As St. Paul says he emptied himself and took the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men, obediently accepting death on the cross. Through that death he would make up for the disobedience of Adam who separated us from salvation through his sins. On the cross Jesus reconciles humanity to God and God to humanity. He is the one who does what no mere person could ever do; he gives us back communion with God. By his wounds we were healed.
That Christ’s purpose for coming into the world is to give us communion with God is seen very clearly in what he says about himself. Every time that Jesus, in his short life on earth, tries to describe who he is it is in images that speak of communion. In describing himself he shows that he, in his very person, because of who he is, reveals the Father to us, leads us to him, and gives us a share in his life.
I am the light of the world - with Jesus’ light we see God and ourselves as we truly are. I am the door of the sheepfold - we enter communion with God through Jesus. I am the Good shepherd - Jesus leads us to the good pastures of God’s presence. I am the resurrection and the life - Jesus is the source of eternal life with God. I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life - Jesus is the sole source of salvation and reconciliation with God. I am the real vine - we are attached to him and share his life, his communion.
Now, in today’s (this evening’s) gospel, he says of himself ”I am the bread of life” - If we want eternal life, the highest form of communion with God, it comes through eating (what is communing) with the body and blood of Jesus Christ himself: ”Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
We are able to have communion with God through the body and blood of Jesus Christ by the power of his cross, where he takes upon his own flesh the sins of all of us and spills his blood washing away the sin of the world which separated us from God, and through his resurrection, by which his body is changed - the pledge and the promise of what our frail bodies will become.
When we are sharing in the communion with God that Jesus offers us through his body and blood in the Eucharist we are sharing especially in three things.
First of all we are sharing in the life of Christ. Often times we speak of receiving Jesus in communion or in the Eucharist, but it would be more true to say that he receives us. Through the Eucharist a great transformation takes place we are incorporated into Christ and are strengthened in his life. The supernatural life we are given in baptism, the first sacrament of communion is strengthened and revitalised through this greatest sacrament of communion. What mother is satisfied with just bringing her child into the world? That child must be feed and nourished if it is to grow and become a healthy and mature man or woman. So too, our mother, the Church, is not satisfied that we are born into the supernatural life through baptism, as great as that is, she wants us to grow and mature in that life through the nourishment of God himself and the life he offers, ”My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” In the face of such love what are we to say except “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” We do not say this because we are so bad and because God is so good, we say it because of the one we love. Is it not true in human love that the beloved is always placed on a pedestal while the lover is on his knees? So too with divine love, we protest our unworthiness to receive his divine life and he invites us to his banquet and holds us in his embrace.
Secondly, in communion we share in the death of Christ. This is a reality that people rarely think of. Sharing in the death of Christ through communion is what urged St. Paul to tell the Corinthians that ”when you eat this bread and drink this cup it is the Lord’s death that you are proclaiming.” We participate in the death of Christ because we are not yet in glory and are still held down by our sins. We must die to sin in the Eucharist in order to live for Christ. Looking into our hearts we examine all those things in our life that prevent us from loving him who loves us so, as well as the things we do that hurt our neighbour. We ask the Lord in communion to strengthen us and to put to death these things which hold us back from being true disciples, images of Christ’s love, a love that gives all for the other and holds nothing back. In communion we die to sin, he gives us grace, we die to our own wills and receive the divine will, we humbly give him our stony hearts and have them returned to us soft and natural hearts, we give him our humanity and he gives us his divinity. We commune with Christ’s death to receive his life.
Thirdly, in communion we are united with all the members of the Church, the mystical body of Christ. By sharing in the one bread and one cup we are put in communion with everyone else who does the same. We are connected not just with the people in this Church, or with those of the Archdiocese of Toronto, we are connected to the entire Church throughout the world. We share in her joys and in her sorrows. We share in her pain when she is persecuted and we share in her hope when she preaches, we share in her desire that all should be saved, and we share in her mission to continue Christ’s work of drawing all men to the Father. Through the Eucharist we are connected one to the other, we are all members of the body of Christ, becoming that which we receive.
Man is a great mystery to himself. Human beings ask themselves basic questions such as how did I come to exist? Where am I going? What is the point of my life? Why am I here? Questions like these are elementary, and must be answered if humans are to understand themselves. The Bible, the Word of God, gives us answers to the fundamental questions that we raise about ourselves. Through the Scriptures, which are inspired by the Holy Spirit, God reveals to man the mystery of himself. This is particularly true of the book of Genesis where the truth about man is made clear. Here, in deceptively simple language, we hear the truth about why we are created and what God has in mind for us. The truths surrounding the creation of man that the Bible reveals to us can be trusted because it is God’s word, God reveals it. He is the very source of all truth. The truths of Genesis do not try to establish the scientific truth about man and creation, but rather a higher truth - what might be called theological truth. Not all truth is scientific truth; some truths are philosophical; for instance, if I know that all men are mortal and I also know that Socrates is a man I can conclude that Socrates is mortal. Some truths are commonsensical, 2+2=4. If there are two chairs in the room and someone goes to get two more chairs I know that there will be four chairs in the room, I don’t have to wait until the person arrives so that I can count four chairs, I know there will be four chairs. So there are all kinds of truths that we trust and deal with every day that are not scientific truths. Theological truth is known only to faith, it is the final and highest level of all truths, it is believed in by faith, because of the one who revealed it - and the one who reveals the truth about man in Genesis is God. What Genesis says about human persons is fundamental to our understanding of who we are and why we are here.
The first thing that the scriptures tell us about the mystery of ourselves is that ”The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” God creates us. He breaths his very breath into us and fills us with his Spirit. Man then is not just the product of a long line of evolution that is totally material. Every person is created by God with an immortal soul. Without the care and love of God people would never have come into being. We are created by God himself which means that God desires us and cares for us. Our dignity comes from the fact that we are created in God’s image and that every one of us was willed by God. No person or group can ever strip another person of that dignity.
What is the next thing we find out about man? ”Then the Lord God said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ ” It turns out that God has created man with a need to be in relationship with others.
So God creates all the living creatures of the heavens, the earth, and the sea, ”but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” The need for man to be in relationship cannot be truly satisfied by just any relationship. God has a special relationship in mind for man - one in which his desires and aspirations can be realized, and in which he will be happy. God wants to give man the gift of a partner that is suitable for him, in other words God has a plan for man.
”So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man...then he took one of his ribs...And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” God gives to man the gift of woman, they become a gift one for the other. Of all the partners that God could have created for man, of all the gifts he could have given, he chose to give man the gift of woman.
”Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Man and woman have meaning in each other. They are made one for the other, and so they show that they are meant to be together through marriage, a sacred bond in which a man and woman commit themselves to one another for life. They do this for their mutual benefit, and as we read elsewhere in Genesis, for the creation of new life in children, the creative fruit of their love.
Marriage then is not just something that people have made up; rather it is sanctified by God as part of his plan for human beings. In marriage a man and woman become united and inseparable, they become one flesh, so that what God has united men must not divide. This is what Jesus says in the Gospel, marriage is between a man and a woman and it is meant to be for life.
How different then is God’s vision of marriage from an extremely recent vision that has been advocated by some people. God’s vision of marriage means that marriage is entered into by a man and a woman, and that it is designed for the mutual benefit of the spouses and for bringing children into the world through their natural creative powers - a view of marriage which has been shared by the world’s great religions for about the last two or three thousand years. Some however, have lobbied for another view that would elevate same sex unions to the level of marriage, a view that has received support from some recent court decisions and not a few members of parliament. Placing same sex unions on a level with heterosexual marriage though, not only ignores common sense, natural law, and God’s divine purpose for marriage, which is for the mutual good of the spouses and the bringing forth of children. Recognizing same sex unions as marriage also undervalues heterosexual marriage by saying that it is not a unique relationship that sets a couple apart with distinct and important responsibilities to each other and to their children.
The Church has been strongly criticised by some groups and individuals within our society for maintaining that marriage can only be seen as the relationship of a man and a woman. Yet she has no choice but to speak this truth. The Church must be faithful to her spouse Jesus Christ, in her life and teaching she can only say and do what Jesus would. The Church does not pull her teachings out of thin air and then put them on the backs of others as heavy burdens to make their lives miserable. Rather, in faithfulness to Christ, the Church is concerned with the essential truth about man as revealed by Jesus himself. With her emphasis on marriage as being a relationship between a man and a woman the Church is putting into practice the words the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient ...for the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine.” unfortunately, don’t these words of the apostle seem to characterize the situation today?
Man is a mystery to himself. It is only under the light of truth, who is Jesus Christ, that we are able to understand ourselves and our true relationship to God and others. Just as Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so his truths, the truth of God himself do not change. They are as necessary and relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. The Church as an advocate of the Truth of Jesus Christ can expect to encounter the same hostility and misunderstanding that her spouse did. St. Paul’s description of Christ could be just as much a description of her “A Sign to be contradicted.|” In our age of relativism She is mocked and treated with zero tolerance for many things, but especially for saying something as outlandish as the following: “Marriage is the union of a man and a woman designed by God for their mutual good and the bringing forth and nurturing of children.” When did the truth of God suddenly become the enemy of men.