Saturday, April 28, 2012

Easter Reflection: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 4:8-12; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18)

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the gospel presents us with the image of Jesus as shepherd—one who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him and who spares nothing in order to protect and care for us. It’s a pleasant enough image, one that many people take great comfort in. However, some people find it an insulting –even demeaning –image; primarily because sheep are really very stupid animals and we bristle at the idea that we are in any way like them.

Think about it. Have you ever gone to a circus and seen an act involved sheep that have been trained to do tricks or amuse a crowd? Sheep have a very strong flocking instinct and seldom act independently. If they get separated from the flock, they don’t know how to survive and will likely end up as another animal’s dinner. They have no survival instinct, nor do they have any natural protection like claws or antlers or a touch hide they can use to protect themselves. They do have wool, but that only makes it easier for an enemy to grab them and pull them down. Their voices are not threatening and will not scare away any predators; quite the contrary, their bleat is kind of whiny and probably makes them more annoying than anything. And on top of all this, they can be willful, stupid and stubborn. And this is what we are compared to in the Scriptures?

But it’s not just the sheep that come across as less than sterling; shepherds are not the most polished or sought-after group of people, either! At the time of Jesus, they were looked upon as the lowest of the low. Although they were hard workers, they were thought of as bandits and thieves and they were believed to be so dishonest that their testimony was not accepted in courts of law. Being a shepherd is certainly not something you would want one of your children to aspire to!

And yet, this is what the Gospel uses as an image to speak of our relationship with Jesus and his with us. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Given what we have observed about sheep, maybe we are not as different from them as we would imagine ourselves to be. Lord knows, we can be easily swayed by the opinion of the crowd and not very firm in our own convictions. We can get caught up in the rat race of our work lives and move from one thing to another without a whole lot of thought or reflection. We can subscribe to the economic philosophy of success at any cost and believe that the more things we have, the happier we will be. And we can be herded into believing that we create our own success, but we usually discover that no matter how much we have we always seem to want more and that whatever success we achieve is never enough, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps that’s why Jesus has chosen this imagery. Like sheep, we need to depend on the shepherd for our safety, for our sustenance, for our wellbeing. In using this image, Jesus is telling us that if we allow ourselves to depend more on him and less on ourselves, he will give us a life. If we silence so many of the conflicting voices we allow to distract us and listen to his voice he will lead us to a place of life and refreshment where we will know the abundance and peace God desires for us...all the beautiful things we hear in Psalm 23. By listening to his voice, by being grateful for the care he gives us, we can free ourselves from so many of the burdens we allow to weigh us down and we can begin to recognize the wonderful graces that are already a part of our lives.

Sure, there will still be disappointments, failures, sickness and death, but by giving all of those things over to God, by finding the ways that God has been good to us…by listening to God’s voice we also find the happiness and peace that God desires for us and that we cannot achieve on our own. “I came that you may have life,” Jesus says, “…and have it in abundance.” That’s the voice of our Shepherd and we would do well to follow it and come to know that life.

– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Easter Reflection: Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter
(Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 Jn 2:1-5a; Lk 24:35-48)

The scriptures this weekend—particularly the first reading and the gospel—are all about recognition; recognizing the presence of Christ and who he really is. In the first reading, we find Peter and John in the temple in Jerusalem. By the power of Jesus’ name, they cured a man who had been crippled from birth and who had been begging money from people who passed by him. Naturally, his cure caused a big stir—especially among the temple officials—and Peter and John seized the moment to remind them that this man was cured not by them but by Jesus of Nazareth...the one they had put to death, calling out for him to be crucified.

The gospel verses we hear today come right after the disciples’ encounter with the Lord on the road to Emmaus. Today we find those same disciples back in Jerusalem, telling the others about their encounter with the risen Lord and, while they are speaking, the risen Lord comes among them. To prove himself real to them, he invites them to touch him and even eats some of their food. Once they are convinced that he it is he, he commissions them to do the work for which he called them—to preach to all the nations and tell them the Good News that he is risen and that they have reason to be hopeful.

When we hear these scriptures—the stories of how slow the disciples were to believe that Christ had indeed risen even as he stood before them, we sometimes shake our heads and wonder why. Yet, if we are honest, we know that they are not the only ones who doubt the presence of Christ in their midst. How often have we doubted? How often has Christ stood before us to assure us that he is with us ... how often have we received the very body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist ... and still wonder where God is when we are anxious or fearful. Maybe it’s because we would rather keep Christ at a safe distance, lest we feel compelled to change and be the better people he knows we can be. Maybe we fail to recognize Christ because so often he comes to us in the guise of the poor, the needy, the person or people we would rather not have to deal with.

I said at the beginning that the scriptures this weekend are about recognition...or the lack of it. And recognition is more than perception...seeing what is in front of us. Recognition is seeing with understanding ... not only seeing what is in front of us, but knowing and understanding who and what it is. It is something far deeper than merely seeing with our eyes. And this is part of the gift of the risen Christ to us—not only the assurance that he is risen and with us, but also—and more important—a share in that risen life so that we can rise above whatever it is that saddens us ... whatever it is that drags us down...whatever it is that prevents us from knowing the fullness of life God desires for us.

We see that so clearly and beautifully in the life of the disciples and the early Church. Having seen Jesus crucified and buried, they had been plunged into the depths of despair. They were a broken and frightened community; grieving people who felt that they lost everything meaningful for them, but each time the risen Lord appeared to them they grew confident in his presence among them and with them, they experienced a transformation that empowered them to unlock the doors and windows and go out into the world with confidence and joy to bring the Good News to any and all who would listen.

Although our presence here says that we believe in the risen Christ, we all have moments and times in our lives when, like the disciples, we feel like life has lost its meaning. We get mired down in sadness and grief and forget the times we have seen and experienced the presence of the risen Christ. It’s at those moments that we need to know and understand that the risen Christ is with us and that we have been and are loved by God more than we recognize. And the more we recognize—know and understand—this presence, the more our sadness is transformed into joy and we are empowered to be his witnesses to other.

– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Reflection: Easter Sunday Morning

(Acts 10:34, 37-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9)

If you listen closely to the gospel passage we just heard proclaimed, one thing becomes apparent—none of what they were seeing and experiencing on that morning of the first day of the week was making any sense. Not to Mary Magdalene or her companions, not to Peter nor John. The author of the gospel attributed this to the fact that none of them—neither his closest apostles nor his most devoted followers—understood the Scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Yet, when the beloved disciple followed Peter inside the tomb and saw the clothes lying there, we are told that he believed. The gospel does not say what he believed; only that he believed. There is no further conversation between him and Peter that is recorded for us, only that they returned to their homes. The rest of the story—as Paul Harvey used to say—belongs to Mary Magdalene. She is the one who saw the angels...she is the one who saw the risen Lord. Peter and John saw nothing but a vacant tomb and some clothes piled up in a corner. Any way you look at it, that’s a mighty shaky beginning for a faith that has lasted nearly two thousand years and has billions of adherents throughout the world.

And yet, that is where we continue to focus our attention on this glorious Easter morning—on an empty tomb...on what did or did not happen there...and on how we might explain it to anyone who does not believe. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life. No one saw it happen on that first Easter morning; no one has ever seen it happen since. Ironically, this most important event in the life of Jesus is the one and only event that was not witnessed by anyone; it was entirely between him and the Father. There were no witnesses whatsoever; they all arrived after the fact. Two of them saw a pile of clothes, one of them saw a vision of angels, and most them saw nothing because they were home in bed, hiding behind pulled up blankets and securely bolted doors.

In the end, none of that really matters and to focus on an empty tomb is to miss the point. The tomb was just an empty shell—a cocoon—and the living being that had been inside was no longer there. Maybe that’s why Peter and John did not stay very long. Clearly, Jesus was not there. He had outgrown his tomb and the stone walls could not contain the life, the energy, and the hope that were radiating from his new being and that needed to be shared. As we are sometimes wont to say, the risen Lord had people to see, things to do, and places to go. His business was among the living to whom he appeared over and over in John’s gospel. And every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him. That’s where our focus should be this morning; not on an empty tomb, but on the presence of a living and breathing God who showed himself to his frightened disciples and transformed their fear into the ability and desire to continue to live and proclaim the message he spoke to them while he was among them.

That is the Easter miracle, my brothers and sisters; not an empty tomb, but an encounter with the living Lord. Easter began for Mary Magdalene not when she stood frightened and confused before an empty tomb, but when she saw the Lord and he spoke her name. It is no different for us. Easter is not about bunnies or colored eggs or even an empty tomb; we will know the true meaning and deep joy of Easter when we acknowledge the Lord who stands before us in our sisters and all the moments of our lives...who speaks our names...and offers us nothing less than a participation in his own new and glorious life.

– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.

Easter Reflection: Easter Vigil

The young man dressed in white, sitting where Jesus’ dead body should have been, says one of the strangest things imaginable to the women who visit the tomb: “Do not be amazed!” Given that they had gone there to lament and anoint the body of their dead friend, how could these women not be amazed?

Astonishment and amazement is a natural response to the mighty acts of God. Throughout the Scripture readings this evening we have recounted the history of God at work in the world and in our lives. God speaks—says a word—and the sun, the moon, the stars, the animals, all of humanity are born out of nothing. That is amazing!

God rescues the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt, giving them freedom and life when slavery and death seem their only possible future. That, too, is amazing!

Throughout the Scriptures, God provides a way when there is no way, rescuing his people from slavery, defeat, and exile. How could one not be amazed when God is at work in the world?

But, biblically speaking, amazement is more than mere delight and astonishment. Underneath this word is also a sense of being terrified or afraid—that combination of fear and wonder that reminds us that we are in the presence of a God who will let nothing defeat his life-giving desires. So maybe it’s not so unusual that, in the face of the women’s wonder and fear, the young man says, “Do not be amazed!” This message is at the heart of the Easter story—that we need not be afraid because even death can’t stop God’s life-giving desires. “Do not be amazed” that God is at work in our lives and in our world and it is God’s life-giving desire that we overcome the fears that keep us from living life as fully as God intends for us.

Our new life in Christ is born from the font of Baptism. “Are you not aware,” Paul writes to the
Romans, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into his death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” Here is our life in God—our hope beyond fear. God, whose mighty acts once rescued people from slavery, defeat, and exile, has defeated the powers of sin and death by raising Jesus from the dead. This same God makes us one with Christ through baptism and raises us to newness of life.

The first word of Easter is a word for all of us: “Do not be amazed!” We need not fear because God has raised Jesus from the bonds of death and we are called to live as people of courage, peace, and and every day of our lives.

– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Holy Week Reflection: Good Friday of the Passion and Death of the Lord

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord
(Is 52:13-53:12; Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9; Jn 18:1-19:42)

“Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”

These are the words that the priest proclaims as he begins to unveil the cross during the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death which the Catholic Church celebrates on Friday of Holy Week, or Good Friday. The congregation, then, responds, “Come, let us adore” and venerates the cross singing: “We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world.”

At first, the adoration of the Cross could seem strange. After all, in Jesus’ time, the cross was a form of torturing punishment and extreme humiliation. In fact, prominent atheists use the veneration of the cross to attack the principles of Christianity. For example, Any Rand states, “I do not believe in the sacrifice of one man to another. […] I am not merely anti-Christian. I am anti-mystical. The cross is a symbol of torture, of the sacrifice of the ideal to the nonideal. I prefer the dollar sign – the symbol of free trade, therefore of the free mind.” [1] This is not a new or modern development. During the 13th century, some heretical groups thought that the cross should be cursed and not blessed because it “was the instrument for the suffering and death of the one who had come to show us the way of salvation.” [2]

However, one of the mysterious ways that God works in the world is to take something that is lacking, or even evil, and raise it up to achieve good, and thereby, sanctify it and make it holy. This is not to say the God desires evil things. However, God tolerates evil and, because of God’s divine Power, God can make good out of evil. The cross is a perfect example. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, the cross was a symbol of torture and death. However, through Jesus’ selfless embracing of the cross, he transformed it into a holy instrument. The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Thus, the Church acknowledges the holiness of Christ’s Cross and, in fact, established a feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), to honor the holy Cross of Christ. A portion of the preface prayer on this feast day states, “For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, through Christ our Lord.” Since the original sin of humanity began with a tree, the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God decided to use a tree as an instrument for humanity’s salvation through Jesus Christ.

So, as we reflect on the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are conscious of our sinfulness and we thank Jesus for his saving love. We ask that Jesus take us, who are lacking and sinful, and purify us; make us new, so that we may be instruments of his peace throughout the world. And so, we echo the favorite prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

“We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all your churches throughout the whole world, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

– Bro. Jeffrey Wilson, T.O.R.

[1] The Saturday Evening Post (Nov. 11, 1961) quotes Ayn Rand in an interview with Mike Wallace.

[2] Raoul Manselli, St. Francis of Assisi. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988) p. 68.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week Reflection: Holy Thursday

Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper
(Ex 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Jn 13:1-15)

Today is known as Holy Thursday, or Thursday of Holy Week. The Church commemorates and celebrates the Supper of the Lord, or the Last Supper, in which Jesus institutes the Eucharist and the Priesthood. In addition, in John’s Gospel, the Evangelist portrays Jesus giving an example of how to minister to others and how to be ministered to by others in his washing of the feet of the disciples. Both cases require both meekness and humility.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meek as “enduring injury with patience and without resentment” and humble as “not proud or haughty; not arrogant or assertive.” In addition, St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, explains, “A person is meek by loving his brothers [and sisters], humble by loving lowliness. To be meek is to be a brother [or sister] to everybody; to be humble is to be less than everybody.” [1] Both meekness and humility refer to one’s relationship with others. Humbling oneself is lowering oneself in relation to another. Meekness is loving another in a certain way.

Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples is an example of both meekness and humility. First, Jesus’ act of ministry requires meekness, that is, Jesus’ brotherly love for his disciples. Love is the primary motivation for all of God’s actions, and therefore, Jesus’ actions. After all, God is love (1 Jn 4:16) and for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Because Jesus loves the disciples, he ministers to them by washing their feet and so gives them (and us, for that matter,) an example of how to minister to others.

Second, Jesus’ act of ministry requires humility. In Jesus’ time, the washing of one’s feet was the job of a slave or house servant. Jesus had to lower himself, that is, his social standing and role in society, and be free of any sense of pride or entitlement in order to perform this task. Jesus’ action echoes St. Paul’s words, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 6:8). This is such a lowering of Jesus’ self that, at first, Peter refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. St. Bonaventure describes Peter’s response as fearful reverence. He explains, “He came to Simon Peter, that is, to wash his feet. And Peter said to him: Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Peter was speaking as one terrified: You are doing this for me? You, as Lord, are doing this for me, a servant? You, the Master, are doing this for me, the disciple? You, the Almighty, are doing this for miserable me? [2]

Peter’s response leads to the second point: being ministered to by others also requires both meekness and humility. Jesus tells Peter, “If I do not wash you, you will have no part with me.” In order to be obedient, Peter must also be meek and humble. Through his love for Jesus, he must allow himself to me ministered to by his Lord, the Master, the Almighty. Peter must lower his desire and will in relation to God’s desire and will, that is, humble himself before the Lord. And it is Peter’s love for the Lord that allows him to do this.

So, as we enter into these holy days of the Triduum, let us stop and take time to reflect how we can be meek and humble in our ministering to our brothers and sisters and in our being ministered to by our brothers and sisters. After all, Jesus instructs us, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29).

– Bro. Jeffrey Wilson, T.O.R.

[1] St. Bonaventure, “The Evening Sermon on Saint Francis” in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Vol. 1 - The Founder. Eds. Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J.A. Wayne Hellman, O.F.M. Conv., and William J. Short, O.F.M. (New York: New City Press, 2000), 517.

[2] St. Bonaventure, Works of St. Bonaventure, Vol. XI – Commentary on the Gospel of John. Trans. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2007), 688-9.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Holy Week Reflection: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

(Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47)

As Christian people, we are a community shaped by stories—stories of God’s love, which called us and all creation into being, God’s promises to be with and deliver his people throughout history. Each weekend we come together to reflect on stories found in the Scriptures and we gather around the altar to re-enact one of those stories. But on no other weekend is the story as clear as it is this weekend—a weekend that we call by two names: Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. This double name reflects what is going on in the liturgy. We begin by blessing palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and, before it’s all over, we find ourselves shouting with the same crowd, “Crucify Him!”

Like so many of the stories we hear throughout the year—indeed, throughout our lives this story sometimes loses its impact, its ability to grab our attention, to shock or startle us. And yet, when this story is proclaimed, we are invited and challenged to enter into it—to think of ourselves not simply as a 21st century community listening to the retelling of something familiar, but to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in this story? With what character do I identify?”

We are used to the usual cast of bad guys: Judas Iscariot, Caiphas, Pontius Pilate, the fickle crowds. But in Mark’s telling of the Passion, even the disciples of Jesus come off looking not so good! They should have been there to witness what Jesus was going through as he was about to fulfill his mission. After all, Jesus had—directly and indirectly—prepared them for what was ahead. On the mount of the Transfiguration, in the garden, and at other times he spoke about his impending passion and death. Yet, when his time had come, they all “forsook him and fled”—even Peter, who only hours before, protested, “Even if all desert you, I will never desert you.” At the foot of the cross, where his disciples should have been, Mark tells us the only one who would recognize and profess Jesus for who and what he was a Roman centurion—one outside the Law. How ironic that an outsider should recognize Jesus when those who were closest to him didn’t have a clue and ran off in fear for their safety.

In the end, perhaps what should shock or startle us about the telling of Jesus’ Passion is not that God’s anointed should suffer the indignity of the cross—not that Judas should have betrayed him—not that Caiaphas or Pilate should have sentenced him to death. No, the real scandal is that his own disciples—those who heard his words and witnessed his deeds—were so slow to recognize him. When they thought his life and mission had been a failure and he was being dragged to his passion and death, they abandoned their hope in him.

What about us? Are we willing to put our faith and trust in a God who submits himself to the humiliation of the cross? How do we hear Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Your attitude must be that of Christ’s; though he was in the form of God he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at…?”

Throughout this week, the Church invites us to listen to this story—perhaps as if for the first time—not so much that we may understand it, but that we may enter into it and ask ourselves who we are as the drama unfolds.

– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.