How we should touch Jesus in the Eucharist

Mark 5:21-43 (13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year B)

A young girl was becoming impatient and antsy during Mass. The homily was long and boring. The Church was very hot. All the prayers seemed to drag on. After the girl could take it no longer she turned to her mother and said, “mommy, when can we get out of here?!” Her mother told her she needed to sit still for just a few minutes longer. Frustrated, the girl slumped into her pew and began looking around the Church to kill time. As she gazed at the backs of the different interesting people at Mass, her eyes caught hold of the red, sanctuary lamp. At that moment, something clicked inside the girl’s head. She pulled on her mother’s sleeve and said to her, “mommy, when the light turns green can we go?”

We can sometimes approach our time in Church like that little girl. The only thing on our mind is when we can get out of here! It's easy to be so focused on when we can get out of the Church that we risk getting nothing out of Mass. The story we just heard about the hemorrhaging woman teaches us how we can prevent this from happening.

A central theme in the story of Jesus healing the woman is the different ways that people touch Jesus and the corresponding effect this has on their lives. Jesus is walking through a large crowd. As a result, many people are touching Him as He makes His way past them. These people, however, touch Jesus without considering who He is or what He could do for them. To them He is just an ordinary person. The people who touch Jesus in this way experience no change in their lives. As He walks along, Jesus suddenly stops and exclaims to His disciples, “who touched me?” They don’t know who to respond to this. They are in a crowd. People are bumping into Jesus at every moment. Jesus realizes that someone touched Him in a way that was radically different from the rest of the people. He wants to know who touched Him with faith. Turning around, He came face to face with the hemorrhaging woman.

This poor individual had been bleeding for twelve years. She had spent all her money visiting doctors in a vain search for a cure. In addition to her physical ailment, the woman suffers emotionally. Because of her bleeding, the Mosaic law dictates that she is ritually unclean. As a result, no one is permitted to touch her or else they too will become unclean. Eventually this desperate woman hears about Jesus and travels a long distance to visit Him. She knows that He is no ordinary man and trusts in His power. She thinks, “if only I can touch His clothes, I can be cured”.  Reaching out, she touches Jesus in a way different than everyone else in the crowd. She touches Him with faith. Because of this, she alone among the crowd is changed by touching Jesus. Power flows out of Jesus and she is healed.

In every Sacrament, and especially in the Eucharist, we have the opportunity to touch Jesus just like the hemorrhaging woman. In the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter in Rome, there is a 4th century fresco that depicts the scene of Jesus healing the bleeding woman. The image catches the woman at the moment she has touched the cloak of Jesus with great trust and faith. Ancient Christians created this fresco in order for two reasons: 1) to depict this biblical story as well, and 2) to encourage all who look at the image to remember that each time they receive a Sacrament they take the role of the hemorrhaging woman in the story.  Like her, when we approach any Sacrament we come with some woundedness. Hopelessness. A hurt from a relationship. Captivity to sin. In each Sacrament, we touch Jesus. When we touch Him with faith and trust, power, which we call grace, flows from Jesus into us. As a result we receive some healing. We grow closer to Jesus and are strengthened as we follow after Him. The Sacrament in which we have the opportunity to touch Jesus in the most profound way is the Eucharist. When we receive Holy Communion at Mass, we touch Jesus who is truly present in the consecrated Host.

Whenever we receive the Eucharist, it is critical that we touch Jesus in the same way that the hemorrhaging woman did. Unfortunately, we often touch Jesus in the way that the rest of the crowd did. As He walked among them, they touched Him with a lack of faith and trust. As a result, they were not changed by their encounter. Receiving Communion can be like this for us. When we touch the Host, we do it without thinking Who we are touching or what we desire Him to do for us. This is a problem. When we swallow a pill, the medicine works on us regardless of what sentiments we carry in our heart. Receiving Communion does not work like this. Our disposition matters greatly. Unless we approach Jesus in the Eucharist with the faith and trust of the sick woman we do not receive all the graces Jesus wants to give us.

Once I witnessed someone who touched Jesus in the Eucharist in the same way that the hemorrhaging woman touched Jesus in the crowd. At the time I was living in Tijuana. As part of my apostolate I would attend Mass in a poor chapel in a rural area of the city called Ranchito. In this town there lived a young girl whose name was Xóchitl. Xóchitl was born with spina bifida and suffered much from the complications of her illness. As a result, she was often in pain when I saw her at Mass. Xóchitl’s mom once gave an amazing account of what her daughter does at Mass. On days when Xóchitl feels particularly bad, after she has received communion she simply says to Jesus in her heart, “please make me feel better”. When Xóchitl touches Jesus with this kind of profound faith and trust, Jesus certainly floods her with grace and enters into a deeper relationship with her at this moment.

Whenever we are at Mass we should try to imitate Xóchitl rather than the girl who caught sight of the red sanctuary Mass. When you receive Holy Communion today, touch Jesus with the faith of the hemorrhaging woman, trusting that He will heal you and draw you closer to Himself.

How Pope Francis' "Laudato Si" has challenged me

Mark 4:35-41 (12th Sunday Ordinary time, year b)

Recently, I have been reading and reflecting on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on the environment. His message has challenged me. Before, I did not think that caring for the environment was a central part of being Catholic. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think that environment issues were unimportant, I just thought that they were secondary. Pope Francis has made me reconsider my mentality. His model for how we should relate to the environment is St. Francis of Assisi. In fact, the name of the document, Laudato Si (“Praised be to you”), are the first words of a canticle composed by the saint. For St. Francis, conversion is not just about growing closer to God and other people. A necessary part of following Jesus is developing a better relationship with the environment.

The first step in this conversion is reexamining how we view our relationship to the rest of creation. Sometimes we think in the following way. The earth belongs to us. We are its masters. Humans are separate from the rest of creation. The rest of nature is good only in so far as it is useful to us. The reason we should take care of the environment is so that we can continue using it in the future. Today’s gospel upsets this way of thinking. The disciples are in a boat crossing the sea and Jesus is in the back of the boat sleeping. Suddenly they are caught in a violent storm. The wind howls around them and the waves batter the boat. The disciples fear for their lives. They are helpless in the face of these forces of nature. They recognize clearly that they do not control creation. They ask Jesus for help and with a word He calms the wind and the sea. Nature obeys Him. The disciples then exclaim, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” In their hearts they already know the answer: Jesus must be God, the creator of the wind, sea and all that is. Only the creator is master of creation.

We are not God. We are part of creation, not its master. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1) and belongs to Him. It was here before us and was given to us to care for. St. Francis understood that the earth, our common home, “is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us” (Laudato Si, 1). All other living beings have their own dignity and purpose in the eyes of God. They do not exist solely for our use. God wants us to be stewards and not masters of the environment. We are to care for the earth, not control it.

We have failed to be good stewards of creation. The earth, our sister, “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (2). In writing Laudato Si, Pope Francis has done his homework. He has entered into dialogue with the scientific community in order to understand the various ways our actions have harmed the environment. Climate change, which adversely affects all forms of life, is caused in large part by human activity. Deforestation has scarred our landscape. We have polluted the earth, dumping chemicals, waste and garbage upon it. As a result, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (12). Because of poor stewardship, the planet’s biodiversity has decreased. Many plants and animals no longer exist. “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right” (33).

Although our failure to care for the earth, our common home, affects us all, the poor suffer most. The goods of the earth are intended for all. However, we who live in wealthier countries take far more than our share, leaving little for the poor or future generations. If everyone in the world were as wasteful as we are in Canada, the earth would soon be destroyed entirely. Environmental damage disproportionately affects the poorest. Their lands are the most scarred as a result of our poor stewardship. They have less access to natural resources. Many do not even have a reliable source of water. This is a violation of a basic human right.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis presents what he calls an integral ecology. “Everything”, he writes, “is interconnected.” (70). In our life, the following are all linked: our relationship with God, our relationship with the environment and our relationship with others, particularly the poor. When one relationship is weak, the other two suffer. For example, when we are not close to God our hearts become empty and we try to fill them by consuming more and more. This leads us to carelessly pillage the earth. The resulting environmental damage harms others, especially the poor. On the other hand, when one relationship is healthy, the other two improve. For example, when we see the beauty of creation it draws us closer to God, the creator. When we view the earth as a gift, good in itself, we freely share it with others, especially those most in need.

Pope Francis calls us all - individuals and governments - to ecological conversion. It is unacceptable to ignore problems any longer; action is required. We must choose to “hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49).  On the national and international level, binding processes must be established that safeguards the environment and holds violators accountable. For there to be lasting change, ecological conversion must occur on a personal level. “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change” (202). Ecological conversion means living a simpler life. It is choosing to stop buying more stuff, and rejecting the “throw-away culture” in favor of the conviction that “less is more” (222). Ecological conversion means living a life more focused on nature. It is choosing to bring our family to the park rather than a mall for recreation. Ecological conversion means living a life more focused on relationships, learning to “to think deeply and to love generously” (47). It is choosing to look up from our phones and have real interactions with people, face to face. Ecological conversion means considering how our actions affects the environment and others, especially the poor. It is choosing to do things “such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, and turning off unnecessary lights” (211).

Laudato Si has challenged me to consider how my relationship with God, the environment and the poor are all interrelated. It has pushed me to make concrete changes in my actions. Pope Francis wrote the document to provoke us. Throughout, he asks us to consider an important question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (160)  Do we want to leave an environment that reflects the beauty of God or one that is scarred from neglect? Do we want to leave behind the values of greed, disconnectedness and wastefulness or of concern for all, especially the poor? What kind of world do you want to leave behind? All of us are called to reflect and to take action.

Why starting small and growing slow is good for us (aka The Mustard Seed Strategy)

Mark 4:26 - 34 (11th Sunday OT, year B)

The Canadian Federal Election is over five months away and already ads are everywhere. Campaigning is in high gear. Though politics and governments have changed since the days of the Roman Empire - THE kingdom at the time of Jesus - much has stayed the same. The goal of leaders is still to gain as much power as quickly as possible. They want their kingdoms to start large and grow rapidly.

Jesus also came to build a kingdom, something He called the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. He spoke of this kingdom in parables. In it, God is in control. The values, priorities and goals of the Kingdom of Heaven should reflect what God wants. As Christians, we are called to build up this kingdom. This is a two-step process. First, we look at our world - whether it is our country, parish or family - and ask ourselves, “if Jesus was in charge, what would He change?” Second, we go and make this desired change a reality. Eventually, at the end of time, the Kingdom of God will have full reign and authority. Until then, it is a work in progress.

The way that the Kingdom of Heaven grows is completely different to the way that a leader of a political party would want to grow their kingdom. Here is the strategy of a politician: gain maximum power in the minimum time possible. The Kingdom of God follows the strategy of the mustard seed: it starts small and grows slowly. Though this strategy seems counterintuitive, it is for our own good.

The strategy of the mustard seed is particularly evident in the early growth of the Church. The Church started small and humble. It had its roots in an politically insignificant part of the Roman Empire. From the start, those who joined the Church in the largest numbers were people who the rest of society viewed as irrelevant: women and slaves. The growth of the Church was slow and marked by many challenges and persecutions. Until the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity was outlawed. Catholics were forced to practice their faith in the shadows. Many were martyred. When the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the 4th century, the Church became more and more influential. When the Roman Empire fell in the West, the Church stepped in and filled the vacuum, becoming the most powerful force for a time. By this time, the mustard seed had grown to be a large plant.

It took centuries for the Church to slowly gain influence with the rest of the world. This slow growth was necessary. Politicians want to posses the most power as quickly as possible. This can hurt themselves and others. Power can corrupt leaders. Corrupt and cruel leaders hurt countless people when they are given influence. God wanted His Church, which is working to build up the Kingdom of God here on earth, to exercise influence on the entire world. This power however, had to start small and be gained slowly. The Church had much to learn before it was ready to exercise such influence. The Church learned the importance of humility and always caring for the marginalized and outcast in society. The Church learned how power could be abused. The centuries of struggle taught her to always rely on God.

This slow, mustard seed growth is important not just for the Church as a whole but also for individuals within the Church. We learn much along our journey. God gives influence to those building up His Kingdom when they are mature enough to wield it. A powerful example of this is found in the life of Pope Francis, an inspiring example of someone working to build up the Kingdom of God. As Pope, he has incredible influence. He is able to do so much. It can seem like a shame that He was only elected at the age of 77. Could he not have done more if he were elected earlier? The truth is that Jorge Bergoglio was only ready to become Pope Francis at the age of 77. In his life he experienced many challenges and setbacks that formed him into the man he is today. Jorge Bergoglio was made a provincial superior in his religious community - a very important post - at the very young age of 37. For a decade he exercised great influence. His Church career was on a meteoric rise. Then, everything changed. He fell out of favour with his superiors, was stripped of his role and banished from any position of authority or influence. These were very difficult years for him but they were, by his own admission, necessary. He learned a lot through his suffering. He gained humility and grew in kindness to those who suffer. He became the man we now know as Pope Francis.

There is a very simple reason why the Kingdom of God must be like a mustard seed. It starts small and grows slowly because God is more concerned with changing our hearts than with changing structures. God is God; He could act in anyway imaginable. He could come into the world as a powerful King and make sweeping structural changes. He could create a tax structure that justly distributed wealth and eliminated poverty. He could physically force people to go to Church. He could make it utterly impossible for us to develop weapons and wage war. God could do this, but He does not because He wants to change our hearts and not just structures. He wants us to become the kind of people who want to give to the poor. God wants our hearts to change so that we desire to go to Church. He is working to transform us so that we never want to wage war. God wants to change our hearts to become like His own. This work starts small and takes time.

We often prefer the growth strategy of a politician over that of the mustard seed. When we see a problem, whether it is in our country, city or parish, we want some kind of change made quickly. Generally the kind of change we demand is external. Jesus, however, teaches us that the kind of change that matters is internal. Because this change is painful and difficult, we tend to flee from it. Today let us remember a fundamental principle of the Kingdom of Heaven: the world will change when our hearts change.

Corpus Christ: what it means to "offer it up"

Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 9:11-15, Mark 14:12-26 (Corpus Christi, year B)

During my second year at university I was going through a tough time, feeling overburdened with assignments and exams. I was stressed out and burnt out. In the midst of this, I sat down for coffee with a friend of mine. I vented to him for a half hour about the struggles I was facing. I was looking for a sympathetic ear and to receive some encouragement. After I finished speaking, my friend, who was quite a bit more religious than I was at the time, simply said “you need to offer it up”. Offer it up?! This was not what I wanted to hear. I felt like my friend had ruined my pity party. So, rather maturely, I responded (or perhaps shouted) back to him “why don’t you offer it up?!”

At this very moment each of us carries different struggles and burdens. An illness we are coping with. Stress related to financial uncertainty or difficulties with work or school. The pain of a relationship that seems broken beyond repair. Today I am going to suggest that we do as my friend advised me some years ago: offer it up. More than this, I will suggest we offer up whatever burden we carry whenever we are at Mass. Before you have the chance to respond strongly to my suggestion, as I did to my friend’s, I want to give some rationale supporting it.

Jesus was crucified on Calvary, in the shadow of the Temple. Early Christians explained that we cannot appreciate the significance of Jesus’ death on the Cross, unless we understand its connection to the Temple. For the 1st century Jew, the Temple was the epicenter of their religious life. It was the place where people came to encounter God and perform the central act in their religion: offering sacrifice. Sacrifices of grain and  and animals were continuously offered in the Temple. For us, the idea of sacrifice can seem foreign, barbaric even. It is as though sacrifices are meant to appease the hunger of some brutal deity. Jews viewed the idea of sacrifice very differently. They understood that in offering sacrifice they were taking a small piece of God’s creation and returning it back to Him. It was an act of thanksgiving. In the first reading, which describes the sacrifice offered by Moses, we see another purpose of sacrifice. Moses took the blood of the sacrifice and placed half on the altar and half on the people. This action was meant to unite God and the people. Sin separates us from God. In offering sacrifice the people tried to restore their relationship with God. As the author to the Hebrews makes clear, however, countless animal sacrifices could not achieve this task. All the sacrifices offered in the Temple find its fulfillment in Jesus’ offering of Himself on the Cross. The blood of Jesus does what the blood of animal sacrifices could never fully accomplish: it definatively re-unifies humanity with God.

Jesus gave us the Eucharist so that we would have a way to stay connected to the sacrifice He offered once and for all on Calvary. When we read the accounts of Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, we find that they are filled with the language of sacrifice. Take it; this is my body. This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Jesus is using Temple talk. He is making an explicit link between the Eucharist and His death on the Cross. Whenever we are at Mass, we are connected to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. The question is how? The answer is found in Jesus in other words at the Last Supper: “do this in memory of me”. To appreciate this phrase, we need to realize that Jesus and His followers had a radically different conception of “remembrance” than us.  If I look at a picture from an old holiday, I “remember” the experience by thinking about where I was and who was with me. The memory may evoke a certain emotion.  For Jews at the time of Christ, “remembering” meant much more. It was a very loaded term.  For example, at each Passover, the Jews remembered the Exodus, when God freed them from slavery in Egypt.  When Jews “remembered” the Exodus, they did not simply understand that they were thinking about it and celebrating the event.  They believed that they were actually made present at the Exodus; through remembrance, they really participated in an event that occurred over 1000 years before.

When Jesus said “do this in memory of me”, He meant it in the Jewish sense of the term.  Jesus followers understood that when they “did this in memory of Jesus”, when they celebrated the Mass, they were really present again at the Passion and Death of Jesus.   Because of this, when we do “this in remembrance of Jesus” He really becomes present in our midst.  At the moment of the consecration, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. At every Mass, we believe that we are really made present at the one sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary nearly 2000 years ago.

We are not, however, mere spectators to Christ’s self offering. The Mass allows us to participate in this sacrifice.  Any offering or sacrifice that we make to God on our own is just like the grain and animal sacrifices offered in the Temple. They are well intentioned but ultimately ineffective. The incredible thing about the Eucharist is that it joins us to Jesus. When we eat food, that food is digested and becomes a part of our body. With the Eucharist, it is just the opposite. The Eucharist is food which transforms us into itself. Whenever we receive Communion we are joined to Jesus. Because of this, when we offer our sacrifices at Mass, we offer them in union with Jesus. This gives our sacrifices value and makes them effective. Our sacrifices become true acts of thanksgiving which are able to really help others, bringing them closer to God. Together with Jesus, our sacrifices help to reunite humanity and divinity.

Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to almighty God, the almighty Father.  We hear these words each Mass but they often go in one ear and out the other. We miss an incredible opportunity. Each one of us in meant to bring our own personal sacrifice to the Mass, during which it is joined to the sacrifice of Jesus and so given meaning and made fruitful. What will your sacrifice be today? What suffering, challenge, inconvenience, or pain do you carry today? Offer it up. Allow God to use your sacrifice to help save the world.