Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Mother Knows Best

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (1896 version)

Have you ever noticed that mothers have a sixth sense when it comes to sickness? I’m sure we all can remember a time when as a child, we walked into the house, and Mom immediately noticed that we didn’t look right, even if we felt fine. Maybe she said, “Honey, you look a little pale. Are you feeling okay? Oh goodness, you feel a little warm.” And sure enough – a few hours later, we were sick in bed. Often, those who care for us can tell before we can when things aren’t right.

You might say that the season of Lent is when the Church as our spiritual mother tells us her children that we are unwell. We are sick not with the flu or the mumps or the coronavirus, but something even deeper and more dire – the sickness of sin. That is why we mark ourselves with ashes at the start of this season – to remember our own mortality, but even more to signify our humble sorrow for our sins and our willingness to turn back to God.

Fortunately, we don’t do so alone. The Church as our mother can tell when we are sick, and the Church as our mother knows just what we need to get well. The cure for spiritual sickness is grace, and the Church recommends three powerful tools each Lent that help us to receive God’s grace: prayer, fasting, and giving alms. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus recommends just these three things in today’s Gospel. They are what he calls “righteous deeds”, that is, good works – things that are good in themselves, that accomplish good, but also which make us good as well.

As we begin this holy season, we each should consider at least some small way to take up these practices anew. Some new practice of prayer, more or different than we’ve done before, will help to bring us closer to God each day. Some form of fasting will help us not be so attached to our earthly desires; at a minimum, we should do what the Church requires on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays of Lent, but perhaps we could also consider some other way of giving up something we enjoy in order to focus more on our desire for God. And finally, we should give alms – we should share of our money and material goods with those who are in need, so that our good works don’t just benefit us but also those closest to God’s heart. If we want a fruitful Lent, we should take up these practices some way, as individuals, as families, and as a Church as a whole.

Friends, the Church, our mother, knows what is best for us. So let’s use well these holy days of Lent that she has provided so that by the spiritual medicines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we may healed anew of our spiritual ailments and be made strong and ready for the celebrations of Easter.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Team Rules

In sports, rules are fundamental. Of course, there are the rules for the sport itself, whether football, basketball, soccer, etc. Without rules about how the game is to be played, there would be no game at all. But just as important are the particular rules for every team. At the start of the season, a coach lays down the fundamental rules for his team that he expects his players to live up to – rules that shape its identity and define its character especially in the difficult moments.

Gustave Doré, Jesus Preaching on the Mount 

For the past few weeks, our Gospel reading has been from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount. In that long discourse, early in his ministry, Jesus lays out the vision of the Christian life. We might even say that he’s like a coach establishing the fundamental rules for his team of disciples before they go out to begin the long season. Living a moral life is a lot more important than sports, of course, and so I don’t mean to minimize what Jesus is saying by using this analogy. But just like a coach wants his team to strive for excellence, so too does Jesus want his disciples to be morally exceptional – to stand out as markedly different from the world around them by the way that they live. He isn’t satisfied, for example, with the Old Testament commandment You shall not kill; he says it’s wrong even to be angry toward someone else. You shall not commit adultery is too low of a bar for him; he says, don’t even look at someone else with lust in your heart.

However, true excellence sometimes demands not just higher standards but also transformed expectations. Just like a coach knows that he must help his team break certain bad habits, and help them do away with certain bad attitudes, so too does Jesus know that for us to truly live according to his vision of life, there are things within us that must be completely radically transformed. In the Gospel today, Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. It’s one thing to live more calmly than the rest of the world, or more chastely, or more truthfully – but it’s something altogether different to strive not just for excellence but for perfection.

Notice the context in which Jesus demands perfection: he’s not talking about any interior moral quality, or about how we relate to God, but rather about how we relate to others – and specifically, those who have harmed us, who hate us, who are our enemies. If this feels like a step too far, that’s precisely the point. Jesus is changing the rules of the game – he’s forcing his disciples to play according to an entirely different set of expectations. We might say that for Jesus the most painful and damaging sins are those of discord and division – vengeance, hatred, hardheartedness, refusal to forgive. Unlike other sins, these sins begin a cycle of violence; they harm both sides. The true test then of the Christian disciple is how we respond to the one who has hurt us – whether we will continue the cycle of division or instead will seek peace and reconciliation.

There’s a reason why this particular rule of Jesus is so fundamental. Peace, good will, reconciliation – those things get to the very identity of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. A lot of people can quote by heart John 3:16, maybe the most famous Bible verse of them all: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” Maybe just as important though is the verse that comes right after, John 3:17. Do you know that one? “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” In other words, when Jesus came, the world was worthy of condemnation. The human race had rejected God – we had spurned his offer of relationship and hardened our hearts against him. But God did not seek vengeance toward us – instead he sent his Son as an offering of reconciliation, indeed as the one Mediator who by his Death and Resurrection would reestablish our friendship with God. When Jesus commands his disciples to be perfect, he’s commanding them to be perfect in their mercy – he’s commanding them to be like he himself. If God’s Son has come not for vengeance, but for peace and reconciliation, then those who are playing on his side must do the same.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci (attr.) (c. 1500)

The question, of course, is how? It can be easy to embrace the idea of peace and reconciliation in theory, but when someone actually does hurt us – and sometimes hurts us very badly – how can we forgive? There are a few things to keep in mind. First, there’s no hurt so grave that it has to rob us of what should be our greatest consolation: God’s love. That’s why St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35, 37). In other words, when hurts and trials come our way, especially at the hands of someone else, we have to focus on the love of God present in that moment. God is ready to help you to be an instrument of peace and reconciliation in that moment, if you lean on him. Sometimes such hurts can even be helpful, if they make us realize that perhaps we had been relying upon something else – someone else’s esteem, our own reputation, maybe even a false narrative that now is revealed to be untrue. The pain of hurt can sometimes be a purifying one.

A second important thing to remember is our own experiences of being forgiven. I’m sure we have all had at least a moment or two in life when we realized that we had seriously hurt someone else, intentionally or unintentionally, and we honestly asked for their forgiveness. Maybe we received it, and we can use that memory to offer forgiveness as we were forgiven. Maybe we didn’t receive it, and in that case, we can choose to act differently when the chance to offer reconciliation is afforded to us. If nothing else, we can focus on the mercy that God shows to us, for sins past and present. God doesn’t want us to forgive through gritted teeth – he wants us to be so radically transformed by the mercy of his Son that we cannot help but show that mercy to others, almost in spite of ourselves.

Friends, as in sports, rules are fundamental to the Christian life – not because we always live them out perfectly, but because if we keep striving to live them out, they will make us more and more perfect. There is no higher expectation of being a member of Jesus’s team than to put into practice the rule of mercy. Letting go of offenses, not seeking revenge, going above and beyond to help those whom we dislike, or even despise – these things are not easy. But the more we seek to do them, the more they shape our character, and define our identity, and indeed transform us into the image and likeness of God’s Son – the One who has come into the world not for vengeance but for salvation. Through the grace of this Eucharist, may we consider to whom we can be instruments of the Lord’s mercy and so help others to learn to play for his winning side.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Salt and Light

Many years ago, when I took my first class on preaching at the seminary, our instructor gave us two basic guidelines to follow. The first was always to have a point – just one point, one general idea you wanted to convey. The second guideline was to make your point as briefly as possible.

While there is wisdom in those two guidelines, there are plenty of good preachers who don’t follow them. Take Jesus, for example. Today’s Gospel is taken from the greatest sermon ever preached, the famous Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus uses a variety of images and examples to describe his vision for how to live a good life. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t brief, either; estimates for how long it lasted range from a few hours to several days. Clearly, Jesus had more confidence in the abilities of his listeners than did my seminary instructor.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jesus had high expectations of his audience because, as today’s Gospel tells us, Jesus is speaking “to his disciples.” In the Gospels, Jesus speaks to a variety of different groups. Sometimes, it is to the Pharisees and scribes – those who claimed to be expert Jews, more faithful than the rest. Sometimes, he speaks to the crowds – to the hordes of people who followed him, interested but not fully buying in, mostly just wanting to see the next miracle. But sometimes he speaks, as in today’s passage, to those who are on the journey of discipleship – those who believe they have found something unique in following Jesus, and who have dedicated themselves to listening to him with open ears. 

 Károly Ferenczy, The Sermon on the Mount (1896)

Obviously, you and I should also be just that kind of audience. I hope we are not here merely like the haphazard crowds, interested to a degree but reserving judgment about whether to fully buy in. The path of Christian discipleship is not one that can be walked with one foot on it and one foot off. Nor should we be like the scribes and Pharisees, those who think they have it all figured out and are God’s blessing to the world. No, we are seekers, students – which is what the word “disciple” means. We listen attentively to what the Master teaches so that we may grow ever more like him.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples about what he expects from them – he’s laying out his vision of what discipleship will require. As we heard, he uses two images to speak to this. The first is salt: “you are the salt of the earth,” he tells them. Salt is a seasoning; it enhances flavor. But in the ancient world salt was also a preservative – meat was salted to make sure it lasted, and didn’t spoil. By calling them to be salt, Jesus is commanding the disciples to be distinct from the bland world around them – to season it, you might say, with God’s flavoring and to help preserve it from going bad.

The second image Jesus uses is light: he tells the disciples “you are the light of the world.” Light has been a common theme in our readings over the last few months, specifically as a way of describing the presence of Christ. The prophet Isaiah – from whom we have heard often in our first reading going all the way back to Advent – often uses the image of light shining in darkness as a metaphor for God’s salvation appearing in a world desperately in need of it. Just last week, when we celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we heard the holy man Simeon give praise to God for being able to see with his own eyes “a light of revelation for the Gentiles,” that is, the child Jesus born to be the Savior of all. But in today’s reading, Jesus – he who is the Light of the World – now commands his disciples to be that light for others. Just as light allows us to see what is around us, what is hidden by darkness, the Christian person shines with the brightness of Christ, so that the world might be attracted and guided by his light.

With both of these images, salt and light, the important thing to grasp is that Jesus wants us to stand out. If we salt our food but we don’t notice a difference in taste, then the salt is worthless; if we hide a lamp so that others can’t see it, then the light of the lamp means nothing. In just the same way, our Christian discipleship doesn’t mean much if it isn’t visible – if others can’t perceive it in some concrete way. We are called to be conspicuous in the world – to stand out from everyone else, not for ourselves, but so that we can point the way to Christ. As St. Paul says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Paul, in fact, is a great example of this kind of Christian conspicuousness – he traveled, he preached, he worked miracles. But he did all of them not in praise of himself, but rather to proclaim the mystery of God, as he says in today’s reading: “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” By his life and death, Paul helped season the world with the flavoring of God and brought the light of Christ to countless others.

Perhaps it would be good for you and I to consider today the state of our own discipleship. Jesus has given us our marching orders; how are we measuring up? At times, we probably are tempted to limit our discipleship to the hour on Sunday that we are in church, but Jesus wants more than that – much more. He wants us to completely buy in – to be wholly committed to being his disciple at every moment, so that no part of our life is not in some way connected to our Christian identity. That doesn’t always mean we have to change the course of our life, as if only those who run off to a monastery can follow Jesus. Sometimes, it means living our life now with greater intentionality and awareness, making small but important changes: daily dialogue with the Lord in prayer; an examination of where he is calling me to grow in trusting in him and following him more faithfully; being more conscious of how my words and actions and even thoughts should always be such that I would not be ashamed if Jesus were standing next to me. Perhaps most importantly, every day I should consider, “To whom can I give witness to Jesus this day? To whom can I be salt and light?” Maybe it’s to give a kind greeting to someone lonely, or a listening ear to someone in crisis, or a faithful encouragement to someone losing hope, or a private admonishment to someone not living as they should. In this way or in others, I can invite them – with love, with kindness – to follow Jesus with me, to be my companion on the path of discipleship.

The young boy with the stable-lantern (1824) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

Friends, whatever my seminary instructor might say, I think a sermon should be judged not by how many points it has or how long it lasts, but how it forms and informs the way we live. Sometimes the best sermon comes not from the word of a preacher, but from the example of a disciple – a sermon that’s taught by how it’s lived. The Lord invites each of us to give that kind of sermon each day – to choose to be his disciple, and to stand out in the way we live so that others may know it. As we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord – who taught the disciples on the mountaintop, and who teaches us too in our daily discipleship – may we be strengthened with his grace to follow him faithfully, so that all "may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] heavenly Father."

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Believing the Word

There are certain priests in our diocese who are known as great preachers. Maybe one of the greatest was the late Msgr. John O’Donnell. After my ordination, I was sent to work at Immaculate Conception parish in Fort Smith, where Msgr. O’Donnell had been the pastor only a few years before. I remember that many people told me about how great a preacher he was, and a few of them told me about one particular sermon they remembered very well. It was short, just one sentence, and they even remembered the exact words: “God loves you, and he wants you to believe it.”

Even though I didn’t hear it myself, that short sermon has stayed with me because, in a sense, it says what every homily should say. At the heart of our faith is the love of God – his love for us, and our love for him in return. Every homily, indeed, every word we speak about our faith should in some way be rooted in that belief: that God loves us and he wants us to know it. It’s only when we truly take that message to heart – believing it, allowing it to sink in – that we then are ready to learn to love him in return.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the exact words of Jesus’s first sermon, which was even shorter than Msgr. O’Donnell’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Gospel tells us about the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry, a ministry that in word and action was all about revealing exactly what Msgr. O’Donnell’s homily said: God loves us, and he wants us to know it. In Jesus’s teaching and preaching and healing, God’s love became real for people in a completely new way. St. Matthew describes it like light shining on those in darkness – in Christ, the joy and newness of God illuminated all the old and tired ways of humanity. They were able to see the love of God made visible in the very person of Jesus.

It must have been a special thing to be present in Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry: to hear him preach and to see him heal the sick. But just because you and I live in a different time and place doesn’t mean that we can’t experience the same kind of newness and joy that the people of his day experienced. Jesus wants to bring light to our darkness – he wants to illuminate and renew all of the things about our lives that are old and tired out. For that to happen, though, we need to hear him – we must be able to continually hear his Word speaking to us. 

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures (c. 1909) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Today our Church celebrates the first annual Sunday of the Word of God. This is a new feast that Pope Francis has instituted to encourage the whole Church to appreciate in a new way the importance of Scripture. It’s often said that Catholics don’t know their Bibles very well, at least as compared to Protestants. That may be partially true; we don’t always emphasize the personal practice reading of Scripture in the way that they do and in the way that we should. But we do hear quite a bit of the Word of God proclaimed every week at Mass, often more than is read or heard in other Christian services. In that way, we Catholics may know more Scripture than we are given credit for. We may not be able to cite chapter and verse, but if we listen attentively each week, we can become familiar with the broad themes and insights that Scripture provides us.

What we need to perhaps grow in is the conscious, intentional appreciation for Scripture as the living Word of God speaking to us today. The people of Galilee heard Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, as he proclaimed the Good News of God’s love – they hung on his every word as he taught in their streets and preached in their synagogues. When we read Scripture, or hear it read in the liturgy, we are encountering the Good News in just as new and fresh and powerful a way as it would be if Jesus himself were to show up in the streets of Stuttgart. As God's Word, Scripture transcends the historical context in which it is written; as the Letter to the Hebrews says (Heb 4:12), it is living and effective – it has something critically important to say to us, right here and now.

There are lots of great ways to deepen our knowledge and love of Scripture. There are great Bible studies out there, both individual and group studies, that teach from a Catholic perspective. There are reflections for the readings for Mass each day that you can read online or have sent to your email. There are apps and booklets that help you incorporate Scripture into your daily prayer, whether through praying the psalms, or through the practice of meditation called lectio divina.

Here’s one really easy recommendation for how to grow in your encounter with the Word of God: read the Sunday readings two times during the week before Mass begins. The Mass readings for each Sunday are readily available in a number of places, in books and especially online. Read them the first time a few days before Mass, just to begin to acclimate your ears to what is being said. Read them the second time Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning, with a short prayer to ask God to help you to hear what he is trying to say. If nothing else, you always have the chance to arrive to Mass a few minutes early – even just five minutes – and read them from the missalette. If you do this, then when you finally hear them the pulpit, it will be the third time that you have heard the Word of God proclaimed, and I guarantee you will understand the Scripture in a deeper way than you would have otherwise, and perhaps the homily will speak to you a bit more as well.

Friends, the best preachers are those who speak not their own message but the Word of God. That’s why those people at Immaculate Conception loved Msgr. O’Donnell’s sermon – because when he said, “God loves you, and he wants you to believe it,” they heard not his voice, but the voice of Jesus. When we deepen our knowledge and love of Scripture, we too hear God’s Word speaking in love to us, saying something new and fresh and powerful for our lives right now. Let’s renew our efforts to make the reading of Sacred Scripture part of our daily encounter with the Lord, so that we can hear his Word and follow him more faithfully.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Gospel of Life

Last week, during my homily at our school Mass, I asked the children a classic question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There was no shortage of hands that shot up to answer. I got some interesting responses: a firefighter, an artist, a doctor. After the Mass, as the children left the sanctuary, I greeted them as I normally do, and a few more told me what they dream to be one day: a professional soccer player, a pilot, a beautician. One child even told me they wanted to be a Youtuber, though I’m not exactly sure what that is.

My point in asking them was to make it clear that while there are countless careers out there, as Christians we are all called to do the same thing: to love as Jesus loves. Whatever job or occupation we strive for, however we spend our time, as children or as adults, we are first called to love with the heart of Christ. I hope that’s what our school imparts to our kids each day – the knowledge and the example of how to love like Jesus.

As we know, we have a limited time on this earth. Psalm 90 says, “Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong.” Modern medicine and nutrition sometimes provide us with more than that, but the question remains of how we will use the limited days we have. While it is natural to have various dreams and aspirations, like our school children do, we also must ask ourselves, “What does God desire for my life? For what purpose has he placed me on this earth?”

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, The Apperance of Christ to the People (1857)

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist describes the purpose for which Jesus Christ has come into the world. He points it out very directly and succinctly, but in language we may not be familiar with. He says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” In speaking of Jesus, John used a metaphor that every first century Jew would have understood: just as the Jewish priest sacrificed a lamb in the Temple in Jerusalem twice a day as an offering for sin, so too would Jesus allow himself to be sacrificed to take away the sin of all the world. In other words, unlike every other person, who is born to live and make something of their life, Jesus has instead come to die, and by his death give life to all the world.

It is for this reason that as Catholics we believe every human life is sacred. All persons, no matter how seemingly marginalized or insignificant, are created in God’s image and likeness and it is for all persons that Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. Because God has done this for us, individually and collectively, we say that every life has an inherent dignity that no human power can take away and an invaluable worth which every human power must respect.

Sadly, as we know, our world and our culture has lost sight of this truth; in fact, it seems as if the dignity and value of life are under threat at every turn. This week we mark another sad anniversary of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. Each year, on this Sunday in January, as the Church we speak out with one voice that we will continue to proclaim the “Gospel of Life,” even when – perhaps especially when – it is not popular to do so. We decry the calamity of abortion, and the victims it claims: the lives of those who are never given a chance to be what God created them to be; the mothers who sadly feel as if they have no other option; those in the medical industry who are deluded in thinking that abortion is health care. We protest against the death penalty, because too often our justice system has been guilty of injustices, and because even for the guilty life remains sacred. We reject the increasing encroachment of euthanasia among the elderly and infirm, whose lives are not less but often more dignified because of their disability and suffering.

These issues may be the most obvious and pressing, but there are other aspects as well to the Gospel of Life. How many lives are weighed down by addiction and despair? How many are oppressed by unjust policies for migrants and refugees, unreasonable debt obligations, and unfair labor practices? How many are forfeited in service to war profiteering and escalations in the military-industrial complex? How many are burdened by poverty, homelessness, and no access to mental health care? How many are trapped in cycles of abuse, domestic violence, and sexual exploitation? How many are wasted by chasing fame, power, wealth, unable to envision a horizon for human flourishing beyond worldly pursuits?

We could go on and on. Some of these issues perhaps resonate with us strongly, and perhaps others rub us the wrong way a little bit. That’s alright. What’s important is to appreciate just how expansive our desire should be to promote and value life in all of its forms. As I said, the Church preaches the Gospel of Life in season and out of season, not as a political platform but as a moral vision that flows from our faith. As Catholics, you and I have the responsibility to listen to what our Church teaches on these issues and to be formed by that teaching in our understanding of them. The world needs to hear this Gospel, this “Good News,” again and again, and it must be our charge, our sacred duty to affirm life as the God-given gift that it is. When we do so, we continue the legacy of John the Baptist – we too announce to the world that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has come to give life to all.

Photo Credit: Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press

Friends, as I told our school children, no matter what we do in life, we are all called to love as Jesus loves and to fulfill the purpose for which God has given each of us life. We also must tell others about the sanctity of every human life, so that every person can be afforded the chance to strive for the God-given purpose for which they have been created. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has come to give us the fullness of life, for he is the Author of Life itself, and it is only in him that we find true and lasting happiness. May we, as individuals and as the Church, continue to speak as one in promoting and protecting the sanctity of all human life.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sign of Solidarity, Sign of Salvation

A few Januarys ago, when I was still the pastor at the university parish in Fayetteville, a man walked into our church that I didn’t recognize. I welcomed him and asked if I could help him. When he took off his stocking cap, I realized that I did know him – he was one of the students most active in our ministry. The reason I was caught off guard was because, whereas before he had had long, flowing hair, now his head was completely shaved. After recovering from the shock of realizing who it was, I asked him what had caused him to do such a thing. It turns out that it was a Christmas gift to his mom. She was soon going to be losing her hair as she underwent treatment for a rare disease, and so he decided to shave off his hair out of love for her, as a sign of solidarity with her in her illness.

Perhaps you know of or have heard of stories similar to that one. It is a basic instinct of human nature to want to help someone in need, and one of the best helps we can give is to show solidarity with them. This is all the more true, of course, when the one in need is someone we love deeply, and when the difficulty they are facing is something beyond our power. We desire to save them, but we can’t – and so we show them that we are there for them, in solidarity with them as they face their trial.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows up at the river Jordan to be baptized. This caught the people of the day off guard, including John the Baptist. Baptism was a sign of the desire for repentance – an acknowledgement of the fact that one had committed serious sins and needed to make a change in life. Not just a minor change either; baptism signified a symbolic death and rebirth – when the individual walked into the water, the old person died, and when they came out, a new person was born. John knows that Jesus doesn’t need this kind of baptism – Jesus is without sin. And so he tells him, “I should be baptized by you!”

Jesus’s response is interesting. He says, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus says, “This is what God wants – you’ll see why in a moment.” Jesus, though sinless himself, has come to show his solidarity with sinful mankind. Though he is God Made Man, his first public act is not to teach or to preach or to work a miracle – but to show us that he understands our brokenness, our sinfulness, our desire to be transformed. He stands in solidarity with us, because he loves us, more than any human love imaginable.

 Joachim Patinir, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1520)

Now, if that was all that Jesus’s baptism signified – God’s closeness to us in our spiritual dysfunction – then maybe it would be an interesting footnote in the story of his life. But as we heard, something else happens – the heavens are opened, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus has come into our world not just as a sign of God’s solidarity with us, but as Savior for our sins. When we stand in solidarity with someone, we do so as a sign of love and support; but often we can’t really help them, we can’t rescue them from what afflicts them. But God’s solidarity is not so powerless. In his baptism, Jesus shows us not just God’s closeness, his sympathy with our sinful humanity, but he also reveals the very means by which he will rescue us from that sinfulness.

Sometimes perhaps we think of baptism as just a ritual of welcoming, a ceremony of bringing someone new to the church. Maybe this is because baptisms usually are done as children, and so we have a hard time thinking about children as being guilty of much sinfulness. But this mindset is incomplete. It’s true that baptism is the sacrament that welcomes us into the Church, the gateway by which we begin to share in the Church’s life. But there is also a real and essential transformation that takes place in every baptism, a true liberation from sin – both the sins we have committed personally and also, as in the case of a newborn, the basic state of spiritual dysfunction that we call original sin, which we inherit as human beings from the first sin of Adam and Eve. John the Baptist offered a baptism that was only symbolic; it represented a change in life, but it couldn’t actually bring that change about. But in the sacrament of baptism, God does what no human power could: he gives us rebirth in grace and a share in the identity of the Son. In baptism, we participate in Jesus’s dying and rising again, so that like him we are able to call upon God as his beloved sons and daughters.

Of course, this should be more than just theoretical for us. I wonder whether you and I recognize the importance of our own baptisms. Do we know on what day we were baptized? Do we celebrate on that day? We should. One of my favorite stories about Pope St. John Paul II is when a journalist asked him what was the greatest day of his life. Perhaps the journalist expected this great figure to say it was the day on which he was ordained a priest, or made a bishop, or elected pope; but no, John Paul said, “The day of my baptism.” When he visited Poland in 1979, a few months after he had been elected as pope, he went to the town Wadowice where he grew up; he went into the church, went straight over to the baptismal font on one side, and knelt down and kissed it. St. John Paul II knew the power of baptism – he knew that that day was the font from which everything else in his life had flowed.

The Baptism (1755) by Pietro Longhi

Friends, we should have the same reverence and gratitude for our own baptisms, even if they were long ago, even if they were before we can remember. In the waters of the Jordan, God revealed Jesus to be his “beloved Son,” and in the waters of our baptisms, he has made us sharers in that same identity. The friendship that we have with God by means of our baptism doesn’t make all of our problems go away or solve all of our struggles. We still will face trial and difficulty and illness and sorrow, and life at times may truly seem more of a cross than a joy. But through it all, God stands in solidarity with us and, more than that, has opened the way for our salvation. He gives us the possibility of grace here and now, and when this life ends, he calls us to receive the gift of his friendship in the life to come.

About a year or so after that former student of mine showed solidarity with his mom by cutting off all of her hair, her illness worsened, and she passed away. It was, of course, devastating for him and for his family. And yet, in their grief, they took heart. Because their mother shared in the Death of Jesus in her baptism, they have a firm hope that one day she will share in his Resurrection, where there is no more sorrow or pain, where every tear is wiped away. In the end, that is our hope too, or should be – the greatest hope any of us can have, the only thing in the end that matters.

May the presence of Christ, which we receive in the Sacrament of the Altar, renew in each of us the grace of our baptism so that we may hope to share in his everlasting life.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Light Unobscured

One of my favorite places in Arkansas is the area around the Buffalo National River in the north part of the state. It is an area of great natural beauty and a great place for recreation. Recently, I learned that it has another benefit – it is one of only a few dozen places in our country that has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park. As you may know, the artificial lights that we use to see at night have the adverse effect of making it so that we cannot truly see the stars and other lights above us; their light is obscured by the glow of the artificial light here below. Thus, you have to go to a place where artificial lights are kept at a minimum, like the area around the Buffalo River, to be able to truly see the lights of the stars above us.

Today’s Gospel revolves around some figures who would surely have been grateful for that clear view of the night sky. The Magi were a lot of things: wise men of some kind, most likely philosophers and scientists of some sort, but we definitely know they were astrologers who studied the constellations and observed their movements. They did so because they were looking for Truth – by the light of the stars, they hoped to understand the world and its events in a deeper way. And it is for that reason that, having seen the star rising, they journeyed from the east to find out whose coming it announced. Upon arriving, they beheld not just “the newborn king of the Jews,” but the “glory of the Lord” itself (Is 60:1), shining forth from the lowly Child. 

W.L. Taylor, A Star in the East (1900)

Despite our obvious differences, I’d like to propose that we are very much like the Magi. Perhaps we are not philosophers and scientists, and we don’t search the stars for clues about world events. But we have seen – especially in these last twelve days – the light of the Child born in Bethlehem, and like the Magi, we have come to do him homage. We offer not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but our love, devotion, and faith. We recognize that in the Child born in Bethlehem, God is no longer a concept, distant and mystifying; no, he has revealed himself in the Presence of one born as a Child, who loves us and comes to save us from our sins.

The Magi saw this same reality and they were changed by it. The Gospel hints as much at that change when it tells us that they departed for their own country by another way. The mystery of God’s saving love, revealed to us in Jesus, is supposed to have that effect. Having seen it, we can’t tread the same paths as before; having understood it, we are called to live differently. Sometimes, though, the light of this Truth is in danger of being obscured – just like artificial light can make it too difficult to see the stars above us, certain attitudes and influences can also obscure the radiance of Christ. I’d like to propose three dangers that might prevent us from beholding clearly the Lord’s light.

The first danger is complacency. The coming of Christ is a gift, but it is a gift that requires a response; to be received adequately, it requires a movement in the one receiving it. Like the Magi, we must get up and go and seek the Lord where he is waiting for us. In so many ways, the New Year prompts us to action and renewal – to make certain resolutions to become happier and healthier. But why not holier, too? Spend some time in prayer this week asking yourself, “Where can I make a movement to go and seek the Lord, to encounter his light in a new way in my life?” If you have trouble thinking of ways that you can grow personally and spiritually, ask someone else – your spouse, your kids, your friends, your neighbors, your pastor! Sometimes others can see what we cannot, and we must be humble enough to accept the critique.

The second danger to beholding the light of Jesus is bad influences. Let’s be honest – there are people in our lives who do not encourage us to greater virtue. Perhaps they are tempting us directly, urging us to not to worry about doing things that are bad for us or to not strive so hard to be good. Even more common are those whose example or presence perhaps prompts us to adopt their bad habits or bad attitudes. The Christian man or woman should always first try to be a good influence to such people, and by word or example to be an encouragement to them of how to do good and avoid evil. But if that’s not effective – and instead of influencing them, they influence us – then we need to limit our contact with them, or avoid being in their presence altogether. Like the Magi in the Gospel, it’s necessary at times to take another route to avoid those people who are harmful to us, whether intentionally or not. We don’t judge them, and we seek to love them if we do happen to cross paths with them, but we also protect ourselves by not letting their bad influence do us spiritual harm.

The third danger is hardness of heart. Herod also had the chance to go and worship the Christ Child, but he closed himself to the possibility because of his own arrogance and fear. Instead he sought him only with his own purposes and designs. Who knows what God might have done for him or through him if he had humbly opened his heart to a power greater than his own? Sometimes, we too – prideful and fearful – demand from God what we want, and close ourselves off to any other possibilities, including his. Whether it is in new virtues, new relationships, new opportunities to experience the Lord’s love, we can receive what he wants to give us only if we first humble ourselves and let the Lord take primacy of place instead of our own egos.

Friends, I like to look up into the night sky as much as anyone, but thank goodness we need not do so as the Magi did, because the God of Truth has made himself known – in time, in history, in the person of Christ. By the light of his birth, he has revealed his love for us – a love that can make us new, if we do not let his light be obscured by false substitutes. Let’s be on guard against complacency and bad influences and hardness of heart, and anything else that would dissuade us from humbly seeking the Child of Bethlehem. May we be confidently guided, today and throughout the New Year, by his light unobscured.