Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Gift of Easter and How to Experience It

(Easter 2019: This homily was given on April 21, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-23; Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2019]

One night a man had a dream.  In this dream he saw Jesus tied to a whipping post while a soldier scourged him unmercifully.  The pieces of metal and bone that were attached to the ends of the whipping cords tore into our Lord's flesh again and again and again until his back was just a mass of raw meat.  This was a typically-brutal Roman scourging.  Mel Gibson portrayed it well in The Passion of the Christ.  Many people who experienced these scourgings died from them. 

The man watched this horrific scene for several minutes.  Finally he couldn't take it any longer.  As the soldier raised his arm for yet another strike, the dreamer rushed forward to try to stop him.  At that moment the soldier turned around quickly, and the dreamer let out a scream when he saw his face—because the soldier had HIS face.  He was the soldier!

My brothers and sisters, if you do not understand that story, then you will not understand today's story: the glorious Easter story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  That's because the only people who truly appreciate the gift are those who understand their need for the gift.  The only people who appreciate deliverance (from sin or anything else) are those who understand their need for deliverance.  I remember reading a story once about the last days of World War II.  At that time the prisoners at Dachau had heard a frightful rumor: Hitler had ordered the execution of all prisoners and the burning of all the concentration camps.  And so when these frightened, exhausted, emaciated men and women heard tanks approach the compound on this particular day, and when they heard one begin to smash against the front gate, they prepared for death.  They thought they were doomed.  Until they saw the American flag painted on the front!  They were being liberated, not exterminated!  Can you imagine how grateful they were at that moment?  In the midst of their suffering, they understood their need for deliverance, and they were elated when it finally came.  The man who had the dream about the scourging of our Lord had a similar awareness of his need.  The instant he saw that he was the soldier, he understood his need for deliverance: deliverance from his personal sins which were responsible, in part, for the sufferings that Jesus endured on Good Friday.

In this regard, I find it significant that the very first person to whom Jesus appeared on Easter Sunday morning was a woman named Mary Magdalene.  Why was she first?  Why not Peter or one of the apostles?  Wouldn't it have made more sense for our Lord to appear to one of them before he appeared to her or to anyone else?  Well, I'm convinced that Mary was given this incredible privilege because at the time she understood her need for Jesus more than anyone else did—except, of course, for the Blessed Mother.  The Bible tells us that during his ministry Jesus had cast 7 devils out of Mary Magdalene.  Traditionally she's also been associated with the prostitute who washed our Lord's feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Jesus had delivered this woman and set her free from sin and the forces of evil that were destroying her life.  And she knew that she needed to keep Jesus in her life in order to stay delivered.  (By the way, if she were a Catholic today, that means she would be at Mass EVERY Sunday—and probably every day.)  Consequently, because she recognized her great need for Jesus, she remained faithful to him—even when all the apostles had run away.  So it was fitting that she was the first one to see him risen from the dead.  It was not a coincidence.

The message of Easter is that Jesus Christ has won the decisive victory over sin and eternal death for Mary Magdalene and for each and every one of us.  But the Lord did not "force" his victory on Mary, nor will he "force" his victory on any one of us.  If we want to experience the fruits of his redemptive act, then we've got to be like Magdalene and come to Jesus, willing to admit our great need for his mercy.  Which means that we've got to be willing to confront our personal sins!  And not just some of them, but all of them!  The sins of uncharity, the sins of unforgiveness, the sins of greed and materialism, the sins of impurity.  This, of course—this idea of confronting our personal sins—is a radical one for those of us living in the early 21st century, when personal sin is frequently denied, and guilt is often looked upon as the worst thing in the world.  Well, let's be clear about it: guilt is not the worst thing in the world!  The worst thing in the world is the denial of guilt.  Because if we deny our guilt for our sins, we cannot be forgiven by the Lord.  And we cannot enter heaven!  I'll tell you quite honestly: it always amuses me when so-called experts say that all people need to do to be psychologically happy is to stop feeling guilty about things.  That's ridiculous!  Do you know what they call people who don't feel guilty about anything?  Psychopaths!  Psychopaths are the most guilt-free men and women on the planet!  They can murder a dozen people and think nothing of it!

If we wish to experience the fruits of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then our attitude must be like Mary Magdalene's—or like John Newton's after his conversion.  I’m talking here about the John Newton who wrote a hymn that we sing in church all the time.  He was born in the early 18th century.  His mother died when he was 7.  His father was a sea captain and good Christian, but early on Newton rejected the faith his father had tried to instill in him.  Then, from age 17 to age 23, he traveled all over the world and got himself into all sorts of trouble.  He led a promiscuous lifestyle; he was sold as a slave; then, when he escaped, he became a slave trader.  He went through many difficult times.  And nothing ever motivated him to change for the better—until he almost died in a storm at sea.  Then he finally cried out to God, as desperate people sometimes do.  He promised the Lord that if he came out of the storm alive he'd reform.  Now, unlike many others who make similar promises, Newton was true to his word.  In fact, he eventually became a Methodist minister.  That's when he wrote the words to that hymn that almost every Christian knows: Amazing Grace.  He wrote them out of his own experience of facing his sin and receiving new life in Christ.  "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see."  Recently I came across the words that Newton had them inscribe on his tombstone at the time of his death: "John Newton, Clerk.  Once an infidel and libertine; A servant of slaves in Africa; was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long labored to destroy." 

What strikes me about that inscription is the honesty behind it.  Newton was not afraid to admit to the world that he had been a scoundrel.  That's because he understood the power of the Risen Christ to wash away those horrible sins of the past and to eventually bring him to heaven.  Do we understand that power—that power that we have available to us as Catholics in the beautiful sacrament of Reconciliation?  As Newton wrote in the song: "Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, amazing grace will then prevail in heaven's joy and peace."

I said at the beginning of my homily that the only people who appreciate the gift of new life that Jesus brings us by his Resurrection, are those who know how much they need the gift—those who know their poverty, their imperfections, their sins, their need for healing.  People like John Newton, people like Mary Magdalene—and, hopefully, people like us.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Which Wound am I Most Grateful for?

(Good Friday 2019: This homily was given on April 19, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 31:2-15; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2019]

As we contemplate the sufferings of Jesus tonight, we might, quite naturally, feel some sadness in our heart—remembering all that Jesus endured for us on that first Good Friday some 2,000 years ago.  But Good Friday is not first and foremost a day for sadness.  It’s first and foremost a day for GRATITUDE—for thanksgiving.  Because, as Isaiah tells us in tonight’s first reading, by the wounds of Jesus we are healed.  That is to say, by the wounds of Jesus, we can be forgiven for anything and everything.  By the wounds of Jesus, we can break with whatever evil is present in our past—we can put it behind us, forever—if we sincerely repent.  That is possible by his wounds, and only by his wounds. 

Thank you, God! 

It reminds me of the woman who went to her parish priest one day and told him that she had seen Jesus.  He was rightly skeptical about her claim, so he said to her, “Madam, when Jesus appears to you again, ask him to tell you my sins, the sins I confessed to another priest in confession last week.  Only Jesus and the priest know those sins, and the priest is bound by the seal of confession.  If this apparition tells you what my sins are, then I’ll believe it’s Jesus.”  Two weeks later the woman came back, and the priest said to her, “Well, did Jesus appear to you again?”  She said, “Yes.”  “And did you ask him what my sins were?”  She said, “Yes.”  “And what did Jesus say?”  “He said, ‘Go tell your priest I have forgotten his sins.’”  Jeremiah prophesied (chapter 31, verse 34) that when the new covenant was instituted, God would FORGET our sins.  In other words, once we repented of them and they were forgiven, they would never come between us and him again.  Never!  I think we all know how much it hurts when another person says that they forgive us for a sin, but then later on that same person throws the sin back in our face and rubs our nose in it.  God will never do that—he’s told us so—because of the wounds of his Son. 

So I suppose for each of us the important question tonight is: Which wound am I most grateful for?  As an individual, as a sinner, which wound am I, personally, most grateful for?  You see, it’s not a coincidence that Jesus had the specific wounds that he had.  Those different wounds, which were inflicted on different parts of his body, point to the many different sins that he carried to the cross.  For example, we’re told that his head was wounded with a crown of thorns—that was for all our sins of the mind: the uncharitable thoughts, the angry thoughts, the prideful thoughts, the impure thoughts, the despairing thoughts.  Believe it or not, he was also wounded there for our many sins of the tongue—because every sin of the tongue begins in the mind.  So as his precious blood flowed from the deep cuts the thorns made in his head, our sins of lying, gossip, slander, and cursing were all washed away. 

He was also wounded in his hands.  Because of those wounds, every abortionist who uses his hands to destroy innocent human life can be forgiven if he repents.  Because of those wounds, every murderer can have his sins washed away if he repents.  Because of those wounds the repentant thief on our Lord’s right was forgiven.  Because of those wounds all sins of violence and impurity committed with our hands can be washed away forever.

The heart of Jesus.  As we heard tonight in John’s account of the Passion, “One of the soldiers ran a lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” Our Lord’s heart was wounded for the many times that we put other things (or other people) before God: the times when something (or someone) other than the Lord reigns supreme in our heart.  It might be a spouse; it might be a friend; it might a group of people that we want to fit in with; it might be a sport or money or getting ahead professionally—or something else.  But praise God, whatever it is, the fact that our Lord’s heart was punctured with that spear means that we can be forgiven—if we turn away from the idol, and put the real God back on the throne of our heart, where he belongs.

And finally--our Lord’s feet.  These were pierced with nails for all the times when we didn’t walk away from situations where we knew we’d be strongly tempted to sin.  They were wounded for the times when we’ve gone to places we knew we shouldn’t have: the party where we knew that people would be drinking excessively and acting promiscuously; the movie where we knew our mind would be filled with violent or lustful images.  We say in the Act of Contrition that we will “avoid the near occasion of sin.  Our Lord’s feet were wounded for all the times we have failed to do that—so that forgiveness would be possible even for those sins that we could have easily avoided and should have easily avoided, but didn’t.

Which wound am I most grateful for?  As we venerate the cross tonight during this Good Friday service, let’s think of that question, and by our veneration let’s express our deep, heartfelt gratitude to the Son of God who has saved us by his wounds, and who now offers us forgiveness and strength: the strength to live a life free from the power of sin.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews said to us a few moments ago: “Let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”  May we all do that tonight, as we approach the cross, and then later as we receive the Savior himself—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Holy Week: A Time of Change

(Palm Sunday 2019 (C): This homily was given on April 14, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2019]

The very first Holy Week was a period of time when changes took place in many different people: some of those changes were good, and some of them were not-so-good.

One of the most disturbing changes in the not-so-good category took place in the hearts and souls of CERTAIN RESIDENTS OF JERUSALEM.  Think about it: Some of the same men and women who were hailing Jesus as the Messiah on Palm Sunday were screaming for his blood on Good Friday!

The changing tide of public opinion: one day you’re the greatest person on earth, the next day you’re “public enemy number one”!

(That’s why we should always try to please God, and not human beings.)

And how about the change in JUDAS ISCARIOT?  That was another terrible tragedy of Holy Week!  This man went from being a close, intimate friend of the divine Son of God, to the worst traitor in the history of the world!

PETER also changed for the worse during these few short days, when he denied three times that he even knew our Lord—although, thankfully, he eventually changed back through repentance.

Actually ALL THE APOSTLES changed for the worse, since, as St. Mark tells us, they all abandoned Jesus as soon as our Lord was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. 

But, thanks be to God, many other people changed for the better during the first Holy Week!  The “GOOD THIEF,” for example (who is only mentioned in Luke’s version of the passion), changed radically as he hung next to Jesus on Good Friday.  He made a 180 degree turnaround in his heart, and so he joined our Lord that day in Paradise!

(All of which shows that deathbed conversions can and do happen!  Yes—they might be rare, but they certainly are possible.)

The ROMAN CENTURION who stood at the foot of the cross changed for the better: he became a believer—a man of faith—after he saw the way that Jesus died.

JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA changed in a positive way by becoming an openly-committed disciple of Jesus when he came forth to claim our Lord’s body for burial, having been a secret disciple of Jesus before that.

Even our BLESSED MOTHER underwent a kind of change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.  She went from being “the rejoicing Mother” of the Messiah as she watched her Son enter Jerusalem in triumph, to “the sorrowful Mother” of the Savior as she stood at the foot of his cross—in the process becoming a role model for us as we struggle to deal with our daily crosses.

I share these thoughts with you today in this brief homily to encourage us all to make some time for the Lord during this Holy Week—because if we do that we also have the opportunity to change for the better!  This Holy Week is like the first one in that sense: it provides an opportunity for us to change our lives in a positive way!  But for that to happen, we need to enter into it by our active participation. 

Let me conclude now by sharing with you this week’s schedule of events here at St. Pius.  When you go home, I highly encourage you to put at least some of these events on your calendars:

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we will have morning Mass as usual at 7am; on Thursday, Friday and Saturday we will have Morning Prayer at the normal Mass times.  The Easter Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening at 7pm, followed by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm (a time for us to remember the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane).  On Friday we will have Stations of the Cross twice: once outside at noon; then, at 3pm, here in church.  The celebration of the Lord’s Passion will take place on Friday evening at 7; and the first Mass of Easter—the glorious celebration of the Easter Vigil—will be held at 7:30pm on Saturday night. 

Please note: there will be no 5pm Mass next Saturday!  The normal time for our vigil Mass is CHANGED (as hopefully we will be—for the better!—when this Holy Week is over).