An Incarnational People—Third Sunday of Easter (Cycle B)

Acts 3:13–15, 17–19; 1 John 2:1–5a; Luke 24:35–48

            Who is Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus? This is a question that everyone who encounters Christianity in whatever form must contend with. This was the question that the people of His time had to grapple with. Who is this man who claims an exclusive relationship with God the Father? Who is this man who we believe rose from the dead? Who is this man who, when asked if He was the Son of the Most High, responded, “I AM,” echoing the words that God uttered to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus, claiming the name of God for Himself.

Over the last two centuries, some fashionable circles have made weak claims that this Jesus was a great moral teacher and a good man. But C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, countered that we could not make such a claim of someone who claimed to be God by His words and actions. There are only three options for who Jesus is: Lord, liar, or lunatic. If He believed Himself to be the Son of God and equal to God but wasn’t, He was a lunatic. If He made these claims and didn’t believe them, He was a liar. But if He spoke the truth, He is Lord. So we each decide for ourselves just who Jesus is, and these are our only options.

            This was the challenge put to the people of Jerusalem following the resurrection and documented in our readings today, particularly what we read in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel of Luke and Acts were written by the same author, purported to be a physician by the name of Luke. While scholars don’t necessarily agree that this is the same Luke mentioned by St. Paul, they are almost unanimous that one person wrote both books, so unanimous that they refer to the books together as Luke-Acts—a two-part work for the same audience. Luke’s work was an attempt to address some of the mysteries of the day, and these mysteries were central to the struggles of the early Church. They still grappled with this question. Who is Jesus? Is He Divine or human? How can a man be God? Or better yet, how could God become man and die? Different groups came up with different answers to the question. The Pharisees simply called Jesus an imposter. Other Jewish groups said He was an inspired man, but not God. Still others thought He was semi-divine but created. We call those sects Arian, for the most part. Still others believed that Jesus was Divine with no true humanity. These were the Docetists (doketists), who believed that Jesus was never truly a physical being.

            It’s important not to confuse the Docetists with the Donutists. who believed in the divinity of… Krispy Kremes. This heresy is still rampant among us.

            I might have made that last part up. There was a heresy called Donatism, but it didn’t have anything to do with donuts.

            In any case, one of the constant conflicts in the early Church was with the very question of who Jesus was. Was He God or was He man? And the answer to that question is             yes.

            Yes, Jesus is God and man—completely both at the same time. Now, do you see why this was a problem for the Jews? They struggled with this notion because God is supposed to be one, immortal, unlimited, and far beyond our understanding. One of their most sacred prayers, the Shema, attests to this:

            Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eluheinu, Adoni echad! (שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד)

            Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is one!

And they knew that God was beyond us, mysterious, ultimately unknowable. Yet a man we can know. A man is mortal, finite, and limited. How could a man be God? And how could a man crucified be both righteous and God when scripture says in Deuteronomy 21:23 that a man hung on a tree is cursed? To many of them, the story didn’t add up. Some Jews who continued to follow Jesus’ teachings still never accepted that Jesus was God. However, we also know that many Jewish followers of Jesus accepted that He was the Son of God and God incarnate. The Twelve Apostles were all Jewish, and we understand Christ’s Divinity because of their teaching.

            The Church’s understanding of Christ’s revelation took time to clarify. The Gospel of John made clear what the Church understood about Christ by the end of the 1st century, and other Apostolic writings make clear that Jesus’ Divinity is without question. But it was Jesus’ existence as both God and man—as both Divine and human—that forced the Church to take time to understand and define this teaching.

            Some of the sects who struggled with Jesus’ dual nature did so because they thought of material as evil and that the material body was like prison for the soul. We refer to these sects as Gnostic, and many of them rejected the body and material creation as evil. Unfortunately, this heresy reappears with some frequency throughout history in various forms. In the modern era, it reappears in a sort of quasi spirituality that downplays the importance of the body. It leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of the resurrection as a true bodily return. It can lead to either a misuse of our physical appetites or a rejection of them as evil. It ultimately distorts the truth of what it means to be human.

Yet our faith insists on the goodness of the body. We believe in a God who became incarnate, who lived, ate, and performed all of the normal bodily functions that entails. He experienced pain and hunger. He experienced warmth and cold. He suffered under the most inhumane torture and execution. And He rose back to life after three days—body and soul. In the gospel accounts, He appeared to the disciples bodily after His death. In Luke, Jesus eats in front of the Apostles. In the Gospel of John, Jesus invites Thomas to touch his hands and examine the wound in His side. This is His insistence not only that we are raised from the dead spiritually but that we will be resurrected physically. And we profess that truth every Sunday in the creed.

            We are an Incarnational people. We are a sacramental people. Christ and Our Church are the greatest signs of our Sacramental and Incarnational faith.

We believe that we will be raised bodily as Christ was. We believe in the sacramental efficacy of matter and form in baptism, in confirmation, and in the Eucharist which we will celebrate in just a few minutes. We are not merely spiritual. We are religious because we are body, soul, and spirit. And God looks down on us, His creation and the pinnacle of visible creation, and says that it is very good.

Cling to What is True and Good—Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle B)

Laetare Sunday 2020 - Fr. Joseph Illo's Blog

2 Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23; Ephesians 2:4–10; John 3:16

Do you recall a time in your life when a coworker, friend, sibling, or other family member persisted in a destructive behavior long beyond your counsel, or the advice of others? No matter what you say or how you point out the consequences of their destructive behavior, they continue to make the same destructive choices. Even your warnings seem to be a catalyst for them delving deeper and deeper into error and destruction. It’s an awful experience, but also sadly common with our children, siblings, kindred, and friends. And I suspect that many of us have experienced division over the last year because of extreme or intolerant views around the pandemic, going to either political or cultural extreme. The mask has become the symbol of oppression or compassion depending on which side of the divide we fall.

We need to remember that all we have comes to us through God. Everything is a gift to us: gifts of joy and challenge. Or let me be more direct: whether we live or die belongs to God. We need to take caution, but we must not make worldly life our idol, nor should we make freedom our idol. These are a worldly goods, but eternal life is a far greater good. Our entire earthly life should be directed toward the end, which is eternal life with God.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast.” Those are Paul’s words. He reminds us that grace brings us to the moment of conversion. Our works can demonstrate a nascent, growing faith. Works can be evidence of our faith, but grace is what causes and enables both our faith and our works. Faith and works come from the same source, and we cannot truly have one without the other. Paul makes note of this here and in the first chapters of Romans: “we are His workmanship, created in Christ for good works.” So we were created for good works.

To put it another way, we were created for a purpose. God has a purpose for everything He created, and that includes us—not just us as the human race, but each one of us individually. A good life is one that fulfills the purpose God has for us because He knows what makes us tick and what will bring us joy. And that’s why He made us: He wants our ultimate happiness with Him in Heaven. To get there, we need to know, love, and serve God in this life.

Of course, we’re human, and we think we know best. That’s been our problem since the first couple in Eden decided they wanted to be like God and chose to take the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. One of the effects of original sin is the darkening of the intellect. We are less able to see things for what they really are, therefore, less able to make well-reasoned decisions.

We can see this unreasoned thinking playing out in the reading from 2 Chronicles. They were unfaithful to the God who had brought them up from Egypt and worshipped idols and sacrificed to them. And the sacrifices these false gods required were human sacrifices: gods like Chemosh and Moloch. When scripture calls them abominable, there’s a reason. And the whole point of God’s commandments was to reform the people of Israel to not be like the peoples around them. And we know from Israel’s history that God was constantly reaching out to them. The book of Judges is a great example. Twelve times the Israelites fell into idol worship, and twelve times God sent judges to bring them back and save them from their enemies. First and second Chronicles are filled with similar stories. The people fall away, experience famine and hardship, cry out to God, and He comes again to rescue them. When they once again experience prosperity, they get full of themselves and fall away again. They ignore God’s prophets and persecute them, so God allows them to suffer the consequences. He removes His protection from them, and they are conquered by the neighboring tribes.

The gospel reading recounts this pattern in one of the more well-known verses from the New Testament, the one that begins, “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.” There’s that purpose God created us for, right there. But humanity wants to write its own rules, wants to take all the credit, wants to live for itself, not wanting to serve but to indulge its every whim, many of which deny the truth and the good:

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.

We don’t want to see. We want to hide our actions. We think that if we remain in the dark about our sins, God won’t notice them. The darkness will somehow cover our sins. But all the dark does is keep us from seeing the true and the good.

In short, sin makes us stupid.  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. Why does this happen? Because sin hinders our relationship with God, it obscures the effects of grace. And mortal sin cuts us off entirely from the grace of God. 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.

Today is called Laetare Sunday, and it represents roughly the halfway mark between Ash Wednesday to Easter. We wear rose-colored vestments to represent the coming light of Easter, the enlightening that comes from Christ’s death and resurrection. We make reference to this dawning of light in the Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, which we chant at the beginning of the Easter Vigil. The second verse says, “Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.”

An end to gloom and darkness. God’s salvation removes the darkness of sin, the darkness that clouds our minds, prevents us from seeing the true and the good, and causes us to choose what is harmful to us and to our relationship with God, unless we instead cling to the true and the good. We do that through the gift of grace. That grace gives us faith, if we accept it, and it prepares us for the good works for which Christ created us. “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”

We have three more weeks until Easter. The dawn is coming and the end to gloom and darkness. If you have not yet sought out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this is a great season in which to do so. Many Catholics do not realize that the precepts of the Church say that we are to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation a least once a year and that we are to receive the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season. Both of these sacraments draw us closer to God, to what is good and true. And that is God’s purpose for us—to draw us close so we can share in His glory. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Giver of Good Gifts—Thursday of the First Week of Lent

Esther C: 12, 14-16, 23-25; Matthew 7:7-12

Our first reading comes from the book of Esther, which is most fitting today. It recounts the life of a woman in Persia about 100 years into the Babylonian captivity. The Jews are a despised minority in Persia, but somehow, Esther is betrothed to the king and becomes queen. But because Jews are monotheists and only worship God, her uncle Mordecai (the author of the book) becomes the target of a vengeful court official. This reading comes at a time when Esther is pleading for the lives of her people in the diaspora, and she soon has to make the same plea to her husband the king. The passages we’re reading are actually not part of Hebrew scripture but are written in Aramaic. Of course, God intervenes on Esther’s behalf. This event is celebrated by Jews in the festival of Purim, which begins today, or by Jewish reckoning, began at sundown last night. I broke my fast from Facebook to send out a message for my Jewish friends.

Esther submits completely to God and His inspiration to give her the words to change the heart of the king and to preserve her people. She pleads as an orphan, as one who can turn to no one else. And when you are facing the annihilation of your people, who can you turn to? The entire populace wants you dead! Who else can preserve you but God?

In our gospel passage, Jesus confirms that we should trust in God in our petitions and prayers: ask and it will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door shall be opened. Do you struggle with this response? Have you asked or even pleaded with God for a particular intention only to see it unfulfilled in the present time? Have you prayed incessantly for a family member’s conversion only to watch them pass away without an obvious return to the faith?

These are hard moments, difficult realities that we face. And often, it’s difficult to accept that God is still answering our prayers. In part, that’s because we want to hear an unequivocal YES. Wouldn’t that make our prayer lives easy? But that’s not what we get. Sometimes we get a no because what we want is not good for us. Sometimes we get a “maybe.” Look back at our gospel reading. Jesus says, “how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

So the Father will give us good things. Does that mean He’ll give us precisely what we want? Absolutely not! It may very well be (and is likely) that He’ll protect us from ourselves. Notice the examples we get in Matthew.

Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish? 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.

God always gives us what is good, or to say this another way, what God gives is us always for our greatest good, even when it doesn’t feel that way. He will let us endure consequences that we choose through our wrong actions, but even when we suffer because of our poor decisions, God can direct those events to our greatest good. Like Esther, when we submit ourselves completely to God’s will, He will give us what we need to survive, thrive, and be truly free,

The Sacrifice of Matrimony

Sacrifice in Marriage - The Recipe For Happiness

Usually when I give a homily or reflection, I focus on the gospel reading and work in the Old Testament reading. Today, we just have the reading from Isaiah 1 calling the people of Israel to repentance. While it’s a great passage, it doesn’t really fit the spirit of our retreat today, which is to celebrate your completion of marriage preparation. So my focus is going to be on some lines from the canticle from Ezekiel.

            When I preach at weddings, I like to focus on the sacrificial nature of marriage. The DVD series we use, I think, does a pretty good job of expressing that: we’re not committing to this sacrament for ourselves only but for something greater. We enter into this commitment with the best intentions, but we’re sometimes not fully clear about how we should enter. Do we commit to specific actions? Specific sacrifices? Specific delineations of responsibility? A hard and fast boundary around our obligations and rights?

Of course, that’s not what marriage is about. It’s about give and take, compromise, adjustment, and compassion. We can give you a list of your rights and obligations. We can give you instructions and doctrines. None of that prepares you adequately for the commitment of matrimony.  We can only till the soil to prepare you for what must happen for every marriage. Ezekiel 1 puts it this way:

I will give you a new heart
and place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts.

I will put my spirit within you
and make you live by my statutes,
careful to observe my decrees.

For our conversion, we need soft hearts. We need hearts that can be penetrated, pierced, wounded—hearts that are willing to suffer for the sake of the other. Hearts that will do that (pointing at the crucifix) on behalf of our beloved. Hearts that will sacrifice. Hearts that will wait. Hearts that would rather die than to betray. That is what this sacrifice is about. You through this process of preparation are beginning to see this, and that is the point of this series.

            To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.* That means that love is not about the lover but about the beloved. The fact that you are still here is a sign that you want God to take from your body your stony heart and to accept the natural, soft, permeable, vulnerable heart that God designed for you that you might enter into this covenant fully, freely, fruitfully, and faithfully—that you wish to show your beloved their beauty, their worth, and their importance.

*This quote originated with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. I have used it for many years when I speak to married couples, and I believe it captures the true essence of love and its directedness toward the other. Sadly, it has been revealed that he abused his position to take advantage of vulnerable women. It doesn’t make the sentiment untrue, but I’m less inclined to mention him.

Los leprosos entre nosotros—Sexta semana del tiempo ordinario (ciclo B)

Levítico 13: 1–2, 44–46; 1 Corintios 10: 31—11: 1; Marcos 1: 40–45

Nuestras lecturas de esta semana nos acercaron un poco a la realidad de lo que se vive en la actualidad. Llevamos diez meses viviendo con la realidad de la pandemia y, a veces, se siente como si fuéramos los leprosos: distanciándonos de los demás, evitando los lugares públicos, usando cubrebocas que nos “amortiguan la barba”, como dice Levítico: ¡Soy impuro! ¡Soy impuro! Y definitivamente nos hace sentir un poco sucios al usar estos cubrebocas por más de diez minutos y volver a respirar nuestro propio aliento. Definitivamente me hace más consciente de mis hábitos de higiene bucal.

Es muy fácil ser avergonzados y evitamos reconocer nuestra necesidad de perdón y sanación. Tenemos una pista de esto en la lectura de Levítico. Tenga en cuenta que la persona que estaba enferma es “llevada al sacerdote”, es decir, no se presenta a sí mismo, pero quienes notan su enfermedad lo llevan al sacerdote. Por supuesto, esto lo que quiere decir es que la persona que tiene la lepra no viene voluntariamente, sino que se ve obligada a hacerlo porque otros ven su posible impureza.

Y eso tiene sentido. En aquel entonces, ser juzgado de leproso significaba que eras una persona marginal, inmundo. Tenías el deber de advertir a las personas que se apartaran de ti mismo hasta que de alguna manera te curaras de tu lepra. Pero ¿cómo podría suceder eso si eres un marginado? ¿Quién te curaría? Tienes que ser curado antes de que puedas siquiera acercarte al sacerdote para que te examine y realice los sacrificios rituales para que regreses a la comunidad.

Cuando San Pablo habla de la carga de la ley, y cuando Jesús habla de las cargas que los escribas y fariseos ponen sobre los hombros de los fieles, esto es lo que quieren decir. Exponen las consecuencias y los costos, pero no dan ningún medio para resolver realmente la situación. Si te vuelves inmundo, tienes que esperar a que de alguna manera vuelvas a estar limpio de nuevo, pero como si no hay forma de poder limpiarte. Dice la palabra en el Salmo cuarenta y nueve, no podemos pagar nuestro propio rescate ni el de nadie más. Entonces, ¿cuán desesperada es la difícil situación del leproso? Hay un abismo entre él y la comunidad por el que solo puede orar para salir de ese abismo.

La lepra también es un tipo o símbolo del pecado. Los hebreos del Antiguo Testamento no podían librarse de la lepra, como tampoco nosotros podemos librarnos del pecado. Tuvieron que depender únicamente de la gracia y la misericordia de Dios para ser sanados. Y luego tuvieron que ser declarados limpios por un sacerdote antes de regresar a la comunidad. La lectura de hoy en el evangelio también nos muestra esto. El leproso busca la curación que viene de Jesús, diciendo: “Si quieres, puedes limpiarme”. No hay duda ni vacilación por parte del leproso en cuanto a la capacidad de Jesús para sanar. Él sabe que simplemente está en la voluntad de Jesús el querer sanarlo y, por supuesto, Jesús lo quiere.

Quiero compartir con ustedes algo en lo que estuve pensando mientras estaba cocinando y que se me ocurrió anoche. Observa el intercambio que ocurre al final de la lectura del evangelio. El leproso, que es un marginado, viene a Jesús y es sanado y luego entra de nuevo a la ciudad, mientras que Jesús se convierte en el marginado. Ya no puede entrar en la ciudad debido a las multitudes. Cambia de lugar esencialmente con el leproso. ¡Y eso es lo que hizo por nosotros! Ahí mismo (pointing to the cross) es cómo respondió a nuestros pecados. Cuando no pudimos quitarnos la mancha del pecado, Jesús intervino y tomó nuestro lugar.

La lepra representa nuestra inmundicia debido al pecado. Quizás nadie más reconoce nuestra pecaminosidad, nadie ve las lesiones, llagas y desfiguraciones que el pecado causa en nosotros. Podríamos intentar comprenderlo, ese es uno de los efectos del pecado, nublando y distorsionando nuestra visión moral para obstaculizar nuestra capacidad de ver nuestras fallas. Pero si somos honestos con nosotros mismos, si examinamos nuestras motivaciones, nuestros pensamientos, nuestros impulsos negativos, llegamos a reconocer nuestra necesidad de perdón. Esa es la mitad de la batalla.

Pero luego debemos acercarnos a Jesús para encontrar la curación que necesitamos. A veces eso requiere coraje y siempre requiere mucha humildad. Para algunos de nosotros, particularmente aquellos de nosotros que hemos cultivado el hábito, la confesión es fácil. Sabemos que el sacerdote está ahí para mostrarnos la misericordia de Dios, no para condenarnos. Pero para otros de nosotros, sentimos el aguijón de la conciencia, la vergüenza de escucharnos repetir en voz alta los mismos pecados que llevamos al confesionario cada vez que nos confesamos, que algunas veces duramos meses sin venir a la confesión por vergüenza. Pensamos: “¿Qué pensara este sacerdote de mí? ¿Cómo puedo mirarlo a la cara cuando lo topo de frente y lo veo a la cara?

Ahora es común escuchar a los no católicos preguntar por qué tendrían que confesar sus pecados a un sacerdote. Puede que sea más inusual escuchar a los católicos decir lo mismo, pero lo he escuchado. No obstante, la confesión es necesaria para que nos sean perdonados los pecados mortales que cometemos. Cuando pecamos mortalmente, rompemos la comunión con Dios y con el Cuerpo de Cristo. La confesión es la forma en que nos reconciliamos con Dios y la Iglesia. Entonces, antes de venir a este altar de sacrificio para compartir la Eucaristía en comunión con la Iglesia, debemos prepararnos, y eso a menudo incluye la confesión de nuestros pecados. No es solo la ley de la Iglesia. También está escrito en las escrituras. En Juan veinte capitulo veintidós, “Jesús sopla sobre los discípulos y dice: “Recibid el Espíritu Santo. Si perdonas los pecados de alguien, le quedan perdonados. Si retienes los pecados de alguno, quedan retenidos “. Santiago dice en su carta a los judíos en la separación: “Confiesen sus pecados unos a otros, y oren unos por otros para que sean sanados”. Entonces, para todo pecado mortal, la confesión es una necesidad antes de que podamos recibir los otros sacramentos.

Pero recuerde que el sacerdote no es simple y exclusivamente un hombre en su papel de confesor. Actúa en la persona de Cristo. Es decir, perdona los pecados, no por su propio poder, sino por la autoridad de Jesucristo. El sacerdote hace presente a Cristo en su sacerdocio. Necesitamos la misericordia y la sanación que solo viene de Dios, y en Su sabiduría, Él nos ha dado este sacramento de reconciliación, para que cuando escuchemos esas palabras de absolución, sepamos verdaderamente que Dios nos ha perdonado.

Renewed and Restored—Baptism of the Lord (Cycle B)

Baptism of the Lord by Fr. Segatta Bruno

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7–11

What an awful week to introduce a new year following an awful year. I think that we can agree, regardless of our political opinions, that this week was a low in our nation’s history. And we all want to point fingers toward whom we believe is responsible. But we need to start by looking into the mirror and seeing our own complicity. We have refused to reach out and engage in dialogue with the other side. We have hardened our hearts toward each other and chosen our “truth” rather than the Truth. We all need to reflect on our lives, affiliations, and actions and determine whether or not they accord with the faith we profess. And if they don’t, we need to cut those affiliations out of our lives. We need to be Catholic first. God comes before country, if we truly desire salvation—not temporal satisfaction but salvation. And we need to be renewed and restored. If nothing else points to our need as Americans for salvation, our current state is it.

This feast day is about renewal and restoration. When Jesus approached St. Paul to be baptized, He was not approaching to restore Himself. He approached to restore us. We needed it then. We need it now.

Yet that is the essence of God’s plan. He sent His son here not simply to make it all better, but to live among us and to suffer with us all of the things that we brought on ourselves. That is the amazing thing about the Incarnation—not that God saved us, but how He chose to do it. And He does it through physical means. He uses our weak human form to reach into the world and effect grace. We often lose sight of that—that grace comes to us through material things. We wouldn’t know God except for our encounter with material things. We wouldn’t know the fullness of revelation, Jesus Christ Himself, unless He came to us as man. That is the beauty and the mystery of the incarnation.

All of our sacraments require material things—some proper matter used to effect the grace of the sacrament. A sacrament is a visible and material sign, instituted by Christ, that effects invisible grace (repeat). That is the basic definition of a sacrament. And sacraments have four elements: matter, form, proper ministers, and proper recipients. In baptism, the necessary matter is water. You cannot have a valid baptism without water. You cannot baptize in beer or grape soda or Guinness stout. We must use water.

Now, water might seem to be an arbitrary choice, but it’s such a basic requirement for life and such a common image for purification that it truly is the most obvious option. God even gave us reminders throughout the Old Testament to reaffirm the necessity of water for our purification or rebirth.

  • In Genesis 1, the breath of God moves across the water to sanctify it, and God’s Word—His Son—brings about all creation from the water and it is good.
  • Later in Genesis 7 and 8, Noah and his family pass through the deluge through a water barrier in an ark and into a world that is cleansed of evil. So we have another crossing of a water barrier.
  • In Exodus, Moses is placed in the Nile in a basketmade of reeds. The word for the reed basket in Exodus (tevah) is actually the same word as the word for ark in the story of Noah. Moses eventually leads the People of Israel out of slavery across the Red Sea—a water barrier.
  • In the book of Joshua, the priests and Levites stand in the river Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant as Joshua leads the people of Israel across the river—a water barrier—to the promised land.
  • In the first event, all creation begins with the sanctification of the water and separation from it. In each of the subsequent events, crossing a water barrier signifies a rebirth, a new creation.

Those were our Old Testament reminders that God had a plan, and those baptismal events in the Old Testament point forward to Jesus, just as everything in scripture ultimately points to Jesus. We recollect these events in our baptismal rite to recall that this model has always been part of God’s plan.

You might have noticed that many of these baptismal images included two common signs: water and the ark. We also celebrated the most important ark of all on Thursday last week—Mary, the Mother of God, that God Bearer or Theotokos, ark of the New Covenant.

And then Jesus Himself comes. Now, His baptism isn’t really like ours. He has no need of sanctification through baptism. He’s following the tradition of the Jews who would regularly immerse themselves as part of their purification rites. Some Early Church Fathers also taught that in Jesus’ baptism, the waters are sanctified for the Sacrament of Baptism (again in the presence of the Holy Trinity as in Genesis 1). His baptism is a sign to us: a sign of His obedience under the Jewish Law, but it is also a sign to signal the way—a sign that simply says, “Follow me.”

Follow Him to what exactly?

Mark’s story has a hint. Immediately after Jesus is baptized, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, or into the desert. Recall that both Moses and Joshua move from the desert across a water barrier, and toward or into the Promised Land. There is a sense of movement with the stories of Moses and Joshua of the people being led from oppression into freedom. The movement in the baptism story of Jesus is exactly the opposite. He enters the water barrier and is baptized, and then he goes out into the desert for 40 days. It represents his willingness to come here and take on the very evils that we suffer because of man’s original disobedience. He crosses the water barrier to join us, and we cross the water barrier in baptism to join Him in return.

St. Paul tells us in Romans 6 that we are baptized into Christ’s death. We join Him in His death so that we can be reborn into new life. So every baptism represents a dying to self and rebirth to new life in Christ.

Baptism begins our life in Christ and joins us to his body, the Church. It cleanses us of sin: both original and personal. And most of all, it makes us adopted sons and daughters of God. We do it because Christ did it before us. In baptism, we follow him so that we can fulfill all righteousness, through God’s grace.

It’s fitting for baptism to be God’s instrument for our sanctification. He has given us these signs in scripture, for certain, but He also planted a reminder of redemption in our very being. Our entrance into this world, through pregnancy and child birth is through a water barrier. Every image we have of rebirth is modeled after our first birth.

We as Catholics are people of the Incarnation—of the embodiment of God. Our experience of God is in the world around us, so baptism takes this form to remind us of our rebirth as God’s children. When we are baptized, God looks down on us and says, “This is my beloved son—my beloved daughter—with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus came down to share our lot, to live with us and experience life with us—and ultimately to give us an example. By following him in baptism, we share His divine life, and that was the reason for revelation and for His incarnation. God loves us and does not give up on us regardless of how far we stray. He came here to lead us back, and all we have to do is follow. God comes first. And if we truly put Him first, we can be renewed and restored.

Gaudete! Third Sunday of Advent 2020

Gaudete Sunday - Catholic Hotdish

Isaiah 61:1-2A, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. The word Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice,” which is in today’s opening antiphon from Philippians 4:4 and in our second reading from 1 Thessalonians. That’s why this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday. And that is why we wear rose colored vestments—to remind us to look forward to the light that is coming in this season of preparation.

The opening of our second reading is almost a challenge or rebuke to us today: “Rejoice always.” The opening antiphon says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It’s almost a hard message to hear in the midst of a worsening pandemic. The numbers are increasing daily, and we’re hearing talk of rationing care. And that, of course, is only part of the news. Political tensions seem to continue. Extremists on both ends of the ideological spectrum continue to spout messages of division and intolerance. Just last Tuesday, the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial was vandalized with stickers bearing swastikas and the message “we are everywhere.” It’s both chilling, and disgusting.

And elsewhere cynical voices seem to want to destroy whatever is praiseworthy or of merit. Monuments to notable and heroic historical figures are being thoughtlessly torn down in the name of justice. Vandalism on churches and synagogues throughout the world are on the increase. Our society seems to become more chaotic daily.

But St. Paul commands us to rejoice nonetheless.

We hear from two prophets today, Isaiah and John the Baptist. They arose in no less uncertain times. The book of Isaiah is actually composed of collections from three different periods. The first is the period just prior to the destruction of Israel and Judea. The second covers the period at the end of the Babylonian exile. The third, which is the period in which this reading takes place, is during the return of the exiled Jews. The Jews return and rebuild the altar in Jerusalem, but the city has no walls, and the temple is a ruin. The surrounding nations are hostile to them and resent their return.[i] So with no walls and no military force, there is little in the way of protection. It was a time of fear and anxiety for the returning exiles.

But Isaiah’s message is consistent throughout the book, even though it spans a period of over 200 years. Isaiah is not j a single prophet but at least three, if not more. But his message is one of trust in God. Israel’s failure in the first section of Isaiah was that it did not fully entrust itself to God. And their return to Israel results when they submit again to God’s will. Given that context, let’s revisit the opening lines of this reading:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

You might recognize this from its parallel passage in Luke 4, which Jesus reads in a synagogue in Nazareth. The big difference in the two passages is that we are reading a translation of the Hebrew text today, while Jesus reads from the Greek Septuagint translation. There are subtle differences that helps us to know that. But either way, the message is the same: there will be healing, liberty, release, and vindication. God is in control, and He will save you.

            Our Gospel reading takes place in the Herodian period, which encompasses then entire lives of both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. What I find really interesting in this passage is that St. John describes this encounter between the Baptist and the authorities from Jerusalem as if he were right there hearing every bit of the dialogue. And we know from the gospel testimony that he was the Baptist’s follower until John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to John and Andrew and identified Him as the lamb of God. Both of them stopped following John and began following Jesus at that moment.

            At that time, Judea was ruled by Herod the Great, an Idumean or Edomite. He wasn’t even from the House of Israel! And the priests, the Sadducees, weren’t from the traditional priestly line and were seen by many as usurpers. Add to this the fact that all of Israel was under Roman rule and paying taxes to the Romans. It was not a good time for Israel.

            So here comes John the Baptist. We know from the Gospel of Luke that he is Jesus’ cousin. The authorities come and question him: “Who are you?”

            He says, I am not the messiah, not Elijah, and not Isaiah. “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” That verse comes from Isaiah 40. John is not Isaiah, but he is the voice that Isaiah prophesied. The dialogue between John and the authorities suggests strongly that the author of this gospel heard and remembered the conversation.

            John recalls another prophesy from Isaiah 40: Make straight the way of the Lord. That’s John’s mission, to prepare for Christ’s arrival. Judea still had the foot of an oppressor on their necks, even if that oppressor allowed them more liberty than the Greeks before them. But John proclaims that there is another coming after him beyond his worthiness.

            John’s message is that salvation is coming. Salvation is coming. And we know that. Or we should know that. Salvation is coming. It comes to us in small ways at all times. It is coming to us in big ways whether we see it or not.

I earlier mentioned this vandalism at the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial that occurred on Tuesday. There were nine of these Nazi stickers placed around the memorial. Throughout the week, others have placed flowers and left other signs—far more than the original stickers left. Those who want to spread hate think they are everywhere. Maybe they are… cowering under the shade of night and anonymity. But we can choose to live in the light, to choose love over hate, light over darkness. We know the end of this story. God wins.

Rejoice always. Never lose hope. Our Lord God is in control, and we know how that story ends. In the end, we win.

[i]Power, E. (1953). Isaias. In B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 541). Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.

The Coming End Times—Thirty-Fourth Wednesday of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

END TIMES APPROACHING! Have World Leaders Sealed A Deal For The Worse? - YouTube

Revelation 15:1–4; Luke 21:12–19

            Our readings today… well, they sound eerily familiar or at least foreboding. We’re experiencing a time that seems cataclysmic. We’re seeing the kinds of societal breakdown that we expect of the end days. We, of course, are seeing the impacts of the pandemic, which sounds just like the plagues from Revelation. I think we’ve all been seeing the signs of the times in our current events. But frankly, we’ve been seeing the signs of the times for years.

            When I was teaching English composition back in the 90s, I took my students through a thought experiment about the cyclical nature of civilizations. They start from some low place and by virtue grow to a place of resilience and strength. From that place, they grow in abundance and liberty. From there, they begin to rest on their laurels and get lazy. And eventually, they develop the vices that lead to collapse. And I asked my students where they thought the United States was in this cycle. Even back in the 90s, my students recognized that we were on the downhill side of this cycle. And maybe we’ve entered into that last phase.

            But this cycle has played itself out over and again. The end of a civilization… or a nation, is not the end of the world. So we might be seeing a change in our nation as we know it. But if we do, it will not be the end. We must not despair because of change. Change is inevitable. It is part of what brings about God’s will.

            The reading from Revelation is seen by many Catholic commentators as the gradual judgment of God being revealed throughout the history of Christianity. The first judgments aren’t happening in some end times later on. They began at the beginning of the Christian era and continue until the very last has been completed. They began with the first persecutions and continued with the various schisms and corruptions in the Church throughout the years. Those were all judgments on the world and on the Church. So we are absolutely living in the end times, and we have been since the Church was founded.

In Luke, Jesus tells us what will happen before the end,

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake…. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death;

So we are seeing the end, but we’ve always been seeing the end. We know where this train ends. We know how this battle ends. It began with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and it continues until the last plague from Revelation is leashed and the work is complete. And in the end, God wins.

            It is really easy to get caught up in the negativity and rage. It is easy to find reason to despair. But our readings today tell us that there is an end and a victory. We might experience some hardship in our times, as all Christians have faced hardship. But we must hold onto hope. Let that hope shape our days in these trying times.

Be a Saint: Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Proverbs 31:10–13, 19–20, 30–31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1–6; Matthew 25:14–30

Originally, Deacon Mark was scheduled to preach, but he is unable to be here today.

Our readings this week have a lot to say about gifts and talents. Each of us has gifts and talents, and they are given to us for a reason. Now, we know that any capabilities we have come to us from God. We can’t lay claim to any kind of privilege or honor for these gifts because they come to us, much like the gift of grace, through God’s abundance and not by any merit of our own. But we should always be aware of our gifts and be ready to put them to good use.

The first reading is from Proverbs 31 and talks about the woman of worth or of valor. The first two words of this proverb are eshet chayil (אשת חיל), which means, “Woman of valor.” In Jewish tradition, this proverb is sung by observant Jewish husbands to their wives before their Friday evening meal.

Eshet chayil mee yimtza, Ve
rachok mi’pninim michra
Batach ba lev baala
Veshalal lo yechsar

And so on. If you listen to different versions, they all follow the same theme but have different cantillations or stylings, some of which can be quite elaborate.

We get only about six verses of this proverb, which is 31 verses long. But all of them talk about the value of a wife who uses her gifts and talents to help her family and her community. There’s something I find beautiful about the weekly tradition of singing to your spouse how much you appreciate them. We have many Jewish traditions that we still follow. It’s a shame we stopped practicing this one.

The reading from Matthew is the Parable of the Talents. A king entrusts his servants with large amounts of money called talents. It’s a happy coincidence that the word “talent,” which comes from the Greek word talanton for weight or measure, became the term for disposition or inclination, in Old French, which is how it came into English. That’s called semantic shifting in linguistics, and it’s a standard way that word forms take on new meanings. But it’s really fitting for our readings, because we’re talking about things of value. That value can come through monetary means or through labor or skill.

Now, we are usually told that a talent is a single coin, and that each servant is given one or more of them. That may be the case at the time of the writing of this parable, but a talent in ancient times is actually much more. A single talent was a weight of measure, and a talent of gold would be worth 15 years of a laborer’s wages. So while one servant was being entrusted with a huge amount, all of them were being given a significant amount of wealth. When the first two servants are called to account, they both showed how they immediately put their talents to use. The third servant starts off by essentially accusing the king of being unjust: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” The implication here is that the king, who had supplied the raw materials for prosperity, had no right to expect his servant to use that gift for improvement in some way. In a way, the servant is calling the king a skinflint and cheat. Now, keep in mind that the king’s response is in that context. He says, “So you think that I harvest and gather where I didn’t plant and scatter?”

It’s a rhetorical question. He’s not admitting that he does this, but he calls out the servant who accuses him of it, the very servant he entrusted with 15 years of wages. He condemns the servant from his own lips because the servant refuses to take responsibility for not using the gift he has been given to prosper. And notice that each of the other servants prospers tremendously because they have responded appropriately—far beyond what they should expect as servants. When God gives you a gift and you use it, you prosper, which was God’s intention in the first place.

            As is the norm in our Sunday readings, the first reading and the Gospel reading are thematically aligned. So you should recognize in the first and third readings a theme that ties them together and usually emphasizes the key teaching of the weekend. Our gifts are not to be squandered, nor are they solely for our own good. We’re supposed to use them in the service of others. When we use them only for our own gain, we’re like the third servant who buried his talent in the ground. The only return is the value it has when hidden. Those who use their talents at the service of others see the benefits of those efforts, and the others recognize the gift they have been given. That generosity pays off and gets passed on.

One key to using our gifts and talents is, first of all, to recognize and acknowledge that we have them. Of course, none of us like to deal with someone who inflates or exaggerates their gifts. But isn’t it also irritating to deal with people who won’t acknowledge their gifts? Sometimes we even do this out of false humility—we downplay a known gift or talent. And when I say false humility, that’s what I mean, because we often show false humility in order to receive more praise for our gifts. True humility requires us to recognize and see ourselves for who we are and what God has given to us and to use our talents appropriately.

            All our talents should be directed to one aim: our salvation and the salvation of those around us. We are given gifts to use for the salvation of mankind. I have a message from Deacon Mark, who was originally scheduled to preach at this mass but could not assist today. He graciously sent me a copy of his homily so that I’d have a little assistance in my very short notice, and he told me to use whatever I liked. I won’t take from the rest of his great homily, but he emphasized the trajectory of our readings over the last few weeks and how they point us to our mission: we had the wedding banquet, the greatest commandment, the beatitudes, and the wise and foolish virgins. Here’s what he wrote:

These readings are Christ’s instructions for sainthood. Catholics don’t ordinarily use the language of having accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior apart from the day of our baptism because that would be redundant. Far more appropriate is the phrase, “I decided to become a saint today.”

Decide to become a saint every day. This reminds me of an event that Thomas Merton wrote about in Seven Storey Mountain. He was talking with his friend Robert Lax, a Jewish poet who later converted to Catholicism. Lax asked him what he wanted now that he was Catholic. Merton wasn’t really sure and said, “I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” Lax told him that that wasn’t the right answer. He said instead that he should want to be a saint. Of course, that seemed quite unbelievable to Merton, who was still very young in his Christian faith. But Lax persisted and said, “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” That is amazing and humbling advice from someone who wasn’t even Catholic at the time. If we trust our God to do anything, we can trust Him to make us what He intended.

            God gave us various talents and gifts for one purpose: to become what he made us to be. And if we become what God made us to be, we will be saints. That is our purpose. We were made for greatness and that means we were made to be saints.

Heavenly Leaven—Friday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time

Leaven | The Kingdom

Ephesians 1:11–14; Luke 12:1–7

As Fr. Mariusz mentioned, this is the memorial of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who is best known for promoting the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Frankly, I have to admit to being remiss in that, while I love the consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I was not as cognizant of St. Margaret Mary’s role in promoting this devotion as I should have been. I will be more cognizant going forward.

Why do we exist? The Baltimore Catechism had a very simple answer to this question: to know, love, and serve God in this world and to share in his happiness forever in the next. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, before he was elevated to the papacy, promulgated the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you want a good guide that does not get into the weeds about doctrinal teaching, I recommend it. That text says something very similar: “God has created everything for them [that is, us]; but he has created them to know, serve and love God, to offer all of creation in this world in thanksgiving back to him and to be raised up to life with him in heaven.” We are made to love and serve God and to live in His presence. That is our purpose. If we go back and listen to the reading from St. Paul to the Ephesians, that is almost the totality of the passage: “In Christ we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory.” We live not to fulfil our desires but to praise God.

Where we get off track is when we think praising God’s glory aligns perfectly with our wishes or preferences. Election time is a perfect time to highlight this. Many of us live within existential bubbles in which we think all matters are clear and that our political preferences are perfectly aligned with Divine will and our Catholic faith. But if our civic mind is formed more by our political party than by the teachings of the Church, we often go south.

In our gospel reading, Jesus warns His disciples against the “leaven” of the Pharisees, by which he means their example. You see, the pharisees taught “the Law” as they saw it and promoted it. But they didn’t practice what they preached, and they put a lot of emphasis on the sacrificial offerings. Recall in our reading two days ago that Jesus accuses them of tithing herbs but neglecting justice and charity. The Law required tithing of produce, but it also required mercy and justice for everyone, especially widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst.

Think of what leaven does. Bakers use just a little bit in a batch of dough. The leaven reacts with the substances in the dough to cause gases to be released, and the dough then expands. It will continue to expand until the dough is baked. So how is the hypocrisy of the pharisees like leaven? If I am watching the example of a teacher or authority and noticing a disconnect or conflict between their teaching and their behavior, I’m going to take the details of their teaching with a grain of salt. As I grow in my spiritual life, I’m going to grow greater in those same moral blind spots and omissions. That “leaven” poisons me in my spiritual life. We can see examples of how this works in both the spiritual and secular realms. Our Church has lost much of its moral authority because the world has seen the hypocrisy of the hierarchy. Our political leaders have squandered their political authority for much of the same reason. It’s too easy for us to be poisoned by their hypocrisy if we look to them as our examples.

Jesus is saying that we need to follow God’s directives, His example, and not the example of false teachers. We need to be leavened by the example of saints like Margaret Mary, like our Blessed Mother, and like our Lord. We need heavenly leaven! Through the intercession of our Lady, may it be so.