Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sacred See-Saw

Increasing in holiness and decreasing in happiness  
Acts of the Apostles 20:17-27 
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned.  When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me because of the plots of the Jews, and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus. But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem. What will happen to me there I do not know, except that in one city after another the Holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me.”
          I sometimes counsel couples going through marriage problems. Occasionally, the struggles are so insurmountable that the couple contemplates getting a divorce. Why? Because they believe God wants them to be happy, and this marriage is making them miserable. Know any couples like that? I bet you do. At that point, I always ask them: “Does God want you to be happy, or does God want you to be holy?” Now, don’t misunderstand me, God does want us to be happy! But is that all he wants for us? I don’t think so; I believe he also wants us to be holy, and sometimes, in order to increase in holiness, you have to decrease in happiness. In many marriages, happiness and holiness are like the opposite sides of a see-saw: when one goes up, the other usually comes down.
          Happiness usually means taking the path of least resistance, doing what feels good and is fun, giving in to peer pressure instead of standing your ground. But Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the great Catholic tele-evangelist of the last century, said, “Dead fish float down stream; it takes live fish to fight against the current.” In other words, resistance, struggle, adversity, are good things. You see, God designed this whole world to be a great, big saint-making machine, and the gear that grinds the most is marriage. To be sure, God wants you to be happy, but he wants you to be holy even more, that is what he made this world for.
          In the first reading today, St. Paul is learning this lesson as well, that is, he’s riding the sacred see-saw of happiness and holiness. He says, “The Holy Spirit has been warning me that imprisonment and hardships await me.” If St. Paul had asked himself, “Does God want me to be happy or does God want me to be holy?” What would the answer have been? Obviously, God wanted St. Paul to be holy in this world – imprisonment and hardships were his lot – so he could be happy in the next world. You see, on the sacred see-saw of life, holiness goes up now, so that happiness can go up later.
          Boys and girls, have you ever said, “I’m sure God wants me to be happy!”? When we say that we usually mean life should be easy, I should get what I want, I should not struggle or suffer. It should be easy to learn an instrument in band without hours of practice. Everyone should make the dance and cheer team, no one should be cut. I should not have to study for tests and still make an “A” in all my classes.  Last Saturday, Coach Vitale and I were talking about his football camps this summer. I gave him a little advice: “Make them unhappy!” In other words, make them sweat, struggle and strain; kick them in the butt! (It’s okay, you can say “butt” in junior high.) Boys and girls, we’re all riding the sacred see-saw, where happiness has to go down in order for holiness (and for greatness) to go up.
          The Buddhists have an aphorism that I often think about. They say, “My enemy, my teacher.” In other words, the one who is trying to kill me, the one who is trying to make me unhappy, will be the one who teaches me the most. Does God want you to be happy? Yes. But he wants you to be holy even more. Sometimes, he may even look like your enemy.   

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Unholy Trinity

Understanding the Holy Trinity through the Ascension  
Luke 24:46-53  
Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance,  for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations,  beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”   
          Have you ever noticed how so many great things always come in “threes”? For example, many literary epics are in trilogies – in three parts – like “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, divided into “Hell,” “Purgatory” and “Heaven” (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso). Even in the epic of Star Wars, we are now in the third trilogy of nine episodes that started all the way back in 1977 (long before I was born)! In the seminary, our homiletics professor said every good homily has three parts, a beginning, a middle and an end. The comedian George Burns said, “The secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good end, and to have the two as close together as possible.” In horseracing it’s great to get a “trifecta,” which is to predict the order in which the horses will finish: first second and third, “win, place and show.” In basketball, a three-pointer is better than a two-point shot or a one-point free-throw. 
          On the other hand, you also have unholy threesomes like “money, sex, and power” or “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.” That, by the way, is why Catholics monks and nuns take the three vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience” to counteract the effect of that “unholy trinity.” In the church business, we say that funerals always come in threes. Lots of things come in threes: both good things and even some bad things. The number three seems to hold a pivotal place in the heart of humanity and in our history; it is sort of woven into the fabric of the cosmos.
          Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. Obviously, we know that Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection. But this feast is also a subtle introduction to the Holy Trinity. What do I mean? Well, at the Ascension it’s almost as if Jesus steps back from center stage and tells the apostles to prepare for the coming of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Before he ascends, Jesus says, “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” In other words, it’s not enough that they know the Father and all the Father has done for the Jewish people in the Old Testament, and it’s not enough to know Jesus and how he suffered, died and rose again. But now they must also learn to relate to the Holy Spirit, who gives power to the Church. That is, the number three is not only important on earth, but it is also critical in heaven. Indeed, it defines God, because God is a Holy Trinity.
          Now, not all threes are so sacred or so serious. One day, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead all escaped from jail. The sheriff and his not-so-bright deputy set off in hot pursuit. The blonde, brunette and redhead found a barn and hid themselves in three potato sacks. The sheriff and deputy entered the barn and the deputy noticed the three large sacks. He kicked one of them and heard, “Meow!” He yelled back to the sheriff, “It’s just a bunch of cats!” He kicked the second bag and heard, “Woof! Woof!” He yelled back to the sheriff, “It’s just a bag of dogs!” He kicked the third and he heard, “Potatoes!” Okay, that’s not exactly an unholy trinity, but it’s not a very smart trinity either.
          You know, our Protestant friends often ask us Catholics, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” But what do we Catholic do? We usually st-st-start to st-st-stutter when we try to an-an-answer that question. But it’s a great question that deserves a great answer. But I believe the question really stops short of the relationship Jesus wants to have with us. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just want to be our Lord and Savior; he doesn’t just want it to be “me and Jesus.” He also wants us to have a livingly relationship with his Father and with their Holy Spirit. At the Ascension, Jesus steps back, out of view and out of center stage, so that the Spirit can be center stage. Jesus says in effect, “You know my Father, and you know me, now you must learn to love our Spirit.”  You see, if you do not know all three Persons of the Trinity, you really do not know any one of them.
          That’s why for us Catholics the best answer to the question of salvation is the “Sign of the Cross” made in the name of the most Holy Trinity. What do we do every time we walk into church? We dip our fingers into holy water, and make the Sign of the Cross, and say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That’s how we are saved: the Cross and the Trinity. We touch our forehead and invoke the Father, so we may know his ways and his wisdom, to know his plans and purposes for our life. Then we touch our hearts and invoke the Son, Jesus, so that our hearts may love like he loved, and even love our enemies, like Donald Trump, and Hilary Clinton, and Chicago Cubs (I’m a Cards fan.) Then, we touch our shoulders and invoke the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us to carry our crosses because they’re often too heavy for us to lift. You see, we know the number three is important, not only because of the three little pigs and the three stooges (Larry, Moe and Curly), but also because we are saved in the Sign of the Cross, by the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And we should never st-st-stutter to sa-sa-say that, when someone asks if we’ve been saved.
           In 1609 the poet John Donne wrote “Hol
y Sonnet No. 14,” in which he pleaded, “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you As yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” You know, sometimes an unholy trinity like sex, drugs and rock-n-roll make a home in our hearts, and it’s not enough for Jesus to knock on the door very lightly. We need the Holy Trinity to batter our hearts and save us. 

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Children of Lesser Gods

Learning to worship the one true God  
Acts of the apostles 17:15, 22—18:1 
After Paul’s escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.   
          Have you ever heard of “hedging your bets”? People sometimes hedge their bets when they go to the horse races. Now, I only know about this because friends who go to the races have told me. So, for example, you think the long-shot “Dixie Belle” will win, but you also place a bet on the highly favored “Yankee Doodle.” You see, when you hedge your bets you try not to lose your shirt at the horse races. That’s why when I gamble, I only take half the Sunday collection – that way we still have some money to pay the priests’ salaries. “Baby needs a new pair of stained glass windows!!!”   
          But we hedge our bets on all kinds of things, don’t we? We bet that a democrat will be the next president, but we’re also nice to the republicans in case that party gets into the White House. We bet that the stock market will go up, but we keep some money in savings in case it goes down. We hope Fr. Joseph will have the morning Mass, but we try not to be disappointed if Fr. John shows up instead. You see, we hedge our bets in life because we don’t know who will win, and we want to keep our options open.  
          In the first reading from Acts 17, the Athenians are also hedging their best, but they’re playing very high stakes poker because they are betting on which god is the true God. St. Paul notices that the Greeks have lots of shrines to a gaggle of different gods. But he also finds an unusual shrine with the title “To an Unknown God.” In other words, the Greeks were hedging their bets on God: they weren’t sure which one was the true God, so they kept all their options open. But St. Paul preaches that there’s no need to hedge your bets with God: there is only one God. He explains, “The God who made heaven and earth and all that is in it, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands…Rather, it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.” That is, there is only one God, and there is no one else to hedge your bets on; there is no need to keep your options open because there is only one option. Believe in him and be saved.  
          My friends, don’t be too quick to scoff at the ancient Athenians and their shrines and gods. Don’t we also “hedge our bets” with God and wonder whether he can make us truly happy? Don’t we, too, erect small shrines to “lesser gods” in our hearts whom we hope will make us happy in case the true God lets us down? We make shrines to money, and to power, and to popularity, and to our egos or to some pleasure; we sometimes erect shrines to legendary sports figures or patriotic shrines to our country, or we make shrines of our children and grandchildren. We are almost tempted to “worship” these lesser gods, and all the while our churches sit empty, like “shrines to an Unknown God.” But when it comes to God, there is no hedging your bets because there is only One. And we must believe in him, if we are to be saved.  

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Evil That Men Do

Leaving behind a legacy of faith

1 Corinthians 15:1-8
I am reminding you, brothers and sisters, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
          Whenever I celebrate a funeral Mass – and I’ve done quite a few in the 2 ½ years I’ve been here – the question of “legacy” always comes up. Legacy refers to what we leave behind; what do people remember about us after we’re gone? What will people remember about you? Do you remember that famous eulogy that Mark Antony preached about his friend, Julius Caesar? He said, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Then he surprisingly added: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” In other words, people tend to remember the bad and they forget the good.
          But Msgr. Galvin (who was smarter than Mark Antony) would disagree. He would say, “Now it’s your turn.” That is, whenever we had a building project, Galvin would point out that this beautiful church and complex was given to us by the sacrifices of previous parishioners. Now, it’s our turn to leave something beautiful for the Catholics of Fort Smith in the 22nd century. Our legacy should be a legacy of faith. You see, then maybe all the good we’ve done will not be “interred with our bones.”
          This is also St. Paul’s concern in the first reading to the Corinthians, namely, his legacy. He says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received,” and then he goes on to proclaim his faith in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. In other words, St. Paul would agree with Msgr. Galvin – and disagree with Mark Antony – that the good we do is not “oft interred with our bones.” And the legacy St. Paul wanted to leave was his faith in Christ. Indeed, that faith helped him see that even his “interred bones” would be raised up in a glorified body on the last day. Not a bad legacy.
          My dear ladies, what will people remember about each of you? What will people remember about the Ladies Auxiliary? You know, sometimes you’re tempted to think you’re a little old and can’t operate an iphone or an ipad, and you sell yourselves short. But I believe you can leave behind a lasting legacy, especially in your faith. When I was a small boy, my grandmother told me never to chew the Host we receive at Holy Communion. She said if I did, Jesus’ blood would come out in my mouth. To this day, I’m terrified to chew the Host at Mass! My grandmother left me a legacy of faith. As a group, you “adopted” one of the stained glass windows to renovate. You are making Msgr. Galvin smile in heaven because you know that “now it’s your turn.” When you humbly serve funeral dinners, when you put on the annual bazaar, when you sew on Wednesdays, even when you sing as the Dead Choir, you leave a legacy of faith. Just like St. Paul said, your faith is “of first importance” to you.
          Today as we crown Mary, we look to her as a mother and as a model of faith. She is remembered for being a humble handmaid of the Lord, who left behind a large legacy of faith. May we, too, leave behind some tokens of our faith, so that the good we do may not be entirely “interred with our bones.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!