King of the Ring

This past weekend, many youth from the parish participated in an awesome retreat called The King of the Ring. During this retreat, boxing was used as a powerful metaphor for our life as Christians. This metaphor is very accurate. Following Jesus means that we will often have to fight against various opponents. Like a boxer we are also surrounded by a great many people. Some are on our side, cheering for us and giving us advice. At the same time, it is difficult to hear these voices because there are also some in the crowd who are cheering for our opponents. They also try to give us bad advice in an attempt to have us make a false move or give up. Being a Christian is much like being a boxer fighting in a ring.

When we follow Jesus, we will have to fight to love God and keep His commandments. This is the challenge that Jesus gives us in the gospel of today. Though we all need to love God more, in a real way, we all do love God. Though we all are need to follow God’s commandments better, we all are trying to live and love as Jesus did. It would be wonderful of this was an easy thing to do. It would be great if being a Christian could be all rainbows and unicorns all the time, but it isn’t. Trying to follow the commandments is a struggle against various opponents. First, we fight against ourselves. None of us is perfect. We are broken and selfish human beings. Though we often know the right way to act, it can be very difficult to do so. As Jesus said, “the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). Second, we sometimes battle against other people. Conflicts can arise simply because of misunderstandings. Sometimes because of their own woundedness, people will try to hurt us, often to make themselves feel better. Regardless of the reason, these blows hurt. Finally, we fight Satan. The devil is real and will do all he can to keep us from loving God and keeping His commandments. As the saying goes: the struggle is real. This, however, should not surprise us. Jesus Himself was a fighter. He fought for all that was good, true and beautiful. He fought for the weak. He fought to reunite us with God our Father. It should come as no surprise that if we want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and keep God’s commandments, we will also have to struggle.

In this fight, many voices will try to prevent us from winning. As a boxer in the ring, you are surrounded by a great crowd who all cry out. Many of these voices try to prevent you from loving God and following His commandments. For an activity on the retreat, I had the opportunity to talk with a few youth about this Gospel, in order to brainstorm ideas for this homily. They focused on the fact that in our life as Christians we encounter many voices that hold us back. Some of these voices take the form of negative peer pressure from our friends. Some of these voices we perceive as coming from those closest to us, our own family. Some of these voices come from within our own head. Here is a selection of some of the things the youth heard these voices saying.
You need to get good grades at school. If you don’t you are a failure. Don’t go to Mass today. You are too busy with school and work. If you want to fit in, you need to go to this party where there will be drugs and alcohol. You’re not good enough. You’re not pretty enough. You’re not smart enough. Nobody really likes you.
The youth also described how these voices made them feel. Anxious. Alone. Weighed down. Defeated. In our struggle to love God and follow His commandments, many voices try to prevent us from winning.

In this fight, the Holy Spirit is in our corner, ensuring us of victory. While on retreat, the youth talked about the numerous people that each of us have in our corners like our parents and good friends. Though Jesus does not fight our fights for us, as He explains in the Gospel of today, He has given us the Holy Spirit, who is the strongest support that we have. The Holy Spirit is like like the trainer that each boxer has in his or her corner. The trainer advises the boxer and gives encouragement. The trainer is the most important voice of all to listen to. Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete. The word Paraclete means a number of things such as advocate, counsellor and consoler. In contrast to all the negative voices they hear, the youth explained that the Holy Spirit will say things like this to us.
You are beautiful, good, and God’s beloved son or daughter. You are never alone no matter how lonely you feel. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t succeed at first. Try your best. Life is a journey. God has a great plan for you. Respect and take care of yourself by not giving into the pressure to drink and do drugs. No matter how bad things seem, they will get better. Don’t loose hope.
The youth also described how it made them feel knowing that they had they Holy Spirit in their corner supporting them. Hope. Cared for. Trust. Peace. Loved. The Holy Spirit is the greatest gift from Jesus, He is our greatest support in our battle as followers of Jesus.

In order to ensure ourselves of victory, we need to take some practical steps to ensure that we are able to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are very busy and noisy. Here are two practical things we can do to ensure that the voice of the Paraclete is not drowned out:
  1. Actively seek silence and solitude in order to listen to the Holy Spirit. In a boxing ring, the boxer cannot normally hear the trainer over the noise from the crowd. For this reason, in between rounds, the boxer goes into the corner to be with and listen to the trainer. Likewise the voice of the Holy Spirit is a quiet one. In order to hear what He is saying to us, we need to choose some time each day to be in silence and solitude. Turn off your phone, music and computer. Give the Holy Spirit a chance to be heard. Start with five minutes.
  2. Keep a journal of the good things that the Holy Spirit says to you. You can do this during your time of silence and solitude! We have all at times heard the Holy Spirit’s voice of encouragement and love. Sometimes it is in something we read, sometimes through the voice of a friend or other times when in prayer. Unfortunately we tend to forget quickly these good and encouraging things. We focus on the negative voices. To combat this tendency, it can be very powerful to write down in a book the truth the Holy Spirit shows you. Write down all the things you love about yourself. Your talents and good qualities. What makes you a good friend. The values you want to live by. Often write down the blessings that happen in the day. Simple things like a nice conversation with a friend or the time you were able to show kindness to someone. Keep all this in a journal and refer to it often, especially when you are down and feel like giving up.

Our life as followers of Jesus is a battle. Loving God and keeping His commandments is not easy, but it is a something truly worth fighting for. Never give up, especially when you are knocked to the ground. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to help and console us. Today chose to take some steps to ensure you can hear His voice above the crowd. Decide to spend some few minutes each day in silence and solitude to write in a journal all the good and encouraging things that the Holy Spirit has to say to you. With the Paraclete by our side, victory is assured!

Jesus, the answer is always Jesus!

John 14:1-12 (5th Sunday of Easter, year A)
 Late Roman Empire apsidal mosaic from the Church of Santa Pudenziana, Rome
Before they die, a leader will often give to their followers their Last Will and Testament, in which they give one final teaching or last set of instructions.  For example, St. Pope John Paul II wrote a Last Will and Testament that was published after his death. This document was quoted in newspapers around the world. For good reason, people tend to pay close attention to the Last Will and Testament of famous leaders. In such a speech or document, leaders gets one final opportunity to leave some “last words” with their followers. They tend to make these words count!

We should pay close attention to the Gospel of today because it is part of Jesus’ Last Will and Testament. The Gospel passage that we just heard is from a section of the Gospel of John that is usually called the Farewell Discourse. This section comes right after Jesus has washed the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper and right before He begins His Passion. It is the last opportunity that Jesus has to speak with His followers. In the Farewell Discourse, of which we heard only the first part today, Jesus does three things:
  1. Offers consolation. Prior to his death, Jesus wants to comfort his followers by making sure that they will be taken care of. He wants them to ensure that their “hearts are not troubled”.
  2. Sum up the purpose of His life and teaching. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus is clear about His mission: He has been sent by the Father to reunite us with the Father and make us His sons and daughters. Jesus does this both by revealing the Father to us by His words and actions and by His Passion death and resurrection. Jesus is clear that He and He alone can perform this vital mission.
  3. Appoints a successor. Because He will soon be returning to His Father, Jesus will no longer be present to His disciples in the same way. Jesus however, will not abandon them. He explains that He will send a successor to be present and guide all His followers. This successor is the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
These are the important points that Jesus makes throughout His Last Will and Testament.

The farewell discourse of Christ should fill us with peace and consolation.  A portion of today’s Gospel should should very familiar because it is often read at funerals. This is the part when Jesus explains to His followers that there are many rooms in His Father’s house. Whenever I hear this, I am struck by how personal this message is. Imagine that you have been away from your family for years. Perhaps you were working abroad or studying in some foreign country. Finally the moment has arrived for you to return home. After your plane lands at YVR, you take a cab back to your family home. When you arrive at the house, you see your loved ones waiting for you at the front door. You leave the cab and embrace them. Eventually you are shown inside the house to a room that has been lovingly prepared just for you. If this happened to you, would you not feel special? Would you not feel peace and consolation? Jesus’ words are meant to make us feel this way. He wants us to know that we are taken care of not just now, but for all eternity. Jesus has prepared a room has lovingly been prepared just for each one of us.

In His Last Will and Testament, Jesus makes us clear that He and only He can prepare this place for us in the Father’s house. I really enjoy visiting students in the school or in catechism class. Sometimes I ask the student some questions. Regardless of the the question, students invariably give the same answer each time: Jesus! They think that this is always the correct answer. With respect to this Gospel, the students would be right. Jesus tells His followers that He is the way, the truth and the life. We need to remember that Jesus is not saying that He is a way, a truth and a life. No, what Jesus is saying is very provocative and very challenging. He is the way, the truth and the life. With this He affirms the thinking of those students.  It is as though He is saying, “the answer is Jesus, it is always Jesus!” What does it mean that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? By telling us this, Jesus reminds us that of a few things:
  • Because He is the way, everyone who goes to heaven goes there because of Jesus. Anyone who is reunited with God, regardless of when they lived or what religion they professed is reunited because of Jesus, whether they believe in Him or not.
  • Because Jesus is the truth, He alone fully reveals who God is and how we should live as human beings. Certainly we can find truth in other religions and philosophies, but the fullness of this truth is only found wholly in Jesus.
  • Because He is the life, all human beings benefit from being in a relationship with Jesus Christ. He alone can fill the human heart.
Jesus is very clear in His farewell discourse that He and He only prepares a place for us in the Father’s house.

We need the courage to hold fast to this message and not water it down.  Jesus’ statement that He is the way, the truth and the life was incredibly provocative and controversial when He said it. It is no less radical today. In our western culture it is considered rude at best and hateful at worst to claim that there is one truth that is applicable to all people. In the name of tolerance, we are told that all truths are relative. In this way of thinking, though I could say that it is true and right for me personally to follow Jesus and His way, I could never say that that is true and right for all people. Inconveniently, however, Jesus says just that! Now, I am not suggesting that we shove our beliefs down other people’s throats. It is helpful to remember the words of St. John Paul II:
We must make clear to all our brothers and sisters that the Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.
The Church imposes nothing, but she proposes everything. We need to make sure that we propose to others what Jesus wants us to propose. This is hard for me. When I am speaking with friends who are not Christian it is easier for me to say that I try to put Jesus at the center of my life and this makes me happy. It is a lot harder to say that I believe that it is best if they too try to put Jesus at the center of their lives. It is not easy to propose to others that they will be happier and live a better life if they are in a relationship with Jesus and follow the way of life He showed us. It is hard but that is the message Jesus has left us. It takes courage to hold fast to this message and not water it down.

The Last Will and Testament of someone is a very special and even sacred thing. We pay close attention to the last words of someone. We respect them and would never want to change them. In His farewell discourse Jesus fills us with consolation in knowing that we are taken care of. At the same time, He leaves us with an incredible challenging message: I am the way, the truth and the life. Let us respect the Last Will and Testament of Jesus by holding fast to this message and ask for the courage to propose this message to those we encounter. Or in the words of those students: Jesus! The answer is always Jesus!

Easter: an unopened gift?

John 10:1-10 (4th Sunday of Easter, Year A)
Jesus as the Good Shepherd, S. Callisto catacomb, 3rd century
What happens if someone gives you a gift and you never unwrap it? Obviously you would never get to enjoy the gift. It would never really become a part of your life and would just sit on the shelf unused. Year after year during the Easter season we celebrate the greatest gift we have been given: the new life we have received from Jesus. Do we, however, truly experience this new life? As the years go by, do we experience the peace that should come with this gift of new life from Jesus? To be honest, I often do not experience this peace. I do not think I am alone. Perhaps it is because we do not truly open and use the gift Christ has given us. Oftentimes it sits on our shelves, unopened and unused.

We cannot experience the new life Jesus won for us by His death and Resurrection without our participation. Jesus does not simply wave a magic wand over us and we instantly feel and peace. We need to do something. This point is illustrated by two images for Jesus that we find in the Gospel of the day. 
  1. Jesus, the Good Shepherd. This is an image we are more familiar with. If we were to continue reading on in this chapter from John, we would read about how Jesus is a shepherd who gives life to His sheep through His own death. 
  2. Jesus, the Gate. This is an image we are less familiar with. Jesus describes Himself as the gate of the sheepfold. Why a gate? When we think about it, the image makes a lot of sense. Imagine that we are trying to enter a beautiful, lush pasture that is gated all around the perimeter. The only way that we can enter into such a pasture is through the gate. Jesus is the gate that leads to the pastures of new life, both now and for eternity. What this image draws out is the fact that though Jesus has opened for us the way to salvation and new life, we personally have to walk through the gate
Jesus has given us the gift of new life, but we need to open this gift, we need to do something in order to experience it.

We pass through this gate and experience the new life Jesus has won for us by responding to our vocation. Before the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics thought that the only people who had a vocation were priests and nuns. This way of thinking is still out there. For example, when I was at the seminary and someone made the decision to leave the seminary, people would sometimes say that this individual “lost his vocation”. The Second Vatican Council, in the document called Lumen Gentium, affirmed that each and every baptized Christian has a vocation. In fact, we all have the same vocation: holiness. The primary calling of each of us is to be holy, which means to live like Jesus did. It is by becoming holy that we truly experience the new life that Jesus has given us. This fundamental vocation of holiness is lived in different ways. These different paths towards holiness are what we usually think of when we think of vocations: married life, priesthood, religious life and the single life. This weekend we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It is a great time to remind ourselves that for each of us our primary vocation is to be holy. We also want to pray in a special way that young people in particular will be able to discover the special path that God is showing them to become holy, whether it be a call to the priesthood, married life, religious life or single life. In our baptism we have all been given a vocation and it is by accepting and living this vocation that we pass through Jesus, the true gate, to experience the fullness of life.

We respond to our call to holiness by laying down our lives for others in imitation of Jesus. Jesus laid down His life for us in a total and absolute way by dying for us on the cross. Though we probably are not asked to literally die for others, each of us is called to lay down our lives for our neighbors in a very concrete way through service. Recently, I saw a short video that became very famous online called Interview for the World's Toughest Job. In this video, someone made up a fake job and advertised it online and in newspapers. A number of people, believing that it was a real job, applied for the position and real interviews for the job were held. The video is a compilation of a few of these interviews. During this interview, the applicants were gradually told the expectations and requirements of this job:
  • must serve a client who can be very demanding and offer little thanks
  • must possess a large number of skills and talents in order to serve client
  • there are few, if any breaks while working
  • expected to serve their client 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • this job pays absolutely nothing
Each of the people being interviewed responded that the job description sounded inhumane. Some asked if it was even legal. The man doing the interview then revealed that millions upon millions of people actually do this, the world’s toughest job everyday: moms! This weekend, we celebrate Mother’s Day. We want to give thanks to our mother’s for the great love and service they have shown us. Motherhood is a striking example of how people, in imitation of Jesus, concretely lay down their lives in service of others out of love.

When we serve other people, we experience true peace. Service is the way that we unwrap the gift that Jesus has won for us by His death and Resurrection. Service is the path through which we enter Jesus the gate. In order to be an authentic, sustained way of life, this service must be motivated by the faith and love that comes from encountering God. Blessed Mother Teresa, someone who was known around the world for her faith, love and service, formulated the following saying:
The fruit of silence is prayer,
the fruit of prayer is faith, 
the fruit of faith is love, 
the fruit of love is service, 
the fruit of service is peace.

I find this saying very helpful. When we do not experience fully the gift of new life that Jesus gives us at Easter, we can use it as a type of diagnostic tool. Are you not feeling peace? If so, ask yourself if you are serving others. Are you unable to serve your neighbor? If so, ask yourself if you feel love for them. If you feel no love for those around you ask yourself if you have faith. If your faith is weak, check on your prayer life. If you are struggling in your prayer life, take time for silence so that you can rekindle an encounter with God. Today let us test ourselves. Where in this prayer from Mother Teresa are we getting blocked? What can you do about it? Let us unwrap the gift of new life we receive from Jesus. Don’t put it on the shelf, unused and ignored.