You cannot pass on what you do not have—Fifth Sunday of Easter (Cycle A)

Acts 6:1–7; 1 Peter 2:4–9; John 14:1–12

You cannot pass on what you do not have.

You cannot pass on what yourself you do not have.

It’s a pretty simple fact. Parents can’t hand on an inheritance beyond what they possess—financially or genetically. A teacher cannot impart greater knowledge than they possess. To hand something on, you have to possess it. This is, in part, the message of our readings today. In each reading, we can see that a gift, a faculty, or a foundation is passed on from one who possesses to one who does not.

I want to focus on what the Apostles do here in this passage. I have to admit a certain bias for this first readings from Acts, as it is what many consider to be the founding of the order of the diaconate, which is the first overt celebration of the sacrament of Holy Orders. All the elements are present for a sacrament: valid recipients are chosen from among the people; clearly the Apostles are valid celebrants; they lay their hands on the candidates, which is even today the matter of the sacrament of orders; and then there are the prayers of consecration. I don’t think any other sacrament is so clearly exemplified anywhere in scripture as the sacrament of Holy Orders is in this passage

We see that the Apostles are busy preaching the gospel, and they see this as their primary responsibility. Service to the people is also a responsibility, but the twelve do not see it as their primary responsibility—one that they have to address themselves, but must make sure is accomplished. So they do what any executive does: they grant that responsibility to someone else.

This is the essence of why we have Holy Orders. Our bishops cannot do everything themselves, so they grant a certain set of rights to deacons, and a higher order of rights to the presbyters, or priests. Deacons can preach, baptize, receive consent at weddings, impart blessings, and perform some funeral rites. Priests can do all of that, as well as consecrate the Eucharist, absolve sins, anoint the sick, and confirm the faithful. Bishops can do all of that and ordain priests and deacons. All of these faculties devolve down from the bishop to the priests and deacons.

This is the way it is with our Lord as well. He says that he does not His will but the Father’s, that He is in the Father and the Father in Him, that those who believe in Him will do the same works. And so also the Apostles and bishops have done. The bishops act on this authority granted to them by Jesus. They grant these rights, based on the model they have been given, to those that they believe are qualified to exercise it. That’s why we have Holy Orders. A higher authority passes on its gifts and faculties to one lower, just as parents pass on gifts through genetic transfer, through formation and so on. A bishop ordains priests and deacons to different degrees of his service. He possesses the fullness of orders. He grants the faculties of this ministry to priest and deacon to act in his name. That is why all priests and deacons vow to the bishop who ordains them to obey him and his successors. My obedience to the bishop didn’t stop when Bishop Driscoll retired. It simply transferred to Bishop Christensen.

So let’s look back at Acts and this particular event. The seven men are Greek-speaking Hebrews. Deacons are ordained to service, in whatever that form might take. Shortly after this passage in Acts, we see St. Stephen evangelizing in the Hellenist Jewish synagogue, and he pays for his boldness with his life. So a deacon is our Church’s first martyr. Later on in Acts, Phillip is prompted by the spirit to go south on the road to Gaza, where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. He instructs him and baptizes him, and then is immediately whisked away by the Holy Spirit. You see, Phillip doesn’t go where he wills but where the Holy Spirit wills him to go. That should be the response of all who are ordained to the diaconate and priesthood.

So you see that a deacon’s role was then similar to what it is now. We serve in outreach ministries. We preach. We baptize. But what’s most important for anyone in Holy Orders is to witness to the gospel. That is our strongest tool of evangelization—to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, to represent for Christ. And guess what? Witnessing to the gospel is not just our responsibility. It’s yours as well.

All of the faithful are obligated to spread the gospel. All of us are ordered to that service. In the reading from Peter, we see how that inheritance goes another step further—from the hierarchical orders to the universal priesthood. “You are a chosen race,” he writes, “A royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

That’s right. You and I … all clergy and laity… are a royal priesthood, and your ministerial role is to declare the wonderful deeds of Christ. This is our mission, your mission, the mission given to the Church by Jesus. If you recall, at the end of Matthew, Jesus sends the Apostles out on this self-same mission: “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” That is the core mission of the Church: to evangelize, which means in Greek, to tell the good news, to proclaim the gospel. It is the mission that the last three popes have all called us to do. Preach the gospel! Do it in your deeds, always, and if necessary, in  your words.

But to do that, you need to know your faith. You need to study your faith. You need to know what the Church teaches. Most Catholics who leave the Church know next to nothing about what the Church teaches. That is tragic, but what is worse is that many of us sitting here don’t know our faith and can’t answer the questions of our children and our friends. It’s great that we’re here and love our faith, but as St. Peter says in his first letter, always be prepared to give an answer for your hope. We must always be prepared to explain the gospel, to explain why we believe.

Every week, I send you out with one of two dismissals. I either chant, “Go and announce the gospel to the world,” or I chant, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.” I intentionally use those two because the Church literally wants you to go out and live your gospel witness to the world. You’re not simply to come to mass to get your fix and leave, to fill your tank for the next week. No! You’re supposed to take what you get here and share it in the world, in your workplace, in your school, in the line at the supermarket.

Do we light a lamp only to put it under a basket and hide the light? No! We expose the light so that everyone can see. That’s what the great commission is about. That’s what the Church lives to do, and that’s your primary ministry and calling is as a Christian. Go and announce the gospel to the world. Announce it with your actions! That’s the most important witness you can provide. And when people see what you’ve got, when they see the joy you have because of your faith, they will want it. That is the number one factor in conversion of people to the faith: believers who are on fire with their love for Christ and who live like it. And the number one factor keeping people away from the faith is believers who claim to be Christian with their lips and deny Him with their actions.

You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation. You are being sent to preach the gospel to the world. Your life may be the only gospel some people ever read. So you need to have the gospel, to know the gospel, to pass it on—because you can only pass on what you possess.

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Palm Sunday 2017—Cycle A

Because of the lengthy passion reading, I’ve been asked to keep this brief, so this will probably be the shortest homily you ever hear from me on a Sunday.

We’re living in an era and culture in which the word “love” is greatly misunderstood, greatly misused, and greatly undervalued. We love our pets. We love pizza. We love getting our nails done.

Well, some of us do…

We have a single word for many dramatically different emotions, preferences, and actions; so I want to be really clear on what the Church and what scripture mean by the word “love.”

Love in the sense of human relationships is expressed in scripture by four different terms in Greek: phileo, which is the kind of love that friends have for each other; eros, which is romantic love; storge, which is the love expressed as natural familial affection and obligation; and agape, which we often call unconditional love.

The last of these is what we want to address: agape. It is the highest ideation of love we have—love that gives everything. In the language of theology, love is not a feeling. Love is not about the heart palpitations and wooziness that two people feel when they are attracted to each other. Love is an act of the intellect and will, which makes it a moral act. Love does something.

Love does something.

The philosopher Jean Vanier made this claim about love, and if you’ve heard me preach at a wedding, you might remember how fond I am of this description: “To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”

“To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”

Love is completely directed at the other. Not at what I get out of it, but what I give.

Love is also in the action. Love, true unconditional agape love, is in the sacrifice that one makes for another: the sacrifice we make for our families when we work at jobs we don’t like, the sacrifice we make when we volunteer long hours, the sacrifice we make when we give even when it’s the hardest thing to do.

We just reenacted an account of the most difficult sacrifice—one which we will reenact again on this altar in just a few minutes. If you want to know the true nature of love, the true measure of complete self giving, then you only have to look right up there (pointing to crucifix).

That is what the word love means.

That is what love is. The rest is commentary.

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Listen to Him; Trust in Him—Second Sunday of Lent (Cycle A)

Genesis 12:1–4a; 2 Timothy 1:8b–10; Matthew 17:1–9

Do you trust God? Do you trust that He has a plan for you? When you struggle with adversity, do you trust that somehow He will bring about good? Imagine the Lord telling you, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk” as He does to Abram in the first reading. Now Abram is in Ur of the Chaldeans, which would be somewhat close to Basra in modern day Iraq, some seven or eight hundred miles from the land of Canaan.

He’s not talking about a move from Boise to Melba, but from a land of these—your own people—here, to that unknown place 800 miles away with people you know nothing about. And you’re going to walk—with all of your children, your herd animals, and your belongings. Imagine the trust you’d have to have to take that directive. But what does that trust yield? Not only are Abram’s descendants a great nation, but all the communities of the earth are blessed. Abram’s tremendous faith brings about tremendous returns. Abram becomes Abraham, a name that means “father of a multitude.” And from that multitude comes the salvation of the world, our savior Jesus—all because of the faith and trust of one man.

In every era, the faithful are tried. That is as true now as it was in earlier times. In 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to bear his hardships for the sake of the gospel and that God would strengthen him. Paul and Timothy lived during some of the earliest periods of Christian persecution. Surely what Timothy faced is far different from what we as Christians in the U.S. face today, but we may well face adversity as our society trends toward increasing secularism. It’s difficult for many of us to remember that Catholics were not always part of the mainstream in this country. There were times early in our nation’s history when Catholics faced heavy civil restrictions and when Catholic churches and convents were burned by mobs. We forget about the virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing party or that the Ku Klux Klan, which was very popular in the 1920s, was also violently opposed to Catholics. It wasn’t until after John F. Kennedy that hostility toward Catholics in U.S. society decreased. Will we ever see anything like that kind of hostility again? I’d like to think not. But elsewhere in the world, there is no question. Christians, mostly Catholics and Orthodox, are persecuted throughout the Middle East and Africa. So there will be hardships. We will be tried. We will have our crosses to bear. Jesus promised that much to us. But He also promised to walk with us in our struggles.

In Matthew, we get the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. All three of the synoptic gospels share this same story, and in all three Jesus takes only three of the twelve apostles up the mountain with Him: Peter, James, and John. Commentaries make a lot of this group Jesus takes with Him: John MacEvilly notes that they meet the numerical requirements for witnesses required for legal proof under Jewish law. Others note that each of the three has a unique role: Peter, being the leader of the twelve apostles, James being the first apostle martyred for the faith, and John as the one who would survive all the rest. But clearly, these three shared a special relationship with the Lord, and they would also be the three who accompanied him to Gethsemane on the last night of His mortal life.

So what is the point of this transfiguration? Recall that the apostles expected an earthly messiah. They expected Jesus to change the status quo in Judea, perhaps to run the Romans out of the country. Jesus understood this, which is why he told the twelve not to repeat that He was the Christ. He understood the political ramifications of such an announcement.

But He also had this core twelve who were the foundation of His Church, and He knew that His coming death might shatter their faith. He attested to this several times and warned them of His impending death. You might recall that He encourages Simon Peter to strengthen the others after he himself has turned back, so He knows that Peter will tested.

So He takes them to the top of Mount Tabor, and there, He is revealed in all of His glory. He appears there with Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets of Judaism and showing His authority over them. Of course, Peter as usual is motivated to say something foolish, which is when the Father makes the matter clear: “This is my beloved son. Listen to Him.”

Listen to Him. Trust Him. The world will tell you that your faith is nonsense, but listen to Him. You will face faith-shattering setbacks, but trust in Him. Even as they descend from the mountain, Jesus prepares them for His death because He knows that they will be tested and that they will lose heart. It isn’t until His resurrection that Peter and John get it, that the pieces all come together.

How often is it like that with us? How often do we need the two-by-four of the Holy Spirit to whap us upside the head and awaken us to God moving in our lives? I was awakened to this reality again recently when two people, one of whom is a member of our parish, contacted me separately out of the blue for the same new job opportunity. Whap! The Holy Spirit got my attention right quick. That’s what Jesus does here at the transfiguration. He gives Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His true glory. They don’t know yet what it means. They will be tried and tested. But when the third day comes, it will all become crystal clear. He is raised from the dead. He is alive again. He can be nothing other than God with us. He prepares them so they can trust Him.

This was God’s constant complaint against Israel. He brought them out of Egypt. He fed them in the wilderness. He gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet they continually lost faith. They failed to trust. Our current political and cultural climate gives us so much right now of which we can be fearful or anxious. Maybe you’re afraid of what the current administration is doing. Maybe you’re afraid of what the North Koreans or the Islamic State are doing. We should remember the words of Psalm 146:

Put no trust in princes,
in mortal men in whom there is no help.
Take their breath, they return to clay
and their plans that day come to nothing.

We have to remember that God is in control. Despite our fears and our anxieties, He can turn all things toward good ends.

I know that I too often fail to trust. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I am asked to take on a new challenge in ministry. Sometimes it comes in those moments when I want clarity and stability. But God doesn’t promise us constant prosperity and perpetual stability. He promises that He won’t desert us and that we will be safe in His care, however that may come about. In some cases, we have to choose the difficult path, but know that God is with us. He doesn’t promise us an easy life, but He promises that He won’t let us fall, so long as we simply trust in Him.

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Marriage Prep Reflection

This last weekend, we had a summary prayer service and brunch for the people who took part in our marriage prep program this last session. I was already for it, but a death in the family called me away, so I modified my homily and had Gina deliver a reflection instead. It’s made up of bits and pieces of wedding homilies I give, but I think it has some important points that I always try to drive home.


We want to thank you for attending marriage preparation and for making the time to learn the Church’s teaching on marriage. The Church wants to make sure that people who come here to give their consent in front of a Catholic minister fully understand the depth of commitment required for marriage. To us, marriage is not just about warm and fuzzy feelings that two people have toward one another, and it certainly isn’t just about the wedding. Marriage is not about this day but about the rest of your days.

It’s important to understand what love is and what it is not. This distinction is important because our culture regularly offers us a counterfeit of love, and too many of us fall for it. The counterfeit is what we see held up as the ideal of love in romantic comedies and young-adult novels with sparkly vampires. But these counterfeits don’t show a thing of what love or marriage are truly about. Love isn’t about succumbing to your feelings of passion, or finding personal fulfillment, or satisfying your greatest desires. Love is about sacrifice. You marry for the sake of the other: not because that guy makes feel oogy all over, or because that lady gives me heart palpitations. Love is not simply an emotional or physical response but an act of the will.

True love isn’t about what you get out of this deal. It’s about what you give: what you give to your intended spouse, what you give to your families, and what you give to generations unborn. Marital love is about a sacrifice for something beyond the here and now. True love is about seeking what is best for the beloved.

Jean Vanier, a philosopher and theologian who founded the L’Arche movement, a movement that allows the mentally disabled to live in homes in communities and live normal social lives, defined love in this way: “To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”

“To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”

Love, then, isn’t about the self, but the other.

In our reading from Genesis, Adam sees woman for the first time. She is not yet named Eve but “woman.” He says to her, “This one, at last, is bone of my one, and flesh of my flesh.”

“At last,” he says, as if this was what he had been waiting for all along. Now, Hebrew has some interesting ways to communicate ideas, and the way Adam spoke here—bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh—is what we would call superlative. It is Adam’s way of saying, “You are all of the very best of me.”

Marriage requires this directedness to the other and this self-sacrificial nature. That’s why scripture uses marriage as the image of God’s covenant with Israel. He gives Himself completely to the people of Israel and wishes them to return that devotion.

Marriage also needs unity. The most obvious way that two become one flesh is in their children. And children need unity in their families. They need stability. They especially need that unity when they act like they want it the least. This is a piece of advice I think all of the instructor couples would agree to:

Don’t allow the children to divide you. They will try to play you against each other, and you know full well that you tried to do this with your parents!

If you aren’t united, your kids will direct you rather than vice versa. So be one in mind, body, and spirit. Today, you are becoming one flesh. So seek to act with your wills united.

There are a lot of threats to that unity. Children suffer most when marriages break down. The biggest threat is our culture, which offers quick remedies for temporary unhappiness—a quick dissolution of the civil bound and everyone goes along their merry way. Don’t buy that lie. Your safe port, your best anchor, is the person to whom you are clinging today. If you both take your vows seriously, you will make sure that that is always the case.

So these two elements—self-sacrifice and unity—are critical for marriage because these elements orient you both to the good of the other, and the good of spouses is one of the two primary purposes of marriage. They are necessary because children and families need stability, and the raising and education of children is another primary purpose in marriage. They are not, as our culture seems to suggest, a nice option if you want or nice accessories for the well appointed couple. Children are a primary purpose of marriage, these two primary purposes support and aid each other. Marriage is so critical for our society, and families are the most basic building block of society.

Love is not simply an emotional response. Love is an act of the will. Love is a verb. Love is demonstrative. Love acts. Love does. Love does even when the lover doesn’t feel like it. Love is in the small things you do for each other daily and in the big sacrifices you occasionally have to make. Love is in saying yes to the commitment, even when you’re drained and exhausted. That’s what families need, what children need, and what a marriage needs.

Here are a few ideas about how you can make your marriage strong and stable.

Number 1:  Put God first. God gave you life and all that you have. God gave you each other. Recognize your dependence on God at all times.

Number 2: Put your spouse before your self. Marriage is not a fair trade, and you are not asked to invest 50% for a share in the gain. You are asked to give 100% and a share in both the gain and the loss. You are to pour yourselves out completely to each other. That is what our Lord did for us, and that is why God’s love for us is so frequently symbolized by the image of marriage in scripture. That is what it means to be one flesh. You are in it not only for yourselves, but for your children, for your families and for the grandchildren and the generations who don’t yet exist. Remember that your number one job from now on is to help your spouse get to Heaven.

Number 3: When you are wrong, admit it, and ask for forgiveness. Don’t let the seed of resentment be the product of your pride. Instead be guided by honesty and humility.

Number 4: Never take your problems to an outside confidant if you have not first addressed them clearly with each other. With any complaint in your marriage, the first stop is your spouse.

We wish you God’s abundantly blessings on your journey.

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Let the Children Come to Me—RCIA Retreat 2017

Mark 10:13–16

Gina and I have five grandchildren, and with most of them, I have gone through the stage in which it is very popular for them to come and cling to me and hang on me, and just otherwise want to be around me. I’m good with that for a while, but it also happens that often the times that they can come to visit are the very times when I have limited free time to get various things done. So at a certain point, I’m not as accessible or generous as I’d like to be. I feel badly for admitting that, but it’s simply the truth. Perhaps when I retire, I’ll be less stingy with my time. I hope that is the case.

But I’m always charmed to see young fathers with their toddlers in public, particularly at parks where there is so much to explore and so many new things to encounter. I do remember those times when my daughter was just beginning to verbalize, and she’d toddle up holding something in her hand and hand it to me and say something unintelligible but with obvious inflection: “What is this?” or “This is such and such” or even “Wow, this is amazing.” If you have children, I know you know what I mean. This is one of those great moments in parenting.

That’s how I envision God in the Garden of Eden with Adam after He formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. After placing Him, His new offspring, into the garden, He realizes that man needs helpers, so He creates animals, and brings each one of them to man to name. I can see the Father presenting to his human son each animal, and the man looking each in the face and uttering something that would be as incomprehensible to us as those babblings of our own children. And I think of how God delights in it and gets such a kick out of man at his important task of naming the animals.

God the Father is a much better papa than I am. Thank goodness I have His example to follow.

I see the same dynamic in the reading this morning. The apostles and I have a lot in common. We see the children not through the eyes of the Father or our loving savior, but through our own concerns—the daily anxieties and cares that prevent us from seeing what truly matters. Jesus will have none of it. “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

The Kingdom of God belongs to those who flock to Jesus, who reach for Him and wish to be held by Him. And He picks them up and blesses each of them. That’s the generosity of spirit that I wish I had. I guess I’m happy that I wish I had it. That’s a start.

Anyway, look at what Jesus tells his disciples: “Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter into it.” Elsewhere it says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you’ll not enter the kingdom.” Now notice that the acceptance is a two-way street. Jesus is receptive to the children, and the children are eager to be with Jesus. It begins with Jesus’ openness to the children, but the children are likewise completely open to Jesus.

That is our goal. I would like to be as generous as Jesus with my grandchildren, but maybe the way that I begin is by being completely open to Jesus to start. After all, all of the gifts we have come from God. To have the gift to give, we must first receive it from the giver of all gifts. So for me to be able to give that gift of generous, gratuitous love to my grandchildren, I have to be completely open to God’s love for me. I have to become a child in His presence. Or perhaps more accurately, I have to recognize that I am a child in His eyes and respond accordingly.

Beyond that, we need to understand what this passage does and does not say. It is not telling us to believe as children believe. That would be completely inappropriate for adults. We should believe with an adult faith and understanding of God—not a faith of mindless, blind obedience, but faith seeking understanding. But what the children have and what we often luck is complete trust. While we may not always understand, we must always remember that God is a God of love who does not aim to deceive us but desires to embrace us. Let us reach out to Him with that same child-like trust in His love.


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The Choice You Make—Sixth week in Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

Sirach 15:15–20; 1 Cor. 2:6–10; Matt. 5:17–37

I’m going to be bold and propose something to you that I believe is true and consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, even though many of us don’t realize it. Actually, I know it to be true, but it’s one of those truths that isn’t spoken often enough.

God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him.

By proposing this, I am not saying that sin doesn’t matter or that God will not act justly and condemn some—perhaps many—of those who call themselves Christians, and some—perhaps many—who are not. But God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him.

What do I mean by that? How is it that Christians might not be saved or that non-Christians might be saved? I would point to our first reading from Sirach as a clue.

He has set  before you fire and water: to whichever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before a man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given to him.

This passage is an allusion to one from Deuteronomy, Moses’ final exhortation to the People of Israel as they prepare to pass into the Promised Land

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.

Notice that the Promised Land is already theirs. All they have to do is grasp it. They just need to make the right choice. There’s no more searching and waiting. The choice is right there before them. They just have to choose the blessing, and that blessing resides in the words of the Law and the prophets.

Now you would think that you could look at two such clear choices—life or death—and know exactly which you would choose, but human history demonstrates that we’re really bad at this game. It goes back to the very beginning. Adam is plopped down in a garden where all these beautiful fruit trees and edible plants are, including the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God tells him, “You can eat from anything in the garden except that tree right there— the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”

It’s right there next to the Tree of Life! Yet even then, which one does mankind choose?

Such is the nature of mankind. Part of the problem is with our vision—our perspective. We simply don’t see with clarity. Our vision is obscured, so how could we choose correctly? As St. Paul points out, “What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him” or elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, “we see indistinctly as through a mirror.” If we can’t choose wisely from the obvious goods in front of us, how can we forestall those choices and choose what God has prepared for us—the greatest good that is so far beyond our understanding?

We live in a world that does its best to muddy the moral waters and culture that encourages relativistic moral thinking. Nothings is black and white, just shades of gray. Never mind that you can’t have gray without blending black and white. Now I’m not suggesting that all moral distinctions are easy to make, but some most certainly are, so long as we are willing to see.

That’s really Jesus’ point here in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s telling us that sometimes those gray areas we think exist between one choice and another, morally speaking, are not gray at all. The law says that those who commit murder are liable to the Law, but Jesus says anger at your brother, calling him Raqa or fool makes you liable.

The law says not to commit adultery, but Jesus says even looking at someone with lust is equal to adultery. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand, cut it off.

I don’t think Jesus is buying this stuff about shades of gray either. In fact, he intensifies every law: not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter of the Law will pass away, He says. If anyone sets the bar high for righteousness, it’s the King of Righteousness right here in this gospel.

But how can anyone hold up to such a standard? To never condemn someone in thought? To never think a lustful thought, or to see and not covet? How can we hold to that expectation always?

Well, fortunately, we get a bit of a break, because Jesus is using hyperbole in this passage. He’s exaggerating in order to drive home His point. He knows that we have difficulty seeing clearly, so He blows up the examples to the point that no one can miss the message.

Jesus doesn’t mean that we should be cutting off our errant hands and blinding ourselves for the least temptation. He is telling us to be aware of the source of all sin: the mind and heart, because they drive the human will. The will is the immediate source of an act. Any wrong act that is not motivated by will is simply an accident. But only a wrong act motivated by will can be sinful. Sin is always a matter of the will and of choice. And our will is informed and motivated first and foremost by what resides in our hearts and thoughts. To the Jewish mind of Jesus’ time, heart and mind would be one and the same.

So Jesus isn’t saying that your eye in itself is sinful, or that your hand is sinful. He’s saying that when you hold something in your mind and heart that can motivate your eye or your hand to sin, you are already on the pathway. If you dwell on evil thoughts, you are giving them a chance to grow into evil action. Jesus is telling the crowds and his disciples to go beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. You can murder someone literally, which most of us would never do, but we can also murder them in our thoughts, in our hearts, or in our words. We might not commit adultery, but if we’re harboring lustful thoughts toward someone, we’re already building the doorway that lets us into that room.

So at every moment, we need to be ready to resist, and resistance is a choice, which brings us back to what I said at the beginning of this homily.

God will not condemn anyone who chooses Him. God will not forsake those, flawed as they may be, who sincerely and earnestly desire to be with Him. Then how do we choose Him? Is it simply a matter of an altar call? Do we just believe in the Lord Jesus and recite the sinner’s prayer, as some of our Evangelical brethren believe? I’ll make another bold move now and propose, no. It is not enough to say the sinner’s prayer or simply “believe in the Lord Jesus” or to simply “believe in God.” St. James says that the “demons believe—and tremble.” If belief were enough for salvation, then demons would have no need to tremble.

So belief alone is not enough. We must act on belief. We must choose, because only in our choosing God do we demonstrate faith. Faith and belief are not equal. I can believe that our government has the ability to make dramatic societal change in our time but have no faith in them at all. Belief and faith aren’t the same thing.

If I have belief in God but don’t trust His will for me, then I have no faith. If I believe in an all-powerful benevolent being who wills what is best for me but constantly choose what is worst for me, then I have no faith. If I consistently choose myself over my neighbor, myself over God’s revelation, myself and temporal things over my own greatest good, I might have belief, but I don’t have true faith.

Faith is what allows me to choose the thing that draws me closer to God. Through faith, I can understand that I do not see all matters clearly. I can grasp that my notion of what is good for me is distorted. I can accept that my will might not lead me to the greatest good, but God’s will always does. So if I choose to align my will with God’s, I will be saved. If I choose to seek Him in everything I do, I will be saved. If I choose always to have my own way, then it will be, and it won’t be the will of God.

In the end, there are two outcomes. Either I say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to me, “Thy will be done.”


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The Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians:2–3a, 5–6; Matthew 2:1–12

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, an ancient celebration of the Church in both the East and the West.

In the common use of the word, an epiphany is a sudden perception of absolute clarity, a moment at which some mystery becomes startlingly obvious. Whenever the Epiphany comes around, I always remember a scene from Hook, a great movie with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. Captain Hook’s somewhat dimwitted first mate Smee, played by Bob Hoskins, is staring out the window of the captain’s quarters, and he gets this wide-eyed look on his face and says, “I’ve just had… an apostrophe.”

Apostrophe, epiphany… close enough. Smee describes it as like lightening striking his brain. Suddenly he sees something in a flash that he didn’t grasp before. His mind takes ownership of something he perhaps had been told many times but never quite understood himself. In that way an apostrophe is like an epiphany. In our written language, an apostrophe represents ownership.

That’s what the Epiphany is about—suddenly seeing what was not apparent before; suddenly grasping a mystery that was beyond reach just moments ago. We come to own a truth of the faith that was previously beyond us.

As I mentioned, this feast day is an ancient observance in the Church. It first began in the 3rd century as a commemoration of the baptism of the Lord, which we now celebrate one week or an octave after the Epiphany. (My bad here, looks at the wrong dates in the planner. It’s Monday 1/9.) In the 4th century, it also came to be associated with the changing of water to wine at Cana, as well as the visit of the Magi. For the Western Church, it has been more closely associated with the visit of the Magi since that time. So we have these three events that are separated in time and seem at first glance to be completely unrelated. We have to delve a bit deeper to understand the ancient thinking on these three events.

By the way, I would recommend to all of you who want to understand better the roots of our Catholic faith to study the early Church Fathers. We have our traditions and our understanding through their thought and reflection on such events as this one. To be steeped in the thought of the Fathers of the Church is to have a true foundation in the Catholic faith.

That’s my little plug for the Patristic Tradition of the Church.

So how are these three events related? How do we tie them all to this notion of epiphany, of revelation? The word itself means “manifestation,” and Pope St. Leo I, one of the Fathers of the Church I just mentioned,  clarified it a bit more and referred to the Theophany—the manifestation of God. In the Baptism of Jesus, God the Father Himself claims Jesus as His begotten son. In the Wedding at Cana, Jesus reveals Himself through the changing of water to wine. And in the visit of the Magi, God made flesh is revealed to the Gentiles.

Each of these events depicts the further manifestation of God, not in the veiled forms and words of the prophets and nature, but in His physical presence on earth, here with us. That is what His name Emmanuel means: God with us.

The earliest is the visit of the Magi. The wise men of the other nations—the pagan nations—recognize the arrival of the newborn king of the Jews. These wise men from the east are often associated with Persian astrologers, but some scholars now think that there was perhaps a bit more influence from the Jewish faith on the Persians. Recall that Israel was exiled to Babylon and dispersed for many years prior to the coming of Christ. They weren’t among ignorant people but civilized, advanced societies. It was a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, who sent the dispersed Jews back to Jerusalem and who funded the rebuilding of the temple. No doubt the leaders of the Jewish people exchanged ideas with the learned of Persia. So it’s not hard to imagine that the scriptures of the Jews were known to some of them, and perhaps they developed their own understanding of God and His Messiah, His anointed one.

So following whatever sign they witnessed—a comet, an alignment of planets, or some other mysterious sign in the heavens—the Magi came bearing gifts and inquiring about the newborn king.

Let’s think about what this manifestation means to the Magi, to Herod, and then to us. The Magi travel most likely from Persia, a journey of more than 1000 miles on the routes of the time. They travel trusting the words of prophets from scripture, trusting that this sign will confirm a revelation. What is it they expect? Are they simply coming to pay their respects to royalty? Notice that the reading doesn’t say, “They bowed down and did obeisance to him,” which would be the expected behavior of visitors to a king. No, as Matthew says, “They fell down and worshipped Him.” Bowing down in obeisance is something someone does as an act of the will. But falling down in worship? That’s an intuitive, emotional response. They recognized something here greater than any earthly king. Something Divine, God’s anointed, was manifest, and they responded as anyone should who gets a mere glimpse of the Christ, the Anointed One of God.

Compare this to Herod’s response. While the non-Jewish Magi travel over a thousand miles, instigated by the appearance of a star, Herod—an Idumean and nominal convert to Judaism at best, lives a short walk from Bethlehem, less than six miles. He’s completely oblivious to the prophesies about the newborn king. And when he does learn of Him, he responds with little alacrity. He doesn’t get up and rush on to Bethlehem but sends the Magi on ahead. “You go on and then let me know where He is so I can see him later.”

That doesn’t sound like someone looking forward to the consolation of Israel. It sounds like someone who couldn’t care less. Or worse.

And it is worse, as we learn before the chapter is out. Herod sends his troops to slaughter all the newborn boys up to two years of age. So Herod’s seeming indifference is really much more malignant. He can’t even look on the newborn king himself. He sends others to destroy Him.

So there are the responses to the Epiphany: go searching far and wide for the anointed king, wave him off as something to be sought later, or seek to kill him and never look him in the face. Those are our choices.

What are we going to choose? The Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed has been revealed to us. How will we respond?

Some of us act as if there is no urgency, no immediate need to seek God, to seek repentance. We wave it off as if it’s something we can take care of later. Or perhaps we are unaware of our own need for salvation because we no longer have any sense of sin.

How many times have you heard people say, “Hey, I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anyone”?

That is not exactly setting the bar very high.

But that is exactly what most of us do. We look around at the obvious presence of God around us in the world and say, “Meh, it looks better in high definition.” We are so unimpressed with the beauty around us, so accustomed to comfort that we don’t see the miracle of natural design, of Divine intervention as the very fabric of our lives. That is why we need an Epiphany. We need to be slapped upside the head with the manifestation of God in the flesh.

So some of us wave off the Epiphany out of ignorance and apathy. But some of us resist it violently. The last thing we want is an Epiphany. We not only don’t feel the need to pursue truth, we want to ignore it, to deny it… to kill it.

That is Herod’s response. He sees the manifestation of God only in terms of his station, only in its temporal effects, only as a threat. So he doesn’t seek to face it or comprehend it. He wants to extinguish it.

But to those who are open to the mystery, the Epiphany is a wonder. It draws us in. We seek it, not out of duty, but out of love and awe. The pope, in his Epiphany homily on Friday, says that Magi represent all of those who long for God, those who have grown restless and are, in his words, rebelling against those forces of secularism that try to reduce and impoverish our lives.

It took courage to set out on a journey of a thousand miles. The Magi were willing to risk it for a glimpse of the new king. It took courage to follow Him during the early years when the Church faced intense persecution. What does it cost us today? What risks are we willing to face to look into the face of God?

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