Archive for the ‘Homily’ Category

Holy Days: Jesus’ Gift List — 1st Sunday of Advent—Year B

December 5, 2017

The prophet Isaiah, who pairs with St. John the Baptist as the one of the two most prominent prophets of the Advent season, cries out in our first reading today:

“Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants, [your people.]”

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!”

Can you relate to that? Does that resonate within you? Do you long for such things, too? We know that Christ has already come, that he will come at Christmas like he did last year, the re-celebration of his first coming some 2,017 years ago. Jesus has already been granted to us, and we too often take him for granted. He told his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings [and righteous people] desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Many ancient peoples waited and longed and hoped and prayed for the Christ to come. In the season of Advent, we cultivate a deeper longing for God like those generations past. This longing leads to devotion, and this devotion to more perfect love. Our long, devotion, and long prepare us for the Lord.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel:

“Watch… you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at [the wee hours], or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”

In Jesus’ parable, a man travels abroad, leaving home and placing his servants in charge of their duties. The gatekeeper is ordered to be on the watch, and all are told to be prepared for whatever hour the Lord might arrive. His parable teaches us to be always ready, for either the day of Jesus’ Second Coming or the hour of your death.

Allow me to somewhat alter and re-imagine the parable Jesus told: Imagine the master and lord gathering all of his servants together and saying, “I want each of you to return to meet me here, at my house, on such-and-such a day, at a particular time.” This commandment would be even easier to keep than the instructions in the original tale. Knowing what we know of Jesus’ parables, what could we expect of the wise servants and what would the foolish ones do? A scenario much like this one faces us.

At the Last Supper, when Jesus said “do this in memory of me,” he willed for all his Church to often gather together as one to celebrate his sacrifice, his sacrament, the Eucharist. Through his Church, he instructs us when to gather; on Sundays (that is, the Lord’s Day) and other Holy Days. Unless there exists some grave or serious reason, like sickness, dangerous travel conditions, the need to care for another, or inescapable work, he expects us all to come. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “we should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some…”

In Old Covenant, there were three annual Jewish pilgrimage festivals held in Jerusalem: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths. The Lord obliged his often-busy people to journey far to Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel tells us the Holy Family journeyed to Jerusalem each year for Passover. The road distance from their Nazareth home to Jerusalem is about 120 miles (or 90 if you cut straight through Samaria.) So, every year, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus walked or rode between 180 and 240 miles round-trip. God insisted on his people’s attendance so they would experience the gifts these Holy Days were. Some Jews may have felt this obligation an unwelcome burden, but their faithful observance gave their hearts an opportunity to be transformed by celebrating the festival and by encountering the Lord at his house, his temple.

The paradox or problem of preaching on the importance of attending Mass is that the people who need to hear it the most are least likely to. The family that comes half of the time has a 50% of hearing; the person who nine out of ten weekends is elsewhere has only a 10% chance; but maybe God’s providence will provide for them to encounter this message, perhaps you could pass along to them the main points.

Our Lady of Vladimir, icon c. 1130 ADI’m preaching about this topic on this First Sunday of Advent in light of the Holy Days of Obligation in this season. For instance, this Friday, December 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the creation of he Virgin Mary free from sin and filled with grace. Jesus wants us to celebrate this feast together with him and his mother. This year, Fourth Sunday of Advent (Dec 23rd / 24th) comes right before Christmas (Dec 25th.) So people are wondering, “Do we have to come to Mass twice?” Some ask in order to plan accordingly out of love for our Lord, while some ask hoping to get out of something. Either way, the answer is yes.

Maybe you feel a temptation to rebel, or an involuntary interior groan at that news. But remember how it goes for the wise in Jesus’ parables and the rewards they receive. Jesus says, “To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Instead of regarding the call of this binding obligation (which it is) as merely a rule, re-frame it as a gift on Jesus’ list this year. Our faithful observance is a gift to him that may entail some small measure of sacrifice from us, but Jesus hopes to give us far surpassing gifts in return; the gift of himself and every good thing that comes with him. Our Lord is never outdone in generosity, so let us give him the generous gift of ourselves on Holy Days and throughout this Advent season.

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“The Ten Virgins & Wedding Party Prudence” — 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A

November 13, 2017

Learning about first century Jewish marriage customs helps us understand the Gospels better, including the Parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins. In Jesus’ day, when a young man wished to marry a woman, he would journey from his father’s house to hers. He and her father would agree upon a dowry and once this dowry price was paid the marriage covenant was established. This event was called “betrothal” and the man and woman thereafter were considered husband and wife. The groom, however, would not then begin to live with his bride. He returned to his father’s house for twelve months, manifesting his respectful self-restraint and honorableness toward her. (Betrothal was the situation St. Matthew described: “When Mary… was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” So Mary was never an unwed mother, but she knows the experience of having a crisis pregnancy.) During their year apart, the man and woman would prepare for their new life together. One of the groom’s most important tasks in this period was to prepare living accommodations for them at his father’s house.

Once their time of separation was over, the groom would return to his bride’s house with his groomsmen, usually at night with a torchlight procession. She would be expecting him but not know the exact hour of his arrival. That is why the groom’s second coming would be preceded by his messenger’s shout. Then the bride and her female attendants and the groom and his groomsmen would return to his Father’s house (their new home) for a wedding feast with their other gathered friends, family, and neighbors. There the husband and wife would consummate their marriage, and seven days of feasting and merriment would begin.

In the Gospels, Jesus is declared and calls himself “the bridegroom.” The New Testament names the Church his “bride.” The relationship between Christ and his Church parallels a Jewish marriage. For instance, in the Incarnation, God the Son left his Father’s house in Heaven to journey to our dwelling place on earth. Jesus paid our dowry price with his own blood. And after establishing his covenant, Jesus ascends to his Father’s house for a time until his second coming. This is why Jesus says at the Last Supper:

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.”

This Sunday’s second reading describes this return.  As St. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven…” Notice how the Lord’s angelic messenger announces to the bride that her bridegroom is at hand. St. Paul continues, “And then the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

In the Book of Revelation we see this nuptial union of Christ and his Church continues above. St. John hears Heaven sing:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment.” (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.‘”

The virgin, young women in today’s parable are the bride’s attendants awaiting the bridegroom. Five are called wise and five are called foolish. The important distinction between them is not one of I.Q.—of being naturally intelligent or unintelligent—but in being thoughtful versus thoughtless. In the 1994 Best Picture Winning film, Forrest Gump is a man of below-average intelligence who, by his simple virtue, lives an admirable and remarkable life. A couple of times he’s asked, “Are you stupid or something?” and Forrest replies, “Stupid is as stupid does, sir.” I didn’t know what this meant when I was a kid, so I asked my dad. He explained that if you’re blessed with intelligence, but keep doing bad or foolish things, then you’re stupid. On the other hand, even if you’re not that bright but you make good and smart choices, then you are wise.

What is the meaning of the oil lamps that play such a significant role in Jesus’ story? The consensus of the Church Fathers is that they represent good works. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus likens lamps to good deeds:

No one lights a lamp and then put its under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

(But doesn’t Jesus warn us, just a few verses before in his Sermon on the Mount, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father”? What reconciles these two teachings The answer is in whose glory is being sought. If I pray, fast, and give alms for my own glory, then some people may think well of me for a little while until they forget, and I will have received my reward. But if I do good works for the glory of God, then he will be glorified and he will reward me and I will share in his glory.)

The two types of virgins in the parable represent two types of people awaiting Christ the bridegroom. All the virgins fall asleep. Likewise, all of us (unless Jesus comes again first) will experience the falling asleep of death. They virgins are roused from sleep. Likewise we will be roused from sleep in the Resurrection. All of the virgins have at least a little oil, some light. At the Judgment, I suspect everyone will have some good deeds to point to – even murderous dictators have loved their dogs. But is that love sufficient? Are those good deeds enough? For the thoughtless, foolish virgins, their little oil is not enough.

They say, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones reply, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you.” (Apparently, their oil and abundance is not something that can be shared or transferred between persons.) “Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” That’s where the wise virgins would have bought their oil in preparation, but remember what time it is. The bridegroom’s arrival was announced at midnight. All the stores are closed. Where are the foolish virgins going to find a merchant to sell them oil? They won’t. It’s too late.

Who are these merchants that we must buy our oil from now, before it is too late? These merchants are your neighbors in their need. At the judgment of the world, the Lord Jesus will say the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked & you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’Then these righteous ones will wonder when this happened. And our king will say in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” And elsewhere, Jesus tells us, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple — amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” Our neighbors, near and far, are the merchants from whom we obtain the oil of good works now for our lamps of glory later. We pay our neighbors with our time, our talents, and our treasure to purchase our good deeds.

This opportunity to do good on earth will not last forever. In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” old man Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley.

[Standing in his bed chamber, Scrooge] became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The [ghost of Jacob Marley], after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few…were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.”

We know the souls in Heaven can help effect good on earth – that’s why we pray for their intercession. The souls in Purgatory may or may not be able to pray and intercede for us – that’s an open question in Catholic theology. The souls in Hell definitely do not help us, but both they and those in Purgatory regret and lament having failed to do more good on earth when they had their chance in life.

When the foolish virgins finally arrive late to the wedding feast they find the door is locked. They cry, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But the bridegroom says in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” This echoes what Jesus teaches elsewhere:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in 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.’”

Jesus is teaching us that we are not saved by faith alone, by the mere acknowledgment that he is “Lord, Lord.” Nor are we saved by the vast accumulation of good works, for one could even prophesy, drive out demons, or do mighty deeds without having a saving relationship with him. We are saved by Jesus’ love for us and our loving him in return; by both faith in him and good works in him.

So what was the foolish virgins’ great sin? Who hasn’t accidentally forgotten to pack something on occasion? It’s hard to imagine Jesus condemning people for a mere accident. I think the virgins’ oversight in this parable suggests a far more serious fault. These young women heard there was going to be a big party and that a lot of people were going. They jumped on the bandwagon but were just going along for the ride. They did not really know the bride or groom and didn’t really care about them. If they had loved the couple, they would have put more thought into being their good guests and true friends, they would have been more serious in their personal preparations, and that prudent diligence would have saved them from being locked out in the end.

I do not wish to unsettle you, but Jesus preached this parable to the crowds and ensured that it was included in Matthew’s Gospel because he wanted us to consider this question: am I loving the bridegroom and his bride, am I loving the Church and her Lord? Are you dedicating your time, talents, and treasure to God and your neighbor? Are you striving for the narrow path and the narrow door that Jesus tells us few attain? Or are you, like many, just going with the flow in comfortable complacency? Jesus’ final warning in today’s gospel is, “Stay awake, (be vigilant, be diligent,) for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The bridegroom and bride request the honor of your presence at their banquet. So let us wisely be diligent, doing good works in Christ, while this precious daylight remains.

Defending our Vineyard from our Enemy’s Servants

October 12, 2017

Today’s parable has a straight-forward interpretation: God is the landowner. He establishes his people Israel like a man who sets up a vineyard. God entrusted the care of his vineyard to the chief priests and elders of the people. They are the tenants. Then God sent his servants – the prophets – to obtain the good harvest. But the Jewish leaders resisted and persecuted the prophets; sometimes beating them, sometimes killing them, sometimes stoning them. Finally, God, in the crazy twist to our story, sends his own Son to them. The chief priests and the elders will go on to seize Jesus, condemn him, and see to it that he is taken outside the walls of Jerusalem and killed on a cross. “Therefore,” Jesus says to them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” The authority of the Jewish leaders will be handed over to the Apostles and priests of Jesus’ New Covenant Church; a Church that will baptize and embrace Jews and Gentiles alike, forming a new people in Christ who will produce much fruit.

That is the straight-forward meaning of Jesus’ tale, but I would like to turn your attention back to those wicked tenants in the parable, because they, in a certain way, can serve as an example for us. Now I would not dare to suggest such a thing – I would fear it being scandalous to use the wicked as a Christian example – if Jesus himself had not once used a dishonest steward as someone we could learn from.

As you may recall, the dishonest steward, knowing that he would soon be losing his job, wrote off the debts of his boss’ debtors so that, once he got fired, these new friends of his would welcome him into their homes. Jesus used the shrewdness of this bad man as an example to teach his disciples to ‘make friends for yourselves with the wealth of this world, so that, when these passing things fail one day, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ Likewise, I believe we have something valuable to learn from the shrewdness of the vineyard’s wicked tenants in today’s parable.

What if, when the servants of the landowner had arrived at the vineyard, the tenants did not promptly beat them, kill them, or stone them? Imagine if the tenants, instead of turning them out, welcomed the servants’ arrival; giving them food to eat and somewhere to stay on the grounds. Now the wicked tenants’ prior plans to never deliver any of the harvest to the landowner would still be in place, but can you imagine what might happen to their resolve over time?

The good servants staying with the tenants would keep speaking with them so kindly and pleasantly and persuasively, encouraging them to do the right thing. The good servants would encourage the tenants to imagine their possible reward: “If you do what is just, our good master will be even more generous with you! If you will not give him the total amount, could you perhaps give him the least little bit? Surely that wouldn’t hurt and it wouldn’t cost you very much.” If allowed to stay, the servants may well convince the tenants to give up some or all of what they have. However, if the tenants wish to remain faithful to their original intentions, then when their enemy’s servants arrive they should be neither fed nor lodged, conversed with nor welcomed in any friendly manner, lest their persuasion change minds and hearts and plans.

There is a spiritual battle in our midst. You can hear about it on the news and see it in the headlines, hidden behind every divisive controversy and murderous atrocity. (For instance, if no demons played a role in the rise of ISIS, then the demons are not doing anything in our world these days.) But the spiritual battle in our midst is not only fought out there; it is fought within us.

How do temptations come into our minds? From our senses, what we see and hear; from our invisible spiritual enemies, the demons; from our own human brokenness; or any combination of these. However our temptations come, in whatever form they take, our response to them should be as unfriendly at their arrival as those wicked tenants were at the arrival of the landlord’s servants.

Do not welcome temptation when it arrives. Do not feed it. Do not give it a place to dwell and lodge within you. Do not converse with it. Do not fantasize at its suggestions. Do not compromise with it, not even a little. Do not allow it to change your mind, your heart, your plans. Do not befriend temptation, but violently turn it out as a servant of your enemy.

Now temptations may come in our direction even against will – sensations, sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, memories – these can seem to pop up out of nowhere. Remember that an unwilled temptation, in and of itself, is not a sin. A saint is not someone who never experiences temptation. A saint is someone who chooses what is right and good and loving even amid temptation.

What should you do when temptation comes? First, pray. Pray now, and then again when temptation arrives. Prayer opens the door to Christ and lets him take the lead in our daily lives because he respects our freewill. Pray every day and call on the Lord in times of temptation. He is stronger than all the demons put together and mightier than your weaknesses.

A second helpful thing to do regarding temptation is to change your environment. Sometimes people in confession lament to me about always confessing the same sins. I try to encourage them by pointing out, “Well, thank goodness it’s not something totally different every time: ‘Father, last month I committed arson and this week I robbed a bank! I have no clue what I might do next!‘” Human beings, for better or worse, are creatures of habit, so we can learn a lot from our repeated failures. By changing your environment can do much to avoid temptation. For example, if you’re always gossiping with the same gathering of people, then perhaps avoid that group. If you are always unchaste using the same media, then block, limit, or cut out that technology. If you always get drunk at the same establishment, then stop going there. When you have traveled the same road many times you know well where that road leads. When you find yourself walking on that road, then stop and turn around or take another path. Changing your environment can lead you away from near occasions of sin.

A third and final thing to do amid temptation is to change your focus. The human mind is made to process ideas, to chew on thoughts; we cannot think about nothing. (If I were to tell you not to think about flying alligators, I bet you couldn’t do it for sixty seconds—you’d either be thinking about flying alligators or checking to see whether you’re thinking about them.) What should you think about instead when tempted? Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, praiseworthy, think about those things, and you will persevere in doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus Christ.

Some people only think of temptation as enticements to pleasurable things. But temptation can also be towards unpleasant things, like shame, despair, fear, and anxiety. The devil not only wants you to fall, but to stay down and not get back up. And if he cannot make you fall into sin, he wants you to be neutralized and paralyzed by fear and confusion. What is the antidote for such negative temptations? St. Paul offers this prescription for anxiety: “Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Let’s break that down.

Have no anxiety at all.” Concern is of good use. If you were not concerned about going to church you wouldn’t come. I were not concerned about my homily then I would have nothing to say. Concern is useful, but worry is worthless. Have no anxiety at all, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” In everything, whether you are anxious or not, make your requests known to God; not because he doesn’t know, but because it opens you up to him and invites him to work. Pray prayers of praise for who he is, voice your petitions for what you need or want, and do so with thanksgiving – without which you feel impoverished and embittered despite your innumerable blessings. ‘Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding

will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.’ We do not have the big picture, long-term perspective of God to see how God will work all things for the good of those who love him, but by prayer comes a peace that surpasses our limited understanding. This peace will guard your mind and heart in Jesus Christ amid temptation.

God entrusted the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve to tend and to protect. By the devil’s temptation, they lost their great treasure. Among the many treasures Jesus has given, he has entrusted to you the vineyard of your mind. Tend it and protect it. Do not fall to temptations but drive them out as your enemy’s servants. May your vineyard remain at peace and bear much fruit in Jesus Christ.

Mary, the New Ark of the Covenant

September 4, 2017

Did you ever see Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark? You may recall seeing the movie’s replica of the Ark of the Covenant featured as the McGuffin artifact everyone was seeking out. This movie has been very helpful to preachers in providing a visual aid to everyone of what the Ark of the Covenant looked like.

Like Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was a box constructed according to God’s design and command. It served as a portable throne bearing the presence of God on earth. The Ark held inside of it three important things: the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, the wooden staff of Moses’ brother Aaron the High Priest, and a gold jar containing some of the Manna God provided his people to eat in the desert. The reason I mention these things today is because the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament foreshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary in the New Testament.

The old Ark held the Ten Commandments, the word of God in stone; the Virgin Mary bears the Word of God in flesh. The old Ark held the priestly staff which on one occasion miraculously blossomed despite being dead; Mary conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit despite her perfect virginity. The old Ark contained Manna bread in a golden vessel; Mary’s holy womb contains the true Bread from Heaven, provided to us for our journey to Promised Land — Jesus Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King.

At God’s command, the old Ark was made of natural wood overlaid with pure gold inside and out. Mary is a human woman who is made “full of grace.” King David once joyfully leaped and danced before the Ark of the Lord. At the Visitation, when Mary visits Elizabeth her relative, John the Baptist likewise leaps with joy within his mother’s womb. David once asked, “How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?” Elizabeth likewise asks, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” On one occasion, the old covenant ark was kept for three months in the house of a man named Obed-edom outside Jerusalem, and Scripture records that God blessed his whole household. Mary likewise dwelt three months in the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth near Jerusalem and was surely a blessing to them.

No man was to touch the Old Covenant Ark, lest they be struck down dead. (God instructed his ministers to move that holy Ark only by means of two gilded poles which slid through rings on the sides of the Ark.) Joseph of Nazareth held a similar reverence towards Mary, his ever-virgin wife. In the Old Testament, the Lord was to be found wherever the old Ark dwelt, from the Sinai wilderness to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament, “on entering the house, [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother,” and, “standing by the cross of Jesus [was] his mother.”

In the movie, Indiana Jones and the Nazis were looking for the “lost” Ark because Scripture reports that the Old Covenant Ark was hidden soon before the Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Jeremiah the Prophet took the Ark and placed it in a secret cave. Unlike in the 1981 movie, the Lost Ark has never been recovered. Yet, in his revelations recorded at the end of the New Testament, John the Apostle sees the new Ark revealed. John writes: “God’s temple in Heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.” The next thing John describes is a glorious woman pregnant with the Christ child, “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” This is Mary, the New Ark of the Covenant, whom at the end of her time on earth God lifted up body and soul into Heaven.

The old Ark was of central, though secondary, importance in the Old Covenant. Drawing physically nearer to it brought one closer to the presence of God on earth. Likewise, God gives the Blessed Virgin Mary, the new Ark, a central role in his New Covenant. If you draw closer in your relationship with her, you will surely draw closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Transfiguring Our Perception of Others

August 6, 2017

Today, Jesus hikes with his three closest apostles, Peter, James, and John, to the top of Mount Tabor in Israel. And there, Jesus is transfigured before them. His face shines and his clothes become intensely white. Then they hear God the Father speaking from a bright cloud that envelops them, declaring: “This is my beloved Son.”

In the Incarnation, some two thousand and seventeen years ago, the Eternal Word became Flesh, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became Man, and the divinity of the Son of God became veiled within a human nature. It has long been my sense that Jesus is not changed or transformed at the Transfiguration so much as his apostles are allowed to glimpse him more deeply as he really, truly is: God from God, Light from Light. This light shines from his face as radiantly as the sun and from his body such that the fabric of his clothing is brightly illuminated like a thin lampshade.

When the disciples become frightened after hearing the Father’s voice and fall prostrate on the ground, burying their faces, Jesus comes over and touches them: “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raise their eyes, they see Jesus once more the same way as they had always seen him, and yet they see him differently now.

If we saw Jesus tomorrow while buying bread and milk at the store, or if Jesus visited our place of work, or came to our front door, do you think we would recognize him? I tend to doubt it. Many of the Jews in Jesus’ day noticed nothing extra special about him. “Is he not the carpenter’s son?” The Prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messiah that ‘there would be in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.’ Even Jesus’ close friends sometimes had a hard time recognizing him after his Resurrection. The most famous example of this was on the Road to Emmaus. But by the gift of God’s grace, with the Breaking of the Bread, the eyes of Jesus’ disciples were opened and they recognized him in their midst. The reason I doubt that many would recognize Jesus amid their everyday lives tomorrow is because so few of us recognize him among us today.

In the very early Church, a man named Saul had a murderous hatred for the first Christians. One day, was traveling to Damascus, Syria to arrest any Christians he might find there and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. As he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, sir?” And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This man went on to be converted to a Christian. We know him today as St. Paul.

Note how Jesus does not say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my Church,” nor “Why are you persecuting my people.” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus identifies himself with his people and his Church because he is personally present within them. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me… You will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” Jesus speaks of his mystical presence within us our and neighbors at other times in the Gospels as well.

At the Last Judgment, Jesus tells us he will say to his saved sheep: ‘Whatever you did for one of the hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned little brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ And then Jesus will turn and declare to the condemned goats: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” These goats, Jesus tells us, will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous sheep to eternal life.

And so you see, recognizing, loving, and serving Jesus in other people must be a top and serious priority for us. Yet how many people do we interact with each day with so much thoughtless indifference? We speed past other people like so many unnoticed trees and cars as we drive along our way of life. Sometimes we even take the people living in our own home for granted, treating our family members worse than our mere acquaintances. Many failed to recognize Jesus’ importance in his day; while we overlook the importance of people in our midst today. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

So how can we begin to behold and relate to other people in the manner we ought, as Christ would have us do? Jesus himself was open and loving towards everyone. I would suggest two steps: First, ask for the gift of God’s grace at this Breaking of the Bread on the Feast of the Transfiguration, that your eyes may be opened to truly see others. And second, begin a habit of praying for, say, five or ten people every day whom you’ve never thought to pray for before. For example, the cashier who gave you change yesterday, that politician whom you dislike, the suffering people of North Korea, your child’s best friend, your quiet co-worker, and the person whom you heard just died. And then, the next day, chose another new collection of people to pray for. This practice will reveal to you your inter-personal, spiritual blinders, and help you to begin tearing them down. Let us ask Jesus to transfigure our perception of others so that we may see them more in the way that he beholds them, with love.

“The 4 Types of Soil & How to Improve Our Own” — 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A

July 17, 2017

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd stood along the shore. And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Despite all the changes and developments over these past two thousand years, the parables of Jesus Christ still hold up. Not only is the imagery in his parables still relatable today, but the lessons of his parables remain true. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a sower who sows across four different types of ground. The Gospel’s authors, namely St. Matthew and the Holy Spirit, go on to make the interpretation of this parable easy by including Jesus’ own explanation.

Jesus says, “The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the Word of the Kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart. The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the Word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the Word, he immediately falls away.  The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the Word, but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the Word and it bears no fruit.  But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the Word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

And so, what is sown by the sower, so generously and so far and wide, is “the Word of the Kingdom.” And the four kinds of ground it touches denote four types of would-be disciples. What is this “Word of the Kingdom?” Jesus gives no precise definition for it in these passages, but I think it can be taken in various senses, all of them true: It is the Good News about the Kingdom of God Jesus was preaching. It is God’s Word revealed in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition through Christ’s Catholic Church. And the Word of the Kingdom is the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ himself, the fullest revelation of God the Father. When people encounter God’s word in these forms, they have four kinds of reactions:

The first (the path) are those who hear without understanding. They, like the footpath, are hardened against the message. Perhaps they do not want to understand it. Some people ask hard questions about our Faith in order to understand—and that is very good, for whoever asks, receives and whoever seeks, finds. However, many people ask religious questions only in order to criticize, mock, and comfortably continue in their unbelief. If you are ever in a religious conversation with a friend, relative, or co-worker and you sense that they are this latter sort, I recommend calling them on this attitude. “Are you asking so that can understand, or so that you can have an excuse not to listen?” This is important, because until their hardened will opens there is no crack for the seed to enter in, and they are easy pickings for the evil one.

The second (the rocky ground) are those who hear the Word and initially receive it with joy. But since they have no deep root they last only for a time and wither away. Some of this rocky ground are those who were raised Catholic but never developed a mature relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church. Those who attempt to weather this adult world of ours with only, say, a grade-schooler’s knowledge and practice of the Faith, will likely fail in the heat of temptation and trial. If you and your family are going to remain Catholic Christians these days we cannot stay shallow.

The third (the thorny soil) are those who hear the Word, and it begins to grow in them, but it does not grow alone: worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the Word and it bears no fruit. As Jesus said, ‘no one can serve to masters at the same time.’ You cannot say “Yes” to Jesus and “Yes” to your fears or “Yes” to your selfishness A “Yes” to Jesus demands a liberating “No” to many lesser things. Until we do that, we will not be truly fruitful as Christ wills us to be.

Finally, the fourth (the rich soil) hears the Word and understands it, says “Yes” to it and indeed bears fruit, yielding a many-fold return. It is a blessing to itself and others and a great joy to the Sower.

Jesus’ four varieties of ground describe four types of people. I suspect that in the end one of these will describe the prevailing theme of our lives. And yet, we know that soil types can change. You you grew up on a farm, you probably remember your father sending you out into the field to pick stones. This wasn’t just make-work; your father did this to make the rocky soil more fruitful. If you’re a gardener, you know what happens if good soil is left untended—you’ll soon be pulling weeds. Soil can change; sinners can convert into saints, and the righteous can fall.

We can change the sort of soil we are over our lifetime, but to a lesser extent we can also change throughout the hours of our day. In the same day, I can be hardened against God’s will, superficial towards God and other people, or dominated by fear or selfishness, and then turn to bear fruit in Christ. But how can I change the kind of soil we are throughout our lives and throughout our days? You can’t do it alone, but God won’t do it without you. God is all-powerful, but he respects our human freedom. Not even the most important event in God’s plan since Creation, the incarnation of his Son within the Virgin, was to occur without her consent. But once Mary said, “Let it be done to me according to your will,” God began working great new things within her. Despite his omnipotence, God cannot force anyone to freely give him their “Yes.”

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” You may have seen paintings of this, with Jesus knocking at a cottage door. Oftentimes, the door is depicted as having no outside door-handle. This is because the cottage represents your soul, and the door to your soul can only be opened from the inside. Daily prayer opens the door to Christ.

One of the best ways to prayerfully invite Jesus into your day is through the “Morning Offering.” There are various forms of this prayer, but they usually begin like this: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart…” The exact words you use are not so important as the intention, the decision, the act of the will to offer yourself to Christ. If you don’t think that you’ll remember to do this first thing in the morning, then you can put your guardian angel on the job. Then, as soon as you open your eyes and see your bedroom ceiling, the thought of offering this prayer will occur to your mind. Daily prayer is key for growing in a life of holiness. You can do it anywhere, but visiting Our Lord at church, before his Eucharistic Presence in the tabernacle, is particularly powerful and precious to him.

Remember last week, when Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart“? Yokes are braces that go on an animals’ shoulders for pulling plows or wagons, and there are single-animal yokes, but I think Jesus has a double-yoke in mind. When there is an older, more experienced animal, it can be paired beside a younger, inexperienced one in order to train it and to bear the load together. And, when you look at a double-yoke from above, it forms a cross. What Jesus calls you to, you can’t do alone. He does not expect you to do it alone, but he’s waiting for your “Yes.” Give him your “Yes,” become good soil, and then watch him grow great things in you.

“Being Childlike Towards Jesus and Our Mother” — 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year A

July 9, 2017

In the 1944 Best Picture Winning film, “Going My Way,” Bing Crosby’s character, Fr. Chuck O’Malley, shares this quip: “You know, when I was 18, I thought my father was pretty dumb. After a while, when I got to be 21, I was amazed to find out how much he’d learned in three years.” Of course, the joke is that the dad didn’t get much wiser in three years. The son’s lived experience revealed to him, “You know, my dad actually does know what he’s talking about.” What if your mother were about thirty lifespans old, alive with the same beauty, liveliness, and fruitfulness that she possessed in her youth? Would you listen to her, learn from her, and heed your wise mother’s words? God our Father has given us such a mother in the Holy Catholic Church.

In our first reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Zechariah writes: “Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you;a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass.” This is a prophesy about the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. It was fulfilled about five centuries later with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus does not enter in as a conqueror, upon a warhorse with sword; but meekly, humbly, on a donkey. All the people are free to welcome him and follow him, and everyone is also free to ignore him and reject him. Jesus is not forcing them to do anything in response to him, much like his Church, which for a quite long time now hasn’t forced anyone anywhere to do anything. In this life, our personal response to Jesus Christ and his Church is completely voluntary, but that decision is not at all trivial.

In our second reading from the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says: “Brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Now when St. Paul opposes “the Flesh” and “the Spirit” he is not saying that the material world and our bodies are evil or bad. At Creation, God saw that these were good, and as Christians we profess that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” St. Paul is using “the Flesh” as shorthand for those aspects of ourselves that are not properly ordered to “the Spirit” of God. Jesus has raised up a fallen world but aspects of our brokenness still remain. This brokenness is seen in both our bodies and minds: in our appetites desiring what is bad for us, and in our intellects rationalizing our wrong ideas. Imagine how much better this world would be if everyone knew and practiced what the Catholic Church teaches. To echo G.K. Chesterton: “The Catholic Faith has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found challenging and left untried.

Someone might raise the objection: “What about all the bad things Catholic clergy have done? How can sinners be guardians of God’s truth?” There have certainly been bad priests, bad bishops, and even bad popes whose personal sins have done great harm to many. They are a scandal and a sacrilege. But amazingly, even when the most unworthy men have been pope, none of them formally promulgated heresies over the Church. Jesus told his apostles: “Whoever hears you hears me,” knowing fully that Judas Iscariot, his betrayer, was among their number. None of the apostles were sinless men, but Jesus chose them and their successors to preach his message, cast out demons, cure the sick, and administer his sacraments. How tragic it would be if an innocent harmed or scandalized by Judas the Betrayer wanted nothing more to do with Jesus Christ’s Church. Jesus loves his little ones and does not want any to be hurt or estranged from his Church.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus praises his Father saying “you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned but revealed them to little ones,”  In saying this, Jesus is not rejecting higher education or those who possess it. However, even if you have some degrees on your wall and initials after your name, these are not enough in themselves to receive the teaching of Christ and his Church. We all must be childlike. Childlike, not childish. A childish person is selfish, immature, willful, rebellious, and you can’t teach them anything.  But a childlike person is open, humble, loyal, devoted, and teachable. As Jesus declares on another occasion: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Pope Paul VI observed, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” With than in mind I’d like to witness to a time when, despite my initial hesitancy, responding to Jesus’ teaching blessed me in surprising ways.

When I was in college, my schoolwork was a grind. I always looked forward to our vacations, but they were always weeks or months away, on the other side of my papers’ due dates and final exams. At that time, I realized that although I had always gone to Mass I had never kept Sunday as a special day of rest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, (that hinder) the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, (that hinder) the performance of the works of mercy, (or that hinder) the appropriate relaxation of mind and body.” It then adds, “Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. (However,) the faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health.

I didn’t want to reach the end of my days wondering what would have happened if I had been faithful to Christ in this area, so decided to stop doing my homework or studies on Sundays. There were some very late Saturday nights, but I kept faithfully to this rule. And, after a while, I noticed two surprising things. First, my Sunday rest never burned me. I don’t recall ever bombing a test, failing to meet a deadline, or doing worse on any of my assignments because of not having worked on Sunday. The second surprise was that I began to look forward to every Sunday as a one-day vacation. In addition to going to church, it was a day for taking a map, going out to eat, watching a movie, or just hanging out with my friends. I gave a gift of myself to the Lord and he gave me an even greater gift in return.

Perhaps you are afraid to let the teachings of Jesus Christ in his Church to impact your time or your money, your sexuality or your marriage, your politics or your addictions, but I urge you to be brave and wise. Just last week, we heard Jesus tell his apostles: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” Jesus was not merely referring to receiving the apostles in their persons but the message that they preached.

We resist change because we fear the limitation of our freedom. We fear what the change might cost us. We fear a heavy yoke being locked around our neck and weighing upon our shoulders. But do not be afraid. Jesus offers you a better way. He says: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Please trust in Jesus, learn from him, and sacrifice your will to his. And do not be afraid, for God will not be outdone in generosity.

God Raises Up the Lowly

June 1, 2017

She was a teenage virgin when she received a word from Heaven — she was to be God’s instrument in an incredible way. She asked how this could be, since she was merely an uneducated peasant girl. The messenger answered that God would deliver his people through her and she consented to her part in God’s plan. Despite her utter lack of military training, St. Joan of Arc (1412—1431 AD) would go on to lead French troops to swift victories against the English armies occupying her  homeland, paving the way for her people’s liberation.

Every year, St. Joan’s of Arc’s feast (May 30th) comes the day before the Feast of the Visitation, which celebrates the meeting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth when they were pregnant with St. John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. I think it is fitting and providential that these two celebrations are paired together on the liturgical calendar. These three, wondrous women display God’s preferred means of intervening and triumphing throughout human history: by manifesting his mighty power through the weak and the lowly.

Of course, God can work through the high-ranking and the powerful to accomplish his purposes as well. For example, in 312 AD the pagan emperor Constantine, on the eve of a great battle in a civil war for control of the Western Roman Empire, reportedly had a vision of the Chi-Rho (☧), a Greek symbol for “Christ.” He then heard these words:  “In this sign you will conquer.” Constantine had this symbol painted on his soldiers’ shields and  prevailed in that decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine became the first Christian emperor and promptly legalized the previously persecuted Christian religion throughout the empire in 313 AD.

And yet, the Virgin Mother Mary rejoices that God prefers to show the strength of his arm by lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty from their thrones. St. Paul once redirected the attention of self-inflated Christians in Corinth, Greece to this truth:

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God. … “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”

In the Old Testament, God chose sheepherders, like Moses the Prophet and later King David, to lead and deliver his oppressed people. He chose working-class fishermen as some of the Church’s first bishops. At the Visitation, the four most important people in the entire world met together in one place: two women and their unborn babies. And through one condemned man, whose three-year rabbinical career seemed to end in failure and death, God redeemed the world. Such is the divine approach, lest we look to merely our own human plans and efforts as the source for our salvation.

Why Did Jesus Go Incognito?

April 30, 2017

There are three episodes in the Gospels where the resurrected Christ appears to his disciples but initially goes unrecognized: at the tomb, to Mary Magdalene; in the appearance we hear about today, to a pair of travelers on the road to Emmaus; and lastly, to seven of his disciples fishing the Sea of Galilee.

Let us briefly review each encounter:

First, on Easter morning, Mary is weeping outside the tomb. She turns around and sees Jesus there, but she does not know it’s Jesus. He says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thinks he’s the gardener and says to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus says to her, “Mary!” She turns, and says to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s tear-filled eyes and anguished mind simply could not make out Jesus’ face in morning’s early light, but after one more word she recognizes him. (John 20)

Today, Jesus draws near to Cleopas and another unnamed disciple as they walk to Emmaus, but their eyes are prevented from recognizing him, for he appears to them in another form. Later, when all three of them are dining together, Jesus takes bread, says the blessing, breaks it, and gives it to them. With that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. He is revealed to them in the breaking of the bread, but then vanishes from their sight. (Luke 24, Mark 16:12)

Third and finally, after a night of completely unsuccessful fishing, Jesus appears to the Apostles Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, and John, and two other unnamed disciples. They’re in a boat and he’s on the shore, but they do not immediately realize it’s Jesus. He says to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answer, “No.” So he says, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” And they proceed to miraculously catch 153 large fish without tearing their nets. (The Biny fish, which is common to the Sea of Galilee today, has a weight at maturity of 13 to 15 pounds. A catch of 153 of these fish would weigh more than a ton.) Jesus then invites them, “Come, have breakfast.” And, St. John’s Gospel notes, none of the disciples dares to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realize it is the Lord. (John 21)

One might argue that Jesus’ looks were not in any way disguised on the shore, that the disciples simply failed to recognize him at first because he was about a hundred yards away and the light of dawn was still dim. But if that were the case, there would be no thought of asking him “Who are you” over breakfast around that charcoal fire; this question only arises if his identity remains somewhat concealed. Some have suggested that Jesus appeared elderly to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, for he says, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” On the other hand, Jesus had previously referred to the Apostles as his children at the Last Supper, “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.”

Jesus has no difficulty being immediately recognizable when he wants to be. On Divine Mercy Sunday, when Jesus appears before St. Thomas for the first time, we perceive no hesitation in the former doubter’s declaration, “My Lord and my God!” So why then did Jesus allow himself to go unrecognized, at times even becoming physically unrecognizable to his disciples? Perhaps Jesus had thousands of good reasons for this, but I would offer these four:

Reason #1: To add proof that these resurrection accounts are true

Imagine if Jesus’ bodily resurrection were a lie and you were making up stories to bolster others’ belief in it. Would you invent and insert the odd detail that Jesus’ closest disciples couldn’t always recognize him when they saw him? What reason would there be to weave such a confounding wrinkle into your resurrection accounts — unless it were the truth?

Reason #2: To demonstrate how people can believe in Jesus without directly seeing him 

The disciples in Emmaus said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” They came to faith in the resurrection by recognizing the fulfillment of prophesy, even before Jesus had opened their eyes to see himself. At the Sea of Galilee, when the Beloved Disciple saw the incredible catch of fish, he said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” The miraculous sign revealed to them the truth about a person they could not see. We today may not see Jesus’ unveiled presence among us, but he provides sufficient evidence to point to himself in every generation.

Reason #3: To show how Jesus would continue to be with us

In the forty days between Easter and his Ascension, Jesus was not visibly present to his Apostles twenty-four hours a day. Yet at the Great Commission, Jesus reassures, “[B]ehold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” What he’s saying is, ‘Even when you are alone, I will always be at your side.’ By revealing his resurrected self to his disciples “in a different form,” Jesus prepares them for how they will regularly encounter him through the Sacraments until he comes again; truly present, but veiled.

Reason #4: To reveal how Jesus is presented to us through others

Who is the manual laborer we bump into, like Mary Magdalene saw on Easter morning and addressed respectfully as “Sir” (even though she was having a horrible day and thought he might be a body snatcher)? Who is the traveler we pass on the road, like the Emmaus duo met, dialogued with, and invited to stay with them? Who is the older person that greets us, like the Galilean fishermen encountered and with whom they shared their food? Jesus would have us see himself in all of them and everyone. At the Last Judgment, Jesus will declare to both the saved sheep and the guilty goats, “Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

Jesus once asked St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th century Italian mystic, “My beloved, do you know why I love you?” In response to Catherine’s negative reply, Jesus said, “I will tell you. If I cease to love you, you will be nothing; you will be incapable of anything good. Now you see why I have to love you.” Catherine replied, “It is true,” and suddenly added, “I would like to love you like that.” But as soon as she had spoken, she realized what she had said was misplaced. Jesus smiled. Then, she complained, “But this is not fair. You can love me with great love, and I can only love you with small love.” At that moment, Jesus interrupted and said, “I have made it possible for you to love me with great love.” Surprised, she immediately asked him how. “I have placed your neighbor at your side. Whatever you do to him, I will consider it as being done to me.” St. Catherine went running to care for the sick in the hospital, rejoicing: “Now I can love Jesus with great love!”

After the resurrection, Jesus was sometimes unrecognized by his disciples, but he allowed this so that we might better recognize him; as the Savior truly risen, as the Christ evidenced by signs, as the Lord truly present in the Sacraments, and as the one concealed in our neighbor.

The Case of the Prophet Caiaphas

April 29, 2017

Once word got around how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead,

[T]he chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to kill him. (John 11:47-53)

Caiaphas speaks the wisdom of this world, recommending evil means in hopes of a desired social end. Yet St. John notes that this earthly-minded high priest prophetically reveals the plan of heaven without knowing it — Jesus has come “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) Like Balaam in the Book of Numbers, Caiaphas prophesies despite himself.

After Jesus’ Passion, death, and resurrection, the Sanhedrin convenes anew — this time to address the issue of the Apostles’ continued ministry in His name:

When the court officers had brought the Apostles in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, “We gave you strict orders did we not, to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Caiaphas is threatened by the vitality of this Messianic movement that won’t die and stay dead. He fears the social rebellion and personal vengeance that its followers may seek out. Once again, the high priest’s misplaced concerns unknowingly speak spiritual truths.

The Apostles indeed wish to bring the Savior’s blood upon the Jewish leaders and everyone. When the Old Covenant was inaugurated, “[Moses] took the blood and splashed it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’” (Exodus 24:8) Likewise, in instituting his New Covenant, Jesus “took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:27-28)

And the Apostles’ teaching is not merely filling the ancient Jerusalem found in the earthly Promised Land. In his visions, St. John beholds “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” and he notes that God’s people “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:2 & 7:14)

Recall what Joseph told to his brothers who had sold him away as a slave: “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end, the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50:20) Remember what St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “We know that God works all things for good for those who love Him…” (Romans 8:28) The case of Caiaphas reminds us that even those who make themselves the enemies of God will be used as instruments to accomplish His ultimate will. At times this truth can be painfully inscrutable to us, but we trust that every evil, even the murdering of God, shall be turned to the good of those who love Him.

But It Was Not Enough For Him

April 16, 2017

At Passover, in Jesus’ day and in our own, the Jewish people remember and celebrate the great Exodus, how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and led them into the freedom of the Promised Land. Through Moses, God commanded his people to keep the Passover feast as an everlasting memorial. Jesus’ Last Supper was something of a transformed Passover meal, and his Passion, Death, and Resurrection are the mystery that the Passover foreshadowed and prefigured.

Jews today observe their annual Passover meal with an assortment of ancient traditions. Among these is singing or reciting an up-beat Hebrew song named “Dayenu” (Da-yea-nu.) Dayenu means “it would have been enough for us!” Here is an English translation of this more than one thousand year old song:

If [the Lord] had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had destroyed their idols, and had not struck their first-born
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had struck their first-born, and had not given us their wealth
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the Manna
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had fed us the Manna, and had not given us the Sabbath
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had given us the Sabbath, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Law
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had given us the Law, and had not brought us into the land of Israel
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and not built for us the Holy Temple
Dayenu, it would have been enough!

It would have been enough for us,” for how could we demand more than what God had given? He created the universe out of nothing and every good thing is his gift. Apart from God’s promises (freely-imposed upon himself by His covenants) we could not rightfully insist upon anything more. As Job said at the onset of his trials, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” We could not demand more—but we would still desire more.

We would continue to desire life without end. We would still want deliverance from evils, outside us and within us. We would still desire unending delights, for as King Solomon observed, “The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing.” And would long for divine intimacy with the Holy Source of all good. All these desires are fulfilled for us through Jesus Christ.

We could not demand more, but we would still desire more, for the Lord has placed these desires within us. He did this that He might fulfill our desires and they reflected his own desires for us.

The Lord did all the great things that came before
— But this was not enough for Him!

He did all these great things, and then He became man for us
— But this was not enough for Him!

He became man for us, and then He taught us the New Law of Love
— But this was not enough for Him!

He taught us the New Law, and then He suffered and died to forgive us
— But this was not enough for Him!

He suffered and died to forgive us, and then He rose from the dead to save us from death
— But this was not enough for Him!

He rose from the dead to save us from death, and then He left us the Church
— But this was not enough for Him!

He left us the Church, and then He wedded and united himself to us through the Holy Sacraments

What God has given us, what Jesus has done for us, what we are given, what we are promised — this is enough for us. Let us rejoice in Him this day!

Thy Kingdom Come — Tuesday, 1st Week of Advent

December 1, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 11, Luke 10

While recently visiting the Sea of Galilee in Israel I saw something in the skies I had never seen before. There were miles-wide concentric cloud rings with the occasional sound of long, rolling, man-made thunder. Though these things were interesting to behold, I hated the reason behind why they needed to be there. Northwestern Israel borders Syria and these high-altitude contrails and jet-engine sounds were from the Israeli Air Force’s U.S.-made F-15’s or F-16’s on defensive air patrols to ensure their neighbor’s civil war did not spill over into their own country.

The coastline of the Sea of Galilee is beautiful, peaceful, and prosperous. We were able to celebrate a Mass in an outside chapel near the site where Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and had breakfast with his disciples (as recorded in John 21.) But while we were free to tour and worship without threat or fear, the people of Aleppo, Syria were under siege just 250 miles north. There the Russian bear and the Syrian wolf are allied against the ISIS serpent in a battle for the right to rule over the suffering lambs and little children caught in the middle. The prophet Isaiah’s poetic vision of the radical peace the Messiah (or Christ) would someday establish has not yet fully come:

       “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
       The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
       The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
       The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
       There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.”  (Isaiah 11:4-9)

The Infant Child of PragueOn one occasion, turning to the disciples in private, Jesus said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24) Many great Old Testament figures longed for the promised Messiah but died before his coming. We are blessed to live in an age which has seen his arrival and blessed to have heard his message. Yet further blessed are we if we pray and prepare the path for the New Creation Christ promises to bring.

Along the sea of Galilee, it is possible to give no thought to the suffering and death happening not so far away. Likewise, in our beautiful, peaceful, prosperous country it is possible to ignore that there are grave evils in our midst, happening just out of sight. But blessed are we if we choose to long and labor for the life of the New Heavens and New Earth.

        “Blessed are they who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
        …Blessed are they who hunger and thirst
for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
        …Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
        …Blessed are they who are persecuted for
    the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the
    kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5)

What Remains of Capernaum Today — Monday, 1st Week of Advent

December 1, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 4, Matthew 8

galilean-sunrise-at-tiberius-november-2016Capernaum was a home base for Jesus Christ during his ministry in Galilee. Josephus, the 1st century A.D. Roman-Jewish historian, wrote that 30,000 people lived in Capernaum. Josephus has a bad reputation for exaggerating his figures but even if the true number were one-third that, Capernaum would still be a major city on the ancient trade route. But today, if you visit Capernaum (or Kfar Nahum “Nahum’s village” in Hebrew), you will find very little standing there. There are the ancient ruins St. Peter the Apostle’s home and of  a fourth-century synagogue, a couple of Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries, but not much else. The nearby surroundings are dry orchard fields and rocky barrenness. Capernaum is no longer a great, impressive city. Jesus had once foretold of its desolation:

        “And as for you, Capernaum:
‘Will you be exalted to heaven?
       You will go down to the netherworld.’
       For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”  (Matthew 11:23)

One thing remaining from Capernaum are the Gospel accounts of this encounter between Jesus and a centurion. Once, when Jesus entered the city, the centurion approached and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” Jesus told him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith….” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed. (Matthew 8)

The centurion does not do very much in this episode. According to Luke 7’s telling, he actually communicated with Jesus through intermediaries. So what about him impressed Jesus so much? The centurion’s few words reveal his reverent humility and confident trust before Jesus, and his loving concern for his suffering servant. Jesus is not impressed by world wealth and power, by great cities or empires, but by acts of faith and love, which remain before him always.

Ten Preparations for Dying Well

November 24, 2016

The Crucifixion by Diego Velazquez, 1632.Make the preparations your funeral years before it arrives. Do you have any preferences concerning your headstone and gravesite, Mass  readings and hymns, funeral home and parish? Making these details known to your family members in advance will ensure your wishes are met and spare them later stress in a difficult time.

Talk about your future passing with your loved ones. They otherwise may be too afraid to raise the topic of death. Yet such conversations can be an opportunity for faith-sharing, a cause of greater peace of mind for you, and a consolation to them down the road.

Deathbed conversions do happen, but rarely. Most people die as they have made a habit of living. Do not put off your personal conversion.

Practice daily prayer, at least weekly communion, regular (even monthly) confession, and constant Christian virtue.

Keep in mind the ancient Latin phrase Memento mori: “Remember that you have to die.” And heed, also, the wisdom of Sirach 7:36: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.”

Tell the most important people in your life the most important phrases in life: “I’m sorry,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” Say these things to friends, family, and God often.

Prepare an “advanced directive” and designate a trusted person as your “medical power of attorney” in case you become incapable of making your own health care decisions. (Otherwise you could be deprived of the ordinary care Catholic medical ethics require; for example, by being deprived of nutrition and hydration.) These legal documents can be freely downloaded and completed from Pro-Life Wisconsin.

Receive the Sacrament of Anointing in light of serious illness or surgery (i.e., general anesthetic.) As the Catholic Catechism says, “The anointing of the sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”

Pray for help from the patron saint of a happy death, St. Joseph, who likely died with Jesus and Mary with him at his bedside.

Explore an excellent website created by the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales: ArtOfDyingWell.org.

Msgr. Urban Baer’s Funeral Homily

November 20, 2016

This is the text of part of the homily given by Fr. Francis Mulligan of St. John Church, Wilton, Wisconsin at the funeral Mass for Msgr. Urban Baer, former diocesan rural life director, former veterans’ chaplain, and former pastor of St. Wenceslaus Church in Eastman. Father Mulligan was a classmate of Msgr. Baer and he concelebrated the Mass of the Resurrection with La Crosse Bishop F.W. Freking and other priests in St. Wenceslaus Church in Eastman on November 19, 1973.

       What shall we say about our friend on this occasion? He had the faith and appreciated it. It may have come to him through God-given channels of a good home, good parents, good schooling, good priests and sisters. He has a special vocation: he was called to serve God and he answered that call. He knew what it meant; he was an adult, capable of making a serious decision. There was no turning back.

       I stopped to see him shortly before Fr. Charles Brady celebrated his 40th anniversary in the priesthood, and because he could not attend, I asked him to send greetings. “Just tell him the words of Father Feber,” he said: “To the noble shrine of love divine my lowly feet have trod; I ask no fame, no other name than this, a priest of God.” This was his own life motto.

       In these days when the boat is being rocked by thoughtless children, we hear much about identity and fulfillment, personality and growth. Who would dare say that Monsignor Baer did not have all of these qualities? …

Msgr. Urban Baer       We knew him as a man who knew his vocation and loved it. In it he walked the way of humility and obedience and dedication. The capital sin of pride was not in him, whether he served as assistant or pastor. He worked for the salvation of people and the honor of the Church of God. When he served in the army, he was there to bring men to God. His highest rank was that of a priest of God. When he was sick and suffering, he bore his pains like a Francis of Assisi, knowing it was God’s will, and he knew that “Brother Body” would soon return to dust.

       Father Urban loved the Church, and the Holy Father, and his bishop, and all men. He saw the need for her attributes of authority , infallibility and indefectibility. His theology was that of his Master, “obedience is better than sacrifice.” Among his theology books were the Holy Bible, the Missal, the Breviary, and the Crucifix. Of course he had read and learned the decrees of Vatican II. But he knew that the purpose of the Council was to make men holy.

       His theology was not destructive or rebellious. Confession before or after first Communion, or receiving Communion in the hand or on the tongue — these were not disturbing questions for him. These were pastoral problems that could easily be solved. He also knew that “he who eats the Pope dies of ulcers.”

       He was sad when his friends turned away and walked no more with him. He was pleased with aggiornamento, which cleaned out the dust of ages and made the house ready for renewal. But he was violently opposed to those who pull down the house because they wish to play with novelty.

       Father Baer loved people—particularly the little people, and with them he identified himself. He knew that every man has the stamp of God and is a work of art.

       Father Baer: I am here to express our thanks to you for all you have done for us. On a few occasions you told me that I should preach your homily when you died. It was presumptive to say that I would. We walked the road together, and walking with you was an experience and an inspiration. We met in St. Louis, in September of 1925, when we entered Kenrick seminary. Four years later we marched up the aisle together to be ordained priests. Nervously but unhesitatingly we made our commitment: “We are here.”

       We offered our first Mass together, concelebrating with Archbishop John Glennon (later first cardinal of St. Louis.) After Mass he gathered us around him at the altar, where he spoke words that were not given to the rest of the congregation. He spoke about the priesthood and priestly service, of the honor and dignity connected with it. We were young, but we were old enough to make a decision and know that it meant. Gradually we advanced in the knowledge of our own ignorance and proceeded to grow up. We became fools for Christ.

       I watched you work as a curate and saw you serve as a pastor where you were sent. It did not take an “act of Congress” to change you from one assignment to the next. You served in the little places, but you knew there were no little people.

       When you served in the army, you were there to bring the men to God. The men knew their padre, and your greatest rank was that of Catholic priest. They knew you were like them, a civilian soldier. When the war ended, you returned to be appointed pastor here in the town of Eastman, where you served well for 15 years. This was your home, and now your body will rest with the people you loved.

       Here you showed your ecumenical spirit. You served in the ministerial association and occasionally presided at meetings. You were an active member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. But you were always the padre and you wore your uniform.

       You were interested in farmers and farming, and you were appointed head of the rural life program in the diocese. Your activities branched out far beyond the limits of the diocese. I am sure that many here today visited farmers’ meetings at which you put on your act for better communication. We recall the red handkerchief and the corncob pipe with which you distracted us sometimes from a heated discussion. You were suited for this office, and I know that your book of advice on farming adorns a bookshelf in many homes.

       Father Baer taught in season and out that every good gift comes from above. Of old the farmer had been described as a man “with the emptiness of ages on his face and on his back the burden of the world.” But Monsignor helped to change that idea. For him farming was the most dignified profession and the one closest to God.

       For him this was God’s work, and this was loving his neighbor. In all of his service to people, he did not neglect his parish. First things came first. He administered the sacraments faithfully, offered the Holy Sacrifice daily, said the divine office for himself and all the people, for this was his business. He took care of the sick, and buried the dead, and you loved him and he loved you.

       Then came sickness, eight years of sickness, and I suppose, loneliness. For he was human and the world was busy, and friends were slow to visit the sick. He helped where and when he could for a time. He accepted all of this as God’s will. He never seemed to lose his sense of humor, because, I think, humor is a daughter of charity. He knew he was dying. Each of us should know this. The sentence was passed when we began to live.

       Today, Father Urban, the evidence is all in. Your case has been submitted. For you, I think, there will be a short hearing. This is your Father’s house. He has been waiting. Here is your Brother Christ. You were an Alter Christus. You communicated Christ to others. And here is Mary from whom the Word was made Flesh. Hail her again, as you did so often during your life and sickness. You know her, for she wears a rosary. And when you look around in astonishment at the wonder of it all, take a little time out to ask the Mother of God to pray for us sinners here below.

       Father Urban, as a member of the Church Triumphant, help us who are still soldiering, sometimes plodding alone where the mud is heavy, and our eyes blinded with filth and the devil’s pollution, and our shoulders ache beneath the pack, our own and those of the fallen. Help us to keep looking up, beyond the margin of the earth, where we have not a lasting city, but where we seek one that is to come.

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