Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Two Movements of the Christian Life

Read Timothy 1:8-10

“For God has saved us, and given us a holy vocation.” Thus does Saint Paul present Christian life.

First, we are saved. That is to say we discover God’s love for us. Such a discovery sets us free from fear, liberates us from all those needs that lead us to choose evil. In salvation, we discover life not as a trial to be endured but as a gift to be opened.

Then, we are sent. That is to say we discover God’s mission for us, our vocation. God invites us to collaborate in the realisation of his loving plan for humanity. It is not enough that we should be the passive subjects of his love, God wants us to be active players, involved with God in bringing about the Kingdom of justice, peace and joy.

We must not forget this: vocation flows out of salvations, not vice versa. We are not saved because we follow Christ; rather, we follow Christ because we are saved. For example, I do not attend Mass on Sundays “so that” God will love me; rather, I attend Mass on Sundays “because” God loves me. In this slight change of perspective lies all the beauty of Christian life. All of its challenge, too.

In the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches, we find three sacraments of initiation : baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.

Baptism is the sacrament of salvation. It is the sacred ritual through which we are plunged into the death of Christ in order to live with him forever. We become brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of the one Father. Our hearts are opened to his love.

Confirmation is the sacrament of vocation. It is the sacred ritual through which we are anointed by the Spirit, sent with Christ to bring the Good News to others by what we do, by what we say, by what we are.

The Eucharist – Mass – continually takes up these two movements: we taste God’s love and then are sent to share that love in the world. That is why we say the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission.

One must breathe to stay alive. Breathing means not only taking air into our lungs, but also blowing that air back out into space. Both movements are essential. It is the same with Christian life: we must welcome God’s love in our hearts and then send it back into the world.

Every seven days, Sunday Mass gives us the time to breathe deeply and to rediscover that, indeed, “God has saved us” and “has given us a holy vocation.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Cosmic Struggle

Read Romans 5 : 12-19

This first Sunday of Lent presents us with one of the central texts in all of Paul’s writings. In this passage of his letter to the Romans, Paul describes the cosmic battle between good and evil, Jesus representing the forces of good and Adam, those of evil.

It reminds me a bit of Star Wars, that famous series of films where the universe is represented as being sustained by a “force” which itself is composed of a luminous aspect and a “dark side.” Luke Skywalker, the hero of these films, must avoid giving in to the dark side of this “force” the way his father did. He must choose between these two aspects of the “force.”

This can be compared to the Christian understanding of God. Like the “force” in the movie, the God of Jesus-Christ sustains the universe with power. The cosmos is born out of the almighty will of God. But there are at least two major differences between the “force” of these fictitious films and the reality of God. First, God is not an impersonal “force,” but a loving strength, a compassionate presence. The “force” doesn’t care. God does. And – what is equally important to remember – there is no “dark side” to God. As Paul teaches us, God is nothing but light, mercy, love. It is in turning away from God, in rejecting his loving power, that we plunge ourselves into darkness and death.

This is what Adam did, according to the story that opens the Bible. By turning away from God, he plunged himself into darkness with all his descendants. He inaugurated a cycle of violence that, since that beginning, has characterized human history, a history in which we are all involved from the moment of our births. Adam’s refusal of God encompasses and represents all the refusals that will follow, including our own.

Yet, in the face of these refusals, the inexhaustible love and mercy of the One who holds the whole world in his hands endures. God sent his Son to reverse the cycle of violence inaugurated by Adam. This violence, this evil that weaves its dark veil over human history, cannot stand before the luminous presence of Christ. As Saint Paul says, “there is no comparison between the free gift of God and the fault.” Indeed, the gift of God overtakes the fault, forgives it, erases it, overcomes its deathly effect.

It remains for us to choose with whom we shall stand : with Adam, our proud, rebellious, sinful grand-father? Or with Jesus, our obedient, faithful, loving big brother? Unlike Luke Skywalker, we are not abandoned to ourselves in making this choice. God himself reaches out to us, giving us his Spirit, the power we need to choose life. During these fourty days, let us open our hearts to the Spirit, let us choose to live with Christ. This is my prayer for us all as we start Lent. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Night and Day

Read Romans 13:11-14

There used to be a time when the only light available at night came from candles or oil lamps. Night-time then was full of mysterious, threatening airs. When I was a member of the Scouts, I used to go camping in the forest. Gathered around the campfire, we felt fine. But as soon as we moved away, the gathering darkness scared us. We were happy to have companions under the tent. Once, I had to sleep all alone and it sure took me a while to fall asleep.

Such night-time is a time of terrible loneliness. Unable to see beyond the radius of the light from the candle, I feel the world closing in on itself, reducing itself to the limit of my eyesight. I feel isolated, alone, cut off from everyone. The world consists only of my thoughts, my feelings, my fantasies, my passions… I become the centre of my world.

Such night-time is a time of criminal activity. Darkness hides all kinds of vices and violence. Since none can see what others are doing, all feel free to do things they would never do in the light of the day. Nothing, no one is there to put a limit on my passions. It’s the time for armed robbery, for arson, for murder. Once the sun has gone down, no one goes out alone.

Such-night time is full of lies. Pleasure is promised, yet joy is slain. Power is promised, but vitality is sapped. The world is promised, but all is lost. We wake up sad, tired and alone.

Such night-time is symbolic of a way of being which, in fact, impedes us from truly being. Saint Paul tells us that Christ came to take us out of this night of strange and frightening dreams. Christ is the light that shines in the depth of night, the One who carries light to the heart of darkness, so that our eyes might be open to reality and help us see, right next to us, those brothers and sisters who stand with open arms.

Such night-time must be left behind. We are called to believe in the dawn, to walk towards the day, to live under the sun. During these first weeks of Advent, let us contemplate each little coloured light that shines in our trees and around our houses. Let us see in them a reminder, a sign of this great truth: Christ came to free us from darkness and make us live in the light. Let us journey towards Christmas as we walk into the light of day.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

From one friend to another

Read II Thessalonians 2:16 to 3:5

As I read last Sunday's excerpt of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, I imagined a man writing a letter to a good friend who was going through a rough time. The two men share the Christian faith, and it is in that context that the first writes the following words to the second.

"My dear friend, I’m so sorry to hear about your problems. I’d give an arm and a leg to be with you, to help and support you. But you know that, even if I can’t be there, the Lord is with you, at your side. Remember, He’s never let you down through any hard times in the past. On the contrary, the Lord has always been a source of hope and comfort for you. I know that, once again, He will give you the courage you need and the wisdom to choose the right words to say, the correct actions to take.

"You know, I’m finding life rather difficult myself, these days. It seems that a lot of obstacles have arisen in my path. I’d love to be able to share with everyone the love and joy God has put in my heart, but not everyone is open to that, as you well know…

 "Yet, I have hope. Sometimes, I stop and think of Jesus and how he endured all the trials of life, even the trial of rejection and torture and death on the cross. He never gave up. He endured to the end. Believe me, my friend, he will help us do the same!

"I know what a good heart you have. I know all your strengths and your abilities. I believe in you. Even more, I believe in the Spirit of Jesus abiding in you. My prayer is that the Lord will lead you closer to him through this time of trial. The Lord can use even obstacles and failures to help us grow in love.

"You know that, in his resurrection, Jesus destroyed the power of death. You know that his victory over evil is complete, even if it doesn’t seem so right now. One day, we will see his glory. Knowing that already gives us patience, courage and strength to endure.

"So, my man, don’t let go! I’ll be with you in my prayer. The Lord will be with you in his love!"

I think that is what Paul was trying to tell the Thessalonians two thousand years ago. And that’s what I want to tell you today, you who know trials and tribulations. Have faith, for God is faithful. The Lord will lead you to life in abundance.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Living in the present moment

Read II Thessalonicians 1:11 to 2:2

"Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again." At each celebration of Mass, the entire congregation proclaims its faith in these words, where past, present and future come together: in the past, Jesus lived, taught, healed, gave his life for us on the cross; in the present, he is risen, reigning in heaven whence he sends the Spirit to abide in our hearts; in the future, he will return in the glory of the Kingdom.

Christians live the present with intensity, for they are deeply involved in it. The memory of Christ’s love commands this involvement, for they seek to follow in his steps and imitate his love. The proclamation of his return energizes this involvement, for they know that, in the end, love will have conquered hatred, life will have triumphed over death. Faith in the past and hope for the future nourish love in the present.

Yet, a problem can arise when we seek refuge in the past, idealize the “good ol’ days”, lose ourselves in dreams and memories. In today’s lesson, Paul invites his readers to commit themselves to action in the present, to activate the grace which has been given to them, to shine with God’s glory in their daily lives.

A second problem can occur when we become entranced with the future, obsessively seeking signs of Christ’s return, sinking in imagination and fantasies. Paul invites the same readers to become neither foolish nor fearful. He invites them to allow their hope to nourish their daily faithfulness, rather than seeking to escape the present moment.

True Christian faith is a faith that is involved in today’s world. Nourished by the living memory of Jesus and by the hope of his glorious return, this faith neither seeks refuge in the past nor escape in the future. It is in the here and now of daily life that Christian faith develops and is expressed. The person I need to love is at my side, near me. The work I must accomplish is right there, before my eyes. The world to be transformed is the world I read about in the daily news.

A volunteer welcomes a pilgrim on the road to Compostella
Temptation awaits us, as it did the Thessalo-nicians. Let us neither regret the past, nor lose our-selves in fantasies about the future. Let us open our eyes on today’s world, the world where the Lord waits for us and journeys with us. 

Nothing is more realist than Christian faith.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

God would like a word with you

Read 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4 :2

Today’s passage presents a beautiful meditation on the importance of the Bible in Christian life. Even if Paul only refers to the Hebrew Scriptures – the New Testament was not yet finished at the time of the writing of this letter to Timothy – his reflection is valid for all the books of the Bible which we know today. What does Paul have to say?

First, that the texts of the Bible can lead to wisdom. Reading and studying the Bible can help us understand the deep meaning of the events which make up our lives. We find in these texts a wisdom that was accumulated over the course of a thousand years, a wisdom that even modern technology and science cannot surpass, for it is a wisdom rooted in God’s own Spirit.

Secondly, Paul reminds us that this wisdom can lead to faith. The Bible does not only present ideas: it narrates events, it introduces us to people, it helps us meet Jesus. Through these events, God has acted. Through these people, God has spoken. In Jesus, God has given God’s own self to us. To meet Jesus in the reading of Scripture is to open oneself to the gift of faith and to know salvation.

Paul says that the Biblical texts are inspired by God. Such an affirmation is difficult to accept for those who do not believe in Jesus. It is only from a believing perspective that one can recognize the divine inspiration which animates these texts. Is it not so for a love letter? Only lovers can truly sense the deep spirit which sustains such a letter. So is it with the Bible: those who welcome the love of God in their lives recognize the true author of these biblical texts.

Finally, Paul reminds Timothy that he must use the Bible not only to sustain his own faith, but to help other men and women come to that faith. One must pass from an inward motion, where the Word is welcomed, to an outward motion, where the Word is proclaimed. Indeed, it is only when one has started sharing with others his or her understanding of the Bible that these texts truly become alive for that person. In speaking our faith, our faith becomes even more real and vibrant.

Reading these few lines, we see how Paul understands the Bible: for him, it is the very Word of God. May it also be so for us.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

An encouraging Word

When I was a child, we only sang in Latin at Mass. As I grew older, things changed and we began to sing in French. One of the first songs I remember was Lucien Deiss: "Souviens-toi de Jésus-Christ", sung in English with the words: "Keep in mind that Jesus-Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead; He is our saving Lord, He is joy for all ages." The long ascending melody and broad rhythm reflected well the solemnity of this profession of faith, the Gospel summed up in one sentence.

Many years later, I discovered that today's reading is the source of Father Deiss's text. To fully grasp its meaning , we must remember its context. Paul, in prison, writes to his young friend Timothy to encourage him in his ministry as head of a Christian community. Timothy must find it difficult, and Paul acknowledges this. He compares Timothy in turn to a soldier, to an athlete and to a farmer who must all give of themselves if they want to reap the desired fruit .

Paul himself has spent himself thoroughly. He refers to the profession of faith that he just quoted, explaining that it is the reason he is in prison. In spite of this, he affirms with remarkable energy that Word of God itself cannot be chained! This Word is the source of his courage, his determination, his perseverance. Even from prison, he proclaims time and time against this extraordinary news: in Jesus, God loved us unto death... so that we might all live!

Paul concludes this passage by quoting a hymn that would have been sung in the early Christian communities. Timothy himself had to know it, but Paul reminds him of the words to encourage him. "If we die with Christ, we shall live with him..." Paul had already taught this in his letter to the Romans: in baptism we die to sin and to ourselves, we are buried with Jesus in order to rise with him. "If we suffer with Christ, we shall reign with him..." What we have experienced in baptism should now mark our everyday lives. We must be willing to suffer for the love of others if we wish to participate in God's Kingdom of justice, peace and joy.

The song then warns: "If we deny him, he also will deny us." To deny Christ is to refuse to stay the course in perseverance. I've just read in a novel, "To deny, to reject, to spit out of one's mouth, this is the act of embittered bullies, guys who want to believe they are self-made and that no one came before them." How can Christ keep us with him if we run away from him this way?

But the hymn ends with a reminder of the possibility of forgiveness and return: "Even if we lack faith in Him, Christ will not fail to keep faith with us: he is ever faithful to his promises." Such is the final word ; God's faithfulness in Jesus who forgives all our wrongs, lifts us up from all our sins , brings forth light even in the darkest night.

This reading is like a balm for anyone who is faced with trials and difficulties. It invites us to reach out, to trust, to try once again. Paul's words, written from his prison in Rome in the year 60, still resonate today in our hearts, two thousand years later.