Daring to Leave the Upper Room

The two disciples who get known for less than stellar disciple behavior (other than Judas) are Peter and the center of today’s gospel Thomas, the doubter.

But what we fail to see in each example of their failures is how heroic each one actually is–at least to start. Peter cuts off the high priest’s servant’s ear and then dares to follow Jesus all the way to the high priest’s courtyard where he ultimately denies even knowing Jesus three times. Imagine the pressure of getting all the way there and then getting found out. If I were Peter I’d be nowhere near the courtyard.

Then there’s Thomas, who is not in the upper room when Jesus appears. Why is Thomas not trembling and afraid with the others? He left the room for some reason–a reason not mentioned by the Gospel writer of John. I often imagine him saying “Oh the heck with this. I need to get out of this room and DO something.” In their darkest hour, Thomas is the only one to unlock from depression and move on—and there is something admirable about that. He probably was risking his life to get outside of those doors.

I often think that Thomas is a lot like us. We who value science and empirical proofs for everything. We who want a tangible proof of everything in order for us to trust it. We want proof of life after death and even in the church we require some tangible proof of miracles before we declare someone a saint or even before we beatify someone as we do with John Paul II this day. His first miracle, a woman who prayed to him with Parkinson’s Disease was somehow cured. Tangible proof that JPII is interceding for her.

How often do we say, “If God is real than where is he in tragic moments?” “If God blesses us than what about those poor people in Alabama today?” “I want some proof that God indeed loves us and exists.”

Otherwise many tend to think that God is simply not around.

But faith is the courage to leave the upper room. To head out into the world and to continue to believe despite the tragedy. To believe that God can defeat death even though we haven’t seen it for ourselves. Can we believe that God can redeem all that is wrong with our world even if we don’t see that in the here and now? That’s the faith that Thomas nearly has–he walks out confidently into the world but then fails to truly believe that it can be possible. Jesus couldn’t possibly defeat death and he wants that proof that we all want. To see the wounds and to probe them himself.

The words that Jesus utters at the end of the gospel are directed to each one of us. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Can we take two lessons from today’s gospel? Can we dare to leave our upper room, to move beyond our fears that we might be denigrated for believing in Jesus? And then can we learn from Thomas’ mistakes? When the world doesn’t give us proof of God can we continue to believe anyway? When children die too young. When our parents and loved ones are taken from us. When natural disasters hit and when atrocities happen….

When we doubt that the resurrection even occurred and are too mired in our own grief and remorse—can we hold onto God for dear life or do we throw it all to the wind?

Can we dare to leave the upper room in our trembling and continue to believe without seeing?

That’s faith. And it takes much courage.

It just might make you a saint.

He is Risen, Alleluia

Sunrise over my backyard on Easter morning gave me pause. I woke up at 6:10 and decided to “bedroll” it over to the North Campus for Fr. Pat’s sunrise service. I think mass should have been moved to my swampy backyard because I had a much better view of the sunrise. Regardless, it was a wonderful celebration.

Our Easter Vigil at St. Joe’s welcomed 14 new Catholics and 4 newly baptized. A snip from last night’s confirmations.

The joy of Easter reminds me that we are often like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (this morning’s gospel). We want to continue to follow Jesus but we get confounded and Christ is hidden from our eyes. We fail to follow the risen Jesus and instead harken back to the cross where we crucify ourselves with bad choices and things that we think will satisfy us but ultimately fail to do so.

Last night, after the Easter Vigil I ran into a bright young woman who sees me for spiritual direction. She spent the vigil in tears and said that she’s decided to finally “lay her cross down and live in the light of the Resurrection.” Her words, not mine. We all should do the same. What is it on our roads that keep us looking back and not realizing that Christ is walking with us, offering us more than we could ever want or even perceive? What tempts us to keep looking back, away from that glorious sunrise where the light fills the sky with colors beyond beautiful? Where is God beckoning to us to come and live in the light of day that will always destroy the dark forces of our fears? How can we more be people of the Eucharist, standing as one body and receiving Christ in this breaking of the bread and become more alive than before because we need to become what it is that we receive?

If we are an Easter people, then we merely need to turn towards that light and leave our crosses behind. Whatever weighs us down and keeps us nailed to sin is what we have tried to purge ourselves of throughout these 40 days of lenten time. If we have fasted from something did we find that we really needed it after all? When we prayed did we find that spending time with God was an opportunity to clear out the cobwebs and connect with what really gave us new insights? When we offered alms did we find that peaceful grace that it takes to truly give without wanting anything in return?

For myself, clearing out the clutter of not merely 40 but 50 days taught me that there are a lot of things in my way that keep me from truly being free and walking with Jesus. Giving away the clutter, (not so someone else might be tripped up by it, but so someone else might be inspired to use my clutter for good) allows me to more squarely focus on who I really am and what I really need. I lost 13 pounds this lent and gained a lot of muscle. I’m feeling better for the first time in a long time and have vowed to keep that going with the help of Ben, my trainer. More importantly, I thought giving away something for 50 days was going to be hard. The truth is that there is plenty more to give away. The hard part was selecting who I wanted to bless with the gift of something that was good for me at one time, but now has run its course. I spent over $100 in postage yesterday sending most of the gifts out and it was money well spent. I may just keep giving things away once a week beyond this practice as it has served to keep me honest with myself.

“Do I want it, or do I need it?” A refrain that Amy Vukelic, our coordinator of the Catholic Volunteers often asks of those she serves to offer to everything that is placed before us. I’d add a second question: “If I want this, what will it take me away from? Family? Friends? Christ?”

If he is risen, then we need to rise beyond the usual claptrap of distractions and into the centered peace of the resurrection. We must pay attention to the stone that no longer locks us into the tomb but rather has released us from sin and death. We are free. We choose Christ. We serve others.

Can we be free enough this Easter season to truly give all that we are to Christ?

I hope so, because Jesus Christ is risen today–and he gave all of Himself to each one of us.

God Finds a Way

At the Easter Vigil tonight, the 2nd reading is one of the most dramatic of all the scriptures. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son by God.

It sounds horrible and ridiculous. Why would God ask for a human sacrifice? Some scholars believe that because human sacrifice was common during that time, that this is God’s prohibition of that sacrifice from this day forward.

Still, why would God test Abraham in this way anyhow? We forget that God’s promise to Abraham of a son, namely Isaac, was a promise that a great nation would come from him. That Abraham descendants will be great indeed.

Abraham had to be scratching his head…how can I kill Isaac and still have descendants? I’m an old man who is lucky enough to even have this son!

But it is Abraham’s faith in God that turns the story into a deep and touching drama. God will find a way to keep his promise. God must have a reason to ask this of me and I will trust that his ways, though mysterious, are the ways that I must follow.

Truly that’s the faith that we are called to, each time tragedy befalls us as well. Can we believe that God can make a way out of no way?

Perhaps no time is more suited to call this to mind than it is tonight. When death seemingly has had the final word, are we still hopeful that the light can break the darkness? When the savior we look for has been killed by hanging from a cross, can we hope beyond hope that something else is surely coming our way?

When God is killed, can we trust that death cannot hold God in its dastardly clutches?

God always finds a way to provide us with what we need, what can and does sustain us. This Easter we believe that light always shatters the darkness. If that’s true and if Jesus really has overcome death than we need not be afraid of anything. We never have to fear death, for resurrection is always just another breath away.

Come Risen Jesus, break the chains of death and provide for us a way to renew our belief that somehow God always finds a way.

He is Risen. Alleluia.

Do We Dare to Believe Today?

Capital punishment was common is Jesus’ time (as it is unfortunately still today in many places). Crucifixion was nothing new. So why is this crucifixion so well noted?

In the face of the madness of capital punishment, can we believe that God can defeat even death? An innocent man hangs, willingly, without fighting the injustice served to him–why? What reason would someone have for doing this?

God goes to our death, a horrible unjust death, so that we might believe in God. Not merely because of our own faults that cause the rift between God and humanity, do we watch the cross today. It is not merely because God offers himself for our sins that we watch an execution. Rather, it is because we lack faith at times in believing that God can make all things new again. That God always offers us something else. That in our death and in the death of each and every person, God also offers us life eternal.

Jesus shares in our death to help us understand that we need not fear death. That death no longer has power over us. That God always defeats the power of darkness.

Today, we sit in darkness until the light of the Easter candle breaks through that eerie blackness. We are uncomfortable in this darkness and in our own dark places—where we often believe that God can never break into and change for the better. Our sinfulness seems to be stuck on us never to be removed.

But as the nails are removed from the hands and feet of Christ today and he is removed from the symbol of execution, can we believe that something else has been given to us other than a dead body? Can we believe that God will come again breaking down the doors of darkness and rising to new life?

Each time we end up in the darkness can we return to find light breaking in somehow, somewhere. If we can then we can truly call this Friday “Good” because we can say that we are a faithful people–filled with the hope of the Easter morn and not overcome by the darkness of one more crucifixion.

This time, we can see beyond the cross. We can see clearly that Jesus has defeated death. We can wear the executioner’s cross around our necks because we have that faith that brings us to life eternal.

Let us rejoice in the Friday that is Good. Because there is more to this crucifixion than we could have ever imagined.

Running Late and Yet On Time

I’m delayed in a Minneapolis airport heading home. I’m hoping to make the 8PM mass where I’m scheduled to give a reflection and it occurs to me that Jesus also was running late in our gospel today. In fact, he was so late that his friend, Lazarus, who was extremely ill had already died.

Being separated from those we love or from things we’d like to do is one of the big anxieties that we all face. When that separation is more permanent, such as in the death of a loved one, it becomes one of the great tragedies of human life. And God intimately understands that kind of anxiety because we hear that Jesus weeps over his friend’s death.

There’s an old saying that my friend Fr. J. Glen Murray often uses and he says that even when God shows up late somehow he’s right on time. And here Jesus comes in late and yet he’s also right on time…on time to change the faith of those who thought there was no hope left. Those who were separated from their dear brother.

Husbands and wives and parents and children often become distraught when one of their loved ones dies. But our gospel today reminds us that Jesus’ love for us is stronger than death and that even when it seems that we are separated from one another, we are actually closer together than we may think.

My colleague Tim Matovina at Notre Dame tells another story of separation. A young Hispanic woman was from a very simple family. She earned a scholarship to college at a time when in Hispanic culture, women didn’t become educated. But her father was a wise man and he insisted that she go on to University. She was excited but then as the time grew close for her to leave this close knit family, she realized that she would be separated from them. She told the wise old man of her fear and he said sweetly,

“Hija, there is no need to worry. When you get to that big university, go to the University Church or the Newman Center or wherever they have Catholic mass. Then know that I am also at mass. And because of that we will be closer than we are right now in that great mystical experience of being united to Christ’s body.”

And he added in Spanish “Nos menos en la communion.” (I will see you in communion).

Years later, the father died and the young woman at her father’s wake retold that story and when she was done she said, “Papi, Nos menos en la communion” and she kissed his body goodbye knowing deeply and with great faith that she still was connected to him . God always makes a way out of no way!

You see the message of the gospel is that God cannot bear to be separate from us. Even when we separate ourselves from God by choosing sin, God calls us out of our own dark tombs; out of the places that cause us to become dead. When we cut ourselves off from those that need us. When we are only concerned with our own self-satisfaction and die to self-sacrifice. And most importantly when we are hopeless and we think that God has run too late to satisfy our anxieties.

Even when all seems hopeless, God offers us something more, and it always comes just on time. Can we believe that? Or are we destined to be Lazurus–dead in a stinky tomb, bound from head to foot in our own prison?

Or can we have the faith that calls us to believe that God’s love can even overcome death. Perhaps that’s why we need Lent. To remind ourselves that our lives are always mystically connected to Jesus, to the disciples and to all those who have ever come around this table to share in the body of Christ.

As Lent comes to a close soon and as graduation nears, we soon will separate. And there’s a sadness that goes along with that. But let us all remember one certain truth. That no matter where life takes us and no matter when death takes us from each other…and even when jet delays keep us miles apart….

We will always see one another in communion… forever.

The Real Orthodoxy Test

So recently, my friend Paul Snatchko and I were talking about the myriad of Catholic Conferences that we attend. It’s a varied bunch of groups to be sure. Some couldn’t be more different. To avoid using the usual liberal-conservative claptrap, I’d like to offer two pretty interesting views of the Catholic Church based on the conferences I’ve attended with Paul.

So there’s the social justice based crowd, like those you’ll find at the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. They’re a great bunch. Mostly extroverts and they are all about doing the work of the church in the world –by providing programs that gives service to the poor. Now at this conference, we’ll find people who are very interested in social justice but not so interested in personal piety or even pious liturgy. Their liturgy is far from quiet, often extroverted and pushes the limits of the rituals of the Roman rite at times.

Contrast them with the National Catholic Family Conference, filled with home-schoolers and Catholic school parents–another great bunch. These are people concerned with their nucleus, marriage issues and the passing of the faith to the next generation. Their liturgies are quiet, humble and they are strict when it comes to rubrics. They are very concerned about prayer but might not be all that concerned about the church’s social teaching.

The members of these two groups I would say also have their own orthodoxy tests. The Family Folks will say if you don’t follow the church’s teachings on sexuality, or vote for someone pro-choice or anything that would even mildly violate the church’s teaching on issues like these, then you are not Catholic.

The Social Justice crowd, not much ones for orthodoxy tests, at least publicly certainly have their own version based on those who don’t stand up for the needs of the poor. Their counterpunch is that there’s a great need for us as Catholics to not merely be concerned about ourselves and the personal morality of others. We need an outward look to bring the good news to the poor and to care for their needs. If we don’t then, we’re not Catholic either.

But the real orthodoxy test is in today’s scriptures I think.

“But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.”

And none of us are very good at doing that. Those in the personal piety camp will quickly vilify a pro-choice Catholic politician, while those in the social justice camp will point out the hypocrisy of the church leaders who don’t protect the poor. But there are very few of us who are at the heart of the gospel message today.

Ron Rohlheiser once said (and I’ll paraphrase him) that a lot of us don’t really care about our enemies, do we? Do we ever try to mend fences at all costs? Do we ever call for forgiveness of terrorists and child molesters? Do we ever look to forgive our parents, spouses, children their own faults that have hurt us?

I think that’s the real sign of being Catholic. But we’d probably say it was more of a sign of being Amish. Why? They immediately forgave the murderer of schoolchildren without thinking about it.

John Paul II’s forgiveness of his attacker and his call for his release gives us all a model to follow, hard though it certainly is. Do we have the same kind of passionate love for Timothy McVeigh, or the 9-11 terrorists, or the shooters at Virginia Tech and Tucson, Arizona? Have any of us called for their forgiveness? How about your own most hated enemy?

Well, that should start today. While in radio I had a very bad relationship with a manager who I felt slighted me for a promotion. I had outlined a job where I would split time working for three different departments. Two department heads thought it was a good idea and approved it. The third one was said manager. He later went on to give a similar job to someone else. And when I questioned the fairness of that (to his boss) our relationship was severed. Later in my career, he accused me of a serious allegation that was far from true and was summarily dismissed after a period of time. I’ve held a lot hatred in my heart for that man.

That ends today. I forgive you. You know who you are.

Forgiveness means that hatred no longer can hold you hostage. Jesus knew it was the way to being truly free and a true believer. Do we need to hold on to hate or can God’s perfect love set us free from that pain?

That’s our real orthodoxy test and most of us fail time and time again.

So today, let us pray that we might be more orthodox in our lives by being forgivers of those who are our enemies. Perhaps by doing so, God’s mercy can reign with freedom among us instead of us holding it captive.