Saturday, December 1, 2012

A saint, me?

Read I Thessalonians 3:12 – 4:2

When I was a child, I imagined sainthood to consist in some type of moral perfection. Saints, as they were presented to me, were men and women who had managed to avoid all sin, to live in perpetual prayer, to attain the pinnacle of all virtues. It seemed to me that being a saint was a heroic achievement that required immense sacrifice. I admired the saints, but I found them distant, nearly inhuman. Never would I have imagined myself being capable of such holiness.

Yet, Saint Paul tells us in today’s reading that we are all called to “blameless holiness” before God as we wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Are we being called to an impossible degree of moral perfection? Are we condemned to fail in a project that is beyond our capabilities?

It seems to me that the problem lies in a mistaken notion of holiness. We have developed a wrong idea of what it means to be a saint. Saint Paul himself puts us on the right track when he forwards his call to holiness with these words: “May the Lord give you a love which is evermore intense and overflowing.”

In other words, our degree of holiness does not depend on our moral perfection, but on the depth of our love. The more we love, the holier we are. Since God is love, we must conclude that God is truly the Holy One. This is why at Mass we acclaim God with the words from the book of Isaiah: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of hosts.”

Inasmuch as we are open to God’s love, inasmuch as we allow God’s love to flow through us out to others, we are saints. Holiness is the outward radiance of the love which is within us. Holiness is the exterior manifestation of an interior attitude, an attitude that is made up of equal parts of compassion, tenderness and care.

Yes indeed, we are all called to holiness, to be saints, since we are all made for love.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Deciphering the Book of Revelation

Read Revelation 1:5-8

The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, is intriguing because of its imagery and use of symbols, dreams, numbers and mysterious characters. For two millennia, readers have tried to decipher clues to the future in this book, especially regarding the end times. Contemporary Catholic theology, however, focuses on the meaning of this text for its first readers, at the end of the first century. These early Christians were experiencing intense persecution under the Roman Empire and were tempted to abandon their new found faith in Jesus Christ in order to save their lives. The author of the Book of Revelation invites them to be faithful, even unto death.

The first verses we read this Sunday should be understood in that light. First, the author gives three titles to Jesus. He is called “the faithful witness”, since Jesus was indeed faithful to the end. His disciples must learn to imitate his fidelity on the Cross. The author also calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead”. Because of his resurrection, Jesus who was dead is now alive. Calling him “the first-born”, implies that those who die with Jesus will live with him beyond death. Finally, Jesus receives the title “king of the kings of the earth”. Early Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperor who claimed to be the sovereign of the earth. The Book of Revelation dares to proclaim Jesus’ sovereignty even over the Roman emperor. Christ's power exceeds that of Nero. Christians are called, therefore, to trust in the ultimate victory of Christ.

The text continues by recalling what Jesus has done for us. In delivering us from our sin, he makes of us “a kingdom and priests for his God and Father”. Nero claimed to be both king and high priest of his empire. But in Jesus, all believers are priests and kings. They share the kingship of Christ and participate in his ministry of reconciliation. Nero’s titles should have no value in the eyes of believers.

Finally, the author proclaims the coming of Christ in glory. He will come “from the clouds” – a sign of his true divinity over and against the false gods that the Roman emperor worshipped. When he comes, “all men will see... and all the tribes of the earth mourn”, because they will finally understand that they had rejected the true God of the universe.

All this leads to the conclusion, placed in the mouth of the risen Christ appearing in a dream: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, omega is the last. This means that Christ embraces all reality: he is the master of the whole story from the beginning to the end.

The Book of Revelation does not “reveal” hidden information about the end of time, but rather the meaning of the present moment. It nourishes the great hope that abides in the Christian heart. Tortured in Roman prisons, mangled by lions in arenas, crucified by the dozen along open roads, the first Christians gave up their lives in the hands of Jesus because they truly believed he had opened the path to true glory. Two thousand years later, this message of hope continues to resonate in our ears and in our hearts.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Word before the text

Read I Thessalonians 2:7-13

When hearing the expression “The Word of God,” one often thinks of the Bible, of the written text we call the Sacred Scriptures. This is quite normal, but it is good to remember that this “Word” existed before any text was written. The last verse of today’s reading reminds us of this fact.

Paul praises the Thessalonians because they have received his teaching not as a “human word” but as the “Word of God.” Yet Paul had no text to show them at that time. In fact, this letter to the Thessalonians is the first text of what would eventually become the New Testament. During the following years, new texts would be added: Paul’s other letters, and letters from other Apostles, as well as the writings of the four Evangelists, the story of the Acts of the Apostles, and John’s vision which we call the Book of Revelation. Yet before any of these texts were written, Paul was proclaiming the Word of God.

To what then is he referring? He is referring to the stories the other Apostles have taught him and to his own conversion experience when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. That is the content of his preaching and teaching. The stories about Jesus that are being shared, the reflection of the young Christian community as it gathers to pray and celebrate the Lord, this is what makes up the Word of God before the New Testament was written. The Church, God’s own people, is the cradle in which was born the New Testament.

If the Church gave birth to the Scriptures, it is normal that the Church also be the place where this text is proclaimed, studied and prayed. This is not to say that one shouldn’t read the Bible alone. But it reminds us that, even when we do read it alone, the community which gave birth to the text remains the community of understanding and interpretation which can hand it on in faithfulness.

My grandmother had a box of photographs. When we opened this box, we wanted her near us, for she alone knew the stories “behind” the pictures: she could name the people in the pictures and explain their meaning. Pictures are like footprints left by people and events that, though they belong to the past, still have an impact on our lives today.

The Bible is like a box of pictures giving witness to the great adventure we call Salvation history; and the Church is like my grandmother who took the pictures, who understands their meaning, who uses them to help us enter into the living story of wonderful characters, the first of which is the Lord Jesus himself.

Believing in the “Word of God” is more than recognizing the truth of a text. It means entering into the living history which the text is telling, in communion with the Church which gave it birth.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Priests of Jesus-Christ

Read Hebrews 5:1-6

This week, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews considers the priests of the Old Testament. We should know that these men had one main task, offering up sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem on behalf of those who belonged to the people of Israel. To be a priest, one had to be the son of a priest, a descendant of the first priest Aaron, brother of Moses. Sons of priests had no say in the matter, they had to accept their prescribed tasks. There were therefore many priests in Israel, which meant they had to take their turn in serving at the Temple, usually two weeks a year. The remainder of the year, they had to earn their living as any other person would.

In many fundamental ways, the priesthood of the New Testament is radically different from that of the Old Testament. A first difference: in Christ, the whole people is priestly, each baptized person participating in the priesthood of Christ. Yet, certain members of the Church participate in Christ’s ministry to his people in a particular way. In Christ, and with Christ, they offer themselves for the service of leadership, guiding the life and the prayer of God’s people, presiding at the sacraments of Christ, animating the whole activity of the Church.

Yet they are not unlike the priests of the Old Testament: they are ordinary men, sharing the weaknesses and needs of all other members of God’s people. They are not there because their fathers were priests, but because they felt a pressing invitation from God in the depth of their hearts. This call is not for them a matter of pride, for it is a call to humble service.

Not so long ago, priests were put on pedestals, they were treated with kid gloves. They were considered superior to ordinary people, perhaps because of their many years of study, or the authority that was given them over the community, or their commitment to celibacy. Yet, these men are quite human. They have both qualities and faults, both strengths and weaknesses. With all the other members of God’s people, they start each Mass by asking forgiveness for their sins. They need God’s mercy and grace as much as everybody else.

It is only in being deeply united to Christ that they can ensure the service of leadership in the heart of the Church with compassion and humility. With Christ, they give their lives for the Church. With Christ, they become servants of all.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Are you an individual or a person?

Read Ephesians 4: 1-6

The mystery of God has always confounded the human mind. We cannot lift ourselves up to the level where we could adequately speak of God, even less explain God away. We babble, we stammer, we seek the least incorrect concepts and words to speak of the mystery which surrounds us and confounds us.

During the first centuries, Christians tried to find such concepts and words to speak of the new way of experiencing and understanding God that Jesus had brought about. One of those concepts was that of “personhood.” The bishops gathered at the Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of the Father, the Son and the Spirit as three “persons” in one God.

It’s interesting that we don’t speak of three “individuals” in God. Individuality resonates with notions of self-affirmation, autonomy, identity over and against others. Becoming an individual means standing out in the crowd, not going with the flow, being oneself no matter how that might grate on others. The “rugged individualism” of westerns evokes images of lonesome cowboys conquering adversity and enemies to establish themselves as men to be reckoned with.

The concept of personhood is quite different. Becoming a person means finding oneself in relationship with others. The human person, fully alive, is part of a community; stands with others, not against them; realizes that fulfillment cannot be achieved at another’s expense.

To speak of three persons in God is to speak of the source of all being as community, relationship and, ultimately, love. And to consider human beings as created in God’s image is to understand human beings as destined not for individualism, but for personhood.

In today’s excerpt from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s being which lies at the heart of the Christian faith: God as Father, Lord (Son) and Spirit. And he teases out this consideration: that if our God is involved in loving relationship since before the beginning of time, then we ourselves who believe in this God must strive to live similar relationships among ourselves. There is an inner dynamism in the Christian life which impels us to proclaim one faith, to celebrate one baptism, to share the same hope. And this dynamism yearns to flower in the humility, kindness, patience and love with which we are called to relate to one another.

We do not lose our personality in this process. Unity is not fusion. But our personality is shaped by the relationships that bind us one to another. As with God, so with us. Let us therefore endeavour to reflect in our love for one another the love which lies at the heart of God.

Friday, July 20, 2012

He has abolished the wall of hatred

Read Ephesians 2:13-18

In Jesus’ time, many people of Greek culture were interested in Judaism. They were attracted by the belief in a unique, transcendent God, as opposed to the multiplicity of Greek gods who often seemed more childish than ordinary men and women. The moral code of Judaism also appealed to them, seemingly more dignified and down to earth than what could be found in the writings of various Greek philosophers. They also admired the simple liturgy of the synagogue, centred on Scripture and prayer: this meant more to them than the many bloody sacrifices offered in the innumerable temples dispersed throughout the Roman empire. Yet, one thing stopped them from becoming Jews: the many ritual rules that would have made it difficult for them to live their lives in their own culture. One rule in particular was repugnant to adult men: the obligation of circumcision.

Saint Paul was convinced that salvation did not come from obedience to these ritual norms, but from faith in Christ, died and risen for us. This is why Christianity did not retain these rules. On the other hand, Christianity did maintain faith in a unique God, as well as the moral code of Judaism. Its liturgy was also inspired by the synagogue. Consequently, what attracted the Greeks to Judaism was found in the early Church, though reinterpreted in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, what had impeded them from joining the Jewish religion, particularly circumcision, was not kept by the early Church. This explains the great attraction of Christianity for people of Greek culture.

Paul saw this new situation as a result of the coming of God’s own Son into the world. Greeks and Jews would now be able to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in a common faith in Christ. This explains today’s text where Paul writes that Christ has abolished “the wall of hatred” which separated the Greeks from the Jews. Greeks, who were “far” from the Covenant, and Jews who were “close” to it, now found themselves reconciled into one body, one spirit thanks to Christ.

Unfortunately, the peace of which Paul dreamed was never fully realized. Certainly, some Jews and some Greeks were united in a common faith in Christ, but not all. Christians were excluded from the synagogues, Jews were persecuted by Christians. Greeks mocked the new faith, and Christians destroyed Greek temples. Paul could not even consider the great religious traditions of India or Persia or China, which were unknown to him, even less the animist worlds of Africa or the Americas. Over the centuries, Christians themselves have used their religion to build new “walls of hatred”, entering into religious wars even among themselves.

Yet, Paul’s dream remains a true dream, a good dream. Jesus did indeed want to unite all of humanity into one family, adoring the one God, sharing the same faith. Jesus’ work was a work of peace. And Christians today are challenged to build this peace: by striving for unity among the Churches; by entering into respectful dialogue with other religions; by promoting the dignity of all human persons whatever their culture, their race or their language. Jesus is called “Prince of Peace.” His disciples also must be men and women of peace.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A blessed sacrifice

Read Hebrews 9:11-15

I’m lucky to have to go to Rome once in a while. When I’m there, I make sure to visit a special place: it’s at the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica, on the right hand side. There, behind a large protective window, is Michelangelo’s extraordinary sculpture known as the Pietà.

This masterpiece of classical sculpture eternalizes the moment when, after his death on the cross, Jesus’ body is handed to his mother, Mary. What tenderness, what love shine forth from this work of art. Michelangelo has managed to sculpt a block of stone in such a way that something which touches all hearts has been brought forth. And he has done this with a simple chisel and a hammer.

This transformation of a slab of marble into a work of art can perhaps help us to understand the transformation Jesus himself worked upon the cross. The brute matter of the cross is horrific: a violent death, an assassination, consequence of deathly hatred and complicity of a corrupted political power. Yet Jesus managed to transform this brute matter into an act of mercy, love and forgiveness.

What were his hammer and his chisel? None other than the Holy Spirit. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says in today’s text: “Through the Holy Spirit, Christ offered himself without blemish to God.” It is the power of the Spirit that allowed Jesus to transform his death into a saving act.

When I contemplate the Pietà, I do not concentrate on the marble, but on the masterpiece that it has become. When I contemplate a crucifix or when I listen to the story of Christ’s passion, I do not concentrate on his suffering, which is only brute material: I focus on the loving, saving act it has become.

This, then, is a sacrifice: suffering transformed by love, in love. Every time I accept some pain, great or small, for love of another; every time I offer up some pain because of my love for another; every time I love to the point of suffering, I am offering a sacrifice just as Christ did on the cross. What is important in all of this is not the suffering itself, but the love that transfigures.

At each celebration of Mass, we are confronted with Christ’s sacrificial love for us. This is why we call this liturgy “The Holy Sacrifice of Mass.” The crucified Christ makes himself present to us in this ritual enacted in memory of his death and resurrection. And it is the same eternal Spirit who makes his presence possible.

We don’t have to be transported through time and space to find ourselves in Jerusalem in the year 33. We don’t even have to go to Rome. There is a church, not far from us, where we can gather every Sunday to contemplate this great mystery of love, this masterpiece of the Holy Spirit: Christ dying, so that we might live.