Sunday, September 10, 2017

Better Than Boxing

Leonard Defrance, Men Fighting (c. 1790)

After grade school, I had the privilege of attending an all boys Catholic high school, which had the imaginative name of… Catholic High School for Boys. Despite the dull name, it was –and still is – a remarkable school, in large part because of its remarkable principal. When I arrived there, Fr. George Tribou had been the principal for more than 30 years; he had taught my father and my uncles and now he was teaching me. He was a living legend, both as a great teacher and as a strict disciplinarian. We heard stories about the creative punishments he would sometimes give out for guys who were acting out. Not all of them would go over well today; for example, if you were caught smoking in the parking lot, he’d make you smoke the whole pack of cigarettes until you were just about sick.

I remember one year there were two guys a grade or two above us that kept getting into fights. They were friends, of a sort, who were also kind of rivals and couldn’t help but end up antagonizing each other. Throughout the fall, Fr. Tribou tried different things to calm them down, to help them get along, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, by the beginning of the spring, he had had enough. He announced that that afternoon, classes would be shortened by 30 minutes and the entire school would end the day end the gym. When we got there, we found a boxing ring set up, and the two troublemakers in the middle. They had huge, oversized boxing gloves on – the kind that would allow them to swing as hard as they liked and not cause any real damage. The sight of them fighting was pretty ridiculous, and by the end of their ten rounds, they were laughing along with the rest of us.

Because we are people of free will and independent minds, it’s inevitable that we will at times find ourselves in conflict with one another. How we deal with those conflicts largely depends on their context and on the willingness of each person to sort through them. Most times, we won’t be able to solve our differences by slugging it out with someone, nor should we. We have to find more creative avenues for solving our conflicts.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is clear that he wants us as his followers to see our conflicts with one other as redefined in light of him. Our Christian discipleship guides the way in which we handle – and are willing to handle – conflicts with others. Most of Jesus’s teachings about how we are to treat others deals first with recognizing our own faults – seeing “the plank” in our own eye rather than “the splinter” in another’s. Sometimes, the analogy is even more dire – that we should settle with our opponent on the way to court lest we be handed over to the judge and then to the jailer. Jesus is clear that the Christian first approaches any conflict with an eye to themselves – what have I done that needs forgiveness, where am I at fault, where do I need to be reconciled?

In today’s Gospel (Mt 18:15-20), however, Jesus speaks what to do in the other situation – if we are the injured party. First, we have to remember how much he speaks about the importance of forgiveness. “How many times do I have to forgive?” Peter asks this question to Jesus, just as we might ask it of ourselves about a person who keeps committing offense against us. “Not seven times,” Jesus answers, “but seventy times seven.” That is, an innumerable amount of times – we forgive as often as someone sincerely asks.

Sometimes though, when another hurts us, they don’t ask for forgiveness. This is the situation addressed today by Jesus and I think it’s one that we would do well to take to heart. Jesus’s direction, of course, is not to pick up boxing gloves and slug it out with the one who has hurt us. Rather, he says that we should humbly approach the person individually and make them aware of the fact they have hurt us. Notice that Jesus does not say we should approach them to accuse them, or to make them feel bad, or to let them know how angry we are about what they’ve done. Instead, first, we’re interested only in making them aware that they have hurt us in some way.

Hopefully, that alleviates the situation. As Jesus says, “if he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” We exist as part of a family – a human family, but especially with fellow Christians in the family of God – and seeing others as fellow members of our families, as brothers and sisters, can help us remember that we should be willing to dialogue and understanding. If speaking in private doesn’t work, then we can look at bringing the matter to others, first to a few, then even to the larger community, to help the person who has wronged us see their offense. The aim through all of this is not to shame the person but to help them realize the sin they have committed, not just against us but against God.

Sadly, even this at times doesn’t always work, and Jesus envisions this scenario too. There are times when we must unfortunately treat others as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jews of the time would have understood these words as advice to be are wary of such people, to avoid interacting with them too much, but also to always be ready to forgive and accept them again if they repent. Forgiveness does not mean we have to let ourselves be hurt again and again; we can and must be on guard around those who have hurt us and especially those who have not recognized they have done so. But for the Christian person, we never write anyone off – we never say anyone is beyond forgiveness, not ours and not God’s.

Friends, the way of loving and of forgiving that Jesus invites us to is ultimately the way God loves and forgives us. While it might feel good to slug it out with someone who has hurt us, either literally or figuratively, it doesn’t accomplish much in the end. My old principal, Fr. Tribou, knew that – what those two guys couldn’t settle with boxing gloves they got over via laughter of the ridiculousness of their own hardheadedness. We too should be people who are openly seeking harmony – with God, with ourselves, and with each other. Remembering our own faults, being ready to forgive, addressing someone in private who has wronged us – these are the mature ways the Christian disciple handles conflict. So don’t harden your heart against the person who has hurt you – but pray for them, talk to them, if possible, and love them enough to forgive them. Because Jesus loves you in the exact same way.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Costly Discipleship

The German philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx famously once wrote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” You’ve probably heard that quote or come across it before – maybe you’ve even heard it, as I have, from a friend or family member who wants to explain to you why they are atheist or agnostic, or maybe why they’re spiritual but not religious.

It’s no secret that organized religion has taken a popularity hit in recent years, Christianity included. Studies have shown that more and more Americans, especially among the younger millennial generation, identity when asked as “Nones” – they do not ascribe to any particular church or affiliation. The reasons for this are numerous, but certainly some acknowledgment must be made of the sentiment expressed by Karl Marx. Many look at what religion offers – including, traditional forms of Christianity – and it feels a little too convenient, too domestic. With so many causes of injustice and so many examples of suffering, religion for some can become a way of staying up in the clouds and not engaging with the realities of the world as it is.

As you might guess, I don’t agree with Karl Marx, but I do think some people do approach religion that way, even some of us Christians. We can tend to say things like “God’s in charge,” and “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Let go and let God.” These things are not necessarily untrue – but we can use them as a false panacea, a kind of therapeutic cheeriness that glosses over the real pain and suffering that does exist in the world. Whether it’s some private tragedy that we suffer at a personal or family level, or whether it’s the inexplicable devastation of something like the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, religion doesn’t explain all of our problems or make them go away.

Horace Vernet, Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (1844)

There’s a time in every Christian's life when we feel a bit like Jeremiah in the first reading (Jer 20:7-9) today: “You have duped me, O Lord, and I have let myself be duped.” Jeremiah was called by God to preach his Word, proclaiming the sins of the Israelite people and the coming judgment for their sins. But his message, as one might expect, was not well received and he suffered great persecution because of it. Jeremiah perhaps had been under the impression that if he was faithful, if he did what God had asked of him, everything would work out fine. Instead, he finds himself abandoned by friends and neighbors, beaten and nearly murdered, and eventually arrested and put into stocks for all of Jerusalem to ridicule. In this context, he cries out to God in the words of our reading, lamenting in desperation all that he has had to sacrifice. We can relate – our faith hasn't saved us from suffering; if anything, we've suffered more because of it.

In the Gospel today (Mt 16:21-27), Jesus is very clear with his disciples what the cost of following him is. Peter, having confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, as we heard in last Sunday’s reading, today takes him and aside him and rebukes him. Imagine the audacity! And yet, the reason for this rebuke is something altogether shocking to Peter, something scandalous even – that the Messiah, the Son of God, would have to suffer and die. Peter’s religious framework did not allow for that – “God forbid” it, as he says. But Jesus is not interested in religion as the way we would have it, in faith as a panacea for our problems. Instead, he says that the Christian life is one of paradox – to seek to save one’s life is to lose it, and to lose one’s life for his sake is to find it.

The mystery of the Cross – that is, the mystery of salvation that comes through Jesus’s sacrifice and death and our participation in that mystery by our own suffering – is not something that makes sense according to the way the world thinks. It does not fit the mindset of the present age, as St. Paul says; as we hear elsewhere in Scripture to many it is foolishness, a stumbling block. Even we who are Christians, who use the symbols of the cross and the crucifix as symbols, too often struggle to understand how our faith is defined by the mystery of the Cross. We end up with a watered-down Christianity, one full of platitudes and nice moral sentiments.

And yet, for 2000 years, people have heard the invitation, “Take up your Cross and follow me,” and they have responded. In every age, in every land, men and women have found in the paradox of Christianity a truth not found elsewhere – that radical love, self-sacrificial love, love in the shape of Christ’s Cross is redeeming and life-giving and world-changing. For Christians, encountering the Cross doesn’t mean finding a set of pat replies to any question we may ask; it doesn’t give us a reason to avoid realities of life and keep our head in the clouds. But what it does give, and what the world cannot give, is the grace of salvation, of true transformation which the world does not know.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

A religion that gives easy answers is rightly one we should be skeptical of, as the “Nones” well know. But what Karl Marx and others who think like him did not see, at least about Christianity, was understood well by another German thinker. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in the era of Nazi Germany, who as his country was descending into madness, was working with a group of Christians intent upon taking the Gospel seriously. He saw that it was only in Christian faith that the evils of Nazism could be combatted, and so he resisted and encouraged others to do so, a decision that eventually cost him his life.

In one of his famous works, Bonhoeffer writes that discipleship is not an offer that we make to Jesus – as if we will follow him on our terms, if our conditions are met, if it suits us. Rather, it is an offer Christ makes to us – we can take it or leave it, but the terms are clear: we must take up the Cross. As he writes, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die” – that is, to die to self, to kill all the parts of oneself that do not conform to the radical love of the Cross, perhaps even that it may “cost a man his life,” as it did Bonhoeffer himself, all because from it “it gives a man the only true life.”

Friends, in the Gospel today, Jesus assures us that we will suffer if we follow him, and this at times is truly a hard thing to understand and accept. But at the end, the Cross can help us face down any evil because after it comes the Resurrection. A Christian faith that has not wrestled with suffering, and found in the Cross the possibility of redemption, has not fully matured. Jesus asks us, like Peter, not to be “Satan” – the word means “adversary” – not to be opposed to the way of grace he has given us. When we resist the message of the Cross – as too antiquated, as too difficult – then our religion might as well be the tame sentimentalism that Karl Marx decried. However, if we embrace the mystery of the Cross as the mystery of our sanctification, the way in which we work out our salvation, in the words of St. Paul, then our discipleship will lead us through the Cross to the Resurrection.

May this Eucharist which we will share in a few moments, in which we unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus’s Death and Resurrection, be for us renewed strength – not to find easy answers in our faith – but to take up our daily Cross, mysterious as it can be, and follow our Lord.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Questions and Answers

We’ve all heard the expression, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question, just stupid answers.” Whether the phrase is literally true or not, we know what it is intended to convey – that asking a question is never dumb because it’s better to be honest than pretend you know something you don’t. But how you answer a question? That can be something else entirely.

In the Gospel today (Mt 16:13-20), Jesus asks two questions that, if not stupid, at least seem silly. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and then “Who do you say that I am?” On the one hand, there’s an obvious answer to the question: he’s Jesus from Nazareth, the one whom everyone was going to hear preach and perform miracles. Jesus, of course, isn’t asking them if they know his name. But the questions still seem kind of dumb: “Who do people – who do you – say that I am?” Is he asking them what kind of impression he’s making? Is he concerned about his public image?

Jesus, of course, isn’t asking anything nearly so superficial. His questions are not intended to boost his ego or satisfy his own interest – instead they are intended to make the disciples ponder what they have seen and heard. At this time, they have been with Jesus for a while. They had heard him preach like no one they have had ever heard; they had him do things no one had ever seen. The question then that Jesus asks is clearly one that they had already been asking themselves, one that they had been pondering silently – Just who is this Jesus from Nazareth?

Questions, and their answers, in many ways dominate our day to day. They range from the mundane – “What shall I have for breakfast this morning?”, “What will I watch on TV tonight?” – to the more serious – “How am I going to make the next payment?”, “How can I make this relationship work?” They can even be life-changing, “Will she say yes?” or “How long do I have, Doc?” The way we ask those questions, and the way we answer them, shape in large part the course of our lives.

As hugely significant as many of the questions we face are, none of them are as crucial as that simple question that Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Because far beyond just looking for the response of his name, or for an evaluation of what kind of impression he’s making, Jesus is asking them to form a judgment – a decision, an answer – about him, about who he really is, based upon all that they have seen and heard and understood. While the people – the crowd, the ones who witness him from a distance – think that he is a great preacher, a prophet in the mode of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, Jesus implicitly encourages his disciples to answer more boldly.

Ariel Amegian, The Face of Christ (1935), based upon a negative of the Shroud of Turin

The questions of who Jesus is – not who was he historically, but what does all that he did and said mean ultimately about him – has been argued and debated ever since his own time. Many people today are content with answering that question by saying that Jesus was a holy man, a man of God, a preacher or a prophet ahead of his time, who wasn’t afraid to upend social convention. He taught things like “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Judge not lest you be judged,” – ideas that all of us can take to heart more deeply and that our society should learn from.

But to answer the question of who Jesus is in that way is not sufficient. Numerous holy men and prophets – even from other religions – have given us bits of wisdom and insight into the human condition and have taught moral axioms that can help us. If that’s all Jesus is, then he’s not much different from John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah – or from Confucius, or the Buddha, or Muhammad. But lest we be satisfied by that answer, Jesus asks again, to his disciples, to us, “Who do you say that I am?”

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of being the pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Fayetteville, the church that ministers to the community of the University of Arkansas. In that role, I’m often involved in a lot of the activities of our college students on the university campus. This past week, I was helping man our Catholic Campus Ministry booth at Razorbash, the annual student fair held outside the Union for all of the campus clubs and organizations. As our group was passing out flyers to new Catholic students, answering questions and handing out rosaries, a group of Muslim young women came up and asked us about the Catholic faith. Specifically, they asked us about Jesus – about what we believed about him. As we talked, it became clear that their particular branch of Islam holds Jesus in very high regard. They believe, for example, he is a prophet of Allah, that he has (in some way) ascended to heaven, and that he will return to earth prior to the Final Judgment. For these young women, Jesus was not just a holy man or a moral teacher – he was a figure of deep reverence.

And yet, for us as Christians, even that is not enough. For we make a claim that even those women, who clearly respect Jesus deeply, would not dare to make. We say – as we hear Peter say in the Gospel – that he is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” That claim – that answer to the question of who Jesus is – distinguishes Christians, not only from those Muslim women, but from the more acceptable answer from our society and our culture to reduce Jesus to mere moral platitudes. To say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is to say that our lives are not merely informed by what he taught, they have been re-formed around him – he is the focus, he is the one by which we orient ourselves. Amid every other question that we are asked or must ask ourselves, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus means for us that we have an underlying answer – an answer given by that mysterious reality, at once beyond reason but nonetheless consistent with reason, which we call faith – viz., that Jesus is God himself.

We don’t answer such a tremendous question in such a tremendous way alone. Rather, we do so as part of the community of disciples, as part of the Church which is founded upon the Rock of Peter and which speaks with the faith of Peter. To have faith in Jesus, as Peter did, does not mean that we will always get it right, that we will never again fall short of what God wants or that we’ll wonder why exactly he is asking us to endure some particular trial or challenge. We need only look to the life of Peter himself – who denied three times this friend whom he called the Christ – as proof of that. But what faith does mean – what believing as the Church believes does do for us – is that we always know where to turn back to, where to find again the Answer to our questioning. It means reminding ourselves, despite our failings and our questionings, that we have a Savior, a Christ, a God with us.

In hindsight, I’m not sure that I answered those Muslim women a few days ago in as full a way as I would have liked. Nonetheless, what I said to them I continue to remind myself of each day – Jesus is my Savior, my Redeemer, my God. Like Peter first long ago, we are always relearning how to approach each day and each challenge with faith – to respond to life’s questions not with stupid answers but with faith in the One who is the Answer to every question. Each day, Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”, and each day, he asks us to answer anew.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

With Eyes Turned Upward*

You’ve no doubt seen the reports and read the stories, and you’re probably just about worn out from news of it. But, if you still haven’t heard, tomorrow our country will see a fairly rare celestial event – a total solar eclipse that will sweep across our country from Oregon to the Carolinas. They say hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, from around the world will head to locations within the vicinity of the total eclipse to see it … including, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, yours truly. Millions more will be watching from their own homes, schools, and businesses. Scientists will be observing and taking measurements, news channels will be broadcasting, and eyes around the hemisphere will be turned upward toward the sky.

I thought of this rush of attention preparing for Mass today because I imagine the scale of interest in the eclipse is something similar to that which Jesus would have generated in his day. People weren’t buying special sunglasses to go see him, of course, but they certainly were leaving their homes, heading out into the countryside to hear him and follow him, and above all spreading word about what he said and what he did. In his day, Jesus was something more than just rockstar famous – to meet him was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Gospel we heard today (Mt 15:21-28) is evidence of this. Jesus enters into a foreign territory, the region of Tyre and Sidon, and he is immediately confronted by a Canaanite woman. Though she would never have met, never even have seen Jesus, she clearly knew who he was. With a daughter tormented by a demon, she had heard of his power of healing; though not a Jew, she refers to him as “Son of David,” a clear reference to the Messiah awaited by the Jews. It’s evident this is not a chance encounter – this Canaanite woman has come with a purpose to find and confront the only one who can help her.

Limbourg Brothers, Christ and the Canaanite Woman (detail, c. 1412) from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

It’s not just unexpected, then, how Jesus responds – indeed, it seems shocking, even cruel, that he treats her as he does. Notice he does not at first address her directly; when he does speak to her, he refers to her and to other non-Jews as “dogs”, a common epithet used to refer to Gentiles. To understand Jesus’s behavior, we have to add a little more context to the story. His disciples, like other first century Jews, awaited a Messiah – the one foretold by God to restore Israel to right relationship with God and to prominence before the Gentile nations. The Messiah would be the champion of Jewish identity – from the Jews and for the Jews alone.

And so when Jesus is approached by this pagan, Gentile woman, his disciples are dismissive of her; surely, Jesus the Messiah, the King of the Jews, will have nothing to do with her. Jesus plays along – he is the Jewish Messiah, and he has come first to redeem the lost children of Israel. But, as the Canaanite woman correctly points out, with her statement of great faith, the mission of Jesus is ultimately one for all peoples, one that breaks down barriers and divisions and unites, that offers reconciliation with God to Jew and Gentile alike. By testing the faith of the Canaanite woman, Jesus shows his disciples that they must move past their previous, narrow way of thinking and come to understand the full breadth of God’s plan of salvation.

We may look at the attitude of the disciples toward the Canaanite woman and wonder how they could be so prejudiced. And yet, as we have seen in our own time, in recent weeks, there is a terrible tendency among humans of any age to descend into tribalism. The violent clashes in Charlottesville a week ago, including the act of terror that resulted in a young woman’s death, have left many of us wondering whether the legitimate debates that mark our public discourse are being unraveled by unbridled hatred and fear. More and more, it seems we are giving in to the all-too-human weakness of defining ourselves by our differences, to see in the other not a potential friend and ally, not a fellow human being, but a stranger and a threat.

In the wake of Charlottesville, we’ve seen many who have spoken out in resistance to this mentality, and rightly so. Fortunately, the reality is that people of good will and decency still far outnumber those with more malicious intentions; but that does not mean we are excused to stand idly by and let someone else deal with the problem. What do we as followers of Jesus have to say in this new cultural climate? What does our Christian faith ask of us?

First, we must speak out against blatant evil. As our bishops have done throughout the past week, we must decry racism as the sin it is. There is a natural tendency all of us have to take interest in and have pride for where we come from, what our history is, and who our ancestors were. But if that interest and pride morphs into something antagonistic – something which opposes or does violence to another – then we must denounce such ideology as the false prophet that it is. As Christians, we believe in the dignity of every human being as created in the image and likeness of God, and this must be always forefront in our minds and respected by our actions.

Second, we should not be afraid to take account of our own spiritual houses. The way to combat evil is to work for good, but that is only done well if we have searched within ourselves and rooted out the evil found there. Conversion of heart is a central message of our Christian faith, and one that we must learn again and again. We may not be able to remake the world single-handedly, but we can seek to start with ourselves. Perhaps each of us could reflect upon where we are tempted by the forces of division: perhaps, to view the person across the quad a particular way because of how they look; or to judge our roommate or our classmate because of a slight we’ve perceived; or to dismiss a group of people because they think or act in a way different from our own. Jesus challenges us, just as he challenged his disciples, to look beyond outward differences and find in the other our common humanity within.

Finally, I think that we as the Body of Christ, the Church, have a special role to play in the cultural and political climate of today. In an era in which we both celebrate diversity but also desire unity, too many are giving into the forces of factionalism and sectarianism, defining themselves by a party or ideology or background that emphasizes division rather than commonality. As Christians, though we know that these are narrow-minded ways of thinking. God doesn’t look at the color of our skin or our political tendencies or our cultural background when he looks at us; he peers instead into our hearts, to know and love us as the individual he has created us to be. The family of God is defined not by the outside but by what lies within.

Many today are speaking out against being excluded and marginalized – that they or those they care about have been victims of forces of injustice and fear. As we seek to hear their voices and understand their concerns, we as Christians also must point them to a reality beyond this one. Our fallen, sinful world is not going to be fixed by merely adjusting our way of thinking. We need salvation, redemption, what Jesus offers and the world cannot give. Jesus may have been rockstar famous in his day, but it seems that in our day we've forgotten that only he can give true freedom. In the end, the voices we hear rising around us, speaking out… we recognize that they are clamoring, ultimately, for Christ.

It’s always amazing to me that when we gather here on Sundays each week, we do so in a way that stands in great contrast to the forces of division that seem to dominate the headlines. We come from every ethnic background and cultural tradition, from every walk of life and political ideology; we come as young and old, as rich and poor, as man and woman, as the Jew and as the Canaanite woman – and yet, here, we gather as the one People of God. The Church is the most diverse social group known to history, and yet we are the most united as well, raised out of every difference by our common faith in Jesus.

Friends, as we start a new semester here at the university, let’s not allow the forces of darkness to eclipse the light that Jesus gives. We must speak out against evil where it rears its head, but we can never condemn as evil the person who differs from us. Just as Jesus taught his disciples by drawing out the faith of the Canaanite woman, he seeks to teach us now as well. Each day he gives us the grace to look beyond the categories of “us” vs. “them” and to see instead the other as a fellow human, a likely friend, and a potential brother or sister in Christ. He came to unite, not to divide, to turn our eyes upward toward him, to grant us the peace and justice that many so ardently now desire. What he started, we are called to continue – across our campus, across our city and state, and beyond – to point others to Jesus, again and again. As we share in a few minutes his Sacrament of Holy Communion, may it empower us to go forth from this church to proclaim to the world his Good News.

*This homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time was crafted partially in response to the violent events in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12-13, 2017.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tending Our Houses Like Mary

When I was a kid, my mother – like many mothers – made us kids do chores around the house. These usually weren’t too demanding – dusting or vacuuming mostly – but we moaned and groaned about them as kids do. My siblings and I noticed that Mom always seemed particularly keen on having a clean house when company was coming over. Relatives from out of town, family or friends visiting, even the Terminix man – it didn’t really matter who was stopping by, the house needed to be immaculate.

And of course, it’s not just women who are like this. My dad was just as fastidious about the yard, if not more so. Of course, as I got older, I understood much better where they were coming from. The external setting of our lives – our homes, our lawns, our neighborhood – reflects something about ourselves. Where we live – and the condition it is in – says something about who we are.

The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1432), Fra Angelico

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption – our belief in faith that at the end of Mary’s life, Jesus brought her body and soul into heaven. She who was the Ark of the New Covenant – the vessel which God had chosen from all time to bear his Incarnate Son into the world – was preserved from sin and from its every effect because of whom she bore. From Mary, Jesus receives his humanity; within Mary, Jesus first dwelt among us. Just like a house can tell us something about the person who lived there, so too can Mary reveal to us something about Jesus.

What do we learn? At least two important things:

First, we learn that the Risen Jesus can indeed save us from eternal death. Mary, conceived without sin and perfect throughout her life, was saved from any corruption or decay; but she is not the only one who is destined to live body and soul for all eternity. You and I are sinners, but Jesus also desires to bring us to himself in heaven, to raise us body and soul on the last day. What he has done for Mary is a promise of what he desires to do for us.

Second, from Mary, we learn something about the kind of disciple that Jesus wishes us to be. Mary bore Christ physically within herself, bringing him into this world – that was her vocation and her glory. You and I are charged with carrying the Lord in our hearts, bringing him to the world and those whom we encounter at each moment. The vocation to holy discipleship that we all share by virtue of our baptism goes far beyond merely believing in Jesus or following him in some abstract way – rather, he wishes us literally to bear him, to bring him to others in all that we do.

My friends, what is the state of our spiritual houses? Does our life on the outside – before family and friends and neighbors – reflect the presence of the One who is to be at the center of our existence, who is to dwell in our hearts? We can’t carry Christ to the world, as we are called to do, if we refuse to let him be the Master of our own spiritual home. Let us ask continually for the intercession of our Blessed Mother to open our hearts to the Lord, that he may reign always in our hearts here on earth, so that at the close of our lives, he may bring us too to the joys of his heavenly kingdom.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Some Thoughts on the Priestly Vocation

St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem, engraved print by Philips Galle (c. 1580), after painting by Marten van Heemskerck

NB: The following is a short homily I delivered at the holy hour on the eve before this year's priestly ordinations. It is based upon a reading from the First Letter of Peter, chapter 2, verses 2-10.

It is easy to marvel at the workmanship of human hands. In my time as pastor at the parish at the university in Fayetteville, I’ve seen some amazingly beautiful new buildings constructed – the awesome expansion of the football stadium; gorgeous new fraternity and sorority houses; avant-garde administrative buildings and student centers. It seems that the wonders of what we humans can build is limited only by the breadth of our imagination.

But any architect will tell you that the most important part of a structure is its foundation. According to the apostle Peter, in the reading we just heard, God desires to build his Church like a spiritual house upon the foundation of his Son Jesus, once rejected by all but who has become the cornerstone. We, like living stones, are fashioned by God into his likeness – and perhaps none more so than those called to share in his priesthood.

In the training to become a priest, and perhaps especially in the years after ordination, it is easy for us priests to become focused on the many skills and abilities we are called upon to develop. We wish to be known as great preachers and wise counselors, as shrewd administrators and inspiring leaders, as well-loved by our parishioners and well-respected by our brother priests and much-trusted by our bishop. Each of these things – though good in themselves – can however also present a danger, for they are like the ornamental trappings of our priestly houses. Externals can be impressive; they can capture the attention of those who see us only from the outside. But if we attend too much to them, we risk letting the interior foundation of our spiritual house – our identity in Christ – crumble to the ground.

A good priest is not notable for his golden tongue or his brilliant business skills or the fact that every family in the parish wants to have him to dinner. A good priest is one who lets himself be molded each day into the image of Christ, a stumbling block to the world but the cornerstone of the chosen ones of God. It is through faithful, humble, sometimes painful service that a good man becomes a great priest – often in ways unseen or unappreciated. But the spiritual fruit that he bears, and the pastoral care with which he ministers, does not pass unseen by God.

Brothers, in this hour of prayer before the Eucharistic Presence of our High Priest, whose priests you will become tomorrow, we pray for you just as we pray for ourselves. It’s easy to marvel at the externals of the priestly life, but what you will do and who you will be in your priestly ministry will not be defined by the breadth of your imagination or even by the number of skills and abilities you will or will not display. Rather your success as priests will only be accomplished by the workmanship of the hand of God – that is, by the degree to which you allow God to fashion you each day as a living stone in the likeness of Christ. This is our hope and this is our prayer. May God who has begun this good work in you bring it to fulfillment.* Amen.

*A prayer from the Rite of Ordination to the Priesthood.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Proclaiming the Easter Message

There are some announcements, some bits of news that must be given in person. We have so many diverse means of communication, especially in our modern era – from emails to text messages to all kinds of social media – but we also still understand that some important messages must be conveyed face to face. 

In the Gospel, we heard how this is true also for the most important message ever communicated. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb of Jesus, wishing to honor their dead friend by anointing his body, something they had not done the previous Friday because Passover was beginning. They come, in other words, in mourning, dismayed that the one in whom they had believed had been put to death but unable to let go of their love for him entirely. And as we hear, they are met with a bit of fairly important news – “He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.”

The women receive this message not by observation but by the communication of God, from the very mouth of an angel. It is therefore something from heaven, something that by ourselves we are unable to conceive. After the betrayal and abandonment and accusation and violence of all that had come before, after Jesus submits to all of the evil that the world can inflict, the message from heaven is that death has been conquered by life. Evil gave it its best shot, but the goodness of God was stronger.

Three Marys at the Tomb (1876), William-Adolphe Bouguereau 

This message – this communication of a fact so stunning that it makes the women afraid even as they are filled with joy – this is the Good News of Easter. It is, in many ways, the only message that the Christian community has for the world, but the richness of its meaning is one that can never be exhausted. That the tomb is empty, that Jesus is risen, that the evils of this world are nothing in the face of God’s love must be a revelation that you and I encounter anew every day. “He has been raised just as he said.” We do not know yet know ourselves life beyond the power of the grave, but in Jesus we experience this Good News even now, and we rejoice in it.

Of course, like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, we are called to do more than just receive the message. We also must share it anew. Just as the angel communicated their salvation to them, so too he called them to share it with Jesus’s disciples, hidden away in sorrow and bewilderment. The women believed, and having believed, they encounter Jesus himself. Having put their trust in the Good News that he had received, Jesus appears, showing that he is indeed risen and they have nothing to fear.

For some months now, our friends with us this evening – the catechumens and candidates of our community – have also been preparing to receive the presence of Jesus in a new way. They have sought to deepen their faith in the Lord, putting aside doubts or fears, and instead embracing the Good News that has brought them to our Catholic community. Tonight we are reminded that like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples on that first Easter morning, each of us who places our faith in the Resurrection of Christ receives the reassurance of our faith through his grace. Like them, you and I are called to bring the Easter message – that Christ the Lord has been raised, and we too with him – to those who need to hear it, those who are dismayed by the evil of the world. We who profess faith in Christ have a message to share with them, a gift to give to them. “He has been raised just as he said.”

It is this message which is our mission as Christian believers. In the sacrament of confirmation, which we will celebrate in a few moments, you and I are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who raised Jesus from the dead, and who now fills us with his power to announce that message by our lives. Like the women at the tomb, like the disciples of Jesus, and the early Church, we are called to let go of our fearfulness and bewilderment and instead to rejoice in the power that the Risen Christ conveys to us to spread his Good News to the world. We are missionaries of the Easter message, sent forth to share personally what we ourselves have received.

Friends, the angel from heaven told the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. He meets us too in our daily lives, in the settings that are familiar to us and part of our routine; but gladdened by the message of his Resurrection, our lives are not the same as before – what is familiar has been made new. Through our daily prayers and works of service, let us announce anew – to ourselves and to those still plagued by sorrow and bewilderment – that eternal proclamation of Easter: that the goodness of God is more powerful than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that God has defeated death with the life of the Risen Christ.

May God grant you his joy in this holy season!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday: Testifying to the Truth

Paolo Veronese, Crucifixion (c. 1582)

We see its likeness everywhere – on billboards, bumper stickers, and jewelry. It comes in all shapes and sizes and made of just about any material. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol, all around us, and for that reason, one that has in many ways lost its meaning, even for many Christians. In the venerations of our Catholic tradition, we tend to use the crucifix – that is, the cross with the body of Jesus on it – but even that I think at times is a symbol we have become accustomed to, and thus overlook.

Today, we are reminded again of the terrible reality of what the cross stands for – of what a crucifixion actually is. Far from a status symbol or fashion piece, it was a brutal means of execution and something meant to inspire terror in those who saw it – in short, a warning not to oppose the powers of the world.

Judged according to worldly standards, the Cross of Christ is certainly a defeat. Jesus’s public life as a preacher and healer ends with his ignominious death, hanged on a tree for all to see. But as we heard in the Gospel narrative, Jesus is not helpless. He suffers and submits to what others have plotted for him, but he does so willingly. The purpose of his life – and his death – is, in his words, to testify to the truth.

A few weeks ago, I noticed something about our crucifix behind the altar that I had not noticed before. If you look closely, Jesus’s right hand – though nailed against the wood – is in the traditional position of blessing or teaching, the thumb, index finger, and middle finger extended with the other two fingers curled against the palm. What a beautiful if subtle way of teaching us that, when seen with eyes of faith, the Cross is not a defeat but a victory, not an end but a beginning. Jesus’s death is the final teaching to humanity about the love of God for us, that the Father would send his Son to suffer and die to save us from eternal death. The Cross is an eternal blessing that opens for us the way to eternal life.

When we come forward later in a few moments to venerate the Cross, we honor the particular way that Jesus showed us the depth of his love. Jesus came to testify to the truth, by his life and by his death. When we recall his sacrifice – indeed, when we unite our own sacrifices and sufferings to his – then we too testify to the truth of God’s love.

Friends, though it has now become something common, even ordinary to us, every crucifix should remind us of the saving of Jesus – that it was real and it was terrible. But the Cross is not the last word, for Jesus is no longer dead but lives forever. United to him, he will bring us to victory over death and every power of this world. May the Cross of Christ be our foundation in faith, our hope for eternal life, and our model for how to follow the Lord.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Holy Thursday: The Legacy of Christ

One of the more important things that a responsible adult needs to do is to write a will. I remember when my sister and her husband were preparing to welcome their first child, and my dad told them, “You know, guys, it’s time for you to get a will.” They were a bit taken aback by his suggestion – when you’re starting a family, after all, who wants to think about what life will be like when you’re dead? 

With some reflection, though, they could see what he meant. Making a will allows us to set our affairs in order, providing for our loved ones and stating clearly what we want to happen with our legacy. In the era of Jesus’s day, it was not uncommon for a patriarch to gather together his family and explain what inheritance he was giving to each of them and how they were to honor his legacy when he was gone.

The Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has many facets by which it can be approached: it is an intimate meal among friends; it is a Passover meal, commemorating the time when God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt; it is the setting of Jesus’s betrayal and the beginning of his Passion. But for the Christian community, this supper in the Upper Room is also when Jesus gathered us together as his family and shared with us his legacy, what he desired us to inherit from him, and how he wished us to honor him by it.

The Eucharist – our communion with Jesus’s Passion, death, and Resurrection by means of receiving his Body and Blood – is the preeminent gift of our Lord to his loved ones, both the disciples gathered in the Upper Room and us at every liturgy at which we gather. It his lasting legacy, the gift of Himself and even more the gift of a sharing in what he accomplished on Calvary. Like St. Paul said to the Corinthians, we receive this gift as something passed on from those before us, a truly spiritual inheritance given by Jesus from generation to generation. Each time we gather at this altar, we are not simply partaking in what looks like bread and wine – rather we are truly communing with the Lord, receiving anew as it were from Christ the identity and the legacy that he has given to us as his Church.

The Last Supper by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1895)

Of course, like any inheritance, the Eucharist is given to us not only to be received but to be used in accord with the intention of the Lord who has given it. Like any family treasure, we can misuse it, devalue it, even defame it if we forget the reason Christ willed it to us. What is that reason? He shows us clearly in the Gospel. Washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus becomes the servant, humbling himself to show us how to serve him. At the heart of Christ’s gift of himself in the sacrament is his desire that we might become, by the graces of the Eucharist, visible signs and examples of Eucharistic love in our service to one another. Receiving the Lord from on high, we become sharers in his identity – our hearts opened so that our hands may work, washing the feet of the world.

The disciples were taken aback by the act of service that they were shown. But after his passion, death, and resurrection – after they had come to understand what that Holy Thursday night had meant, when they remembered Jesus’s command to remember him – they understood that they too had the mission to wash feet. We too remember the same each time we gather around this altar. Empowered by Christ himself in the Eucharist, we bring Christ to others by our service, by our love, by the very way we live our lives.

Each year, the Church in our diocese takes up a collection on this day to support the education of our seminarians, the men who believe God may be calling them to be priests in service to his Church. Perhaps God similarly is speaking to the heart of a man here today in that same way; or perhaps God is speaking to the heart of a young person considering the consecrated single life; or perhaps to two individuals in love – who feel an attraction to each other – but who are called to see in each other their way to holiness and to heaven through holy marriage; or to any of us in a particular way that only the Holy Spirit knows. Any vocation, any mission by which we define our lives – the way we work out our salvation, in the words of St. Paul, through fear and trembling – must have at its heart ... feet-washing, the service of God through humbled love for the ones around us.

Friends, on this Holy Thursday, the anniversary of Jesus’s institution of the new covenant of his love, our hearts are moved to “thanksgiving” (the word in Greek? Eucharistein), thanksgiving that our Lord has given us this spiritual inheritance, this gift to be embraced and shared and lived out each and every day. Every time we share in this sacred meal, we receive anew from Jesus our identity as members of his Body, sharers in the covenant of his Blood, sent forth by him to renew the world with our service and charity. May Jesus in this Eucharist strengthen us to always honor the inheritance he has given us and fulfill the mission to which he calls us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday: The Suffering Servant

There is a natural instinct we have as humans to avoid pain – we recoil from a hot stove, we jump at a sudden loud noise, we flinch if it seems someone is about to strike us. In extreme situations, if we sense immediate danger, we even get an adrenaline rush to defend ourselves and fight back if necessary. In short, we don’t bear well insults and especially injuries without avoiding, complaining, or even fighting back in some way. 

And yet, the Passion narrative that we just read tells us that is just how Jesus responded during his own torture, crucifixion, and death. When accused, he remained silent; when flogged, he did not cry out; when given a crown of thorns and a scarlet robe to mock his claim to divine kingship, he did not weep. Instead, Jesus stands as the calm center within the chaotic storm of sin around him – seeing all, bearing all, enduring all. The only clear word that we hear him speak in the narrative are the words of the 22nd psalm: Eli, eli, lema sabacthani – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In this moment, perhaps more than any other in his life, Jesus is accomplishing the mission of mercy for which he came. He is the Suffering Servant, the one who bears the sins of Israel, accepting on their behalf (and ours) the weight of the consequence of sin. Though he is the rightful heir to his ancestor David, the triumphant king of Jerusalem, he nonetheless chooses to embody literally the words of the First Reading of Isaiah: “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” Though he possesses inwardly the eternal experience of the Father’s love, Jesus gives himself over to the experience exteriorly of being completely abandoned, forsaken, in union with what our own wicked humanity has chosen apart from God.

Jesus sets his face like flint, in the words of Isaiah, so that he may speak a word that will rouse the weary. By remaining silent, Jesus demonstrates that God accompanies every experience of human suffering. Jesus says this to us via his silence, through his acceptance in utter obedience of what his Father desires, not to subject his own Son to torment but to raise us – his adopted children – to the life of redemption. For all who are lost, downcast, abandoned, rejected, divorced from the abundant life of God – Jesus says to you in his passion, “I have entered into what you are experiencing and I am there with you; do not be afraid.” 

Honoré Daumier, Ecce Homo (1850)

Jesus accepts silently what you and I would have rightly suffered – and it is precisely for that reason that in the face of injustice you and I cannot remain silent. Christ suffered and died for the redemption of all, and in so doing he has given every human person a greater dignity and value than we had before. Thus every offense against human life is, in a sense, an offense against Christ. The examples, of course, are easy to call to mind: the continuing and, it seems, escalating violence in Syria; the constant assault against the unborn in our country and others, now numbering in the hundreds of millions; the continued legacy of retribution by means of the death penalty, including the eight individuals scheduled to be executed in our own state beginning next week; the ever-present injustices against the low-income, the marginalized, the minority, the immigrant. These issues and more must be seen by us not merely with our political lenses or judged by our individual moral compasses; we must also see them as matters to be approached via our faith. Through our prayer, our sacrifices, our efforts to support causes of justice and especially to work for justice in our own lives through mercy, patience, kindness, gentleness – we make that redemptive work of Jesus expand just a little farther, like the rays of a rising sun, to dispel the forces of darkness.

Friends, as we start this Holy Week, we are reminded that it is out of love for us that Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death on the cross. Calling upon his powerful name, we in turn must speak out against those injustices which defame the dignity he has given to every person by his blood. Even more, we must ensure that our own lives are reflections of his mercy and peace and unity, even bearing patiently our own suffering at times, so that we can further give praise and honor – with every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth – to the name that is above every other name: Jesus Christ the Lord.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Life Beyond the Grave

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1632)

Some things in life can’t be learned merely by reading something out of a book or by having someone explain it to you – have to learn them by experience. For example, when I was in college I took some classes in Spanish, studying various noun declensions and verb tenses, but I couldn’t really speak the language. It wasn’t until I spent five weeks in Mexico after being ordained, immersed in the Spanish culture and tongue, that I learned how to speak the language. I’m a big baseball fan, but while I can know how to grip the balls for various pitches, I don’t know like Deacon Norm how to actually throw them. Experience often helps us learn what theory alone cannot.

Jesus, I think, knew this well, which is why so often in the Gospels he teaches by showing rather than telling. Yes, there are the parables and the descriptions of the kingdom of God that he gives us; but often it’s through his miracles that Jesus really gets the attention of those around him. Multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the crowd of thousands shows the abundant goodness of God in a way that words just can’t do. One can know theoretically that God takes care of us, but seeing Jesus calm the storm and still the seas gives that knowledge the firmness of experience. The miracles of Jesus, in short, show that what he claims is worthy of belief.

In the Gospel today, Jesus works what surely was one of his most dramatic miracles, the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead. Each of the last three weeks, the reading from the Gospel of John has had Jesus encounter a particular person and change them in a fundamental way. Two weeks ago, if you remember, we heard of how he met the Samaritan woman at the well, giving her the gift of faith, and reconciling her to neighbors who had shunned her because of her sinfulness. Last week, we heard of how Jesus healed the blind man by the pool of Siloam, giving him status again among the Jewish community who before had taken no notice of him. These interactions show that Jesus is all about breaking down barriers, restoring the individuals he meets to fullness of life.

Today’s Gospel, though, shows a different kind of encounter, one with a person not lacking fullness of life, but life itself. We are told that Lazarus was Jesus’s friend, and that he wept when he was taken to Lazarus’s tomb. It’s strange, therefore, that Jesus behaves the way he does when first hearing that his friend had fallen ill. Did you notice that the Gospel says that upon receiving the news, Jesus stayed where he was for two days? This delay results in Lazarus’s death, something pointed out by both Martha and Mary: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even the Jews wonder, “Couldn’t the one who healed the blind man, have done something?”

What exactly is Jesus doing? Is he being selfish, or lazy – or, worse, cruel? No, certainly not. Rather, some things are better learned by experience them than by explanation. The fundamental message of Jesus throughout his public ministry is that he has come to bring fullness of life – a life of abundance in God’s grace that extends even beyond this life. This message though can remain theoretical, hypothetical even, unless it is experienced in some way. And so Jesus chose to allow Lazarus to die – even, indeed, to permit his loved ones to grieve his death – in order to teach us a greater truth. Here he shows us that – even more than forgiving an individual’s sins or curing a sick person – Jesus possesses the power to reach even beyond the grave to grant us the fullness of life. By raising Lazarus, Jesus also in a sense raises Martha and Mary, raises all who saw, raises indeed all of us who believe in him so that we too can see – not just in theory, but in actuality – that even death has been conquered by Christ. If that is something that we believe, then we can’t help be changed by it, and encounter anew in a profound way God’s all-conquering love.

Friends, one week from now, we will enter into Holy Week and begin again our most solemn celebrations of the year. In them, we will recall how the mystery of suffering and death is something that God has dealt with finally and completely, not just theoretically but in the experience of his own Son. Jesus raised Lazarus from the death only to one day die again; but by his own death and resurrection, we who are members of his Body have also been raised to eternal life. No human suffering, no sorrow at our own mortality or the mortality of those we love, indeed no force on earth or in hell can separate us from the love of Christ if we remain in that love. May we prepare our hearts well for the high holy days to come, that He who is the Resurrection and the Life will help us to experience anew – now and in every moment – the victory over death that he gives.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Children of Light

Christ Healing the Blind (c. 1570), El Greco

One of the most important lessons in life is that reality is sometimes a little different than we perceive. There are a variety of familiar maxims which express this idea: “Looks can be deceiving;” “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

Children learn this idea as they age, but we adults have to relearn it at times as well. Maybe the major we always planned study for turns out to not be our cup of tea after all. Maybe the relationship that we thought was merely that between friends is actually something deeper and romantic. Maybe the dream job that we’ve sought for so long turns out to be less glamorous or more stressful than we had thought. Life is full of surprises, and often what we anticipate and expect is not what turns out to be.

The same is true our spiritual lives. “Not as man sees does God see,” we heard in our first reading. Or in the similar words of Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Our readings for today show this clearly. In the Gospel today, Jesus acts contrary to the expectations of those around him by taking notice of the blind man and healing him. People of the first century, if they had noticed him at all, would have assumed that his affliction was due to his own sinfulness, as the Pharisees state. But Jesus stops, stoops down, and changes the blind man’s entire life in an instant.

His encounter with Jesus gives him something much greater than just the physical ability to see. Did you notice how Jesus healed the blind man? He made clay and put it on his eyes. Just as God formed Adam from the clay in Eden so too does Jesus’s healing recreate the man, so to speak, giving him not just physical sight but also the spiritual vision by which he sees the world entirely anew. Just like the woman at the well in last week’s Gospel, he is changed by this encounter with Jesus. His neighbors even debate about whether it’s really him or someone who looks like him; more importantly, he now is able to testify about Jesus to the Pharisees, who have physical sight but who are blind to the power of God before them.

The story of the blind man is, in many ways, symbolic of the story of every Christian. You and I were born in blindness, lacking spiritual vision and discordant with the way that God desires us to be. But at our baptism, we encountered the healing power of Christ, restoring us to God’s friendship and giving us the gift of faith by which we can see the world anew. Our journey through Lent is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the power of what we have been given, of the dignity of the gift we have received. Christ has healed our blindness and brought light to our darkness; now he calls us also to be bearers of light in his name so that others also may come to see.

That’s the message of St. Paul in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus. He reminds us that having been called out of darkness, we are now “children of light”. Jesus is the Light of the World, and those who have seen his light – indeed, those who have been given new sight by him – are called to also be light for others. We can’t go back to darkness, to being spiritually blind. Rather, when others look at us, when they look at how we live, they should see in us He who is the Light of the World.

Friends, we are reminded often that things aren’t always what they seem. The same is true for God – he acts in ways that are unexpected, always reaching out to us to surprise us again with a love that heals and restores. Jesus brings us new vision, a way of seeing things anew with spiritual sight, a light by which we leave behind darkness. Let’s deepen our faith again in these last few weeks of Lent, so that others can see in us the way that we have been changed by meeting Jesus, and all of us can together say, like the blind man, “I do believe, Lord.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Slake Your Thirst

Last week, I received a distressing email from a man in eastern Africa. No, it wasn’t one of those scams, asking me to help a very rich person who has found themselves in sudden, dire need. Instead, it was from an American whom I have met before, and someone I admire quite a bit.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I spent some time in Ethiopia with Catholic Relief Services years ago, and I still serve today in their Global Fellows program, helping to build awareness for the important work that they do in our name as US Catholics. The email I received was from a man named Lane Bunkers, who serves as the CRS Country Representative for Kenya. He was writing to let us know of the severe drought that is currently affecting millions of people in eastern Africa. Entire crops have been lost; livestock are shriveling up and dying; families are uprooting to search for water for themselves and their animals.

We are blessed in America to generally not have to think much about where our water comes from, whether it’s safe to drink, and whether there’s enough of it. Outside of a pipe breaking or a bit of algae giving it a stranger taste than usual, our water is safe and plentiful. But that’s simply not the reality in much of the world, and it hasn’t been the reality for much of human history.

Our readings for today bear that out well. In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites are complaining out of thirst, reasonably enough. They are, after all, wandering in the desert of Sinai. Having been rescued from Egypt by the Lord, they are not yet ready to enter the Promised Land; they first must come to know who God is and what he commands of them. But despite their grumbling and ingratitude, God provides for them. Moses commands water to come forth from the rock, and they drink to their fill.

In the Gospel, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. She too is thirsty, though perhaps Jesus knows it better than she. This woman is alone, in the hottest part of the day, and someone who has scandalously been with a number of men. What she craves is not just water to slake her thirst, but the Living Water of mercy, of reconciliation, of starting anew. And she encounters in Jesus someone who not only speaks to her but enters into dialogue with her – who gives her the dignity to be someone worthy of attention. Jesus shows how God does not begin to address any of us with castigation, with overwhelming guilt – rather, he appeals to our desire, to our want.

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (1639) by Guercino

What are you thirsting for? And where are you seeking to quench that thirst? The human spirit is constantly searching for satisfaction, for a remedy to our troubles, for something to refresh our parched spirits. But nothing truly fills us up, nothing really quenches our thirstiness such that we do not thirst again – nothing except, Jesus says, the One who can bring forth water from the rock, the One who is Living Water himself. We can uproot ourselves in constant search for the next fad, the next trend, the next thing that promises to bring us happiness – but ultimately these will leave us only more shriveled up than before unless we seek the satisfaction that comes from God.

Friends, the drought in eastern Africa is a tragic situation. Next week, we will have a second collection to benefit Catholic Relief Services, and I hope you will be moved to give alms generously to this worthy cause. But as dire as that need is, you and I can’t ignore our own dire need as well. Jesus invites each of us in this season of Lent, just as he invited the Samaritan woman, to find in him the fulfillment of the desire of our hearts, the One who wishes to encounter us, to enter into relationship with us, and to offer us a chance to start anew. Let us drink deeply of the life and love that only Christ can give.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dismissing the Devil

Throughout the liturgical year, our readings tend to revolve around Biblical figures who inspire us: Jesus, of course, most often; Mary, at times; sometimes Peter, sometimes Paul, sometimes an Old Testament figure, like Moses, or Elijah, or Isaiah. Interestingly, though, the readings for this First Sunday of Lent seem to center around a much more unpleasant figure: that of Satan.

The figure of Satan in the Bible is portrayed in a few different ways. But his most prominent role is how he is described in the Book of Revelation: as “the Deceiver.” In my time as a priest, I’ve found that people typically tend to make one of two mistakes when thinking about the devil. Sometimes, we can be unreasonably interested in him, either too curious or too afraid. When I attended Saint Louis University, the fourth floor of the main administrative building was reportedly the site of the exorcism which later inspired the famous movie of the 1970’s. A few of my friends were inordinately fascinated by the story; the rest of us were too fearful to even venture up to the offices on that floor that we needed to visit! Being overly curious or overly fearful about the devil is not healthy for anyone.

More commonly, though, I think many of us pay the devil little mind. For all practical purposes, we don’t think much about him. Some of us might even be tempted to dismiss him as a fanciful notion – a sort of imaginary construct that we humans have invented to explain our own weaknesses and evils. But the Scriptures are clear – the devil is real, and he is our Enemy, because he seeks to divorce us from God.

In today’s first reading, Satan preys upon the desire of Adam and Eve to be “like gods,” that is, not only to know good and evil but to determine what was good and evil for themselves. This great deception causes their Fall, and ours as well, introducing sin and death into the world. In a certain sense, every sin that tempts us is a repetition of their sin. For whether it is pride or anger or lust or greed, or whatever else, when we sin we say, “I know what is best for me better than God does” – indeed, we say, “I know that this is better for me than God.”

When we sin, we are deceived, just as Adam and Eve were deceived, and the devil seems to have won. But as Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, the devil may win a battle here and there, but he’s lost the overall war. For while sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, Jesus has brought into the world the gift of God’s forgiveness. By taking upon himself our sins and by his total obedience to his Father’s will, Jesus undoes the curse of Adam and takes away the power of sin.

In the Gospel, Jesus shows us how to resist the devil’s deceptions. The aim of temptation is always to believe something that is untrue, namely, that God will not care for us in some particular way. Satan offers to Jesus three things that appear good – to satisfy his physical hunger after 40 days, to be cared for by the angels of heaven, to be honored by all the world. But Jesus resists each of these things, not because they are bad in themselves but because they are founded in the notion that his heavenly Father will not provide for him. The same is true with our own temptations – we are led to believe that God won’t satisfy our desires or provide for our greatest need.

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (c. 1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna

At the heart of temptation, at the base of any sin, is a fundamental lack of trust in God. Jesus did not sin because he was utterly confident in his Father’s love and providence, just as we must be. The deepest desire of our heart is to participate in the divinity that Adam and Eve desired – but the way to reach that is not by grasping for it, as they did, but by receiving it from a God who desires to give it to us as a gift. Like Jesus, we must realize that our deepest longing is not for food or honor or power or any material thing, but for God himself. Echoing the trust in our heavenly Father that Jesus showed, which gives us the knowledge of his love that we most deeply desire, we can orient ourselves in such a way that no temptation attracts us.

What does this mean practically? When we are tempted, first, we must recognize the fact. Jesus did not deny Satan’s presence; similarly, we must say, “I am being tempted now by pride or anger or lust or jealousy,” or whatever it is. That’s the first step. The next is to immediately turn to God – perhaps in vocal prayer, perhaps by Scripture, perhaps by meditating upon God’s presence. Bringing the Lord into the midst of our temptation, we can see the deception of the sin. Finally, we have to choose to grace over the temptation, saying with Jesus, “Get away, Satan!” No temptation is not also accompanied by a grace from God needed to resist.

Friends, though it may at times seem so, the devil is not the central character in anything – not our readings for today and not in our spiritual lives. He is always only a background figure, a foil – one who can deceive us about God’s love, but who offers nothing on his own in return. Jesus, on the other hand, has confronted and defeated Satan, and if we respond to temptation as he did – with a fundamental trust in God – then the devil has no power that can harm us. This Lent, let us open ourselves to responding to temptation in the way that Jesus has shown us to do – with faith in God, with fidelity in what he teaches, with trust in what he promises.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sculpted by the Tools of God

Portrait of a Sculptor (c. 1625), Daniele Crespi

One of the great privileges of being able to travel or live abroad is the chance to see famous works of art firsthand. When I lived in Italy for four years during my seminary training, I had the chance to travel to see many of the greatest artistic masterpieces in history: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Guernica, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Maybe the most amazing work that I saw in my time in Europe though was Michelangelo’s famous sculpture David in Florence. It’s famous not only for its flawless depiction of the male form but also because it was made from a single piece of marble twice rejected by other sculptors as inferior. Supposedly, when Michelangelo was asked how he fashioned such a tremendous sculpture, he stated that it wasn’t very hard; he simply chipped away all the marble that did not fit David’s form.

This Lent, I would say that God wishes to do something very similar with us. We recognize that the world is not as it should be, and the road to change must begin with us. Like flawed pieces of marble, we recognize our faults and our inferiorities, but we also know that – like Michelangelo – the divine artist nonetheless sees something of value within us, a master work ready to be unveiled. Lent offers us the chance to be better interiorly so that we can start to build a better world exteriorly.

In the Gospel we heard, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, fast, and give alms in the right way. In telling them how to do these things, he makes a certain presumption – that we should do them. The secular mindset of today rejects these suggestions of self-improvement – it scorns the notion that we need to pray and fast and give to the poor. But you and I understand that we are not perfect; indeed, we are flawed and in need of further fashioning, and in this Lenten season, God chooses these tools by which to make us more as he wishes us to be.

In the hand of God, the penitential practices of Lent can have real effect. Think of prayer and fasting as a kind of hammer and chisel to our souls. They work together to detach us from things which are good (or at least not bad) in and of themselves – material things like food and drink, television, social media – so that we can strive to live more for the greatest good, which is God. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that our prayer should be devout and not showy, not so much secretive as concentrated on God and not on being observed by others. Even more, these practices – especially fasting – should be joyful. We miss the entire point if we focus on what we’re giving up and how hard it is and not on the fact that we are creating more space in our lives for the very one for whom our hearts have been created.

If prayer and fasting are like hammer and chisel, then perhaps almsgiving is like a file or a rasp, which smooth out our rough edges to even greater perfection. Almsgiving – that is, the giving of money to the needy, whether to a church, to a friend in need, to a charitable organization which legitimately helps the poor – forces us to focus not on ourselves but on another. Prayer and fasting are good practices, but if we do them alone, we can still become too wrapped up in ourselves, perhaps even bordering on a self-focused pride about our own spiritual growth. Helping the poor and the needy forces us to come out of our own little worlds and find Christ in those who are less fortunate.

So what are some practical ways that we can allow the Lord to use these penitential tools in this season of Lent?

· For prayer, consider starting your day or ending your day (or both) with a brief prayer. In the morning, you can offer to God all the things that you’re going to experience that day, both good and bad, and say a Hail Mary so that Mary can help you to do that. In the evening, call to mind where God was present to you throughout that day, and where you responded to him and where you didn’t, and say an Act of Contrition for all of your sins.

· For fasting, consider giving something up beyond coffee or chocolate. What if you were to do something like go vegetarian for the whole of Lent? Or, for those who are of age, no booze? Maybe the thing that many of us most need to fast from is our constant to desire to have a screen in front of our face. Think about abstaining from social media two days a week, or giving up television until all of your other responsibilities for the day (including prayer time) are taken care of. I guarantee you will have a deeper sense of God’s presence in your life.

· For almsgiving, consider donating beyond the usual charity that you always fall back upon. If you’re a student, perhaps you can save the money on the pizza you might buy on Friday night and put it in the collection basket on Sunday morning? Or if you really want to make a difference to a worthy charity, take home a Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl this Sunday, keep it during Lent, and bring it back before Easter. That money will go to support relief and humanitarian efforts being done by the US Catholic Church (being done in your name) in the poorest countries in the world.

You might take these suggestions, or you might have some ideas of your own. Remember that whatever you do, these penances of fasting, prayer, and giving alms are not ends in themselves – they are merely steps along the path of spiritual growth that God has for each of us.

David, detail (c. 1504), Michelangelo Buonarroti

Friends, this Lent, Jesus invites us to travel with him: not on a journey abroad – to encounter works of art made by others – but on a journey within – to encounter the work of art that he is forming us to be. He is the artist and we are the masterpiece. This season, let us open ourselves to the tools of his transformation, so that by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving Jesus might create each of us, more and more, to be his perfect image in the world.