5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C (2)

Today’s readings remind us of the reason for hardship in our pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Through that hardship we’ll be united with Our Lord one day in love and never experience hardship again.

Today’s First Reading recalls the end of Paul’s first missionary voyage. In his lifetime he made three missionary voyages, and just like when he was knocked to the ground and blinded, he had no idea where his missionary voyages would lead him. Today he arrives back in Antioch, the Christian community who had sent him out at the Holy Spirit’s instruction, and he tells them something none of them expected: the Gentiles, the non-Jews, were welcoming the Gospel too. He encourages them to keep the faith, since, as he says “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul is saying that from experience. On the mission he just finished he had almost been stoned in one town, mistaken for the god Zeus in another, and in a third was dragged outside the city, stoned, and left for dead. The path to the Kingdom of God is not easy, but worth the hardship.

In today’s Second Reading John tries to describe what the Kingdom of God will look like one day when all the hardship is over: the Church, as splendid as a bride on her wedding day, with Christ as her spouse. In every celebration of the Eucharist we try to imitate what the Church will be like to Christ on that day. The Baldachin (in Italian Baldacchino) built over the main altar in many classic church designs is a symbol evoking the canopy used in Jewish weddings. During the liturgy we wear nice clothes and fine vestments, sing beautiful music, and use items made of gold, silver, and other precious materials to celebrate Jesus coming down to be with us and come down into our hearts. Some day we will all be united, just like those people listening to St. Paul in Antioch, just as when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, rejoicing forever with God among us and all the pain and sorrow wiped away.

St. Paul describes the path to Heaven as hardship, but Our Lord in today’s Gospel calls it the moment of his glorification. When John in his gospel talks about glorification, he is referring to Jesus being crucified. As Judas goes out to betray Our Lord, the Lord says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” He knows that the suffering and hardship that he is about to undergo will make what John sees in the Second Reading come true: all of us, united with him in joy forever. “The One on the throne” in the Second Reading today is Jesus Himself, and he says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Death, sickness, tiredness, and effort are a part of life, but Jesus will re-new everything again: not just spruced up, new again. He is always coming into our hearts to renew us with his love, and, one day, things will be as if they were brand new, forever, like a flower in the fullness of bloom that never wilts again. If we continue to love one another as he has loved us, he can continue to make all things new.

Paul taught the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews had similar thought: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Are you racing to win in your Christian and spiritual life, or just making the occasional jog and walk? We not only have a finish line in life, but a time limit. No one knows how much time they have to complete the race, but ever race devised involves running and the risk of not reaching the finish line in time. The Christian life is no different: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

Readings: Acts 14:21–27; Psalm 145:8–13; Revelation 21:1–5a; John 13:31–33a, 34–35.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (2)

All three readings today share one common thread: an experience of God’s majesty and power, a call to mission and conversion, and the need for God’s grace and encouragement to change and to accept the invitation.

Isaiah in today’s First Reading experiences a vision of God’s glory and thinks he’s about to die, and die as a sinner. Throughout the Old Testament a basic principle was that anyone who looked upon the Lord would die. The Lord sends the angel to purify him and then invites him to be his prophet. When Our Lord calls you to do something great with your life (and being Christian is something great to do with your life), a natural reaction is to feel your unworthiness, your nothingness in comparison to Who is asking something of you. Isaiah today needed to know that the Lord would “have his back.” Isaiah wouldn’t be working alone and unprepared: the Lord had him purified and would be with him on his mission.

Paul in today’s Second Reading recalls the core of the Gospel: that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and his own close and personal encounter with the Risen Lord. When he recalls his own encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, he also recalls his unworthiness to be commissioned as an apostle, but by God’s grace he’s made capable of carrying out his mission. Paul persecuted Christians and was convinced they were abandoning their religion. Then the Risen Lord appeared to him, struck him blind, and gave him “quiet time” to process what had happened. One of the most humiliating experiences anyone can have is realizing that you were completely wrong about something, compounded by the fact that you know everyone’s going to find out you were wrong. Worse still, Paul received a special revelation that he had actually been hindering Our Lord’s mission and not really embracing the mission Our Lord had sown in his heart. Paul sees his mission of being an apostle as a great work of Our Lord’s grace, not just his own merits.

In today’s Gospel, upon seeing the miraculous catch of fish that makes him go from calling Jesus “Master” to calling him “Lord,” Peter acknowledges his sinfulness and unworthiness for what Our Lord is asking him. Throughout the Gospel we see faith and fear mixed in the man who would become, after Jesus’ Resurrection, the leader of the Apostles and the vicar of Christ on earth. After a long night of fishing an itinerant rabbi asks to use his boat and take advantage of the natural acoustics of being out on the water, also giving his listeners a better view. Was Peter hoping Jesus would give him something? Was he performing an act of charity? The Gospel account isn’t clear, but he let Our Lord into his boat and, in a certain sense, into his world. As Peter soon found out, Jesus expected something much greater from him. We don’t know if he listened to much of Our Lord’s teaching as he sat in his boat, since he was tired after a long night of fishing, but Jesus encouraged him to cast out the nets and Peter responded with trust, even if maybe he was just humoring him. The amazing catch was a response to Peter in a language he could understand. In that moment he realized Our Lord was asking him for far more than a shuttle service, and that he was not just another itinerant rabbi. Suddenly Peter knew that Our Lord understood his world too. Peter knew his weakness, but Our Lord knew it too. In the end, even though it presented a few more hurdles, Peter’s weakness did not prevent either of them from accomplishing their mission.

Our Lord wants to step into your world, just like he stepped into Peter’s boat. He wants to build the bridge between yours and his. However, he expresses this by way of invitation, and, no matter what your anxiety and concerns, accept his invitation and he will help you succeed. It was not easy for Isaiah, Paul, or Peter either, but it will be more fulfilling than you could have ever imagined possible.

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–2a, 3–8; Psalm 138:1–5, 7–8; 1 Corinthians 15:1–11; Luke 5:1–11. See also 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C22nd Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday and 1st Week in Ordinary Time, Monday.

5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle B

At his Mass of Solemn Inauguration as Pope (April 24th, 2005), Pope Benedict XVI commented on something that the tremendous attendance at Saint John Paul II’s funeral showed the world: the Church is alive, and the Church is young. Our Lord today, describing his relationship to his disciples and his Church, presents us an image of the Church alive and young: a vine.

In today’s First Reading we see that the life of Christ reaches the most unlikely people, just like a vine is difficult sometimes to trace to its trunk: Saul the persecutor through Our Lord became Paul the apostle. Paul being a believer after all the trouble and mayhem he caused among the first Christians was difficult for Christians to believe. What if it was as ruse?

Barnabas, however, had seen the signs that Our Lord was present and active in Paul. “Saul” had undergone a profound conversion in Damascus and his preaching there was just the beginning. After meeting with the apostles he pursued his mission with such zeal that he had to leave Jerusalem or risk death. Through hardships too numerous to list he stayed rooted in Our Lord and, as Paul himself said, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

In today’s Second Reading we’re reminded by Saint John that the decision to stay rooted in Our Lord is ultimately ours, and there is only one way to abide in the vine. John knows from past experience that there are “religious” people who just go through the motions and do not love in “deed and truth.” If we love in deed and truth we know Our Lord will take care of us. John summarizes abiding in Our Lord as believing in him and loving one another. Our Lord doesn’t leave us alone in striving to believe in him and love one another. His Holy Spirit communicates the grace we need to abide in him.

Jesus in the Gospel today invites the disciples, like he invites us, his disciples, to remain in him. Jesus is that true vine, that trunk, from which the Holy Spirit flows and gives us life, as the readings remind us of today. However, just abiding in the vine is not enough. The vine is not just drawing life from the trunk; with its leaves it is gathering life from the sun and with the water to give life to the rest of the vine as well. Which is why Jesus reminds us that the sign of any healthy vine is its fruits. When God sees we’re putting out feelers or heading in fruitless directions, he nips those feelers in the bud. That can hurt, but, just like a doctor poking and prodding at what ails us, it is a necessary pain.

The life of Christ reached Paul in an unexpected way, but it didn’t stop with him. It transformed the zeal of a persecutor into the zeal of an apostle. Paul knew Our Lord wanted him to go out and help the life of Christ reach others. As he said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Woe to us as well if we do not preach the Gospel. A vine spreads through its branches and the Heavenly Father, as today’s Gospel reminds us, expects us to bear fruit in his Son. Ask yourself today whether you are sharing the Gospel with anyone.

Readings: Acts 9:26–31; Psalm 22:26–28, 30–32; 1 John 3:18–24; John 15:1–8.


5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B

We’re a week away from Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, and in today’s Gospel you can feel the tension in the air, both on Heaven and on earth. The Gospel starts with a simple request to see Jesus, but, by the end, Heaven and earth are crying out about what’s about to happen, something that we will remember in the liturgy in a special way next week: the Passion of the Lord, and our Redemption.

Heaven and earth are exulting today because the Lord’s wish expressed in today’s First Reading is about to become a reality. The Lord wants to go beyond just being a legislator in our lives of a Law. It is for our good, but that Law seems to too strict, too hard, too impersonal to keep. The Law is how the Lord tried to stay in the lives of his people Israel for thousands of years, and, as he laments, they broke it over and over in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as a good Father he had to be strict with them so that they’d keep trying, since the Law was the way they could be re-united with him.

The Lord wants to write that Law on our hearts because once written there it cannot be erased: when we go against our conscience, that Law in our hearts keeps reminding us that we should have done something different in our lives. When we break that Law it not only puts distances and barriers between God and us, but all of humanity is kept away from him due to our lack of love. Jesus taught us that we should build our lives on two fundamental commandments from which all others flow: to love God above all else, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. All God really asks for is love, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable, considering all the love he has shown us, but, despite all that love he’s shown us, we still treat him many times like a cold-hearted legislator bogging us down with rules and regulations. In our lives we know there’s no substitute for God’s love. We can’t even find it just by loving ourselves. His Law, written in our hearts, shows us how incomplete we are when we don’t have his love and don’t share his love with others.

By the time we come to the moment in Jesus’ life that is recalled in the Gospel today, there’s a big void of love that everyone is feeling, but that no one can fill. It’s a void that’s begun and grown since the Fall of Adam and Eve. It’s caused by our sins, which put distance between us, God, and others. Our Lord was sent to bridge the gap, fill the void, and enable us to love the Father again and be re-united with him, but that comes with a price, a price about which Jesus today is “troubled.” In a few weeks, in the garden of Gethsemane, we’ll see him tremble: in his heart, he knows he can fill that void of love by obeying his Father and suffering and dying on the cross to re-unite us with him.

The Second Reading today reminds us that the work of Redemption was not just turning a blind eye to what had happened between us and God: “he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.” Our Lord becomes the grain of wheat that can only bear fruit by dying so that wheat can grow and be made into bread that gives life. He becomes the way for us to return to the Father again, and he stays at our side so that we remain united with him, in good times and bad, until one day we’re re-united with the Father forever.

Jesus’ love for his Father never failed, so, as he finishes his mission on earth, and is drawn back to his Father in Heaven, we must unite ourselves to his love for his Father so that we too can be drawn to Heaven. When we love Jesus, we unite our love to his love for God the Father. It fills us and draws us deeper and deeper into God’s love. When we stay close to Christ, we go where he goes. He takes us with him. Today he reminds us in the Gospel that we stay close to him by serving him and following him, just as he teaches us by his example of serving his Father until death on the cross.

Our Lord shows us in today’s Gospel that there’s a temptation to just focus on our personal salvation alone and put a big limit on our love. He says in the Gospel today, “where I am, there also will my servant be.” If everyone needs to draw nearer to Christ, so that Christ can lead them and draw them into the love of God, he counts on us, by serving him, to make him seen by others who are not so close to him. The Greeks wanted to see Jesus, but they didn’t, and couldn’t, go to him on their own. They went to people they knew were closer to him: Phillip and Andrew. Jesus founded a Church that serves him and follows him and makes him present in the world, even today, so that people can draw closer to him, and be re-united with the Father by remaining united among themselves. We stay close to Christ by staying close to him together as a family through the Church, prayer, the sacraments, and giving good Christian witness. That shines out to others and becomes a force of attraction so that they can start drawing close to Christ through us, drawing closer to the Father in the process. Examine yourself this week and consider whether the limits of your love might be putting limits on Our Lord’s. He wants us to help him.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34; Psalm 51:3–4, 12–15; Hebrews 5:7–9; John 12:20–33.

5th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday, Year II

Today’s First Reading recalls a division between the Northern and Southern Kingdom, a division of the people of Israel after King Solomon’s passing due to a dispute about taxation between Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam, and the king of the new Northern Kingdom, Jehoboam. The Lord told Rehoboam when he tried to intervene militarily and force reunification that the Lord had willed the division, a punishment due to King Solomon’s infidelity.

Jehoboam has received a mandate from the Lord. However, he does not trust the Lord, and is worried that the people will seek to reunite with Rehoboam because they still must go to Jerusalem on pilgrimage to worship at the splendid Temple David had commissioned and Solomon had finished. He decides to establish new places of pilgrimage and worship in his territory, but also to abandon the worship of the Lord in those places. Therefore, as today’s account concludes, Jehoboam’s lineage, initially sanctioned by the Lord, will end, due to his iniquity: he led his entire people into idolatry for political motives.

Our Lord when pressed about taxation said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s (see Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21, Luke 20:25). Let’s learn today from Jehoboam’s fate to never try to use religion or God to serve our own selfish interests.

Readings: 1 Kings 12:26–32, 13:33–34; Psalm 106:6–7b, 19–22; Mark 8:1–10. See also 1st Week of Advent, Wednesday and 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.