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 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.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Relying Upon a God Who Provides

Jan Luyken, Sermon on the Mount engraving (c. 1712), Philip Medhurst Collection

Philosophers have long debated how exactly humans are different from animals. Through the centuries they have arrived at numerous ways that we are different than the rest of creation, most of them related to the fact that we have eternal souls. This is expressed in many of our positive qualities: introspection, reason, love for the other. But there are also some ways we are different from animals that are more negative. One of the most common is the fact that we worry.

Outside of immediate physical danger, animals don’t worry about very much. Jesus points that out in the Gospel today when he draws his listeners’ attention to the birds of the air. They exist without any assurance of tomorrow, without any plans for living beyond the present moment; and yet, as Jesus says, God provides for them. Contrast that to us humans. We seemingly never stop planning and preparing, ordering and reordering our lives, and above all else worrying about how we are going to meet all that is demanded of us.

We do this because we know we have to. And yet as we heard, Jesus tells us: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will take care of itself.” That is a strange command, perhaps even unreasonable. Of course, we have to contextualize what Jesus is really saying. He is certainly not telling parents to not plan for the future of their children, or students to not prepare for tomorrow’s exam. Instead, he’s encouraging us to not let ourselves be so consumed by anxiety such that we forget what the birds of the air know: that God will provide.

There are certainly things in life that cause us anxiety. We need only watch the news, read the headlines, or think about whatever personal or family struggle we might have currently to remember that: a child diagnosed with cancer, a wife who has lost her husband, a friend who is suffering in a profound way. These things not only create anxiety – they hurt, we suffer because of them. In light of them, Jesus’s message of “Don’t worry, God will provide” can ring hollow. 

But remember who is speaking – Jesus speaks to us not just from his human nature, but from his divine one as well. That is, he is speaking to us as God, telling us that he will care for us. Even more, Jesus backs up his words with action. The Sermon on the Mount from which we’ve been hearing the last several weeks is the master plan for the kingdom of God, but it is the ministry of Jesus that ushers that kingdom in. In his encounters with people, Jesus brought to them the presence of God, giving them a tangible experience of how God does provide – with accompaniment, with healing, with mercy. On Calvary, Jesus proved the depth of God’s desire to provide for us in an eternal way, by taking upon himself the weight of our sin and death so that we can share in his abundant life. And Christ continues to encounter you and me, as well, assisting us each day with his own strength, especially through the sacraments.

The knowledge that God does indeed provide for us – that, as Isaiah says, he could no more forget us than a mother could forget her child – does not of course take away our problems. The things that cause us anxiety are still there, whether it’s that upcoming exam or the family strife or the personal struggle. But Jesus assures us, with word and action, that God walks with us in these challenges, aiding us with his strength and guiding us in his paths. We need only seek him first – seek his kingdom and its righteousness, in the words of Christ – then the heavenly Father provides the rest.

Friends, God has indeed made us different than the rest of creation in many ways – but the most important of them is our ability to come to know him, to have a relationship with our Creator, to trust in the one who has redeemed us in Christ, and the one who cares for us through the Spirit each day. On the Cross, Jesus showed us the depth of God’s desire to enter into even the most terrible part of our reality so that he might redeem it from within. As Christians, that redemption should allow us to be different than the rest of the world, allowing us to labor for today and leave tomorrow to God. Though challenges and anxieties remain, we have a foundation of hope underneath, believing that God has provided and will provide for our every need. He has promised that, and God is true to his promises.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Obeying God's Commands

If you’ve ever been in charge of kids for even a brief time – whether as a parent, a teacher, or a babysitter – you’ve probably heard yourself utter that familiar phrase, “Do it, because I said so!” Telling someone (whether a kid or an adult) to do something “because I said so,” is not honestly a very good justification, but nonetheless we resort to it from time to time. It would seem that sometimes we don’t know how exactly to put into words what we know to be correct – we only know how to demand it.

To be honest, there is a certain way of interpreting the readings for today as God telling humanity exactly that, “Do it, because I said so!” I imagine that’s not the first time or the last time we’ve felt that. Often we seem to receive God’s commands as having no other justification than that they come from him. For example, God tells Moses that he commands, “Do not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart;” “take no revenge and cherish no grudge against anyone;” “love your neighbor as yourself”. What is his reason? “I am the Lord your God.”

Jesus in the Gospel makes more demands: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well; if anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well; give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.” And perhaps most challenging?: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What is Jesus’s reason: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All of these and more are difficult commands. They might even seem a little unreasonable, being that they are the opposite of what we often want to do naturally. Perhaps – looking at the commandments of God – we even feel like children being told by a divine parent, “Do it, because I said so!”, with little good reason other than that.

The reality though is very different. Think for a moment about when you’ve been in the position of a parent, a teacher, a babysitter who is faced with dealing with a difficult child. You know that there’s not really much use in trying to reason with a misbehaving kid. You can’t explain why their behavior is not ultimately in their best interest. All you can do is tell them, “Do it, because I said so.”

"Moses and the Ten Commandments," Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors of the Baptistery of St. John ("The Gates of Paradise"), Florence, c. 1440

The amazing thing, of course, is that (usually) that’s reason enough. The child seems to understand innately that we really do have their best interest at heart, and thus, “because I said so” is sufficient. Later he or she comes to understand that whatever we were telling them to do really was correct. They realize that things like “Go and clean your room,” “Brush your teeth,” and even more drastic things like, “Don’t play in the street,” and “Don’t touch the hot stove,” are not just our whims in the moment but really are for their own good. So too are the commands of God not just his arbitrary demands; they are always ordered to our highest good.

Friends, when we hear Jesus tell us to “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek,” his words might seem impossible, even foolish. But remember that the wisdom of God is not the wisdom of this world. God never commands us to do something that he does not also give us the grace to fulfill. With our highest good at heart, God empowers us with his Holy Spirit to live as another Jesus in the world. As we approach the altar in this Mass, may we prepare our hearts to do as God commands, so that we might learn to love as he loves, and that we might be holy, perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Using Our Freedom Well

If there is one concept which our polarized society can agree upon, it’s the importance of freedom. Everyone wants to be free, and everyone agrees that being free is a good thing. Our country was founded on such a notion: that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights given to each of us by our Creator.

The problem, of course, is defining what freedom means in practice. Completely unchecked, freedom devolves into lawlessness; without any limits, one person’s free action may impinge upon on the rights of others, preventing them from being free. The founders of our nation understood this. That’s why they worked hard to establish a system of laws, i.e. checks and balances which strive both to promote the general freedom of the individual while also safeguarding the rights of others.

The dynamic between freedom and laws goes beyond the political sphere; it also pertains to the moral life as well. In the Gospel today, Jesus redefines the moral law for the Jewish people. To the amazement of his listeners, he sets himself as a higher authority than the Torah they had received from Moses. In doing so, not only does he once again point to himself as God-made-flesh, he also reveals that morality is not just about exteriors, about actions or omissions that are good and bad. Morality is also about interior, namely what exists within our hearts.

Some voices in our culture today say that traditional religions – for example, Judaism and Christianity, maybe especially Catholicism – are too overly fixated on moral rules and regulations: do this, don’t do that. These voices see all of these requirements as limiting our freedom, being imposed upon us from the exterior as if by a dictator, even if divine. Jesus though sees things very differently. By giving us commandments, indeed even by calling not just to exterior observance but interior adherence, God’s law in fact makes us even more truly free.

How is that possible, you might ask? How is it possible to be more free if we have to follow a law more closely? Remember that I said at the start that the purpose of law in society is two-fold: to allow for individual freedom but to guard us from using that freedom in an improper way. The same is true of the moral law. God’s commandments first are aimed at keeping us from doing that which is truly destructive of the rights of others. Jesus gives us some examples: murder, adultery, falsehood. But God’s law doesn’t stop there – rather than merely allow us to operate indifferently within exterior parameters, it also calls us to be transformed interiorly, to be free, but not just free in whatever way we might say – rather in the truest sense of freedom.

It’s a central principle in the Jewish worldview, just as it is in the Christian one, that God has given to each of us a free will. We are, in short, not robots. To each of us he has given us the freedom to think and act as we determine. But God gives us this free will not to use in whatever way we’d like – a freedom indifferent, you might say, to what is truly good for us. Rather, he gives us freedom for excellence – freedom so that we might freely choose that which is good for us, that which truly fulfills all of our capacity to be good. The moral law, then, is isn’t merely intended to keep us from doing wrong; it’s given to us by God to make us truly excellent.

We see how this plays out practically in the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t just want us not to carry out murder; he wants us to be free from every angry impulse. He doesn’t just want us not to commit adultery; he wants us to be free from every adulterous desire. He doesn’t just want us not to lie; he wants us to be from every impulse to falsehood and deceit, to live completely in the truth.

Now you might say, “Well, that sounds really hard.” On the one hand, you’d be right. It’s certainly not easy. It’s even harder if you give into the thinking of so many today – that every moral law is merely a kind of constrictor, something that binds up our freedom. But I think if we search our hearts, we know that that logic is unsound. We know that when we follow our base impulses – our desires for the four pernicious P’s (Possessions, Pleasure, Power, Prestige) – we end up not free but enslaved. Instead, God gives us his grace to follow an understanding of freedom much different than how our culture understands it.

Harold Copping, The Sermon on the Mount (1922)

Authentic freedom comes when we are able to strive for that which makes us truly flourish, the kind of happiness that comes from fulfilling the nature God has given to us. Take a moment to think about whatever sin you most want to be rid of. Maybe it’s something like Jesus mentioned: anger, lust, untruthfulness. Maybe it’s something else: letting go of a past grudge, being envious of your best friend, trying not to be so consumed with worldly success. Whatever it is, God desires you to be free of that – and not just free from it, but able to be good, to be excellent in the opposite way: generous, faithful, charitable, loving. Through the power of grace that comes to us by being in communion with Christ, we learn how to desire what our Father has created us to desire, to find the moral excellence wherein true freedom lies.

Friends, our first reading today from the Book of Sirach tells us clearly that “if you choose, you can keep the commandments.” Set before us, to use the language of Scripture, are good and evil, life and death. We make the choice. But for us who desire to be as God has created us to be, he does not leave us on our own; rather he assists us with his grace to keep his commandments and so choose what is truly for our own excellence. It is a good thing, indeed, to be free, but let us use our freedom well. If we do so, we may be confident that, “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart,” that indeed is “what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Apprentices in the School of Beatitude: the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas

About a year and a half ago, when Bishop Taylor called me to ask about coming to be the priest here at the U of A, I confess I was a little hesitant. I wasn’t very familiar with the university or the city, and I had no real training in campus ministry or working with college students. But there were also many aspects to the idea that attracted me. As silly as it may seem, one of the first of these that came to mind was being at a parish named for Thomas Aquinas.

Santi di Tito, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1593) 

Saint Thomas has always been one of my favorite saints, a man legendary – even in his own time – for his astonishing intellect and his profound holiness. He was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance: a philosopher, theologian, scientist, mystic – one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization, let alone the Church. He understood well the human condition and the human person, and he knew we humans cannot find happiness apart from living in communion with God. He is also, to my mind and to the minds of many others, one of the most important saints for our time because the theological tradition he was a part of is so needed today – viz., that faith and reason are compatible, that science and theology are not mutually exclusive, that Truth with a capital T is real and rooted in God.

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about Truth, beginning his famous Sermon on the Mount. The imagery of the scene should not be too quickly passed over. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain where he then is seated, with the peoplle spread around him to listen. Quite intentionally, the Gospel writer is portraying him in the place of God, imparting to his creatures wisdom about how to live. And Jesus opens with the Beatitudes – the eight famous but paradoxical statements about to find beatitudo, blessedness, happiness.

Thomas Aquinas wrote on the Beatitudes, as earlier Christian writers did. He saw in them not a series of platitudes about life as an ideal – as if a person should strive to live in such a way but without real hopes of doing so. Rather, he understood the Beatitudes as Jesus’s keys for true happiness, the acts by which we detach ourselves from the things of this world and hold fast to what truly will last. The blessed person – the person who embraces poverty in spirit, who is not enslaved to pleasure, who is humble, who is merciful, who is focused on God, who works for peace, who endures persecution for God’s sake – such a person becomes herself godly, becomes himself one who thinks with the mind of God and loves with the heart of God. That is true happiness, a happiness that anticipates the state of eternal happiness, beatitudo, of heaven.

So how do we grow in the Beatitudes? How do we become blessed in this way? One of the most important ways is what we’re doing right now – worshipping together in the Mass. The Mass is not just the service that we attend once a week out of habit or some vague sense of obligation. It is rather the school by which we are educated, the training ground by which we are formed in learning how to be happy. We are apprentices in the school of beatitudo – happiness, blessedness – and so we gather to hear God’s teaching and wisdom about how to live. We reflect upon our own lives to examine how we might be happier, according to God’s definition. And most importantly, in the Eucharist, we receive the Real Presence of Christ, literally taking him into ourselves so that his attitudes and virtues might become ours.

Saint Thomas had a deep love for the Eucharist. It was at the very heart of his spiritual life. In addition to his theological reflections, he wrote beautiful and mystical hymns about this greatest of the sacraments. In honor of his Eucharistic devotion, I would like to make some practical suggestions about how you and I can grow in our understanding of and love for the Blessed Sacrament. I wish to say in advance that I’m not trying to nitpick about behavior or to make any of us feel bad if we’re not doing something exactly the right way. Rather, I share these thoughts so that you and I can grow in our appreciation, as Thomas did, of the sacrament we receive each week.

· First, we need to understand well what it is we are receiving. It’s easy to get in the habit of getting in the communion line each week and letting our minds wander. But we remember we are preparing not just to do something symbolic or ritualistic. Rather, we are preparing to receive Jesus himself, his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is our Catholic belief that while the appearance and characteristics of bread and wine remain, after the consecration it is Jesus himself who nourishes us.

· This act of communing with the Lord also means that we must be in communion with each other. We are always happy to welcome friends of other faith traditions to join us at Mass, but since our faith traditions are not fully united, we cannot extend to them the invitation to communion. If you invite a non-Catholic friend, to Mass, great! But it's also your responsibility to show them how they are to cross their arms in the communion line to receive a blessing. Similarly, those Catholics who are conscious of having committed serious sin should refrain from receiving the Eucharist without first making a confession, so that they can prepare a fitting place for the Lord to abide with them. They too are invited to receive a blessing.

· For those of us who do receive, we must make an effort to receive well. It is proper, for example, to make a slight bow of the head before communion (usually when the person directly in front of you is receiving). If one is receiving on the tongue, one should open one’s mouth sufficiently and let your tongue protrude slightly so that the minister can give you communion easily. It’s not proper to bite at the host with one’s teeth or lips. If one is receiving in the hands, make sure your hands are relatively clean, and that you hold them out flat in front of you and close to the minister, not way down low. It is not proper to grab at the host or try to take it with your own hands – remember you are receiving communion. Remember also that you should place the host in your mouth before you turn away from the minister; you are not to walk away with the host still in your hands. Finally, when the minister says, “The Body of Christ,” or “The Blood of Christ,” the proper (and only) response is “Amen,” not “Thank you” or no response at all.

· Having received the Eucharist, we should turn to prayer and reflect upon who we have just received. This may be in the prayers of the song that the congregation is singing or it may be in our own silent prayers. It is not proper to let our minds wander, or to start chatting with our neighbor, or to just watch as everyone else goes to communion. You and I have just received the Lord who has created all things, who formed us in our mother’s womb, who became man for us, who suffered on the Cross for us, who rose from the dead for us, who desires to bring us to his eternal happiness. Surely, we can offer a few moments of thanksgiving for all that he has done for us! Perhaps we might even consider staying after Mass a few moments for an extra prayer before we head out into the world, or consider coming a few minutes earlier the next week so that we prepare again with prayer.

Sassetta, St. Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost (Arte della Lana Altarpiece), c. 1423

Friends, as we celebrate our patron today, Saint Thomas Aquinas, let us ask that God may instill in each of us a new and deeper devotion to the sacrament which is the source and summit of our faith. From the Eucharist, we receive strength to live the Beatitudes, to find happiness in the way that Jesus has given to us. Through the Eucharist, we are able to be disciples the rest of the week in all of the challenges that that presents – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to work for peace, we endure suffering, to find the courage to accept the invitation of Christ, even when it is the Bishop calling. In the Eucharist, we experience a foretaste of the eternal beatitudo, the blessedness, of heaven. May Saint Thomas Aquinas intercede for each of us this day that our faith may deepen, that our works may prosper, and that nourished by the Bread of Life each day sees us journeying closer to our heavenly homeland.