The Look of Love

by Orlando Hernandez

This Tuesday’s Gospel (Lk 19: 1-10) tells the wonderful story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus is passing by Jericho on His way to Jerusalem, and He is winding His way through the crowds that have come to see Him. Now, Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector (probably a crook, scorned by his neighbors), was “seeking to see who Jesus was.” He is a short man and cannot see over the other people…

“So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When He reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he came down quickly and received Him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

It seems that all that Zacchaeus had wanted was to get a glimpse of the much-talked-about prophet. Or was he really longing for something more? He got to see Jesus, but he never really expected Jesus to look BACK at him ! And call him by name ! Zacchaeus certainly got a lot more than he had bargained for. Now he has to entertain Jesus at his home, give away half of his
ill-earned fortune, and make retribution for his life. That was some look that Christ must have given him!
This is a great story of “metanoia”, life-change, conversion, in the powerful presence of Jesus. I am always especially touched by this Gospel, not only because I am a “shorty” like Zacchaeus, but also because I had what I believe was a supernatural experience similar to his.

I might have written a little about the story of my conversion ten years ago. Back then I had little faith, but deep inside I wanted so much to believe in a loving God. One of the things that kept me going in life was the love of my wife and family, particularly my son, his wife, and my four grandchildren. They gave me so much joy that I would tag along with them to Sunday Mass just to hold the kids, or see them crawl around under the pews. I was also intrigued by the faith that I saw in my son, his wife, and the people there. I just did not share it with them. I wished I did.

Finally, my son tricked me. He invited my wife and I to be Godparents for our beloved fourth grandchild. We were thrilled, but he told us , “You are going to have to prove you’re Catholics. You can only qualify to be ‘sponsors’ if you can get a letter from your local parish stating that you go to mass every Sunday. It’s the only way!”
I don’t know how it happened, but we found ourselves sitting in front of a Pastor, getting the weekly envelopes and promising to go to mass. We asked him if we could receive the Host, like everyone else, but he told us that we first had to go through RCIA, receive Confirmation, and get married by the Church. It was a long process, and I was not too happy about it, but O.K.. All I wanted was that little letter in a few months before my lovely granddaughter’s baptism.
We started going to Church, and I was especially intrigued by the Readings and by the homilies. Who exactly was this Jesus that they were all so crazy about? I bought a little Bible and read all four Gospels, and I liked the Guy. Was He real? I was especially intrigued by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I watched respectfully week after week.
Then one blessed, luminous day, something miraculous happened to me. When the priest lifted up that round, bright Host, I was unexpectedly struck by the power of God. I believed. All the fullness of God seemed to be emanating from that shining Host, and there, like Zacchaeus behind the crowd, near the back of the church, I felt the Light of God focusing on me! It was like looking at the sun. I could not look at that brightness. I felt such shame and unworthiness. I had to close my eyes, but even then I could see Him, Jesus. He was looking right at me. I felt the message: “You are mine. I want you. I will never let you go!”

And He never has. It has been a long road, with much learning and growth, with ups and downs, but I know He has been always at my side, a guest in my house. Last night I was watching a religious TV show where the host, a priest, was answering questions about spiritual dryness, moments of desolation, even doubt. He gave this wonderful advice: Sit calmly and remember that moment of great consolation when you felt the Presence of God in your life, when your faith was on fire. Remember it fondly, taste it, re-live it. It can help you to see that He is still right there, in love with you.
I have always wanted to quote my own version of the Humphrey Bogart line from Casablanca. Whether on top of a high tree, or down in the lowest dumps, just remember: “He’s looking at you, kid!”

The Last Days

Our weekday readings at Mass for the 33rd and 34th weeks,, the final weeks  of the church year, are from the Book of Revelation, which describes the last days when God fulfills his promise of a kingdom. The Gospel readings for these weekdays are from Luke 17-21, also about the coming of God’s kingdom.

The author of the Book of Revelation is John, who writes from the prison island of Patmos to the churches of Asia Minor. In strong, imaginative and often violent images, John pictures the final triumph of Christ after a decisive battle between Christ and his followers and Satan and those who follow him. For John, Satan’s kingdom is Rome, the new Babylon. He tells the churches of Asia Minor to be alert. The battle is enjoined and the kingdom is coming soon.

John is invited to behold God’s glory in heaven’s court, portrayed resplendent with gems and other traditional symbols expressing God’s majesty. This is where God wants us to be. A great assembly praises God “who created all things” and the triumphant Christ, the Lamb who was slain and reveals the plan of God:

“Worthy are you, O Lord, to receive the scroll
and break open its seals,
for you were slain and by your Blood you purchased for God
those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests for our God,
and they will reign on earth.” (Revelation 12,10-12)

John borrows from Jewish apocalyptic writings before him, Daniel, Ezechiel and others, and he writes to give hope to a people in crisis, suffering like him. Commentators say he is possibly a disciple of John, the apostle, whom tradition associates with the church in Asia Minor, and they date the book to the time of a Roman persecution under the Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96).

Other commentators question whether the book responds to a persecution under Domitian, which they claim has been exaggerated. Instead, they see Revelation directed against Christians throughout Asia Minor who have become too much at home in Roman society, following the approach laid out in the Pastoral Epistles of Paul. To John, the churches of Asia Minor have lost their zeal for the gospel and he warns them about their increasing mediocrity. (cf. Revelation, Wilfrid J. Harrington, OP, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1993)

The writer of Revelation is not concerned with a comfortable life here on earth. Christ is not just an earthly companion seeing us through the day; he calls us to a life beyond this.

“‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
then I will enter his house and dine with him,
and he with me. I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne,
as I myself first won the victory.
and sit with my Father on his throne.” ( Revelation 3, 14)

The best commentators on scripture are the scriptures themselves, St. Augustine taught, and so as we read from the Book of Revelation these last days we should also hear Jesus in Luke’s gospel. He kept calling sinners as he made his way to Jerusalem, even as he died on the cross. He never told Zachaeus the publican to give up his job. He warned against burying your talent in the ground while the Master’s not here. He also said not to search into the time and the day the Son of Man will come. Keep your eye on the daily cross that’s yours.

But Jesus also told us he’s coming again.

33rd Week of the Year: b

Dn 12:1-3/Heb 10:11-14, 18/Mk 13:24-32 (158)

19 Monday
Rv 1:1-4; 2:1-5/Lk 18:35-43 (497)

20 Tuesday
Rv 3:1-6, 14-22/Lk 19:1-10 (498)

21 Wednesday The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Rv 4:1-11/Lk 19:11-28 (499) 41

22 Thursday Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr
[USA: Thanksgiving Day]
Rv 5:1-10/Lk 19:41-44 (500) or, for Thanksgiving Day, any readings from the Lectionary

23 Friday
[Saint Clement I, Pope and Martyr; Saint Columban, Abbot; USA: Blessed Miguel Agustín Pro, Priest and Martyr]
Rv 10:8-11/Lk 19:45-48 (501)

24 Saturday Saint Andrew Dũng-Lạc, Priest, and Companions, Martyrs
Rv 11:4-12/Lk 20:27-40 (502)

How Do You Begin Your Day?

The New York Times the other day had a piece about beginning your day. Is it important how you begin the day? How do successful people begin their day? Those interviewed said it was important. Some get up early and make a little time for themselves; some get some reading done before they get to work and other things; some jot down what they want to take care of in the day ahead; some practice “mindfulness.” No one mentioned praying.

Those suggestions help, but shouldn’t prayer be on that list too? I’m not sure what “mindfulness”is. It seems to mean getting your thoughts together, breathing in and breathing out, gathering strength and attention for the day. Reach into yourself.

Instead of reaching into yourself, prayer reaches out to God, who is much stronger than we are and stands ready to help.

Our own spiritual tradition says that daily prayer is important and points to the beginning of the day and the end of the day, morning and evening. as the best times to approach God in prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours, the church’s official prayer, says those hours are the principal hours for praying.

Jesus prayed in the morning and evening, the scriptures say. He prayed at other times too, but in the morning and evening he prayed the prayers his people prayed, the psalms. He knew them by heart and prayed them each day.

We prayed those same prayers this morning in our chapel and we’ll pray them this evening at vespers, evening prayer. Before I lifted a finger this morning, I heard these words as I entered my day:
“He has strengthened the bars of your gates,
He has blessed the children within you.
He established peace on your borders,
He feeds you with the finest wheat.” ( Psalm 147, Friday Morning IV )

And this evening as the night comes, the symbol of sleep and death:

“The eyes of all creatures look to you
and you give them their food in due time.
You open wide your hand,
grant the desires of all who live.” (Psalm 145, Friday Evening IV)

God’s hand is opened wide to receive us and to give.

I wish more were aware of the treasure we have in our morning and evening prayers–the Liturgy of the Hours. The Second Vatican Council wanted the prayer of the church to be extended to all its people but its efforts only got so far, I’m afraid. Still more to go.


Paul Imprisoned. Rembrandt

The letter to Philemon, read in today’s Mass, is quite different than Paul’s other letters. For one, Paul is asking a favor and this is a bit unusual because he has always protested as to how independent he was and how he supported himself by the labor of his own hands.

And Paul also begins this letter in a different way. He usually says Paul an Apostle…but not here. Here is says, Paul, a prisoner of Christ. He is not appealing to Philemon with the authority of an apostle, but rather appealing to sympathy and to love alone.

Philemon must have been a very remarkable man in that he had opened his house to the early Church and helped not only Paul but myriads of fellow Christians…”You have brought me much joy and encouragement because, my brother, the hearts of God’s people have been refreshed by you.”

Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. He surely knew and liked Paul when he was visiting at Philemon’s house. For whatever reason, something provoked him and he ran from Philemon’s house and sought out Paul and stayed with him for a while. Paul knows that Onesimus was wrong in running away and as much as he would have loved to keep him at his side he knew that he had to be returned. And so Paul appeals to Philemon’s Christ like heart, not to someone who might be wealthy or scholarly or even prayerful, but to one who can be generous to all in spite of circumstances.

Paul sends Onesimus back reluctantly because he has become very fond of him. Sending him back is like sending a piece of his own heart. Paul in doing so, is making it clear that Christianity is not trying to help people escape from their past. Rather, it is about helping people face their past and rise above it.

So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. Paul is insisting that Christians must always welcome back those who have made a mistake. Easier said than done. Isn’t it true that when someone has taken a wrong turn we are never prepared to trust them again in the same way? We believe that God can forgive them but we ourselves might not be able to do the same as fully as God does. One of the greatest things about Jesus is that he trusts us on the very field of our defeat. To be another Christ is to learn to do the same.

Mother Cabrini

Mulberry Street, New York City, ca.1900

From 1880 to 1920 more than 4 million Italian immigrants came to the United States, mostly from rural southern Italy. Many were poor peasants escaping the chaotic political situation and widespread poverty of a recently united Italian peninsula.

Almost all the new immigrants came through Ellis Island; many settled in the crowded tenements of the New York region, where men found work in the subways, canals and buildings of the growing city. The women often worked in the sweatshops that multiplied in New York at the time. Almost half of the 146 workers killed as fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, were Italian women.

Over time, the Italian immigrants moved elsewhere and became a prominent part of American society, but at first large numbers suffered from the over-crowding, harsh conditions, discrimination and cultural shock they met in cities like New York. Many returned to Italy with stories of the contradictions and injustices lurking in “the American dream.”

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini (1850-19170), founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an order of women missionaries , came to America in 1889 at the urging of Pope Leo XIII to serve the underserved poor. Her work is succinctly described on the website of the Cabrini Mission Foundation.

“She proceeded to found schools, orphanages, hospitals and social services institutions to serve the needs of immigrants in the United States and other parts of the world. Despite poor health and frailty, Mother Cabrini crossed the ocean 25 times during 29 years of missionary work, and with her sisters founded 67 institutions in nine countries on three continents – one for each year of her life.

Mother Cabrini was a collaborator from the start of her missionary activity. She was a woman of her time, yet beyond her time. Her message – “all things are possible with God” – is as alive today as it was 110 years ago. Mother Cabrini lived and worked among the people, poor and rich alike, using whatever means were provided to support her works. She was a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others. In recognition of her extraordinary service to immigrants, Mother Cabrini was canonized in 1946 as the “first American saint,” and was officially declared the Universal Patroness of Immigrants by the Vatican in 1950.”

Be good to have leaders like her today in the church, as well as in society, wouldn’t it? “… a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others.”

Her feastday is November 13th. “Mother Cabrini, pray for us.”