Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Homilies

During these days of the Christmas Octave, I won't have any homilies to post. Because I have three different homilies to give--Christmas Midnight, Christmas Day, and Holy Family--all in the span of about three days, I just don't have the time nor the ganas to go through my usual composition and editing process.

This is actually pretty dangerous, because it's when you don't prepare well that you end up preaching too long and too randomly. One of my favorite quotes to apply to homiletic preparation is from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

That's my definition of elegance. It's good to keep in mind when it comes to the curious intersection of theological reflection, salesmanship, and theater that is preaching in the assembled Body of Christ. You don't want to be one of those priests who suffer from the dreaded 'banana problem,' named for the little girl who said, "I know how to spell 'banana,' but I don't know when to stop."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The New Temple

(4th Sunday of Advent, B)

The first reading we hear today from the second book of Samuel contains two momentous events in the history of the people of God: First, we hear the beginning of the reflection that will lead to the construction of the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Second, we hear David the king receive the everlasting, royal covenant from God. These two great moments in the history of salvation help us to understand what God is doing in the human birth of his Son, the annunciation of which we hear in today’s Gospel.

By the time of king David, the people of God had settled down. David had captured Jerusalem and united the people. As the Scripture says, David notices that he lives in a palace, while the Ark of the Covenant—the presence of God for the Israelites—continues to dwell in a tent, as it had when the people were in the desert. So David starts to think that he should build a kind of palace for God, a temple where prayer and sacrifices can be offered. But the word of God that comes back to David through the prophet Nathan is a little ambivalent. God says, “…should you build me a house to dwell in?” As God also says through the prophet Isaiah, “What kind of house can you build for me?” In fact, God turns the reflection around on David, and says that it is God who will build David a house, by which God means that he will establish David’s dynasty in everlasting grace and favor. This is the royal and everlasting covenant.

Now we know from history that the Temple did get built eventually, not by David but by his son Solomon. David, who, as you remember, who made himself a conspirator to murder in order to commit adultery, didn’t turn out to be God’s man for the job. But Solomon was, and he built the great Temple of Jerusalem. It stood for a few hundred years until it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in the year 586 B.C. Two generations later, when the Jews returned from the Exile, the Temple was rebuilt. This Second Temple stood in Jerusalem for another five hundred years until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D, around the time the gospels were being written.

So what does all this ancient history mean for Christmas, much less for us? A lot, I think. The birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of God’s promise in the first reading. It is not us who build a house for God, but God who builds a house, a Temple, for us. Think of the very end of the Bible, the two last chapters of the book of Revelation. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven and is joined to the earth. But the narrator notices that this New Jerusalem doesn’t seem to have a Temple. What gives? As Revelation says, God himself and the Lamb are the Temple. So now, as Jesus is born, the new and eternal Temple of God appears. Remember, what is a temple? It’s a place where prayer and sacrifice are offered to God, and in his incarnate life, the Son of God becomes this Temple for the world, offering prayer to the Father on our behalf and becoming on the Cross not only the Temple where sacrifice is offered but the perfect sacrifice itself.

In his Risen Body, Christ continues to do this through the ages. His Risen Body is the Temple where prayer and sacrifice is offered to God. And where is this Risen Body? It is us, brothers and sisters, all of us gathered together by our baptism into Christ’s death and our Holy Communion with his risen Body in this Eucharist. In this we are made into God’s house in the fulfillment of his promise to David. And we become the Temple where sacrifice is offered to God. That means that all the joys and pains, the sufferings and the loves of our lives are consecrated through Christ and offered to God. That’s the good news of Christmas; that by the Word becoming flesh, our humanity is given the opportunity to live in communion with God, such that everything about our lives becomes a consecrated and holy sacrifice, pleasing to God in every way.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Clothed and Adorned

(Gaudete Sunday, B)

In the midst of this season of “joyful expectation” we arrive at this especially joyful day, the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. This name comes from traditional entrance antiphon for today, Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte. Dóminus enim prope est, which sings St. Paul’s imperative from the fourth chapter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice. The Lord is near!”

And that is exactly why we are invited into this mood of rejoicing today, because the Lord is near. But why should we be so happy about the arrival of the Lord in the coming feast of his Nativity? The second part of the reading we hear from the prophet Isaiah says it all: God “has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.” Listen to force of these verbs! ‘Clothed me,’ ‘wrapped me,’ as Isaiah says, made beautiful as a bride. Who is he talking about? It’s us, brothers and sisters. For when the Son of God is born as one of us, in our humanity, yours and mine, our humanity is clothed with the blessing of God, wrapped in salvation, and restored to the original beauty God has meant for us all. That’s the good news of Christmas; not just the miracle of the Word made flesh, but all the miracles of our humanity being lifted up to God. As the priest says when he prepares the chalice, “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The Son of God becomes flesh in order to establish a union between our humanity and God. It is us who are given the opportunity of changing from water into wine, friends.

This is the great work of God of which our religion is meant to be a celebration. As St. Paul puts it in the second reading today: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” This is God’s passion and desire—to take on our humanity in the Incarnation, so as to lift us up to perfect holiness. Too often we think of holiness as something we have to accomplish by our own agonistic effort. No! As Paul says, it is God who will make us holy and prepare us for the end and goal and purpose of creation. By uniting himself to us in the Lord whose human birth we will soon celebrate, all of the holiness of God becomes available to our human nature.

So rejoice, brothers and sisters. And if this time of year finds us a little more tired or even a little more blue, be encouraged. The true Light to which John the Baptist witnessed is coming into the world. In whatever darkness we find in our own hearts or our own families or in our society, let us fix our gaze on this Light that is coming into the world. The mystery of Christmas teaches us that it is in these places of darkness that the Light wants to be born. This Light from Light—as we say in the Creed—is the hope for each of us. For God’s great work of uniting himself to us in Christ means that we will be clothed in comfort and wrapped in salvation.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Think Again

(2nd Sunday of Advent, B)

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

So St. Mark begins his gospel, which we will be reading over the course of the coming year. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” And how does this gospel, this “good news” begin? It begins with the appearance of the Forerunner. This is John the Baptist, who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that a cry of repentance will precede the appearance of the strong arm of God which will be the comfort of God’s people. We know that this arm with which God reaches out to us is our Lord Jesus Christ. And we know that the Comfort Isaiah prophesied is the coming of the Comforter himself, the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by proclaiming a “baptism of repentance.” This word we translate ‘repentance’ is one of the great New Testament terms—metanoia. It means, perhaps more literally, ‘to think again,’ ‘to have second thoughts,’ or even ‘to change your mind.’ Those who thought again and changed their minds received the baptism of John for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus himself receives it on our behalf, with the humanity he had borrowed from us through our most Blessed Mother. Having repented through John’s baptism, the people were prepared to hear the good news of the arriving Kingdom of God.

As it was then, so it is now, as we prepare once again for the coming of the Lord. Each us is called to repentance, to have second thoughts about our selfish ways, to change our minds, bending them once again to God. Each of us is also called to the vocation of the Forerunner, to the work of John the Baptist. We are to proclaim the need for repentance, the need to think again, in the wilderness of the unbelief of our culture and the despair and depression of our secular society. By our own repentance we are to prepare a place for the Light from Light to be conceived anew in our own hearts. And by the proclamation of the coming Lord through how we live our lives, we cry out to the world around us its need to do the same.

We know well that the reward and the end of this work is the full baptism that Jesus brings, the baptism with the Holy Spirit which we have received in Christ. And our prayer and our hope during this Advent is that the whole world will be plunged into baptism with the Holy Spirit, that all creation might emerge as a full and complete Resurrection.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


(1st Sunday of Advent, B)

Many times we hear and we act like this short season of Advent is a time of ‘waiting and preparation for Christmas.’ But that’s only part of the story. Yes, Advent is the time when we await the arrival of the Lord, and so this certainly means that we use this time to prepare ourselves to recall his first coming to us in his Nativity in Bethlehem. But just as we look back to the Lord’s historical birth, we also look forward to his arrival again at the end of time, the Second Coming. So the Advent season has this double character; we look back and prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth among us in history, but we also look forward to the Arrival that will mark the fulfillment and the goal of history and creation.

In fact, during this time of Advent I think we reflect and dwell on the nature of God as just that, adventitious. Our God is a God who arrives, who appears, who comes to dwell in our lives. I think we’ve all had the spiritual experience of suddenly becoming aware of God’s presence or action in the midst of a difficult situation, or maybe in a moment of quiet and solitude. This is the arriving God. I think we experience God this way because we exist in time, but God is eternal. So there is no before or after with God; there is nothing that God is doing tomorrow that he is not doing now. With God there is only a Now, a nunc stans¸ as the scholastic theologians liked to say.

This is why the presence of God of God always seems new and fresh, and is refreshing for the soul, because God is always Now. This arriving presence in our hearts is the real desire of our souls—a desire we so often squander on things that are less than God and will not satisfy. We get this in the reading from Isaiah we hear today—he is the great prophet of Advent because he is the prophet of longing for the renewal of the presence of God among his people. He cries out, “Return, for the sake of your servants.” That’s the real desire at the root of our humanity, the longing for the presence of God.

This presence of God which arrives in the soul is the soul’s true giftedness, as we hear today from St. Paul. It is God’s desire to come and dwell in our hearts and minds, if only we will prepare a place for him. When we do, we open ourselves up to a spiritual giftedness and will make us ready that day when the Lord himself returns in glory.

So as Jesus commands in the gospel today, let us watch. Let us quiet down our voices and our thoughts, so that we might be alert in prayer to the arrival of the Lord of our lives, ready to greet him when we comes to make his home in us. The mysterious and eternal God who is beyond anything we can say and more than anything we can think, seeks a dwelling in each human life, and wants to become the peace and giftedness of each soul. Let’s begin again, for the first time, to wait for the God who wants to speak the Word of his own self from within each of us.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Destination and Destiny

(Christ the King, A)

The cosmic kingship of Christ is the end of the world. ‘End’ not so much in terms of a terminal point—though it is that too—but ‘end’ in the sense of purpose. That the kingdom of God in which Christ reigns forever should become complete and extend to every human soul and every other part of creation is the point and purpose of everything God has ever done.

We start to get a sense of this in the second reading we hear today from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “…in Christ all shall be brought to life, but each in proper order.” This is the process of creation moving toward its final goal of all being brought to eternal life. Christ was first at his Resurrection; his rising to new life is like a kind of preview of the world to come. As Paul says, then those who belong to Christ will be raised as well. When this resurrection of the world reaches completion, then even the final enemy, death, will be destroyed and Christ will reign supreme, and, as Paul says, “God will be all in all.” That’s the reign of Christ the King.

This is about destiny! The full and final reign of Christ is the “life of the world to come” we proclaim in the creed, when the eternal life which we now enjoy obscurely comes to rule every heart and mind and all creation is rolled back into the Original Blessing we call God. This is the fulfillment for which all the prophets hoped, just as Ezekiel in the first reading today looks forward to that divine shepherd who would gather those who are scattered, injured, lost, or sick. This is what God is doing for us in Christ; by pouring his own infinite goodness into our humanity through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God offers us a path to safety and healing from all the injuries and misery we have brought upon ourselves with our sins.

In the meantime, brothers and sisters, God not only invites but commands us to become part of this movement towards the final fulfillment of creation. We are not in the situation of the nations who stand before God in St. Matthew’s vision of the Last Judgment—the nations who didn’t know that they were or were not serving Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters. We who are Christians know that on account of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word and the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the presence of God is to be found in suffering and needy humanity. We are not ignorant like the nations who are judged in the Gospel we hear today. Instead, we are gifted with the eyes of faith that can see the broken body of Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters, and God calls us to serve him in them and so join in the real history of the world, which is the movement toward the fullness of the kingship of Christ.

This is where the world is going, to the fullness of love in which the Resurrection of Christ comes to encompass all the hurt, lost, and broken of our world. Let’s join in.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Optimistic Investor

(33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The parable we hear today from St. Matthew is one of those parables in which we usually jump too quickly to an examination of ourselves. As soon as we hear it we begin to judge ourselves morally to see how well we are doing with the resources that God has entrusted to us. But when we begin our self-examination right away, we miss a lot. We’ll get to all that, but first let’s bracket ourselves off and take the time to notice the image of God presented by the man in the parable, and the attitudes of God that are imagined through his relationships with his servants.

I don’t prefer the traditional title for this passage, the “parable of the talents,” but instead I like to call it the parable of the optimistic investor. The man entrusts his servants in the parable with a huge amount of money; the talent was a unit of both weight and currency in the ancient world. Now nobody is exactly sure how much it was. One commentator I read said that it might be about fifteen years’ worth of wages for an ordinary worker. Another said that a talent would be about a cubic foot of gold or silver. So in any case we’re talking about a lot of money. And this is the first part of the image of God we should notice; God has entrusted to each of us resources of tremendous value. Indeed, God has invested in us, in our humanity, the divine life of his only Son. Through our baptism into Christ’s death and Resurrection and through our Holy Communion with his humanity in this Eucharist, God has invested each of us with his own divine Presence. In fact, God has poured out his own infinitely loving and refreshing Self into our humanity. That’s the good news of the Incarnation, and the ultimate blessing each of us has received as members of Christ’s body.

Just like the man in the parable, God looks forward to a return on his investment. It is God’s delight to see us taking the gift of God within and making it flourish in the particular circumstances of our relationships and our lives. This is what we do as Christians; we strive to become vehicles for the grace of God, bringing the caring, gentle, reconciling love of God to all that we do and giving it a chance to grow and increase in the world around us. Notice what the man in the parable says when he settles accounts with the first servant, the one who had doubled his money: “Come, share your master’s joy.” This is the God who is delighted when we take the presence of Christ within us and allow it to flourish in our families, our jobs, and our communities.

But we also have to keep in mind that though heaven rejoices when we make God’s investment in us grow, this is not just an invitation. God does not invite us to make his goodness and holiness multiply in the world; he commands us to do so. God is demanding! See how the man treated the servant who buried his talent in fear. That servant was condemned pretty harshly. Is this unfair? Well, no, because as we were told in the beginning of the parable, each servant was given a sum to work with “according to his ability.” From this we know that the servant who was given the one talent could have done something with it, but he didn’t.

So it is with God. God invests his own divine life within us according to each one’s ability. The presence and blessing of God that each of us has is tailored and meant for the particular creation that each of us is. It is up to us to take the saving, reconciling, and renewing presence of God that he has placed within us and use it to build up the people and the world around us in love. This is what it means to be the body of Christ we become in this Eucharist, and to participate in God’s great work of lifting up all creation in the Resurrection of Christ.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

We Are God's Building

(Dedication of the Lateran Basilica)

After hearing the introduction to today’s Mass, you may wonder why we are celebrating the dedication of a church four thousand miles away. Well, here’s how it works: in any given church, like this one for example, the anniversary of the dedication is celebrated as a solemnity. For a cathedral, the principal church of a diocese, the anniversary of dedication is celebrated throughout that diocese. Now the Lateran Basilica—dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist—is the cathedral church of Rome. That is to say that it is the Holy Father’s church as bishop of Rome. Therefore, it’s kind of like the cathedral for the whole Catholic Church, and so the celebration of its dedication is universal.

Now there’s something inherently ironic about the Mass for the anniversary of a dedication of a church. On the surface, it seems like we’re celebrating the dedication of a building. But the readings and prayers don’t bear this out. In fact, the readings and prayers for this Mass suggest to us that we we’re not celebrating buildings at all, but the spiritual structure we ourselves have become in Christ.

St. Paul expresses it beautifully in the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians: “You are God’s building,” says Paul. “You are the temple of God.” So when we talk about the Church, we aren’t talking about Sacred Heart church in Yonkers or the Lateran Basilica in Rome, or any physical structure. We are talking about a people who are called together and bonded to one another by our mutual communion with the humanity of Christ. That’s what the Church is, a spiritual building built of the “living stones” of human hearts and lives. That’s us, together with all the baptized here on earth and in heaven above.

When we build a physical church as a place to pray and offer the Eucharist, it’s only an expression of the Church which is us. And so everything about a church building is meant to express a spiritual truth about who we are as Church. For instance, here at Sacred Heart, in a wonderful imitation of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, images of the apostles adorn the pillars. This is to express the spiritual truth that the apostles are the foundation and basic structure on which the Church is built. To borrow another example from Pope Benedict during one of the homilies he gave when he was with us this past spring, consider the stained glass windows. From outside they just look dark, but here inside we can see how they depict the mysteries of the faith with delightful beauty. And so it with the spiritual building that is the true Church. Those on the outside don’t “get” the great mysteries of the faith. But to us within the Church, the mysteries of the faith illuminate our lives and bring to each mind and heart a peaceful and delightful light.

So whenever we find ourselves praying in a beautiful church, as we are today, let us always consider that these delights for eyes and ears are only expressions of who we ourselves as God’s building. Let us be God’s Church for the sake of the world. Let each of be a safe place for people to come and open their hearts. Let us imitate Jesus himself in ejecting from ourselves anything that profanes the sacred spaces of our lives. And let us offer ourselves as spiritual sacrifices, that we might become the living water the prophet Ezekiel saw flowing from the Temple, giving refreshment and new life to the world around us.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


(All Souls Day)

The observance we make today goes by many names. In English we usually call it All Souls Day, but it’s also known as the Day of the Dead, El Día de Los Muertos, or as it’s officially called, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Whatever we call it, today is a day that the Church sets aside in a particular way to pray and offer Masses for our beloved dead.

When we reflect on our laudable practice of praying for the dead, we can’t get away from talking about purgatory. This is because if our beloved dead have completed their journey to God and find themselves in the fullness of his presence—in the ultimate destiny we call heaven—then their feast day was yesterday on All Saints Day, and it is they who should be praying for us! And if, God forbid, someone finds themselves in hell, then there isn’t any use praying for them anyway. Keep in mind, though, that though the Church has always affirmed hell as a kind of logical possibility for the final destiny of human freedom, she has never claimed or affirmed that any human soul actually went there. Apart from the devil and his angels, hell might be empty.

In the midst of the two final destinies of heaven and hell we affirm the process of purgatory. We are not talking about a place, but a process. Sometimes we have this idea that purgatory is some kind of awful thing with fire and torments and all that. I’m not sure that this is the right approach. I’ll tell you right now, if I die this afternoon and I find myself in purgatory, I’ll be overjoyed! Why? Because, brothers and sisters, purgatory has only one exit, and that exit is the eternal joy and peace of the perfect vision of God, the blessed destiny of heaven. To be in purgatory is to be on the way to heaven, and there is nothing more anyone could ever want.

In fact, my friends, purgatory is not about punishment for sinners, but about God’s mercy on those who have already been saved and destined for heaven by their baptism into Christ’s death and Resurrection. The process begins at our baptism. We are freed from sin and configured to the perfect humanity of Christ. In the course of our life from that day on, we are called to grow in faith and holiness. Though we are free from sin by baptism, the wounds and injuries of sin remain in our hearts, minds, and bodies. That’s why we still struggle with selfishness and sin over the course of our baptized life. Now, if at the end of our life, whenever it comes, we have not yet fully freed ourselves from our attachment to the selfishness and sin, God provides a means for us to continue our purification after death. This final process of purification we call purgatory. See how gentle and merciful God is to us! God passionately desires the salvation of every human soul, and even if we don’t succeed in letting God make us perfectly good and holy in this life, he will purify and prepare us for heaven in the life to come.

That’s why I would be overjoyed to find myself in purgatory. I find it very comforting. With all of my sins, I know that even if I don’t succeed in becoming a saint in this life, God will make me one in the life to come. Purgatory is one more sign to us that God’s love and desire to bring us to the perfect joy of himself is stronger than sin. God’s desire to save the world will not be thwarted by something as stupid as my sins.

We don’t know what this process of purification will be like. We don’t know if it takes time—as we know it—or if it happens in an instant awareness of God. But today is a day to pray for those who are in the midst of this final, purifying journey to heaven, that through the communion of saints our prayers might speed them on the way to the final destiny we all look forward to: the eternal joy and peace, the perfectly satisfying vision of God we call heaven.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

How To Read The Bible

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

This Sunday we hear another Gospel in which Jesus is tested. You will recall how last week they tried to trap Jesus in what he would say about the Roman census tax. Today a scholar of the law tries to test Jesus with a specifically religious concern, and it has to do with the very old question of how to read the Sacred Scriptures. What’s the right way to read and interpret the Bible?

This problem was very much alive in Jesus’ time, as it is in ours. All you have to do is flip around on your television or radio to find a preacher delivering some homemade doctrine supposedly based in the Scriptures, or you can walk down the street until someone gives you a pamphlet. And when you hear some of these things you think to yourself how it doesn’t sound right. But then you ask yourself, how do I know? How do I know that one way of interpreting the divine revelation contained in the Bible is better than another? Whom should I believe?

I think that an awareness of this problem can help us to enter into the spirit of the Gospel we hear today. This question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” was very much alive at the time of Jesus. A little bit later on, the Jewish tradition will decide that there are, in fact, 613 precepts of the law: 248 in the form of “thou shall” do this, and 365 in the form of “thou shall not.”

In his response Jesus answers once and for all the question of how to read and interpret the Bible. He delivers the great double commandment: we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jesus says, the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” That means that the whole of the Sacred Scriptures depend on the love of God and neighbor; it means that these loves are the point and purpose of all divine revelation.

To love God means to always seek to put God first in our lives, to seek and to consider the happiness that God wants to give us. To love our neighbor means to desire and act for what is best for those around us, to seek their joy and happiness. We are called to do this just as much for those we like as for those we don’t. In fact, often the great work of the Christian life is to make the effort to love those we don’t like. Some of this we hear in the first reading today from the book of Exodus, though it’s expressed negatively: we are to make sure that in our dealings with the vulnerable they are not cheated or oppressed.

So, anytime we want to ask ourselves what the Sacred Scriptures mean, or to judge what somebody else tries to tell us they mean, all we have to do is ask ourselves: would this interpretation lead us to a greater love of God and neighbor? If so, it’s probably a good way to understand the Bible passage in question. If the interpretation seems to point away from love of neighbor especially, then we already know that the interpretation is wrong.

Sometimes the point at question doesn’t seem to make a difference for love of God and neighbor. Take for example the burning question of creationism vs. evolution. Scientists tell us that the earth is something like four and half billion years old. In stark contrast, if you take the Biblical account on its face, the world seems to be just six thousand years old or so. Hence, in the Jewish calendar, we have just entered the year 5769. So which is right? Did God create the world in precisely six days about six thousand years ago, or have we and all the rest evolved over a much longer time? It’s a live and open question, even in our national discourse. But does it make a difference for how we love God or our neighbor? Not really, and so it’s not something we should really worry about. That’s why, in her wisdom, the Catholic Church has not found it necessary to declare anything on the question of so-called creationism against the theory of evolution. For what the Scriptures are actually about, the love of God and our neighbor, it doesn’t really matter.

Indeed, we who are Catholic Christians, who, along with our Orthodox brothers and sisters belong to the Churches founded on the apostles, are very fortunate. For we belong to the communities whose reflection on their faith produced the New Testament in the first place. We are the direct heirs of the tradition Jesus begins in the Gospel we hear today: it is the love of God and our neighbor that is at the heart of hearts of all divine revelation. What nurtures these loves is to be followed, and what injures them is to be discarded.

(With thanks to St. Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, chapter 36)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Repaying To God What Belongs To God

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

(Mass of Thanksgiving at parish of Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation)

In today’s gospel we see the Jesus of the clever comeback. We shouldn’t miss this simple point; we are meant to cheer for our hero who eludes both the trap and turns the challenge back on his enemies.

They try to trap Jesus, because in the question of paying the tax to Rome he can’t win. Let’s notice who is sent to give the challenge: the disciples of the Pharisees, who, as devout Jews would have been set against the Romans who were occupying their country, and the Herodians who were the ruling class. Now as we all know, the ruling classes are always interested in having people pay their taxes. So Jesus can’t win. If he recommends paying the census tax, he’ll be in trouble with the Pharisees. If he says that the tax shouldn’t be paid, he’ll be in trouble with the local authorities.

But Jesus eludes this rhetorical trap by elevating the whole conversation. He offers a comeback that says: Would that we were so concerned with how we pay our debts to God! And this is a fine reflection us who find ourselves in a pretty intense election season in this country, when there is endless talk about taxes, who should pay them, and how much. (As my father used to say, the trouble is that the United States was founded on the principle that you shouldn’t have pay taxes.) But imagine what the world would be like if we were so concerned as all this for how to pay our debts to God.

To get this point across, Jesus uses a very clever analogy. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and when he sees Caesar’s image on it, he recommends returning to Caesar what seems to belong to him. But then Jesus gives invites his adversaries to repay to God what belongs to God. And so we are invited to reflect on the question, what bears the image and inscription of God in the same way that the coin bears the image and inscription of Caesar? The answer is clear: it is us ourselves, created in the “image of likeness of God.”

This thing with the Roman money is a powerful analogy, and it’s worth some sustained reflection. Let’s bring it into our time though, and replace the Roman coin with one of our standard forms of money, say the $20 dollar bill. Here it is, with the image of Andrew Jackson on the front, and the image of the White House on the back. So if we are paying attention, and even if we’re not, each time we use one of these bills we are reminded of who we are as Americans. The history and the ideals of our country pass through our hands whenever we use this money, and by using it, we remember who we are as a country and what we stand for.

Now, our soul is the same way. It bears the image and imprint of the God who created it. So each time in the course of a day when we use our soul by loving, learning, praying, or just by trying to be fully present to another human being, we can be reminded, we can notice the imprint of God on ourselves. Just by paying attention to ourselves as we relate, work, and pray with each other, we can remember God. In the same way that the images of our secular history pass through our hands whenever we use our money, so the image and likeness of God in which each of us is created, passes into our relationships and becomes a holy communion between persons.

Once we have noticed the image and likeness of God in the loving actions of our own soul, we are ready to fulfill Jesus’ invitation to return to God what belongs to him. But what does it mean to return to God the soul that belongs to him? How do we do that? Well, here’s the really good news: it’s already been done for us.

This is the saving meaning of the Lord’s Resurrection. In his Passion and death Jesus takes our humanity, having borrowed it from us through our Blessed Mother, brings it through the suffering and alienation from God we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, and returns it to God in his Resurrection. So if we want to fulfill Jesus’ command to offer our souls back to God who made them in his own image and likeness, all we have to do is allow our humanity, our hearts and lives, to be caught up into the humanity of Jesus Christ. We do this by faith, by prayer, and especially through the Holy Communion we receive here at Mass. It’s here in the Eucharist that we become what we receive, become who we most truly are. It is here that we become the Body of Christ risen from the dead, offering our humanity back to the God who created us.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Well here we are in church on Sunday. We should take a moment to notice that our presence here together is a remarkable thing. Even among us Catholic Christians who are fully initiated into our faith through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist, we who actually practice our religion and make an effort to remain faithful to God are a minority. In our culture, at this point in history, most of our sisters and brothers in Christ who once professed—or had professed on their behalf—the catholic and apostolic faith are no longer with us here at the Sunday Eucharist.

I think at one time or another, each of us who are religiously observant people have asked the question: Why me? How is that other people, even members of our families and those are otherwise dear to us, can be indifferent or even hostile to the presence of God which, though always obscure, is nonetheless somewhat obvious to us? Why do I have the faith which someone else seems to lack?

Is it because God is kinder to us than he is to the others? Certainly not. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims in the first reading we hear today, the salvation God prepares—which the prophet imagines through the wonderful image of the messianic banquet—is a salvation for “all peoples” and “all nations.” God wills and desires the salvation of everyone, and is inviting every heart and soul to his banquet at every moment. But as Jesus says at the end of the Gospel we hear today, though “many are invited, few are chosen.”

Now the parable of the banquet, much like the parable of the tenants in the vineyard we heard from Matthew last week, is meant by the evangelist to be an allegory for the mixed reception Jesus received among his own people. Just like the tenants of the vineyard mistreated or killed those who were sent to them, so in today’s Gospel those invited to the banquet mistreat and kill the representatives of the king. In this we are meant by Matthew to understand the rejection of Jesus by the chief priests and rulers of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this applies to us as well in our situation in which some accept the invitation to the wedding feast and others do not.

For the wedding feast is here and now. This Eucharist that we celebrate is the wedding banquet for the marriage of heaven and earth. As we hear each year in the proclamation at the great Vigil of Easter, “this is the night, when heaven is wedded to earth, and man is reconciled with God.” Why is that we have accepted the invitation to be here and so many of our brother and sister Catholics seem to have rejected it, like those in the Gospel who go off to their own business rather than attending the wedding feast? It’s not because God likes us better. It’s not because we are less sinners than they are. It’s only our good fortune. The particulars of our own personal histories and many other variables made it so that we were able to consent to the grace of God with less distraction than the others.

And for this we must be eternally grateful, literally. Though we haven’t done anything to deserve it, it is our privilege to be the ones who are faithful to God. We ought to rejoice in our presence here at the Sunday Eucharist, grateful that faithfulness to God and the virtue of religion have taken root in our lives and hearts. But this isn’t the end. It is our privilege to be here, but it is also our task to become more and more the Body of Christ we receive here.

In the Gospel the guest who was found without a wedding garment was thrown out of the party. We need not fear this happening to us, because we have received the wedding garment; it was symbolized by the white robe which we wore at our baptism. This baptismal garment will cover us again when we arrive at the door of the church for our funeral and the white pall is placed upon our coffin. But in between the beginning and end of our life of faith on this earth, it is up to us to keep that baptismal garment shining. We must consent to the grace of God working in us so that our baptism bears fruit and the garment of our baptism shines more and more brilliantly, reflecting the goodness and mercy of God to those around us.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Performance Review

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

For the last couple of Sundays we’ve heard a lot of parables about vineyards. Indeed, this is a common and potent image that the Sacred Scriptures use for both the people of God and for creation as a whole.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we hear this image in its most classic form: The prophet sings of the vineyard of his “friend”—his friend being God. God planted and set up this vineyard with all the best and everything it needed. But when God comes to collect the produce of his vineyard he finds only “wild grapes,” not the nice, cultivated grapes he is looking for. At this God enters into what scripture scholars call a “covenant lawsuit.” God calls for judgment between him and, we may presume, the workers in his vineyard for failing to produce what God intended.

In all of this we find in the prophet a strong image of the relationships between God, ourselves, and the creation. When God creates us and the world it is only the beginning; as we heard in the parable of the workers in the vineyard two weeks ago, God’s creation requires cultivation. God expects that each of us will be an active participant in the work of creation, and bring forth a harvest of peace, justice, and love. More often than not in the history of creation thus far, this hasn’t been the case. To the God who seeks peace and justice, we have more often returned war and oppression. In response to the God who commands us to ‘love one another’ we human beings have more often displayed a disregard for human dignity and even human life itself. And this continues here in our own country even today.

The Gospel we hear today is all about this sad situation. In the parable the landowner is trying to collect his harvest from the tenant farmers. Of course the landowner is meant to be God, and the tenants are the people of God. The first servants who are sent to collect the produce of the vineyard represent the prophets whom the people of God have always abused and rejected. When the landowner sends his own son to the tenants they kill him too. In this we see a strong allegory for the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem, where the priests and leaders of the people handed the Son of God over to death.

And what does God do in the face of this horrible treatment of his messengers and even his own Son? He says to them, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” In this the allegory of Matthew’s historical situation continues. We know that he is imagining the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the beginning of gentile Christianity. Nevertheless, there is a lesson for us in this too.

The history of salvation proves that God does what he has to do to accomplish his loving purpose in creation. God expects us to cultivate ourselves and our world in order to bring forth a harvest of justice and so create a world of peace and mutual care. If we who call ourselves the people of God fail to do this, the history of salvation shows that God has no problem taking this privilege away from us and giving it to someone else. Let us consider ourselves warned, and redouble our efforts to consent to God’s will and cooperate with his grace to create the world anew.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Imitation of Christ

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

In the second reading today, we hear the beautiful first part of the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here Paul records a hymn to the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God “empties himself” in the perfect act of sublime humility. We heard this same hymn two weeks ago on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but today we get the fuller passage that includes Paul’s set up and interpretation of what the humility of the Incarnation of the Son of God can mean for us.

 We’re used to the idea that Jesus reveals God. In his humble birth, his preaching, his miracles, and most of all in his sorrowful Passion and glorious Resurrection, Jesus reveals to us the personality of the unseen and mysterious Source and Ground of all being we call God the Father. Most of the faith and practice of our religion is based on this, and rightly so.

 But it’s also good for us to look at the other side of the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ—truly God and truly human—reveals not only God the Father but our humanity as well. The life and death of Jesus shows us God’s idea of what our human life is meant to be about; it’s as if you were to ask God, ‘How should I live? How can I be happy and be a better person?’ By way of an answer the Eternal Word of God borrows our humanity from our Blessed Mother and becomes one of us, in order to show us how to be human.

This is why it is so important for us as Christians to pay attention to the person of Jesus Christ as he comes to us in the Gospels. By noticing how he relates to and treats people, he models for us the way to be happy and peace in our relationships with each other. By meditating on his suffering, death, and Resurrection we learn how to let go of ourselves and come to true freedom and happiness.

The classic spiritual strategy of the imitatio Christi, the ‘imitation of Christ’ is so powerful because to model ourselves on Jesus is to make ourselves over according to God’s will and desire for true and perfect humanity. This is what Paul recommends to us in the second reading when he invites us to “participation in the Spirit” by being of “the same mind…united in heart, thinking one thing.” The word which we translate “participation” in Paul’s Greek is koinonia, the word the New Testament uses frequently for communion. It’s the same as the greeting of the priest at the beginning of Mass, “the fellowship—the communicatio—of the Holy Spirit be with you.”

The Holy Communion we celebrate and receive here at Mass is meant to make us into what we receive. By this fellowship with Christ, by our communion in his Body and Blood, our humanity, our lives, are taken up into his divine humanity. This will empower us to become like Christ, indeed to become alteri Christi, “other Christs” in the classic spiritual language. Here at Mass we celebrate God’s revelation—in Christ—of what it means to be a human being, to be called to that perfect humility that lets go of self in order to take the form of servants to one another. In the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the communion of God with us in Christ, we are invited to do just as he did: to let our bodies become the Body of Christ and to let our hearts become homes for his Precious Blood. Then we find the true humanity of giving ourselves away for the sake of each other.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Workers In The Vineyard

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The parable we hear in the gospel today recalls a common image from the whole of the Sacred Scriptures: the people of God, or indeed the whole world, as God’s vineyard. The parable imagines God as the landowner, the world as the vineyard in need of care and cultivation, and us as those whom God hires to do the work.

 So what does this tell us about the kingdom of God, since Jesus tells us that this is what the kingdom is like? First, we know that the kingdom of God requires work; it has to be cultivated and cared for in this world just like the vineyard in the parable. Remember a couple of months ago when we heard the parable of the sower, and we had the image of God as the one who scatters the seeds of the kingdom of God over the earth? Well today’s parable is in part the continuation of that image; the seeds of the kingdom now require our care in they are to grow and flourish.

 We also see in the parable that each of us arrives in the kingdom of God when we are invited—“hired” in the image of the parable—by God. Notice in this the image of God as the one who comes to us, inviting us into the vineyard where we will be given the mission, duty, and privilege of giving ourselves for the cultivation of the kingdom. In the parable the landowner goes out to hire workers several times during the day. We might take this in two ways.

 First, it represents the whole history of salvation, how God, some 130 generations ago first called the family of Abraham to be God’s own people. Then God called the family of Jacob whom God names Israel who became God’s special possession, the Israelites, some of whom later came to be called the Jews after their return from exile in Babylon. Finally, in these last days, God has called all people, through the divine humanity of Christ, to share in the promises made to Abraham, to Jacob, and to David.

 On the other hand, we can look at how the landowner goes out to hire workers at the various times of day as an image of our own individual lives. It’s how at certain special moments of our lives we may feel the presence of God more intensely when God is calling us to a deeper prayer or to doing something that God’s kingdom may require in a special way at that moment. In any case the image of God in the parable is of a God who comes to us, who speaks spiritually to the heart and mind of each, and who is an inviting God, always offering to grace us with the chance to work for his kingdom at the different points of our lives.

 The parable also assures us that if we allow ourselves to be “hired” by God, and if we work diligently to cultivate his kingdom on earth, we will paid a just wage. We will receive our reward from God. But here we come to what is perhaps the most challenging part of the parable. When those who had only worked for only an hour received the full daily wage, the ones who had worked all day thought that they would be getting more. It’s only fair, right? Well, God’s justice is not always the same as our idea of justice. As God says through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading today, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” This is the generous God who gives the same reward to each one who accepted his invitation to work for the kingdom, regardless of how much work he actually did.

 Perhaps those who had worked harder in the vineyard had a right to grumble, but note that nobody gets ripped off. Everyone receives the wage they were justly entitled to; it’s just that some received more than they deserved. To me, I think that’s where most of us are before God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

His Descent Is Our Ascent

(Exaltation of the Holy Cross)

Today we celebrate a contradiction, a paradox. Indeed, it’s the contradiction and paradox which is at the heart of our faith, at the heart of Christianity. It’s right there in the title of the solemnity we celebrate today: The Exaltation of the Cross. We exalt the Cross, meaning that we lift it high and make the Cross of Christ something we look up to. But what is this Cross which we exalt? It is one of the cruelest and humiliating means of execution known to the ancient world. It’s a sign of us human beings at our worst, at our least human, at our most evil.

So what does it mean to say that we exalt, that we lift up and venerate this sign of ourselves at our worst? Let us attend to the Sacred Scriptures we hear today. As Paul says in the great hymn of the letter to the Philippians, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, “emptied himself” of all that it should mean to be God, and “took the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” In Jesus Christ we see God descending, letting go of all divine prerogative, and entering into the deepest and most horrible consequences of sin—the violence of us human beings torturing, humiliating, and killing one another.

This is the meaning of the Cross: God identifying with us in the pain and torment we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, even to the point of feeling ourselves alienated from God altogether: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” Behold the Cross and see God himself taking on the suffering that we earn for ourselves with our sins and violence against one another. This is an almost indescribable love and kindness, that the all-powerful God should empty himself and take on the burdens of our faults. But that’s the overwhelming Love we call God, a Love that is literally just dying to save us from ourselves.

The good news is that this descent of God becomes our ascent out of the prison of selfishness and sin and into the new life of grace. Just as the Israelites were able to look up to the serpent in the desert and be healed, so we, if we turn our gaze to the Cross, God will reveal to us the path to new life.

That’s the secret. We have to look up to the descent of God. For God descends into our suffering and pain in order to rob it of its power from the inside. Jesus Christ, though he was able to die in the humanity he borrowed from us, could never die in his divine nature. And so he bursts forth from death, taking his transformed humanity with him, into the New Life we call the Resurrection.

Let us look up the humility of God, for God’s humiliation is our exaltation. Let us turn the gaze of our hearts and minds upward to the Cross of Christ, for the descent of God is the ascent of our humanity into freedom from violence and sin.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Forgiving Body of Christ

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

At first glance the gospel passage we hear today might seem like a simple procedure for dealing with trouble in the Christian community. Jesus advises us to take a step-by-step approach in dealing with someone who is trapped in a sin that is hurting the unity or the holiness of the Body of Christ.

Let’s notice, though, Jesus’ astonishing statement at the end of gospel. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we heard St. Peter’s great confession of faith, and how Jesus gave him the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” so that whatever he bound on earth would be bound on earth and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven? Well in today’s gospel we hear Jesus giving that same authority to all of his disciples. Consider what this means: the forgiveness of God is in our hands! When we forgive someone, we forgive them not just with our forgiveness but with the forgiveness of God himself. “Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Why should this be, that God has handed over to us the power to dispense his own forgiveness to each other? It is because we are the Body of Christ. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians, God “emptied himself” into the human life of Jesus Christ, so that in Christ we see the full revelation of God on our human terms. And where is this revelation of God now, for us? It is right here. Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for us, is risen into the new life of the Living Bread and Precious Blood of the Eucharist we celebrate each Sunday. We who receive this Holy Communion with the humanity of Christ, become what we receive. We become the Body of Christ, risen from the dead.

So if we are the Body of Christ, what does the Body of Christ do? First of all it preaches the Kingdom of God, and so this is our primary vocation as Christians. Second, the Body of Christ allows itself to be broken for the salvation of the world. And so we who are Christians allow the suffering of the world around us to break our hearts, that we might learn compassion for all. Finally, as we hear in the gospel today, as the Body of Christ, the forgiveness of God is on our hands. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

We are all well acquainted with our sins. As the old saying goes, a clean conscience is a sign of a bad memory. We all know what it’s like to long for the healing forgiveness of God. Indeed the whole world longs for this forgiveness, for the forgiving of one another from the heart is the only thing that will stop this world’s endless cycles of violence. So if we have ever longed for God’s forgiveness, let us fulfill the injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves, and give God’s forgiveness to each other. It is ours to give, as the living Body of Christ, the revelation of God in the world. To forgive is to heal, to stop the cycles of violence and sin that hurt everyone. To forgive is to love perfectly. To stop the reproduction of violence and sin is to take up the Cross and fulfill our vocation as Christ’s risen Body. It is the love that is the fullest expression of the Mystery we call “God.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Gospel we hear today has always been very important to us Catholics, for it contains the scriptural origin of the Petrine ministry: the ministry of St. Peter of teaching and unity for all the churches, which we believe has continued through the years in the bishops of Rome down to our Holy Father Benedict XVI. In this famous exchange, Peter makes his great confession of faith, proclaiming his belief that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In response to his confession of faith, Jesus gives this Simon, son of Jonah, a new name: Petros in Matthew’s Greek, a play on the word for rock, petra. Jesus then proclaims that Peter will be the Rock on which the Church will be built. But in what does this foundation consist? In other words, what is the “rockiness” of this man on which this church will be founded? It sure isn’t Peter’s leadership qualities or understanding; in the very next passage of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter a skandalon, a “stumbling block” or hindrance, because he does not understand the prediction of the Passion. And we all we know the shame of Peter’s denial, the night before Jesus’ suffering and death, that he even knew Jesus.

No, Peter does not become the Rock on which the Church is built because he is a great leader or theologian, but because of his confession of faith. It is the confession that this Jesus of Nazareth is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” that is the Rock, the foundation of the Church.

But what does it mean for us, we who have inherited the apostolic faith that has been passed down to us? We confess that this man, this one human life, this Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew of the first century, is the Christ. By Christ we mean the anointed of God, elected by God to be priest like Melchizedek, prophet like Elijah, and king like his father David. In addition to all that, we confess that Jesus is the Son of the living God. Our faith and belief is that the Eternal Word or Wisdom of God, which is such a perfect reflection and self-expression of God that it is also God, became this human life, this Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus, we believe that Jesus is the perfect Revealer of God. In the preaching, teaching, and interactions of Jesus with people, we see, on our terms, the nature and the personality of the otherwise unknowable Source from which all existence comes, that Mystery that we perceive obscurely somehow behind and beneath everything that is. In his patient suffering, humble death, and glorious Resurrection we see the Eternity towards which we are all traveling as we make our way through this life.

This is the basic “good news” of Christianity; that this obscure reality we call “God,” this Mystery of existence that we only kind of perceive through or experiences of wonder or love, has been perfectly revealed. Even better, God has been revealed on our terms, in a way that is perfectly available to our human understanding. This is what it means to say that God became man, and that Jesus is the Son of the living God.

This is our confession of faith. And it is God’s desire to continue building his church on the solid rock of this confession in each Christian life. God will do this! In Christ, God is saving, reconciling, and sanctifying the world. If we allow this faith to be the foundation of our lives, God will make us part of the work. In our families, and workplaces and communities, we will truly be Christians, “other christs” through whom God is reconciling and sanctifying the world.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Faith

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Sacred Scriptures we hear today invite us to reflect on faith. We have in them an opportunity to notice the miracle and blessing of having faith in the living God. To know and believe in the one true God is indeed a miracle for us human beings, because we are so prone to following false gods on the one hand, and the other we so easily allow true religion to devolve into magic and superstition.

There was a time when knowledge and worship of the true God was limited to just one family on earth: God called Abraham and Sarah and promised to make of them of a great nation. That was perhaps four thousand years ago, when only one family on earth knew about the living God. Consider, then, how amazing it is that today the majority of people on earth adhere to the faith of Abraham. That’s the Jews, whom John Paul II called our “older brother,” us Christians, and all the Muslims of the world, together with whom, in the words of Vatican II, we “adore the one, merciful God.” The gift of God of knowing the true God, given to one family, has taken over the world.

It was a slow process. Through his grandson Jacob, the family of Abraham became a nation unto God, the people of Israel. God settled them in the Land and they became God’s special possession. Over time, the prophets of Israel who knew the living God with such passion began to reflect on what faith in the one true God meant. See, in the ancient world, each people had their own god or a set of gods. What made Israel different is that they knew that their God was the only true God. But if this God of theirs was the only true God, then he must be the God not only of Israel but of the whole world, right?

This is what is going on in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet imagines a time when the Temple of the Jews will become a “house of prayer for all peoples,” and that “foreigners” will “join themselves to the Lord, ministering to him, loving the name of the Lord, and becoming his servants.”

The foreigners are us, friends. Through the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world, we have been brought into the faith of God’s chosen people Israel. This is the great miracle of the Holy Spirit. From the one family of Abraham to the little nation of the Israelites, there is now an entire third of the world that is Christian. And half of us are Catholics. To use St. Paul’s language, in Christ we are “grafted” onto the chosen people and adopted into the family of Abraham.

This ought to keep us humble and grateful, for in this four thousand year old story, we have only arrived lately and towards the end of the story. For those of us with roots in northern Europe, some of our peoples have known the God of Abraham for less than a thousand years. If you’re Irish that extends to fifteen or sixteen hundred years, but that’s still squarely in the latter half of the history of salvation. And we who have been introduced to faith in the living God only in these last days, we have received just as much if not more in blessing and grace.

We are newcomers, and we ought not to forget it. Our attitude should always be a little bit like the woman in the Gospel who knows that, though she believes, the faith is not hers. Like her we have brought into the faith and blessing of God’s chosen people by the generosity of God in Christ.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Walking On Water

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

There’s an anti-drug campaign going around on TV and internet these days with the slogan, “above the influence.” I like it; it’s definitely better than the fried egg thing they were doing when I was a teenager. The slogan, “above the influence” is a play on the phrase, “under the influence.” When someone is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, we say that they are “under the influence,” but this campaign urges us not to be under, but above the influence.

I appreciate this because I think a lot of our spiritual work and religious effort needs to be about keeping ourselves above the influences that are useless or harmful. Many of these are on the outside: the false promises of advertising, the hubris of scientism, the lies and destruction of the cultures of death and violence. Harmful influences are on the inside too; self-hate, patterns of self-punishment, useless anxiety, and the voices of low self-esteem. To work ourselves above these influences and to replace them with the sole influence of God is a blessed but difficult spiritual work. It’s what in Christianity we call ascesis, from which we have the word asceticism. Mutatis mutandis, it’s what our Muslim brothers and sisters call jihad, right effort in bringing ourselves and the world around to God.

The work can be overwhelming. Many times we feel like the boat in the Gospel today, thrown every which way by the storm. Surrounded as we are by the importunity of advertising, the easy problems of people on television, and the false promises of consumerism, our minds become distracted and confused. Bad “tapes” play within our minds, telling us the wrong thing and inciting us to the wrong strategy in trying to feel better.

But here’s the good news. Jesus comes to us, walking on the water in the midst of the storm. The craziness of the influences of this world doesn’t bother him. Jesus can walk peacefully in the midst of the storm because his divine humanity is perfect; this is part of what we mean when we say he is “like us in all things but sin.”

The good news of our faith is that in Jesus, God wants to share with us freedom from sin and anxiety. God wants to grace us with the ability to walk peacefully in the midst of the both the storms of this life and the ones in our heads. But we have to seek it! We have to say with Peter, “command me to come to you on the water.” We have to make this our prayer. We have to ask God, “Make me free from all these useless and harmful influences and voices that bat me around in the course of the day, wearing out my heart and getting me to do what I know I don’t really want.”

If we make this our prayer, like Peter did, we will find that Lord’s power, his perfect humanity joined to ours, will empower us to take our first peaceful and confident steps in the midst of the storm of this life. This is our spiritual work. To rise above the sea the false promises, tiring lusts, and pointless ambitions that our Christian tradition calls the world, and to walk in the midst of the storm in peace, depending only on God. That’s holiness, and that’s what it means to be a saint.

At times we will falter and fall in our journey. Even after beginning on our path of walking confidently on the chaotic water, just like Peter we will occasionally become overwhelmed again and begin to fall. Jesus is there to catch us, to keep us from ruin, and to receive our prayer again: “Lord, command that I come to you walking on the water, putting one foot ahead of the other, above and free from the influences that seek to harm me."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Big Party

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The prophet Isaiah is inviting us to a party, and not just any party but the best one that will ever be. It’s the greatest party ever because the host is the richest, most generous host ever, and has more friends than anyone in the world. The host is God himself, and Isaiah promises that we shall “drink wine,” and “eat well,” and best of all, we shall “have life.” This isn’t just life is the sense of being alive; it’s Life, eternal life, the living force behind, underneath, and ahead of everything that is—this Life that we clumsily call “God.”

What the prophet is describing is a common theme in the Sacred Scriptures, and it’s called the ‘Messianic Banquet.’ It’s the idea that, when the Messiah comes to bring judgment at the end of time, he will host for the just a festive banquet. It’s not just in the Old Testament prophets that we hear this theme. Think of Jesus’ parables and how many of them revolve around dinner parties, banquets, and wedding receptions. In all of these our hope for the Messianic Banquet at the end of time is invoked. This is not a small part of Jesus’ own message: if we want to know what the destiny of the world is at the end of time, look at a wedding reception, for the end of time and the destiny of creation is the final fulfillment of the marriage of heaven and earth.

But here’s the kicker: this banquet that celebrates the end of time and the destiny of the world, it has already started. Not to worry though; it’s still going on and we can still join in the celebration. This is one way we can read the account of the feeding of the five thousand that we hear from St. Matthew today. This miraculous meal is evidence that the final purpose and destiny of creation has appeared within our human history with all of its saving and nourishing force. And just like it was when Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave that bread and fish to his disciples to give to the people, so through the apostolic authority of his church, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives us the bread of this Eucharist. This language is important and it helps us understand that since the time of the early Church, we have seen the Eucharist as a continuation of the miracle we hear in the Gospel today.

Let us see the miracle present in the Eucharist we celebrate! Here, in this assembly that the Holy Spirit has brought together, we become the Messianic Banquet that Isaiah looked forward to, and we attend the wedding reception for the marriage of heaven and earth. This is the joy of the final end and purpose of all creation, and we have been invited.

This is a very freeing thing! The judgment has come and the party has begun. God will not be stopped in fulfilling the unconditional covenant he made with David, and insists on saving the world. All we have to do is consent to it and we’re free from all worry and anxiety. Since we’re made free in this way, and don’t have to waste our energy on useless worry, we can devote ourselves to each other. When we see the world around us suffering and struggling, starving spiritually because of its ignorance or even hostility to God, we can respond freely to the Lord’s command: “give them some food yourselves.”

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Finding the Treasure

(17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Today we hear two more parables that come to us in a pair. They follow the classic form of “the kingdom of God is like…,” and are meant to teach us something about knowing the kingdom of God in our own lives.

In each of these short parables something valuable is found, either the treasure buried in the field or the “pearl of great price.” We have to be careful, though, that we don’t just see image of the kingdom of God in the valuable thing! When Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” it refers to the whole of the story. In each of the parables there is a discovery and a response, and both of these together are what make for an image of the kingdom of God.

In the discovery of the valuable object, there is a significant difference between the two parables. The merchant, Jesus says, had been “searching for fine pearls,” when he found the “pearl of great price,” while the person in the field just found the treasure. In one case someone was looking for something and in the other it was discovered by surprise. It goes the same way for us; we can find the kingdom of God in our lives in our world in both ways. We can look for the kingdom of God by reflection on how God has been working in our lives, how the Providence of God has led us along to this point, putting the right people in our path and supporting us through hard times. This is an important part of everyone’s spiritual practice, that we reflect and try to notice how God has been with us in the past and continues to operate in our lives now.

On the other hand, I think we’ve all had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of God “out of the blue” as it were. Maybe it’s in a situation of loss or grief and all of a sudden at some moment we know the strong hand of God with us. Or it might be in a moment of beauty like when we are contemplating the order and wonder of creation and we are suddenly aware of the great and adorable Mystery behind it all.

In the end though, it doesn’t matter how we find and become aware of the kingdom of God because the response we are called to make is the same whether we were looking for it or not. The merchant who found the pearl and the person who found the treasure in the field do the same thing once they find the object of value: they buy it. And not only do they buy it, but they “sell all” and buy it, doing whatever they have to do to own that treasure. Having found it, they single-mindedly make it the entire focus of what they want.

This is “the kingdom of God;” not that we just notice or become aware of God working gently and humbly in our lives, but that we buy into that experience, doing whatever we need to do to own it and make it our primary focus. This is the twofold process that brings us into the kingdom of God: first, that we find the Treasure, the awareness of God with us and working in our lives and our world. Second, that we should invest ourselves in that awareness and make it our guiding principle—allowing the rest of our lives to be organized around it. That’s what it means to put God first, to let God be “king” of our hearts and our world, and to step into the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mixed Motivations

(16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

The Lord’s parable the weeds and the wheat is first of all a continuation of the parable of the sower which we heard last Sunday. You will recall that in that parable we had an image of God scattering the seeds of goodness and righteousness over the world. Some of these seeds of grace get into people’s hearts and bear the fruits of prayer and devotion, justice and charity, “a hundred, or sixty, or thirty-fold,” as the Lord says. Today’s parable, though, recognizes the fact that within this great harvest of righteousness and goodness that God is planting and tending in creation, there are also weeds: injustice, violence, hate, disregard for life, and every other kind of evil—and these seem to grow in the world as well. Just like weeds in a garden, they rob the good harvest of space and nutrients. So we have a fairly accurate picture of our world in this metaphor of the field or the garden, in which the good harvest of justice, righteousness, and love is in competition with the weeds of sin, violence, and injustice.

What is Jesus’ advice to us who find ourselves in this world of wheat and weeds? As he counsels his disciples, at the end of the age, when the harvest is complete, the good wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. So in our world of conflict between good and evil we must have a stance of patient endurance, confident that in our final destiny the good will prevail and evil be destroyed.

To me, though, there’s a deeper level to the parable. For the wheat and the weeds aren’t just out there in the world; there’s also in here, in the heart and the mind of each of us. Each of our hearts is a mix of motivations and most things we do come from a complex mixture of good and evil intentions. Even the most beautiful things we human beings are capable of, loving another person for instance, are often partly made up of admixture of evil motives, like possessiveness or control, for example.

This is nowhere more true than in religion. What motivates us to be religious? What drives us to prayer? What makes us get up early on Sunday and drag ourselves here to church, while so many who blissfully ignore God are resting easy? Certainly it’s because we love God. God is infinitely adorable of course, by definition. We are also moved by our gratitude for the regeneration we have received in our rebirth through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. Finally, we are here because we look forward in hope and anticipation to the joy and peace of the eternal life which is ours in Christ.

But we all know this isn’t the whole story of our religious motivations. There are imperfect motives for our religion, and even evil ones. For example, there’s a little bit of fear in the heart of every religious person who isn’t yet a saint. For me, it’s what drives me to say the Act of Contrition over and over on take-off and landing. Even though the Lord has assured us that he calls us friends rather than servants, there’s often a little bit of fear mixed in with our devotion and faithfulness to God. Or we might pray sometimes not because we love and are grateful to God, but because of what we think God can do for us; that’s the story behind the so-called ‘gospel of prosperity.’ Or, worst of all, we might be at least partly motivated in our religion because we like the idea of being a faithful and religious servant of God; we are enamored of ourselves and make an idol out of our own goodness.

Finding ourselves in this situation of mixed motives in our faith, we must not despair! True, our motives are so mixed that, as the Lord himself says in the parable, to uproot the weeds too fast might endanger the roots of the wheat as well. So let us be content with our situation of mixed motives, and let it teach us humility.

God promises in the parable today that, despite our mixed motives, he will harvest the good that is in us. This means that in this life God will use the good that is in us to bring his own goodness to others, and even to multiply it. In the end, God will harvest the good motives in us for eternal life. And when we leave this world, the brilliance of the vision of God will burn and clean away all of our impurities and sins and bad motivations. The wheat will be harvested and the weeds burned. To really see God, as we will after this life, is to love him perfectly, and everything in us that isn’t love will fall away. That, by the way, is what we call purgatory, and it’s something to look forward to.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Generous Sower

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

When we come to the wise and wonderful parable of the sower, the first thing we need to do is discipline our reflection a little. This is because the first thing we tend to do is ask ourselves which category we’re in; are we the shallow soil, the thorny patch, or the hardened path? We love to put people in categories, including ourselves, so that we judge them. We’ll get to all that, but first let’s back up and start at the beginning, with God.

Notice the image of God in the parable. God is like a farmer scattering seeds on the earth. Indeed, our God is an overflowing love who is always raining down his grace upon us. Just as the sower in the parable scatters the seed all over, even on places where it is unlikely to grow or thrive, so God in pouring out grace is not asking first who is worthy or who is likely to use and appreciate it. This is the God in whom perfect humility and perfect generosity meet, the God who offers his grace just as much to the just and the unjust, just as much to the saint as to the sinner, and who is just as much in love with the grateful and holy soul as he is with the one who never bothers to notice or appreciate God’s goodness to him.

This truth that God is universally generous leads us directly to the problem that the parable is meant to address. If God loves everyone, and does not discriminate, why is there such a diversity of reception? How come one person receives faith and another not? Why do some of us become people of prayer while others live in isolation from God? The parable explains why the grace of God bears fruit in some people and gets nowhere in others.

It’s not God’s fault that some of us become saints while others don’t. It’s our problem. The grace of God is there, poured out for everyone. And we have to ask ourselves: What keeps me from noticing and appreciating God’s grace and what practical strategies can I put into my life to change? Here’s where we can get into some self-examination and use the parable as a starting point.

Probably most of us who are here in church are safe from the first problem, represented by the seeds that fell on the hard path. These are folks who are completely closed to spiritual reflection. There are a lot of reasons why someone is like this; they might be those who already know everything or they might have been hurt someone who was supposed to be a minister of religion. (Like everybody else, they make the most important decisions in life based on spiritual realities like love or truth, but going against what they know in their deepest selves, don’t let themselves admit that spiritual things exist.) But as I say, those of us who are at least who show up to pray and worship together are probably safe from this problem.

The second hindrance we human beings put before the grace of God is represented by the seed that fell on the shallow, rocky soil. This is something we religious people have to watch out for. The grace of God, like any relationship, needs to be cultivated. When we notice God’s goodness to us, we need to deepen that awareness in prayer. You know how when you have an old friend and you fall out of touch and haven’t called for a few years, and then you finally one of you calls the other and you find you don’t have anything to talk about anymore? Well so it is with our relationship with God. If we don’t keep it up in prayer, keeping ourselves aware and grateful for the grace of God, eventually we will find—and I know I’ve been there and I bet there are people who can relate—that though we thought we had a relationship it was kind of an abstract idea with no real content.

The third hindrance to the fruitful reception of the grace of God is represented in the parable by the seed that fell in the thorny patch. It can’t grow because it’s chocked by the thorns. As Jesus says, this represents those for whom the activity of God’s grace is choked by worldly anxiety and the lure of riches. This, in my opinion, is the real spiritual problem that we face in our time and place. We are distracted and anxious and because of it we fail to notice and appreciate the grace of God flowing over the world. But we can choose to change this! For example, when we’re driving or walking along, where do we put our mind and our spirit? Do we dwell on the last difficult conversation? Do we indulge our anxiety about the next thing we have to do? Of course we do; this is the spiritual state of our culture, but it doesn’t have to determine our interior behavior. Instead of dwelling on the past or being anxious about what’s next, we can decide to notice, in that little moment, the beauty of the creation around us, or to become aware for a moment of the miracle of life that is breathing in and out of our bodies.

I mention this because it’s just one of many little practical strategies we can use to improve our spirituality, so that we might notice and appreciate more the grace of God that is all around us. This is how we make our hearts and minds into the good soil that God can use to multiply his grace and to use—often without our knowing about it—to bring his grace to others.

As the prophet Isaiah says today, God’s grace will find a way to be fruitful in the world. If not through us, the history of salvation shows that God is ready and willing to go to somebody else. God’s Word, which as we know is present to us as Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, will accomplish the salvation for which God speaks it to the world. Let’s open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts and become grateful places where that Word can take root and grow. As the Word return to God, taking the resurrected humanity of Christ with it, let us consent to God’s desire that the whole world be lifted up in that Resurrection.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beginning the Pauline Year

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Last week the universal Church began the year of St. Paul, a celebration of the bimillenium of the birth of this great apostle to the nations. That is to say that for the next twelve months, until the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul next year, we are celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Paul’s birth.

Paul’s influence on our faith is incalculable. Apart from Jesus, Paul is the only person in the New Testament that we really know anything about in terms of personal history. The Pauline epistles, written either by Paul himself or his disciples, associates, or those inspired by him, actually make up the majority of the New Testament.

And yet, I think we don’t often hear about Paul’s teaching at the Sunday Eucharist. I guess that this is at least partly due to the way the readings are arranged for us in the lectionary. In these weeks of Ordinary Time we read continuously in one of the Gospels. This year, of course, we have been reading along in Matthew. The first reading is then selected to match with the Gospel, showing the hidden presence of hoped for Christ in the Old Testament. For example, in the Gospel today Jesus speaks about how God passes over those who are clever and learned by the world’s standards and reveals himself to those who receive him simply like “little ones.” To complement this, in the first reading we hear the prophecy of Zechariah, who looked forward to the Messiah who would arrive like a “little one,” seated on a donkey. And we know well that this prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus in the humble arrival at Jerusalem we celebrate each Palm Sunday.

The second reading, however, at least in these Sundays of Ordinary Time, proceeds on its own cycle and isn’t necessarily related to the Gospel or the Old Testament reading. So, I think that faced with a beautiful Gospel and an Old Testament related to it, preachers often concentrate on those, and leave the second reading alone. But it’s in the second reading that we hear St. Paul. So, in celebration of the opening of the year of St. Paul, and because we are in the midst of Paul’s beautiful and deep letter to the Romans, I want to preach a little on St. Paul.

In the selection we have from Romans today, we hear Paul setting up the classic device of “there are two kinds of people in this world.” There are those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit. Now here we have to be very careful. By “flesh” and “Spirit” Paul is not talking about two parts of ourselves, like our soul and our body. Instead, he is talking about two spheres of influence or two centers of spiritual power which are in constant competition for our attention, allegiance, and obedience.

The flesh is that center of power which is set against God. It is everything out there in the world—and in our own hearts—that is selfish, that puts us and the welfare of our own bodies, communities, and nation ahead of the good of all. It is the culture of violence that believes in retaliation, preemptive war, and puts convenience ahead of the sanctity of life. The glittering promises of this arrogant world of the flesh are all around us. We see them everyday in the world’s advertisements, for example.

But to follow this selfish world that Paul calls the flesh leads only to misery and meaninglessness. That’s the mystery of Jesus’ own words that the one who seeks to save his own life will lose it. Paradoxically, concentrating only on ourselves—whether it be me, my community, or my country—leads to unhappiness. And just as a life lived “in the flesh” has the proximate result of misery, depression, and isolation in this world, so Paul tells us that it terminates in eternal death.

The other option, Paul tells us, is a life lived “in the Spirit.” What is this Spirit? Paul tells us: it is “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.” Think about that for a moment and notice how amazing it is! The exact same Spirit which effected the Resurrection of Christ is available to you and to me. Because of the humanity that we share with Christ we are linked with him and the same Power that raised him from the dead lives in us. This is the meaning of our Baptism, by which we are baptized into the dying and rising of Christ. It is the meaning of the Eucharist, by which we become the Body of Christ we receive. As the great mystic of the Dominican Order, Meister Eckhart said, the difference between physical food and spiritual food is that the physical food we eat becomes us, but when we eat spiritual food—as in the Eucharist—we become it. That’s why we’re here at the Eucharist: to be transformed into the Body of Christ risen from the dead and the place where the Spirit lives in the world.

Thus, to live in the Spirit is the opposite of living in the flesh because the Spirit teaches us how to let go of our addiction to selfishness, how to let go of the tyranny of thinking only of ourselves or only of our families, communities, and nation. Paul says that just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit living in us—if we allow it—will raise our “mortal bodies also.” This means that here and now the Spirit of God can lift us up from whatever holds us down—whether it be sin or selfishness, anxiety or depression. To live in the Spirit is to be free and at peace, knowing that God is with us. It also means that those who live in the Spirit, because they are already lifted up in the Resurrection of Christ, have their eternal destiny in that same Resurrection. There they live forever as those who were willing to become the self-sacrificing Body of Christ on earth and that now lives forever with God in heaven.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Prayer and Mission

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

We continue our reading today in what we call Matthew’s “missionary discourse.” You will recall last week when we heard about some of things that make up our work as missionaries: healing, cleansing, casting out demons. Make no mistake; each of us is a missionary! As one of my teachers in theology liked to say, “The Church doesn’t have a mission; it’s the mission of Jesus Christ that has a Church.” All of us who are the Church, who become the Body of Christ in this Eucharist, are given the privilege and the joy, the duty and the challenge, of carrying forth the mission of Jesus Christ.

In today’s selection for the Gospel we hear a little about how we are to receive the words we will speak as missionaries. Jesus says to his disciples, “What I say to you in darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” Everything that they learned from Jesus, everything about God that was revealed to them through their intimate relationship with the Lord during his time on earth, they are to make utterly public and proclaim to the whole world. There are no secrets in Christianity. There is no special knowledge or secret teaching reserved to those who have fancy degrees or arcane experiences of God. Everything is meant to be public and out there for everyone. That is why the Word of God took flesh and became one of us in the first place—to be a perfect and complete revelation of God on our terms.

This is the missionary dynamic of the disciple of Jesus Christ. What they heard and learned from their intimate relationship with the Lord during his time on earth, they were then to go out and proclaim to the whole world, taking what they had heard in the quiet and secret of that relationship, that little community, and making it a public revelation for everyone. And the same thing is true for us. What we hear in the intimacy and privacy of our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we are to proclaim in our life with each other in our families and communities, in our jobs and our country.

But in order for this work, in order for us to have something to proclaim about Jesus Christ, we need to have that intimate, listening relationship with the Lord. That’s why we need to people of prayer, and not just the prayer of speaking our praise, concerns, and needs to God, but the prayer of listening with the heart. We need to make that time and space—amid the noise and speed and distraction of our lives—to quiet ourselves down and listen to God who speaks quietly to the heart. From that place of prayer we will hear and learn of God’s gentleness, God’s kindness, and God’s overflowing desire to heal and save the world. And this gentle loving-kindness that we learn and experience in our prayer we are to carry in mission to all of the people and situations of our lives. That is the dynamic of the missionary identity of each one of us: what we hear in the secret intimacy of prayer, we are to then “speak in the light” and “proclaim from the housetops.”

It won’t be easy. As heard in the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, the one who speaks the words of God is soon denounced and persecuted. This is because the world around us is addicted to self-indulgence, false security, power, violence, and war, and doesn’t want to hear about the God who has an indiscriminate and relentless respect for the life he created. So as soon as we, the missionary disciples of Jesus Christ begin to speak and act against the culture of death with its absurd injustices of destroying the earth, abortion, and pre-emptive war, we can expect to be denounced and persecuted by those whose self-indulgence and power is served by these systems of death.

But we must not be afraid of our missionary task. As Jesus says in the Gospel today, no one can harm us. The only one we must fear is he who can destroy the soul, and no one can destroy our soul without our permission. Let us then cast all fear and anxiety aside, and go forth as disciples of the Lord to proclaim the love and care of God to a weary and troubled world.