Mark 13:33-37 (1st Sunday of Advent, year B)

(Because of an extended announcement at the Masses this Sunday, I was told to “keep the homily under two minutes”. Not an easy task for me, but I gave it a shot!)

wikicommons, Liquid 2003 
How many of us here today are truly awake? Years ago, when I was an altar server, I used to doze off at Mass pretty regularly. Now this isn’t really an option for me - too many people would notice. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is simple: be awake!

Today we begin the season of Advent. Advent - with literally mean “coming” - is the time in which we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ in the:
  1. Past. Jesus came into the world some 2000 years ago. During Advent we recall that Christmas celebrates the event in which God became man.
  2. Future. Jesus will come again at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. During Advent, remembering this reality should have an impact on the way we live our lives today. Am I ready to meet Jesus when He comes again? What changes would I like to make in my life?
  3. Present. This is the part we too easily forget. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the king who separates the sheep from the goats. This parable taught us that whatever we do to the needy, we do to Jesus. Whatever we fail to do for the poor and marginalized, we fail to do for Jesus. We meet needy people each and every day. Therefore, Jesus comes to us each and every day.

Distraction keeps us from recognizing the presence of Christ in the needy that we daily encounter. We are asleep and we miss the coming of Jesus. Usually this slumber of distraction is not consciously induced, it sort of just happens. We can get so preoccupied in our work or school that we are blinded to the presence of Jesus in those who surround us. It is easy to get so immersed in our phones and computers that we become oblivious to other flesh and blood human beings. People in the same home begin communicating via text messages. Next time you ride the bus or skytrain, see if you can find five people who are not on their phones and are having an actual conversation with their neighbour. Even while at Mass we get distracted. We can be thinking so much about what is for lunch that we ignore the presence of Christ in the Eucharist who gives Himself as the ultimate meal. We are asleep and missing the simple, daily ways in which Jesus comes into our lives through those we encounter.

What we need is some kind of spiritual coffee. I’m sure that most of of start our day with a cup of coffee. Personally, it is difficult to face the day without it! I have a very simple suggestion for how we can try to enact Jesus’ command to “stay awake”. Each morning when you take the first sip of your coffee (or tea, or chocolate milk, or whatever) make this simple prayer: “Lord, help me to be spiritually awake today so that I do not miss the ways you enter my life”. Advent is here; it’s time to wake up!

(Ok, so maybe that’s longer than two minutes. I tried!)

Show me the money!

Matthew 25: 31 - 46 (Christ the King, year a)

When I was a seminarian, a large and stressful part of my life was studying for exams. One evening after dinner I was having a conversation with another seminarian about all the tests we had coming up. We expressed how worried we were and how much we were studying. We both felt that unless we did well on our exams, we would not see our semester as a success. After speaking for a few minutes, we were surprised when an old priest joined our conversation. He had overheard all we had said. This priest explained that our exams are important and we should study and try our hardest. Before he left, he said one short line I will never forget: “Now remember, no matter how you do on these class exams, just make sure you pass your final exam!” By “final exam”, this elderly priest was referring to the scene that is described in the gospel of today in which the the sheep are separated from the goats by Christ the King.

We all have different ways of measuring whether our life is a success or not. We hold ourselves to certain standards. Sometimes people place these standards on others, particularly their children. If you meet these expectations you are good and your life is a success.  If not, it’s a failure. As I mentioned, for me such a standard was doing well academically. For others, the test of their life’s value may be whether they are popular and have many friends. Or maybe they give themselves a passing grade if they have a great job and are respected in their profession. Still others judge their value based on the amount of money they have. Do you have a nice house? A flashy car? The latest smartphone? We all create different tests to see whether or not we or those around us are “making the grade” in their life. Certainly, many of these goals are important and worth working towards. The problem is that none of these things matter in our final exam.

In the end, Jesus’ test is easy and it consists of just one question: did you show me love by concretely helping those who are in need? It is incredible when we consider the fact that so much of what we consider important, so much of what we spend our time working towards and worrying about, does not come up on Jesus’ final exam. What matters is simply whether we have helped those who are poor and needy or not. This is the way that we show love to Jesus. This is how we will be judged. Mother Teresa lived this reality in a profound way in her life. She was always careful to explain that the incredible work she did with the poor was not mere social work, but rather service done for Jesus, out of love for him. She explained that the Gospel, the entire message of Jesus, is so simple that it can be summarized in five words. She would repeat these words by counting them out on her fingers. Mother Teresa would teach others to do the same. This is what she called the five-fingered-Gospel: you did it to me. Whenever we do something to help someone in need, it is as though we did it to Jesus. Whenever we failed to do for someone in need, it is as though we fail to do it for Jesus. At the end of our life we will be judged on our response to this simple reality.

Jesus’ final exam is a practical test rather than one testing mere theory. Notice that Jesus does not tell us we will be judged based on whether we thought it was a good idea to help those in need or intended to do this. He judges us on whether or not we concretely helped the needy or not. There are many ways we can help those in need. For example, we can volunteer our time at a soup kitchen. I would like to look at a very simple way that all of us can help the poor. It is also a simple test to know whether we are doing so or not. If you have ever seen the movie Jerry Maguire, you will be familiar with the most catchy phrase from the film: show me the money! How generous we are in giving our money to those in need clearly reflects our commitment to the poor. Certainly not all can give as much to the poor as others, but the majority of us can and should be giving something. I am not speaking here about giving a toonie now and then to someone begging on the street. I would argue that this is not the most efficient and prudent use of our money. I am speaking here about giving consistently and regularly to some charity that helps the poor. There are many such groups run by the Archdiocese of Vancouver, for example, the Men’s Hostel or the Door is Open. Giving to Project Advance is also a way to help the poor and needy as this initiative funds many worthwhile Catholic Charities. When we look at our monthly budget we find a long list of expenses. Is one of the items on this list a regular financial contribution to the poor? If we do give regularly, do we give less to the poor than we spent on coffee or going to the movies? In a recent homily, Pope Francis said the following:
“this is a golden rule. When conversion reaches your pockets, it’s certain”. He explained: “Christians at heart? Everyone. Christians in mind? Everyone”. But, Pope Francis asked, how many are Christians when it comes to “our pockets? Few”.

When I was in school, teachers would sometimes give us the exam questions ahead of time. When this happened, I always spent a lot of time preparing these questions. I would be foolish not to. Jesus, our King and judge, has told us that at the end of our life we will be tested on only one question. He has told us well in advance what the question is so we all have plenty of time to prepare. You did it to me. Has our conversion reached our wallet? Does the way in which we spend out money show care for Jesus present in the poor and needy or not?

Don't be the Ebenezer Scrooge of mercy

Matthew 25:14-30 (33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A)

Have you ever seen one of those images which at first glance appear to be simply a pattern, but if you stare at them long enough a 3D picture appears? For me, it was an exciting experience when I was first able to see the 3D picture in an image like this. After I saw it, I could never look at the pattern without the 3D picture popping out. My perspective of the simple image was changed entirely. Recently I had a similar experience with the parable of the talents that we heard in today’s gospel when I read a commentary on it presenting an interpretation I never heard before. Like the 3D picture popping out of the image, with excitement I saw a new meaning in the parable that was there all along. It gave the parable new life and fresh meaning.

It turns out I was missing the fact that in this parable Jesus is talking about God’s mercy. Mercy was the 3D picture hidden from my sight in this parable. Until recently, I used to interpret this parable as only being a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. All these are a gift from God which we must not keep hidden away, but rather use in the service of others. This interpretation is valid and helpful, but it is not the whole story. We interpret the parable in this way because we instinctively read “talent” to mean a skill or ability. At Jesus’ time, however, this was not the meaning of talent. As you probably know, a “talent” was a unit used in the measurement of something precious, like silver or gold. In fact, a talent was a large amount, perhaps fifty pounds. Therefore, Jesus’ audience would not have associated talent with an ability but rather with weight. The characters in the parable were all given something weighty. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would then have associated “weight” with the glory of God because the Hebrew word for God’s glory, “kabod”, originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”. Recalling God’s glory, they would think immediately of the place where this glory dwells, in the Temple, about the mercy seat, the lid covering the ark of the covenant. In short, when the first century Jew heard Jesus’ parable, they would not have understood it to be a lesson about the proper use of our skills and abilities. Rather, they would have understood the parable as a lesson about God’s mercy.

In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches us the physics of God’s mercy. Physics - everyone’s favorite subject! - studies nature in order to understand how the universe behaves. When you study physics, you learn about various laws that govern the natural world. For example, Newton’s third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the parable of the talents, Jesus instructs us about that laws that govern God’s mercy:
  1. God’s mercy is a completely free gift that He gives in abundance through Jesus. In the parable Jesus is the master who goes away on a journey. At times we can think we need to earn God’s mercy through prayers or good works. God’s mercy is always a free gift. It is not a salary. It is not a reward.
  2. When we are not merciful to others, we cannot experience God’s mercy in our own life. Mercy is a gift so it must be freely given. In the parable, the person given one talent does nothing with it. He keeps it to himself and hides it away. In the end, the talent is taken from him. We can be tempted to be stingy with mercy, thinking we need to make others earn it from us. For example, we won’t forgive someone until they come grovelling to us. Or, we refuse to accept and welcome someone unless they first change things about themselves we don’t like. When we are misers of mercy, we become like teflon to God’s mercy - it cannot stick to us and we fail to experience it in their life. People who are unforgiving and unmerciful usually do not believe and feel that they are forgiven, loved and accepted by God as they are.
  3. If we are as liberal in showing mercy as God, then we find that mercy is multiplied many times in our life. In the parable, those who do something with the talents they are given receive even more in the end. The more generous we are in forgiving others and accepting and welcoming those who have made mistakes, the greater we can experience God’s mercy in our own lives. Mercy multiplies when it is given away. People who are forgiving and merciful generally believe and feel that they are truly forgiven, accepted and loved by God even in their weakness and faults.

It is easier to be merciful to others when we realize we have been given a large share in God’s mercy. At times each of us can struggle to forgive and show mercy. We can get some great tips for how to convert the mercy-miser within us by looking at the conversion story of the stereotypical penny-pincher, Ebenezer Scrooge, found in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”. He shows an incredible lack of generosity to his poor worker Bob Cratchit. During the story, however, Scrooge undergoes a dramatic conversion. By the end he is extremely generous. This change was in part elicited when Scrooge was given a glimpse into his past. In this, he saw clearly the goodness and generosity that other people had shown to him. For example, his former boss who had treated him like a son. When Scrooge realizes that he has received so much from others in the past, it becomes easier for him to be generous to those around him. If we have difficulty forgiving or being merciful to others, it is very helpful to remember:
  • We have all made mistakes in our lives
  • We have all been forgiven, loved and accepted by God in spite of this.
  • We have been forgiven, loved and accepted by countless others in spite of all the wrong we have done

Recall that even one talent is a large amount of something incredibly precious. In the past we have all received a large, generous portion of mercy and forgiveness from God and those around us. Remembering this helps us to forgive and show mercy to others. It is critical we do so, “For to everyone who has,more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Let us not be mercy-misers but rather be generous in showing mercy and forgiveness to others so that we can richly experience God’s mercy, love and acceptance in our own life.

Do you go to Mass as a tourist or as a pilgrim?

Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran (Ex 47:1-12, 1 Cor 3:9-17, John 2:13-22)

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
If you have been to Rome, you probably visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This Church, whose dedication we celebrate today, is always packed with tourists, and rightly so. The history of the basilica is incredible. It was originally built by Constantine in the 4th century and until the 14th century was the home of the popes. Contrary to popular belief, St. John Lateran and not St. Peter’s is the cathedral of the Holy Father. For this reason, St. John Lateran is called “the mother and head of all churches on the earth”. Artistically the Church is stunning thanks in large part to the large statues of the twelve apostles dominating the interior. In addition to tourists, many pilgrims also visit the basilica. You can see them on their knees praying. They leave with more than just pictures. Maybe they know that before the basilica was named after Saints John the Baptist and John the Apostle it was originally called the Basilica of Our Saviour. The pilgrims realizes that above all else the basilica is a place to encounter Jesus Christ, be changed by Him and return home a different person. This feast challenges us to consider the attitude with which we approach Mass each Sunday. Do we come to church as a tourist or a pilgrim?

Coming to Church is all about encountering the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. Today we heard the memorable story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. Here’s a Bible skill testing question for you: at what point in Jesus’ ministry did He cleanse the Temple? In the beginning or at the end? Trick question! The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) show Jesus cleansing the Temple at the end of His ministry, presenting it as an event leading directly to His arrest. In the gospel of John, which we heard today, Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of His ministry. John does this to teach a lesson. In the Old Testament we discover that the Jewish people believed that certain physical locations were privileged places to encounter the living God. After the Exodus, as they travelled through the desert, the tent of meeting, or the tabernacle, was the place where God dwelt in a special way in the midst of His people. Later, when they settled in the land of Israel, the Temple was built to be the place of God’s presence. The Temple was THE place to encounter God. It was His home. When Jesus purifies the Temple in the gospel of John He is doing more than purifying the worship of the people that had been corrupted by greed. Jesus replaces the Temple. No longer in God to be encountered in a place but in a person. The living God is now present and dwelling in the midst of His people in the person of Jesus Christ. When we come to Church, we come to meet Him.

At Church we personally encounter Jesus in different ways. Maybe you have heard someone say something like this, “I don’t need to go to Mass or Church. I can pray and get close to God just fine when I  _________ (answers vary, ex: walk through a park)” It is true that we can encounter God just about anywhere, especially in nature. When we go to Church, however, we encounter Him in an incomparable way. Lets look at three ways we encounter Jesus at Church. First, we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is really, truly, fully Jesus. During Mass we meet Jesus in a personal way in the Eucharist. He is as real and present to us as we are to one another now. Secondly, we encounter Jesus in His Word. Whenever the Scriptures are read, especially the gospels, it is Jesus who speaks personally to each one of us.  When we hear the readings at Mass, we can all be struck by different words or phrases that speak to where we are in our lives. The Bible is not a document with no meaning for us today. It is alive and active! Thirdly, at Mass we encounter Jesus in one another. We are the Body of Christ. Mass is not merely a private exercise between you and God. We come together as a community to worship Jesus and to encounter Him in one another. The Eucharist, the Scriptures and the community - three ways we encounter Jesus personally that you won’t find during a walk through the park!

Going to Church should change us. Whenever we leave here, we should leave transformed so that we become more and more the presence of Jesus to those we encounter. Remember the two categories of people visiting the Basilica of St. John Lateran: tourists and pilgrims. Sometimes we go to Mass as tourists. We passively observe what is happening, hoping it finishes as fast as possible. Our hearts are not open with a desire to encounter Jesus. When we come to Mass as a tourist, the experience will not change us. It should come as no surprise that we will get in arguments the moment we leave the Church and there is a traffic jam in the parking lot! What a difference it makes when we come to Mass as a pilgrim, with a heart full of a desire to encounter Jesus. Pilgrims participate fully in the Mass with devotion even though they may become distracted at times. They speak with God during Mass, bringing to Him their hopes and fears. They remind themselves of the incredible gift of Jesus in the Eucharist. They ask for His help in the coming week. Pilgrims leave Mass transformed, receiving in some way Jesus’ love and mercy. As pilgrims leave the Church, they are for others a presence of Christ’s goodness in the world, fulfilling Ezekiel’s image we find in the first reading of living waters flowing out of the Temple into the world. Because of their encounter with Jesus, pilgrims leave the Church as what St. Paul calls a “living Temple”. They become a person through whom others can encounter the living God.

Being a tourist is great in certain circumstance. Mass, however, is no place for tourists. Most of us attend Mass at least once a week. Is this experience a personal encounter with Jesus that transforms us to become more like Him? Today let us recommit ourselves to being pilgrims - rather than tourists - whenever we go to Church.

Why love transcends the grave (All Soul's Day)

All Soul’s Day (Lamentations 3:17-26, 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, John 1:23-26)

Today we have the rare opportunity to celebrate All Souls Day on a Sunday, giving us the opportunity to celebrate this feast together. We reflect on the reality of death and in particular remember our beloved departed. As we celebrate this feast, each of us probably have in mind some of our own family members or friends who have died. When we take time to recall our loved ones who have passed away we experience many emotions. A flood a memories - both happy and painful - can come pouring back. Above all, such an exercise reveals a desire that we all hold deep in our hearts: we all yearn to remain in contact with our loved ones who have passed away. At the same time, it is quite natural to fear that death is the end of the story. The first reading from Lamentations alludes to this fear and feeling of “homelessness”. Some people even claim that after you die there is nothingness, a void. This is nothing new; at the time of Jesus there was a lively debate regarding what happens when we die. With His life, death and Resurrection Jesus settled the question once and for all.

Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Because of Christ, we have a secure trust that we maintain a relationship with those who have died. During His life, Jesus declared that the dead would indeed rise again. He proved this fact with His own Resurrection. Jesus promised that if we serve Him, He will raise us up after we die. We need to remember that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We do not think that we will spend all eternity as disembodied spirits hanging out on a cloud playing the harp (actually you couldn’t without a body, but I digress)! St. Paul explains that at the final judgement our perishable bodies will become imperishable. Our resurrected bodies will be like that of Jesus’ own resurrected body that we read about in the gospels. It will be similar to, yet different from, our current bodies. Eventually, at the last judgement, we will be bodily reunited with our loved ones. We will see then and touch them.

Even before the last day, however, we remain in communion with the dead. Human beings are made up of body and soul. St. Thomas Aquinas explained that the soul is the form - the animating energy or principle - of the body.  John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist who also happens to be an Anglican priest, explains that the soul is like the blueprint of our existence. This soul, which informs our bodies now, is remembered by God after our death. After death and before the final judgement and the resurrection of our bodies, our souls continue to exist in a certain expectation of the resurrection of the body. The souls of the dead continue to live, not so much in a different place but in a different way. As we read in the book of Wisdom, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God” (Wisdom 3:1). Later our soul becomes the blueprint from which God will reconstitute us, but at a higher pitch. This higher pitch is our resurrected body we receive when Jesus returns at the last day. Since the souls of our loved ones are with God, remembered by Him, we continue to interact with our beloved dead in a real and lively way.

Because we maintain communion with our loved ones after they die, we continue to be able to do acts of love and kindness for them. Death does not cease our ability to help our faithful departed. Here, we come upon the sensitive topic of purgatory. After they die, some friends of God are ready to meet Him immediately. Other friends of God need a time of purification before entering His presence. These days there is a tendency to canonize people at their death. Certainly our deceased loved ones had many fine qualities. At the same time, we know they had their defects, they were human after all! The idea of purgatory makes a lot of sense. Imagine that you were in a pitch black room for many hours and then suddenly walk through the door into incredibly bright daylight. It would take some time for your eyes to adjust and you would even feel some pain and discomfort. Being in the presence of God in heaven is like being face to face with the sun. Purgatory, is that time in which you prepare yourself to be in that light. In fact, many, including the poet Dante, argue that those in purgatory decide how long they will stay there. It is like walking out from a dark room into the sun. You decide when it is safe to open your eyes wide. Because we are in communion with those in Purgatory, we can pray for them to help them enter the presence of God as soon as possible.

All Souls day is a day of hope. We remember that because of the Resurrection of Jesus we can be sure that we maintain union with our loved ones when they pass away. Ultimately, we will be reunited body and soul at the resurrection of the dead. Even before then, their souls are with God. Since we are in union with them, we can still show them love. Let us find some way concrete way to show love and kindness to our faithful departed today by praying for them, offering Mass for their soul or visiting a cemetery.