Memorial of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church (October 1st, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the witness of a cloistered, Carmelite nun who became one of the most powerful and influential women in the history of the Church- St. Therese of Lisieux.

Born in the year 1873, Therese Martin would enter the Carmelite community at the age of 15 in the year 1888. For those who are unfamiliar with the Carmelite way of life, it is a life of austerity and utter simplicity through which by living in the most radical way, vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, one cultivates detachment from worldly desires so as to serve Christ alone. (While many Christians choose to live as “weekend warriors” in terms of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus, a faithful Carmelite is an Olympic athlete).

Therese’s entry into this radical form of religious life essentially meant that she would disappear entirely (and literally) into the mission of the Church.

After 18 months of physical decline caused by tuberculosis, a decline that was accompanied by a crucible of spiritual desolation, Therese died into the year 1897. She was 24 years old.

Death should have extinguished any memory of Therese Martin, but within a few years she was renowned throughout the world. By 1925, she would be canonized a saint. In the year 1997 she was declared by Pope St. John Paul II to be a Doctor of the Church, which means that her perspective on the nature of the Christian life is considered to be authoritative and esteemed, a privileged reference point for disciples seeking to advance and grow in faith, hope and love.

The cause of St. Therese renown was the publication of her journal in the year 1898. Therese began this journal at the advice of her superiors in religious life in the year 1895 and it witnesses to her relationship with Christ, a relationship that began and intensified at a very early age and matured in the Carmelite community of Lisieux.

Within the personal narrative of the journal is a proposal in regards to the Christian way of life- one which Therese insists is about “simplicity without pretense”, a way she describes as “confidence and love”, in which one’s fidelity to Christ is manifested in accepting and fulfilling the demand of love in the immediacy of life’s circumstances. Therese summarized this disposition as “doing the least things with great love”.

It is in this low key, mostly unnoticed and unappreciated death to self that sanctity most often happens. Heroism in terms of the Christian life is to be appreciated and emulated, but unless the aspiration towards the great ideals of the Gospel is accompanied by love, our efforts cannot accomplish their divinely ordained purpose- to make us saints.

Thus, the real crucible in which holiness happens will take place in the immediacy of our lives, in loving those who present themselves to us without hesitation or complaint; in giving to those who offer us little or nothing in return.

St. Therese’s “little way” has deep resonance for disciples of the Lord Jesus and the accessibility of her witness as presented in “The Story of A Soul” made her a spiritual friend to thousands and thousands. Stories of her intercession in matters great and small are plentiful. No saint, other than perhaps St. Francis of Assisi, is as well known. Devotees of her spiritual way include such diverse figures as Dorothy Day and Edith Piaf, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton, Henri Bergson and Jean Vanier, Bishop Barron and Pope Francis.

The providence of God assigned St. Therese of Liseux to obscurity in her earthly life and the same providence made her one of the Church’s most renowned heavenly friends and intercessors.

Pope Benedict XVI said of St. Therese- “trust and love illumined the whole of her journey to holiness and enabled her to guide others to Christ along the same way”.  May St. Therese intercede for us, teach us trust and love, so that we might find her and follow her along the little way.

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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 27th, 2015)

One of the great challenges faced by a leader is the humble recognition that however great one’s gifts might be, one cannot be a leader alone. Leadership requires a leader, yes, and if a leader is not in place, a people will drift. But a leader cannot be effective if he or she believes that they must do everything, control everything alone. Leadership is not about aggregating all power to oneself, but about working with others to achieve attainable goals.

Moses, the greatest of the Israelite leaders, discovered this truth first hand, as he was thrust reluctantly into service as the leader of the Israelites. Driven to exhaustion by the burden of leadership and the expectations of the people, his father-in-law, the tribal chieftain Jethro, advised him to appoint others to help him, to act in his name, to share in the governance of the Israelites.

This is what the first scripture to Holy Mass is about today. Moses chooses 70 elders to help him exercise leadership in service of the Israelites. Once chosen, these elders receive what the scriptures describe, as a “share in Moses’ spirit”, which means authority to act. The scriptures describe the elders are “prophesying” which can be taken to mean, that they spoke, as Moses did, with an authority that came from God.

Moses will have to trust that the elders he has appointed are responsible and capable. Trust will mean that he will hold the 70 elders accountable, but he will not be able to control all outcomes. Should they fail in their mission, then the responsibility for that failure will be accepted by Moses- for leadership is never well exercised without both responsibility and accountability.

Some are resentful in regards to Moses choice of the 70 elders. Others think that Moses has diluted his own authority and that risks chaos. In regards to these protests Moses is defiant. His decision was made, not to curry favor with any one constituency, but for the sake of the common good. He is willing to lead, but he will not be able to fulfill that mission in isolation.

Abraham Lincoln once quipped that with every decision he made he always made at least one friend and one enemy. This is an unavoidable fact of being a leader. If leadership is simply about pleasing everyone, the leader who does that will not lead for very long.

The lesson here is practical, but it should also inform our understanding and experience of the Church. The leaders in the Church have a divinely ordained mission and their authority comes from promises made to the apostles by Christ.

The Church is a hierarchy and this means that the leaders of the Church are not chosen by the people, but by God, and though God’s choice may at times confound and confuse us, it is God’s choice as to who will lead because it is God’s Church. We are stewards of the gifts Christ has given us, not owners of those gifts. We are all servants of Christ, not his master.

In the end, those called to leadership in the Church will be judged, not in reference to worldly standards or success, or whether or not the people liked or agreed with their decisions, but on the basis of whether or not they were faithful to Christ and did what he wanted them to do. If what we seek to do on behalf of the Church is not in accord with what Christ wants, no matter how successful or important it may be to us, it will not receive the blessing of God.

The leaders God has chosen are accountable, as Moses was, for their decisions and for those they appoint to help them in their mission. Leadership in the Church is not for the benefit of the one chosen for that office, nor is it for the sake of pleasing everyone, but for the sake of the service to the Church.

It is in this regard, service to the Church, that all are held accountable- both leaders and the people they serve.

Our scripture from the Letter to James is fierce and uncompromising in its tone. The Apostle decries an idolatry of riches that has unleashed terrible corruption and crimes.

Warnings about wealth abound in the Bible. In fact, there are more warnings about the consequences of greed then there are for sexual immorality (though from some people’s perceptions of the Bible, you might never know this to be the case!)

The warnings in the Bible about wealth should not be taken to mean that wealth is intrinsically evil. Wealth is actually something good, for it is a means by which many good things can be accomplished. But all good things in this world can be corrupted by human desire and sinfulness. The great concern of the Bible in regards to wealth is that it can become, as a result of our desires, an idol, that is, a false god.

Once wealth becomes an idol, a false god, it becomes extremely dangerous (as all false gods are!). False gods are the cause of our destruction and this is why the Bible is adamant that there is only one, true God, and when we don’t live in relationship to the one, true God, our lives quickly spin out of control.

In a materialistic culture such as our own, some have come to believe that the creation and attainment of wealth are ends in themselves or simply a means to serve our ego driven desires and self interested scheming. This is wealth as false god, as idol and those in the thrall of such idols are in great spiritual peril.

If we have been given wealth, the witness of the saints teaches us that what we have been given should be made a gift for others. The wealthy has been given what they have been given so that they can become holy through generosity. Only in this way can they avoid the temptation to make their wealth an idol.

The saints also remind us that in the end, none of our wealth will accompany us to heaven. We all arrive in heaven as beggars. All that our wealth has attained for us in terms of honors, pleasure and power will not matter in the least. But what we have done with our wealth will matter. Now is the time to be generous, not later.

There is a terrifying scene in Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” in which Scrooge sees a vision of the lost souls, those who worshipped wealth as a god, pathetically chained to the wealth they did not use to benefit the poor. The chains bind them to a horrific situation in which they try desperately to divest themselves of the wealth they greedily kept to themselves while they were alive, but they find themselves unable to do so. So they languish in desperation.

Death deprives us of the chance to set things right.

May Christ deliver us all from such a judgment by delivering us from an idolatry of wealth!

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus employs hyperbole to dramatic and frightening effect! His words are fierce and true and frightening.

There are many times in the Gospel that Christ presents himself in ways that are truly frightening. His words are neither meek or mild, but divisive and harsh. Rather than just ignore this reality of Christ’s revelation, we should face it directly. The truth of Christ’s Gospel is more often than not the very truth we don’t want to hear.

Gospel passages, like the one for this Sunday, impress upon us the urgency of Christ’s invitation, the necessity of conversion, and repentance for our sins. Christ does not come into our lives simply to affirm us as we are but to save us from ourselves. And at times, like today, he will shout at us, warning us of potential danger- shouting because if he didn’t, we would not listen and be saved…

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Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time (September 24th, 2015)

In the year 587 BC the temple of Solomon was razed to the ground by the armies of the Babylonian Empire. This event was not mourned by the Israelites as merely the destruction of an important civic monument, but as a sign, that the God of Israel had abandoned his people.

For years, the Israelites languished in exile, beset by the fear that God had given up on them. The prophets reminded the Israelites of their many refusals of God, and this cast a pall over them. They could not deny their infidelity to the covenant. Had they driven God away? Would God ever return? If God didn’t come back to his people, would they ever get to go home?

This week the Church has selected readings from Old Testament Books of Ezra and Haggai. Both men spoke the Lord’s word of truth around the year 520 BC, during a time when the Israelites had returned from a long exile and had begun the difficult task of rebuilding the temple. The temple was not, as I said just a civic center, it was a house for God to dwell in. From this house, God reigned over Israel as their king and offered the people communion with his divine presence. The rebuilding of the temple was an act of faith that God had not abandoned his people and the covenant had been restored.

There were many obstacles to this project of rebuilding, and political intrigues brought everything to a standstill, money ran out, and it took the intervention of a foreign king to get things going again. Ezra and Haggai acted to organize and encourage the Israelites to rebuild the temple and to get on with the mission God had given them. Their long exile had ended. God had brought them home. God had not abandoned them. The Israelites were not to live in nostalgia or in regret, but to be the people God had created them to be: a light to the nations, witnesses to the world of the living, divine presence of the one, true God.

The lesson in all this is not just historical, but immediate to the mission of the Church right now. The Church is the continuation of the story of Israel. The stories in the Old Testament are reference points for understanding what the Church is and what the Church is supposed to be doing.

The mission of the Church is too often blocked by nostalgia, mitigated by practical concerns that are construed as insurmountable obstacles, fear holds us back, too many times we prefer to argue about the mission rather than doing it. The Church’s mission is that of Israel- to be a light in a dark world, to be an invitation to the world to bask in the divine life and presence of the one, true God Jesus Christ. In the temple of the Church’s worship, God in Christ offers communion with all who would come to him in faith and humility. We build up that temple through lives of virtue and works of mercy. Christ’s faithful are the missionaries of the temple of the Church, the Lord sends us from the temple of the Church out into the world so as to invite people to come in.

Today’s Gospel testifies that Herod (the son of Herod the King who tried to murder the infant Lord Jesus and killed the children of Bethlehem) is both curious and fearful of Christ, wondering if an even greater prophet than John the Baptist (whom he had killed) had been sent to the Israelites.

John had proclaimed that the Lord God was coming to Israel to set things right that had gone terribly wrong. God would drive out the family of Herod who had usurped the kingdom of God and purify the temple that the Herod had gilded as a monument to his own glory. The family of Herod hoped that with John’s death, none of his prophecies would come to fulfillment.

News of the signs and wonders worked by Christ troubles Herod because it seems that John’s death didn’t stop what he had set in motion and his prophecies would come true.

Thus, Herod wants to see Christ. Why? The Gospel of Luke will testify later that it is because he wants to see if the Lord Jesus can perform miracles for him, provide him with an experience of faith-based entertainment. He doesn’t seek the Lord Jesus so that he can be liberated from his sacrilege and blasphemy, but so that he can be entertained! He thinks of Christ as a kind of celebrity whom he can use for his own benefit!

The desire for Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit but even that gift can be distorted and destroyed by sin. Had Herod opened himself up to the authentic potential of the gift of Christ, he would have been freed from the debauchery that imprisoned him.   But that would have meant Herod would have to let Christ be himself- Lord and Savior. Herod would have to repent of the terrible things that he had done. Faith based entertainment was easier.

The reduction of our relationship with Christ to superficiality and worship to entertainment is a perennial temptation for us all. Herod’s tragic refusal of Christ displays where that temptation leads. It is not enough to be interested in the Lord Jesus, even fascinated by him. Instead, we must be willing to be changed by him.

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Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time (September 17th, 2015)

When we think about St. Paul and the early years of the Church’s life, we have to suspend our own reference point regarding the Church as there were no dioceses or parishes or really any infrastructure whatsoever. There was also nothing of what we know as the culturally induced experience of the Church in which the Faith is understood as something akin to an ethnic identity that is passed along generation to generation. What existed in the early years were relationships, and it was the establishment of relationships that would give rise to much of the good that we experience as the Church today.

The Church did not begin with infrastructure, or a kind of Christian ethnicity, but it began and was about relationships. This relationship began with an encounter with an evangelist, like St. Paul, who introduced a person to Christ and invited that person to consider sharing the gifts that Christ wants his people to enjoy. Accepting these gifts meant a surrender of one’s life to Christ and it was this surrender of life that brought one into relationship with other Christians, and through those relationships, incorporated a person into the Church. The priority was not the community in itself, but the community as a means of knowing and serving Christ. The Church was presented and experienced, not as an aggregate of infrastructure that provided faith based services, but as a unique kind of relationship to Christ.

The Church was a way of knowing and serving Christ.

And so it should be for us.

Saint Paul’s letters provide important descriptions of the early Church that challenge and judge what in many respects is an institutional emphasis and narrowness of vision in regards to the Church. Too many of us know the Church in its structures and culture, and serve these things, but do we know Christ and how do we serve him? St. Paul brings to bear upon us the gravity and urgency of the priority of coming to know and serve Christ.

Most of his letters are written to the early communities of Christians but the letter the scriptures present to us this week is addressed to a person- Timothy. Timothy is a young evangelist that St. Paul sends out on mission. His mission is that of St. Paul- to introduce people to Christ and invite them to enjoy the gifts that Christ wants to give his people. It’s not an easy mission and remember that neither Paul or Timothy had much in terms of infrastructure to support their efforts. Neither were salaried religious professionals. Their authority did not come from a degree or a position in a bureaucracy, but because of a particular relationship with Christ.

Timothy experiences his youth as a liability, and people seems willing to dismiss what he has to say and the leadership he offers because he is young. Lacking the gravitas of age, Timothy seems to have little authority and in this respect, Paul advises that he be courageous and demonstrate through his way of life that he is worthy of respect and trust. In other words, begin with ordering his relationships with people to fulfill the demand of love and the respect and trust Timothy needs for his mission will surely follow.

All of us are insufficient in some way- if we are not too young we are too old, gifts and talents are not distributed equally, not all have the same charisms, the challenges of being a disciple of Christ are many and many of us will falter and fail. Yet, much, in terms of inadequacies can be overcome if we seek to fulfill the demand of love, prioritizing that as our immediate concern over and above any cause or self-interested need.

In the end, as the wise St. John of the Cross reminds us, we are judged by our fulfillment of the demands of love, not by the categories of success or failure that we impose upon ourselves or the world imposes upon us.

Today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke describes two encounters with the Lord, one is a Pharisee, who justifies himself in relation to God by his pride in his accomplishments. The Lord should see him and affirm him as he is, for there is little if anything that he believes he should seek forgiveness for and little or anything of Christ’s grace that he needs.

The other encounter is with a woman who is soul sick and knows it. She is a sinner and her act of breaking open a jar of precious, perfumed ointment and lavishing this gift on Christ is a symbol of her broken heart, presented to Christ. She does not seek affirmation for who she is but the opportunity to become someone she is not, someone she knows she cannot be unless she lives in relationship with Christ.

For the Christian, the encounter with the Lord and a relationship with him always entails a humble admission that one is a sinner in need of a Savior. Great love always expresses itself in great humility. If one thinks one has no need of forgiveness, then one thinks that one has no need of Christ.

The experience of the forgiveness of Christ is not just a matter of interiority in which I believe in my mind or experience in my emotions that Christ forgives. Instead, the forgiveness of Christ is an encounter with his will to forgive expressed in a sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Few, it seems, have recourse to this encounter with Christ, many do not seek this encounter because their hearts have been hardened like that of the Pharisee- they want affirmation, not forgiveness. But some, come to the Lord, and break open for him their hearts, hearts that are accepted by Christ like a precious anointing, and receive from him in return, as the woman in today’s Gospel did, the healing grace of the forgiveness of sins.

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