Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Babe of Bethlehem

Close your eyes for a moment. No sleeping! Keep your ears open, but close your eyes and clear your mind.

Imagine for a moment that we are not gathered here in this church. Rather we are outside in the cold night air, not in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the 21st century, but in the hills of the Italian countryside in the 13th century. We are following a religious man, a preacher who wants us to see something special, and we are hiking behind him on a mountain trail, heading up into the hills. Our way is lit with torches and candles, and we are bundled up to stay warm as we walk. Finally, we arrive at our destination: a niche in the side of the cliff that forms a cave of sorts. There we see that our preacher has prepared straw, where a few farm animals lie and graze. A crib made out of rough wood sits in the middle. As we approach the spot, this preacher begins to sing a song, reciting a story, one that is set in a manger like the one we see before us. It is the story of a child’s birth, and as he speaks, we can see that he is overcome with emotion, almost at the point of tears, full of joy and peace. So tenderly does he describe the child that we notice how he does not even dare to say his name, but calls him only “il Bambino di Betlemme” – “the Babe of Bethlehem.” As he preaches about the birth of this child, some of us even think perhaps that we can see him, a heavenly figure, weak and small and yet radiating a heavenly light.

You can open your eyes. That, more or less, is the account of how Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in the mountain town of Greccio in December of 1223. What we are used to seeing, usually as figurines on our mantles or lawns, was originally a live action reenactment. Having journeyed to the Holy Land a few years before, St. Francis had visited the spot where Christ had been born. To give the people of Greccio a deeper understanding of the birth in Bethlehem, Francis re-created it, staging the manger scene, chanting the story of the birth from the Book of the Gospels, with such power and reverence and love that some saw the Christ Child there in their midst.

Stories and events have a way of coming alive when we enact them, when we experience them as they might have happened. St. Francis knew that to reenact the birth of Jesus for his flock in Greccio would be much more powerful than an exercise in mere imagination. But what, ultimately, was Francis wanting to demonstrate? Surely, the people that trekked up to the mountain cave knew what they were going to see; they knew what event they were going to commemorate. In much the same way, we have come here this evening aware of what this holiday celebrates. Why, then, have we come? Surely not to find out a what. We know that already – the birth of a child. Rather, we have come for the same reason that the people of Greccio followed Francis up into the hills on a cold winter night – to understand a why, to comprehend the meaning of the Christmas story in a new way. We know the details of the birth in Bethlehem. What we sometimes need is a reminder of its significance.

Nativity with the Torch (c. 1635), the Le Nain brothers

Each year, the Church approaches the story of Jesus’s nativity in four different ways, one for each of the four Masses that can be celebrated at Christmas. In the vigil Mass, we hear the Gospel story of the angel reassuring Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary into his home, for it is by the power of God that she will be the mother of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In the Mass During the Night, commonly celebrated at midnight, the Gospel speaks of the angels appearing to the shepherds in the fields, bearing the news of Jesus’s birth to them and proclaiming the glory of God. In the Mass at Dawn, the Gospel says that the shepherds, having received these tidings of great joy, resolve to make their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child for themselves. Finally, in the Mass during Christmas Day, we hear from the Gospel of John, a reading perhaps at once the strangest and also the most fitting for Christmas, the one that explains the true meaning of all of the others: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”

What Francis of Assisi tried to show in the hills above Greccio, what our readings seek to describe, what we have come to celebrate in the church this evening is that this birth in Bethlehem was of no ordinary child – rather, it was the breaking forth of the divine into the human, the dawning of the promised Son of God to his people. This humble birth – poor really, by any measure – is nothing less than the remaking of the world, the union of heaven and earth in this little child. In Jesus, God has taken to himself our reality and, in doing so, forever changed it. God has, in effect, married us – with all of our warts, in all of our sinfulness – to redeem our humanity and let it share in his divinity. He has done this, glory be to Him, through this little child. This Babe of Bethlehem is "God with us," God in the flesh, and the one through whom God will at last accomplish his purpose – none other than to go to the Cross, to put to death our sin and dysfunction once and for all, and forever reclaim us, raising us from “Forsaken” to “My Delight,” from “Desolate” to “Espoused”.

This birth in Bethlehem is not merely a spectacle to behold or a theological reality to ponder. It’s also an invitation – to ponder whether we believe this reality, and if so, whether we have shaped our life around it. God wants us to adore his Son’s birth, not just with lip service, with a brief prayer or remembrance, or with our backsides in a pew for an hour on Christmas. He wants us to open our hearts in love and welcome – to let Christ be born within us in as true of a way as he was born in the manger. God almighty, who enters our human reality to shatter the darkness of death and sin and lift us into eternity, cannot by himself enter into our hearts; he can do that only if we permit him. The humble child born in the stable is an invitation to love, and to be loved, by the God made Man.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There are two births of Christ, one unto the world in Bethlehem, the other in the soul when it is spiritually reborn.” It is this inward coming that Jesus most fully desires. Indeed, it is the reason for his coming altogether. If all Christmas is for us is another event on the calendar, a holiday to be marked and then to move past, then we have missed entirely the meaning of this birth, this “Bambino di Betlemme”. He awaits us, even now, at the door of our hearts, asking if there is room enough for him to be born anew.

My friends, some time tonight or tomorrow, when you are with family and friends, pause for a few moments from the feasting and the gift-giving and the merrymaking. Close your eyes, and imagine once again. This time, journey not to Greccio, but to the real manger scene in Bethlehem. See there in a humble stable the Holy Family, and in the crib itself, the Christ Child himself. You have come to see him, but he has come for you – to die for you, willingly, joyfully, to raise your humanity to share in his divinity. As you approach, stoop down to him; drop to your knees. He looks at you, the Lord of heaven and earth made a humble Babe. Feel his peace; encounter the joy that only he can give, that he desires to give you all year round. It is a joy like a flame – one which cannot be snuffed out, but which shines brightly in the dark, radiating its warmth and light. The Babe of Bethlehem is born for you. All he desires from you is everything. And he gives Everything in return.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Learning to Receive

As you know, we are now just a short time from the start of Christmas. If you are anything like me, there’s still a few precious hours to think through what gifts you still need to find a way to shop for, buy, wrap, and deliver before the hour for unwrapping arrives. I like to give presents, but sometimes I don’t think I’m very good at it. Perhaps it is because I wait until the last minute! People say that, with gifts, “It’s the thought that counts!”, and I for one hope they are right.

In the first reading today, King David finds himself in a giving mood. Having conquered his enemies and established his throne in Jerusalem, he is moved by gratitude to do something for God. Since the time of Moses, the Jewish people had understood God’s presence to dwell with them through the Ark of the Covenant, housed within a special tent that was moveable. David desires to build for the Lord a fitting house, a temple, something that would stand permanently as a visible reminder of God’s place at the center of his kingdom.

As we hear, God has other plans. He appreciates David’s intention – “It’s the thought that counts!” – but God is more interested in giving gifts than in receiving them. While David wants to build him a house of wood and stone, God desires to give him a lasting gift, not a literal house, but a lineage and a kingship that will rule for all times. There are few things as important to a king as the stability of his succession, and God promises to secure David’s for all time.

This reading demonstrates for us an important lesson about our relationship with God. The Lord desires an intimate relationship with us, a true friendship, like he had with David. But we should not confuse our places; we are not equals – God remains God. Sometimes, we might think, “Well, if I do this good thing, then he will bless me” or “I will suffer this hardship, and then God will owe me.” But God is not interested in bargaining or cutting deals; all of his action toward us is one of blessing and benevolence. We don’t have to curry his favor, or earn his loyalty; God already desires to give us every good gift and blessing.

The Annunciation (c. 1452), attributed to Petrus Christus

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we will always perfectly understand his will. In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a Son, and that he will receive the throne of his ancestor David and his kingdom will have no end. Mary doesn’t understand the full meaning of these words; if she understands them even partially, she is even more unsure how she, as a virgin, could be the one chosen by God to bring forth a Savior. And yet underneath her questions, Mary has a deep and implicit faith in the Lord’s goodness, in his faithfulness, in their intimate relationship as God and human being, and so she responds affirmatively, trustingly, with a “Yes” that makes up in love what it lacks in understanding.

Mary’s “Fiat” is the greatest act of her life, the fundamental reason why we as Catholics accord her such honor and veneration. We understand that without her “Yes”, Christ would not have been born for us, and the promise of God to David would not have been fulfilled. David’s royal line crumbles after a few centuries, due to the sinfulness of his descendants and the people of Israel as a whole. And yet God does not abandon his people, and he does not forget his promise; instead, he fulfills it in a way more wonderful than David or anyone else could ever imagine. David had desired the presence of God to dwell among his people, and as we see in the Annunciation, that has also been God’s desire all along – not in some perishable building of wood or stone, but in a person, in the permanent union of God and man in Christ. As St. Paul remarks to the Romans, this is the “mystery kept secret for long ages,” but now manifested and made known to all nations – that God has fulfilled his promise to David, and fulfilled indeed every desire and yearning of the human heart, in the Incarnation of his Word, the sending of his Son Jesus, through whom God’s love and favor rests upon his people. Through him, we have been made a royal people, not by blood but by baptism. Every believer shares in the kingship of Christ, and through him, the royal lineage of the Church extends through every age and to every place.

Very close now to the start of Christmas, our final Advent preparation should be a reflection upon this reality: that the coming of Christ is a greater gift than any mankind could have asked for or dreamed of. We need not doubt God’s benevolence, his providence, his desire to reach through time and history to change us and our reality – his Son’s presence among us is proof of that. We don’t have to curry favor with the Lord or seek to give him gifts in order to earn his love; he has already given it and gives it anew through the grace of Christ. That is the true blessing of Christmas.

What God does ask is that we be faithful and joyful in receiving what he does desire to give us. It’s doubtful that we will always understand his every design; at times, we may even struggle to comprehend why his will permits some challenge. But we need never doubt God’s goodness and his fidelity, because in Christ he has revealed the fullness of every blessing. Remember Mary – and respond with similar trust and generosity. Whatever the Lord wishes to do in your life, don’t seek to dictate terms, but open yourself to what God wishes to give.

My friends, even if you have waited until the last minute, make these last few hours of Advent count in your preparation for the coming feasts. Christmas is the remembrance above all else that the Lord is the best Gift-giver of all, for he has given us the gift of himself in his Son. He desires each of us to receive him anew with generosity of spirit and firmness of faith. With this gift, it’s not just the thought that counts, but also the response – a “Yes” that he wishes to hear from our lips, as he heard from Mary’s. Like her, may we remember that God has proven his faithfulness and love from all generations, and with grateful hearts, may we receive all that the Lord wishes to give.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mistaken Identities

Mattia Preti, Saint John the Baptist Preaching (c. 1665)

Allow me to briefly summarize three stories, vastly different but sharing one thing in common. Separated by a shipwreck, two twins unknowingly arrive in the same place, one is mistaken for the other, and hilarity ensues. A secret criminal organization confuses a regular guy for a secret government agent, and his life turns upside down. A beggar boy and a royal prince who look strikingly similar switch places out of curiosity, but afterward find it much more difficult to switch back. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, or Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, some of our most enduring classic tales are based around cases of mistaken identity. Sometimes funny, sometimes scary, things can quickly get out of sorts when someone thinks you are someone you’re not.

In the Gospel today, we hear that John the Baptist is confronted by representatives from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. They have come to ask him directly who he is. As we heard last week, John lived in the desert, preaching repentance and baptizing those who were sorry for their sins and wanted to reconcile with God. Clearly, many had begun to wonder just what this man was about – whether he was the Messiah they had been waiting for, the Prophet whom some believed would come before the end times, or someone else. And so they ask him, “Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?”

John is very frank with them. While the people who had come out to see him in the desert and perhaps even the Jewish authorities thought that this one at last was the Christ that they had been expecting, John tells them they are mistaken. They’ve got the wrong guy; he’s not their man. Perhaps if we were crafting the Gospel story, this case of mistaken identity might have lingered a bit longer, to play up the suspense. But our Gospel writer, St. John the Evangelist, is interested in the story’s spiritual rather than literary value. John the Baptist, he makes clear, is under no illusions about who he is. He has been sent by God not to direct attention to himself, but to prepare the way for someone far greater.

On this Third Sunday of the Advent season, we recall just who that is – the one that the Baptist prepared for, the one that we await. Our expectation for him is so great that we even allow ourselves to begin even now to rejoice, to anticipate his coming with gladness and gratitude. The presence of John the Baptist is a signal that the Lord’s salvation is at hand. He is the Herald that announces the coming of the King, the King not yet here but coming very soon.

John the Baptist kept his eyes on the one who is really important, and we have to do the same. Like the people in the desert, and the Jewish authorities from Jerusalem, we too can fall victim at times to mistaking identity – not of John the Baptist, that is, but our own. While we should be rejoicing at the coming of our King, often we can become too weighed down by the chronicles of our own lives that we forget the overall plot. We can mistake our own story – with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows – as the primary narrative that should shape our reality, when really, it isn't.

Don’t we all have the tendency at times, perhaps especially at this time of year, to focus exclusively on what we are doing, on what is happening to us, and in doing so, to miss how God is at work around us? There is a kind of spiritual solipsism whereby we can become too wrapped up in what we are about that we miss entirely what God might be wanting us to reveal. The key to true happiness is understanding that we exist not as the primary actor of our own stories, but as characters caught up in a wonderful tale of God’s love for the world, and he is at the center of it. John the Baptist understood this – he played the part he had to play, and he played it well, but he didn’t mistake his role for something greater than what it was.

Let me share with you a bit of spiritual wisdom that I learned from a spiritual director in seminary, now gone to his eternal reward: live your life as if God is the protagonist, rather than yourself. It may sound counterintuitive – that you are not the center of the story. But believe it or not, you’ll be far happier if you live that way than otherwise. If you think to yourself, “What is the Lord doing today? Where is the Lord moving? How is the Lord speaking and acting?”, you will find that without the pressure of being at the center of everything, you have more the space to move and breathe and and look around you, and see what God is doing. Just look at John the Baptist. This man sent by God, as the Gospel tells us, whom Jesus describes in another place as the greatest born of a woman – what does he do? He acknowledges his lowliness: “I am not worthy to untie his sandal,” and steps aside for Jesus: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

A lot of this, of course, is much easier said than done. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Father, if only you knew what I’m facing right now, how much my friend or relative is hurting, how lonely and anxious I feel; how can I possibly rejoice?” I hear you. Rejoicing, and being told to rejoice, doesn’t make all of our problems go away. But when we are struggling, it’s all the more important to lay hold of those truths that truly matter. Like a loving Mother, the Church consoles us by saying if we only knew how much those things, great though they may seem, pale in comparison to the love that God has for us, and the peace that Jesus can bring, we could not help but rejoice. St. Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun who lived a century ago and who herself knew much suffering, once said, “If the suffering soul only knew how much it is loved by God, it would die of joy and excess of happiness!”

My friends, the stories of our lives are all vastly different, but they share one thing in common. At their heart, our lives have all been defined by one tale – classic, timeless even – summarized in this way: a Savior has been born for us, our King has come, and each day he wishes to fill us anew with his peace and joy. Don’t mistake your present concerns, great as they may be, with your true identity: a child of God, beloved by him, redeemed in Christ. No matter what trial you may face or darkness you may encounter, the love of God for you in Christ cannot be taken away. Make that reality your guiding narrative, as John the Baptist did. Put the Lord and what he has done at the center of your story, and you will find the right way to approach each moment, each challenge, each development in your own character arc.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


All of us at times have asked the question: “Where was God?” We see some terrible story on the news or we experience some tragedy in our own lives, and we just think “God, why were you not there? Why did you not act?” In a world where we see much darkness and evil, the seeming absence of God’s presence can sometimes be difficult to bear. For some people, this can even be the reason to doubt or deny a belief in God – they struggle with understanding how a good and merciful God could allow evil and not act. Why would God seem to be silent, why does he appear to be idle when clearly so much is wrong with the world?

These feelings are nothing new. People of faith throughout history have felt the same. We see an example in our first reading. The people of Israel in the first reading are in exile in Babylon, a thousand miles from their homeland of Canaan. The favored people of God had been overrun by a pagan king, deported from their homeland, and now dwelled as prisoners in a foreign land. It would have seemed impossible for them to return, and at this point, many abandoned hope. They thought, “God, why did you not act? Why have you abandoned us?”

To these cries of anguish, the prophet Isaiah tells the people to take comfort. He prophesies that not only will God end their exile, but that he himself will lead them back to their homeland himself and he himself will care for them like a shepherd cares for the flock. While these words may have been dismissed by many as foolish, the Jewish people did return to their homeland and renewed there their covenant with God.

Sidney Nolan, Desert Storm (c. 1955)

The season of Advent at its heart is one of waiting, even one of longing – eagerly, anxiously desiring the Lord to set aright the evils of the world. It is also though a season of remembrance, of recognizing that God has acted already. Throughout the history of Israel, God intervenes to rescue his people – from enslavement in Egypt, from destruction at the hands of the Assyrians, from exile in Babylon. Most importantly, in this season we recall how God acted definitively by sending us a Savior, Jesus.

This year, we have the happy occurrence of this Second Sunday of Advent falling right between the two Marian feasts of Advent: the Immaculate Conception of Mary last Friday and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe this coming Tuesday. With Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we celebrate that God breaks through our dysfunction in ways that perhaps are unseen by us but nonetheless are real – that is, that even as we cry out for salvation, he has already been at work in secret. Mary was conceived without sin because God knew she would be the mother of our Redeemer, and so his action to preserve her sin was answering our need in ways that we did not even yet know. In the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we recognize how the God of majesty and power comes in humble, lowly ways. The God of eternity and of infinite power is born to a young girl in a quiet and far-off place. Yet, this unassuming virgin is herself mighty in power because of the child she bears, and powerful also for us who are her spiritual children. As she said to Juan Diego in her apparition, we should let nothing disturb or frighten us, because in her we have a loving mother who will care for us just as she cared for her Son, the God-Man.

So we may indeed wonder, “Why does God linger in resolving the injustices of the world? Why does he not act?” But St. Peter speaks clearly in our second reading – God has acted, by giving his Son Jesus, to save us from our sins. It is because he desires the salvation of all of us – because he does not wish to lose even a single one of us to eternal separation – that he waits. It's not delay, really, but patience, and he is patient because we are hesitant, untrusting, uncommitted.

And yet, one day God will act, his Son will return, and then all wrongs will be righted, every hill made low, every valley filled, and all will see the glory of the Lord. The early Christians had a word that was especially fitting for this Advent season: “Maranatha.” The word is an Aramaic formula that means the coming of the Lord and it can be translated in two ways. The more common translation is a command: “Come, O Lord!” It is an expression of our longing, our desire for the Lord Jesus to come and render justice for the evils we see around us. But it can also be translated, “The Lord has come.” And this perhaps is the deeper, important meaning for us – that even as we yearn for God to fix what must be fixed, to rescue us from our plight, to save us from all that ails us, we remember that he has come, and that he has done these things for us as a comfort to never doubt or be afraid.

My friends, our fundamental belief as Christians is that God does not ignore us; he is not absent. He has not only acted in human history, he has become one of us in the Incarnation. This is not just a private religious opinion that we hold, but a firm belief that underlies everything that we understand about the world. We may go through difficulties and wonder why the Lord seems to delay; but we must not doubt or be afraid, because God has acted and is acting in and through his Son Jesus. Like the early Christians, let us say “Maranatha” – “The Lord has come. Come, O Lord!” – and be steadfast in making straight the path for when he does.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mary, God's Mansion

No one likes to live in a shabby house. We may not all live in mansions, but we like for our abodes to be clean, respectable, and a place that is both inviting for guests and also comfortable for ourselves. A house is in some way a reflection of who we are, and so we want it to reflect the best version of ourselves.

Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the woman whom God created to be the mother of his Divine Son Jesus. Mary, as the woman who bore Jesus inside her womb, is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant, because her body was the abode of Jesus. If a house is a reflection of who we wish to be, we can say that Mary is the perfect reflection of what God designed a human being to be. In order to give us the gift of his Son, both human and divine, God first had to create for him a fitting dwell place, a vessel which would bring him into the world, and Mary is that vessel.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the first action that God took in human history to introduce our Savior Jesus into the world. Following the Fall of Adam and Eve, which we heard about in our first reading, our human nature was tarnished, like a house that has fallen into disrepair. In Mary, God restores the house of our human nature, preparing for himself a fitting dwelling for the Incarnation of the Son and also prefiguring in her the healing mercy that Christ’s sacrifice extends to all of us.

La Inmaculada Concepcion (La Colosal) (c. 1652), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Mary’s entire identity is rooted in the role that God had for her to be the mother of the Christ, to speak those words, “Thy will be done,” that she said to the angel Gabriel. And so for this reason, because she submitted herself so fully to the will of God, she is the pinnacle of our human race. As we admire our Blessed Mother, we should remember a great truth of the Christian life: that God is the author of every good gift, every grace. The salvation that he wrought for us in Jesus began before the empty tomb, before the birth in the stable at Bethlehem, before even the appearance of an angel to a young girl in Nazareth. It began first at the depth of Mary’s being, when God foresaw what her Son Jesus would do, and gave her the grace of sharing in that salvation at her own conception.

Perhaps we might think today: in what ways has God been at work in my life in ways that I do not appreciate, or been drawing me to himself in some way that stretches back far before I had realized? And for what might God be preparing me? What does he intend for my life? We might reflect upon the answers to these questions in these Advent days, pondering them as Mary pondered in her heart what God had done for. For all of us, the simple answer is “grace” – God’s free gift of himself that we can share in even now.

Friends, as we prepare to welcome our Savior at Christmas, let’s pause first to praise him this day for the beautiful vessel he created in the person of Mary, whose body was a mansion for the Incarnate Word, and whose soul said "Yes" to God's plan of our salvation. This day, we remember that without her, we would not have our Savior. Like she, may we give thanks for the good things that God has done for us, and rejoice in the grace that he invites to respond to, as she did, with “Thy will be done.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017


It’s a part of human nature that we want the approval of others. When others think highly of us, it affirms us; when they think less highly, or even poorly, it can upset us.

We see this perhaps most clearly in the case of children. This past week I had the chance to catch up on the phone a bit with a childhood friend whom I have not seen for a while. She’s in the middle of raising her three children, and is experiencing all of the joys and the challenges that that brings. One of the things she’s learning is how much her children depend upon her for affirmation and validation, in good moments and in bad. At one moment her kids want to show off to her – “Mommy, look at me! Mommy, watch this!” – and her attention fills them with pride and satisfaction. But when she disapproves when they are misbehaving, they sulk and pout and maybe even shed a few tears because Mommy is upset with them.

This same dynamic plays out in our relationship with God, and we see it clearly in our first reading. Speaking on behalf of the people of Israel, the prophet Isaiah cries out to God for forgiveness. Israel has been wayward and unfaithful, and now recognizing that fact, they feel how distant they have become from God. Like a child trying to placate an upset parent, they are displeased because he is displeased, and sorrowful now at their misdeeds, the people of Israel desire to return to his good graces.

The basic problem of the Old Testament is that this same reality plays out over and over again. The people of Israel sins, God forgives, but Israel sins again. Each time they repent, Israel opens its eyes to how foolish they had been – to how they had been tempted from their worship of God by the allurements of this world and the anxieties of daily life – and how, as a result, they have driven off far from the Lord’s path. Thus, they cry out, as we heard in the words of today’s psalm: “Make us turn to you, Lord; let us see your face and be saved.” But despite their sincerity in the moment, the pattern plays out again. After some time, the people turn back to their sinfulness. They just don’t learn, like a misbehaving child that wants what it wants and doesn’t think of the consequences.

As we begin the season of Advent, we hear this passage for a reason. The Church suggests that we perhaps might be in the same situation. Turning the page on a new calendar year in the Church, we begin by taking stock of our spiritual houses, and doing so, we find that we are wanting, and we ask the Lord for forgiveness. It may seem that we hear a lot about the theme of conversion at Mass. Our readings often touch upon it, and I admit that I tend to preach on it often, because it is critical aspect to the Christian rhythm of life. There is something about repentance that, while difficult, allows for newness and permits the clearing of the air. When we come to Mass each week, what is the first thing we do? We admit we have sinned – “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have greatly sinned….” By recognizing our past faults, by owning up to them consciously, we take ownership of them, rather than allow them to own us.

One of the reasons we must continually search our hearts is that it is part of what Jesus charged us to do. As we heard in the Gospel, he calls his disciples to be watchful and alert, and not to be caught off guard by his return. This new season of Advent is not only a time to prepare for our celebration of the first coming of Jesus, as a newborn child at Christmas. It is also a time to remind ourselves and to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of Jesus, when he will return in glory to judge heaven and earth, and us along with it. Repentance is part of staying alert, making sure that we are every day gauging how faithfully we are walking the path of discipleship.

Enrique Simonet, Flevit Super Illam (1892)

While we recognize that we are like Israel, wayward and in need of God’s mercy, we also start off Advent by claiming an identity that the people of the Old Testament did not have – God’s adopted sons and daughters. St. Paul encourages the Christian community at Corinth with words that he might well have addressed to us: we have been “enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge” such that we “are not lacking in any spiritual gift”.

We are not children who don’t know how to please our heavenly Father; rather we have the grace of adoption through Jesus which allows us to understand the will of God and to be faithful to it in a way that the Israelites could not. Whenever we are in doubt, we can look to Jesus and see in him not only an example to follow but an identity to put upon, becoming each day more and more like Christ. God invites each of us this Advent to grow more fully into our identity as his sons and daughters; there are countless ways to do so. Maybe by getting to Mass just 10 minutes earlier each week, to prepare myself, to become ready with prayer and reflection to praise my God. Maybe by setting my alarm clock 15 minutes earlier in the morning to spend a little time in private prayer or reflecting upon the readings of that day’s Mass. Maybe by thinking about that one person in my life whom I am ignoring, or taking for granted, or finding to be exasperating, and to do something kind and charitable for them. What one small thing or two is God asking of you to conform yourself more fully to his Son?

Friends, as we begin Advent, we remind ourselves to keep vigilant for the Lord’s coming. The best way to do so is with eyes fixed upon him. Like a child that knows its parent is watching, we seek to please our heavenly Father by being found "irreproachable," in the words of Paul, without blame or sin. St. Augustine said that if we love our sins more than Jesus his return will make us afraid; but if we love Christ more than we love our sins, we will rejoice at his coming. Let’s not be sidetracked by spiritual drowsiness or childish selfishness, but instead keep our eyes upon the Lord, delighting in his love, remembering how he delights in us. May Jesus find us ever watchful, in this season and beyond, ready for his coming.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Warren Buffet, the American businessman and philanthropist, supposedly has two rules for how he invests his great fortune. Rule Number One? Never lose money. Rule Number Two? Never forget Rule Number One.

It seems to make sense – if you want to make money, you have to start by not losing money. But in the world of investments, it’s not quite that simple. Return follows risk, and so if you’re not willing to put anything on the line, you’re not going to gain anything more than you already have. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the Gospel today, Jesus uses the analogy of investment to speak about the logic of the kingdom of God. The story we hear is fairly straightforward. A master entrusts three servants with his wealth, and then leaves on a journey. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, but it’s clear that he expects them to invest what he has given them and gain a return.

Each servant, as we heard, is entrusted with something. What is it? The Greek word τάλαντον is translated in English as “talent”, but it doesn’t mean here a positive characteristic, skill, or ability. Instead it was a measurement, a weight of precious metal – an ingot of about 75 lbs. Talents were literally the fortunes of people of the ancient world; to have one, was to be wealthy, and to be a servant entrusted with one, was to bear a huge responsibility. We may tend to inherently sympathize somewhat with the fearful servant, who was afraid to put his master’s fortune at risk and so buried it out of fear. But we see how he master’s expectation of his servants is at once trusting and demanding – he has given them much and expects much in return.

This Gospel is often interpreted as reminding us that God has given unique gifts to each of us which we are to put to use in return. That interpretation is not wrong, exactly, but it can quickly devolve into something that’s rather cliché – make the most of all that God has given to you, strive to reach your greatest potential, be the best that you can be. But Jesus is not here just to give us a pep talk. There’s something more going on. 

Willem de Poorter, The Parable of the Talents (c. 1660)
The key to understanding this passage is what each servant has is not truly his; it still is the property of the master. The servant possesses it for a time, but the master is expecting the trust he has shown to be rewarded. The one who has received only one talent, and who buries it in the ground, may appear to be heeding Warren Buffet’s first rule: “never lose money.” But this is not caution; it’s cowardice. When the master returns, he appears unassuming, claiming that he did not want to lose the investment of his demanding master. But he’s really making excuses for his inaction. The intrepid servants are rewarded for their boldness, and the lazy one is punished.

The point of Jesus’s parable, of course, is not really to give us advice about investments; rather, he’s trying to impart to us a warning about our duty as Christians. In the Gospel of Matthew, this passage follows the one from last week about the five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins, and it continues the same theme: “Be ready; stay awake”. This latter part of the Gospel of Matthew is a series of descriptions about how to prepare for the end times – what the disciples of Jesus should do after he ascends to the Father and prior to his Second Coming. Since we happen to be in that very time – the era of the Church – we might consider this parable addressed directly to us.

As with last week’s Gospel, Jesus sees inaction in this period as an acute danger. This inaction can take different forms. As with the foolish virgins, it can be a lack of vigilance, of becoming drowsy, and failing to be ready for the Master’s return. We can become too accustomed to this world, to in love with its pleasures and attractions that we fail to take seriously the Gospel command to wait eagerly for Jesus’s return, preparing ourselves to greet him with continued works of faith, hope, and charity.

Inaction can also take the form of fear. Like the servants in the parable, we have been entrusted with talents – not gold or silver, and not even primarily our various positive qualities or characteristics. Rather, we have been endowed with gifts from on high – gifts that are God’s ultimately, and which he lends to us to be utilized. The talents we have been given are spiritual treasures: forgiveness, patience, endurance, kindness, generosity, humility, temperance, courage – above all, faith, hope, and love. These are not our strengths, not our talents innately – they are God’s, they are the result of his grace and they remain his even when they are within us. They are a free gift, given to us without cost, but not without expectation.

If Jesus warned us last week that we can become drowsy, like the foolish virgins, unprepared for his return, then this week he warns us that we may misunderstand the nature of the graces that we have as his believers. Faith in Jesus can bring us new life, peace, and joy, but if we do not utilize that investment of grace to make that gift increase all the more – if we let it lie dormant, or bury it under the weight of our fear and insecurity – then Christ himself will punish us for our inaction when he returns. Our Master has made a strategic investment in us, and he expects from us a return, grace upon grace.

Friends, Jesus knows a principle of return that Warren Buffett, for all of his billions, knows nothing about: give what has been given to you, and you will be all the richer for it. God has invested spiritual capital in each of us, not because of our own merits, but due to our relationship to his Son Jesus. Our own fear or laziness might tempt us to bury these gifts within us, to let them go unused and unnoticed, but Jesus commands us to share what we have received, not tomorrow but today. If we do not venture to the put the Gospel into practice now with the spiritual treasures we have been given, then we may miss out on the heavenly gains that are to come.

The English cardinal Henry Edward Manning once wrote, “Next to grace, time is the most precious gift of God. Yet how much of both we waste. Time is full of eternity. As we use it so shall we be. Every day has its opportunities; every hour its offer of grace.” Let’s look to return the Lord’s investment in us – sharing faith with those who do not believe; providing hope to those who are afraid; showing love and mercy to everyone, as they have been shown by God to us. Jesus is coming back and he wants a return on what he has entrusted to us. May he find us good and faithful servants, so that we may share his lasting joy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Servant to All

If there’s one thing that Jesus was good at in his public ministry, it was making people in places of privilege feel uncomfortable. Throughout the Gospels, we hear how he ruffles the feathers of those whom society favored. He tells the man who has invited him to dinner, that he has shown him less hospitality than the woman from the street who anoints his feet with oil. He tells the rich man who wants to follow God’s commandments that he should sell what he has and give the money to the poor. He tells the person who feels self-righteous, they should look at the plank in their own eye before the speck in the eye of the other.

There’s probably no group though that Jesus vexes more than the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious leaders whom the Jewish people looked up to at that time. Today, we hear how Jesus warns the people that they are hypocrites – they claim the spiritual tradition of Moses, along with his authority, but their actions do not conform to their own words. They give the appearance of piety, of following God’s law, but they are obsessed with honor, they love money too much, and they burden the people with heavy demands without helping them to follow them. They are like the Temple priests that the prophet Malachi criticizes in the First Reading; they have abused their position of caring for God’s people in order to serve themselves.

Now, I recognize that there is a not so subtle irony for me as a priest from this pulpit to be telling you about the failures of religious authorities. A Gospel like this one makes me uncomfortable because I recognize that much of what Jesus criticizes about the Pharisees and scribes could be – and sadly, sometimes is – true in our faith tradition, especially from priests. We come to this vocation because of a calling to serve, but at times, we let you down, we let God down; like the Pharisees and scribes, we serve ourselves.

Today is Vocations Sunday, the Church’s chance each year to encourage and promote vocations, especially to the priesthood and religious life. I serve as an Assistant Vocations Director for our diocese and I feel a certain obligation today to preach about vocations, especially with a congregation with so many young people. It may seem counter-intuitive to promote the priesthood and religious life when the Gospel is an account of Jesus warning about religious authorities. But there is an opportunity here: to talk honestly about what we believe about vocations and how we can all contribute to good ones.

At the heart of Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees is not that they claim religious authority, but that they have forgotten what must ground that authority: loving service. At the heart of Jesus’s mission is God’s desire to attend to what we need and give it to us – though great, indeed though God himself, Jesus came to serve us. To share in his divine life, he calls us to follow his lead, to seek to love as he loves each in the way that God calls. We do that by our vocation.

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (mosaic), Basilica of San Marco, Venice, c. 120

The word “vocation” means calling; every person has a vocation because every person is called by God to holiness. Those vocations can vary – the three traditional ones are priesthood or religious life or to marriage – but all of them are about learning how God invites me to love, specifically, how God wants me to love Jesus and to love with the heart of Jesus. In marriage, the most common vocation, the husband and wife love Jesus in and through each other, sacrificing for each other as Jesus sacrificed for the Church, and allowing their love to be creative, as God’s is, and to bear fruit in new life. In religious life, men and women forsake the values and pursuits of this world in order to love God radically, embracing poverty, chastity, and obedience and devoting themselves either to prayer or to charitable service. In the priesthood, God calls men to love precisely as Jesus loved: not one person but all, to lay down their lives for the sake of the many by becoming an alter Christ, “another Christ,” and by making the grace of Jesus present through the sacraments.

Those ways of loving, those vocations, are the most fundamental reality of how God calls us to relationship with him. They are like heavenly blueprints for our lives; the more fully we learn them, embrace them, and construct our lives according to them, the more we will discover the true purpose of the life God has given to us. How often we are caught up, indeed deluded, in our own goals and dreams and pursuits and never stop to ask ourselves: Is this from God? Is this forming my heart to be who God wants me to be? Is this drawing me closer to heaven? Like the Pharisees, we seek worldly honor and success, we want lives that are full of meaning and distinction in the eyes of others, and too often we fail to ask whether God sees things like we do.

I think the time has come for us to be bold, to be courageous in a radical way with what God is inviting us to do. The world around us can’t wait any longer for us joyfully follow how God is leading us; to respond to the inner longing, the inner calling of our heart to serve him as we know he wants us to do. If there is one problem that I think plagues us today it is the belief, especially present among young people, that we are not up to the challenge, that we are somehow not really capable of doing what we think God wants. We have to recognize that for what it is – a lie and a temptation! God’s grace is transformative, his power knows no limits, his benevolence and love is all-consuming. All he awaits is our “Yes,” our willingness to follow where he will lead.

Vocations Sunday is a chance for us to pray for our priests, bishops, deacons, and lay ministers; for every person in authority that they may embody the servant leadership of Jesus. But it’s also a chance for us to remember and rededicate ourselves to our vocation, how God is calling us to love, and to remember that each of us represents the Church by our vocation. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that we must be involved in encouraging those who are still searching for God’s calling. We need strong, selfless, faithful marriages; we need young people who are willing to devote their lives to Christ in religious life; we need men who are man enough to be another Christ by serving as his priests. We need parents who speak to their children not about careers but about vocations; friends who will encourage the vocation they see blossoming in another; boyfriends and girlfriends who will smile and pray instead of laugh if their significant other says they think God might be calling them to religious life and the priesthood.

Friends, these words may make us somewhat uncomfortable. But Jesus does that sometimes, in order to call all of us to loving service – not just those of us who stand in pulpits and preach sermons. Each of us by our baptism shares in the mission of Christ: to serve our brothers and sisters in self-sacrificing love, whether it is in the household, in the convent, in the parish, in whatever context we find ourselves. Whatever our vocation – whether we know it and are committed to it, or are still searching for it – may doing God’s will be foremost in our minds. Jesus has told us his standard for success, and it is the only one that matters: “The greatest among you must be servant to all.” May this Eucharist help us to humble ourselves in our vocations so that God may one day greatly exalt us.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

God and Caesar

If you have ever been to Washington, DC, you might have noticed that the cars of that city have interesting license plates. Underneath the city flag of three stars and two bars, the words “Taxation Without Representation” are printed. It’s a reminder – and a protest – from the residents of the District of Columbia that, although they are taxed like every other American citizen, they have no Congressional representative. As a result, they feel as if they no voice in the larger happenings of our country.

Of course, our American idea of representative government is a relatively recent one. For most of human history, people have lived in societies with rulers not accountable to them and governments in which they had no voice. The Jews of first-century Palestine were no exception to this. Their nation was a province of a larger empire, their homeland an occupied territory of the foreign Roman power. The Pax Romana of Jesus’s day allowed for relative peace throughout the Mediterranean, but with simmering resentments and uneasy alliances. The Jewish people, more than others, found themselves caught in a conundrum: to cooperate was to become an active participant in their own subjugation, while to openly oppose Roman rule meant certain alienation, imprisonment, or death.

 James Tissot, The Tribute Money (c. 1890)

In the Gospel today, Jesus is confronted with this dilemma. Jews from both sides of the question – who normally detested each other – have joined forces to try to trap Jesus. The Herodians fear Jesus will upset the balance of things they have worked to establish with the Romans; the Pharisees believe Jesus is a threat to their authority and a false Messiah. The question they ask seems innocent enough: is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? The tax in question was a certain coin, a denarius, that called Caesar divine. We can see, therefore, that Jesus is caught in a real dilemma: if he says it’s okay to pay the tax to Caesar, the Pharisees can claim he is blaspheming God and can stone him to death; but if he says it’s not okay, the Herodians can arrest him for sedition.

As we heard, Jesus sees through their false flattery to the malice that is underneath. His response to their question – “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God” – is charged with meaning. Often, you will hear this Gospel and this phrase in particular explained as the Christian approach to political questions: that the church and state are separate realities with separate spheres of influence and obligation. But I think that narrows Jesus’s meaning considerably; his underlying point is something deeper.

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but to God what belongs to God.” The implicit question Jesus leaves us with is: what belongs to God? The answer of course is everything – everything we have belongs to God, since everything we have has been received from God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and Herodians that, being so focused on the external challenges of living among the Romans, they have forgotten that God is greater than Caesar. They have been so caught up in the one whose image is on a coin, they have forgotten that they bear God’s image – his image and likeness, in the words of the Book of Genesis – within them.

The denarius of Tiberius Caesar: "Tiberius Caesar, divine son of Augustus and High Priest" 

We too face situations of adversity, confronting things or people or situations in our life that tempt us to lose sight of what God calls us to be. Maybe it’s a family member or a coworker that drives us crazy but whom we have to put up with; maybe it’s an obligation that has been placed upon us or a situation that of our own making that is less than enjoyable. Maybe it’s a spiritual battle we are waging of some kind, a moral weakness that we can’t seem to overcome or a spiritual dryness where we’re searching for God. We can let these challenges consume us, distorting the interior image of ourselves that we draw from God – permitting ourselves to be misshapen by anger, resentment, self-interest, lust, bitterness, greed, or whatever particular reaction we may have to the challenge that our Caesars present. Or, we can recall that God has fashioned us after himself, in his own image and likeness, and that it is in him that we find our true identity and draw our strength. Every day, we have the chance to glorify and honor God, or something else; if we seek to give God what he is due first, then we will have the proper disposition to deal with the Caesars of this world as we must.

Friends, like those license plates of the District of Columbia, life presents us with constant reminders that we are not in control of every situation and that we live in a world that often is not looking out for our own best interests. But we shouldn’t let our problems take the place of God. Instead, we let God be God, and so be reminded in everything that who we are depends upon who he is, and upon what he gives us in each moment. Caesar may have a grasp on the happenings of this world, and at times we may have to pay the tax of living in the way things are now, less than ideal as they may be. But our true citizenship is in heaven, and we have there One who constantly is our representative, interceding on our behalf at the right hand of his Father, ministering to our every need and reminding us that we are his. With that knowledge, in that identity, we can face the challenges this world brings. At the Eucharistic table to which we will come in a few minutes, may the presence of Christ reassure us again of God’s presence and strength and help us to give back to him all that he has given to us.

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.