Today’s Gospel gave me occasion to reflect once again upon two contrasting periods of my own life; my youth and young adulthood and my middle adulthood and conversion. As a boy, a teen and a young man I was lost and without a “compass” in my life. Surely now I know the constant anger I carried with me was one born of this sense of loss without hope. In that period of life, I most definitely did not “know” or have Jesus Christ in my life, and while much of the reason for that was my own anger, ignorance and stubbornness (walls the Lord tore down and continues to in my life); it was also due to the very bad example of Christians in my life at those times. I had them, and while it might at times seem “just” to name names, I know the Lord who brought me to conversion can do so with those who “in the name of Christ” gave me the sense I never wanted to be a Christian.
The other period was my slow-moving and wonderful conversion of heart. Still skeptical, resistant, hard-headed in many ways – I was open enough to let the Lord in! It was also very much the amazing example of generous and devout Christians who showed me the joy my life could be about, not living for myself but for the Lord and for others. They didn’t merely talk about it, they lived it. They admitted their imperfections but didn’t live in sin. They knew they were sinners, but well aware of God’s love for them. They made Jesus Christ and His Church attractive and I was captivated for several years before I actually “made the plunge” and asked to become a Catholic Christian myself. That was 16 years ago now, and while I struggle to be a better Christian day by day; it’s a joyful struggle. It’s joyful because I am filled with hope now. Hope that God truly does deliver on His Promise. Joyful because I too know that despite my sins and weaknesses (and I have many) I am a loved sinner.
Today’s Gospel highlights for me the importance of being a good Christian! It gave me cause to reflect (from my own life experience) on what could happen to a person when we aren’t a good witness and while bad examples contributed to keeping me away from God for many years; I am not resenting or unforgiving towards those people. Instead I pray for them. I pray that if they’re alive or if they are gone, that Jesus won them back. In my own conversion story, they gave me cause to forgive and the grace when I did so.
The other part of this story is that I don’t reflect back on that time of my life now and point a finger at those people without accepting that it is very possible there are people in my life now who did not see the best example of a Christian in me. There’s a possibility that I have been that bad example too, and while I might not even be aware of who those people are; I pray they have found Jesus sadly, without my help and I pray that if I were to come to know them I would have the courage and strength to ask forgiveness. This morning, as we consider God’s love and mercy expressed in the readings, most especially the Gospel – can we have the strength to commit ourselves today and each day to being the best Christians we can be?
I really love today’s Gospel, because I often reflect upon being one of those sheep who went astray and the Lord in His Great Love (with better things to do and better people to save) chose to come and get me. I also know He did so through some really great people! While I think about this often (as you probably notice if you’ve read a few of my reflections) I also know I’ve got a long way to go in being one of those people who is a true Instrument of the Lord in bringing others back.
It’s hard to let go of the security we have and find in our faith. As a priest, I am called upon by the Lord to emulate Him as Shepherd. It is my role and duty to leave the 99 and go find the one and yet it’s very easy to preach to the choir. We priests can find ourselves so busy that we stay in our churches, among the gathered and don’t find the time to reach out to the scattered. This is where we are not doing our jobs unless we empower others to take care of the gathered, as they themselves are gathered and then empower even more to come and help us reach the scattered.
I think of my first parish assignment, at St. Patrick’s in Markham. I remember being told by some of my mentors and priest friends that I should not spend an inordinate amount of time in the schools, that what I had a passion for as a seminarian was not my job as a priest. I took it to heart that too much time in the schools might be self-serving and that I should consider my place in celebrating the Sacraments inside the parish. I took this to prayer and really felt that the Lord showed me it was not selfish or self-serving and I don’t recall a time I neglected to show up for the parish sacraments, and I did more in our feeder schools than I did as a seminarian. I don’t share this to make a point about me, but rather to say that we need to rely on the Lord in this way. For the many (many) things the Lord needs to continue to reveal to me, one thing He has already shown me is the importance of going out in search of the “scattered”. I spent a lot of time in the schools as a parish priest, and I know as many of us do that there are a large number of students, just as their parents have stopped coming to Church – have very limited ways of knowing the love and mercy of God and I saw in the questions of these kids a thirst for something that was not mine to decide to give or not give. The Word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ is not meant for who we decide it should be for – only the worthy. It is for all. I am a recipient of that, when I was far-scattered, I am truly thankful the Lord came to me!
In today’s Gospel, Jesus forgives sins and then when He is challenged by the scribes and Pharisees, performs the lesser of the miracles and grants the paralyzed man his ability to walk and move. Of course it bothers us that Jesus is challenged by these narrow-minded ideologues who are threatened by the “authority” they believe they deserve and not this “man from Nazareth”. But what our Gospel calls us all to consider today is not how ideologues can get in the way of the Lord’s work, but to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Can we be narrow-minded when it comes to the Lord’s saving work in our lives and the lives of others?
- Can we place limits on what God can do?
- Can we miss the “big picture” of what God is trying to accomplish because of what we think should be accomplished?
- Why should we (and do we) have faith in God and trust Him?
There are many more questions today’s Gospel could call upon us to reflect upon but I think about my own faith journey and how I spent so much of my own life with great limits that I placed upon the Lord. When I accepted Jesus Christ, my heart became more and more open to so many important things:
- I learned how to truly love and be merciful and compassionate to others
- I learned how to begin channel my own passions in life (which were manifested mostly in anger to that point)
- I learned what it means to be truly human, truly alive, to truly live
- I learned what it means to live for something much greater than myself.
I’ve learned some of these things, but must admit that I am a work in progress this way and I need to continue to grow and learn through my faults and failings too. Jesus has performed the greatest of all miracles for me – and now as I live my own vocation as one of His Priests, through me as well:
Jesus has forgiven me of my sins, He continues to forgive me of my sins and has extended to me Infinite Love and Infinite Mercy – and has asked me to do the same as a follower. In and through my vocation, He has also called me to extend this very miracle of forgiving sins. And if that’s not enough (and it truly is) He has also given me (us) our life back.
These words of the Prophet Isaiah were fulfilled by St. John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” We hear these words in our Gospel today. If we carefully and slowly meditate upon these words, we too by our own vocation are called to be John the Baptists in the world today. We too were set apart at birth (connecting us again to Mary yesterday) and we too were given our mission. What’s different is that unlike Mary and St. John, who lived most of their lives completely in God’s mystery and thus had to have complete faith and trust that God’s plan was coming about (so had to rely on the virtue of hope as well) we are given much of the Mystery already! We follow the Mystery – the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Our Immaculate Re-Conception and our Mission is given to us on the day of our Holy Baptism – when Original Sin is taken away from us and we are made New in Christ. From that day, we seek to be like Jesus and we are people who throughout our lives must seek to pave a way for others to follow the Lord.
We seek to get ourselves to Heaven and bring as many people with us as we can.
We work in whatever ways we can to remove obstacles and barriers for people so they find their way to Jesus. When I think about how I “found Jesus” late in life (in my late 20’s, and Jesus found me, I didn’t really find Him) it was the holy example of others, not the pulpit they preached from or the position of moral superiority I recognized. I have come to hear beautiful things from pulpits (and hopefully share a few inspiring thoughts myself) and have come to see the importance of a good clear sense of morals, but these did not come first for me, they are not the “roads” or “paths” I must take as a Priest of Jesus Christ, nor are they of value first for anyone. People must “know we are Christians by our love, our faith and trust, our peaceful sense of hope amid the challenges of the world, our true and authentic joy even in turbulence, strife, struggle and uncertainty.
Are we preparing a way for the Lord, into the hearts of others? Perhaps on this Second Sunday of Advent, we might consider how we can continue doing this or begin to do this this very day!
Mary, the Mother of Jesus (of God) who we affectionately and personally call “Our Lady” was born fully and completely human and by the Grace of God had the stain of Original Sin, which affects us all – taken away from her. Why do we accept and believe this? Why is this important? And what does it have to do with us?
We accept and believe that Mary was conceived immaculately because her life was given in service to the Lord, from the time she was born, through her childhood, adolescence, young adult and until her dying day, she served God with every virtue given (faith, hope and charity) and every virtue she worked at day by day. This is important because it brings together the freedom every one of us have been given (to choose to do God’s will or not) and Divine Providence (that Almighty God Himself knows every action and the outcome of a life). In knowing this, Mary is given (and we are given too) special gifts, in her case because her vocation is best suited by it, she is conceived immaculately. Mary was fully capable of sinning and we sometimes forget this – but in choosing not to, she responded daily to God. She responded with an openness and obedience; a faith deepened constantly by trust.
Mary in the truest sense, lived and breathed her vocation. Mary lived out from beginning to end her life’s purpose! She is a model Christian, and we can learn a lot from her. We may not have been conceived immaculately, but then we need to remember that our vocation is no less important to the Lord, or to Our Lady. We, like her were given gifts from our conception, gifts that we can only know with prayerful self-reflection: not to use for selfish purposes but for self-less giving to God and to others. Divine Providence is in play in our lives as well; that is, God has a plan and a desire for each one of us and there is something universally and personally important for us to be doing in and with our lives: maybe to be a Priest of Jesus Christ and make present His Sacraments for us all, maybe to be a Religious or Consecrated Sister or Brother and dedicate our lives to service of God and His Church in ways of the utmost importance to salvation, maybe in the Generous Single Life in Christ giving ourselves totally and completely to Christ and His Church and maybe as a devoted Husband or Wife; Mother or Father married to God and to our spouse and building up the Church through the family we love and minister to; creating Holy Families throughout the world.
Have we (you) had a personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ? Has He healed you of your blindness? I have had one of those experiences and I was healed, but I continue to need healing from so many of the ways that I am blind.
In today’s Gospel we hear of two blind men calling out in public for Jesus the Messiah (Son of David recognizes His predicted coming in the line of King David, as it is written) to have mercy on them. They are aware of the Messiah in their midst but we also hear that Jesus waits until they are inside the house to speak to them: placing a premium on the personal encounter and it is there and through that personal encounter they are healed.
I’ve spent the majority of my life being hostile to religion and to religious people, most notably Christians because almost everyone I knew was Christian. I had no interest in anything religion was about until I came to a point of realization that I wasn’t living for anything real or significant in my life: the very accusation I made against religious people. I wasn’t an atheist, I did believe in a Creator God and it was to Him I prayed. I had a personal encounter with Jesus His Son, first through the Word and then a few years later through His Sacraments and through His Church. Over several years, the love I was coming to receive, know and accept from God was leading me to “see things” I was not and had not seen before. Little by little, I was less blinded by my opinions and judgments and more open to the grace and love of God in my life, and then as God desired it – I had sight to see the goodness of people.
I think of the amazing “miracles” of healing that have taken place in my life. I think also of the work the Lord still has to do. When I read and reflect upon today’s Gospel, I also think of how I gained sight through my own personal encounter with Jesus. And I am blessed to spend my life (through the priesthood) thanking Him for it and asking Him to continue healing me of what I need healing from in order to live the best Christian life I can.
I remember reading a book in seminary “Dare We Hope” by Hans Urs von Balthasar which gave us food for thought – who is saved and who is not? Although some people may think it’s a “cop out” for a Catholic priest to have little to say about this – I have little to say. The reason is that while I seek to abide in God’s infinite love (and try daily not to put limitations on my own love for others) and His infinite mercy gives me authority to preach on our need to forgive without limitations – I speak very little of God’s judgment. It’s not that I don’t believe or accept God’s judgment but I really do believe that this is the area that any thought, opinion or reflection I have on God’s judgment will be more what I think and less about what God’s judgment actually looks like. In a recent homily I gave to our seminarians, where I offered some thoughts on how to speak about hope when Jesus speaks to us about righteousness and judgment I put it this way: “The righteous (and unrighteous) will be judged by God but we have to remember first and always that God judged us worthy of giving us His Son, worthy of salvation, worthy of redemption and He makes a pretty good argument to leave the judging to Him and Him alone”.
I may have my personal opinions and beliefs about someone’s bad actions landing them in hell as opposed to going to heaven – but that is 100% up to God and I don’t hope hell for anyone! If I did, that would stand directly against what I am called to live my life for as a Christian and as a priest: to get to heaven and to bring AS MANY people with me as I can. Dare we hope that all by the Grace of God will be saved!
There are good theological reasons to see the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the Holy Eucharist in the same light. I often think of the multiplication and miracle of Jesus feeding these people in a pastoral way as well. I find myself moved by the love and compassion Jesus has for the people who come to Him. As a Catholic priest, by the power of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I pray over bread and wine and it becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Bread of Eternal Life. I am very mindful of how much I want all the people who come to receive to know Jesus in this way. I see so much faith and trust in their eyes when they come forward to receive Our Lord. I really and truly believe that when much of society and the media often can suggest that the Catholic Church is becoming irrelevant, it hasn’t been my experience. People still come for Holy Mass – NOT BECAUSE any of my brother priests or bishops or myself are amazing; but because Jesus is there! There are many miracles beyond what I am describing taking place in our faith communities all the time, but that the Lord Jesus makes Himself present in so many different ways, but to feed us with His own Body is really and truly a gift from God!!!
Where would professional sports be if a world-class athlete were not to give 100% to preparing for the big games or the Olympics because he or she was worried along the way that they might be traded to another team? For this reason they need to mentally prepare themselves for the task at hand trusting that whatever happens, they’ve given everything and it’s never in vane! This analogy may not be an exact fit for our Disciples today, but it might be worth our own consideration as Christians. We prepare and work as Christian Disciples for something we can’t see around us right now – Heaven and Eternal Life! Jesus says “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”.
The Son of God entered the world and performed miracles and did many things before the eyes of the people. His Apostles & Disciples did many of these things as well. Everything they (and we) do is for God and the blessedness of eternal life with and for Him. Our lives are given to tasks that very much benefit this world but are meant for things far beyond. And when we see God, God’s actions in the world (people being drawn back to God, back to the sacraments, back to His Word), and we see God in others and acting in that person and through the Person of His Son – truly, blessed are our eyes to see that! Friends, we too need to mentally prepare ourselves as athletes do, but most importantly as Disciples of the Lord do, to go out and work tirelessly for the most blessed of all things: faith, redemption and salvation – and know that the Lord who empowers us to do this, blesses us as He did those in today’s Gospel.
“Lord, I am not worthy to have You enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. As we profess these words with faith when the priest holds the Body of Christ before us – does it ever occur to us that these words are offered for us and memorialized in the liturgy by someone who would not have likely been considered to be a good Catholic Christian? These words are not of someone in the inner circle or who was likely with Jesus at many of the various key moments through Galilee or Jerusalem, unless it was to oversee the soldiers who were monitoring Jesus; and then the inner circle might have been treated these soldiers and the centurion with suspicion. In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, we also hear other accounts of people reaching out to the Messiah in unconventional ways.
The Old Testament prophecy about the coming of the Messiah suggests that God would send His Messiah to redeem Israel, and surely many people had their own beliefs that this would benefit them and only them as they stayed on the “inside tract” of their faith. There were many who were ready to accept and believe that they were to be redeemed for what they had been doing to “keep on the right side of the Law”. But there were many who, for various reasons were on the outside looking in. We also know that there were many who were “on the right side of the Law” who were not able to open their hearts and minds to Jesus as the Messiah, doing exactly what He came to do –because what their own sense of righteous provided them was a limitation to who was to be saved and who among them was to be condemned. They were not willing to think “outside the box” and because of this, they projected their own limitation on our Lord and Saviour.
Jesus knew no such limitation, and today’s Gospel is an example of this. He praises the faith of the centurion, and in healing his servant from afar gives us all yet another example of his unlimited scope and reach in bringing people back to God.
I am in the process of reading and praying over “Gaudete et Exsultate” [Rejoice and Be Glad], Pope Francis’ exhortation to us on living our call to holiness. What impresses me the most about this exhortation from the pope is how he highlights the reality of holiness for us. Holiness in life isn’t meant to be for someone else – it’s meant to be for all of us. We are all called to be saints in this world AND I would suggest with all the complexities, problems and issues in the world we are living in – we need saints now more than ever. We aren’t called to look like saints from the past or be like one or another. We are meant to aspire for holiness in the life we are living now. Of course there are common characteristics among saints: an ever growing faith, a present and growing desire to be like Jesus Himself, a desire to work with God’s grace in tackling and overcoming sin in our own lives, deep commitment and desire to be merciful and understanding, a constant desire to love with the unconditional love that has been extended already to each of us, to forgive others in the complete and unconditional way we have been forgiven.
Do you want to become a saint? I know that I do. We need to ask ourselves: “what is standing in the way of me becoming a saint of our Lord Jesus Christ”? The answer to this cannot be what we’ve done in the past – that’s not good enough! The answer is to be found in what are we willing to do today and for the rest of our lives? Are we willing to acknowledge the Power of God and live our lives rejoicing in what God can do with us if we are open to it? Are we ready to love as much as we can, forgive as much as we can? Extend mercy and kindness to everyone we can? Serve others today and every day of our lives? Then we are ready to become saints.
Jesus has not placed limits on us, as the Gospel assures us today. We place limits on ourselves. Are we ready to allow our Lord to lift those limits from us today?