Sunday, November 5, 2023

Helping the Holy Souls

For the last three weeks, our Gospel has given us accounts of conversations between Jesus and members of other Jewish groups. Two weeks ago, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and Herodians about whether it was lawful to pay Caesar’s tax. Last week, Jesus discussed with a scholar of the law which commandment is the greatest. And now, this Sunday, Jesus is in a sort of dialogue with the scribes and Pharisees – not directly, but via his preaching to the crowds and to his disciples.

All of these conversations in St. Matthew’s Gospel serve to highlight the rising tensions between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day, and in that way set the stage for his eventual betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. But they also are instructive to us, showing us the reason how and why Jesus took issue with these different groups of religious leaders. He didn’t do so as a rebel or a troublemaker, which is how they viewed him. Rather, he did so as the Messiah, the heir to the Davidic throne, and even more fundamentally, as the Son of God. When we hear Jesus debating with the scribes and Pharisees, we’re not just hearing esoteric debates about Jewish law. We’re hearing the same God, who once gave the Law to his people in the desert at Sinai, now expounding it and interpreting it with human voice.

In today’s Gospel, what Jesus takes issue with is that these Jewish leaders have not matched words with actions. Though apparently devout and religiously observant, the Pharisees and scribes have failed to practice what they preached, and have instead made religious observance more difficult for everyone else. Jesus’s criticisms here harken back to the words of the prophet Malachi in our first reading, who decried the Temple priests for leading the people astray by failing to offer proper sacrifice. The best kind of sacrifice, just like the best kind of religious devotion, is the one that seeks to honor God by also caring for those most precious to him: the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed. The Pharisees and scribes have failed to do this, exalting themselves instead. Jesus will show them, and us, the meaning of true devotion, true service in the humility of his Cross.

This Gospel is a challenging one, especially for those of us who occupy some leadership capacity in the Church. Power is to be used for service, but there is always the danger to misuse it, and to serve oneself instead of others. This Gospel is a good examination of conscience for priests and pastors, but also for parish employees, council members, and volunteers of every stripe. We have to ask ourselves, are our words matched by our actions? Is our work aimed at humble service to those in need, or at something else? And perhaps finally, is there someone or some group that I might be overlooking, whom the Lord might be asking me to attend to?

Prayer (1882) by Luigi Nono

One group who is very much in need of our help but who might not immediately jump to our minds are the souls in purgatory. We sometimes call them the “holy souls,” because they died in friendship with God and are assured of eventually reaching heaven. But we also refer to them as the “poor souls” because they are not in heaven yet, and while in the state of purification that we call purgatory, they cannot help themselves. They are dependent upon us – our prayers and sacrifices – to call upon God’s mercy to cleans them of their faults and finally make them ready to see him face to face. Most of us know that it is part of our Catholic tradition to pray for the dead – the faithful departed, who were our friends, loved ones, and even others unknown to us who are in need of our prayers. But we should ask ourselves: do I really do that? Are my good intentions and pious thoughts actually matched by action – by prayers, sacrifices, and supplications to God on behalf of those in purgatory? This month of November is a chance for us to redouble our efforts in this regard.

Friends, Jesus wants all in his Church to humble ourselves now so as to one day be exalted. While on earth, we do this through loving service, including by our prayer and supplication for the poor, holy souls of purgatory. Perhaps one day we may ourselves require the prayers of those whom we aided, by God’s grace, to reach his kingdom. As we prepare for this Eucharistic sacrifice, may we turn our hearts and minds to the humble Lord who meets us there, that he may see our humble prayers and praises now and so one day raise us to his glory.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Change Is Possible, Change Is Necessary

Here’s a list of seemingly unrelated things: coffee, the light bulb, refrigeration, the forward pass. What do each of these things have in common? Believe it or not, each of these inventions was at one time opposed by those who wanted to keep the status quo. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a morning without a cup of coffee, or living indoors without air conditioning, or watching football without wide receivers, but people actually were against those things at one point in time. Change, even change for the better, is sometimes resisted simply because it is new.

In the Gospel today, Jesus highlights something new that is happening, and he is resisted by the chief priests and the elders, the highest authorities of the Jewish religion. The parable he crafts for their consideration is simple enough: a man had two sons; he tells both to go work in the vineyard. One says “No,” but then goes after all; the other says “Yes,” but does not go. The first son resists the father’s invitation, but some reflection about what is best, he decides to change his ways and do as he was called. The second son, having responded correctly and politely, is content with his “Yes,” but fails to put that into action.

The key to this parable is not in the story itself, but in the audience to whom it is addressed. Jesus had at this time been in his public ministry for about three years. His message, at its heart, was very simple – repent and believe in the Gospel. And that message had resonated with thousands, with people who recognized their own need for healing and conversion: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of every kind. Their lives had previously been a “No” to God, but hearing the Good News of Jesus, they responded with faith and with conversion of life. The chief priests and elders, on the other hand, the authorities of the Jewish religion, resisted and even ridiculed this same message. They appeared by external appearances to be faithful sons of the father, but as Jesus pointed out, their “Yes” to God was hollow.

The change that Jesus announces – which is heard by the tax collectors and sinners but resisted by the chief priests and elders – is that the kingdom of God will belong not to those who only appear to do God’s will but rather to those who really humble themselves and do it. What God desires is not just exterior conformity to his commandments, but also interior conversion of heart. The sinful person who does terrible things, realizes their error, and repents of them is much closer to the kingdom of heaven than the person who fails to see their sinfulness at all. The chief priests and elders, for all of their exterior piety and correct religion, fail to grasp what the tax collectors and prostitutes have – the simplicity of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Eugene Burnand, The Two Sons (late 19th cent.)

This Gospel naturally makes us think, “Well, which son am I?” Most of us naturally gravitate toward thinking of ourselves like the first son. At times, we respond “No” to what the Lord calls us to, out of selfishness or laziness, but eventually, because of guilt or a sense of duty, we do the right thing: forgiving that person who has hurt us; helping that person who is continually in need; praying with the person who is troubled; giving of our time to serve our parish in that area where no one else is stepping up. Of course, it would have been better if we had responded “Yes” and done the good thing right away, but at least we are not like all those other people who never do the right thing, right? We can think of any number of people who are living much more sinfully than we are. Thank God we are at least better than they are!

Perhaps we can see the problem with that way of thinking – it sounds very much like that of the chief priests and the elders. Like them, we too can be guilty of letting our “Yes” merely be one of lip service, one that doesn’t touch the depths of our own heart. It also ignores the ways that we tell the Lord, “Yes, I will,” and then fail to follow up: giving up that sinful habit; making sure our family attends Mass every Sunday, even when we’re traveling; inviting someone we know who has fallen away from the parish to come back and join us. For as many ways as we say “No, I won’t” but then respond, there are at least as many where we say “Yes, I will” but never do. Like the chief priests and the elders, the Lord wants us to look honestly, critically at ourselves and recognize where we really stand. He wants to deal fairly with us, but it is we who are not fair with him.

The Good News, of course, is that change is possible. Not only possible but necessary! Like the tax collectors and prostitutes, we must recognize that the path to the kingdom of God is conversion, which begins with conversion of heart – and a recognition of where we have fallen short – and then which proceeds to a conversion of our ways. Jesus offers us that grace to us – the grace to respond to the Lord’s invitation with a firm “Yes,” and then follow through with action. It can be a little scary, but like refrigerators and coffee and the football forward pass, learning how to be humble and open to repentance are changes we should not resist. They will make our lives far better than they would be otherwise.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day our Church would typically celebrate today on the 1st of October, once wrote: “Holiness consists simply in doing God's will, and being just what God wants us to be.” Let’s ask ourselves today, “What is God’s will for me? What is he asking me to do? Where is he calling me to change?” With the grace of this Eucharist, may we hear God’s invitation, personal to each of us, and respond today, not just with our lips but with our lives, “Yes.”

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Labors of Love

One of the first songs that I remember learning is the classic spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” If you’re like me, just saying the title immediately brings to mind the tune, and it’s hard not to start singing it. I must have first heard it when I was very young, perhaps in preschool, or perhaps as one of the songs that my grandmother taught me. But wherever I learned it, I remember how the song conjures up for me a particular mental image – a great crowd of people, clothed in white, marching on clouds into the sunlit gates of heaven.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes this same scene, although in a different way than I imagined it. The purpose of a parable is to use things we are familiar with to describe something that we are not familiar with. And the purpose of today’s parable is to describe a day we might imagine but which none of us has yet experienced – the day when the saintly men and women from all time will go marching into the kingdom of heaven. It’s that final day that we should all be striving for, that all of our lives on earth should be directed toward – to being counted, as the song goes, “in that number” of the righteous in the life to come.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent (12th c.), St. Catherine's Monastery, Egypt

As nice as that sounds, there’s something about this parable that bothers us. It kind of messes with our sense of justice; it doesn’t seem fair to us that those who worked all day in the vineyard should receive the same as those who worked only one hour. That discomfort that we feel is important to pay attention to. This parable comes as part of Jesus’s response to a question from Simon Peter of exactly what the disciples are going to be rewarded with, having left everything to follow him. Perhaps like Peter, we can sometimes think of our relationship with God in terms of a reward system: we do what God commands and therefore he will reward us, perhaps in this life, but definitely in the life to come. That's the basic equation of a lot of people's faith. But today’s parable puts a different spin on this idea. In the kingdom of heaven, the righteous are rewarded, but not according to earthly notions of fairness and equity. Instead, a different principle seems to be at play. 

The key to understanding this parable, I think, is to focus on the landowner. Time and again, he goes out to hire more and more laborers. He is intent upon bringing as many of them into his vineyard as he can. And in the end, he gives them compensation for their labors. But notice that what defines his actions and motivations is not strict justice but something greater. The distinguishing characteristic of the landowner is love. It is love for his vineyard that leads him to go and find out laborers who will work it. It is love for those who have been standing idly by that makes him go out again and again to bring them in and give them work. And in the end, it is love – generous love – that prompts him to reward a full daily wage even to those who had only worked one hour.

So what is Jesus telling us? That love is the best lens through which to view our daily lives and especially the daily labors we offer in service to the kingdom. It’s love that helps best understand what might be happening around us – what the Lord is doing and what we are doing in response. Our God is a just God, and so we do believe that he sees all and will reward us accordingly if we labor for his kingdom and make sacrifices in this life in order to be with him in the next. But if we look at our relationship with God strictly in terms of earthly notions of justice and fairness, we are going to miss the deeper purpose of love that motivates all that God is about. And if we think of our spiritual lives as only a kind of eternal reward system, then we will fail to see the invitation the Lord is offering to us right now to participate in the work of his vineyard with joy and thanksgiving.

Friends, perhaps you and I today can think about the labors of love that we are offering – the work that we are doing right now in the vineyard of the Lord. For some of us it may be caring for children or the elderly; for others of us, it is donating our time in service to the needy and to worthwhile causes. Maybe it is working for understanding between friends who are squabbling, or forgiving from the heart a person who has not asked to be pardoned. Perhaps our labors are resisting the temptation to gossip that arises in the workplace, or accepting graciously injustice or hardship when it comes our way because of what our faith teaches. Whatever it is, the question we must ask is, what is motivating us? What is underlying what we are doing? Jesus invites us, like he invited Simon Peter and the disciples, to try to understand love as the key to all that happens – to comprehend the love of the Lord who is providing for his vineyard, who time and again calls us out of idleness and invites us to imitate his love by sharing in the work that he is doing. At times, we will be challenged, we will grow weary and discouraged, we may even find ourselves momentarily jealous of what is happening in the life of someone else that seems to be better than what is going on in our life. But when that happens, remember that your labors are given to you as labors of *love* first and foremost. It is the Owner of the vineyard who has entrusted that work to you, and if you are faithful to it, he will see it to completion.

It will be a great day, indeed, when the saints – after their long labors, their faithful hardships born out of love – go marching into the heavenly gates. May the Lord make us part of their number.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Faith in Fear

Once in a while, someone will say to me, “Father, I want to read the Bible more. Where should I start?” While there are lots of responses to that question – lots of great places to begin reading more Scripture – often I will say, “Read the psalms.” Why? Because unlike other parts of the Bible that recount a story or expound on a theological point, the psalms immediately show us how to pray to God. The Book of Psalms contains 150 prayer-hymns that fit every kind of human circumstance. Joy, sorrow, praise, fear, indignation, gratitude – there’s a psalm for every condition of the human heart. And because we believe that God is the author of Scripture who inspired its human writers, then we can say that the psalms are really examples of God showing us human beings how he wants us to pray to him.

On Sundays, the responsorial psalm often gives us a clue or insight into the theme of the readings of the Mass. For example, today the psalmist says, “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.” Those words tell us that the psalmist’s prayer was being made in difficult circumstances. Maybe the psalmist was going through a difficult time personally, or maybe the whole Israelite people were facing some calamity, but you only cry out to God to show his kindness and salvation when those things are not at that moment readily apparent.

We might well imagine that the words of this psalm – “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation” – were on the minds of the disciples in today’s Gospel. They are in very dire straits: caught in a storm, their boat being tossed about on the rough sea, and Jesus not with them. And this story is perhaps symbolic of inner turmoil that was going on within them at the same time. Shortly before this story in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples receive word that John the Baptist had been beheaded. The death of Jesus’s cousin, whom some of the disciples had followed before they followed Jesus, surely filled them with sorrow and grief. And it probably also gave rise to fear – fear that perhaps a similar fate awaited Jesus and perhaps even themselves.

So, turmoil, distress, fear – our Scriptures today focus upon those realities. And that’s a good thing, because those realities are our realities, too – each of us, in some way, because of one or more circumstances in our lives, face something that is causing inner turmoil, or filling us with fear, or giving us anxiety. The question is how do we respond? Often, we are tempted to act based solely on the way we are feeling in that moment. Because we are feeling afraid, and because we don’t like that feeling, we are tempted to alleviate our fear in any way possible – by denying it, or rationalizing it, or numbing it.

Christ Walking on the Sea, Currier & Ives, 19th cent.

What our readings today invite us to consider is how fear and turmoil, as unpleasant as they may be, are also an invitation into a deeper faith. To do so, sometimes we have to enter into our fear and wait. Sometimes the Lord does not alleviate our fears right away – not because he wants us to suffer, but because he wants us to recognize our total dependence on him. And fear has a great way of doing that. In the midst of fear, there is a temptation to abandon faith altogether; but there’s also the chance to see more clearly what is true. There’s an opportunity to make the prayer of the psalmist our own – “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.”

Friends, like the disciples, our boats are at times tossed about on rocky seas. In those moments, let’s turn fully to the Lord, leaving behind our own devices and self-made ideas. Let’s offer a prayer – our own words, or perhaps the words God has given to us in the Book of Psalms. And may that prayer help us to know that the Lord will surely come, just as he did in the Gospel, just as he does in this Mass. When he does, may he find us with deepened trust in him – not having tried to sort things out ourselves, but rather seeing our turmoil and difficulty as the instruments by which he invites us to a new level of faith.

“Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.”

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Big Words

Our Catholic faith uses a lot of big words. For example, after this homily, we will recite the Creed, during which we will use words like “only-begotten,” “consubstantial,” and “incarnate.” And in our broader tradition, there are even bigger words like “hypostasis,” “perichoresis,” and “transubstantiation.” These words might seem unwieldy or confusing, but learning what they mean helps us to understand what we believe.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration – another big word. We probably know “transfiguration” refers to the event in Jesus’s life that we just heard about in the Gospel, but it’s worth looking at the word itself and understanding what it means. A transfiguration is a change in outward characteristics only; the underlying thing remains what it has always been while the figure and appearance change. Standing on the mountaintop, the apostles Peter, James, and John beheld the same Jesus they had always known, but in a radically different way, with his face shining like the sun and his clothes white as light.

Luca Giordano, The Transfiguration (1685)

We celebrate today’s feast in the context of our Sunday Mass. And at every Mass, there is another change which occurs – one for which we use another big word that I mentioned before: transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the word that explains what we believe happens in every Eucharist. In a certain sense, you can say it is the opposite of a transfiguration. In transfiguration, what something is stays the same while its outward appearance changes. But in transubstantiation, the outward appearance remains the same, but what it *is* changes. During the consecration of the Mass, the elements of bread and wine appear to remain unchanged; but what is present there on the altar – the substance – is no longer bread and wine but the Body and Blood of Jesus. All of the outward characteristics remain the same as before – the appearance, the taste and smell, even the biochemical makeup would suggest that it is still bread and wine present. But we believe, by faith, that on the altar is no longer bread and wine at all but instead the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Both of these changes – transfiguration and transubstantiation – tell us something important. In the Transfiguration, Jesus showed the disciples his own true identity as God’s Son and gave them preview of the glory he would have in the Resurrection so that they would not be afraid when he began his journey toward the Cross. By the transubstantiation of the elements at Mass, Jesus shows us disciples here at Mass his nearness to us, the closeness of his abiding Presence that reaches down from heaven to be with us continually in the Eucharist. Like Peter, James, and John, we are witnesses to this change – a change not in appearance that we can see, but a change in substance that we believe by faith.

And in faith, the Real Presence of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine is our food for the journey of life. Like Jesus, we too must journey toward Calvary. We must take up our Cross, as he did, but thanks be to God that he comes to be with us, to nourish us with presence. By receiving him in the Eucharist – he who was begotten of the Father before all time, who was born of Mary into our world, who was transfigured on the mountain, who died and rose again and sits at the Father’s right hand – by receiving him, we pray that we might one day be brought to share in the glory of the Resurrection ourselves.

Luca Giordano, Communion of the Apostles (c. 1659)

I have been following this week some of the coverage of the events of World Youth Day. Around one million young people have gathered from around the world in Portugal to deepen their Catholic faith and to pray with our Holy Father Pope Francis. On Friday, the pope prayed with the youth before they began a Way of the Cross, and he told them that the Cross is “the sacred sign of the greatest love, the love with which Jesus wants to embrace our lives. The Cross shows us the true beauty of love.”

Friends, I think we see the truth of those words in both transfiguration and transubstantiation – in the event that happened on the mountain two thousand years ago, and in the event that will happen here on the altar, at this and every Mass. The apostles beheld the Lord Jesus in glory; we behold him under sacramental signs. But for both of us, it’s the same Jesus who comes to encourage and strengthen us. Let us ask him in this Eucharist to not be afraid by our sufferings, but to be sustained by our faith – faith in the glory that we pray awaits us in the Resurrection and faith in his very Presence here on the altar. And let us say with grateful and believing hearts, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

Sunday, July 23, 2023

A Harvest by Providence

I have had the privilege of celebrating Mass here various times over the last year, but as the lector mentioned at the beginning of Mass, I’m happy to be here today as your associate pastor, assisting Fr. Greg with the care of the parish. I began that responsibility at the beginning of this month, so it is a nice to finally be able to be here with you for Holy Mass.

It is also nice to be with you on this particular Sunday, the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, a Sunday that has had some significance for me through the years. It was on this Sunday eleven years ago that I celebrated my first Mass at Christ the King across town, the parish where I was raised. And going a little further back, it was on this Sunday fifteen years ago that I got on a plane and left Arkansas, left the United States, to move to Rome, Italy for four years of studies for the priesthood. That period of my life was full of a lot of different emotions: excitement, to be sure, but also nervousness and a bit of fear as I left behind everything familiar.

I attended Mass on that Saturday evening of the night before and I remember being struck by what we heard today in the first reading – how the author of the Book of Wisdom speaks of the providential care of God. He “who has the care of all”, we are told, the Lord whose “might is the source of justice” is also the one who rules with clemency, who teaches his children with patience and mercy and who gives them reason to hope. That idea was very consoling to me in that moment, as I was about to move halfway around the world, to pursue a calling which at the time I still wasn’t completely sure about. I was being told to trust that the Lord would care for me, that all was in his hands, that even though everything about my life was about to change, he would not.

Fast forward fifteen years later, and I’m much more sure about the vocation God has called me to, even if I am even more convinced of my own unworthiness for it. But the Lord remains faithful. If there’s one thing that eleven years of priesthood has taught me, it’s that he sustains us – priests and people – in our highs and our lows, always caring for us, always teaching us something powerful and important, although it may take us time to see what exactly it is. That’s what we call God’s Providence – the way he has ordered all things, everything in creation, with himself as the final end of it all. That’s a consoling truth – whether we are on our highest high or our lowest low – that somehow, no matter what is happening, God is there, constant and caring, drawing us more fully to himself.

Jesus also speaks of the Providence of God in today’s Gospel, particularly in relation to the kingdom of heaven. Last Sunday, we heard about how the Word of God is sown in the human heart; today, we hear about how it grows. Because that growth is different from how we might expect, Jesus gives us three images that explain how the kingdom of God is being cultivated. Two of these are familiar to us. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or a bit of yeast mixed in with the dough; in other words, its power should not be discounted even if it is not immediately visible to us. Jesus is encouraging us to have faith in what we cannot always see – that the kingdom of heaven is being cultivated even now in our midst.

The third image is a little more difficult, and indeed, that’s the one that the disciples ask Jesus to explain. In cultivating an earthly harvest, we human beings are diligent about getting rid of weeds early in the growing process in order to allow the good seeds to thrive. But God’s harvest operates differently. Because the Lord is constant and caring, dealing with us patiently and mercifully, he prefers to let the good and the bad to coexist until the final accounting takes place. The process of growth is one in which reform and renewal are possible, in which the bad can be changed into the good, and in which the good must continue to prove their goodness until the end.

Jean-François Millet, Buckwheat Harvest: Summer (c. 1870)

This parable has great importance for us as a community because a parish is nothing more than a portion of the Lord’s field. God has sown the seeds of his Word in our midst, and he calls us to become fruitful for his harvest, to be leaven in the world that brings forth his kingdom. We also recognize that, as a parish, we are not a finished product; we are both wheat and weeds – collectively, but even individually. On the one hand, that is a reminder of God’s providence and patient mercy, giving us time to grow and to be changed. On the other hand, it’s also a reminder that we will be judged in the end on whether we produce – on whether we show ourselves to be, in the final accounting, fruitful wheat or barren weeds.

What does Jesus want us to take away today? Perhaps that the kingdom of God can’t grow out there [in the world] unless it first grows in here [among us]. And it can’t grow in here unless it also grows for each of us in *here* [points to heart]. That’s why Jesus says in another place “the kingdom of God is within you.” To further the work of God’s kingdom is to allow the Master to be at work in us, in our highs and our lows, in whatever is happening at the moment. His providential, fatherly care makes us better when we focus upon him as our ultimate end – when we direct ourselves to him by prayer, by regular participation in the sacraments, especially reconciliation, and by works of mercy and service to our neighbor. The Lord wishes to cultivate within us fruitful produce for his harvest, but we must cooperate with that work and persevere in it so that we may be found worthy in the end.

Friends, it’s great to be with you – on this Sunday, and in this parish. It’s great to be present with you in this portion of the Lord’s field, in this place in which by his providence he is bringing forth a harvest for his kingdom. I look forward to serving you and serving with you in whatever way that I can, for I know the Lord is present in our midst, drawing us all more fully to himself. As we prepare for this Eucharist, let us ask the Master of the harvest to bring forth good fruit by our lives, that in the final accounting we may “shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.”

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Casting Out Fear

When I was a teenager, there were a few clothing brands that it seemed like all the cool kids wore. I was not a particularly cool kid, but I still was able to convince my mom to buy me one or two of those T-shirts that I thought would make me cool. I remember the first one I ever got was from the brand No Fear, and it had some pithy, slightly ridiculous saying on it about not being afraid.

I look back on that with a smile and a shake of the head; 14-year-old me didn’t really know what fear was. In many ways, perhaps I still don’t, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things that I think I’m afraid of, no matter what kind of clothes I have on: fear of failure, fear of rejection, even fear of public speaking, which I’ve managed to overcome at least in part.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to the hearts and minds of his disciples, touching upon what must have been the deepest fear for many of them – the fear of death and bodily harm. Life was precarious in the ancient world, with the threat of violence, disease, poverty ever present. Jesus knows that his listeners would have faced a constant struggle of how to provide for themselves and their families, how to avoid confrontation and conflict with those around them, how to not run afoul of the authorities who could cause them trouble – how to survive basically from one day to the next.

Does any of that sound familiar? Maybe our fears are slightly different than those of Jesus’s day, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we worry about many of the very same things: health, well-being, security, liberty, happiness. And not only do we worry, but we also experience the pain and the loss that comes as part of life. In light of all that, perhaps we wonder then how exactly Jesus can tell us to “Fear no one.” Okay, yes, we need to have faith through it all, but isn’t it a little bold for him to say that we shouldn’t be afraid of all these things that are worth being afraid of?

The answer, of course, is that we must remember who is speaking. Jesus was never afraid of being bold, or of challenging those who heard him. But Jesus’s words are not empty, but are backed up by his own life. As the Son of the Father, he knows of what he speaks, which is why we can trust him when he tells us that there is nothing to fear when we know we are loved. The answer to our greatest fears – death, sorrow, loss – is the perfect love of the Father. All that we experience is seen by him, and he holds us all of us in his grasp.

If all of that sounds a little too neat and nice, then let’s remember Jesus’s own life. He trusted in the love of his Father to such a degree that he was not afraid of those who sought to destroy him; though surely afraid at some level of his being, he also went joyfully and confidently to the Cross, knowing that it was the very means of giving all of us a share in the perfect love of the Father. But Jesus also knew that the Father would raise him – that the perfect love of the Father would not permit death to have the final word but would instead reveal the gracious gift, as St. Paul calls it (Rom 5:15), which is the resurrection of the body. If we’re listening closely to what Jesus says today, he is giving us a preview of the truth of the Resurrection. And it’s that ultimately which helps us to face our fears – indeed, to cast them out: that we believe that no matter what harm or loss or sorrow may befall us, the Father will restore and resurrect all in his perfect love. God will have the last word, not our fears.

Christ the Teacher mosaic (4th c.), Basilica of Saint Constance, Rome

 Perhaps now we can see how Jesus calls us to not be afraid. It’s not by thinking we are so strong or so courageous, as if we can deny our fears entirely. Rather, it’s only by placing our fears within a larger framework of love – contextualizing them, allowing them to be answered by a faith and a trust in the One who himself has passed through death into the eternal life of the Resurrection. And that’s why Jesus says that in the end the only thing to fear is losing out on all of that – being afraid not of the destruction of the body, or anything that might happen to us from outside, but what can happen from inside, the destruction of the soul through our sin, our pride, and our self-justification. A lot of our sins are motivated ultimately by our fears: fear of feeling pain; fear of being criticized; fear of being alone; fear of missing out on something. Today, Jesus tells us, “Don’t be afraid of those things; don’t let your fears compromise your love and your trust in my Father, such that you risk losing what he wishes to give you.”

Do you know what sums up all of this perfectly? That which we do here at Mass. We come with our hearts full of anxiousness and worry, but also commending ourselves to the love of God, trusting that he loves us and trying to love him. And we listen to his word to us, and we respond with faith renewed. And then we participate in the very proof of that love which is the Sacrament of the Altar – when the mystery of Jesus’s self-offering, his death and resurrection, is made present again for us. And receiving that gracious gift (Rom 5:15) of he who once was dead but now lives forever, our hope of sharing in his Resurrection is strengthened and deepened, so that as we face the things that bring us fear and worry, as we seek to live out the joy of the Gospel that Jesus calls us to, we can have the confidence of perfect love which casts out all fear (1 Jn 4:18).

Friends, ask the Lord to give you some insight this week about your own fears. Where are you being tempted to lose your faith, to lose your love because of your worries and anxieties? And then ask him to give you an even deeper insight into the perfect love that the Father has for you, a love that the Son has shared with you by his blood, a love that, if you believe in it, can cast out your fears. May this Eucharist and every Eucharist we celebrate give us the foretaste of receiving one day the fullness of the gracious gift the Lord has prepared for us.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Care from the Heart

The green vestments I am wearing indicate, if we weren’t already aware, that we are now back in Ordinary Time. In fact, we’ve been in Ordinary Time for a few weeks, ever since Pentecost Sunday. We’re only now switching to green vestments though because on the last few Sundays we’ve celebrated some special feasts that come this time of year: the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity two weeks ago, and the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ last Sunday.

There’s one more special feast that often gets overlooked, and that’s because it’s celebrated on a Friday – the Friday of this past week, in fact. The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is sort of the crowning feast of this time of year, and perhaps for that reason, the month of June has long been associated with devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The history of that devotion is too long to get into here, but briefly, in the modern form is roots date from the 17th century. Figures like St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. John Eudes, and groups like the Society of Jesus, helped to popularize the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and its basic message – that in the Heart of Jesus we see the depth of God’s love for his people.

In today’s Gospel, we hear more about Jesus’s Sacred Heart, and how it is moved with pity at those who are “troubled and abandoned.” Rather than merely feel compassion toward the crowds, Jesus acts to help them. He sends out select disciples to go and minister in his name, giving them the authority to preach, to heal, and to sanctify. And we are told the name of these twelve men, who are called apostles, which means “one who is sent.” They are the twelve apostles who will be Jesus’s closest collaborators throughout his ministry, and indeed the ones who will be charged with continuing that ministry in and through the Church.

In other words, the Gospel today tells us it is out of the compassion and love of Jesus’s own heart that he has called and sent ordained ministers to serve his Church. And that is still true today. Those who are trusted with ordained ministry – whether it’s the original twelve apostles; or their successors, whom we call “bishops”; or their collaborators, the presbyters; or the special servants that we call deacons – Jesus calls and sends all his ordained ministers to care for his flock with compassion – with love, and not just with their own imperfect love, but with the love of his Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart of Jesus (1767) by Pompeo Batoni

I’ve found sometimes that there’s a danger when a member of the clergy starts talking about ordained ministry. It can come across as self-serving, as self-glorifying. Certainly we all know that there are some clergy who have sought to serve themselves, mistreating or even abusing the flock entrusted to them for their own gain. But the reality is that the majority of us clergy whom the Lord calls do what we do not for ourselves, but for you. We try to respond to the Lord’s command to sanctify, teach, minister – not because it’s all about us, but because it’s all about *you* and the Lord’s love for you. I think sometimes this basic point gets missed when we gather here on Sundays – how everything that is done here is done because of Jesus’s love for you. The Lord calls the priest and deacon to proclaim, to preach, to consecrate, to bless – all so that you can go forth from here to minister to the world.

And that’s the final takeaway for today. What Jesus gives you, he also asks you to share: as he says at the end of today’s Gospel, “without cost you have received, without cost you are to give.” Jesus loves you, and has compassion for you, and has sent his ministers to care for you, so that having been made holy, you will then go and share those gifts with others. We who are ordained ministers do that for you, the lay faithful. And you are called to do the same, in your own way – in your homes, in your places of work, in your families, in every aspect of your life. The Lord sends you now to those who whom you know who are troubled and abandoned, that they too might receive his care and love. In this way, the Lord is sanctifying all the world, making for himself what God foretold to Moses: “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”

Friends, as we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, let’s remember that it is the transforming love of Jesus that has gathered us together this day. And, as priests and people alike, let’s focus ourselves anew on what the Lord has called us to, and what he sends us to do – to preach, to proclaim, to sanctify, each in our own way, always with the love and compassion of his Sacred Heart.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Believing in Love

It is a pleasure to be here with you all on Trinity Sunday. Today’s feast happens to fall this year on the first Sunday of June, a month which in recent years has become associated with cultural dialogues about love, identity, and the authentic nature of self. There’s a lot that could and should be said about those cultural dialogues and about how they relate to our lives and our Catholic faith. But for the moment, perhaps it’s enough to say that these themes of love and identity are at the heart of today’s feast – not only in terms of how we understand ourselves but in how we understand God. Allow me to explain what I mean.

The reading we just heard was short – only three lines taken from the Gospel of John, the first of which was: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This passage, John 3:16, is maybe the most famous in all of the Bible, and rightly so: it sums up perfectly, in his own words, Jesus’s identity. He speaks these words to the Pharisee Nicodemus, who has come to him at night in search of answers about who he is. And Jesus gives them to him: he is the Son of God, sent so that we might believe in him and thus receive salvation rather than the condemnation we deserve by virtue of our sins. Jesus’s presence among us, the whole reason for his coming, is due to love: the love of God for human beings.

How important it is for us to return to this idea again and again! So often our understanding of God, and our ideas about religion and faith generally, can become sidetracked into other things. We might even wonder, “Does God love me? Does he care about what I am going through?” And the answer is YES – God himself, in the person of Christ, tells us today that his love is at the root of everything. The foundation of God’s entire focus toward us human beings is saving love. And the reason for that is because God himself *is* love, as we know from the First Letter of John. That’s what we celebrate today in the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. Who God is, is Love – a communion of Love, between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And as God reveals his own identity to us, he also invites us, amazingly, to participate in that identity: we as mere human being can come to know the divine love of the holy Trinity, be caught up in it even now, and even share in it forever in eternal life.

But if all of that sounds great, here’s the challenging part: where do we see God’s love most clearly and visibly? In the Cross. In the history of Christian art, some of the most frequent depictions of the Holy Trinity are with Jesus on the Cross, with the Father and the Holy Spirit above him, showing him to the viewer. That’s because more than any of Jesus’s sermons, more than any of his miracles, more than anything else he does, it is his suffering and death that reveal the depth and totality of God’s love. Jesus makes reference to this in the same dialogue with Nicodemus that our Gospel passage comes from. He says that we human beings are asked to believe in the love that is revealed when the Son of Man is lifted up – in other words, when he Jesus will be raised up on the Cross. It’s in the Cross of Christ that we come to know and believe in the saving love of God, the love he has for sinful humanity.

The Most Holy Trinity (1625) by Guido Reni 

And this is important for us, too, because if it’s true that we sometimes lose sight of love as being at the heart of who we are and what we believe, it’s also true that we too often think of love in some way other than how God reveals it – the love of the Cross. You and I experience love in all kinds of ways. We know it through our families, through our friends, through love of the world and what is in it, even through a proper love of ourselves and our own identities, unique among creation. But all of these loves, good as they may be in some way, also must be purified. Because we exist in a fallen world, and because we are ourselves are fallen, our loves can be distorted – they can distract us from or even lead us away from true Love itself, Love with a capital L, which is the love that Jesus has revealed on the Cross. This is the love that God has for us, but it’s also the love that he calls us to have – to imitate, to strive for, and to be purified in our own manner of loving, so that our love may be ever more fashioned in the love of the Cross.

Perhaps we might think today about how we think of love: love as an abstract idea, as a cultural touchstone, and above all love as it is lived out in our lives and the lives of those we know. And perhaps we might each ask ourselves: How are my notions and experiences of love rooted in the love of God? Are my loves self-serving, or do they try to imitate and be purified by the sacrificial love that God has revealed for me in the Cross? How can my ways of loving myself and others be directed not toward earthly ends but toward sharing one day in the eternal love of the Holy Trinity?

To answer these questions, my friends, surely all of us, in some way or another, must seek out Jesus, like Nicodemus did, and find in him again the authentic identity of what it means to love. This month of June that we have begun has for centuries been the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – the devotion which sums up everything I’ve said. The love of God, the love that is his very identity as Holy Trinity, is revealed to us in the Cross of Christ. He continues to love us now, and with the continuing love of his Sacred Heart, he calls us to encounter the love of the Cross, to believe in it, and to conform our own ways of loving to it. 

May the Eucharist that we celebrate this day help us to experience anew the saving love of the Holy Trinity, so that by our own sacrificial, Christlike love we may be led to eternal life.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Goal of Heaven

May, traditionally, is known as the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And so it is appropriate to honor her in different ways in these days with special prayers and devotions and customs. For example, many people focus on praying the rosary each day of this month, and many parishes have a May Crowning to recognize Mary as queen of heaven and earth. That tradition may come from the fact that for centuries the last day of May was the Feast of the Coronation of Mary, although now that day is celebrated in August.

Since much of May falls during the Easter season, we also remember in this time that Mary is in heaven, body and soul, because of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of her son Jesus. And today we celebrate the second to last feast of the Easter season, the great Feast of the Ascension. Jesus, as God and man, is himself the union of heaven and earth. But when he ascended, he brought what is earthly – our human nature – into the very place of God’s true presence. And in so doing, he paved the way for mere human beings to follow him – Mary, the saints, and eventually, we pray, us.

The notion of going to heaven is one that probably sounds familiar to us. Most Christians are aware that that is what we should be aiming for and what we hope awaits us at the end of our life. Perhaps the true danger in this day and age is presuming that everyone, or nearly everyone, will surely make it there, and assuming that certainly we ourselves at least will. With that assumption in place, then, heaven often just recedes from our daily focus, and becomes something of an implicit expectation that in reality we don’t think of too much.

Frankly, this is not really what the Lord wants or expects. Having gone ahead of us, Jesus wants us to make joining him in heaven the ultimate goal of our lives and the daily purpose behind everything we do. Think for a moment about all of the dreams and hopes and aspirations that people have, that you probably have: a good education, a successful job, a rewarding career, hobbies that you enjoy, a sense of purpose and fulfillment, a life partner who makes you happy, the blessing of children and grandchildren. All of these things are good and beautiful, and they are not in themselves contradictory with the Christian life. But it’s also true they aren’t the *goal* of the Christian life either – no single one, or even all of them together, are the purpose for which we were created or the ultimate goal of our daily existence. That is, and should be, getting to heaven.

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Coronation of the Virgin with Six Saints [detail] (1504)

It’s important, of course, to know how to get to heaven. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, just before he ascends to heaven: to make disciples of all nations. It is obeying this commandment that will bring us to where the Lord is. And so, everything we do should be about following Jesus ourselves, and about giving a sign to others of how to do the same. But the first step in living this out is learning to yearn for the goal we are striving for. Think of Mary, again: after Jesus ascended to heaven, she surely was a sign to others of the Good News of Jesus. How could she not be, as Jesus’s Mother? But surely she did all that she did because she desired to be with him again in heaven. How much she must have ardently desired that, at every moment – how much it must have been the singular purpose for everything she did! And as we know, that goal that was in her heart was rewarded at the end of her life when she was taken body and soul into heaven and crowned by her Son.

Friends, as we celebrate today Jesus’s Ascension into heaven, let’s ask ourselves how ardently we are yearning to join him there. The other plans and purposes of our lives can be good, and we can strive for them too, but never to the detriment of our ultimate goal of reaching heaven. And if Jesus should ask us to give up one or more of them in order to reach this goal, how greatly will he surely reward our earthly sacrifices with heavenly joys, just as he did for his Mother. O Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, pray for us!