Step out in Faith—Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Isaiah 6:1–2a,3–8; 1 Cor. 15:1–11; Luke 5:1–11

I’m going to tell you a little about a lesser known side of me, unless you’ve read my blog. I have practiced martial arts of various kinds since I was in my mid-20s, even before that actually, but much more seriously starting when I was about 24. I got into it primarily for the mental discipline and fitness aspects, but also for practical self defense. I can remember the first time I had a serious sparring match. I was naturally really nervous, as you might expect. But I realized that I was in the hands of people who understood what they were about, and I was in a controlled environment. So I stepped out in trust, and when my first match was over, I felt the exhilaration of the experience and of winning my first match. I encountered that many times after, and I’ve experienced it in many other ways—as a musician, as a consultant, and even as a newly ordained deacon preaching for my first time.

There are some experiences you cannot have unless you set aside all trepidation and step out in faith: sparring, sky diving, mountain climbing. And if we don’t step out in faith, we often regret the lost opportunity.

Of course this goes for opportunities for worldly experiences, those that give us opportunity for travel, excitement, and advancement; but it’s no different in the spiritual world. We get invitations to step out in faith all… the… time, but we don’t see them as such. We don’t experience fear so much as doubt. We think, “I’d like to go on that Cursillo retreat, but I’ve seen some of those guys come back really overzealous.” Or “I’d like to try a mission trip, but I don’t know if I could deal with those people’s hardship.”

It’s easy for us to talk ourselves out of hard choices, and believe me, I am very good at taking the easy path myself! But we always regret not facing up to the challenges that we know will change us.

The first reading from Isaiah follows several chapters in which Isaiah finds himself hearing God’s plan for the people of Israel. Then he finds himself in the very presence of God! The traditional understanding of scripture said that one could not see the face of God and live, yet here he was seeing God in His heavenly court! Listen to his own words: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” He understands the danger he faces.

Then one of the seraphim swoops down with a burning coal, touches it to Isaiah’s lips, and declares him pure. The word seraphim shares the same root as the Hebrew word for burning and for a serpent whose bite causes burning infection. But this burning purifies Isaiah. The trial Isaiah undergoes purifies him so that he can speak God’s word. Once he is purified, he hears God ‘s question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, “No way! No one will believe me!”

Okay, that’s not what Isaiah says. He is at first fearful, but once he is cleansed, he says, “Here I am! Send me!” He embraces the call and takes the words of God to the Hebrews. That doesn’t mean all goes well. Isaiah faces persecution, but he does what he is called to do.

And of course, St. Paul exemplifies the willing prophet and evangelist. He even notes that he has worked harder than the other Apostles, by God’s grace. I want to point out something that is true of all real prophets and evangelists. Paul notes that he communicated only what he was given. He writes, “I delivered to you of first importance what I also received.” You see, he hands on what he has been given. He doesn’t deliver a different gospel but only what Sacred Tradition has given to him. Tradition, which is given a bad reputation from some corners of the Christian world, means “things handed over”—that is, all that is handed on from the early Church by word of mouth or in writing. That is what differentiates a false prophet from a true one and a charlatan from a true disciple. We have been given the true gospel, protected by the Holy Spirit through the authority of the Church, through Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Anyone who preaches something else, as Paul is saying here, is not teaching the Gospel! And no one can accuse Paul of being anything less than a fervent and joyful prophet.

In our Gospel reading, Simon Peter has just hauled in a miraculous haul at the most unlikely time of day. He recognizes something uncanny about this itinerant preacher, and he responds in much the same way as Isaiah does. He recognizes his sinfulness and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Notice that all three of our subjects recognize their unworthiness. They all know that they are sinners. But Jesus encourages him, saying, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for men.” Jesus knows that none of us are worthy of our own merits. He doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.

One of the reasons many of us don’t step out and share our faith is because we don’t feel qualified. We are just like Peter and Isaiah. We doubt our worthiness. We say, “Well, I’m no saint. No one wants to hear from a sinful schlep like me.” Join the club! I’m a sinful schlep, too! John says to us in his first letter, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And you see that very scenario played out in in our readings today. We aren’t worthy, but Jesus will make us worthy if we let him. He will give us the grace we need to be cleansed, and He has given us sacraments to make that happen—baptism, reconciliation, and the Eucharist. Once we have the first, we need to seek out the other two to have the grace to do His work.

And we need to understand that the very first place we need to share our faith is with our family. It’s our calling to help our spouses get to heaven. It’s our calling to educate our children in the faith. This is what the Church refers to as the domestic Church. Our children learn the faith by seeing how we live it at home. We need to evangelize the world, but the world starts in our kitchen, in our family room, at our dinner table. If you need to exercise your faith to give you the courage to share it, start with your children, start with your spouse, start with your siblings. True love shows itself in our striving for the ultimate good of those we love, and nothing outweighs the love of Our God.

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Baptism of the Lord (Cycle C)

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Isaiah 42: 1–4, 6–7; Acts 10:34–38; Luke 3:15–16, 21–22

The Sacrament of Baptism is one of my favorites at which to preside, and it’s one that probably stirs me the most emotionally, even more than weddings, at which I also love to preside. I think part of my love for the Sacrament of Baptism is the sheer gratuitousness, the sheer generosity of it—that God uses these material things to simply wipe our slate clean, to cleanse us from the stain of original sin, and to adopt us as His own children; that He bestows this life saving grace on us in such a simple, mundane act—the act of bathing. So this day is a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, which is the beginning of our baptism.

I’ve preached previously on the significance of this feast day in relation to Christmas and the Epiphany. However, I’d like to focus today on baptism, which is how we are joined to the Church. Sacraments have effects, and the Sacrament of Baptism is one of the most important sacraments in its effects. It is so important that scripture is riddled with allusions to baptism, allusions that the Church has put directly into our baptismal rite to remind us that God’s plan has always been to reconcile us to Himself.

In our first reading from Isaiah, the Lord announces His servant, the one on whom He has put His spirit, who will bring forth justice and peace. He will bring light for the nations, sight for the blind, and freedom for prisoners. But here’s one of those strange passages that we sometimes encounter in scripture. How is his servant going to bring this about? By not crying out, not shouting, not bruising the reed, not quenching the wick. This servant will conquer through His teaching and his mildness, not by being harsh or brash. Isaiah is foretelling of a victor who does things in a radically different way—not by force but through meekness. And He comes not just for the people of Israel but for all nations.

Our second reading from Acts also reflects this universal mission. Peter is told in a message from an angel to go with men who are seeking him. He goes to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea. He notes that God shows no partiality among nations but that every nation who fears Him and acts righteously is acceptable to Him. And then he tells the household the good news of Jesus Christ and he baptizes them. If you read further in the chapter, Peter begins by recounting Jesus’ baptism. This should tell us something about our own call after baptism.

Finally, in our gospel reading, John preaches to those who have come to be baptized, among whom is Jesus, and he announces that one is coming whose sandal thong John is not worthy to untie. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and power. It’s interesting if you compare Acts 10 and this passage, and you see the Holy Spirit rushing upon the members of Cornelius’s household, reiterating the baptism by the spirit. Also note that Peter still baptizes them with water, underscoring the baptismal rite as a requirement to be joined to the Church, not to mention our need for its salvific effects.

Now, we know, of course, that Jesus has no need of baptism. He’s free of sin. He’s the beloved Son of God, as demonstrated when the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew, John even says, “I need to be baptized by you!” So why does He go to John for baptism? Sacred Tradition tells us that through the action of His entering the Jordan and His baptism, Jesus sanctifies the waters for our baptisms. His baptism prepares the waters for our baptism.

One of the aspects I love about our baptismal rite is how it recounts all of the precursors of baptism, starting with the creation of earth, with the breath of the Holy Spirit over the water, and by the separation of waters and land. Then the waters of the great flood cleanse and renew the earth. Moses, who is found in a little ark (תבה or teva) made of reeds, grows up to lead the People of Israel from bondage through the Red Sea. And then Jesus is baptized in order to be a model for our own baptism.

Baptism is the sign of the new covenant with the Word of God. The sign of the old covenant with Israel was circumcision. All boys at eight days would be circumcised as a sign of the relationship of the People of Israel to God. It was once customary to baptize children on the eighth day after birth. St. Paul notes in Colossian’s 2:11 the connection between circumcision and baptism and that in baptism we are buried with Jesus and raised from death. In 1 Peter 3, Peter says very directly, “Baptism now saves you.” It is not merely a sign of our sanctification; it begins in us that process and joins us to the Body of Christ.

What does baptism mean for us, then? How are we supposed to respond to the grace given to us in baptism? I want to turn back to the differences between the baptism accounts in Luke and Matthew. In Luke, Jesus is one of many baptized by John¸ after which the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and a voice says, “Thou art my beloved son.” That voice speaks directly to Jesus. We do not know if it was audible to anyone else there. But in Matthew, the event is much more public: “The heavens were opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alight on him, and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

Why is Matthew’s account so much more public than Luke’s? I think it goes back to something that happens just before. John questions why he is baptizing Jesus rather than the other way around. Jesus responds, “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is presenting himself so that he will be seen, and the Father makes Him known.

In His ministry following His revelation, we hear one phrase repeatedly: follow me. Follow me. Pick up your cross and follow me. So He allows Himself to be baptized as an example to follow, not because He needs it, but because we do. So we follow Him and are baptized into His body. That is the first step in discipleship, the first step in working with Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.

What is the next step in discipleship? If we follow Him in the example of baptism, we must no doubt follow His example in other things. He does the Father’s will, so we must do His father’s will. We follow His commandments, because they are the Word of the Father. We follow Him by loving God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength and by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow Him by doing in His memory what he commanded us to do, here at this altar as we will in a few short minutes.

All of this matters, but it is not enough. We have to be changed by what we do. That is the point. For all righteousness to be fulfilled, we have to become righteous like Jesus. He came and assumed our human nature to transform it. Bishop Faustus of Riez, an early bishop and saint, compared our baptism to the changing of water to wine at Cana. He wrote: “For, if we look closely, the very water tells us of our rebirth in baptism. One thing is turned to another from within, and in a hidden way, a lesser creature is changed into a greater.”

So if we follow Jesus in His example, and we do as He commands, and we love as He loves, we are true disciples. That leaves one last step. We have to take His word out to the world. He came to reveal Himself as the Word of God, but for all righteousness to be fulfilled, we have to reveal Him as the Good News, the Word of God come to earth for our salvation. At the end of Matthew and Mark, Jesus gives the Apostles the great Commission. He sends them out to all nations to preach the good news and to baptize.

And that is what we are called to do—to preach the good news, to evangelize. The Church exists to evangelize, which means you are commissioned to take the news of Jesus with you when you leave here. Some of us will preach the good news in words. Some of us will preach the good news through our actions. But either way, you may be the only gospel that some people ever hear.

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Feast of the Holy Family (Cycle C)

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1 Samuel 1:20–22, 24–28; 1 John 3:1–2, 21–24; Luke 2:41–52

Why are we here? Why do we exist? The catechism tells us simply that we are here to know, love, and serve God, in this life and the next. But this is not something that we know instinctively. It’s a revealed truth that we need to be taught. And the best place for the teaching of revealed truths is in the home. Today is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, and it’s a day on which the Church reflects foremost on the Holy Family, but also on the gift of family in our lives and the role that family plays in the formation of our character.

In paragraph 1656 of the Catechism, the Church calls the family the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church. The family home is the primary place of faith formation for children—the primary place of faith formation. Family is the oven in which the bricks of faith are cured. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and many popes prior to him have stressed the foundational importance of the family not only to civilization but also to the transmission of the faith. Children see whether or not the faith makes a difference in family life and in all life. If our faith isn’t taught and demonstrated in the home, it will not find a home in the human heart. Both of our readings show that faith begins at home, and then the children take it out to serve God in the greater society.

In the first reading, Hannah names her son Shmuel (שמואל), which we pronounce Samuel in English. The name has been translated variously as—heard of God, asked of God, His name is God, or namesake of God. What we get in this passage is essentially a folk etymology. His name is Samuel because Hannah asked the Lord for him. Hannah takes Samuel to the temple and dedicates him to God’s service. It’s important to note here her motivation. Out of gratitude to God for His gift of a child to her, a child she had longed for and whose birth removed the stigma of barrenness from her, she gives Samuel back to God. Samuel is literally called by God, and he becomes a great prophet and judge of Israel.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph search for him for three days only to find him in the temple. Mary’s presence on the journey indicates her personal dedication to her faith, since the journey was only required for Jewish men. They were devoted in the observance of their faith. That should be rather unsurprising to us given all we read in Matthew and Luke about Joseph and Mary.

When they find Jesus, he is sitting in the temple asking questions and responding to the teachers, and the teachers are astounded by his wisdom. You see, at that time, a Jewish boy’s religious education did not culminate in a bar Mitzvah at age 13, as is the norm now. In the first century, boys didn’t even start instruction until they were around 12. So Jesus’ understanding is so completely out of the norm for the time and place. At an age when most of us started junior high, he is teaching the teachers.

What would Samuel have done without his mother’s commitment and gratitude to God for His gift to her? And can we even imagine Jesus born into a household that wasn’t devout? Family is critical for faith formation, and part of formation in the faith is discerning one’s calling. Because of his mother’s sacrifice, Samuel discerned his calling while he served in the temple. Jesus was able to respond fully to his calling at an early age because of his parents’ observance of the Jewish high holy days. In both cases, we see that the child is aided in discerning and following a vocation through his parents’ support.

But we have a problem in our Church today, and it’s been around for some time. Many of us do not know our faith as well as we should. We don’t read scripture regularly. We don’t know the basic tenets of our faith. The Catholic Church is the largest Christian faith by numbers in the United States. That’s if you distinguish the various groupings of Protestant and post-Protestant denominations. But if you look at the number of ex-Catholic Christians, you’ll find the second largest in numbers. Ex-Catholics leave the faith of their childhood and find Christ elsewhere or abandon the search altogether. Why is that? Is it because they understand their faith? I can assure you that it’s not.

Most people who leave the Catholic faith for a Christian denomination do so because they want to know God and they don’t get what they need from their families or their Church community. If you’ve ever spoken to an ex-Catholic Christian, you will hear some of the most outlandish balderdash about what we supposedly believe. And most of their newfound knowledge isn’t something they learned at home as children. They learn it from non-Catholics, who likewise don’t know a thing about what the Church teaches. But what these non-Catholic Christians do know, and know well, is scripture, and they are so often such excellent witnesses to Christian faith. That is what compels people to leave.

Interestingly enough, if you want to see people on fire for our faith, talk to someone who has converted from a Protestant or Evangelical denomination to Catholicism. They are often some of our best teachers and witnesses because they know what the Church has to offer. Nearly the entire staff of Catholic.com and Catholic Answers is a testament to that fact.

But I think that calls us to reflect upon how well we represent the Catholic Church in our domestic Church. Are we living lives that reflect a deep faith in the sacramentality of our lives? Are we showing our children how central our faith is to our very being? Do we read scripture together, discuss the teachings of the Church together, wrestle with the moral teachings together? If we aren’t doing these things, our children will leave our homes theologically illiterate. I understand that many of you have gone to much expense to send your children to Catholic schools, but if they do not hear, see, and experience the gospel in their home lives, they will either leave the faith entirely, or they will go somewhere else that will feed them.

Now, not all of the responsibility rests on the family to pass on the faith. We in the clergy and those who teach the faith in our schools and in our religious education programs have to make sure that we are not dumbing down the faith, not filling up our programs with fluff, or not being wishy-washy on the harder positions of Church doctrine. The institutional Church does no one any favors by downplaying or misrepresenting our teachings, and we have sadly done that over the last 40 years to the detriment of two generations.

But teaching the faith is not merely talking about it. It’s living it in a day-to-day context. You learn how to be a Christian and how to be a Catholic by being steeped in a Christian and Catholic environment. So parents need to provide an environment where the faith is studied and practiced. So how can we make that a reality in our homes?

First, we can provide plenty of opportunity for prayer and devotion every day: prayer first thing in the morning to thank God for another day of life and for guidance throughout the day; prayer before all meals, even when we’re eating at a restaurant; examination of conscience and prayer before going to sleep. A family rosary once a week or an hour of adoration would also be great family practices.

Second, we can replace our entertainment with something that fosters our knowledge of the faith. There are many excellent movies about the saints or other historical events that can help us to understand how faith should inform our lives. I’m thinking of Song of Bernadette, The Red and the Black, and A Nun’s Story to name a few. And there are numerous films that recount the lives of saints, biblical events, or other compelling stories.

Third, take time to learn together. Read scripture or read the Catechism together. Maybe take time to read a book on the faith together. Or check out some of the many wonderful series available on DVD. Bishop Robert Barron has some excellent series on the Catholic Church, on the Mass, and on the faith. The parish has a subscription to a program called FORMED, which has all kinds of excellent video, audio, and digital books. You can log in with the parish’s credentials and set up your own account. Details of that program are available in the narthex—that’s the foyer at the entrance—and on our parish web site.

The family is where our children learn what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live a virtuous life, what it means to serve God and our neighbor. Ultimately, that is what we will be called to account for—how well we love God and our neighbor.

We can’t pass on what we don’t know, so we need to understand our faith and understand why we are here. We are here to know, love, and serve God, in this life and the next, but if we don’t know that ourselves, our children will never hear it from us.

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Prepare the way—Second Sunday in Advent (Cycle C)

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Baruch 5:1–9; Philippians 1:4–6, 8–11; Luke 3:1–6

I assisted at a funeral the other day, and the priest brought up an experience from his childhood of a time when his mother had divided a sandwich between him and his brother. And once the halves were distributed, the bickering started: “Why does he get a bigger piece?”

I’m sure none of you parents have experienced this phenomenon. And I’m sure none of us with siblings have ever made this protest.

The priest used the story to make a point. All of us are innately attuned to a sense of fairness, that no one be given more than another because of some arbitrary preference of a deciding authority. Or to put it simply, we are all endowed with a sense or need for justice. And we recognize from an early age when something is not just. Having a belonging taken from you is not just. Being treated harshly for no reason is not just. We don’t need to be taught that some actions are just and some are not. We’re not always the best judges of justice, but we know that in some way, balance has to be maintained, and justice restored when it is violated.

Part of the reason why we have this innate sense is because our first parents were endowed with the balance, the original disposition from which our sense of justice stems. You’ve most likely heard the term “original sin” to describe the fallen state of humanity as a result of Adam’s and Eve’s choice to disobey God, but you might be less familiar with the theological term “original justice”—the state in which Adam and the Woman existed prior to their fall, a state of grace and perfect communion with God.

Now what does this have to do with Advent and our readings today? I think that both of them harken back to this original condition of humanity in God’s grace and bid us to prepare for its return.

The first reading is from Baruch, one of the seven books of our bible that is not part of the canon of scripture for Jews or Protestants. One reason that it is omitted from their canons is because there is no extant version in Hebrew, and none has ever been found. However, there are internal proofs that it was first composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, and it has some characteristics that mark it as stemming from a Semitic language like Hebrew, one characteristic being the name of the prophet Baruch. That name is the Hebrew word for blessed. It is used in Jewish prayers for Passover and Sabbath: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu—Blessed be you, God of the universe.” You might even recognize the English translation of those words from our own Liturgy of the Eucharist.

We can learn a lot from looking at the Jewish roots of our faith, from the language in our scripture to the forms we use in our liturgy. All of it is rooted in the Judaism of the first century and earlier. So it makes sense to look for hints in scripture of these Hebrew underpinnings to make sense of scripture.

Let’s start with what happens in the passage from Baruch. We hear in our reading, “Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God!”

Now the verse that follows highlights a historical reality of the time, that the Jews of that time were mostly exiled to the east to Babylonia, and if we only read the surface in the Greek and English translations, that’s all we get. As a prophecy for the exilic Jews, that’s fine, but the prophecy goes deeper. Notice that the children are gathered from east and west, from Babylon but also from points west of Jerusalem. These would not be exiles from Israel but children from other locations—not exiled Jews, maybe not Jews at all. Compare this passage to Psalm 87, “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia—‘This one was born there.’”

Note that these are not simply exiles sent to the East but Gentiles from the west. But what will be said of them? “This one was born there”—born in Jerusalem So both Baruch and Psalm 87 are referring to the motherhood of Jerusalem as being something that extends to all nations, not simply to the People of Israel.

So if the children of Jerusalem are being called back, wouldn’t it be more expedient for them just to gather around their mother Jerusalem? But Baruch tells Jerusalem to look east. Why?

In Hebrew scripture, the word for “east” is kedem (קדם). We think of east as merely a direction, but in ancient Hebrew, it had more significance than that. Kedem means “the front, the ancient times.” So let’s dispense with the directional angle, since that’s the one that makes the least sense. It’s not about facing east on the compass. It’s about looking back to some point in the ancient times.

In this light, Jerusalem looks back to see her children gathered back to that moment of time where the original couple had the cloak of justice, the mitre that displays the glory of God’s name. Mother Jerusalem is invited to see her children brought back to the original state of humankind, to the state of original justice, that point where God who has begun the good work in us, will bring it to completion. These words from our second reading in Philippians, by the way, are included in our ordination rites for priests and deacons, but they extend to the priesthood of all the faithful, which means all of you!

Finally, our gospel reading comes from chapter 3 of Luke. The author sets the context very well. It’s during the reign of Tiberius when Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea and Herod the tetrarch of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas the high priests. The beginning reads a bit like a play, with all the villains in this drama being introduced right up front. We’ve already been introduced to John the Baptist in utero in chapter 1 of Luke, where Elizabeth greets the Blessed Mother, and John leaps in his mother’s womb. John is the first to recognize just who Jesus is, and now he’s ready to announce it to the world, just as his father Zechariah prophesied in chapter 1 of Luke.

Luke makes many references to the prophet Isaiah, and here he alludes to the proclamation in Isaiah 40 of the coming glory of the Lord. But Luke adds a little twist here. Isaiah says that the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, but Luke writes, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Why is his phrasing “the salvation of God” important? Because the name Jesus literally means “God’s salvation.” So very literally, His arrival on earth is the arrival of God’s salvation, and what else is salvation but a return of all of God’s children to a state of original justice.

So both of our readings today address our return to that original state that our first parents shared with God in the garden where they walked side by side with God, where they looked into His face and spoke with God in the most direct and personal way we can imagine.

Advent is a time of preparation, and both Isaiah and Luke talk about preparation. Make straight His paths! Valleys shall be filled and hills brought low! The rough ways will be made smooth! Why all this talk of straightening paths? What could possibly hinder His coming? How could God’s salvation be hindered by such obstacles?

It could be that those crooked paths, those valleys, those hills, and the rough ways are the many obstacles of our making that prevent Jesus from truly entering into our experience. Maybe it’s the busyness and noise that distracts us from considering those eternal concerns. Maybe it’s the media with the constant drumbeat of negativity that we allow to shape our thoughts and attitudes. Maybe it’s our own grasping at possessions, or prestige, or power. We can clutter up our lives so much with these lesser concerns and elevate them into hills that block out the light of the Son. We can create deep valleys and rifts between us and our Lord that divide us and keep us from reaching for Him. We can create crooked roads of self-justification and rationalization for our selfish or self-seeking behavior.

It’s time to clear all of that away. Straighten the roads, make level the valleys and hills, smooth the rough way. That’s what Advent calls up to do, to begin again and clear away the obstacles to our hearts and to open up a way for God to enter in.

Posted in Advent, Hebrew, Homilies

We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.—Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

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Dan. 12:1–3; Hebrews 10:11–14, 18; Mark 13:24–32

We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.

I am grateful for an end to the election season. Politics seems to get more contentious with every year. No one seems to be interested in serving the common good, just in tearing down the other side. And within the Church, the picture isn’t particularly good either. With the Pennsylvania grand jury report reopening old wounds and the bishops of the national conference openly divided about how to respond to the angry demands for accountability, our faith seems to be under assault. And no doubt it is. But countries have seen worse divisions, and our Church has suffered through worse times than these. Still I sometimes wonder what these events portend for our Church, our nation, and our world.

Our readings today point to two final outcomes: Heaven and Hell—being caught up with the elect of Christ, as we hear in our Gospel reading, or residing in everlasting horror and disgrace, as the Book of Daniel puts it. And we choose one or the other in the decisions we make. That point bears repeating. In our decisions, we choose something that draws us closer to God, or we choose something that takes us away from God and that ultimately leads to Hell.

We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But whenever it comes, we choose one path or the other.

Jesus warns us of this in the Gospel of Matthew. The gate is small and the road narrow that leads to life, but the path is broad that leads to destruction. It’s fashionable these days to think that everyone goes to Heaven and that God is too merciful to send people to Hell. To a degree, they are correct. God wants all to be saved, as Paul says in the first letter to Timothy. He desires all to be saved and to come to knowledge of him. Yet scripture tell us of two ends, one for those who choose God’s will and one for those who reject it.

Our reading from Daniel contrasts the two ends for us. Daniel is one of the early apocalyptic books of Hebrew scripture, and it shares some common imagery with other apocalyptic writings like Ezekiel, another book of the Hebrew prophets, and the Revelation of John, much of it capturing the tribulation and cataclysm of the end days. The prophet writes, “[I]t will be a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time.” The reading from Mark is even more dramatic: “[I]n those days after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The events of our day do not look so bad in comparison. But Jesus warns us to be prepared, to live now as if the master is returning immediately. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.

God wants all to be saved, but our readings make it clear that there are two ends. Daniel spells it out clearly: “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” There are only two options.

In Mark, the elect will be gathered from the four winds.” The others will not be gathered. They will be left clinging to those things they chose over God. You see, we choose salvation or damnation. We choose to seek God’s will or our own will. God simply confirms our own choice. God doesn’t send the unrepentant to Hell. The unrepentant choose it for themselves. So the choice is in our hands. We can choose to align our will with God’s, or we can choose to focus on ourselves and cling to lesser goods.

So how can we choose God’s will over our own? The Church has given us some guides in this area to help us. They are called works of mercy, and there are two sets of seven: the corporal works of mercy, and the spiritual works of mercy.

Let’s start with the corporal works. These works are called corporal because they deal with the needs of the body, in particular, other people’s bodily needs. They are as follows:

  • Feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Clothe the naked
  • Give shelter to the homeless
  • Visit the sick
  • Visit those who are in prison
  • Bury the dead

Recall in Matthew 25 when the Son divides the sheep and the goats. Those things that the sheep did to the least of their brothers—feeding and clothing them, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison—the Son says, they did to Him. In a very real way, when we love our neighbor, we are showing love for God.

What are the spiritual works of mercy? These are those works we do to attend to the spiritual needs of others:

  • Instruct the ignorant
  • Counsel the doubtful
  • Admonish the sinner
  • Bear wrongs patiently
  • Forgive offenses willingly
  • Comfort the afflicted
  • Pray for the living and the dead

Some of these are hard, if not downright unpopular, to put into practice. Sinners don’t like to be admonished. The ignorant don’t always like to be instructed. But it’s not merciful to allow someone to die in their sins. It’s not merciful to let the ignorant suffer from their ignorance. So while our culture often tells us that such things are just bigotry and judgmentalism, the Church calls it mercy. One great way to practice these spiritual works of mercy is to share our faith, to share the reason we believe what the Church teaches.

Jesus gave us two commandments: love God with your whole heart, your mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The most effective way to do the first commandment is to practice the second commandment as well as we can. When we choose the other over ourselves, we choose God. When we choose ourselves to the exclusion of others, we’re on our own. That’s what Hell is all about… turning away from God and going our own way.

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses tells the people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants shall live.”

Despite what happens in our political landscape, despite what happens with the fallible human beings who lead our Church, there is still a God who loves us and wants us to be with Him. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But God has set before us good and evil, life and death. Choose life. Choose God.

Posted in Catholic Doctrine, Homilies, Repentence

The Sanctity of Life—Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Isaiah 53:10–11; Hebrews 4:14–16; Mark 10:35–45

Today we celebrate Respect Life Sunday, a day that the Church sets aside to remember the sanctity and dignity of all human life from conception to grave. I think it’s also appropriate to reflect on the ways in which some lives are treated with a lack of dignity and how we can remedy such injustices.

The first reading is from one of the many passages on the Suffering Servant, the one who will bear the sins of Israel, the sinless one who will be crushed on behalf of the sinful. His suffering justifies us all. Now it’s interesting to note that some early Jewish rabbinic sources clearly associate the suffering servant of Isaiah with the Messiah, while later Talmudic commentary associates the suffering servant with the people of Israel. But the earliest identification of the suffering servant is with the Messiah. He is “the righteous one, my servant.” So my question is, why does the righteous one suffer? Why is the innocent one sent to bear the sin of the guilty?

Our reading from Hebrews really zeroes in on the point of the Incarnation—that is, the Son’s descent to the earth to take on bodily existence through the Blessed Virgin Mary. The author is unknown. This letter used to be attributed to St. Paul, but some scholars think it may be the work of St. Barnabas, St. Paul’s companion and an early apostle of the Church. He notes that Jesus was like us in every way but sin—that is, he shared with us every element of our nature, but not the disfigurement that occurred to our nature because of the sin of Adam and Eve. When Jesus took on our human flesh in the Incarnation, He accepted all of our natural weaknesses: the vulnerability to illness or injury, the emotional impact of other people’s anger or hatred, our subjectivity to death. He was even tempted, like we are, but in His temptation, He did not succumb to it. That is, while He was tempted, He did not choose the sinful choice.

He comes and becomes like us. Some translations stay very close to the original and say that He “pitched his tent among us,” this referring to the fact that inns were actually more like camp sites. That’s what the Son came to do with us—to be with us. Why? Why would the greatest good come to dwell among us flawed individuals? Why would He soil His Divinity by taking on a human nature and pitching His tent among us?

            Of course, all of these questions we ask because we see with our eyes and not those of God. But in God’s calculus, we are worth it. We are worth the trouble. We are worth the sacrifice of the Son.

            This makes no sense to us. As St. Paul said in Romans 5:7, we will hardly die for a righteous man, but maybe for a good man. Yet this is what the Son did for us. He died for us when we were sinners. Why? The only reason that makes sense is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit believed that it was worth it—not because we deserve their mercy, but because They love us and because we are made in Their image.

            That really is what Respect Life Sunday is about—not about our perspective, our human valuation, or means of judging worthiness but of the way that God looks upon His creation, particularly how God looks on each individual Imago Dei to whom He has given a rational soul.

We’re way too sophisticated in how we value things and people. We weigh the relative merits of a thing based on its usefulness or beauty. We dismiss things or beings of lesser utility. Those things and creatures we see as useful or valuable, we keep. Those things or creatures of less utility, we at very least ignore, discard, or destroy. That’s the calculus of human society. But that is not the calculus of God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Notice that the words of John do not say, “God so loved the righteous” or “God so loved the religious” or “God so loved the inclusive” or “God so loved the woke.”

            No, God so loved the world—the whole thing. The neat and orderly along with the messy.

            We don’t understand the reason for the mess—for the desperation of those who get pregnant out of wedlock or even within marriage when they are struggling to make ends meet; for the elderly who no longer remember their loved ones; for the disabled who are on life support and have slim chance of recovery; for the prisoner on death row who seems like the last one who deserves mercy. For the poor and chronically homeless, who don’t seem to want something better for themselves. With our human calculus, we can’t make sense of the values at stake:

  • Why is a child in the womb valued as much as a child after birth?
  • Why should we force those who are chronically ill to persist in living when they don’t wish to, or why should we keep someone in a “vegetative state” alive when they’ll likely never recover?
  • Why do we give as much value to the life of a convicted murderer as to the one whose murder put them where they are?
  • Why do we try to help those who won’t lift a finger to help themselves?

One of the reasons our calculus is so different from God’s is that we formulate our questions differently. That is, our math is wrong. We’re using some kind of “new” math, and God uses the eternal math, the unchanging math He established from the beginning, in the beginning when He made them in His own image, male and female He made them. And that image extends to all of us whether we are nascent human beings in the womb, whether we are insensible in an ICU unit somewhere, whether we are in a memory care center and forgotten by our families, whether we are the worst offender on death row, or whether we are homeless and broken and on the street for reasons of our own doing. And that image extends to the immigrant and refugee among us, those who are victims of human trafficking and exploitation, and those who through no fault of their own live in destitution.

            God created us in His image, male and female He created us. That image is what gives us intrinsic worth. We can sully someone’s appearance; we can dismiss their utility; we can dispute their worthiness for mercy; we can question their “quality of life”; but we judge such things by a shallow and soulless calculus. Until we recognize the inherent dignity of the human person from conception to the grave, we will always by thinking as man thinks and not as God thinks.

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How difficult it is for the wealthy to enter

 

Fatima Rosary and Benediction—October 13, 2018

Mark 10:17–30

Do we really know what it is that Jesus offers us? Do we really grasp what Heaven is, what Eternal Life means, and what it is that Jesus has done for us? These are the questions that come to mind for me when I look at this passage from Mark.

In this passage from Mark, we have the rich young man who recognizes Jesus as a good teacher. Actually we don’t hear in Mark that he is young. That’s a detail that only the gospel of Matthew includes. But the man comes and kneels before him. So he assumes an attitude of submission to Jesus. But notice something here. Jesus says to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This response should set off in us what Scott Hahn calls the “holy ‘huh?’” It’s that slightly jarring sense that we’ve missed something, that Jesus has done or said something that doesn’t quite make sense to us. The man has called him “good teacher” and knelt before him, submitting to Him as a good teacher. Jesus questions him, though. Why? Why doesn’t He accept this honor from the rich young man? Is it because He’s not good? That’s obviously not the case. Of course, He is good, and He is God. He’s not questioning His own goodness, but He is questioning whether the man actually recognizes Him for who He is. He’s not just a “good teacher”; He’s the greatest good, the source and summit of all goodness.

But He responds to the question nonetheless. Follow the commandments: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, honor your father and mother. All of these commandments address the right ordering of human relationships. Note that the Decalogue or what we usually call the 10 Commandments is divided into two groups: those that address our relationship with God, and those that address our neighbor or family. Jesus names the group that focuses on neighbor and family first.

And then the passage says something again that is striking: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He’s not rebuking him, or being stern with him. He is looking at him, seeing him right where he is, and loving him. The young man doesn’t know Him, but Jesus knows the young man better than he knows himself. And He knows his internal dispositions and the outcome of this encounter.

That, I think, is important for understanding this passage. Jesus loves the young man where he is, and He still calls him to a more perfect relationship. “Go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man has many possessions and turns away sadly, and Jesus observes how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Isn’t this how it so often is with us? We talk a good game, but have we really submitted fully to God’s will? Sometimes we have material possessions that seem to possess us. Sometimes, we have other worldly attachments that prevent us from fully submitting to Him. It could be sports or other relationships or professional advancement. To what lesser good do we cling that prevents us from recognizing and submitting ourselves to the greatest good? Do we even understand that the good we seek can only be found in Him?

A friend of mine and colleague at the diocese has a daughter who discerned a religious vocation with the Carmelites. She said that she had a dream once where she was standing on one side of a chasm and her family was on the other. And Jesus asked her, “Will you do this for me?”

She did that for Him. Of course, He did that (pointing at the crucifix) for us. If we let go of the lesser goods of this world, we will have the greatest good in this world and the next.

How difficult it is for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven. How difficult it is to leave our attachments behind and follow God completely. Of course, we’re all called to different forms of obedience and self-denial. For some, it is more complete than others. And some have been given extraordinary graces that impelled them to complete submission. Jesus calls us all in different ways. Some are called to be laity and to serve God in the secular world. Some of us are called to religious life. Some, like Nelson, are called to the priesthood. But we’re all called to submit, to pick up our cross, and to follow Jesus.

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