I’ve been active in Facebook for several years now. I’ve reconnected with old friends, and made new ones. Some of my Facebook “friends” are people I’ve never met “face to face,” and yet I feel like I know them well. I’ve made friends in the peace activist community, others in twelve-step recovery, and other areas of common interest. Yet, if truth be told, I only know one aspect of them. I know what they post online; I know their political views. Not all that long ago I was visiting in person with friends I met online, and I realized how little we have in common outside of our one field of interest. I thought I knew this couple well, and found that in reality, I don’t. When I relate to someone face to face, it’s different than just through a computer or an app on my phone.

I think that’s one of the drawbacks to my relationship with Jesus. Often times I think we know him, based on something I’ve been taught, or heard, or read. For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at Jesus in the gospels in a series called “Face to Face,” and, hopefully, get to know him at least a little bit better than we do now.

As I was growing up I was taught how I had to be good, in order to make Jesus happy and not be punished by him. Jesus remembered all of my sins. Even with forgiveness, I was not totally clean. (Those my age and older will remember the milk bottle, dark with sin, and then kind of grey once absolved—never completely white again.) Yet today’s gospel passage teaches us something different. Think about it for a moment: Jesus’ friends left him when he was on trial and then crucified. Thomas would not believe that he had risen from the dead. So, Jesus pointed that out to them when he saw them again, right? Not hardly. His first words are “Peace be with you.” Then he breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit….” His disciples would have thought back to the creation story in Genesis, when God breathed on the man he had formed, and brought him to life. Now Jesus, instead of recriminating them for their faults, recreates them and sends them out to be his witnesses. No wonder we can celebrate this Sunday as Divine Mercy Sunday. When we meet Jesus Face to Face, it is his mercy that we encounter.

Happy Easter! Bonne fête de Pâques! Maligayang pasko ng Pagkabuhay! Buona Pasqua! ¡Felices Pascuas de la Resurrección! Wesołych Świąt Wielkanocnych! !فصح سعيد

No matter what the language, as Church we arrive yet again at the celebration of our raison d’être: Christ’s resurrection from the dead. For the early Christians, this act of faith meant everything. It affected their lives, the way they thought, the way they treated others. It is still so hard for me to grasp. The resurrection was God’s affirmation of everything that Jesus of Nazareth said and did. The religious authorities and the Romans thought they could end the movement that had been growing up around Jesus by killing him. Instead, the resurrection caused the number of followers to grow. It was God’s statement that death is not the final word. God is a God of life.

Many of us, myself included, did some kind of penance during Lent, by giving up something we like, or adding a spiritual practice. So, for us, Easter becomes a conscious time of abundance, a time of celebration rather than sacrifice, of indulgence instead of austerity. When I was a child, it was a time when we got new clothes. Even today, children today hunt for eggs on Easter. We celebrate. We eat chocolate.

For many others, Christian or not, Easter is just another day. Life goes on just like it did before. Nothing is different. And for perhaps the majority of people on the earth, whether Christian or not, nothing really can change. If you live near the starvation level, you usually have neither the option of giving something up during Lent, nor of adding something to celebrate Easter. For the Christians of Syria, of Iraq, of Yemen, and so many other places torn by war and terrorism, there is only the struggle to stay alive. Christians in Egypt right now are mourning those killed by bombings on Palm Sunday. Yet somehow, some way, Easter says that God is in control, and that life wins out over death. I invite you to let life affect you—and to remember in prayer those for whom life and celebration is a luxury.

And in our rejoicing, I invite you to celebrate with Kevin Mannara and all the Basilians. On Friday of Easter week, in Toronto, Kevin will profess his final vows in the Congregation, and then be ordained as a deacon on Saturday. When he returns among us later in the month, he will be Deacon Kevin! We pray that God fill him and all those he will serve with blessings of new life.

Although we focus on a person and an event—Jesus of Nazareth, and his birth, life, death, and resurrection—that happened once in history, almost two thousand years ago, our celebration of that is cyclical. Each year our Church relives the story, with the same intensity. We prepare for Jesus’ birth, then we celebrate it. We start considering his ministry. Then, for the past almost six weeks, we’ve been preparing for this week: Holy Week. Each year we focus on the great tragedy, the almost inconceivable truth that humans executed God as a threat to religion and to World Empire. And then we celebrate the fact that death could not hold Jesus down, that God’s last word is not death, but life: Jesus rises from the dead.

We have this whole week, though, to consider the first part. What is it that could make people want to kill the Prince of Peace, the Messiah, the One who preached God’s kingdom and healed the sick? Why is it that the Church gives us an entire week each year to focus on Jesus’ passion and death? I think the answer lies in the fact that we, too, can easily do the same as the people of Jerusalem did that fateful Friday around the year AD 33. I can hail Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. I can say that I believe, and that I am a faithful member of the Church, founded by Jesus, carried down to us through almost two millennia. And at the same time, I can easily forget what Jesus taught. I can become attached to my comforts. I don’t want anyone to upset my life. Why are those refugees pouring into “my” country? Why are there so many changes? This used to be a Christian nation. Everything was closed on Sunday. Now look at it. It’s all about convenience. And why do they keep harping on climate change? Things are alright. I kind of like not having to shovel as much snow. There’s no real problem. Government is threatening my way of life. It might not have been perfect before, but it was good. We were Christians, and lived by Christian values.

Each and every time I think that way (and it is far more often than I would care to admit), I am buying into the same mindset as the people of Jerusalem that fateful week so long ago. I don’t want anything to threaten my way of life. And yet the world changes. The first Christians were a small minority, whose values often clashed with society. They cared for one another. They pooled their resources so that nobody went without, and they did not have many comforts. That’s not exactly the way I live today; how about you? Might this Holy Week be a good time to examine our priorities?

I’ve mentioned before that various personality tests I’ve taken over the years have pretty much shown the same thing: I tend to be scattered, disorganized, running late, and work on deadlines. Each one of these tests/surveys, though, always comes with a list of things recommended for my type, practices that help me improve in efficiency, and counteract some of the negative traits that come naturally to me. Those suggestions are based on years of research and study. In other words, they work. When people follow the suggestions, they tend to feel more fulfilled, have less frustration, and more time for leisure and creativity—as well as getting more done. So, do you think I’ve followed all the suggestions I’ve gotten over the years? The short answer is “no.” Instead, I plod along, make false starts, and in the end, nothing changes.

That’s why our series called “Catholic Atheist” is hitting me between the eyes. Over the past weeks we’ve been looking at how our own lives might not be lived according to what we say we believe, what we think we believe. And this weekend it gets really hard. I have to ask myself if I really believe that God can change me. I don’t mean changing my personality or my sexuality or anything like that. Instead, I’m thinking about whether I think I’m destined to permanently procrastinate, or be disorganized, or whatever, because “that’s the way I am.” In today’s gospel, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He changes Lazarus’ state of being. He even delays his trip to Bethany so that he can show God’s power.

If Jesus can do that with Lazarus, what can he do with me? Might Jesus just be able to help me stay on track and become more disciplined in my life? Might he give me the strength to actually do some of the things suggested to make me more productive and fulfilled? I’m beginning to think it’s a type of atheism, in one sense, to say he can’t. So, I’m making a commitment, to live more according to what I think God wants for me in my life. I invite you to ask me about how things are going in that regard, so that I can stay accountable. How about you? Will you let God work in your life?

During the season of Lent we’ve been looking at the ways that we don’t always live out what we say we believe. Last week Deacon Paul explained how this series on “Catholic Atheists” is meant to perhaps shock us a little with the title, but really to ask us to look at ourselves, and how well we actually measure up to living out our faith in God. We’ve looked at how much we trust in God’s love for us, how much we pray, and then how much we actually trust God. This weekend it gets even more difficult: We’re looking at how well we actually get to know Jesus, how well we recognize him.

I can’t even begin to count the times that I have been absolutely, positively sure that I am correct about something, only to find out later that I am completely “off base.” My reaction when I learn the truth can range from relief to embarrassment to indignation, depending on the situation. I can think that a friend has betrayed me, when in reality they are looking out for my best interests. Conversely, I have been fooled into thinking that someone was really helping, when they actually were taking advantage of me. I’ve judged so many people, in so many ways, and so many times I’ve been wrong. One of the best gifts I’ve been given was when I entered recovery several years back. I finally learned that I’m not always in the right… that I have lots to learn from others. Mostly, I have learned to try to withhold judgement, to give others the benefit of the doubt before I start making assumptions about their motives.

Jesus is very clear towards the end of this weekend’s gospel passage: If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” The problem is that the Pharisees think they know who Jesus is. In reality, they don’t. It is the man who was blind who is open enough to learn, who asks, “‘And who is he, sir?’”

Lent is a great opportunity to get to know Jesus better. What is he like? What does he want us to do? Where might we recognize him in our lives today? Maybe this is a good opportunity to spend some time with him and find out!

As I’ve mentioned, during Lent we’re talking about “Catholic atheism”—ways in which the living out of our lives does not necessarily reflect our faith. This weekend we’re addressing worry. Fr. Jim is fond of joking that worry is such a sensible thing. He says that it is so effective that it stops 99 percent of the things he worries about from ever happening. I wish that were so! Instead, I think it saps energy from what I could be doing to counteract the outcomes we worry might happen. The Israelites were really good at worrying at times. In this weekend’s first reading, they first worry that they won’t have enough to eat, and then whether they will be able to drink. They just don’t quite believe that God, who led them out of Egypt, will then see to it that they have what they need.

I wish I could tell you that I never worry, that I have full confidence that God will give me whatever it is that I need. Instead, I find myself taking Fr. Jim’s “advice” far more often than I care to admit. Sometimes, though, I make progress. Just last weekend my sister and brother-in-law came for a visit. I’ve been so happy having them here these past few days, and I’ve given them a whirlwind tour of some of the highlights of the area. We went to Toronto on Sunday, and then on to Niagara Falls on Monday. On the drive back I could have been all worried about driving in the snow—which was heavy at times—and ending up in the ditch like a few vehicles we saw, or I could invest that same energy into driving carefully. In a sense, it’s a matter of doing what I can with what I have… and leaving the rest to God. Instead of worrying about money, I can make wise decisions with what I have today. Instead of worrying about failing at something, I can invest emotional energy into performing well. And it seems that, like Fr. Jim says, 99% of those things I could worry about never come to pass—except that sometimes I’m convinced that those issues are resolved well because I’ve invested energy into working towards a positive outcome.

If you accepted my challenge last week, you chose a time for prayer. If you followed through on it, you may have just found that you didn’t worry as much as you sometimes do. You just instinctively know that God will take care of you… and you may find that your actions come just a bit closer to matching your faith!

Without a doubt, the most frequent request I get is to pray. “Father, please pray for me.” “Father, will you pray for my grandmother?” It is a legitimate request; often I assure people that they are in my prayer even without them asking me. In a sense, praying is part of my “job description” as a priest. It’s also part of your “job description,” as a Christian.

During Lent we’re looking at a concept that we’re calling “Catholic Atheist”. Even though that may sound quite strange, there are so many ways in which we Catholics, myself included, don’t always live according to what we say, what we even think we believe. And one of those areas in my own life—and in the lives of many Catholics I know well—is in how I pray. I say I believe (and in my heart, I think I do believe) that I love God dearly. I say I believe that God loves me incredibly, and wants the best for me. And yet, there are so many times that the pressures of parish administration, or this or that duty, take priority over prayer time. I’m lucky. My daily routine includes public prayer, so some prayer happens regardless. Fr. Jim, Kevin, and I gather for Morning Prayer. I have Mass most every day. I have to spend time praying over the readings to create a homily. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for some of you. There are so many demands: work, the kids, household chores… The list goes on and on. So setting aside time for prayer becomes nearly impossible. I also know that there are many of you reading this who do set aside time for prayer each day; for some of you, it is a significant amount of time. To you, congratulations and thank you. You are an inspiration to me and to many. In a sense, you can stop reading now; I’m directing the message this week to those of us who don’t live up to our ideal of prayer.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus, with Peter and John, are at prayer when Jesus is transfigured before their eyes. In a sense, Jesus’ interior reality becomes visible externally. Peter and John are reminded that it’s not just any old guy they’ve decided to follow. The voice from heaven asks them to recognize Jesus as God’s Son, and to listen to him. One way to do that is in prayer. So, for those of you who do not pray regularly, I challenge you: today, find a spot and decide on a time where you will pray tomorrow. And then, do it! You’ll be glad you did.

When I first started going to the Holy Land, I was surprised to hear the term “Jewish atheists.” I just couldn’t figure that one out. For me, “Jewish” denoted a religion, and if you are religious, you aren’t an atheist. Then I learned that, for those who call themselves such, they consider themselves culturally and ethnically Jewish, but do not believe in God, and do not practice a religion. For us, of course, that would be impossible. We are either Catholics or atheists, right? While on one level, it is true that the two terms are mutually exclusive, on another, I think it may be very possible. In fact, I find myself acting as such more often than I would care to admit. When I am honest—even though I think I truly believe in God—I find myself acting as if I don’t. I depend on myself rather than on God. And every time that I do this, I end up hurting myself.

In this weekend’s first reading we hear about the first sin: Eve is tempted by the devil, tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I think her real sin, though, was that she doubted God’s love for her; she became convinced that God did not want the best for her. God wanted to keep her from knowing, keep her from having wisdom. And so she ate, and Adam—who, of course, hadn’t even tried to stop her—ate with her. And they knew they were naked. Some scholars who study this say what this is communicating is that before they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they had been clothed with the glory of God. Once they ate of the tree, they were alienated from God, they lost his protective
covering, so to speak, and now they realized how vulnerable they were. And then when God came into the garden, they hid from him, because they didn’t think that God loved them anymore.

How many times have I doubted that God didn’t love me enough to want the very best for me? I’m afraid that, if I’m honest, far more times than I would care to admit. I say I’m a Catholic, a man of faith, a man of the Church. My actions, at times, betray the fact that I doubt—that sometimes I act as if I were a Catholic atheist. As we begin our Lenten journey this year, I invite you to look deeply at your faith, and see where your actions might not measure up.

For the season of Lent, we’ll be talking about this phenomena in a homily series called “Catholic Atheists” – a term for those who know and believe in God – but live their lives as if they don’t.

 

We’ve been hearing about tough love in one way or another for the past few weeks. Today we come to the end of this series, and the end of Chapter Six of Matthew’s Gospel. This year, because of the timing of Lent and Easter, we won’t hear Chapter Seven proclaimed at Mass. I would encourage you to take some time this week and read the entire Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). There we see just how tough it is to love as Jesus commands us to love. I hope you’ve failed at somehow showing love to someone whom you find tough to love—that means you’ve actually been trying to do so. Part of our human condition is that we never quite live up to our full potential. And part of God’s condition is that he never fails to keep encouraging us, and forgiving us when we don’t quite succeed. What God wants us to do is to try. Last week, Deacon Paul challenged us to pray for someone with whom we have difficulties. Have you done that? If not, then perhaps that is where God is calling you to renew your efforts.

And if we do sincerely try, I think that is all God asks of us. As this weekend’s gospel passage reminds us, we don’t need to worry—God will indeed take care of us, if we try to live as Jesus commands, if we try and live as his children, if we make some attempt to live the tough love that he sets before us. And if we make those attempts today, that is all God asks. As Jesus says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will being worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

That is a good thought to have as we end this part of Ordinary Time, and enter Lent. Ash Wednesday is almost here. Lent is a time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re heading. For me, it’s an opportunity to practice some self-discipline, and to try and bring my life more into line with my beliefs. Won’t you join me?

A number of years ago, I heard a theologian and peace activist speak about Jesus being a practitioner of creative non-violence. The concept surprised me, and at the same time I found it quite intriguing. Mohandas Gandhi was so effective in gaining independence for India without using any violent means at all. Martin Luther King, Jr., made incredible advances for the black person in the United States, again using nonviolence. At its heart is the difficult command to love, even your enemy. It is, truly, tough love.

We are in our fourth week of the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s gospel, and the fourth week looking at this as Tough Love. Now it really gets tough. Still using the “You have heard it said… but I say to you” pattern, Jesus goes beyond teachings from the Ten Commandments that we heard last week, to other biblical teachings. So we go from “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (which, when formulated, was seen as reducing violence by not allowing retribution to return more than the original harm) to “do not resist an evildoer.” For me, that is truly tough to love like that. It goes against my natural tendency to strike out when I am hurt, or even threatened. It negates the possibility of war, actually.

Christian nonviolence is perhaps the purest, and the toughest form of love we can practice. It calls me to stand up for my rights and is not passive—yet the resistance to violence and to any form of evil takes the form of a response of love. And it is anything but weak. It is a courageous and tough thing to do to love as a response to hatred or violence. It is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. That sounds nice in theory, but is so tough to practice in real life, in concrete circumstances, with real people. When serving on team in Hebron, when I have been mocked or insulted, my first response is to strike back. Yet, I’ve found that the first step towards a nonviolent response is to pray: to pray for the person who does me harm. To pray for myself, to try to live as Jesus would have me live. It is tough to love that way; yet it yields the greatest peace possible. Won’t you join me on the road?