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.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A question of leadership

Read 2 Timothy 1:6-14

Timothy had a special place within the Christian community to which he belonged. He was their leader.

Much is written about leadership today. In most major bookstores, one can find row upon row of books about leadership and management. Seminars and workshops are held from coast to coast in the hope of helping administrators become leaders. As we read this excerpt of the letter to Timothy, we learn a few things about Christian leadership.

First, leadership is not for the leader, but for the community. Timothy’s leadership is a gift to others, not a status that he seeks for himself. His leadership is not meant to build himself up, but to build up others. It is a service.

If Christian leadership is a gift for others, it is also a gift from God. This is clear from the ritual laying on of hands: leadership is received as a mission, as a consecration, as an affirmation. And though it is other leaders who lay their hands on Timothy’s head, it is the Spirit of God that is active through this physical gesture, confirming and strengthening Timothy for his ministry in the community.

Yet, leadership is not acquired once and for all. It must continually be developed, renewed, revitalized. “Rekindle the gift that is within you,” the author urges Timothy. And so all Christian leaders must strive to return to the source of their leadership, never taking for granted their call, nor their capacity to answer that call.

Christian leadership models itself on the leadership of Christ himself, accepting to suffer with Christ for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The Christian leader is motivated by love, and true love always entails suffering, for the lover must die to himself or herself in order to bring life to others. Though leadership in the Church gives much joy and happiness, it cannot avoid the refinery of sacrifice and dying to oneself.

The Spirit active in the leader banishes fear and stirs up dynamism, love, self-discipline. A Christian leader can only exercise true leadership in the Spirit. Turning to the Spirit in prayer, opening oneself to the Spirit in liturgy, listening to the Spirit in discernment, acting in the power of the Spirit: this is what it means to be a Christian leader.

Christians are called to exercise leadership in the world. Their leadership will truly be fruitful if they remember Timothy and the recommendations he received.

Some are called to exercise leadership in the Church itself. This is an awe-inspiring call, a challenge that not many can take up without trepidation and humility. Yet do not be afraid if this is your call. For the Spirit active in you will help you answer this call and provide the Church with a great and beautiful service: the service of leadership.

On pilgrimage with the bishops of Panama a couple of years ago

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Does hell exist?

Read I Timothy 2:1-7

One of my theology teachers once asked me during an oral exam: “Does God want everyone to be saved? Or does God want some to be saved and some to be damned?” I spontaneously responded: “God wants everyone to be saved.” He then asked: “Is that in the Bible?” I said that I thought it was. “Where?” he asked.

So I proceeded to speak of the promise of salvation made to Adam and Eve, and argued that since Adam and Eve represented all of humanity, then that promise is for all people. And what God promises is God’s will. My teacher said: “There’s a clearer answer than that.”

So I spoke about the fact that, in Abraham, all nations are blessed. And since all nations includes all people, then all people fall under God’s blessing. So God must want all people to be saved. My teacher said: “There’s a clearer answer than that.”

So I described the evolution in the thought of the prophets who, over the centuries, moved towards a universalist perspective in their understanding of God, culminating with the prophet Isaiah who saw Israël as being sent to the nations so that the nations would be converted. So God must want all people to be converted and be saved. My teacher said: “There’s a clearer answer than that.”

So I recalled Christ’s words on the night before he died, when he said a blessing over the cup, announcing that his death would seal a new covenant in which his blood would be poured for the forgiveness of the sins “of the multitude”, which is a semitic expression meaning “of all.” So Jesus’ death on the cross was for all people, and God therefore wants all people to be saved. And my teacher said: “There’a a clearer answer than that.”

And I finally gave in, admitted my ignorance, and asked him “Where?” And he pointed to the text we are reading today, 1 Timothy 2:3: “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved.” And I agreed, there couldn’t be an answer much clearer than that!

So it is not part of God’s plan that anyone be damned. Hell is not part of God’s plan. Hell is a human invention, a consequence of people’s refusal to accept God’s plan of salvation for them. We start creating hells around us when we turn away from God, when we close in on our own petty lives in selfishness and pride. We start preparing for ourselves an everlasting hell when we choose this turning away, this closing in, as our ultimate way of being. And this everlasting hell is pure loneliness, ultimate aloneness.

This is not God’s will for us. It is not God’s will for any of us. And, deep down, it is not our will for ourselves. So let us open ourselves to God’s will, now, today, and for always. For God wants nothing less than each man’s and each woman’s happiness, both now and for eternity.

Holy Cross Fathers' Retreat, Lac Simon

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Truly spectacular!

Read Hebrews 12:18-24

We love spectacle. Bright lights, vibrant sounds, strong emotions, velocity, action. I remember my first visit to a carnival: the speed of the rides, the noise and rush of the music, the voices calling out for our attention, the bitter-sweet taste of the candied apples. And I remember seeing Niagara Falls for the first time: the overwhelming flow of water cascading over the cliffs, the deafening roar of the water as it plummeted down to what seemed a huge cauldron of swirling whitecaps and mist. Yes, we love spectacle.

And we seek it out. We want our parties to be bold, brash and boisterous. We want our movies to be loud and lively. We want our cars to shine, our gardens to glisten, our clothes to flash. Our civilization seems to be built on spectacle. We seem to come alive when our senses our overwhelmed, overcharged and bedazzled.

Yet, the most important things in life seem to be the quietest and humblest of all. We can be touched — more deeply than we care to admit — by a sleeping baby, by a starry night, by a quiet lake. In the simplicity of a touch, the depth of love can be shared. A simple rose can best express sympathy in face of tragedy. A song by a campfire can make us touch eternity.

Spectacle pulls us away from ourselves. It seems as if the sounds and sights and tastes and sensations, as they rush in on us, need to make space for themselves within us... and they do this by shoving and casting aside the core of who we are. We are not only invaded by the spectacle, we lose ourselves in it. We cease to be. Only the spectacle remains.

Perhaps this is why we love spectacle so much: we are not aware of the awesome mystery that abides within our very selves. We do not mind losing the core of who we are, for we do not know the value of that core, what the ancients called the “soul.”

Yet, is it not from the soul that love arises, that thought is shaped, that imagination takes flight? And is it not in the soul that we encounter, not only ourselves, but the God who shaped us and gave us life?

In today’s lesson, the author of the letter to the Hebrews recognizes that, in coming to know God in Jesus Christ, there is not much that is spectacular. No fiery mountain or violent storm or vibrant music, no voice to make us shudder and tremble. There is only the silence of the Cross on a lonely hill on a Friday afternoon. There is only the quietness of an empty tomb. There is only the fleeting breeze of the Spirit’s presence.

And yet, as we learn to tear ourselves from our need of the spectacular and come to accept the mystery of our souls, we move towards a reality even more awesome than anything we could ever imagine: millions of angels in celebration, an immense crowd of witnesses, the souls of all the just. We move towards the God who gave us life, and the Christ who led us into that life. And what is most astounding, we find our very selves.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Training dogs or raising children?

Read Hebrews 12:5-13

I once watched a man as he trained his dogs. He would reward them when they did well and punish them when they did not. This seemed to work well with his dogs. I suppose it works well with most animals. It probably works to a certain extent even with children. But can it lead boys and girls to maturity and autonomy, to true loving relationships with their parents? Such children might be well-behaved, just like well-trained dogs. But will they discover insight and learn wisdom?

Too many people believe that God is some sort of animal trainer, rewarding good actions and punishing evil ones. Too many people believe that the bad things that happen to them are sent by God either as a punishment or as a warning. Certainly, this is the way many of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures seemed to think. But after the Holocaust of the Second World War in which six million of God’s chosen people were put to death simply because of one man’s hatred, can we still see God this way? What could God have been punishing them for? What warning could God have been giving that needed six million deaths? Many people became atheists when they learned of this horror. They were probably right to stop believing in such a God.

Such a sadistic God is not the God of Jesus Christ. Jesus never spoke of God as a trainer, but as a father. A true parent wants more than well-behaved children. A true parent wants children who have insight and wisdom. A true parent goes beyond punishment and reward, striving instead to teach and to encourage.

One can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a trainer who “corrects” his wayward children by playing on their fears. From such a perspective, one can see poverty as God’s chastisement, or hurricanes as God’s warning, or AIDS as God’s condemnation.

Or one can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a parent who “corrects” his wayward children by taking them aside and speaking to their hearts, enlightening them with his Word, giving them a Spirit of strength so that they can find peace and justice.

Only this second perspective can explain how this passage can end with such words of encouragement: “Give strength to faltering hands; Straighten the path so that the lame will not stumble.” These words speak of a loving, encouraging God. This is a God whose “lessons” we will seek, for we know that, in them, we will find insight and wisdom.

These words also invite us to deal with one another in the same way: not with rewards and punishment, but with support, faithfulness and patience. Perhaps this is the way we also need to deal with our children.

Monday, August 12, 2013

From the indicative flows the imperative

Read Colossians 3:1-11

Studying grammar in elementary school, I learned the difference between the indicative and the imperative moods. The first, as its name suggests, "indicates" the way things are. It is used to describe, to announce, to tell: “You sing. She spoke. He will run away.” The second is used to direct, to order, to compel: “Sing! Speak! Flee!”

Paul’s letters are usually divided into two parts. In the first, Paul teaches, proclaims, explains. This is the indicative mood of Paul’s writing. The second part of his letters gives way to the imperative mood: he commands, ordains, directs. It is important for the readers of Paul’s letters to always remember when they are reading the second part of his letters that they grow out of the first part. His commands and directions are always the consequence of the Good News he has proclaimed in the first part. 

All too often, Christians rush to the second part of the letters. They tend to focus on the does and don’ts of the Christian life. All too often, non-Christians only see in Christianity this list of what to them seem stifling rules and regulations. Yet the heart of the Christian life lies in the Good News to be found in the first part of Paul’s letters. And without this Good News, the moral life to which Christians are called is but an empty shell, at times even a straight-jacket. 

In the first part of his letter to the Colossians, Paul has been teaching his readers that Christ has conquered every power and that they share in that victory. Now, in the second part, he tells them how to live in that victory and freedom. He shows his readers how to grow in the power of Christ and how to tap into that power in order to be freed from all slavery. When we remember the first part of the letter, the second part becomes a joyful invitation to live fully, deeply and freely! 

One note: Paul here contrasts “the things of heaven” with “the things of earth.” We tend to think that Paul is calling us away from “secular” reality to focus on the “sacred.” Such an interpretation does not correspond to Paul's way of thinking. This "secular-sacred" split does not come from him, but from us. And this split tends to devalue the reality of our daily lives, our work and our play, as if only "churchy" things have true value. Yet there is a way of working and playing that make both beautiful, meaningful and sacred. Our daily interactions with others can be full of God’s presence. Of course, they can also lead us away from God: it’s all in the way we approach reality. 

When Paul invites us to “put to death whatever is earthly,” he is not asking us to refrain from earning a living or enjoying the good things of creation or loving others. He is asking us to do this in a way that opens up our daily reality to the power of Christ’s Spirit: this is “setting our minds on things that are above.” Discovering the secret to doing this allows Christ to be “all in all!”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Life: a cruise or a crossing?

Read Hebrews 11:1-19

We do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, nor where the people to whom this letter is addressed actually lived. What is clear is that these people had a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and were probably members of Jewish communities who came to recognize Jesus as Son of God. We also know that they were being persecuted.

This is the context out of which is born one of the more beautiful passages of Scripture. The eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews presents a reflection on the nature of faith, giving us a definition which has withstood the test of time: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The text goes on to illustrate this definition by presenting various individuals from the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) who were known for the depth of their faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Moses and others.

As we read the letter, we realize that the people to whom it was originally written were suffering persecution because of their attachment to Jesus-Christ. The author of the letter goes to great pains to encourage them in perseverance and faithfulness. Reflecting on the example of their ancestors reminds them that they are not alone, that they are not the first to have endured hardships, that they stand in the line of men and women who held on to the truth without wavering.

Many of us count among our ancestors men and women who left their native land to emigrate to a world unknown to them. Leaving all possessions, crossing oceans for an unknown shore, starting over in a land where everything needed to be done, they certainly showed themselves to be possessed of that “assurance of things hoped for,” of that “conviction of things not seen” which Scripture calls faith.

Today, many of us enjoy holidays on cruise ships that go around in a circle, stopping here and there to satisfy our curiosity for things new and unusual. We complain quickly if the service is inadequate, if the food is not to our liking, if the weather does not cooperate. How different is this from the crossing our ancestors made, often in terrible conditions, yet with hope in their hearts. Do we live our lives as if we were on a cruise, simply for the enjoyment of it, quick to curse the difficulties of the day? Or do we understand ourselves to be on a journey, a crossing towards our ultimate home?

Our ancestors' journey towards a new land can be for us a symbol of life itself. For we all journey towards a promised land that has been gained for us through Jesus the Christ. Faith allows us to endure all manner of struggle and trial, for we know that, in the end, all things work out for the good of those who love God. May the faith that emboldened the readers of the letter to the Hebrews shine forth in our own lives still today.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Waters of death and life

Read Colossians 2:6-14

Water is a beautiful and dangerous thing. Without it, we die. And so we fear the desert, drought, thirst. On the other hand, too much water is devastating. And so we fear floods, storms at sea, a tippy canoe. The waters of birth can sometimes become the waters of death.

This two-sided nature of water is present in the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. The Sea of Reeds, when they first came to it, seemed to them an obstacle to their liberty. Yet this obstacle became the very means of freedom as God opened the sea to let the Hebrews pass dry-shod. The sea closed over the Egyptians, becoming for them a tomb. Both life and death can be found in water.

John the Baptist called people to be plunged in water as a sign of their need to be washed from their sins. Like a New Year’s resolution, John’s baptism allowed a person to express his or her desire to die to the past and live for the future, to make a clean break and start over again. We think of the sinner’s prayer in Psalm 51: “Lord, wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin.” And we remember the Lord’s answer in Ezekiel 36: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness… I will put my spirit within you… You shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

For Christians, baptism is even more than the expression of our need for purification and our desire for change. In his letter to the Romans, probably written around the year 57, Paul describes baptism as being plunged into the death of Christ so that, one day, we might rise with him to new life. With Christ, we have died to sin in order that we might live for love, for grace.

In his letter to the Colossians, which most specialists believe was written five years later, Paul’s thought goes even further: our resurrection is already accomplished, because in baptism we have put our faith in the One by whose power Christ was raised. Already, that power, which we know as Christ’s Spirit, is active within us, transforming us into the likeness of Christ, making us sons and daughters of God!

In a very real sense, Christian life is all about catching up with the reality that has already taken hold of us. Baptism is not only something that happened to us in the past, it is an act whose consequences spread out in our daily lives like waves from a rock thrown into a pool. Certainly it is true to say “On such a date in the past was I baptized.” Yet it is perhaps truer to say: “I AM baptized. More today than yesterday. Less today than tomorrow.”

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Into the mystery

Read Colossians 1:24-28

When we really stop to consider what we mean by “God,” our words fall short, our imaginations stumble, our concepts fail. We are like an old pocket calculator which, when faced with a calculation that exceeds its capabilities, flashes “Does not compute.” And so we say that God is a “mystery.” Yet, a mystery is not a problem to be solved, however complex – as if the concept of God was just a more complicated version of the general theory of relativity. Rather, a mystery is a reality so all-encompassing that we never stop discovering its depth or its meaning. We are both fascinated and overwhelmed by the mystery of God. This mystery beckons, it calls us to enter into the darkness in order to discover its light and glory.

This was Saint Paul’s experience. Before his encounter with the risen Christ, his knowledge of God was partial and obscured. In accepting Christ’s suffering for him, in accepting the darkness of the Cross, Paul came to discover the brightness of God’s love not only for him, but for the whole world. This is why the struggles of his ministry are an occasion for him to rejoice: for as he enters more deeply into identification with the suffering Jesus, he discovers more fully the life-giving love of God. This is why he can write these strange but wonderful words: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake as I complete in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s own suffering for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Through the struggles of his ministry, the rejection and suffering he experiences because of his faith, Paul comes to a greater understanding and experience of the depth of God’s own love for all people. This is the “mystery” into which we can all enter, “Christ among us, the hope of glory.” And Paul can only invite us to enter into this mystery ourselves, so that we will all grow into the fullness of this glory. For Paul, this is the great mission in his life, the great task he has accepted and for which he is willing to suffer and die.

People who truly know what it means to love also know that love is often costly and painful. It requires us to die to ourselves in order that others might come to greater life. A parent who suffers for his or her child’s sake; a spouse who gives all in caring for a wife or husband; a social worker who cries over the pains of a broken family; a nurse or doctor who is torn by the ravages of a patient’s disease: all these enter into the dark mystery which, when lived in love, somehow opens up into light. The “mystery” which has been hidden from all times then becomes our meaning and our hope.

Outside of love, the pains and struggles of this life can only drain and empty us. Encompassed by love, they become a way of knowing the mystery of God, of entering that mystery, of being upheld and embraced by that mystery. This was Paul’s experience of Christ. May it also be ours.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

More than a tattoo!

Read Galatians 6, 14-18

For Jews, male circumcision is the essential physical sign of belonging to the Chosen People, a sign permanently inscribed in one's flesh, more radical even than a tattoo. In the story where God establishes his Covenant with Abraham, God himself sets this law for all of the latter's descendants. Religious historians discuss the meaning of circumcision in the ancient Middle East: was it a sign of belonging, a blood sacrifice, a rite of passage? Whatever its meaning, the law of circumcision for Jewish men knew no exception: a male convert to Judaism was to be circumcised.

This was the crux of a serious problem for the early Galatian converts to faith in Jesus Christ. Coming from traditional Greek religions, they knew nothing of the laws of Israel. Saint Paul, who proclaimed the Gospel to them, made them understand that they would not have to bother with these laws since salvation comes from faith in Jesus, Savior of the world. But other disciples of Jesus, who had been raised in Judaism, did not see it that way. For them, Jesus was an observant Jew who had not come to abolish the Law. So in order to follow Jesus, they felt that new converts also had to submit to the Jewish Law. Conclusion: these new Christians had to be circumcised.

For Paul, this issue represented a fundamental conflict between two ways of understanding our relationship with God. Does this relationship depend first on what I do for God, or does it depends primarily on what God is doing for me? For Paul, the answer was clear: God came to us in his son Jesus, God looked upon us in his great love - manifested on the cross - and freed us from the powers of evil by giving us his Spirit. Everything comes from God. All is grace.

According to Paul, belief in circumcision - or any other condition that one would have to meet - as necessary for salvation is a consequence of the pride that wants us to believe that we can save ourselves. Such a belief denies the totally free gift of God's love for us. It implies that the death of Jesus is not the central event in this story of love. It aligns us with the spirit of the "world" rather than with the Spirit of Jesus.

This is why Paul says so forcefully: "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ... For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!"

In this "new creation", the Law is summed up in uncon-ditional love: God's love for us, our love for others. It is because of love that Paul had been stoned and flogged: those were the only "marks" he carried on his body that had any meaning for him.

This same love brought Paul to conclude this abrupt and harsh letter with final words of tenderness for the Galatians: "Brothers," he calls them despite the controversy between them, "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. " To such a prayer for unity beyond conflict, we can only respond sincerely with Paul: " Amen! 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What is freedom?

Read Galatians 5:1,13-18

In these few sentences, Paul presents us with a series of contrasts that we can list: freedom vs. slavery, service vs. selfishness, living vs destroying, guidance in the Spirit vs. the tendencies of the flesh.

He links the second terms in a way that leads to this conclusion: human beings fall into slavery when they let themselves be led by their own selfish tendencies (which Paul identifies with "the flesh"). Such slavery leads inevitably to the dissolution of human community and the destruction of individuals.

Paul suggests that even very religious persons can be slaves to such selfishness. If they use religious practice to stand with pride before God, to try to bend God to their wills, to set themselves up as better than others, then religious practice becomes a spiritual bondage: rigid, alienating and deadly.

However, Paul presents an alternative: freedom. What is freedom to him? It is a life lived in dedicated service to others under the guidance of God's Spirit.

Religion lived in true freedom leads to humble trust in God, seeking God's will in all things, recognizing every human being as a brother or sister who walks with us towards life. The key to such religion is love. "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself"." 

The Law thus opens a path to freedom: we no longer live our religion as passive subjects, but as engaged actors, creative and open to the breath of the Spirit. 

Such considerations lead us to understand freedom in a very different way from contemporary culture, which only sees freedom as an absence of constraints and the ability to do whatever we want without limitation. In our Western culture, we seek to be "free from": free from regulations, free from opinions, free from morality, free from work, free from duty.

The Gospel invites us instead to strive to be "free for": free for the service of others, free for the building of a more just and fraternal world, free for relationships woven with fidelity, fruitfulness and tenderness. Otherwise, freedom would just be one other form of slavery. "For freedom, Christ has set us free!"

Thursday, June 13, 2013

From dependence to independence to interdependence

Read  Galatians 2:19-21

A baby is a totally dependent being. It can do nothing for itself. It must wait for others to take care of its food, its clothing, its cleanliness, its protection. As a child grows, though, she learns to take care of herself, to put on her own clothes, to help prepare a meal, to wash and dry herself, to defend herself. As the child reaches adolescence and adulthood, those personal resources are developed which allow one to earn one’s living and so buy the needed food and clothes, rent an apartment or buy a house. The child has become independent, autonomous. She has grown up.

The strange thing is that as young people experience this growth in autonomy, they simultaneously experience a seemingly contradictory process: they fall in love. They discover happiness in being with another, in spending time in another’s presence. They even conclude that, without that other person in their life, they will be unhappy. It’s as if the independence they learned to conquer over the years has become a source of sadness and solitude.

From dependance to autonomy to interdependance: someone once described these as the three stages in the journey to personal maturity. The same could be said of spiritual maturity.

Humanity as a whole lived a time of total dependence on the divine. People imagined that everything depended on the gods: weather, health, fertility, even good fortune. They said prayers and offered sacrifices in the hopes of attracting divine good will so that events would develop as they hoped. Yet, through the centuries, we have discovered the autonomy of the world. Weather does not depend on God, but on climatologic factors. Health and disease are a function of nutrition and exercise, of genetic or toxic material. Fertility can be studied and controlled. And fortune, whether good or bad, is simply the unpredictable outcome of the chaos of life.

Yet this autonomy has left humanity in a state of deep solitude and alienation. Life has lost its meaning, values no longer have a compass. This is an occasion for us to rediscover God, not as an authoritarian figure who seeks to dominate us, but as the Other who encounters us to establish a life-giving, transforming relationship with us. We discover interdependence with the divine. Then, with Saint Paul, I can know the joy of saying: “I live, yet it is no longer I, it is Christ who lives in me.”

This is the way to being fully alive. For we have been made neither for dependence nor for independence, but for a relationship with the One who created us and gave us life.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What a paradigm shift!

Read Galatians 1:11-19

Have you ever spent some time perusing the self-help section of a bookstore? What an abundance of texts whose authors claim to hold the key to success: follow this advice, stick to this program, and you'll  find happiness! But we all know it's not true. If it were, everyone would already be happy. No, happiness does not seem lie at the end of some program or series of tricks. And yet we all continue to think that with a little more effort, a little more faithfulness to the program, it would happen. This mind-set seems programmed into our DNA.

It is precisely this mentality that Saint Paul sets out to fight in his letter to the Galatians. In the specific context that is his, the program that exasperates him is that the system of laws that grew in the Jewish religious tradition. He had followed this program to the letter, he knew all its secrets, he had been the most careful of his generation in its observance, and yet... This program did not give him a fraction of the joy and peace he found in his encounter with the risen Jesus. This encounter completely changed his way of understanding God, himself and the world. He became convinced that his happiness did not depend on his own faithfulness to God, but on God's faithfulness to him. Talk about a paradigm shift!

This deep conviction lies is at the heart of Paul's teaching. It is not the result of his personal reflection, or of the tradition of human wisdom, or of an academic debate: it was came directly from the One he met on the road to Damascus, Christ himself .

Paul's conviction, however, was not shared by all the disciples of Jesus. Some believed that Jesus had simply come to "adjust the system," to make it a little better. They reduced the gospel to a new font of spiritual self-help, an "improved" version of the well-known Jewish tradition. And these disciples, full of good will, followed after Paul wherever he went to "correct" his teachings. He announced that no personal effort could lead to happiness and salvation; they insisted that people had to make a little more effort. He proclaimed that God's love was to be received as a gift; they reminded Paul's followers that only careful observance of the Law could merit such love. He explained that his teaching came from Christ himself; they bolstered their arguments with appeals to the authority of some of the leaders of the young Church.

For Paul, this conflict of visions was not simply a matter of personal sensibilities or private spirituality. For him, the essence of the Gospel was at stake. This explains the vehemence of his letter to the Galatians, the nasty tone he sometimes uses in speaking of his opponents, the radicalism of his statements. We must understand that for Paul, everything was based on the seminal moment he encountered Christ: "The Gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ."

Over the next few Sundays we will meditate other passages of this letter, essential for our understanding not only of Saint Paul, but of the Gospel itself.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Actions that speak

Read I Corinthians 11:23-26

Actions speak. A rose given to a bereaved friend speaks of our sympathy. A candle-covered cake speaks of our joy in sharing someone’s birthday. A hug speaks of our tenderness for a child. Yes indeed, actions speak.

They also speak in the religious sphere. We kneel to express our devotion to God. We lower our heads as a sign of respect. We bow deeply to show humility. We gather with others to express the union of our hearts in a common faith. Actions speak in this realm also.

On the day of Pentecost, after having proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ, Saint Peter was asked what should be done. He answered: “Be baptized.” Baptism is a ritual action in which we express our desire for conversion, for the love and forgiveness God offers us in Jesus. It is an action which speaks.

This is true of all the sacraments of the Church. Confirmation expresses our openness to the mission which God entrusts to his people. Marriage is a living sign of the love Jesus has for his Church. Anointing the sick speaks of the trust we have in God’s healing power. Reconciliation tells of our faith in God’s faithfulness to us, poor sinners. Ordination is a manifestation of Jesus leading his people as a good shepherd. All these actions speak with great power.

Of all the sacraments, the greatest is the Eucharist, which we also call Mass. Saint Paul clearly explains that this also is an action that speaks: “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 

The heart of the Gospel message is contained therein: Christ died for us and rose to give us life. The Apostles proclaimed this Good News everywhere they went. They never tired of repeating it, convinced as they were that God wanted to show mercy to all people.

As they evangelized, the Apostles did not restrain themselves to words. They also used an action, the same action that Jesus himself gave them as a memorial ritual the night before he died: taking bread and wine, giving thanks, sharing, eating and drinking. “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus said. And each time we respond to Jesus’ invitation, we proclaim to the world that he is the Messiah of God, the Saviour of the world, the Lord of the universe.

« Let us love, not only in words but in actions, » says Saint John in one of his letters. This is certainly true of our love for our brothers and sisters. It is also true of our love for God. Let us not only express our love for God in our prayer, let us also proclaim it by gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. For this action speaks even louder than words.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bloody life!

Read Romans 5:1-5

When we citizens of the twenty-first century think of blood, we think of a liquid made up of plasma, red and white corpuscles, platelets, hemoglobin and such stuff. We think of the heart pumping this liquid through the lungs to be oxygenated and through the kidneys to be purified. We think of leukemias, cancers of the blood that can kill. We think of blood transfusions that can save lives. In other words, we think like the amateur scientists and doctors that we all tend to be.

It’s hard to imagine that in Jesus’ time none of this was known. People didn’t even realize that blood circulates through the body. All they knew was that if you lost too much blood, you died. Blood is life.

And life is sacred. If you wanted to offer a sacrifice to God, you slaughtered an animal and poured out its blood on an altar. You offered the animal’s life to God.

A great reversal was brought about by Jesus. He poured out his blood for us. He made this clear on the night before he died: “Take and drink. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new covenant, which will be poured out for you.”

Saint Paul carries this language even further. He states that in pouring out his blood for us, Christ was actually pouring God’s love into our hearts. In other words, God was sacrificing God’s being in order to give humanity a new life principle. The real source of a Christan’s life is not to be found in a red liquid, but in the very love of God, poured out not on altars but in human hearts. For all of this we must thank the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

One final twist: for the Jewish tradition, the heart is not the seat of emotions, but of thought and will. To say that God’s love has been poured into our hearts does not entail sentimental considerations, but rather a new way of understanding and a new motivation for our choices. This is what the Spirit of Jesus brings to his disciples. This is the great work of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Slave children, freeborn children

Read Romans 8:8-17

There are many sins against human dignity, but slavery has to rank among the worst. To consider a human being as the possession of another; to accept as normal the idea that a human being should serve another without freedom of thought, movement or will; to reduce a human being to a shadow of what it means to be human: all of this is truly a crime against humanity itself.

Unfortunately, slavery has been part of the human fabric since the beginning of society. In the time of Jesus, it was an accepted institution, particularly among the Romans and Greeks. Many of these slaves who lived in a situation of continual fear and uncertainty were bound to react positively to the message of the Gospel. For them, the idea that all people had dignity and worth was truly Good News.

Paul contrasts the situation of the slave with that of the child of a freeborn man. This child is free, cherished by parents, loved by family, destined to inherit the father’s wealth. What a contrast with the slave who lives in the same house, yet has no freedom, is cherished by no one, has no family, is destined to poverty throughout life.

Paul affirms that those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. They do not relate to God as slaves to a master, but as children to their loving, caring parents. They know they are protected and cherished. And they are destined to inherit their Father’s wealth, which is eternal life itself.

The Spirit leads us out of slavery into freedom. Slavery to whom? Actually, we are slaves to ourselves: to our passions, our needs, our insecurities and our obsessions. Paul calls this “the flesh.” It’s a symbol for him of everything that drags us down and stops us from being truly free.

If we remain enslaved to “the flesh,” then there is no hope for us: we are doomed to death. If, on the other hand, we open our hearts to God’s Spirit, leaving behind us the allure of “the flesh,” then we are promised to life, life to the full, life without end.

On Pentecost, the Spirit came down on the apostles and set them on fire. This same Spirit is offered to us today: a Spirit of truth and love, a Spirit that leads us out of slavery and fear and into life. Let us therefore celebrate the Spirit. And pray for the Spirit. And live in the Spirit.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Difficult reading - worthwhile message

Read Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23

The prescribed readings for the Catholic liturgy are usually continuous, but not on this Ascension Sunday. The second reading begins with the end of chapter 9 of the book of Hebrews; it then skips the first eighteen verses of chapter 10 to pick up the text at verse 19, ending at verse 23. Let us try to understand these two blocks of text.

In the first, the author develops a particular interpretation of the passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ in the light of a Jewish ritual in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is an original, very creative reading that seeks to understand the meaning of the Paschal Mystery as the fulfillment of the rites of the Old Testament. The author compares Jesus to the high priest who, once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur"), went into the most sacred space of the Temple, the "Holy of Holies", cut off from the rest of the Temple by a veil. There he sprinkled the floor with the blood of a bull he had offered in sacrifice for himself as well as the blood of a goat offered on behalf of all the people. He then returned to the people outside the Temple to recite the prayer of Atonement.

In fact, the ritual is much more complicated, but this sketch suffices for us to understand the author's comparison. He suggests that by his Paschal mystery, Christ came into the true "Holy of Holies" - heaven - in the very presence of God the Father. Thus, the sacrifice of his own life takes on an eternal value that the annual sacrifices of the high priest could not have. And the sacrifice of Christ, destroying the power of sin forever, becomes the perpetual source of forgiveness for all God's people. When at the end of time Jesus will "come back out" of this sanctuary in returning to us, it will not be in order to intercede for our forgiveness, but to make manifest the glory of the salvation he has already acquired for us.

The second block of our reading draws the consequences: with Christ and like Christ, we can enter the "Holy of Holies", in the very presence of God. The veil of Christ's body was "ripped" in his resurrection, so that his humanity - transformed by the power of the Spirit - would become not an obstacle but a path to God. Already in baptism, the "pure water" that washed our bodies, we have received new life, a life of faith, forgiveness and hope.

This text undoubtedly presents us with many difficulties because of the references to a Jewish ritual that no longer exists. Nonetheless, its invitation still speaks today, an invitation to courage and joy even in the midst of trial. With Jesus, we have access to the Father. Through Jesus, forgiveness is assured. In Jesus, we have boldness, "because the One who has promised is faithful."

The author of the letter to the Hebrews invites us to see the Ascension of Christ, not as a "separation" from him but as a stage in our own transformation. Jesus already takes us with him, beyond appearances, into the "Holy of Holies". Our life is already inhabited by the divine presence. Hallelujah!