The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Be a star

[On this feast of the Epiphany], the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.

You must have the same zeal to be of help to one another; then, in the kingdom of God, to which faith and good works are the way, you will shine as children of the light: through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.

                                                                                                   --St. Leo the Great

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Light shines in the darkness

Today a light shines on us,
for the Lord is born to us.

He is called
Wondrous God,
Prince of Peace,
Father Forever,
and his reign
is without end.

Isaiah 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14
Darkness blankets the earth. Night descends and we seek rest, security, and peace. The dawn promises hope, newness, and joy, but it is a long time coming. Sleep is elusive, fear and worry creep in, and loneliness torments. We toss and turn throughout the long night.

Under the cover of night, we are haunted by the demons of war, oppression, violence, injustice, poverty, racism, disparity, corruption, crime, abuse, lust, greed, selfishness, jealousy, anger, conflict, hostility, isolation, guilt, shame, despair, depression, exhaustion, addiction, illness, pain, grief, sorrow, and death. All the result of the sin of pride inherited from our first parents, humanity’s choice to spurn the God of all and “be like gods” ourselves (cf. Genesis 3:5).

It is a dark, dark world—like Pottersville in Frank Capra’s 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life. Except that Pottersville didn’t exist. It would have existed if it had not been for one man, George Bailey, famously portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. His goodness, his light, kept the evil darkness of Mr. Potter at bay. His light provided hope for the good people of Bedford Falls. And when the darkness threatened to overtake even poor, desperate George Bailey, something small and wonderful happened:

God stepped in.

So it is with us. While “It’s a Wonderful Life” provides an apt metaphor for God’s presence in the world, the Incarnation we recall in the feast of Christmas surpasses all wonder. God became man. God entered the darkness—not to eradicate humanity’s woes, but to give them meaning and purpose within a fallen world grasping at straws. Christ is our hope in a world of darkness. His “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The theme of light piercing the darkness is prevalent in all of today’s readings. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone,” prophesies Isaiah. “The grace of God has appeared,” writes St. Paul. “The glory of God shone around” the shepherds as the angel of the Lord announced the birth of Jesus. It is interesting to note that this light of God’s glory does not eliminate the dark night. Rather, it shines through it to provide hope and guidance. Christ, the Light of the World (cf. John 8:12), promises to lead us through the darkness, and—if we follow him unreservedly—to keep evil at bay, to even thwart it. As John the Baptist’s father Zechariah prophesies in the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) which we chant each morning at Lauds: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Christmas reminds us to seek that light again, to follow it, to become that point of light along the dark and narrow path of life. Our rejoicing in the light that Christ provides should, like George Bailey, provide a beacon of hope for others on the same journey. We all must become the light that shines in the darkness. As Jesus told the disciples of his day and ours, “You are the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world. … Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father” (Matthew 5:13,14,16).

A Savior is born for us from God’s zeal, or passion, as Isaiah says (9:6). Interestingly, a few sentences after today’s Gospel passage ends, Luke tells us that the shepherds who had seen the light “went in haste” and found Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus lying in a manger (Luke 2:16). They were eager to find the source of the light, and after seeing Jesus, expressing the zeal of God’s love, they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

The light shining in the darkness of that first Christmas night had transformed them, as it should with us today. St. Paul reminds us of this in the second reading when he says that the “grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age” as we await the final coming of Christ (Titus 2:11-12). This is our baptismal call as Christians.

The darkness shall not overcome us because God has stepped into it, has shown and given us the light, and because he leads us into the light for all eternity. As the Book of Revelation says:
God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. … They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever (21:3-4; 22:4-5).

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Why we pray for those who have died

A procession of mourners is escorting the coffin of a departed loved one to the cemetery. Suddenly, a stranger appears. He approaches and comforts the dead man's mother. Everyone stops and is taken aback when the stranger touches the coffin. Then he orders the dead man to rise. Shock gives way to anger: Is this some kind of bizarre, cruel joke?

Anger quickly turns to astonishment as the dead man returns to life. The stranger reunites him with his grieving mother. Suddenly, mourning turns to dancing!

Mysteriously, the compassionate stranger’s touch and voice have power over death, and are able to bring everyone together to praise the Author of Life. The stranger seems to be the key to a transcendent unity that reaches through and beyond death, declaring, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The stranger, of course, is Jesus, and this scene is depicted in the Gospel of Luke (7:11-17) as a demonstration of his compassion and ability to give life and restore unity. Yet, something greater is also at stake. As baptized Christians, we are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, which makes us that stranger with the touch and voice overpowering death. We are not only those who die and mourn. In Christ, we also give comfort and the witness of eternal communion with the dead and the mourning. Together, we share the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit by crying out with one voice: “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

One of the primary ways the Body of Christ overpowers death is through prayer, individually and communally. Praying for the dead—or more aptly, praying that the faithful departed may enjoy the fullness of Life—has been a vital component of the Catholic tradition since the early days of Christianity.

Although the Church’s teaching on the matter was not fully developed until the Middle Ages, praying for the dead has its roots in antiquity. Scripture mentions the practice in the Second Book of Maccabees (Ch. 12:43-46), indicating that “this holy and pious thought” was prevalent among Jews in the century before Christ’s birth. The early Christians adopted the practice, as evidenced by inscriptions in the catacombs of Rome and the tombs of early martyrs, writings of the Church Fathers, and in surviving texts from ancient liturgies.

What accounts for this need to pray for the dead? How do we go about it? Our tradition is very rich in this regard, but a few points are worth reflection.

Staying connected. The Church identifies praying for the dead as one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. It is one way in which the compassionate stranger’s touch and voice overpower death and unite all members of the Body of Christ—in this life and the life to come. “Just as in their earthly life believers are united in one Mystical Body,” said St. Pope John Paul II, “so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer.”

The dead need and depend on our prayers, just as the living do. St. Thomas Aquinas said that praying for the dead is the greatest act of charity one can perform on behalf of anyone—living or dead.

“There is, death notwithstanding, still a vital flow of the life between them and us,” says Fr. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. “Love, presence, and communication reach even through death. … Our lives are still joined. Hence we pray for the dead in order to remain in contact with them. Just as we can hold someone’s hand as they are dying … so too, figuratively but really, we can hold that person’s hand through and beyond death.”

Finding freedom and healing. Death was not—and is not—God’s idea (cf. Wisdom 1:13-14a, 15). It became a reality because of humanity’s sin, our turning away from the Source of Life to follow our own designs.

However, out of his great mercy, God sent his Son to take on our sin, redeem us through his death, and restore us to life through the Resurrection. As a result, humanity is redeemed and promised eternal life.

Still, it is a life we must claim as our own in a world still plagued by the effects of sin. God’s gift invites a response, a willingness to become holy as intended in the true image of our Creator. So, our choices matter in this life. By choosing against God in this life, we create our own eternal hell, so to speak. By choosing God, and through grace living pure, perfect lives, we see God’s face after death, enjoying heaven.

Since living pure, perfect lives is something most of us cannot do, and since “nothing unclean will enter” heaven (Rev. 21:27), those who have nonetheless striven to love God in this life are in need of further cleansing after death. Purgatory, then, is a state of transition on the soul’s journey toward eternal rest.

The Light of the World “burns” away the stain of our imperfections, much as the newly risen sun burns off the early morning fog. “Before [Christ’s] gaze all falsehood melts away,” said Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi. “This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.”

Purgatory is neither punishment nor a place apart from heaven. Rather, it is a healing process for the soul moving toward eternal union with God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Sharing in the Resurrection. As Christians, we are called to serve others, to help them along the Way of Christ so that we may all journey with him, in him, and through him to the Father in heaven. This work of mercy extends beyond death, as we pray that the entire Body of Christ becomes the “resurrection and the life.”

Just as we pray that our loved ones may enjoy good health in this life, we must—to an even greater degree—pray that the faithful departed enjoy the fullness of life. Former Pope Benedict explained why:

The souls of the departed can receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer, and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. … No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another; through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. … So my prayer is not something extraneous to another person, something external, not even after death. … It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.

This solidarity in Christ beyond death is the unity of the Church, which prays through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Father on behalf of the entire world. Our prayers assist the departed on their heavenly journey precisely because they are the same prayer Christ offers for us. Our voices in him and his voice in us is what touches, heals, and overpowers death to give eternal life.

Expressing Communion. Practically speaking, we express this solidarity most fully each time we participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—whether or not it’s a funeral. In the celebration of the Eucharist, time and space are transcended, and the Mystical Body of Christ stands united—including all who have gone before us and all who are still on their earthly journey. “It is by the Eucharist that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member, and then, praying for him and with him” (Catechism, No. 1689).

Each of the four options for the Eucharistic Prayer at every Mass asks God to bring the faithful departed into the light of his presence. The dead are typically remembered as well during the General Intercessions at each Mass. Memorial Masses are also offered on behalf of the dead, and each year the entire Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls Day on November 2 for the dead.

Apart from Mass, devotions such as the rosary can be dedicated to departed souls. The De Profundis (Psalm 130) has long been employed by the Church as a prayer for the dead and can be prayed privately.

Formal, extended prayers are not necessary. Simply walking through a cemetery and commending the departed to God’s care can be very meditative. Short prayers can also be memorized and said to oneself at any time of day. I try to say a quick prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for the dead upon rising from a meal: “We praise and thank you Lord, for all your blessings, and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.” Of course, God also hears intentions expressed in the silence of our hearts.

Whatever the form of expression, the prayers of the Body of Christ help all its members stay connected, find freedom and healing, and share in the Resurrection—wherever they may be. Christ’s voice in ours is what reaches out and touches the hearts of all who are part of his Body—whoever they may be.

This occurs as we pray for the dead, and as the dead pray for us. No matter what stage of the journey we’re on, it is Christ’s voice that calls us together and offers the same promise Jesus made before calling Lazarus from the tomb: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

NOTE: The above was originally published by Abbey Press Publications as a Catholic Perspectives CareNote in 2010. Since the Abbey Press is "no more," and because it is November (traditionally, a time to remember and pray for the dead), I thought it might be a good time to "resurrect" it  -- Br. Francis

Eternal rest grant to them,
O Lord, and let perpetual light
shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Mary, Mother of disciples

NOTE: The following is the conference I presented Sunday afternoon at the nearby Monte Cassino Shrine for one of the weekly October pilgrimages.   


On the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [And] Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So, they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So, they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.                                                                                     --John 2:1-11


Human beings—especially Americans, it seems—do not like being told what to do. Obedience is something we tend to resist and resent. We like our “freedom,” or what we perceive as freedom. We want to call the shots. We don’t want to listen to anybody else.

But the fact of the matter is that to get along, and even to survive as a species, we need to obey someone else or a set of rules and regulations each day. Without some measure of obedience and deference to another beyond our individual desires, society would descend into absolute chaos. For the good of everyone, there need to be “rules of the road,” so to speak.

In the life of Christian discipleship, this is even more true – and it really is a matter of spiritual life or death for each one of us. Adam and Eve, as our first parents, chose to disobey God and set the pattern of human behavior that we still struggle with today.

Mercifully, God the Father did not discard or forget us. First, he gave us the Law and the Prophets, pleading with us to “return to the Lord” and “heed his voice with all your heart and all your soul” (Dt 30:2). This is not difficult to figure out, God tells his children through Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy: “This command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. … It is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out” (Dt 30: 11,14).

But the choice is ours, just like it was in the time of Moses: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse,” God says. “Choose life, then … “(Dt 30:19). What he asks us to do, in other words, is for our own good, from an eternal perspective.

But the Law and the Prophets were not enough for us stubborn, hard-hearted human beings. So, the Father in his great mercy sent his only Son, Jesus, God’s Word made Flesh, to teach us, to show us the way, to help us make the right choice, and to do most of the heavy lifting for us. Following Jesus as a disciple means doing what he did, using his example as a guide. HE is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. John 14:6).

And because the fully human, fully divine Jesus took his flesh from a young woman in Nazareth, his appearance among us depended upon her assent, on her obedience to the Father’s will. When the archangel Gabriel announced this plan to her, she undoubtedly had many questions and not a few trepidations about how it would all work out (he didn’t give her many details). But Mary said “yes” anyway. “May it be done to me according to your word,” she responded (Luke 1:38).

And so, in that moment, Mary became not only the Mother of the Lord, but his very first disciple—and hence, the mother of all disciples. Her obedience was a critical counterpoint to Eve’s disobedience, just as Jesus’ obedience to the Father would offset Adam’s defiance, restoring eternal life to humanity by his death and resurrection.

In the Gospel passage we just heard, John the Evangelist presents the first of seven signs in which Jesus manifests his glory as the Son of God. The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana signifies the abundant transforming grace available to us all through the salvific mission of Christ. Just as the prophet Isaiah foretold, God does something new in Jesus—offering cleansing, restorative drink to his chosen but wayward people (cf. Isaiah 43).

As demonstrated through Jesus, God has the power and the will to change our tepid souls into new wine filled to the brim. But again, the choice is ultimately ours. While it is Christ who changes the water into wine, the servants (you and I) are summoned to fill the jars with water. God’s gratuitous gift of grace requires our acceptance and cooperation.

So, for this reason, Mary, the mother of disciples, tells those servants (and us): “Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary shows us how to be a disciple of Christ. “Do whatever he tells you.”

These very words (if you haven’t noticed) are inscribed on the front of this podium. And they are important words for all Christian disciples. God the Father has set Eternal Life before us in his Son Jesus, who says later in the Gospel of John: “I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Choose Life, the Father says. And Mary, the first disciple who chose Life with her pronouncement, “May it be done to me according to your word,” in turn says to us: “Do whatever he tells you.”

In other words: Bring your souls to Jesus. Accept his freely offered grace won on the Cross for you and allow him to fill you with the new wine of redemption. Then, enlivened by his Spirit, go, and share the love, mercy, and peace you have received. Let it spill over into the lives of others. This sentiment falls into line with Jesus’ later words to his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

  Mary always points out the way to us, and she points toward her Son: “Do whatever he tells you.” She herself lived out that directive, ultimately following him to the Cross when most of his disciples had abandoned him.

In 1974 Saint Pope Paul VI wrote this about Mary:

Mary is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which, in her own particular life, she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God (cf. Lk. 1:38), because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions. She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and the most perfect of Christ’s disciples. (Marialis Cultus, No. 35) 

Mary, as the first and most perfect Christian disciple, first listened to the Word of God, and then acted on it. As our Mother in Christ, she provides us, his disciples, with an example to follow. Most of us here, at one point in our lives (or even many times) have likely heard the admonition, “Listen to your mother!” Well, Mary, as mother of disciples, says, “Listen to my Son! – Do whatever he tells you.”

This is primarily the message from God the Father himself, who spoke from the heavens during the Transfiguration, telling Peter, John, and James: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

So, it is clear that as Christian disciples, our entire lives must be ordered around this principle. That is the definition of a disciple: one who listens to a teacher, learns, and then follow’s the teacher’s example. And in the case of Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, following him is a matter of life or death, and the Eternal Life he holds out for us provides a special intimacy with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus himself while on this earth said, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

But how—practically speaking—do we listen to Jesus and then do what he tells us?

As mentioned before, it’s not all that difficult to figure out (although carrying out what he tells us often is!). Since we are created in God’s image, his Word is already written on our hearts. And Christ gives us the Church to guide us in this regard—its teachings, its liturgical life and community, and especially the sacraments. We also listen to him in prayer, which is animated by the Holy Spirit, and within the circumstances and relationships we find ourselves in each day.

But most of all, we have Scripture -- God’s Word. In particular, the gospels show us the way.

Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time is compile a list of all the things Jesus specifically and directly told his disciples to do (or not to do) in the gospels. Preparing this conference gave me the opportunity to do that. So, I scoured all four gospels and wrote down each of the things Jesus tells us—his disciples – to do. The final list is quite lengthy, but I did want to share with you some of the sayings that seem to really stand out in importance – either because they are repeated often or because they are specifically emphasized by Jesus.

Here, then, is what Jesus tells his disciples to do:

n  Take courage. Do not be afraid. Just have faith. (These three come up a lot.)

n  Follow me.

n  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

n  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

n  Love one another as I love you.

n  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

n  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

n  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

n  Forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.

n  Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you.

n  Anyone who wishes to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

n  If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

n  Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

n  Stay awake! You do not know on which day your Lord will come.

n  Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.

n  Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. I am with you always.

These, among others, are the things Jesus tells his disciples – then and now – to do. Let us, then, filled to the brim with the grace of his Holy Spirit, listen to the Word of God and then do it. Like Mary, his first disciple and the mother of us all, may we always choose the Eternal Life that Jesus holds out for us, following him to the foot of the Cross—as did his mother and the beloved disciple. There, he says to us, “She is your mother” (cf. John 19:27). And, as our mother, she says to us: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Monday, May 10, 2021

The indiscriminate love of God

NOTE: The following is a homily delivered by our Fr. Joseph Cox, OSB, at Mass on Sunday, May 9. It is based on the Gospel of John 15:9-17


An ancient tradition about the last days of Saint John the Evangelist says that he lived to a very old age and became so feeble that he had to be carried to the meetings of the faithful. There, because of his weakness, he was not able to deliver a long discourse, so at each gathering he just repeated the words, “Little children, love one another.” His followers became tired of hearing the same words over and over, so they asked him why he never said anything else. Saint John said, “Do this alone and it is enough.” This story may be true because the word “love” appears 57 times in the Gospel of John; more often than in the other three gospels combined.

In the gospel for today (John 15:9-17) at verse 14, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What does he command us to do? In verse 12 he says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” The disciples, like you and me, sometimes don’t quite get it the first time. Therefore, Jesus must keep reminding us. So, in verse 17, Jesus again says, “This I command you: love one another.” That is quite clear because Jesus repeated it and called it a command.

To love others does not mean to tolerate others, in the sense of putting up with them. Jesus did not say, “Tolerate one another as I tolerate you.” He said, “Love one another as I love you.”

God has given to each of us free will, so we can choose to love or not to love. Love is the free response of the heart. Love is an attitude, and all attitudes are the consequence of a choice. When it comes to Christian love, we do not “fall in love”— we “choose to love.” Jesus chose to love us. He called us “friends”. Love is not just romantic feeling, physical attraction, or emotional attachment. Love is a choice and decision. Love is willful commitment and faithful service. To love is to make a decision of the will. Love cannot survive without action, and it cannot grow without testing. If we depend on love to be a good feeling only, then it will be impossible to love all people as God tells us to do, because many people do not give us good feelings.

The fact that love cannot be completely boiled down to an emotion is good, because then we are freed from limiting our love to only feel-good relationships. We are free to love everyone. Love of neighbor is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, we love even the person whom we do not like or even know. This is grounded in an intimate encounter with God through prayer; an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting our feelings. Then we learn to look on others not simply with our eyes and our feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus so that Jesus’ friends are our friends. The divine indwelling is God dwelling in us. Jesus acts in us, and we see with Jesus’ eyes. St. Paul said, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Jesus’ command to love others is not based on the existing culture—whether at the time of Jesus 2,000 years ago or today. It is not liberal, conservative, or political. It is the direct result of the gospels. It is not a statement about the various roles people may be called to fill in this life, or the honor we may or may not be given on this side of eternity. It is a statement about our equal value in the eyes of God, and how we should learn to view each other.

Rather than seeing humanity as a unity, it can be easy to see humanity as a collection of separate groups of people. As a result, rather than seeing people as being made in the image and likeness of God, as the Book of Genesis tells us (Genesis 1:26), we can overemphasize differences rather than seeing similarities. Consequently, it may appear as if everyone must fall into a category: progressive, traditional; rich, poor; red states, blue states; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist; Russian, Chinese, American, Canadian, Indian, etc.; black, white, red, brown; gay, straight; and many other categories. It can be tempting to assign values to these individual groups of people such as: good, bad; safe, dangerous; those approved by God, those not approved by God. There are many ways in which our fears and biases play out in our rash judgments of others.

God is pure love and is all knowing, and so does not have our biases. God can love everyone because God is total love. We are not God, so we still have our prejudices, insecurities, and suspicions about certain people. Yet, the Lord wants us to love all people, not just some. It does not depend on other people’s political party, sex, race, religion, intelligence, sexual orientation, or personal status. Separating our brothers and sisters into groups of “good people” and “bad people” just works to further divide humanity rather than unite humanity.

When people are misunderstood and separated into groups and then marginalized to the extreme, the results are that they can be dehumanized, scapegoated, and oppressed.

A couple of years ago after visiting a parish in Evansville, on the way back to Saint Meinrad I stopped at a Barnes & Noble to look around. Afterwards I went to my car in the parking lot. Because the store was crowded, the lot was almost full, so the car was way at the back. On my way I noticed someone standing at the back of the lot. He was not getting into or out of a car—he was just standing there. I thought, “Oh, I suppose this guy wants money.” I was already placing him in a category. Then, I don’t know what happened, maybe the Spirit moved me or something, I went up to him and said, “Hi, I’m Joe. Who are you?” He said that his name was Michael and that he needed money for a bus ticket. Whether or not that was true does not matter. I gave him some money and I said that I would keep him in my prayers. He immediately pulled a small, pocket-size version of the New Testament out of his pocket and said that he was a person of prayer, too. We talked for minute, then we shook hands and we parted.

I will never forget that encounter with him. Instead of ignoring him, or giving him some money and then running away, I engaged him, and we talked. I took a risk to go beyond artificial boundaries and enter another person’s world. This has to do with treating people as human beings worthy of respect and compassion rather than as problems or inconveniences. When we don’t have some personal contact with those who are different from us, then our prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged, and we will continue to distrust and avoid them. But if we are willing to listen to others and learn from them, we can lessen some of the “us” versus “them” mentality that we all have, and try to see people in new ways.

Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. Although the Easter lilies are gone, we are still in the Easter season. Two weeks from today we celebrate Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. During these seven weeks of the season of Easter, we are called to think of Jesus’ love for us as shown by the Paschal Mystery, that is, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Lord has destroyed death and offers eternal life to the world. The only thing that can explain this is love. Not love for some people, but for all people. The Lord does not discriminate in the offer of love.

How can we discriminate as to whom we offer love? Through our Baptism, we have been incorporated into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have been made sons and daughters of God and given new life. Since we are children of God, then we are brothers and sisters to one another.

-- Fr. Joseph Cox, OSB

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christian dignity

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. …

Christian, consider your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.
-- St. Leo the Great


People of hope

"The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light."

Isaiah 9:1

Associated Press

This Advent season -- besieged as we are with a relentless, ravaging, yet invisible virus that has somehow turned many people against one another, along with political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and social unrest -- I have been thinking a lot about Christian hope. As we draw near to the wonderful Light of Christmas amid the darkness that surrounds us -- and that threatens to remain with us for weeks, months, or years to come -- this is a worthy topic of meditation for us all. Perhaps the only one.

What does it mean to have Christian hope -- to be a people of hope amid the powerful forces of darkness?

To begin with, we must recall both the origin and goal of our hope -- the Gospel, or "Good News." St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans that "in hope we were saved" (8:24). The basis of this hope is that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and that what he has promised, he will do through Christ -- and has done, and is continuing to do through him. That is what Advent is about -- recalling Jesus' first coming among us 2,000 years ago, looking toward and preparing for his second coming at the end of time, and welcoming his presence here and now through the Holy Spirit. "I am with you always, to the end of the age," Jesus told his followers (and us) before he ascended into heaven.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the anchor of our souls. Boaters and fishermen can relate to the work of pulling up anchor from the watery depths below. For us Christians, that image is reversed. Jesus, our Anchor of Hope in heaven, draws us after him. The Letter to the Hebrews applies this image, saying, "We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered" (6:19-20). 

That is our assurance, and if we truly have faith, then we must trust that God accomplishes all that he wills -- amid and even through all the storms and struggles of life. We are on a journey toward our true eternal home, one that is not of this world and yet springs forth from it through the Incarnation of Christ and his Mystical Body (comprised of each one of us). Like the ancient Israelites, we are a pilgrim people driven by hope toward our homeland. Eternal Life awaits us, and yet what we do and say here and now shapes our path forward (or backward!) in relation to that goal.

Our hope is in the Lord our God. He is our light and our help. With this in mind, whom shall we fear? (cf. Psalms 27, 146).

Recently, Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, O.S.B., wrote an Advent letter to all Benedictine men and women worldwide (the current Abbot Primate, stationed in Rome, is an American, and was elected by abbots around the world to lead the Benedictine Confederation, which consists of all the Benedictine congregations and monasteries in the Catholic Church). This letter was read in our refectory during dinner this past week. While much of the letter provides updates on everyday matters of interest to the Benedictine Order, Abbot Gregory begins by stating that "these days of Advent usher us into a time of hope, a hope that can only be fully grounded in the Lord's love and care, guidance and wisdom, strength, vitality, and promise of Emmanuel, God-with-us."

He expands on this message of hope with a reflection I think is worth sharing because it applies to all people of faith. The following is an extended excerpt from the letter:

The pandemic has made many people look to the end times, to a season of suffering, a time of uncertainty about the future, and to the ways in which our world, our governments, our Church … will move forward. One thing about the Book of Revelation is that it takes into account two things: a time of endurance and perseverance in troubled times, and also a genuine hope of God’s action in the midst of all of this. … God’s rule continues, despite human folly or natural disaster. In the end, God’s goodness will manifest itself, showing a rule that is just and a command that is geared toward renewal and restoration.

In coming to the final chapters of the Book of Revelation there is an expression that we have heard many times yet may now see it in a new way. The author writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away … Then I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God’ … Then the One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev 21:1, 3, 5).

In pondering these verses from the Book of Revelation, the question came to me, “Is God taking this natural disaster and creating something new, good, and even wonderful for us? Will we come to see this new earth that the Scriptures are speaking of? Will we see a new earth, in which God will take the chaos of our present situation, and as the All Holy One did at the beginning of time, give us a new creation, a new earth, a world remade in the harmony, order, and goodness of God?”

We can find examples of this in the Scriptures, where something unfortunate, even bad, by the grace of God takes on a new life, a new direction, a new focus. For example, in Genesis 45, we read the story of the patriarch Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers, jealous of him. But then comes the moment when, faced with his brothers in the court of Pharaoh, he tells them that God has taken their betrayal of him and turned it into something good—for the service of a people in need. Joseph saw, with eyes of spiritual wisdom, that God had taken something malicious and sinful, and brought it to a positive and blessed end.

We can also think of the creation story in Genesis 1, where a mass of chaos is turned into a world of harmony, beauty, and order and given to a human family to be the stewards of this great gift (Gen 1:28-31). Where there had been nothing but disarray, God brought order through a spoken word, “Let there be … and there was” (Gen 1:3, 6-7, 9, 11).

And then there is the ultimate act of renewal where jealousy, hatred, fear, betrayal, and wickedness is redeemed by the saving death of Jesus Christ on the cross, bringing about the forgiveness and reconciliation of the world, and promising us nothing less than eternal life. Because of all this, we need to be a people of hope.

… Pope Francis reminded us of something essential … as he gave the world his Urbi et Orbi blessing. Drawing from the Gospel according to Mark 4, he used the image of the apostles together in a boat, frightened on a tempestuous and dark sea, and wondering how Jesus could be asleep at this moment of their need. The Pope reminded us of our worldwide and common experience, and how closely we are connected through this experience, stripped of our self-sufficiency, and knowing that our only way forward is through a dependence upon God’s power which cannot be controlled by human forces.

As we are moving forward with the promise of vaccines that will be coming in the next [weeks and months], we are also beginning to see the new earth that God is creating. It is an earth that keeps us keenly aware of our interdependence upon one another, the fragility of human life, the need to be obedient to regulations that affect the lives of others, the need to be generous and careful with what has been given us, a readiness to share what we have with others, to seek the harmony and order in which the world was first created, and the absolute need for silence and prayer to listen to God’s voice that we might respond in faith.

… Brothers and sisters, despite the pain and suffering of this pandemic, God has been with us in ways we cannot always see. God’s grace rarely comes in the ways we expect. Being attentive to the signs of the times, we will see our way forward into the future with hope and trust in the ways that God is leading us forward. May these final days of Advent lead us to a glorious celebration of the Lord’s Birth, because we have hoped, and yes, we have seen God’s guiding and loving hand among us.

Certainly, neither Abbot Gregory nor I wish to diminish the pain and suffering experienced by so many people in this world, especially during this last year. It is real, and it hurts -- for everyone who is afflicted, in so many ways. Being besieged by difficulties -- sometimes severe trials -- does not indicate a lack of faith (just as good fortune does not indicate an abundance of faith). It is simply (and sadly) a fact of human existence in our broken world. No one escapes such struggles, though they vary in form from person to person.

But it also is true that whatever comes our way has something to teach us. When good things happen to us, they should be received in humility and with gratitude. And, in turn, this should prompt some measure of praise of God and generosity toward others -- sharing the good. And when bad things happen, we need to hold even more tightly to the rope of faith that extends to our Anchor of Hope in heaven, Jesus Christ. We need to recall the good we have experienced in the past, and trust that whatever happens, God will bring us through the present into the future. Even amid a pandemic, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, and social unrest -- even amid what is malicious and sinful -- God is creating something new, something good. He has not abandoned us. As St. Paul says, "all things work together for good for those who love God" (8:28).

Of course, there is more to endurance and perseverance than simply holding on for one's own dear life. As people of hope, we must share the good we have received -- in good times and in bad, whether it is convenient or inconvenient. And that includes sharing the Good News in various ways to build up the faith, hope, and love of our Christian brothers and sisters, and all God's children throughout the world. It means tying ourselves to them when they cannot hold onto that rope extending into heaven, where our Anchor awaits.

If you look -- yes, even amid the seemingly overwhelming darkness -- you will see such examples of the good being shared, of hope being built up, of people generously and selflessly supporting one another. They are all around us everyday, in between all the troubling headlines.

In the first reading for the Christmas Mass During the Night, the prophet Isaiah tells us, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." As people of hope, we have seen that Light, the promise of Christ our head. As his mystical Body, by the grace given us through the Incarnation, and with the Holy Spirit, let us spread that Light far and wide until we witness God's "new creation, a new earth, a world remade in the harmony, order and goodness of God."

"You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others,
so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

Matthew 5:14-16