By: Fr. James Gross
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Pretend that you’re hearing Jesus’ teaching for the very first time as his listeners had. Wouldn’t we have similar questions? Speaking for the Apostles later in the chapter, Simon Peter tells Jesus, “To whom else shall we go? We are convinced that you have the words of everlasting life.” But many other disciples couldn’t bring themselves to make that kind of statement of faith that day. What the Lord told them was simply too radical.
Today’s solemnity helps to shake us out of our complacency and consider what the Holy Eucharist truly means. Three weeks ago, when we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, I mentioned that, rather than going from one place to another, Jesus made it possible to be everywhere we are. In the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, where two or three gather in his name, our Messiah is among us.
I remember how, when I would visit my grandparents as a young child, Grandma would often say, “You must be hungry!” Feeding us well was a tangible way of showing her love. Now that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, it’s as if He tells His Son, “Give my children something to eat.” Once upon a time, He provided the “daily bread” of manna for the Hebrews’ sojourn in the wilderness. We as a Church celebrate today the miraculous, divine nourishment of Jesus’ Body and Blood.
There’s a lot I could say right now academically about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, such as how we understand substantial change, etc. But this tenet of faith is also a matter of the heart, and that’s where I will direct my focus today. How many people have really come to love encountering Jesus Christ, and have experienced that encounter meaningfully in the Eucharist? What can we do to help people reach that point? Can people truly forsake or despise what they didn’t even know they were missing?
Take the celebration of Holy Mass as an example. Whether it happens to us as children, or for adults who weren’t exposed to the Catholic liturgy growing up, what are the first things we notice? For some it’s the style and sound of the music. For others it’s the language of the Scripture readings and prayers. For still others it’s the idiosyncrasies of the priest’s personality—an unfortunately exaggerated effect in the years following Vatican II. What happens when an external element of the Liturgy annoys us? It puts up a kind of roadblock that will cause some to say, “I don’t like what I’m seeing or hearing,” or “This isn’t what I bargained for,” or “This isn’t for me.” What if our great-grandparents, or the first parishioners here at St. Anthony’s, reacted the same way? How would that impact us?
At the risk of sounding dramatic, in such a case the devil has won a small victory. He’s persuaded people to take their eye off the ball. In sowing that seed of discord, he’s persuaded that person to turn his or her back on God’s gifts. The harvest that follows is the bitter fruit of despair, restlessness, isolation, failed relationships—in short, the boring, well-worn path of sin.
How can we crave the Presence of Christ inside us in Holy Communion as badly as our lungs crave oxygen or our parched mouths crave water unless we taste and see His goodness? How can our hearts ache for Christ unless we experience the difference inside us when we are not in Communion with him? This hunger for Christ of which I am speaking is not a simple feeling one conjures up; it’s a gift we can only receive, a gift he gives so freely and amply.
Christ gave His Church the Eucharist to tangibly bless and sanctify the whole world. When we “do this in memory of” Jesus, what are we actually doing? We are bringing the holiness of God more deeply into the world and causing evil to scatter. We’re dispelling the enemies of Christ in ourselves, in our families, and in the community in which we live. Think of the celebration of the Mass, the offering of Christ’s sacrifice, as one continual global exorcism, applying Jesus’ victory and vanquishing the power of evil.
The Gospels are filled with miracles, and yet it may seem that we are reading about a bygone era. We might argue that no such miracles are apparent in our day-to-day lives, but isn’t it the case that perhaps we don’t see miracles unfold in such a concrete way? For many reasons, Holy Mass is very important to me personally every single day because Jesus gives himself to us so humbly and generously. Will I see a paralyzed person attending Mass suddenly stand up out of their wheelchair and begin to walk? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean there is no miracle taking place through the words of Christ that I am privileged to speak.
In short, if we fail to see that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is miraculous, then we are missing something. If we truly believe what our Church teaches about what happens on this altar, how could we call every mass anything less than miraculous? We receive from Him an outstanding promise in today’s Gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Either what Jesus promised truly takes place, or what we are doing now is absurd.
This treasure that we possess in Holy Communion exhorts us to conduct ourselves accordingly. First of all, have we been forgiven of grave sin by prior confession so as to receive Jesus worthily today? When we attend Sunday Mass, are we dressed more so to do chores or go to the gym? What do we tell the Lord by our choice of attire? At Mass, are we busily chewing gum, or have we left it behind well before we arrive? Does the smartphone have to be on and in our pockets, or could we maybe leave that behind so that we are not tempted to look at it? As we approach in line, do we bow with reverence before we receive? Do those of us who receive the host in our hand make a suitable throne for the King of Kings, with an intention of deep respect? Do we seek to love God and our neighbor more throughout the remainder of this day, knowing that our Savior, whom we receive in Holy Communion, dwells in our hearts? Today let’s declare what a blessing it is to have Jesus abide in our souls and our bodies from week to week our whole lives!
By: Fr. James Gross
Believing in one God is a relatively simple thing. Accepting what Jesus has revealed to us about God’s true identity is another matter. Scholars of other monotheistic religions, like Islam, for example, don’t trouble themselves over this question. They say, “God is one,” and are done with it. But we who pledge faith in Christ have to take seriously what he has taught, even if we find it to be inconvenient or baffling.
There’s so much to God that we cannot know, but in the Church’s teachings on God as a trinity of persons, we have a breakthrough. On one hand there is God, the creator of everything, infinite in power, and on the other hand there is humanity, creatures with limited knowledge and all sorts of weaknesses. Our abilities of reason and intellect help us a great deal, but they alone do not bridge this enormous gap between us and God. God sent His only Son, Jesus, to Himself be that bridge, and to enable us to peer into the inner life of God in a way that we never could through our own faculties.
Consider this example: let’s say you come upon a large, warehouse-style building with absolutely no windows. If you cannot get inside, there’s no way to tell what it looks like. Now imagine there’s a small window along one wall. It’s not as good as walking around in the structure, but you can see well enough to get the layout of the interior. That’s what the Church does for us.
Our scripture readings today give what I call cursory indications of the Holy Trinity. To add to what they have to say, I took a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Along with the Bible, every Catholic household without exception ought to have a copy. Here’s just a taste of what you will find in the Catechism on the subject of the Trinity.
The Holy Trinity is a communion of persons, and therefore perfectly one. In God there is not a single person, but there exists among them a total unity. In the persons of God one finds no contradiction or dissension. Each one is constantly a complete gift of self, a gift of love, to the others.
Each divine person is distinct. They are not interchangeable, or like three separate costumes the same actor would wear during a stage production. The identity of each person flows from their relationships to each other, and not from some act that one can perform but another cannot. The Father is “Father” because He has a Son, and vice-versa. The Holy Spirit is their bond and pledge of love, personified, flowing out from them both.
To describe this reality, the church struggles to find just the right terms, since all we can really do is come close. One term that works well is substance. All three persons of the Trinity consist of the same thing, or substance, so to speak, but all three Persons are distinct beings. Here are a couple of examples from nature that I like to use. First of all, imagine that you’re enjoying a mild, clear summer’s evening. You notice one cloud rising above the western horizon, behold it for a moment, and look away. A minute later you look at the same spot and see two clouds. The first cloud didn’t make the second one, and so the second one is not of a lesser status. The clouds are equal, of the same substance, but are two distinct clouds. We might say one proceeded from the other.
Another example that illustrates the idea of “three-in-one” is an apple. Let’s pretend I’ve cut an apple in half and am holding a cross-section for you to see. You could identify three distinct parts: the skin, the flesh, and the core. None of these parts turns into any of the others. But all three are apple. Take one away, and something essential is missing. So it is with God: the three Persons are distinct and not interchangeable, but they are not made up of three different things, so to speak.
The question then arises: what about us? How did we come along? It’s not as though God was bored or incomplete. The reason for creation was to express God’s love and glory in something outside of Himself. We exist because of God’s abundantly gracious and free will. There is none other who could force God to create. But not only did God create the universe: He placed within it creatures who uniquely bear the stamp of His image and likeness—men and women. Chapter one of Genesis states that on the sixth day God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Pay attention to that wording. He didn’t say, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” He used the word us, a plural pronoun. The author of Genesis gives the world in that sentence its first hint of what’s really going on in the life of God.
This celebration in the Church is really about the gift of revelation. Jesus, the Word of God, through both His message and His personhood, revealed the nature of God to an extent beyond which we could figure out on our own. Jesus is for us the window into the mystery, making it possible, as he told the woman at the well, to worship in Spirit and in truth. God sent His Son, not to condemn, but to be the means of our salvation. Jesus came to ransom us all who by sin were led astray, and to disclose God’s very identity to us. Anyone who is aware of this but still says, “God is God and that’s plenty good enough for me,” is not acting out of wisdom, but ignorance.
By: Fr. James Gross
A number of high schools in North Dakota have banners hanging in their gyms with the words “Spirit Award” on them. At a State Tournament, an anonymous panel of judges is scattered throughout the arena to pick which town’s fans and cheerleaders displayed the best sportsmanship and most positive attitude. At many a sporting event at Napoleon High School, during a lull in the action, our student section would lob the following chant across the gym: “We’ve got spirit—yes, we do! We’ve got spirit; how about you?” Usually it only took a couple of attempts to draw the opposite side into this little back-and-forth. A friend of mine once shared with me a response he wanted to use: “We’ve got spirit just the same; please sit down and watch the game!”
When we think of the word “spirit,” there are certain images that quickly come to mind. People in the stands at events like the NBA or NHL finals can cheer like their very lives depended on it. It makes me wonder if, for those who will be at Church on Sunday, they are ever even half that animated while praying or singing. What does it mean, in a religious sense, to be filled with the Spirit? What demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s activity in us? As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, let’s take a closer look at the working of the Holy Spirit.
If I were to describe someone to you as “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” what images come to your mind? Are there certain behaviors or actions that you’d expect to see from that person? Would the exterior evidence be that obvious? Sadly, many Americans would use that kind of narrow set of criteria. Unfortunately, people often define being “on fire with the Holy Spirit” as a dramatic, exterior spectacle, the domain of a rare and elite group that has little to do with them. This attitude even crept into parts of the Catholic Church as the “charismatic movement” which took off in the 70’s and 80’s.
The Church’s message to us on this Day of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to all. How we manifest that gift and apply it will yield different kinds of fruits, from one person to the next. But the Father and the Son have sent the Holy Spirit, their dynamic bond of love, into the world, to abide with us on our pilgrimage and to confirm us in the truth.
We cannot behold the Holy Spirit with our senses, and so the Church points us to various symbols. I’d like to share some great analogies from two saints of the early Church to help us better understand the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril of Jerusalem used the analogy of water in saying this: “All things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects: one in the palm tree, another in the grape vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.”
Saint Basil employed the analogy of the sun’s rays. “The whole of the Spirit’s being is present to each individual; the whole of his being is present everywhere. Though shared in by many, he remains unchanged; his self-giving is no loss to himself. Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give.”
I like to explain Pentecost as a present tense and future tense celebration, not just a past tense celebration. Yes, at one moment in history, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, he sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Blessed Mother. They experienced the Holy Spirit’s descent in the signs of a rushing wind and tongues of fire coming upon them. Fortified with this gift, their whole outlook changed. No longer did they need to sequester themselves in uncertainty. As if knocking down the front door, they strode out into the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming to all who would listen that Jesus is the risen and triumphant Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who would place their faith in him. The miracle which accompanied this first day of preaching was two-fold; all the listeners could understand the Apostles as though their message were in their own language, and secondly, heeding Christ’s call to repentance, three thousand souls came into the fold that very day.
All of this is true and worthy of celebration. But that was only the first chapter of a long and beautiful story. The history of the first Day of Pentecost is not the whole story. For the past two thousand years, missionaries have been bringing about the Day of Pentecost to the new lands and peoples to whom they ministered. It has not been easy. Many of them, in saintly acts of courage and perseverance, endured mistreatment, torture, and even death. But they knew that the Holy Spirit would not allow their efforts to be in vain. The blood that they shed became the seed, so to speak, that later blossomed and grew.
There is nothing stale about our celebration of Pentecost. We not only look backward on this occasion; we look to the future, too. The gift Jesus bestowed upon us in the Gospel, along with the twice-uttered greeting of “peace be with you,” is the same gift offered to us here and now. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that what we mean by peace is not merely the absence of war or a temporary setting aside of hostilities, but a power that transforms the heart. This is why he speaks immediately about the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit takes us farther than we can go by ourselves. He is working, not only in our parish community, but in our own hearts. Let’s think about the obstacles in our lives that we need to remove so that the Holy Spirit can dwell with us as He desires.
By: Fr. James Gross
Imagine that you are standing in a packed courtroom. You are the defendant in a case, and you’re trying to prove that you are innocent of the charges brought against you. The folks in the gallery may have already made up their minds about you. The judge or jury members might not be very sympathetic toward you. But there is one person on whom you can count, the person who’s standing right beside you—your defense attorney.
Jesus assures us that the Holy Spirit will dwell in us and remain with us. The term he used to describe the Holy Spirit is translated in today’s gospel reading as “advocate.” One of the meanings of the original Greek word that St. John used here, paraclitus, was that of a defense attorney at a trial. To use the term of “advocate” implies a level of friendship and optimism. My advocate is willingly there by my side. He genuinely cares about my well-being, and isn’t going through the motions.
Jesus is leading us to ask ourselves something: what does the Holy Spirit do for me personally as my advocate? Maybe he informs my conscience. Maybe he gets you moving to pray and work when you might not be inclined to do either. Maybe he opens the door of your heart to divine grace and pushes you to become better.
“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” In our modern-day culture and its love of short sound-bites, that verse works remarkably well. Behind St. Peter’s advice in today’s second reading is the expectation that his readers ARE ALREADY immersing themselves in the Word of God, and that their love for Christ is so strong as to be outwardly visible. He expects that his readers count on the Holy Spirit to be their advocate, in both good times and bad.
To speak of the Christian life without being fortified and confirmed in the Holy Spirit leaves out a big piece of the puzzle. Saints Peter and John knew that when they rushed to the city of Samaria. Those newly baptized members of the faith needed the Holy Spirit’s gifts in order to participate completely in the mission of Christ, to persevere in their confession of faith, and to grow in love. In only a couple of weeks the Church will celebrate Pentecost. These teachings of Christ that we heard today are a great reminder that we are sent to extend the Pentecost event into the world. To do this we need the fire of the Holy Spirit burning brightly in our hearts.
I like to use the following example. Let’s say you decide to have a swimming pool installed in your back yard. You need to have an excavation team dig the hole, put in the tub, fill it with water, buy all the accessories and cleaning equipment you need, and you landscape the area beautifully. You’ve completed all the work and spared no expense. Now picture yourself, day after day, spending whatever free time you have sitting at the edge of the pool, dipping your bare feet in up to your ankles. St. Peter’s words to us today imply a certain challenge. How many of us never dive into the pool? The person who forever sits at the edge of the pool doesn’t have to think about swimming across it. Have we gotten so used to pushing our hope farther out on the margins, to places hardly anyone else can see? Are we “playing it safe,” and never choosing to dive in?
I have experienced a lively, Spirit-filled community at St. Anthony’s. That doesn’t mean that we demonstrate this in showy, external gestures: in these parts we don’t take on the “Holy Roller” appearances. But our fervor and concern for one another are still evident. What difference does the Holy Spirit make in our lives? The Church makes a big deal out of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, so as to witness to and, if need be, suffer for Christ. If we blend in and assimilate in the world too completely, people will not notice anything distinguishing about us. And if there’s nothing distinguishing about us, people will fail to identify the hope that animates our hearts. Someone first needs to notice that I’m filled with hope in God in order to ask me why I have that hope.
Recall our Lord’s words during the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Anyone who claims Christ as their light cannot fade into the background. As a saint of the early Church once put it, for a Christian not to be salt and light for the world is as unnatural a thing as if the sun were not to shine.
St. Peter is quick to urge us to conduct ourselves with gentleness and reverence. When we display confidence in our faith and share it with those we meet, we do not have to “prove” our position in a pugilistic or obnoxious way, as though the goodness of Christ’s teachings require our imposing them in order to be good.
“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” When we use the word hope, we do not refer to mere wishful thinking, or a chance that maybe things will work out okay for us. Christian hope is the most realistic thing there is. The Church has often used the symbol of an anchor to describe hope. As the anchor keeps a ship from being tossed about at sea, the virtue of hope is what attaches us to God in a world that tosses us about. Hope is about substance, not luck. When our hope is strong, we find God and root ourselves in Him, because He is the advocate who always pleads our cause.
By: Fr. James Gross
One of my seminary professors was an Irish-born priest by the name of Fr. Carroll. Once in a while, when one of us students would ask a question that he thought was simple enough for us to figure out by ourselves, he’d sigh a little bit and say in his Irish brogue, “Have I been with you for so long a time and still you do not know me?” Every time I hear this gospel I think of good old Fr. Carroll—may he rest in peace.
The events in the Gospels sometimes look different to us if we view them through the lens of the Apostles. Today Philip and Thomas are the one who speak up. Before we evaluate their questions, let’s step back and consider the context of this reading.
Today’s Gospel begins at chapter 14, verse 1 of the Gospel of John. Why does that matter? Well, at the end of chapter 13 Jesus tells the Apostles a couple of alarming things. First, the Lord predicts that one man from within his inner circle would betray him. Secondly, after Peter brashly declares that he will lay down his life for the Lord, Jesus says, with a tone of anguish in his voice, “Peter, this very night before the cock crows, you’ll deny that you even know me—not once, but three times.”
Sensing that these men were reeling from what just happened, Jesus hurries to console them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In honesty he foretold which challenges would soon arise, but in compassion he builds them up with several marvelous teachings. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” What a generous image: heaven is not so small as to fill up, but neither is it so big that the individual gets forgotten or lost in the throng. God is the Father of humanity, and of each one of us. He wants to gather all of His family home, with not one among them missing.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This declaration comes after Thomas protests that he doesn’t know where Jesus is planning to go. One commentator I read put it this way: “Thomas always liked the feel of solid facts under his feet, and perhaps did not have much poetry in his nature.” Recall that Thomas is the one who won’t accept the testimony of his brothers the Christ was raised from the dead until he can see it for himself. Notice here that Jesus embodies all of the things he mentions. To suggest, “I know the way” is one thing, but to suggest, “I AM the way” is another thing entirely.
Christ makes himself our guide and our standard of holiness without exception or reservation. Whom else could we follow, believe in, and dwell with, no matter what? For any human being such a burden would be unbearable, but for the Son of God, it is His purpose and destiny. I once heard a speaker tell a group of high-schoolers: “You will choose a way in this world. You will consider something to be the truth which you defend. You will search for the meaning of life. But where will those choices take you?” In other words, ignoring God does not leave a person without having chosen “a way.” But without Jesus, where are we going?
Jesus ups the ante even more when he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Here’s where faith in Christ has to part ways with democracy. Our freedom is directed to protect our ability to choose Jesus as our way, truth, and life. His status as such is not subject to opinion polls. When confronted by the Sanhedrin in Acts of the Apostles, Peter told them, “We must obey God rather than men.” There is no other name through which people find salvation than the name of Jesus. We do not say this to be arrogant, but because Jesus is trustworthy.
Then comes the question from Philip: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Philip manages to startle Jesus, a man not easily startled. According to a scripture commentary I once read, the Lord’s response to Philip is one of the most staggering sayings in all of literature: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Do we realize the implications of Jesus’ claim? He is revealing the interior life of the Holy Trinity to us! Think of what we behold when we look upon His face! By bringing us into the circle, so to speak, of the Communion of the Persons of the Trinity, Jesus entrusts us with knowledge, as complete as we can take in, of the very mystery of God’s identity. No other religion dares to claim this, and neither would we, were it not for the teachings of Christ.
What does this mean for the Church? Jesus, and no mere man, established the Church. I like to think of the Church as a vehicle of the access He gives us to the Father and the Holy Spirit. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the means by which the Way, the Truth, and the Life is made present to us. Unless we understand and appreciate this, the countless sacrifices and heroic deeds performed in Christ’s name over the past 2,000 years will not make sense to us.
Some folks try to turn earth into heaven as though heaven won’t be there. We cannot get caught up in that trap. Christianity refuses to offer us an escape from the realities of evil and suffering. What it does offer is a final victory over them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us. What kinds of things are troubling us? Maybe it’s age or illness, or the hurts others have inflicted. The Apostles soon came to learn that none of those things have any power over Jesus Christ. Let’s reassure one another of this as we receive Him in the Eucharist.
By: Fr. James Gross
The Church gives this day the unofficial title of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we hear a part of Jesus’ discourse declaring that he is the shepherd of the sheep. In the modern world plenty of listeners will be tempted to tune out this whole idea, to consider the analogy antiquated and beneath their dignity. Sheep are simple animals, after all, and we’re nothing like them! Sometimes I feel like responding to this by saying, “For once, it’s not all about you.” The imagery of the shepherd is far more demanding of our attention than that of the sheep. We don’t call it “Lowly Sheep Sunday,” but “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The weight of this metaphor is on God’s action. And in the middle of this Easter season, we are to meditate on the characteristics of our Messiah and on his own words.
What Jesus does today is to describe a familiar part of daily life for his listeners and apply it to himself. Everyone knew that shepherds would work together by combining their flocks at night so as to protect them from thieves, robbers, or wild beasts. For us, the question arises: how did the shepherds sort the animals out? Each morning, one at a time, a shepherd would speak and call out to his sheep, all the while walking slowly toward the entrance of the pen. Those sheep who belonged to that shepherd, who recognized his voice, would follow, and each flock would go its own way to graze in the nearby pastures.
Jesus accentuates his role when he calls himself the gate for the sheep. Back in this time in history, if there was no actual gate in the common pen, one shepherd would lie across the opening or threshold to the pen as he slept, literally making himself the gate. Anyone who wanted to come into contact with the sheep would have to go through the shepherd. How often do we ask Jesus to be our spiritual gate? Do we assign him to the task of guarding our hearts and banishing temptations? What becomes of us when the gate is unlatched and the doorway lies open?
“I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved.” The shepherd provides security because only in him do the sheep put their trust. In addition, the shepherd is vigilant, never permitting any kind of predator to get past him or scale the fence. He defends each sheep as though it were priceless. It is said that in the event of losing a sheep, the shepherd was expected to put up a fight and show physical evidence of bruises or injury in order to keep his job. All the more so did Our Lord endure the most awful mistreatment and violence at the hands of his persecutors.
“I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” We are physically alive in terms of nature, but we are spiritually alive through Christ, the Good Shepherd. He alone opens up for us our true human destiny and embodies its virtues. Some people will argue that religion narrows our experience of life by its many rules and prohibitions. But there’s a whole other side of the coin—namely, the peace and fulfillment that Christ alone can give. Why is it that certain people with the fanciest toys and possessions can be sad, still searching for what makes life worth living? They cannot deliver abundant life, but Christ the Good Shepherd can. His road is narrow and steep, but the destination—heaven—is sure.
Americans celebrate as a characteristic of their identity a strong sense of rugged individualism. We praise those in our midst who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We don’t think of the song lyric “I did it my way” as a harbinger of disaster. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for personal responsibility, but taken to the extreme, such expressions of individualism wage war against the concept of Christ as our Shepherd. When I insist on being my own shepherd, what does Jesus really do for me anymore? Is he reduced to a heroic figure from the annals of history, or the buddy from whom I seek advice when I’m in big trouble? Is there any such thing as allegiance or accountability?
The very existence of the Catholic Church challenges this conventional American mindset of absolute independence with regard to religious practice. The Lord Jesus set up His Church to be a shepherding presence, and has empowered leaders from its midst to exercise the function of shepherd in Christ’s name. This places an enormously high standard on Pope Francis and the college of Bishops, but let’s consider the alternative for a moment. The most vocal opponents to the Catholic Church’s hierarchy would not, in the long run, really eliminate hierarchy. They instead desire to set up a system in which everyone is hierarchy. And then, who can rightfully refute anyone else? A “shepherd-less Body of Christ” is far different in reality than it is in theory. Those who seek to liberate the Church from abuses through an extreme individualism actually introduce a whole new kind of chaos. If Christ is no longer our Shepherd in any meaningful or concrete sense, then anything goes.
We need to take to heart the example of the audience in today’s first reading. What Peter had to say to them lands like a sledgehammer: “God has anointed as Messiah this Jesus, whom you crucified…save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” How did Peter’s audience respond? We hear that they consented, then and there, to being baptized, but what’s just as amazing is what we DON’T hear. There’s no defensive attitude or making excuses. “You must be delusional. Things are just fine, aren’t they?”
The short answer is that, without Christ in our lives, no, things are not fine. Those newly baptized first converts knew there had been something—someone—missing in their lives. Eventually they came to see evidence of the shepherding love of Christ in the Apostles. The day of Pentecost was just that—one day. As time went on, they asked one another “Are these men for real? Did they mean what they said? Are they truly putting what they preach into effect?” Peter’s words were powerful, but how he and the others lived out their message did a lot to win people over. They demonstrate how to dwell with Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and to make a home for him in our hearts.
Lastly, we do well to remember that the Church urges all of us on this Good Shepherd Sunday to pray for vocations to the Priesthood, and to actively encourage the young men of our parish who exhibit signs of a possible call to the Priesthood of Jesus. If we do not do this, who will? If we do not do this, what kinds of opportunities for grace and union with Christ might slip through their fingers? We have reason to rejoice in the Church because of how well our Savior nourishes us. Through imperfect but faithful human ministers, the Lord Jesus continues to shepherd us. May the Church of Christ always have dedicated shepherds who make tangible for us the love of His Sacred Heart.
By: Fr. James Gross
When we read about the Resurrection of Christ in the gospels, the experience can feel like husking an ear of corn. You can’t get down to the cob instantly, but have to patiently peel your way through a few layers. The accounts of the gospels are like those layers, peeled away until we get farther along in time and his disciples fully comprehend that Jesus is alive. Today’s gospel passage takes us back to Easter Sunday afternoon. Only St. Luke’s gospel contains this story. But thank goodness that at least one of the gospels does!
The two men on the road to Emmaus are not main actors, so to speak. We only learn the name of one of them, and we don’t hear of him at all before this point. Cleopas and his friend were not two of the Twelve, but did that mean they had no stake in the Kingdom of Heaven? Were they simply supposed to let the experts do all the heavy lifting? That’s not the way the Church works. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that the laity have their particular vocation—to be a leaven in the world, and a means of evangelizing and sanctifying the part of the world in which they live.
What can we say for sure about these two men? They had made room for Jesus in their hearts. The bottom line is that we can do the same thing. Despite their grief over the Lord’s crucifixion and their confusion about the reports swirling around earlier that first Easter Sunday, they had loved him too deeply and gone too far to throw their devotion away and start over. For them, Jesus was more than a teacher. He was a beloved friend and brother. Jesus related to them meaningfully and showed them the Father’s mercy. That’s something one doesn’t just set aside.
Celebrities will often have an entourage of hangers-on accompanying them at a public event, but often there isn’t any depth or connection between them and the celebrity. The followers may simply be there for selfish reasons, angling for fame or exposure. But with these two disciples, they knew that the Lord Jesus cared intensely for them, no matter how large the crowds of his followers became.
Here today, the compassion of Christ is front and center. The disciples do not recognize the Risen Christ at first. We never learn exactly why; maybe Jesus is wearing a hooded garment that partially conceals him, or maybe the disciples, in their state of sadness, never bother to look him in the eye. But Jesus doesn’t jar them by saying, “What’s your problem? You really don’t know who I am?!” In fact, he doesn’t refer to himself at all in the beginning. His first statement is: “What are you two discussing as you walk along?”
What we have here is an invitation: “Tell me what’s happening with you.” That’s not so complicated, is it? We see a spirit of warmth, genuine curiosity, and altruism. Jesus wants to enlighten them, but he does so by first inviting them to open the doors of their hearts to him and give their testimony, as it were. Sometimes we encounter people who have to “hold court” and talk about themselves, or else they completely lose interest in the conversation. Christian empathy asks about the well-being of others, not only for the sake of etiquette, but for its own sake. The disciples experienced that concern first, and thus were able to absorb what Jesus had to say next.
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Christ’s victory would come, not through escaping tribulation, but by embracing it. This remains a paradox and folly in the eyes of the world. To them Jesus’ suffering could only mean defeat and destruction. But it is our own demise that he destroyed. We lift high the cross of Christ because, awful as it was, it was not the end of him.
“He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” The sequence of those statements is intentional, because they represent what happens at the celebration of every Mass. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the ritual unfolds in precisely that order. We declare without a shadow of a doubt that “Breaking of the Bread” refers to meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. The disciples’ eyes were opened once they arrived in Emmaus and Our Lord gave himself to them in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Many non-Catholic commentaries tend to gloss over these last verses of today’s gospel reading, arguing that what St. Luke refers to is a symbolic experience disengaged from their senses. Luckily for us, we don’t need to play down this scripture passage or try to explain it away; our identity flows from this moment! At every Mass we attend, we re-create this table setting at Emmaus.
Do we really believe that we are meeting the living God, the greatest love of our lives, when we celebrate the Eucharist? Do we reinforce this attitude by the way we dress, the way we prepare ourselves ahead of time, and the way we behave while we are here? The Lord has truly risen. He is here in this place. And when we take leave of his house, he is inside of us. Let’s make sure that he is at home there.
By: Fr. James Gross
To her eternal credit, Mary of Magdala is the first one who comes upon the scene of the empty tomb. She was not named “the rock,” as Simon Peter was. She did not get to see Jesus transfigured in glory, as Peter, James, and John did. But her love for Jesus took a backseat to no one’s. She did not go to the tomb because someone else sent her there, but simply because of love. And that love would be rewarded as Jesus eventually appeared to her first, before the inner circle of His Apostles. Now there is a whole new way to remember her. No longer does that mysterious line by which the Gospels introduce Mary of Magdala to us, that the Lord Jesus had expelled seven demons from her, remain her badge of identity. There is far more to her than that.
Her love led her first to inform Peter & John that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. When they hurriedly came onto the scene, we are told, they found the tomb as Mary described it, but John is the first one on whom the truth of what has happened begins to dawn. In a touching display of modesty, he refers to himself as “the other disciple” when telling the story.
St. John provides a lengthy description in today’s Gospel of the burial cloths. But couched in this description is a very helpful piece of evidence. We are told that the cloth over Jesus’ head was rolled up and left in a separate place. In other words, the Lord had tended to it in a special way. A Jewish custom at table would be for a guest to shabbily wad up one’s napkin at the end of a meal to indicate that he or she was finished. However, if the person needed to leave the table and intended to return, he or she would fold or roll it up as sign to keep their place setting intact. Now we can understand why Jesus rolled up his head cloth. It was his little “wink and a nod” way of telling his friends that he was coming back. The empty tomb was not a result of foul play. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, just as he promised!
The joy of this event is unsurpassable, but it didn’t unfold immediately. For Jesus’ friends, the grief that came from losing him (and, in most cases, deserting him) sunk in very deeply. When we read the Gospels, most all of his disciples spend that Easter Sunday a few steps behind, scratching their heads and slowly arriving at the truth. Mary of Magdala suspects that “they” (whoever they were) took the Lord’s body away. Peter steps out of the tomb wondering and pondering, but not yet able to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus outright. Thomas will refuse to believe it when the others insist they saw the risen Christ with their own eyes!
Naysayers of the resurrection of Jesus have absolutely no leg to stand on other than a stubborn denial. Think about it: Jesus’ enemies made all sorts of contingency plans in case he should rise on the third day after being destroyed, as he had prophesied. Not only did the Jewish leaders arrange for guards posted at the tomb, but they had a plan in place to protect the guard’s jobs in case Jesus should rise and evade them. The disciples, on the other hand, came around to the facts more slowly, as if awakening from a trance. Now, if they were to manufacture a rumor that the Lord has risen when he hadn’t, would they not have acted differently, more boldly, almost overselling their case? On that first Easter Sunday, the Good News was so good that it was better than they had expected.
The spirit of our Easter celebration is one of unbridled joy and bold, bright colors in the sanctuary. Shame on us if we were not to behave this way! Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven comprise the final and supreme chapter in the story of the world’s salvation. Nothing more needs to be done. The work now is in our hands and the Holy Spirit’s hands, to share the light of God’s victory with the world. Compared to what God has done for us, anything else the world conjures up is as darkness.
We as Catholics celebrate Easter as a 50-day season. What we do with that time says a lot about how we approach this season. Are we celebrating with the crowd today mostly because everyone else is? Will we allow everything to return to normal tomorrow, or will we follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, who not only applied the teachings of Christ to their lives and prayers, but also shared it with whoever would receive it? Lots of Catholics do not identify evangelizing with their own experience. They’ll say something like, “Isn’t that what others do, like the Holy Rollers down the street? What does evangelizing have to do with our parish or with me?” The answer is everything.
Recent Popes have spoken about their desire for a “new evangelization” among the faithful, not to put us down, but to reshape our way of thinking. Evangelization is not a static or historical thing, something done once upon a time for my ancestors so that I’d be here today. No, evangelization has a rightful place now, both for us and for those in our community who do not have a relationship with God as we do.
One day Jesus brought a dramatic question before His Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” That question was not exclusively for them, but is just as crucial for each of us. Please ask yourselves: “Who is the Risen Christ to me? Do I long to make room in my life for Jesus, or do I act as though I’ve had enough of him? Do I entrust myself to his authority, over my soul, over my marriage, over my family, or do I resent it?”
I invite all of you to keep these questions in the forefront of your minds this Easter season. May we all pray for a greater ability to answer “Who do I say Jesus is?” Our Savior has come so that His joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. His Resurrection to new life changes everything. My prayer for all of us this Easter is that our joy may be genuine and strong.
By: Fr. James Gross
Tonight’s Mass begins what amounts to a three-day celebration in the Church. There’s nothing else like this all year long. Instead of a formal ending to this Mass with a final blessing, we will form a procession to take the Blessed Sacrament to our chapel of repose, out in the alcove. Just as Christ and the Apostles left the upper room once the Passover meal had ended, so our Lord exits the church proper.
Tomorrow’s liturgy is not a celebration of Mass, but the reading of the Passion, the veneration of the cross, and the reception of Holy Communion. A final blessing and dismissal comes only at the conclusion of Mass on Easter, bringing this great liturgy to a close. But before we can arrive at the great joy of Easter morning, we first have to accompany the Lord in His suffering and death. And tonight Jesus gives us an intimate look at those last quiet moments gathered with his apostles before Judas finalizes his sad betrayal.
“Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” The importance of Holy Thursday night is enormous, because of two things Jesus instituted for his Church: the Eucharist and the Ministerial Priesthood. Here the sacrifices of the Old Covenant find their proper understanding. Here we have the meaning of what the shedding of a lamb’s blood could only symbolize. Here is the most tangible means by which Christ fulfills his promise to be with us always, until the end of the world.
There are other times during the year to put on our “theology caps” and study in depth the Church’s teaching of how the simple gifts of bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood. For tonight, let’s put on our “history caps” instead. The final sign that God would show the Egyptian Pharaoh of His majesty was the plague of the firstborn.
For untold numbers of people and animals in the land of Egypt, on one fateful night, the gift of life would be snatched away. But God had Moses instruct the Hebrews as to how they would escape this tragic fate. Each household needed to select a year-old male lamb free of blemish and slaughter it to provide a sacrificial meal. Then, a portion of its blood would go on the door frame of their tents. God’s angel rescued all those who participated in the ritual meal and “passed over” the homes marked by the blood of the lamb.
Now, as wondrous as all that was, everyone acknowledges that an animal sacrifice does not take the place of a contrite heart. In one of the Psalms, God Himself chastises the people for spilling the blood of bulls and goats as though these mere beasts, and not God, would deliver them from condemnation. We no longer have that concern. John the Baptist’s words some three years earlier, “Behold the Lamb of God,” perfectly foreshadowed our Savior’s work. On the night before his trial, scourging, and crucifixion, Jesus left us a memorial of his once for all sacrifice. At every Mass, the act of our redemption is not redone, but it is represented in sacramental form. At every Mass, the altar is the cross.
Notice that Jesus institutes the Eucharist with a specific command that we do this in remembrance of him. This command supersedes a mere suggestion. In fact, we can go so far as to say the Christ depends on us to offer his sacrifice together with him to his Father. When we consider the living practice of the Church, this one thing is the most indispensable.
The Holy Sacrifice, made present in the Mass, is to endure as long as time endures. On no occasion did our Lord say anything similar about writing down his words. Thanks be to God for the witness of Sacred Scripture, but nowhere does a message of Jesus come after the order: “Quick, somebody jot this down!” However, when it comes to the sacrament of His Body and Blood, Jesus left nothing to chance. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in memory of me.”
In order to provide for this sacrifice, we have our Lord’s commission—ordination, really—of the Church’s first bishops in the apostles. Catholic Bishops today are successors to the Apostles, carrying out the fullness of that office. Priests are extensions of the Bishops, ordained to ministry in the Person of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church. While everyone is endowed with a priestly identity by virtue of baptism, so as to offer God fitting worship and praise, some men among their number are called forth to exercise the ministerial priesthood so as to personify the presence of the love of Jesus Christ by many different means, not the least of which being the consecration of the Holy Eucharist.
Lastly, as a touching gesture that represents Jesus’ total gift of self, he begins to wash the feet of the Apostles. Aside from the obvious meanings of this act—a pattern of humble service and an example of servant leadership in Christ’s name—there’s an added meaning to this ritual, which helps to explain why the Church insists, if at all possible, that Bishops and priests reenact it.
I’ll ask you to look at it for a moment from the celebrant’s vantage point. A priest’s washing the feet of parishioners helps to cement a bond of love. This is not the fruit of an impersonal style of ministry, in which an itinerant preacher comes in, says what he says to say, and goes away. This is, rather, the fruit of a shepherd’s investment in his flock. At some Cathedrals, bishops arrange for seminarians to fill this role, as a representation of the Apostles. In other cases, certain groups or organizations in a parish supply the participants. Regardless of the details, the person Father serves in this way is never just a token selection or a number. Those people represent all the individuals under his care. And unless Father relates to them with humility and respect, honoring the dignity which God gave to them, his participation in the ministry of Christ becomes a fraud.
Since there’s no formal dismissal at the end of this Mass, we all are invited to linger and remain with Christ in prayer. The words he spoke that first Holy Thursday night ring in our ears; “Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?” The Lord invites us to spend some time in quiet and meditation before we need to drift away. If you still need to make a good confession before Easter, you can do that, too. The King of heaven and earth looks upon us with inestimable love and waits for us here.
By: Fr. James Gross
“Christ Jesus…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” St. Paul uses this statement as the lens through which he views everything we just heard. The reading from which it comes is one of the most powerful and beautiful writings to come from his hand.
I’ve heard a number of Church history scholars speculate that the text of today’s second reading was actually a hymn that some Christians used in worship. In other words, St. Paul may not have composed these words, but adopted them as something already in the public domain, as it were, sung during Eucharist or other times of communal prayer. What we heard was a song of praise, rejoicing in the fact that Jesus was willing to set aside the appearance of His divine nature in order to redeem us.
Never does Christ profess his love for us and solidarity for us more than during the sufferings of His Passion. While we join in with the crowds in Jerusalem giving Jesus a hero’s welcome, it’s far more important to stay with the Lord Jesus as He submits to ridicule, scourging, and execution. The Palm Sunday Liturgy shows us that, even though we may prefer to celebrate Christ our King and wave branches along the road, we cannot stop there and go back to our routine. We have to return to Calvary, remaining with the King even when those whom he loved condemned Him to die.
There’s nothing magic about Holy Week. The next few days will be an enriching, spiritual time for you only if you make them so. How can we do this? One way is to make the effort on Good Friday to forgive someone who has wronged you or to ask forgiveness of someone you have hurt. Another is to curb your consumption of TV, movies, or smartphone usage during what we call the “Paschal Fast,” from Holy Thursday evening until the Easter Mass.
Lastly, and most obviously, take advantage of these beautiful celebrations the next few days. Say to yourself, “I need to put some other things on hold for a little while and give God a higher place. I’m not going to rush into church breathlessly at the last moment, as if I were fulfilling a requirement. Instead, I will take my time and let God’s messages soak in. I’ll return to God the gift of time that He has given to me.” The Lord waits for you to bring you true peace.