Archive for the ‘Redemptive Suffering’ Category

Why Did Jesus Delay?

March 25, 2023

5th Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Victor Feltes

In 1582, St. Teresa of Ávila was journeying across Spain to establish new Carmelite convents. The rivers that season were so high that in some places the entire road was covered and obscured by water. It was clearly too dangerous to continue through those waters aboard the carriage, so Teresa and her companions advanced cautiously on foot, with Teresa leading the way. At one point, she lost her footing and fell down into the muddy water. Upon securing herself against the flowing current she exclaimed, “Oh, my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” Jesus replied to the mystical nun, “Do not complain, Daughter, for it is ever thus that I treat my friends.” And Teresa famously and dryly replied, “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that you have so few!

In today’s Gospel, Martha and Mary send word to Jesus about their ailing brother, Lazarus: “Master, the one you love is ill.” “Now,” St. John records in his Gospel, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” Is not this a surprising twist? Because Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters he delayed departing for their village for two additional days. And by the time Jesus arrives in Bethany with his disciples, Lazarus has been four days dead in the tomb.

Martha and Mary each say to Jesus what they had likely already lamented to each other: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” You can imagine their unspoken, anguished question: ‘You’ve healed others, you’ve helped strangers, so why didn’t you come to help us, your dear friends, when we needed you?’ When Jesus saw Mary weeping and those with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and Jesus wept. So the Judeans remarked, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” And Jesus, perturbed again, went to Lazarus’ tomb to resurrect him.

Jesus had told his disciples days before, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” And when they mistook him as saying Lazarus was merely napping, Jesus clarified, “Lazarus has died.” So Jesus came to Bethany fully-intending to raise Lazarus from the dead. But what troubled Jesus and why did Jesus weep? Was he mourning for Lazarus? Imagine if you learned one of your friends had died this morning but you were also certain that you friend would be alive and well again just fifteen minutes from now. How much would you mourn? As much as Jesus was crying for Lazarus, I believe Jesus wept more so for Mary and Martha and those in the crowd. He weeps for them and for all humanity in all of history who mourn and struggle with fear, doubt, and pain because of the scandal of suffering and death in our world.

We naturally desire to live easy lives; to be untouched by hardship or losses. But Jesus desires far greater things for us than mere ease. Before they left for Bethany, Jesus told his disciples, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” These events were divinely permitted and intended for the greater glory of Lazarus and his sisters, too. Imagine if Lazarus had never gotten sick and died and been raised by Jesus — would we even know his name today? Instead, his story with Christ, his life because of Christ, has blessed the world, including us. Martha and Mary, through enduring this trial, were also blessed. Imagine the intensity of their faith in Christ and their courage in facing death after this experience. Jesus made these sisters a blessing for every generation to come.

Because Jesus loved Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, and St. Teresa of Ávila, he allowed all of them to experience trials. It is ever thus that he treats his friends. So be open to walking, to accepting, to trusting, Christ’s providential path for your life. Even if this journey may be harder than we would choose for ourselves, his path leads to better blessings and greater glory with Christ.

Our Mountaintops & Valleys

March 4, 2023

2nd Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Victor Feltes

Jesus went up a mountain to preach his Sermon on the Mount. Later, after feeding more than five thousand people using five loaves and two fish, he withdrew up a mountain alone for prayerful solitude. Today, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain by themselves to witness his Transfiguration. So why mountains? What is it about mountain heights which make them the preferred setting for so many biblical events?

Three themes occur to me: First, mountains remove people from the ordinary. They are remote places removed from everyday life. Second, mountains offer a greater perspective. A mountaintop can allow someone to see for many miles. And third, mountains elevate us. Mountaintops are not only literally higher but symbolically closer to heaven as well. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of Mount Tabor to give them an extraordinary experience, to give them a deeper vision into himself, and to give them strength for their trials ahead.

The Mass prefaces celebrating Jesus’ Transfiguration say:

“After he had told the disciples of his coming Death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.”

“He revealed his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses… that the scandal of the Cross might be removed from the hearts of his disciples.”

The disciples had not imagined that the Jewish Messiah, God’s Holy Anointed One, would be gruesomely murdered. The Transfiguration helped prepare them to understand that Christ’s suffering was a part of God’s salvific plan. They also came to realize that Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” would involve sufferings of their own. The apostles’ memories of beholding Christ’s miracles and glory and their ongoing relationship with their Risen and Ascended Lord strengthened them through their trials.

You and I will face trials as well. As St. Paul tells Timothy in today’s second reading: “Beloved: Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” What have been the spiritual mountaintop experiences of consolation in your life? Remembering these moments gives us spiritual strength in hard times, and Jesus Christ walks alongside us through all our dark valleys.

Yesterday, I encountered the story of a man about my age named Mike. Not long ago, Mike was diagnosed with a cancer so advanced that he had back operation which removed one of his vertebrae. Mike is married and has two sons around middle school age. Though previously a somewhat lukewarm Christian, he began “searching for the understanding of the LOVE of Jesus.” Here is the amazing thing: Mike writes, “This last several months, with a few nudges from God, I have been overwhelmed with Jesus’ love. It’s been so powerful that the pain and uncertainty of the cancer have taken a back seat to it.” If he continues to carry this cross with Christ, no matter what happens, Mike is going to be OK.

Our spiritual mountaintop moments are extraordinary experiences that give us a greater perspective and draw us closer to God. But also remember the great consolation that Jesus Christ, our good and loving Lord, remains with us in our dark valleys as well.

God’s Amazing Encouragements for Joseph and Mary

January 8, 2023

Feast of the Epiphany
By Fr. Victor Feltes

Unlike how some imagine the event, the magi were not in Bethlehem on Christmas night or even the following day. (You will notice that our magi statues did not reach our Nativity scene until this Feast of the Epiphany.) On Christmas night, the Holy Family was visited by local shepherds. The shepherds had seen a vision of angels proclaiming the birth of Christ. St. Luke records that Joseph and Mary “were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

At least forty days later, Joseph and Mary presented Baby Jesus in the Temple to offer a sacrifice for him. When they carried Jesus in, an aged prophet and prophetess named Simeon and Anna came forward to proclaim great things about the child. And again, St. Luke writes that Jesus’ “father and mother were amazed at what was said about him.” Under Old Testament Law, a firstborn son required the sacrifice of a lamb, but if his parents could not afford this, two turtledoves or pigeons could be offered instead. Joseph and Mary sacrificed a pair of birds because they did not have enough money to purchase a lamb. The magi had not yet arrived with their gift of gold.

Sometime after the Presentation in the Temple, magi from the east came to Bethlehem. (Based upon whom wicked King Herod hunted afterwards, the magi may have arrived even two years after Christ’s birth.) The Holy Family, having moved out of the Christmas stable, was now living in a house. And “on entering the house [the magi] saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” The magi explained how a certain rising star had informed them of this new king’s birth; how the star had preceded them and stopped over this place where the child was. Though St. Mathew’s Gospel does not explicitly say so, Joseph and Mary were surely amazed by this encounter as well.

The shepherds on Christmas, Simeon and Anna at the Temple, and the magi preceding the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt were amazing consolations for Joseph and Mary at challenging times in their lives. Imagine the stress of delivering a baby in a stable after being unable to find any place better. Imagine feeling embarrassment at being too poor to afford the best sacrifice for the Son of God at the Temple. Imagine the anxiety of having to flee to another land to save your family’s lives. One could imagine a person asking in such circumstances “Why is this happening? Have we done something wrong? Is God really with us in all this?” But in the midst of their difficult trials, God gave Joseph and Mary encouraging signs to reassure them that he was indeed with them and that their faithful struggles really mattered.

Our missions may not be as lofty as Joseph and Mary’s, but we can be helped by divine consolations too. In our trials, we can either choose to fall to the temptation of clinging to bitterness and settling for cynicism, or instead be receptive to signs and open to wonders. We can recall in our hearts (like Mary) the great things God has done. We can also pray to God for new gifts of consolation. We can ask to receive his strengthening reassurances, that he is with us and that our personal sacrifices truly matter. As St. Paul says, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear. But when you are tested he will also provide a way [through] so that you can endure it.” God gives us his own Son at Christmas, on the Cross, and in the Holy Eucharist — how will he refuse to give us whatever else we truly need? As he did for Joseph and Mary before us, God will answer our prayers in times of burden with amazing and helpful encouragements.

Re-Presenting His Mysteries — Funeral Homily for Sara Caron, 59

November 19, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

When Sara was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her two boys (Mick and Jake) were just twelve and seven years old. She thought of how hard it could be for them to have to grow up as children without her. She did not know how much time she had left, but one of her goals was to be around for them, to raise them throughout their high school years. Today, thirteen years later, her sons are twenty and twenty-five years old. She successfully brought them both to adulthood.

Her family tells me Sara has worked at fifteen different places over the course of her career, and even with cancer, she never stopped working. They say she went “above and beyond” at work and would never take time-off for herself, but she would take days away from work to care for her family; for instance, keeping vigil with Mick in the hospital. Sara also kept on working for another reason: to preserve her continued health insurance coverage. You can imagine how much out-of-pocket cancer treatments would have cost. Sara did not wish to burden her beloved husband, John, and their household with terrible medical debts.

To echo the words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, only with difficulty does a person give their life for others, though a good person might have the courage to lay down their life for those they love. St. Paul speaks of how “God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” When we witness someone, despite their flaws, give their life not just once but year after year for those they love, it is that much easier to believe that our perfect, holy, loving Lord has lived, and died, and risen for us.

Recall Christ’s words from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.” Our Lord, to whom Sara prayed every day, dwells within his faithful Christians, re-presenting his mysteries in their lives. “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.”

Jesus prays in St. John’s Gospel, “Father, those whom you gave me are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me.” Christ’s longing within us makes the psalmist’s words resonate with us: “There is one thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple.

Christ who has called us, who dwells in us, who re-presents his mysteries in our lives, who inspires eternal longings within us, desires us to be with him forever where “he will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order [will have] passed away.” This is our cause for our firm and happy hope, for Sara and for every Christian.

A Trimmer of Trees — Funeral Homily for Gordon “Gordy” Weyers, 90

October 27, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

For several decades, Gordy has loved trimming trees. Of course, there is much more to the man as a Catholic, a husband, a father, and a friend, but this is one of his curious quirks. Whenever Gordy saw outside his house a tree branch which was not right, he was highly-motivated to intervene. He would pull out his ladder and tree-cutting tool to go take care of that errant branch. Dot (that is, Dorothy) his wife of sixty-seven years would tell him, “Don’t climb the ladder,” but he would do it anyway.

Gordy began saying he wanted a new ladder but his kids kept trying to talk him out of this desire, hoping he would stop climbing at his age entirely. Yet by all accounts, his old ladder was very rickety, so eventually Dot said, “Get him a new ladder, because he’ll fall off the old one.” Dot would periodically look out the window to check on Gordy tree trimming on his ladder. Years later, she told him, “Good thing you never fell off!” He replied, “Oh, I fell off a few times, I just didn’t tell you.”

But here’s the thing: after Gordy’s trimming—however daring or reckless it may have been—his trees looked really good. Dot reports that “he never did anything that made them look bad.” Those trees became more perfect, more healthy and strong, more handsome and beautiful, by having been cared for and pruned by Gordy.

We often recall “the Lord is my shepherd,” but we less often reflect on how our God is a gardener. In the beginning, God created a perfect garden. And when St. Mary Magdalene first encountered Christ resurrected on Easter Sunday she thought he was the gardener. Jesus teaches, “I am the vine, you are the branches… and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” And the Letter to the Galatians tells us that the fruits which the Holy Spirit grows in us include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are like trees which God prunes to make us more perfect.

Now I imagine if gold were alive and aware it may not feel eager be purified in a furnace’s fire, and the pruning process might not be a lot fun for a tree. But the Book of Wisdom tells us, ‘as gold in the furnace, God proves us… before taking us to himself.’ And though parts of our trees (of ourselves) must die and some of our unsightly branches must be trimmed away, the Lord makes our souls more perfect, more healthy and strong, more handsome and beautiful, through his care and pruning.

Like Gordy with his trees, Jesus saw us outside of his Father’s house. He saw our branches were not right. And he was highly-motivated to intervene. Call it daring or reckless, but our Lord put his life on the line. Christ went up the tree of the Cross to trim our flaws and perfect us. And after death felled him, Jesus rose again.

He declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” To enter into heaven, we must be perfected in Christ’s love. So if any imperfections still remain in Gordy’s soul, we ask Jesus today to prune them away. And we welcome our Lord to continue trimming any errant branches within our souls as well.

Suffering & Joy — Funeral Homily for Rodger Falkenberg, 75

October 11, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

Rodger has experienced years of suffering and years of joy. After being born into a large, poor family and serving in the Vietnam War, he returned home and joyfully joined a new household. Facing life’s struggles, what a man could do is be bitter and glum, but Rodger loved making people laugh; sometimes with his Donald Duck voice or an intentional stumble. Even after enduring four, painful back surgeries, he still would roll down a hill to amuse his nieces and nephews.

Rodger knew that just because something is broken doesn’t mean that it’s without value. At what he dubbed his “Polish Shopping Center” (or what others call the city dump) Rodger would take things which others had despised. He would tinker with them as necessary, restoring them and prizing them as treasures to keep for himself or to share with others.

One thing I learned about Rodger and his beloved Donna is that they share a great, personal love for ice cream. Giving up ice cream for Lent was a great personal sacrifice in their house because they could eat an entire pail of it for a meal. In recent years, with his memory declining, they would often go to a particular restaurant. When the friendly staff would ask him, “Is it your birthday?” He would sincerely reply, “I think so,” and be treated to ice cream.

September 2nd of this year marked the 50th anniversary of Rodger and Donna’s wedding day here at St. Paul’s Church, and the family celebrated this occasion simply and sweetly together. Their daughters were getting Dad and Mom an ice cream cake and the employee was making a mess of squeezing-out the inscription on top, but Kelly or Lisa said, ‘It’s fine, really, just put sprinkles on it.‘ The party was a happy, intimate family gathering at home. And despite what had seemed to go wrong the cake still tasted very delicious in the end.

In today’s psalm the psalmist speaks of his suffering, praying for deliverance: “Relieve the troubles of my heart and bring me out of my distress. Put an end to my affliction and my suffering and take away all my sins. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.” It’s not wrong to pray for relief, like Jesus himself did in the Garden of Gethsemane, but in Christ we see that our sufferings play a role in our glory. Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. …Whoever serves me must follow me… [to the Cross].

When Jesus suffered and died, “people saw and did not understand,” but in light of his resurrection Christians know death is not the end of the world. As St. Paul says, “We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven. [So] we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. …We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”

For the faithful and righteous the sufferings this world sees as worthless are taken up by Jesus to rework our souls. Our Lord will claim us from this junk yard, he will fully restore us and prize us as treasures for himself and to share with others. The messed-up cake of this world will be salvaged. Once God’s family is gathered together again, we will simply and sweetly agree that everything turned-out fine in the end. Can this day of Rodger’s funeral be his birthday to new life? I think so. In heaven, our Lord “will wipe every tear from their eyes,” and convert the sufferings of his people to joy. “Behold,” he says, “I make all things new.”

Invited Home ― Funeral Homily for Kathleen Zwiefelhofer, 82

August 12, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

In my priesthood, I have visited many dying people and heard many stories told by family members about them. In this, I have found patterns among Christians dying. For instance, as I have spoken about before, the dying person may or may not know they are in their final week of life, yet he or she is often blessed to have “a last good day.” A happy day shared with loved ones or enjoying a dearly-loved activity is gifted to them by God, from whom all good things come.

Another providential pattern I often see when visiting the dying is how people come to for the Anointing of the Sick. Though wavering in consciousness when I call their names and they open their eyes and they realize a priest has come to share God’s grace. When I came Kathleen’s side in the emergency room to give her the sacrament for those in danger of death, I called her name and she opened her eyes, and knowingly received this consolation from God. Kathleen’s journey from this life features two more elements dying Christians commonly experience. The first was her desire “to go home.”

As we grow old, our bodies are beset with infirmities. This reminds us that all of us must “appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what [we] did in the body, whether good or evil.” Our physical frailty helps to detach us from this world so that we are open to something greater. Our weakness leads us pray like the psalm: “Put an end to my affliction and my suffering; and take all my sins away. … To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.”

Throughout this year, burdened in her mind and body, Kathleen has expressed a desire “to go home.” She said this while still living at home, in the house she grew up in, next-door to St. Paul’s Church. So what “home” did she mean? Kathleen, in faith, was expressing her longing for heaven. St. Paul writes, “We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven. [And so] we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.

The second detail from Kathleen’s story which I have encountered before in others is visions of visitors. Kathleen’s parents, George and Catherine, and her husband, Leon, each died many years ago. Yet Kathleen reported being in dialogue with them. She said they discussed with her whether or not it was “time for her to go.” We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, by saints and angels who desire us to dwell with them in God’s holy city, the new and heavenly Jerusalem. They pray for us and help us. On the morning before Kathleen was taken to the hospital, she had another vision. She extended her palm before her saying, “He’s right here. He’s right here,” though she did not clarify whom.

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Jesus is the reason we are here. He is why Kathleen did not fear to die. And he is the cause we have for hope in unending life and a greater home. Let us pray for Kathleen’s soul, entrusting her to our loving Lord.

Patterns in Christian Dying — Funeral Homily for Ione Seibel, 84

June 6, 2022

By Fr. Victor Feltes

As a priest, I encounter many people in their dying days. And though every life is different, I have noticed often-repeated patterns. Three of these gracious elements are seen in Ione’s story.

Something I often find is the phenomenon of “a last good day.” The dying persons may or may not know they are in their final week of life, yet they are blessed to have a last good day. Sometimes they love being outside, and there’s a rare day in their final week when they feel well enough to go on a walk or do gardening. Sometimes it’s the day of a family reunion, where they delight to see their family and to say goodbye. Ione, despite her Alzheimer’s condition, had a last good day the Wednesday of her final week. Vernie, her husband of nearly 65 years, who was visiting her at her nursing home with a pair of their daughters, says Ione was “grinning, smiling, shining.” He and the staff described it as Ione’s “best day in two years.”

Jesus also had a good day before he died. When he took his place at table for the Last Supper he told his friends, the apostles, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it again until there is fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.” Such blessings are bestowed upon us in this life as signs to us of God’s goodness before we enter into the next life.

A second phenomenon I often see is an alertness for the anointing of the sick and last rites. Vernie let me know Ione was dying and I was soon able to visit her on Saturday. When I arrived, he and their children were gathered around her. Now the sacrament of anointing is like the sacrament of baptism in that a receptive person may receive this sacrament even in an unconscious state. Some babies, for instance, sleep through their baptism yet receive the graces of baptism nonetheless. Her family tells me Ione had been unresponsive, but when I greeted her, as I told her who I was and why I had come, she opened her eyes at me. Ione’s family was struck by this but it’s something I commonly see—a providential alertness to receive this sacrament. The Lord often wills for his beloved to consciously experience this gift.

Jesus himself was anointed upon his head with precious perfumed oil in his final days and said, “She has done a good thing for me. … She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.” He was consoled and strengthened by this gift of love, and Jesus desires to console and strengthen us as we enter into his Passion and death.

A third thing I commonly encounter in my ministry is the bittersweetness of a beautiful death. Suffering and death are painful signs of this world’s brokenness from sin. Yet the circumstances which accompany many Christians’ passings are poetic signs to us that death is not our end. As we heard in our gospel reading, on the first Good Friday, a darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. Then our Lord breathed his last, near those who loved him most. The centurion who beheld how Jesus breathed his last said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” And the curtain in the Temple, which veiled its holiest place, was torn in two from top to bottom, from heaven down to earth.

Ione died on a Sunday, Christ’s day of Resurrection. And she died during Easter, the season of Jesus’ victory over death. Like him, she breathed her last in the afternoon’s third hour. And Ione passed away from us on the Feast Day of Jesus’ Ascension, when he passed through the veil from this world into heaven.

A Christian is never truly alone because the Lord Jesus is always with us through life and death. He makes our life story a part of his story, and makes our story like his own. Today is a day of grieving and joy, because we can see this truth anew in the life and death of Jesus’ servant and sister and friend, Ione.

Why Did Jesus Go?

May 29, 2022

The Ascension
By Fr. Victor Feltes

This week, our Catholic school celebrated our eighth graders’ graduation with a Mass and an awards ceremony. Afterwards, while the graduates were having their pictures taken, a teacher and I stood off to the side, looking on. He remarked, “It’s sad to see them go.” I replied, “Yeah, but it would be even sadder if they stayed.

Just whimsically imagine remaining an eighth grader well into your twenties. You don’t have a full-time job because you’re a full-time student without a high school degree. Of course you’re unmarried and have no kids—you’re still in middle school! And sure, after a decade of eighth grade, having had the same lessons over and over, you could ace all of your homework and tests (if you still had any motivation left to do so) but you would not be learning very much. It is bittersweet to see our graduates go forth from us, but it is better that they go. Though in one sense they are leaving us, they are not really gone. Yet this departure is necessary for them to reach their full human maturity and to fulfill God’s plans for their glory.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ bodily ascension into Heaven. The traditional day for celebrating the Ascension is forty days after Easter, which was last Thursday, or “Ascension Thursday.” Our diocese, like most dioceses in our country, transfers this celebration to this Sunday. I guess we like keeping Jesus around longer. But seriously, the ascension of Jesus into heaven raises this question: “Why did he go? Why didn’t Jesus stay?

Now Jesus does tell us, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name I am there in their midst.” He says, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.” And he is truly present for us in the Holy Eucharist. But Jesus’ presence now remains invisible or veiled to our eyes. By bodily ascending and disappearing into the clouds Jesus is visibly departing from us until he comes again with a glory manifested to all. “But I tell you the truth,” he says, “it is better for you that I go.” Why is this better? What would it be like if Jesus dwelt among us throughout the centuries like he did with his disciples those forty days, walking with them and talking with them, following his Resurrection?

There is no physical reason why Jesus could not have done this. His risen body is a glorified body no longer subject to injury or death, so that’s not the reason he did not remain. Did he go because on earth he’s reduced to being in one particular place, or limited in how much he can see, know, or do? Remember, Jesus is not merely human but divine, all-knowing and all-powerful, and his bi-locating saints (such as Venerable Mary of Ágreda or St. Padre Pio) who have manifested the miracle of being more than one place at once surely do not possess any supernatural ability which Jesus lacks.

So God the Father could have chosen “by his own authority” for his Son to remain visibly active here with us, in one, or thousands, or millions of locations at once, throughout the centuries up to our day. Jesus could be the pastor in every parish, the teacher in every classroom, the doctor in every hospital, and the leader in every country. He is the perfect priest, the best teacher, the greatest healer, and the rightful ruler of all. Who is better-qualified than Jesus to do any of these things? Nobody. People would demand this of him and resent him for not doing it. But if Jesus were visibly present and doing everything, then we would be left doing very little.

Would it be a better world if Jesus personally did everything? In some ways, yes. Earth would be closer to paradise in many respects. But would this lead to more souls being saved? I’m not so sure. Adam and Eve lived in an earthly paradise, too, before they fell. And the glory of Christ being manifested to the world in an undeniable way might gain peoples’ submission, but not necessarily their conversion or love. The demons who fell had no doubts about God’s existence and yet they chose to disobey him as far as they were able.

If Jesus did everything of importance on earth without us, one result which seems evident to me is that we would remain in an unending adolescence, like someone attending the eighth grade well into their adulthood. This is why it was better for us that Jesus ascended. We are children of God called to what St. Paul calls “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” If everything which matters were just Jesus’ job to handle, how would we grow from our immaturity into the full maturity of Christ?

Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the (Holy Spirit) will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” By the Holy Spirit, the Church (which is Christ’s Body) is animated in this world. As members of his body we are moved by the Holy Spirit to love and to work united with Christ, growing more into his likeness and glory along the way. Would Jesus not ascending into heaven, remaining constantly here on earth and doing everything without us, have been easier than this present Christian life of ours? Perhaps, but Jesus desires that we would graduate with him to higher things and ascend to a greater glory with himself.

Who is the Fig Tree? Three Interpretations

March 19, 2022

3rd Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Victor Feltes

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall dig around around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”

The fig tree in Jesus’ parable was fruitless for three years and in danger of being chopped down. Who does this fig tree represent? The prophets Jeremiah and Hosea likened Old Covenant Israel to a fig tree, and the early Church Fathers commonly identified the barrenness of the parable’s fig tree with Israel’s refusal to accept their Messiah. Israel experienced three years of Christ’s public ministry and had still another season of opportunity to become fruitful by embracing Christ’s Church thereafter. But Jerusalem, its Temple, and all its towers were cut down, put to the sword and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.. Parables, however, can have more than one valid and inspired interpretation. Beyond symbolizing an era of history now passed, what meaning does the barren fig tree hold for us today?

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns the Christians at Corinth against presumption. The Hebrews during the Exodus all shared in a baptism with Moses when they passed through the Red Sea. In the desert, they all ate bread from heaven and drank a miraculously-given drink on their journey. “Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.” St. Paul says “these things happened as examples for us… as a warning to us,” lest we who are baptized into Christ and regularly consuming his Holy Eucharist think we do not need to reject all grave sins. Do not grumble or rebel like the Hebrews in the desert. Stop following your desires for evil things, or you will perish as they did. Instead, repent and follow our good and loving Lord. He will help and guide you to his Promised Land.

A fig tree may be lush with leaves, giving off a splendid appearance, and yet be barren within. A Christian may appear complete to others, and yet have a sickly soul. To help the barren fig tree, the gardener in our parable pleads to dig around it and add fertilizer. This describes root pruning and the application of manure. Root pruning as a method to make fig trees more fruitful is still recommended today. One article suggests this technique: at the end of winter before new growth begins, go about two feet away from the tree trunk and plunge a spade or shovel down, severing the roots. Skip over one shovel’s-width to the side and then repeat this pattern in a circle once around the tree. Cutting off some of its roots spurs the fig tree to divert its energies from growing foliage to creating fruit. The manure, for its part, provides nutrients (especially nitrogen) which plants require and benefit from. So, if you are a barren fig tree, Jesus the Gardener wishes to radically sever your connections to vices and distractions, in order to productively redirect your energies. He wants to introduce you to stuff which you may now find repellant (including regular confession and daily prayer) but which you need and will benefit from. You do not know how many seasons you have left. Jesus offers you this opportunity to change and become fruitful. Please let Christ the Gardener work with you.

But what if you already follow Christ closely and are aware of no grave sins? What if you have mature self-knowledge, a well-formed conscience, and cannot detect any mortal sins in yourself? Then praise God for that, and consider how our Lord wishes to glorify you through still greater fruitfulness. In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, God commanded his people not to eat from any tree they planted in Israel throughout its first three growing years. In the fourth year, all of the tree’s fruit was to be dedicated to God as an offering of praise to the Lord. Only in the fifth year, and any years after that, could they eat its fruit. (Leviticus 19:23-25) So how would God dedicate your fruit as an offering to himself and grant you a greater enjoyment of his blessings ever after? A third interpretation of today’s parable suggests how.

Jesus’ parable begins: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard…” (Our New American Bible translates that line’s last word as “orchard” but the Greek word St. Luke uses means “vineyard.”) A vineyard is for growing grapevines. This raises a question I found answered online: why would someone plant a fig tree in a vineyard? A “consulting viticulturist” from New Zealand who has worked fifty years in the vineyard and wine industry says some vineyards plant fig trees because “in some regions figs ripen at about the same time as grapes – birds seem to prefer pecking figs [and] so leave the grapes alone (more-or-less).” Another online commenter, a “cook for over sixty years,” adds that “some vineyards have a problem with small birds who peck at the grapes looking for the seeds and causing the grapes to rot. One solution is to plant fig trees around the vineyard. The birds prefer the figs because they have more seeds and the seeds are more accessible, they then leave the grapes alone.”

The reason a fig tree is planted by a vineyard is to offer up its fruits as a sacrifice for the good of the vineyard, to the delight of the vineyard owner. Who or what is this vineyard in the parable? Jesus teaches, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” and tells his Church, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (In another parable, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus identifies a vineyard as “the Kingdom of God.”) So the fig tree is called to self-sacrifice for the good of God’s vineyard, which is the Church, the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God. But what does this look like?

In the midst of the French Revolution, a community of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne felt moved to make an offering themselves to God as a sacrifice for their troubled nation and the Catholic Church in France. Almost two years later, after the state had closed and seized all the convents and outlawed the wearing of habits, the sisters were found, arrested, and condemned to death. On July 17th, 1794, sixteen chanting nuns ascended the scaffold one-by-one and were guillotined before a silenced crowd. Ten days after the Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne’s sacrifice the evil “Reign of Terror” ended.

More recently, Fr. John Hollowell, a diocesan priest about my age of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, was diagnosed in February of 2020 as having a brain tumor. Though grave news, Fr. John saw in his illness an answer to his own prayer. He wrote on his blog at the time, “When the scandals of 2018 broke out, most of you know that they [] affected me deeply, as they have most of the Church. I prayed in 2018 that if there was some suffering I could undertake on behalf of all the victims, some cross I could carry, I would welcome that. I feel like this is that cross, and I embrace it willingly.” Following surgery and treatment, he continues serving today as a pastor in Indiana.

Now it’s natural to hesitate at making such a self-offering. Who wants to suffer – to have our roots cut or be surrounded by dung? Even Jesus prayed before his own self-sacrifice, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” Yet Jesus loved his Father and loved us, trusting that whatever his Father willed would be best for us all. The hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Was not this most-difficult thing the greatest thing that Jesus did? Jesus tells us, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

In its first years, a fig tree grows only for itself. A fig tree typically begins bearing fruit when it is three to five years old. So after three years of barrenness, it remains unknown whether the fourth year will witness the tree producing pleasing fruits. Jesus now offers you an opportunity to be fruitful and be glorified like himself. Please love and trust him enough to offer him your fruitful sacrifice.

Why They Rejected Christ

January 29, 2022

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

When Jesus preached at Nazareth near the start of his public ministry, his own hometown neighbors rose up, filled with fury against him. They drove him out of their village intending to toss him head first off a cliff. Later, near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, one his own twelve apostles, after spending years in his close company, chose to betray Jesus to his enemies. And sometimes in our present day, lifelong Christians experience painful events and give up on their commitment to Christ. Why did Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth reject him? Why did his apostle, Judas Iscariot, betray him? And why do Christians sometimes abandon him in hard times? All of these expected our Lord to do certain things for them but were disappointed. In each case, Jesus failed to do for them what they desired.

Part of the problem at Nazareth was that Jesus was too familiar to them. He grew up there as a little kid playing in their streets, he worked locally as a carpenter’s son, and he quietly attended their small-town synagogue for years. So when they heard him preaching they asked, “Where did this man get all this?” How could this guy be someone foretold of in the Scriptures? As Jesus acknowledges, “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.”

They wanted him to prove he was somebody special by working miracles before them. A sick doctor should be able to apply his talents for his own recovery and prove he is a real doctor; so the Nazoreans would say to Jesus, “Physician, cure yourself! Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” But God’s prophet does not owe them miracles. Jesus notes that neither Elijah nor Elisha, two of the Old Testament’s greatest prophets, worked miracles for Israel’s individual widows or lepers, respectively. St. Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus did not perform many mighty deeds in Nazareth, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. Their lack of faith and lack of openness seems to have limited the gifts of God they could receive. So Jesus failed to match their expectations, and they took great offense at him.

Why did Judas Iscariot betray our Lord for thirty silver pieces? St. John tells us in his gospel that Judas “was a thief and held [Jesus and the apostles’] moneybag and used to steal the contributions.” Those thirty coins represented thirty days’ wages back then, something akin to $3,000 today. Was Judas so greedy for that relatively-modest amount of money that he couldn’t resist? When Judas saw that Jesus had been condemned to death he felt deep regret at what he had done. He tried to return the money to the high priest and elders saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” He wishes to undo his deed, but the Jewish leaders brush him off: “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Judas goes away in despair and foolishly kills himself. If Judas did not wish for Jesus to die, then why did he sell him out? It seems that this apostle was disappointed by Jesus’ public ministry.

Most Jews expected the Messiah to come as a warrior-king like David. They imagined the Christ would drive out their pagan overlords, conquer Jerusalem, and lead an earthly kingdom of vast power, prestige, privilege, and wealth. But Jesus was not pursuing that popular dream. He devoted his efforts instead to teaching and healing the lowly and poor. When, after feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, Jesus perceived “they were going to come and carry him off to make him king,” he firmly sent that crowd away and withdrew up the mountain alone. Judas had run out of patience waiting for Jesus’ Kingdom to come. Maybe Judas had given up on Jesus, and took that money to start a new life without him. Or maybe he hoped that Jesus—with his back to the wall—would finally wield his mighty, miraculous power to claim his royal throne, with Judas at his side. Either way, Judas’ disappointed expectations led this disciple to betray Jesus Christ and lose everything.

In our own day, some Christians leave the Lord Jesus after following him for decades. Oftentimes, this happens after a painful tragedy: a terrible diagnosis, a failed marriage, a Church scandal, a child’s tragic death. It is not the Christian life they had envisioned. They likely asked God for a particular miracle but it was not given. I know a man from a previous parish who attends Mass with his wife every Sunday, but he stopped receiving Holy Communion many years ago after their teenage daughter died in a car crash. I know of another long-time Catholic who reportedly became embittered at losing his good health and refused a Catholic funeral. How should a follower of Jesus Christ respond to life’s profound and painful trials?

On the first Good Friday, when Jesus died on the Cross, the Gospel of St. Luke tells us “all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events.” St. John’s Gospel highlights that the Blessed Virgin Mary was there at the Cross of Christ along with his beloved disciple. What did they feel like amid that horror? What miracles did they plead for that day? Their prayers to heaven seemed to go unheard. The next day, in shock and grieving on Holy Saturday, they may have questioned in their hearts, “Where was God? How could he let this happen? Does he not care? Where is his faithfulness to his faithful ones? How could this be part of a loving plan?” But the next day, on Easter Sunday, they witnessed the joyful resurrection Jesus had promised, and God’s loving, mysterious purposes became clearer.

Jesus told his disciples and says to us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus does not promise us a life exactly as we would plan it for ourselves. Not every prayer for a miracle will be granted exactly as we would imagine. But remember, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ will come for his faithful ones.

The Cup Jesus Drank

October 17, 2021

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus asking for a favor: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus says to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink…?” They respond, “We can!” Jesus answers them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink… but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.

Jesus told James and John, “You do not know what you are asking,” but how well do we understand what Jesus is saying here? What was the cup that Jesus would drink? How would Jesus be enthroned in glory? And who got those places at his right and his left? The answers are found in the gospel accounts of the Passion.

Jesus, the night before he died, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” And again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Earlier that same evening, at the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. … Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” So when is the next time we see Jesus drink “the fruit of the vine”? All four gospels record that Jesus was given wine on his Cross. In his suffering, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Someone soaked a sponge in a vessel filled with sour wine and put it up to his mouth. Once Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished,” and then he died.

Alongside the cross of Jesus a pair of guilty criminals were also crucified; one on his right and the other on his left. Both of them had mocked Jesus at first, but then one of them repented. Acknowledging Christ’s innocence and lordship, he asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

So what is the cup which Jesus drank? His cup is a cup of suffering. When and where was Jesus first enthroned in the kingdom of God? He is enthroned in glory upon his Cross. And who received the places at his right and left? Those places close to Jesus went first to two crucified criminals. Indeed, James and John in today’s gospel did not know what they were asking. Yet these apostles would go on to be glorified through their own shares in Christ’s sufferings: including martyrdom for St. James and exile for St. John “the Beloved Disciple.”

Many people struggle to reconcile the reality of suffering with the power and love of God. Some Christians even mistakenly preach a “Prosperity Gospel,” saying that if you believe in God and love him, he will bless you so that bad things never happen to you. But this view is incomplete. There are true blessings which flow from following Jesus Christ and his Gospel, but the worldview of the “Prosperity Gospel” sets believers up for a fall. When painful hardship or tragedy eventually come, those Christians will either blame themselves for not having had enough faith or blame God for seeming to fail them. This latter group wonders, “If God is not dependable, why should I keep faith in him?” And then, feeling wounded, confused, and abandoned, they abandon God.

We do not completely understand the mystery of evils in our world; why a devastating earthquake happens to some particular city, why a particular healthy adult gets cancer, or why a particular young person perishes in a car wreck. We do know that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, that his plans see farther than our sight. And we know that God, who is the highest good, would not permit evils to exist unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil. In Jesus Christ we see that God intimately knows and deeply cares about all the things we suffer. So what is the Lord up to?

It’s no coincidence that all four gospels mention how Jesus is crucified between two criminals, one on his right and the other on his left, with one who repents and one who appears not to repent. All of humanity is similarly suffering as a result of our original or personal sin. We too begin as guilty rebels condemned. But on the Cross, Jesus Christ the Son of God, though divine and innocent, joins us in our suffering.

The Letter to the Hebrews observes that in him “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way…” This divine plan for Christ to be a suffering servant was foretold through the Prophet Isaiah centuries before: “If he gives his life as an offering for sin… the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him. …Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.

This Good Shepherd intimately understands the sufferings of the flock. He comes down from his high mountain into our dark valley and calls us to himself. We can respond to him with faith, acknowledging his goodness and lordship as sheep on his right. Or we can remain as faithless goats on his left, unrepentant for our sins and rejecting Christ forever. Realize that Jesus Christ desires not merely to forgive our sins, but that you and I would become children of God the Father just like himself.

Why do evils and sufferings continue to afflict those who follow Christ? As I said before, we do not know the answer to every painful question. (I believe we will understand God’s plan and purposes far better in heaven when he ‘wipes away every tear from our eyes.’) But we do know that Jesus Christ wants us to share in his own greatness and glory.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tries to help his disciples see that the path to true greatness and glory are not what they imagine. “Those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles,” Jesus notes, “lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In our loving service and in our faithful suffering, we become more like Jesus. With Jesus, our sacrifices and sufferings are redemptive, helping to make us saints while helping to save the world. This is the precious, challenging, saving cup our Lord offers us. But can we drink it? With the grace and love of Jesus Christ strengthening us, we can!

The Beginning of the New Creation

April 5, 2021

Easter Vigil

Empty Tomb Sunrise

On Holy Thursday, I spoke about Jesus as the New Passover Lamb who calls us to his feast. On Good Friday, I preached about Jesus as the New Adam who begins a marriage covenant with us, the Church, his bride. Tonight, we celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead, the beginning of the New Creation. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he created everything from absolutely nothing and yet he created everything according to a logic, a reason, a Logos, a wisdom, a Word.

“The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
[And] all things came to be through him…”
according to a plan.

This divine plan was not merely to create a vast, material universe of stars, planets, moons and comets in reflection of God’s glory, but also to create (at least on one planet) many living things as well. Plants and trees were added to the dry land. Swimming creatures were added to the sea. Winged birds were added to the sky. and cattle, creeping things, and of all kinds wild animals were added across the earth. But God’s the ultimate living creation would be “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake”:

God created man in his image;
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them, saying:
“Be fertile and multiply;
fill the earth and subdue it.”

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” And then, the Book of Genesis says, “on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, [so] he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.” But it would be a short rest. Because of human sins and the Fall of Creation, there would be much more work for God to do.

This work is the story of Salvation History reflected throughout tonight’s Old Testament readings: words and deeds across places and times to reconnect with our human race, to reclaim, redeem, and restore us. These many works of God culminated in Jesus Christ. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He lives as the New Adam who passes the test. He dies as the New Passover Lamb who sets us free. Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath Day of Rest. And on Holy Saturday, the seventh day of the week, Jesus perfectly fulfills the law, his lifeless body resting in the tomb. When the Sabbath was over, on Easter Sunday (which is the first day of the week again, or what Early Christians called the eighth day) Jesus begins the New Creation in himself, by his Resurrection.

As proclaimed in our Easter Gospel, the tomb was emptied. “Do not be amazed!” an angel told the women there, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him.” Not merely had Jesus’ spirit been raised, but his physical body too. Were it otherwise, when he appeared to his disciples on Easter, his dead body would still be in the tomb. The risen Jesus visits them in the Upper Room and says, “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” He shows them his hands, his feet, and his side because these still bear the wounds he suffered during his Passion. It seems his many other cuts and bruises are healed and gone, but Jesus retains these wounds without pain as trophies of his triumph.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” He is the plan revealed, the pattern of what is to come, both for those in Christ and for our universe. For death is not the end of us and the Last Day is not the end of the world. The dead will live again and the universe will be glorified into “a new heavens and a new earth.” As St. Paul wrote:

“Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God […] in hope because creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for […] the redemption of our bodies.”

In our lives we now struggle against evil and sin. This broken world causes painful wounds in us. But the glorious wounds which remain in the risen Savior’s body reveal something beautiful: that with Christ all our trials and sufferings will be weaved into the tapestry, into the New Creation, he is now fashioning. “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, the old order [will have] passed away.” In light of Jesus, St. Paul can say, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” The beginnings of that glory are revealed to us tonight, in the Easter resurrection of our Lord. “Behold,” Christ says, “I make all things new.

Wisdom for the Discouraged

February 7, 2021

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In our first reading, we hear the deep discouragement of Job:

“Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
…I have been assigned months of misery…
…My days… they come to an end without hope.
…I shall not see happiness again.”

If you are familiar with Job’s story you know he says these words during a very dark time in his life. Though innocent, he is in the midst of an extended trial, with emotional suffering, physical pain, loss, and loneliness. His words, like all the words of Scripture, are offered for our benefit — thanks be to God. And indeed, the Book of Job has lessons to teach us in our hard times.

One thing we learn from Job is that we can be real and honest with God. By the end of the book, Job is shown that God’s vast creations, plans, and purposes are beyond Job’s comprehension, for “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; to his wisdom there is no limit,” yet the Lord does not condemn Job for his questioning. In fact, God has Job intercede on behalf of his friends who had argued Job’s sufferings must be on account of his own sins. God has Job pray for them that they may be forgiven their error. The number of plaintive psalms that God inspired and made sure were included in Sacred Scripture suggests that he wants us to bring our complaints to him. The very name of God’s people “Israel” means “He who wrestles with God,” and you cannot wrestle with someone without drawing close to them.

The Lord wants us to be honest with him because that is the real us and the kind of relating that will actually help us. If you wear a disguise in God’s presence, it won’t fool him and it won’t help you. In spiritually directing others and in studying myself, I have noticed that when we are avoiding times of prayer or finding our prayer times very dry, it is often because we are avoiding relating something to the Lord. There’s something we don’t want to look at or talk about with him. Imagine if you had a good doctor, indeed the very best doctor – would it be wise to find excuses to miss your appointments or lie to your physician about how you were feeling? Reveal your wounds and symptoms to the Divine Physician that you may be healed. As today’s psalm says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Today’s gospel tells us, “Rising very early before dawn, [Jesus] left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” If making time for daily personal prayer was a top priority for Jesus, how much more important must it be for us?

A second thing we learn from Job is that God is with us in our struggle and that the struggle is worth it. Though Job did not understand why he suffered, God was never far from him. God was proud of Job and praised him, “There is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil,” and through his trials and sufferings God made him greater still. Other Christians sometimes ask why we have crucifixes on our walls rather than a bare cross. “Christ is risen,” they remind us, “so why depict him as still suffering on the Cross?” In his post-Ascension appearance to one of the Church’s early persecutors, Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When asked by Saul, “Who are you, sir?” the reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” If you are a suffering member of Christ’s body then know that you do not suffer alone. This Saul is better known to us as St. Paul. When St. Ananias hesitated to visit him and heal his blindness, the Lord insisted, “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” St. Paul writes in today’s second reading that his life’s mission, the preaching of the gospel, was an obligation imposed upon him. He could either see this as a hard burden to grumble over, or as an opportunity to rejoice in, and thereby gain reward. St. Paul knew God’s purpose for his life and embraced it to great benefit.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Austrian-Jewish doctor who was deported to a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. After his liberation, Frankl wrote about what he observed and discovered about human nature during that terrible ordeal in his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl says, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” He says, “Nothing is [more] likely to help a person overcome or endure troubles than the consciousness of having a task [a purpose] in life.” So many people, believing that our existence in this universe is an accident and disbelieving that life has any objective purpose, grope through life striving to generate their own meaning and purpose. But you know you are not here by accident. “[The Lord] tells the number of the stars; he calls each by name.” Each one is in their place according to his purpose and so are you. Who made you? God made you. Why did God make you? He made you to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in the next. But even Christians sometimes wonder, “Does what I’m doing really matter? Is my life important? Are my struggles really worth it?” They think to themselves, “If I wasn’t here, I’d be replaced by someone else.” Perhaps, but that’s not the right way to frame your thought. What if you disappeared from your home, your job, your community, and no one came to fill your void? Consider all the good things that would go undone. That is your contribution to our world and those around you. And God has eternal purposes for you that extend beyond this life and world.

A third and final thing we learn from Job is that things are not so hopeless as they may seem and there are better things to come. The way that we happen to feel in any particular moment does not necessarily reflect reality. One afternoon when I was a seminarian, I was in my dorm room and had homework to do, but I was fed up with it, I had no motivation, and decided to give up and to go to bed. When I woke up three hours later, the world was transformed, brighter. I was happier, eager to work, and even the view outside my window seemed better. Of course, it wasn’t the world that changed but me. I was exhausted and I didn’t know it and this was coloring my perceptions. You are an union of body and spirit. You need sleep, and food, and personal connection. Self-care is important, so love yourself as well as your neighbor. If someone is diabetic, we do not tell them to just buckle down and change their attitude. They need insulin to be healthy. Sometimes people suffer chemical imbalances in their brains, often hereditary in origin, which burden their experience of life. We live in an age of wonders with remarkable medicines and we should be unashamed to seek help. As the 38th chapter of Sirach teaches: “Make friends with the doctor, for he is essential to you; God has also established him in his profession. From God the doctor has wisdom… Through which the doctor eases pain, and the druggist prepares his medicines.” Sirach explains that a good doctor is one of God’s instruments in doing his work on earth.

The story of Job shows us things are not so hopeless as they may seem – there are better things to come. We heard Job’s lament, “I shall not see happiness again,” but he was mistaken. Job’s lot got better. Much better. God restored the prosperity of Job and even gave him twice as much as he had before. Then all of his brothers and sisters came to him, and all his former acquaintances, and they dined with him in his house. They consoled him and comforted him and gave him gifts. Job would see his children, his grandchildren, and even his great-grandchildren in fullness of years. Thus the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his former ones. But what if the remaining years of my life do not get better? What if each new year becomes harder than the last? What if I have a stroke, or a heart attack, or terminal cancer and I am dead in six months? How can better times still be waiting for me? Are you not promised Heaven where you will experience the restoration, fellowship, and consoling joys Job knew? Then, in the end, as St. Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

So remember that you can be completely real and honest with God, he invites this. Remember that the Lord is with you in your struggles and that these struggles are worth it. And remember that things are not so hopeless as they may seem, for with Jesus Christ there are surely better things to come.

Jesus or Barabbas?

November 23, 2020

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

For the feast of Passover, the Governor Pontius Pilate observed a tradition of releasing to the crowds any one prisoner they wished. On Good Friday, in addition to holding Jesus of Nazareth, the Romans in Jerusalem had a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. When the crowd came forward and began to ask Pilate to do for them as he was accustomed the governor dryly asked, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Pilate asked, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they only shouted the louder, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd lest they riot, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.

This episode with Jesus and Barabbas is recounted each Palm Sunday and Good Friday when the Passion narratives are read at church. However, the Gospels’ Passion accounts are so lengthy and rich with themes to consider that the crowds’ choice between these two figures is rarely ever preached on. Today, I would like to show you the deeper significance in this rejection of Christ the King.

The first interesting detail is in the meaning of these two men’s names. “Jesus” was the name given through angelic messages to Mary and Joseph, a name chosen in Heaven for the Son of God on earth. “Jesus” or “Yeshuah” in Hebrew means “God saves.” The name Barabbas breaks down into the Aramaic words “Bar” and “Abba”; “Bar” means “the son of,” while “Abba” means “father.” And thus, the name Barabbas means “the son of the father.” So Pilate is proposing a question to the crowd more profound than they realize: “Which son of the father do you choose? Do you desire God’s salvation?

The New Testament tells us that Barabbas was a Jewish revolutionary who, along with other captured rebels, had committed murder in a rebellion against Roman rule. The Jews commonly hated the Romans and resented the occupation of their Promised Land by a foreign, Gentile power. Jews expected that the Christ, the Messiah, if he were to come in Jesus’ day, would drive out the Romans and their puppets using the force of arms. Then they imagined that this man, God’s Anointed One, would take his seat upon his ancestor King David’s throne, establishing a renewed Israeli kingdom of worldly glory, with international power, military strength, and overflowing wealth. So when Jesus came among them they failed to recognize him as the Christ.

Unlike Barabbas, Jesus did not promote hatred for the Romans but a love for enemies. Jesus did not raise an army nor a sword, but preached “blessed are the peacemakers.” On Palm Sunday, Jesus does not enter Jerusalem riding on a warhorse, but on a donkey, as the Old Testament prophet Zechariah had foretold: “Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on a donkey.” But when presented with Jesus and Barabbas, the people rejected their true King and Savior, the Christ. St. Peter would go on to preach to the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.” The choice between Barabbas and Jesus is a choice between two sorts of saviors, two very different kinds of revolutionaries and kings; one whom the earth thinks would be most effective and the one whom Heaven has sent us. The Christ and an anti-Christ.

It was within Jesus’ power to have forcibly imposed his rule over the whole world. At Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter is ready to fight—he draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But Jesus intervenes, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way? Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” Jesus then heals to slave’s ear before he is led away by the guards.

Like a gentle lamb silently led to slaughter, Jesus endures his Passion and death. And who would have thought any more of him? But God raised him from the dead and he appeared to his disciples, who then courageously proclaimed to everyone that Jesus is the Christ. The Jews and Romans persecuted the early Christians. Though peaceful and innocent, Christians suffered indignities, imprisonments, and martyrdoms, yet the number of those saved by the Church continued to grow. Then, in 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and ten years later gave it the most favored religious status throughout the Roman Empire. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land … Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” Indeed, Jesus Christ and his Church succeeded where Barabbas failed: they conquered the Roman Empire not by destroying it but by converting it.

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. Jesus the Almighty now reigns over us and over the whole world. But this knowledge, upon reflection, can raise troubling questions in our hearts. When we see the horrors of this world, grave evils throughout history and evil happening in our time, we may ask, “Lord, why aren’t you doing more?” Every year in our country, hundreds of thousands of unborn children are being legally murdered. Right now, millions of people in Asia are being held in concentration camps. How many billions of grave sins are being committed every day which cause innocents to suffer? Lord, why don’t you end this evil? Why don’t you force the world to bow down to your will?

We may wish Jesus and others to go violently into full Barabbas-mode against all the world’s evil, but this is not his way. Christ’s goal is the salvation of souls, as many souls as possible. Jesus the Good Shepherd shepherds the world subtly but in every place, speaking to the souls of both his friends and sinners, drawing them freely toward his salvation. But what about the grievous sufferings and injustices along the way? Jesus is not at all indifferent to these. Our loving shepherd is the best of shepherds because he has been a sheep like us, a lamb who was slain. He endured such sufferings and injustices personally as the lamb of God, and he still mystically suffers in and with the innocent. “Amen, I say to you, what you did [or did] not do for one of these least ones, you did [or did] not do for me.

The evil of this world is a heart-breaking scandal. But sin and death do not have the final word. The last word will belong to Jesus Christ. Trust in the crucified One, our suffering God who died and rose for us, the Shepherd of souls, the victorious Lamb, Christ our King. May his Kingdom come and his will be more fully done, on earth as it is in Heaven, in each and every soul.