Sunday, March 25, 2018

March 25, 2018
Palm Sunday
(Philippians 2:6-1; Mark 14:1—15:47)
Palm Sunday. An interesting name the Church has given to this passage of Jesus’ life. As soon as the Church obtained her freedom in the fourth century, the faithful in Jerusalem re-enacted the solemn entry of Christ into their city on the Sunday before Easter, holding a procession in which they carried branches and sang the “Hosanna” (Matthew 21, 1-11).
In the early Latin Church, people attending Mass on this Sunday would hold aloft twigs of olives, which were not, however, blessed in those days – a custom/rite that came a couple centuries later. The faithful would continue to hold the palms during the reading of the Passion. In this way, they would recall that many of the same people who greeted Christ with shouts of joy on Palm Sunday would later call for his death on Good Friday-a powerful reminder of our own weakness and the sinfulness that causes us to reject Christ.
The Palm Sunday procession, and the blessing of palms, seems to have originated in the Frankish Kingdom. The earliest mention of these ceremonies is found in the Sacramentary of the Abbey of Bobbio in northern Italy (sometime at the beginning of the eighth century). The rite was soon accepted in Rome and incorporated into the liturgy. A Mass was celebrated in some church outside the walls of Rome, and there the palms were blessed. The prayers used today are of Roman origin and has spread to the many Catholic branches in the centuries since.

Palm Sunday is meant to be one of the most joyful days of the Christian year. It's a day that involves a king and a colt, plus crowds and cloaks. However, as we know, it has a tendency to be “clouded” by that which takes place on Good Friday.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as a king. He's riding on a colt. And crowds are laying their cloaks on the ground before him as he rides. They cry, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9). The people are tired of corrupt King Herod. They want Jesus to be their ruler. Little did they know, that he was not to be the political king they may have been praying for or understanding from the Scriptures.

However, all of this story we know well, and it's easy for us to grasp the meaning of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt while crowds praise him and roll out the red carpet by spreading their cloaks on the road.

The crowds go wild, and so do we. We wave our palm branches. We want Jesus to be our king and to rule our world with love and justice. Everyone is shouting, jumping and jostling to get a better view. The king, the son of David, is coming!

But the Palm Sunday story is not just about a king and a colt, or a crowd and their cloaks. It's also about kenosis. It's a Greek word to describe (in Christian theology) the renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the Incarnation. It comes to us in Paul's letter to the Philippians, and it's much harder to understand than the meaning of the words king, colt, crowd and cloak.

Kenosis, although a difficult and captivating word of the Christian faith, it is very important to the Christian faith.

Kenosis means "emptiness," but has deeper significance in that it communicates the self-emptying that Christ voluntarily offered on the cross.

Kenosis raises a number of important questions for us as we enter Holy Week. What was accomplished by kenosis? How did this self-emptying result in fullness? And how can we empty ourselves so that God will fill us?

For starters, what was accomplished by kenosis? Paul tells us that Jesus was in the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.
The Kenosis theory states that Jesus gave up some of His divine attributes while He was a man here on earth. These attributes were omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Christ did this voluntarily so that He could function as a man in order to fulfill the work of redemption. Take Mark 13:32 for example. In it, Jesus said, "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." If Jesus knew all things, as is implied in his divine nature, then why did he not know the day or hour of his own return. The answer is that Jesus cooperated with the limitations of humanity and voluntarily did not exercise his attribute of omniscience. He still was divine but was moving and living completely as a man.

Instead, Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.” This is where we run into kenosis in the original Greek, where its meaning is "emptied out." Christ Jesus "emptied himself," taking the form of a slave so that he looked for all the world like an ordinary, very common, nondescript, perhaps even marginalized human being!

What is accomplished by this? Our reading tells us that God "highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Palm Sunday would be easy to understand if it contained only the familiar: kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. In this version of the story, King Jesus would ride into town and confront King Herod, and the one with the biggest crowd would win. But kenosis turns our expectations upside down. Precisely because Jesus emptied, humbled, lowered and abased himself, God exalted him and made him the king of all creation.

The accomplishment of kenosis is fullness, glory and power. This is the opposite of what you would expect from one’s God-- emptiness, embarrassment and powerlessness.

Next, exactly how does this self-emptying result in fullness? For Jesus, kenosis leads to glory and power because it's based on humility and obedience. We turn to the Good News interpretation of the Bible to see it in a slightly different manner, and it says: “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:  He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God.  Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness.  He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name.  And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” He had the nature of God, but chose to accept the form of a servant. That's humility. That is the example he wants to see us emulate.
This is one of those paradox’s of Christianity – Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, and thus he is God, but he lives within his divinity and humanity. Both fully divine and fully human. Just as he relinquishes some of his divine nature while on earth, he also relinquishes the sinful nature of humanity. All meant as an example for us to follow.

It's a counterintuitive attitude. In Lewis Carroll's famous book, Through the Looking Glass, Alice steps through the mirror in the living room to find a world on the opposite side where everything is backwards: Alice wants to go forward, but every time she moves, she ends up back where she started. She tries to go left and ends up right. Up is down and fast is slow.

Similarly, Christianity is a kind of looking glass world where everything works on principles opposite to those of the world around us. To be blessed, be a blessing to others.

+ To receive love, give love.

+ To be honored, first be humble.

+ To truly live, die to yourself.

+ To gain the unseen, let go of the seen.

+ To receive, first give.

+ To save your life, lose it.

+ To lead, be a servant.

+ To be first, be last.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that the way up is down. Down is up, up is down. The way to be great is to go lower. The way up is down. The logical flow of Philippians has been building up to this great truth."

An example might be a modern hero like Captain "Sully" Sullenberger who was at the throttle of Flight 1549 when he had to land his jetliner in the Hudson River, saving more than 150 passengers in the process. In the aftermath of that experience, Captain Sully exemplified humility as few could. According to one account, "In an interview after the crash, he was modest about his acts of courage, attributing his poise to his training over the years. 'One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years,' he said, 'I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.'" The event became known as "The Miracle on the Hudson," and was made into a 2016 movie starring Tom Hanks.

Or, you might point to heroes of the past, such as astronaut Neil Armstrong, a political leader like Nelson Mandela, equal rights preacher Martin Luther King Jr., a religious leader like Gandhi or a humanitarian figure like Mother Teresa and many others. Surely there are athletic heroes too that might come to mind, or some heroes in our own community.

Glory and recognition came to all of these people, although none of them sought it, nor did they think it important. But the glory came in a counterintuitive way.

The self-emptying of Jesus was based on both humility and obedience. Paul tells us that "he was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead of remaining in the safety and security of his divine existence, Jesus entered human life as a fetus, a baby, a child and eventually a man. "If you want to get the hang of it," suggests C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, "think of how you would like to become a slug or a crab."

But Jesus said "Yes" to emptying himself and entering human life, and he did this out of obedience to God. Paul tells us that "he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.” Because of this choice, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, making him Lord of heaven and earth.

For Jesus, kenosis led to kingship. Because he emptied himself by being humble and obedient, God filled him with glory and power.

Finally, how can we empty ourselves so that God will fill us? Most of us are not going to be asked to follow Jesus to the point of death on a cross. But we are certainly challenged to show humility and obedience as we walk the path of Christ in the world.

We might try to develop a welcoming attitude toward others. Martin Hengel was a great New Testament historian who taught at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In that country, professors are highly esteemed and put on a pedestal. But Pastor John Dickson remembers how Professor Hengel would have his students come to his home on Friday evenings for meals and discussions. "He wasn't influential just because he was a brilliant scholar," says Dickson. "It was the fact that he let people come very close, that he shared his life with them -- that humility is what made his influence lasting."

We can show the same kind of humility, whether we are influencing students, coaching a team or leading a group of workers. People are grateful when we take them seriously and welcome them into our lives.

We might try to be the servant of others. Our practice of kenosis also includes obedience to Jesus Christ, who said to his followers, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:26). He wants us to empty ourselves, as he did, and act as slaves to each other, just as he "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

We might try to be generous with material things.

We might try thinking the best of others, forgiving them when they don't know what they're doing.

We might try praying for our "enemies," and those who "persecute" us.

We might try being a peacemaker.

We might try denying ourselves and carrying a cross for a while.

You want to know how to experience a self-emptying? An emptying of self? That's how! Think about it – some of those things are hard to do.

The good news is that this emptying does not lead to embarrassment and powerlessness. Instead, it leads to great fullness. Jesus says that "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12).

Palm Sunday has always been a predictable story of kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. But the addition of the Greek word kenosis turns our expectations upside down. This self-emptying of Jesus, grounded in humility and obedience, is the unexpected key to his heavenly fullness.

And our fullness as well.
Let us pray.
That the suffering and death of Jesus Christ will strengthen the Church in holiness and give her new growth. We pray to the Lord.
That civil authorities will use their power to protect the poor, oppose injustice, preserve freedom, and promote lasting peace. We pray to the Lord.
That Christians everywhere will live this Holy Week with special reverence, self-giving, and devotion. We pray to the Lord.
That God will shelter all persecuted Christians and make their witness effective for the redemption of all. We pray to the Lord.
That our Lenten discipline will continue to transfigure the way we live so as to bring forth even deeper conformity to Christ, and to follow His example of kenosis. We pray to the Lord.
That all the peoples of the world will begin to see each other as brothers and sisters, not as people of different race, religion, or class. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are sick this week, that even in their infirmity, they may find the peace of Christ during this most Holy Week. We pray to the Lord.
Merciful Father, by the holy cross of Christ, Your Son has redeemed the world. Help us to take up His cross and to be united to Jesus in His passion, to be united in Jesus in our emptying of ourselves so that You may fill us. May we be united with our Lady Mary who saw firsthand her Son, our Lord, empty Himself that we might have life everlasting. We ask all these things, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Sunday, March 18, 2018

March 18, 2018
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
(Formerly known as: Passion Sunday)
(Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33)
Some famous people have made famous exits. Elvis left the building. Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on Earth and quit baseball. Jesus had more than one exit. He died, rose again and then ascended to heaven.

What is the best exit and/or exit line of all time?

To draw on recent history (and by recent, I mean the last 50 to 75 years), you'd have might mention Richard M. Nixon's exit address. On November 7, 1962, Richard M. Nixon conceded defeat to the successful candidate for the California governorship, Pat Brown. Addressing a crowd of reporters at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Nixon gave vent to the bitterness of that campaign. He castigated the media, saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." (Seems US Presidents and media have animosity going back further than the current administration I’d say!)

Although Nixon -- and much of America -- thought it was his last exit line, it was not. In a remarkable comeback, Nixon returned to politics and in 1968 was elected president.

On August 8, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then-President Nixon resigned from that office. The final words of his speech on that occasion were: "To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead." Unlike Nixon's 1962 exit line, that one stuck, and it was certainly more positive than his previous exit lines.

Or, think of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's retirement from public life with his observation to Congress that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away." That one seems to have been remembered a bit more.

Then there's baseball player Lou Gehrig's farewell speech. On July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood in front of the podium, speaking to the Yankee faithful, proclaiming despite his recent health issues that he considered himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." That was the last day Gehrig would ever wear a baseball uniform again as what is known today as Lou Gehrig's disease claimed his life two years later.

Finally, let's mention Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human–computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. Pausch did not know he had pancreatic cancer until September 2006 and less than two years later he was passed on.
About a year before he died, he delivered an upbeat lecture called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. It became a popular YouTube video, and later a best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Among the many lines that emerged from this lecture is Pausch's comment that if he only had three words of advice, "I'd say, 'Tell the truth.' If I had three more words, I'd add 'All the time.'"

His last lecture was an amazing exit and an equally inspiring exit "line" or lines. It is a touching nook that I highly recommend. I have the book here with me today in case anyone might want to glance at it.

In the religious category, one source says that three leaders are tied for the best exit of all time: Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha. You have to give them credit for the religions they founded, especially since more than 4 billion people combined now count themselves as followers.

It's hard to argue that Jesus' exit wasn't the most dramatic. And you might say that he had more than one. Jesus made a habit of leaving during his short ministry of three years. He makes an astonishing appearance at the Jordan River where his cousin John is baptizing people. After John baptizes Jesus, he disappears for 40 days into the wilderness.

He often made a quick exit from crowds to get away on a retreat.

He left the Last Supper to go to Gethsemane to pray.

And then the big exit. He died. On a cross. A few sympathizers got his body and put it in a tomb. He was dead and entombed. A final exit?

Noooooo, he reappears and spends some time with his disciples and then exits again. See Acts 1. Into the clouds. Poof. Gone. And the Bible says he now sits at the right hand of the Father.

As for exit lines, Jesus had a few of those, too. Of course, you might refer to the so-named "seven last words" of Christ on the cross, though they were more light seven last statements, but let’s not quibble.

You might refer to his post-resurrection exit line recorded as the last words of Matthew's gospel, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

So Jesus not only had a fabulous exit or exits, he had a few good lines, too.

One of these lines, spoken only days before his death, is in today's text. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

Soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover festival, some Greeks approach the disciple Philip and say to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Philip relays their words to Andrew, and then the two of them take the request to Jesus. He tells them -- in so many words -- that he will die soon, and then he compares himself to a seed. "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

These Greeks have grown up with Aesop's fables, so they know the power of a simple story to teach a moral lesson. But in case they do not get his point, Jesus goes on to say, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In other words, although death is very close for Jesus, he tells the disciples that his own literal death is a metaphor for understanding how his followers must live every day: they must live by dying. When they do, like a seed in the ground, they will grow and bear fruit.

You can certainly understand the confusion of the Greeks. They know that the dead tend to stay dead. But Jesus is telling them that fruitfulness comes from going into the ground, and a loss of life leads to eternal life. And then he drops this exit line: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When he is lifted up on the cross, he will not repel people. Instead, he will draw people. Fruitfulness and eternal life. Both are connected to the power of the cross, a cross that Jesus elsewhere says we must embrace as an instrument of our own metaphorical death. And when we do, we will bear fruit and live.

So the cross, in a sense, is not an exit but an entrance -- an entrance to a new level or plane of living.

For some, however, the cross is both metaphorical and literal.

For an example, we need only turn to events that happened 50 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On the night before his death, he gave a speech in which he said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life -- longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land."

This was King's "mountaintop" speech, and it contained some powerful truths about his life and about the Civil Rights movement. He was right to say that "longevity has its place," and it would have been marvelous if he had been able to live out his life and die peacefully. But at the same time, he delivered a vision of the Promised Land that continues to inspire people today.

We are still on the path to that Promised Land, as we work for racial reconciliation and try to fight racism wherever we see it, in ourselves and in our communities. King's death did not kill his efforts for justice, but instead it gave life to a movement that is bigger now than it has ever been.

"I've seen the Promised Land," said King. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." He was right. He went into the earth like a grain of wheat, and his efforts have borne much fruit, even though hatred seems to still be very much alive, ever so unfortunately.

And how about eternal life? Jesus says that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love life are those who are attached to the things of this world, and who want to become rich and famous and powerful. Jesus knows that you cannot take material goods and worldly achievements into the grave, so in the end these kinds of lives are lost. As the country song says, "I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack."

Here's another example: This time it's an example of a metaphorical death, not a literal one. In this death, a baseball player "dies" to the temptation to put the god of money and financial reward ahead of his core values.

A couple of years ago, baseball player Adam LaRoche walked away from a $13 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. He did this because he wanted his son to spend a lot of time with him and the team, and the team's management did not agree. He announced his retirement on Twitter, thanking God for the game of baseball and ending with the hashtag “Family First.”

Fellow players responded by commending LaRoche for "standing up for his beliefs." One said, "Nothing like father and son in the clubhouse. It's a family game."

LaRoche is a Christian who once asked himself the question: "What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,' or do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.' Let's be honest: I don't know anybody who wants their [job] stats."

LaRoche is living -- by dying. He "puts to death" his natural desire for fame and money. What he gets is richly rewarding: fruitfulness and a life of meaning and significance.

You might say that it was easy for him to do this because perhaps he already had earned millions and stashed it away. Maybe. But how much money you have doesn't deliver you from the demon of greed and avarice. Sadly, some of us have had to learn that in hard ways.

Fruitfulness and eternal life are both found in the cross, the daily cross we bear. The Greeks who came to see Jesus were probably mystified by his exit line: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” They saw the cross as a scandalous death and a humiliating defeat. As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, "Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

We Christians proclaim Christ crucified because we know that the cross is the clearest sign of just how far Jesus will go to show us the love of God. Jesus died so that we could receive forgiveness and new life. He gave himself for us to demonstrate the value of a life of self-denial. Such a life is powerfully attractive, and people continue to be drawn by the power of the cross.
I want to end this with a true story.
“One day a Nazi called on a Jewish man, who along with his wife had become Christians. The man asks the Nazi, ‘How many Jews have you killed this week?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh about 25,000.’ The man continued and asked, ‘In this particular village, how many did you kill?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh, I killed everyone in that town.’ The man asked another question, ‘do you ever ask God for forgiveness?’ And the Nazi responds, ‘God doesn’t exist! There is any such thing as forgiveness!’The man continues and says, ‘Alright, my wife is upstairs asleep. She has not heard this conversation. And I’m going to ask her to come down.’ When the wife appeared before them, the husband said to his wife, ‘Levena, this is the man who killed your father, your mother, your three brothers, and your two sisters.’ The wife looked at the Nazi for a moment, and then threw her arms around him, kissed him, and said, ‘As God forgives you, I forgive you!’”

Let's follow where the Cross leads us, toward fruitful service and eternal life. Let us each find our cross and deny some natural desire in our lives and live for what we can take with us when we too make our exit. Let us follow Christ by offering forgiveness not only to those who may have hurts, by especially to ourselves. Let us walk with our cross with open abandonment and patience, because when we exit, we too will have an exit line. We know not when the Lord will take us, but we must always be ready. And with that, let me leave one last thing for you to ponder.
A man approaches the gates of heaven and asks to be allowed to enter. “Tell me one good thing you did in your life,” asks St. Peter. “Well,” says the man, “I saw a group of punks harassing an elderly lady, so I ran up and kicked their leader in the shins.” St. Peter’s impressed. “When did this happen?” “About 40 seconds ago.”
Let us pray.
That those in civil governance will dedicate themselves to justice, peace, authentic freedom, and the generous defense of the poor. We pray to the Lord.
That our parish will grow in holiness so that we will always love one another with perfect charity. We pray to the Lord.
That God will cleanse the world of all errors, banish disease, comfort those who mourn, grant safety to travelers, love for those who differ from us, health to the sick, and salvation to the dying. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to be ambassadors of Christ in the world. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week as we follow Lent toward Holy Week that begins this coming Sunday known as Palm Sunday, to live in greater faithfulness and love for Christ our Lord. We pray to the Lord.
We especially pray for those of our parish and their personal needs that they may be granted assistance and hope. And for those in our parish who are suffering from illness that they may be granted healing. We pray to the Lord.
We continue to pray for an end to violence and that within this country that allows the bearing of arms, that those who do bear these arms may not use them against fellow human beings. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, forgive our evildoing and remember our sin no more. Let us always be prepared for our inevitable exit of this world, by being Your faithful children throughout our lives. Help us to prepare our hearts for the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Your Son. Help us to find greater peace and tranquility with a humble heart, as we continue the final weeks of Lent in preparation for the great solemnity of Christ’s resurrection. We ask all this, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Monday, March 5, 2018

March 4, 2018
The Third Sunday in Lent
(1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
Today, we hear of Jesus’ chasing out the money changers vendors from the Temple. I want to twist this a little and place out reading as an inspiration for our inner temples. By encountering Christ, we too can chase out the troublesome areas out of ourselves and become more fully aware of Christ this Lent. I want to talk about five ways to encounter Christ. With hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters, which are part of the teachings of the Church and supported by sacred Scripture, connect us logically as well as emotionally. As we continue our journey through Lent, sometimes it helps us to find new ways to encounter Christ during this time of preparation.
If you were brought up as an evangelical Christian you would constantly be made aware of the need to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I think being a Catholic we too can come to be aware of the true potential of such an idea. It may not be a common theme, but it certainly is subtly taught in ongoing ways.
In the evangelical world, the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” sometimes seems as transient as a butterfly. It is difficult to catch and keep alive. Usually, the personal encounter with Christ is expected to begin when a person “got saved” or “accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.”
While such personal experiences are valuable, they can be difficult to pin down. This is because the personal experience encouraged by evangelicals is subjective and very often highly emotional. A typical way that an evangelical might “get saved” is to hear the Gospel preached at church or at a “revival” or at a “crusade.” Having heard the Gospel and felt the need to accept Christ, the person walks down the aisle and prays with another Christian — repenting of sins and praying to “accept Jesus Christ.” They are then considered saved and a Christian. For Catholics, it is a bit more intellectual, mystical and involved.
The problem is that many of these events are highly managed. The preachers have a formula for inducing feelings of guilt and shame. More psychological than intellectual. These feelings are often combined with warnings about hell and the promise of heaven. Before the preaching, there is emotional hymn singing that helps the person suspend doubts and get into a “group mentality.” If you think my sermons are long, the sermons of evangelicals tend to be very long and meant to be very persuasive, and they are followed with more music designed to tug at a person’s emotions. It is very likely, therefore, that emotionally vulnerable people will indeed feel sorry for their sins and go forward to tearfully accept Jesus.
They are told that they are now “saved,” bound for heaven, and nothing they can do could ever destroy the decision they have made. But, is this sufficient for them to enter eternal life when they die?
No doubt such decisions are helpful and are often a good first step toward a Christian commitment. I have known many people who point to such experiences as the true moment of their conversions to Christ. Therefore, I would not want to discount such religious experiences. They are very real and meaningful, and surely the Holy Spirit is present at such moments.
However, it is necessary to be honestly critical. The emotional conversion experience might be genuine, but, then again, it might simply be an artificially manufactured emotional moment induced by a well-meaning preacher in the lives of emotionally vulnerable listeners. It might be a genuine conversion experience, or it might be no more than a momentary emotional rush. Catholics who are not properly formed may also have a religious experience that is just as transient.
This is why the Catholic Church teaches that there are five objective means through which we can have an encounter with Christ.
Various catechisms teach in some fashion that Christ Jesus, who died and who was raised from the dead and who is at the right hand of God, is the one who intercedes for us and is present in many ways to His Church; in His word; in His Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name”; in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned; in the person of the minister or priest; and in the Sacraments, of which He is the author, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. But, we believe that He is most especially present in the Holy Eucharist.
The Catholic encounter with Christ is, therefore, not a vague, personal, emotional experience. It is a concrete, real and objective experience. The experience is objective because it is rooted in the historical events of the Gospel and the sacred history of the Church and her Saints. It is an experience that can be guaranteed no matter what our emotions might tell us. Regardless of our emotional state before or after receiving the Blessed Eucharist, Christ is truly present in the Miracle of the changed host.
As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, we encounter Christ in the sacred Scriptures. Reading the Scripture lessons of the day before we go to Mass, studying the Bible and reading the Bible on our own will bring us face-to-face with Jesus. Before we read the lessons, we should ask the Holy Spirit to enable this encounter. Study what Lectio Divina means and develop a practice of this form Biblical reading and prayer.
We encounter Christ in the assembly of the faithful. “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus says, “there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The Church is not only where we meet our Catholic friends and family. It is where we meet Christ the Lord.
The Church as the Body of Christ and the Body of Believers is a historical and current reality. It is not something we made up or something we wish existed. Whether we feel emotional about it or not, Christ is present there to meet us. The fact that the Church is often frail, wounded and flawed in her humanity is one of the marks of her authenticity. Someone once said, “If the Church was completely perfect all the time, wouldn’t you be suspicious that it was not real?” Not to mention, as I frequently say, if we were perfect, there would be no need for a church and on the opposing side, if the Church were perfect, none of us would be allowed in it because of our imperfection. Many who have stopped attending churches as a whole have forgotten this. We should not blame the church for an individual’s failings, because it is in the very church we criticize that Christ is truly present!
The third way we encounter Christ is in the person of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and dying (Matthew 25). Whenever we are involved in working with the poor, visiting people in hospice care or in the hospital, or being involved in prison work and other charitable endeavors, we have a direct encounter with Christ. Saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Vincent de Paul affirm these truths. When we work with the needy, we have a chance to see Jesus in them, and this encounter with Christ is real, powerful and concrete. St. Mother Teresa might ask, “Do you want to encounter Christ? Work with the poor.”
The fourth way we encounter Christ is in the person of the priest. This is not simply that we see Jesus when the priest is celebrating Mass. We also meet Christ in a profound way as we get to know and love our priests. Jesus is hidden there not only in their gifts of love, mercy and administration of the Sacraments. Jesus is also hidden there in their human frailties and weakness. If we have eyes to see, then we will love and treasure our priests, because even in their humanity they are revealing Jesus to us.
We become emotionally angry when our priests don’t quite live up to the standard or pedestal that some put them on. No priest is a perfect Christ, because they too, like you, are human and imperfect. They represent Christ; they are not Christ. Though the Holy Spirit does work through these individuals, they do make mistakes, they do sin and sometimes they commit grave crimes. Fortunately, those who commit grave crimes, however, are very few, but so many will lose their faith over that one priest or bishop that somehow failed them. Studies show that those priests amount to a single digit percentage of the whole, however. Those few have made it hard for the rest of us, just as bad politicians ruin it for those who truly serve their constituents. Priests need our prayers to be faithful and remain fast in their own struggles.
Finally, we encounter Christ in the Sacraments of the Church. The seven Sacraments are not mere religious rituals. They are the objective, physical and historical means through which Jesus comes to meet us. They are physical signs of invisible grace. No emotional tugs, merely actual physicality’s of Christ’s presence in His Church. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and it is through these Sacramental signs that our covenant with Christ is solemnly sealed.
These five ways are real encounters with Christ, which do not depend on the fickleness of our emotions. Nevertheless, when we approach these five examples with hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters will also be deeply emotional. As we read the Scriptures, pray with Christ’s Church, minister to those in need, learn to love our priests and treasure the Sacraments, with our hearts open to the mysteries of God’s love, we encounter in a real, powerful and personal way Jesus Christ the Lord.
So, even though we may not have revivals or crusades, we have physical reminders or spiritual powers that Christ bestowed on His Apostles that has been carried down through the ages and used to physically give grace without emotional feelings being induced. There is so much more than coming forward to be prayed over and waiting for the Holy Spirit to push you over. Here, we experience Christ ministering through His ministers in very real physical ways.
We do indeed have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in different, subtle and physical ways through rituals long introduced by God Himself to the Israelites many millennia ago and handed down through the ages to now. God wanted us to worship Him in ritual and liturgy, made obvious by His command to the High Priest’s in ancient Judacia. Jesus respected and participated in these rituals that were handed down, and commanded the Apostles to do the same, and so here we are.
Being a Catholic is more than just a religion; we are encouraged to make it a way of life and in so doing, we have a personal relationship with Christ as well. It is more than Mass on Sundays. We should take use of the many mini rituals, prayers and practices that come to Catholics. Lectio Divina, the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, Novenas, daily structured prayer, little statues and icons in our homes, holy cards/prayer cards, and so much more than what other churches have or teach. When we do all this, we have a relationship with Christ; we have a way of life.
Let us pray.
That we may obey the Ten Commandments as God’s gift pointing us toward a life truly free and fulfilling. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism and religious persecution, and that God’s peace will reign through the world. We pray to the Lord.
That our political leaders will stop the constant disagreements and to start to truly work for the safety of the people. That these same politicians will not side with a particular industry simply because they supply various financial assistance and finally, once and for all, commit to legislation that will make it harder for weapons such as combat guns and accessories from being allowed into the hands of those who commit heinous crimes such as we have been seeing ever increasingly, especially this year. We pray to the Lord.
That those suffering from mental illness, anger misplacement, inappropriate social behavior or other causes that create an environment for violence, will seek and/or be taken to the help they need to better manage their emotions without resorting to violence and that they will be lifted up through the power of Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to renew and deepen our efforts at genuine Lenten observance and deepen our desire for an encounter with Our Lord Christ. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, You have proved Your love for us through Christ who died for us. Let us always remain faithful to that love. Help us all to work together in love for our fellow human beings. Merciful God, You invite us to repentance so that we can find the happiness we are seeking. Help us to trust more deeply in the Good News of salvation so that we can turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. This Lent, as we pray more devoutly and listen to Your Word more attentively, may we encounter You in ways we have discerned today and thus may our hearts be transformed by the saving love of the Cross. We ask all these things, as we ask all things, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA