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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fast from Fear

Last week I attended in Victoria BC the annual meeting of the Bishops of Western and Northern Canada. Twice during our time there we heard news reports of earthquakes that had occurred toward the northern part of Vancouver Island. They registered just over 4 on the Richter scale, so we felt nothing.

Those, it seems to me, were a far cry from the “earthquakes” that impact us frequently and that we can, indeed, feel. I’m referring not to the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, but to the shaking of the foundations upon which we build our personal, familial and societal existence.

Think of the “earthquake” that hits a family through sudden illness, injury or death. When the home”s economic foundation crumbles due to unemployment, the aftershocks can be very dramatic. At the level of society, the bedrock principle of respect for life is giving way to the shifting sand of “individual autonomy” and the population sinks into the quagmire of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. Geopolitically, political foundations are far from stable, robbing peoples by the millions of the security of home and forcing them to flee for their lives, often to countries that are hesitant to welcome them.

The seismic shifts affecting life at all these levels is giving rise to widespread angst and worry. I see this most dramatically and tragically in the lives of children. Suicides and suicidal ideation among the young are too frequently headlining our news broadcasts.

Into this environment of anxiety are spoken the words of Christ that were proclaimed at mass on Sunday: “Don’t worry!” (cf. Matthew 6: 24-34) The Lord reminds us that there is, in fact, a foundation that is absolutely secure, that will never crumble, and on which we can always find secure footing. That which alone can solidly ground our lives is the love and providence of our Heavenly Father. This is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture. Jesus looks at the flowers and birds, points out how they are arrayed and cared for, and then makes the obvious point that we are far more precious in the eyes of God than they are. If God looks after these small things, how much more can we be sure he will look after us!

So what must we do? Trust. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God. By this he means that our first decision of each day is to surrender in trust to the rule of God in our lives. Should we do that, then all that is truly needed will be given.

This suggests a direction for us to take as we enter this week into the holy season of Lent. We are accustomed to “giving up” something. Let’s consider giving up self-reliance and choose to rely instead on the steadfast love and sure providence of God. We fast in Lent from a variety of things. The words of the Lord are an invitation to fast from fear. Replace the default reaction of fear with the deliberate decision to believe in the love of God.

“Earthquakes” happen; dark times arise. While we often cannot control the occurrence, we can always control how we respond. Jesus summons us to choose faith over fear and thus to know the joy of living in the rock-solid love of our Father in heaven.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bad Tasting Medicine

There is a lot of cold and flu going around, so it’s not surprising to see many cold medications advertised on television. One in particular always captures my attention. It makes no secret of the fact that the medicine it is trying to sell tastes positively awful, but is effective. They’re right. I’ve tried it. Every spoonful is time off from Purgatory, but it does seem to do the trick.

In the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 5:38-38), Jesus prescribes a remedy for a disease far worse than the cold or flu. It is a malady of the soul, which currently is infecting vast swathes of peoples: anger and division. Symptomatic is the harsh bitterness with which people are fighting over political policies, warring over territories, closing borders to refugees or attacking people because of their religion. It spreads like a virus, often through means of social communication, which bring far-away conflicts into our own living spaces and engender doubt, confusion and anger within our own hearts. Commonly prescribed is the medicine of vengeance, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yet this is no remedy at all. It serves, rather, to exacerbate things and causes the virus to spread even more rapidly and widely.

Jesus gives us the medication, which alone can effect a cure. Yet, it can seem very bad to the taste, indeed, almost impossible to swallow: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Here we might easily be tempted to find another doctor. Yet it is precisely here that we find an example of what St. Paul means when he says that divine wisdom can seem like foolishness to purely human ways of thinking (cf.1Cor 3: 16-23). Is it not natural to want to hit back? Is it not simply a matter of weakness to forgive?

In point of fact, what Jesus demands of his followers requires great strength. He is not asking us to be wimps. Our call, in the face of anger, bitterness and attacks, is, in fact, to stand our ground and say we shall have nothing to do with this kind of behaviour and thus refuse to return it in kind. The easy way out is vengeance. To meet hatred with mercy is the far more difficult road.

Is it even possible to take this medicine? Yes, but not without the help of Christ. On the Cross, he absorbed the worst of human malice. His response was mercy and forgiveness, which halted the evil in its tracks. It cured the disease.

Let’s pray that this grace of the Cross of Christ enable us take the medicine he prescribes, even if ill-tasting, and thus become his true disciples, agents not of bitterness and division but of mercy and communion. Love of the other, especially the enemy, is needed is very large doses right now.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Playing by the Rules

It was a blast!! You may have read on our Twitter accounts (@CAEDM, @archbsmith) that the Archdiocese of Edmonton teamed up last Friday with the Edmonton Oil Kings to host a Faith and Fun night at Rogers Place. Nearly 1000 parishioners gathered for the Oil Kings game against the Regina Pats, as well as for a pre-game event. Lots and lots of fun. I must admit that part of the fun was watching all the double-takes among the people as they saw priests in collars and friars in habits walking in the corridors and seated in the stands. They must have momentarily wondered if they were in the right place!

As I watched the game unfold, I found my attention drawn to two things. First was the way the game flowed freely as the players exercised their considerable skill in skating, handling the puck etc. Second was the keen and practiced awareness that the players had of the rules of the game. The two are obviously connected. What made the game flow freely was adherence to the rules. When the rules were infringed (offside, penalty) the free flow of the competition ended as the game was brought to a halt.

What was at work in the game is a principle by which we live daily: rules (or law) make freedom possible; they do not inhibit its exercise. To take just one other example, the free flow of vehicles on our roads is made possible by common adherence to traffic laws.

This necessary relationship between law and freedom is the heart of the message proclaimed by the Scripture readings of Sunday, specifically the inseparable connection between God’s law and human liberty. It is also at the centre of dramatic events unfolding in our society.

God fashioned us with the gift of freedom. This is implicitly affirmed by the passage from Sirach (15:15-20), which calls to mind the human capacity for choice. The ability to choose presumes freedom.The ultimate choice God desires from us is that by which we choose to love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul. That we may know how properly to use the gift of freedom, God has given us the gift of his law, particularly as expressed in the commandments. As it is true in our daily experience of human relating, so, too, and all the more so, in our relationship with God: God’s law enables our freedom; it is not opposed to it. The goodness of God’s law, and the necessity of adherence to it, is affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel. He, who has come to liberate from the hold of sin our God-given freedom (cf. Galatians 5:1), teaches that he has come not to abolish but to fulfil the law of God (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). 

The words and deeds of Jesus Christ underscore with brilliant clarity the truth that we cannot live fully and freely the human life God intends for us apart from adherence to the divine law. We have to play by the rules of the game.

Yet it is precisely this truth that we see challenged today by a mindset that understands God’s law as an infringement upon my liberty. According to this way of thinking, the law of God must be ignored if I am to find fulfilment, to achieve my desires. The legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the service of “autonomy” is the latest lethal consequence of this. Yet, if I am a law unto myself, then I am no different than a hockey player who makes up the rules as he goes to suit himself. This is not freedom; it is license. It causes us to bang into each other and brings the game very quickly to a halt. We experience not freedom but slavery. We become enslaved to the pursuit of desire, and the “game” of life generally is held captive to competing self-interest.

To paraphrase St. Paul, we cannot even begin to comprehend the wondrous and beautiful things God is holding in store for us, his beloved children (cf. 1Corinthians 2:9). Out of trust in his love and providence, we allow God to guide our lives by adhering to his law, which is, in fact, the gift of his love. Let us embrace his commandments! Only thus shall we truly be free.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Salt is Good for Us

Now, before all the health experts get too upset, let me explain: by the title of this post I am lifting up a teaching of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel, not offering an assessment of the place of salt in our diet.

In the Gospel passage proclaimed on the weekend (Matthew 5:13-16), Jesus is teaching about the mission he is entrusting to his disciples. He begins by comparing them to salt, of all things: “You are the salt of the earth.” To those whose thoughts might turn immediately to a salt shaker in the middle of the kitchen table, the analogy might seem rather strange. At the time of Jesus, salt exercised an extraordinarily important role, not only as a seasoner but also as a preservative (no refrigerators then!), keeping food from corruption. In this way Jesus is underscoring the great importance of Christian mission. The follower of Jesus is called to preserve the truth of God’s love and of his universal call to salvation, and, in this way, to guard against the corruption that arises from the lie that God does not care, that God limits our freedom, or even that God does not exist.

How to do this? Well, to answer this Jesus makes use of another analogy to describe the life of the disciple: “You are the light of the world.” We preserve truth and guard against the lie by reflecting to our world the light that Jesus is. I love the way the Fathers of the Church explained the mystery of the Church by comparison with the moon. Just as the light that shines from the moon at night is but a reflection of that of the sun, so the Church gives light by reflecting that of the Lord himself, who alone is Light for all people. We reflect this light by our good works. “[Let] your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That this light is urgently needed in our time escapes no one, I am sure. Things seem very dark and dangerous in our world right now. Angry protests mix with fear of terror to create an environment of division and toxicity. Only when light shines to dispel this darkness will hope arise in our hearts. Our role as followers of the Lord is to be this light by so embracing the truth and shunning the lie that we are free to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, right injustices (cf. Isaiah 58:6-10 - first reading on Sunday). By allowing these good works of ours to “shine”, we show that there is another way, a clear alternative to the moral darkness and confusion that abounds, namely, the way of the Gospel. This light places everything in proper perspective, gives understanding, and demonstrates the reason for hope.

Pass the salt, please. Humanity needs Christians to embrace their mission.