20 September 2005

Homily - 18 September 2005

“For to me Christ is life and death is gain” (Philippians 1:). Paul must know something that we do not know. “Death is gain,” he says. How can this be? What can we possibly gain in death? Our life is ended; it is over and we return to the dust from which we came. As we die it seems we lose our ability to function; we lose our control; and we seem to lose even our freedom. Oftentimes projects are left unfinished and relationships are left strained and broken. Children are devastated; parents’ hearts break, and strangers take no notice. “We pass swiftly and then we are gone” (Psalm ). In all of this, what do we gain?

We are utterly powerless in the pangs of death but, says Paul, “for to me Christ is life and death is gain.” In death, we gain Christ and in gaining Christ we gain life, for he himself is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Death yields to life for Christ has conquered it and destroyed it!

“I am caught between the two,” says St. Paul. “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit” (Philippians 1:23-24). Paul found himself longing for death so that he might live with Christ but at the same time he knew that he was needed to teach and support the early Church and to spread the message of the Gospel. Many of us find ourselves in this same place. We desperately long to leave this life to be forever with the Lord Jesus but we also know that our life is not yet over and there is still work assigned by the Lord for us to do. It is a difficult place to be, being caught in the middle.

What is it, we might ask, that made Paul so ready to die? What did he know that we do not? Says the prophet Isaiah: “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call to him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Paul sought the Lord night and day, and day and night he wrestled with the Lord, always seeking to learn his ways. For the sake of Christ, Paul suffered greatly but he heard the Lord Jesus say to him, “My friend, I am not cheating you,” “for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways” (Matthew 20:13 and Isaiah 55:8).

When we hear the Lord to say us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” we may feel cheated by the Lord (Luke 9:23). It may seem as though the Lord takes away our freedom, our own desires, and even the beauty of life. But this is not the case. It is only through the cross that we truly become free; it is through the cross that our deeply held desires are at long last finally fulfilled; it is through the cross that we see the tremendous beauty of the Lord. As he struggled with the Lord, Paul learned the secret of the cross that leads to lasting joy and peace and eternal life. He knew the great beauty to be found in this life but he also knew that this beauty is nothing to be compared with that to be revealed. Paul surrendered himself to the Lord so that Christ would be magnified in his body (see Philippians 1:20). As we struggle with the Lord and doubt the purpose of the cross, the Lord says to us, “My friend, I am not cheating you. I have walked this road before you. It is difficult but it gives life and freedom and beauty; it is necessary.”

If we, like Paul and the saints, surrender our own desires to the Lord we, too, will magnify the Lord in our bodies, “whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). But, I wonder, are we willing to surrender to the Lord? We know that doing so will bring about a tremendous flood of grace, a grace that brings peace and joy, but also a grace that brings about the sufferings of Christ. Can we allow ourselves to surrender completely to his will? Our Holy Father Benedict, in his first homily as the Bishop of Rome, asked us:

"If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope [John Paul II] said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

"And so, today, with great strength and conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ - and you will find true life. Amen.” [Inaugural Homily, 24 April 2005]

This is why Paul was able to say, “death is gain.” He was not afraid of Christ and he knew that in death he would “receive a hundredfold in return.” He knew that through the cross he would come to share in the glory of the Lord and to look upon the One who is Beauty itself. He saw the hints of that beauty in life and longed to see if fully revealed. He opened wide the doors of his heart to the Lord; will we not do the same?

“The Lord is [truly] near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). The Lord is very near to us; he is about to come to us in a most profound and awesome way upon this altar through the hands of his minister. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near.”

10 September 2005

Homily - 11 September 2005

Forgiveness is a difficult topic to discuss today. Too few of us want to admit that we are wrong or that we have sinned or that we have harmed another person by what we have done, said, or even and especially failed to do or say. Yet at the same time, we do not want anyone else to hold our faults against us. We do not want others to hold grudges against us, even though we are often more than willing to hold grudges against them. It is a strange situation in which we place ourselves, that of wanting forgiveness, yet not be willing to ask for it and also not being willing to forgive others.

When somebody does us wrong, we are sometimes willing to forgive them, but only if they come to us first and explicitly ask for our forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that we like to hold over someone until they have done just what we want them to do and then we may consider forgiving them. In our own minds, the ability to forgive gives us some sort of power or control over other people and we gladly wield it, never fully aware of what we do.

Before we forgive someone, we want to know why we should forgive them in the first place. If they have caused us harm once already, will they not just hurt us again in the not too distant future? Why should we forgive them only to open ourselves up to more pain? Forgiveness, in this way, seems risky and foolish to us and perhaps it even seems silly and so we hesitate to grant it.

When we do finally bring ourselves to forgive someone, after they have demonstrated their sincerity, we feel good about ourselves. “See how loving and humble I am,” we may think to ourselves; worse yet, we may even say it.

My brothers and sisters, this cannot be our notion of forgiveness, nor can it be our reason to forgive. To the question we all ask at some point, “Why should I forgive you?” there is but one answer: because the Lord has first forgiven us. As the Psalmist sings today, “He pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills, redeems your life from destruction, he crowns you with kindness and compassion” (Psalm 102:3-4). Indeed, the Lord went so far as to say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The forgiveness of Jesus is without end and he gives no consideration to the reality that we will sin again when he freely offers his forgiveness.

Consider the parable the Lord tells us today. The king who condemned the one who would not forgive did so, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33). The servant was not condemned because of the debt he owed, but because he refused to share the mercy he had been granted, keeping it all to himself and thinking only of himself.

The grandfather of Joseph, the son Sirach, puts it this way: “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself?” (Sirach 28:4). Put more simply, Can one forgiven sinner refuse forgiveness to another sinner? No. We cannot refuse forgiveness to another person, because we are all sinners and the Lord, in his infinite goodness and love, extends his mercy and forgiveness to everyone. We must do the same because he has first forgiven us and he says to us, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).

Indeed, several times each day we pray, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we take seriously these words? Very often we do not comprehend what we are saying. These are powerful and dangerous words to speak. Sirach tells us today, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven” (Sirach 28:2). Jesus says to us, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” (Matthew 28:34-35). My brothers and sisters, we can never pay back the debt we owe to the Father; only Jesus can do this on our behalf. He makes this sacrifice and ransom available to us each and every day, if only we forgive others as he forgives us.

We often associate forgiveness with reconciliation. Jesus calls us to forgive and to reconcile whenever possible, but he does not demand reconciliation with everyone from us. The difference is this: when we forgive someone we dismiss the grudge we hold against them and we love them by desiring only their good. When we forgive someone we do not wish any harm upon them and we do not take delight in their misfortunes and faults. On the other hand, when we reconcile with each other, we see “eye to eye” with each other. This is what reconciliation means, “seeing eye to eye.” It means that there is nothing between us, that we are again the best of friends and we get along well at all times. We know that sometimes this is, most regretfully, not possible to do. We certainly should always to seek reconciliation, but it takes two parties to reconcile; it only takes one to forgive.

My brothers and sisters, “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Romans 14:7). “Remember [then] your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults” (Sirach 28:6-7). Then, when we at last stand before the Lord, his parable will be fulfilled: “Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him” his debt (Matthew 18:27).