Archive for the ‘Christian Perfection’ Category

Who Conquers the World?

January 9, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

I have a friend, Kathy, a former parishioner of mine now living in Michigan, whom I often call to converse about upcoming Sunday readings. She’s quite knowledgeable about the Scriptures and our Faith and, even now as she endures cancer, delights to discuss them. Talking with her always makes my homilies better. When we chatted this week I shared my hope, frustration, and challenge in preaching compellingly about the Baptism of the Lord. Virtually everyone who will encounter my homily is already baptized, a baptism they do not remember – they were baptized so young that they can’t remember any time in their lives when they were unbaptized. Getting people to appreciate having been baptized is like trying to get them excited about having once been born; or like getting an American to appreciate living their whole lives in a country where freedoms of religion, speech, and representative government are taken for granted. I didn’t know what message I was going to preach when I spoke with Kathy, but she encouraged me that God would give me something and promised to pray for me. Today I’d like to share with you some threads from other interesting conversations I’ve had this week and in the end I promise to tie their lessons together.

On Monday evening, my fortieth birthday, I spoke with my life’s longest friend. Josh is nine days older than me, we were in school together all the way from pre-K through college, and he grew up into a dynamic Christian businessman. Josh remarked that he is struck and bewildered by how much New Year’s matters to people – it’s far less big a deal for him than it seems to be for others. I likewise have memories of being underwhelmed by New Year’s Eve ever since I was a kid. Even though the ball that drops over Times Square is now covered with high-tech shimmering lights, the sight of that sphere’s slow descent still remains a disappointment to behold. A new year is just a change in number on our calendars and forms, a number whose only significance comes in reference to Jesus Christ. Maybe people like it in the way some of us have enjoyed watching a car’s mileage rollover to 100,000 on the odometer. Maybe people just like any excuse to party. But I think New Year’s appeal in popular culture owes greatly to the idea of a new time beginning, the start of a new chapter in our lives. Lots of people make New Years resolutions, typically related to health. They’re hoping for change, hoping this year will be different, yet their resolutions typically fail quickly because our human nature, by itself, is so very weak.

Thursday morning I did spiritual direction through Facebook for another past parishioner and friend of mine. I met Stephanie at my first priestly assignment, helped her become a Catholic, and today she is her parish’s Coordinator of Religious Education and Director of Youth Ministry in Neillsville. Stephanie’s family has an annual tradition of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and this year she saw it twice. I asked her if she took away any new insights from that rich film and indeed she had. The first time George Bailey goes to Martini’s Bar it’s a calm and friendly establishment where people show concern about him. George quietly prays there, “Dear Father in Heaven… Show me the way,” leaves, meets Clarence, and returns to the bar again in a world where he was never born. The bar is called “Nick’s” now and like the rest of town it has become more crowded and less wholesome, rude and cruel. These scenes impressed on her anew how much one life well-lived can make an extraordinary difference to all the lives around it.

On Thursday afternoon I partook of spiritual direction myself through Zoom with Fr. Bill Dhein, the thoughtful Chancellor of our diocese who sometimes celebrates Masses here for us. Father and I were both drawn by the Spirit to this passage from today’s second reading from the 1st Letter of John:

“Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Who indeed conquers the world? If the rioters at the Capitol this week or the rioters from this summer had succeeded, if they had prevailed and conquered, would they find peace in this world? History suggests not. Violence and death would continue to accompany them. In today’s first reading, the Lord tells us through the Prophet Isaiah:

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
As high as the heavens are above the earth
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Fr. Bill told me one of his admired spiritual heroes is St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was in the world but not of the world, and in Jesus Christ she conquered the world through a holy power which transforms this world for the better. Today’s gospel says:

“[Jesus of Nazareth] was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

Remember, Christian, that you have been baptized into Christ, the Holy Spirit rests on you, and the Father acknowledges you as his beloved child. Your human nature, by itself, is weak and frail, but you are clothed in Christ and ‘can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.’ Do you want to change yourself? Do you want to be a blessing to others? Do you want to change this world wonderfully for the better? Then ask God for his indispensable, gracious help; and also seek the support of Christian friends, for iron sharpens iron and coals stay hot when gathered.

As our culture becomes increasingly less Christian we can expect to see increasing examples of social decay and religious persecution. Just as you cannot remove the foundation of a house and expect its walls and ceiling to stand upright and level, so our nation will suffer in many ways from discarding its Christian faith. But when worse things come, do not fear and do not despair – ‘God works all things for the good of those who love him.’ Do not be afraid and do not give up. The good of this community depends on you and those around you. Who indeed is the victor over the world? Those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the children of God, whose faith shall conquer the world.

Meet the Holy Child

January 3, 2021

Feast of the Epiphany

In today’s Gospel, the Magi find the Holy Family now dwelling inside of a house in Bethlehem. This is not the same as Christmas night or Christmas day, but maybe weeks, or months, or even up to three years after. “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” Eastern cultures, especially Persians, would do homage by falling to their knees and touching their foreheads to the ground. Though this poor, tiny king’s only throne is his holy mother’s lap, these Magi love and honor him. He does not appear to them as a frightful overlord but as a little infant because his wish is not to be feared but loved. God the Father will have baby Jesus flee and hide from the wicked King Herod, but the Holy Child is happily revealed to these first foreigners from afar who seek him out as friends. The Magi were blessed to encounter Jesus as a little child, but they would not be the last to do so.

One day in the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila was preparing to climb a stairway to the upper rooms of her Spanish convent when she was met at the stairs by a beautiful boy. He asked her “Who are you?” She replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus. And who are you?” The child responded, “I am Jesus of Teresa,” and vanished.

In the 13th century, while St. Anthony of Padua was traveling through France to preach against heresy, he was granted a quiet room for lodging. His host passed by the room one night and noticed an unusual light shining around the door. Peering inside, he saw Anthony kneeling and full of wonder, admiring a glorious child who hugged him. Seeing the boy’s supernatural beauty and hearing their conversation, the onlooker knew that this was Jesus visiting his saint. This encounter is why St. Anthony of Padua is depicted (as in our own stained-glass window of him) holding the Christ Child.

In the 1930’s, the Polish mystic St. Faustina Kowalska recorded in her diary, “I often see the Child Jesus during Holy Mass. He is extremely beautiful. He appears to be about one year old. Once, when I saw the same Child during Mass in our chapel, I was seized with a violent desire and an irresistible longing to approach the altar and take the Child Jesus. At that moment, the Child Jesus was standing by me on the side of my kneeler, and he leaned with his two little hands against my shoulder, gracious and joyful, his look deep and penetrating. But when the priest broke the Host, Jesus was once again on the altar, and was broken and consumed by the priest.

Even without miraculously beholding him, the great devotion of other saints toward the Christ Child is well-known. St. Francis of Assisi, having received permission from the pope, created the very first nativity scene in the year 1223; with hay and a manger along with a live ox and donkey in a cave. He then invited the Italian villagers to come and gaze upon it while he preached about “the Babe of Bethlehem” — Francis was too overcome by heartfelt emotion to say the name “Jesus.”

In the 12th century, Doctor of the Church St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote this in a touching prayer:

“You have come to us as a small child…
Caress us with your tiny hands,
embrace us with your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts
with your soft, sweet cries.”

In the late 1800’s, the beloved St. Therese of Lisieux, also known as St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, would pray this amidst her joys and trials:

“O Jesus, dear Holy Child, my only Treasure, I abandon myself to your every whim. I seek no other joy than that of calling forth your sweet smile. Grant me the graces and the virtues of your Holy Childhood, so that on the day of my birth into Heaven, the angels and saints may recognize your spouse, Therese of the Child Jesus.”

And for centuries, the Infant Child of Prague, a 19-inch statute of the Infant Jesus dressed in royal regalia, has been a beloved Czech devotion.

Despite all of these examples of mystical encounters and pious devotions with the Child Jesus, one might still wonder whether it is fitting to pray to a baby. Jesus does not even talk at that immature age, and he has since grown up beyond that phase of life. Yet even though he is a child, the Infant Jesus is still Almighty God who hears all of our prayers. If it would be wrong to pray across time to Our Savior in his manger, it would be wrong to now pray to Our Savior on his Cross as well. You and I were not born too late to adore the newborn King.

What benefits are there in praying to the Holy Infant? Jesus Christ is the same person yesterday, today, and forever, but some will find approaching the Baby Jesus less intimidating. His little form communicates his innocence, purity, gentleness, and tender affection; inviting us to share these virtues. In fact, Jesus tells us we must become as little children, like himself: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

During one Holy Hour, St. Faustina Kowalska was trying to meditate on Our Lord’s Passion, but her soul was filled with joy and she suddenly saw the Child Jesus. She writes, “His majesty penetrated me to such an extent that I said, ‘Jesus, you are so little, and yet I know that you are my Creator and Lord.’” And Jesus answered, “I am, and I keep company with you as a child to teach you humility and simplicity.

On another occasion, St. Faustina saw the Infant Jesus near her kneeler, once again appearing to be about one year old. She writes that, “He asked me to take him in my arms. When I did take him in my arms, he cuddled up close to my bosom and said, “It is good for me to be close to your heart… because I want to teach you spiritual childhood. I want you to be very little, because when you are little I carry you close to my Heart, just as you are holding me close to your heart right now.

So in conclusion, I encourage you to approach the Infant Jesus in your prayers; at this Mass, in this Christmas season, and throughout this year ahead. Picture and imagine him, speak and listen to him, and hold him close to your heart. The Holy Babe of Bethlehem has gifts of grace and consolation to offer you, and he awaits you with open arms.

“St. Luke, How’d You Know?”

December 31, 2020

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Have you ever paused to wonder how St. Luke the Evangelist knows the things he writes about in his Gospel? For example, he tells us that when the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary at the Annunciation “she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Today, St. Luke also tells us that following the first Christmas, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” And later, after she and St. Joseph found the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, Luke tells us “they did not understand what [Jesus] said to them…[but] his mother kept all these things in her heart.” How exactly does St. Luke know what Mary was thinking or feeling?

We believe that the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that their human authors wrote everything and only those things which God desired to become Sacred Scripture. I suppose the Holy Spirit could have directly infused St. Luke with knowledge of hidden things like the Virgin Mary’s secret inner life, but Luke does not cite mystical experience as the source for his account. His gospel begins with a declaration that he has personally investigated the stories he recounts. He writes:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

So, Luke probably learned of these stories in the most natural and human way; by being told by those who knew them well. And who would have originally known what Mary was feeling and holding and pondering in her heart but the Virgin Mary herself? This is why some have called the infancy narratives in the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel “the Memoirs of Mary.” St. Luke possibly heard these stories from Mary’s very own lips before writing them down for us.

Today we celebrate Mary as the Mother of God. Did Mary know that she was the Mother of God? Yes, for the Archangel Gabriel had announced her child would be the Son of God. Did Mary know that her baby boy would be the messianic king? Yes, for Gabriel had said “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Did Mary know that her Son would come as Savior? Yes, for an angel had told St. Joseph “you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So when the pretty song asks “Mary Did You Know?” — Yes, Mary knew a lot, but there was still a lot that she did not know.

Much of what was still to come remained a mystery to her. What would it be like to be a mother to God? How would his royal reign on earth come to pass? How would Jesus save humanity? What trials would she herself face? What would become of her? Mary did not know these things, but she trusted in God who guides our lives and all of human history.

What does this new year hold for each of us? Like Mary, we do not know every particular, but Mary shows us that we don’t have to. We do not need to fully know our future in order to be richly blessed. We do not have to know tomorrow for the Almighty to do great things for us, “for nothing will be impossible for God.” At this turning of the year, let us trust in God and entrust ourselves to him, for if we were all to trust and entrust ourselves in this way, our perfection would be like that of Blessed Mary and the saints.

Echoing the words of the ancient priestly blessing, in this new year ahead, may the Lord bless you and keep you, as he did our Holy Mother Mary. May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, like he gazed upon Mary through the face of Jesus Christ. And may the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace, as he did the Blessed Virgin Mary – the image and icon of his Holy Catholic Church.

Her Great Renovation — Funeral Homily for Linda Boehm, 69

December 21, 2020

I wish to offer you my sympathy and condolences at the passing of Linda, a beloved member of your family and of this parish family as well. It providentially happens that Linda’s funeral today will be the last St. John’s funeral for this year 2020 and our last funeral here before St. John’s renovation, beginning after Christmas. What awaits for this church in its renovation bears a poetic likeness to Linda.

This transition to a new phase of our parish life was expected. We’ve been preparing for this project for a long time. But the news of exactly when our Masses are ending and the hard work begins may have come as a surprise to some. Next week, these pews will be removed, this altar and this ambo will be withdrawn, and our tabernacle will be empty. Eventually these walls will be stripped, this carpet will be torn up, and apart from the workers this church will be vacated, vacant, and desolate. The sacramental life inside this church will cease. But even if the sacrament of Jesus Christ are no longer offered in this building the parish will still survive. St. John the Baptist Parish is more than this brick, plaster, and paint. And even if this building were ground to dust and had to be entirely rebuilt this parish would still be alive through it all.

After Mass in our lobby you can see renderings of what this church will look like once the work is complete. Our church is not ugly now, though you can see her blemishes, but what she will become is more beautiful and glorious. And once she is completed she will play host to her many family members and friends and many new acquaintances, too, who come to see her for the first time. On that day, any sadness experienced during the time of separation will give way to great joy. This church will be resurrected for the worship of God and the holy peace and happiness of his people.

As I said, what awaits for St. John the Baptist Church bears a poetic resemblance to Linda. Though not entirely unexpected, and Linda was well prepared for it, her passing may still feel shocking; this separation, unsettling; Linda’s death, quite saddening. But there is more to Linda than this dust. Her soul lives on. Today we pray that any flaw in her may be removed so that with a perfect soul she may enter Heaven and go on to experience the Resurrection in a more beautiful and glorious renovated body. Someday in Heaven and on the Last Day, through Jesus Christ our Savior, may we all be happily reunited with Linda’s happily outgoing self to rejoice in the worship of God and the holy peace of his people. When you next see this church in her remade glory, may you be reminded of Linda and of these truths.

Wreaths of Flowers — Funeral Homily for Janice Bleskacek, 87

December 16, 2020

While Janice lived at her home she kept two notable items on the night table beside her bed, both reflective of her deep faith: a wooden cross and a particular book. At first glance this small, black book might be taken for a Bible, but its cover bore the title “The Catholic Girl’s Guide.” A hand-written inscription within indicates that this book was given to her as a gift way back in 1947 when she was fourteen years old. I suspect that Janice regularly turned to the latter parts of this book, with its compendium of Catholic prayers and devotions, but she would have been familiar with the earlier parts of the book as well. Its author, Fr. Francis Lasance, writes about nine virtues a young lady must cultivate, likening each one to a flower which form together “the Maiden’s Wreath.” (This book was written for girls but in a book written for boys these same essential virtues would have their places, perhaps within a holy young man’s toolbox.)

The nine flowers of the wreath include:

The Sunflower of Faith, which is turned upward towards the glorious Sun.
The Ivy of Hope, which clings and climbs despite adversity.
The Peony of Love of God, which lifts up its heart as an offering.
The Rose of Love of Our Neighbor, which is a kindly gift to others.
The Carnation of Obedience, which is how Christ incarnate came as a noble servant.
The Forget-me-not of Piety, which remembers and keeps the practice of religion.
The Violet of Humility, which thrives and blossoms most beautifully in the shade.
The Daffodil of Industry, which hastens to blossom as soon as possible.
And the Narcissus of Truthfulness, which holds truth as a golden treasure never to be betrayed.

In addition to this “Maiden’s Wreath,” the book’s author next speaks of a second crown, “The Wreath of Lilies,” comprised of The Lily of Purity, which is untarnished in its splendor. The lily has long symbolized the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose own femininity is fulfilled to its fullest, holy perfection.

Young Janice gathered and cultivated the nine flowers of her maiden’s wreath into her adulthood. She carried her virtues into her marriages, first with husband Kenneth and then, after being widowed at age thirty-eight, with her husband Gerald. And through these unions, Janice gathered and nurtured eight young ladies, eight flowers: Nancy, Susan, Cindy, Carla, Dawn, and Jacquelyn, Deb and Terri. The nine of these ladies together formed a beautiful wreath of love; along with family and friends; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren as well. Today we pray for Janice’s soul so that in addition to her life’s virtues she may be crowned with the second wreath of purest glory; that purified from any fault or imperfection, she may rejoice before God with Jesus Christ and Blessed Mary and all the saints and angels. Like Jesus Christ says in our Gospel, Janice’s prayer shall be: ‘Father, those whom you gave me are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me one day. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and we all may be together again forever.

Scripture says of this life,

“All flesh is like grass,
and all its glory like the flower of the field;
the grass withers, and the flower wilts;
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

Every dear one’s death reminds us that we will not live this present life forever. But even though the flower fades and dies away we can beautifully blossom anew. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may live in newness of life. So let us renew our faith and renew our lives in the Lord, Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who desires to reunite his whole flock on his holy mountain, where sin and death will be no more, where every tear will be wiped away by God, and where we can hope to be together with Janice and Kenneth and Gerald and Carla forever.

Anno Domini

December 13, 2020

3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday

Nearly two thousand years ago, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus Christ proclaimed the words of the Prophet Isaiah as being fulfilled in himself, “fulfilled in your hearing”:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me… to announce a year of favor from the Lord
and a day of vindication by our God.

The Earth orbits the Sun year after year. Our planet’s spinning makes days and nights, and its tilted-axis causes the seasons. When Earth’s northern hemisphere is most towards the Sun, our sunrises come earlier, our sunsets come later, and we experience summer warmth. Six months later, when the top of the Earth is tilted away from the Sun our daytimes are shorter, bringing the winter’s cold. Because of this yearly cycling of the seasons—summer, fall, winter, spring—even simple, ancient peasants possessed the concept of “years.” Their civilizations would mark time by counting years from some event of shared cultural significance (such as the Founding of Rome), or by referring to their leader’s reign (like saying, “in the fifth year of Ramses II”).

What year is it now for us? It’s 2020 A.D. — but why? “A.D.” stands for “Anno Domini,” a Latin phrase which means, “In the Year of the Lord.” Some 2,020 years ago, Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, was born to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Now we live in his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, during this the 2,020th year of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since Jesus is God, the Lord is present to all things at all times, but he foresaw how his visible departure through his Ascension could affect us thereafter. Year after year, his saving acts, his words and deeds, would fade and fall further and further into the past. Who he is and what he has done for us would seem ever more distant. So Jesus established his Church to preach his word and do his works, to perform his sacraments and do good deeds together with him all around the world until he comes again. Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” and “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

One of the great things his Church gives us is her liturgical year. Our feasts and seasons throughout each year celebrate what Christ has done, show us who he is, and remind us of who we are to him. It’s very important to remember who we are – the truth about who we are in the eyes of Truth himself – but it’s something easy to forget.

St. John the Baptist on today’s Gospel knows both who he is and who he is not. They ask him in today’s Gospel, “Who are you,” and John answers the question on their minds, “I am not the Christ.” So they ask him, “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet (the Prophet of whom Moses foretold)?” “No.” “So who are you?” “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,’ [for] the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” Untying a sandal strap is something a slave might do for his master, but John the Baptist saw that the gap between his Lord and himself was far more vast than that. God the Father and Christ his Son are all-holy, all-good, and justly entitled to our everything; our time, our bodies, our wealth, our love. His servant must remember that “God is God, and I am not.

True humility is living in the truth about who God is and who you are. The word humility comes from the Latin word for ground. Humility doesn’t mean thinking you are dirt; it’s being well-grounded in the truth, the reality of things. With perfect humility the Blessed Virgin Mary can make this extraordinary proclamation, “From this day all generations will call me blessed. (And she was right!) The Almighty has done great things for me [his lowly servant].” Likewise, acknowledge the great things that God has done in you and praise him for them all, for this is humility.

Though each of us is in need of ongoing conversion in Christ, if you did not take God very seriously I doubt that you would be reading this. A common misperception among sincere Christians is that they do not see themselves as they really are. You are not yet perfect, but that doesn’t mean you’re trash. Let me show you this in some ways that others have found helpful.

Think of your greatest desire. What is it? Perhaps it’s for you and others to be blessed and someday reach Heaven? Now think of the greatest desire of a saint. In as much these two answers align, you have the desires of a saint and so you’re on the right track. Now imagine meeting someone, another person who is just like you in every way, having all of your strengths and weaknesses. What would you think of this person? Would you like them? Could you be their friend? If you would have more kindness or compassion toward him or her than you do on yourself, then try loving yourself like your neighbor for a change. If you, who are imperfect, can like and love that other person, then surely God can like and love you too. If I were a demon, an enemy of your soul, I would try to keep you stuck in lies about yourself to make you despair or limit the good you would do. However, I suspect the truth is that you are doing far better than you fear and are far more loved by God than you can imagine.

The holy seasons and feasts of Christ’s Church present to us year after year anew what God has done, and who he is for us, and who we are to him. Let us live this Advent in the truth about who we are, realizing and rejoicing that this is a year of favor from the Lord and today is a day of salvation.

Five Reflections on St. Joseph

December 11, 2020

By Fr. Victor Feltes

This week, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal (that is, the entire) Church, Pope Francis declared this “The Year of St. Joseph” through December 8th, 2021. The Holy Father also published an apostolic letter about Jesus’ beloved foster-father entitled “Patris Corde” (or “With a Father’s Heart”). In it, Pope Francis writes about Christian devotion to this great saint and mentions how the phrase “Go to Joseph” has an Old Testament origin. These are five of my personal reflections on St. Joseph.

Go to Joseph

In the Book of Genesis, during a time of famine across the known world, the Egyptians begged their pharaoh for bread. He in turn replied, “Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you.” Pharaoh was referring to Joseph the son of Jacob who had risen from a very lowly state to become the viceroy of the kingdom. Enlighted by divinely-inspired dreams, this Joseph’s leadership went on to feed and save the whole world from death, including his own family. According to the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, the New Testament’s Joseph also had a father named Jacob. Though poor and obscure, St. Joseph’s heaven-sent dreams enabled him to guide and protect his Holy Family, leading to the world’s salvation through the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. Today, as a powerful intercessor in the Kingdom of God, we are wise to “go to Joseph” for needed help.

His One Word

Within the Gospels, St. Joseph has no recorded words. There is no indication the foster-father of Jesus and spouse of the Virgin Mary was physically unable to speak or ever took a vow of silence; he is simply never quoted. Yet the Gospels suggest he said at least one specific word.

Matthew’s Gospel records how an angel (probably the Archangel Gabriel though perhaps another) told Joseph in a dream: “‘[Mary, your wife,] will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus…’ When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” Just as John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book,” so St. Joseph almost certainly said many unrecorded things. But the one word that Scripture most clearly suggests St. Joseph said is “Jesus.” The name of Jesus is the sum total proclamation of St. Joseph’s life. May it be so for us as well.

Image of the Father

The Letter to the Colossians says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God.” Something analogous was true of St. Joseph for Jesus in being the earthly image of his Father in Heaven. Joseph’s life has no recorded beginning or end in the Bible. We know that he was a carpenter craftsman – a creator of many things to be blessing for others. Perhaps he looked at everything he made and found it very good. Alongside Mary, Jesus was obedient to Joseph; he was Jesus’ boyhood teacher, deliverer, and role-model. Jesus lovingly called him, “Abba, father.” St. Joseph was a holy and loving image of God the Father for his Son. Though imperfect, may we likewise be images of God for each of our biological and spiritual children.

The Hour of his Death

When did St. Joseph die? Luke’s Gospel tells us that when 12-year-old Jesus was found at the Temple in Jerusalem he went down with his parents to Nazareth and was obedient to them. After that joyful reunion, St. Joseph makes no further personal appearances in the Gospels. Joseph had apparently passed away by the time of Christ’s Passion since Jesus on the Cross does not entrust his blessed mother’s care to her faithful husband but to a beloved disciple. Other episodes in the Gospels suggest that Joseph died before the start of Jesus’ public ministry.

How did St. Joseph die? If Joseph, the heir to the throne of David, had been murdered we would expect this prefigurement of Jesus’ own death to be described in the Gospels like the death of St. John the Baptist. Unless some sudden catastrophe befell him, an ailing Joseph would have reached his deathbed. And who would have been compassionately comforting him and powerfully praying for him at his bedside as he reached his hour of death? His having most likely died peacefully in the loving presence of Jesus and Mary makes St. Joseph the patron saint of a happy death.

The Terror of Demons

St. Joseph is called “the Terror of Demons” and his spouse “the Queen of Angels.” Yet the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation was greatly troubled and afraid at the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting, and when resettling his Holy Family from Egypt Joseph feared mere flesh and blood – avoiding Judea because Herod’s son ruled there. How can this man and woman now be leaders of awesome angels or banes of dangerous demons?

One key trait Joseph and Mary shared is obedience. The Book of Exodus displays Moses’ obedience by recording God’s instructions to him and then repeatedly presenting Moses doing “just as the Lord had commanded.” Whenever St. Joseph receives instructions from God (to take Mary into his home, to escape to Egypt, or to return to Israel) the text that follows has Joseph doing exactly as God commanded. Mary was also radically open to God’s will, as when she famously said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” The demons, for their part, fell from Heaven’s glory because they refused to do God’s will.

Joseph and Mary were also among the first on earth to accept and love the (then still-unborn) baby Jesus. The demons, in contrast, were the first to reject the Son of God. We do not know the exact reasons for their primordial rebellion but some theorize the demons took offense at God’s plan that the Eternal Son would become an incarnate human being, crowning that creature with a greater glory than the angels. “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world,” says the Book of Wisdom.

Joseph and Mary’s obedience to God’s will and their love for Jesus on earth lead to them being gloriously empowered in Heaven. Jesus told his disciples, “you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” and St. Paul reminded the Corinthians “we will judge angels.” It seems that faithful human creatures who, by God’s grace, love and serve the Lord in the likeness of Christ himself are best suited to become powerful, humble, servant rulers in the Kingdom of Heaven.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us throughout this holy year!

He Rose Before Us — Funeral Homily for Roland “Rolle” Shadick, 85

December 7, 2020

Today St. Paul’s Parish offers our greatest prayer, the Holy Mass, for Rolle, one of our own. He is well-known and loved by you, and well-known and loved by our Lord. No brief funeral homily can present the fullness of a Christian life, but a Christian’s words and deeds, upon reflection, will reflect the person and life of Jesus Christ.

One of the things his children tell me is that Rolle worked really, really hard, first as a farmer, and then in other jobs, and helping others where he could well into his retirement. To support his wife and family, to do his good works, Rolle would wake up very, very early. He might wake up at 3 or 4 AM to milk the cows or bale some hay, or go out fishing on the lake and bring back his catch to feed his family for breakfast. Through the years, he would rouse his children from bed with a call: “Come to life, come to life!” A new day awaited them. Rolle was so busily active, he did so much, that his family would kid that he had undiagnosed ADHD. “Don’t look back,” he said, “always look ahead.” There is much for us to do in our days on earth.

Rolle knew we have just one life to live and that it is given us as a gift. So he gave faithful thanks to God the Giver, praying and praising Him at church and at home, and supporting the work of Christ’s Church for the salvation of souls. Rolle noted that he and his fellow farmers who did this were successful through God’s blessing. In his final years he reminded others, “It’s later than you think. It’s later than you think.” With this in mind, Rolle renewed his already strong commitment to connecting with his family — whom he apparently loved more than life itself. He did not catch any illness from the 65th wedding anniversary his family threw for him and Clara back in October, but Rolle said at that time, “You know what, if I die from Covid, this day was worth it.” After that joyful celebration were forty days until Rolle came to his final day, dying like our Savior on a Friday afternoon.

As I said before, a Christian’s words and deeds will reflect the person and life of Jesus Christ. Jesus has been hard at work in this world; tending his flock, laboring in his field, fishing for men’s souls. He died and rose before us. He calls out to rouse us from our sleep, “Come to life, come to life,” through conversion on this day and through resurrection on the Last Day. It is good to treasure our memories. It’s OK to mourn, to cry. But we must not, cannot, live in the past. “Don’t look back. Always look ahead,” because a great new day awaits, for you and me and Rolle, a family reunion in our Father’s house with Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

The Fire of God

December 6, 2020


2nd Sunday of Advent

Eighteen years ago, when I applied to become a seminarian for our diocese, one part of the process was taking the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Test — 567 True-False questions that help to detect psychological disorders. Of all of those written questions this one is for me the most memorable: “True or False: I am fascinated by fire.” How would you answer that question on a psych exam? I recall thinking at the time, “Yes, yes I am fascinated by fire, but I don’t want them to think I’m a pyromaniac. And I’m not a pyromaniac so maybe I should answer ‘False.’” But then I considered that wouldn’t be honest, so I reluctantly filled in the bubble for “True.” In the end, the diocesan psychologist did not diagnose me as crazy, so they sent me to seminary, eventually ordained me, and here I am today. But upon later reflection, I think this question is something of a trick.

Why do people pay more to have a fireplace in their home when a central heating system is sufficient to keep everyone comfortable? When people sit around a campfire, what does everybody look at for hours into the night? I strongly suspect this question (are you fascinated by fire) isn’t looking for pyromania so much as it is checking to see whether people will lie, because everyone is fascinated by fire. Fire is beautiful, it’s mesmerizing, dynamic and powerful; it’s well-known to us and yet surprising, an incredible blessing yet dangerous to the unwary.

The Sacred Scriptures often speak about fire. In today’s in gospel, we hear the preaching of St. John the Baptist. In the parallel passages of Matthew and Luke, St. John similarly cries out:

I am baptizing you with water… but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Fire is also mentioned in today’s second reading. The Second Letter of St. Peter tells us:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire…
the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.”

The coming and presence of the Lord is associated with fire in the Old Testament as well. God first spoke to Moses through a burning bush. And during the Exodus the Lord went before his people, leading them in a pillar of cloud and fire. The appearance of God’s glory was like a devouring fire atop Mt. Sinai. The mountain was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. Smoke rose up from it into the sky and the whole mountain greatly trembled. The Lord commanded Moses to warn the people not to approach, not to climb up the mountain, lest they be struck down in their unholiness. Listen to this vision of God the Prophet Daniel had in a dream one night:

As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.

Is the fire of God of which John the Baptist, Peter, Moses, and Daniel speak something for us to fear? Scripture says the punishment of God’s judgment is fire, but it also speaks of fire as God’s means of purifying his own. In regards to judgment, the Prophet Isaiah writes, “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” At the Last Judgment, Jesus Christ the King will turn to the goats on his left and say “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And the Book of Revelation says anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life will be thrown into a lake of fire: “[A]s for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, & all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” This is a fire to dread and to earnestly avoid.

Yet God’s prophets also speak of God’s purifying fire which perfects his people. Psalm 66 says “you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried;” and a verse from the Book of Proverbs says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” Ancient gold and silversmiths would melt their precious metals with fire to separate out and burn away any impurities which they contained. Likewise, through the Prophet Zechariah, God says, “[I will put my people] into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” This is why Jesus exclaims, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Jesus would separate and burn away in us everything impure, false, and worthless. This purification can happen for God’s faithful friends in this life on earth or afterwards in Purgatory. St. Peter writes to the Church in his First Letter, “Now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” And St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day [of the Lord] will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” Is this a fire we should fear and dread? No, as illustrated by this story from the Book of Daniel:

In the days of the Babylonian Empire, King Nebuchadnezzar had three servants named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When the king set up a tall, golden statue and commanded that all bow down and worship it, these three faithful Jewish men refused. Enraged, the king commanded that they be bound with rope and cast into a white-hot furnace. Once this had been done, the king looked inside the furnace. He became startled and rose in haste, asking his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” “Certainly, O king,” they answered. “But, I see four men unbound and unhurt, walking in the fire, and the fourth looks like a son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came to the opening of the furnace and called: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out,” and the trio came out of the fire.

The fire had had no power over their bodies; not a hair of their heads had been singed, nor were their garments altered; there was not even a smell of fire about them. Yet notice, all of the ropes which had bound them were burned away and gone. Recall that the burning bush at Mt. Sinai was not destroyed by God’s fire. And when the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire at Pentecost, the disciples touched by the Holy Flame were not tormented by pain but rather filled with rejoicing. The process of conversion may entail some pains because change is often hard, whether on earth or in Purgatory, but I urge you not to fear it. God’s purifying fire would take away what binds you, it will not destroy what is good in you, and its fruit will be joy.

The Book of Wisdom tells us:

Chastised a little, [the souls of the just] shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;”
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord shall be their King forever.

So just souls become as sparks of fire and rule over the nations. They will rule like God their King and they will share in God’s fire. The New and Old Testaments agree, as the Books of Hebrews and Deuteronomy say, that “our God is a consuming fire.” The Lord your God is a consuming fire – beautiful, dynamic and powerful; well-known to us and yet surprising, an incredible blessing yet dangerous to the unwary. There is no approaching God without encountering his fire. Perhaps the delights of the saints and pains of damned have the same source – the unveiled presence of God. In this life, many people dismiss God while others long to see Him. But beyond the veil of this life the Holy One can no longer be ignored. Either we will eagerly run toward him or desperately desire to flee. The same Holy Fire is loved or despised according to our openness to love and honor and serve like him.

The call of Prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord is addressed to us this Advent. In the wasteland of your imperfect soul prepare a straight and smooth highway for our God. Repent and confess your sins for forgiveness. When St. John the Baptist appeared in the desert, people from the whole Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem were going out to him and being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins aloud. They would devote an entire day to walk or ride an animal out to where John was baptizing; wait in a single, very long line; and then confess their sinfulness in front of everybody in the mere hope of being forgiven by God. Jesus Christ makes it so much easier for us in the Sacrament of Confession. His minsters are not just one, but many, and his churches are not far away. We get to confess our sins privately in the quiet of the confessional, and with every good confession our forgiveness is assured.

St. Peter tells us “the day of the Lord will come like a thief,” that is, by surprise; we know not when. “(Then) the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.” Since this is the case, St. Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be?” Conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion. Do not delay your repentance and conversion. Jesus says, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” If this would be the case with precious limbs, how much more surely should we now cast off our worthless sins?

To give you that opportunity, for the forgiveness of your sins and a new infusion of God’s graces, I will be hearing confessions all day this Wednesday, December 9th at St. Paul’s. This Wednesday, from 10 AM to 8 PM, at the top of every hour, I will come to St. Paul’s main sacristy to hear the confessions of all penitents, either face-to-face or anonymously, masked and socially-distanced until all are heard. I sincerely hope you will come, and bring your family too, for the purifying fire of God is far sweeter than his fire which will punish unrepentance.

The Source of her Devotion — Funeral Homily for Donna Hedler, 88

December 3, 2020

St. John the Baptist Church is honored to be offering our greatest prayer, the Holy Mass, for our well-known and well-loved parishioner, Donna. We also pray today for you who love her and mourn her passing, for your consolation and the strengthening of your spirits in Jesus Christ. No brief funeral homily can capture the fullness of a faithful Christian’s life, but when I spoke with Donna’s children about her they emphasized her devotedness: her devotion as a wife, her devotion as a mother, her devotion to her friends and extended family, her devotion to her Catholic Faith.

She was married to Jerome for fifty-five full years and was devoted to him even after his passing. She never removed her wedding band and at the first Christmas after his death she set an empty place for him at the dinner table. Yet she did not grieve like those who have no hope. Several years ago, while she was visiting Jerome’s grave in Thorp, she lost her footing and fell down backwards into about one foot of snow. At that, she made a snow angel. Today, her earthly remains will be buried alongside his there to await the resurrection.

Her children tell me of Donna’s devotion to her friends, grandchildren, nieces and nephews; reflected, for instance, in her visits and hosting, in her correspondence and gifts, in her lit-up smile and kindly words. Her kids tell me she was always there for them, desired the very best for them, and gave them a moral compass. What was the source of Donna’s devotion?

When family gathered at her house around her table to enjoy a Polish meal upon her fancy china, Donna led the prayer – an individual prayer she would compose herself, giving thanks to him from whose bounty we have all received through Christ our Lord. While she was able to attend church she sang his praises here, and once poor health confined her to home she gratefully received Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament. Her devotion was like that of the psalmist who wrote, “This I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord.

He, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the source of all our devotion. God is devotion, because God is love, and he calls us to be like himself. But without God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all human devotion is negated and futile. Without more than just this world alone, the view of the foolish, that the dead are gone forever and their going forth from us is utter destruction, would be right. Instead, like the Song of Songs says, “[As] stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire. But Jesus tells us, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. And I desire to prepare a place for you so that we all may dwell together always.’

So while we pray for Donna’s soul, that she may now joyfully dwell in our Father’s house forever, let us also learn from her devotion. Reconsider and renew your devotion, for the love with which Christ loves us is true, it is life-giving, and it is the way that leads us to Heaven.

Jesus or Barabbas?

November 23, 2020

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

For the feast of Passover, the Governor Pontius Pilate observed a tradition of releasing to the crowds any one prisoner they wished. On Good Friday, in addition to holding Jesus of Nazareth, the Romans in Jerusalem had a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. When the crowd came forward and began to ask Pilate to do for them as he was accustomed the governor dryly asked, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Pilate asked, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they only shouted the louder, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd lest they riot, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.

This episode with Jesus and Barabbas is recounted each Palm Sunday and Good Friday when the Passion narratives are read at church. However, the Gospels’ Passion accounts are so lengthy and rich with themes to consider that the crowds’ choice between these two figures is rarely ever preached on. Today, I would like to show you the deeper significance in this rejection of Christ the King.

The first interesting detail is in the meaning of these two men’s names. “Jesus” was the name given through angelic messages to Mary and Joseph, a name chosen in Heaven for the Son of God on earth. “Jesus” or “Yeshuah” in Hebrew means “God saves.” The name Barabbas breaks down into the Aramaic words “Bar” and “Abba”; “Bar” means “the son of,” while “Abba” means “father.” And thus, the name Barabbas means “the son of the father.” So Pilate is proposing a question to the crowd more profound than they realize: “Which son of the father do you choose? Do you desire God’s salvation?

The New Testament tells us that Barabbas was a Jewish revolutionary who, along with other captured rebels, had committed murder in a rebellion against Roman rule. The Jews commonly hated the Romans and resented the occupation of their Promised Land by a foreign, Gentile power. Jews expected that the Christ, the Messiah, if he were to come in Jesus’ day, would drive out the Romans and their puppets using the force of arms. Then they imagined that this man, God’s Anointed One, would take his seat upon his ancestor King David’s throne, establishing a renewed Israeli kingdom of worldly glory, with international power, military strength, and overflowing wealth. So when Jesus came among them they failed to recognize him as the Christ.

Unlike Barabbas, Jesus did not promote hatred for the Romans but a love for enemies. Jesus did not raise an army nor a sword, but preached “blessed are the peacemakers.” On Palm Sunday, Jesus does not enter Jerusalem riding on a warhorse, but on a donkey, as the Old Testament prophet Zechariah had foretold: “Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on a donkey.” But when presented with Jesus and Barabbas, the people rejected their true King and Savior, the Christ. St. Peter would go on to preach to the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.” The choice between Barabbas and Jesus is a choice between two sorts of saviors, two very different kinds of revolutionaries and kings; one whom the earth thinks would be most effective and the one whom Heaven has sent us. The Christ and an anti-Christ.

It was within Jesus’ power to have forcibly imposed his rule over the whole world. At Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter is ready to fight—he draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But Jesus intervenes, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way? Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” Jesus then heals to slave’s ear before he is led away by the guards.

Like a gentle lamb silently led to slaughter, Jesus endures his Passion and death. And who would have thought any more of him? But God raised him from the dead and he appeared to his disciples, who then courageously proclaimed to everyone that Jesus is the Christ. The Jews and Romans persecuted the early Christians. Though peaceful and innocent, Christians suffered indignities, imprisonments, and martyrdoms, yet the number of those saved by the Church continued to grow. Then, in 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and ten years later gave it the most favored religious status throughout the Roman Empire. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land … Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” Indeed, Jesus Christ and his Church succeeded where Barabbas failed: they conquered the Roman Empire not by destroying it but by converting it.

Today we celebrate Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. Jesus the Almighty now reigns over us and over the whole world. But this knowledge, upon reflection, can raise troubling questions in our hearts. When we see the horrors of this world, grave evils throughout history and evil happening in our time, we may ask, “Lord, why aren’t you doing more?” Every year in our country, hundreds of thousands of unborn children are being legally murdered. Right now, millions of people in Asia are being held in concentration camps. How many billions of grave sins are being committed every day which cause innocents to suffer? Lord, why don’t you end this evil? Why don’t you force the world to bow down to your will?

We may wish Jesus and others to go violently into full Barabbas-mode against all the world’s evil, but this is not his way. Christ’s goal is the salvation of souls, as many souls as possible. Jesus the Good Shepherd shepherds the world subtly but in every place, speaking to the souls of both his friends and sinners, drawing them freely toward his salvation. But what about the grievous sufferings and injustices along the way? Jesus is not at all indifferent to these. Our loving shepherd is the best of shepherds because he has been a sheep like us, a lamb who was slain. He endured such sufferings and injustices personally as the lamb of God, and he still mystically suffers in and with the innocent. “Amen, I say to you, what you did [or did] not do for one of these least ones, you did [or did] not do for me.

The evil of this world is a heart-breaking scandal. But sin and death do not have the final word. The last word will belong to Jesus Christ. Trust in the crucified One, our suffering God who died and rose for us, the Shepherd of souls, the victorious Lamb, Christ our King. May his Kingdom come and his will be more fully done, on earth as it is in Heaven, in each and every soul.

The Oil for our Lamps

November 7, 2020

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise.”

What are we to make of Jesus’ parable today? Who is this bridegroom and who are these virgins? What are these lamps and the oil that fuels them? How can we be like those wise virgins who enter the wedding feast, and unlike the foolish who are unhappily locked outside? We will better understand the meaning of this parable through a familiarity with Jewish marriage customs.

In the culture of Jesus’ day, when a young man betrothed a woman they would remain apart, typically for twelve months, manifesting the propriety of their union. Once this time of separation was over, the groom would return to his bride with his groomsmen, usually with a nighttime torchlight procession. The bride and her bridesmaids would be expecting him but without knowing the exact hour of his arrival. This is why the bridegroom’s second coming would be preceded by his friend and forerunner’s announcing cry: “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then the bride and her virgin attendants would go up with the groom to his father’s house for a great wedding feast. There the marriage would be consummated and days of feasting and merriment would commence. So whose marriage is being symbolized in Jesus’ parable? Who is the bridegroom and who is his bride? The Scriptures point to Jesus Christ as the bridegroom and his Church as his bride.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s promise: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.” In the Gospels, St. John the Baptist testifies, “I am not the Christ but I have been sent ahead of Him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom…” Then later, when Jesus is questioned as to why his disciples do not fast, he replies, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” Later in the New Testament, St. Paul tells the Church at Corinth, “I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin.” And finally, the Book of Revelation peers into Heaven declaring, “The marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. … Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Heaven is the fullness of the marriage supper of the Lamb to which his Bride, the Church, is called.

While the Church is one, its members are many. The one Bride of Christ exists as a collection of persons. This is why there are multiple bridesmaids in this parable. Each of us is called individually and together to join the Bridegroom in Heaven. Each virgin in the parable awaits the coming of the Bridegroom and each holds a lamp which could provide light to lead her to the joyful wedding feast. Yet not all have oil for their lamps and, due to their foolishness, some go on to find themselves locked outside.

What is this lamp that leads to Heaven and what is the oil that fuels it? We can look to other Bible passages for answers. The Second Book of Samuel quotes David rejoicing in God: “You are my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord illumines my darkness.” While Psalm 119 calls God’s word a lamp: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” But how could both God and God’s word be the lamp? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Later John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. (Which can also be translated as, “I am the lamp of the world.”) Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” So we are individually the bridesmaids, and Jesus is our lamp that would lead us to Heaven. But we must not neglect the oil which fuels this lamp.

What or who is this oil? Oil (which was used to anoint biblical priests, prophets, and kings) is a symbol for the Holy Spirit and grace. After the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism, revealing him to be the promised Messiah and Christ (two words which both mean “Anointed One”) Jesus likens the Holy Spirit to anointing oil. “In the power of the Spirit” Jesus declares at Nazareth; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” And the Book of Acts recalls how, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power…” The Holy Spirit is a gift of God, and Jesus teaches that “the Father in Heaven [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” This Spirit connects us to Jesus, to know him and be like him. As the Holy Spirit inspired and strengthened Jesus throughout his ministry, like the oil of a lamp fueling its light, so the Holy Spirit enables the Christian to shine. “You are the light [the lamp] of the world,” Jesus tells us, “Your light must shine before others…

In Jesus’ parable, all of the virgins believed in the bridegroom and expected his arrival. All of them had lamps but not all had oil. Similarly, all Christians have heard of Jesus and of his Second Coming, yet not all of them are prepared for him, to burn with his holy light. As the Book of Proverbs says, “The light of the just gives joy, but the lamp of the wicked goes out.” When the foolish virgins’ need for oil becomes clear, why don’t the wise virgins give to those without? This seems very strange to us because sharing would seem to be the kind and generous Christian thing to do. But the oil the wise virgins possess is not something they can hand over. “No… Go instead to the merchants,” they say, “and buy some for yourselves.” This oil is the gift of the Holy Spirit and grace that God the Father provides; but then what is meant by this detail of dealing with the merchants?

In our world, whenever we make a purchase or trade, we exchange a thing we possess for something else we desire more. For instance, when I fill up my tank at Kwik Trip, I’m exchanging $25 I have for gasoline instead. I can have either the money or the gas but I can’t have both. I must to decide which I value more — though without the gas I won’t get very far. The wise virgins brought flasks of oil with their lamps but the foolish ones did not. They carried extra coins of the world instead. The Holy Spirit is not of this world. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God.” But to possess the Holy Spirit we must sacrifice — hand back to the world — what is taking up the space for the Spirit and his graces.

For example, for some Christians, TV prime time crowds out quiet prayer time. For too many, Sunday various entertainments and excursions take the place of Sunday Mass. A smartphone can distract us from noticing God is calling. And if we are possessed by our possessions, our fearful clinging excludes a generous spirit. Are you restrained in your devotion to Jesus because of what worldly people might think of you? Chose either God or the world, take the oil or the coins, you can’t have both. Sacrifice in your life what makes the Holy Spirit and his grace unwelcome.

Just as Lady Wisdom (poetically described in our first reading) is met by those who seek, desire, and watch for her, so the Holy Spirit more readily comes not to those who are indifferent or resistant, but to those who are intentional, receptive, and docile for him. Know that the Holy Spirit is given not merely so that your labors can be more fruitful — though you will be more fruitful. Something else is more important than all good works. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven… Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” Note that this is just like what the Bridegroom says to the foolish virgins after the door to the feast has been locked. They say, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But he says in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

The most important mission of the Holy Spirit is not to make us fruitful laborers, but to grow our relationship with the Holy Trinity, so that we will approach God’s door as friends and not as strangers. The Holy Spirit leads us to the Father. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “you received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” And the Holy Spirit reveals to us the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “the natural [worldly] person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything… [Because] we have the mind of Christ.

However, we know neither the day nor the hour of Christ the Bridegroom’s Second Coming. He does not reveal this knowledge to us for our own good, but Jesus urges us to always be ready for him. Like all ten virgins in the parable,  it is quite possible that all of us here will fall asleep, will experience the sleep of death, before Jesus returns. But when the cry goes up at his coming and the dead are raised, will we be prepared to follow him into his joyful wedding feast? That will all depend upon what we do now in this present life. Will we have already traded away the coins of this world to have the precious oil, the Holy Spirit, fueling the lamp of our relationship with Jesus Christ? This is what the wise will do, and what the foolish will neglect until it is too late to their great regret. So let us be wise and welcome the Holy Spirit and his graces.

Prepared for His House — Funeral Homily for Cynthia “Cindy” Nazer, 64

November 3, 2020

Today, St. Paul’s Parish offers you our sympathies, our prayers, and the consolation of Jesus Christ. The parting that comes from death is naturally mournful. But it is our faith in Jesus Christ that allows us to mourn with hope. No funeral homily can capture the full mystery of a Christian life; all that Cindy has done, or all that Christ has done in her. But speaking with Steve, her husband, I learned a particularly interesting aspect of their life together I’d like to share with you.

Cindy always liked things made of wood, and one of her desires was to have a log-cabin home. So, in the 1980’s, Steve and Cindy began building one together midway between Bloomer and Chippewa Falls. They began with the garage. Steve says this was for practice. Better to make one’s mistakes on the garage than with the house. After that, they stored lots of lumber onsite there. The project also involved an barn in which their cut logs were dried for two years, purging them of unwanted water, to prevent them from later warping out of shape. Placing these heavy logs was an exacting process. Steve tells me that each log must be laid in place three times over to make sure they fit properly, along with shaving, trimming, and cutting of the logs all throughout the process. But once perfected in this way, these logs became the home where Cindy and Steve and their family lived together. It was her home through their marriage together until her final day on earth.

This building of a house to share in marriage has a connection to our Gospel today. In Jesus’ time and culture, when a Jewish groom married his bride, he would go off to build or prepare the space of their home. It would typically be an extension upon his own father’s house. And once this long and demanding project was complete, the husband would return to his bride and take her into their new home to share their lives together. This is why Jesus says to his disciples, and tells us, his bride the Church:

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.

Jesus is the bridegroom and we, the Church, are his bride. He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me… Where I am going you know the way.” But this last remark causes St. Thomas alarm, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What does the way of Jesus look like? What does the life of Christ look like? This is the truth in Jesus Christ: for the faithful one, after much suffering, comes death, but this dying is not the end, it is not utter destruction, for this life is followed by new life and resurrection.

Therefore,” as St. Paul writes “we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.

Like those logs chosen, refined, and fitted for the log cabin, God uses the events of our lives, the good moments and the bad, to make us ready for his home. “Chastised a little,” the Book of Wisdom says, “they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.

The parting of a loved one may ache our hearts, but our sufferings are not without hope, or meaning, or purpose. Through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus, the Savior of the world, the prayer of the psalmist can be beautifully fulfilled for Cindy, for others, and ourselves – which is the fulfillment of all our longings:

There is one thing I ask of the Lord;
only this do I seek:
To dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life.
That I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord
and contemplate his temple.

Our Glorious Friends

October 31, 2020

Solemnity of All Saints

The saints who have died are not dead – they are more alive than we are now. The human saints in Heaven lived in times past, but they were made of the same stuff and faced similar struggles then as you and I today. Though the Catholic Church has canonized thousands of saints, when you consider the billions of Christians throughout history canonizations are relatively rare, yet there are more saints in Heaven than we can count. We know this because of St. John’s Revelation of Heaven: “I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” The Lord Jesus Christ wants you to be in that number. Unfortunately, common misconceptions about saints can keep us further from them. So, in this homily, I would like to help you to grow closer to them in friendship and in likeness.

First realize that the saints are not dead and gone but still living. This is why whenever I preach about the deceased I try to speak of them using the present tense whenever some fact about them remains true. For instance, if a kind and generous Christian father of three dies he is still a kind and generous father of three. Rather than saying “his name was David,” faithfully witness that “his name is David” even after he has died. Though deprived of their bodies for the moment, those who are in Heaven are more alive than we are here. There they experience God opening himself to them an inexhaustible way. This is called the beatific vision, an ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion. The saints in Heaven see God face to face, and they have become like him for they see him as he is.

What is a glorified human being or exulted human nature like? Let’s consider the Blessed Virgin Mary. How much does she know us? How much does she love us? Does she hear each one of our prayers addressed to her? It is our sense of the Faith that our spiritual mother does indeed know us and loves us individually as her children. But consider this: if every Catholic in the world offers one Hail Mary a day, this means an average of more than fifteen thousand new prayers come her way each second. Therefore, if Mary hears all our prayers, her experience of time and/or the capacity of her glorified consciousness must far surpass our own.

The other glorified saints in Heaven, our brothers and sisters in Christ, know and care about you too. They understand you because they’ve walked in our shoes. Governments and borders and technologies change over time, but human nature is constant. The saints began with the same humanity as you and I, experienced challenges like our own, and prevailed. Lots of canonized saints have been priests, nuns, bishops, popes, or martyrs, but Heaven is certainly not limited to these backgrounds. Saints come from varied walks of life. Some canonized saints did extraordinary miracles or had visions here on earth, but even for these most of their days were ordinary, spent faithfully doing very ordinary things like us.

The saints in Heaven are our friends who lend us constant aid even if we do not know their names yet. In response, I encourage you to befriend them back. Which ones? Try doing this holy experiment: ask Jesus to introduce you to a saint and then keep your eyes open. Watch for a saint to providentially present him or herself to you, perhaps through an icon, a painting, or a photograph, a book or a film, or mentioned in a conversation thereafter. I look forward to hearing whom you’ll meet. Take these saints as teachers you learn from, role models you imitate, heroes to inspire you, and holy intercessors whose prayers before God for you are very powerful. I urge you to follow the saints, because those who follow them will embody the beatitudes, become more like Jesus, and become saints themselves.

Though it is unlikely any of us here will be officially canonized by the Church, we are all called to be saints. You are called to be a saint. St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” Do not say, “I have too sinful of a past to become a saint.” Recall that St. Paul had once persecuted Christians. There is no saint without a past and no sinner without a future. And do not say, “I’m too imperfect to become a saint.” Realize that even while St. Peter was serving as the first pope he sometimes made personal mistakes in his ministry. And do not say, “I’m too late in my life to become a saint.” Remember how the Good Thief on his cross next to Jesus made the most of the time he had left. As St. John Paul the Great preached, “Become a saint, and do so quickly.” Jesus is calling you to be a saint, so befriend the saints and they will help you on the way to Heaven.

God’s Desire for an Intimate Relationship with Humanity

October 24, 2020

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Deacon Dick Kostner

Today we learn of God’s desire for us to form an intimate relationship with him for all eternity. When questioned as to the greatest commandment contained in the Torah Jesus answers that it is for us to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind. So the question for us to answer is how does this occur? Well the answer is simple it requires we build a relationship with God. When I think back on how this occurred for me when I met my wife it started with an attraction to this person who would ultimately become my wife. It was something about her looks and mannerisms that made me want to know more about her. So I guess it began with my mind. My mind kept telling me to take a closer look at this gal. So communication began which told me that this person thinks and acts as I do. I witnessed her relationship with her family and friends and it was complimentary to the relationship I had with my family. With time and interaction with her my mind moved from a head thing to a heart thing. The heart has an appetite that can only be satisfied by spending more time with a person. And I found out that I was happy and satisfied with myself mostly when I was with her.

Everything else of importance in my life began to take a back seat to my hearts desire to be with and learn more about this special person. I knew my heart was taking over my mind when even during deer hunting season I longed for and looked forward to seeing her even while on my deer stand and doing things that previously had been the number one priority in my life.

With spending more time with this person and understanding her better sometimes than she understood herself, the soul aspect of the relationship came into play. The two started to become one. Communication included and occurred between us that no longer required words. The minds of two people no longer were independent of each other but had joined to form a new entity. I was no longer thought of by others as “Dick Kostner” but rather Barb and Dick. Even when planning meals the minds of two began to think as one and the stomachs of two also began to hunger and feed as one. We loved each other with all of our heart, soul and mind, and thus became a new entity bigger and stronger than ever existed before we met each other. This love relationship grew with the birth of a child and a new family relationship with its joys and trials expanded through love.

This is the relationship that God desires with his human creations. This type of relationship requires complete freedom of choice and that is why we all have a God given right to choose who we will listen to and who we will associate with. When we choose God to be our best friend and advisor, we enter into a new existence and the ultimate spiritual level our Church scholars have named the “Unitive State of Spirituality” a divine state where we are one in spirit with the Father in the way that we love not only God but we love our neighbors as ourselves as did Jesus . We become to others a visible new entity that causes some people to fear us, while others look up to us for answers and opinions. I witnessed this first hand when I was ordained a Deacon. I moved from being viewed by the public as Dick Kostner or Attorney Kostner to Deacon Dick or Deacon Kostner which was a real rebirth for me not only in name but also in personal objectives and desires monitored by a family friend named Jesus.

It all begins with something within our mind that says “I want to get to know this person named ‘I Am‘ — better.” I want to become better friends with this Deity, my creator, who understands me better than I understand myself. This is God’s first and foremost commandment or desire for us. He desires that we join him in becoming one in Spirit with Him, and to display our love for him through our love for our neighbors whether they love us or even hate us. Jesus died for us he asks us to die to “self” for others so as to become one in Spirit with him for all eternity as a member and part of His Holy Family.