Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dominica in Pasqua V

29 April 2018

Recently I’ve been wondering about the mechanics of grafting the branch of one vine or tree onto another tree such that the grafted branch grows and thrives.  My wondering ‘stems’ (uh hem!) from a recent visit I made to the Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City.  Among the many tropical plants and trees growing there, the Bridge features various types of orchids.  There are orchids of colors and shapes I have never seen before.  I was surprised at one point when I noticed that an orchid appeared to be growing directly out from the trunk of a very tall, tropical tree.  How does that work, I wondered?  How do you graft together two very unrelated plants and have them grow?  On closer inspection what had really happened is that an orchid plant, in its small pot had been hung on the trunk and, after time, the orchid’s root system had grown out from the pot, wrapping around it and covering it, giving the illusion that the orchid had somehow been grafted onto the tree.

Now I am very far from a “green thumb” and I don’t intend my thoughts to give instruction on grafting or gardening.  While not pretending to know much about how grafting of plants works, it seems generally true that successful grafting of very different types of plants or trees, while it may be occasionally successful, is the exception rather than the rule.  In other words, generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Can you see why my trip to the Myriad Gardens comes to mind with this gospel?  In the Old Testament God’s Word uses the image of a grapevine to describe His chosen People Israel.  God chooses and plants the choice vine, from which He expects a great harvest and a good vintage.  But through sin and disobedience the choice vine of Israel goes wild and produces bad fruit.  God promises through the prophets to fix the problem.  Thus, when Jesus proclaims himself in St. John’s gospel to be the “true vine” he is emphatically stating that God’s choice vine is here, in his very person.  He is that promised vine.  And a good harvest and a good vintage will only come through him.  Disciples will produce what God wants only if we remain in the Lord Jesus.

By baptism we begin life in the true Vine by being grafted into Jesus, thus being made by the Holy Spirit adopted sons and daughters of the Father.  Disciples who remain in the Lord are called to maintain unity of life with the visible expression of Christ the True Vine – his Church, which Scripture also describes as the very Body of Christ.  In the first reading, after Saul’s conversion (becoming known as Paul) we see him seeking to be grafted onto the Church.  Because of his persecuting past, disciples were suspicious, but in time Paul’s newfound faith could grow and remain alive only because he joined Christ in the unity of his Church.  We who have been baptized are only alive in Christ and only producing good fruit to the degree that we remain united to Christ the True Vine.  Our unity grows by deeper conversion and faithful practice of prayer and the Sacraments.  When we sin, when we maintain a weak unity with the Church, when we don’t accept the pruning of God’s Word leading us to deeper conversion, when we don’t make Christ the center of meaning and nourishment in our lives, well, we are ready to be cut off and worthy of being taken away from the harvest of heaven.  Jesus says, the Father “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”  “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Friends, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that being marginal disciples, or Christians pretty much in name only, will lead to salvation.  To borrow the image of grafting, a marginal Christian is about as genetically dissimilar to the True Vine as an orchid to a tropical tree.  The marginal Christian might look like he has life from the True Vine, but on closer inspection he is nourishing himself, just sort of hung upon or near the Vine, much like that orchid I saw on the tree.  To be successfully grafted such that we branches bear good fruit, we must live what was begun in us in baptism, when we were grafted onto Christ.  We do not want to become a branch worth cutting off.  To be worthy to remain connected to the Vine, we are called upon by the Father to bear much, and good, fruit.

Generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.  We can carry this observation into the gospel image.  Obviously I use this idea of grafting to refer not to genetics, but to a greater degree of conversion or Christ-likeness.  We are first brought into the True Vine at baptism.  But that grafting must be lived and must develop as the Father wants if a living (faithful) branch and a fruitful harvest is to result.  Don’t expect an easy path as a Christian.  No, Jesus tells us we will be pruned.  But this serves to help us bear even more fruit.  We can never take for granted our unity with Christ the True Vine.  We should seek, like St. Paul, an ever-greater conversion and a grafting into Jesus’ Church.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says.  Today’s second reading from St. John gives all of us a clear indication of remaining in the Lord.  “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.”

Third Sunday of Easter

Dominica in Pasqua III

15 April 2018

This weekend I want to focus our attention on a prominent theme throughout the Season of Easter.  The theme is the summons to youthfulness in our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

To be clear, this call to youthfulness is addressed to all of us.  It is not a call to live a younger chronological age, which would be impossible.  The call to youthfulness is also not a call to immaturity.  Rather, it is a call to live our newness of life in Jesus by adopting some of those characteristics that we might associate with youth.  Youth in this sense refers not to one’s age, but to one’s soul.  No matter our age, we can each attain this spiritual youthfulness.  We are always called to observe this spiritual youthfulness, but all the more in the Season of Easter does this become a prominent theme.  In my homily for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday I commented on the direction given to the disciples that after Jesus’ resurrection they were to go back to Galilee and meet him there.  The return to Galilee is a return to their origins.  It is a return to where they first encountered Jesus and began to leave everything to follow him, forever shunning pathways that would lead away from him.  It is a return to the vigor of their first attachment to the Gospel and the vigor of their love for Jesus.

Consider in your life what has been an “a ha” moment, a Galilee moment, when you experienced conversion and when you first came to believe that Jesus conquered death.  Whether you were baptized as an infant, or whether you came to Christ’s Church as an older or even an adult convert, what was that moment of conversion like when a personal encounter with Jesus really changed you?  Maybe in some cases you still need to pray and open yourself to such a personal encounter.  Whatever the case, we commonly use youthful terminology to describe such conversions.  It’s a “new birth.”  It’s a new “springtime.”  It’s a new hope.  It’s a new joy.  It’s a restored innocence.  It’s a vigor, a freshness, and a confidence.  It’s a youthful enthusiasm not yet impacted by those challenges and crosses that certainly come to each of us.  Since Easter is about Jesus coming to new life beyond the grave it is easy to see why youthfulness would be an apt description for newness of life that we are called to live in him. 

In the past couple weeks of this holy season the Sacred Liturgy has already presented this call to youthfulness in several ways.  The Gospel of St. Mark from the Easter Vigil told us that upon arriving at the tomb when the sun had just risen on that first Easter Sunday, the holy women found the stone rolled back and inside the tomb was a mysterious visitor.  Other gospels identify this visitor as an angel.  But St. Mark says the following: “they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” (Mk. 16:5).  Not just a man, but a young man.  St. Mark highlights that something about heavenly life seen in the angelic visitor is like youthfulness.  One of the great things we do at our parish, thanks to our dedicated choir, is that we actually use the full scripture setting for each Mass when we chant the antiphons at the entrance and at Holy Communion.  When those antiphons are so commonly replaced by hymns from a book, however good those may be, I suggest we lose something from the Church’s faith that the Sacred Liturgy is trying to communicate to us.  Since our parish chants the entrance antiphon as Mass begins we were enriched last Sunday to hear this: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia” (Introit, Second Sunday of Easter).  Again, the call to live our new life in Jesus; the call to youthfulness.  No surprise then that the Collect at the beginning of this Holy Mass had us pray: “May your people exult forever, O God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit” (Collect, Third Sunday of Easter).  No matter our age we can live this renewed youthfulness because, as the Collect went on to say, faith, baptism, and the grace of confession give us the “restored glory of our adoption,” which in turn leaves us looking forward “in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of [our] resurrection” (Collect, Third Sunday of Easter).

You know that nothing we do as Catholics exists in isolation, or in a vacuum.  Rather, we are the beneficiaries of centuries of faith, doctrinal development, and liturgical life which, all together, proclaim and celebrate our life in Jesus and in his one Church.  It seems clearly important then, as an informed Catholic, to be aware of and, to benefit from, knowledge and experience of what precedes us, including the older traditional Latin form of the Sacred Liturgy.  With a very few exceptions the Traditional Latin Mass begins by praying Psalm 42 in which the priest and the server speak back and forth the paragraphs of the psalm.  The priest prays, “I will go unto the altar of God.”  And at two points the server makes his response: “Unto God who gives joy to my youth” (Psalm 42:4).  The word “youth” is not placed on the server’s lips because he is in most cases a young man or a boy serving the Holy Mass.  There is the literal sense of this psalm in that the traditional author, King David, was a young man when he wrote these words.  But, rather for us now, the psalm uses the word “youth” to refer to the freshness, the vigor, the innocence of the soul redeemed by God, a renewal that happens each time we worthily participate in the Holy Mass.

We are first brought to new youthful life as Christians by faith in Jesus and by Holy Baptism which is a spiritual new life of regeneration in the Holy Spirit.*  Once having been born to new life, how do we continue to live Christian youthfulness?

We seek to constantly renew and increase a vigor in following Jesus, returning to the force of our first commitment to him.  A commitment to daily prayer renews and increases this vigor as we seek to live more deeply our intimate communion with God.

With determined zeal we must shun sin and pathways that lead away from Jesus, acknowledging sin for what it is, a path to selfish, stale, and sterile living.  Sin makes us less like the youthful redeemed new man and more like the old man of sin (Rom. 6:6).  Being complacent to live in sin causes us to become dry, lifeless bones (cf. Ezekiel 37) and advances us toward eternal death.  Penance and discipline in spiritual life help us convert and turn from the path of sin.

We must so yearn for life with God that we seek him constantly like satisfying a hunger or a thirst.  In a most particular way, whether we are joyful or sad at any given moment, we should come to Holy Mass with a longing to encounter God on the holy mountain of the sacred altar: I will go unto the altar of God; unto God who gives joy to my youth!  Part of coming to Holy Mass with a spirit of joyful youthfulness, a vigorous enthusiasm, is to make frequent confession whereby our youthful baptismal life, harmed and aged by sin, is renewed by the mercy of Jesus.  Being absolved in the confessional helps us approach the altar of God living as we should our youthful life of restored innocence while longing for its completion in the glory of the resurrection.  In the meantime, like newborns, we long for the spiritual nourishment here that gives us a youthful confidence of inheriting the joy of eternal life, that never-ending youth with the God who loves us!

*Several aspects of the thought developed about Psalm 42 and youthfulness come from the excellent book, Nothing Superfluous, by the Rev. James Jackson, FSSP, pp. 102-103.

Divine Mercy Sunday - 8 April 2018

Dominica in Pasqua II

Divine Mercy Sunday

8 April 2018

The Gospel gives us two glimpses into the room where the disciples were locked away.  Two glimpses, each on a Sunday, one week apart.  The first glimpse was the evening of Easter Sunday, the very day of Jesus’ Resurrection.  The second glimpse, the gospel says, was “a week later.”  In the charged atmosphere of Jerusalem in those days, days that had seen a mob develop calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples are locked away in a room because of “fear of the Jews.”  We can imagine they were locked away as much for shame and trauma as they were for fear that the atmosphere could very easily turn on them and call for their deaths next.

Given the dangers possible and the very real fear that clearly had gripped the other disciples, why then wasn’t Thomas the apostle with them?  In the first resurrection appearance, in that first glimpse into the locked room, the Gospel tells us plainly that Thomas was not with the rest.  Now, as I begin to reflect on this question it is very important to be fair and clear: the Gospel doesn’t tell us why Thomas wasn’t there.  So, considering an answer and some lessons here requires that we admit that this is a spiritual reflection and speculative in nature.  But provided the speculation is not contrary to what is directly said and revealed in the Scripture and in the Tradition, it can have value.

We could cast Thomas as a bit of a realist.  In chapter 11 of St. John’s Gospel, we have the scene of Jesus hearing of the illness of his friend Lazarus and making plans to go to Judea to visit him and the family.  In discussing this return to Judea, a place where the Jews had just tried to arrest and stone Jesus for blaspheming, for making himself out to be God, the disciples all clearly know the danger involved.  Thomas, the realist, speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  It is perhaps good to keep this image of Thomas in mind when we usually only hear him described as the doubter.  Thomas then (in chapter 11) and perhaps now in the gospel passage we just heard, was ready to be out in danger, aware of the consequences.

Why wasn’t Thomas with the rest?  Maybe to some degree Thomas was just sort of getting on with his life.  Perhaps his realist, matter-of-fact ways results, after the days of Jesus’ death, in just telling himself that it is time to get on with things, to go on with life awaiting what Jesus will do next, and to continue speaking and proclaiming Jesus as best he could.  But whatever the case, he wasn’t going to waste time fearing the religious authorities.

Or, maybe, there is a hint of sort of walking away from things here.  He’s not with the others.  And maybe he doesn’t intend to be as closely associated now that things have ended with Jesus’ death.

It’s speculation, but whatever the case, the gospel does tell us Thomas was not with the group on that Easter Sunday.  He had already stepped away from the safety of numbers even at the height of fear and possible danger.

And so it is that a week later, having heard from the others that Jesus is alive, Thomas is with them and has his encounter with the Risen Lord that results in one of the most clear professions of faith, a profession that we borrow as a pious custom when the Body and Blood of Jesus are elevated over the altar by expressing under our breath in silence the very words of St. Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”  So, considering Thomas’ absence and then his profession of faith, what might a lesson be for us?

Is the “high” of Easter sort of already over for you?  Might you be easily sliding into just returning to your day-to-day life?  Now that we have done all that stuff we do over Holy Week are you just sort of getting back to your life?  Don’t let that happen.  Be changed by your encounter with Jesus the Risen One in the living Word of God and the living Sacrament of his presence at Holy Mass.

Another lesson: Many people need to be more deeply impacted by Jesus and by his death and resurrection that redeem us.  We have seen the results in Holy Week – and if you came to the Easter Vigil, you saw directly the results – of new souls coming to Jesus and his Church, being baptized and received as new members of this gathering of disciples.  No doubt there are many such souls out there still, who need your living witness of Christian faith, who need you to go even to places of hostility where Jesus is shouted and drowned out and to draw them to deeper life as disciples.  This doesn’t happen where we keep ourselves locked away in a privatized faith that agrees to cooperate with the fraud of secular culture by resigning ourselves to keep our mouths shut about Jesus.

May our encounter with the living and Risen Jesus here in this place strengthen us as St. Thomas was strengthened by the encounter in the locked room.  May it help us proclaim ever new: My Lord and my God!  And may it help us go out into the world, into daily living, and to get on with being vibrant proclaimers of the resurrection in order, as the gospel said, that others “may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief [they] may have life in his name.”


Easter Vigil & Easter Sunday

31 March & 1 April 2018

On this joyful night [day] as our Alleluia once again rings out we are drawn to consider the premiere evidence of the resurrection: namely, the emptiness of Christ’s tomb, where no stone, no matter how large, and where not even death could keep our Lord bound.  As the gospel of St. Mark tells us, for Mary Magdalene, for Mary, the mother of James, and for Salome, the sight of the empty tomb and the announcement by the young man sitting in the tomb that Christ had risen was something that caused in them utter amazement.  They were not expecting what they saw that day. 

What might we say about what was going on in the minds, hearts, and lives of Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome?  These women had been very busy and keeping a hectic pace.  It had been the high holy days.  Originally two distinct religious observances, by Jesus’ time, the Passover and the seven day-long Feast of Unleavened Bread had been joined together so that the Passover happened on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  That seven day-long feast also required a pilgrimage to a holy site on the seventh day, and that pilgrimage was quickly arriving.  There were many preparations that had to be in place ahead of time for the Passover, and these women certainly would have had much work to do.  To add to this hectic atmosphere, their dear friend Jesus had been executed on a Friday such that they had to quickly bury him without the customary anointing, due to the impending start of the Sabbath, sundown that day he died, since no work was allowed on the sabbath.  All of these things came colliding together in a few brief days.  They were busy about holy preparations and religious ceremonies…sound familiar?

These women were likely very tired.  Offering no rest for the weary, after all the work leading up to Passover, and its requirements, and a Sabbath right on its heels, now the ladies are up very early the day after the Sabbath – up early enough such that they were already on their way to the tomb when the sun had just risen.  Overrun with work and activities and up early again the next morning…sound familiar?

They are preoccupied with the details of how they will accomplish the anointing meant to honor their friend’s body and prepare him, this time, for proper burial.  They somehow need to get to his body, yet there is that very large stone awaiting them and they don’t know what they will do.  How will they accomplish this necessary work?  The obstacles seem too great, yet the task must be done.  The stress and preoccupation of work that has to be done…sound familiar?

And I haven’t even acknowledged perhaps the most significant factor in the minds, hearts, and lives of these ladies – the emotional trauma, exhaustion, and sadness of the death of a loved one.  The hectic pace of holy days and necessary preparations, overrun with work and up early again the next day, stress and preoccupation – all of these distractions perhaps helped the ladies keep their grief at a distance, to talk about who will roll back the stone, rather than talk about the heavier stone on their hearts.  They keep their heads down to avoid as long as possible the site they are coming to visit.  They focus on the spices and conversing about practicalities regarding entering the tomb, and maybe this helped them keep closed just a bit longer the floodgates of emotion and the wound of a terrible death.  When someone dies we frequently hear a survivor say, “it’s good if I can keep myself busy.”  The sadness of death and trying to keep sadness at bay, putting up a good front…sound familiar?

And then they look up and see the stone already rolled back.  They enter the tomb.  And they are amazed!  In the midst of all that was going in their lives and in those days, through the hectic pace and through the many layers of distraction, God breaks through and breaks in!  The young man sitting in the empty tomb delivers an astounding message: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.”  The young man goes on to tell them, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  That second phrase may not seem very important, compared to the first one announcing Jesus’ resurrection.  But earlier in the gospel it is recorded that Jesus, in predicting his passion, said to his apostles, “After I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee” (Mk. 14:28).

What is so significant about Jesus going to Galilee?  What is so important that the disciples need to know not only that Jesus is risen, but that he is going to Galilee and that there they should go to see him?  Galilee, the Scriptures indicate, is where Jesus began his public ministry.  It is where he first announced the Good News.  Galilee is where Jesus first called his disciples to follow him and to have life with him.  Galilee is sort of disciple ground zero for them.  To go to Galilee is to return to their origins, to get back to their roots with Jesus.  Galilee is an important place for them, a significant site in their lives and experience.  Galilee would have the attraction and sentimental value for them that we would experience going back to the place of our birth or visiting a significant landmark in our personal history, like walking the halls of our grade school now as an adult or walking the field or court where our team won the championship so many years ago.  Galilee was familiar ground and it was a calling home.

My friends, what is going on in your life?  What in the life of the women in the gospel sounds all too familiar to you?  What pace and distractions and stress keep you occupied, head down, not expecting to encounter God?  You’re here tonight [today].  But we are all likely very different.  Some of you may be here out of a deep love for God and a sense of his presence.  Some of you may be here out of some felt obligation you can’t seem to shake, at least not on Easter.  Some of you, feeling run down in life, may still be waiting for your moment of amazement.  The gospel shows us that God can break through these things and break into our lives.  But you know what?  While we won’t limit God’s ability or power, I don’t think He wants us to normally so organize our days that He can only choose to compete with our distractions, breaking in much to our surprise.  And I say that because of that curious line from the young man in the tomb: “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  Can you honestly say of yourself, as was said about the women in the gospel: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified?”  Are you really seeking Jesus, and all that it means to belong to him?  In whatever frame of mind and state of soul you find yourself in, Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  That is, Jesus is calling you back to disciple ground zero.  He is calling you back to your origins, to your roots.  Jesus is calling you to return and to consider how you first became his disciple and to recommit yourself to his life right now.  Jesus is telling you this Easter that you need to consider what following him means and what it demands.  He is telling you to consider what your life must look like if you are truly responding to his call to follow him.  Jesus is asking you to get back to basics, to give him more time than you give your distractions, and to develop a zeal in being committed to him.  Jesus can break through whatever heavy, large stone we put in his way, whatever barrier physical, spiritual, mental, or dare I say, digital.  But it seems to me he doesn’t want us to test this ability of his.  Rather, he wants us to respond now to an invitation to return to our roots and to be renewed in our commitment to him.  He calls us to our roots not so that we simply remain there, in our Galilee, for the disciples also could not simply stay in Galilee.  Rather, like the disciples called to go out to the whole world, we are called to go forth so that the next day, and the next Sunday, and the next Easter, we are ready to go tell others the Good News, to help others encounter the risen Christ, and to hear his call: follow me!

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Today on the final Sunday of the liturgical year Fr. Hamilton offers a special opportunity for prayer. First, for the intercession of Blessed Stanley Rother on behalf of a young parishioner fighting leukemia and then in recognition of our Lord Jesus as king of this world and, indeed, the entire universe: The Act of Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Please join us heartfelt prayer as you listen to this week’s homily. 

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