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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord

I always try to imagine the reaction of the Apostles as Our Lord ascended into Heaven. Were they standing there with their mouths open in amazement, which is why they were staring into the sky even after He disappeared? As they stood there, they were left with a promise that Our Lord, who reigns in the Kingdom of Heaven and opened the way to Heaven for us, will return again to judge us worthy to enter into that kingdom.

At the time of Jesus' life on Earth, the Jewish people were awaiting a Messiah, a king who would save Israel from the oppressing nations. They thought that this would be an earthly king who would rise up and banish conquering nations from the land of Israel and reunite the tribes. Before Jesus, there were many who claimed to be this Messiah, and some even managed to build a small army before being crushed by the Roman military.

We now know who this Messiah was: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was not merely an earthly king that established an earthly kingdom for the Israelite people, but a divine king who established a divine kingdom for all peoples of every nation. As we see in the first reading, the Apostles didn't have the benefit of the hindsight that we now enjoy when they asked if Our Lord would restore the kingdom of Israel. They were still thinking that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom, even after seeing Him tortured, crucified, buried, and then being with Him after He rose again.

They did figure it out eventually, as we see from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. He tells us that God “[raised Christ] from the dead and [seated] Him at His right hand in the Heavens”. (Eph. 1:20) Jesus was given the position of authority within the Heavenly kingdom, and was also placed as “head over all things to the church, which is His body”(Eph. 1:22-23), thus establishing the divine kingdom, the Church, over which Our Lord reigns from Heaven. As we recite every week in the Nicene Creed, “he ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Ascension is described as “the definitive entrance of Jesus' humanity into God's heavenly domain”. (CCC #665) That complicated sentence simply means that Jesus, who is fully human as well as fully divine, entered into heaven and opened the gates of Heaven to all humanity. Just as a king who was victorious in defending his kingdom might lead his troops in a triumphant parade back into the capital city, Our Lord leads the way into Heaven, showing us that it is possible for humanity to enter into Heaven.

While Jesus led the way to Heaven as the triumphant king, we have the promise of the angels in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles that He will “return again in the same way”. (Acts 1:11) One of the most important tasks of a king was to be the final judge of any legal matter in the kingdom. The king set the laws and also enforced and ruled on them. Our Lord, as head of the Kingdom of Heaven, “will come again to judge the living and the dead”, as we also say in the Nicene Creed. At the end of time, which could be a week from now or could be 1000 years from now, Our Lord will return to Earth and we will experience the final judgment. In this judgment, we will be judged whether or not we are to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and join Our Lord in the joys that come in the presence of God, our Heavenly Father.

Of course, we know that this is not an arbitrary judgment, but rather is a determination whether or not we followed His commandments. Our Lord even tells us before He ascends what we need to do in order to be judged worthy of the Kingdom: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Note that merely being baptized isn't enough, nor is believing in Him without receiving the Sacrament of Baptism. Likewise, this must be an active faith, one that moves us to proclaim the Gospel and to reach out to those in need.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has ascended into Heaven, and now reigns at the right hand with God, our Heavenly Father. When Our Lord returns again for the final judgment, may He find us worthy and lead us triumphantly into the Heavenly Kingdom.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

We live in a culture where the word “love” is thrown around very casually, but no one ever thinks about what the word means. When we watch TV shows or movies, the characters are often talking about “being in love” with another character, but is this the same type of love that Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel? Is there something more to the love that he wants us to have for the Father, and the Father has for us?

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in His love.” (Jn 15:10) For many guys, myself included for some time, we hear the word “love” and get uncomfortable. After all, love is a mushy emotion that real men don't express publicly, at least that's what the world tells us.

The popular view of love is that it's merely an emotion, an attraction between two people who are interested in each other. There's nothing rational about love, it's something we can't control. You just fall into it, and as the high divorce rate in the United States shows, you fall out of it. You can't even control who you fall in love with, thus the debates over same-sex marriage. If two men or two women are “in love”, meaning have this chemical and emotional attraction for each other, they should be able to get married and live together as spouses. At least that's what the popular culture is telling us.

This is not the meaning of love that Jesus is inviting us to enter into. As English speakers, we have the distinct disadvantage of a terribly imprecise language. Unlike many other languages, many English words can have lots of different meanings, and the word “love” is no exception to this rule. By commanding us to love our neighbors, Our Lord is asking us to have a true and active “concern for the well-being of others.” ( This concern is not an emotion, like the feelings we might get when we hear about a death in a friend's family. Instead, the concern that we are asked to show to our neighbor is a conscious choice to give of ourselves totally for the well-being of all we meet. The love that Our Lord commands of us is a conscious choice whether or not to have concern for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in the world.

While it might seem like enough to merely be concerned about those in need and maybe do something about it, Our Lord gives us the ultimate example of how this love should look. He challenges us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (Jn 15:13) This is the ultimate challenge, and the ultimate expression of true concern for well-being.

This total self-giving is the love that God shows for us. St. John tells us in the second reading, “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” (1 Jn 4:9) God is so concerned for our well-being that He was willing to send His own Son to us and allowed Him to die on the Cross to atone for our sins. This is what it truly means to love one another, to wish the well-being of others over ourselves.

This love for our neighbor is not something that we should limit to just those we like, or those who we might agree with. We are called to love all without partiality, as St. Peter describes the love of God in the first reading. This doesn't mean that we will agree with everyone, nor does it mean that we'll particularly like everyone, but we are still called to have this love, this concern for their well-being, for all.

Without St. Peter's new understanding of God's love that occurred at Cornelius' house, it's possible that we would not be Christians today. At first, the early Christians believed that Jesus came only as the savior of the Jewish people. Through God's outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his companions, the Church quickly realized that Our Lord came to save all people and nations. Thus we can now receive the graces of salvation, regardless of ancestry.

God has shown us how to love through the death and resurrection of His Son. We need to take that example and pass on that love, that concern for others' well-being, to the whole world.