Years ago, Basilian Fr. Lee Higgins was known for preaching “fire and brimstone” missions to high schools. Back in the 1950s he would scare students into practicing their faith. A favourite story of his was of a young unmarried couple who had had sex, and then were killed in a car accident before they were able to go to confession—and thus went straight to hell. There was no hope for them.

I’m so glad that in these past years the Church has put more emphasis on God’s tender mercy and love. That’s what comes through to me every year with the celebration of the Good Shepherd, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. There is so much we can learn from it, especially with the readings that we have this year. Jesus is willing to lay down his life for us—which, of course, is what we celebrate with his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. He died in order that we might live. He is committed to us; it is who and what he is—his vocation, as it were—and not just a job. And he even does it for those who are not “of this fold.” Many times we have understood that line to refer to Christians who are not Catholic; lately I have come to believe that it refers to all people, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof), or their economic status, ethnic origin, or any other seeming difference. That is because we are all children of God, as John tells us in our second reading.

That second reading was used at my ordination to the priesthood. I remember spending time with it, and looking up the original Greek words. I learned that the Greek verb dédōken, translated here as “given” has a connotation of abundance, and can also be translated as “lavished.” Isn’t that amazing? God “lavishes” his love on us, and makes us his children! What more could we ever ask? And we are brought yet again to the insight that is both an incredible obligation and a difficult question: If I, and you, and all people are God’s children, what does that imply? How am I called to treat my sisters and brothers?

 

This weekend’s gospel passage from Luke has a couple of features that may seem strange at first glance: Jesus tells the disciples touch him and see that he has flesh and bones, and then he asks for food, which he took and ate in their presence. Both of these are “proofs” that he is not a ghost. (In Jesus’ day, ghosts were believed never to eat.) Biblically, two witnesses were needed to verify something, so Jesus gives them two proofs of his physicality. It’s a powerful statement that he is indeed risen. I think it’s also a statement that our bodies are important. In the creed we profess that we believe in the resurrection of the body. God is not just concerned with our souls; instead, our entire selves are precious to God. Physicality is meant to be holy. God created all of us, and sees that we are very good, to paraphrase a line from Genesis. This means that what happens in our lives also has spiritual importance; so, I’d like to look at some areas affecting our parish life.

Most of you know that Steven Huber, CSB, will be assigned here this July, during his diaconate year, as he prepares for ordination to the priesthood. He will be replacing Fr. Jim, who has been appointed to Edmonton, where he will serve as chaplain at St. Joseph’s College. Before he leaves us this summer, we will have a reception to thank him for his time here and wish him well in his new assignment.

And many of you may have read the article in Tuesday’s Windsor Star—or seen it in Facebook—about the ongoing study that Paul Mullins is doing for Assumption. He hopes to have the first installment, concerning what has happened in previous fundraising campaigns and what it would cost to repair either or both of our beautiful historical church buildings, done within a couple of months. I have been reading his drafts, and am learning a lot! I think we all hoped it would have been done months ago; the reality is, there has been a huge amount of information to plough through. I can assure you that his study is thorough. Let us keep Paul in our prayer as he does this important work, as well as our entire parish. May the Spirit of the Risen Lord guide us into paths of life. 

This past week I had Masses both at St. James Grade School and Heavenly Rest cemetery: celebrating Easter with the children at the school, and remembering those who have died at the cemetery. And for some reason I often thought about the line in the second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul says that God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the end, God’s making Jesus to be sin is the foundation of our hope. I think Jesus’ resurrection would have meant much less to the early Christians—and to us—without that concept.

Think about it: If death is the result of sin—as all the faithful Jews believed—then for Jesus to rise from the dead is nothing special, because he was sinless. The Romans could have killed him repeatedly, and he would continue to live. But by “becoming sin” he gave hope to each and every one of us. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite conscious that I am a sinner. Over and over and over again, despite sincerely celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation and having a “firm purpose of amendment,” I find myself sinning. Jesus’ resurrection, though, gives me hope. If he who became sin is raised from the dead, then there is hope for me, too. There is hope for each of those students, and there is hope for each of our loved ones who have gone before us. Yes, they are sinners. They are also redeemed.

And that, to me, is what mercy is about. This weekend, as we end the Octave of Easter, we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. We celebrate God’s infinite mercy. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we deserve to die. But God shows mercy and offers us life, a life far beyond what we could ever hope to have. May we always be conscious that we are recipients of God’s mercy, and be messengers of that mercy to all those we meet.

Once again we arrive at Holy Week, this most sacred of times. This year we hear the Passion from the Gospel of Mark. Even though it is the shortest of the four gospel accounts, it is the most brutal. Mark wants the hearer to have no doubts: Jesus suffered. The passion hurts. Jesus’ friends abandon him, including the women. John has Jesus’ mother and others standing at the foot of the cross, but Mark tells us that the women looked on from a distance. Jesus was alone. He even feels like his Father has abandoned him, and he screams out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Yet our faith tells us that God the Father was right there with his Son, hurting, crushed, really, at what they were doing to Jesus. Jesus came, announcing God’s Kingdom of justice and peace, of inclusion, of love, of forgiveness and mercy. And people were afraid of its implications. They wanted to stick with the status quo; things might not be perfect, but we can live with them. Don’t rock the boat!

I’ve mentioned before how a number of biblical scholars think that the Cleansing of the Temple was the key moment, causing many of the people shouting out “Hosanna” on Sunday to be willing to shout “Crucify him!” on Friday. Jesus threatened the status quo, and he threatened people’s livelihoods. That could not be tolerated!

Over and over in my own life, I find myself measuring the words I use—sometimes those I use here in this column—to make sure that I don’t upset anyone. While that may be a wise and prudent thing to do, at times it may be more along the lines of not speaking up completely for my faith, because I like the status quo. I like being your pastor, and I like it when you accept me. Perhaps this week is a good reminder that each of us is called to witness fully to our faith, even when it causes discomfort. In the end, the passion leads to the resurrection.

Passion Sunday and Good Friday lead to Easter Sunday. God’s final word is always life.

At my first Mass, the day after ordination to the priesthood, the homilist mentioned that for us Christians a cross is a blessing. Of course, we make the sign of the cross as a blessing, but I never really thought any more about it. In the past several years, though, if I had to pick one thing I’ve learned, or come to believe, about God, it would have to be how God can take something really bad—a cross—and turn it into a true blessing. The prime example of that is, of course, Jesus’ own passion, death, and resurrection. As horrible as that experience was—and next weekend we will hear the Passion according to Mark, which paints the bleakest, most brutal portrait of Jesus on the cross—the final word from God was Easter, Jesus’ rising to new life.

I think that this weekend’s first reading gives us a clue as to how or why God would act that way. In this tender passage from Jeremiah, God tells us that he will write his law on our hearts. We won’t even need to teach one another, because we will know it intuitively. God loves us. God wants us to be his people. God forgives our sinfulness, totally. Looking at Jesus’ passion from that perspective we see how it is obvious that the loving Father would take the result of people’s sin—Jesus’ crucifixion—and forgive it, turning it into new life for all. Jesus, the seed, “falls into the earth” by being nailed on the cross. And from that, he bears incredible fruit. The resurrected Christ is Lord! This pattern seems to be repeated over and over and over again. So many hard moments end up being the catalyst for something new, something far better. Ask any alcoholic or addict in recovery: life in recovery is far better than life was, even before the drink or drug became a problem.

Yet, faith that God can turn our crosses into blessings does not mean that the cross is not painful when we are going through it. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus had “loud cries and tears,” offering up supplications “to the one who was able to save him from death.” When I’m honest with myself, I tend to try and run from my difficulties, and they remain. When I face them, however, something new and powerful almost always emerges. How could it be otherwise, when we have a God who loves us so much he wants to write his law on each of our hearts?

Recently a friend recommended some audio programs on Canada’s “secret life”: things from the past that many would prefer never to learn, or at least that they never become public. They reminded me that Canada—like all countries (and all people)—has its “dark side”. Anne Jarvis recently published an article in the Windsor Star that mentioned that 16-year-old Chance Gauthier was shot to death shortly after midnight in a dark alley. In his Gospel, when Judas leaves Jesus and the other disciples during the last supper, John tells us “it was night.” In this weekend’s passage we hear, “…the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light …, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

This weekend’s readings seem to focus on God’s initiative. The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that God loved us even when we were in sin. In fact, God wants to “show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” And in the Gospel we learn that God loved the world so much he sent us his son, Jesus. Somehow I think that part of what John wants to convey to us about Jesus’ mission is that the light Jesus came to bring is not just the literal daylight, but rather more so the enlightenment of our minds and hearts, so that we can recognize God in all creation, especially in other human beings. In so doing, how would it be possible to ever mistreat another person? If everyone recognized God’s “stamp” on everything, I think the world would be a better place.

So as the days become longer (especially now that Daylight Savings Time is beginning), I invite each of us to let the daylight remind us of God’s light. And in that light, we are called to shine brightly. Canada has a “light side”; it is known throughout the world as a place of safety and justice, offering refuge to many. Chase Gauthier had his “light side,” and gave of himself to work with problem kids, especially in sports. Lent can be a time to cast off darkness, to let God’s light shine in our own shadows. And even in the midst of those shadows, God can use us to light up the path for others. Where might I be called to be a light today?

When I was a child, I remember how seriously we took Lent. All of us in Catholic grade schools used to have to make some kind of sacrifice, usually giving up desserts or candy. Now might be an opportune time to look at ourselves and see how our Lenten observances are going. (Or, if you’re not doing
anything, it might be a good time to start—It’s never too late!) And I think it is good to examine our practices in the light of this weekend’s gospel passage.

In Jesus’ day the temple was a place where people came to pray, to encounter God, and to offer sacrifice, either in the form of an animal holocaust or a money offering. There were many strict rules and regulations that governed these practices. To obtain forgiveness for one type of sin, one offered a certain animal; for another, a different one. To “redeem” a first-born male, sacrifice had to be made to God (Recall last week’s story about Abraham and Isaac.), and the animal used was based on one’s income. Recall that Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph offered “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” indicating that they did not have a lot of money. The coins in circulation in biblical Palestine had the image of Caesar, who had declared himself a god. Thus, the priests of the temple considered them idolatrous, and moneychangers were there to take that “dirty” money and exchange it for temple coins to use in the offering. All of this commerce was carefully regulated, and was intended to enable people to approach God’s dwelling on earth, the temple. I think that what Jesus found offensive about this whole practice, thus occasioning this jarring episode where he drove out the moneychangers and sacrificial animals, was that all of these were obstacles, in some sense, to approaching God. Think about it. If you didn’t have any money, or the “right kind” of money, you couldn’t approach God. You had to comply with all these rules. And Jesus removes the obstacles, even going so far as to call his own body a temple (a dwelling place, a place of residence, of God himself).

And to come back to our Lenten practice, I think this is the point: whatever we do, whether a charitable act, or a giving up of something, it ought to be a way to remove obstacles to our relationship with God. Is something keeping you from recognizing God in your life? Get rid of it!

When I take an honest look at past events in my life, I see a number of beautiful, happy moments and many more that I would never have chosen. Yet I see how each of the many facets of my history has helped to bring me to the point where I am now—and I’m quite happy that I am where I am, that I am able to serve here at Assumption Parish. I notice that sometimes it is precisely the suffering and hardship of the moment that teach me that “my way” isn’t working, and that it’s time to try to discern more carefully what God’s will might be for me, and how I might unite my own will and life more closely to what God’s designs for me are. During our Lenten Mission this past week, Barbara Eckert helped us consider how the stones of our stories, even as broken as we may be, can be part of God’s story for us, and opportunities to recognize God in our lives.

Our readings this weekend continue the same theme. God took that incredibly difficult moment for Abraham, one in which he thought he had to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, and taught how he is the God of life. This story became a pivotal moment in Israel’s history, in which human sacrifice was laid aside for good, replaced by an animal taking the place of the person. (And with Jesus’ sacrifice, we moved beyond that to his unique sacrifice for all time, and our symbolic reliving of it in each Eucharist. Could you imagine us having to kill bulls and goats and birds as expiation for our sins, each time we came together to worship?) St. Paul continues the theme, letting the Church in Rome know that no hardship can cut us off from God’s love—and, I think, letting them know that in every hardship God can be found.

So many times, I want every revelation of God to be like this weekend’s gospel story, the Transfiguration. In this special moment Peter, James, and John see Jesus for who he really is. They want to prolong the moment, by building dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Instead, though, the vision ends, and they are left to keep encountering the mystery of God in Jesus’ day-to-day teachings and healings. It is the same for me: as much as I would like to have my life filled with these beautiful, extraordinary moments, God seems to want me to discover his presence, his workings, and his will in all the events of my life. How about you? What might God be teaching you today, in the ordinariness of life, or even in those difficult events?

A few months after I entered recovery for addictions I was asked by my congregation to go to Southdown, near Toronto, for an assessment. They recommended residential treatment. I agreed, externally, but inside I was fighting it with every part of my being. I could not imagine being cut off from my normal life, much less of having the stigma of “needing help”. In retrospect, though, I realize that those months were among the best in my life. They were a time of growth and healing, on a level I would not have experienced without being removed from my day-to-day concerns. I can’t help but have that image in my mind when I read Mark’s description of Jesus’ being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke have a much gentler, “led by the Spirit,” but Mark is strong. There is a force behind that word. Jesus was impelled to go—and the Judean wilderness is not a very hospitable place. Yet I can’t help but think that it was an important, formative time for Jesus. In those days of deprivation between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, he was able to focus on what kind of ministry he would have, and where the Father was leading him.

For me, that is what Lent is about, albeit on a much gentler scale. Each year the Church gifts us with this season of preparation, and invites us to do something “out of the ordinary”. The “what” is completely personal: It can be giving up something you like, or adding something (which is actually giving up of one’s free time). Many people choose to give up desserts, or eating between meals, or a favourite dish. Others choose to introduce (or increase) time for prayer and reflection. In today’s world where so many of us spend hours online or on our smartphones, perhaps time away from that is a beneficial activity. You may choose to be a part of the parish mission. The Little Black Books from Saginaw are a good way to take six minutes of your day to focus on spiritual things (and you can learn a lot, too! Just in the first week we learn about St. Leo the Great, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sr. Blandina [Rosa Maria Segale], and St. Andrew Kim Taegon.). It’s never too late to begin, nor to start over. So, if you haven’t yet chosen anything, or if you’ve already fallen away from what you chose, I encourage you to try. Together we journey towards Easter and the great feasts of our Church.

It’s hard for me to believe that Lent is already upon us. This Wednesday we begin our annual journey in preparation for the great feasts of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. I think the gospel passage today might give us a hint as to how to take advantage of the special time the Church offers us. After Jesus heals the leper, Mark tells us that Jesus “…could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country….” For me, Lent offers me that time to step back, in one way or another, from my ordinary “town” routine and go into the “country” by adding a spiritual practice or making a sacrifice of one kind or another. If I take some extra time for prayer—perhaps using the “Little Black Books” of daily meditations—that can be my equivalent of going out in the country to encounter Jesus. Sacrifice can do the same thing, since it calls to mind the fact that I am exercising discipline, that I am behaving in a different way than in my ordinary, day-to-day life.

Perhaps it’s providential that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day. On this day in which our society focuses on love, it’s a great day to reflect on how much God loves us, and perhaps what kind of sacrifice I can make to remind myself of how much I love God. In Canada, the Church asks all believers to fast and abstain on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eating no meat, and smaller, simpler meals, with nothing in-between. Many people also maintain the tradition of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of Lent.

And this Lent I invite you to come to our parish mission. Many of you know that over the past two summers I participated in a course, sponsored by the diocese, called Good Leaders, Good Shepherds. I was so impressed with one of our presenters, Barb Eckert, that I invited her to conduct our parish Lenten mission for this year. She will be speaking after the homily at all the Masses this coming Sunday, and then conducting sessions Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the following week.

Please come, to meet Barb and learn to follow Jesus in a more intentional way. I think you will understand why I invited her to be our mission preacher. And don’t forget to sign up for the dinner on the Monday evening, Family night.