You are what you eat

This weekend many children received their First Holy Communion at our parish. Here's my homily for the occasion.
Jesus with the Eucharist, Juan de Juanes, 1579
In 1975, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was arrested by the communist, Vietnamese government and imprisoned in a “reeducation camp”. In total, Bishop Van Thuan spent thirteen years in prison, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement.  While in prison, his captures allowed him to write to his friends on the outside to send him an extremely limited number of bare necessities. Can you guess what was on the top of his list of requests? Wine - which he claimed was to be used as stomach medicine - and small, communion hosts. When he finally received the wine and hosts, Bishop Van Thuan was able to celebrate Mass for himself and for his fellow prisoners. He would celebrate Mass from memory because he had no Missal. As he had no chalice, he would place three drops of wine and one drop of water into the palm of his hand. He would later write that celebrating Mass and being able to have Jesus present among them in the Eucharist and to receive His Body and Blood was their greatest source of strength and hope. From personal experience, Bishop Van Thuan understood that the Eucharist is the greatest gift that God has given us. As St. John Vianney wrote about the Eucharist:
God would have given us something greater if He had something greater than Himself to give.

Bishop Van Thuan and his fellow prisoners recognized that the Eucharist transformed them. They discovered that by receiving the Eucharist, they were changed to become more like Him who they received. Now, we have probably all heard the expression “you are what you eat”. If we eat healthy food, for example, we will be healthy. If, on the other hand, I were to eat only chips all day, then I would become quite unhealthy. This rule applies to the Eucharist. Nearly 750 years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas explained it this way:
The actual effect of the Eucharist is the transformation of man into God.
Bishop Van Thuan and his fellow prisoners learned firsthand that receiving the Eucharist changed them to become more like Jesus. They became more like Jesus both as individuals and as a group.
  1. Individually they found that they became more like Jesus. Imitating Jesus in His Passion, they were better able to cope with their sufferings in prison, infusing them with patience and a sense of purpose. As well, they were given the strength to look beyond their personal suffering and serve others in the prison. The same thing should happen to us. Receiving the Eucharist should change us, gradually but really and truly, to become more like Jesus.
  2. Collectively they grew together in unity. When we receive the Eucharist, we believe that we become - all of us together - the Body of Christ. Receiving the Eucharist should make us a stronger and more united community.

We are privileged to receive the Eucharist weekly and even daily, if we choose. Unlike Bishop Van Thuan, we can do this freely and with comparative ease. We need to be careful that our ready access to this gift does not allow us to lose sight of its true value. Today, as so many among us will receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time, let us give thanks for this great gift. Perhaps those of us who have been receiving the Eucharist for many years can use this opportunity to ask ourselves if we are really becoming Him who we receive in the Eucharist. Over our years of receiving the Eucharist, have we changed to become more like Jesus in the way we act? Has receiving the Eucharist strengthened our parish community so that we truly are one body, unity in love? This won’t happen without our cooperation. Let us strive more and more to truly become what we eat.

Frozen and Easter: acts of true love

Act 10:34-43; Jn 20:1-9 (Easter Sunday, Year A)
The Resurrection, El Greco, 1600

One of the most popular movies of this past year was the animated movie Frozen, which tells the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa, who has the power to create ice and snow. One day, the two sisters had an argument and Elsa accidentally froze the heart of her sister Anna. We soon learn that Anna can only have her heart unfrozen - and her life saved - by an act of true love. What could this act of true love be? At first Anna thinks that her heart will be thawed by a kiss from her fiance, Hans. This plan, sadly, is unsuccessful and Anna slowly becomes more and more frozen. Things seem hopeless for Anna. In anger, Hans seeks out Elsa, confronts her in a fit of rage, and is just about to strike her down with his sword. At this moment, Anna arrives on the scene and saves her sister, Elsa, by putting herself in the path of Hans’ sword just as she herself becomes completely frozen. The sword of Hans simply bounces off the now-frozen Anna. Suddenly though, Anna began to un-thaw. In sacrificing herself to save her sister’s life, she had performed an act of true love. I think that what makes the movie so compelling is that its plot of fall, suffering, redemption and new life, mirrors that of the Easter story. Frozen points a lesson that Easter presents fully. It is a lesson about the nature and effects of true love.

From Easter we learn the real meaning of love. Love is perhaps one of the most misused words in the English language. For example, one moment I can tell my mother I love her, then in the next breath I can say how much I love cake. What is love? Is it a feeling or something more? Where can we go to find an answer? For Christians we believe that we discover the true meaning of love by going straight to the source: God. Remember in the letter of St. John we find this incredible definition for God: God is love. It is not just that God is loving. God is love itself. In order to love, then, we need to act and become like God is. We learn who God is, and therefore what true love is, from Jesus Christ. By His words and example, Jesus taught us that true love is laying down your life for another. True love means sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. When Anna sacrifices her life to save her sister, Elsa, she is showing true love. A mother or father who wakes up in the middle of the night to care for their baby, at the cost of their own sleep, is showing true love. A student who gives up their lunch break to help a friend with their schoolwork is showing true love. Jesus hanging on the Cross is the ultimate icon of true love.

Easter teaches us the effects of true love: goodness and life. When love is true, it creates goodness in others. Normally, when we love people it is because of some good qualities we perceive in them. For example, perhaps you love your friend because they have a good personality. You love this good quality about them, but you did not create this goodness. When Jesus, loves, however, He creates goodness in others. In the first reading we find that those who are loved by Jesus become better people as “He went about doing good”. He loves goodness into those He came in contact with. More than this, when Jesus loves, His love creates life, which is the highest goodness of all. This is what the Resurrection is all about. On Good Friday Jesus performed the greatest act of true love by suffering and dying for us. But this was not the end of the story. Jesus’ act of true, sacrificial love, broke the bonds of death and gave life to Himself and to all of us. In the Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Peter and the beloved disciple discover the empty tomb and finally “understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead”. Jesus’ ultimate act of love could not be contained by the tomb and death. In the movie Frozen, we see this principle reflected. Anna’s act of true love brings life and goodness. In sacrificing herself to save her sister, Anna brought life to herself. In addition, Anna’s love for her sister makes Elsa a better person. When you see the movie you notice that after Anna’s act of love, Elsa becomes a kinder and more loving person herself. In addition to teaching us what love truly is, the Easter story teaches us that true love creates goodness and life.

Easter gives us a very simple way to test the quality of our love. Since being ordained a deacon and later a priest, I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of couples preparing for marriage. In our initial meeting, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Me: Why do you want to get married?
Couple: Because we love each other.
Me: How can you be sure that you love each other?
Couple: ummm… (while silently wishing I would stop asking stupid questions!)
From this, we usually get into a good conversation about what true love is. We talk about how it is more than a feeling, that true loves means sacrificing yourself for the one you love. I then explain that there is a very simple test to know if we really do love someone. I first heard about this test from one of my former teachers. He explained:
In order to know if we truly love someone we need only ask if our love for that person has made them better.
A man truly loves his fiancee if she has become a better person on account of his loving her. A woman truly loves her fiance if he has become a better person on account of her loving him. This is the simple, yet profound test of true love.

Today, on Easter Sunday, we celebrate the love of Jesus for us which lead Him to die for us and rise from the dead giving life to Himself and us all. Without the Resurrection, we would not be here. It is the central, single most important reality of human history. Easter is the victory of love over death. This Easter let us deepen our understanding of true love. Further, let us take a moment to test how true our own love is. Today let us look at one important relationship in our life, perhaps with your spouse or a friend, and ask yourself a very simple and important question: has this individual become a better person because of my love for them?

Good Friday: what we must know

John 18:1 - 19:42 (Good Friday)
Christ Crucified, El Greco, 1604
In the movie the Life of Pi, there is an interesting scene in which the main character, Pi, who is then a Hindu with no knowledge of Christianity, recalls a childhood experience in which he entered a Catholic Church because a friend dared him to go and drink some of the holy water. After he has had a few sips of the holy water, Pi began looking around the Church and was struck by the paintings of the Stations of the Cross. As he is looking at these images of the sufferings of Jesus, a priest approaches Pi and the two get into a conversation. Pi shares his confusion with the priest. He says that he cannot understand why God would do this. Why would God send His Son, an innocent, to suffer and die for the guilty? At each Good Friday liturgy, I feel a bit like Pi. I enter the Church with my mind full of different concerns and preoccupations. Then, when I hear the account of Jesus’ Passion, I am startled by the story. Along with Pi I find myself asking, why would God do thing? After Pi has asked his questions, the priest responds with one simple, powerful statement: the only thing you need to know is that God did this because He loves you.

We need to remember that the Gospel we have heard today of the Passion of Jesus is the climax in the world’s greatest love story. This love story began at the moment of creation. God created everything out of nothing because of an overflow of His love and goodness which could not be contained within the Trinity. He created humanity to be in a relationship with Himself. We were created so that we could love God in return. This plan went off the rails when we used our free will to choose sin, selfishness and greed rather than a relationship with God and one another. Throughout history, God tried again and again to draw us back to Himself - through Covenants, the Commandments and the Prophets - but we continued to go further astray. Finally, in the final and decisive act of this love story, God sent His only Son to achieve our reunification with God, something which was impossible for us to do on our own. When we hear the Passion of Jesus, we need to remember that Jesus freely chose this path. This is particularly clear in the Gospel of John. Jesus is shown in control of the situation, like a King. The Cross is His throne. Why is there so much suffering in this love story? In His Passion, we can see that Jesus, the sinless one, has become a kind of lightening rod for all the hate, evil and violence in the world. He takes all the suffering and punishment that should come to us on account of our sins and absorbs it into Himself. He suffers beatings, insult, crucifixion and death because He loves us so much that He could not bear to be separated from us.

We need to remember that the death of Jesus is not the end of this love story. We need to realize that in in this story, which can seem so hopeless and final, there is a glimmer of hope. The Gospel of John presents this in a very interesting way. This Gospel is the only one to tell us that after Jesus died and was taken down from the Cross, He was buried in a tomb that was in a garden. This detail is significant. Jesus is put in the tomb just like a seed is planted in a garden. The seed is put into the ground with the expectation that it will soon sprout forth in new life. This reminds us of the words of Jesus:
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. (John 12:24)
Though there is terrible sadness when Jesus dies and is placed, or planted, in the tomb in the garden, at the same time their is hope and expectation. Jesus’ death is not the finale.

We need to remember that this love story is incredibly personal. Jesus did not die for “humanity” in general. He suffered and died for me, personally. He suffered and died for each and every one of you. Because He is God, Jesus would have been able to know and picture in His mind every human being for whom He was suffering, even those who were not yet born. You and I were literally on Jesus’ mind when He hung dying on the Cross. Several days ago, Pope Francis reminded us of this.
This week, we should ponder Christ's pain and tell ourselves: 'this is for me. Even if I was the only person in the world, he would have done it. He did it for me. We should kiss the crucifix [today, on Good Friday] and say : 'for me . Thank you Jesus, for me'.
We cannot listen to the Passion story like some distant spectators. It should be something very personal.

Today we wonder aloud with Pi, why did God do all this? Why did the innocent one suffer on behalf of the guilty? In the end the only thing we need to know is that God did this because He loves us. Let us never approach this story as a mere spectator, but enter into it. It is a love story and it must be very personal.

Consistently Catholic or just acting?

Matthew 26:14 - 27:66 (Palm Sunday, Year A)
Entry Into Jerusalem, Pietro lorenzetti, 1320

Today we have all had the opportunity to be actors. During this liturgy of Palm Sunday, also called Passion Sunday, we have heard two very different Gospel readings: Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and the account of His passion. During each reading, we had the opportunity to act out the part of the crowd that gathered around Jesus in each story. We cannot but be shocked by the radically different ways in which the crowds respond to Jesus just some short days apart. This fact challenges us to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Do I, like the members of the crowd, respond inconsistently to Jesus depending on circumstances? Am I something of an actor in the way I follow Jesus, changing roles from devote follower to lukewarm bystander or even enemy at different times?

In the two Gospel passages, the crowd responds in incredible contradictory ways to Jesus.  In the first Gospel passage, the people are overjoyed to meet Jesus. They take off their cloaks and cut down branches in order to place them on the ground and form a kind of path that Jesus can pass over. When Jesus approached, they call out “Hosanna to the Son of David”. With these actions, the crowd, and we with them,  welcome Jesus as king and messiah. Jesus is seen as the one sent by God to liberate and save. The way that the crowd responds to Jesus in the second Gospel, that of Jesus’ passion, could not be any more different. We see this particularly in the dialogue that Pilate has with the large group. Instead of calling for the release of Jesus, they demand that Pilate release the criminal Barabbas. They implore Pilate to crucify Jesus. This was a man who they had greeted with joy just a few days earlier. We acted out both these responses of the crowd to Jesus: jubilant welcome and utter rejection. Probably we associate ourselves more with the former than the later. Of course we would welcome Jesus with joy. Certainly we would never reject Jesus in that way. I’m not so sure that this is always the case. In the two Gospels we heard today, the crowd responds in two different and entirely contradictory ways to Jesus.

Like the members of the crowd, we can also be inconsistent in the way that we respond to Jesus.  For an hour or so each weekend we gather together to worship Jesus and receive His words in scripture and His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. How do we treat Jesus outside of this time? Are we consistent? Do we seek to spend time with Him in prayer? Remembering that whatever we do to other people we do to Jesus, how are actions towards others? Are we unkind, prejudiced, impatient or unfair? We can all be inconsistent in how we treat Jesus. The classic example is that after receiving Jesus at Mass we race to our cars and lose our tempers with each other as we try to navigate our way out of the parking lot. Any of you who have watched the movie The Godfather, have seen an extreme example of someone giving a contradictory witness to Jesus. Towards the end of the movie, one of the main characters, Michael, orchestrates a series of executions of the leaders of rival mafia families. These “hits” all occur during a baptism at which Michael is a godfather. The movie dramatically presents the utterly contradictory witness by showing one of the murders after each vow that Michael takes in which he is supposed to be rejecting Satan and professing his faith in Jesus. In lesser, though real ways, we can all give an inconsistent response to Jesus in our lives.

Sometimes we respond differently to Jesus because we are influenced by those around us. The members who were part of the two crowds in the Gospels today, one that welcomed Jesus and one that condemned Him, were definitely affected by a certain amount of peer pressure. We have all probably had the experience of acting differently - either better or worse - when we are part of a group than how we would normally act when we are alone. Let me give an example of each, starting with a positive example. Several weeks ago, St. Joseph’s hosted “Freedom” at which 400 youth and young adults gathered together to pray, sing and celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was an inspiring evening. It was clear that many were encouraged to go to Confession because of the example of their friends. The event was a wonderful example of positive peer pressure. Now for a negative example. Most of you will probably remember the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver. On this night we witnessed destruction, theft and violence perpetrated by a large number of people. Most of the people who behaved badly that night would never have acted in that way if they were not part of a crowd. They fed off the atmosphere and surrendered their conscience and personal responsibility to the mob. Certainly this is an extreme example, but at different times we are all influenced by those around us, sometimes to act better and other times to act worse than we normally would when alone.

Palm Sunday provides us a great opportunity to ask ourselves a simple question: whether I am a part of a group, or alone, how consistent am I in following Jesus? Recently a parishioner shared with me a famous question that is often asked in sermons that can help us to better reflect on this.
If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Seriously, think about it. Imagine for a moment that it was illegal to be a follower of Jesus. One day you are dragged in front of a judge. For weeks prior to this, all your actions and words were under secret surveillance. At your trial, all the evidence is brought forward. The judge would see those times when you are more obviously a follower of Jesus: when you are at Mass, in prayer and treating others with love, kindness and compassion. The judge would also see moments in which you acted in an unchristian way: impatience, greed, jealousy, and a general disregard for following Jesus’ path in what you say and do. How would the trial go? Would you be acquitted and found not guilty of being a Christian? Would you be convicted and found guilty? Would there be reasonable doubt in the matter? These are questions that personally make me uncomfortable. Palm Sunday provides us a great opportunity to reflect on how consistent we are in following Jesus.

Fortunately, there is time before the day of our trial. This period of lent is a gift for us to examine how truly authentic and consistent we are as Christians and make changes in our life as appropriate. Let our love and devotion to Jesus never be something we only act out at Mass but be a genuine way of life. Let us make sure that in the end we are found guilty of being followers of Jesus Christ.

Facing death with hope

Jn 11:1-45 (5th week of Lent, year C)
The Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco, 1715

As a young priest, one of the most difficulty ministries for me is celebrating funerals. When I am with those who are grieving I find it very difficult to know how I should act and what I should say. Certainly the most important thing is simply being present to those who are suffering and showing compassion. At the same time, I think that it is crucial to give them some words that can help them. I strongly believe that as followers of Jesus we have been given a message that can transform grief into hope. It is a message that we need to share with others.

Throughout history Christians have always viewed death differently. Like everyone one else, followers of Jesus certainly mourned when their loved ones passed away. At the same time, their mourning was always infused with a certain hope that death was not the end of the story. Let me give two examples. If you have been to Rome, perhaps you noticed something very interesting regarding the names given to burial sites that highlights this. In ancient Rome, pagans called this place of burial a “necropolis” which means the “city of the dead”. Death, they believed, was the end of the story. Christians living in ancient Rome, however, called their places of burial a “cemetery”. We still use this word today. Cemetery means “place of rest” or even “dormitory”. Christians always believed that death is not the end. As it says in the preface for a funeral Mass, we believe that “with death, life is changed not ended”. Another example that shows Christians viewed death differently is the gospel we have heard today. At the surface, this story is about the miracle of Jesus giving back life to Lazarus. Below the surface, there are other layers of meaning. The actions and words of Jesus and those around Him are meant to convey a very important message about the meaning of death for the followers of Jesus. When we did deeper into the Gospel story of Lazarus it becomes clear that Christians have always viewed the reality of death differently.

In fact, the resuscitation of Lazarus is a symbol for the resurrection to eternal life. I choose those words carefully: resuscitation and resurrection.  Jesus does come and give life back to Lazarus. He performs a resuscitation, because though Lazarus is made to live again, he will not live forever. He will die again. There is a deeper level of symbolism that shows the firm belief that when Lazarus does die - a second time - Jesus will raise him to eternal life. One interesting symbol is the bandages that are on the hands and feet of Lazarus. The story is sure to point this out and Jesus instructs that these bandages be removed. Scholars argue that it was not a Jewish custom to bind the head and feet of a deceased person for burial. They claim, then, that these bandages are symbols of the “bonds of death” (see Ps 116) from which Jesus can set us free. Another interesting symbol is the fact that the story of Lazarus being given back his life, is similar to the Resurrection of Jesus Himself. For example in both: 1) there is a rock over the tomb, 2) Mary mourning, 3) an important role for Thomas and 4) burial clothes. All this is evidence that the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus is a symbol for the firm hope of Christians that after death, Jesus would raise them to eternal life.

More than this, the Gospel reveals that it is through the death of Jesus that we will be raised to eternal life. When we look closely at this gospel we see that the passion and death of Jesus is referenced throughout it. By linking the raising of Lazarus to Jesus’ death, the author is making the point that it is through the death of Jesus that we have the hope to be raised to eternal life one day. Lets look at two points:
  1. The placement of this miracle in the Gospel of John is significant. The gospel of John is broken into two parts: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. The Book of Signs is composed of seven signs or miracles. The raising of Lazarus is the final sign and is therefore a prelude to the Book of Glory, which is all about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact st is because Jesus raises Lazarus that the Sanhedrin makes the final decision to seek a way to put Jesus to death.
  2. Jesus weeping. When Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus why did He weep?Jesus choose to delay coming to see Lazarus while he was alive. Jesus Himself said that the death of Lazarus was good because it would lead to God’s glorification. Why weep? Some scholars argue that this is John’s version of the agony in the garden. Jesus is weeping as He prepares for his own death.
These ties to the passion and death of Jesus in the raising of Lazarus teach us that it is through the death of Jesus that we have the hope to be raised to eternal life.

This gospel story gives us the necessary strength to face the reality of our own death. Over the centuries, different philosophers have tried to give a definition for what a human being is. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas said that a human being is a rational animal. The more contemporary philosopher, Martin Heidegger, gave a startling definition for a human being. He said that humans are “beings made for death”. For him, the most significant thing about being a human is that we will one day all die. Knowing this, Heidegger noticed something troubling about human beings: we go to great lengths to avoid the reality that we will one day die. Now, some of this is natural, the subject of death is difficult to discuss. Yet is seems that our society goes to great lengths to ignore it. People occupy their entire existence chasing things - like money and power - that you simply cannot take with you. Heidegger argues that in order to truly live well, we need to confront the fact that we will one day die. There is much truth to this. Realizing that our time here is fleeting helps us to focus on what is truly important. But, if we lack faith, confronting the reality of our death can be a frightening and depressing prospect. Without faith there is nothing after death. This thought can lead to despair. One of my teachers once told me that if we tweak the advice of Heidegger, it is truly helpful. He would say that:
In order to live well, we need to look at the reality of our own death, but always with Jesus.
When we do this we realize:
  1. Life is short and we need to live it the best way possible.
  2. The best way to live our life is with Jesus. It is because of Him that death is not the end of our life. Jesus gives true meaning and hope to our life.
The story of the raising of Lazarus should give us the hope and courage to face the reality of our own death.

Death, as the saying goes, comes for us all. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus gives us a clear message that helps us to to face both the death of our loved ones and our own with hope. Because of His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus has given us the sure hope that we too will one day be raised to eternal life after our own death. Let us remind ourselves of this fact today: with death, life is changed, not ended. Or, in the wonderful words of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore: Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come. The dawn is, of course, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.