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Ascension Sunday

Ascension – Descending and Ascending in Love
Vintage commercial from the 1970’s. It is a classic good commercial because the gimmick and message became a part of our speech. Maybe if you are at least as old as me, you remember.
Woman in front of a screen with images popping up behind her: She says: the traffic. Honking horns. She says: The boss. An image of a man yelling through an old style phone. She says: The baby. There is an image of a child crying. She says: The dog. The screen shows a dog barking, woof. “That does it. Calgon take me away.” she declares. And in a scene reminiscent of the spinning house in the Wizard of Oz movie, she finds herself transferred – lounging in a luxurious bubble bath.
The announcer says: Lose your cares in the luxury of a Calgon bath. Calgon softens the water to leave skin feeling silky smooth as it lifts your spirits. The soft luxurious fragrant world of Calgon. Pamper yourself with a Calgon bath. Lose yourself in luxury.
There is a temptation to believe that the Ascension is Jesus ascending up away out of the problems of this world.
In Acts, Jesus is being taken away, up, up into the heavens leaving the disciples looking up. We realize that the disciples still don’t get it. They have been clueless about his mission. They wanted a messiah to kick out the Romans. They have seen him die, rise and then now, he is leaving again. Their misunderstanding is understandable. They are living in difficult times. There’s a lot of uncertainty. The Romans are still in charge … Israel still does not have autonomy. They want out.
It is a common human desire for all of us, like the Calgon woman. Let’s leave this aging body; financial woes; the pesky neighbors; the challenging high school relationships. We just want to get away.
Throughout Christianity there has been a tendency of escapism. Early Christianity: Gnosticism taught that the world is bad and the body is a prison and Christ showed us the way out of this world.
More recently, Millennial versions of Christianity claim that some will go up and others will be left behind.
For the disciples, it is only after Pentecost when the disciples began to understand what the Ascension is all about.
They began to reflect on the entirety of Jesus’ life. Reflected on Incarnation, ministry, passion, death, resurrection and all of his teachings. It was like a dot to dot puzzle where the last dot takes you back to the beginning to close in the image and now you can see what it is. The last dot of Jesus’ life is the Ascension. This makes the picture of Jesus complete. A God who loved the world, broke into the world and was a part of it in the person of Jesus. He drew to Himself all of those people on the margins. All those who were alienated. He drank our humanity to the depth. In the Creed we say: He descended into hell. Jesus Christ experienced the depths of the greatest human alienation from God, even to death. Hell is as far as you go into the descent. The Ascent began with the resurrection. The cycle is complete with the Ascension because the One from heaven returns to heaven and draws all things to himself.
Ascension is part of the paschal mystery, not an addition to it. Ascension is integral to the Easter Story. In ascending to the right hand of the Father, Jesus brought his full humanity – the totality of all he experienced, lived, and loved on earth – into the fullness of the divine reality. All that we humans experience – our hopes, and fears, what delights us and what terrifies us – is now forever embraced and transformed, through Christ into the divine life of God.
Our faith has very little to do with escape. It really has to do with incorporation which means: To bring into the body. It literally means to … to incorporate all of humanity into the cosmic body of Christ.
This is hard to describe. Paul: we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We have died and we have risen with Christ. We are one body in Christ. In Christ everything continues in being. Christ draws all things to Himself. Not some things, but all things. That is the language of incorporation/transformation. Of union. Union with all things, with all creation because we have union with Christ.
Sometimes people try to achieve union with God. Union has already been achieved. No, our job is to realize the union with Christ that we already have. And with all things.
Far from escaping a nasty world, faithful Christians penetrate this world. We continue the work of incorporation that has been started by Christ.
We do this as Jesus did, by descending, by entering into, not escaping from this wounded world but by reaching out to the marginalized, To those outside the body and we say: you too belong. It is a process of self-emptying.
Our job is descent to where Christ is here among us. Jesus sends his apostles out to all the nations to be witnesses or martyrs as it is in Greek … it is hard work. Be part of the transformation of this world.
We do it by recognizing our own brokenness, our own woundedness. We identify where Christ has come to us in our brokenness and woundedness. He accepts us in our woundedness. Christ never says: Come to me when you get your act together. He is with us here and now. That is how we begin the process of incorporation. We recognize that it has happened to us.
The human truth is that we often long to escape to leave the messy world and to ascend to where God is. Jesus’ way is not to escape the messy world but to enter into it and to transform it with love.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Our Blessed Mother who appeared at Fatima 100 years ago

Recently at a meeting of diocesan priests, we were speaking about a common mission. We spoke about making all of our parishes a school of formation for saints. Consider yourself a future saint.
Sometimes, in the same week because of the cycle of daily Mass and Sunday Mass readings, we hear the same reading. Believe it or not, this same Gospel was the reading for Mass on Friday. I asked the 6th grade from St. Mary’s School what they thought Jesus meant: in my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places and I am going to prepare a place for you.
A student responded that Jesus is talking about heaven. I agree. He who is the way the truth and the life and died on the cross and rose to new life told the disciples before He died that He was showing them the way to follow. Jesus gives us the promise to each and every one of us that after we die, we will rise and enjoy the gift of heaven. What a great message and promise of hope. That was over 2000 years ago.
Just one hundred years ago today/yesterday, May 13, 1917, the world received the message of hope again, not from Jesus Christ but directly from His Mother Mary. I share with you this story because it is Mother’s Day weekend and May is Mary’s month. She is the Mother of us all AND also because we are St. Mary’s church and have a connection to Fatima in different ways. On our grounds in the grotto is a depiction of the vision of Our Lady of Fatima 3 children 7, 9 and10 years old had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God while they were tending sheep. Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia.
Before the Blessed Mother appeared to the three children, an Angel of peace appeared in spring of 1916. Playing and praying. Do not be afraid. I am the angel of peace.
1. Bring God to the center of your spiritual life in order to be able to adore him.
2. Believe deeply that the hearts of Jesus and Mary always listen to our prayers even if they do not always answer. Trust that they pay attention to us.
3. The angel also showed particularly to Francisco the importance of living the Eucharistic life.
But around midday on May 13, a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light, appeared to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. The children were so near that they were in the light that encircled her, or which she radiated, perhaps 4-5 feet away.
Messengers from heaven often begin with an exhortation as she did: Please don’t be afraid of me, I’m not going to harm you.
Lucia responded for all three, as she would throughout the apparitions.
“Where are you from?”
I come from heaven.
And Lucia asked if they would go to heaven and if people she knew by name were in heaven. The lady answered truthfully, indicating that some were in heaven and some were in purgatory.
Mary asked if the children would offer themselves to God, and bear all the sufferings He sends in atonement for all the sins that offend Him and for the conversion of sinners.
They agreed that they certainly would. She indicated that they would indeed suffer but the grace of God will be with them and will strengthen them.
She also asked them to Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war.
Every month on the 13th day for the following 6 months, she appeared to them as promised. They went through lots of trials because people did not believe them. Wouldn’t you be skeptical and demand proof?
When she appeared on July 13, she shared a secret in 3 parts which are now all revealed. She showed them hell, war, and the suffering of church. It is to save souls from hell that God wants to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If you do what I tell you, many souls will be saved, and there will be peace.
All these things are present in our lives: salvation – our choice for God or not the suffering of good and evil in the world with war; and suffering of the church. We are responsible. We are called to pray for the Church and for the conversion of sinners.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. He attributed his strong devotion to Mary as protecting him from death. He consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary shortly thereafter. Later he would visit Fatima and place the bullet that was meant to take his life into the crown of Our Blessed Mother’s statue.
So here is another connection to Our Lady of Fatima for us. St. John Paul II established our Diocese of Knoxville on September 8, 1988, the feast of the birthday of Mary. Our current bishop, Richard Stika named Mary and St. John Paul II as patrons of our diocese.
So it is with great devotion on Mother’s Day weekend on this 100th anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima that I highlight this story.
Also today, Pope Francis canonized or declared the brother and sister Francisco and Jacinta to be saints. They who were around the ages of our first communicants led holy lives. Sadly these children died just two years after the apparitions from a flu outbreak in 1919. Jacinta and Francisco said that they would devote their lives to God and offer their sufferings for souls. If they can do it, so can we.
The message of Fatima is still very important for us today. In the midst of great concern and uncertainty about the future, what does Fatima ask of us? Perseverance in the consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, shown daily by the recitation of the Rosary. And what if, despite our prayers, wars continue as they most certainly do? Even though immediate results may not be evident, let us persevere in prayer. Prayer is never useless. Sooner or later, it will bear fruit. And also,
Do not be afraid because we are in the loving embrace of our blessed Mother.

Third Sunday of Easter

Directionally Challenged

Is anyone here directionally challenged? You could not find your way out of a paper bag? Maybe your life is going in the wrong direction.
Let us use this idea of going in the wrong direction as the foundation for this wonderful Easter story of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Emmaus? Has anyone who has gone to the Holy Land ever visited this town named in the Bible? I doubt it because scholarship has not determined where it is. One school of thought is that Emmaus was the place of a Roman garrison- a symbol of power, military might and political esteem. After all the Romans had the power to put Jesus to death. In any case, the disciples are going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are going away from the city of Jerusalem where Jesus the Christ showed His power in a way that is very different than worldly power. Jerusalem is city of the cross.. path of suffering love.
Very emphatically we can say that the two disciples are going in the wrong direction. These two disciples really represent ALL of us who are followers or learners at the feet of Jesus the Teacher and Master. We very much prefer to go in the direction of security AND all that this word encompasses: physical security/defense systems; financial security; political and even religious security with its possible manifestation of an attitude of superiority and arrogance. All of us, myself included, tend to walk the wrong way and seek security and power from the world rather than security in God. Think about your own life and examples of how you do this.
This journey takes place on the first day of the week, the day when God began the work of the Creation of the world. It is the day when Jesus the Christ begins the work of the re-Creation of the world. And even as we walk the wrong way, Jesus comes to us. Jesus drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. It is not easy to recognize God when you are walking the wrong way. This can apply to our Moral life… if you are caught up in yourself and focus on what you want, you won’t understand.
They stop and ask a Him a question in response to His query about what they are talking about as they walk. Isn’t that ironic… the only person who does not know? He’s THE only person who does know what he is about.
They know data. The facts are absolutely correct about Jesus the Nazarene. They don’t get pattern to make the data coherent.
I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC with St. Mary’s School 8th grade class. One of the places that we visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Very powerful. The teacher emphasized that it is not just about killing more than 6 million Jews and other undesirables. The Nazis relied on the vast majority of “bystanders” as the museum names them. These are good people who saw the atrocities that were going on and they did nothing. Some were Christians who failed to live the sacrifice of love for any brother or sister in need. There is a pattern that any good teacher would want us to see in history and in humanity. There were also the righteous ones who did sacrifice their security and lives in order to help. These were at the end of the museum.
How many of us can rattle off the facts about Jesus, but fail to not only to know the pattern, but LIVE the pattern. The way of Jesus is the path of suffering love.
That’s why he says “O, how foolish you are. How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke.”
Jesus states the Pattern – “was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted what is in what we call the Old Testament that referred to Him.
In DC, at the Basilica of National Shrine of Immaculate Conception, there are beautiful rosary windows in the apse. (15 – the number of mysteries when the church was built). The windows above are the mysteries of the rosary; below are windows of Old Testament stories connected to the particular mystery. The key to the Old Testament is the pattern of Jesus’ own life. The pattern of self-sacrificing love is in the entire WORD of GOD. Were not our hearts burning as he opened the Scriptures for us? As He opened the Scriptures, their hearts begin to burn. Bible becomes alive once you know how to read it.
We conclude with a Sacramental presentation of the pattern. He took Bread, said the blessing and broke it. The Eucharist is suffering love of Jesús. And then, their Eyes were opened.
Yesterday, we celebrated First Holy Communion with 62 of our young people. Please stand. They received this sacramental gift for the first time. We have a responsibility to teach them to grow in their understanding that this is the Real Presence of Jesus, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. They have a long way to go before they “get it.” How far do we have to go or do we get it?
Can we like the saints recognize His presence in our sufferings? Can we actually choose His path of sacrificial love not out of some heroic self-aggrandizing act, or God forbid some morbid sadistic notion, but in imitation of God, of Jesus who sacrificed His life out of Love for all humanity?
When their eyes were opened, these two disciples “got it.” They returned to Jerusalem. They went in the right direction. They chose the path of self sacrificing love.
This story on the road to Emmaus is our Mass. We encounter Christ in the breaking open of the Scriptures in the liturgy of the Word AND also in the breaking of the bread – the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
He sends us forth – to go to Jerusalem… to follow Him in the path of self-sacrificing love.

Palm Sunday

Jesus Forsaken on the Cross and in Those Who Suffer Today

152 years ago on this very date, an important event in our US history took place about 250 miles from here. Believe it or not, it was a Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union Army, at the McLean house in Appomattox, Virginia. This surrender ended the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. State against state, brother against brother, it was a conflict that literally tore the nation apart. Five days later, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, arguably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, was shot and mortally wounded. It was Lincoln who wrote the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the U.S. forever. On Palm Sunday the war ended: Triumph. On Good Friday, Abraham Lincoln became the first U.S. president to be assassinated: Tragedy. And our nation was not divided into two or more, but remained the United States of America. The process of resurrection began. Welcome to Holy Week. Welcome to the triumph and the tragedy of the six days preceding Easter.
Today’s bittersweet liturgy teaches us that the Lord has not saved us by His triumphal entry or by means of powerful miracles. The Apostle Paul, in the second reading, which is a great hymn to honor Jesus Christ, uses two verbs that are significant: Jesus “emptied” and “humbled” Himself (KENOSIS). These two verbs show the boundlessness of God’s love for us. Jesus emptied Himself: He did not cling to the glory/greatness/power that was His as the Son of God, but became the Son of man in order to be in solidarity with us sinners in all things; yet He was without sin. Even more, He lived among us in “the condition of a servant”; not of a king or a prince, but of a servant. Therefore, He humbled Himself, and the abyss of His humiliation, as Holy Week shows us, seems to be bottomless.
The humiliation of Jesus reaches its utmost in the Passion: the hour of death on the cross arrives, that most painful form of shame reserved for traitors, slaves and the worst kind of criminals. But isolation, mockery and physical pain are not yet the full extent of His deprivation. To be totally in solidarity with us, He also experiences on the Cross the mysterious abandonment of the Father. It is a spiritual pain. In His abandonment, he cries out psalm 22: MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOU ABANDONED ME? He who was ONE with the Father now feels the same human separation from the source of LOVE that we ourselves are capable of feeling.
God’s way of acting may seem so far removed from our own, that He was annihilated for our sake. By humbling Himself, Jesus invites us to walk on His path.
He had spoken clearly of this to his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Jesus never promised honor and success or greatness. The Gospels make this clear. He had always warned his friends that this was to be his path, and that the final victory would be achieved through the passion and the cross. All this holds true for us too. Let us ask for the grace to follow Jesus faithfully, not in words but in deeds. Let us also ask for the patience to carry our own cross, not to refuse it or set it aside, but rather, in looking to him, to take it up and to carry it daily.
He does not ask us to contemplate him only in pictures or upon the crucifix. No. He is present in our many brothers and sisters who today endure sufferings like his own: they suffer from slave labor and the sex trade, from family tragedies, from physical, sexual or emotional abuse and from diseases, and natural disasters… They suffer from wars and chemical attacks and terrorism, from interests that are armed and ready to strike. Women and men who are cheated, violated in their dignity, discarded… Jesus Forsaken is in them, in each of them, and, with marred features and broken voice, he asks to be looked in the eye, to be acknowledged, to be loved.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

When a Pure Heart Meets Misery, A New Reality is Present – MERCY

Don’t you just love it when someone gets what is coming to them? There are many scandalous financial situations that happened over past decades and I could not help feeling glee when the guilty ones were caught and tried and put in jail for their crimes. Most of all, I felt a great sadness by those victims who were scammed out of their money.
This human trait which is an attitude of justice deserves another look because of the Gospel story today. Father Ermes Ronchi was the preacher to Pope Francis and his collaborators on retreat this week and he spoke about the story of the woman caught in adultery. Fr. Ronchi made a statement that made me think of the sad state of affairs of US politics where finding fault with an opponent is the national sport.
Fr. Ronchi said: “Whoever loves to accuse, getting drunk on the shortcomings of other people, believes in saving truth while throwing stones at those who make mistakes. From that attitude, wars are born.” Pray about that.
In this passage of the Gospel of John, the scribes and the Pharisees do not only desire to accuse the woman, but they are really after Jesus Himself. They wanted to win at any cost. They did not like the way that He had influence over other people and the way He was challenging them, the religious leaders, in the practice of their Jewish faith.
So they set a trap. If Jesus allows this woman caught in the very act of adultery and was obviously guilty to go free, he will be discredited as being a teacher who does not uphold the law.
If Jesus allows her to be condemned, then he would be discredited as the teacher who has advocated for the forgiveness of sins and showing mercy to sinners.
Jesus, how do you get out of this catch 22? Notice that he does not engage the angry violent emotion. This is a wise action for anyone in a heated situation. He is sitting in the temple area writing on the ground with His finger. He defuses the situation to a degree. He focuses on the dignity of the person, giving freedom to each individual to make a moral decision. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He does not go against the law since he encourages them…Go ahead since the Law of Moses prescribes the stoning of a person guilty of adultery. He appeals to a stronger law that is prescribed upon the heart of each person of integrity. It is the law of the heart which is the Law of mercy.
At the end of the encounter, only two people are left – the woman in her misery and the man who is sinless and is the only one according to his question who has the right to stone her. He has a pure heart that goes out to her with what a heart is supposed to contain and share: LOVE. Let’s consider these two remaining people: the nameless woman embodies misery and she still might be fearing what Jesus alone will do to her after they are left alone. And the man Jesus who embodies love that comes from a pure heart. In Latin, “misery” is MISERIA and in Latin, “heart” is COR. When a pure heart comes together with misery, there exists a new and glorious reality which is MISERICORDIA in Latin or MERCY in English.
God does not wish that a sinner should die but should turn back to him and live.
The adulterous woman represents everyone and is she crushed by the Powers of death that express oppression of men against women. Pharisees of every time put sin at the center of their relationship with God. This is the tragedy of religious fundamentalism. What is always needed is wisdom that comes from the heart.
The Lord does not support hypocrites, those who go around in masks, those who have duplicitous hearts, and He does not support accusers and judges.
The genius of Christianity is the embrace of God and man. They are no longer opposed to one another. Matter and spirit embrace. The sickness that Jesus fears and fights against even more is the heart of stone, that of hypocrites. To violate a body, whether guilty or innocent, with stones or with power, is the denial of God who is living in each person. That is why we are opposed to the death penalty.
The scribes and Pharisees who judge the adulterous woman and condemn her to death are hypocrites because they have thrown a Boomerang, according to Fr. Ronchi. You know what a boomerang is? From Australia, it is a curved stick that when thrown comes back at the one who threw it. Not one of the scribes and Pharisees can throw a stone, because in doing so, they would end up flinging it against themselves.
Where there is Mercy-wrote Saint Ambrose-there is God; wherever there is rigidity and severity, perhaps there are ministers of God but God is not there. Jesus gets up before the adulterous woman, as if He were getting up in front of an important person who was waiting. He gets up to put himself closer to her and he speaks to her. No one had spoken to her before. “Her story, her intimate torment was of no interest to them.” Jesus grasps the intimacy of her soul. She is fragile and fragility is the teacher of humanity. Jesus is not interested in remorse but in sincerity of heart. His forgiveness is without conditions. Jesus puts himself in place of all those who are condemned, of all who are sinners. He breaks apart the evil chain linked to the idea of a God that condemns and is vindictive, justifying violence.
Jesus brings forth a radical revolution upsetting the traditional order with a judging and punishing God on top of everything. A naked god on the cross, who forgives, is the shocking ending of today’s story.
• Go and from now on sin no more. The words are enough to change a life. That which is behind you no longer matters. It is the future that counts. The possible good tomorrow counts more than yesterday’s evil. Forgiveness puts a person on the path of life. Forgiveness frees us from the slavery of the past. So many people live “as if they were under an interior life sentence, crushed by their sense of wrong caused by past mistakes. But Jesus opens the doors of our prisons. Jesus knows that man does not equal his sins. The Lord is not interested in the past. He is a God of the future. The words of Jesus and his gestures break apart the framework of good and bad, guilty and innocent.

Dr. A.J. Cronin was a great Christian physician in England. One night he assigned a young nurse to a little boy who had been brought to the hospital suffering from diphtheria, and given only a slight chance to live. A tube was inserted into the boy’s throat to help him breathe. It was the nurse’s job periodically to clean out the tube. As the nurse sat beside the boy’s bed, she accidentally dozed off. She awakened to find that the tube had become blocked. Instead of following instructions, she was immobilized by panic. Hysterically she called the doctor at his home. By the time he got to the boy, he was dead. Dr. Cronin was angry beyond all telling. That night Dr. Cronin went to his office and wrote his recommendation to the board demanding the immediate expulsion of the nurse. He called her in and read it, his voice trembling with anger. She stood there in pitiful silence, a tall, thin, gawky Welsh girl. She nearly fainted with shame and remorse. “Well,” asked Dr. Cronin in a harsh voice, “have you nothing to say for yourself?” There was more silence. Then she uttered this pitiful plea, “…please give me another chance.” Dr. Cronin sent her away. But he could not sleep that night. He kept hearing some words from the dark distance: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The next morning Dr. Cronin went to his desk and tore up the report. In the years that followed he watched as this slim, nervous girl became the head of a large hospital and one of the more honored nurses in England. Thank God for a second chance, and a third chance, and fourth chance! We need to hear it said to us: Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven. This happens every time we leave the sacrament of confession. Do you need to encounter God’s forgiveness?
[Go out in front of altar with a stone.]
Who is it that you are ready to throw stones at in judgment of their wrongdoing? Who is it whom you never want to see again? A politician? A spouse? A family member? A boss? Here it is. Come and take it…Let the one among you without sin be the first to throw a stone.
[Drop the stone. THUD!]

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