Prepare the Way of the Lord—Second Week of Advent (Cycle B)

Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8

            I’ve had two stints in graduate school. One of the common experiences that graduate students have—universally, as far as I can tell—is that they don’t belong where they are, that they are frauds. They are surrounded by peers whom they respect and admire, and it’s a surprising and welcome thing when one of them mentions their admiration of their work. Of course, along with this general sense of being a fraud are the subconscious stories that play out in dreams. These are common to many of us: the one where you’re in public with no clothes or where you have an exam in math and haven’t completed a single assignment all semester.

Life as a graduate student means always striving to be prepared—for class, for exams, for essays. I think the big difference between graduate school and other educational experiences is that you know what your goal is, it’s self selected, and failure carries a cost, even if it’s merely a personal, emotional cost. Preparation is the key to success

Sadly, we often don’t take that view of our spiritual lives. More often than not, we treat the idea of preparing spiritually as if it’s optional. Advent reminds us that we need to prepare, the season of Advent reminds us to focus on preparation: for Christ’s arrival and for Christ’s return. Our readings from Isaiah and from the Gospel of Mark subtly reveal this to us.

I want to point out an interesting divergence between these two passages.  It’s clear that Mark’s gospel alludes to Isaiah, but there is an important syntactical difference between the two.

Now, I used to teach college composition, and I’m a technical writer by trade. Proper punctuation is the fifth cardinal virtue for me, and the Oxford comma is not negotiable. I’m a geek when it comes to grammar and convention.

So let’s compare the two verses:

Here’s Isaiah: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”

Here’s Mark: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

Notice where the pauses are, the breaks that tell us who is saying what and who is where. Our reading from Isaiah says, “A voice cries out,” and the message is “in the desert prepare a way.” In Mark, the narrator introduces John the Baptist as “a voice of one crying out in the desert” and the message is “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

I find the difference striking! As all of scripture is inspired, I don’t see these passages in conflict but as revealing two related truths. We need to be prepared, and we need to help in the preparation.

Let’s start with Isaiah: “A voice cries out, ‘In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” What does this mean literally? What does it mean for us personally? In its literal sense, it would suggest removing barriers, creating a road in a barren place, leveling the ground to make someone’s arrival possible. But is Isaiah asking us to prepare a physical space for God’s arrival?

I think, rather, that the desert, the wilderness, the barren place is our heart. At times, it doesn’t feel so barren—when I’m busy with the day to day things of life, when I’m filled with the love of family and friends, or the busyness of work. But there are the moments when I am undistracted, when I can allow myself to recognize my spiritual poverty, my bareness and dependency on God. In that desert, I can prepare a way for God to act in my life. But if I don’t prepare, if I don’t remove the barriers, God will not force His way in. A hard truth is that faith is a gift, because faith is not injected into us. It is offered to us. We can only have faith if we accept it as a gift. We have to prepare the pathway in our desert to receive it. Faith begins when we find that spiritual poverty and open ourselves to God’s gift.

How about Mark? Remember the change in emphasis: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.'” What is his treatment of this passage telling us? Well, first, he’s treating it as prophecy. John the Baptist is the voice in the desert foretold by Isaiah, telling the People of Israel to make straight the paths. Mark drops us into the gospel story in medias res—that means, “in the middle of things.” We get no background for John, just his appearance in the desert, and it’s some appearance: wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and honey. He sounds like a bit of a wild man. Only in Luke do we get his back story—the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, miraculously conceived in their old age. He’s the cousin of Jesus. The background makes his appearance that much stranger. But he’s there to call people to repentance, to prepare themselves for the one to come. He’s essentially proclaiming the gospel message.

But we lose something if we look at John’s role here and see him solely as the prophet foretold by Isaiah. He is one proclaiming the gospel, but he is not the only one. Or should I say, he should not be the only one. After all, our Savior commands the Apostles at the close of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” That mission is our mission. We are sent out from here to take the gospel message in to the desert of our world. That is one of several dismissals that we chant at the end of Mass: “Go and proclaim the Gospel to the world!” We prepare first to receive the gift of faith, so that we can then be a voice crying out in the desert to others to prepare the way of the Lord.

Unfortunately, Catholics are not always comfortable sharing their faith or evangelizing others, perhaps because we’ve been on the receiving end of having it done poorly to us. But Jesus is not making a request. He commands us to do this. Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.” So we must be ready and willing to minister to others. And to do that, we must prepare the way first in the desert of our own hearts.

How can you make this your mission? Well, it’s important to recognize what evangelization is and is not. It is not thumping a bible, shouting from a soapbox, or beating people overhead with doctrine. As Peter wrote, do it with gentleness and reverence. Start by living your life as an example of Christian joy. Live your faith out loud. Wear your religious medals and crucifixes visibly. Say grace before meals at restaurants. Be visibly Catholic. Show real Christian love for others. Act like Christ’s hands and feet.

Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest who did eventually reconcile with the Church, said this about the problems of Christian witness. He said,

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

So we need to live like we believe what Jesus said. Second, be ready to share your faith when people ask. They might ask you in a challenging way, for example, questioning a unique Catholic teaching; or they may simply be curious. So know the teachings of the faith and be ready to share. Study the faith. Remember, you cannot pass on what you do not possess.

It’s Advent, and the Lord is coming. Are you ready to proclaim the gospel to the world? If not, then in the desert of your heart, prepare the way for the Lord.

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Wisdom Waits at the Gate—Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Wisdom 6:12–16; II Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13

Terry Pratchett, a popular science fiction writer, once wrote, “Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.” And that, my friends, encapsulates my life as a young adult. Like many people in that age range, I made some poor choices, and they led me to search for the truth. That search eventually led me to where I’m standing today.

I sometimes think about the wend and wind of the path I’ve taken and wish that perhaps I’d made other decisions. But most certainly, they would’ve led me to a different place. Wisdom is that gift that allows me to see the blessings that can come even through bad decisions. In fact, wisdom helps me to discern that some decisions that seemed bad were simply just shots in the dark made in faith and that led me to a place of peace.

Now, as Terry Pratchett wrote, wisdom can come from personal experience, but wisdom can also be simply a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us without the need of painful experience to drive the lesson home. Wisdom is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, considered the greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit by St. Bernard because it acts upon both will and intellect. St. Thomas wrote that wisdom corresponds to and perfects the virtue of charity. King Solomon prayed for such wisdom, when the Lord asked him what he desired: “Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?” Instead of asking for wealth or power, Solomon prayed for wisdom. And so the Lord rewarded him with all three.

Solomon was renowned for his wisdom, and several of what we call the “wisdom books” are attributed to him: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Solomon, from which we get our first reading today.

I love the book of Wisdom. It’s one of the seven books that we Catholics and our Orthodox brethren share, and one of the reasons why the scripture that Protestants use is missing essential aspects of doctrine that the Church has always proclaimed. But that aside, these books reveal a lot about Hellenistic Jewish culture and the context that gave rise to both rabbinical Judaism and early Christianity. This book in particular focuses on the importance of seeking wisdom, of being watchful and waiting for wisdom. From the narrator’s perspective, obtaining wisdom is simply a matter of seeking it: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire, whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by the gate.”

Does that passage evoke the Holy Huh? for you? You might recall I mentioned the holy “huh?” a few weeks ago. It’s when you read something in scripture and are struck, not by its profundity, but by its oddity. I think this passage qualifies, and here’s why.

We pray for wisdom. We suffer to gain wisdom. We learn wisdom through painful experience. How is it, then, that wisdom is sitting by the gate, right there in plain sight? How does this wisdom make herself known in anticipation of our desire if we have such a hard time knowing her?

How is it that we who supposedly want to be wise can’t see her who wants to be found? If wisdom wants to be found, why do so few of us find her? Or as some people like to phrase it, why is common sense—another word for wisdom, perhaps—so uncommon?

Since I’m hurling clichés left and right today, I’ll suggest that the reason is as plain as the nose on our face. We can’t really see our own motivations unless we engage in some self-reflection, just as we can’t truly see our noses unless we look into a mirror. The problem isn’t that the lessons of wisdom aren’t readily apparent. They’re right there, standing at the gate, waiting to be seen. You can often look at the train wreck of a person’s life and see exactly why they wound up there. The only one oblivious is the one who sits behind the nose and can’t see what’s plainly before his face. If we take no time to look into a mirror at our circumstances and our own complicity in creating them, we will never see wisdom at our gates offering an alternative. Apparently, common sense is uncommon enough.

In the gospel reading, five of the ten virgins don’t have the sense to stock up on enough oil to get them through the night. The five unwise virgins want the wise virgins to get them out of their fix. They could’ve prepared ahead of time, but when their lack of preparedness comes back to haunt them, they expect to get bailed out. They don’t expect to face the consequences of their poor planning.

Many of us live the same way, particularly in matters of faith. We chase after what the world calls wise, what the world values: wealth, acclaim, power. These may prepare us well for a life of ease, but they are no preparation for what follows: death, judgment, Heaven, or Hell. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” We admire people who possess these material goods, but what good are they if they don’t lead us closer to the truth? If they don’t lead us to the greatest good, which is God? If this is the world’s wisdom, let us become God’s fools, as Paul says again.

And certainly what is wisdom in God seems foolish to the world. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are you when they persecute and curse you in my name. You must die to yourself to truly live. If you wish to be my disciple, you must pick up your cross. Don’t seek the riches of this world, pick up your cross. Don’t strive after what satisfies for only a day, pick up your cross. Don’t chase after that new car, that next promotion, that six-figure income, the big house. Pick up your cross.

That’s the wisdom of God, and it looks like foolishness in the eyes of the world. But what else would we expect from a king who came to us as an infant born in a stable? From a savior who died a shameful death on a cross? From a high priest who gives Himself to us as our food and drink? He came as a sign of contradiction, and still today stands all worldly wisdom on its head. It is that wisdom that saves us now.

I read an interesting story about Fr. Thomas Sherman, a Jesuit priest, the son of General William Tecumseh Sherman, and friend of none other than Fr. Peter DeSmet, an important figure in Idaho’s history. During his time in seminary, he wrote to his sister and said, “What a grand thing it is to be, as it were, shooting straight at one’s mark, living every hour, performing every action in preparation for the great hereafter.” That is the essence of wisdom: performing every action in preparation for the hereafter. Like the five wise virgins waiting for the bridegroom, we need to be prepared.

How do we prepare? As I mentioned earlier, wisdom corresponds to the virtue of charity, so our greatest preparation is in acts of love: love of God and love of our neighbor. In the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding and clothing the poor, praying for the dead, instructing the ignorant, visiting the sick. Volunteer at Corpus Christi House or Interfaith Sanctuary. Help at the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. Wisdom has taught me that true joy does not come to me when I store up treasures for myself, but when I give myself to others.

Wisdom stands at the gate, but we have to open the gate and let her in.

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It’s all a gift—28th Sunday in Ordinary Time(Cycle A)

Isaiah 25:6–10a; Philippians 4:12–14, 19–20; Matthew 22:1–14

My roommate in college had one other roommate before me a year prior. This young man had been given a car as a graduation gift and was then sent off to a private school, Gonzaga, for his first year of college. Clearly, this young man was given great gifts and privilege, and you’d think he would be very happy to have the advantages he had. Yet he squandered his year at Gonzaga, and he did intentionally reckless things with his car, to the point of causing fairly significant cosmetic damage to it—as well as to the property of others. Rather than treating these gifts with gratitude and respect, he treated them with utter contempt.

I wonder how his parents felt when they saw the wreck of his car limping home at the end of that academic year? Do you think they’d be likely to give him such gifts again?

The nature of a gift is that it’s given freely—at no cost to the one receiving. It makes no sense to give a gift and expect a gift back. Otherwise you really don’t have gift. You have trade. Now, there’s nothing wrong with trade, but the natures of trade and of gift are distinct: one being essentially directed toward gaining for oneself what one wants or needs, while the other being directed toward the other. Giving of gifts is by nature directed to the other.

Whether the gift you give is a small object, a banquet, tickets to a special event, or something greater, the joy of the giver comes in the giving. A true gift is also one in which the giver invests him or herself to some degree in the gift. It could be a small investment, but a gift is not given with complete disinterest. We give a gift to leave something with the one who receives it. Sometimes the gift one gives is the self, as in the Sacrament of Matrimony or a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

That is part of the message we get in our readings this week—the gift of self. I think Isaiah 25 reflects this complete gift of self, which is the most common image of God’s relationship with Israel in Hebrew scripture. The Lord provides for everyone a feast of rich food and choice wines, wipes away all tears, removes the shame of the people. We so frequently hear in these passages, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

I had no idea just how many times this clause was repeated in scripture, so I did what any pentagenarian does when faced with such perplexing questions: asked the Google, and the Google told me…

Okay, I don’t really say “the Google.” I’m a techie, so I “Googled” it…

and I found that there are at least 43 verses in which this clause in some variation exists in scripture. “I am your God, and you are my people.” That is the language of covenant, and that is the language of gift. And God is the good father who loves to lavish good gifts on His children. Now we can make small covenants, and we can make large covenants. But God doesn’t bother with small covenants. He is all in. He gives Himself completely in all things. He goes so far as to ratify His covenant with us with the blood of His Son. That, my friends, is commitment.

Think of the famous image from the Sistine Chapel of the creation. God is reaching out, stretching to touch Adam, while Adam lounges back and weakly holds out his hand. I think it captures not only God’s commitment to us but our hesitation to join in God’s plan.

That’s really what this gospel reading is about. The king invites the regular guests, perhaps the nobility in the neighboring areas, those who are accustomed to fine things. They can’t be bothered, preferring what they have to what is offered. They mistreat his messengers and regard his invitation with contempt rather than gratitude. So the king instead invites everyone else—the people in the streets, the modest farmers and merchants. Of course, Jesus is telling the chief priests and elders of Israel that they have squandered the invitation that God has offered them as the People of God and that God will make a new covenant with all people, with those who are not of the House of Israel.

The perplexing part of the story comes when we get to the man without the wedding garment. He comes to the wedding feast without a wedding garment, and for this, he is bound hand and feet and cast out. What is happening here? It seems unduly harsh for a merciful God.

This is where we have to key into what Scott Hahn calls the “holy ‘huh.'” The “holy huh” is that sort of moment of discord that we get when something in scripture violates our expectations. Everything is going along fine, but then something comes up that just seems to be blown out of proportion. This particular passage raises in my mind a really big “holy huh.” Jesus does that a lot, and that is part of the power of His words, cutting through joints and marrow, as the author of Hebrews put it. Whenever you get that “holy huh,” you need to stop and look again at what’s being said because you might otherwise miss something important.

So what is Jesus talking about here? The king has invited everyone, after his initial invitations were rebuffed. You would think that someone who throws his doors open to the mass of humanity would be a bit more inclusive and wouldn’t just toss someone out for not dressing properly. So something else is happening here.

The wedding garment represents preparation, openness to gift, a receiving and grateful heart. There are different ways to receive a gift. You can receive it as if it’s a favor you have to repay. You can receive it with sincere gratitude. Or like my college roommate’s friend, you can receive it as if it’s one’s due or as if it were beneath you, with resentment and bitterness.

Have you ever given a gift to someone who isn’t receptive? Who doesn’t really want your gift? It’s a pretty awkward situation. If we look back at the scene of Adam and God in the Sistine Chapel, what people often miss is that God’s other arm is wrapped around Eve. The Father wants to give Adam the greatest blessing—bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. In Hebrew, that is a superlative. When Adam says that about Eve, he means that she is the very best of him. God the Father is just waiting to knock Adam’s socks off with this incredible gift of Eve, but Adam can barely lift his hand to receive her.

That’s us, far too often. We don’t see the tremendous gift that God has already given to us. We want more. And even the gifts we have, we don’t recognize. I read an incredible story of faith in the most unlikely place—GQ Magazine. I wouldn’t have bothered except that it showed up on my Facebook feed and was recommended by a very well-known deacon who is also a long-time news person. It was an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian and current host of the Late Show. Now, Colbert is a cradle Catholic and quite open about his faith. I don’t necessarily agree with his take on all points of Catholic doctrine, but he understands grace very well. In this interview in GQ, he talks about a major event in his life—the death of his father and two brothers when he was 10 years old. Now, for most of us, we would have that encounter, and we would hold nothing but grief and bitterness. But Colbert doesn’t have that perspective. What he said—and it was frankly shattering to me—was this.

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” He recognized that while he lost father and brothers, his suffering was not pointless, and it led him to be the person he is.

I could say that about so many things in my past and even about experiences I now have. I love the thing I wish had not happened. That is an attitude about receiving gifts that we should all adopt. That’s what Stephen Colbert gets—that it’s all a gift. All of it. Our sorrow, our joy. Our pain and prosperity. All of it is a gift from God, and all of it can be used to bring about good by God.

But we don’t see the gifts God lays before us. We want to turn away the very things that would draw us closer to Him, if we would only let them. The difference between a saint and most of us is this openness to the gift. Many of us come here to this altar with a sense of privilege and demand, as if we are owed a good homily and an inspiring liturgy, without ever considering what a gift it is we’re given in our Eucharist, in this foreshadowing of the eternal wedding feast of the lamb. St. Augustine long ago remarked on this graciousness of God in the Eucharist: He wrote,

No one has his guests feed upon himself, and yet this is precisely what Christ our Lord does; though host, he himself is both food and drink. The martyrs recognized the food and drink they were given, in order to make repayment in kind.

To make repayment in kind. God gives Himself to us fully and completely. Are we prepared to give back to Him fully and completely?

In this feast God puts on the table before us, He doesn’t just give the best of what earth has to offer. He gives Himself! This is why scripture speaks of God’s relationship with Israel in terms of marriage, because God is giving us Himself completely and totally: body, blood, soul, and divinity!

But how do many of us respond to this invitation? How many of us look at coming to Mass as a chore? How many of us look at God’s gifts as our due? Our right? How many of us come to this altar, this banquet, without a wedding garment? Without being clothed with a proper sense of gratitude for everything—literally every thing—that God has given to us?

God invites all of us to the feast, but we have to be open to the gift and ready to celebrate appropriately.

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Fences: Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

boundary

Ezekiel 33:7–9; Romans 13:8–10; Matthew 18:15–20

So when I looked at the readings for this weekend, I immediately thought, “Oh this is going to be ONE OF THOSE homilies.” I will try to let the Holy Spirit do the talking for me, if you will let the Holy Spirit do the listening for you.

I want you to imagine a scenario. You are in a tall building that has a playground on the roof. It’s a great playground: swings, slides, things that kids can climb on and fall down and break arms and legs—just like in the old days. I apologize to all of you who are under 25 and have only encountered wood chips or the rubberized material on your playground floor. It really was much more fun when there was some adventure to it.

So it’s a great playground. You’re the person on duty to make sure the kids play safely. There’s just one problem. There’s no fence around the perimeter of the building. Get to running too far, too fast, and without paying attention, and someone will plunge over the side to their doom.

Look, don’t get mad at me. I didn’t design this thing.

Great playground, no boundaries, clear consequence for going too far. How long do you think it will take before the kids learn that playing safely is a sketchy proposition without a fence around the edges of the building? How free do you think they will be to play with the kind of abandon that real play requires? They’ll probably spend their recess huddling pretty close to the person who’s there to monitor safe play, and little actual play will get done.

So this is a pretty outrageous example, but it turns out that it has some purchase in the real world. Bishop Robert Barron mentioned in one of his many videos—it might’ve been in the Catholicism series or in one of his many Word on Fire videos—that school designers had studied the effects of open versus fenced playgrounds. As he explained, when a school’s playground had no fence, the children tended to huddle close to the buildings and play with restraint. Only when a clear boundary was established were the children free to play without fear, to run and chase each other, to fall off of jungle gyms, and bounce harmlessly off of the rubberized asphalt.

This was a 21st century school playground.

That’s the value of a boundary. It tells you where it’s safe to play and where the danger begins. Ask anyone who has skied off of a Black Diamond run and out of the boundary of a ski area which side of the boundary feels safer. If seeking danger is the intent, ignoring the boundaries is goal #1.

In our first reading, the Lord tells Ezekiel in no uncertain terms that he is responsible for the souls of people when he does not warn them of the dangers of their wickedness. “The wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” That sounds unjust to modern ears, where we consider someone else’s sins none of our business, so long as the sinner isn’t hurting anyone else.

“Who am I to judge?” is the new rallying cry of people who want Catholics to shut up about the moral teachings of the Church, based on a statement by Pope Francis. Never mind that the statement was taken completely out of context and also contradicts just about everything the Holy Father has ever uttered regarding Catholic moral teaching. The truth is that there is no such thing as purely personal sin. All sin is both personal and corporate—that is, it affects both the sinner and the whole community.

I want to interject here a realization I had just a few minutes ago as I was preparing for Mass. You might have heard people say, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” Well, that sort of misses the point. I am commanded to love you, and you, and you, individually. Jesus love me individually, and you individually, and that’s how we are supposed to love each other. And it’s really not that hard, as I tell people. Loving another doesn’t mean that we have warm and fuzzy feelings toward them. It simply means that we will what is truly good for another, even if they don’t know what that is. And I realized a few minutes ago, that when I will what is best for someone, I’m actually willing what is best for me and for everyone. And that is effortless. I can will what’s best for my worst enemy. So love, too, is corporate.

Now, it is true that we must not judge people’s hearts. None of us could possibly escape that judgment. We all fall short. We all fail. But that does not mean we should not identify sin for what it is. To do so is to fail in one of the primary spiritual works of mercy: admonishing the sinner. Yes, that’s right. It is a work of spiritual mercy to help people recognize when their actions are not in line with the truth, with the teachings of the faith—even the most unpopular teachings.

Why is it mercy rather than condemnation? Because it is merciful to tell people where the boundaries are, where the danger lies. If we allow people to run headlong into danger, we are not merciful. We can only call such attitudes callous. Yet that’s what people so often expect of Catholics. “Just shut up about your moral teachings. Stop judging.”

We celebrated a dubious anniversary a few weeks ago: the anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, absolutely one of the most controversial papal encyclicals of the modern era. When Pope Paul VI promulgated this letter, he was roundly castigated by the elite theologians of the US, Canada, and Europe. Many priests and theologians openly dissented, and many Catholics were told that the use of contraception was solely a matter of private judgment. But Pope Paul was not condemning anyone. He was warning of the danger. He was setting a boundary, as any good father should do. That is precisely what the Church does when it proposes moral teaching. It is setting a boundary—a fence, if you will—where it is safe to play on this fantastic playground that God has given us. And Pope Paul was right about so many of his predictions. Humanae Vitae is perhaps the most prophetic papal writing of the last 50 years. So like any other prophet, like Ezekiel, Pope Paul VI has been vilified.

But he, like anyone who teaches the moral doctrines of the Church without apology, does so out of love. When I preach about a moral danger to you—whether about sexual sin of any stripe or persuasion, or of greed, of ignoring the poor or the immigrant, or of any number of temptations we all face, I am warning you out of love, not out of a desire to condemn. When Jesus Himself admonished the Pharisees, it was out of love to help them see the boundaries clearly. When someone points out the fences to you, it is not to punish but to point out to you the boundary that is dangerous to cross.

Very few of us bother to correct others concerning sin these days. But sometimes it’s necessary to provide fraternal correction, to admonish the sinner, to warn our brothers and sisters of danger—spiritual or other. Always we should do so out of love: love the sinner, and hate the sin. Cardinal Robert Sarah recently said in an article in the Wall Street Journal that “to love someone as Christ loves us means to love that person in the truth.” We should always strive to love in the spirit of truth and serve truth in the spirit of love.

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A Still, Small Voice: Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time—Cycle A

1 Kings 19:9a, 10–13a; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:22–33

I used to be involved in an online discussion group where a fair number of former police officers participated, and the subject of de-escalation came up—that is, how to help people go from being really ready to doing something dangerous to talking them back into rational territory. My favorite tip was on how to talk to a loud drunk person. The trick is, apparently, to start speaking to them at a normal level—or maybe even a little louder to match their intensity—and then, assuming you have their full attention, to slowly get quieter. They then have to listen more carefully, and they slowly start to match your volume. That’s the game here. Get the person to match your level of intensity. You might have to start with someone whose intensity is off the charts, but by matching their intensity and then decreasing yours, you help talk them from being loud and obnoxious into being quiet and compliant.

I hear that some of you parents do the same with your children.

It struck me that perhaps this is what God was doing with Elijah at Mt. Horeb. The back story is that Elijah has run for over forty days and forty nights to escape from Queen Jezebel, who wants to destroy him—and reasonably so since he has had all of her idolatrous prophets put to death. But he’s the last of the prophets of the Lord of Israel and is certain that death is coming for him soon.

He’s fearful, and he does the only thing he can think of. He runs to the mountain of the Lord. He hides in the cave waiting for the Lord to come to him.

Which God does, as He always does. We like to imagine that God draws away from us, but it’s always our initiative to move away. God is always there, but we close ourselves off from Him. He has to pull out all the stops to get to us. And make no mistake about it, God will pull out all the stops.

That’s what we see here with Elijah. First the wind rending the mountain, then the earthquake, then the fire. But Elijah did not hear the Lord in wind, earthquake, or fire. Only in the whisper does Elijah hear the Lord. Now, I prefer the translation in the Revised Standard Version of the bible: Rather than a whisper, as in our New American Bible translation, the RSV says “a still, small voice.”

A still, small voice. To me, that has a different character than a whisper. A still voice has a ring to it, while a whisper sort of blows away with the breeze. So that’s my pick: the still, small voice.

So do you think the Lord is not present in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire? Perhaps He wasn’t. But maybe He was present in all those forms… maybe God was there all along, but not in a way that Elijah could approach. Perhaps the Lord had to come to Elijah in ever smaller, more humble forms before Elijah could hear Him—before Elijah could even stand before Him.

I know in my own life that it is not always the big events, the big noises or disruptions, that the Lord uses to get my attention. He often has to use the still, small voice to get my attention—like the police officer speaking to the drunk, or the parent bringing the intensity of the child’s emotions down to a place where real communication can happen. That’s what the Lord does to us: talks us down from our emotional upheavals to a place where we can actually hear what He’s saying to us. Maybe that’s why He came to us as a small child rather than in all of His glory.

Think of Peter, too, in our gospel reading. First the apostles see Jesus walking to them on the water, and they think He’s a ghost. He doesn’t say, “I am no mere ghost! I am the Lord, the Almighty and powerful God!”

No. He says, “Take courage. It is I”—in effect, “Relax, guys, it’s just me.”

What happens next? Peter tests him. “If it’s you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water”—in effect, “If it’s really you, Lord….”

Is it that Peter denies Jesus’ power? Not exactly. He and the other apostles have just seen Jesus feed 5000 men plus women and children from five loaves and two fish.

He doesn’t deny Jesus’ power.

He denies Jesus’ presence.

He won’t believe a mere apparition, in a vision only, but if that vision can make him walk on water, he’ll believe.

But even then, even when he now knows Jesus’ is right there, he falters. He has everything right there that he needs to be secure… except for complete faith.

That’s our story right there. That’s us. That is why Peter is such a great example for us and a great choice to be the leader of the Twelve. Jesus calls Peter “rock,” and I don’t think it’s because Peter had rock-hard abs or biceps. It took Peter a few tries before he really understood, before Jesus got through his rock-hard head.

Jesus knows us so well. He knows that most of us have to encounter Him in ways that are basic to human experience: in the still, small voice; in the cry of an infant in a manger; in a hand reaching out to help us when we stumble. That’s why we have Jesus here with us in the Word of God, why we celebrate His presence in the Eucharist, and why we reserve Him in the tabernacle for the sick and for adoration. That’s why Jesus gave the Church sacraments of matter.

Because if Jesus left us here with no sensible means of His presence—no physical, material reminder of Him—we would always be fleeing to some Mt. Horeb somewhere trying to find Him.

But He’s right here… in that still, small voice

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Yoke Yourself to Him—Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

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Zechariah 9:9–10; Romans 8:9, 11–13; Matthew 11:25–30

My oldest granddaughter, Kennady, has always had a sense for or awareness of the mystical. When she was around 4, Gina was reading to her for the first time from a book of saints for girls. She listened with rapt attention to the stories of St. Clare and St. Thérèse, but when Gina came to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Kennady said something rather odd. St. Frances was an Italian-American religious who came to the US and started hospitals, schools, and orphanages and spent her life in service to the sick and poor. Our granddaughter took one look at St. Frances and said, “Oh, she’s my nurse!”

To this day, we have no idea where that recognition came from, or how she came to connect St. Frances to nursing.

Children, though, seem to have a knack for faith in the Divine. When I was a child, I accepted my parents’ faith wholly and completely, and I loved the stories of Christ, the saints, and the people of the Old Testament. It wasn’t until I grew to the wise old age of 13 that I began to question it and, eventually at 17, to leave the faith. It’s not uncommon for adolescents to begin to assert their own will and put their mind to use, and they become too wise too soon. Children have an openness to faith that adolescents and adults often do not.

I like to think that these little ones are who Jesus speaks about in the Gospel reading today. He says, “although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.” In Matthew 18:4, he says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

But notice that Jesus isn’t speaking to children. He speaks to his disciples. He calls them his “little ones” and encourages them to seek with a childlike faith. Jesus is comparing those who humble themselves and who trust in Him and His teaching to children, in contrast to those who trust in the wisdom of the world—the proud, the haughty, the jaded.

Now Jesus isn’t asking His disciples to do something He’s not willing to do. As the reading closes, Jesus says, ” Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Just the opposite of proud and haughty—meek and humble.

That word “meek” gives us a link back to our first reading from the Book of Zechariah: “a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

This passage might remind you of the gospel readings from Palm Sunday, in which all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have Jesus instructing two disciples to go to Bethphage and to retrieve a colt and bring it back to him, which He then rides triumphantly into Jerusalem. Clearly, you can see the parallel that the gospel writers set up here with this passage from Zechariah: “O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Matthew even quotes this same passage, and admittedly goes a bit overboard with the parallel, having Jesus enter into Jerusalem on the back of both the donkey and its foal. The three evangelists were all clamoring to make the same point. This is the one! The anointed! The messiah!

But the Jews of the time were expecting someone more obvious, someone with power and stature. They expected a mighty king, a military savior—maybe coming on a war horse—or at very least a mighty… war donkey*. But that’s not who Zechariah says is coming here. Not a mighty warrior, but a just savior, meek and riding on a colt. You can see, then, how a highly educated scribe, a scholar of the law, a Pharisee, a priest, or a member of the Sanhedrin, might look at this man entering Jerusalem on the back of a colt and have some doubts. How will this man riding on a donkey save us?

Jesus counsels his disciples to look with different eyes, with a different heart, with simplicity and humility. And He comes to us in simplicity and humility—as an infant in a manger, on the back of a donkey, in the simple offering of bread and wine—and He transforms us into something greater. But we can’t be transformed if we are already too full of ourselves and our own accomplishment. How can we recognize our need for transformation if we come in pride? How can we hear simple wisdom if we are too full of the wisdom of the world? Usually, it’s those moments in which the wisdom of the world fails us so badly that we recognize our need for a savior.

I like to share a prayer that was written by Thomas Merton. It’s often called the Seeker’s prayer. It goes like this:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

That’s what Jesus means when He says we need to seek Him with humble and childlike faith. He comes humble and meek to offer Himself to us and to lead us to the Father. When we humble ourselves and come to Jesus meekly and say, “I do not know the way,” Jesus answers back, “Yoke yourself to me, and I’ll show you.”

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Most Holy Trinity—Cycle A

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Exodus 34:4b–6; 2 Cor. 13:11–13; John 3:16–18

God in the Most Holy Trinity is pure mystery. How three are also one, how Father begets Son and through Son, how the Holy Spirit proceeds—this is a mystery. We have these technical terms in our dogmatic theology to describe the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit, but it all points to the mystery that is God. Today we celebrate this mystery that is at the core of our faith.

There’s a pious legend about St. Augustine and the Trinity. It has no basis in anything Augustine wrote and appears to originate during the 15th century. St. Augustine is walking along a beach on the Mediterranean Sea, and he’s trying to wrap his head around the the Holy Trinity—the headiest of all Christian mysteries, no pun intended. He comes upon a little boy, who is scooping up water from the sea with a shell, and then carrying it over to a hole he has dug in the sand and dumping it in. Augustine asks him, “what are you doing?

The boy answers, “I’m going to pour the whole sea into this hole.”

Augustine shakes his head and says, “Son, that is impossible. It’s futile to even try.”

And the boy responds, “It’s no more futile than you trying to get the mystery of the Trinity into your head.” And with that, the boy, who is actually an angel, disappears.

The whole point of a mystery is to be mysterious. If we could comprehend it, it wouldn’t be a mystery, and it would be too small to be God. That, too, is a realization that Augustine came to in his theological reflections: if you understand it, it’s not God.

This notion is illustrated in the Hebrew scripture as well. In the first reading from Exodus, the Lord descends to Moses on Mt. Sinai and proclaims His name: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious…”

Now, this passage raises no questions for us in the English translation. That’s the way it is with scripture. The English translation seems so simple, but when you know the source language , the mystery deepens. That’s the case here, because where we say “the Lord, the Lord,” the Jewish reader reads “Adonai, Adonai,” which means the same thing. But that’s not what actually appears in Hebrew text. The Hebrew text uses the root for God’s actual name. We sometimes see it rendered as Yahweh or Jehovah, but no one really knows how it’s pronounced. So the Jewish people have accepted this mystery and instead always substituted either the word Adonai or the word HaShem—the name—wherever they see this four-letter root.

That’s the essence of mystery. Over-think it or over-define it, and you empty it of its power. This is a charge that many Eastern Rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox often make of Latin Rite Catholics and our scholastic tradition. The Most Holy Trinity is one of the greatest of these mysteries, along with the Holy Eucharist. We can come up with theological formulas and terminology and fine, hair-splitting arguments and logical proofs, but when it comes down to truth, we are speechless in the face of mystery. And the Most Holy Trinity is a tremendous mystery.

I love the closing doxology in St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Note that we often hear this in the opening greeting at Mass: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” What I love about it is that it captures particular elements of this Trinitarian mystery so well: the gift of grace that we receive by our Lord’s sacrificial act, the love of the Father through the Son that leads to the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the communion we have because of this love, this active principle in the Triune God. It’s such a concise summation of the Trinity’s action. I love that we preserve it in our liturgy.

The reading from the gospel of John is another of those simple formulations of the evangelion, the good news. When we talk about evangelization or sharing the gospel, we’re referring back to this word evangelion that was in the original Greek of the written gospels. John gets right to the point: God the Father so loved the world—that is, all of creation—so much, that even as broken as it was, He extended reparation and salvation through the death of His son. John is telling us that the Divine Physician makes house calls. We fall from God, and He comes to rescue us—to save us. Jesus’ name actually reflects this fact, as it literally means in Hebrew, “God’s salvation.”

Now it’s common for people to dismiss the hard truths of Catholic doctrine about sin and to focus only on God’s mercy. Certainly we must trust in God’s mercy because it is ultimately how we are redeemed and saved. But we must not forget that justice and mercy are a package deal. If there were no Divine justice, there would be no need for God’s mercy. The blessing here is that God makes His mercy available to anyone. Jesus did not come to condemn, as John writes, but that the world might be saved through Him.  So what condemns us if it is not Jesus, whom the Father has appointed as judge over Heaven and Earth?

The truth is that we condemn ourselves. We do it in our everyday actions, when we choose what we will over God’s will, when we dismiss the needs of others because of our unnecessary wants, when we turn our backs on the truth and the right and the moral because it is scary or inconvenient. It’s either our will or God’s will, and if we choose self over God, we condemn ourselves to our own will, and He will let us have what we choose.

God is the greatest good, but we are so often distracted by lesser goods and even by things that aren’t good at all. And we all do this. In a few minutes, we will commune with the greatest good on this altar, but how often do we slouch to this altar begrudgingly? How often do we look on our religious obligation as a chore? God offers us the greatest good—Himself—for our salvation, and we only have ourselves to blame if we turn away from Him. But His mercy is available to us if we turn and embrace it.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

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