“HOW DO I GET INTO HEAVEN?” (Jn 14:1-12): 20 April 2008 (Fifth Sunday of Easter)



Today’s Readings

In yet another hilarious and politically incorrect episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart and Homer decide to convert to Catholicism. Marge confides in their pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, and worries about ending up alone in Protestant Heaven, while the rest of her family will be in Catholic Heaven.

In her fantasy she sees the souls in Protestant Heaven playing boringly proper games of badminton and cricket, while those in Catholic Heaven enjoy a virtual fiesta, dancing, drinking, and even fighting. To her horror, Homer and Bart are among the predominantly Irish and Hispanic souls playing piñata and even joining them in a Riverdance production number. And just when she thinks she’s seen the worst, Marge asks about Jesus, only to be told that the Lord has gone over to Catholic Heaven, having a blast.

The rest of the episode–which, by the way, is called “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star”–shows how Marge and Rev. Lovejoy scheme to bring Homer and Bart back to “the one true faith.” Bart eventually tells the adults how stupid it is that the different groups of Christians are fighting over religion. Coming to their senses, the adults agree with Bart and stop fighting among themselves, but instead they decide to fight gays and stem cells instead!

This episode from “The Simpsons” may as well be a commentary on today’s readings. One line from our Lord strikes me as quite significant: “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.” He’s obviously not referring to separate heavens for different kinds of people like the Protestant or Catholic Heavens depicted in Marge Simpson’s fantasy. In fact, he’s referring to the exact opposite: In God’s idea of heaven, there is room for everyone, and more importantly, there’s no separation among people. God’s heart is much too large to exclude anyone. And God’s embrace is much too wide for anyone to be out of his reach. So, in heaven, there is room enough for everyone–regardless of religion, race, or resources. Every single person will have a place at the table.

But how do we get to God’s heaven? In the gospel, Thomas asks the Lord this same question: “How can we know the way?” The Lord responds by saying, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” In other words, if we want to know the way, let’s look at the life and person of our Lord. One way of describing his Public Ministry is his preferential option for the marginalized: the poor, the sick, and the sinners. He reaches out to the very people that everyone else excluded and rejected. Wherever he goes, he breaks down the fences that separate people. The kingdom of God that he proclaims includes precisely everyone.

I think the gospel’s message for us today is: “Why wait for heaven?” The only way to heaven is to break down fences as our Lord did during his earthly life. To include all and exclude no one. If God’s heart is big enough for everyone and his embrace wide enough for everyone, then we can do no less. We too should stretch our hearts and open our arms wide enough to include everyone too.

Easier said than done, of course, but nobody said that it’s easy to get to heaven. Otherwise our Lord would not have compared it to a narrow door.

Here’s a Quick Question for you: Are there particular people in your life that you have, for one reason or another, excluded? Could God be inviting you to begin breaking down these fences?

(video: from “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star,” final episode of “The Simpsons” Season 16)


In case the video clip doesn’t play, click here.

“WHOSE ARE WE?” (Jn 10:1-10): 13 April 2008 (Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday)

“WHOSE ARE WE?” (Jn 10:1-10):  13 April 2008 (Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday)

Today’s Readings

Bernini has a beautiful and somewhat controversial marble sculpture in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.  The sculpture is called “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” and portrays a religious experience of St. Teresa of Avila as she describes it in her autobiography:  She sees a vision of a young angel who pierces her heart and her entrails with a spear, causing her to moan out of pain and ecstasy.

Some people have been scandalized by such an unconventional account of a mystical experience.  Religious experience described like that sounds much too sexual for comfort.  Bernini’s Teresa has been criticized as someone not so much in the throes of mysticism, but–believe it or not–“in veiled orgasm!”

In truth, however, many mystics have compared spiritual intimacy to the physical and even the sexual.  So St. Teresa’s somewhat controversial religious experience as depicted by Bernini’s equally controversial scultpture only expresses the depth and the intensity of the intimacy that the saint enjoyed with the Lord.  It is small wonder that she has been known not only as “Teresa of Avila,” but also as “Teresa of Jesus”–naming not only who she was, but also whose she was.

When you think about it, there are two important questions that we need to answer in our lives.  The first question confronts us almost the moment we are born:  “Who am I?”   As we grow, we grapple to discover our identity and our gifts–what makes each of us unique–or as someone put it, “what makes me me.” But as we do so, we also at the same time shape our selves and our character, making decisions and taking actions that define who we are.

There is another, equally important question that every person also needs to answer–a question that is usually forgotten.  We need to answer this second question as much as the first if we want to find the meaning of our lives. This second question is:  “Whose are you?”  In other words, to whom do we belong?  The answer to this question covers not only the self-defining friendships we keep, but also to the life-shaping commitments we make.  And just like the first, we go about answering this question not so much through our words but through our actions, not so much with our lips but with our lives.

If you’re wondering what all the talk in today’s gospel about sheep, shepherds, and sheep gates are, the Lord is really speaking of whose we are.  We are his.  Or, at least he wants us to be his.  First, he describes himself as a shepherd who calls his sheep by name and whose voice his sheep recognize.  He lays his claim on us as his.  But still not content with that, he mixes metaphors and describes himself as the very gate through which we his sheep enter the fold.

Much can be said about the Lord as a shepherd or even as a sheep gate, but what struck me in today’s reading is that on these occasions when he calls us his, he also defines himself as ours.  We are his sheep, but he makes himself our shepherd.  He even makes himself our gate!

And that, for me, is the greatest wonder of all:  Not only does our relationship define us as his, but the Lord loves us so much that he does the unthinkable:  He also allows our relationship to define him!  By claiming us as his, he makes himself ours.

St. Teresa of Avila tells another one of her religious experiences, this time involving not an angel but the Christ Child himself.  According to the story, one day at the convent she meets a mysterious child coming down the stairs. The child stops in his tracks and asks her who she is.

“Teresa of Jesus,” she replies before asking, “And who are you?”

The child looks at her and says, “I am Jesus–of Teresa.”

Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Do you recall a moment in your life when for some reason, you felt–more than usual–that you belonged to the Lord, that you werehis?”  Think about it, and feel free to share a thought, a feeling, or a question.

(image:  detail from Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy)


“CHANGED FOR GOOD” (Lk 24:13-35): 06 April 2008 (Third Sunday of Easter)

“CHANGED FOR GOOD” (Lk 24:13-35):  06 April 2008 (Third Sunday of Easter)

Today’s Readings

Reading the story of Emmaus reminds me of a song from the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,”  a refreshingly new take on “The Wizard of Oz.”  The song is called “For Good” and is sung by—of all people—two witches!   In the musical, Glinda and Elphaba (better known as the “Good Witch” and the “Wicked Witch of the West,” respectively) are the best of friends who have to part ways.  Together they sing this song of goodbye and talk about how their friendship has made a difference in their lives.