Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What does the Eucharist have to do with Christian persecution? Everything.

Just over a week ago, the Jewish community throughout the world observed Yom HaShoah, the day that commemorates and remembers the terrible experience of the Holocaust. The full name is really Yom HaZikaron la Shoah ve-laG'vurah, which is "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day". I realize that title, for most, is a factual statement of what happened during World War II to the Jewish people primarily, as well as to many others deemed "unfit" by the Nazi regime. When I see the Hebrew name, however, something calls out as more than just a date on the calendar to remember a horrific event. This word, zikaron, likely means nothing to most Christians, but it is at the center of our lives...especially now. As Divine Providence would have it, I wrote my master's thesis on the root word, zkr or zakar (once you add a couple of vowels) and its impact on community identity. Sounds boring, but hear me out. This word, zakar is more than just "memory"; it implies a lived experience of what is being remembered. For example, I sometimes need to remember my shopping list, and since I don't, I have to write it down. This is not the same as this idea of remembrance. Why? A shopping list is not an event, but rather, it's just some facts I need, so this would be more aptly described as recollection than remembering. It seems like splitting hairs, but if you look at the difference in the context of say, the Exodus, the difference is less splitting hairs than splitting the sun from the sky.

"You shall observe this rite as an eternal ordinance for you and for your sons forever."
Most of us know the Exodus story: the Israelites in Egypt had become slaves to Pharaoh, so God sends Moses to Pharaoh, "Let my people go," then the plagues, the Israelites leave, pass through the Red Sea, Pharaoh follows, and his armies are destroyed to show God's saving power and judgments against those who rebel against Him. Excellent. Now, there's that small issue between these last two of the Passover meal. This is actually no small matter. This meal is of incomparable importance to the Jewish people. Why? The answer lies in a simple phrase we've all heard, and some have even learned when the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) were studied, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." Note: I have not referenced the Scripture passage here, as I usually do, and with good reason. This phrasing appears not only in Exodus, but in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are all reasonable, you say, because they're during the time of Moses. Yes, but the same words are found again in 1 Kings 12:28, 2 Kings 17:36, Nehemiah 9:18, and Psalm 81:10. These were certainly later, yet, the phrasing is still the same, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." You. Did these people physically come out of Egypt? No, but this "remembrance" is not recollection; it is a living out of the original event, as though those who celebrate it are experiencing it at the original event. Why were they, as God's chosen people, allowed to suffer under the yoke of slavery? So that the power of God may be known:
And [Joshua] said to the people of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, 'What do these stones mean?' then you shall let your children know, 'Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.' For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty; that you may fear the LORD your God for ever" (Jos 4:21-24).

"Do this in remembrance of me"
So if I were to say to you, "This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19), do you now see what is meant here, when we say that the Eucharist we celebrate is a re-presentation of the Last Supper, as well as His Death and Resurrection? We are, in fact, present in the Upper Room and at the foot of the Cross. This sacrifice of Christ, which was at a particular moment in our linear time has eternal consequences for everyone because it was done "once for all", but this once was not only for all at that time, but also for we who are in the future, and for those who came before but had not seen the glory of the Messiah (Rom 6:10, Heb 7:27). Frankly, it seems like St. Paul is beating a dead horse, but it's that important. Christ's sacrifice is outside of linear time, available to all who cooperate with the Holy Spirit to accept the graces that flow from His side.

Unfortunately, many of today's Christians, and sadly, many Catholics among them, no longer believe in the Real Presence, no longer believe that Christ gives us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the forms of bread and wine. A 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public life found that only 55% of Catholics believe that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, leaving 41% believing that the bread and wine are only symbols, and 3% are not even aware of the Church's teaching. That's right, just over half of Catholics believe that we are receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. It's a startling revelation and a telling statistic of the effect modernism and Enlightenment and Reformation thought have had on members of the Church. This is not to say that there haven't been some benefits from these movements, though primarily in purifying the Church by forcing her to look at herself as she truly is, not as she thinks she is. Now, we must again note the signs of the times and address what may be purified within us, as the Body of Christ.

If the Exodus event is remembered in the Passover feast, what is it that is no longer remembered in the Eucharist? What is no longer remembered is sacrifice, suffering, true mercy. All too often, our society tends to forget that the Resurrection presumes the Cross. We run from suffering, shrink from difficulty, and can't even handle gray hair without a mid-life crisis....which we then have to ignore with attempts to recapture our youth. We just don't do suffering well, but there are others who suffer well today.
Photo by Mosa'ab Elshami/AP Images
Just as last week commemorated the Holocaust, the same week also brought yet another video of Christians suffering martyrdom by ISIS militants because they refused to renounce their own faith. Real suffering. Not only are Christians being martyred, but they are choosing to stand up and witness (Greek: mar-tu-RE-o, where we get "martyr") to their belief in Jesus Christ, and this is the very reason that we suffer, witness. The original Apostles and disciples of Jesus died in many dramatic and terrifying ways, from St. Stephen's stoning to St. Peter's upside-down crucifixion, but they were encouraged by the message to which they witnessed, "...[I]t is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain...For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine (Phil 1:10-21, 1:29-30).

Suffering Well for the Sake of the Kingdom
Suffering is not allowed for suffering's own sake. When we are baptized, we are united to Jesus Christ in His death, and we then rise with him to new life. His mission, as the Incarnate God, was not to simply heal and work miracles. He came to show the depth of God's love and mercy by reserving nothing, but giving His whole life for our sins, so that we may be made free. In our unity with Him, we are called to participate in that suffering, showing the world that real love and mercy are not found simply in being kind to one another. We are called, as Mother Teresa said, to "love until it hurts" because in loving those are are hard to love, it requires going all the way to the Cross...our cross, not theirs, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jhn 3:16). St. John is clear that Christ's death for us is a mercy that we can never return, except to offer ourselves as witnesses, that others would ask why we would suffer and even die for the Gospel, for the Eucharist, for Christ. Bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli has committed to this self-giving love in a heroic way, that he may give comfort to his people, but also to witness to militants the great love of Christ that wipes away fear and gives him the courage to remain, even though he faces death, "Being able to give testimony is a precious thing. I thank the Lord that he allows me to do so, even with martyrdom."

Many may have lost the sense of awe of the Real Presence, but many die for it and for us to know Christ, and many more Christians must suffer before the world asks, Why do you suffer and die for an ancient moral man, for a symbol? Our answer to the world must be, we suffer and die because He first died for us, and we will suffer and die that you too may know Him, not as He appears, but as He is truly the Eucharist. We must remember His sacrifice, not only with our minds and hearts, but also by our bodies and our strength, and by this and bearing witness, we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35-39). Suffer well for the conversion of the world, and we too will be more than conquerors.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?

That title sounds familiar, doesn't it? Where have I heard this before, you ask? I'll give you three guesses...and the first two don't count.

"My parents don't take me..."
The other day, I read a poignant article by Fr. Anthony Gerber from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, titled "What Children's Confessions Reveal..." In his article, Fr. Gerber noted the frequency of children confessing not attending Mass and their guilt and sorrow over not being able to experience what they longed for. Unfortunately, he found that, as children grew older and remained essentially estranged from Jesus in the Eucharist over longer periods of time, they became less concerned and affected by these sins and even others. He shares his sorrow and even righteous anger over these realities and even (in my opinion) rightly proposes their connection. He also cited the reasons these children, whether in Catholic schools or parish programs, cite for non-attendance, from sports activities to sleeping in, both of which were the same reasons I heard as a religious education teacher, but most common and most troubling was the reason, "My parents don't take me."

Fellow parents, how have we let it get this far? Why do we spend the time, money, and effort to make sure our children are baptized and receive First Holy Communion, only to have it be the last time they encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, sometimes for years, sometimes...forever. Did we not take seriously their baptism, when we promised to, "accept the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith" (from the Rite of Baptism)? The rite goes on to say that, "It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?"

Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?
Did you say "yes" to this? I did, and I didn't fully understand what I was undertaking. I was raised during a time when the Church was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, when the lay faithful and even a great many ordained and religious did not know what the Second Vatican Council actually said, and so did they know how to implement what they did not know. I assumed that, just as many of us experienced, this was more a requirement of being Catholic, an event to check off the list, but not really requiring anything dramatic of us...dramatic, like conversion, even a death event (I'll explain in a moment). But why is this "conversion" business even necessary? Isn't the grace received in the Sacraments enough? Not so much, and here's why:

Why Fight the Grace of God?
Grace is powerful, but our salvation requires that we cooperate with it. The details of justification, sanctification, and salvation are well beyond the scope of this discussion, so you can read more about them on a separate post here. Basically, faith requires something of us. It is not enough to attend Mass occasionally and show up to "get the Sacraments," never to return again. If we are baptized, we have actually died. Yep, as a doornail. Our "old man" has been crucified with Christ, but guess what that means? In Baptism, we rise with Christ. It's not the full-body resurrection we await at the end of time, but it's a pretty good start. So baptism is new life, yes, but this part is emphasized often to the point of minimizing the deathly nature of the Sacrament as well. St. Paul makes this pretty clear, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death" (Rom 6:3)? In fact, he goes on in even more specific language, "We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is free from sin. But if we have died in Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him (Rom 6:6-8). Note: many translations say, "our old self was crucified," but the Greek literally says "old man", a reference to Adam, the one man through whom sin entered the world (Rom 5:12). So, as I often say, why does this matter?

My fellow parents, when you and your children were baptized, you all sin, to your previous life, to the concerns of the world. Why? To be freed from the covenant that was struck with sin, to which we were bound, like marriage, until death. With the death of baptism, we now are freed from that relationship, open to enter into a new relationship, that is, freedom for life and holiness in Christ by the Grace He (not we) earned by the Cross. We have got to stop living our old sinful lives because Christ's death for us, and our acceptance of it in baptism, makes a claim on us and opens up so many opportunities to live freely for others...especially our children.

What Fr. Gerber's article tells us is what we already know, which is that the Sacraments are the source of our life in Christ, our relationship with the One God. If you were to marry your spouse and never speak again, never tell that person you love them, how long would that marriage last? Spoiler: not long. How many of you have friends who, prior to separating, have said, "It's been forever since we had (let's just call it "conjugal relations"). The fact is, that part of marriage is when a husband and wife become one, which is the same thing we experience in the Eucharist, you and I each become one with Christ, and by the nature of Christ being united to all of us who received, we all are united as one people, the Mystical Body of Christ- Communion! So in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (in the context of the Mass), we strengthen and renew our relationship with Christ and strengthen the unity of the Church in a world that so desperately needs a clear sign of sacrificial love.

Six Seconds Isn't Enough for a Good Vine
God has entrusted to us these children, these branches around our tables (Ps 128:3), and we are called to help them grow, like the vineyard owner in Mk 12:1. We know that Jesus tells this parable to convict the hearts of the Jewish leaders who had been taking advantage of the people and would kill the Son to control the vineyard, but all of Sacred Scripture applies to all people in all ages. We can know that the Master of the field has planted the vineyard, built a wall around it, and entrusted it to us. We are then responsible to Him for its care, but we also know that Jesus is the vine, His people, the branches, "He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do (in the Greek) ABSOLUTELY NOTHING" (Jhn 15:5). The converse is also true for those who do not immerse themselves frequently in the Grace of His Sacraments, which is the source of our life in Christ, "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (Jhn 15:6). If we don't cling to Jesus, we cannot be fruitful, which is our call, but more than that, neither can our children, and if we apply this to the parable of the talents, we know that, "[T]o the one who has (in this case, raised their children in Christ), more will be given; and he will have abundance, but from him who has not (failed to care for the spiritual lives of their children), even what he has will be taken away" (Mat 25:29). That is, if you don't bring your children to learn to love and desire Christ in His Sacramental gifts, you shouldn't be surprised when they leave the Church.

The Garden of the Church
The reality is, as Pope St. John Paul II said in his Message for the XXXI World Youth Day and Prayer for Vocations, the "garden" or "first seminary" of children, the "domestic church" at home is the please where, "the seeds of vocation, which God sows generously, are able to blossom and grow to full maturity" (Optatem totius, n. 2). We are called to educate our children first, both in faith and morals, as their first teachers, rather than leaving this responsibility to parochial and secular schools or religious education programs. These programs only serve to support parents in their vocation, not replace them, so I exhort and encourage my fellow parents to take this commission seriously because like the servant who hid his talent, failing to bring forth fruit from God's generous gift of our children will be dealt with appropriately. We want what is best for our children, and if we believe that a life lived deeply in Christ and His Church is best, so much so that we asked for the Sacrament of baptism of Christ's Church, then shouldn't we take the on-going care of our children's souls just as seriously?

There is little room for confusion on this, and no way to "get off on a technicality," so be a good steward, and bring your little ones to Mass, sharing with them in the Sacraments, teaching them to love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). This is your responsibility, and I assure you, even when they wiggle and wail during Mass, God is pleased...and as I tell people all the time, these children will drag you, kicking and screaming, to Heaven- yes, we parents kick and scream, while our children run to Jesus, for [we] will be lead by a child (Is 11:6).