Members of the Body of Christ—Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

1 Samuel 3:3–10, 19; 1 Corinthians 6:13b–15, 17–20; John 1:35–42

I tend to lean on the gospel readings heavily when I write my homilies and less on the readings from the epistles, usually Paul’s writings. I’m going to deviate from my norm today because I want to focus on an element of our faith that I don’t think is well understood and one that can get distorted by the currents of politics and culture.

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”

Your bodies are members of Christ. What does that mean? Clearly, it suggests connectedness in some way. Is it the connectedness of a club? Or a fraternal organization? Is it like a voluntary membership to your neighborhood association?

It is like none of that. The Body of Christ is not simply a matter of agreement on certain beliefs, or alignment on political principles, or acceptance of certain ideologies. We are joined by a common baptism and confirmation, and we are joined by our shared communion in the Eucharist. What does this mean, and what should its impact be in our world and on our lives?

Let’s start with the Sacrament of Baptism. In the understanding of many of our Protestant brethren, baptism is merely a symbol of our acceptance of Christ as our savior. That is not the historical understanding of baptism, nor is it a scriptural understanding of baptism.

First, let’s talk about what scripture says about baptism. What it does not say is that baptism is optional, is purely symbolic, or is reserved for adults only. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that you must be reborn by water and the spirit. In Matthew, he tells the Apostles to go to all nations baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In Acts, in response to the Pharisees who ask how they can atone for having crucified Christ, Peter says, “Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In his first epistle, Peter says, “Baptism now saves you.” It replaces the Jewish practice of circumcision. Paul in Romans notes that we die and rise with Jesus in our baptism. So there is the scriptural foundation for our belief. But what does the Church teach about the effects of our baptism?

First and foremost, the Church teaches that baptism joins us to the Church. It is the means by which people begin communion with the Church. It has other effects as well, most notably cleansing from Original Sin and personal sin. But it is a sacrament of initiation, and what it initiates is membership in the Body of Christ. And not just baptisms in a Catholic church! If you are baptized using the proper matter and form—that is, with water and with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and with the intention that the Church has, you are joined to the Catholic church even if you are baptized in a non-denominational community. In this respect, it corresponds to the circumcision of the Jews, as Paul teaches in Colossians 2:11. Note that circumcision took place typically on the eighth day after birth for Jewish boys, so by necessity, it was done on infants. If that is the case, it follows that baptism too is legitimately done on infants, and nothing in scripture indicates otherwise.

I love baptisms, and I have a special reason to celebrate this sacrament today as we [will be baptizing my first godson, Maverick Wimer, in just a few moments] [just baptized my first godson, Maverick Wimer, during the 8:00 AM Mass].

So baptism joins us to the Church. If you have been baptized, you are a member of the Body of Christ. Even if you aren’t Catholic and you’ve been baptized, you’ve been joined to the Church.

That’s the first of the Sacraments of Initiation. Two other important sacraments are also part of this group of sacraments of initiation: Confirmation and Eucharist. Now, Confirmation is important, but I want to focus on the Eucharist as it is central to our worship and also central to our understanding of what it means to be the Church.

The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving, which is appropriate, as it is the full expression of the early Jewish todah or thanksgiving offering of bread and wine. But note that we so frequently refer to it by its other name—communion. Communion. One name reflects what we do—notably, giving thanks. The other name reflects what it does—brings about communion. It makes us one with Christ and with each other.

I don’t hear this old aphorism very often any more, but it was very popular back in the 70s and 80s: you are what you eat. The point then was that if you ate something healthy, you’d be healthy, and if you ate junk, you’d feel like junk. But it applies in our case. We are joined to the Body of Christ in baptism, and when we receive Eucharist, we receive the body, blood, soul, and Divinity of Christ. And if we are what we eat, that means we become—more and more—the Body of Christ. And that means that we are not simply joined to Christ, but we are joined to each other. Communion is both vertical, with God, and horizontal, with each other.

We are members of the Body of Christ! Appendages! Extensions!

And this status implies something about how we are supposed to be in the world. We all have different roles to play. As Paul notes, some of us are called to preach and teach, some to give hospitality, some to interpret and others to prophesy. We all have a calling to do something for Christ. We are, as some have put it, His hands and feet. We are one of the primary ways in which God works in the world. He can intervene through miracles. He can reveal Himself directly to people in mystical experiences. But for the most part, what He uses to bring about His will in the world is you and me. We are His instruments—His hands, His feet, and His heart.

You see, we as Catholics believe that sacraments have effects. They change us. They are not merely empty symbols. Some sacraments are a point of no return. They make, what philosophers call, an ontological change in us. They mark us and change our very being permanently. Baptism is one such sacrament. But all have effects on us because all of them convey grace. That is part of the definition  of a sacrament: a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace.

The Eucharist—communion—is a tremendous gift to the Church and the central act of worship for the faithful. It is a primary means that Christ gave us for our sanctification. It should change us more and more to be like Christ, and that enables us to go out into the world as Christ’s hands, feet, and heart.

We need to be Christ in the world. We need to be the gospel in the world. Some people will never set foot or never consider setting foot in this cathedral. They will not encounter the Gospel here unless they encounter the Gospel in you. You may be the only Gospel they ever hear. So preach it in your actions! Let your Catholic Christian freak flag fly!

[8:00 AM – We’re going to encounter these two sacraments today—baptism and Eucharist—these powerful mysteries of our faith. These sacraments can change our lives, but only if we allow the grace they give us to work in us. Jesus wants to come into our lives and transform them. But to do that, we have to surrender our lives to Him. Only then can we truly be His hands, His feet, and His heart to the world.]

[10:00 AM – We’re going to encounter the sacrament of Eucharist today—this powerful mystery of our faith. This sacrament can change our lives, but only if we allow the grace it gives us to work in us. Jesus wants to come into our lives and transform them. But to do that, we have to surrender our lives to Him. Only then can we truly be His hands, His feet, and His heart to the world.]

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The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Sirach 3:2–6, 12–14; Colossians 3:12–21; Luke 2:22–30

Today is a feast in honor of families, and particularly, the most Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Our readings from Sirach, Colossians, and Luke all focus on the obligations of family and of family members to each other. And for good reason. The family is the most basic building block of society, the most foundational structure that gives context, sense, and meaning to our lives. The family is also foundational for the handing on of the faith, so much so that the Church refers to the family as the Domestic Church in Lumen Gentium (11), one of two dogmatic constitutions of the Church from Vatican II.

The Domestic Church—the Church of Home. When we say the blessing over the fathers during a baptism, we say these words:

With their wives they will be the first teachers of their children in the ways of the faith. May they also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I want to point out the final words of that prayer: “bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” All of our readings today point to that one statement in our baptismal blessings.

However, I’d like to do a thought experiment. I occasionally present at conferences for my industry, and one of the more recent presentations I did was called something like “How to have an awful system implementation.” And then I went through all of the factors that lead to businesses having horrible experiences implementing new software, hardware, or network infrastructure in their places of work. So I’d like to propose to you some ways, based on Sirach, Colossians, and Luke 2, how you can have a miserable family and a crumbling domestic church.

Let’s start with one that is so very common in our culture right now: parental respect. Sirach says, “Whoever honors his father atones for sins… he stores up riches who reveres his mother.” Or this: “Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.” Do we honor parents in our culture? Do we honor fathers in our culture? A quick look at the shows on mainstream television will tell you all  you need to know: Family Guy, American Dad, the Simpsons. I recall Al Bundy, but that’s the last live action character I can think of. Now, if you search on “buffoonish TV dads,” the number one hit is a cartoon. That should tell you something.

That’s the image of fatherhood in our culture. So what does it say of how we view fathers, particularly when they get older and don’t quite have their wits about them as they used to? If we imagine that to be the place of fathers in our culture, what happens to fatherhood?

Or let’s turn our attention to what motherhood has come to entail. How often is motherhood honored in our culture in and of itself? It seems that women are encouraged to be everything else first and to be somehow settling for less if they choose to focus on the family home. It’s fine to be a superwoman and do it all. It’s fine to supersede the role of the father, or have no father in the picture whatsoever. But suggest that somehow being a mother is a worthy ambition in and of itself, and some people look at you like they don’t understand the words coming out of your mouth. What does that say about our culture’s evaluation of motherhood? The latest incursions of gender ideology are yet another attempt to dissuade women from embracing maternity and femininity. A current Catholic educator and theologian said in an article in the latest National Catholic Register that gender ideology “denies the meaning and value of womanhood and condemns motherhood as oppressive.”

We can take this approach from any angle and see how our culture constantly sets us against each other. Father and mother against children, siblings against each other and against parents. Our readings, though, advise us otherwise. Sirach tells us that reverence of parents is the surest way to be blessed, and certainly science backs up the idea that people who are grateful are happier in their lives. Gratitude and reverence to parents are their own reward.

St. Paul exhorts us in Colossians to “put on… heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” He outlines the obligations we have to each other: wife to husband and husband to wife, father to children, and children to parents. There is no familial relationship that does not bear an obligation to others in family. Where does the radical individualism of our current culture, where the desires of the individual supersede all other values, fit into this Christian ethos outlined by Paul? Quite clearly, it does not.

Our gospel reading from Luke today presents to us the preeminent family, the iconic Domestic Church, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. By the standard of their times, they are not what you would call impressive. Joseph offers two turtledoves for the ritual cleansing of Mary. The offering of two turtledoves is prescribed for those who cannot afford to offer a lamb and a turtledove, so Joseph is clearly a poor man. They’re from a quaint backwater called Nazareth, which is so obscure that it finds no mention at all in ancient literature prior to the references in the gospels.

This is the quintessential domestic church? How could it be? Well, let’s start with their example. Joseph takes his family to Jerusalem to the temple to perform the ritual works required by Jewish law. He was performing one of the many mitzvot or commandments described in Jewish law. Now we’re often told that our faith shouldn’t be about our actions but about our assent that Christ is Lord. That’s fine, but that’s the most minimal statement of faith there could be. Faith that doesn’t reveal itself in works is dead faith, as James said in his epistle. Joseph demonstrates not only his commitment to the Judaic law, but also his commitment as the head of the Holy Household. His role is very clearly spelled out. He offers a sacrifice of atonement for Mary, and he consecrates Mary’s firstborn to God. So Joseph is fulfilling his religious duty on behalf of the Holy Family.

No doubt Mary also played her part in the Holy Family. One of the traditions of the Jewish males is to sing the Eshet Chayil on the Sabbath. It’s a passage from Proverbs 31 that sings the praises of the valorous woman: “A woman of valor, who can find? Far beyond pearls is her value” is how that passage begins. The blessed Mother was and is the most valorous woman. Her obedience to God was no doubt reflected in her service to Joseph and Jesus. I can just imagine hearing the voices of Jesus and Joseph on a Sabbath evening singing together her praises.

And finally Jesus Himself had a part to play as a dutiful son, as Luke 2:51 says: “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” This is Jesus, our savior—the Word through whom all things were made. Yet He submits to Joseph as His earthly father, just as Mary, the Queen of Heaven, submits to Joseph as his spouse, as was expected of Jewish women of the time. Everyone had a role in the Holy Family, and everyone played their part.

In our modern era, we seem confused about the roles of parents and children in the family. Some parents don’t feel comfortable with the role of disciplinarian, so instead they try to be their children’s best friends. That’s not what children need. They need structure and discipline in the context of a loving family. We expect the single mother to teach her son to be a man and are stunned to learn that she can’t do it herself. That’s a father’s job. And a father’s job is also to demonstrate to his daughters his respect and esteem for them as women, but that doesn’t happen if there is no father in the house. That is why the Church so insistently holds up the nuclear, biological family as the ideal context in which to raise children in the faith. But all too sadly, reality falls short of the ideal. Not all fathers are images of Joseph; not all mothers are reflections of the Blessed Mother; and few of us image the child Jesus as we should. As the family goes, so goes the culture. Certainly that should give us all pause in our current social climate.

But the Holy Family is presented to us as an example to emulate, an example of the Domestic Church. It should not surprise us that our example is a Jewish family. After all, they are our elder brothers in faith. The Catholic faith is sometimes called the fulfillment of Judaism. The Eucharistic liturgy, the paschal mystery in which we will share together in just a few minutes, is the Jewish Passover transformed into Christ’s Passover. The prayers that begin the Eucharistic liturgy recall the same prayers offered over bread and wine in observant Jewish households every Sabbath. As Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22, “Salvation is from the Jews.”

So follow the lead of this most holy Jewish family, and may our households be blessed as their household was undoubtedly blessed.

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 Fatima Exposition and Benediction—Aug. 13

Matthew 28:16–20

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew is that final passage that is known as the Great Commission. This is Christ’s sending of the Apostles out to evangelize—to spread the good news. When we look at this passage, we see a number of important directives. First is to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We recognize in this statement the foundation of the sacraments of initiation. But it is also our call to evangelization—go out and make disciples of all nations.

How does this passage, then, relate to the apparitions of Our Lady to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco? Well, for the very simple reason that their mission was the same as the Great Commission. The Blessed Mother’s message was for them to make disciples, to help convert the world through the intercession of Her Immaculate Heart.

Evangelization always has two core elements, the first one being that the evangelized need to understand their condition. They need to understand their need for salvation. Perhaps the world of Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco was ripe for such a message. World War I was raging. The Russian revolution was in full swing. The civil wars in Spain and the various secularist movements in Europe were pushing the Church to the peripheries. Perhaps the people could see clearly their need. But in their time as in ours, it is far too easy for people to just keep moving and to ignore the structures of society crashing down around them. In our own time, most people don’t even recognize that something is missing from their lives. So part of the message of evangelization is to get those who need to be evangelized to wake up.

The second part of evangelization, once people recognize their utter need, is to let them know that there is an answer. In that time, the Blessed Mother beckoned all to find refuge in her Immaculate Heart, but Our Lady’s ultimate aim is always to draw people to her Son. And the Son is the answer. He is why we call the message euangelion—the good news. The good news is that there is a way out of misery, a way out of the calamity of original sin, and a way back into the embrace of our Lord.

That was the mission of Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco. That, too, is our mission—the Great commission. Let us begin by consecrating ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and then let us take up what Padre Pio called his weapon—the Holy Rosary—and pray for the salvation of the world.

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Chaire, Kecharitomene—Fourth Sunday of Advent (Cycle B)

2 Samuel 7:1–5, 8b–12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25–27; Luke 1:26–38

            “Chaire! Kecharitomene!” This is Gabriel’s greeting. “Hail, full of grace!” In this fourth Sunday of Advent, we celebrate the one named full of grace, the one whom all generations will call blessed.

            Our reverence for the Blessed Mother is often not understood by our Protestant brethren, but it has been celebrated by the Universal Church, the Catholic Church, from the earliest days. The Gospels contain the first indications that we should honor her. The first chapter of Luke gives us the first two assertions of our prayer, the Hail Mary:

The angel Gabriel says to her, “The Lord is with thee.”

Her cousin, Elizabeth, says to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Each of these points come directly from scripture, in fact, from Luke 1 where we get the passage I proclaimed to you a few moments ago.    I want to talk a little bit about this meeting between Gabriel and Mary, and then I want to talk about its larger implications in salvation history.

            As I mentioned, our Protestant brethren are often ambivalent or even downright scandalized by our devotion to the Blessed Mother. It was not always so. All of the reformers of the 16th century had a devotion to the Blessed Mother. It wasn’t until the sterilizing effects of the Reformation and the later Enlightenment that devotion to Mary was rejected.

            What is it that we believe about Mary, and why does it matter? Well, to start, all love and devotion that we have for the Blessed Mother is rooted in our love for Christ. If you love someone, you love—or at least respect—the people who are most important to them. If I say that I love my wife but show disrespect to her mother, how will that make my wife feel? Certainly not respected. How much more, then, is it fitting for us to honor the mother of Jesus?

            But it goes beyond that. Scripture shows Gabriel honoring her by giving her a title. Fr. Jerry mentioned this two weekends ago. Gabriel isn’t just saying, “Hey, how’s it going, Mary.” He says, “Hail, Full of Grace.” Or if you use a non-Catholic translation, you might read, “Hail, highly favored one!” But either way, she is given a title—a new name. She herself ponders what this greeting could mean, and Gabriel assures her, “Do not be afraid! You have found favor with God.” The title itself is significant, as any act of renaming or title bestowal is.

            Whenever someone in scripture receives a title, it marks a change in their status and mission. Let’s start at the beginning. Adam renames the woman Eve. Prior to this, he is Adam—simply man—and she is Ishah, which means woman. After the fall, Adam renames her Chava or Eve, which means “mother of all the living.” When God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, he goes from being an “exalted father” to “father of a multitude.” When God renames Jacob Israel, he identifies Jacob with the nation that will come from him.

            The same occurs in the gospels. Mary is given the title kecharitomene—full of grace. Now, notice that Gabriel doesn’t announce it in the same way as these others. He doesn’t say, “You are now full of grace.” He refers to her as “Full of Grace” as if it is something she is. At the moment of his greeting, she is already full of grace. She is already redeemed. She has been in the state of grace from the moment of her conception, which is what we mean by the Immaculate Conception. This scripture is at the root of our belief in the Immaculate Conception. So Mary is given this new title, Full of Grace, and that implies that her role is changing. She is being given a divine mission.

            Both of these titles convey something special about Mary, but they are hardly the only ones. We have an entire litany dedicated to the various names and titles of the Blessed Mother. However, the next three are critical for understanding the role of Mary in the economy of salvation: the new Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, and the Mother of God.

            St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, says, “‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” As Jesus is the last Adam or second Adam, the Blessed Mother is the new Eve. St. Irenaeus of Lyon was the first of the early Church Fathers to identify Mary with Eve in this fashion. Woman is born from the first Adam’s side; the second Adam is born from Mary’s womb. Through the first woman’s disobedience, we are subject to death; through Mary’s obedience, we can now enter into new life through her Son. Adam calls her “woman,” but renames her Eve, the mother of the living; Mary names her son Jesus, and he renames her woman. You can see the series of reversals in our fallen state that come about through Mary’s fiat, her willingness to submit to God’s will.

            She is the ark of the New Covenant. Recall that the Israelites carried with them the Ark of the Covenant, containing a golden bowl of manna; the two tablets on which the ten commandments were inscribed; and Aaron’s staff, which had sprouted almond blossoms. Each of these items is a reminder to the people of Israel. The bowl of manna reminds them of how God fed them in the wilderness. The tablets remind them of the law that God gave to them. The sprouted staff reminds them of how they rebelled against God’s judgment. Mary, as the Ark of the New Covenant, carries all three in the person of Jesus. He is the bread come down from Heaven to feed us in the wilderness. He is the Word become flesh. He is the sign of contradiction, whom the people of Israel rejected.

            Finally, she is the Mother of God—the Theotokos or God-bearer, which points back to her title as the Ark of the New Covenant. She bears God’s body into the world. Our salvation, the Incarnation, is born through her and through her willing submission.

            All of these titles represent the reasons we should show honor to the blessed Mother. Her obedience brought about our salvation. Through her, the Incarnation—Emmanuel, God with us—became present here among us. In Bethlehem—literally the House of Bread in Hebrew, she laid her son—the bread of life—in a manger, a feeding trough. She submitted to God’s will and all that it entailed: the threat of rejection and even death, the suffering she would encounter because of her Son’s ministry, and ultimately, her suffering in His death. All of these are sufficient reasons to love and honor her.

            But let’s make it simple. When we encounter someone who loves another friend of ours, don’t we connect with that person in a very different way? Don’t you grasp their hand and say, “He’s my best friend!” or “She’s been my greatest confidant.” Don’t we look with wide eyes and joy at the other common friend and exult in that connection? And then we share those stories we have about our friend with each other.

            That’s how we connect with the Blessed Mother. She was closer to Jesus than any of us. But she wants to share Him with all of us. She is the iconic Jewish mother: “Let me tell you about my son.” When we look at the Blessed Mother, it’s commendable that we recall her exaltedness, but we should remember also that she shares with us the joy of her Son.

            “Chaire, Kecharitomene!

            “Hail, full of grace!” May we never be ashamed of praising her for her generous gift to us.

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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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