Love one another, as I have loved you

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

The Joy of Love…to see the face of God!

A singular joy in life is to love somebody who loves you back! That is God’s idea of Love. Love is its own reward, whether it is returned or not. But to find someone who loves you back is a special blessing and gift from God. Cherish them in that way and let them know that. 

Indeed, such an experience of having someone you love who loves you back is the whole notion and image of God, “relatio“…the Trinity. It is the image in which we are created. It is in that kind of experience, of loving someone who loves you back, that we come to know and discover who we truly are…who we were created and meant to be. It is ultimately to “know even as we are known!” (1 Cor 13:12) We call it the Beatific Vision.

It is to experience the joy of love: divine joy! It is the ecstasy that only the intimacy of “knowing even as you are known” can give. It is what lovers do, they breathe together, and so experience the very life, breath, and Spirit of God. They reveal themselves to each other in verbal and nonverbal ways. True intimacy is not possible without self-revelation.

To find somebody who knows you and loves you back as you are is really a gift and the joy of mutual love! It is what God wants of us, and for us. It is why we were created…what we created for: to know, love and serve God in and through Love.

It seems love is the only way to know and discover God…to know God as love, who is unequivocally “for” us. Creation is the first revelation of that great giftedness. Jesus as the Way, Truth, and Life, is “for us”. “If God is for us, who can be against us! He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32).

The incarnation and resurrection of Christ is the full revelation of God’s love…such is Christ Jesus whose life and Spirit we share, through whom all things both in heaven and on earth were made and are sustained, in whom we live, move, and have our being, this gift is ours, the incarnate risen gift of God’s love for us! (Col 1:15-17, John 1:3, Rom 11:36, Acts 17:28) What cause for joy! 

The gift of People who love us back mirrors for us our own goodness, giftedness, and lovableness. It is what Christ has done for us, and asks—commands—us to do for one another. We do need each other for that, so we can see the face of God in ourselves even as we see it in the other!

To love another person is to see the face of God.

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. 

That is the way God works. Because of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, in which we share, the only face of God we will ever see is a human face. God looks out through our eyes, and smiles at us with our faces, and kisses us with our lips, speaks tenderly with our tongues and loves us with all our hearts. We need only to see as Jesus sees, to speak as Jesus speaks, and love as Jesus loves.

We bear a Presence… the Presence of Christ!

And so we look at each other through the eyes of Christ, we see and love each other as Christ sees and loves us! To be Christ in the world, that is our call and challenge! For that is indeed who we are, the Body of Christ! Christ has come, and is coming again…in us! The fullness of which we long to see and experience when Christ will be all in all! 

Thank God for the people who mirror for us our own goodness, who can see in us, sometimes what we cannot see in ourselves, who are Christ to us. They help us to see God and discover our true selves, our true identity and dignity, that we are Christ. Help us Lord to be good mirrors for each other. That we might see and recognize You in the gaze of the Other! That we might see your face! The face of Christ! 

The joy of love floods my soul!

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL, the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, wherever and whenever possible.”

Why do some hear while others do not?

4th Sunday of Easter (C)

While preparing to write today’s reflection, I was struck for the seventh time this week (and the three-hundred-and sixty-fifth time in as many days) by the similarities between today’s church and the early church of the Acts of the Apostles. I am reminded of the theory of “God’s time”, which, for example, might say two-thousand and sixteen years is a nanosecond in God’s time.

Let’s try an experiment with today’s first reading from Acts 13. Enter the story with Paul and Barnabas as they go about their missionary activity. There they are, all fired up and filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking and urging and exciting the crowds with the story of Jesus. So compelling were they that the following week nearly everyone in the city came out to hear them preach. Naturally, not everyone was thrilled with Paul and Barnabas, their message about Jesus, or the throngs of people who came out to hear them, especially since they saw some of their neighbors in the crowd. They objected violently to the whole business and enlisted the help of their wealthy and powerful cohorts to force Paul and Barnabas out of the city. Undaunted, Paul and Barnabas seemed to shrug off the rejection and moved on to the next city to continue their mission.

Now, imagine that a Catholic man went to some small city near Rome and preached on a pivotal yet sparingly administered teaching of Jesus’. He excited and urged huge crowds of Catholics and people of goodwill into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching. So popular and charismatic was this person that the city was filled with people from every corner of the world who hungered to hear his refreshing and restorative words. Almost immediately, some residents became alarmed and objected not only to what they were hearing but to the type of people who it attracted. These opponents contradicted the man, disrespected his wisdom and encouraged their friends from all over the world to do the same. Still, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the man spoke boldly and continued to guide his opponents to a deeper understanding, but their hostility continued to grow. Undaunted, Pope Francis returned his attention to applying Jesus’ mercy wherever he went.

Which leads to today’s very brief gospel from John 10:27-30. Why do some people hear and others do not? If Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” [John 10:14] that would mean that there are sheep who don’t know his voice and therefore do not follow him.

Returning to the story of our fledgling church from the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that in every flock there are some who hear and some who do not.

Organized religion has to take the blame, on occasion, for drowning out the sound of Jesus’ voice. Even if someone desires to hear, human and religious constructs have the capacity to thwart even the most sincere seeker from reaching the level of consciousness that allows him or her to hear Jesus’ voice.

On the other hand, organized religion can take the credit for the deposit of faith from Scripture and Tradition, and the copious writings of the great Theologians which have created a vast bank of spiritual experience to help attune us to the sound of Jesus’ voice.

What religion and theology provide is an opening through which we can learn about God through the wisdom, experience and insights of others. But it is only an opening; our ability to hear is not limited by it. The many names for Jesus (the Word, Savior, Lamb of God, Morning Star, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and so on) provide an example of the various ways we can hear. If only we will listen.

I recently read that to ‘hear” Jesus’ voice—not only the universal truths of which he speaks, but Jesus’ voice—one must discern Jesus’ being, his BE-ing, grasp the nature of Jesus’ connection to God, and be able to name him, Son of God, for example.

This “hearing” is what defines the Christian profession of faith. To affirm Jesus as the I AM is to acknowledge that Jesus, the man, is one with God, not just an exceptionally enlightened Prophet with a profoundly rich prayer life and awesome leadership skills.

But there are many, many followers who love Jesus and want to emulate him, but who struggle with Jesus’ identity as the I AM. For many Christians, this is a cake walk. For others, it is difficult, mind-boggling, and perhaps will require a lifetime of following the Good Shepherd to grasp.

Can we avoid the gate and just climb over the fence to enter the fold?  Nope. But, would Jesus, who self-identified as the gate, stand in the way of a would-be follower? Does the gate close to one who lacks absolute certitude but desires to know Jesus? Does Jesus only know the sheep with perfect hearing?

Some would say yes, that this is what Jesus meant when he said “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:14]. But the gospels also tell us that Jesus preferred to hang out with the sinners, probably because they were the ones with the better hearing.

Jesus talked a lot about ears and what people should do with them, but only Mark’s gospel includes a story about Jesus restoring a person’s hearing. [Mark 7:31-37].  My sense is that there were many sheep following the Good Shepherd who hung on his every word but who would not have passed the above three-prong spiritual hearing test, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus also said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [John 10:16].

To put this verse in context, by “other sheep” Jesus was likely referring to the Gentiles, but, returning to our experiment at the start of this reflection we can see that the Gentiles were the ones to whom Paul and Barnabas redirected their missionary action, and that the one flock Pope Francis envisions will be identified by their emulation of Jesus’ mercy.

As for my defense of Pope Francis (who has perfect hearing, by the way), I don’t judge the sincerity of Christians who object to new understandings or expanded interpretations of church teachings and what it means to their practice of the faith, but when that objection seems to be the result of a failure to hear the voice of Jesus and it devolves into disrespect for our Pope, condemnation of others, and division within the church, I feel as if we have gone back to the days of Jesus, or even a few hundred years before since the Prophets also received the same fate.

Perhaps in the next nanosecond of God’s time, we will be able to hear.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Jump in! The water is fine

3rd Sunday of Easter (C)

In the morning light, with a miraculous catch of fish hanging in a net off the right side of his boat, and after the beloved disciple spoke the words “It is the Lord,” Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? The text is concise. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” [John 21:7b]

The story of the miraculous catch of fish is beloved by many. In Luke’s Gospel it occurs early in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 5:1–11], and in John’s Gospel, which is read on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) it takes place after Jesus’ resurrection [John 21:1-14]. Both readings are thick with symbolic imagery having to do with Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to follow him, but John’s version, located at the end of his gospel, allows readers to witness the post-resurrection dawning of Peter’s spiritual and ministerial maturity.

A close read of the gospel invites all followers of Jesus, leaders and disciples alike, to plumb the depths of their spiritual waters. The story has a strong message for the Christian church. It raises questions about how we “fish,” it tests our faith in the capacity of the net and ultimately beckons us to be caught up in it.

The action (because there is always action with Peter) begins with Peter’s decision—impulsive, of course—to go fishing, at night,[1] by himself. “I’m going fishing,” he says. Six other disciples decide to join him.

Wait, What? Read in the context of the timeline following the harrowing and glorious recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances to the disciples, one has to ask: What the heck were Peter and the others, including Thomas, of recent wound-probing fame [John 20:24-29], doing going fishing?[2]

As with all of Scripture, it is important to pay close attention to the way the story is told.

Peter and the others, fishing at night, failed to catch any fish. Morning followed. A man standing on the shoreline told the fishermen to cast their net a different way. They did what he said and were immediately overwhelmed with a super-abundant catch, far more than the seven of them could lift into their boat, and far more than they thought the net could hold. While they were all marveling over the bounty, one of the disciples, the beloved one, the spiritually astute one, recognized Jesus and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” With that, Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? Maybe he jumped in so he could quickly wade to the shore to see Jesus, but the gospel doesn’t say that. Maybe he jumped in to hide his shame from Jesus because he didn’t recognize him, but the gospel it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that when Peter heard the beloved disciple’s words “It is the Lord,” the fisherman adjusted his garment and jumped into the sea. Into the water. With the fish.

If any of the disciples were going to jump in, it would be the impetuous, all-or-nothing Peter, whose passionate, sometimes faulty certitude  caused him to protest things he did not understand [John 13:4-8], whose braggadocio led him to make promises he could not keep [John 13:37], and whose misplaced zeal led him to cut off his enemy’s ear [John 18:10].

Peter’s spontaneous reaction to the beloved disciple’s recognition of Jesus in the miracle of the fish reminds me of how he responded to Jesus’ act of foot washing. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” [John 13:8-9]

Examples of Peter’s impulsiveness populate the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John. Although we shake our heads, we should also understand that these represent Peter’s sincere intentions, his deep desire to get it right, and his efforts to understand his friend, Jesus, whom he loved. We are so much like Peter.

By jumping into the sea, the fisherman Peter joined the fish.

Moments before, when the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and cast their net a different way, it became so heavy with fish they could not haul it into their boat. Later, when Jesus asked them to bring some of the catch to add to the breakfast he was preparing for them, Peter was able to drag the net filled with one hundred and fifty-three large fish to the shore. In the very act of bringing the fish to Jesus, Peter brought himself, who like the untorn net was strong enough for the task.

And then “Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” Just like the last time they were together at the Sea of Tiberius,[3] Jesus fed his disciples with a miracle of abundance.

Religious leaders, lay ministers, and all disciples can learn much about humility from Peter’s failed attempt to fish in the dark, to go it alone. From his act of jumping into the sea, we can examine our feelings about integration, detachment, control, equality, and of course, our baptism. Peter’s robust response to Jesus’ invitation to bring some “fish” to him is something we should all strive to emulate. Finally, I can’t think of a better analogy for the resilient, expansive, capacious fishing net than the merciful and welcoming church envisioned by Pope Francis in his recent document, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”)

In the presence of such great abundance we can all cry out “It is the Lord!”

Be caught in the net; be part of this beautiful, tangled and complicated mess that we call faith. Bring what dwells in the depth of your heart up into the light of Christ—the miracle of God’s abundance—Go ahead and jump in!

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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NOTES:

[1] Other than establishing the ego-driven motivation of the disciples (also known as going it alone without Jesus, and therefore, darkness), how might readers of John’s gospel have understood the disciples going fishing at night? For one, it was cooler at night than during the day. Also, larger fish that normally swim in deep water in the daytime come closer to the shore at night, so the fishermen don’t need to take the boat out as far to catch them.

[2] In Jesus-speak, of course, fishing refers to the missionary action of the church; the fisherman’s net represents the scope and unity of God’s church. This unity is threatened when human leaders forget whose net they hold and attempt to go it alone. As accurate and tidy as these interpretations are, they are mere aperitifs to the rich fare proffered in this passage.

[3] The Sea of Tiberius was the site of miracle of the loaves and fishes when Jesus’ fed his disciples and the crowd of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish [John 6:1-14].

Download the full text of Amoris Laetitia.

A summary of Amoris Laetitia, thanks to Salt & Light Media can be found here.

Read Fr. James Martin’s “Top Ten Takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”

Spiritual euphoria: not your regularly scheduled program

2nd Sunday of Easter (C)

Have you ever attended a religious retreat? I mean one that lasted a weekend or longer. If so, you may understand the meaning of spiritual euphoria. After a period of concentrated prayer and reflection, retreatants frequently speak of being filled up, or high, if you will. There is often a sense of clarity, a lifting, or shifting of burdens, or the discovery of a strength that increases endurance or encourages a fresh start.

Retreats interrupt our “regularly scheduled programming” in order to help us gain a sense of peace, experience joy, healing, and reconciliation. They sometimes force us to probe the depth of our faith and purpose (for which the guidance of a good Spiritual Director is invaluable), help us discern our callings, process new awakenings or closures, and explore our relationship with God, with creation, and with the world.

Then we go home.  Home, where life goes on, where “what’s for dinner?” and science projects that are due the next day and laundry await us; where Monday brings meetings and deadlines and demanding co-workers; where illness or grief or loneliness dwell; where the anguish of the world sits on our doorstep. Because, while we were away undergoing the delicate process of spiritual transformation, everything outside remained the same. And so, our euphoria wanes.

Strange as it seems, our struggles and wounds help us comprehend our joy. I don’t think anyone enjoys revisiting or probing past or present pain, but isn’t this what we do when we celebrate the triumph of Jesus’ life and his resurrection? Wounds remind us of what we have sustained and more importantly, what we have overcome; they stave off the fear and doubt and exhaustion that threatens to return us to the place we were before we received the peace and joy of the cure. This is not a morbid thought, it does not imply wearing chains or a hair shirt, nor should it be depressing. Remembering our crosses is what motivates us to keep going.

Recall that the resurrected Jesus still bore the wounds of his crucifixion. They did not disappear, they remained. Thomas needed to probe them. [John 20:24-29]. So do we. The world’s suffering, poverty, injustice, violence, sickness, rejection, loneliness—Jesus’ wounds surround us; they remind us of our calling.

It is so easy to despair the state of the world, isn’t it? The human capacity for cruelty, greed and selfishness seems to increase every day, and our love for our neighbor is sorely tested. Keeping the faith is hard. Happy Easter! we say. He is Risen! we proclaim. Really?

The resurrected Jesus appeared and stood before his disciples who were hiding in fear for their lives and said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” [John 20:21-22]. Those words are for us too. We are called, and we are sent. Jesus breathed on the disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We too have inhaled the breath of the Lord and our blood courses with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The truth is that Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is more powerful today, at work in us, with us and through us, than he was when he walked the earth. Really.

The signs and wonders done through Peter and the apostles led great numbers of men and women from all over to believe in the gospel. These new followers, with the faith that simply being present was enough, carried their physically sick friends and family and those afflicted with unclean spirits to Solomon’s portico, where the mysterious and wonderful apostles gathered. And the scripture tells us all were cured. [Acts 5:12-16].

Don’t we just love to think of the early church as a time of rejoicing, praying, breaking bread, and sharing Christian love? It was all that. But it was also one of the most dangerous times to be a Christian. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles and Letters of Paul reveal, being a Christian in the early church all but guaranteed a life of persecution and death. To our horror, for some Christians living in the year 2016, this is still true.

It’s been a week since our rejoicing at Easter began and already there are signs that our fervor is waning. Perhaps waning is an imprecise way to describe the return to our regularly scheduled program—business as usual—but the words of John in today’s second reading remind us, Easter people, that there is no turning back. Because we who give testimony to Jesus share in his distress, Kingdom and endurance. [Rev 1:9]. Everything, including us, is transformed. Unlike our retreat euphoria which gradually wanes, the transformation that Easter brings about is everlasting. We are forever changed.

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

Today’s readings can be found here.