By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Gift of Clear Vision

A few days ago I received a new set of eyeglasses. They’re called “progressives,” which I think is meant to be a nicer and gentler term than “bifocals.” It could, of course, also have something to do with the fact that I am “progressing” in age, but I would rather not digress in that direction. The challenge for me now is to grow accustomed to looking through one part of the lens for general sight and the other for reading. I need to adapt to a whole new way of seeing.

This is perhaps a helpful way of explaining the parable of Jesus that we heard at Mass yesterday. He is inviting his listeners to an entirely new way of seeing life. When you are invited to a wedding banquet, he says, take not the place of honour but the lowest place. To human nature that tends toward self-aggrandizement, Jesus is offering a corrective lens, one that is truly “progressive,” that enables us to see clearly the truth of ourselves and to act accordingly.

That lens, in fact, is Jesus himself. He is truly and fully divine; and he is truly and fully human. When we encounter Jesus Christ, we see with perfect clarity the truth about God, and in that light we come to see clearly as well the truth concerning our human nature. Apart from Jesus our vision goes out of focus; with and through him we see clearly. In him what comes plainly into view is the truth that God, who has created us, loves us and draws near to his people in mercy and compassion, even to the point of giving over his Son for the sake of our salvation. When our vision of God is clarified, we see the truth about ourselves: that we are creatures, dependent entirely upon God, and that we are the objects of his infinite love and need never be afraid, need never strive to become anyone other than who we are.

This helps us understand what is being taught in the Scripture readings of yesterday concerning humility. In the Gospel parable Jesus invites us to act humbly. In the first reading from Sirach, we are encouraged to perform all of our tasks with humility. The humble are those who see clearly and who act in accordance with the truth that is seen. We see the truth through the lens that is Jesus. His grace enables us to appropriate it and thus to acknowledge God for who he is and to accept ourselves as he has made us.

Many of our young people are returning to school this week. My prayer is that they will be open to the many ways in which Jesus comes to meet them, and that, in their encounter with the Lord, they will receive properly focused vision. I pray that they will come to know the truth about themselves and every human being described so beautifully by Pope Benedict in his first homily as our Holy Father: “Everyone is the result of a thought of God; everyone is willed, loved and necessary.” This is the true vision of ourselves that follows from the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. It enables us to live both humbly and freely as the children of God. Young people today are offered many different “lenses” through which to view reality. The Lord alone enables them to see without distortion. Let us do all that we must in order to lead them to Him.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Truth and Beauty beyond the Haze

Over the past few days the province of Alberta has been blanketed in a thick haze of smoke from forest fires raging in British Columbia. Here in Edmonton we have noticed a significant reduction in visibility because of it. At its worst concentration, the haze prevented us from seeing even across our river valley from one side to another. Beautiful views of the valley were obscured from sight. Now that the smoke is beginning to dissipate the beauty is coming once again into focus.

The Scripture readings of yesterday place before our eyes a beautiful vista: God’s desire to save the whole world. This is expressed in the first reading from Isaiah, who foresees a great gathering of people from all over the world in Jerusalem, the site of God’s dwelling (cf. Isaiah 66:18-21). This is a vision of salvation, which involves all people, drawn together by God into the folds of his loving embrace. This vision is given confirmation in the teaching of Jesus, the Son of God and Saviour, who speaks in terms of a festive banquet to which people from the east, west, north and south will come to sit at the table of the Lord (cf. Luke 13:22-30). God’s love is for all; His will to save is universal in its intention.

The “smoke” that obscures this vision from sight comes from the “fire” we call works-righteousness. By this term is meant the understanding that we can somehow earn salvation by the simple observance of the commandments of God and the doing of good works. In the Gospels Jesus is constantly pointing out the fallacy of this thinking, to the scribes and Pharisees in particular. Salvation is the work of God, it is pure gift. In no way can it be earned. This theme is taken up often by St. Paul in his letters. This “fire,” by placing the emphasis upon ourselves, results in a “smoke” that obscures from view the desire of God to touch, to heal and to save all people. Furthermore, analogous to the smoke of the wildfires, that of self-righteousness can be toxic. It can give rise to pride in one’s “goodness” and to a self-righteous judgment of others.

This is not to say that there is to be no cooperation on our part with the saving work of God in our lives. Jesus speaks of the necessity of entering through a “narrow door” into his kingdom. How might we understand this? Again, the example of the wildfires and their smoke can help us.

Fires need fuel. The wildfires of B.C. are feeding upon the forests. What fuels the fire of self-righteousness? This can be any number of things. The human heart contains much that can make us feel we need to earn the notice, love and respect of others: loneliness; life’s hurts and rejections, the imposition of expectations impossible to fulfill; and so on. If we experience this need to earn love in human relationships, it is but a small step to project this into our relationship with God. But God’s love simply cannot be earned. It doesn’t need to be. It is freely poured out upon each and every person he has created. In Jesus His Son, he has made that love both visible and tangible. By touching us with divine love, Jesus heals the hurts within us that fuel the “fire” and enables us to taste, even now, the joy of salvation, the delight of being found by God and restored to life. But this means allowing Jesus to draw close, to humbly and trustingly hold out to him the pains of our lives, so that “what is lame may ... be healed” (Hebrews 12:13). As Jesus says in the Gospel, a superficial relationship with him, as if with a mere acquaintance, is not enough. He wants us to know him and to know ourselves as truly known by him. Bringing our pains to the Lord for healing may be difficult at first, like passing through a very narrow door, but it is necessary if we are truly to encounter him as our saving Lord. The Holy Spirit helps us here. Unlike the winds that fan the flames of the forest fires, the gentle breeze of the Spirit is cool refreshment. He reminds us of the truth of God’s love and gently leads us to a healing encounter with Christ.

Communion with Christ starves works-righteousness of its fuel. In it we experience the truth that we are loved by God simply for who we are, not for who we try to be. This sets us free for service so that, when the smoke disappears and the wondrous vista of God’s universal love comes into clear sight, we will give of ourselves to share that love with others.

Monday, August 16, 2010

From Treadmill to Trust

We are familiar with the strong emphasis given these days to being healthy and fit. People are responding to this in large numbers, often through membership in fitness clubs. These places are filled with many kinds of wonderful exercise machines, like treadmills and stationary bicycles that can give a good workout. If you go in to one of these places you see a very interesting sight: people using the machines are running like mad, peddling like crazy, rowing for all they’re worth … and everyone is going absolutely nowhere. People get totally exhausted but there’s no movement, no direction.

It’s a good analogy for the times in which we find ourselves. We live in a treadmill society. People are very busy, caught up in all kinds of activities, without having any sense of where it is all going. When we lack a sense of direction, we lose meaning and purpose, and that can give way to confusion, anxiety, even despair.

Yesterday the Church celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption, which teaches that life does, in fact, have a destination, that we are moving in a certain direction. It is a dogma of the faith that Mary, at the end of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven. Because of her unique relation with her son Jesus, and the distinctive role she played in the history of salvation, Mary was given the singular privilege of being preserved from the corruption of the tomb. Although this blessing sets her apart from all others in a wondrous and beautiful way, nevertheless the destination of glory is one that she shares with all of humanity. As St. Paul teaches us in First Corinthians (cf. 1Cor.15:20-27), in Christ all shall be brought to life. Mary’s assumption is a sign that reminds all of us of the destiny that awaits Gods faithful people. In the words of the preface for the Mass, Mary’s assumption is “a sign of hope and comfort for God’s people on their pilgrim way”.

Our world needs this message of hope today. Like you, I am deeply troubled and saddened by the hurt and violence that is prevalent. It is present in families, in communities, and among nations. Reasons for this are multiple, but I believe a common source of so many of our problems today is fear, the fear that arises from a treadmill existence, the fear that is born in the heart when we have no sense of direction and hence no grasp of purpose or meaning. This fear turns us in upon ourselves and drives us to try and assert some control over our lives. This turns us away from others, sometimes against others, as we defensively try to protect ourselves against a world that seems very hostile and foreboding.

The antidote to this fear is trust, first and foremost in the love and nearness of God. Such trust frees us from anxiety, and fear is replaced by hope, joy and freedom to care for others.

Mary assures us that God is worthy of our trust. The Magnificat proclaimed in the Gospel (cf. Luke 1:39-56) is her great response to her encounter with God through the angel Gabriel. She had announced to her that God, faithful to his promises, was about to come to save his people from all that threatened them and their destiny, that he would do so by sending his Son, and that she would have a unique role to play in that plan of salvation by giving birth to the Saviour. Mary believed in the Word of God, she placed her entire trust in his promise, and gave her fiat: “be it done unto me according to your word.” From this trust, from this unconditional surrender to the love and the plan of God there arose in Mary a deep joy: “My spirit rejoices,” she said, “in God my savior.” This joy moved her to service. She ran in haste to help her cousin Elizabeth, who was with child.

Joy, freedom, service – these arise when we accept the truth that God exists, that God calls us to himself, that God is at work in our lives to lead us to our destiny, and that God is always faithful to his promises. When we seek to eclipse God from our lives and surrender to a treadmill existence the result is the opposite: fear and its attendant consequences: competition, isolation and violence.

Please join me in prayer that, with the help of the Blessed Virgin’s intercession, trust in the love and nearness of God will take root in the hearts of people today. May this confidence awaken all from the sleep of a treadmill existence to the truth of God’s loving plan for humanity. Trust in the fidelity and closeness of God can transform the anxiety and hurt experienced by many into the joy, peace and freedom that God wills for all of his children.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Getting Ready for the Visit

When I was a parish priest I enjoyed getting out to visit parishioners in their homes whenever I could. Usually I would do this in one of two ways: either I would call ahead and make an appointment or I would simply show up at the door. You can imagine the difference in response as the door was opened. If I had called ahead the door would be opened wide, I would be welcomed in and offered something to drink along with some delicious food that they “just happened” to have on hand. When I would show up unannounced, often the window curtain would be pulled back a little to see who was at the door and I would then hear some muffled cries and panicky activity before the door was opened and I was almost invariably asked not to look at the mess.

In yesterday’s Gospel for Sunday Mass the Lord reminds us of a truth of the faith that we proclaim every time we profess the Creed, namely, that he will come again in judgment to take us to himself. Of course we do not know when this will happen. The Lord will simply show up. The inescapable conclusion from this is that we must be ready at all times to welcome the Lord. This readiness is having our “house” in order, which means knowing and loving the Lord, listening to his Word and following his teachings as given in Scripture and the doctrine of the Church, being reconciled with one another and caring for the needy. In short, being ready means living an authentic Christian life.

Now, it would be rather unusual if, in advance of my visit to your home, I went a few days early to clean it myself. Yet that is precisely what the Lord does to the “home” of our hearts. Conversion and renewal is God’s work. We cannot, by ourselves, convert to him and get our lives in order. The Lord wants us for himself, he desires our conversion and our response of love, and he, by his grace, teaches us, shows us the way, and puts things in order by healing us and drawing us to ever deeper conversion. What is necessary is that we trust him and open the door of our hearts to his healing grace.

This is what faith is all about. We trust that all things are held in God’s hand and we surrender our entire lives to his care and saving will. The passage at Mass yesterday from the Letter to the Hebrews is a beautiful explanation of faith as it has been manifested in some of our ancestors.
Our beautiful faith is being shown in the lives of people today, too. For example, two important events in the life of the Church occurred over the past few days, gatherings of people of faith in faith. In Ottawa the national convention of the Catholic Women’s League of Canada got under way yesterday. I had the great privilege of being their national spiritual advisor for five years. This experience gave me firsthand knowledge of the devotion of these women to the faith of the Church and their commitment to putting that faith in practice by addressing the issues of the day in the light of the Gospel, particularly by the passing of resolutions related to a host of issues and calling upon both the government and the members of the CWL to action. It is often said, and it is true, that if you want to get an accurate picture of the issues the people of today are grappling with and that need the light of the Gospel, just pay attention to the resolutions of the CWL. These women are a great blessing to the Church and our country.

The second event was the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus, held last week in Washington D.C. I was blessed to be able to attend. These men are fully committed to living the consequences of their faith in Christ, especially through charitable outreach. The amount of money and volunteer hours that they commit each year, for example, in outreach to the poor and needy, and in defense of the sanctity of life and marriage is truly extraordinary. They are not afraid to wear their faith on their sleeves and to stand up and be counted. They give wonderful witness to the truth and beauty of the faith and to the joy of life in the Church. This witness can give much needed hope to the people of our day.

Both the CWL and the Knights of Columbus are examples of how to be “ready” to meet the Lord when he comes. They recognize that faith, and life itself, is a gift which must, therefore, be stewarded. May their example help all of us to be ready to open the door to the Lord when he comes for that all-important visit!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Faith: Stepping out of the Boat

How do you respond to adversity when you are powerless to do anything about it? This is the question raised – and answered – by the Gospel for today (August 3rd). It is the familiar narrative of Jesus rescuing his disciples, who were caught in a terrible storm on the sea (cf. Matthew 14:22-36). The disciples are terrified; in the face of crisis they panic. Jesus walks on the sea to reach them. He is unmoved by the waves. The Lord seeks to calm them by the simple assurance that it is he whom they see, that he is with them. Once he steps into the boat with them, the storm ceases and they are safe. The disciples bow down to him in recognition that he is the Son of God.

In the middle of the narrative, Peter says: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” The Lord did so and Peter stepped out of the boat. Whenever I read this account I wonder if I could have done that. Could I have stepped out of the boat into the raging sea? Whenever we find ourselves in the midst of adversity beyond our control, that is precisely what Jesus asks us to do. There are basically two possible responses to crisis: fear or faith. In this narrative we are taught precisely what faith means: recognition of our powerlessness, placing our trust in the unlimited power of Christ, who loves us, following where he leads and believing that he will bring about the miracle that saves us. Notice that Peter actually asked the Lord to command him to get out of the boat. At first read it would seem that Peter was rather more bold than intelligent, but further reflection uncovers something important in his request. Placing our faith in the unlimited power of Christ can at times mean taking steps that we would rather not take, that might seem fraught with danger or difficulty. The key is to take them with Christ, confident in his presence and love, and keeping our eyes fixed more on him than on the adversity.

We don’t like to be powerless; we prefer to be in control. In so many ways control is an illusion that evaporates in the face of hardship and leaves us feeling terrified. What the disciples experienced in the storm on the sea is repeated in our own lives in a variety of ways. A faith that still doubts is what Jesus calls “little faith”. Do we doubt the love of the Lord and his power, even as we profess our belief in him? The answer to this becomes clear in the way we respond to adversity. An initial response of fear or worry can be natural enough, but do we choose to remain in the fear? Jesus summons us to the faith that decides to place all of our confidence in his power and love, which are real, and not in the illusion of our own control. By turning to him and taking the steps he asks us in love to take, we put our faith in action and discover anew why Jesus is the reason for our hope.