A Bride adorned for her Bridegroom

Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” The One who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Rev 21:1-5a

This morning we read from John’s Revelation how he sees, “the holy city, a New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” John then hears a loud voice coming from the throne that says, “the old order has passed away. Behold, I make all things new.”

Here we are in the middle of May and also right in the thick of wedding season. Brides love to be married during the beautiful days of late spring, and so many of you might have recently been to a wedding or are planning to go to one soon. And we see a fair amount of wedding imagery in this reading from the Book of Revelation. This New Jerusalem is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

For those of you who have not been at a wedding recently in the age of Pinterest and Instagram, let me share with you how prophetic John’s writing really was. The bride frequently does spend the day getting ready. We were recently at a wedding when the ceremony was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. But the bridal party needed to report somewhere at 9:30 in the morning for a sequence of hair and makeup and dress and various other little episodes, all of which were captured for social media. But what if all of that being prepared as a bride adorned for her husband was not for Instagram and Pinterest, but it really was for her husband?

Continue reading “A Bride adorned for her Bridegroom”

Divine Mercy

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, and it is the end of the Octave of Easter. For the past eight days (last Sunday through today), we have been celebrating Easter Day every day. There are more than forty days of Easter left on the calendar, but the Octave is completed today. Today is also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, thanks to St. John Paul, who suggested we use the Second Sunday of Easter to explore the Divine Mercy.

The message of the Divine Mercy is simple. It is that God loves us – all of us. And, He wants us to recognize that His mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Thus, all will come to share His joy. You’ll notice that the message of Divine Mercy starts with love and then mercy and then trust and then joy. Easter is a time of joy precisely because of the Divine Mercy.

When we talk about mercy, we are also talking about justice. Mercy is justice overwhelmed by love, or overridden by love. Remember that Justice is getting what’s due to you. The job of the justice department in the government is to make sure that the bad guys get punished. We want them to get their due. And mercy is getting a pass on what’s due to you. Mercy is when the judge hears from the state trooper that you were going 85 miles an hour and he lets you off with a warning instead of making you pay a big fine. So you can see that mercy is when you do not get what you’re due, and in that way it triumphs over justice.

So what is the Divine Mercy? It is the triumph of God’s love over the consequences of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve turned their back on God, they could no longer stay in the Garden. And everyone born after them is separated from God and therefore headed ultimately towards the place of eternal separation from God. After the Fall, what we are due is Gehenna.

But God’s love for us is so great that he would not abandon us. Instead of sending everyone directly to Gehenna when they died, he sent them to Sheol. This is the realm of the dead but not the realm of everlasting punishment. This is the realm that Jesus goes to on Holy Saturday to preach the good news. In his love for us, God sent the Old Testament heroes to Sheol instead of Gehenna because Jesus – whose name means God Saves – was coming to save us on the cross at Calvary. That is the Divine Mercy.

God’s love for us is so great that he would not abandon us when we committed the ultimate betrayal at the Fall in the Garden. Humanity spurned its creator for a sneaky, slippery liar. We were made by Love itself, and we were made for love, but we chose the deceiver. The Divine Mercy is that our heavenly father kept wooing us back to union with him. He never gave up on us no matter how many times we gave up on him. And finally he sent his son to save us. 

God’s love for us is so great that he will not abandon us. When it became clear that we could not obey him by our own strength, he sent his son to die on the cross for our sins. That is the ultimate Divine Mercy. That divine mercy is why we have our Easter Joy.

The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter is always the same: it’s always the story of the doubting Thomas. Thomas is also a story of Divine Mercy. Thomas is unwilling to accept the testimony of the other disciples. He needs data. In this respect St. Thomas is a thoroughly modern man, the kind of person who asks you what the temperature is, listens to your answer, and then goes and looks at the thermometer himself. Our God loves us so much that he will not abandon those who insist on seeing it for themselves. He gives us the time we need to feel his presence. He let Thomas touch his hands and his side a week after Easter Sunday, but he did add, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Another example of the Divine Mercy. And in a way, the story of the doubting Thomas – and his dramatic reaction when he does believe – reinforces the testimony of those who did not doubt. Our God loves us so much he gave us not just one but many witnesses of the Resurrection, so that we would know that it’s true and that Mercy has triumphed over Justice.

Thomas is not the only Apostle who experienced the Divine Mercy. Peter’s transformation after forty days with the risen Lord is a Divine Mercy – helping the one who denied him three times become the Vicar of Christ. St. Paul, the one who hunted believers, received the Divine Mercy on the road to Damascus, and he became the Apostle to the Gentiles.

These are all Divine, but they are only possible because of the ultimate Divine Mercy – God became Man to live among us and offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins and to rise from the dead to show us that sin and death no longer need to have dominion over us.  We have to believe, which Thomas struggled with. The faith is a struggle sometimes. All who harbor some doubts should ask Thomas to pray for them. He knows what they are going through since he went through it himself.

God loves us so much that he sent his Son to save us. We are redeemed. The debt has been paid off. We have a new chance at real life. Real life is the Life in Christ. An Easter People is a people free from the worries of the world. That is a Divine Mercy – to be unruffled by the things that worry the world.

God loves us so much he sent his Son to answer the question everyone eventually asks, “What is the point of this life I’m living?” The Divine Mercy is that we understand we do not have to go to Gehenna. We have a choice. This life is given to us so we can choose God or Gehenna.

God loves us so much he gives us his grace through the Sacraments. In a few minutes we will begin the Liturgy of the Eucharist. After we recall his sacrifice on the Cross through the priest’s Eucharistic Prayer, by his Divine Mercy we receive him – all of him – at Holy Communion.

God loves us so much he gives us absolution through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He is that traffic judge who does not hold us accountable for our transgressions. His Mercy triumphs over Justice in the confessional. And we are freed once again to live the Life of Christ.

Christian joy comes from the knowledge that God’s mercy is greater than our sins, and that we can trust in Him, for his love is so great he gave us the Divine Mercy of his Son’s sacrifice to save us. Accept the Divine Mercy, and be filled with Easter Joy.

Now What?

Here on the third Sunday after Easter the readings seem to be exploring the question, “What do we do as an Easter people?” Many Christian communities have the tradition of an Easter greeting in which one person says, “He is risen” and the other person replies, “He is risen indeed.” Today, let’s take a look at the implied question that would follow such a greeting. The implied question is, “Now what?”

The Gospel today picks up the story at the end of the Walk to Emmaus, when two of the disciples walked and talked with Jesus without recognizing him. They only recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and immediately he disappeared from their sight. Just as they are telling the others about their experience, Jesus appears and gives them his peace. Then he opens the Scriptures to all gathered there just as he had during the walk with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

These stories from the days after the Resurrection show us how the Apostles were grappling with the mystery of what they knew to be true: that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again in a glorified body that could go through walls but also eat regular food. Truly human, truly dead, truly alive, truly God. As Father Mike Schmitz of internet podcast fame likes to say, “Man oh man, oh man.”

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If you love Me, you will obey Me

p1000735In today’s readings there are some challenging, even hard, teachings. Jesus tells his disciplines plainly the nature of love. He says, “whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

Do you remember the story of the wedding at Cana from the Gospel of John? They are running out of wine, and Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” That was not just a thoughtful Mom making sure the party went well. That was basic instruction on Christian discipleship from Christ’s best disciple. That story was in Chapter Two. Now, in Chapter Fourteen, Jesus says it himself. Just as she said, “Do what he tells you to do,” Jesus tells his disciples — which is us —  “Do what I tell you to do.” Continue reading “If you love Me, you will obey Me”

A New Commandment of Love

Our gospel reading picks up right after Judas has left to bring back the soldiers to arrest Jesus and begin the trials that will lead to crucifixion on Good Friday. And now that the passion is definitely under way Jesus proclaims to the remaining apostles, “Now is the son of man glorified.” And the next thing he says is, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” He tells us that as he has loved us so we should love one another. And it is through our loving each other that the world will know we belong to Christ.
The new commandment replaces the old covenant of the Mosaic law. Let us remember that we received the law from Moses because our forefathers had rejected the original relationship of loving harmony with God and neighbor. Adam and Eve had an intimate relationship with God, for the book of Genesis tells us that they walked naked with God in the evening in the garden of Eden. And they had no sense of shame at their nakedness. Shame came with the fall, with the decision to listen to the serpent and turn away from God.

When we hear Jesus announce a new commandment of love, we might be tempted to think that the message of the Old Testament is somehow different than the message of the New Testament. But the Old Testament and the New Testament are both parts of one message: our God loves us, he made us in love, and he made us for love. It was we who turned our backs on God and had to leave the garden of Eden. He didn’t kick us out, we did it to ourselves. But even as we were leaving the garden, God was planning on how to get us back. The rest of the Old Testament after that first couple of chapters in the book of Genesis is God reaching out to us through messengers and prophets calling us back to be in an intimate relationship with him. Sometimes it worked, but we could not maintain the relationship that he made us to have with him.

Continue reading “A New Commandment of Love”

Thomas and Truth

Caravaggio_Saint_ThomasThis gospel story today about Thomas speaks to us about the nature of truth and how we know it. In his homily last Sunday, Fr Neil spoke about the many ways that people come to decide as adults that they want to be Catholic, whether they are coming into Christianity for the first time or being received into the Church from another Christian tradition. As Fr Neil noted, there are many attractive aspects of our faith — from examples of personal holiness, to art, and liturgy — but ultimately those people made that decision because they came to believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is the truth.

This raises the question: How do we know something is true? Continue reading “Thomas and Truth”

Come Holy Spirit

Today is Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles and to the church. Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church. On the Church calendar, Pentecost is one of the Sundays when we sing something called the sequence before we hear the gospel proclaimed.

The sequence for today is an ancient and lovely poem beseeching the Holy Spirit to come and be with us. It reminds us that the action of Holy Spirit was not just what happened 50 days after Easter Sunday. On that Pentecost, the apostles were given the gift of tongues, so that men and women of every race and culture could hear the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. The Holy Spirit is working today with each and every one of us, and it is doing the same thing it did on that Sunday: it is letting us hear in words we can understand, and in other forms of communication, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.

The gift of tongues given here in the gospel reading is basically the gift of translation. The people in the audience are surprised to hear men who are clearly from Galilee and Judea able to speak to them in their own language: Persian, Median, Greek, and others. But the gift of tongues is not only translation. It is nonverbal prayer and communication between us and our God. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that the gift of tongues is the least of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul is in no way demeaning or diminishing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is reminding us that we speak to God, and we hear from God, all the time in nonverbal ways of communication. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways that we hear from God through the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives.

After the Ascension, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God. After the ascension Jesus has risen to his throne in heaven. He is truly Christ the King, the Lord of the universe. He continues to make himself present to us, fully, really, his body, his blood, his soul, his divinity, in the Eucharist, even though it continues to look like bread and continues to taste like wine. And this is a personal relationship with Jesus. Indeed, we can have no more personal relationship with Jesus than to receive him into our bodies at Holy Communion. It is however, the third person of the Holy Trinity, whom Jesus sent to us after his ascension, who is that sense of presence that we feel. The sequence today reminds us of some of the ways we do feel him.

And we need to feel God’s presence. We are flesh and blood human persons. We cannot live fully with only an intellectual or metaphysical understanding of God. We need to feel his presence. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, what Jesus called the Paraclete, is that sensation of love, of rest-filled hearts, of good deeds, of warmth, of good thoughts. God sends the Holy Spirit, as the Sequence says, to heal our wounds and to renew our strength.

All the saints, and most likely all of us here today, have had periods of spiritual dryness. These are periods when we felt that we did not sense God’s presence. The sequence today reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who “on our dryness pours out God’s dew,” who drenches us with his love.

Think of the times when you go to confession. After you confess your sins, the priest, acting in the person of Christ, gives you absolution, and your sins are forgiven. Many of us walk out of the confessional with lighter hearts and a spring in our step. Perhaps this is what the sequence means when it says the Holy Spirit will “come and wash the stains of guilt away.” We leave confession knowing we are forgiven, thanks to the words of the priest, and we leave feeling better, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit. God sends us an advocate, a protector, and a holy comforter to give us the good feelings that will strengthen us and renew us.

All of us should welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. He is with us when we leave this sacred space. He is with us as we are fighting traffic in Atlanta. He is with us when our children are a struggle, or when our parents are a struggle, or when our boss is a struggle, or when our subordinates are a struggle. When we are at odds with each other we can be reminded to ask the Holy Spirit to “bend our stubborn heart and our stubborn will.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to “melt what is frozen and to warm what is chill.” We can ask the Holy Spirit to guide our steps when we have gone astray. It is the Holy Spirit that speaks to us in our inmost heart. It is the Holy Spirit who tells us, let’s go to Mass it’s been a while, or let’s go to confession it’s been too long. It is the Holy Spirit that lets us see joy when we are not very happy. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see the grace of God when our lives are a mess. It is the Holy Spirit who lets us see peace when our lives seem to be full of contention.

 

Come Holy Spirit, come.

And from your celestial home shed a ray of light divine.

Come father of the poor, come source of all our store,

come within our bosoms shine.

Good Sheep Sunday

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter we are reminded by the Church in the readings that Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead and will ascend to his throne in Heaven, did not leave his people unprotected. He left us shepherds. He tells us why in the old testament reading and in the letter from St. John: the Church of Jesus Christ does not conform to the world, and so the world turns against it. It is quite difficult to go about in a world that rejects our fundamental beliefs, and we need shepherds to lead us. They lead us in the right worship practices, they teach and re-teach the eternal truths of our religion, and they steer us away from danger or rescue us when we fall into it by our own decisions.

Leading us in worship, teaching us, and governing us are the three sacred offices of Priest, Prophet, and King.  All Catholic priests at their ordination are consecrated with Sacred Chrism, so they can stand in the person of Christ. They are consecrated to those sacred offices of Priest  as they offer the sacrifice of the Mass, of Prophet as they teach the faith to the flock, and of King as they make decisions.

Deacons are ordained to service, and we cannot stand in the person of Christ. The priest and the bishop wears his stole straight down to be a reminder of his role as another Christ. Deacons wear our stoles across our chests to be a reminder we were not consecrated but ordained to service.

I bring all this up because when it comes to Good Shepherd Sunday, as a Deacon I have much more in common with you than I do with the priests, the bishops, or the Pope. They are the shepherd, and they work to be good shepherds. Each is accountable to God for how good a shepherd he is. You and I are the sheep, and we are accountable to God as to whether or not we are good sheep. If we make an effort to be better sheep, it helps the shepherd be a good shepherd.

So what do we need to know about ourselves as sheep? And to be a sheep doesn’t sound like something to be proud of. Sheep are not considered intelligent animals. They get themselves stuck and need the help of their shepherd to get unstuck. Yet this is the term Jesus uses to describe his children.

Sheep are hunted by wolves, which Jesus mentions in his story from the Gospel today. Sheep look for safety in numbers, which is why we have flocks of sheep. The shepherd protects the flock because the wolves are always trying to get in and grab one. When the flock gets going in one direction, the shepherd is the one who has to make sure it doesn’t go into danger.

At the same time, sheep sometimes wander away from the flock, where they are even easier for the wolves to get. The hired hand will just let that happen, for he does not really love his sheep. The Good Shepherd loves his sheep so much he will leave the 99 and go get the one lost sheep.

There are not many sheep in Buckhead these days, so all this might sound a bit foreign to our modern, suburban, ears. But we can look at patterns today where we need the help of our shepherds. Perhaps we can see where we could try to be better sheep, too.

Two of the biggest issues where the shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ are challenged by the behavior of the sheep are sexual ethics and economics. Times change, and social norms change, but the truth of Jesus Christ never changes. We live in society and are affected by it. God asks us not to be affected by society but to change society so it conforms to his timeless truth.

The timeless truth of Jesus Christ is relentlessly pro-life. The church has prohibited abortion and artificial birth control since the first century, and it stands today almost completely alone while modern society has embraced both. Since the Pill was made widely available in 1965, it has been a challenge for Catholics to remain distinct rather than go along with the changing social norms. It takes great courage and great faith to stay with the shepherd when all the other flocks and many of the other sheep in our flock wander away. The shepherds also must have great courage to exercise their teaching office and explain the timeless truth to the wandering sheep in such a way that they can come to embrace it.

Our modern economy has also evolved over the past centuries, and it has become much more efficient. Professional economists praise efficiency and productivity gains because they see economics as a system for allocating scarcity. The Church sees economics as how God’s children will be stewards of their gifts and take care of each other. It does not support productivity for the sake of productivity. It only supports improvements that improve the common good.

The shepherds of the the flock are loving us sheep when they remind us that workers – wherever they may be – are not “human capital” but “human persons.” All human persons, the unborn, the factory worker, the aged dealing with Alzheimers, are God’s children and none should be discarded because of utilitarian reasons. Good sheep listen to their shepherds to hear the word of God in a world that rejects Him.

Our shepherds are not for hire; nobody signs up to be a Catholic priest or bishop, or Pope, for the money in it. They have given their lives over to the service of the sheep, with years of preparation and formation before they are ordained. We see here in our own parish they work well past the normal age of retirement. This is a labor of love, love for God and love for his people.

Our Lord gave us shepherds because he loves us. He asks his shepherds to love his sheep. You and I and all the priests and all the bishops were all made in the image and likeness of God. We are his delight, the apple of his eye. We are his greatest creation, the one which when he saw at the beginning of time he pronounced “very good.” To some of his children, he called them to be shepherds, to give up their lives for his sheep. Love of God, and love of neighbor, are why those men could say “yes” to God’s call. They love God, and they love us, with all that they have and all that they are. Let us love them as they love us.