Divine Mercy and Restoration

Doubting ThomasToday’s reflection is for the Second Sunday of Easter (Or Sunday of Divine Mercy), April 28, 2019, and the readings can be found by clicking here. This reflection was given as a homily at the Deuel Vocational Institute, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in Tracy.

On this second Sunday of Easter, also referred to as Divine Mercy Sunday, we reflect not only on Jesus’ resurrection, but on what His resurrection means to those of us who believe. In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Sister Faustina, also known as The Apostle of Divine Mercy, for her visions of Jesus; the merciful love of God revealed to the whole world.

Today we stop to reflect on a God of mercy who is one hundred percent committed to our total restore-ation. Mercy, because God does not give us what we deserve due to our sin, but more than what we deserve because of His grace and love. And restoration, because like the Father who welcomed back the prodigal son, God does not welcome us back as a slave to hang our head low in shame—the most we could hope for, but instead as a son filled with love—more that we could ever have imagined. That’s Divine Mercy—a wayward child welcomed back home with open arms.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us the well-known story of Thomas, who, like a lot of us, says that seeing is believing! Just a week earlier, the Scripture says, Jesus appeared to his disciples showed them his wounds and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them the Holy Spirit, and gave them, his Apostles, his own power to forgive sins! Remember in Luke 5:21, the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of blasphemy! They asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Of course, God is the only one who can forgive sins, and Jesus is God, so God forgave sins, but in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives the very men who denied him and abandoned him the power to bind to their words and actions His own power to forgive the sins of the world. That’s Divine Mercy—giving broken men the power of God.

Jesus is the savior, but for 2,000 years Jesus’ Apostles have been forgiving sins by the power of the Savior himself. In every generation there are those who, like the tax collector in Luke’s gospel, stand at a distance, unworthy to approach the throne of God, who beat their breast, and cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” (18:13) and God’s mercy is given through the ministry and ministers of the Church. That’s Divine Mercy—a sinner hearing the words of forgiveness that he could not possibly obtain on his own.

Interestingly enough, Thomas was not actually there when Jesus appeared to his apostles, and Thomas, like many of us, refused to believe until he saw it for himself! Arrogant. Prideful. And like many of us, he wanted proof. And that’s exactly what Jesus did. He reappeared, offered himself and his open wounds to an unbeliever so that he might believe. That’s Divine Mercy—a doubter given a sign so that he might believe.

My brothers, God’s mercy, Divine Mercy, is NEVER about what we are owed, what we deserve, or what we rate—in fact, it isn’t about us at all. Divine mercy is called Divine Mercy for a reason; it’s about God. It’s about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s desire for our friendship, and God’s desire for our joy and fulfillment that can only be found in him. God has such great plans for each of us, and none of us can experience it on our own.

I told you last week that like Peter and John, we must be willing to remain united together—as different as some of us may be. We must be willing to enter the tomb if we are to rise with him. Today’s first reading shows the fruit of unity and dying to oneself. It shows the fruit of Divine Mercy. Acts of the Apostles tells us, “Many signs and wonders were done at the hands of the apostles, people respected them, and believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.” The Scriptures say that the sick were carried out into the streets just so that when Peter came by his shadow might fall on them. A large number of people brought out the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were cured. That’s the fruit of Divine Mercy!

Like I said, Divine Mercy isn’t about you, it’s about God and what God wants to do through you! And me! Divine Mercy is restorative. It recreates us to God’s image so that we can be his life, his love, and his goodness in a world of darkness. Do we believe God can do anything good with us at all?

That’s always our problem, we don’t see it. We stand back to back with God. We see and know only our past, God sees and cares only about our future. We say, “You can’t use me, God, look where I’ve been and what I’ve done!” God says, “I’ve got great plans for you, wherever you are, and whomever you are with.” It was true of Moses, of the prophets, of the Apostles, and of the Saints of the Church. And it can be true for us too.

It doesn’t matter where we’ve been, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done, all that matters is if we’re willing to seek Divine Mercy and go to where God is calling us to go. Will you accept his mercy today? Will you allow him to heal you? Transform you? Repurpose you? Restore you to your original goodness in His image. He just needs our “yes” and He will do amazing things through us—and many will come to believe and be healed.

For Reflection:

Am I aware of, and do I believe in the transforming power of Divine Mercy?

Am I like Thomas? What’s keeping me from believing?

To what degree have I given my “yes” to God? Where is God calling me? Am I willing to go?

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Enter the Tomb

John and Peter

Today’s reflection is on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, and the readings can be found by clicking here. This reflection was given as a homily at the Deuel Vocational Institute, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in Tracy.

Happy Easter! The Lord Jesus Christ is risen, Alleluia! Our long journey through Lent has come to an end! I don’t know what you took on, or gave up for Lent, but whatever it was, it no doubt took some sacrifice and maybe some pain. I set the bar high this Lenten Season. My wife and I committed to only liquids during the day, and only soup for dinner. I would be lying, though, if I told you that I stuck to it perfectly. I’m quite embarrassed to say that I did not. The Lord, in His generosity gave me another 40 days of Spiritual boot camp to get things right, to sacrifice and be transformed—but again, I fell short of the mark. I am weak.

Not until we really want to change do we realize how weak we are to do so…and that has been my Lenten experience this year. I know what Jesus did for me. I know his way of the cross. I know of his passion and suffering, and yet still I deny him. Not only three times, like Peter, but many times every day. How about you? Did you get up to pray? Abstain from meat on Fridays, and fast daily? Today’s Gospel is a message of hope and has a promise for guys like us who seem to fail time and time again. Today we join Mary Magdalene, Peter, and “the disciple that Jesus loved,” who is John.

Isn’t it interesting that Mary ran from the tomb straight to Peter and John? They must have been together at the same place, right? The Scripture says, “So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.” But why would they be together? Jesus was just thirty-five hours or so earlier crucified. Jesus died on Friday evening, he was in the tomb on Saturday, and Mary goes to the tomb while it is still dark Sunday morning. Both John and Mary remained at Jesus’ side throughout his whole ugly, painful passion and death. John was standing at the foot of the cross with Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother when Jesus died—where was Peter?! Peter denied that he even knew Jesus, and John was with Jesus to the end.

You couldn’t find more opposite disciples of Jesus. John who was always so faithful and Peter who was so weak in his faith. And yet, they remain together, in the same place, no doubt supporting one another through their difficult time. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, my brothers, and that’s the first thing I want to point out. In this Christian community we are all at different levels of growth in our faith, some are more courageous than others, some are more disciplined than others, some remain in their weakness to sin, but like John and Peter, we stick together. Through good times and bad we stick together. Look around—you are my brothers and we are here for each other, helping each other: weak, strong, smart, dumb, black, white, brown, old, young, incarcerated or free, holy, and weak in our holiness: the Church is ONE and must remain ONE, and we must never let the world divide us.

The first thing I wanted to point out is that we must remain united, and the second is that we don’t have to have it all figured out in order to believe—but we do have to enter the tomb. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we must be willing to die to ourselves, enter the tomb with Jesus Christ so that we can rise with him. If we do not enter the tomb and die when will never truly live.

We must die to anger, malice, greed, and lust. We must enter the tomb and put to death jealousy, rivalry, divisions, and arrogance. John arrived at the tomb first, but he was unwilling to go in. I wonder what kept him from going right in. Scripture says He saw the burial clothes and stopped. Interesting that Peter never hesitated. John was faster and arrived first, but Peter entered the tomb before John. He went into the tomb and then saw the burial clothes. John was a little more cautious; a little more careful, but he does enter the tomb.

Are you more like Peter or more like John? Are you more a little more courageous and willing to jump right in? Know this, courageous or cautious they both went in. They entered the tomb with all their unanswered questions, with all their fears, and with all their doubts. They entered the tomb so that they could rise with Jesus.

My brothers, the resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean anything on its own. We celebrate the resurrection as Christians because Jesus rose from the grave, and somehow, through the waters of baptism, we mysteriously rise with him! God has powerfully connected Baptism to Jesus’ resurrection and our new life. Jesus conquered the grave 2,000 years ago, and we celebrate his victory today, but we celebrate our victory with him everyday! He won, and made winners out of all of us who believe.

But let me make this clear: we must unite together, we must stand by one another regardless of color or status, we must be willing to encourage each other and pray with each other, to look out for one another and to help one another, and we must willing to together enter the grave if we are to have any share in the resurrection that we celebrate today. We are an Easter people! Every day is Easter for those who enter the grave to be born again. Happy Easter, brothers. Let us live in this newness of life. Amen.

For Reflection:

When I fail do I beat myself up, throw all the cards in, or reach out to God in prayer for strength and consolation?

Am I living the resurrected life? One of unity with those around me and a willingness to come to another’s aid regardless of who they are or what they believe?

Am I holding on too tightly to die with Christ? What is keeping me from going “all in” for Jesus and His church?

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

The Way of the Cross

Today’s reflection is on Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, April 14, 2019, and the readings can be found by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel is the saddest moment in human history—namely, the death of God on earth. The narrative could have gone a thousand different ways. If Pilate had been courageous enough to stand up for what he knew was true about Jesus’ innocence things would have been different. If Herod had cared as much about God and the Messiah as he did about wealth and power things could have been different. If the religious leaders were open to the possibility that they didn’t have it all figured out, and that as much as they believed otherwise, Jesus could indeed have been their long-awaited king. If Jesus had not gone to Jerusalem; if Judas had not betrayed him; if any one of the soldiers stood by Jesus’ side and said, “Enough!”

But none of those things happened, and in today’s Gospel we see ridicule, sadness, brokenness, arrogance, violence, selfishness, suffering, and the death of innocence, righteousness, purity, and holiness. And sometimes that’s just the way life goes. Life is indeed difficult and often unfair. Here is your cross. It’s no wonder Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (MT 16:24).

I’ve had experiences in my own life where there was no light—only darkness. In the midst of my suffering I did not see answers, only questions. I did not feel the presence of God in those moments, and I can identify very strongly with the Psalmist today, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” When we are in the midst of that darkness we cry out to God but do not always hear an answer. We are in our Holy Week. We find ourselves on our way of the cross.

There were fourteen stations on Jesus’ way to his tomb. There may have been more, but certainly not less. Sometimes our via de la cruz seems not to have fourteen, but rather a hundred! But fourteen or a hundred, the truth is that the cross, and the way of the cross are essential to salvation. We know it’s true of Jesus, and we believe it true for ourselves—that without the cross there is no resurrection. And so, we do not lament our journey of suffering, we embrace our cross, and journey to the tomb in joyful hope in the resurrection. Jesus told his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (JN 12:24)

I know that the cross is necessary for salvation, but to be honest, I don’t often accept it well. Like Jesus, my prayer is to avoid the cross! And like Jesus, I do accept God’s will and that it be done in my life. But quite unlike Jesus, in the midst of my trial, I do not remain silent when others plot against me, when my friends betray me, when others wrongfully accuse me, when haters mock me, and when my cross is thrust upon me. More often than not, I am entirely unwilling to forgive those who persecute me, and when others see my sadness and suffering, I seek first their prayer for me, rather than to think to pray for them. I need to be a lot more like Jesus—that’s for sure!

Jesus’ attitude given to us in the letter to the Philippians, and his example in today’s Gospel, can teach us what to do to get through tough times. Philippians tell us, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:6-8) I think being found in human appearance we too need to humble ourselves. Humility reminds us that we are but servants with a job to do. We are not promised anything in this life of service, though because of God’s goodness, we sometimes get more than we deserve. We need to start with humility.

Our humility teaches us that we cannot do this alone. We need the power of God to see us through our darkness and pain. Knowing that we need God to get us through, opens us up to prayer. When we go through our trial, it’s helpful to remain in prayer as Jesus did. I think Jesus’ prayer kept him close to God his father at all times. I know as Catholics we have lots of memorized prayers, but sometimes, we just need to talk to God, with regular words, about the truth of our experience. Just close the door and talk to God who always hears us.

It was the presence of his father and his faith in his father that allowed him to hope in his vindication and restoration. When we know that our God is with us, walking and talking with us, encouraging us, living within us, and providing his strength to see us through, then we have confidence and hope in whatever happens or however it turns out. That’s called Christian hope! It’s an attitude of insurmountable optimism. We always look ahead, never down and never behind. God is good and will see us through.

And I think that’s how Jesus was able to love and forgive even while he suffered. Sometimes when we are hurting we lash out, feel sorry for ourselves, and become bitter with others. We love when life is easy, but when hardship comes we turn inward and close ourselves off, if not to God, sometimes to the world. But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus never stopped loving, praying for, encouraging, and forgiving all the way to his death. We cannot be people who love only when we are loved. If so, we become little more than leaves blowing in the wind. If someone is kind then so are we. If someone is mean then so are we. This is not who we are! We are children of light and love. Period. That’s who we are in good times and in bad. We are called at all times and in all places, like Jesus, to love God and neighbor. And it’s our hope, rooted in faith that will make it so.

And so, as it turns out, only these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. So, as we journey through this holy week, may we be the people of prayer that makes us people who love in spite of our cross. Amen.

For Reflection:

When I suffer, do I go to prayer or do I complain, become bitter, and lash out at others?

What cross have I carried in the recent past? Do I recognize the presence of God who was able to see me through?

Is there some way that God is calling me to be Simon of Cyrene, helping someone I may not even know to carry their cross?


By Deacon Stephen Valgos