Sunday, September 15, 2019

To Save Sinners

In the year 1748, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a young sailor named John Newton prayed aloud to God. He had lived a sinful life – greedy, profane, licentious, involved for the last few years in the selling of African slaves to the West Indies. John had paid God little mind, but in that moment he turned to him in desperation: his ship was in the midst of a violent storm, on the brink of sinking. He prayed to God to have mercy, and the storm calmed. By the time he got to his destination, John’s heart had been changed. He gave up drinking and gambling, he accepted the Christian Gospel, and left the slave trade and became an abolitionist. He studied for the ministry and became an Anglican clergyman. He began writing hymns to help his preaching, and on New Year’s Day, 1773, some twenty-five years after his first experience of God’s mercy, John Newton shared with his congregation the hymn that we know today as “Amazing Grace.”

 Ivan Aivazovsky, Storm on the North Sea (1865)

Christianity has countless stories like that one – stories of conversion, of the power of God’s amazing grace to change sinful hearts. Saint Paul, writing to protégé Timothy, tells us in today’s second reading that this is the very purpose for our faith: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and of these I am the foremost.” God did not send his beloved Son to us merely to reveal some esoteric truth or give us a particular program for how live well. No, Jesus came to save wretched sinners. In Christ, God searches for those who are lost in order to save them.

I think this idea, while very basic to our Christian faith, is something that we have to keep in the forefront of our minds in the present day. Our culture today loves the idea of personal transformation, of self-improvement, of remaking ourselves in the way that we desire. And while that notion is okay in regard to some things, it just doesn’t work in regard to sin. You can’t forgive yourself; you can’t be reconciled to God and others on your own. In the Gospel parable, the sinful son wants to return to his father’s house, but he needs the father’s forgiveness to actually do so. In fact, according to Christian theology, we would go even farther and say that even the desire to return is an initiative of God’s grace. Apart from him, we can truly do nothing (Jn 15:5); we are like the coin lost in a dusty corner, like the sheep that has gone astray. We need God to save us.

Thanks be to God that he has given us a Savior in Jesus. But remember why Jesus has come – to save sinners. And so if we want a relationship with Jesus, we first need to ask ourselves, “Am I a sinner? Do I need to be saved?” Of course, we know the answer is YES. But I wonder how much we actually think about our own sinfulness, not just in an abstract way but by actually recalling the sins of our lives? It’s clear that John Newton did that when he was composing hymns like “Amazing Grace.” It’s clear that Saint Paul spoke confidently to Timothy about the importance of conversion because he had personally experienced a conversion himself: though a “blasphemer and a persecutor,” he was mercifully treated. Paul encountered the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and was not just forgiven but transformed into an apostle, a witness to others of the mercy that he had received. 

The Conversion of Saul (c. 1600) by Caravaggio

No one enjoys thinking of their own faults and flaws. So it's not easy to admit we are sinners and to think about our sins – to call to mind those particular moments in our lives, whether past or present, when we truly were lost and broken and in need of salvation. But doing so can be really important for us spiritually. It helps think of God’s mercy as not just an abstract idea but as a personal reality, something that has particular meaning for me and which I might be able to share with others. Recalling our sins and our experiences of forgiveness can also carry us through difficult or dry times, helping us remember God’s love even when we may not be feeling it at the moment. Perhaps most importantly, recalling our own sins can help us be compassionate and forgiving of the sins of others. God often seeks out those who were lost through the help of others, through the kindness and patience and support of sinners who themselves have come to know God’s healing mercy. Remember that the next time you are tempted to judge another for their sins – it may be that God is inviting you in that moment to be an instrument of his mercy for that person, whether through word, example, or prayer, if nothing else. 

Friends, at the heart of the Christian story is the encounter with God’s “amazing grace”, his mercy made real and visible in the person of Jesus. We each have a story of conversion to tell, a story of how God has lifted us up out of our sinfulness, and God invites us to share that story – perhaps not by penning a hymn as John Newton did, or a letter as Saint Paul did, but in some other way unique to us. Spend some time in prayer this week to consider your own story of conversion and who the Lord might be inviting you to share it with, who in your life might desperately need to hear from you what Saint Paul shared with Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners and of these I am the foremost.”

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Blood and Water

Are you familiar with the phrase “blood runs thicker than water”? Even if you had never heard it before, you could probably guess its meaning: family ties are more important than any other kind of relationship. Believe it or not, the phrase goes all the way back to the Middle Ages, a time when blood feuds between families sometimes lasted for generations. People do all kinds of things for family, both good and bad, that they would never do for anyone else because “blood runs thicker than water.” Nothing is more sacred than family.

And yet, we hear Jesus say this in the Gospel today: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus’s words are startling, and they are meant to be so; they are meant to surprise us, make us uncomfortable, and prompt us to ask, “What could Jesus possibly mean?” Now, of course, Jesus doesn’t literally mean that we should hate our loved ones, in the sense that we would bear malice against them. In other places in the Gospels, Jesus talks about the importance of caring for elderly parents, and we know from the letters of St. Paul that love for one’s family was important for early Christians. But Jesus does know that “blood runs thicker than water” – he knows that family is the most important thing to us. And so, it’s for just that reason that he uses hyperbole to show that to be his disciple, we must be devoted to him before anything else, even to the blood relations that mean so much to us. To follow Christ, one must be single-minded, unwavering, such that anything else – even our relationship to family – pales in comparison.

Why does Jesus feel the need to talk this way? If you notice, the Gospel passage begins by saying that “great crowds were traveling with Jesus.” No doubt many had been attracted to Jesus because of his striking message and the miracles he performed. Perhaps Jesus senses though that many who were following him were doing so half-heartedly, curious to see what he would do or say next but not necessarily really buying in. Or perhaps they thought they knew what discipleship meant but were mistaken about what it was really going to take.

Thus, the reason for our passage today. Jesus wants to make it perfectly clear that being his disciple requires more than merely physically follow him around. Or, speaking in today’s terms, we might say that to really live as a Christian requires more than merely calling yourself one, more than merely having a vague notion that the teachings of Jesus are important and we need to follow them. If Jesus knew that many of those who were physically following him around were not really up to doing what it would really take to be his disciple, how much more so that might be true for some today who call themselves Christian but who really aren’t living that identity out in any meaningful way, who really haven’t given up anything to follow the Lord, whether possessions, or blood relations, or even one’s own sins. To follow Christ means to sacrifice something important, something precious. If blood runs thicker than water, it’s going to be blood that he asks for.

Discipleship always has a cost. In my time as a priest, I have found that most of us know that we are going to have to give up a little something to follow Jesus. Maybe we are willing to give up a little bit of our time or treasure to be a part of the Church community; maybe we are willing to be a little more understanding, or forgiving, or a little less gluttonous, or lustful, or slothful; maybe we are willing to spend a little more time in prayer or in service to our neighbor. But sooner or later, it inevitably happens that we come up against something truly costly – something where our Christian faith asks us to do something and we think, “Whoa, I’m not sure I can do that.” Maybe it is “I’m not sure I can forgive that person,” or “I’m not sure I can give up that sin,” or “I’m not sure I can really give of myself to that person or that community in the way they’re asking me.” And 99% of the time, that’s precisely what we are being called to do. That’s the moment when we discover the true cost of following Jesus – that’s the moment that all of that other stuff that we thought we were doing to follow Jesus pales in comparison in that moment, and we confront the fact that it is this thing or this person or this situation that really shows us what being a Christian is going to take. 

Anthony van Dyck, Christ Crucified with the Virgin, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene (c. 1619)

Jesus uses a particular image in today’s Gospel to show what it will cost to be his disciple: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” That image of carrying a cross has probably lost some of its power for us, but it would have been a shocking one to those crowds listening to Jesus. The cross was an instrument of torture and humiliation; it meant utter rejection on the part of the world, utter abandonment and isolation. Yet long before Jesus ever steps foot in Jerusalem he begins using the image of the Cross to describe the high bar of discipleship – of whether one is living as a friend of Jesus or not. 

Let’s consider a particular example of the kind of cross that discipleship might present. In the second reading today, St. Paul is writing to his friend Philemon, a fellow Christian and someone of importance. Paul is writing to him about another man, Onesimus, who had once been Philemon’s slave and who had now himself become a Christian. It’s clear from the letter that there was some tension or past grievance between Philemon and Onesimus; maybe Onesimus ran away from his master, or maybe there was some other kind of falling out between them. Paul is writing to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him back, not as a slave but as an equal. For Paul, what matters is not the dispute that Philemon and Onesimus have, but the fact that they have shared in the waters of baptism and have partaken of the same Body and Blood of the Lord. Whatever their past animosity, they are now fellow brothers in Christ.

If that doesn’t sound so difficult, then consider this: Paul sends this letter to Philemon via Onesimus himself. In essence, he’s asking Philemon to consider the meaning of his discipleship right there on the spot – he’s asking him to forgive his former slave as he stands right in front of him, to swallow his pride or anger or whatever other social or moral grievance he might be feeling toward Onesimus, and forgive him, even embrace him, as his equal. And Paul asks something just as hard of Onesimus, maybe even harder – he asks him, as a former slave, to go back to his previous owner, someone that he doesn’t know will forgive him, someone who may well put him back into slavery, or throw him into prison, or worse. We don’t know how exactly things resolved between Philemon and Onesimus. But the fact that this letter has a treasured place in our Christian Scriptures, and the fact that we honor both Philemon and Onesimus as saints, suggests that were able to be reconciled, to forgive and be forgiven. Undoubtedly, it was very difficult; perhaps to do so went against every all of their instincts and impulses, except what their Christian faith told them. But that’s the sacrifice of discipleship – that’s what it cost them to follow Jesus. 

Friends, we all have to sacrifice something to follow the Lord, and not just something common or convenient. In fact, at times we will be asked to give up what we treasure the most, to do what seems like the most difficult thing to do. Why? Because Jesus is remaking the world, he’s remaking reality in his own image. Nothing is more sacred than family – and Jesus is forming a new family, one bound not by blood relationships but by discipleship, by the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ, that comes to us in the sacraments. The Church is the family of those who carry the Cross, who prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

What cross are you being asked to take up and carry? What is it costing you to be a friend of Jesus? St. Paul asked Philemon and Onesimus to set aside their differences to come together as brothers in the Church, to let go of whatever a blood feud might have demanded so that they could share fraternally in the Body and Blood of the Lord. As we prepare to partake of the same Sacrament of the Altar, let’s ask the Lord to help us recognize what being his disciples is going to cost us and find the strength in this Eucharist to accept that cost with joyful hearts.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

More Than Manners

Judith Martin is an American writer who for more than forty years has had a syndicated newspaper column in which she answers readers’ questions about social etiquette. She’s better known by her pen name Miss Manners. Miss Manners can advise you on the proper and polite way to behave at all kinds of social functions. In an era when good manners seem to be increasingly a thing of the past, Miss Manners helps her readers mind them nonetheless.

Manners play an important role in today’s Gospel. Jesus is attending a dinner party of one of the leading Pharisees of the day, a dinner no doubt attended by other prominent persons. As we heard, they invited him to see how this famous but itinerant rabbi would behave in a social situation that was probably much more elevated than what he was used to. As always, Jesus is full of surprises: he uses the occasion to give a parable which has a critique for everyone present. He tells the guests they should not be so eager to vie for social position lest they be shamed in having to give up their place to someone more important. And to his host, Jesus gives a list of guests who would have been better than the ones he had invited: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Jesus is never portrayed in the Gospels as someone who cares too much about social convention, but offending everyone present is a little extreme even for him.

Of course, Jesus is not being rude for rude’s sake. His parable is intended to help those present, and us who hear it today, learn a wisdom that goes far beyond social etiquette – a kind of good behavior that far exceeds what Miss Manners can tell you. Jesus is advising us that for the kingdom of God, humility is the social standard that matters. From Adam and Eve until today, every sin is a form of pride, when we think that in a given circumstance or situation we know better than God what is best for us. It’s for that reason that humility, the antidote to pride, has a special favor in God’s eyes. As the Book of Sirach says in our first reading, God favors humility because it helps us maintain right relationship to him and to everyone else. If pride is the beginning of every sin, then humility is the beginning of all virtue. 

Luke 14 Banquet by Hyatt Moore

Humility is a good virtue to strive for, but it presents a particular problem: it's hard to assess. We know that if a person says, “I’m very humble; I’m really great at humility,” then we can be sure that by that very statement they’ve missed the mark. At other times, we may think that humility is about putting ourselves down, about thinking lesser of our own worth and value as compared to others. But that’s also a mistake, because humility is not about being demure and unassuming, about thinking how low and unfortunate and undeserving we are – that’s just a hidden form of spiritual pride. True humility is about understanding ourselves rightly, about maintaining a proper order between ourselves and God and others.

That’s a difficult thing to analyze. So how do we know when we have achieved humility? I think the answer is that we can’t. Humility is really only a virtue that can be seen by others, and for most of us, it’s probably something we can always stand to have more of, a virtue to grow in until the day we die. We’ve all heard that saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” There’s some truth to that but really humility is better described by what C.S. Lewis once wrote: the truly humble man does not think about his own humility because he doesn’t think about himself much at all.

As Jesus describes in the Gospel, humility is best achieved by concrete actions. If I may, taking a cue from Miss Manners, allow me to suggest some things that we can do, myself included, to seek to grow in humility:

1) Pray. Making prayer an integral part of our daily routine is a great way of ensuring we don’t become too full of ourselves. Whether it is a blessing before meals, or making a morning offering or an evening examination of conscience, or simply elevating our thoughts to God and speaking to him from our heart throughout the day, prayer helps us to remain in right relationship with the God who has made us and who sustains in being.

2) Love the Eucharist. Jesus gives us the command to be humble in today’s Gospel, but he shows us the standard for how to be humble by his sacrifice on the Cross. Each time we come to Mass, we are made spiritually present at the moment on Calvary, gaining strength from our Lord’s example. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we receive the Lord’s own Real Presence, who is humble enough to come to us hidden under the appearance of bread and wine. By contemplating the love of such a humble Savior, we can find the strength to love his presence in the humblest of our brothers and sisters.

3) Give alms. Almsgiving in the Christian life is about more than just being generous with our money. It also means understanding how the things I own also belong to those who are most in need. St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century bishop, once preached that we offend God when we seek to honor his presence in church but ignore his presence in the world around us. The most precious temple, he said, is not a church building but the person in our midst whose affliction we can directly help. That's why charitable works and charitable giving are never optional for us, even when money is tight. It's an essential part of the lived experience of our faith, and a great way of growing in humility.
Friends, we can learn from Miss Manners about politeness, propriety, and the other social virtues needed for banquets on earth. But only Jesus can teach us the virtues that will aid us in reaching the heavenly banquet. In a world gone mad with ambition, greed, and jostling for position, perhaps the virtue we need more than any other is humility, the virtue that Jesus demonstrates better than anyone else. The humble person enjoys a special favor in the eyes of God because in humility we become more like Jesus himself. Through prayer, through love of the Eucharist, and through charity and almsgiving, we can strive to put humility into action, and so become worthy of a place at the heavenly feast.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Narrow Gate

Have you ever wondered what question you might ask God in heaven? Many of us have probably thought that over in our minds: “Why did you have to take Grandma when you did?” “Who killed JFK?” “Why did you allow evil in the world?” “What was the purpose exactly of creating mosquitoes?”

Our Gospel today presents a version of that. People were beginning to be convinced that Jesus was close to God, even somehow God himself. He knew things and could do things like no one they had ever heard of. And so they begin to ask him things that no ordinary man could answer. Thus the question that the anonymous person asks Jesus – “Will only a few people be saved?”

It seems like a good question. It’s a question about heaven, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter – how many are going to make it? A number of years ago I read a book by Bishop Robert Barron, the popular Catholic author and speaker who established the Word on Fire ministry. He made an interesting observation about this passage. This question and ones related to it – will I make it to heaven? – are ones that tended to dominate the faith of previous generations of Catholics. Think of your parents’ or grandparents’ generation. They knew the different kinds of sins and were scrupulous about avoiding the serious ones. They heard a lot about God’s judgment and the eternal consequences of our actions. The whole focus of religion for many was about the fear of avoiding hell, and this led to a strictness and, for some, even a paranoia in the way they lived their faith.

As Bishop Barron notes, things have changed in the last 50 years or so. Many Catholics don’t think so much about whether they will make it to heaven – it’s assumed that we all will. Why is this? For one, we focus much more now on God as a merciful God, “God as Love” and the promises he has made to us in Jesus. Not that these things are wrong – they are what we should focus on. But whereas previous generations of Catholics were at times paranoid about whether they would make it to heaven, we have sometimes become too presumptuous that we will. If we assume that eternal life is essentially a given, that virtually everyone makes it to heaven at the end, then why should we bother with spiritual growth? Why not turn our attentions and energies to things like getting a good education, getting ahead in a career, making more money, etc.?

Neither attitude is ideal, neither the strict fearfulness of past generations nor the lax presumptuousness common today. But I think Bishop Barron is right that perhaps the latter attitude is far more dangerous. We believe in God’s mercy, but we also make a dangerous mistake if we fall into the trap of thinking how we live now doesn’t make too much of a difference, that nearly all of us are going to make it to eternal life. As we hear in the Gospel today, that idea just doesn’t fit with what Jesus says. Note that Jesus doesn’t give an answer to “how many?” – he doesn’t give a number or a percentage. Rather he turns his attention to the person asking the question. In a way, this is the most compassionate answer he could give. He doesn’t say, “Only a few” or “Not many.” That would leave many to lose hope and just stop trying. He also doesn’t say what would please the secular mindset that so often creeps into our consciousness – “Oh, don’t worry, you’re safe” or “Nearly everyone is going to get there, including yourself, so do what you like.” Rather, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” 

Cornelis de Bie, The Narrow Gate to Heaven and the Wide Gate to Hell (c. 1660)

Why is it that the gate is narrow, that the road is hard? The reason is not that God is overly harsh but because they are modeled on Jesus himself, who is the antithesis of the easy, broad way. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, if we wish to have eternal life with Jesus, then we must expect that we will be suffer as he suffered, that we will be encounter difficulty and even rejection on the part of the world because of him. The way to salvation is the way of the Cross, because only the Cross leads to eternal life. “Many,” as Jesus says, will attempt this narrow way but will not be strong enough. To be strong enough, we have to turn our attention each and every day to what our relationship with him is like now. We don’t want to become paranoid or fearful of not making it to heaven, like some in past generations were. But we also don’t want to presume anything either – as Jesus says, many who thought that they knew him, who ate and drank with him, who heard his teaching, will be told, “I don’t know you.” Jesus recognizes his own – not those who seemed to be his disciples, who appeared to live good lives, but those who truly did so, who really strove continuously to become Christ-like in this life.

God desires the salvation of all; as the first reading from Isaiah tells us, many will come from the north and the south and the east and the west to enjoy the banquet of God’s kingdom. But eternal life is not like a football game or an exclusive club – you don’t get in just because you have the right ticket. Instead, it’s much more like being an Olympian, allowing ourselves to be shaped and molded through trial and effort and hard work to become another Christ in the world.

Friends, we all have that one question that we want to ask some day of God. But let’s not forget that to get to heaven, we will need to ask – and answer – some questions too. Instead of “How many will be saved?”, the right questions are questions we must ask of ourselves: “Do I know Jesus? Does he know me? How does my life reflect my faith, and how can I be more like him?” It’s those questions, and those answers, that lead us to true relationship, that give us the necessary strength to become Christ-like in the here and now, that pave the way to the heavenly banquet. The gate to heaven may be narrow, but that’s because it’s precisely the size and shape of Jesus himself; to enter it, we have to become like him. Let us then not be worried or presumptuous, but instead focus on the Lord – striving to know him, to be known by him, and to be like him in every way.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Ruffling Feathers

A bishop went to visit a church in his diocese. Only a half dozen people turned up to hear him preach. Disappointed, he asked the pastor, “Did you tell people I was coming to visit?” “No,” said the pastor, “but word seems to have got around anyway.”

It can be pretty hard at times to be a preacher. You have to be interesting and engaging, and that’s difficult to do all the time. You need to have something to say, and I know we’ve all heard our fair share of sermons that seem to be made up as they go along. But the preacher also faces a more subtle danger as well: the temptation to give into being well-liked, to saying only what people want to hear and never what they don’t. But any preacher worth his salt knows that at times, in order to be faithful to God’s Word, it’s necessary to ruffle people’s feathers a bit.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is not afraid to ruffle some feathers. Even today, his words might offend our sensibilities: the idea of bringing division rather than peace, about setting a fire blazing, about pitting family members against one another. It all sounds rather… well, un-Christian! What could Jesus possibly mean? I think Jesus intentionally wants his words to have a shock value, because he wants his listeners – both then and now – to understand that he is not interested in saying only what we want to hear. A preacher might be tempted at times to stray from speaking the truth in order to placate his listeners, but Jesus won’t do that. He is God’s Word himself, the Word Made Flesh, and so he must be faithful to speaking exactly what is true and necessary for us to hear, even if it is hard to do so.
Yequiang Wang, Igniting (2016)

But Jesus is also doing something more than just clarifying expectations. He’s also saying something fundamental about the way things are – about the “status quo” of ourselves and our world: things must change, and they must change in a radical way. We all know various family situations in which complacency has created chaos: think of a parent who has given into a child’s demands so often that they have become spoiled, or a married couple who has avoided discussing their disagreements that they have become isolated and non-communicating. In those kinds of situations, a small fix usually doesn’t work. What’s needed instead is a total overhaul of that relationship – a complete reordering of the flawed dynamic.

Jesus’s shocking words signal that much the same thing needs to happen in the human family. As the children of God we have strayed so far off course from what the Father intended that small fixes here and there simply aren’t going to be enough. What’s needed instead is a total reordering of how human beings relate to each other – how our relationships are governed and structured, about how we come to understand what is in the interest of the individual and the whole.

This kind of revolutionary talk is not that uncommon today: we hear it a lot in our politics, in discussions about justice and power, even in family contexts. But here’s the thing: our own efforts at reordering and remaking are flawed, because we are flawed. We know too well what happens when someone decides they know how to tear down the status quo and build something new: at best, we end up with disappointment and disillusionment, and at worst, we have shocking violence, bigotry, factionalism, and various other human forms of division. What Jesus declares in the Gospel today is that it must be God who dictates how we need to change. We need to be reordered, not in the way that we think best but how he does. And as God’s children, the way he desires us to change is to become more like his Divine Son. Jesus doesn’t just diagnose what ails us; he himself is the cure, as well – as God’s Word, he communicates himself to us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

But how does Jesus continue to speak to us today? Well, here’s the answer that may not make me very popular: through the Church. Now, I totally understand how that sounds – that in this era of the clergy abuse crisis, of weak pastors, of boring bishops, and of Church scandals of every kind in the news every week, it seems like a ridiculous thing to say that what we need is to trust in the Church. But I wouldn’t be doing my job preaching God’s word if I shied away from saying what is true simply because it isn’t popular right now.

And friends, I believe it is true! The Church certainly has its flaws in its human elements, in particular individuals and structures that make up how the Church is governed. Through those actors, we have seen all too clearly and painfully how the Church can cause harm. But the Church is not just a human reality; it is a divine reality as well, which is why we can never dismiss it completely – indeed why we have to always come back to it despite the sins and offenses of its human elements. We believe that the Church is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and so she speaks with the authority of Jesus himself. It is in the Church that we continue to encounter Christ, his Word and Presence, learning how to love what he loves, to value what he values, to prioritize what he prioritizes, to be remade in the way God desires.

Friends, if it is hard to be a preacher, it can be hard at times also to be the one being preached to, to be challenged and critiqued. But the truth is sometimes we do need to have our feathers ruffled a bit, we do need to have our sensibilities shocked. Why? Because our spiritual and moral complacency has created chaos, and we need renewal. Jesus said that he came so that we might have life and have it in abundance (Jn 10:10). When we listen to the Church, not just to one priest or bishop or popular speaker, but to the Church as a whole, we hear the voice of Christ still speaking to us – perhaps saying something unpopular, something we’d prefer not to hear, but saying something true and necessary and ultimately good, if we are open to it.

May this Eucharist we are about to celebrate help us to accept where the Lord is calling us to be transformed and to let his fire bring renewal in the way he desires it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Prized Possessions: Vigil of the Assumption of Mary

Do you have a prized possession? Perhaps your grandmother’s china, or a trophy from your Little League days, or perhaps a favorite family heirloom? We all have certain things that are priceless to us, that we put in honored places in our homes.

In today’s first reading (vigil Mass), we hear how King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into the royal city of Jerusalem. The Ark was the most prized possession of the Israelites; it was the tabernacle that housed God’s very presence. Although they treasured it above all else, they had lost it – it had fallen into the hands of the Philistines, Israel’s mortal enemies. When David became king, he launched a campaign to bring the Ark out of captivity, and to defeat the Philistines, along with all of the rest of Israel’s foes. Today’s story is the conclusion of that saga – having established his kingdom, David reclaims Israel’s most prized possession and enshrines it in Jerusalem.

David Bearing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (c. 1665) by Domenico Gargiulo (Micco Spadaro)

That story very closely parallels the feast that we are celebrating today. We believe that, at the close of her life, Mary was brought body and soul by God into heaven. As Catholics, we describe Mary as “the Ark of the New Covenant,” because it was in her very body that she bore Jesus, the Son of God. Because of that great honor, because of that holy grace, Mary was rescued from the hands of mankind’s mortal enemy, death and decay, and enshrined into the heavenly kingdom.

What does this feast mean for you and me? In Mary, we can see how God has brought humanity out of captivity to sin and death, and through her, we already have an enshrined place in heaven. Like Mary, we are called to bear the presence of Christ within ourselves, not physically as she did but spiritually and sacramentally, through the grace of the Eucharist. If we do so faithfully – if we observe God’s word and carry it out, as Mary did – then Mary’s Son, the new David, will do the same thing for us that he did for his Blessed Mother – he will reclaim us as his most prized possession and raise us to heavenly glory, one day uniting our immortal souls with new and glorified bodies.

Brothers and sisters, in God’s eyes, each of us is a prized possession, and he has created us not for death and decay but to take an honored place in his heavenly abode. Let’s pray for the intercession of our Blessed Mother this day, that we may see in her the deep and abiding love that God has for all of us, his beloved children, and let’s ask her Son Jesus to help us to hear and observe God’s holy word, so that we can take our place in his kingdom.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Master's Arrival

Last night, after the vigil Mass, I attended the "Taste of Faith" banquet in Little Rock. Perhaps some of you have heard of it? Our diocese hosts this dinner each year to help Catholics from around our state get to know better our seminarians studying for the priesthood and raise money for their studies. I know that the parish in Slovak has a group that normally attends, and I hope our parish will be able to participate in the future as well.

When one attends a banquet, it’s good manners of course to not just show up unannounced. The difference between being welcome and unwelcome is whether those who are preparing know that you are coming! In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives a parable in which he describes two kinds of visitors: one who is welcome but long delayed in coming, and another who is very much unwelcome. These images are meant to represent the kingdom of God, continuing the theme of last week’s Gospel: rather than focus on the passing things of this world, it’s better to focus on the final reality of God’s kingdom, building up spiritual treasure there. But this week, there’s a new wrinkle – Jesus teaches that we cannot know the exact moment when God’s kingdom will come. Instead, we have to remain ever vigilant.

Let’s take a closer look at the two images that describe the coming of the kingdom. The first is that of the joyful return of a Master to his house, who finds his servants prepared for his arrival despite the fact that he is long delayed. Notice that Jesus says the Master was returning from a wedding. Because, wedding celebrations in the ancient world lasted for several days, maybe even a week or more, there would be no telling exactly when the Master might return. Thus, the servants had to be ready at any time. Because travel in the ancient world was difficult – it might take several days to reach one’s destination – the servants are prepared for whatever the Master might need following his long journey. But as we heard, in the kingdom of God, the Master does something unexpected – he has the servants sit at table and he proceeds to wait upon them. They had prepared for their Master and waited eagerly for his return, and now they are rewarded by taking their place at the banquet of his kingdom.

The second image Jesus uses is more alarming. He says the kingdom of God will come like a thief in the night who catches the master of the house unaware. It might seem as if this image is totally unconnected to the first image: instead of a Master arriving home to his servants, a thief is coming to break into the master’s house. However, in the longer version of this parable (Lk 12:32-48), one can see that these images are connected. The thief who breaks into the master’s house is really the Master himself, who has returned to take back the house from the malicious servants who have begun acting as if they are the master. Unlike the faithful servants awaiting the Master’s return, the wicked servants are punished, and some of them are thrown out of the house into the darkness outside.

Evert Jan Boks, The Surprise of the Master's Unexpected Arrival (1896)

If these two images – the Master of the house and the thief in the night – feel a little complicated, the last line of today’s Gospel sums up the point: “At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Throughout the Gospels, whenever Jesus refers to the “Son of Man”, he’s referring to himself in his divine mission, the role for which he was sent into the world. It’s clear then that the kingdom of God is not an abstract, esoteric concept. What we are talking about is the return of Jesus himself! How we await him, how we prepare for him makes all the difference between whether his arrival will be welcome or unwelcome for us.

Sometimes the Lord’s return can seem long delayed, especially when we look at the disorder and dysfunction in our world. Perhaps we think, “What are you waiting for, Jesus? Come back, Lord, and save your people!” But just as quickly, we should also then think whether we are really living in a way that is ready for his coming. Are we prepared for his return? Have we attended to our disorder and dysfunction on the inside, making sure to have our lamps lit by his grace? Or have we grown drowsy and inattentive, sinful and slothful? Have we perhaps allowed ourselves even to think that maybe the Lord is not coming, at least not now, not until some long distant day. And when we have begun to think that, then perhaps we have decided also to take up his place as master of our own affairs, doing what we think is best rather than what he has commanded? If we are honest with ourselves, I think that most of us would say that if Jesus returned this very minute, we would be a little caught off guard – there would be at least a few things we wished we had done, a few more preparations we had made. The Lord seemingly delays, but it may well be he does so out of mercy, hoping that we will at last attend to what we need to before he arrives.

Friends, today’s Gospel asks us this question: Who is the master of your house; who is the lord of your life? If it’s yourself, then there’s a not insignificant chance that you may be unprepared when the Lord does come for you. It’s a terrible feeling to be unready for a visitor, wishing desperately that you had had more time to make ready, especially when it is the Lord who is arriving. Even worse is to not be expecting him at all, so that his arrival is unwelcome, like that of a thief. If you do say that Jesus is your Master, then be sure you are truly living that way, not just in words but in action.  Make preparations now and remain vigilant for his arrival, so that the kingdom of God will be for you not a break-in by force but a joyful and expected banquet. For “at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”