Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday Homily--You Can't Stay in the Middle

Our Students Outdoor Stations of the Cross on Good Friday
Oftentimes on Good Friday, I try to focus on one or another of the persons mentioned in St. John's Passion narrative. Maybe the Blessed Virgin or St. John himself. Pilate, Barabbas, Simon Peter, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary of Magdala, or Nicodemus. But today, I want to talk about someone who is not mentioned by St. John.

Earlier this afternoon, Catholic students here at BU did a live Stations of the Cross in the middle of Marsh Plaza. There, in the middle of campus, they acted out the Passion and Death of the Lord. As they did so, I was struck by all of the people passing by. They were busy living life. They were getting on and off the Green Line, getting on the bus to West Campus, making their way to class. Some tour groups passed by. Even though they didn't know it, they too were taking part in the Stations of the Cross.  They were, what you might call, "extras." They actually played an important role.

At the center of everything was Jesus and all of the main characters. Some, like John, Mary, Simon of Cyrene, and the women had definitively chosen to stay with Jesus. Others, like the soldiers and Pilate were clearly against Jesus. On the peripheries, however, were people who passed by as though this event taking place had nothing to do with them. They were busy. They had to get places. Maybe as they passed by, they thought, "Yeah, I should probably be more religious." Or maybe they thought, "Those crazy Catholics." But, for the most part, their role was to pass by. This Jesus and his death had  nothing really to do with them.

Between the main characters and those who didn't have time to stop were the rest of us. We were watching what took place, and it was as though we were suddenly faced with a choice. Are we going to live as though this event has everything to do with our life or are we going to pass by? See, if we're honest, we can all easily forget that His Passion and Death define our life. We can live as passers by. We have a vague sense that Jesus is important, but we have places to go and things to do. 

Today, Jesus cries out from the Cross, "I thirst." A few weeks ago, he thirsted by the well in Samaria. He told the woman that he wanted a drink.  He did not merely want water from her. He thirsted for her Faith. He thirsted for her to put her Faith in him, to trust him; to trust that He could give her what she had been searching for in vain for all of her life. He thirsted for her to surrender to him and to trust that he would bring her the happiness that had long eluded her.  

Today, Jesus cries from the Cross, "I thirst."  He thirsts for our Faith. If we're honest, all of us hold back from trusting Jesus completely. There's a little "passer by" in all of us. There's a hesitancy in us. We are afraid to surrender certain parts of our life to him. All of us can act at times as though what happens on the Cross is not absolutely critical and central to our life. We can be busy about many things. We can pass by hurriedly, but no matter how frenzied life might be, we can hear his voice today through all the noise. He's calling out to us, "I thirst." "I thirst for you. I thirst for your love. I thirst for that part of your life that you are keeping from me. I thirst for that part of your life that you hide from me, that you refuse to surrender. I thirst to be the one who defines your life. I thirst."

In a few moments, we will all approach the crucified Lord and reverence the wood of the Cross. As we do so, let's remember that he is calling out, "I thirst." He's not crying out to some vague or anonymous crowd. He's crying out to you personally. Will you give him your heart or will you be a passer by? He thirsts. And you must  now make a decision.

On the Day Before He Suffered, a Holy Thursday Homily

After Holy Thursday Mass at Boston University, some of our students walked to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to  pray with Cardinal Sean
The other day, I received a text message from a man who was a high school student when I was a newly ordained priest. He and his family became friends of mine and we've kept in touch over the years. He was texting me photos of the beach in the Bahamas where he and his wife are on vacation. He wanted to let me know that he is enjoying warm, sunny weather and that he hopes I'm enjoying the cold, rainy weather here in Boston. Nice guy.  After we texted a bit, I recalled another time he texted me, about two years ago.

His mother had been sick for quite a while, but she took a rapid turn for the worse and he called to see if I could come visit her in the hospital. As it turned out, I would visit her on the night before she died. I've been at the bedside of hundreds of people at the moment before they pass from this life and go to the next. It can be an extraordinary moment. Being present at the side of this woman on the night before she died stands out in my mind.

When I entered the room, which was fairly dark, I greeted her family members.  They said to her, "Fr. Barnes is here." I was preparing myself to offer some words of consolation to her. Instead, she said, "Oh, Father Barnes! It's so nice of you to come. Thank You. How are you doing? How are the kids at BU doing? Tell me about them?" At a moment when she would fully be within her rights to be concerned about herself, she was thanking me and asking about the people whom I serve. 

There are words that I have spoken daily for twenty-two years.  They have never really struck me because what follows them are the most important words. "On the night before he died." Or, "On the night he was betrayed." Or, "On the night before he suffered." These words never stand out to me because it is the words that follow these that are the most important. "This is my Body. This is My Blood."

But today, these words really strike me. Tonight, we are with Jesus on the night before he died. We are with him in this privileged moment when he prepares to pass from this life to the next. He is the one who is about to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die. And what does he think about in this moment? He thinks about you. On the night before he died, Jesus thought about you.  He loves us to the end. He spends the night before he dies, loving us. He expresses this love by giving us three gifts.

Firstly, he gives to you the gift of the priesthood. True, none of you are ordained priests, but all of you--all of us--are recipients of this gift of Jesus' love. On the night before he died, Jesus gave to us the gift of the priesthood. This gift of his love is given so that the presence of the Good Shepherd can be prolonged in every age and place. Through the priesthood, Christ loves us by teaching us with his Word, absolving us from our sins, and feeding us with His Body and Blood. On the night before he died, Jesus loved you and gave you the priesthood.

Secondly, on the night before he suffered, Jesus gave you the Eucharist. He thought of you in that upper room. He loved you and wanted to remain with you in the most intimate of ways. In this gift, Jesus remains with you and transforms you into himself. He who is Love Incarnate opens a way for us to be caught up into Divine Love. In the Eucharist, Love Himself enters into our soul and transforms us from the inside. The image of Christ becomes more and more alive within us, enabling us to love to the end. On the night before he died, Jesus loved you and gave you the Eucharist.

Thirdly, on the night before he suffered, Jesus gave to us an example. He emptied himself--lowered himself--and washed the feet of his apostles. In doing so, he showed us what love is. And then, he commanded us to love. He showed us how to love to the end. So many people feel trapped in anger, trapped by circumstances, trapped by their past. They feel imprisoned by their faults and failings. They feel as though there is no way forward, no way out.  But Jesus shows us that there is a way. On the night before he suffered--at the moment when fierce enemies were closing in on him, surrounding him, and taunting him--at the moment when close friends were betraying him, denying him, and abandoning him--Jesus loves them.  He loves them to the end. He loves us to the end.  And so, on the night before he suffered, he gave to us an example, a reminder that love makes us free. He loves us to the end and allows us to do the same. On the night before he died, he taught us how to love.

The woman I mentioned earlier died such a beautiful death because she had been transformed by the One who loved her. She knew that Christ, on the night before he died, loved her to the end. She lived a life of receiving the gifts of love that Christ bestowed upon her and she was transformed by this love. She was loved to the end and was made able then to love to the end. This is the Catholic life. 

Dear Friends, tonight we are with Jesus on the Night before he died. What a privilege to be with him at this moment. And as we stay at his side in this sacred moment, he does something that we should never forget.  He loves us. And he loves us to the end.





Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Chrism, Friendship, and Martyrs

There's a Latin aphorism that says, "Lex orandi, lex credendi," which basically means, "The law of praying is the law of believing." In other words, if you want to understand what we as Catholics believe, one way to do that is to look at the way we pray. The Liturgy instructs us about what we believe.

Even though I entered seminary thirty years ago, I still find myself surprised by the Liturgy of the Church. Every so often, a word, a phrase, a symbol, or part of the liturgical calendar causes me to pause. I love these moments because they are a clear indication that the liturgy does not require innovation on our part or the insertion of novelties in order to teach us something new. I had one such moment at the Chrism Mass this Holy Week.

Each year at the Chrism Mass, the bishop gathers with his priests and members of the local church and he consecrates the Holy Oils that will be used throughout the diocese for the coming year. This year, as my bishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley was saying the prayer for the consecration of the Chrism, I noticed something that I've never taken note of before. We are all accustomed to hearing the words, "priests, prophets, and kings" linked together. We know that in Baptism we are anointed to share in Christs priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices. We also know that in the Old Testament priests, prophets, and kings would be anointed. What struck me though was this: 


"To you, therefore, O Lord, we pray, that by your blessing you may graciously sanctify the rich substance of this oil that you have created, and permeate it with the strength of the Holy Spirit by means, too, of the power at work in your Christ, from whose holy name is named the Chrism, with which you have anointed your priests and kings, prophets and martyrs." 

 Added to the usual list of "priest, prophet, and king" is the phrase "and martyrs." I was really struck by this. This prayer instructs us that all who have been anointed with Chrism have been anointed for martyrdom. We have been anointed to be witnesses. "Martyr" means, "witness." Inherent with every anointing with the Sacred Chrism is a new configuration to Christ. This interior configuration, however, is given not simply for our own benefit. It is bestowed so that we can witness to Christ. It is given so that our life can bear witness to the truth that St. Paul proclaims: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). 

Whether in Baptism, Confirmation, or Holy Orders, the person anointed is strengthened to bear witness to Christ. This witness--this martyrdom--requires and assists us in dying to ourselves. We witness to Christ by dying with Him. We sometimes think of "witnessing to Christ" as an add on to being a Christian, but the prayer makes clear that we are anointed as martyrs, as witnesses. This anointing to martyrdom is not a punishment. It is a privilege. It is also a relief. Why a relief? If we were simply "called" to bear witness to Christ, that might leave us feeling overwhelmed by a task beyond our capacity. Or, such a call could feel a bit like being summoned for jury duty, an unwelcome interruption to our life.

No, we haven't merely been summoned to some unpleasant duty. We've been anointed for a privileged vocation. We've been chosen and anointed to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the Savior. Witnessing to Christ--making Him known by our way of life, by our words, by our love, this is a sacred mission entrusted to us who have been anointed by our Savior.

In an age when the light of Christ is increasingly obscured by the growing shadows of secularism and by ideologies antithetical to Christian anthropology, the world and Christians themselves require martyrs, witnesses. I see this clearly in my work on a college campus. When the predominant culture dismisses, mocks, and is antagonistic toward the Christian Faith, it can be extraordinarily difficult for young people (or any person) to remain faithful. And yet, a witness changes everything. A witness introduces hope into the bleak horizon that the absence of God inevitably brings. The martyr--the anointed witness--awakens in the other a remembrance that beauty, goodness, and truth do exist. The witness enters into the darkness of others and pierces their soul with the warm light of Christ. The witness saves others from the lie that life is empty and lacks meaning. The witness awakens within us a recognition that we have an eternal destiny.

When I see the men and women at our Catholic Center living their life together, I see that they are saving one another. By witnessing to one another, they save each other from the grasp of the darkness that surrounds them. This is true also for parish communities. When we live life together in Christian friendship, we witness to one another and to others that Christ is true. When we are surrounded by friends who are witnesses, we experience the freedom that only Christ can give.

What saves me every day is living life among witnesses. They are witnesses because they have been anointed. They have been anointed with the Chrism that makes martyrs. Thank God for Chrism and thank God for His witnesses, men and women, young and old, who daily allow Christ to live in them and to use them as instruments to save us.





Sunday, March 24, 2019

What Do Women at Wells and Barren Fig Trees Have in Common?

For reasons that are not necessary to explain here, on the Third Sunday of Lent, there are two options for the readings. I have two Masses today, one with the "Year A" readings and the other with the "Year C" readings. Not really wanting to preach two entirely different homilies (because I'm lazy and not that bright), I wondered if I could find a similarity between the Gospels.

In Year A, we hear from St. John about an encounter that Jesus had with the woman at the well. In Year C, St. Luke recounts a parable that Jesus told concerning a fig tree that was planted, but did not produce fruit. Is there any commonality between the fig tree and the woman at the well?

The beautiful gospel concerning the woman at the well is bursting with profound spiritual insights for us. This year, as I pondered this gospel, one thing particularly struck me. St. John tells us that many of the Samaritans came to believe in Jesus "because of the word of the woman who testified, 'He told me everything I have done.'" In today's world, the internet is filled with people revealing and reveling in the faults of others. Whatever you say or do today might be posted on a video tomorrow. There is a perverse and twisted world of entertainment built up around the public shaming of others. Leave a bad tip at a restaurant? Be prepared to have your name and face plastered all over Facebook and Twitter. Do something or say something stupid when you're young and immature? Be prepared to have it online forever. 

Imagine if today somebody came up to you and said, "I know everything you've done," and then began recounting those things to you. "I know what you have said about your friends. I know what all of your text messages say. I know what you've watched online. I know how much you gave to charity last year. I know what lies you've told, what things you've cheated on, and what gossip you've participated in. More than likely, this would terrify you. "What are they going to do with this information? Are they going to share all of my faults with others, embarrass me, blackmail me?" Chances are, if somebody told us that they were aware of every one of our faults and failures, it would, at the very least, make us uncomfortable.

But what happens with the woman at the well? She goes and tells everyone and they come to believe in Jesus. Why? It has to be because of the way in which Jesus treats her and her sins. He does not shame her or humiliate her. He doesn't condemn her. Instead, he provides an opening, a moment to convert. He offers her the opportunity to receive life giving waters. In this encounter, we see the whole Christian life! She encounters Christ, hears and trusts in His Word, receives His love, and goes and shares this Good News with others! Jesus does not enslave her by chaining her to the memory of her sins. Instead, he frees her from those chains. St. John tells us that she left the water jug at the well and ran off into the town. She no longer needed the jug because she no longer needed to search for fulfillment elsewhere. She now had welling up within her life giving waters.

In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus makes clear that if the tree doesn't bear fruit, it will need to be cut down. All of us have been planted by the Lord, but we are planted in order to bear fruit. A time will come when we will be judged. Either we bear the fruits of holiness or we are barren. At a certain moment, we will have to give an account of our life. Sometimes we hear mercy spoken about in a way that sounds like, "God is merciful so I can keep on sinning." But this is not mercy. Mercy means that God is giving us time to repent. Lent is a time of mercy precisely because it is a time of repentance.  The Lord gives us the fertilizer of His Word. He gives us the Sacraments. He gives us the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He gives us TIME. He gives us THIS time.  It is a gift to us so that we can repent and be given new life, a life welling up within us. He gives us this time so that we can be free from our past sins. 

A worthwhile exercise for all of us this week is to honestly examine our life. We can do that without fear in the presence of the Lord. We need not hide anything from Him. He loves us. Are we bearing the fruits of holiness or are we barren? Are we enslaved by some sins? Whatever our sins are, let us not be afraid to honestly and humbly share them with Christ. Unlike the Devil and the world, Jesus opens up a new way for us. He does not leave us dead and shackled, he gives life and freedom. He gives us the present moment filled with His Grace.  

Jesus offered to the woman at the well and to the fig tree something that the Devil and the world do not offer. He offered them a second chance. He offers it to us as well.  What should we do with this second chance? That's easy.  Repent.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Transfiguration and Why You Cannot Leave the Catholic Church

On Ash Wednesday, we began Lent by hearing Jesus warn us against doing things for the wrong reasons. When you give alms, don't blow a trumpet. When you fast, don't look gloomy. When you pray, go to your room and close the door. Do things so that God sees them. Don't do them for the purpose of showing off to others. The Lord, however, doesn't say, "Don't do those things." He says, do them for the right reasons. 

In a homily on that passage, St. Augustine says that just because wolves sometimes dress in the garb of a sheep, doesn't mean that the sheep should give up their sheep's pelt! That line has continuously come back to me during these first days of Lent. Mostly, it comes to mind because I've heard more than one person say that they are struggling to remain faithful to the Church these days. I get it. It's been a tough year. I won't even try to get into the long list of reasons because different people have different reasons. What is tearing at the heart of one person might not necessarily be what's angering another person. But, lots of people are angry, hurt, and discouraged. I get it. 

Today in the Gospel, Jesus takes his companions--Peter, James, and John--up a high mountain. The journey takes effort and is demanding. The spiritual life is demanding. It requires effort, commitment, patience, and long-suffering. At the height of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before His companions. He reveals to them His Glory. Their effort and commitment, their patience and their long-suffering is rewarded. Why does the Lord reveal His Glory to them? He wants to strengthen them so that in a short time, when they see this very same body brutalized, tortured, and ultimately killed upon the Cross, they will not be scandalized beyond repair. He wants the memory of what He revealed to them on the mountain to be preserved within them and to sustain them through the dark days of the Lord's Passion.

We are the Lord's sheep. We are His flock. Our pelt--our clothing--is our baptismal robe. As members of His flock, we are called to live a life of prayer. We are called to reject sin. We are called to worship God in His Church, to receive the Sacraments devoutly, to live a life of charity. Are there wolves who dress the same way?  Are there wolves who do all of those things, disguising their sinister intent by appearing to be sheep?  Yes, there are. So there has always been. And, even the sheep are often weighed down by sin and weakness. 

In moments when we come face to face with the mystery of evil, we are faced with a decision. Are we going to be faithful to what Christ has revealed to us or are we going to allow evil to overwhelm us? Are we going to continue the hard work of climbing the mountain of prayer, allowing Christ to teach us, or are we going to abandon Him? Are we going to remain faithful to our baptismal promises or are we going to renege? Are we going to surrender our sheep's clothing because sometimes wolves dress like sheep, or are we going to remain in our sheep's clothing because Christ laid down His life for His sheep?

The Transfiguration is given to us so that in times of adversity, times of trial, and times of evil, when we feel incapable of taking another step along the road of discipleship, we might call to mind the Glory of Christ. His Glory is sometimes hidden from our eyes, but the Transfiguration reminds us that His Glory is indeed there. His Glory will prevail over sin and over death. 

Don't give up the sheep's clothing! Now is the time for each of us to be even more serious about being Christ's sheep. Now is the time to become more faithfully His sheep. Now is the time to climb the mountain; to be more prayerful, not less. To be more committed, not less. To be more devout, not less. Now is not the time to cast off our sheep's clothing. Now is the time to cast off the power of darkness and every semblance of sin.  Now is the time to repent, not to renege.

The wolf wins if he gets us to surrender our Catholic life. He wins when he cons us into abandoning the Catholic life. Now is the time to become more Catholic, not less. Now is the time for Christ's sheep to look upon the Good Shepherd--in all of His Glory--and to tell the wolf that he can take his lies and deceptions and go straight to Hell.