Monday, August 19, 2013

The Mission and the Means

Heaven, according to Wikipedia
Readings for Sunday, August 18 / 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Psalm 40:2-4, 18
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53

What is our mission? Our purpose? Our goal? We all have one, whether we realize it or not. That something that all of our actions, thoughts, and words ultimately work to attain. What is it?

In the first reading from Jeremiah we hear about a group of princes whose goal was to keep the peace. The prophet Jeremiah came among them preaching God’s Word and it upset the people. Rather than good pleasant things he spoke of difficulties and trials, robbing them of their ultimate mission: earthly peace. The extent they went to keep that peace, ironically, was to kill the prophet of God. As I was praying with that I was struck by the reality of how we can implicitly make earthly peace our life’s goal. We all want peace - it’s written in our very hearts and we pray for it all throughout the Mass - but the reality is that the peace we long for is not an earthly peace, but a heavenly and eternal peace. Earthly peace isn’t bad and we must rejoice in it when we find it and pray for it often, but it is not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is heaven, eternity. That’s what Jesus reminds us of as He boldly says, “Do you think that I came to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Nice Jesus.
This harsh Jesus can seem to shock us a bit. We’re used to the nice Jesus. The meek little lamb, the infant born to Mary at Christmas, the Jesus who loves us, accepts us, is merciful and kind, calling us to do the same. We’re used to the smiling Jesus in pictures with blonde highlights and a carefree attitude. We like that Jesus because He’s comfortable and comforting. But the truth is that ‘nice Jesus’ is the exact same person as the one who comes to bring about division and disrupt the peace. The meek lamb is also the powerful Lion of Judah. The merciful Lord is also the Just Judge. The God who is Love is also the God of wrath for the unrighteous. They are two sides of the same coin and that is something we must remember when following after Him. While He loves us endlessly and calls us to love others, He also sets the standards high and is not hesitant to hold us accountable to them. When we come to serve Christ, it is serious business. There are obligations and, of course, rewards.

Angry Jesus at the National Shrine
Let’s start with the rewards – we all like that part, right? The reward is that if we are faithful to the Lord He will be faithful to us and welcome us into eternal life. We can look forward to heaven, which will be greater than anything we can imagine – greater than anything we can conceive of, the scriptures tell us. But the key is being faithful to the Lord. Many Christians think that we just to ‘accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior’ and all is well, their ticket to heaven is secured, but it’s not. If I accept Jesus as my savior and then go off and fail to live in accord with His laws, then I will not be saved. We have to accept Him as Savior, yes, but even more important is living our lives according to what God wants of us. We have obligations.

The word ‘obligation’ in our modern culture can be something a bit repulsive. We are so set in this mindset of freedom being the ability to do what we want that we shrink back from obligations – ‘you’re taking away my freedom!’ is what we hear so often. The truth is that when we follow Jesus Christ, we are absolutely free, but the fact is that the way He sets before us is a narrow path and it is for us to choose to walk on it. We have the freedom to choose otherwise, but in exercising the freedom to do whatever we want we more often than not end up in slavery to sin; so much for freedom, huh?! That’s why the Lord sets the way before us and is so clear on right and wrong. He knows the path to Heaven and He wants us to walk on it, even to run on it! That’s what He means when He says to the disciples, “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wants us to be on fire with love for God and for His laws. He wants us to burn with love, to do things that are absurd in the eyes of the world because we are so enamored with Him that the world doesn’t matter to us anymore. Instead we are found wanting, not yet burning. Sure, some of us burn brightly and the more saintly among us show more clearly but by and large we are not yet burning. So He seeks to set us on fire because fire clears away the bad and purifies the good. He comes to purify us from our sins and to bring us to eternal life. You and I know that is extremely pain, and Christ knows it even more than we do, even though He never sinned.

After this speech of setting the earth on fire the Lord speaks of a mysterious baptism He must undergo and how great is his anguish until it is completed. That baptism was His death on the Cross, which was constantly before His eyes. Imagine going throughout your days with the knowledge in the back of your mind of your imminent death which include scourging, beatings, mockery, crucifixion, and abandonment by your loved ones. That’s what was in Christ’s mind each and every day as He walked with the disciples and yet he continue on, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us “for the sake of the joy that lay before Him.” It wasn’t necessarily His joy – He was God and could easily have passed on to heaven whenever He willed – but rather our joy. Our heavenly reward was only attained by His death and in attaining life for us, He too surely received some joy too. That journey, though, is what He calls us to today. We all have trials in this life that take away our peace. We have sins that we cling to, burdens that cling to us, and a number of other things going on around us that keep us from enjoying a peaceful life. Today the Lord call us to look past all of those things to the joy that awaits us in Heaven. Again – our goal is heavenly peace, not earthly peace. And so we must choose to rid ourselves of the burdens and sins that cling to us and hold us back from attaining greater heavenly treasures. As I was praying with this myself I began to reflect on how I, as a priest, still struggle to recognize just how serious my sins are. As I reflected on my own faults and the sins I cling to, the question came to mind ‘Are you so attached to these sins that you’re willing to go to hell for them?’ The obvious answer is ‘NO!’ but it is so hard to live that ‘no.’ Part of this is because we look at the whole picture and try to tackle all of our sins at once and when we do that we get overwhelmed and fail. The key is to pick one sin that plagues us most and pray for God’s grace there until it is resolved, then moving on to the next sin over and again.  How do we do this though? How to rid ourselves of sin? The Eucharist!

Each week we come to Mass and it is easy to miss the miracles that take place here week after week and the grace that is held out to us. Our eyes and ears hold us back from understanding the reality because we think we settle for the externals and miss the interior. What we celebrate on this altar is not a reenactment, like we would do a Christmas play or Living Stations of the Cross. What we celebrate on this altar is the actual sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, the actual Last Supper, the truth of the Resurrection of Christ. We have not the eyes to see these realities but they exist, the same as we cannot see the change in the bread and wine that make them the Body and Blood of Christ. After the Sacred Words of Consecration when the priest holds us the host and chalice, he does so for the faithful to adore for a moment but also as an offering to the Father, symbolically saying ‘Father we cannot save ourselves, our only hope is in the flesh and blood of Your Son that won our redemption! Mercy, Lord!’ And as we gaze upon the elevation Body and Blood it is as if another secret dialogue takes place wherein Christ speaks to each of us from the Cross saying ‘All of this for love of you.’ He thirsts to hear us reply the same ‘All of this for You, Lord’ as we commit ourselves to ridding ourselves of sin and carrying the Cross on the narrow path to heaven. If we do this and are willing to put it into action, the Lord will give us the grace. Let us not miss this opportunity today to begin anew the fight to walk the way before us. Christ came to set the earth on fire. Would that each and every single one of us were already blazing!