I recently took a new position. This is actually the second job change for me in the course of this pandemic. While the first one went very smoothly and quickly, this one has not been as speedy or smooth. My background check was delayed, my start date delayed, the arrival of my laptop delayed. And because everything is done in the cloud these days, I couldn’t get my payroll and benefits set up on the first day. It used to be that we went through this process with someone from Human Resources. Those days are gone. So I experienced a fair bit of stress and anxiety, wondering whether Gina and I would have medical coverage, whether I would get paid on time, and so on.
Now, I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience in similar circumstances, but more than once during my concern and anxiety, I thought to myself, “Where is your faith? Why are you grasping so much for these material things and so anxious about them? Don’t you remember that God is in control and that He wants what’s best for you?”
Don’t I recognize that? Don’t I see that I should be focused on higher things, not wealth or control? Sometimes I do… usually when everything is going my way. And sometimes… not so much. The weeks prior to actual onboarding are a great example of my lack of faith.
Our first reading is from the book of Wisdom, or as it’s also called, the Wisdom of Solomon. You might recall in 1 Kings 3:9 that Solomon asked God not for wealth, for long life, or for power over his enemies, but for Wisdom. He recognized a greater good, one that he desperately needed to govern the people of Israel. God was pleased that He made this request, which was not for his own good but the people’s. So God granted all of them: wisdom, wealth, long life, and power over his enemies. And this reading confirms exactly what God said would happen!
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, And I chose to have her rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep. Yet all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands[.]
We know from scripture that Solomon made other decisions later that didn’t honor God and did not employ wisdom, but when God offered to grant him his wish, Solomon chose what was best.
When scripture speaks of the Wisdom of God, most commentaries identify this with the Word of God, and for Christians, the Son of God. Both in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for wisdom is feminine in gender, Hochmah (חוכמה) in Hebrew and Sophia (σοφίας). But grammatical gender is not equivalent to biological sex, so there’s nothing wrong with identifying Jesus with Wisdom mentioned in these early texts. Wisdom is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of God.
When we speak of Jesus as the Word of God, the logos, we are making a very similar statement, as the word logos in Greek can be either a spoken word or a thought or concept. So these words have an affinity to one another. In the letter to the Hebrews, the anonymous author writes of the vibrance of the Word:
Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.
The Word itself is alive because it is the revelation of the Living God, and the Word reveals not only Himself but He reveals to us our selves. He opens our eyes to our own limitations.
Our gospel reading is the well-known story of the rich young man. He runs eagerly up to Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The young man is wise enough to recognize what Jesus has to offer. He’s always followed the commandments and perhaps considers himself righteous. But Jesus sees into his soul and reveals what really motivates the young man: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to (the) poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”’ The young man goes away crestfallen at the thought of selling his many possessions and giving to the poor. Jesus reveals to the young man what he really values.
What’s more, He reveals what this man truly lacks, namely wisdom. The man can recognize goodness in Jesus, but he lacks the wisdom to apply the proper values to things. He clings to his possessions but gives up something much greater, the greatest good Himself.
This is so often how we operate as well, trading the eternal for what we can have here and now. We lack the wisdom to entrust ourselves wholly to God and instead put our trust in material things. We rely on our own abilities, on other people, on things that don’t last. In our lack of wisdom we choose worldly things that pass away over Heavenly things that don’t. Without wisdom, we don’t have the perspective to assign the proper value to things.
We need to open ourselves up to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be endowed with His gifts, to have proper knowledge, to have understanding, and to have wisdom. We need to recognize that the things of this world are finite and to hold onto them loosely, being ready to let go of anything that binds us and holds us back from the love of God.
1 Chronicles 15:3–4, 15–16, 16:1–2; 1 Corinthians 15:54b–57; Luke 11:27–28; Revelation 11:19a, 12:1–6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20–27; Luke 1:39–56
Today we celebrate the bodily assumption of our Blessed Mother into Heaven, that is the transfer of her body into Heaven following her death. This isn’t business as usual. This is an extraordinary event that many of our Protestant brethren set aside and deny. Our Orthodox brethren refer to this event as the Dormition, which is the moment at which our Blessed Mother went to sleep, but they too sustain the same Sacred Tradition that our Blessed Mother’s body did not remain in the grave but was borne up to heaven.
I came across a joke in a newsletter I follow. “Mary and Joseph were at the breakfast table one morning, and Mary said to her husband, ‘You know, Joseph, I’ve been thinking about this, and, well, it seems to me that at the end of my life, I’m going to be taken up into heaven, body and soul.’
Joseph took a sip of his coffee and thought it over.
‘I don’t know Mary. That sounds like a pretty big assumption to me.’”
What happens to us when we die, normally speaking? Well, the Church teaches us that for most of us, our souls are separated from our bodies, and we experience what is called the particular judgment. That is, our souls appear before God and are immediately judged, and we are either sent on our way to our eternal reward, or we are sent in the direction we have chosen to our eternal punishment. Those who are bound for Heaven often must go through a process of purification we refer to as Purgatory because we are in God’s friendship and grace, but we’ve got a few stains and wrinkles to iron out. But understand that Purgatory is a waypoint to Heaven. It’s not a third option.
So the natural pattern is that our bodies are separated from our souls at death. But in scripture, there are a few notable exceptions to this pattern. In Genesis 5:24, Enoch is noted as someone who walked faithfully with God and was then taken to be with God. The meaning of that passage is ambiguous but suggests bodily assumption. With the prophet Elijah, we have more clarity. Second Kings 2:11 describes in detail how Elijah is taken up into Heaven. And Maccabees 2:58 even makes this claim directly that Elijah’s zeal has resulted in his assumption.[i]
There’s also a question as to whether Moses was bodily assumed. His burial on Mount Nebo, mentioned in Deuteronomy 34:6, was in secret. No one to this day knows where he was buried. But we do see Moses in the passage on the Transfiguration, which suggests that he too was bodily assumed. If he were not bodily assumed, how could he appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration?
So there is a tradition that spans early Hebrew and Christian scripture of the possibility of bodily assumption, the claim that Heaven makes on the bodies and souls of the most righteous on earth. We see it in Genesis, in Second Kings, and very likely in Deuteronomy.
I could go full-on bible geek and dive deep into how all of this supports the Catholic teaching on the assumption of the Blessed Mother, but I want to take this background and shift to the meaning of this particular doctrine. And I assure you, that it will still be plenty geeky. But the point of this celebration is that the Blessed Mother warranted the same honor as Enoch, Moses, and Elijah—famous patriarchs and prophets from the Hebrew Testament. Why is this important to us as Catholics?
If we look at Catholic beliefs by themselves isolated from context, they often seem a bit daft. If you’ve ever been asked by a non-Christian to explain the Trinity or the Eucharist, you know what I mean. Out of context, it’s difficult to explain how our beliefs don’t defy reason. But in the context of sacred scripture, sacred tradition, and reason and natural law, our faith has a power to enlighten and change lives. And it is reasonable. It is founded both on reason and revelation.
St. Augustine wrote, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” One way in which this mutual pointing back and forward is in what we call typology. We have types that can have referential value to different realities at different points in salvation history.
Our scriptures today give us several of these types. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul connects Adam and Jesus in this verse: “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order…” Paul connected Jesus to Adam right from the beginning. Jesus is the second Adam. The first Adam brought death into the world, and the second, Jesus, removed it. That’s directly from scripture. Early Fathers of the Church took this natural connection and extended it to include Mary. St. Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies, an apologetic work from the late second century, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”
We have two sets of readings for this weekend, the readings for the Vigil Mass this evening, and the readings for mass during the day. But both sets contain images pertinent to the Blessed Mother and make connections between the scriptures of the old and new covenants. The first reading for the Vigil comes from 1 Chronicles 15 and 16. King David retrieves the ark of the covenant and brings it to the City of David to a tent he has prepared, which we would refer to as the tabernacle:
They brought in the ark of God and set it within the tent which David had pitched for it. Then they offered up holocausts and peace offerings to God. When David had finished offering up the holocausts and peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD….
The reading for mass during the day comes from Revelation 11–12, just after the seventh trumpet is blown and the 24 elders prostrate themselves in worship:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
Now notice we have reference in one to the tabernacle and in the other to the temple. The tabernacle or tent of congregation was the portable, impermanent place where the Lord dwelled when he was among the people of Israel. And the temple in Revelation, of course, is the permanent dwelling place of God.
We also have the ark. In the Old Testament, the ark of the Old Covenant contained the tablets on which the commandments of the Lord were written, the word of God delivered to Moses. In Revelation, we have an ark, but notice who appears immediately in the same context—a woman clothed with the sun. Now, this image is frequently equated with the Church, which is fitting, but it is also just as frequently associated with the Blessed Mother. Why is this important? Because she carried within herself the Word made Flesh. She is the ark of the New Covenant. The ancient Church even had a special title for her in this regard, Theotokos or God Bearer.
And here’s one last type that I like to share when I teach on the connections between Old and New Testament. In our passage from Revelation, the woman with the moon under her feet is in labor, and a dragon waits to devour her offspring, who is destined to “rule all nations with an iron rod.” He is snatched away safely to God’s throne, and the woman is also whisked away and protected from the dragon.
In chapter 3 of Genesis, we see the woman in the garden, and she is approached by a serpent. She has not yet been named Eve but is simply called woman. Now we automatically think of a serpent as a snake of some kind—perhaps venomous but often not. Scott Hahn points out, though, that the word for serpent in Hebrew, nachash (נחש), can also mean dragon or sea monster. That changes the nature of the woman’s encounter dramatically here and makes it much more threatening. Adam is supposed to be protecting the woman, but he does not.
So here at the beginning of the story of salvation history, we have a woman and a serpent, possibly a dragon. At the end of our story of salvation history, we have a woman and a dragon. We have dragon book ends in our story. The woman in Genesis is renamed Chava (חוה) or Eve, which means “mother of all the living.” The woman in Revelation is also mother of all who will share eternal life.
Our gospel readings for this weekend both make reference to Mary. In the first chapter of Luke, we hear Mary’s Magnificat, which is a beautiful canticle that many of us recite daily during evening prayer: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed[.]” And certainly that last statement has proven to be true. Even in the context of scripture, we see this coming true in her time. Her kin Elizabeth has just said to her, “Blessed are you among women.” In the gospel reading for the Vigil, we get a more oblique allusion to Mary: a woman in the crowd listening to Jesus cries out, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus responds, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
At first, this sounds like a rebuke of His mother rather than a blessing, but think about what occasioned her blessing. Why is she blessed? Because she responded to God’s call. She heard the word of the Lord and observed it. She gave her fiat and said, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” She didn’t know entirely what she was committing to, but she assented to God’s will nonetheless.
And that’s what we are called to do. The whole point of this celebration is to recognize our Blessed Mother’s sinlessness and her complete submission to the will of God. The Church gives us saints, and this most blessed of saints, as examples of holiness for us to follow. Mary is the greatest of exemplars for us who come here to this altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
Have we surrendered ourselves to God’s will, or are we still following our own? In the end, there are only two outcomes. Either we say, “Thy will be done,” or God says to us, “Thy will be done.”
Our two readings today seem so very different from each other, and finding a common theme in them is challenging. So I will do my best to work to bridge the gaps between the two.
We all know the importance of Moses in salvation history, but we don’t always connect the dots in our thinking. Our baptismal rite does a great job of doing this by showing how many of our covenants include some mention of water or the passing over a of a water barrier: the Holy Spirit moving over the face of the waters; Noah’s ark passing through the waters of the deluge; Moses passing through the Red Sea with the People of Israel; and Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. There are two events missing from this history: Moses passing from the life of a Hebrew to the life of an Egyptian prince, more on that in a moment; and Joshua’s entry with the people of Israel into the promised land. All of these involved a form of baptism, a passing through a water barrier into a new life.
The role of Moses in this salvation history is usually viewed from only one point, the crossing of the Red Sea. That moment is certainly appropriate, but it’s not the moment of his call. His call comes after his birth when his mother puts him in a basket of papyrus, daubed with bitumen and pitch to make it buoyant. Now our translation refers to the object of Moses’ transport as a basket, but the word in Hebrew scripture is teva, which means ark. It’s the same word used in the account of Noah, with the ark he builds. With Joshua, a different word is used with the same intent for the ark of the covenant. And of course, we know that our Blessed Mother is also the ark of the new covenant. Jesus’ birth was another passing through a water barrier to affirm a new covenant.
The point is that Moses’ passage is the beginning of this new covenant. It doesn’t begin on Mount Sinai but when Moses passes through the Nile as an infant. It’s finalized when Moses receives the Law on Mt. Sinai. And the new covenant with Moses isn’t fulfilled until Joshua’s time. That’s a long time to wait, but in each case, these proto-saviors trust in the promise that is made to them.
But what does this have to do with the gospel reading? Jesus is castigating the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their unrepentance. They’ve seen His miracles firsthand, yet still they doubt. They hold back wanting more. They still aren’t convinced.
There’s another word that occurs with the word repent in both Mark and Acts. That word is believe: “repent and believe in the gospel.” The people of Chorzin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum don’t repent because they don’t yet believe. That’s the big difference between those with whom God made the covenants and those who will by part of the new covenant: belief, trust. Noah believed, and God spared him and his family. Abraham believed, and God made him the father of nations and gave him a new land of promise. Moses believed, and God brought the people of Israel out of slavery.
In our day and age, we see people living lives of selfishness and sin. Many of us don’t understand how people can make the decisions they do, and sometimes we take offense. But the problem is that if someone doesn’t believe, they have no sense of remorse and see no need to repent.
I was in a conversation with my wife’s cousin a few weeks ago, and he said something that makes perfect sense. He was speaking to someone who had more progressive views than he, and that person was surprised that he, a conservative, could be so understanding and tolerant of someone who disagreed with him on so much. He said to this person, a coworker, “Well, why would I hold it against you if you don’t believe what I believe?”
Why indeed? We can’t expect an unconverted world to repent. They must first come to belief, and the only way they will do that is if they see something in which to have belief. That’s where we come in. We need to live in such a way that they want what we have. We need to act like we believe and act on our belief. Only then will an unconverted world repent and believe in the gospel.
You are a prophet. Notice that I didn’t say, “Imagine that you are a prophet,” or “You can one day be a prophet.” You are already a prophet. Your baptism and confirmation join you to Christ—who is priest, prophet, and king. And since you are joined to the Body of Christ through baptism, that makes you priest, prophet, and king. The Catechism affirms that we share in these offices with Him in sections 897-913. That spiritual reality holds whether you are a member of the clergy like me or a member of the laity, like most of you in the pews today.
By the word prophet, I don’t mean someone who predicts future events but someone who is configured or enabled to see and speak the Truth. Through your baptism and confirmation and with proper formation in the faith, you are given the ability to see, hear, and speak the truth about the faith, and you have the right, with proper formation, to give your opinion about matters of faith so long as you do so with consideration for the common good and dignity of persons—that is, that you consider what is true, what is kind, and what is necessary for others to hear. That’s from section 907 of the Catechism. That’s what it means to be a prophet.
The bad news is that the secular world hates prophets. And frankly the religious world does, too. I saw a meme recently on Facebook, not exactly a forum of prophecy, but occasionally, it can be a conduit of truth. It said, “Always remember the crowd chose Barabbas—not because they loved him, but because they hated the truth.” And that is the fact. If you read through the gospels, you can see that the most vehement opponents of Jesus are the religious authorities: the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus shared a common understanding with the Pharisees in many respects, but He disagreed with them on many matters of the law and on prophecy. A big difference between Jesus and the Sadducees is that the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife… which made them sad, you see?
(I apologize that I periodically inflict that joke on you. You can blame Jeff Cavins for it.)
People don’t like prophets because prophets can see through the veneer of what seems to what is actually true, which means that they can expose falsehood that masquerades as the truth. And people hate it when their justifications are exposed as lies. They hate it when they are shown to be hypocrites, and they often respond badly. So prophets tend to be persecuted. In biblical times, they were often killed. In our times, they are “canceled,” driven from jobs, and blocked and castigated on social media.
In the first reading, Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel tells Amos to go somewhere else to prophesy, suggesting that Amos is trying to profit from being a prophet, no pun intended. But Amos protests, hey, this isn’t my job! He says, “I’m a shepherd and tender of sycamores.” A sycamore in the near and middle east is not like the ones we have in the US. They produce figs. Amos tended sheep and farmed figs from sycamores. So Amos was someone who produced food for people, certainly an important calling. But God called him to something else. He was called from his profession to deliver a message. That is the role of a prophet—to deliver a message and to proclaim the truth. A hired prophet, like one Amaziah considered Amos, just delivers the message of the one who pays him or her. But Amos makes it clear that he is not a professional. He is a lay person called to bring the truth to light, and he is not just trying to profit from that message.
In that sense, Amos is no less like you or me, lay or clergy. We are all called by our common baptism to be prophets. And that doesn’t mean anything more profound than being willing to speak the truth. In Christ we are chosen, in accord with God’s will, for a purpose. We are universally called to holiness. Holiness is not just something for those extraordinary few: saints, clergy, or religious. Some of the greatest saints were lay people. We are all supposed to strive for holiness, which is befitting for our sacramental calling. If we are to pursue holiness, we must pursue the truth, however unpopular it might be. I don’t think I need to tell you how much the world hates the truth right now. What we get mostly is truthiness: someone’s agenda, whether it’s on the left or the right. We don’t get the truth from the world! We can get facts from the world. We can get opinions from the world. But truth is not something worldly. Truth comes from God.
Here’s the point: true prophets are rarely where you expect them. We might have some prophetic ministers in our bishops and clergy, but often, prophecy comes in the form of right vision from the faithful, from that flash of insight you get in those moments of private prayer and reflection that make you stop and say… “Oh.” Those moments in prayer and reflection when you see something for what it truly is. These epiphanies, these sudden revelations, can be overwhelming in the moment, and they are usually accompanied by a conviction, a sense that you must tell people of this revelation you have received. And when you receive that kind of conviction, you need to follow its dictate, but always in a spirit of love and kindness. In our reading from Ephesians, St. Paul writes:
In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth. In him 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 who first hoped in Christ.
You see, Jesus has made this known to us for a specific purpose. A true prophecy comes from God and has a particular purpose. So prophecy must come from God and be aligned with His will.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus calls the Twelve to Him to send them to preach the gospel. We see the Apostles referred to this way commonly: the Twelve. He has delegated His teaching authority to them and given them the power to cure illness and cast out demons. That’s a lot of power He has entrusted to them, and they respond predictably. Later in this gospel the Twelve are debating amongst themselves who is greatest of them. And James and John even have the audacity to ask to sit at His right and left hands when He comes into His kingdom. They think that Jesus is going to bring them earthly power and glory.
But that is not what it means to be the prophet of the Lord. That is not what it means to be a follower of Christ. Jesus Himself tells them and us that following Him leads to the cross, to trial, and to suffering. If we choose this way, it will not be a walk in the park. It will require sacrifice, and it may bring persecution.
Some Christian sects teach a different gospel, a false gospel. They teach that God wants you to be wealthy and well liked, maybe even famous, and that if you’re poor or sick or otherwise in adversity, you must lack faith. This prosperity gospel is a favorite of many well-known televangelists. But there’s a problem with this way of thinking. It’s not what the gospel promises us. The gospel promises us rejection, discomfort, and sometimes outright persecution. Jesus made this very clear.
Jesus does not say to any of us, “Pick up your golf clubs and follow me. Hop in your Tesla and follow me.” No, He said pick up your cross and follow Him. And each of us has a cross to bear. For some of us, it might be difficulties with our health, career, or living circumstances. For some of us, it might be the need to state an unpopular truth, to be a voice of prophecy in a much-deluded age, a voice that may be shouted down and persecuted, but one that speaks out nonetheless.
In a few moments, Fr. Aleksander will offer a sacrifice of the body and blood of Our Lord on this altar here, a sacrifice that makes new again that sacrifice of Jesus for us up there (pointing at the crucifix). When we approach for Holy Communion, we too are supposed to offer ourselves there and there, on the cross with Him and on this altar with Him.
Our world needs witnesses to the truth. Be that witness.
This talk was written for a Cursillo weekend I assisted with this week. I was reluctant to accept the invitation, but it turned out to be a grace-filled weekend (for the time I was able to stay).
Christ does not offer us cheap grace. He gives us something that is worth sacrifice, but we live in a world that pulls at us and attempts to convince us otherwise. What is it that really attracts people to the faith? Tertullian back in the third century, said that the blood of martyrs is seed for the Church. All over the world, people become Christians because of heroic Christian witness. In the western world, this is not so much the case. We often forget why Christ’s offer to us differs from the promises of our material culture. Our culture promises temporary ease and comfort. Jesus doesn’t offer us that, but he does offer us an eternity in everlasting glory.
So how is it that we turn our backs on eternity and seek what is here and now? What keeps us from following the way, the truth, and the life? What keeps us from following the way, the truth, and the life is our fallen nature, our brokenness, our sinfulness.
God’s plan didn’t start out with broken, sinful people. God created everything good. And the day He created people, He said they were very good, which makes sense because He made us in His image: in His image He created him, male and female He created them. And He saw that it was very good (tov meod).
He intended us to remain is this state of friendship—or as we now say, grace. We had freedom to do our will, and we had grace to inform us about God’s will so that we would gravitate toward His will. To help, He gave us everything we needed to be happy. And He saw that it was tov meod! Very good! Wouldn’t you as well? God plunks you down in a garden with all the food you could possibly need, with no need for other shelter or clothing, and the companion that’s bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh right there? And the command to be fruitful and multiply? What’s not to like about that? And God Himself would come down and talk with us, walk with us. He made us for relationship with Him.
What messed all of that up? Well, we did. We wanted more. It wasn’t enough that our Father supplied all our needs. We wanted to be our own source. We wanted to know what the Father knows. We wanted self-sufficiency. We were the prelapsarian adolescents! If there were ever a clearer consequence of sin, this is it. We as parents have to deal with the intransigence that leads our kids to do stupid things, just like our ancestors and our first parents did in Eden. That is original sin in analogy.
The word sin means different things to different people. In our current culture, sin has taken on the meaning of a ideological failure—a failure to think correctly according to a particular stream of thought. Now certainly some thoughts concerning social are sinful: racism is a sin against the common dignity of all people. But sins aren’t sinful because the majority agrees that something is wrong. The majority does not decide such things. Human beings don’t decide such things.
Sin is not just disagreement with the social mores of the time. It’s disobedience to God. We have a choice between following our will or God’s will. Sin is to choose our own will over God’s. In Greek the verb sin is hamartano (ἁμαρτάνω) and in Hebrew, chata (חָטָא). In both language it carries a similar meaning: to “miss the mark” in Greek, or to miss the goal or way in Hebrew. Both languages use a term that suggests sin as being something we shouldn’t be aiming for, like an archer shooting off target, or someone going off course on a journey. Many languages, in fact, have words for sin that mean something similar: being bent, crooked, not straight, not directed correctly. When we sin, we miss the mark because we have bent from our course. We can miss the mark by shifting just slightly away. That’s venial sin. Our eyes are still on God; we’re still in a state of grace; but we’re oriented slightly away. These can build up and build up until we are turned completely away and our sins create a rupture in our relationship with God. That’s mortal sin. That’s when we are no longer in a state of sanctifying grace.
Now, if we had clear vision, we could see that God’s will is the good. He is the ultimate good, and His will is that we remain with Him, which must also be our ultimate good. God is truth, love, justice, mercy, the greatest good. Anything that we want that moves us away from God is a lesser good. That’s what sin is. Rarely do we want something that we think is bad for us. We want things that we think are good, but if we put more value on those things that take us away from God, we miss the mark. When we indulge in activities that are off limits, when we treat others as if they were objects rather than children of God, when we spend all our time on me, myself, and I rather than the love of God and the good of our neighbor, we sin.
Remember that God made us and everything in the world and declared it tov meod—very good. He made man and woman in His own image. When we sin, we forget that we are created in His image. We forget that God made us with a purpose, we lose sight of what we’re here for. Perhaps we don’t value our relationship with God at all. We’re in it for ourselves.
Think about the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son demands his inheritance from his father—in tantamount, saying, “I wish you were dead.” His father gives him what he wants and lets him go his way. Naturally, in his foolishness the son wastes all that wealth and winds up in dire straits. Sin has consequences. Maybe they’re not dire like the prodigal son’s, but in some way, we have lost what we were intended to have. We are not who we were intended to be.
I have my own story. I started drifting away from the faith starting in my early teens, living a more and more self-centered life. I played with a band and rather liked the attention that I got as a performer. By the time I went off to college, I had left the faith and was living a sinful life. Wound up out of and then back into school, but clearly I was searching for some meaning: looking into eastern mysticism, existential philosophy, and even poked around New Age spirituality a bit. At one point I worked in a New Age bookstore here in Boise down on State Street. But none of that satisfied me. I had missed the mark. I had gone astray. It’s that easy. We forget who we are. Or maybe we’re afraid of what we think we’ll lose if we become who God meant us to be. We forget that God loves us.
What gives us the opportunity to sin? Well, certainly Satan and his minions are one factor. Do not think that Satan and demons are simply evil personified. They are real beings, and they can influence our memories and our thoughts. If you have struggled with pornography, you know how hard it is to keep thoughts and memories like that out of your mind. And demons will take advantage of that. But we always have to make a choice to do what’s sinful. Sin is always a choice. You cannot accidentally sin. Sin is in the intention, in knowing that something is wrong but doing it anyway.
The world we live in also makes it too easy. It pooh-poohs the reality of sin, downplays evil. It approves of living for personal pleasure, excess, selfishness. Free sex with whomever is glorified. Destruction of human life to avoid the consequences of free sex is deemed responsible. The extravagant consumerism of our culture glorifies the material over the spiritual.
It doesn’t help that our bodies like it. We naturally have appetites for food, love, comfort. Those are all good things. Our culture acts as if they’re the only things that matter, and that you only win if you have as much of all of them as you want. Our flesh naturally wants to avoid the cross and seek our pleasure. So we choose the lesser goods of the world over the greatest good.
I’m the right person to tell you this because it happened to me very slowly in my teen years. It started by small sins that wore away at my resolve, then worked up to more serious sins that were clear violations. And then I moved from trying to hide my sins to claiming they weren’t sins. What is the next logical step? If you deny the law, then why do you need a lawgiver?
If you talk to most young adults who claim not to believe in God or in what the Church teaches, it is commonly because they are engaging in what the Church teaches as sin—and they know it. For me, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I could reject the Church, but I couldn’t get rid of the self-loathing that naturally accompanies sin.
In short, we are the obstacle to the grace we need. Our selfishness and sinfulness prevent us from receiving grace. With only a handful of exceptions, all of us are guilty of personal sin. We are prone to it because of our fallen natures, which tend toward doing our own will rather than God’s. But our personal sin doesn’t stop in ourselves. We as the body of Christ are one, so personal sin is also corporate. It affects the entire body. That’s why we have evil in the world and in our Church. Because our sin have real spiritual impacts on our world. That’s why personal sin is not only personal but corporate. It affects the entire corpus or body of Christ.
Now sinful actions are one obstacle to grace, but there are others. There are vices, what we call the cardinal vices: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, sloth. Often these vices begin as dispositions that enable us to slip into sinful habits. Here are a few of those dispositions.
Attachments are those tendencies we have to cling to worldly things. It is not that these things in and of themselves are not good, but they are often put before God or held onto in such a way as to prevent us from moving closer to God. An attachment is an anchor to the material world that binds us and holds us down. They are frequently related to our needs: food, love, and material possessions. Attachment can slip into a form of idolatry, where a material good is placed above the ultimate good, God. Remember that passage from Matthew 19:21–24 that I read to you yesterday:
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
Attachments are those material goods with which we are obsessed.
I’m using the term distraction here in distinction to an attachment. Distractions are those preoccupations we have with events and activities more than things in and of themselves. A cell phone can be an attachment if we must own the latest and greatest version. It is a distraction when it seems to be a leash on us, interrupting us when our attention needs to be elsewhere—when it’s normally inappropriate to be distracted.
We have attachments to things that are semipermanent, usually material objects. We are distracted by things that are fleeting or very temporary: mindless entertainment, preoccupations with other people’s affairs, or sport statistics. They are external to us as opposed to things intrinsic to our nature. Attachments are usually related to needs in some fashion; distractions aren’t. That’s what distinguishes the two.
The distraction horizon has shrunk in the last 10 years. It used to be considered rude if you were to answer your phone when in a conversation with someone else. A sign of respect for a visitor in business was when you would forward your phone calls while you spoke. But now people routinely check their text messages or Facebook status when they’re out with friends at dinner. We’re getting to be a culture where it’s acceptable, even normal, to be distracted. We’re distracted from each other, from hearing God’s voice, or from any outside voice that may be trying to reach us.
We allow ourselves to get distracted by everything going on around us and forget the most important things: our relationships with family and friends, and our relationship with God. It’s hard to hear the still, quiet voice of the Lord when your Sir Mix-a-Lot ringtone keeps going off.
Wrong relationship is any relationship that hinders us on our way to heaven.
A relationship in which we place someone other than God first
A relationship in which the another creature insists on being our first priority
A relationship in which we are not treated with the dignity of a child of God
A relationship that does not leave us free to make our own choices
God should always be paramount. He never excludes care for others, which in many times has obligations tied to it. Prioritizing Him first does not exclude others from our care, but wrong relationships often try to be exclusive, whether they attempt to diminish your concern for God’s law or diminish your access to other people or God Himself.
It’s easy to see why sin separates us from God, but how does fear keep us away? It’s because we don’t often know where God will take us, and we even see in scripture that we’re supposed to rejoice when we suffer persecution or deprivation. If our culture tells us that life is only worth living if you are having fun, living the good life, and far from any physical or emotional pain, doesn’t the message of the Beatitudes sound a bit nutty?
Let someone take my cloak but also give them my shirt?
Turn the other cheek when someone strikes me?
Leap for joy when someone curses me because I’m Christian?
Yeah, it sounds a bit nutty by the dictates of our culture, but often we fear deprivation—that our needs won’t be met. But God promises that we will get everything we need, and we can see that some of the most joyous people are those who get what they need and no more.
What is God’s remedy for these obstacles? Well, first and foremost, it was and is Jesus Christ’s incarnation and in His sacrificial death and resurrection. By His incarnation, He united two natures, human and Divine. He bridged the gap in and brought about unity in a way more excellent than the one we had when our first parents walked with God in Eden.
And in His incarnation, He gave us channels of grace and ways to restore grace. His atoning sacrifice redeems us from our sins. If we respond to the grace of the offering, our sins are forgiven, and we are restored in our relationship with God. He paid the price for humanity, and we only need to open ourselves to the grace of that sacrifice. Here are some ways we can do this.
Spiritual Direction and Confession
Take advantage of sacramental confession frequently, and find a spiritual director who can help you discern your vocation and help you to grow in the Christian life. Confession gives you the opportunity to be honest about your sins and limitations and to seek the grace of forgiveness, which also strengthens you in virtue. A nightly examination of conscience will help you to remember those failings daily so you will have something to discuss in the confessional.
Remember that the sacrament requires the following:
Contrition (not the emotion of sorrow but the objective recognition that we’ve sinned)
Repentance (the intention of turning away from sinful behavior)
Confession (verbal and specific communication of our sins)
Penance ( doing what our confessor requests as penance)
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the primary means by which we seek God’s forgiveness, and any time we are aware of a grave or mortal sin, we should go to confession.
You can sometimes get spiritual direction in the confessional, but it’s really not designed for extended direction. For that, you need to find a spiritual director: someone with whom you can meet for longer meetings who can guide you in the spiritual life. You can often have a spiritual director who is also your confessor, although they are really two separate things, and you should seek spiritual direction outside the confessional.
All of us need assistance on the way, and you can do no better than to find a good spiritual director and a good confessor. They can help you to be honest with yourself and to find those areas where you fool yourself. We all do, and it helps to have a loving heart help us to recognize it.
Prayer with Silent Meditation
If you want to live a holy life and discern God’s will for it, you need to have a stable prayer life. By stable I mean that you need to engage in prayer habitually. It has to be as common to your life as your workout routine, setting the alarm clock, brushing your teeth. It needs to be intentional and regular. Think of it as making time to check in with God daily.
When you’re married, you don’t forget to talk to your spouse several times a day. If your marriage will not survive you checking in less than once a day, then your relationship with God may not either. Prayer is not just the empty recitation of rote verse or repetition of pious formulas. Prayer is a conversation with God. We have rote prayer to aid us in that conversation, but they do not have to be the totality of that conversation. We also have forms of prayer that are meant to join us to Christians all over the world, like the Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, rosaries, and other popular devotions. However, we can and should also pray extemporaneously—off the cuff, spur of the moment, natural speech.
All people of the first world need to learn about detachment. Our cukture teaches us to be wrapped up in our possessions. If we want to grow closer to God, we have to prefer Him to all other goods. That doesn’t mean that we have to reject all other goods, but we need to be able to set them aside.
Think of your most precious possession. Now think of whether you can let it go. It’s not easy! That’s why it takes practice. Start by loosening your grip on those items that don’t have a strong emotional claim on you: food, a few dollars from your pocket. Next, make an attempt to give away things you like but don’t use regularly. Then start giving away things you actually do use.
Reading Scripture and Devotional Writings
If you do not read scripture regularly, start. Remember that scripture is the primary norm of our faith. While Sacred Tradition is foundational, it can never contradict scripture, nor can the Magisterium. We measure the doctrines of the faith against what is revealed in scripture, even though the understanding of those doctrines often isn’t explicit in scripture.
If you’re new to reading the bible, try a “scripture of the day” email message, and follow up by reading the scripture in context. You might also start reading one chapter daily. I don’t recommend that you start with Genesis, since you might get mired down in the book of Numbers, which is every bit as exciting as the name suggests. I suggest you begin with the gospels, and then go back to Genesis once you’ve had a chance to bathe in the good news.
Get involved with a parish bible study. They are easy to join and easy to sponsor. The Great Bible Adventure series has bible studies running all over our diocese. Pick a parish and check it out. If you haven’t checked out Magnificat magazine, it’s both a great daily missal and prayer tool and an excellent source for spiritual reflections. Your parishes will likely have subscription programs for it or similar periodicals.
We should involve ourselves in relationships that help us to grow closer to God, and where we help others to know God. This is really our mission and vocation in life to get to heaven and help others do the same.
If you are married, your job is to get your spouse to heaven. When you have children, you have a special responsibility to educate your children so that they will seek heaven. They have to finish that calling themselves, but you have that special responsibility to show them how to live in such a way as to get there.
All other relationships should help you to grow closer to God. You will need to pray to discern when a friendship is or is not holy.
The Rest of My Story
Read John 21: 15–17
I left the Church in my teens. I drifted for around 25 years, but something in me has always been Catholic. As I mentioned, when wrapped up my graduate studies, I took a position at a New Age bookstore as a purchaser. I was buying and selling books on New Age nonsense, Wiccan and other pagan practices, sage wands, crystals… basically all that was opposed to the truth.
In 2003 I returned to the faith and was confirmed. I was married in the Church in 2005, and my daughter was received into the Church at the same time. I began a graduate degree in theology and also began formation for the diaconate, and in 2013, I completed a master’s in theology and was ordained to the diaconate.
On the day of ordination, I went for a run. It was early morning and drizzling (my favorite running weather), and I was laughing and crying the entire time because I was amazed at where God had brought me when I finally let Him take the lead.
The ordination mass was beautiful. If you haven’t attended an ordination, make it a priority to do so.
After my ordination, my family met up at Smoky Mountain Pizza to celebrate. We ate lunch and had a good time. As each group left, I gave them my blessing: My brother and sister in law and their kids; my daughter and her mother; finally my brothers and parents. We all made our way out and into our vehicles. I pulled into the alley to get out of the lot more quickly, and as I was driving in the alley behind Smoky Mountain Pizza, I remembered that I used to park behind this building when it was the Blue Unicorn, the New Age bookstore on State Street where I used to sell books on Wicca, sage wands, and crystals. In that very room where I made these sales, I gave three blessings. That was my St. Peter moment, when Jesus gave me a chance to undo what I had done.
God’s grace is always available to us. We just need to cooperate with it, to say yes rather than no. Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and His burden, light. With the help of grace, it is so. When we resist or even reject grace is when our challenges become more difficult, more painful. Cooperating with grace and submitting to God’s will gives us strength to endure the challenges we’ll face in the Christian life and to grow stringer in our faith.
This talk was written for a Cursillo weekend I assisted with this week. I was reluctant to accept the invitation, but it turned out to be a grace-filled weekend (for the time I was able to stay).
We hear the word grace in our liturgy and readings all the time. St .Paul uses it so frequently as an introduction in his letters: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is an important word in Catholic and Christian doctrine, and it is vital to our salvation. There is no salvation without grace.
As Fr. Bart explained in his rollo, habitual grace the grace that dwells in us when we are in friendship with God and is also called sanctifying grace. Another way to say this is that habitual grace makes us children of God. The word grace itself comes from the Latin word gratia. Consider the words we use in English: gratuity, gratis, gracious. These are behaviors that speak of generosity, of giving without cause or reason, and that is the case with grace. Both are translations of the Greek word xaris, which means grace but can also mean favor. God gives His grace or favor to us out of love and generosity. We cannot earn grace.
Definition of actual grace
So what is actual grace? Here’s the technical definition. If you were on Jeopardy, here’s the way the answer would be posed: “It is a spiritual, inner, and transitory aid, with which God enlightens our understanding and strengthens our will to accomplish spiritual acts.”
And of course, all of us would respond, “What is actual grace?” Because that definition really speaks to our innermost being… or not.
It’s a technical, doctrinal definition. It’s not one that helps us to understand anything. It helps theologians in their conversations. It doesn’t help lay people understand the meaning of the term.
Let’s try a different approach. Actual grace is the assistance that God gives to us to perform actions that help us on our way to Heaven. Habitual grace makes us children of God. Actual grace helps us to act like children of God, to put our habitual grace, a state of being, into action. So the difference between habitual grace and actual grace is this: habitual grace puts in the state of friendship with God. Actual grace helps us to stay in that state and to grow in it. By nature, actual grace is transitory or temporary. It’s the passing influence of God on the soul to perform actions related to our eternal salvation.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Imagine that you are a brilliant young person—please stay with me here—with a mind for engineering and its practical application. You go to school and get a degree in engineering. That is habitual grace. The degree is the state ofbeing and engineer. At this point, you have become someone who can claim to be engineer. You then get a couple of job offers. One will require you to design a new public transit system in a dense urban population, something that really engages your engineering training. The other would give you lucrative opportunities in the real-estate market selling commercial property, something that really doesn’t tap into your education in any way. Your being gives you the ability to act based on your training. If you choose the first job, you’re acting based on your training, and then each additional opportunity to work further helps you grow as an engineer. If you choose the second option, you are setting aside the gift of your training because of the lure of wealth.
If you choose the first, you are cooperating with or acting in accord with the state of being an engineer. If you choose the other, you are setting aside your education to engage in a completely different aim. The opportunity itself is the impetus to choose the engineering and design path over the real estate path. It is the boost to the education you have in engineering to do the engineer thing and not real-estate thing.
Now that’s just an analogy, and all analogies limp, but let’s draw out the similarities here. Habitual grace makes you a child of God. Actual grace gives you both the opportunity and the help to act like a child of God. If you are in a state of grace, you have the ability to act in a way that conforms to your Christian nature. Actual grace is God giving you the opportunity and help to act according to your sanctified nature, and if you do, you draw closer to God.
I shared this story with Jerry when I told him I would be here for this retreat. I admit that I did not want to be here—not because I don’t value the work of Cursillo, but because as a clergyman with a full-time secular job and ministerial duties on the side, I have a whole lot going on, and I didn’t want to take on another responsibility. Jerry contacted me about coming in to replace one of the other deacons who couldn’t make it. I didn’t say no off the bat. I said, as all of us discerning and reluctant servants of God do, I’ll pray about it. And I did! I prayed about it, and there was some delay in communications. I prayed about it, and some complicating work factors came into play. In my spiritual life, these kinds of delays often indicate that we’re not supposed to take something on. This has happened to me with prison ministry, homeless outreach, and other apostolates.
So a few weeks ago, I was listen to a homily by Bishop Barron, and the passage had to do with our taking up the crosses that we are reluctant to bear. I preach on this all the time. Don’t take up your golf clubs, take up the cross! Don’t take on that car payment for the new BMW, take up you cross! That Sunday, I wasn’t assisting at the altar, so when Gina and I knelt at our pew, I prayed for God to help me discern the cross I needed to pick up. Immediately, I heard the word, “Cursillo.” So that’s why I’m here today. God gave me the opportunity to make something happen in my own faith life and in your lives. That’s the way that actual grace works. It helps us cooperate with God when He puts opportunities in front of us to do His will. We can say, “I don’t have time.” We can say, “I don’t know how.” And we can take the path I was ready to take: “I don’t feel like it.” Actual grace gives us the opportunity to act, and if we need it, the strength, help, and courage to act.
Like habitual grace, actual grace is free. It’s a gift from God. As we practice our faith and grow into deeper relationship with Christ, God intervenes more and more with this actual grace to help us and strengthen us. And as a result, we want to do His will. Even when the task is hard, we want to do it because it pleases God. It also softens our hearts and helps us become more gracious to the others around us. Actual grace helps us to carry out the two greatest commandments: love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.
Our need of actual grace
While I have my differences with the Jesuits of today, what you never saw from them in the early days was the response, “I don’t feel like it.” What they said, was “For the greater Glory of God!” St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, Mateo Ricci—they were exemplary. And I am not. I am too willing not to act. And that’s why I need the help of actual grace. If you want any example of our need for constant help in the Christian life, here I am. Actual grace is what put me here in front of your today. Active grace is what will help us to move and act as Christians. We all need the help God to do His will.
On our own, we would not seek what God wills but what we will. We do God’s as a result of cooperating with His grace. In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The image of Christ as vine and those who follow Him as branches is apt. Grace is the Divine Life within us. If we are cut off from the source, we wither and die spiritually, which is what happens when we commit mortal sin. We cut ourselves off from grace. If we remain in that state, we die spiritually. But if we remain attached to the root, we continue to have that Divine Life of grace. By responding to grace in our daily lives we continue to grow, not because our sufficiency comes from ourselves, as St. Paul writes, but because our sufficiency comes from God.
When does God give us actual grace?
God makes actual grace available to us continually. It comes when we have the opportunity to do something good for someone else, or when we engage in worship of God, or when we need to persevere in our faith. Actual grace prompts us to do good, and it also helps us when doing good is difficult. It’s both the motivation to do good and the strength to do it. And God always gives it to us when we need it. For example, when we are tempted to sin or to avoid doing a good work, grace can strength our will and help us to choose what is right over what might be pleasurable or expedient.
God often uses others as opportunities for us to cooperate with His grace. For example, that guy who cut you off on the way here, you can pray for him, or you could… tell him he’s number one. If you choose to pray for him, you are responding to grace. God puts the needy in our lives so we can perform acts of charity. When you clear out the clothes from your closest and donate them to a homeless shelter, you’re responding to actual grace. And the more you respond to it, the easier it is and the closer we grow to God as a result. Sanctifying grace puts us in a state of friendship with God. Actual grace keeps us there and helps us to grow in deeper relationship with God.
Actual grace always comes to us in moments of trial, as promised by Jesus. In Luke 12, Jesus warns His disciples about the persecutions they will face and adds, “And when they bring you before synagogues and the rulers and authorities, do not be anxious about how or what to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” And again, in Luke 21:14—15, He says, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”
We recently celebrated the memorial of St. Joan of Arc on May 30th. Her life is a great example of someone who responded to actual grace to do what God willed. One of my favorite stories about her is when she was being tried for heresy. One of the theologians who was cross-examining her asked her if she was in a state of grace. As a matter of orthodox theology, we cannot know this. We can have a founded hope that we are in a state of grace but no absolute assurance. If she answered yes or no, she would be wrong. Here’s what she said: “If I am not in a state of grace, I pray that God will place me in it. If I am in a state of grace, I pray that God keep me in it.” That was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit an actual grace, at work in Joan.
How does God give actual grace to us?
God gives us actual graces in a variety of ways and for a variety of works, but always according to His will. In the Nicene-Constantinople Creed that we recite on most Sundays, we not that the Holy Spirit is the “giver of life” and note that He “has spoken through the prophets.” So, the Holy Spirit works to give us grace and inspires us to speak the right words at the right time. You can see the scriptures as the result of the Holy Spirit speaking to men those things He wished them to know. We say that Sacred Scripture is “inspired.” The word “inspired” literally means spirit breathed. So, inspiration is when the Holy Spirit breathes revelation into the writers of scripture. And He does the same to us! Think of St. Joan’s story! I can tell you that my homilies wouldn’t be worth a damn if I did them without God’s grace to guide me, and there have been days when I have wept because of what came out of my keyboard. I have a story for a later rollo that will show the Holy Spirit at work.
So, the Holy Spirit influences our heart, mind, and will directly. He inspires us to acts of kindness: corporal works of mercy, where we reach out and help people in need, in prison, in their poverty; and spiritual works of mercy, where we counsel, admonish, encourage, and instruct each other. Yes, when you have that impulse to correct someone’s moral failing, there is something of grace in that, so long as we remember to act in love and not anger. I also mentioned before that sometimes the people in our lives prompt us to perform some worthy action. When we pray in intercession for someone, that’s grace at work. When we respond to someone’s need, that’s grace at work.
I remember once I was driving up 16th street, and I saw a guy walking in his bare feet. It was December, and he was bundled up except for his feet. As I drove by, I had a moment of pause, and then I just shook my head and said, No.” I stopped the car, got out, and asked him why he didn’t have anything on his feet. He said that the boots he had hurt his feet. I told him to get in my car. I drove him to Payless Shoes. He was nervous because he didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. I had him try on a pair of boots, and he found one he liked, so we got the boots and some socks. And then I took him by our parish food pantry to show him where it was and when it was open. I dropped him off close to where he was staying. I’d deduced that he had some form of schizoid disorder with some paranoia, so he didn’t want me to know where he actually lived. After he got out of my car, I started weeping because of the injustice of his situation. I don’t mean that as some statement on social justice but because of the way our laws are structured to deny people like this man the care he needs to live a dignified life. Anyway, when I think of the plight of our mentally ill brethren who are homeless, I think of him.
Of course, the Church also gives us exemplary channels for grace, the sacraments. Each sacrament imposes grace upon us. Baptism, of course, is the moment at which we receive sanctifying grace. It also joins us to the Church. But every sacrament bestows grace on us.
Our regular celebration of the most Holy Eucharist, gives us grace to cleanse us of venial sins, and it weakens the hold that our sinful nature has on us. It helps us to deepen our communion with the Body of Christ and with Christ as Its head. It gives us strength to live holy lives. The Sacrament of Reconciliation removes the effects of grave or mortal sins and restores us to a state of grace. It also further strengthens us to live a Christian life. All the sacraments make possible the continued influence of grace in our daily lives.
Our responsibility—to freely respond to God’s offer
Christ does not offer us cheap grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said. But Christians these days seem to think they get grace without some cost, and that’s not true. Now that seems contradictory because we have already said that grace is a gift that can’t be earned, and that’s true. But we also have to cooperate with grace and let it work in our lives. That means repenting from sin, submitting to God’s will, and observing the obligations of our faith. Grace costs us something, but we can’t buy it.
A number of authors have noted that what most Christians in the U.S actually believe in is not authentic Christianity but what they call moralistic therapeutic deism.[i] In this view, God is primarily someone who takes care of our needs and makes us feel good about ourselves. As long as we’re “good people,” God will help us and welcome us into Heaven at the end of our lives. What constitutes a good person? Have you ever heard some make that claim? “I’m a good person!” And what comes next, “I mean, I haven’t murdered anyone.”
That might be setting the bar a bit low.
Moralistic therapeutic deism. Cheap grace.
One of my roommates in college, we’ll name him Carter, had a roommate prior to me, whom we’ll call Chad, whose parents had paid for him to attend a private Catholic university, given him spending money, and given him a car. Chad had been given everything, but he seemed to value little. He blew off his classes and spent his time partying. He abused the car his parents had given him. Carter told me about Chad going hunting for shopping carts. After a night of partying, he’d jump in the car, and they go to the closest grocery store, and he would smash into any and all loose shopping carts in the parking lot.
Imagine what Chad’s parents thought when he pulled up in front of their house after school ended? Imagine what they thought when they learned that Chad was not welcome back for the next school year?
When we act as if nothing is expected of us when we receive the gift of God’s grace, we treat grace as something cheap and worthless. We must respond to it and let it become active in our lives, moving us to good works. As James wrote in his epistle, “Faith without works is dead.”
Prayer and Actual Grace
If you want to cultivate your faith life, you must begin with regular daily prayer. I’m not talking about saying grace before meals. I’m talking about a regular schedule of prayer in your day. I recommend that you set aside the first hour of your day. As a permanent deacon, I make a promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the morning and evening. My wife and I pray evening and night prayers together. Secular priests, as I understand, are obligated to pray five hours, while religious pray all of the hours. Fr. Bart can correct me if I’m wrong. The discipline is different for religious in cloisters. I know many lay people who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and you can purchase a copy of Daily Prayer at any good Catholic bookstore.
That may be a bit much for you at the beginning. A good place to start is with the publications Magnificat or This Day. Both have shortened versions of the Liturgy of the Hours. You can also get the mass readings of the day, as well as lots of good devotional readings.
Give yourself some time to wake up and get a cup of coffee. There’s nothing wrong with you having a cup of coffee as you start your prayers, and it may actually help you to be more attentive. But be focused on your prayer. Other devotions like the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, or various novenas and devotions are great to include.
The point is that relationship requires communication, and prayer is our communication with God. That said, make sure you also make time to listen. Our prayer life with God is not just about telling Him our needs, but also about waiting to hear His response. And we need to close our mouths and wait patiently to hear it.
God loves us and wants us to be close. Actual grace makes this possible. Open yourself to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. They will not always be what we want to hear, but they will always be what we need to hear.
[i] Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers”. National Study of Youth and Religion. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame. Archived from the original on 4 May 2016. Retrieved 4 May 2016.
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:
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.
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.”
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,
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.