For today’s homily, please play the video below:
At Easter we celebrate the flowering of the cross. Artists did this with the fruitful cross in the great apse of San Clemente in Rome brimming with life. (above) Preachers like Theodore the Studite do it; here’s his sermon below.
“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return.
“This was the tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the Lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in his hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death, but now a tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree.
“What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle exclaim: Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!”
by Howard Hain
To all men it may concern (definitely including me):
Complaining is not strength.
It is actually quite unbecoming, to say the least.
In fact, it can easily become extremely boring.
And when it spills forth from the mouths of men who are appointed to lead, it manages to take on a whole new level of tediousness.
It becomes outright pathetic.
Of course, I am not talking about having private conversations with friends or colleagues, the kind of back and forth that can often strengthen and give great consolation. No, that falls under fellowship, under spiritual friendship. In those situations, practicing vulnerability and allowing oneself to be seen as truly struggling is actually a sign of strength.
What I am referring to are those too-often times when “leaders” openly and repeatedly complain in front of the very people they are chosen to lead and inspire—in front of the very people they are chosen to protect, guide, and encourage. Or to put it in more spiritual and pastoral terms—in terms of the “Good Shepherd” if you will—instead of feeding their sheep a sense of hope, a sense of security, and a sense of peace, the shepherds themselves cultivate and offer their flocks an atmosphere of worldly concern, a stream of ongoing despair, and a diet of downright near hysteria.
It is so embarrassing.
And the scope is broad, for appointed “leadership” comes in many forms: public officials, all kinds of employers, managers, politicians, coaches, pastors, administrators, teachers, and most certainly, and perhaps most significantly, every married man and father in the world.
God have mercy on us.
Forgive us our many failures.
Especially for us Catholic Christians, called to imitate in a special manner the Crucified Christ.
And this isn’t simply a matter of ever-changing public opinion. No, it’s a matter of being inherent in the very idea of leadership itself.
Shepherds lead, sheep follow.
Think about it, when was the last time you saw an artwork depicting a small group of little lambs carrying a full-grown living breathing Jesus?
Needless to say, never.
And in terms of practical and applied philosophy, let us then keep this significant and relative reality in mind: When it comes to real and everyday concerns, chances are that the most grueling day for most of us modern men is only as difficult as the normal, run-of-the-mill, daily employment of a mother of three—not to mention if that mother is also working full-time, single, in an abusive relationship, and/or barely speaks English—then it’s no contest—and in our current “ever-progressive” society, these conditions unfortunately too often apply.
So, if this not-so-gentle “correction” applies to you (as it most certainly applies to me) know that many are praying for us, many feel for us, many love us, many even need us, but we need to do our part:
Act like a man.
For sake of Christ.
Let us pray:
Lord God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, we give you praise. Help us Father, help all men, all those called by You to lead. Help us to follow the only True Man, Your Only Begotten Son, Christ Jesus—our Lord and our God, and living Innocence itself. May we follow Him and Him alone, so we may be properly equipped—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—to lead those You have entrusted to our care. Make us strong and patient, courageous and persevering. Let us learn through the example of Saint Joseph the true meaning of humility, obedience, and selfless sacrificial service. Teach us to cherish silence and value greatly the grace of a truly developed interior life. Inspire us to love our wives and children with sincerity and integrity and profound gratitude. And when need be, Heavenly Father, show us how to be truly decisive, how to act with boldness in defending Your truth, and how to be utterly fearless in helping rescue those crushed by injustice and hypocrisy.
In all matters may we always do Your will and act on Your behalf—with minds made spotless, hearts made pure, and bodies kept chaste.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, in the perfect unity of the Holy Spirit, for Your endless glory.
Our reading at Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 7-21) brings us to a critical moment in the life of the early church– the Council of Jerusalem, which decided whether and on what terms gentiles would be accepted into the new Christian movement. Its decision to admit the gentiles led to a rapid expansion of the church as non-Jews from all parts of the Roman world became Christians.
Luke Timothy Johnson has a fine commentary on this crucial event. (Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1992)
Did a meeting really take place? Johnson writes “we can state with considerable confidence that in the first decades of the Christian movement an important meeting was held concerning the legitimacy and basis of the Gentile mission; that participants included Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas; that certain agreements were reached which, in one way or another, secured the basic freedom of the Gentile initiative. The most striking agreement between the sources comes, in fact, at the religious level. With only very slight variation, both Luke and Paul agree that the basis of the mission to the Gentiles was a matter of God’s gift, (Acts15,11. Gal 2,9) and that God was equally at work in the Apostle Paul as he was in the Apostle Peter. (Acts 15,7-8.12; Gal 2,8)
Notice the hesitancy of the original Jewish followers of Jesus to accept gentiles into their ranks. That’s evident in Peter’s strong reluctance to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius as he visits believers of his own kind around Joppa. Not only are the disciples slow to recognize their Risen Lord, they’re slow to accept his plans for expanding their ranks. Peter must see signs of God at work in Cornelius before baptizing him and his household. Paul, James and Barnabas also must see God’s gifts in the outsiders they meet before they recognize that God is calling them to believe.
God sows seeds of faith, but we’re as slow to recognize the action of God in others and other situations as the first disciples were. We have trouble seeing God’s action in the stranger and in the unexpected. We need enlightenment.
Johnson notes that the Church’s journey through time is marked by conflict and debate. We must accept those conditions today too. Those who follow Jesus will not always agree with each other; there are strong opinions and differences among believers.
One thing I would add. Besides conflict and debate, our reading today speaks of the “silence” that comes as they debate. We’re in the presence of our transcendent God, whose ways and thoughts are above ours. We need silence to discern God’s will. Debates can get in the way.
by Howard Hain
In the form of bread.
Our tongues like cribs.
You come to rest.
A sacred place.
A mother watches.
A father can hardly believe.
Greatness simply conceived.
Yes let us be.
Help us not to speak.
No words can be.
No thoughts except those that flee.
Hold our tongues.
Into quiet place.
Let us wait.
Till hear You cry.
A hungry child.
Tucked in for night.
A drop of milk.
In reality blood.
In the form of wine.
The angels sing.
Heaven down to earth.
Saints to and fro.
The sick are healed.
The blind can see.
The lonely find friends.
They finally reach home.
How could it be?
The One nailed to the tree.
Within my mouth.
And at my right hand.
And to the left.
And straight ahead.
Yes, there too!
In that hopeless situation.
We thought all was lost.
But, no, it’s Him.
He really does care.
And He calls us over.
Silence changes forms.
It’s again time to speak.
What else can we do?
The Eternal One.
The Son of Man.
The Conqueror of Strife.
Let us smile at one another.
Let us speak life.
This Wednesday’s Gospel (Jn 15: 1-8) continues recounting Jesus’ farewell discourse from the night of the Last Supper:
Jesus said to His disciples : ” I am the true vine, 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. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. ”
Our Lord promises us that we can always be connected to Him, like branches to the main stem of the vine. Last weekend, as I watched the constant rain, I had this beautiful Gospel on my mind. I thought about how all this falling water is unable to directly benefit the growing leaves of spring unless it passes through the roots and the trunks of the trees into the branches, bringing life and nourishment to these leaves, flowers, and fruits.
In the same manner, it seems to me that true happiness and meaning in life cannot be absorbed from the world or the culture around us, but only by going to the true source of life, our Lord, ” the true vine “. The sap with which He strengthens us is His Love, His very blood, His life- force,which was shed on the cross and we receive with the Eucharist. I agree with what He says : ” Whoever remains in me and I in him, will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. ”
What are these fruits that we are to bear? I have often wondered. I mentioned true happiness and meaning in life. How is that achieved ? First of all by remaining in the Lord, as He says, surrendering to Him, joining Him intimately in prayer, receiving His holiness, becoming like Him. But fruit is something that the plant gives to others. In last Sunday’s mass at my parish, the intercessory prayer asked for us to be able, by our acts of self-giving and service, to bring the message of Christ to the world, to be disciples. Perhaps this is the fruit we are to share.
Father Ignacio Larrañaga one of my favorite spiritual writers says that this message of Jesus is that we have a divine Father, who cares for us as His beloved children. Therefore, we are all brothers and sisters, and we had better behave like it!
I asked my wife Berta about this and she said that the fruits are actually more and more people discovering Jesus through us. How? By our example of lives lived in peace, joy, selflessness, faith, hope, and love. Quite an intoxicating brew, like Canaa- wedding wine, straight from the true vine!
But our Lord points out that with these wonderful gifts comes pruning ( Ouch ! ) . Our beloved Father comes with clippers and reduces us to stubs. Is it so that we don’t get too proud? Henri Nouwen, reflecting on this pruning image indicates that pain and sorrow come to our lives sooner or later. We get cut down to size, and our need for God explodes. This is how we grow in holiness. Blessed are the poor in spirit!
Sister Maria Grace, C.P., in her foreword to “The Autobiography of Saint Gemma Galgani”, writes : ” Life is a series of losses , as little by little we are emptied of those things that we cling to . Our usual way of handling such losses is to simply endure the pain with a bit of self-pity. Gemma’s message is : Give them freely, with love ; don’t let them be taken from you.” When I talked about this to Fr Francisco Murray, another Passionist, he shook his head indignantly and exclaimed, ” Our loving Father would NEVER intentionally send us pain and suffering.” I must admit that this pruning issue is just a mystery that I don’t fully understand.
When I was visiting Spain, my host pointed out the vineyards of La Mancha on a cold, windy March day. The vines had been cut down so they looked like stunted stumps, barely alive. He said that this is done so that in May the new branches will make the best grapes, from which Valdepeña Wine ( one of my favorites) is made. That day, I also thought of this Gospel, and of the Passion of my Lord, Jesus, the true vine, cut down and disfigured like that, in order that the best fruit might follow. And He certainly is my number one guide and example.
Must I then be constantly wishing for all types of suffering in order to become the best Christian? Perhaps not. Our Lord says : ” You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.” Reading and praying with Scripture, listening to God in prayer, this too can in a way prune us of our pride and self-reliance. For the ” word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword , penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart ( Heb : 4, 12)”. Ouch, again!
Dear Lord, being your disciple can be very exciting and delightful, but also more than a little scary. Please, Beloved, I beg You, don’t let me be disconnected from you and become dry and withered, fruitless and loveless. Let me follow You always, for without You I ” can do nothing” that is worthwhile.
by Howard Hain
I hear, ironically mostly among clergy, that the spiritual classic “The Imitation of Christ” is no longer really relevant—that it is too hard, too negative, too oppressive—written for a time when plagues and famines and wars were rampant, when men hardly lived to what we now call “middle age.” But most of all, perhaps, I am told through cute smirks and smug expressions that it is a book not for our “age”, that it no longer applies to our advanced “civilization”, that it no longer rings true in the triumphant “West”.
I ask: Are we free of plagues, free of war, free of famine?
Are not our priests and religious sisters dying off rapidly? Are not babies systematically massacred inside their mothers’ womb? Are not children starving for their fathers to marry their mothers, for there to be a man who actually lives in the same home?
Do we no longer thirst?
Or have we “moved passed” Christ’s inconvenient cry from the Cross?
It seems to me that Christ Himself put little value on living past “middle age”.
Perhaps imitating Him would not be such a barbaric idea.
Lord, have mercy on us.