Thursday, September 29, 2011

Angel Triple-Header

Today our Church celebrates the feast of three Archangels: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. The interesting thing about them is that they have names and are well-known. Now, names are used today to help distinguish between individuals. In Biblical times, however, names were used to indicate something about the individual. (The use of last names in modern times is reminiscent of this, as in the first person to use Taylor or Carpenter (signifying their occupation), Johnson (John's son), or Ireland (guess where he was from) as a last name.
In the cases of these three archangels, their names are very important indicators. Michael means "Who is like God?"; Gabriel "God's strength" and Raphael "God's remedy". Each one gives us an important insight. For Michael, his name indicates the uniqueness of God, and the impossibility of us to be God. Even though we are sometimes tempted to think we could do a better job of things ("if only I was God for just 5 minutes, I would straighten things out"), even popular culture seems to recognize how impossible this is (watch Bruce Almighty for a humorous example of this). Gabriel's name reminds us that our strength comes from God, since on our own we can really accomplish nothing. And Raphael's name helps us realize that we should turn to God when it seems as if there is no solution to our problems and no way to turn a bad situation around.
One of the really important points to think about with each of these three names is that they do not tell us anything at all about the messenger - the angel, but rather about the one who sends them - God. Their names reveal something about God, and humans benefit from this.
In reflecting on this, I think it is good for us to ponder what we reveal about God, not by our name but by our actions and words. Since the use of nicknames is common, and sometimes relate to some characteristic about the person (think "Reds", "Smokey", "Slim"), maybe we should think about what nickname people might use for us if we challenged them. If you were to ask a friend to come up with a nickname for you that reflects what they learn about God from you, would they be able to do it? And what would it be? Would you be Mrs. Affirming? Mr. Loving? Ms. Constant? Master Forgiving? Or would it be more likely that your nickname would reflect another reality? Old Man Cynical. Mrs. Complainer. The User.
Today we have three examples of beings that reflect God's presence in their very names. what do you reflect by your words and actions? Let's try and make sure we show others the presence of God, just as this Angel Triple-Header does!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Walk On By

So often we tend to lash out when our feelings are hurt. That is exactly what was going on in today's Gospel (Luke 9: 51-56). The disciples were upset because the people of a Samaritan town did not want to welcome the m and the Lord, since they were going to Jerusalem. They wanted to hurt the people, asking if they should call down fire from heaven to consume them" (as if they could!).  The reply of the Lord was basically "Forget about it". He simply continued and went to another village where He was welcomed.
This is a great lesson for all of us. People can do things that upset and hurt us, either intentionally or unintentionally. We may be tempted to fire back, usually in anger. But the Lord gives us a different example. Especially when our feelings are hurt, we need to remove ourselves from the situation if possible and move on. We know that there are always people who may not like us, our ideas or plans. But we can forget that there are usually even more people who do like us, who are excited by our ideas and who want to see us succeed with our plans. These are the people we need to encourage us. Now, we have to be careful that we do not ignore proper criticism and think that we are always right. There is certainly a place to listen to the advice of trusted family m,embers, friends and co-workers. But if we find ourselves trying to do God's will and running into fierce opposition or maybe indifference, it may be the Lord trying to tell us to move on.
There are plenty of people who want to see us reach our goal - heaven. When we encounter those who do not, take the advice of Jesus. Don't get upset, angry or seek retribution. Just walk on by!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Life-Changing Moments

Today is the Feast of St. Matthew, and the Gospel (Matthew 9:9-13) tells the story of the Lord calling him to "follow me". Now, Matthew was not exactly a popular fellow. In fact, he (and all tax collectors) would have been considered traitors to their people, since they worked for the Roman occupiers. Their daily work not only helped fuel the Roman economy, but also involved the use of Roman money, which were emblazoned with the image of a false god - the emperor. As one of the few in his community who could read, write and do math, Matthew had made a choice. Other in his situation chose to use their talents for the good of the people, such as the scribes and rabbis. Matthew had chosen to work against the well-being of his own people, and so was rejected by them. (And with good reason.)
But the amazing thing to understand is that, once the Lord called him, Matthew immediately left what he was doing. He changed his life around and became one of the apostles for whom a gospel would be named. Talk about a turn-around! How many times had others urged him to change his life, to give up what he was doing and he had ignored them? How many times had he thought about it but never made a move to change? How often had family members prayed that he would be "converted" and see the light? But it was at that moment, when Jesus happened to be going by, that Matthew was ready and open to saying "yes" to God's will.
It made me reflect on not only my own need to change when I have sinned, but also the restrictions I sometimes place on others by refusing to consider that they might be able to change. A perfect example of this is seen in the teaching of the Church regarding the death penalty. While legal, the circumstances where it should be used is now, as Pope John Paul II said, "very rare, if not nonexistent" (Para. 56 of Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life). Many people think that individuals on death row are beyond hope, that they will never change. Even though God never forces anyone to do His will, He is constantly giving them opportunities to do so. By ending someone's life, even the most hardened criminal, we are really saying that we have decided they had enough time and God is not powerful enough to give them the grace they need to repent. 
And we do this with so many people in our lives. Holding a grudge is really saying that "they will never change". Certainly there are consequences to behavior, and those who have gone against God's will (whether a murderer, rapist, terrorist or simply a friend who betrayed a confidence) are not excused or released from those consequences. But we have no right to deny them as many opportunities as God deems fit to change their lives and repent. 
For this reason, I see Matthew as sort of a patron saint for sinners. How was given that opportunity to change his life, and he took it. We have to be sure we are not denying others the opportunity to experience a life-changing moment. After all, are any of us so sure that we will never need one?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Be the Sower

Today's Gospel (Luke 8: 4-15) is the parable of the sower, whose seed fell in different places. Some of it fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil. If, as the Lord explains, the seed is the word of God and the soil represents various responses of people who hear the word, we normally try and find our place as one of the types of soil. But I was reflecting on the idea that we, all of us who are believers, are really called to be the sowers.
This parable then, in addition to being a road map on how to receive the word, is also a primer on what to expect as we spread the Good News. So often we wonder whether or not our example has an effect, whether or not the things we share about faith make a difference. We can sometimes get discouraged and think "why bother?" saying anything. But the important thing to remember is that we are never sure what type of "soil" we are  encountering. When dealing with human beings, what was once "rocky" and incapable of supporting life can suddenly become the perfect environment where the Word of God can flourish. This is the result of God's grace, who says that "I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26)
What is necessary is that we simply go and sow the seed, speak God's word to others and encourage them to see the presence of God in their lives. While we cannot control what happens next, we are assured that some of it will fall on "good soil" and produce the hundredfold. But this can happen only if we go out and sow. Don't be discouraged, then. Get up and become a sower. After all, this is what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Joy of Sorrow

It may sound like a contradiction, but I was reflecting today on what is behind sorrow and mourning. Today is the feast of "Our Lady of Sorrows", which remembers various times during the life of Jesus' mother Mary when she was filled with sorrow. From the time she was warned by Simeon when she presented Him in the Temple to having to witness His death and burial, like all of us Mary had moments where she must have felt a little overwhelmed with sadness. Why, then, would our Church call upon us to celebrate these moments?
I believe that they are a reflection of the depth of love that was present. You cannot mourn someone you did not love. You cannot be filled with sorrow over someone who does not hold a place in your heart. Grief is not only a natural and healthy human reaction to loss, but also an indication of the importance of a relationship. I simply do not agree with those who try to tell you that, if you have faith in heaven, eternal life, the resurrection, etc. you should not be sad when someone dies. But that is a misunderstanding of why we mourn and the reason for our sorrow. We are sad not because of what happens to the other person, but because of what has happened to us. And this is not in a selfish way, but in a truly connected way. We feel the loss, we experience the pain of separation, we are filled with fear even at the thought of losing someone we love. And that is the key phrase - "someone we love".
The pain that comes from sorrow is a reminder that we have loved. Grief counselors tell us that it is good and healthy to grieve, and that people grieve in many different ways. One thing all grief has in common is that it indicates an important loss. And when we identify with others who grieve, we show that they are important to us, that they matter and make a difference.
So it is OK to celebrate today the "sorrows" of Mary, and indeed our own sorrows. In fact, there is a kind of joy in that sorrow, because it assures us that we have loved. And when it is our turn to depart from this life, there will not only be joy that we are returning to the Lord, but joy that those we leave behind mourn and grieve, because we have been loved.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Past, Present and Future

In our Gospel today (Matthew: 1-16, 18-23), the Church gives us the list of the ancestors of Joseph, the foster-father of the Lord and the story of the Annunciation to Mary. I love looking at those names, reflecting on the people who passed on the faith that eventually was part and parcel of the home in which Jesus was raised. It is also fascinating to look into the history of some of these ancestors, and appreciate the way in which God took flawed human beings and still was able to use them to bring about our salvation.
At the same time it is good for each one of us to reflect on the many generations who helped form us in the faith. If it were possible for each one of us to trace the passing of faith back through the generations, we would eventually get to someone who actually saw and heard the Lord! Now, not all of those people would be related to us by blood, and they certainly would not be perfect. We would find friends, catechists, religious, priests, neighbors, strangers - all sorts of people who helped pass on the faith that we proclaim today.
The implications of this are important for us to consider also. If we want to make sure future generations understand and profess the faith we received, we have an obligation to pass it on as well. This may be through formal teaching (such as serving as a Catechist), or through more informal ways, like parents and grandparents teaching children their prayers. But for every one of us, the most important way we pass on faith is by living it. Let's face it - most people consider "religion" to be a private matter, which is "nobody's business". But that is not possible for those of us who profess to follow Christ. He gave us a faith that must be a part of our daily life - easily seen in our words and actions. And that is how we are able to form others in the faith as well. Our words should reflect the teaching of Jesus, even when we are not talking about "religion". As people watch us and listen to us going about our daily lives, they should see and hear a person of faith. When we strive to do God's will in our lives each day, we are helping to pass on our faith. And we thus become the ancestors of future generations. If they reflect on how the faith was passed on to them by those who went before them, we should be a part of that litany, and, we pray, we will be waiting for them to join us as our ancestors in the faith are now waiting for us to enter the heavenly kingdom.