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

This picture shows one of the panels on the holy door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I have always loved it, and it speaks beautifully of the Good Shepherd reaching out to save the lost. That's the reason for hope.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The First Candle

First of four, that is. I’m speaking of the Advent wreath. The progressive lighting of its four candles through the four weeks of Advent marks the drawing near of our celebration of the Lord’s nativity at Christmas. This ritual began yesterday on the First Sunday of Advent.

I hope we do more than light candles.

Advent is serious business. It highlights our need to prepare, to be ready, for the Lord’s coming! This requires deliberate and serious attention. This holy season points us not only to our commemoration of the Lord’s coming among us as a child born of the Virgin Mary but also to his coming again at the end of time and to his many “advents” in our daily lives now. The Scripture passages for Sunday teach us that readiness is a matter of having our lives rightly ordered. What does that mean?

An important symbol is the “mountain of the Lord” spoken of in the prophecy of Isaiah (2:1-5). All nations, says the prophet, will stream to this mountain, established as the highest. The mountain refers to Jerusalem. There was found the Temple, God’s dwelling and thus the place of worship. From there would go forth instruction. A rightly ordered life is one in which all of its aspects are ordered to God. The worship of God is the first and highest priority, from which follows the desire to receive his instruction and have one’s entire life enlightened by his Word. When the worship of God and obedience to his Word are given first place, all else falls into proper place. St. Paul (Romans 13:11-14) likens this to waking up from sleep, casting off darkness and living in the light.

So becoming ready through getting our lives rightly ordered means taking a serious look at how we are living and asking questions such as: what do I, in fact, worship? Myself? My possessions? Reputation? Desires? And from where do I take instruction? To what voices am I listening and giving my trust? Do I turn to the Internet? Social media? Magazines? TV shows? What is shaping my mindset?

These are tough and challenging questions, but they cannot be postponed. When Jesus speaks in the Gospel of his return (cf. Matthew 24:37-44), he makes clear that he will come at a time we simply cannot know. The conclusion is clear: the time to get our lives in order is now.

Advent is not about candles on a wreath. It is about having a life that is enlightened by right order. May God grant us the grace to clear up any disorder in our lives and thus to be ready to greet him joyfully when he comes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Who Rules?

In the aftermath of the American presidential election we see that some people are having difficulty accepting the choice. This makes clear that the election of a leader is not the end of the story. That choice has to be accepted if governance by the leader is to be effective.

This is precisely what is at issue in the Scripture passages assigned for Sunday’s celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King (2Samuel 5:1-3; Colossians 1: 12-20; Luke 23: 35-43). The Church recognizes that Jesus, crucified and risen, has been designated by God as King of heaven and earth, appointed by the Almighty Father to rule over all creation. Do we accept his rule?

This question is not just abstract or theoretical. It bears directly upon our lives in a way that is increasingly urgent.

Think of what we are allowing to govern us now, and I don't mean politically. Recent news reports are filled with stories of an opioid crisis, especially around the drug fentanyl. In the attempt to escape pain people are growing addicted to deadly drugs and many are losing their lives. This is governance by addiction, and we know that such rule is not limited to opioids. There are addictions to other drugs, to alcohol, gambling, to shopping, and - what is especially prevalent - to the mobile device. We can also allow ourselves to be governed by fear and worry, anger and bitterness, by illusory desires, by how we look or the possessions we have or don't have. I am sure you can amplify the list. In these ways we make choices all the time about what will govern or rule our lives, but what we are electing is totalitarian rule; our choices leave us unfree, wrapped in the straitjacket of self-absorption.

Is this the rule we want? Of course not. Neither is it what God wants for us. This is why he has sent Jesus to us. In the words of St. Paul, by giving us Jesus God has brought us out of a kingdom, a rule, of darkness, into a kingdom of light. When we accept his rule in our lives, Jesus leads us from darkness to light, from captivity to true freedom.

How do we, in fact, accept the rule of Christ in our lives? Consider the Gospel passage, which depicts Jesus on the Cross between two thieves.

The first and obvious thing that catches our attention is that this is a very strange depiction of a king. His throne is a cross. He has been crucified, a punishment reserved to slaves and to the worst of criminals. Furthermore, he is not praised but mocked; not only by soldiers but also by the inscription placed above him: "This is the King of the Jews." St. Paul helps us to understand what we are seeing. This Jesus, he tells us in Colossians, is the one in whom God dwells fully, the one through whom all things in heaven and on earth have been made. In Philippians he tells us that this Jesus has dwelt from all eternity with the Father in heaven, and that he emptied himself fully by becoming human and offering his life on the cross. All of this was done to destroy the rule of sin that had so deeply crushed humanity and to establish a universal reign of peace, justice and reconciliation. Jesus rules by love, by self-gift, by mercy and by forgiveness. This is the rule we are called to accept.

A thief teaches us how.

"Jesus," that thief said, "remember me when you come into your kingdom." This is the thief who, of the two, recognized his wrongdoing and sought the Lord's forgiveness. We accept the rule of Christ by acknowledging our sin and weakness, by admitting the various ways in which we have chosen to govern ourselves or to allow other forces to govern us, and then to repent, to say we are sorry and to ask him in his love and mercy to change our lot and give us the peace he wills for us. We accept his rule by surrendering control of our lives to him, trusting in his love and mercy.

The result is peace. Long ago representatives of the tribes of Israel went to David and asked him to rule over them. These tribes had been warring among themselves and wanted it to end. They recognized that the Lord had chosen David to lead them and bring them peace, and protect them from the hostile nations surrounding them, so the elders anointed David king over them all. By their acceptance of David's rule, division and strife was replaced by unity and peace. This foreshadowed what God planned to do for all of humanity in Christ his Son. By raising him from the dead. God has anointed Jesus king of all creation. When we accept his rule through repentance and surrender, our inner divisions are healed and we are granted a peace that can come from nowhere else.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Closed Door that Remains Open

Yesterday, in cathedrals throughout the world, the closing of Holy Doors marked the end of the Jubilee Year in the local Churches. Pope Francis will close the Holy Door at St. Peter’s in Rome next weekend to bring the Jubilee formally to a close. This signals the termination of a grace-filled time in which we were invited to focus in a particularly close way upon the wondrous gift of God’s mercy. The Jubilee reminded us that, even as we close physical doors in our churches, the doors of mercy in our hearts are to remain always open to receive God’s gift of pardon, first of all, and to share that grace with others through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

When we place this teaching in the context of the Gospel reading for Sunday, we become aware of another holy door opening before us: the door to eternal life. Those two doors - the door of mercy and the door to eternal life - are inseparably linked.

In these last Sundays of the Church year the Scripture readings point us toward the end of time, when Christ will come again in his glory to judge the living and the dead. In so doing they remind us that this life on earth is only temporary. People were shocked when Jesus said that even the strong and magnificent Temple in Jerusalem would come to an end, that not one stone would be left upon another. In other words, all is passing; all is contingent. Only God's love and his plan to save the world in Christ is unshakeable and indestructible. In this light we recognize that life in this passing world is to be lived with an eye to the future one. Here we see the link between the two doors: by keeping open the doors of mercy, as Jesus has commanded, we live in the hope that he will lead us through the door to eternal life.

Such a life of mercy is not without its challenges and even dangers. We heard Jesus warn that the Christian life, authentically lived, will often be met with resistance and even persecution. It is not difficult to see why this is so. When we open doors of mercy we are proclaiming the vision of life that arises from the teaching of Christ himself. The Gospel proposes a worldview that challenges accepted and prevailing viewpoints and mindsets. For this reason, our Gospel proclamation is often met with resistance. We find this verified in our own experience. When we challenge the unholy doors opening around us - doors to practices that threaten human life from beginning to natural end, doors that open onto views of marriage, sexuality and gender that are opposite to God's creative purpose, doors leading to racism and bigotry, poverty and exclusion - then we soon find that we are not very popular. In the face of criticism and pushback we can experience the temptation just to stay quiet, to go along in order to get along. But we know we can't. Indeed, open doors of mercy impel us to speak against anything contrary to human dignity. Jesus assures us not to be afraid but to trust that he will grant us the words to speak. I often think of a parishioner from my days as a parish priest in Nova Scotia. She once told me that she was very nervous about having to confront her child on a difficult and sensitive matter. Her prayer was “Holy Spirit, land on my tongue!” That’s a prayer that arises out of the promise of Christ himself. If we trust in him and venture to speak the truth, he will give us the words we need.

This has been a wonderful year of grace. Thank you, Pope Francis! May God grant us the gift of perseverance, so that, in any and all circumstances, our doors remain open as we respond to the call to be heralds and agents of the mercy that heals and liberates.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Panorama Shot

I didn’t know my smartphone camera had this feature until someone pointed it out to me. Remarkable, really. Just hold down the button, move the camera around to take in everything I want included in the shot, and - behold! - all of reality surrounding me appears in the picture. This panoramic view helps one to see how each individual item in the photo is situated in relation to all others. It gives, literally, the whole picture.

That is what happens whenever we read the Bible. We see “the whole picture”. Sacred Scripture provides a “panoramic view” of nature and history by situating both within the whole of reality that surrounds us. That “whole” encompasses not only the visible world and our experience of the unfolding of time but also the mystery of eternity and the wondrous plan of God for humanity, a plan that arose from the heart of God even before time began. Within such a “view”, we can appreciate how our lives “fit”, what their place is in this picture and how they are related to other persons and events within it. Without such a view, our vision becomes narrow and myopic and in consequence the ultimate meaning of things escapes us. When our inner camera focuses only upon the present and the immediate, we fail to capture the elements of broader reality that help us grasp the meaning and direction of our lives.

The necessary expansion of vision is provided in the readings from Sacred Scripture proclaimed at mass on Sunday. By pointing to the truth of life after death, they reveal that there is much more to the mystery of living than “meets the eye”, than our earthly existence. Confidence in life after death enabled seven brothers to endure torture and death rather than deny their Lord (2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 7, 9-14). Jesus affirms life after death in his response to the Sadducees trying to entrap him (Luke 20: 27, 34-38). He refers to the words of Moses, who encountered the Lord as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God is God of the living. Life continues after death. By accepting and appropriating this truth, our “picture” of life broadens.

The words of Jesus are true and trustworthy. He is, after all, “born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”, as we say in the Creed. Coming from eternity, from the bosom of the Father, he knows of what he speaks. In Jesus, we are given the panoramic view which fully enlightens our lives and unveils their true meaning. In him we see that we are meant for an eternal destiny, for timeless communion with God. By his entry into time he also makes known the connection of the historical present with our eternal future. How we live on earth has everlasting consequences.

This is the picture in which we see ourselves truly and completely. By accepting and living within this panorama, we find meaning and direction, hope and joy.

Monday, October 31, 2016

No Need for Masks

Tonight is Halloween. This time often reminds me of a story told by a friend and contemporary of my parents. As this particular event one year was drawing near, she was speaking with her four-year old grandson. The little boy asked his grandmother if she would be dressing up for Halloween. Wanting to have a little fun, she replied that she was planning to dress up as an old lady. Shocked, the boy protested, saying, “But you're thupothed to be thomething different!

That little boy was giving voice to a message with which we are constantly bombarded: “You're supposed to be something different.” Time and again we are told that life is to be measured in terms of beauty, prowess, accomplishment, material wealth, power, and so on. This lie comes at us so often and in such a variety of ways that we can actually begin to believe it. When we thus surrender to the lie, we look within and begin to say to ourselves that we are supposed to be something different than we are. That’s when we begin to “dress up”, to put on “masks”, by hiding away our true selves under layers of pretence. Not good, because, in fact, what we are saying to ourselves is, “I wish I were somebody other than who I am.” That is to do terrible violence to the self and can cause untold harm. Furthermore, not only do we alienate ourselves from ourselves, but also, in so doing, separate ourselves from others. It is no wonder we see so much fracture and division in our society.

What God says to us is something entirely different than what we tell ourselves. Consider what we heard in the first reading Sunday from the Book of Wisdom: “Lord, you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.” We are God’s creation. He loves us as he has made us, not as we wish we were. I’m reminded here of a passage from Isaiah that our beloved late Sr. Annata Brockman had chosen to be proclaimed at her funeral mass. In it, God says to us through the prophet: “[You] are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you..." (43: 4) No need for masks.

This unconditional love of God reaches us in the gaze of Jesus Christ. As we were reminded in the Gospel account of his encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the Lord looked at him seated on a tree branch. This loving gaze passed through the label of “sinner” and reached the truth of Zacchaeus’s identity as a beloved child of God. Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’s life, which was totally transformed in consequence. Zacchaeus knew he had done wrong, but that now a new life was made possible. While everyone else still placed upon him the mask of “sinner”, Zacchaeus cast it off through repentance. His life was totally changed when the Lord led him to see himself as God sees him. He knew that he no longer had to be “something different”, as he received from Jesus the mercy that liberates and restores to life.

The day after Halloween, the day the masks come off, is the Solemnity of All Saints. This juxtaposition of events reminds us that we grow in holiness as we open our lives to the gaze of Jesus Christ, abandon our surrender to falsehood, and live in accord with our identity and dignity as beloved children of God.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Unworthy of Election

For a while now the world has been watching the American presidential election campaign. In some ways the 2016 event seems unique. At the same time, it manifests dynamics common to all election campaigns. These can be used to give a perspective on the teaching of Sunday’s Gospel parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer in the Temple, and lead us into its deepest meaning.

In the case of an election campaign, candidates engage in self-promotion, often furthering a positive image by criticizing their opponents. When we consider the words of the Pharisee, one would think he is running for office. He boasts of his goodness and points to the faults of others. By way of contrast, the tax collector speaks as if he is not worthy to be elected to anything. His head is bowed down in shame, and speaks only of his failings and cries out for mercy: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Hardly a winning election slogan. And yet he is chosen, he is elected.

Elected to what? By posing this question we can see the urgent importance of this parable. It carries us to the very heart of the Christian life and all that the Church teaches about the love and mercy of God. The Christian life is, indeed, all about election. But the electorate is not us. God alone elects, and the "office" for which he chooses us is a life of communion with his Son in the Church. For such an office, who is worthy? Is this something for which we can campaign? Is this life one which we can earn by our good works? Does God select us on the basis of our merits and the good we have done? The Pharisee seemed to think so, and on that basis was rather confident in his self-righteousness. Yet Jesus concludes the parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God. He who recognized that all he had to offer God were his sins and failings and accepted his total reliance upon the mercy of God was the one “elected.”

God's love cannot be earned; it is freely given. God chooses us not as a reward for our accomplishments but solely on the basis of his mercy. As we were reminded in the first reading from Sirach, God alone is the judge; only God sees to the depths of our hearts and the truth of our existence. He knows that any boasts on our part as to our goodness would be as empty as those of the Pharisee. He sees that we are rather like the tax collector, totally reliant upon divine mercy for healing and for life. In spite of our weakness and failings, he chooses us for life with him. Such is the love and mercy of God! We begin truly to live the life he holds in store for us when we acknowledge our need for his mercy and in faith turn to him beating our own breasts.

This is not to say there is no place in the Christian life for good works! Quite the contrary. Good works are expected of the followers of Christ. But a Christian's good works do not earn God's love; they flow from it. In the second reading we heard St. Paul speaking of his works in a way that sounds like a boast: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Yet we know from his other writings that St. Paul was painfully aware of his sinful past. He knew he had been saved from a life of sin not by his merits but solely by the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. He teaches us clearly that it is from God's love that we are elected to life in Christ; it is in the power of that love that we are able to do good works; and it is for the sake of witnessing to that love that we are sent forth to accomplish them.

In an election campaign, huge amounts of money are expended to get a candidate elected. Well, a price has been paid, too, for our election to life. That cost, infinitely greater than anything we see in earthly campaigns, was the death of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus became one of us so that his death would destroy the power of sin and death in our lives. He rose again so that in him we might have the fullness of life. It is in Jesus Christ that God has chosen us for a life of faith and good works. Our only boast is this wondrous love and mercy of our God.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hands Up!

We hear this often in police dramas at the time of an arrest, or see it demanded of prisoners of war. It is a universal image of surrender, and expressive of helplessness in the presence of a force with the upper hand.

The image came to mind as I read the Scripture passages for this past Sunday. The first reading from Exodus (17:8-13) recounts the action of Moses as the people of Israel face battle with the hostile king Amalek and his army. He raises his arms. This is not concession to the enemy. Just the opposite, in fact. It is as if Moses hears not Amalek but God saying to him “Hands up!”, because his gesture is an expression not of helplessness in the face of a fierce army but of reliance upon Almighty God. It is, indeed, an expression of surrender, not to the enemy but to truth: the truth that we are dependent upon God and without him can do nothing; the truth that God will not fail to be with his people and answer their prayers for justice (cf. the Gospel, Lk 18:1-8).

In this light it is clear that we, too, need to have our arms raised in prayer constantly. The Christian life is dramatic. Forces both within and without are constantly pressuring us to rely not on God but on ourselves, to turn away from fidelity to him. St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy (3:14 - 4:2) goes straight to the heart of the matter. “Beloved: Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” Well, what we have learned and accepted firmly in faith is that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has revealed both his nature and his plan of salvation. Only Jesus is Saviour. Only Jesus has the words of everlasting life. Only his is the voice to follow. To “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed” is to stay faithful to Jesus at all times, to remain ever obedient to his teachings. Siren songs of infidelity surround us, tempting us away from what we have learned, often by distortions of the truth. In the face of this battle, the call is clear: “Hands up!” Pray constantly to God, that he grant us the gift of fidelity to the words spoken in his Son.

In this prayer we are called to support one another. Particularly striking in the passage from Exodus is the role of Aaron and Hur. When Moses grew weary and began to let his arms fall, they held them up, thus supporting his prayer. We do the same for one another, moved by the awareness of our collective dependence upon the mercy of God.

Let us together head the summons to constant prayer spoken by St. Paul: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7)