Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Aware and Engaged - Easter Homily

The Pascal Candle is lit from the new and blessed fire at Holy Family Hicksville
Throughout this past week we have been witnesses of a drama.  From the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem, to the institution of the Eucharist and servant leadership at the Last Supper, to the betrayal, denial, torture and execution of the Jesus on the cross to unexpected resurrection encounter – the drama of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus has unfolded before us.  Observers though we are, are we truly aware of what has gone, beyond our observance?
Kelli O'Hara quick changes at the 2015 Tony Awards
screenshot via Tony Awards Backstage Youtube
My friend Fran is a professional costumer and dresser for Broadway actors.  One of her most important tasks is to assist the actor with quick costume changes.  Not too long ago she was working with the actress who played Anna in the musical the King and I. If you recall the show, you know that Anna is always dressed in very, very large hoop skirts, in watching the show, you are too busy watching the actors on stage to think about how Anna gets in an out of those skirts so quickly.  But during a performance at the Tony awards that year, the online audience got to see how it all occurs a camera with backstage capturing Fran, much to her chagrin, and her team changing the actress out of one skirt and top and into another in less than 40 seconds.  The attention of those watching on TV or in the theatre only saw what happened on stage and were unaware of what was happening behind the scenes; all they saw was the amazing result.
Throughout this week of the Lord’s Passion our attention has been on the actions of those around Jesus.  Many of the readings from sacred scripture we listened to focused on the human actions of Moses, Abraham, and the words of the prophets Isaiah, Baruch and Ezekiel.  Furthermore, in the first reading, which tells the story of creation, and the Gospel account of the resurrection we hear something so familiar that we may take for granted what has happened.  It is fitting then that the reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans begins questioning our awareness.  St. Paul is not simply asking us if we are aware of what we have studied, had preached to us or learned in a religion class.  He is not asking us if we know the stories of creation, the exodus and the resurrection.  He is asking if we are of what God has done behind the scenes throughout salvation history that leads to the Resurrection of Jesus.  More so he is asking if we are aware what has been done to us and for us without us paying attention to what is going on beyond our awareness.
Specifically, St. Paul asks, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Is this part of your awareness?  I know that this truth is not foremost on my mind.  Yet this truth is the foundation for our hope.  Because of our baptism we are united to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Because of our baptism we have profound hope that the worst thing that can happen to us, death is not the last word.  We do not just observe the drama of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by baptism we experience it.  St. Paul concludes that “raised from the dead, (Christ) dies no more; death no longer has power over him.” So too must we be aware that death has no power over us.
The era in which we live easily distracts us.  Our political atmosphere is horrible. The moral struggles presented to our children are overwhelming.  Financial realities, racial tensions, and an ever-present media are what grabs our attention and therefore, the cosmic and spiritual realities of the Resurrection recede to the background.  We function as if we have no awareness of the God who both created and redeemed the world. 
As we listened to St. Matthews gospel proclaimed we are treated to some dramatic imagery.
·       And behold, there was a great earthquake;
·       for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven,
·       rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
·       His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow.
·       The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.
The Angel of the Lord  Announcing the Resurrection
Benjamin West  1805 Brooklyn Museum
These are events so dramatic in detail that they are meant to engage us and awaken us to not a happy ending of what was thought to be a tragedy but to empower our faith life.  Furthermore, with their encounter with the risen Jesus himself, the women experience a transformation and a commissioning.
In repeating and enhancing the message of the angel the risen Lord, Jesus commissions the women to be the first missionaries of the Resurrection.  He also gives them a specific task.  He tells them to inform his brothers that he will meet them in Galilee.  Why is this important.  The angel tells the women to give this message to Jesus’ disciples, Jesus calls them his brothers.  The change is important.  These disciples are the ones who betrayed, denied and abandoned him.  Hearing that he had been raised from the dead might rightly strike a fear of vengeance in their hearts.   He calls them brothers and in so doing extends reconciliation.  He does not abandon them but raises them from disciples to the dignity of brothers.  The women, therefore become the first agents of resurrection reconciliation.
Bishop of Rockville Centre, John Barres baptizes a woman
during the Easter Vigil at St. Agnes Cathedral.
Photo Credit: Ed Casey
At our Easter Vigil and most Catholic Churches we have the opportunity to witness a baptism.  The baptism of an adult in our midst is followed by the renewal of our own baptismal promises.  We all get wet from the waters of baptism today.  Shocked with the sprinkling of these waters we are made aware of the dramatic thing God has done in history and continues in us.  Like the newly baptized and the witness of the resurrection we are sent into the world to be missionaries of the resurrection and agents of reconciliation. 
This drama, this resurrection is not simply what we see but the often-unseen drama of God’s saving action.  Newly aware of what has been done we go fearful yet overjoyed and share in the building of God’s Kingdom.
Easter Sanctuary Holy Family Hicksville

Friday, April 14, 2017

Failure is the ONLY Option - Good Friday reflection

Crucifixion of Jesus by Marco Palmezzano
Florence), painting c. 1490
The 8th graders who in level 2 of the parish confirmation program are given the opportunity to write reflections on the stations of the cross.  Their statements are incorporated into a parish celebration of the Stations of the Cross at noon on Good Friday.  After the last station I offered this reflection the confirmation candidates and parishioners.
In our prayer, today we have not only recounted a story but through the reflections you offered, we engaged ourselves in that story.  In doing so, each of you attempted to experience Jesus in a way that is real or more tangible to you.  Through this meditation of the Stations of the Cross, on this Good Friday afternoon we have had an opportunity to know the pain of our Lord in a profound way.  But some of us may ask, “What is the point?  We have our own pain and none of it seems to make any sense.”  So, as a way of bringing this experience to a close and in an attempt to “make sense,” of it for you, I offer you to points to take with you.  First, Failure is not only an option, it’s the only option.  Second, the only cross we are asked to bear is our own – and Jesus carries it with us.
We have heard the phrase, “Failure is not an option.”  This statement originated as a line from the movie, Apollo 13 and it was uttered by the character of the flight director, whose responsibility it was to bring the astronauts of the disabled spacecraft home safely.  The truth is the real person, in the actual situation, never said those words.  They are the words of a Hollywood scriptwriter.  The reality was that failure had already happened.  That particular mission to the moon failed because an explosion had disabled the ship.  Because of that failure, however, the minds of many had to come together to figure out a way to get these men home and through the failure they learned what they never could have and achieved something they never would have believed possible.
Michelangelo's Pieta
St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican
From the human perspective, Jesus’ mission appears to be failure.  After being followed by throngs of people he was abandoned to die alone on a cross.  Two of his apostles fail him in the acts of betrayal and denial.  He is mocked, tortured and killed, what a failure.  We stand here today calling this Good Friday because we know that the mission does not fail.  We know about the resurrection and therefore we can see and anticipate the success.  But this reality was not yet known on that Friday afternoon.  The religious leaders, the Romans, the crowds and Jesus disciples only saw failure.  It was only after the resurrection that the apostles, other disciples and future believers came to understand how failure was in fact the only option.  Jesus had to be abandoned, betrayed, denied, tortured and killed.  The worse had to happen so that the greatness of God could truly be known.  St. Paul says that death has no power over us.  We only know this to be true because the failure of death happened first.
Holy Family School's 7th Grade
Living Stations 2017 
In our lives, we have daily reminders of failures; academically, athletically, artistically and socially.  We can even perceive our bodies as failures.  People around us might readily point out our flaws and some never seem to let us forget them.  We ask ourselves, “Why did I have to fail?  Why can’t I just get it right?”  The answer is failure is the only option.  We learn from our failures, and learn very little from that which we accidentally get right.  So too we learn from our sin, the very sins that led Jesus to the cross.  Our sins and our failures are the gateway to God’s mercy.  Through them we come to know the power of Jesus’ love and mercy for each of us.
It’s hard to know this amid failure however and so we must trust in what we cannot see.  We trust in the wisdom of others and we trust in the wisdom of faith.  Let me share with you a post resurrection story that illustrates this point.  In one of his appearances after the resurrection, Jesus meets his apostles on the sea shore.  They have breakfast together and after they finish eating Jesus says to Peter
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” [Jesus] said to him, “Feed my sheep. Jn 21:15-19
Do you see what was happening here?  Peter who denied Jesus three times is given an opportunity to express his love for Jesus three times.  This must have been such an awesome revelation for Peter.  How much stronger and apostle and leader he was because he failed first.  The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus teaches us that failure is the only option.
Confirmation Candidates and Parishioners
venerate the Cross following
Stations of the Cross on Good Friday
Lastly, I offer you this.  Before they knew what would eventually happen, Jesus told his apostles that if they wished to follow him they must take up their cross daily.  He did not tell them to carry his cross, nor did he tell them to carry the cross of others.  Jesus does not need for us or want us to suffer needlessly.  He does not expect us to take on the burdens of the world.  He asks us to make the sacrifices of our lives, to accept the burdens of love and bearing with our own personal failures.  He also tells us that our burden is light because he is carrying it with us.  While it is true that the Lord may use us, to be his hands and feet to help another person, he does not command us or want us to assume the burdens of other on ourselves.  Many years ago, I heard a mother tell her son she wished she could take away a pain he was experiencing, and he told her he didn’t want her to, because the pain was his and he needed to be healed from it, not have another take it from him.  In dying to the cross, Jesus alone takes on the burdens of the world, we who follow are to accept our burdens and trust that he will transform them.  Any even though he may call upon us to be his presence for another, we do not have the capacity, the ability or the right to make another’s pain our own.  That is for Jesus.

As we conclude I invite you to venerate the cross, to come forward and in gesture show that because of the suffering and death of Jesus we know that we can take up our cross daily because we believe he bears it with us and we know that failure is the only option that will lead us to new life.
Pilgrims touch the stone beneath the altar at Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What happens in the Upper Room DOESN'T stay in the Upper Room - Holy Thursday Homily

The events recounted in tonight’s gospel took place in an upper room of a building in 1st century Jerusalem. The Upper Room, or the Cenacle as it is known, might well be the most important room in all of Christianity.   It was in that upper room that the Last Supper took place, and the Holy Eucharist was instituted.  It was in that same room on that same night that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, inaugurating a ministry of loving service.  By tradition this is the same room where the apostles hid after the crucifixion and where the risen Lord first appeared to them; showing them his hands and his side.  It was here that he bestowed upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit and later in the presence of the Blessed Mother, tongues of fire rested upon them; and thus in this place, the Church was born. Finally it was from this Upper Room that the apostles went forth to proclaim the Good News.  Today we rejoice because nothing that happened in that Upper Room stayed in that Upper Room.
Today in the southwest part of the Old City of Jerusalem, a fourteenth century building occupies the spot traditionally believed to be the place where the building with that Upper Room once stood.  Naturally it is a place that Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land seek out.  The building, however, also has spiritual significance to Jews and Muslims.  The first floor houses a place revered as the tomb of King David and a centuries old mosque is located there as well.  For this reason, the Cenacle has been a place of religious and political controversy and only visits are permitted there, Christians are only permitted to celebrate mass there with the permission of the Israeli government and only on special occasions.  When I first visited the Cenacle 23 years ago, these controversies surrounding the Upper Room, disturbed me.  I did not understand how it was that anyone or any authority could prohibit a celebration of what happened here first.  Since that time both Pope Frances and Pope St. John Paul II did receive permission to celebrate mass there and Pope Benedict did lead prayer there during his visit.  Just this past fall, with our parish pilgrimage group, I had the chance to visit the room again.  For some reason, I felt differently during this visit – the rules were the same but they were presented to me with a different perspective.  We were told that it was here in this room that peace is protected and all 3 faiths respected.  I thought to myself – maybe the rarity of the celebration of the Eucharist in that place, is for a reason.  Maybe it stands as a reminder that nothing that happened in the Upper Room was meant to stay in the Upper Room.  And so, it does throughout the world in every church, the servant leadership of priests, the lived encounter with the Risen Christ and his Holy Spirit, the reconciliation of doubt and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is received daily, not in the Upper Room but in the Cenacle that is the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
In that room, last November, two of our pilgrims presented me with a chalice which depicts the Last Supper.  I will use that chalice tonight and those pilgrims are among the people whose feet I will wash tonight.  For tonight, the chalice and my fellow pilgrims help us to remember in a most profound way, that what happened in the Upper Room did not stay in the Upper Room.  Furthermore, I pray tonight that our parish community will recognize in a new way that our church is our upper room, a Cenacle, itself.  Where all that happened in the first upper room happens here.  And like that upper room, what happens here should not, cannot and must not stay here.
During his public ministry, our Lord, continually preached and sent disciples forth.  When they returned to him, he continued his preaching and teaching sending them out each time.  His words had significant power, but in the end, they are not enough.  On that night amidst the celebration of the Passover, tension is building.  Uncertainty abounds, his betrayer dines with him and the one he has called the rock will deny him.  So, on the night before his death on the cross, Jesus went beyond words.  With his hands, he washed their feet and with his hands He gave us them the Eucharist. 
Throughout human history, physical contact between persons has always said more than words ever could.  A gentle touch of a hand, a warm embrace and a kiss of affection move us deeply and significantly and they remain with us longer.  In the washing of his disciple’s feet Jesus preaches the profound truth of the Eucharist.  This sacrament is his flesh touching ours.  He embraces us as we literally consume Him within us.  With His physical and divine embrace Jesus gave his apostles and us what we need to take what happens in the Upper Room out to a world that needs this encounter with him.  Thankfully what happened in the Upper Room did not stay there, had it remained a private party for a select few, we would not know Christ. 
Because we have been privileged to know and experience what happens in the Upper Room we are called to be evangelists and missionaries.  We are called, as Bishop Barres has continually said to us, to share in the dramatic missionary growth of the church.  We may be uncomfortable with this mandate, feeling we are not gifted in eloquent speech, do not posses sufficient knowledge of the faith or are inhibited by our sinful imperfection.  Yet what the Lord gives us and teaches us in the Upper Room is all we need.
The other ten people whose feet I wash tonight have shown me through their service that they understand that what happens in the Upper Room, should not, cannot and must not stay in the Upper Room.  Two of them serve Fr. Daniel and I here in our home at the rectory.  Two give service to the liturgies of the Lord's house here in our church.  Four are members of a family who have made service a part of their family’s life, in scouting, in showing care for those who serve us in the military and through the time they spent helping to rebuild communities on the south shore after Hurricane Sandy.  Lastly, two of them are parents who serve by giving their son to the church so that he may be formed to serve as a servant leader in priestly ministry.  It is in these many ways that you and I can and should be a part of making sure that what happened in the Upper Room and what happens in this Upper Room, our Holy Family church, will not stay here.

Our world needs a dynamic encounter with Jesus Christ.  It needs to know the divine embrace of Jesus.  It longs to experience leadership of servants, ministers of mercy, gifts of the Holy Spirit, certainty in doubt and the real true presence of a savior.  Like the apostles we are privileged to encounter Christ in this our Cenacle, our Upper Room, our church.  Tonight, as we celebrate the institution of what is expressed not in words but in sacrifice, let us recommit ourselves to living lives committed to the assurance that what happens in this upper room will not stay here; but be lived every day and so share in the building of God’s Kingdom.