Let’s Stop Being Stupid—Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34

Our first reading from Isaiah follows several chapters of Isaiah’s promises of deliverance to King Hezekiah and the words that the Lord has spoken about the Assyrian invaders. Now, the Lord speaks directly to Isaiah and makes him a promise—that he will raise him up to be a light to all nations, to restore not only Israel but all the nations. The despair and disbelief that the tribes of Jacob had once exhibited were reversed due to King Hezekiah’s faith and his prayers to the Lord. Isaiah communicates Judah’s deliverance. And now the Lord says, “But wait, there’s more!” Isaiah is not just a light to the tribes of Judah but to all nations. And his prophecies are a light. They’re the most frequently cited prophecies in the New Testament, and they all point to Jesus Christ.

Like Isaiah, St. Paul is called to be an apostle by the will of God. What is an apostle? One who is sent to deliver a message, and in this case, a message of good news—evangelion. We didn’t see the good news that Isaiah took to the tribes of Jacob, but that was his mission as well. Isaiah was a pre-Christian apostle, one sent by God to be a light to Israel and to the nations. There would be more lights: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many more. And then there would be those lights who followed Christ Himself: the Apostles and St. Paul.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was just one of several epistles he wrote to that church—scholars believe there were four in total but only two exist in our possession. Now Paul’s letters—especially to the Corinthians—often followed this outline:

·        Grace and peace to you

·        I thank God when I remember you

·        Hold fast to the Gospel

·        For the love of everything holy, stop being stupid

·        Oh, and Timothy says hi

I have to credit the hive mind of the internet for that joke, but it is spot on. And as it happens, his letters would not be the last to follow this outline. Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians follows the same outline. St. Clement of Rome was the third successor to St. Peter as bishop of Rome and one of the Apostolic Fathers. Definitely look him up if you’re interested in what the early Church taught.

St. Paul’s letters can sometime be complex and difficult to understand, as even St. Peter acknowledges in 2 Peter 3:16. But in this introduction to First Corinthians, he is absolutely clear in the expectation he sets for the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”

St. Paul is saying, “You are sanctified in Christ and called to be holy along with all who confess Jesus as Lord.” And that’s my message to you. You are called to be holy. Holiness is not a calling to clergy and religious alone. All of us are called to holiness. So for the love of everything holy… let’s stop being stupid, and start being holy.

            Now, of course, I’m just riffing on that internet meme, but we as the Church aren’t stellar in how we pass on the faith. The latest polls on religion in the US show a dramatic increase in people who identify themselves as “none” (having no religious affiliation). The latest polls specifically on Catholics in the US show that only a minority believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. These failures are not because the information isn’t available. These failures are due to the lack of lights shining. Evangelism isn’t just a light for gentiles. It’s a light for those who have forgotten and for those who have not been taught properly. Evangelism is the obligation of every Christian, especially to nonbelievers.

Are we being light to an unbelieving world?

            In our gospel reading, we get another revelation of Christ to the world. Recall last Sunday the Feast of the Epiphany, which was the revelation of Christ the King to the Gentiles. And immediately on the heels of that Feast we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, which was the revelation of Jesus to the Jews. All of this we get within this period which the Church has long called Christmastide, which extends from the Christmas Vigil until Candlemas, which we also call the Feast of the Presentation. The whole Christmas season is a celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world.

            Now, this passage has a lot of information to unpack, but I want to note how John the Baptist identifies Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” To grasp what John is communicating here requires us to look at other passages in scripture that use the figure of the lamb. First and foremost, we can look to Exodus 12, where the Lord tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the Hebrews to sacrifice a year-old male lamb and to take some of the blood and put it on the lintels of their doors. This is the paschal lamb to which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 5:7. Both of these images align with Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter[.]” And while there are many other parallels, I will leave you with this last from Revelation 5:7: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth[.]”

            Wow. You see, if you study scripture with a guide, if you pay attention to those footnotes with all of the cross references, and if you read with an eye toward recognizing the patterns and figures in scripture, you get a lot! It also really helps if you study a little Greek and Hebrew so you can dig deeper. That said, I know a lot of us don’t have the time, but we can benefit from the knowledge of others, so seek out good bible studies, commentaries, and teachers.

So Jesus is the paschal lamb, which is a sacrifice. Jesus’ paschal sacrifice is what the Church celebrates in the Passion at the Sacred Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. And a sacrifice not only has to die, it has to be eaten. Jesus becomes our food, our sustenance, and we in turn become what we eat. We become through communion the Body of Christ.

And a sacrifice is nothing if it is not also holy. Jesus is the summit of all holiness and the true light of the nations. With the dawn of the light comes a call to follow after Him, just as Jesus called His disciples to follow Him. What does it mean to follow Him? Does it not also mean to become as He is? Just as our communion changes us, to follow Him is to be changed into Him in some radical sense. And we do that by becoming the light as he is the light.

So I’ll ask you again, are we being light in an unbelieving world? Are we radiating that love Jesus radiated to the poor and hungry, the sinners and tax collectors? When we receive this Eucharist, it should change us and make us more like Him, but do we do what He did?

I must acknowledge that I am not always radiating that light as He did. I’m not always being Jesus to my neighbor, as much as I want to. But that’s what the call to follow means. We have to take what we receive here and take it to those who otherwise will not see and will not hear it. That is the mission of the Church, and that is the mission into which each of us is baptized. We have to be a light to the nation in which we find ourselves.

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The God of Reversals—Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle A)

Isaiah 35:1–6a, 10; James 5:7–10; Matthew 11:2–11

            This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin Introit for today’s Mass from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We rejoice because we anticipate the coming of our Savior. Advent is about anticipation. We are waiting for the coming of Jesus, not once but twice. First, we await His coming in human history, in the Incarnation. He who existed from the beginning with the Father as God became incarnate and became a human being, at a singular point of time in history.

Second, we await His final coming at the final judgment. For both of these events we rejoice. It’s typical to see these as two separate events. We have the Incarnation of the Son of God in the world, and a few millennia later we have the Son of God coming on the clouds to judge the nations, an event that we call the Parousia or the second coming. But this isn’t how we reckon time in salvation history. Instead, how the Church and the Jews before us reckoned such events was not as separate and disconnected events but as a single continuous reality: not as individual events but as instances connected by a single thread.

            The Passover that the Jews celebrated has always been seen as a single event entered into annually by the people of Israel, like time pausing while the people of Israel return in the timelessness of eternity that is ever present in God’s mind. The Eucharist is our own celebration, a fulfillment of the Passover and the Todah (or thanksgiving) offerings in the temple, but now an eternal offering: one that took place at the Last Supper, and which also takes place simultaneously here on this altar and in eternity as the wedding feast of the Lamb.

            Advent is the same. We have two events separated by time, but the first is the precursor to or initiation of the last. Christ’s incarnation is necessarily joined to His coming again. His coming into the world instigated a continuous process that will be complete when He comes again. Advent is a period in which our spiritual lives are in a kind of animated suspension: suspended between the incarnation and the Parousia, the second coming. Our word Advent comes from the Latin present participle adventus, which means “coming.” Jesus is coming now, and Jesus is coming in the end. And we get to wrap our heads around how this is one and same experience is symbolized by a great light coming in the darkness. This is what the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath represents today—the light of dawn as it appears in the morning sky. Part of the joy of Advent is this weird experience of being suspended in this state of light dawning in darkness, the dawn of a new eternal day.

            The second reading perhaps captures this sense of anticipation best. James writes to believers in what he refers to as the “twelve tribes in the dispersion.” This language is usually used to speak of the People of Israel, but James is specifically addressing Jewish Christians in the diaspora, as many Christians of the times were Jewish. He is telling them to be patient. They are experiencing a time of trial, but the Judge is waiting and will soon come to set things right. The prophets repeat this message constantly throughout the Old Testament, and James is doing the same. Yes, times are bad, but God will change it back. God will reverse our misfortune.

Jesus Christ is the God of reversals. And our readings this week highlight this point. Our reading from Isaiah proclaims,

Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with Divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.

Isaiah anticipates that the just Judge will reverse the injustice and misery of the people. Recall that our first parents in Eden lived in original justice and suffered from none of the maladies which the rest of us do now… until the fall. They are deceived into thinking that God is holding out, and they try to take matters into their own hands. Their disobedience introduces suffering into the world. But even before they exit the garden, God the Father has already pointed the way forward to a remedy, to His vindication:

Then the LORD God said to the snake: Because you have done this, cursed are you among all the animals, tame or wild; On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.

Even as God explains the consequences of their actions to Adam and the Woman even as He explains the consequences to them, he announces that there is a plan for reversing this calamity: the seed of the woman. They will strike at your head.” Mother and son will both strike at the head of the serpent. That is one interpretation, at least. Other translations say he or she. Either way, God has a plan, and the Son is its fulfillment.

            These reversals show up in small ways throughout Genesis and in the historical writings: Hagar and Sarah, Leah and Rachel, Peninnah and Hannah. If you read Hanna’s song in First Samuel 2, you might notice that it sounds an awful lot like the Magnificat, Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–45: The beginning of Hannah’s song is,

My heart rejoices in the Lord;
My [a]horn is exalted in the Lord,

The beginning of the Magnificat is

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
My spirit is exalted in my savior.

And then each repeats a very similar list of reversals in fortune. Isaiah also picks up on the theme of reversals. He predicts that the just judge will vindicate and save the people. And then he gives all the signs of that vindication: the blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk; and the mute speak.

            Remember, all these ill effects are consequences of the disobedience of Adam and Ishah (אבה) which is the Hebrew word for woman, which is her original name—she doesn’t get the name Eve until after the incident. Everything that Isaiah proposes is an undoing of the effects of our first parents’ disobedience. Everything that Hannah and the Blessed Mother proclaim is an undoing of the loss of original justice, which was the state of Adam and Eve before the fall.

            John the Baptist reflects the same hope, the same desire, when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the one. I frankly wonder if John, who is in prison at this point, is doing this for his own benefit or whether he is trying to nudge his remaining disciples to follow Jesus. I suspect it’s the latter. And Jesus responds by pointing to the reversals taking place in their midst: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” All of the reversals proclaimed by Isaiah and then some. He goes beyond all our hopes.

            All these signs reiterate James’ message to the dispersion: Be patient. Our vindication is coming. They are all signs of the hope of Israel, and signs that point forward to our hope. Jesus is the God of reversals. He undoes the disobedience of Adam; he unties the knot of original sin that binds us. He undoes the wound from which we suffer collectively—our country, our community, and our world. He alone undoes this collective suffering.

Here’s your homework for the next two weeks: what more does He need to reverse and unbind in your life? All of us have those wounds, those weaknesses, those bad habits and attachments that weigh us down and bind us to this world. What in your life does Jesus need to unbind and reverse? Once you have identified those wounds, weaknesses, habits, and attachments, take them to confession. It’s the best medicine for our failings because absolution comes straight from the hands of Jesus.

            The hope of Advent is to be released from our own failings, from our anxieties, from our sorrow. That is the dawning light. Sometimes we can successfully paper over our brokenness, hide it, and forget that it’s there. We can fill our lives with noise, wealth, parties, and busyness—but that ends. That leaves us in a short time, and the emptiness is still there.

            But He can come and unbind us. He can come and remove our brokenness. God has no intention of letting us go, of letting us fail, of letting us remain in our brokenness. He continues to carve out paths where we build walls. With every wall we throw up, He provides a gate. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He is the dawn of the darkness we celebrate today.

Reconcile—28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

2 Kings 5:14–17; 2 Timothy 2:8–13; Luke 17:11–19

            “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” You might’ve heard that adage before, but you might be surprised who said it first. It’s not from scripture, and it’s not a particularly Catholic sentiment. It was John Wesley, the founder of Wesleyan Methodism, who said this in a homily back sometime in the 1700s. As I said, it’s not exactly what the Church teaches, but it’s at least better than what American sage Glenn Yarbrough of the Limeliters used to teach: “Clean mind, clean body, take your pick.”

            But whether or not cleanliness has any relationship with godliness, it has its benefits. It feels good to be clean. It feels good after we’ve worked hard and we can go get a shower. It feels good when we can take off our work clothes and change into something clean. Cleanliness feels good. Gina tells me that my stepson Caleb actually used to cry when he got messy, and we saw that son was like father when our grandson ate his first birthday cake in the normal toddler fashion. Then, looking at his hands completely covered with chocolate frosting, he burst into tears. Like father, like son.

            But sometimes our need for cleansing goes beyond the superficial removal of dirt from the surface. We need a miraculous intervention. In the passage from 2 Kings, Na’aman is suffering from leprosy—a horrible and contagious affliction that made people outcastes in their communities and often resulted in disfiguring lesions and infections.

            He hears of a prophet in Samaria. He goes to this prophet Elisha, who tells him to go dip himself in the Jordan seven times. Na’aman is not happy. He’s thinking, “I came all this way for you to tell me to take a bath in the Jordan?” But with some prompting from his servant, he does it, and his leprosy is gone. His skin is restored. Note that he is not merely healed—not with rough patches and scars as someone who has been treated by a physician. His skin is restored like that of an infant. This is proof to him that this God of Israel is worthy of his gratitude and his worship. Now, back then, gods were thought to be tied to a specific land. Na’aman wants to take some of Israel’s soil back with him to Syria so he can build an altar on it and continue to make thanksgiving sacrifices to the God of Israel.

            In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, ten lepers approach Jesus as He enters a village. They cannot enter the village because of their affliction, but they call to Jesus from a distance and beg for His mercy. Jesus freely gives it and sends them to fulfill the requirements of the Jewish law so that they will be readmitted into the community. Notice that Jesus tells them simply to do what the law requires, and they trust Him and go, being cleansed on the way. That much is simple enough. But one of the lepers realizes he has been healed. One grasps that he is healed not just because Jesus sends them to the priests, but because he experiences that he has been cleansed. And experiencing that renewal, like Na’aman, he runs back and in gratitude falls at Jesus’ feet. This man is a Samaritan. And Na’aman isn’t exactly a friend of Israel either. He’s a Syrian—a conqueror. He learns about Elisha from a slave taken from the land of the Israelites. Essentially, they’re both traditional enemies of Israel. God heals them nonetheless.

            Notice here sort of a reversal between the two readings. At first, Na’aman is appalled at Elisha’s command. How can dipping himself in the Jordan seven times cure him? Yet it does. The mere action heals him, and he comes to belief. In the gospel, the ten accept that if they follow the prescripts of the Law, the priests will find them clean. The only one who returns to thank Jesus is one who is not subject to the Law of Moses, a Samaritan. The Jews know what the Law requires, but the Samaritan recognizes the Divine intervention in his healing. In the reading from 2 Kings, Na’aman is reluctant to trust because the offer seems too good to be true. In the Gospel, the ten lepers, minus the Samaritan, just seem to think it’s a simple matter of adherence to the form.

            Both of these extremes seem to be how many of us approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation—that is, the Sacrament of Confession. On one side, some believe that the action of confessing to a priest couldn’t possibly actually cleanse us of sin. Why do I have to confess to a priest? That’s just a law of men. I should be able to confess directly to God.

            On the other end of the spectrum are those who think that adherence to the law does all the work. Some people seek the sacrament of reconciliation regularly, but they make little attempt to remedy the source of their sinfulness—their sinful attitudes and habits. They use the sacrament as a get-out-of-jail-free card rather than as a sacrament of true reconciliation and healing—one that can draw us truly closer to God.

            Both of these approaches to the Sacrament of Reconciliation are wrongheaded because neither of them acknowledges the gratuitousness of God’s gift to us—like Na’aman and like the repentant leper. Forgiveness is pure gift! We can’t deserve it or earn it. That’s why we use the term grace to describe God’s action in our lives. The word Gratia in Latin—which we translate as grace—is God’s favor to us, and He gives it freely.

            Now I want to talk about the Sacrament of Reconciliation in more practical terms. I see the lines in a number of churches locally on Saturday, and I’m happy to see that they are busy. We often have enough people here at St. John’s to keep two priests busy from 3:00 to 4:30, which is our allotted time for the sacrament on Saturdays, and we also offer it on Wednesdays after noon mass, and on first Fridays after morning mass. But frankly, not enough of us take advantage of this beautiful sacrament. And some of us fail to do so when we are obligated. If we are conscious of a mortal sin on our souls, the Sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is an obligation before we present ourselves for communion. We must be reconciled to God through confession. That is what the sacrament is about—forgiveness of sins, yes, but also reconciliation with God and with each other in the Church. You may not realize this, but spiritually, when you or I sin, we harm the Body of Christ. All sin is communal. There is no private sin. So our reconciliation is both with God and with each other.

            If you haven’t sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation recently, I encourage you to do so soon. And if you haven’t confessed in years, you can always make an appointment. If you have a smart phone, you can download an app like Laudate which can help you make a good examination of conscience. Remember, one of the precepts of the Church is that we as Catholics will confess our sins at least once a year if we have any serious sins on our conscience. If we have a serious sin on our conscience, we should also not receive the Eucharist until we have confessed. These are the teachings of the Church, and they’re not meant as punishment but are intended to bring us to healing and reconciliation, so that when we come to this altar and offer ourselves with Christ, we will make a worthy offering.

The prodigal Father—24th Sunday for Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Exodus 32:7–11, 13–14; 1 Timothy 1:12–17; Luke 15:1–32

            I had a rosary that was given to me by a friend who took up making rosaries after he came into the Church. When I came back and was confirmed, he made this one for me. I treasured it because of the love with which he made it, but unfortunately, I lost it. It wasn’t until about the time I was in diaconal formation that I recognized the image on the center medal above the crucifix. I walked into the parish office one day, back when it was in what is now the Riffle Center, and I came face-to-face with a print in the reception area. I thought, “Wait, that looks familiar.” It was a print of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. And that is the same image that was on the center medal of my rosary. It was a fitting image for my rosary, as I was once as lost as the prodigal son. That’s my story.

            The reading today from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy is a recognition of Paul’s own story, and while he didn’t squander his patrimony like the younger son, his story still bears a resemblance, but in reverse. He plays both parts in this letter. First, he is the older brother judging the younger—the one who would persecute the guilty rather than exercise mercy. Then he recognizes his own deep need for God’s mercy and becomes, in the same passage, the younger brother. I can also see myself in both brothers.

Now, some scripture scholars suggest that the title of this parable we call the Prodigal Son is misnamed. Fr. Marie-Josef Lagrange, a Spanish Dominican who was the founder of a school of scripture in Jerusalem, said that the parable should be titled the Prodigal Father because he is recklessly generous or prodigious with his love. Ultimately, this gospel reading is about God’s unrelenting mercy, His unwillingness to stop seeking us—because that’s really what’s happening in our conversion. God is pursuing us. We might think we’re seeking Him first, but our impulse is always because God compels us, and our effort is always a fraction of the effort of God’s as He tries to break through to us. The painting by Michelangelo, the Creation of Adam, of God reaching out to Adam represents this so well! God is stretching out to reach Adam, but Adam lounges and raises a limp hand in response. I’ve also seen a parody of this image where Adam is looking at his smart phone and raises his hand this way (finger pointing up indicating, “just a sec”). If you have an opportunity to search on the original image, take note of the gift that God has for Adam under His left arm. A hint—she is taken from Adam’s side. God is reckless in His love for us. He loves us in abandon, always seeks to call us back to Him, and wants to give us the greatest blessings.

Consider the first two parables from the gospel today—how the shepherd and the woman in the house both go rather overboard in response to finding the sheep or finding the coin. That’s what Jesus is saying to us: God’s joy at bringing us back is so completely different than how we expect Him to respond—that is, we and the Pharisees and scribes to whom Jesus speaks. Why go out and risk your own safety to save a single sheep? Why waste so much energy on a day’s wage? And why would you expect us to be joyful about another who takes such trouble? They saw these small victories as unimportant and inconsequential because of the human value of the items—not the spiritual value. Maybe that sheep was an unblemished lamb that could be used to make atonement at the temple? Maybe that lost denarius was what kept that woman, perhaps a widow, from starvation? Or maybe she intended to use it for someone poorer than her? Who would know that or include these factors in their valuation? But, of course, God does. He alone understands what is at stake and what people suffer or how they sacrifice.

            Let’s talk about the lost son here a bit more in our parable. He asks his father to give him what will come to him—his inheritance, which would usually only come to him after the father’s death. What is he saying to his father? In the extreme, he’s implying, “You are dead to me.” He is throwing off the shackles of his obligation to his father, and the wealth of his father is more important to him than his relationship to his father. The father could simply refuse, but that’s not what the father does. Instead, he gives the son what he desires. Why? Because his love for his son outweighs his desire for what he justly deserves.

            And when his son returns and repents, the father welcomes him back joyously and generously, holding nothing back. His son was lost but now he is found—dead but now alive. The younger son has been looking in the wrong direction for fulfillment, but he has come to the recognition that he is lost. That was me. That might’ve been you at some point. And that is probably many of our children right now. They’ve listened to the directives of the world, and it has pointed them in the wrong direction. At some point, they may come to that realization that they are lost, God willing. We pray that all of them will realize that.

            What about the sons’ motivations in this parable? We often think of our obligation to God solely in terms of obedience and submission, and that often leads us astray. First, let’s consider the younger son’s request: give me my share of the inheritance. He’s not asking. He’s demanding. The father has every right to say no and even to respond more harshly… but he doesn’t. He responds with forbearance. He gives the son what he wants. Why does the son make this request? Well, why do any young people take all they have and leave to do their own thing? They often chafe under the discipline of their parents. They believe themselves to be bound and enslaved by their parents’ expectations. So, in leaving, he believes that he is throwing off the yoke of slavery. But he later finds that his poor choices have led more completely to his enslavement.

            What about the other brother? When he complains to the father that he hasn’t even received a goat in compensation to celebrate with his friends, he sees his relationship with his father as servant rather than son and expects to be paid or rewarded for his performance. Now, of course, he has lived off his father’s estate and benefited from his father’s success. He doesn’t resent that. He resents the father’s generosity that goes beyond reward for service. Both sons are in wrong relationship to their father. Both see themselves in conflict or crossheads, seeking to gain something that the father is reluctant or unwilling to give. But this isn’t the father’s desire! The father loves his sons and would do everything for them. But the feeling is not reciprocated. The sons’ understanding of relationship is skewed and distorted, so they can’t see what the father really wants to give them.

            And so it is with our relationship with God. When we treat God as if He should give us gain in exchange for our works, we’re workers, not sons and daughters. When we obey out of fear rather than love, we’re slaves, not sons and daughters. Cornelius à Lapide put it this way: “If we serve God and follow virtue in hope of worldly gain, we are hirelings; if from fear, slaves; if from love, sons.”

            God uses every attempt He can to reach us. Often He uses means that put discord into our lives, and other times by shocking us with His beauty. St. Augustine captured this in his Confessions when he spoke of us own conversion in one of my favorite and one of the most beautiful passages in western literature:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

We create these walls—the ones that trap us in lives of dissolution, the ones that land us in pig sties hungering for slop, the ones that cause us to cling to hunks of metal rather than real relationship. And God still tries to break through to us. That is that unrelenting mercy and generosity of the Father to His children.

            Tomorrow marks the twenty-first anniversary of the 9/11 attack. For a brief time, our country experienced a singular moment of unity. Whatever unity we had then has long faded. And now we have the conflict in Ukraine and the unjust invasion of Russia. While unjust aggression cannot go unanswered, we need to remember that the ultimate solution to the conflict in our world is not in our actions and works but in our trust and faith in the generous Father who calls us ever back to Him. If all Catholics truly turned to Him and sought His will, the world would be a much different place. Our hearts will be restless until we rest in Him.

Your Neighbor as Yourself—Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

Deut. 30:10–14; Col. 1:15–20; Luke 10:25–37

What does God expect from us? What puts us in right relationship with God? When we talk about being right with God, ultimately, that’s what we mean. But what does being right with God entail? Jesus outlines the two fundamental principles that put us in right relationship. Ultimately all commandments from our Lord come down to two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

In the gospel reading today, a scribe or scholar of the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks Him what is written in the Law, and the scribe responds by paraphrasing Deuteronomy 6:4, a most cherished passage from Hebrew scripture called the Shema:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In Luke, the scribe says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” The scribe also adds to this commandment that you must love, “your neighbor as yourself.” This part of his response comes not from Deuteronomy but Leviticus 19:17-18, which commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, and from Leviticus 19:33-34, which says that one must also love the stranger in our midst as ourself. Your neighbor, then, is the stranger in your midst. So if there is a litmus test for the people you love that excludes the stranger among you, you are “loving your neighbor” in an un-biblical way. Or you are simply not loving your neighbor.

In our first reading from Deuteronomy 30, Moses is pointing the People of Israel back to the book of the law and entreating them to listen to the voice of the Lord and obey His commandments. But this command is not just something in the written word:

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.

The good that God wills of us is not a mystery. We recognize it innately. In Catholic moral tradition, we have a name for this idea that the law resides in our hearts: natural law. It’s the foundation of Catholic moral teaching. It’s the reason why the Ten Commandments look so much like the moral codes of other ancient civilizations.

And why this similarity exists is simple. We all recognize the desire to be treated with compassion. We know the good that we want to happen to us, and we reasonably expect others to treat us in that spirit. We know the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the Talmuds, the two commentaries on the Torah, we usually see this proposed in the negative: don’t do to others what would be odious to you. We recognize compassion and malevolence, and our natural sense of justice gravitates toward compassion unless punishment is warranted. So we shouldn’t do what we don’t want done to us.

At the same time, we are warring against the perversity in our hearts that wants to deny others their rights or wants to exalt our desires above the rights of others. Greed impels us to lay claim to what belongs to someone else, or maybe we simply horde what we have when others are in immediate need. Our insecurities can put us on the path of injustice. It can take many forms, and one form is simply to withhold assistance when we have a surplus. St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, had this to say:

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

Now, I don’t think St. Basil is condemning anyone for planning for the future. But he is indicting those who would allow others to suffer want when they have the means to address it. That’s our theme today. Do what’s right when you see it. Do what is just when it needs to be addressed. You have the law written on your heart, so follow it!

            The setting for Jesus’ parable in this gospel reading today underscores that fact. A man coming down from Jerusalem is waylaid, beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road to Jericho—a notoriously dangerous stretch of road during that time. The need to make the path of the Lord straight becomes all the clearer if you have ever visited the Holy Land. There is no straight and easy path to Jerusalem.

Jesus tells us first that a priest walks down the same road, and seeing the man left for dead, he crosses to the other side to continue his journey. Then a Levite does the same. Some commentaries make the case that the priest and Levite are on their way to Jerusalem to serve in the temple and that they are trying to avoid the ritual impurity they’d incur by touching a dead body, rendering them unable to fulfill their temple service. However, it is more likely that they were coming down the road from Jerusalem, not going up. And if you know anything about going to Jerusalem, you always go up to it. Even today, for a Jewish person to go to Jerusalem is to make aliya—to go up to Jerusalem. So the priest and Levite are most likely returning from Jerusalem, and hence, not in jeopardy of missing their term of service.

            Brant Pitre in a commentary on this parable pointed out that one mitzvah or commandment for a pious Jew was the obligation to bury the dead. The priest and Levite did not know the state of the man in the road, whether he was alive or dead. So to avoid the possible inconvenience of having to bury the dead, they didn’t even check on his well being. Jesus is not highlighting the conflict between one commandment and another but of simple neglect to perform what one knows is just to anyone, friend or enemy, neighbor or stranger.

            But what the parable demonstrates is that mercy is not some lofty concept that we have to struggle to grasp. It’s right there in our hearts. We all know what mercy looks like. We know what’s right in many circumstances, but for whatever reason, like the priest and Levite, we choose not to do it.

            Love your neighbor as yourself. Make no mistake. This is not merely a suggestion or nice idea. It is a commandment. And in fact it is not so far from us or so difficult. When you love your neighbor, you will what is best for them. The easiest way to love your neighbor is to pray for them. That is my challenge for you this week. Love your neighbor and pray for them, and not just the neighbor you like. Love the ones you find it hard to like, or the ones who like you least.

There are days when we are like that traveler beaten and left for dead on the road. We need a good Samaritan to come and bandage us up. And there are days when we have the chance to be that good Samaritan ourselves. Don’t shy away from that opportunity to do good, to do unto others as you would have them do to you.

Undivided Unity—Most Holy Trinity (Cycle C)

Proverbs 8:22–31; Romans 5:1–1; John 16:12–15

While we are now back in Ordinary Time, we have several solemnities that we celebrate on the next two Sundays. This weekend celebrates one of the greatest mystery of our Catholic faith, most Holy Trinity—the dogma that posits that we worship one God in three Divine Persons. It’s a headscratcher for us now, as it was the Christians of the third and fourth centuries, and there were great controversies around this dogma until all matters concerning the Trinity and Christ’s divinity were settled by the sixth ecumenical council. The reason for prolonged development was simply because there is no mention of a Trinity in the New Testament. The first use of the term comes from Theophilus of Antioch in the second century, and the first defense of the doctrine from Tertullian around the same time.

That said, we get plenty of hints of God’s pluralism, and these hints predate Christianity. We see hints of them in the Torah and the prophets of Hebrew scripture. And we see them most clearly expressed in the writings of the Apostles. The first reading from Proverbs recapitulates the creation story from Genesis 1 in poetry. We can hear allusions to both the Son and the Holy Spirit here: “[T]hen was I beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth[.]” We can compare this to Genesis 1:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness.

Now, our New American Bible translation doesn’t really do this passage justice and doesn’t convey the meaning of the Hebrew at all. In our reading, we have “a mighty wind.” The Hebrew word in this passage uses the word ruach (רוח), which means breath or spirit. What’s more, this breath or spirit is not simply wind, but the Ruach Elohim, the spirit or breath of God, and yes, the Hebrew clearly states that this is the spirit or breath of God, not just some wind. I won’t get on my soap box about the superiority of the Revised Standard Version of the bible translation right now, but you can see how the lectionary that we currently use doesn’t capture the meaning of the Hebrew well at all. Anyway, this passage is the one that we often point to concerning the Trinity, as it implicitly includes three elements: Creator, Word, and Breath or Spirit.

            Our passage from Proverbs evokes this very image: of the Holy Spirit playing on the surface of the Earth. At the same time, it also calls to mind the Son, the Word, Who was beside Him as His craftsman, through whom we live, and, move, and have our being. So in this passage we can see, in nascent form, an allusion to the Trinity, even though we have no physical manifestation of the Son or a discernible person of the Holy Spirit yet. But still we have an allusion or precursor to it in the Hebrew scriptures.

            I had the blessing of being able to listen to Dr. John Bergsma this week, and I specifically asked him about this notion of plurality in God that appears well before the Christian era. He pointed me to Daniel 7:9–14, in which the Son of Man comes before the Ancient of Days, and the prophet goes on to say: “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” The service rendered here is in the context of ritual or devotion, so understand it to be worship, not simply service. Notice the word “serve” in this passage. The service rendered here is in the context of ritual or devotion, so understand it to be worship, not simply service.

But the overriding point here is that there is more than one Person in question. We see many references in scripture that suggest some kind of plurality in the unity of God. Even the Hebrew word Elohim, although it is used mostly as a singular noun, the form is plural, and in Genesis we see this dialogue among more than one person. So the Hebrew scriptures reveal to us some sense of plurality in God, of more than one person who is worshipped. There is one God, but somehow multiple entities within this single Divinity. This baffles us because our concept of person indicates individuality. Yet, we know individuals who aren’t persons: animals, plants, inanimate objects. So this Trinity differs from those entities because it is on in which a single entity involves a single Divine existence and essence shared by three Divine persons. But a theology of this Divine family was not yet developed.

When we look at St. Paul’s theology on grace, faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit we get a better sense of this unity of the three persons of the Trinity, especially in the Divine action. St. Thomas Aquinas use the analogy of mind, intellect, and will to explain the interior dynamics of the Trinity. God the Father is the Mind. The Son is the Word or thought of the Mind. The Holy Spirit is the action or will of God most commonly expressed as Love. In our reading from Romans, St. Paul uses this same language: “[H]ope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” But understand that all action of God is collaborative. It is undertaken by the whole Trinity because it is the action of one Divine Essence and Will. So while we attribute the action of Love to the Holy Spirit, it is still not wrong to say that God is Love because all three persons share in the one Divine Essence.

This collaboration between Father, Son, and Spirit is most recognizable in the Gospels, and in particular our reading today. This passage from John’s Last Supper narrative is perhaps one of the more theologically rich sections of the New Testament, as Jesus explains the dynamics of the Trinity as it pertains to Him as the Word of the Father and to the paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who will come to instruct the Apostles. Recall that Jesus always says that He is giving only what the Father has given to Him. Likewise, the Holy Spirit only gives that as well: “He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” All three Persons possess the same teaching, but just as the Son is begotten from the Father, and the Holy Spirit processes from Father and Son, the revelation originates with the Father and comes through the Son to the Holy Spirit. So they share one Divine will and intellect but also personally possess it. And reading these words, it is clear that we are dealing with three distinct Persons, each who acts in concord with the others.

It’s one thing for us to understand that the Trinity is a great mystery of the faith. It’s another thing to know what to do with that information. We have some hints, though, and one comes from our epistle reading. The example of the Trinity Itself is our instruction. One of St. Augustine’s famous analogies of the Trinity (one mentioned by Fr. Mariusz at the beginning of Mass) reflect the Holy Spirit as the Love between Father and Son, which is so perfectly self-giving that it possesses the full Divinity of God. And that love is what the Father pours out into our hearts. The image most commonly given to us is the matrimonial love between spouses, which when practiced with complete self giving in love, results in a new person. That is really the answer for us. What we do with the example of the Trinity? We love. We love each other as ourselves, we love our spouses with the self-giving love that Jesus exemplified on that cross and on this altar. And we love God most of all for His great goodness, through Whom and in Whom we live and move and have our very being.

I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C)

Isaiah 43:16–21; Philippians 3:8–14; John 8:1–11

            Have you ever experienced despair—that sense that you have failed so badly that nothing can redeem you? That the circumstances in which you find yourself, maybe through no fault of your own, are inescapable? Despair is not like fear. With fear you don’t know what will happen, but you don’t assume that you are abandoned and alone. There may be some hope. Despair is that presumption that nothing can save you. You are doomed.

            Following on last week’s celebration, Laetare Sunday, I’m sure these words seem a bit discordant. Last week we were talking about rejoicing in the coming joy, and now I’m talking to you about despair. Why? I’m talking about despair because it was the very reason that the Gospel took root and flourished. Our faith thrived because those who despaired, who had no clear recourse to deliverance, suddenly found a deliverer.

            When the people of Israel lived in bondage in Egypt, they found a deliverer in Moses, who led them from Egypt carrying the wealth of that nation. When they feared thirst and hunger, Moses brought about their sustenance. When they needed a law, Moses, through God’s provenance, provided a law. But if you look at the words of scripture, they still despaired at every point. They had no trust in Moses or God. They put their faith in a molten calf before they trusted in the true God who led them from captivity. Consider that. The thing they put their faith in was a lump of gold that looked like a cow—maybe what we would these days call a cash cow. But it was made of material that they could see. They had faith in matter, not in spirit.

            Notice that whenever the people of Israel despair and turn away from God or when they prosper and turn away from God, the result is much the same. When they reject the gifts that should instill hope, they suffer. When they receive the gifts but fail to recognize the giver, they might prosper for a time, but eventually they suffer the consequences of their behavior. In either case, the problem is that the people receiving the gifts either don’t recognize the giver or they don’t acknowledge their dependence on Him. When those gifts are spiritual, their neglect and rejection has a spiritual impact.

            Our reading from Isaiah describes the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and promises a new exodus. This text comes from what scholars refer to as Second Isaiah, which occurs during the Babylonian captivity. So an important thing to notice is that this Isaiah cannot be the same Isaiah as the one prophesying to the Judean kings in First Isaiah. They are spread out over 120 years, so Isaiah would have to be at least that old when preaching of deliverance to the exiled Judeans. It helps to keep in mind that the name Isaiah, pronounced Yeshayahu (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ) in Hebrew, means “God saves.” It is directly related to the names Yehoshua and Yeshua, which we see often rendered as Joshua and Jesus. So Isaiah is more like a title or a role than a name, or you could see it as a prophetic tradition.

            First Isaiah spends a great deal of energy trying to convince the people of Judea to turn back from their indolence, from their gluttony and indulgence, from their idolatry and lack of reverence, and to give to God once again what is due to God—love and worship. Their failure to do so and their trust in men and material things instead of spiritual is what led them into captivity. And in Second Isaiah, the prophet proclaims that a new exodus is at hand for those who will turn back to the Lord who delivered them. Whether merited or not, God is going to once again lead the Hebrews in exile out of bondage and to freedom, where they can be free to live and free to serve Him again. Those two freedoms go together.

Do the exiled Hebrews deserve this mercy? Remember that I mentioned that the reason for their exile is that they failed to give God His due, what they owed Him as the giver of all gifts. Is that just? Well, no. In my canon law studies, we spend a lot of time talking about justice, and the standard definition is that justice is giving to others what they are due. If you are not giving to someone what is due to them, you are not treating them justly. You can look at scripture in all the places where the Old Testament talks about not depriving someone of their wages or their tunic for a day, and that is what it means. These things are due to them, so you shall not deprive them of it. But the Jews had deprived God of what He was due—love, faithfulness, and proper worship.

So if justice is to give someone what they are due, what is mercy? It is to give someone what is not due to them, what they do not deserve. It is to look at the debt they owe and to forgive it. If it were due to a thief to forgive their theft, the meaning of theft would be nonsensical, and so would the notion of mercy. If it were due to a murderer to forgive their act, the meaning of murder would be nonsensical, and so would be the notions of mercy. We give crimes specific names and definitions because they violate justice. To not call a crime by its name is an injustice because it deprives victims of what is due to them.

            That brings us to our gospel reading. We are all familiar with this reading from John. The scribes and Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Others have mentioned that they have not brought the guilty man as well, which is a legitimate factor. In Mosaic Law, both would be subject to the same penalties, so there is a suggestion that the scribes are applying this law selectively. They are only bringing forward the woman to be condemned. That brings to my mind all kinds of questions. How did they know how to find this woman in the very act of adultery? How did they find her and not the other guilty party?

            So they bring the woman forward to be judged by Jesus and say that the Law of Moses commands them to stone such women. And they leave out what the Law of Moses requires for the men in such circumstances. They are focused solely on the justice that is to be exercised on the woman, but not on the justice to be exercised on the man.

What does Jesus do? From the look of it, He starts taking names. Many Church Fathers and scholars suggest that he is writing the sins of those present in the dirt. I like to think that He is simply taking names. He knows their sins and indiscretions. In short, He knows their hypocrisy, so He lets them choose: justice or mercy? This wasn’t a new thing! The book of Hosea uses the story of a harlot in relation to her husband as an allegory for Israel’s relationship to God. Amid all of the abuse that Hosea experiences, we get this explanation: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts.” More than any sacrifice, God wants for us to show mercy to others. That is a greater sacrifice than bullocks and new lambs as mentioned in Isaiah 1:11.

This woman caught in adultery had no reason to expect mercy. She was caught in the act. She knew the penalty. She had no recourse to mercy. Yet mercy came to her, just as mercy came to the Hebrews in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon, and how it comes to us.

We do not deserve God’s mercy, yet it comes to us throughout salvation history. And it comes when we recognize that we do not deserve it—when we accept it as God’s gift. As long as we resist the gift or demand our right, we will never experience redemption. If we demand what we are due, then justly we demand to be separated from God. That’s what it means to be damned—to demand that we be given justice, even when we have not given what done justice to God.

To be redeemed is to recognize that we are enslaved and bound by our own sinfulness and failings. If we don’t recognize that, we are bound. We cannot recognize our need to be redeemed.

I want to leave you with these words from St. Alphonsus Liguori:

If you wish to strengthen your confidence in God still more, often recall the loving way in which He has acted toward you, and how mercifully He has tried to bring you out of your sinful life, to break your attachment to the things of earth and draw you to His love.

God’s desire is to give us mercy, but we have to accept it from Him and recognize it as a gift that we have not earned. Yet He gives it to us nonetheless.

Follow Me—Baptism of the Lord (Cycle C)

Baptismal Rite

Isaiah 40: 1–5, 9–11; Titus 2:11–14, 3:4–7; Luke 3:15–16, 21–22

This weekend we celebrate another of those pivotal moments in the gospel and in the revelation of Christ, the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. At this moment, Jesus becomes manifest to the whole world as the Lamb of God. Recall the first revelation to the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem, representing Jesus’ revelation to the poor and outcast in Israel’s midst following the nativity. You must understand that shepherds were essentially the lowest caste in Ancient Israeli society, outside of tax collectors and prostitutes. No one trusted them or valued them.

His second revelation is to the wise men from the gentiles, the other nations, and He accomplishes this through a sign they would recognize, a star indicating His birth. This underscores a couple of truths: first, that the other nations were also to be incorporated into God’s people, otherwise revelation to them would’ve been meaningless; second, that these other nations, while they did not worship the God of Israel, may express in their faith some aspects of Divine truth. This is a doctrine of our faith, pronounced in the encyclical Nostra Aetate, in which Pope Paul VI wrote,

Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.

So we should not be surprised that the magi from the east could recognize the coming of the Messiah. Even St. Paul acknowledges this recognition by the Greeks in their monument to an unknown God in Acts 17:23, and Socrates himself eschewed the Greek pantheon for an unknown, transcendent, creator God.

            This week’s readings celebrate the revelation of Christ to the people of Israel in an action that was familiar to anyone who was an observant Jew—the act of ritual washing. They used simple purification acts to represent ritual cleansing to allow them to worship in the temple or engage in other rituals. The difference between their ritual immersion (which is what the Greek word baptizo represents) and our Christian baptism is an efficacious sign. John the Baptist’s baptism was a ritual signifying repentance, but these baptisms were merely symbolic. They did not have an effect but represented a conviction or commitment on the part of the recipient.

            Now, there is no problem with symbolic cleansing. Signs and symbols are good things. But sacraments are not merely signs and symbols. Every one of the rituals that we call sacraments have precursors in Ancient Hebrew religion or simply in human history. The difference is that when Jesus Christ engages with any one of these rituals, they become sacramental—they become visible signs that He institutes which have the invisible effect of giving grace to us. So Jesus uses signs with which all human history already recognizes and makes them sacramental—channels of grace to us. God uses material things to wipe our slate clean, to cleanse us from the stain of original sin, and to adopt us as His own children; He bestows this life saving grace on us in such a simple, mundane act—the act of bathing. So this day is a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, which is the beginning of our baptism.

In our gospel reading, John preaches to those who have come to be baptized, among whom is Jesus, and he announces that one is coming whose sandal thong John is not worthy to untie. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and power. Now, we know, of course, that Jesus has no need of baptism. He’s free of sin. He’s the beloved Son of God, as demonstrated when the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew, John even says, “I need to be baptized by you!” So why does He go to John for baptism? Sacred Tradition tells us that through the action of His entering the Jordan and His baptism, Jesus sanctifies the waters for our baptism. His baptism prepares the waters for our baptism. And Jesus’ baptism is an example of our own baptism.

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

            But this baptism is just a start. It is one of three sacraments that the Church together call sacraments of initiation. So what are we starting when we are initiated into Jesus’ Church? In His ministry, we hear one phrase repeatedly: follow me. Follow me. So He allows Himself to be baptized as an example to follow, not because He needs it, but because we do—we need to see Him and His works so we can follow His example. So we follow Him and are baptized into His body. That is the first step in discipleship, the first step in working with Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.

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

            And we have to be changed by what we do. For all righteousness to be fulfilled, we have to become righteous like Jesus. He came and assumed our human nature to transform it. We have to love as He loves. We have to take His word out to the world. He came to reveal Himself as the Word of God, but for all righteousness to be fulfilled, we have to reveal Him as the Good News, the Word of God come to earth for our salvation.

            And that is what we are called to do—to preach the good news, to evangelize. The Church exists to evangelize, which means you are commissioned to take the news of Jesus with you when you leave here. Some of us will preach the good news in words. Some of us will preach the good news through our actions. There are people who will never set a foot through those doors to hear me and my brother clergy preach. But they will encounter you. They will encounter me in the workplace. What will they remember? Will they remember a spirit of judgment or a spirit of love? You may be the only gospel they experience.

            Now I don’t mean that you have to go out and proselytize. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI rejected proselytizing and emphasized that the Church grows by attraction, just as Jesus drew followers to Himself through attraction. Pope Francis has repeatedly talked about the need for the Church to renew the spirit of evangelization. That is our mission—to show the world who Jesus is, to be His hands and feet, to give ourselves to others in our actions. In our baptism, we die and rise with Christ and become one with Him. In that unity, we can take Him out and show His love to the world.

Gaudete! Third Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)

The Subdued Joy of Gaudete Sunday ~ Liturgical Arts Journal

Zephaniah 3:14–18a; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18

            Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin translation of Philippians 4. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us. This Sunday is also the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We had a procession led by our clergy with the statue of our Lady this morning after the 10:00 mass. While we don’t celebrate the feast day in our liturgy, we can still honor our Lady.

            The readings today give us our marching orders for Advent and beyond. The Latin word adventus, the source of our English term, indicates an approach or onset. Advent is the onset of Christ’s coming again. As our readings suggest, it is a time of hope, of looking forward to a joyous event, but from the perspective of people who are definitely not in a joyful place at the moment. Often the expectation of the Messiah’s coming dawns when His people are at their lowest, when they feel bereft and oppressed.

            Zephaniah prophecies during the reign of Josiah, a time when the king is attempting to bring the kingdom back from its fall into idolatry. The Assyrians have been chipping away at the Kingdom of Judea and demanding their tribute, which always means an oppressive tax on the people. All of these events are considered to be the result of the sins of the People of Israel. But Zephaniah tells them that God is letting go of that penalty and that they will be delivered from their oppression. In the midst of their strife, they are called to rejoice in their deliverance.

            The letter of St. Paul to the Philippians is much the same. Paul is writing from prison. Paul wasn’t a popular figure in Philippi, at least not with those outside the Church. If you remember the account in Acts, he expels a spirit from a slave girl who is following him around and prophesying in a loud voice that Paul and his companions served the Most High God. Her owners weren’t too happy about that because her prophecies were a source of income for them. So they beat Paul and Silas and threw them into prison. Paul had his share of trouble in Philippi for sure. But Paul tells the Philippians, whom he obviously loves, to be joyful. He knows that all his tribulation has a purpose. We can choose to do the same. We can obsesses about our trials, or we can rejoice because we know the one who has overcome the world.

            Some of us tend not to dwell so much on where we are now but on where we’ve been in the past. We beat ourselves up over past mistakes and sins. The crowds in our reading from Luke today could be doing the same, but they don’t. Instead, they recognize their need to change, and they ask the Baptist what to do. He gives them concrete steps on the right path. First, he tells them to repent, and then he gives them a path. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give what you have in excess to the poor.

            These are the steps to holiness. Do good for others. Love your enemies. Take care of the poor in your midst. St. John Chrysostom said that “the poor are physicians, and their hands are an ointment for your wounds.” And if you’ve ever worked with the truly poor, or if you’ve ever visited the sick, or fed someone who was hungry, you’ve experienced it—that sense that what little you’ve done helped you more than it helped them because it brought you outside yourself to recognize Christ in the other.

But the first step is to repent. Turn from your sins and accept God’s mercy. Regardless of where you’ve been, your sins are old news, and they are swept away. John is saying, “All of that past stuff was true, but you are forgiven. Now go and leave all of that behind. Go and sin no more.” That is the message of Divine mercy, the good news.

            And for me, that is good news. I am a far different person now than I was in my young adult life. I drifted away from the Catholic faith in my late teens, and I wandered for a long time—about 20 years. I did plenty of things of which I’m not proud. And I could go on carrying those failures as many of us do, but the call to repentance is not a call to self-judgment and condemnation. In fact, to hold on to our sins and doubt God’s mercy shows a lack of trust in God and, in a strange way, a form of pride. The call to repentance is a call to recognition of our failings and conviction to reject them. Then, ultimately, the call to repentance is calling us to mercy, to forgiveness, and to healing. To letting go and moving on. That’s what Advent and Lent are all about—helping us to recognize our brokenness; helping us to recognize our need for healing; helping us to recognize our need for salvation.

            For the Israelites in our first reading, there were plenty of reasons for anxiety. If we look around our world today, we can find many reasons to be fearful and anxious: the pandemic, political division, the threat of violence here and war elsewhere in the world. It’s harder to find civil conversation in a public arena. We seem to have less and less of a shared culture and shared morality on which to base our decisions.       Our world is more chaotic than ever, or at least than we remember in our lifetimes.

            But every era encounters these moments of chaos and doubt. Look at the letters of St. Paul. Look at the words of the prophets like Zephaniah. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re not really seeing anything new. We’re seeing version 2021 of the same old thing. Which means we’re still seeing the same result of our fallen nature playing itself out. We’re still seeing those same human failings that we’ve always seen. We’re still seeing the effects of sin and the wounds they create in our lives and the lives of the people we love.

            But we still also encounter the effects of redemption in our world. We still encounter those moments of grace individually and collectively. We have that moment of grace when we set aside our own needs to take care of the homeless, or to visit the sick, or to comfort others who are in pain. We have moments of beauty as with the procession today, our Advent celebrations, and the joy of the season to come. We have moments of grace, and we have to remember that the story is not over. Advent is here to remind us of that. The man who came here and suffered that defeat (point to the crucifix), has overcome the world. And He is coming again on the clouds in power and glory to make an end of all defeat. And He comes to this altar today to give us His body and blood and to make us one.

            And that is why we rejoice.

Two Paths, Your Choice: Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

LASIK to survive the apocalypse | OCL Vision
Apocalypse

Dan. 12:1–3; Hebrews10:11–14, 18; Mark 13:24–32

We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But at some point, the Son of Man will come and usher in the end, what we refer to as the Apocalypse.

The last two years have certainly seemed apocalyptic. First, we have the pandemic, which started to show up in December, about the same time that Australia experienced horrific fires. The first spikes of the pandemic really began to hit in January 2020. Then monstrous Asian hornets showed up in the Pacific northwest. Here locally, we began to experience strong earthquakes and aftershocks. And that was just what was happening in the natural world. Then the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers ignited months of rioting and social unrest. It seemed like the fabric of our society was coming apart… and in a sense, it still feels like that to a degree. So whether these are the signs of the end times or not, we are reminded that we need to be prepared now, not in some distant future.

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

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the song Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. There’s a line in that song, that goes like this: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

There’s still time to change the road you’re on. That sounds like really bad advice to me. “No worries, you can change your direction.” You’ve got time. But that’s not the advice we get from Jesus. He says, “Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But whenever it comes, we have already chosen one path or the other. We need to be prepared for that second coming. In the Office of Readings this morning, we had part of a homily from St. Augustine, in which he said, “Let us not resist His first coming, so that we might not dread the second.” So we need to prepare.

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

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

Jesus warns us to be prepared, to live now as if the master is returning immediately. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour.

Daniel spells it out clearly: “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” In Mark, the elect will be gathered from the four winds.” The others will not be gathered. They will be left clinging to those things they chose over God. We choose salvation or damnation. We choose to seek God’s will or our own will. God simply confirms our own choice. God doesn’t send the unrepentant to Hell. The unrepentant choose it for themselves. So the choice is in our hands. We can choose to align our will with God’s, or we can choose to focus on ourselves and cling to lesser goods.

So how do we know God’s will? We can pray for wisdom in this area, for one. We should all spend some time in prayer every day. Sometimes we think too much specifically of what God wills for us, and we focus on those big life question grand plans. But in large, we do God’s will by doing what He taught us through the Church and its doctrines every day.

The Church has given us some guides in how to choose God’s will. They are called works of mercy, and there are two sets of seven: the corporal works of mercy, and the spiritual works of mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves us and wants us to be with Him. We do not know the day. We do not know the hour. But God has set before us good and evil, life and death. Choose life. Choose God.