Monday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 285

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they cried out in Lycaonian, "The gods have come down to us in human form." They called Barnabas "Zeus" and Paul Hermes," because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, for he together with the people intended to offer sacrifice.

Today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles recalls a comical moment when our boys were mistaken for gods. They had healed a man out of the goodness of their hearts -- a goodness which is one of our most ordinary characteristics -- but the Lycaonians were astounded. 
I was reminded recently of the strangeness our faith by a cartoon about reincarnation. The concept is so bizarre it should not be recognized by my spellcheck! But there it is. Why would anyone believe a religious doctrine that floats above and apart from all human experience? Why would people believe "The gods have come down to us in human form?" when another, more reasonable explanation is close at hand?
The Evangelists -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- went to great lengths to assure their Christian congregations that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus really occurred in our world and in our time. In recounting the story of Jesus' birth, Saint Matthew recalls the time and place: "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod...." 
Saint Luke gives us even more detail about the time: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 
Many of the readers and hearers of the Gospels would have remembered where they were and what they were doing when Caesar Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governor of Syria. Even by 21st century standards it was not that long ago. Other than some technological and philosophical changes, and despite twenty centuries of history, not much has changed! Death and taxes remain with us, as do war and the threat of war, hypocrisy, corruption, greed and indifference; fear, loathing and dread; kindness, courage, decency and compassion. We are still capable of wonder, and of misreading our wonder with banal explanations. 
The most extraordinary thing about Jesus, other than his beautiful humanity, was his resurrection. We would not believe it if we had not seen it. It really happened and the men and women with him saw it. To doubt it would be to doubt the credibility of our own brothers and sisters, who risked and often lost their lives when they gave their testimony. We still believe it because the Holy Spirit continues to gather people to the Gospel and to invest us with that joyful spirit of martyrdom. 
Tomorrow we'll hear the rest of the story: when the Lycaonians realized the disciples were not gods they stoned Saint Paul and left him for dead in the street. They were disappointed and upset that their old, superstitious beliefs could not explain the wonder they had seen. 
Paul shook it off and went on to the next town. Perhaps some other missionary in some other time will persuade these people to live in the real world with the One God who gave us his Only Begotten Son. 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Lectionary: 53

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.

This parable of the vine and branches beautifully describes the Christian life, and yet the threat of losing contact with Jesus is woven into it. These ominous remarks are like the dead branches themselves.
A casual glance at a grape vine as it drapes over a wire or twine network shows only a mass of large green leaves soaking up the sunshine. But, as you look into the vine, searching for clusters of grapes, you'll also see the dead branches. They disintegrate when you pull at them, breaking into pieces ready to be burned or discarded on a compost heap. The living branches resist your assault on the dead ones; they survive to bear more fruit.
The parable of the vine both promises and warns; a combination we often hear in the New Testament:
“The one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says this: “I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Revelation 3:1 “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Revelations 3:15
What are we to make of this weave of promises and threats? Is our God moody, irritable and arbitrary, as people often say of their "Old Testament God?" Does he sit in his heaven watching and waiting for an opportunity to punish us. Tennessee Williams, in The Night of the Iguana, said: "All your Western theologies, the whole mythology of them, are based on the concept of God as a senile delinquent."
I find in this Parable of the Vine a sharp reminder of the healthy tension in our human nature. We have been given our freedom, but it feels insecure. We live in time and eternity. I am always "one of us," and yet I am apart from others, responsible only for myself and yet responsible for the people to whom I belong. How does one answer Cain's sarcastic question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
How readily I assume I'm right with God and waste the opportunities for actual communion! I have my habits, attitudes and expectations; and like everyone else, I need my normal days. Without a great many consecutive normal days, I can't function at all.
But as I pay attention to the details and demands of my routines, I may ignore the presence of God's spirit, and the questioning, searching presence of others. They may say, "Here I am!" and I might not notice. The Lord may whisper, "Here's the right moment and here is what you must do!" and I am in some other time and place.
The Vine reminds us of that freedom which we often ignore. The Pentateuch recalls the endless grumbling of the Hebrew people as God led them out of Egypt into freedom. After hundreds of years of slavery, they hardly knew how to think for themselves. They expected God to feed them in the wilderness but they didn't even know how to ask; much less how to accept the blessings he gave them. They called one gift "manna" meaning, "What is it?" Because slaves owe no thanks to their masters, their Liberator had to spell out the precise details of their worship so that they could give appropriate thanks.
The challenge of these changing times is to be aware of the present opportunity, the past as it opened to this moment, and the future which I create with every act. No one can know everything he needs to know; no one can see all the consequences of every act, and yet we're responsible for them!
We must have the Holy Spirit to guide us. A lifetime of habits, centuries of tradition, a book of rules: these can help but we need God's immediate Presence, that Spirit which is cultivated through daily prayer and all the balances that make for a healthy life.
Endlessly we should thank God -- for the good and the bad, for the desirable and undesirable. Everything is gift. As Job said,
"We accept good things from the Lord, and should we not accept the bad. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
Therein lies Freedom.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 284

"If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Philip said to Jesus, "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."  
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. 

The VA, like many Americans, has been distressed by the suicides of Veterans. It is said that more Vietnam Veterans have died of suicide than died in the war. As a chaplain I should notify the suicide prevention committee if any patient or family member mentions suicide. We are urged to ask troubled persons, "Are you thinking of killing yourself?" 
But amid all that alarm there is no discussion of why suicide is wrong. Apparently many people suppose it is; and yet it has become socially acceptable. No church that I know of will hesitate to bury the suicide. There are no scornful remarks made in the news media about their foolish decision and unnecessary death. Suicide is regarded as something that happens to people, like falling in love. It's nobody's fault, but it should not happen. 
There are at least seven stories of suicide in the Bible. Oddly, none are condemned outright. The Christian abhorrence for self-slaughter developed somewhat later than the Bible, especially with the teaching of Saint Augustine. He invoked the pagan philosophers who regarded the suicide of a slave as stealing another's property. If the Christian is a servant of the Lord, as we often insist, then we are stewards of the Lord's property and cannot destroy it.
That may not be very helpful to the Veteran who has never known, or has abandoned faith in, the Lord. I am challenged by that reality as I visit the patients in the VA. If you don't know that you belong to the Lord, that he has bought you with the price of his blood, and that he loves and cherishes you as his own, you may not find a reason to live. 
Our reason to live begins with faith, and our faith begins with our Baptized, Eucharisted and Confirmed bond to Jesus. The Savior resolutely traveled to Jerusalem; the Gospels insist that he knew it was a one-way trip. He predicted his own passion and death well before he arrived there; and he rebuked Peter when the disciple quailed in horror at the prediction. 
But Jesus did not take his own life; he gave it. There is all the difference in the world. Time again we hear in the Scriptures of Jesus' intense love for his Father. "The Father and I are one!" he says; just as a husband and wife are one and you cannot know either one unless you know both. They belong to each other; the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. Children also belong to their parents and their parents, to their children. 
The suicide thinks he belongs only to himself. He feels and believes he has been abandoned by his Maker, if he ever had one. There is no lonelier feeling on earth, and none more inaccurate. The suicide doesn't know himself or his own worth; thinking only of himself he thinks trash
The VA, the nation and the Church struggle to reclaim living, healing, vibrant relationships with their own children. We have incarcerated too many; we have sent too many into unnecessary wars to support industries deeply invested in warfare; we have wasted too many lives with alcohol, drugs and abortion; we have disrespected the beauty and wholeness of too many persons of color. Suicide is the inevitable fruit of this culture of death. We should not blame the victims, but neither should we support this godless way of life. 
We must ask the Lord to send us that Spirit that willingly, eagerly gives his life and our lives for the salvation of the world. 

Friday of the Fourth Week of Easter

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

Today's gospel reading is the last of the recommended readings for "The Commendation of the Dying." Though it appears last, because it is placed just ahead of the Litany of the Saints, it might be the most recommended. I use it often when I read the Commendation to the dying Veteran and his family.
Hopefully, this advice comes at the end of a life of practiced faith. The Church might be saying to the dying person: "You have trusted God and his Son Jesus all your life, through many difficult passages. Trust him now as he takes you to himself."
Dying is the great mystery of our human life. Philosophers remind us we cannot really imagine being dead. We can imagine an afterlife; and it's fun to speculate about heaven as a lovely garden or a city of gold. But ordinary experience tells us we cannot actually foresee any future, much less a future resurrection. We should do the preliminary preparations for death: a will, life insurance, grave site, etc. It's good to recruit a power of attorney, complete an advanced directive and to scout out nursing homes, just in case. But we cannot plan to die; we can only plan to live.
So when we hear the gospel, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God and faith in me..." we hear advice on how to live and how to die. The urgency is immediate; putting it off till later is planning to die miserably.
I'm sure someone must have tallied the many times "Do not be afraid" and its variations appear in the Old and New Testaments. But no one could estimate how many times the church-going Christian hears it. A friend once reminded me of Mary's immediate response when the Angel Gabriel said, "Do not be afraid, Mary!" The Virgin replied, "Okay!" The young woman was already well-practiced in trust. She had a question, "How can this happen...?" but no hesitation: "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me...."
There are, as Hamlet observed, "a thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." We have ample opportunities to practice our faith as we go about our daily lives. Worrisome creatures that we are, we can always find something to fret about. We can easily make ourselves tiresome to friends and family with innumerable anxieties. And when they say, "Don't worry about it!" we pull the troubles even closer to our hearts!
Every time we make a sacrifice, do a generous act, overlook a slight, or go the extra mile we die to ourselves. It's good practice! We're told repeatedly, Do not be afraid to give more, trust more, believe more. We're preparing for the Final Exam and we know from experience, it's going to be a challenge.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Then he removed him and raised up David as their king; of him he testified, I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.
From this man's descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel; and as John was completing his course, he would say, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me....

In our first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul announced the Gospel to the Jewish synagogue in Antioch. This was an important moment for the Church as Antioch would  become a major Christian center, along with Jerusalem, Ephesus  and Rome. Missionaries would go out from there and return there, using the base to share their experience and insights and develop new strategies .
On this occasion, Saint Paul briefly reviewed the familiar history of Israel, from their sojourn in Egypt to the Baptism of John. If he were to speak of Jesus he first had to set the historical setting; to show how Jesus belongs in the story of Israel, and then to show how the Antiochenes would find their place in that historical moment.
I watch little more than the news on television but I notice ads about programs and there seems to be a fascination with time travel. Challenged to entertain the populace with fare that is attractive, innocuous and vaguely relevant, writers wonder, "What if a good guy could pursue bad guys through both time and space and bring them to justice?" If anyone raises questions of plausibility they can fall back on, "It's just an idea. Who knows what  the future might bring?"
But I raise the question of plausibility because, in stripping away that fascinating "what-if" I find myself trapped (wrapped or rapt) in this very narrow, very limited, singular moment of opportunity. I find myself facing the most basic moral question, "What am I to do now?"
To answer the question I have to know where am I, who am I and when am I; and part of the "when" is "What has gone before?"
Paul was in Antioch, in a synagogue, with a friendly, open group of Jews before him. They invited him to speak. What would he speak of but Jesus Christ, the son of David? His life had been profoundly changed when the story of Jesus caught up with his story. It was like the large waves in a lake overcoming smaller ripples. But these Antiochenes had not yet heard the word; the rewritten history of Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus had not yet arrived in Antioch. They must know that everything is "changed, changed utterly:  A terrible beauty is born."
They could deny Jesus if they chose, but in doing so they lost the opportunity, the moment. There would never be another moment like that one; there might not be another opportunity.
I feel that burden of the moment as I approach Veterans in the VA hospital. My mission is to the Catholics and I have a list of everyone with that identity. Most admit they are Catholic but some have ignored or forgotten it. Most welcome me and the Sacraments I offer: Anointing, Eucharist and Reconciliation. But some say, "Come back later." And some refuse. Often, when I return, they've been discharged.
It's not for me to judge and it doesn't matter if I do. There was a moment for that Veteran. It's passed. It's past. No time traveler can retrieve it.
Jesus has sent us to this time and place with the assurance of today's gospel:
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."
We are blessed with this moment, and we are sent as blessings. Let's not lose the opportunity.

Feast of Saint Mark, Evangelist

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

We know little of Saint Mark except for the document which bears his name. He appears in the Acts of the Apostles and Saint Peter's letter; but he would merit little notice for those passing mentions. When we celebrate Saint Mark with a solemnity we celebrate his gospel.
Catholic and  mainline Protestant scripture scholars generally agree that his was the first gospel. Many followed it, especially the canonical gospels Matthew, Luke and John. Others were written later but were not accepted into the canon. Those second century documents are fascinating to historians, especially to "History channel scholars," but mean nothing to the Church as a whole.
Saint Mark essentially invented the form of "gospel." The word formed through English usage from "God spell," meaning, "a good story." It is used to translate the Latin evangelium.
We can assume Mark was a well educated young man; raised in, and deeply familiar with, Jewish religion. He came to the Lord early in life and, as Saint Luke and Peter attest, knew many of Jesus' first disciples. More importantly, he knew the stories and their interpretations as Christian missionaries fanned out from Jerusalem throughout the known world, from India to Spain, from North Africa to Galacia and Gaul.
Finally he took pen in hand and wrote, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Because he begins his narrative with that beautiful word, it now means both the Good News that we celebrate and a particular literary form. Saint Mark arranged the stories into a plausible sequence. They begin with Jesus' origins in Galilee, proceed with his journey to Jerusalem, and conclude in his crucifixion. There is a theme to his stories, which is the gradual revelation of Jesus' identity to the disciples. The crowds and the authorities don't know what to make of Jesus, and he offers them little help. However, his inspired disciples see it, but not clearly until his crucifixion. In fact, it's the gentile centurion, witnessing his agonizing death, who makes the ultimate statement of faith, "Truly this was the Son of God."
The Gospel ends abruptly with the women's seeing a "young man" in the tomb who says,
"Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’”
But they, "...went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Many people scratch their heads over this sudden ending. The early Church was apparently dissatisfied with it, for Matthew, Luke and John give us several stories of Jesus' appearances, although they do not create a coherent narrative.
Perhaps Mark's unsaid conclusion is, "...and the rest is history." We use that expression when we would tell people about the prehistory of a person or event. In this case, everyone already knows the Good News that the Crucified and Risen Lord  heals, reconciles, redeems and reigns over us by the gift of his Holy Spirit.
Oddly, Saint Paul seemed to assume that's all you need to know. He never refers to any incidents in the life of Jesus except his Last Supper, Crucifixion and Resurrection. They are the essential stories, the foundation, of the Eucharist. Without that triduum the Mass would make no sense. If he knew Mark's stories of conflict, controversy and revelation he wasn't especially interested. All they really needed was the daily guidance of the Holy Spirit as they worshiped the Father and the Son.
Obviously the Church felt we needed more. Saint Mark was the first to set to work. He gathered stories of Jesus of Nazareth, and rewrote them with an eye to Jewish tradition and gentile needs. A marvelous story teller with a talent for detail and context, he sifted the inspired wheat from the historical chaff and described a human being who is both God and man, with the proper emphasis on both That is no mean feat! When Matthew and Luke began their writing they were standing on the shoulders of a giant!

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

"How long are you going to keep us in suspense?
If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."
Jesus answered them, "I told you and you do not believe.
The works I do in my Father's name testify to me.
But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep.
My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.

When I began to study the Gospel of Saint John, I heard a well-known Johannine scholar insist that Jesus could not speak more plainly of his authority. I wondered about that because it seemed that Jesus only claimed authority. He would not reason with his opponents. At least from my high school days, I was used to hearing teachers reason with me, and persuade me of their point of view. A child of the Enlightenment, I expected rationality, as opposed to authority.
The Enlightenment cultivates suspicion of authority. Just because a person is older, wealthier, better educated, higher ranked, or higher caste doesn't mean his opinions are right! He still has to persuade me. I'll believe it if it makes sense to me, if I agree with it.
Reason is supposed to govern human life. According to the Enlightenment, reason should prevail except when war, politics, money or dumb luck intervenes. Which is to say, not very often. The greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment did not hesitate to use whatever power they had, including the guillotine, to persuade others of their point of view.
Jesus, his opponents, his disciples and the Evangelist John lived many centuries before the Enlightenment. They would have laughed at the thought of worshiping Rationality; they lived in the real world and looked at it without that particularly skewed vision.
We, the faithful, accepting the Word of God, clearly see and understand that Jesus has enormous authority; we welcome his saving, healing, reconciling power. His opponents do not. They see the same evidence -- his "signs" -- and hear the same arguments but will not accept it.
Especially they overlook his love. He demonstrates his love first by his teaching and his healing, and finally by his death and resurrection. The faithful know it in his Presence; we apprehend it in the Real Presence of the Eucharist.
This is the choice we make. If the Gospel of John fails in any way, it may be in clarifying who makes the choice. As Jesus challenges his opponents he seems to write them off as children of Satan, " do not believe because you are not among my sheep!"
They might reply, "Whose fault is that? We weren't chosen!" But, in the context of the Pharisees in historical Jerusalem and the literary Gospel, they could not say it because they were the Chosen People, the Israelites. Within this text they insist, "Abraham is our father​!" They choose not to accept Jesus as their Lord and Messiah.
As I encounter Veterans struggling with alcoholism I have to remind them, "You choose to drink. No one makes you drink; no one can stop you from drinking. We can pray for you, we can argue with you; we can hide your booze; we cannot choose sobriety, sanity and serenity for you. When you decide to live soberly, you will." 
There are a million lesser choices we must make as we choose to live under the Lord's authority. We can accept it but he will never force it upon us. That too -- our freedom -- is a sure and certain sign of his love.; he cannot love us any less.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

"I was at prayer in the city of Joppa when in a trance I had a vision, something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered from the sky by its four corners, and it came to me. Looking intently into it, I observed and saw the four-legged animals of the earth, the wild beasts, the reptiles, and the birds of the sky. I also heard a voice say to me, 'Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.'

If Jesus spoke of his mission to gentiles before he was crucified, his disciples obviously missed it. They were eager to preach the Gospel "to the ends of the earth" but not necessarily to those who had no expectation of a Jewish messiah. The gospels give little indication of such a plan; in the Acts of the Apostles it suddenly appears as a major change of direction. The "end of the earth" meant everyone.
Americans face the same challenge today. Although America is a composite of many different nationalities drawn from five major continents -- Antarctica excepted -- nativists suppose their privilege should not be shared. But, like most valuable things, if freedom is not shared, it's worthless.
The early Church, with the superior guidance of the Holy Spirit, soon realized she could not hoard communion with Jesus. Our is not a mystery religion restricted to the elect. If we do not invite everyone to know the Lord, faith becomes as useless as a baseball in January.
But it took some hard persuading to bring Saint Peter around to that. In today's first reading we learn of the vision/audition which occurred once and was repeated twice before he knew the Lord was serious. He had never eaten gentile food; why would belief in Jesus change that? Does one's faith really have anything to say about one's diet? Isn't that like "a private matter?"
But Peter and his people were being sent to the whole world and for all time. They could not enjoy communion with many different nations if they refused to eat their food. Friendship, a necessary component of communion, means we eat together. It means we should not carry our own familiar foods to foreign places. Louisianans need not eat okra in Oregon; Minnesotans can forget about Tater Tots in Italy.
I knew a friar who found himself eating in a certain foreign village. The hostess very graciously and proudly placed a platter of meat in front of him. The poor family rarely ate meat but the friar guest was a special occasion. As the dish struck the table the cloud of flies lifted for a moment, then settled back onto it like a buzzing blanket. He swallowed his gorge and accepted her marvelous hospitality.
The Christian does not dare to let scruples, fetishes or fastidiousness hinder the Holy Spirit. Our mission is to announce Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Messiah. We're already asking a lot, as Saint Paul discovered when he told the Athenians about Jesus' rising from the dead. If they can swallow that, we can swallow their four-legged animals of the earth, the wild beasts, the reptiles, and the birds of the sky.

Fourth Sunday of Easter

This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father."

"More than 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis, according to a recent University of California, San Francisco study. This feeling of separation and disconnection with society, community and family impacts emotional and physical health, so much that we believe it should be addressed by physicians, nurses, and other clinicians as a treatable medical condition." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)

have often heard seniors complain of loneliness; I have supposed it comes with old age. Given chronic illness, less mobility, hearing loss and death of the spouse, we should only expect loneliness during our later years. "Get used to it!" I thought.
But as I approach my senior years and live in a community of older Franciscan friars, I realize many people choose to be lonely, thinking they have preferred freedom. Millions  of men and women live apart from their families and cultivate no friends; they pass the time with televisions, computers and pets in pristine solitude, dying of loneliness. With no hobbies and few interests, they assure themselves that, as Americans, they enjoy more freedom than citizens of any nation on Earth. But that illusion of freedom comes with much suffering, including "cognitive decline, the potential progression of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and obesity." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)
This was not our Shepherd's plan for his flock. Sheep don't wander off alone, and if they do the shepherd brings them back. True, some are called to the eremetic life and the Church provides traditions and "rules" to help hermits maintain community with like-minded souls. But there is nothing innately sacred about a life removed from human fellowship, companionship and conversation.
When I was ordained 43 years ago, we often celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of a friar's simple vows, and of a priest's ordination. The friar would be about 43; the priest, 51. We didn't celebrate many golden anniversaries of fifty years. Parishes would make a big deal of a couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary, because it was unusual. People didn't live that long. We find ourselves in a new age when people can expect to work into their seventies and eighties, and be feted as centenarians.
But we have to make certain spiritual adjustments if we're to live so long. We'll see a lot more people coming and going through our life; some will die, others move away. We'll need "people skills" to meet, take an interest in, and care about new friends. We'll probably take up new interests as the technology of recreation changes. We'll have to recognize that many assumptions of a half-century ago no longer apply; and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (Some of those certainties were just plain wrong.) Retirement is not the last stage of life but a new way of life for those who choose to live. it comes with new relationships, duties, interests and activities.
Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is one we picked up in kindergarten, "When I grow up I'll get to do whatever I want!" The wording changed through the years: "When I graduate...; when I get married...; when I take a vacation...; when I retire...." But the attitude was the same: I should get to do what I want to do. We supposed that was "freedom." It assumed there would be no one to tell me differently; if there was someone else they'd agree with me. "Hell," as the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, "is other people."
When we contemplate freedom, the Catholic gazes upon the crucifix. There is the icon of a free man. His hands and feet are nailed but he is not held aloft by these torturous devices. Rather he is held by love; his love for the Father, his Father's love for him, and his love for us. Despite the unspeakable pain of crucifixion, he would not have it any other way.
The image of Christ as shepherd with a crook and staff is lovely but the truer image of Our Shepherd is the crucifix. He needs no wooden stick to persuade us to follow his path; we are drawn to him as iron to a magnet. "When I am lifted up," he said, "I will draw all to myself."
His freedom is magnetic.
Contemplating the cross we must find ourselves more eager to accept the focused, prayerful solitude that every human being needs, and the companionship that comes with our human nature. We may never attain the perfect balance between them but we can see it in Christ Crucified. Daily prayer invites us to share our faith with others; it leads us to friendship; it shows us the beauty of young people coming up and the elderly who still sparkle with life. It helps us to recognize the courage of others who bear great burdens, to offer whatever assistance might help, and to graciously to accept whatever help we need. That too is an act of mercy.
The Shepherd lays down his life for others in order to take it up again -- for others! Contemplating his cross, we do the same.

Saturday of the Third Week of Easter

Lectionary: 278

The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria
was at peace. She was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit she grew in numbers.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught his Jesuit disciples about the ebb and flow of the spiritual life. God gives us these cycles of consolation and desolation to train us in the life of the Holy Spirit. 
Most of us most of the time prefer the consolation but without some desolation we become indolent and lazy. 
He urged his people to remember the good times when they suffered any trials; and to remember the bad times when life seemed to ease up a bit. Whatever the situation it will change. Aware of these cycles we are less apt to waste the blessings of prosperity, friendship and good health; and less likely to overreact when we suffer disappointments, setbacks and failure. "This too shall pass!" we say of both pleasure and pain, satisfaction and frustration. 
As we read through the Acts of the Apostles during this Easter Season we approach the mid-mark and find the Church of Jerusalem enjoying a season of peace. They are roundly despised by the authorities but more and more people are accepting baptism and walking in the fear of the Lord. Of course we know it won't last. They had already suffered the persecution of Paul and his Pharisees. The Apostle James will be executed in the twelfth chapter and many Christians will flee Jerusalem. That catastrophe will be an enormous boon for the Church as the Gospel spreads throughout the Jewish world. 
I grew up in the 1950's as the western world regained its footing after World War II. By the mid-1960's the United States had entered a period of unprecedented prosperity, despite the enormous waste of the Vietnam War. Our parents generated a Baby Boom and built elementary schools, high schools and colleges to educate us, with parks to play in and Walt Disney to entertain us. There was no shortage of fuel, food or clothing. Life was good and we expected it to be good. 
As consumers of the good things we supposed prosperity was normal and the future would only get better. Hardships were a thing of the past, before mankind learned how to build and manage the infrastructures and economies of prosperity. Sacrifice was also unnecessary; there was plenty for everyone. Even minorities like African-, Native-, Hispanic- and Asian-Americans could expect equal opportunity some day
Religious persecution was also a thing of the past; the age of martyrdom was over, although Catholics in Louisville remembered it was not over very long. 
As the United States prepares to be great again I expect devastating trade wars and calls for universal sacrifice, which will be borne first by the minorities and, later, by the majority. Clearly the latter are not prepared to make sacrifice. Addicted to sugar, entertainment and pain medication, they can hardly bear ordinary disappointments. Their religion of spectator sports offer only reassurances of their righteousness and entitlement. Their culture of violence urges suicide as a cure for misery.
During this Easter Season, as Christians enjoy the consolation of the Resurrection, we do well to remember the desolation of difficulty, persecution and daily sacrifice. The cyclic laws of prosperity and recession have not been revoked. The age of persecution has never ended. We should cultivate the pleasures of going without, of abstinence, and daily prayer; and prepare our hearts for hardship. 

Friday of the Third Week of Easter

Lectionary: 277

Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight. 
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

The story of Saint Paul's conversion has always been a paradigm for the Christian's experience of coming to the Lord. We hear  the story often when people speak of their discovery or rediscovery of faith. "The scales fell from my eyes!" they say as the Obvious finally broke into their narrow-minded thinking and freed them to see the way things are. They experience immediate relief and delight. 
But this story was not the standard model in his day. The Roman world was overrun with "mystery religions" who offered myths and legends that purported to make sense of life. We know little of these mystery religions because the secrets were conveyed by word of mouth from teacher to novice. But I suspect they were something like today's conspiracy theories. The "master" offered a compilation of facts, half-truths, popular conceptions and weird explanations and then persuaded the novice that this ingenious explanation was the key to wisdom. The novice -- who may have been young, gullible and already invested both socially and financially -- bought the package. He might have tried to recoup his losses, or justify his foolishness, by recruiting others into the intellectual Ponzi-scheme. 
Saint Paul was familiar with these hare-brained ideas and occasionally refers to them, but insisted the Christian revelation is not that kind of mystery. He had to use the word mystery, as we still do today. (And he had to redefine it as we do today.) But he insisted these strange notions were only myths of human origin and useless to the Christian. In fact, some Christians apparently twisted the gospel around their own ideas and attempted to make it another mystery religion. (And, inevitably, some people today accuse Saint Paul of misleading the Church from the true message of Jesus -- which they have (remarkably) rediscovered after twenty centuries of misunderstanding! Wow!) 
Saint Paul's experience told him that you needed no alien theory to receive the revelation. The truth of Jesus Christ was obvious to any inspired person familiar with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. The important difference, of course, was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a gift which could not be purchased or engineered but could be received by the willing. 
Encountering Christ for that particular Jew was like the scales falling from his eyes. It was there all along but he could not see it. 
The Funeral of our
Brother Bob Baxter
Even today the difference between a mystery religion/cult/conspiracy theory may be too subtle for many. Conspiracies are borne of fear and arrogance. They believe some evil intent manipulates the "levers" of power. "They" may be secret cabals of Jews, Muslims, Jesuits or east coast elites. 
The obvious, telling difference is found not in the doctrines but in the Spirit, as Paul told the Galatians: 
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  (Galatians 5:22)
The Christian who knows the mystery is not afraid. She gives her testimony of God's mercy simply, honestly and courageously to anyone who will listen. If their hearts are open, scales fall from their eyes.