Sunday, January 29, 2023

A Syllabus for Heaven

I am happy to be here celebrating Mass with you today, and it feels great to be back at a university parish. There was a time in my life several years ago when I was basically always on a college campus: I was pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas parish at the U of A in Fayetteville, and during those four years, I was taking graduate classes during the summers at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I remember those years with a lot of fondness, and so I feel at home in coming back today to a university parish.

The second semester is now well underway, and if memory serves, it’s around this point in the calendar when the newness of the schedule is wearing off, the excitement about particular classes is staring to fade, and reality is beginning to sink in about the work that lies ahead. It is also around this time that professors, perhaps after hearing students gripe something unexpected on the first quiz or test, utter that famous phrase: “Well… did you look at the syllabus?”

Ah, yes, the syllabus – that document that professors make a big deal about, but which often goes overlooked by students. Who has time to read those things anyway? But it is true that they contain a lot of important information: what the course will teach, what the professor expects of the students, and especially what will be covered on the final exam.

In our Gospel today, we hear Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes. Ah, yes – the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings of Jesus that every Christian knows by heart but which often go overlooked in practice. Who has time to understand what they really mean anyway? And yet, they are important, or else Jesus would not have begun his Sermon on the Mount with them. They are so important that I think we might say they are something like the syllabus of Christian life. The Beatitudes tell us what this course of following Jesus will teach us, what he as our Teacher expects of us his disciples (the word means “students”), and most importantly, what he will judge us on at the close of our lives.

Let’s take each of those three things in turn. First, the Beatitudes show us what we will learn by following Jesus. To be a disciple of the Lord means to allow ourselves to be taught. And not just taught new information, as if knowing things were all it takes to be a Christian, but instead a whole new way of being. The tired, old ways of the world, in which we grasp and claw to claim whatever we can for ourselves, in competition with everyone else and even with God for what we think we are owed, in order to try to create just a bit of peace or security before our short lives are over – that approach no longer serves. Instead, we are taught to hope for something greater: a share in the kingdom of heaven – and by the gift of grace, we are made able to share in it even now, albeit in a limited way. The Beatitudes remind us that there is a reality beyond the here and now, but that we can begin to live for it right here and now.

Sermon on the Mount (1437) by Fra Angelico

They also tell us what Jesus expects of us. If we are going to live for the higher reality of the kingdom to come, then we need to see ourselves as fundamentally oriented toward something different than what the world offers. That’s why to be a Christian means to be a countersign to the world, and even to how our fallen natures sometimes incline us to be. So that we are not confused about exactly how, the Beatitudes spell it out for us: to seek to be poor, rather than rich; to be meek, instead of proud; to be merciful, not grudging or vengeful; to be clean of heart, unpolluted with the corruption of worldly passions; to pursue peace, in place of what divides. And doing all of this, we will encounter resistance, even persecution and slander. The Beatitudes tell us as much. But rather than be sorrowful or lose hope when such things happen, Jesus tells us to rejoice, in spite of our sufferings, *because* of our sufferings, for they are signs that we are on the right path in following him.

Finally, the Beatitudes describe the coming reality of the kingdom of God. And so, it is fair to say, I think, that we have in them a little preview – call it a study guide – of what Jesus will look at when we stand before him at the close of our lives. In the personal judgment that happens at our deaths, and again at the final judgment at the end of all things, we believe that the Lord will evaluate our lives and see whether we have truly learned what he taught us and whether we have put it, by his grace, into practice. For any student, the thought of any final exam probably brings at least a little trepidation, but for the Christian disciple, this is a good thing because it means we can remember to attend to what we need to do now in order to reach the kingdom to come. The Beatitudes in this way make for a great examination of conscience, one to continuously come back to, and one to pray with, so that we may ask Jesus the Good Teacher to instruct us anew.

Friends, I hope this coming semester and all the semesters you have here on campus are good ones. Remember that the Lord calls us to follow him in university life as much as anywhere else. In the ups and downs of our Christian discipleship, let it not be said that we don’t know what the Lord wants from us. Just as students have a syllabus, so too we have the Beatitudes: to guide us, to give us hope when we are discouraged, to challenge us when we become too comfortable, to pray with and ponder now so that we will be ready for that final evaluation when we meet the Lord face to face.

May the graces of this Eucharist help us live out the Beatitudes here and now, and by them be ready for the kingdom to come.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Verbum Domini

As you know, a few weeks ago the Church mourned the death of Pope Benedict XVI, who was Bishop of Rome from 2005 until 2013. Some of that time span also happened to be when I lived in Rome studying theology, and perhaps partly for that reason, I have always had a special affinity for Benedict XVI. Not that I didn't love and appreciate St. John Paul II before him, or Pope Francis now, but there was something about the thought of Benedict that always resonated with me.

One of the big events that happened soon after I got to Rome in 2008 was the Synod on the Word of God – a meeting of bishops from around the world to discuss how Catholics should approach the Bible. The other seminarians and I, as students of theology, were delighted that it was Pope Benedict who had called such a meeting, and we read with great interest his reflection on Scripture that followed that synod. In Verbum Domini, or “The Word of the Lord,” he reiterated a theme that had long been part of his theology, from his early days as a seminary professor all the way through his papacy and even beyond: that in Sacred Scripture we encounter the living Word of God.

The 20th century saw a lot of innovations in the study of Scripture, many of which were good. We learned more about how the texts of the Bible were composed, about their different literary forms, and about the historical and cultural backgrounds of their authors and their audiences. For all the positives of this new knowledge, one of the disadvantages was that many people – even many Christians – began to see the Bible as just another human text. It lost, for them, its sacredness and its value as a guide for our lives. Pope Benedict, throughout his career, resisted this impulse. While appreciating the new insights that modern scholarship had given us, he also reminded Christians that the Biblical texts were written from the vantage point of faith. Their human authors wanted to communicate to us in their writings something essential about God and our relationship with him. Even more importantly, God himself also speaks in Scripture: through the inspired words of the human author, we hear God’s word – what he wants to communicate to us for our salvation.

Today, we celebrate the Sunday of the Word of God, a chance to reflect upon the value of Sacred Scripture for our faith. It was Pope Francis who called on the Church to do this each year on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, but I’m sure it’s an endeavor that his predecessor Benedict agreed with. In the Bible, God speaks to us – and his Word is as living and effective now as it was when it was first written down. In Scripture, he really has something to say to our lives, right here and now, if only we will open ourselves to his Word.

How do we do that? Allow me to share a few recommendations that might help you in reading the Bible.
  • First, don’t be intimidated. It’s true that some parts of Scripture are hard to understand, but sometimes we can use that as an excuse to never even try. There can be a lot of spiritual fruit gained from just diving in, especially in those books that are more straightforward like the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles or the Psalms. Even if you don’t understand every word, your faith will be deepened and expanded in important ways.
  • Second, if you find something challenging or confusing, consult what the Church teaches about it. We believe that the Scriptures, the written Word of God, has been entrusted to the community of faith to be interpreted and safeguarded, so it is in and through what our Church teaches that we understand what Scripture really means. One of the best resources for this is the Catechism, the compendium of the teachings of our faith, but there are other great Catholic resources out there, too – books, study courses, podcasts, apps, and more. They can help you to break open Scripture and understand it in accord with our Catholic faith.
  • Third, don’t forget that the most important way we encounter Scripture is here, in the liturgy. Pope Benedict, in that document I mentioned earlier, Verbum Domini, said that “the liturgy is the privileged place for the proclamation, the hearing, and the celebration of the word of God.” Each time we come to Mass, we encounter God’s living Word, and specifically those parts of it that the Church has given us to reflect upon and be nourished by, both in the readings and in the prayers of the Mass. Try to read the readings for Mass at least a couple times during the week before Sunday comes around. See what jumps out at you, what intrigues you, what connections you make with other things that you have heard in previous weeks, and I guarantee your experience at Mass will be the richer because of it.
Friends, in today’s Gospel, we hear the words of the Lord Jesus, calling his listeners to repentance and beginning to call the disciples to follow him. In the reading of our Bibles and the listening of Sacred Scripture in the liturgy, we also hear the “Verbum Domini,” the Word of the Lord speaking to us, inviting us to a more faithful discipleship. Let’s renew today our commitment to encountering the Lord in his written Word, and to letting that Word enliven our prayer and worship, especially here at Mass. May the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood that we will soon receive help us to hear his living Word and give us the grace to respond.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

He Who Takes Away Sins

It is nice to be with you for Mass today. I especially am glad to be here to let your pastor return for a visit to his home country.

I often fill in for priests around the state, but during the week my full-time job since last summer has been working at the diocesan offices in Little Rock. One of the things I do there is work with our diocesan newspaper, Arkansas Catholic, as its theological consultant. Mostly that means I provide information or give an interview on various topics, but this past week, I had the chance to write a short reflection for an upcoming issue. It was about the legacy of St. Francis de Sales, and if you don’t know that name, I won’t go into too much detail here; you can read the article in the paper next week. Suffice to say, he was a wise pastor, a patient teacher, and a compassionate confessor – everything you want in a priest.

Reading about the life of St. Francis de Sales was inspiring, but it also made me very much aware of my own flaws and shortcomings as a priest. It’s hard to measure up to a literal saint, but reflecting on his life I can see more clearly how I *should* be. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar in your own life – a friend that you wish you could be more like, or a coworker who can easily do all the things you can’t do, or even someone in your family who possesses the very gifts and characteristics that you most desire.

When it comes to the ways that we would like to improve, we might tend to think most often about those qualities that relate to our day to day. But we should also think about the spiritual dimension of our lives as well – about our identities as Christian believers and Christian witnesses in the world. In our psalm today, the psalmist says, “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” When God formed us in the womb, he created each of us with a purpose, with a particular plan to discover and fulfill in our lives. And by virtue of our baptism, that purpose finds its deepest meaning in the person of Jesus Christ and in the family of faith which is the mystical Body of Christ, which we call the Church.

This past Monday we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – a feast that reminds us of these things, and that we normally celebrate on a Sunday. This year, it got bumped to a Monday for reasons that relate to the calendar that I won’t elaborate. But while we didn’t celebrate that feast day together this year, our liturgy today is still connected to those themes. We are reminded in these early days of Ordinary Time of a few important things: first, that each of our lives has been changed through the sacramental encounter we have with Jesus, beginning with our baptism; second, that through our encounter with Christ, we have been made holy and we are called to further holiness through a relationship with God and his Church; and third, that as part of that relationship, something is asked of each of us. Like the prophet Isaiah discovered in our first reading, the Lord has charged us to carry out his will, to be not only his servants but his beloved children, entrusted with helping bring his light to others.

And perhaps, as we begin a new year and a new season in the Church, we need to first honestly admit that often we forget these things and fall short of that higher purpose God has given us. We need to confess that we give into sinful temptations and tendencies, and we don’t always form ourselves and our families to follow the teachings of the Lord and of his Church, and we don’t give the best example to others of what it means to live a life of authentic faith. It is good to own up to our flaws and shortcomings as Christians, not for the purpose of feeling down and depressed, but instead to see how the Lord invites us to begin again.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (c. 1655)

In today’s Gospel, we are reminded again of the way in which Jesus comes to encounter us. When John the Baptist saw him in the desert, he said “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John the Baptist was a pretty holy guy – Jesus says elsewhere that, of those naturally born, no one was greater – but perhaps John was thinking in that moment, “Here comes Jesus, the One who takes away all my sins and failings, all the ways that I have failed to follow God’s will and not answered his call.” That’s the way that Jesus always first encounters us – to make us aware of our sins and shortcomings, and then to take them away, so that we can begin again, so that we can start anew.

Maybe this homily has brought to mind some of the ways that you want to start anew, just like I did when I was reading about St. Francis de Sales. But whether it’s in our family, or in our work, in our responsibilities, or our vocations, or the daily challenges and struggles that arise, we can be tempted to perfectionism – to think that it isn’t even worth trying unless we’re sure we won’t make a mistake. Pope Francis recently said, “Don't be afraid to make mistakes. We do not have to wait until we are perfect and have come a long way following Jesus to witness to him; no, our proclamation begins today, there where we live.” In other words, what’s important is that we make a new effort today, and with the Lord’s help another one tomorrow, and then each day onward until we find that we have, despite our sins and failings, accomplished the plan of God for our lives, just like St. John the Baptist, and St. Francis de Sales, and all of the saints who have gone before us in faith.

Friends, perhaps each of us can take the words of the psalmist as a point of reflection for today. Perhaps we can also say, “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Let’s reflect upon where we need to encounter Jesus, to come before him and to let him come to us. In just a few moments, we will behold him, not as John the Baptist did but instead under sacramental signs. Together we can ask him to take away not just the sin of the world but our sins, and so help us to have the courage to begin anew today in striving for holiness. May the grace of this Sacrament help each of us to do all that the Lord asks of us.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Do Not Be Afraid

N.B. This homily refers to the readings for the Vigil Mass of Christmas, found here.

It is a great joy for me to be here with you on maybe the most special evening of the year. Everyone knows that Christmas Eve is a time to be with family, with loved ones, and so although I don’t know you, I feel honored to be with all of you as spiritual family. And we have gathered here, in the house of the Lord – our spiritual family home, so to speak.

We are united by our faith, but we come here in different places and at different moments in our lives. Some of us, praise God, have come with smiles on our faces, with warmth and cheer in our hearts and good will towards men. But others of us are struggling. Perhaps some of us have come *because* we are struggling, asking for some hope and peace in the midst of our difficulties. We face physical ailments and illnesses, financial struggles, problems in our workplace, relationship difficulties, spiritual desolations, worries about the future, emotional fatigue and mental health challenges, and much, much more. There’s a good chance that all of us are facing something right now that feels exhausting, overwhelming, incapacitating, either in the world out there or in our own little worlds, and for those that aren’t, we probably soon will be.

Maybe that puts a little damper on our cheery mood this evening, but believe it or not, that is good news. Because while our struggles are not fun or easy, the fact that we are facing them means that we are in good company. The Virgin Mary knew what it was like to face hardship; she was asked by God to give birth to his Son, without a home or a husband and only a fiancé who may or may not have understood. Joseph, too, faced difficulty: his own fears and a sense of unworthiness to take such a holy lady into his home, most likely enduring the scorn of his friends and the gossip of his neighbors in doing so. None of us – not even those called to be the parents of Jesus – are exempt from facing things that are scary, worrisome, perplexing, and exasperating.

The Good News, however, is that God is not silent in all of this. He has something to say to us, and his message comes through the angel Gabriel, first to Mary, and then to Joseph, and then also to us in whatever struggle or sorrow is currently weighing on us or that ever will do so. He says to us, “Do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Why? Because fear is often the first step away from faith – a temptation toward trying to figure things out ourselves, or to abandoning hope and belief altogether. And so that’s why God says, “No, stop, don’t be afraid” – to nip in the bud that temptation to doubt, and to assure us that he is with us.

The Dream of Saint Joseph (c. 1640) by Georges de la Tour

Last Sunday, if you recall, we heard pretty much the same Gospel as the one that we heard tonight, with only two differences. The first is that, in the longer form of this Gospel, we have the genealogy of Jesus. Saint Matthew gives us the long litany of those men and women who were Jesus’s ancestors as a way of showing us that God’s idea to send us the Savior was not one that he hatched overnight. The plan of our salvation was carefully prepared, and it played out slowly, through good people and some not-so-good people as well.

But the second change in the Gospel this week is the very last verse, Matthew 1:25, which tells us that after Joseph took Mary into his home, she bore a Son, who was named Jesus. That’s the most important part of the whole long Gospel! That one verse makes all the difference between last week and this one, between the promise and the proof. Jesus is the reason we need not be afraid. His presence is the confirmation that God was not lying when he told Mary to trust in him, when he had told Joseph to trust in him. When God tells us to trust in him, no matter what our sorrow or struggle is, Jesus is our proof that God is trustworthy. Why? Because Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” born for us. He has come to dwell with us, not only to share our dysfunctional world but to redeem it and transform it and to elevate it by his grace.

One of the most powerful messengers of this truth was Pope St. John Paul II, the Polish priest who was pope a couple of popes ago. If you know his story, you know that he certainly was familiar with sorrow and struggle. His mother died when he was nine; his brother, when he was twelve; his father, when he was nineteen. The Nazis forced him to work in a factory; he had to study in secret in the seminary; and when he was a priest and later a bishop, he endured opposition and persecution from the communist regime.

With all of these sufferings and challenges, you might expect John Paul to have been stern and severe. But the opposite is true! He was a man of great joy and laughter and hope – not because he didn’t suffer, but because in his sufferings he knew the Lord Jesus was with him, as his Savior, as the One can transform this fallen world. And wherever he went, St. John Paul preached that the same relationship was possible for others, often by repeating some words he had borrowed from the angel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid.” In the first homily he ever gave as pope, he said: “Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power… Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ... So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”

St. John Paul II, addressing the crowd in St. Peter Square on the day of his election as pope, October 22, 1978.

That, my friends, is what the Lord wants us to hear tonight. It is his message for us – not just for our present concerns and worries and difficulties, but always: “Do not be afraid.” Whatever you may be facing, today or tomorrow or anytime, don’t give in to your fears, but instead find your strength in Christ the Lord. Open wide the doors of your heart, and let him enter. Let him transform your world: this Savior, Emmanuel, born of Mary this night for us, whose name is Jesus.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Rejoicing in Our Hardships

There’s an old saying, “Fortune is a fickle mistress.” In other words, just when things seem to be going well, good fortune often abandons us. The crooner Frank Sinatra put it another way in one of his most famous songs: “They call you Lady Luck/ But there is room for doubt/ At times you have a very un-lady-like way/ Of running out!”

John the Baptist knew the fickleness of fortune all too well. In last week’s Gospel, we heard how people from Jerusalem, Judea, and all over the region of the Jordan – an area of some several hundred square miles – were coming out into the desert to hear him preach and to receive his baptism of repentance. In today’s Gospel, John is in a very different place: he in prison, awaiting his own execution. Lady Luck, it seems, has run out on him! John had been the voice calling out in the wilderness, preaching to multitudes, the one that everyone wanted to see. But he ends his life alone, beheaded in a cold prison cell.

This sharp change in the fortunes of John the Baptist might surprise us. We might think, “Is this any way for God to treat the prophet whom he sent to preach the coming of his Son?” But while we might be caught off guard, John himself certainly was not. He knew his role was a temporary one. His job was to point toward the Messiah and then move out of the way. As he himself says about Jesus, “he must increase, and I must decrease.” What John was after wasn’t worldly fame and fortune, but something deeper. He wanted salvation – not just for himself, but for all, for the world. He wanted God’s People to finally receive the fullness of redemption that had long been promised to them, and then God was at last ready to send. That was John’s mission – to prepare the Lord’s way – and in the end he was willing to lay down his life to see it through.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, sometimes called “Gaudete” Sunday, a Latin word that means “Rejoice.” Using the pink candle and vestments, we look ahead with expectation and joy to the dawning of the Lord’s salvation. Because like John the Baptist, it is salvation that we are after. That’s what we prayed for in the opening prayer today: “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation.” Salvation is lasting. It is not fickle like fortune; it doesn’t abandon us like Lady Luck. And today, on this Gaudete Sunday, we celebrate with joy that salvation is now very near, that it is coming soon – not just at Christmas, not just in this holiday season, but in every way that the Lord desires to enter more fully into our lives.

Whenever we encounter Jesus, we encounter his salvation. Sometimes that salvation comes in the ways we like – as blessings of peace and prosperity, happiness, love, meaning, purpose, fulfillment. But sometimes the Lord’s salvation has more difficult manifestations: for example, contrition or guilt, when we have sinned; perseverance or resolve, when we are enduring some trial; perhaps even sorrow or loss, when we experience the fickle nature of this world's fortunes. But even these more challenging experiences are forms of the Lord’s salvation, ways that he draws us more closely to himself.

Joseph Dietrich, John the Baptist in Prison (c. 1740)

And for that reason, these more difficult encounters with the Lord are reasons to be joyful, even in the midst of pain or confusion. Our Gospel does not say it explicitly, but surely John the Baptist rejoiced when he heard from his friends what they had seen and heard: that in Jesus, the blind regained their sight, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the poor had the good news preached to them. Surely, he was joyful and gave thanks to hear that the salvation that he had long hoped for had finally come to pass – even though he himself was still in a prison cell, awaiting his own death.

We can think too of Saint Juan Diego, the man who received the apparition of the Virgin Mary on the hill of Tepeyac five hundred years ago. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him, she appeared to him as one expecting a child, bearing within herself the Lord Jesus. The Virgin Mary's coming was a cause for joy, but it didn't make Juan Diego's life perfectly easy. He had to endure the hardship of his uncle's illness; he had to endure the difficulty of having the archbishop not believe him at first about the apparitions; he surely had other challenges and difficulties as well. But he opened himself to receiving the Lord's presence, with faith and with rejoicing, and he was rewarded for his perseverance.

Friends, perhaps the question for us in this Advent season is this: can we be joyful in welcoming the Lord’s salvation in whatever manner it comes to us? John the Baptist and Juan Diego were saints focused not on their own good fortune but on God’s salvation, and who rejoiced when it came even though it brought them hardship. Are we willing to go through difficulties to receive the coming of the Lord, perhaps to be misunderstood as Juan Diego was, perhaps even to give up our own life as John the Baptist did? Are we able to rejoice at what the Lord comes to give us – even in those blessings and invitations that are not so enjoyable, but which nonetheless bring us closer to him?

Let us now prepare our hearts for the Eucharist we will celebrate, for in this banquet too Jesus comes, to bless us with a foretaste of the heavenly feast. May the Lord, who draws near to us, enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Hour to Awake

It’s a pleasure to be here with you on this holiday weekend. I hope everyone had a very blessed Thanksgiving. Did anyone do any shopping on Black Friday? Plenty of people did – some who were out in search of a particular item, and others who wanted to check out some of the sales that were being promoted, to make sure they didn’t miss out on some really great deal.

I ventured out myself because I decided I needed to buy an alarm clock, of all things. I help out with Mass at lots of churches, all of which have different schedules, and many of which have Masses early in the morning. And if there’s one thing a priest who does supply work is afraid of it’s being late for Mass, so I decided I need to invest in a good alarm beyond just my cell phone.

Part of maturity is learning to do what it takes to get ourselves out of bed in the morning – not to wallow in sleep but to wake up and face the day and what it holds. Today’s second reading reminds us that this is true not only for our bodies but also for our spirits. Just as we must shake off the sleepiness of the morning, so too St. Paul encourages the Romans to be roused from spiritual drowsiness in order to be ready for the hour of salvation. In other words, he tells them that it’s time to wake up, because while the world is still shrouded in night, we await the dawning of the new and eternal day.

In the Morning (1840) by A. Rötting

The season of Advent, which we begin today, is something like a liturgical alarm clock – a ringing reminder from the Church not to be lulled into complacency by the worldly things that surround us, but to wake up and stand ready for the coming of the Lord. And just like we get out of bed and get dressed when our alarm clock goes off in the morning, even if it’s still dark outside, so too St. Paul urges us to take off what is old and disheveled – what he calls the works of darkness: orgies, drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry, jealousy – and instead dress ourselves in the armor of light. In using this time to be deepen our faith, to strengthen our hope, to renew commitment to works of service and charity, then as he says, we literally put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We become vested in the very identity of the Lord whom we await.

This admonition is one that should always be at the heart of our practice as faithful Christians, but especially so in this season of Advent. As we know, this season is the one that prepares us for the birth of Christ, but it also looks ahead – especially in the first few weeks – to the Lord’s return at the end of time. And it’s that coming which Jesus speaks of in the Gospel today, in which he also encourages the disciples to stay awake, and to stand ready for his return. We don’t know when that return will be, but if we remain ready, then, in a sense, it doesn’t matter when it will happen, because we will be prepared for it whenever he comes.

These next few weeks then are a chance to heed the spiritual alarm clock and to make ourselves ready again for the Lord who is coming. If we have grown a little lax lately in our prayer, now is the chance to renew those daily practices of speaking to the Lord – of communicating with him in the words of Scripture, the words of our devotional prayers, and in our own words from the heart. Maybe we need to admit that our behavior has been a little off recently, perhaps in just those ways that St. Paul warned the Romans about – drunkenness, lust, jealousy. Advent is our chance to rouse ourselves to a new sobriety, so that we will be clearheaded enough to see the dawning of the Lord’s coming. And if we have been a little lethargic lately in helping others – in serving those around us, in sacrificing of ourselves without complaint, in exercising the charity that the Lord commands of his disciples – then Advent is just the perfect time to start over, to start again, and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ in all we do.

Friends, in what way is the Lord calling you to spiritually wake up? In whatever way it is, don’t miss out on the great deal the Lord offers you in this Eucharistic banquet – how at this Mass and every Mass we can recognize and attune ourselves to the Presence of the Lord, who comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine in order to make us ready for his coming on the day of his return. Let’s hear the spiritual alarm clock of this Advent season, so that we may become fully awake in these days, and ready for the day of the Lord’s return.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

How the Story Will End

The most important part of any story is how it ends. Lots of stories that start out pretty well are ruined by rotten endings. We probably can all think of a book we read, or a movie we saw, or a TV series that we streamed that started out OK but fell apart by the end. A good story, on the other hand, might start slowly or have some confusing twists or turns in the middle but it ends in a memorable and satisfying way that redeems the whole experience.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t know how a story will end until we get there. Several months ago, I was sitting in a dark theater, kinda squirming in my seat, and just counting down the minutes until the movie I came to see would finally come to an end. I had seen the trailer and thought that the film’s premise looked interesting enough, but halfway through I was second-guessing my decision: the movie was just kind of dragging on, I couldn’t understand where it was going, and worst of all, I wasn’t at all sure the ending was going to be good. At the same time, I was too invested to leave; or better or worse, I had to see it through to the end. Fortunately, on that occasion, I was rewarded for my perseverance – the story picked up and had a good ending that was worth seeing.

Life is not a movie or a TV show, of course, but it is a story, and this is especially true when we think of it in light of our faith. The fundamental claim of the Christian faith is that our lives are part of a larger story – not just the story of the world, but the story of God’s relationship with the world, a relationship that is defined by the person of Jesus Christ. We know the rough outlines of the story: that we have each been created in God’s image and likeness, that by our sins we have fallen short of God’s plan, that we need a Savior and that Savior is Jesus, God-with-us, who died and rose again to save us from our sins, that we now share in his Holy Spirit and in the hope of eternal life with him.

All of that we know, but sometimes we get stuck at that point. We’re not really sure where the story goes from there. How do our lives – with all of their joys and sorrows, their various goals and challenges – how do they fit in to the story? And most importantly, how will they end? In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us some assurance. As the one who wrote the story, he knows how it ends, and he shares with us a glimpse of what the future holds. What we hear may not sound at first very encouraging: nations engaging in violence, natural disasters and famines and plagues, and then perhaps most frighteningly, facing persecutions and even death. In the time of global pandemics, divided politics, even the threat of global war, all of that may hit a little too close to home.

Believe it or not, though, Jesus tells us all of this so that we may have hope. Why? Because he wants us to know what the ending will be. He assures us that in the end, after all these trials, God will save the righteous. All of these bad things will happen and it will seem like the good guys are going to lose, but then – boom, God will come to reward those who persevere in righteousness. As we heard from the prophet Malachi in our first reading, on that day God’s justice will come in an instant to give each their due: for those who are proud and those who do evil, it will be like a blazing oven “to set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch,” whereas for the righteous, that day will dawn like the warm sun “with its healing rays.”

John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822)

So, that’s how the story ends generally. But what will our ending be? On the one hand, today’s readings can give us strength and hope – if we find ourselves in the midst of a difficult chapter in life, perhaps confused with the direction we are headed, or being tossed about by the twists and turns in life’s plot. Maybe we are anxious about the storylines we see around us – in our society, in our church, in our personal lives. Maybe even some of us are tempted to give up on our faith. If that’s where we find ourselves, Jesus says, “Take heart! Fear not, for the ending of this story is certain, and though you may be suffering or perplexed now, if you persevere in your faith in me, you will be rewarded.”

On the other hand, today’s readings might be a wake-up call if we’re not perhaps as focused on our final end as we should be. Jesus says that those who share in his identity will necessarily encounter difficulties, sufferings, persecutions, and possibly even death, and we must be ready for those things so that when they come we don’t grow discouraged. The story of life is long and winding, and it has lots of subplots and side stories that can distract us from our ultimate goal, if we’re not careful. If we think that God primarily intends for us to find lasting happiness in this life or in what this life offers – power, pleasures, prestige, possessions – then we should perhaps squirm in our seats a bit because we will be sorely disappointed on the last day.

Friends, a week from now we will celebrate the Feast of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s the part of the story that we haven’t yet experienced – the ending that awaits all of us. He who will return in glory on the last day, who will rule over all things in the end, is also the One who encourages us to have hope in him today, to stay focused on him, and to persevere in faithfulness to him in all of our joys and sorrows, all of our goals and challenges. If we do so, then on the coming of his day, we will encounter his justice like the healing rays of the rising sun. And that will be an ending worth seeing.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Say You're Sorry

“Can you say, ‘I’m sorry’?”

My sister has been asking that question recently of her kids. At 8, 6, and 3, my niece and my two nephews can all say, “I’m sorry”, but her question has a deeper meaning than just knowing how to literally say the words. She’s teaching them the lesson of how to take ownership for their mistakes, and of recognizing the harm, whether intentional or unintentional, that they sometimes cause each other.

Talking with my sister, it struck me how important it is to learn this lesson at a young age – to be able to say “I’m sorry” and to do it well. Too often, we are more inclined to respond in some way that justifies ourselves or avoids responsibility: “Sorry you misunderstood me,” or “You’re overreacting,” or “I did that because you did this.” My niece and nephews aren’t bad kids, not by any means, but if they learn how to simply say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it, they’ll be much better off, not only in their sibling squabbles, but in the deeper wounds that they will inevitably give and receive in various relationships as they mature.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is also aiming to help his listeners to recognize their faults. The evangelist St. Luke tells us that the parable we hear about the Pharisee and the tax collector is specifically intended for “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Jesus must have known that there were some among his followers who also had trouble owning up to their mistakes, who were quick to explain away the harm they caused or to put the blame on somebody else. Maybe Jesus was especially concerned with the implicit judgmentalism that can creep into our dealings with others, when we are quick to latch on to the faults of others and ignore our own, assuming the worst about others’ intentions and only the best of ourselves.

As Jesus’s parable shows us, this kind of spiritual egotism can have serious consequences for our relationship with God. The Pharisee goes to the Temple, as he must have done frequently, perhaps every day. And yet, his prayer is not heard; God does not accept what he offers. As a Pharisee, he probably lived an upright life; he would have followed the commandments of the Law very faithfully, and probably was a paragon of virtue to those who knew him. But all of his good works were corrupted by his interior sense of self-righteousness. And we are told he went away unjustified, which means not at peace with God. Compare that to the tax collector, a man who was in league with the Roman occupiers and who had probably cheated his countrymen and women out of their money. Most people would have thought him pretty despicable, but because he recognizes his fault, and begs God for mercy, his prayer is heard. He leaves the temple in God's good graces.

Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, The Publican and the Pharisee (c. 1860)

This Gospel passage is an excellent examination of conscience for us about the proper way to approach the Lord. I have sometimes used it at the beginning of a penance service, the kind we have usually in Lent or Advent. Even the best of us – the most considerate and self-aware among us – fall far short of the righteousness of God, who is perfectly good, holy, and just. In light of that disparity, it’s ridiculous to try to justify ourselves to him, to boast to him about our own qualities or merits, as if they were not his free gifts to us. If we come into God’s house – whether for a penance service, or to attend Sunday Mass, or even to just spend some time in prayer – it’s kind of pointless to approach the Lord and say, “See all of these great things I have done, God, and all of these bad things I haven’t done!” The Lord can’t do anything with that kind of self-satisfied attitude, and with those words, it’s likely that we’re falling into the spiritual vanity that corrupts our very desire to be good.

In contrast, the Lord always hears the one who approaches him as the tax collector does, with recognition of his own unworthiness and need for mercy. Even the most hardened sinner, if he approaches the Lord in humility, confessing his faults, and seeking to do better, will be quickly and easily forgiven by God. To use an image from the writings of St. Faustina, such a person is like a grimy seashell washed in the ocean; the Lord’s mercy overwhelms us, removing our stains as if they had never been there.

Friends, let’s hear the Lord speaking to us today. As we seek to mature in our discipleship of Jesus, let’s learn anew the importance of being able to say, “I’m sorry,” – to others, certainly, but especially to the Lord himself. It’s not by self-righteousness that we earn his favor, but rather by our humility, and we have the opportunity to practice that every day in our prayer, especially here at Mass. As we prepare for this Eucharist, may we be convinced not of our own worthiness, but of our need for his mercy, so that by humbling ourselves us in this life he may exalt us in the next.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Raise Your Voice

There’s an old adage: “Pride comes before the fall.” The Book of Proverbs, specifically the 16th chapter, is the source of that saying, although these days it is also mentioned in non-religious contexts, like sports or politics or even daily life. “Pride comes before the fall” means, in effect, that overconfidence and ego often prevent a person from seeing some coming failure or defeat. Pride blinds them to what they could have avoided.

If pride comes before the fall, then we might say the opposite is also true: humility comes before ascendance. Or, said another way, humility helps us to see with new eyes, not only the situation before us, but especially ourselves. And in so doing, humility opens the way to growth and transformation.

Today’s Gospel gives us a clear example of just how this works. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, where he has told the disciples he must go to suffer, die, and then rise again. And on the way, he meets ten people afflicted with leprosy. Lepers were the lowliest group of the ancient world; their disease not only prevented them from engaging in normal human society, but it was seen as a stigma and a sign of God’s disfavor. In this condition, it would have been no small thing for them to approach Jesus, the famous rabbi and miracle-worker. Yet, they see in him someone who can alleviate their plight. And so they have the humility to ask for help, crying out, though also standing at a distance out of respect and caution. And it’s only by having the humility to get Jesus’s attention that they are transformed by his power and healed of their leprosy.

I’d wager that none of us ever have been or ever will be afflicted with leprosy. If we were, modern medicine could help us. But while we may not have that terrible disease, we do have other needs – needs that we should recognize in honesty and humility. Maybe we have another physical illness or malady that burdens us. Maybe we are plagued by spiritual afflictions, like addiction, mental health issues, or emotional trauma. Maybe we have suffered damaged relationships, or spiritual doubts or dryness, or fatigue in our vocational duties or in the responsibilities of daily life. Whatever it is, surely all of us can think of some malady that plagues us, that we wish to be rid of, that we know we can’t fix ourselves.

Christ and the Lepers (c. 1920) by Gebhard Fugel

Jesus can help us, just like he helped the lepers in today’s Gospel. But first we must recognize our need for his aid. Like them, we must raise our voice to him – not to catch his attention, since he is already always focused upon us, but to humble ourselves, to recognize in humility that he can provide what we cannot. It’s that kind of trust in the Lord that is pleasing to him, that not only helps us to move toward the transformation that we desire, but that also deepens our relationship with him. Spiritual growth isn’t about mastering certain abilities or acquiring certain attributes on our own; rather, it comes from learning to rely ever more deeply on the Lord, he who loves us and who wants to give us the good things we need, if only we open ourselves to him.

Of course, humbly asking the Lord for what we need is just the first step. We must be prepared for the fact that he may not grant what we need right away. Sometimes he asks us to wait a bit, to deepen our trust in him even more and to expand our capacity to receive. Sometimes he asks us to suffer a little – to walk with him on the path to Jerusalem – for our good and the good of all the world. Sometimes the true gift is not the answer to our prayers, but the spirit of thanksgiving that the Lord also gives us; like the leper who returns in gratitude, we are truly healed and transformed only when we praise the One who has helped us.

But it’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Today’s Gospel reminds us that the most significant step is the first one: recognizing our need in humility and asking the Lord for his help. Brothers and sisters, in all of the individual ways that perhaps we have reflected upon, and for all the needs we have collectively – the needs of this parish, the needs of our Church, the needs of our society, the needs of all the world – let us raise our voices and lift up our hearts anew to the Lord. Let us humbly call upon him, and say with great faith, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” And may our faith in him be our salvation.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Lazarus's Neighbors

“Good fences make good neighbors.” You might recognize that statement if you are familiar with the work of the American poet Robert Frost. It’s from one of his more famous poems, “Mending Wall.” In the context of the poem, it is the saying of a New England landowner who explains why he’s performing the hard labor of repairing a stone wall that separates his property from others. He wants to rebuild the wall because, in his words, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

There is a kind of logic to that point of view that our society recognizes as well. We usually don’t like to meddle in the affairs of other people, and we certainly don’t like it when they meddle in ours. We have a sort of built-in mentality of “Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.” Good fences make good neighbors.

The problem, as we all know, is that this can be taken too far. Sometimes we need others to be invested in our well-being, even if it invades our privacy. If our house is on fire and we’re not home, we don’t want our neighbors to say, “Oh well, you know, I didn’t call the fire department because it’s not my house, I didn’t want to get involved in someone else’s business.” And it goes the other way, too. We have the obligation to get involved in the affairs of others when a true emergency is present.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the well-being of the poor is just that kind of emergency — it’s a spiritual house on fire, and the hydrant and firehose are within our reach. The great sin of the rich man in Jesus’s parable – the sin that leads him to perdition – is not the fact that he is wealthy, but that he doesn’t use any of his wealth to aid the man who was so clearly in need at his doorstep. We can think of all kinds of reasons that the rich man might have had for not helping – “I don’t really want to get involved”; “Lazarus, I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry, I don’t have time right now”; “Lazarus, can’t you just get a job, for crying out loud?”; “Lazarus, how do I know that you won’t use what I give you for booze or drugs?” But none of these reasons, in the end, justify the fact that the rich man failed to help someone whom he *could* have helped, who was in such dire need.

The Rich Man and Poor Lazarus (1625) by Hendrick ter Brugghen

The implication, I think, is obvious for us. Helping the needy and the poor might take us out of our comfort zone, and we might be tempted not to help because of all kinds of What-Ifs that might come to mind. But Jesus is telling us today that the well-being of the poor has a direct impact on our eternal well-being, so it’s best to use our dishonest wealth now — that is, our money, to use a phrase from last week’s Gospel — in order to build up treasure in heaven.

Now, I know many of us might say: "Father, my situation is not exactly that of the rich man's. Things are hard for me." But wherever we may find ourselves on the economic scale, I think we can all admit that there's someone who is in an even more challenging situation. What this Gospel should prompt within each of us is an examination of conscience about who is within our reach that is need of our help. Maybe it’s a neighbor who is going through a difficult stretch after losing a job. Maybe it’s those folks we see standing on street corners and red lights asking for a little help. Maybe it’s those in our community that we’ve never met, but whose needs are known to us, that we can alleviate through supporting a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, a pregnancy resource center, a halfway house.

And lest we think otherwise, it’s not only those close to home that we must have concern for. Today is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, an annual reminder as Catholics that we also are to help vulnerable persons who have been displaced from their homelands because of famine, violence, or economic hardship. As citizens of a global society, and as members of the Body of Christ spread throughout the world, we have a duty to know about and help even those far away from us whom we may never meet personally. I’d encourage you to consider learning more about how you can help migrants and refugees through the work of groups like Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Services, or the International Catholic Migration Commission.

Friends, perhaps it feels a little overwhelming to think of all these systemic problems like homelessness or a global refugee crisis. But the point today is that we don’t have to solve those issues in order to still help the individual people that are within our reach. What makes good neighbors, in the end, is not good fences, but just being good neighbors to the Lazarus's among us – having concern for the well-being of others and doing what we can to help those clearly in need. As we prepare for this Eucharist, may the Lord Jesus be our model in all these things – he who humbled himself to help us in our need, who submitted to the lowliness of the Cross in order to raise us to new and eternal life.