The Glorious Ascension into Heaven

From our human perspective, the Ascension might not seem very important. For many years, I remember thinking something like, “What’s the big deal? Jesus is leaving and going to be in Heaven. Would’ve been nice if he’d stuck around.” But the Church seems to think it is important, which usually means that it is. With 2000 years of experience in such matters, I’m willing to extend to her the benefit of the doubt. The Church says that today, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. Why is this such a big deal, and how does it impact my life?

St. Paul answers the first question for us. In his letter to the Ephesians, which is one of the few letters where he isn’t writing to correct some error within a community, St. Paul tells us that [I]n accord with the exercise of his great might, // which he worked in Christ, // [the Father raised] him from the dead // and seat[ed] him at his right hand in the heavens. This is a very straightforward reference to the Ascension. After his glorious victory over sin, evil, and death, Jesus Christ entered into Heaven and took his rightful place at seat of power at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Just to make sure we understand to breadth and depth of the power which the Father gives to the Son as a result of the great Sacrifice he made on behalf of humanity, St. Paul continues, that this seat is far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, // and every name that is named // not only in this age but also in the one to come. Not just Jews, but all the other peoples of the time would recognize in this statement that St. Paul is declaring Jesus Christ to rule over all the creatures of Heaven and Earth, i.e. angelic beings, human beings, animals, and inanimate objects alike, and for all eternity. When time ends, Jesus Christ remains on the throne of power, and St. Paul wants to make sure we know that.

St. Paul’s then tells us that he put all things beneath his feet // and gave him as head over all things to the church, // which is his body, // the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us that God the Son is head over all things to the church, which is his body. This statement is important, because it tells us both why the Ascension is a big deal, and what it means for us. At the Ascension, Jesus Christ is given power over all things, but that is not all. The Church is grafted onto him: the same Church which we all entered at our baptism, the same Church we gather as today, right here, right now. The Church, mystically unified with Jesus Christ, is already in Heaven while still here on Earth. When we assemble as a Church, or as an ἐκκλησία (ekklésia) if you want to sound fancy and say things in Greek, to worship Jesus Christ, we worship him not just here on Earth, but also in Heaven. At the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass in particular, Heaven and Earth meet; eternity and time meet. We enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem, offer God our prayers and intentions in union with the offering of his beloved Son, and enter into a true Communion with one another all the Saints who have gone before us. The Ascension is when the Head of the Body of Christ, the Church, entered the Heavenly Jerusalem and brought us all with him.

As it turns out, younger me was very, very wrong. The Ascension is vitally important. Jesus knew this. After his Resurrection, he gave the final instruction to his apostles. He taught them about the kingdom of God. He instructed them that they would bear witness, starting in Jerusalem, moving further and further out as time went on. He promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them. His parting words, given in today’s Gospel, summarize the mission that Jesus gave the disciples—the disciples who would become the Church after the transformative events of the Ascension, the election of Matthias, and the Pentecost, but more on that next week. Jesus left us with these words: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. // Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, // baptizing them in the name of the Father, // and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, // teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. // And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20) This mission is given to all of us as members of the Church and Body of Jesus Christ. We are to make disciples—followers—of Jesus Christ. We are to bring them to baptism, so that they too can become part of the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. We are to teach them to observe Jesus’s commandments: to love God above all things, to love our neighbor, and to follow Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. This mission seems daunting, but it is possible, because Jesus promises to always be with us and never to abandon us. Christ assumes this power at his Ascension, when he mounted his throne with shouts of joy and trumpet blasts.

As Christ ascended to Heaven and the apostles began to comprehend what had just happened, St. Luke tells us in Acts that they were staring at the sky when suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. // They said, “Men of Galilee, // why are you standing there looking at the sky? // This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven // will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Aside from being a bit comical—let’s be honest, it’s a little funny—these messengers remind the apostles that now it is time to get to work. Our work right now is to worship God in this sacred place and at this sacred time. When we leave this assembly of believers and, following the example of the apostles, go out to the ends of the earth—or perhaps just our neighborhoods—we have our orders from Jesus Christ, to whom [a]ll power in heaven and on earth has been given. After we refresh ourselves at this Heavenly banquet, let us [g]o, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Christ has] commanded [us]. And behold, [Christ is] with [us] always, until the end of the age.

Today’s Readings:
May 24, 2020
Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

On Fear

Things are starting to return to some new form of normal. This is a good thing. At the same time, these stirrings of our world, as we leave our homes and apartments and, blinking, step into the sun to see that there is more to do than we could do for months, have become a great cause of fear for many people. All week long, it seems that the words between people have become sharper and more punctuated by emotion, specifically by fear. So, let’s talk about it. Ignore our problems and our struggles with one another will not make them go away, nor will the increasingly emotional and heated exchanges help matters. I mean, there are stories in the news about people threatening each other with guns over mask wearing.

Fear happens when we perceive a future evil that is difficult or impossible to overcome. Right now, the cause of this fear is fairly obvious. There is an unusual and new disease running amuck in our world. We do not really know what is going to happen as a result. (Thomas would call this type of fear “stupor”.)1The first fleeting moments of this emotion are not within our control. It is a function of our human nature; however, once we perceive this fear, we have to make a choice: what are we going to do with this fear? Are we going to allow it to control us, or are we going to allow it to inform us?

There are two ways we can allow our fear to control us. We can ignore it and push it deep down and put forth a “macho man” type bravado, or we can succumb to timidity and shrink continually from any possible encounter with the object of our fear. Neither of these responses to fear is appropriate. We are called to the virtues of prudence and of fortitude, which require us to use reason with our action. The “macho” response to disease ignore the counsel of fear which reminds us of our mortality, that our bodies are a gift from God. We are expected to care for our bodies and not to sacrifice or harm them needlessly. God is Lord over life and death, not us. We are not to needlessly endanger ourselves. The timid response is wrong because it allows an evil to be in control of our lives. Remember: fear is a result of an unperceived evil. We must not allow evil to control us.

The other response to fear is to acknowledge that fear and then submit it to our reason. When we submit our emotions to our reason, we can combine the information we have gathered from our emotions with the other information we have learned and formulate an appropriate response. We can look at whether this evil we perceive is a great threat to us, or if it is simply an unusual threat against us. We can look at the likelihood that this evil will have a greater or lesser effect on us. We can look at the potential damage that this evil might inflict upon us. After we probe this emotion and look at the evil that lies behind it, we can formulate the actions we will take to overcome this threat. Perhaps that action is to stay at home until the medical professionals have a better handle on treatments and prevention. Perhaps that action is to go to work so that we can put food on the table or so that we can help those in need. Perhaps I realize that I need to wear a mask when I go out on the chance that I might become an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. Perhaps I do not need to wear a mask, because I have already had the disease and am no longer capable of transmitting it. The action required of each of us is going to be different, because we all have different circumstances in our lives. The key here is that it is not unreasonable for there to be differing responses, and that it is OK for someone to come to a different conclusion than me for their safety during a pandemic.

There is one more component of this fear we have not yet looked at: the moral component. Can fear be a sin? Yes. Fear becomes a sin when we allow it to lead us away from God. Allowing ourselves to become a “macho” or timid slave to our fear, for example, is sinful. Not taking our fear and honestly submitting it to reason is sinful. Perhaps these aren’t mortal sins, but they are sinful.

How then can we resolve fear in our lives? Even if we submit our emotion to reason, that does not, necessarily, cause the fear to go away. This is where the Gospel comes into the picture. Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) Why not? God has prepared a place for us in Heaven. If we remember our eternal destiny—eternal bliss with God—then the troubles of this world begin to fade. We still must be prudent and work toward our salvation in this world, but we can do so with confidence that God is waiting for us. If we do not know the way to do this, the answer is simple: go to Jesus. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6)When we offer ourselves to him in prayer, he will show us exactly what we need to do. Jesus promises this to us. Jesus has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) When we remember that destiny, we can draw strength and courage from the Lord and place our trust in Him.

Fear is normal, but we must be attentive to our response to fear. Like everything in our life, we must always refer it to our God who loves us, and remember that “Christ is the way that leads us, the truth that strengthens us, and the life that restores us to life in him.”2Christ will lead us out of this crisis, if we let him.

This text was not given as a homily, but was prepared with the readings of the Sixth Sunday of Easter in mind. (Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12)

Understanding the Mass Series

After two weeks of delays (planning took longer than I expected and then filming did too), I’ve finally finished the first episode of my Understanding the Mass series! In the first episode, we go from the beginning of the Mass up to the Liturgy of the Word.

Let me know what you think, I am definitely open to suggestions for the later episodes. Hopefully the writing, planning, filming, and editing go a little more smoothly for them!

The Lord God, Merciful and Compassionate

Truly, Jesus is Risen! Alleluia!

Today we celebrate the Octave Day of Easter. While this is the eighth solar day since Easter Sunday (Romans always included the current day, in case you’re wondering), the Church has considered this simply one long day. We also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today. This insight, of God’s steadfast mercy, can assist us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Resurrection in our lives, because the Resurrection—and God Himself—has the concept of mercy at its core. For Easter to truly make sense, we need to know why God did what he did. To know why God did what he did, we need to know more about God, namely: who is this God that we worship? To really answer that question, we need to go even further back in time. We need to understand what makes our understanding of God different than the pagan understanding of the gods. To do that, we need to go back to the time of the Exodus, when God revealed himself to the Israelite people. We must go back to this time, because it is when God Himself tells us what differentiates him from the false gods of the pagans.

In the time of the Exodus, there were many, many religions. With these religions, there were many, many false gods. If you look at the patterns amongst all the ancient religions, two deities tend to be the most important. Baal and his consort Asherah, perhaps under other names, tend to be the most worshipped deities in the ancient religions. Baal was the god of power and Asherah was the goddess of fertility. These were the two traits most desired by ancient peoples, because these two traits seemed to lead to earthly prosperity. You needed power to hold on to what you and your people had, and you needed fertility to grow your people.

The Israelites, however, had an entirely different conception of God. Power and fertility were not the defining traits of God: mercy was. If we read the Old Testament with our eyes open to this reality, we see that God constantly reinforced this understanding. This is, perhaps, most obvious in Exodus 34:6-7. In this passage, God passes before Moses and announces himself, saying “The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation!” (NABRE) Don’t get fixated on the last sentence there. The English translation here makes God seem very dark. God is declaring that while he forgives our sins, the effects of sin last well beyond the person and the event of an individual sin—but that’s another homily. Instead, let’s look at the first words God speaks of himself. If we go back to the Hebrew (יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן) (Adonai, Adonai, El raḥūm weḥannūn) and Greek (Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων), a slightly more literal translation would be “LORD, LORD, God merciful and gracious.” God considers himself to be, above all, a merciful God. To us, this is obvious, but we live in a world where the Israelite understanding of God, which is also our Christian understanding of God, is dominant. In those days, where most of the world followed deities of power and fertility, most people would have considered this God of Mercy, to be weak and powerless. This is, perhaps, one reason that the Bible tells us the Israelite peoples had such trouble staying faithful to God. Through time, though, we have seen that mercy does conquer all, and the culmination of mercy was when Jesus conquered death on the Cross for us.

How, though? How does mercy prevail over all else? How is mercy more powerful than power and more fertile than fertility? Think about what happens when God shows us his mercy, about what happens when we show mercy. To show mercy implies that something evil has been done. Evil is nothingness. It cannot create; it can only destroy. Evil is predatory upon the good. But when mercy is shown in the face of evil, we deny the evil its goal. We prevent the destruction which was intended by the evil and we turn it into something creative, even if it is solely creative within us. When God shows mercy, it is even more powerful, because in those cases God can take an evil which has been done and re-create something good. God created all of the universe out of nothing, and when he re-creates something destroyed by evil, we call it mercy. Even now we see examples of this. We can easily see the pain and destruction wrought by the evil effects of the coronavirus, but if we honestly look around us, we see that God is creating in the wake of this destruction: the solidarity of people who join together to support their brothers and sisters, the awakening of ingenuity and creativity of science and industry, the emphasis on the common good and recognition that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.

God’s triumph of mercy despite suffering is a cause for joy. St. Peter writes, “rejoice, when you share in some measure the sufferings of Christ; so joy will be yours, and triumph, when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13 Knox) God’s mercy is not obvious, and it is strange, but through His mercy, death and sin are conquered. God’s mercy blesses us, so that despite the blindness of our senses, we who have not seen can believe. God’s “great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us].” (1 Peter 1:3-4 NABRE) God’s consistent response to evil is mercy. His greeting to the disciples today is, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” (John 20:21) God sent his Jesus Christ on a mission of Divine Mercy to humanity. Today, Christ sends us on that same mission. As we celebrate God’s mercy upon us today, let us strive to imitate his mercy in our lives. Let us strive to see his mercy coursing through all the world. Most of all, let us surrender ourselves to the love of the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and compassionate, saying, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Today’s Readings:
April 19, 2020
Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

We Will Never Be the Same

Resurrection Mosaic in a chapel at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary

Jesus is Risen. Alleluia!

Even in this time of fear, anxiety, and doubt—especially now—we must celebrate this day. This day is our feast of victory. This is the day when God’s light erupted back into the world. This is the day we remember that God has claimed us for himself. If we remember that kinship, then we must also remember, as John told us in his first letter, “[t]hat God is light, and no darkness can find any place in him; if we claim fellowship with him, when all the while we live and move in darkness, it is a lie; our whole life is an untruth. God dwells in light; if we too live and move in light, there is fellowship between us, and the blood of his Son Jesus Christ washes us clean from all sin. Sin is with us; if we deny that, we are cheating ourselves; it means that truth does not dwell in us. No, it is when we confess our sins that he forgives us our sins, ever true to his word, ever dealing right with us, and all our wrong-doing is purged away.” (1 John 1:5-9 Knox)

This imagery of light and dark is extremely timely, because with it comes the recognition that God is life-giving light and sin is death-dealing darkness. Unlike nearly any other challenge that we—and by “we” I mean the entirety of humanity—have faced in the last 100 years, we aren’t exactly sure what to do next. We do not really know what to do, and we are, frankly, quite helpless. In our current situation, there is a darkness to the future to which we are not accustomed. Even two months ago, this darkness was not there. But in this new-found darkness, we can now see something that has been there all along, something that has always been there, something that we were, perhaps, too distracted by the things of this world to notice before. Amidst all the darkness, there is a light. This “light shines in the darkness, a darkness which [is] not able to master it.” (John 1:5 Knox)

This light is Jesus Christ, and today that light shines more brightly than ever, as we celebrate the Resurrection. Today is a day of rejoicing, because today we celebrate the success of Christ’s conquest of sin and death, where he conquered their effects in eternity. Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus showed us that death is not an end but a beginning. He took on the most frightening aspect of our humanity, death, and showed it impotent against him. Jesus, the Divine Word Become Flesh, is master over life itself, and he is too full of life for death to overcome him. He has extended to us an invitation to share in his life, his life which is too strong for death. This is our Easter faith: that by uniting ourselves with the life of Christ, we are no longer subject to the tyranny of death.

This light through the darkness shows us the path to uniting ourselves with Christ. It illuminates our sins and our faults, not to shame us, but so that we might recognize and overcome them. This light has shown us that we humans are not the masters of nature that we may have thought. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal Household, made this point on Good Friday, “The pandemic of the Coronavirus has abruptly roused us from the greatest danger individuals and humanity have always been susceptible to: the delusion of omnipotence.” 1 Painful as this recognition may be, the light has shone through the darkness and shown us the pride of modern humanity. By recognizing the true Lord of creation and returning to him, we can be assured that no matter what happens, we are on stable ground.

The light does not show us only the bad. It has also shown us something quite incredible: our human need to be in solidarity with one another. In this time of pandemic, where we are forced to be separate, we have not remained content to be isolated. People are constantly reaching out to check on their neighbors. Communication through phone and video chat is exploding. Through this pandemic, we have recognized something critical: we are all in this together. The light has shown us that our solidarity must go even deeper, because the true pandemic we face is much more insidious that a few nasty bits of RNA and protein. A virus, a non-living and material thing, can cause death to our bodies. We daily confront a much deadlier enemy: sin. Sin can cause death to our souls. This death is far worse, because it lasts for all eternity unless we repent and turn back to Christ. This primordial plague of sin is what Christ came to cure. Sin is the disease which grows from the leaven of malice and wickedness that St. Paul warns us about. (See 1 Corinthians 5:8) Our solidarity with our brothers and sisters cannot stop with fighting the Coronavirus: it must continue as we fight to eradicate the deadliest plague, the plague of sin. God’s strange mercy has brought darkness so that the light might shine more clearly. (cf. Psalm 49:21; Psalm 136)

God’s strange mercy has shone a light on the world which we cannot ignore. We must now invite the Lord to shine that same light into the depths of our hearts. We must allow him to break our hearts of stone and to give us new hearts and to fill us with his Spirit (see Ezekiel 36:26-27). We must allow him to put within our hearts the leaven “of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8) This requires admitting that we are not always right, and that God’s ways are not our ways. But that is exactly what we celebrate: that God’s ways are not our ways. Our ways led to Adam and Eve turning away from God, hiding themselves, and separating all of humanity from God. Our ways led to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, to the pains of exile in Babylon, and to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. God’s ways, though, showed that from the very beginning he worked to bring humanity back to himself, and that humanity could never hide from the one who loves them so much. God’s ways brought his wandering children out of Egypt, now unified as a nation. God’s ways brought Israel home from exile, purified and united in their faith. God’s ways conquered death and showed us that death is much too weak to contain him. God’s ways not only showed us that sin and death are ultimately powerless, but that each of us is called to eternal life.

Today, we celebrate that God’s ways are not our ways. We celebrate his light coming into the world and showing us the way to truth. Let us praise God for his great gift to us. Let us thank him for strange mercy that we do not fully understand. Let us ask him every day to bring us closer to him, so that we may follow him, and imitate him, and shake free the shackles of sin.

On Easter Sunday, the Apostles would never take their Lord’s Presence for granted again. They would never deny God’s power again. The Apostles recognized that life would never be the same again. Let us allow the light of Christ into our lives, so that we, too, will never be the same.

Today’s Readings:
April 12, 2020
Easter Sunday, Year A
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; Victimae Paschali Laudes (Sequence); John 20:1-9

Prepare for the Glory of God

This is the holiest week of the year.

This is the week we call to mind, through the living memory of the Church, and make present again the most sacred events ever to occur in the universe.

This is the week Jesus Christ our Savior instituted the Sacrament—the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist—by which He would forever remain present in his people.

This is the week Jesus Christ our King entered his royal city, was crowned as Lord of the Universe, and mounted his throne.

This is the week Jesus Christ our God entered his holy city and from his holy and glorious throne defeated the forces of sin and death and hell.

This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the tyranny of sin that had for too long reigned over humanity and ushered in a new age for all humanity.

This is the week we embark on this solemn journey with our Lord. We may have some fears, because despite the spiritual and heavenly reality of the situation, we can be all too distracted by the material reality. It is not easy to follow our Messiah as he is welcomed, betrayed, and crucified in Jerusalem.

If there is nothing spiritual, if there is no Father in Heaven, if there is nothing beyond the material world, then we are all fools. If there were nothing beyond the material, the existentialist philosophers would be right: the only meaning is what we make, and it dies with us. We know, however, that those depressing philosophers are wrong, because deep inside each and every one of us, we recognize that there is more to all of this than simple material things. If there weren’t anything more, then money, power, and fame would keep us content for all of our days. They don’t. We long for more. Our hearts know the truth: we were made to be loved by the God who created us. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God, because we are made to be filled by love, and the only one capable of filling our hearts is God, the limitless lover. This spiritual truth and reality is far more important than any merely material reality. Truth in a merely material reality is limited to the merely material. Spiritual truths are not so confined.

We all know what is coming this week: Jesus is about to die for us.

The material reality this week shows us the Jesus was tortured and died for us.

The spiritual reality this week shows us that God willingly breaks his heart open and pours out every drop for love—he empties himself totally—in order to repay the covenantal debt that is owed to him by humanity’s failure, our failure, to eradicate sin from our lives.

This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the power of sin and death over humanity.

This is the week Jesus Christ destroys the veil separating Heaven and Earth, opening the gate of Heaven to all who are willing to follow him and enter.

This is the week we welcome Jesus Christ, our God and King and Savior, into our hearts. As we embark on this most solemn and most holy journey, let us make those final preparations so we might greet our King well as he comes to us. Isaiah tells us to set our faces like flint in this task, for we know that in doing so we shall not be put to shame. The master has need of a place to celebrate these mysteries with us. Let us ask his Holy Spirit to assist us in preparing our hearts to be such places as the appointed time draws near.

Brothers and sisters: prepare for the coming and the glorification our God.

Entrata in Gerusalemme, part of the Armadio degli argenti, by Fra Angelico.

This post is available as a podcast: click here to listen.

Today’s Readings:
April 5, 2020
Passion Sunday, Year A
(For the Procession) Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

Quarantine Lecture Series from the Thomistic Institute

I listen to many podcasts. The Thomistic Institute, run by the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., puts many very good excellent lectures online. They recently posted one called “Grace and Anxiety: Spiritual Growth in a Time of Turmoil”. I would highly recommend listening to it. I found it to be a very re-assuring talk for what’s going on in the world right now. Here are, approximately, 50 different ways you can access it:

While putting this post together, I found out that this and another (excellent) talk I was listening to this morning are part of a Quarantine Lecture series that the Thomistic Institute is putting online, which you can find here: https://thomisticinstitute.org/quarantine-lectures.

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept (Jésus pleura) by James Tissot

“And Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Death is not something in God’s original plan for mankind. Death is a consequence of sin, that original sin we hear about in Genesis. We don’t have time to get into all of that, but it is critical that we always remember that suffering and death are consequences of humanity’s turn away from God and towards itself. Even at the beginning, though, God had a plan to redeem us. In Genesis 3:15, we encounter what is called the Proto-Evangelium—the first good news—God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” If there were any doubt that God has put himself into solidarity with us, He sent his Son to become one of us, and this divine Son—God Incarnate—wept at the earthly death of his friend. Death makes God weep. Even though Jesus knew he would soon raise Lazarus, even though Jesus knew that death on this earth was not an end, but a beginning, even though he knew all of this: Jesus wept. He became “perturbed,” the Gospel says, that is, he became stern-faced and resolute, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. He showed his absolute lordship over life and death. Jesus shows today that while we may perish on this earth, death is no match for Him.

Here’s the problem, though: if Jesus, i.e., God,  has absolute sovereignty over life and over death, if he hates sin and suffering and death even more than we do because he understands it more fully, if even a temporary death makes him weep, then why does he permit such things to happen? Jesus brings us the answer today. In John 11:4, we heard Jesus say, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Later—without having been informed by anyone—He informs the apostles in verse 14 that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To rephrase it slightly, God allows Lazarus to die so that many may come to faith because of the mighty that would be wrought by the hands of Jesus.

This all makes me think of the reflection Pope Francis gave on Friday during the extraordinary moment of prayer and Urbi et Orbi blessing. If you did not see it or have not read it, it is excellent. I would that you go to the Vatican’s website, read it, and reflect on it. The Holy Father, reflecting on the calming of the storm in Mark’s Gospel said, ‘we see how [the apostles] call on [Jesus]: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.’1

But how does Jesus care for us when we feel more like Lazarus: dead? Whether we want to admit it or not, something inside each of us has been killed—and many people have been killed—by this pestilence, this viral plague. The pope continues later, this plague ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.’ This plague, then, has been a call from God for us to wake up and remember our glory as human beings: that God emptied himself and became one of us to save us, to save us even from death itself, to save us from not only physical death, but also from a far more deadly and insidious spiritual death. The pope, showing us how God is calling us to glorify him, later continued, ‘[t]he Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.’

This is no easy task on our part. It requires faith and trust in God. We must believe and be confident in the knowledge that God has and will continue to save us from sin, suffering, and death. This challenge of faith is what Ezekiel confronts in our first reading today. To set the scene: the Israelites are exiled from their lands into Babylon. They are cut off from their temple and their temple worship of the Most High God. The entire book of Ezekiel is built around the message that God will NEVER abandon his beloved children. If you look at the first chapter of Ezekiel, it is, admittedly, a little trippy, but Ezekiel is struggling to communicate a vision of God that has at its core one truth: the throne of God moves. God goes anywhere and everywhere that He desires to go. That hasn’t changed in the last 2,618 years, and it never will. As we stay at home, separated from our parishes, unable to fully participate in worship, we face the same tragic question as the captives in Babylon all those years ago: How can I offer fitting worship to God? How can I truly celebrate the Lord’s day? How can I do these things separated from my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Ezekiel today tells the Israelites that God will open their graces and rise them up from them. God will continue to lift us up from our sorrow and breathe new life into us even now, during this time of challenging separation. And God does not stop there. He promises to bring Israel home. God never told Israel that their temple was not the most fitting place to offer him worship. It was the most fitting place to glorify him prior to the fulfillment of the old covenant and the establishment of the new covenant during the Easter Event. The most fitting place to offer God worship now is when we are assembled as a community to participate in the Easter Event which is made present during Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God has never taught us otherwise. But as the Israelites learned all those years ago, and as we are being forced to remember now: God will not allow himself to be sequestered or confined to that hour we spend at Church on Sunday. God lives within our hearts at every moment of every day. He desires to be with us and involved in every aspect of our lives. Through this plague, perhaps God is calling us to glorify him by putting our Easter faith back at the center of our lives. The psalmist today cries, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!’ and ‘With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.’

Let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, so we glorify him every moment of our lives.

Today’s Readings:
March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Online Examen Prayer Retreat now posted!

Since the coronavirus has stopped most (all?) public gatherings, it forced my parish into cancelling my in-person Examen Prayer Retreat that was supposed to be today. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like being in-person get in the way of the retreat, though! I’ve recorded my retreat talks and put together a page for the retreat. It includes a schedule for watching the videos, reflection, and prayer. It also includes information on other resources where you can go deeper into the Examen Prayer.

The retreat takes about two hours long, and is available by clicking here.