You are a prophet—Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Amos 7:12–15; Eph. 1:3–14; Mark 6:7–13

Did you know that you were anointed priest, prophet, and king? Your baptism and confirmation join you to Christ—who is priest, prophet, and king—which makes you a partaker in those three offices: priesthood, kingship, and prophecy. Now, while you don’t see this phrase “priest, prophet, and king” in scripture, you do see these offices exercised by Jesus. And the Catechism tells us that we share in these offices with Him (CCC 897-913). We’re going to talk a bit today about our role as prophet.

You share Christ’s office as prophet. By prophet, I don’t necessarily mean someone who predicts future events but someone who is configured—that is enabled—to see and speak the Truth. Through your baptism and confirmation and with proper formation in the faith, you are given the ability to see, hear, and speak the truth about the faith and you have the right, with proper formation, to give your opinion about matters of faith so long as you do so with consideration for the common good and dignity of persons—that is, that you consider what is true, what is kind, and what is necessary. That’s from paragraph 907 of the Catechism.

So you are a prophet! That’s the good news. The bad news is that everyone seems to hate prophets. No, seriously. Look throughout scripture, and you won’t find a true prophet of God that is welcomed by the people to whom he is sent. The Book of Amos is a great example, especially for those who are prophets and don’t know it. Just look at our first reading. Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel tells Amos to go somewhere else to prophesy, suggesting that Amos is trying to profit from being a prophet, no pun intended.

But Amos says, hey, this isn’t my job! “I’m a shepherd and tender of sycamores.” A sycamore in the near and middle east is not like the ones we have in the US. They actually produce fruit. Amos tended sheep and farmed produce from sycamores. So Amos was someone who produced food for people, and that’s an important calling. But God called him to something else. He was called from his profession to deliver a message. That is the role of a prophet—to deliver a message and to proclaim the truth. A hired prophet, like one Amaziah considered Amos, just delivers the message of the one who pays him or her. But Amos makes it clear that he is not a professional. He is a lay person called to bring the truth to light.

In that sense, Amos is no less like you or me, lay or clergy. We are all called by our common baptism to be prophets. And that doesn’t mean anything more profound than being willing to speak the truth. In Christ we are chosen, in accord with God’s will, for a purpose. And we are universally called to holiness. Holiness is not just something for those extraordinary few, for saints, for clergy and religious. We are all supposed to strive for holiness, which is befitting for our enablement as priest, prophet, and king. And if we are to pursue holiness, we must pursue the truth, however unpopular it might be. I don’t think I need to tell you how much the world hates the truth right now. What we get mostly is truthiness: someone’s agenda, whether it’s on the left or the right. We cannot get the truth from the world! We can get facts from the world. We can get opinions from the world. But truth is not something worldly. Truth only comes from God.

As usual, the gospel reading presents the model, the way forward for the faithful. Jesus has already called the Twelve, and I can imagine they’re thinking it will be so great! They’ll be the emissaries of the Anointed One! The Prophet predicted by Moses! James and John even hoped that they would sit at His right and left sides. But that is not what it means to be the prophet of the Lord. That is not what it means to be a follower of Christ. Jesus Himself tells us that following Him leads to the cross, to trial, and to suffering. Which means that if we choose this way, it will not be a walk in the park.

So why is it that we so frequently hear something different from Christians? Why do we hear something other than the cross? Some Christian sects teach that being poor or sick or otherwise in adversity is a sign that you lack faith. You’ve probably heard of what is called the prosperity gospel—name it and claim it. This message is a favorite of many well-known televangelists. But there’s a problem with this way of thinking. It’s not what the gospel promises us. The gospel promises us rejection, discomfort, and sometimes outright persecution.

But, of course, it’s more than that. Jesus says in Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” How is it that the burden will be light amidst these trials? How is a yoke easy? [How many of you know what a yoke is? A yoke is a collar that is used to hitch an ox or horse  to a plow. You can also have a yoke for a team of oxen or horses—that is, two oxes or two horses.] But Jesus says that his yoke is easy. That’s because Jesus’ yoke is for two, and he’s the other part of our team. Jesus doesn’t give his yoke to us to bear. Jesus shares his own yoke with us.

And recall, the Apostles have already been with Him through many of His encounters with the sick, the possessed, the dying, or those who have already died. They have heard his Sermon on the Mount. They understand that the adversity they encounter now pales in comparison to the glory of what will be in the kingdom to come. They are not focused on the here and now but what will be. They are not clinging to the moment but focused on the prize.

And they know that Jesus is with them. That God is with them. That’s what Immanuel, one of the titles of Jesus, means: God with us. His name Jesus, or Yeshua, means God’s salvation. His very name is salvation. His name saves.

And He is here to live with us, to slog through the joy and pain in this life with us, to experience life with us. So the burden is light because He walks with us always. He is yoked to us. He pulls the plow along with us, and no doubt, He bears most of that burden.

Amos in our first reading and the Apostles in our gospel reading know that they have nothing without God. God sends Amos, a shepherd and dresser of Sycamores to Israel, with no credentials as a prophet. The Apostles—a motley assortment of fishermen, tax collectors, and political zealots—are sent to preach the good news, to cast out demons, and to cure the sick. They know that none of this comes from their own power, and they know that they are utterly dependent on God. But they also know God’s promise. They may have to undergo adversity and persecution, but they will also encounter the joy of letting God work through them.

And we can experience that same joy by allowing Jesus Christ to shine through us. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the joy we experience is merely the first installment of our inheritance. It is the tip of the iceberg of what God intends for us.

So let’s start here with the Eucharist that we celebrate here today—our offering of thanksgiving. Filled with its grace, let’s take Jesus out into our world, a world that so badly needs His gift of salvation. Jesus will be with us, sharing our burden as we share our joy.

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Spiritual Warfare—Fatima Benediction and Rosary: July 13, 2018

The message in this evening’s gospel reading is rather sobering. Jesus is sending His disciples out to preach the good news, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. He tells them to take nothing with them—no money, no extra clothing, no food. They are expected simply to trust that they will be provided what they need. And then the clincher: “I send you out as sheep among the wolves.” And it’s not just here! The Beatitudes largely tell us how we will be blessed in adversity. We’re told that we must pick up our cross and follow. St. Paul exhorts us in the first chapter of Colossians to complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

If you’re expecting your life as a Christian to be a tame affair, consider those words right from the mouth of our savior. You will be persecuted. You will be hated. There are some preachers who push the notion of prosperity as a sign of God’s favor, but Christ says nothing of the sort. If you seek salvation, climb right up here on this cross with me.

In the Diocese of Boise, we’re getting the message loud and clear. We have scandals in our parishes. We have division within parishes. We have priests suffering from physical injuries and mental and emotional illness. We are beset on all sides. We are in a time of spiritual battle.

And that means that we are doing something right. We are creating a threat to Satan large enough that he has to throw everything he has against us. And he is doing it. So we need to use the weapons we have at our disposal: the Rosary, our other sacramentals like the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and most of all, the sacraments themselves. They are the armor that prepares us for battle.

Brace yourself. We are seeing the beginning of what will be a chastisement but also a great cleansing. And we need to be willing to deal with the scorn of those who don’t understand our faith. We are sheep among wolves, and we need to be as shrewd as serpents. But the Holy Spirit will supply, if we have faith.

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Bound: 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Gen. 3:9–15; 2 Cor. 4:13–5:1; Mark 3:20–35

It’s been a long week, with work and ordinations, so my homily will be brief today—unless, of course, the Holy Spirit takes hold of me. Then we could be here for a long time.

There are two parallels in this weekend’s Old Testament and Gospel readings that I want to touch on. The first is that we fall into sin when we fail to defend the voice of our conscience, when we capitulate to external pressures to compromise our values. Once we’ve fallen, we become bound as it were to that failure. It opens a breach or weakness that we can’t repair without divine intervention.

The second is that our pride can make us unwilling to accept that we have, in fact, done something wrong. Maybe we know it but are ashamed to admit wrong doing. Maybe we don’t recognize our wrong doing as truly wrong. Or maybe we point the finger elsewhere. Whatever the reason for our willful refusal to see ourselves as sinners, it keeps us trapped and bound in our sinfulness. Our pride gets in the way of our repentance. That’s why pride is one of the deadly sins. It causes us to perpetuate our sinful dispositions. Until we surrender in humility to the one who breaks those bonds, we remain bound.

Commentaries that discuss Mark’s gospel note that Jesus is talking about binding Satan so that Satan’s house can be emptied, but understand that every spiritual principle has an inverse principle. Jesus can bind and loot Satan’s house. If we allow ourselves to be weakened through sin, Satan can bind us and loot our household as well. The Gospel lays out the model: bind the strong man, and then plunder at will. In the gospel reading, Jesus has bound the strong man. His ability to expel demons is due to the fact that He has the authority to bind and loose. He even grants this authority to His Apostles, and in some sense that authority devolves down to us. We have the ability to bind and loose in our own lives, unless we compromise our own defenses, and the way we do that is through sin. I’m speaking here, of course, primarily about mortal sin. When we sin, we open ourselves up to be manipulated and bound by Satan.

Our passage from Genesis is a great example. Adam and the Woman are hiding from God because of their shame. Note that I don’t call her Eve yet. She doesn’t become Eve until after the fall, when Adam renames her. But here they are hiding. They have already compromised their position. How did this happen? Let’s start first with who was responsible. Was it the Woman? Did God instruct her or Adam? Of course, God instructed Adam about the trees in the garden, so it was primarily his responsibility to defend against the serpent. And when you read the account, Adam is right there next to the Woman. He could have stepped in at any moment and sent the serpent packing. But he ignored the voice of his conscience, for whatever reason. The effect is immediate. They know that something in them has changed. They haven’t experienced immediate physical death, but something in them, the life of their relationship with God, has died.

When God came to walk in the garden with them as He usually did, He already knew what had happened. But he gave Adam and the Woman a chance to come clean. But what happened? Adam points to and blames the Woman first but then to God Himself, “The woman whom you put here with me….” Adam is not only blaming the Woman; he is blaming God. He is accusing God of being the author of his own sin, yet God has given Him everything good, and Adam knows it. And when Adam is called to account for his failure, he blames God for it.

In our gospel reading, the Pharisees see proof of God’s goodness—deliverance of people from possession. “By the prince of demons he casts out demons.” Jesus warns them that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. Even in the face of Jesus’ miracles, the Pharisees in their pride refuse to believe.

St. Augustine wrote, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men angels.” Humans can’t literally become angels, of course. The point is that our pridefulness makes us susceptible to the belief that we can do without God. That was the suggestion to the Woman in the garden. That was the effect of the words of the Pharisees. If we can do without God, what need do we have for forgiveness? That’s how Satan binds us—with the chains of our own pride.

How, then, do we get unstuck? How do we get unbound? We cannot unbind ourselves.

Fortunately for us, sin is its own punishment. Sin has consequences. Sooner or later, we come face to face with our failings. We either develop a sense of humility be being honest with ourselves, or we suffer a humiliation that we can’t ignore. And the Church provides us the means by which we can return to right relationship with God—the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

If you’ve found yourself stuck in a pattern of sinfulness that you can’t break, don’t wait to confess your sins. The remedy is not to fix it first. It’s to submit and ask for the grace of the sacrament to give you strength to change. The Act of Contrition that we say following confession includes these words: “I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more.” Or in another form: “I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more.” The sacrament gives us the strength through God’s grace to stop sinning, so go to confession as soon as you find yourself in a pattern of sin.

We’re about to approach this altar in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The Church teaches that we cannot approach unworthily, so any time we are aware of mortal sin in our lives, we must confess our sins before coming to the Eucharist. So don’t wait. The Sacrifice of Reconciliation is one of the greatest gifts that Christ gave us, and He gave it to restore us to communion with Him. Let His grace change you and make you more like Him.

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Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Mark 16: 15-20

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but apparently Jesus never really existed—or if He did, He’s just a copy of some other pagan god who already existed before Him.

Have you heard this claim? It’s a favorite of contemporary atheists, and you might hear them on occasion during Easter or Christmas on the History Channel, which I prefer to call the Heresy Channel when it comes to anything dealing with the Christian faith. They will often pull out examples from Pagan mythology: Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Dionysius. Or they might compare Jesus with other savior figures like Mithras. They point out all the similarities among their stories, and they make a very compelling case at first blush that all of these parallels imply imitation—that since one thing came after the other, the one that followed is an imitation of the other. It’s only when you peel back the layers and look at each story and it’s dissimilarities that you see that you’re being snowed. We’re being told that Osiris and Dionysius are just like Jesus, except that they were never human beings who actually existed in human history. That’s the big difference between all these Pagan gods and our Lord. None of these mythologies suggest that these gods were human beings, but that is the claim we make for Jesus, and it is a claim that no reputable historian denies.

We shouldn’t be surprised. When someone has an agenda, they are going to bend the facts to their position. The best way to counter their arguments is to assess all the facts with a clear mind and to know your scripture.

Sadly, some scripture scholars and theologians engage in the same sleight of hand. They make a great deal about the “inconsistencies” among the gospels: the fact that Matthew has a donkey and its colt, while Luke only mentions the colt. Or differences in the resurrection accounts and how Mark says that the women ran away while John says that Mary Magdalene reported to Peter and John. And they will take these small inconsistencies to argue for a big claim: that Jesus never really appeared after His death, that these accounts in the gospel are simply theological musings on a “deeper” spiritual awakening that happened in the Apostles after Christ’s death that helped them to recognize Christ in each other—that they saw Jesus embodied in the faith of the community, in the breaking of the bread. It wasn’t really a bodily presence the Apostles encountered in the gospels, in Acts, in the letters of St. Paul. It was a recognition of a common communion in Christ that they all shared by faith. They point out the discrepancies, note that the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all seem to come from the same source, and then conclude that the bodily resurrection and appearance of Christ to His disciples after his burial never happened. And they claim that it all follows the evidence in scripture.

This interpretation has been bandied about in the last 200 years by some Protestant scripture scholars and has even been rather popular among some 20th century Catholic theologians who found the dogmas of the Catholic faith too restrictive for their intellectual freedom.

            The Ascension, the feast that we celebrate today, throws a bit of a wrench in the works of their claims. It underscores that Jesus dwelt on earth for a time after His death and resurrection, that He not only rose from the dead, but that He hung around to make the point about His bodily resurrection before ascending to Heaven. If we celebrate this day in all truth, then we celebrate it because Jesus rose from the dead, appeared in bodily form, and later  ascended. The Ascension makes no sense if there was no bodily resurrection.

It’s important to remember first and foremost that the gospel accounts are not merely stories or wishful thinking about our faith. They are eyewitness accounts. They are primarily historical, even if they are not history texts as we understand them in modern times. They and the New Testament letters record what the early Church witnessed and taught. Any purportedly Catholic theology that dispenses with these facts is false theology and contrary to the faith.

So the Ascension supports two facts:

–        Jesus rose from the dead bodily, albeit in a glorified body that possessed new properties: the ability to pass through locked doors, to appear and vanish at will.

–        After His resurrection, Jesus dwelt among the faithful for 40 days and continued to teach them.

Jesus’ body was not just  resuscitated but transformed. If Jesus had been merely resuscitated, He would’v been in pretty sorry shape as He would’ve still born the marks of His abuse prior to the crucifixion. There’s no suggestion that any of those marks remained, save the wounds from the nails and the spear in His side. But He ate and drank with the faithful, continued to teach them and encourage them, until He finally ascended to Heaven and promised to send the Holy Spirit.

Scriptural support for the Ascension comes primarily from the three gospels in which it’s mentioned, Mark, Luke, and John; from the first chapter of Acts; and from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Of these writings, the earliest is the letter of St. Paul, in which he recounts precisely what he passed on to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive. (1 Cor. 15:3–6).

St. Paul’s account written in the mid to late 50s leaves no question about what the Church taught in its earliest days—within 20 years of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. And in the same passage, St. Paul outlines why this belief is foundational: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” If there was no bodily resurrection, we have no ground for our faith.

Paragraph 659 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the resurrection and Ascension:

Christ’s body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys. But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity. Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand

That is the perpetual teaching of the Catholic Church from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the early Church Fathers, and affirmed by the magisterium in numerous councils.

            We Catholics are a resurrection people, and we have an amazing God—a God who loves us more than we can imagine, a God who feeds us with Himself, a God who died and rose again and promises the same to us. That message is something worth taking to the street and taking to the world.

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Christ’s Divine Mercy—Second Sunday of Easter 2018 (Cycle B)

Acts 4:32–35; 1 John 5:1–6; John 20:19–31

Divine Mercy is the theme this Sunday, and the readings explain how this mercy is manifested in the early Church. As Acts notes, the members of the Church shared what they had with each other, even to the point of selling their property and bringing it to the Church to disperse. Our American culture of individualism occasionally blinds us to the obvious: when people in free association with each other decide to share what they have for the common good, that’s simply good Christian charity on display. That is what motivated charity through the early Church and the middle ages. But in Acts and in general, Christian charity is voluntary. Otherwise, it’s not really charity and not an act of love. And it’s not an Act of charity if we perform it to gain something for ourselves. Later in Acts, a couple of land owners decided to pretend they were giving everything they owned while holding something back. So Acts teaches us that all charity should be voluntary and that we should not attempt to glean favor by giving it. Give your alms in silence, and you will have your reward in Heaven.

I’ve spoken many times on our need to show mercy, particularly in how we address the problems of need we encounter locally. We have an obligation to address such needs locally and not simply rely on government assistance. As John addresses it, “In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments. For the love of God is this, that we keep His commandments.” And God commands us to love our neighbor and to care for his needs. So we don’t get to relegate that to the government. If we don’t help the poor ourselves, it’s on us.

The first letter of John approaches the question of mercy from a very different angle than Acts. John’s words fit so well with Christ’s own. They both speak with riddles and paradoxes: we have to become poor to be blessed; we have to die to really live. It sounds absurd, but we don’t really come to know life and the truth until we set our lives aside and live for others—in other words, until we die to ourselves and live for others. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” We show mercy, and in turn, God shows us His mercy.

First John highlights and espouses what one commentary on scripture calls the three inseparable dispositions: to love the children of God, to love God, and to keep his commandments. In these dispositions, we capture what the early Christian community was about. We have to love God by loving His children and obey His commandment to care for one another. In the chapter just before this one, John writes, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” So we must show mercy and care for one another if we truly love God.

Our gospel account relates two events: the first is the appearance of Jesus to 10 of the apostles, and the second is His reappearance to the apostles including Thomas. I want to focus on the first event as it relates to the theme of Divine Mercy. Jesus gives the disciples two missions here. First, He sends them and commissions them to preach the good news. This is the Great Commission. And what are they to preach? That Christ came, died, and rose again for the remission of sin—so that the way to salvation would be open to everyone. At the end of Matthew, Jesus sends them in like fashion, telling them to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Second, though, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Compare this to Matthew 16:18–19, when Jesus says to Simon,

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Now, whenever someone gets a new name in scripture, they also get a new mission. The woman becomes Eve; Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel. With each new name comes a new role. We should expect the same of Peter here. The keys of binding and loosing are the authority to excommunicate or to allow admittance to the Church. Jesus extends this authority to the rest of the Twelve Apostles in Matthew 18:18. But it can’t get any clearer than here in John that Jesus grants the Apostles the power to remit sin: whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained. These passages in scripture are the foundation for the Sacrament of Penance, what we also call the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation. This is one of the great sacraments of healing in our faith.

Christ is sent and becomes incarnate out of God’s great mercy for our redemption, and Christ commissions the Apostles to continue His mission of mercy, and one way that the Church demonstrates that mercy is through the Sacrament of Confession.

Some of us aren’t really wild about receiving this sacrament. Our Protestant brethren often don’t understand the need and question its necessity. Sadly some Catholics say the same thing: “Why do I need to confess my sins to a priest?” That’s like asking why you need to take medicine when you’re ill. It’s so you can be well again. The sacrament was founded by Christ not to cause us shame or to punish us.. but to heal us. And it is a perfect example of how God continues to extend His mercy to us through the Church.

Christ’s abundant mercy is right here in His sacraments: in this Eucharist which we will celebrate in a few minutes, in the words of scripture that we read, and in the Sacrament of Confession. What grieves Him more than anything is that so few people seek His mercy, and so few of us recognize our need for it. But His mercy is right here for the taking.

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Grace, Light, Love, and Truth—Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle A–B)

1 Sam. 16:1b, 6–7, 10–13a; Eph. 5:8–14; John 9:1–41; 2 Chron. 36:14–16, 19–23; Eph. 2:4–10; John 3:14–21

I have two themes I want to discuss in regards to today’s readings: grace and light, and their relationship to two attributes of God, love and truth. We have our second scrutiny today for those who are on their journey into the Church, which means that I am straddling two different sets of readings. By God’s mercy in this very busy week, He’s given me enough commonality between our Cycle A and Cycle B readings that I can preach on both without doing any violence to the text.

First, the gift—grace. I’m actually being redundant when I say that. Grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means gift. In Ephesians 2, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. It is not from you ; it is the gift of God. It is not from works….” Paul’s reference to works here points to the works of the law of the old Covenant. But he’s underscoring something here that we do well to remember. While our actions—our works—matter in terms of our sanctification, all of it still comes about through the working of grace. This doctrinal truth was reinforced recently in a document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Placuit Deo. In it, the Church affirms that we are not able to work our way to salvation and that all salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ. Likewise, our salvation doesn’t come about because of our own spiritual enlightenment apart from any external influence, but because we have been enlightened by Christ’s redeeming act.

It’s all a gift. The gospel reading from John 3 is the most recognizable statement of this reality. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” That is the good news in a nutshell. God gave to us the gift of His Son, and through His Son, we have redemption from our sins.

Grace enables us to do God’s will. Outside of grace, we act largely for our own benefit. That doesn’t mean that people who aren’t Christian can’t act benevolently. It does mean that in some way, they may cooperate with God’s grace even without recognizing it. That’s the seed of faith at work. But all good is the result of a God who is the greatest good. We can only impart what we possess, and if we have any good, it is because of the source of good, the greatest of all goods, our God, who endows us with His goodness.

Recall that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” Why else do we give gifts if not out of love? Otherwise, the giving of a so-called gift requires reciprocation—something in return. And that is not a gift at all. God gives us all that we need not out of any need He has, but simply because He loves us and knows what we need.

Grace has effects, and one of them is enlightenment. There’s a popular Catholic writer and apologist who likes to put it this way: sin makes you stupid.

Sin makes you stupid.

When I look back on the sinful moments of my life, I can hear that, sagely nod my head, stroke my very gray beard, and say… “Yep.”

Sin makes us stupid. It’s so obvious that we shouldn’t have to say it. When we are in the midst of our sin, we can’t see how it clouds our judgment, how it blinds us, how it darkens our moral vision. Once we snuff the light of grace, our path is darkened, and we have to grope to find our way back. And of course, when we grope in the darkness, we’re going to bark our shins, stub our toes, and smack our foreheads on that overhang we always have to duck.

Without grace, we do not experience the love of God—the love of Him offering His Son for our salvation—but we also do not experience the truth of God. We cannot see. We are trapped in the darkness of our sin. God’s light can permeate all darkness except one—the darkness in which we wrap ourselves by our own act of will, the darkness that we choose on our own.

Recall when Jesus meets with Nicodemus in the night. He says, “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He notes this irony: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony.”

They do not understand, which is to say that they do not see. Now, Nicodemus was one of the ones who eventually came to understand. He came to Jesus in the night, but later, he and Joseph of Arimathea took away Jesus’s body and buried it, according to Sacred Tradition. He saw something after Jesus’ death that the Twelve, those Jesus had picked by hand, did not see.

Why is that? Because the light had not yet come to them, and by the word light, we mean that other aspect of God I mentioned earlier, the Truth. God is Love, and God is Truth. We think of these attributes of God as distinct things. But God is utterly simple. He isn’t divided. His love is His mercy is His justice is His truth. While we make distinctions in God, they only exist in our limited ways of understanding Him because we need distinctions to comprehend the simplest truth about God.

Recall 1 Samuel, when the prophet Samuel goes to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. Samuel sees the first of Jesse’s sons and is certain that this is the one, but God tells him, “Not as man sees does God see.” Without the light of Christ, we can only judge by human means. With Christ’s light, we see more and more as God sees. St. Paul in Ephesians contrasts this before and after state for those who come to Christ: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” And finally, in the story about the man blind from birth, the disciples assume that the man’s blindness is on account of his parents’ sin. Jesus responds to them, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” By His actions, He brings light into the world, and through our baptism, we are made partakers in that light. So we become the light in the world.

God’s gift of grace through love to us allows us to be the light and truth to others. We are Christ’s hands and feet, but we also convey His grace in our actions, in our loving response to others, in our testimony to the truth.

We receive this Eucharist here to strengthen us so that we can go out and be Christ to the world: hands, feet, love, and truth. Don’t let this grace sit idle in your heart. Take it to your neighbors, to your coworkers, to the people you can’t stand, and the people who can’t stand you. Don’t cover the light of truth with a bushel basket. Don’t hoard the grace that has been given freely to you. Pass on your grace as a gift to others. Let your light illumine others. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “the life you save may be your own.”

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Healing the Leper in Us—Sixth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Corinthians 10:31—11:1; Mark 1:40–45

As many of you know, I returned to the Catholic faith when I was in my late 30s. For those of you who have practiced your faith steadily for your entire life, you will never know what it is like to make a twenty-year confession. I could say that you are blessed never to have to do so, and that would be true. But likewise, it’s a blessing after such a long time away from the sacraments and after having wended my way through all of the poor decisions of a young-adult life outside the Church to unburden myself and to hear those most beautiful words of absolution:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those words were beautiful the first time I heard them after 20 years, and they are still beautiful now every time I go to reconciliation, which I try to do every three or four weeks.

But it’s really easy to get bogged down in shame and avoid acknowledging our need for forgiveness and healing. We get a hint of this in the reading from Leviticus. Note that the person with lesion is “brought to the priest”—that is, he doesn’t present himself, but those who notice his lesion bring him to the priest. The suggestion, of course, is that the person who might have leprosy does not come willingly but is forced to come because others see his possible uncleanliness.

And that makes sense. Back then, being branded as a leper meant that you were an outcast—unclean. You had a duty to warn people away from yourself, until you somehow were healed from your leprosy. But how could that happen if you are outcast? Who would heal you? You have to be healed before you can even approach the priest to examine you and perform the ritual sacrifices for you to be brought back into the community.

When St. Paul talks about the burden of the law, and when Jesus talks about the burdens that the scribes and Pharisees put on the shoulders of the faithful, this is what He means. They lay out the consequences and the costs but give no means for actually resolving the situation. If you become unclean, you have to hope that somehow you will become clean again, with no way of being able to make yourself clean. To paraphrase Psalm 49, we cannot pay our own ransom or the ransom of anyone else. So how hopeless is the plight of the leper? There is a chasm between him and the community that he can only pray will be breached.

Leprosy, of course, is a figure or type for sin. When I use the terms “figure” and “type,” I’m using the language of biblical scholars, but what those terms mean is that a figure or type is a foreshadow. It’s a pattern that precedes something in scripture that helps the second thing make sense. So if I refer to the crossing of the Red Sea as a kind of baptism, you see the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus as having some kind of meaningful connection to the Rite of Baptism—a cleansing from sin, a transition from slavery to freedom. The Church counts on your ability to make sense of these analogies or “figures,” and  it salts our sacramental rites with these hints. If you have listened to our sprinkling rite or the baptismal rite, you know that we remember every baptismal symbol from scripture: the separation of all matter from water, the story of Noah, the passage of the ark of Moses in the Nile, the passage of the people of Israel over the Red Sea, the passage of Joshua and the nation of Israel over the Jordan—all of these figures are important for us to grasp our faith. We need scripture to show us how it all works, and our liturgies are the apparatus by which it all comes together.

So leprosy is likewise a type for sin. The Old Testament Hebrews could not rid themselves of leprosy, any more than we can rid ourselves of sin. They had to rely solely on the grace and mercy of God to be healed. And then they had to be affirmed as clean by a priest before returning to the community. The gospel reading likewise demonstrates this. The leper seeks healing from Jesus, saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” There is no question and no hesitation from the leper as to Jesus’ ability to heal. He knows it’s simply a matter of Jesus’ willingness to heal him, and of course, Jesus wills it.

I want to interject here something I’ve been sort of stewing on that came to me last night. Notice the reversal that takes place at the end of the gospel reading. The leper, who is an outcast, comes to Jesus and is healed and then enters the city again, while Jesus becomes the outcast. He can no longer enter the city because of the crowds. He switches place essentially with the leper.

So imagine the courage it must’ve taken the leper, an outcast, to approach Jesus in this way? To come closer than 150 feet to anyone meant the possibility of violent reprisals. But he knew that Christ had the power to heal, and that Christ wished to heal. And he knew that he so desperately needed healing that only Jesus could give him, so he took the chance. It must’ve taken courage and humility.

Leprosy, in these readings, represents our uncleanness, or dis-ease due to sin. Perhaps no one else recognizes our sinfulness, no one sees the lesions, sores, and disfigurement than sin causes in us. We might try to rationalize it away—that’s one of the effects of sin—clouding and distorting our moral vision to hinder our ability to see our failings. But if we’re honest with ourselves—if we examine our motivations, our thoughts, our negative impulses—we come to recognize our need for forgiveness. That’s half of the battle.

But then we need to approach Jesus to find the healing we need. Sometimes that does take courage, and it always requires humility. For some of us, particularly those of us who have cultivated the habit, confession is easy. We know that the priest is there to show us God’s mercy not to condemn us. But for others of us, we feel the sting of conscience, the shame of hearing ourselves repeating out loud again the same sins we take into the confessional every few weeks. We think, “What must this priest think of me? How can I look him in the face when I see him around town?”

Now it’s common to hear non-Catholics ask why they would need to confess their sins to a priest. It might be more unusual to hear Catholics say the same thing, but I have heard it. Nonetheless, confession is necessary for mortal sin. When we sin mortally, we break communion with God and with the Body of Christ. Confession is the way that we reconcile with God and the Church. So before we come to this altar of sacrifice to share the Eucharist in communion with the Church, we need to prepare, and that often includes confession of our sins. It’s not only the law of the Church. It’s also noted in scripture. In John 20:22–23, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” James says in his letter to the Jews in the dispersion, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” So for all mortal sin, confession is a necessity before we can receive the other sacraments.

But remember that the priest is not simply and solely a man in his role as confessor. He acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. That is, he forgives sins, not by his own power, but by the authority of Jesus Christ. The priest makes Christ present in his priesthood. We need God’s mercy and healing, and in His wisdom, He has given us this sacrament of reconciliation, so that when we hear those words of absolution, we truly know that God has forgiven us.

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