Fifth Sunday of Lent

WHAT COMES NEXT?

By Emily VanBerkum

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is one of my favourite biblical narratives found only in the Gospel of John. Early on in the narrative, we learn that Lazarus of Bethany, brother to Mary and Martha, fell ill and that God would somehow be glorified through his illness. Even with a risk to his safety, Jesus returned to Judea to “wake” Lazarus from his “sleep.” As a true miracle, Jesus resuscitates Lazarus’ physical body in order to reveal himself as a sign of the “resurrection and the life.” In so doing, we discover that whoever “lives and believes in Christ will never die.” Significantly, this revelation reminds us that God’s gift of eternal life in Christ exists in the present, i.e. even now in our physical lives we may accept in good faith that there is something beyond this life waiting for us in death. Herein lies the good news of this Gospel account. In this encounter, Jesus models for us the great glory of the resurrection which points to the impending Easter event!

Ultimately, the raising of Lazarus is a sign of hope. Hope that Christ’s life will find its fulfillment in death on a cross. Is it not incredible that by believing in Jesus, we pass from death into life? My Catholic faith, and firm belief in God’s steadfast love has convinced me that death never has the final say- there is and must be spiritual life beyond our earthly existence. Whereas Lazarus was resuscitated to resume life in his mortal body so that he would one day die again, Christ resurrected from the dead, taking on a glorified spiritual body that would know eternal life with God the Father. Christ’s death makes it possible for us to share in this reality. In preparation for Easter, I encourage our community to consider what it means to have eternal life in Christ. Why do we wait in joyful hope of the resurrection? Is there a spiritual life beyond death? If not, what’s the point?

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

BOUNDLESS LOVE

By Emily VanBerkum

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus places great demands on his audience. In fact, he outrightly asks for perfection. However, though Jesus’ words may strike the reader as an impossible task, Jesus carefully reinterprets the Mosaic Law’s understanding of retaliation and loving one’s neighbour in order to provide the key to spiritual happiness. If someone hurts us, our instinct might be to “get even.” Yet, Jesus suggests that we “turn the other cheek,” “give our cloak,” “go the second mile,” and not “refuse anyone who wants to borrow” from us. This laundry list of demands doesn’t paint the victim as a passive receptacle of unjust actions. Rather, it reveals a genuine desire to put an end to acts of retaliation for the sole purpose of being spiteful.

By unloading oneself of the immense burden of holding grudges or living in spite, Jesus reasonably argues that praying for those who persecute you rather than hating your enemies actually requires less energy. It’s easy to say that you could “love” your neighbour, but praying for them bears with it the beautiful hope of putting thought into action. Being “children of your Father in heaven” is the reward for loving without boundaries. Don’t simply love when it is convenient to do so, or even when you love the person already. Jesus isn’t easily fooled. Jesus asks an incredible rhetorical question: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

I wonder, what does it mean to be “children of God?” In my opinion, the effort of striving for that awesome reward comes pretty darn close to any sort of earthly perfection I can conceive of or hope to achieve. I think others are in the same boat. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “an eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.” If we don’t demand blindness as a form of justice, it’s worth giving Jesus’ instructions for spiritual happiness a try- no matter how difficult. If we ensure that our neighbour has near perfect sight, we can better navigate what it means to be “children of God”…together. There’s no “us against them” but a humble- and distinctly practical- sense of unity in the faith we profess and the life that we live.

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES

By Emily VanBerkum

Today’s Gospel allows us to reflect on the Sacrament of Baptism. Jesus met John at the Jordan River seeking baptism by water. Understandably, John questioned Jesus’ motives. Why is Jesus seeking repentance? Why does Jesus’ baptism occur by water instead of the “Holy Spirit and fire” as prophesied by John? However, Jesus responds by informing John that baptism by water is no fluke. Amazingly, this humble act is the way Jesus consciously chose to begin his ministry.

John’s baptism of Jesus marks a relationship of mutuality. Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Clearly, it is proper for “us”- both Jesus and John- to fulfill the work of righteousness together.

I interpret the “work of righteousness” to be Jesus’ particular brand of justice imbued with a profound sense of humility. Jesus’ ministry demands a change in the power dynamic that oppresses and exalts peace and hope for God’s Reign. Jesus is praised by a divine voice for accepting God’s will, yet it is imperative that his followers also take part in the life-giving work of righteousness.

There is no greater imagery than Jesus emerging from the water as the “heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended upon Him like a dove.” Jesus’ baptism in the water created a possibility for ministry that involves Jesus and all believers in perfect relationship.

Our baptism reimagined this sacred moment as the start of our own ministries. As we near the end of the second week into a new year, take some time to reflect upon Jesus’ humility. How will you enact righteousness on earth? And, what does baptism mean to you? Is it simply a sacrament of initiation or a constant reminder that you are co-heir to the Reign of God humbly opened through Jesus’ righteousness?

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

Second Sunday of Advent

A Harvest of Good Fruit

By Emily VanBerkum

Today’s Gospel presents John the Baptist as a desert preacher declaring the imminence of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a catch. Because the Kingdom of God is at hand, we are invited to respond by heeding Isaiah’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” in a special way. Preparing the way of the Lord involves repentance for sin in the waters of the Jordan. However, to be cleansed in the Jordan River requires more than simply being sorry for one’s sins. Baptism demands a reorientation of one’s heart and life. Water forgives sin, yet the power of the Holy Spirit and fire produces an eternal harvest of “good fruit.” Good fruit is the result of genuine repentance for sins that do not properly reflect the awesome beauty of God’s Kingdom or hopefulness for the coming of the special healer promised by John.

John’s prophecy of the “one who is coming after me” implies that those who anticipate the coming of the Kingdom with joy and hopefulness will experience the full, complete power of Christ’s incredible gift of salvation. Throughout this Advent season, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about how you will “prepare the way of the Lord” in a way that is meaningful to you. You could move on from past sins and turn to the hopefulness of the future. Or, maybe you will spend some time thinking about making a change of heart that reorients your life as a continual harvest of “good fruit.”

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

FROM WHAT DO WE NEED SAVING?

By Emily VanBerkum (Student at the Faculty of Theology)

This week’s gospel reading is about Jesus’ gift of salvation. During Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he stops briefly in Jericho and encounters Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, sitting in a sycamore tree. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree and boldly invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home. Jesus’ mercy and generosity understandably upset the crowd since they branded Zacchaeus a sinner because of his greed for money and earthly possession. Of course, this is not the first instance in the Gospels in which Jesus’ actions confuse his followers. Yet in this instance, Zacchaeus repents. He blurs the boundaries between the stereotypes of a tax collector and a man who genuinely desires to heed Jesus’ invitation to discipleship.

Jesus accepts this repentance by declaring that, “Today salvation has come to his house.” This answers why Jesus chose Zacchaeus as an unlikely host. In other words, this seemingly impossible act of welcome is a prime example of the Son of Man’s mission to seek out the lost and save them through the awesome gift of salvation. But from what exactly did Zacchaeus need saving? Zacchaeus straddles the two worlds that many of us struggle to define in our lives. Zacchaeus is a wealthy man who gained a reputation for sinfulness because of his attachment to worldly possessions. Zacchaeus needed to find the confidence to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation and he did so in practical terms by giving half of his goods to the poor. By welcoming Jesus into his home, Zacchaeus knew that Jesus had also entered his heart.

Like Zacchaeus, we discover that clinging to worldly possessions and wealth comes at great expense. Our hearts must be open to God if we are to receive his gifts of redemption and grace freely. What Zacchaeus was willing to “give up” could not compare to his truly life changing decision to be saved by Jesus. What worldly possessions distract you from fully appreciating Jesus’ gift of salvation?