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.