16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Martha + Mary)

Today’s reading tells us that Jesus entered the village of Bethany, and accepted an invitation from friends, Martha and her sister Mary, to stop for a visit. In the midst of their time together, one sister, Martha, is described as being “burdened with much serving”, while her sister, Mary, has simply parked herself on the floor with Jesus. Having had enough, Martha interrupted what was going on and asked Jesus to intercede: “Tell her to help me”.

The differences between these two sisters—Martha the busy-body and Mary the mesmerized listener—has been understood through the centuries, as the contrast of two states of religious life: the active Christian and the contemplative Christian. And Jesus’ response about Mary having “chosen the better part” has left many to draw the conclusion that he’s declaring the contemplative life to be superior. Instead, I propose a different way of looking at this narrative: both sisters are doing something important—one is serving and one is listening—but only one is doing what Jesus needs in the moment: and ironically, it’s the one who is doing seemingly nothing.

We might ask: How is sitting on the floor useful? And how can that be what Jesus needed? Martha’s getting a lot done—preparing a meal and serving it—isn’t that more likely to serve a need? Especially given that we are of a culture where quantifiable results and productivity are so valued. Our American identity is built upon what is called the Protestant Work Ethic, which holds that one fulfills his/her duty to God by hard work and indicators of measurable success. We tend to be do-ers. It’s in our American blood. Sitting and listening, as did Mary, is not a measurable activity, if it’s to be considered activity at all.

Perhaps the context within this reading helps. As we move week to week through the Gospel of Luke, we are now in chapter 10. It was three weeks ago that we heard the verse that declares: “Jesus resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51, 13th Sunday in OT). That verse begins a long section, chapters 9 through 19, in which Jesus makes a long, slow, southward journey toward Jerusalem, where rejection, public humiliation and certain death on a cross await him.

And so, as he stopped along the way to visit and share a meal with Martha and Mary, he knew all that awaited him in the holy city. He knew that he would not be returning to Bethany and that this would be the last time to visit them in their home.

In a situation like this, one is less likely to need a person bustling about, fulfilling tasks, but instead to be with friends, to be close and to be present. And it’s Mary who seemed to know what was needed. We have no idea what Jesus said to her, but only that he spoke, and that she was attentive and present.

Mary reminds us today that so often what people need is not for something to be done, but that they need us to be present. That’s not easy for people whose first response is typically to try to fix the problem or to simply be do-ers. I remember learning this (and I’m still learning it.), serving as a chaplain at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. I learned that so much of pastoral ministry, dealing with the inner workings of another person’s heart, is simply listening, being attentive and being present. I had to learn to just shut my trap and listen and to love the person before me. I had to resist the temptation to seek how to fix their problem, because in almost every case, their problems were beyond my fixing.

The other trap we can fall into with people in crises of the heart is to retreat. I remember as a young man being uncomfortable being around someone who was dealing with death, failing health, or depression. I didn’t know what to say or do and so I tried to escape the situation altogether. Who knows, maybe that’s what Martha was doing by being a busy-body.

The fact is that like Martha and Mary, part of our lives is dealing with people who are facing difficulties: their crises of the heart. There’s a time to attend to practical needs, like Martha. And there’s a time to be just be present, like Mary.

Here, in this Mass, let us look to Mary as a model: the one who listened attentively to the Word of God. She listened to the pain of Christ and loved him. In a few minutes, Jesus as our High Priest, will speak to us, saying “This is my Body and Blood…broken, blessed and given up for you….it is my covenant with you….my gift of love to you”. As he did with Martha and Mary, he shares a meal with us, he visits us, here in our home. Like Mary, let us be present to him, at his feet, listening attentively and loving him.

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Radical Mercy - The Good Samaritan)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most beloved, but also challenging of parables. Jesus offered it in response to a fellow Jew, a scholar of the Law, asking,“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, then eventually, “Who is my neighbor?” . It was test, asking Jesus to clarify who we are obliged to show God’s mercy toward.

Of the three figures who passed by the victim, the first two—a Temple priest and a Jew from the tribe of Levi—while we regard them as uncompassionate, they were in a dilemma. As strict followers of Jewish Law, contact with blood would have rendered them unclean, and so they gave a wide berth in passing the victim.

Jesus’ response calls us to see mercy as an ultimate value: challenging the philosophical and moral framework that ordinarily shapes our responses. And furthermore, because Jesus adds the detail that it’s a foreigner who embodies this radical mercy, it seems to convey that mercy extends beyond those who are my people, my fellow citizens, those of my religion?  

Of the many saints and historical figures who have shown us what this mercy looks like, among those is Peter Claver, born in 1581 near Barcelona, Spain. After joining the Jesuits at age 20, he was sent to the new world, to the port-city of Cartagena. Peter went to evangelize, but soon came face to face with a troubling reality, as ships arrived in the port, filled with African slaves—men, women and children.

As ships arrived, he found his way to the cargo area, treating wounds, giving food and drink, quelling their fears. For this, he faced contempt and rejection. After 40 tireless years of merciful love, Peter contracted an illness from a widespread epidemic. The illness left him unable to continue his work. For the remaining 3 years of his life, most of his days were spent in sickness and alone in his private quarters, where he died in the year 1654.

Then there’s Katharine Drexel, born in Philadelphia in 1858. As daughter of a successful investment banker, Katharine and her sisters inherited a fortune. She also inherited her father’s compassion for the poor. While much work was being done to respond to the needs of the population of European immigrants, Katharine recognized that there were two other groups in the U.S. whose needs were being ignored: Indians and blacks.

After establishing a religious community, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she poured every drop of her financial resources, influence and energies into establishing missions and schools to serve these two marginalized groups—traveling from one outpost to another to another. Many denounced her efforts, declaring that she was wasting her time and money on an unworthy population, but she remained undeterred. Mother Drexel died in 1955 at age 97, having lived through eras that included slavery, wars waged against the Native Americans and the beginning of the civil rights movement.  

Finally, Joseph de Veuster, born in 1840 in Belgium, entered religious life and took the name Damian. In 1864, he was sent to the distant group of islands known as the Kingdom of Hawaii. Years later, when the local bishop asked his priests to volunteer to serve the needs of the leper population that had been segregated to the island of Molokai, a small group of priests said yes, with the plan that they would serve in rotation. Fr. Damian went first, and began to bring order to the chaos, making furniture, building a school and homes, farming, but also caring for the sick, making coffins and digging graves. As it turned out, he never left the island. After about 11 years, he contracted the illness that would eventually end his life in 1889, declaring, “….I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ”. 

The list of such figures goes on: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Mother Teresa, and so on. I can’t imagine that the course of these beautiful lives wasn’t inspired, at least a little, by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. While you and I aren’t likely to live as heroically as these figures—though only God knows—we are challenged to embody God’s mercy in the setting of our ordinary lives. We’re challenged to overcome the myriad of reasons that serve as our excuses and justify our fears.

When Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, God response inferred it so. (Gen 4:9-12). But even more, Jesus makes it clear that in our acts of mercy to those who are suffering, it’s him we encounter: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 5:40).

At the end of our lives, may we not be regarded merely as people of principles—though the principles serve a purpose, and we must not be reckless in discounting or abandoning those. But more than principled, may we be sons and daughters, driven to grind through the hard questions and to find solutions to the dumbfounding complexities and even the legalities, in any way they serve as barriers to justice and human dignity—all that the world may know God’s tender mercy. As we have received mercy, we must reflect it in our lives.

St. Peter Claver….pray for us!

St. Katharine Drexel….pray for us!

St. Damian of Molokai….pray for us!

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (The Influence of Atheism)

In light of today’s Gospel in which Jesus sends out 72 of his followers, laborers for the Kingdom of God, it calls to mind the very notion of evangelization. What is evangelization? It’s sharing the faith with others, inviting them into what it has to offer.

That’s not an easy thing to do and even for those of us who are alive in the faith, most of us are at a loss on how to share it without it backfiring. Of course, too many Christians have never really come to life in the faith, and so they don’t really know how to share it.

But I was thinking about how hard it is in our current culture, especially given that we are experiencing the opposite of what evangelization is intended to do. If evangelization is the compelling invitation that draws more people into the faith, we live in a culture where the religious population is shrinking. What’s causing this effect? We could cite church scandals, bishops who have lost our trust, and priests who have done people harm; maybe it’s bad preaching or unfriendly parishioners. Maybe it’s uninspired worship.

There are all sorts of things that may be a reason for one person or another, but one of the reasons is the framework of understanding that’s been gradually constructed in the minds of our youth. Too many of them are leaving the faith. Perhaps it’s for the reasons I just cited, or maybe because the faith was never shown to be meaningful by their parents. But a lot of it has to do with what they are taught in institutions of learning.

Those of you who attended the parish mission with Dr. John Bergsma back in March, recall what he explained about those with atheistic agendas in the field of science—and how many of our institutions of learning are filled with those whose aim is to ‘evangelize’ atheism. Among the more familiar names of this movement are Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Not merely taking the passive approach of live and let live, their aim is to put an end to religious structures. Like the 72 Jesus sent out, their disciples are waiting to form the minds and hearts of your children in our high schools, colleges and universities.

What’s their motivation? One reason is that life seems easier if you choose to do away with God. You get to be your own god, and it feels liberating. But also, some see religious dogma as the cause of wars, hatred and genocide. While it’s true that many have killed in the name of religion, that’s never been what Christianity teaches. Even more, I would argue that wars, hatred and genocide would remain even without religion. Perhaps you recall also all that Dr. Bergsma explained to us that refutes the arguments of atheists, and furthermore, all the compelling evidence he cited for a supreme being.

The voices of the atheists are influencing too many of our young people. Why are they succeeding? I think largely because they seem to be rooted in science and logic. It feels intellectually grounded, in contrast to what we are told are the primitive myths of religion.

To be clear, while there’s no proving to them God’s existence, neither can they prove their claim that there is no God. And for whatever way their claims seem solidly rooted in science, they ultimately have no answers for any original causes, nor for the human desire for transcendence. And here’s the thing: they cast away the idea of God, but what one is left with is a soul that is restless and thirsting for meaning.

As we do away with God, and religion as a means to draw us to him, are we a happier society? Are people at greater peace in their minds and hearts? Does it help us to love ourselves more? I think not. Instead, as a population we are increasingly lost, relying more than ever on upon what our psychiatrists and psychologists can provide and prescribe, to mask the emptiness, and to help give us a will to live, when too many of us don’t want to. The empirical findings and sciences of sociology seem to indicate that when we do away with God, we’re left rootless and lost.

Brothers and sisters, not only is very strong evidence of a supreme being, but even more, He is a personal God—not just some life-force in the background of the universe, observing us remotely. Today’s words from Isaiah speak of God who is tender and nurturing, speaking in words altogether maternal, like a mother caring for and taking delight in her baby—even if we’re a bunch of messed-up babies. The fact is—God loves you like you’re His little one—even if you don’t know it, can’t feel it or don’t care. That love is the notion of God that Jesus sent the 72 to proclaim and that’s the God he still invites us to know and to rest in.

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Freedom)

This week we will celebrate our beloved nation’s birth. One of the absolute bedrock values that our nation is built upon is freedom. It’s part of our American identity. But what do we mean by freedom? We might say that it’s freedom from the rule of a tyrant or dictator or freedom to worship God as we choose. Perhaps it’s freedom that comes from citizens electing their own representatives to create laws and regulations that serve them according to their needs. We cherish this freedom and we would cease to be American without it. In the coming days, many of our nation’s citizens will regale their great love of freedom by consuming copious amounts of adult beverages and over the course of six or seven days, blasting illegal fireworks, one after another…after another…and another, at all hours of the day.

Our Scriptures also speak a lot about freedom, but it’s a different understanding of freedom than we associate with nationalism. Today, we heard St. Paul’s words to the Christians of Galatia, saying, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.”

Paul wrote these words, sometime around the year 50 AD, to a rather new Christian community in a region known as Galatia, in present-day Turkey. These new Christians were mostly of Gentile origin, meaning that they weren’t of Jewish heritage. What happened is that not long after Paul moved on to another community, a group of interlopers, who happened to be Christians of Jewish heritage—Paul calls them Judaizers—came in an began to disrupt the community. They told the Galatian Christians that since Jesus and his original band of followers were Jews, to be true followers, they too would have to follow Jewish Law and all its practices. Paul got wind of it all and wrote this emotionally charged letter, admonishing them for being so easily carried astray, and rallying against the interlopers who had created the disruption by preaching a different Jesus.

He told them that as followers of Jesus, they are free from the yoke of the Law, because salvation came to them through Jesus, rather than the works of the Law. They’d already been given the gift of salvation. Instead, their task was therefore to receive that salvation through their choosing to live like Jesus. And therein lay their true human freedom—to exercise their will in conformity to Jesus’ call or not.

In the context of national freedom, we tend think of being freed from something. But in fact, St. Paul would want us to understand that human freedom means that we are freed for something. Our Catechism says it this way: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC, 1731). How different out lives, our families and our world would be if we truly exercised this freedom.

In thinking about this, I imagine the inside of an old dungeon-style prison. And as you look down the main corridor you can see the iron bars of each individual cell—those on the right, those on the left. Within each of those cells, though out of view, are prisoners, sitting within, motionless and silent, having lost hope of being freed.

But at some point, somebody entered the prison and had keys for every cell. He went through the entire prison, motioning the prisoners out, as he unlocked and opened each cell’s door. We would expect the prisoners to run out as fast as they could. But instead, they simply remain within, sitting on the floor, with their backs against the cold cinder-block wall, perhaps believing the task of getting up and leaving to be too much trouble; fearing the unknown of what freedom would bring; and fearing the loss of the familiarity of their cell.

We have been given freedom to live according to something great and beautiful, a higher ideal. And the more we free ourselves of the things that have nothing to do with the One who gave us freedom, the freer we become to ascend toward that higher ideal. Ironically, in our freedom we choose so many things that shackle and limit us—fear and hopelessness keep us in our cells. Jesus wants us to be free, saying, “Follow me”. The more we exercise our will and follow, the freer we become. As we ask God’s blessing on our beloved nation and its people, and celebrate the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, may we ultimately be freed from anything that would yoke us, that we might ultimately be freed for Jesus and the salvation he won for us.

Solemnity of Corpus Christi

In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted this solemnity for the Universal Church, as a statement of our belief in the True Presence of Jesus in Eucharist. But let’s be clear, that’s not when this belief began. It was only a formal declaration of belief, long held. So where did we get this idea, that the Eucharist was more than just a bread wafer and wine? From Jesus himself: “My flesh is true food and my blood, true drink….unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6: 53-55). And from the earliest times, the Christian people have believed this. You need only consider the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (D. 110), Justin the Martyr (D. 165) and Irenaeus of Lyon (D. 202), Tertullian (D 250) and Origen of Alexandria (D. 254). I remind us that before there was a Bible, Christians gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.

But there was a Belgian nun who lived in the 1200s named Juliana of Liege, who through her deep experiences in prayer, received a calling to create a specific liturgical celebration that formally celebrates our belief in the True Presence. She shared this strong desire with Pope Urban IV, but it would not be until sometime later that he would act upon it.

What happened is that a priest from Prague by the name of Peter, decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1263 to pray at the tomb of his namesake, St. Peter. Along the way he stopped at a little church in the Italian town of Bolsena, about 70 miles north of Rome. He asked if he could celebrate Mass at a chapel there.

Fr. Peter had struggled with doubts about this notion of Jesus’ True Presence in the Eucharist, and so before he celebrated the Mass he prayed for faith to believe. Then as he celebrated the Mass, he raised the host, as he said the words of consecration. The host began to bleed profusely, onto his hands and onto the altar cloths. He nervously wrapped the host in the corporal, and uncertain of what exactly to do, he left the altar, as blood continued to drip on to the altar steps and the floor.

Fr. Peter left the chapel and went to the neighboring town of Orvieto, about 12 miles away, because residing there at that time was Pope Urban IV. He first confessed his sin of unbelief and described what happened. Pope Urban sent a delegation back to Bolsena. What he saw in the evidence was enough to compel him to at last, act on Sister Julian’s request.

Over the next year he worked on it, and in 1264 he issued a statement declaring this solemnity, Corpus Christi, for the Universal Church. And he asked a Dominican friar to compose prayers and hymns to be used for such a glorious feast. His name was St. Thomas Aquinas, and from his pen came the beautiful hymns that we still sing today: Tantum Ergo, Adoro te Devote, O Salutaris and the Pange Lingua.

When Thomas, who was a brilliant mind, struggled with an intellectual issue, he would place himself before the tabernacle, even resting his head on it, pleading for guidance. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a treatise on the Eucharist. Upon completing it, not believing that he had done it justice, he laid the pages he had written at the foot of the cross of Jesus and began to pray. He heard a voice say to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas, what would you desire in return?” Thomas replied, “Non nisi Te” (“I will have nothing, except you.”).

 From this altar, we see before us, held aloft, the Pearl of Great Price. To those without regard or belief in it, it seems insignificant. But as St. Paul once said, and is true of us who believe, “We live as having nothing (in other words, just a wafer of bread), yet everything is ours” (2 Cor 6:10). And that everything—the God who created the cosmos, the mountains, our parents, our children, as an act of love—makes Himself vulnerable and allows Himself to be placed in our hands and on our tongues—in an act so intimate. Let us pray that we might be conscious of what we receive; that like Fr. Peter of Prague, we might at least desire to believe in this mystery; that we might have hearts disposed to receive it; so that ultimately, we might be overcome by it and possessed by it.

Solemnity of the Holy Trinity (The Reform of Man, Discovery of the Holy Trinity)

On this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, we do our best to contemplate the mystery of God’s inner-life as Three Divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Theologians speak of how this mystery is reflected in the human person—that one way of grasping the notion of the Holy Trinity is to consider the mystery of who we are: male and female, and even more, the life generating capacities that their complementary as male and female bears.

I recently started reading a book entitled The Anti-Mary Exposed, written by a woman named Carrie Gress, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She speaks of the modern anti-Mary mentality and the rise of toxic femininity. To be clear, feminism can mean different things for different people. On one hand, I see the value in a feminism that sees the imperative value in equal treatment, for women to have opportunities like men, to have a voice, to not be regarded as a lesser-being. But then there’s what Dr. Gress calls Radical Feminism, which she says stems from what’s described as “a particular women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s that has Marxist roots”…adding that “Marxism and all the systems of government and economics that arise from it depend upon the belief that human nature can be changed, by force if necessary—as Dr. Gress says, seeking ‘equality and respect through the vices of Machiavelli: rage, intimidation” and such (http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/assailing-the-anti-mary).

Among the things that come out of the latter brand of feminism is a view that children are simply an obstacle to a woman’s true happiness and achievement, but further an anti-male mentality, that the author says is harmful, not only for men, but also for women.

We commonly see it in popular culture. In a review of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, the reviewer pointed out that “almost without exception, the male characters are bumbling, incompetent, morally compromised. They don’t know what to do until they get proper female instruction”. On the other hand, “almost without exception, the women are brilliant, heroic, virtuous, etc., rolling their eyes” at the misguided men. This, the reviewer pointed out, is contrasted with the male-female complementarity, the twinning of Luke and Leia, from the original Star Wars movies (Bishop Robert Barron, YouTube).

Please understand, my point is not to denounce the empowerment of women, though I do believe we must be careful not to therefore undermine the value of a woman as mother or spouse. Yes, I say this as a man, but I also do so as having had strong female-figures in my life since childhood. My point is primarily that the empowerment of women shouldn’t come by means of male-bashing, as seems to be an increasing trend in our culture.

But perhaps too often, men have brought this on themselves—that too many men, fathers, husbands, brothers, perpetuate the stereotypes of all that’s embarrassing about male-ness: men who use their power over and against those who are weaker; who subject women to abuse or human-trafficking; who behave as though sex is a recreational sport that has no meaning or consequences for themselves or the other; who are driven by the pursuit of status, wealth and the things money buys; men whose bodily appetites are insatiably fed by the violent or sexual imagery they view; who think being shallow and dumb is somehow cool; who are preoccupied with self-preservation or think their power is shown in self-reliance; and so on.

My brothers, on this Father’s Day, may we consider, in contrast to all that, what God intended for men. As with any ways that humanity or other God-given institutions suffer the effects of our fallen nature, we do well always to consider what God originally intended. Though there are many ways to describe God’s high ideal for us, we see it beautifully personified in our patron, St. Joseph, who struggled, but nonetheless found a way to trust in the precarious plan that God had for him, even with its uncertainties and causes for fear—a courageous man, giving his life to defend what God had entrusted to him.

Men, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers: We were made for more than what we are too often inclined to settle for, and our sons learn it from us. On this Fathers’ Day, in whatever way male-ness needs to be redeemed, let us look ultimately to Jesus for how it’s done—Jesus, who lived in simplicity and humility, who was willing to make himself vulnerable, to be sacrificed for the good of those he loved…Jesus, who had a band of brothers. In all that was his great strength.

For all the ways that the Most Holy Trinity eludes our rational capacities, God wanted to be known by us and thus took on our flesh, lived among us, and taught us by word and example. It’s in this same Jesus that we ultimately will be able to reveal the depths of the beautiful mystery of man and woman, and through that, further discover the dumbfounding mystery of our Triune God.

Solemnity of Pentecost (Spirit in Your Bread, Fire in Your Wine)

There is so much that can be said about this feast day and what it represents in our faith. In fact, too much. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and therefore God, is altogether mysterious. We do our best to understand the Spirit, using four particular symbols that come from the Scriptures:

  • As Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, behold, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove (Mt 3:16).

  • But also, like water. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).

  • And then we’re told, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

  • And as we hear today, the Holy Spirit is likened to a blazing fire.

When you think about water, wind, a dove and fire: it can either make us feel comfort, or it can make us unsettled. And just as the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Paraclete or Advocate—the latter term coming from ad vocatus, meaning one who accompanies—we realize that our Advocate is sometimes our defender and other times our prosecutor—the Spirit of truth, guiding us to all truth (Jn 16:13). Also, he is the one, whom Jesus said would remain with us until his return, as his continued and abiding presence.

But another way we understand the Holy Spirit is as one who unifies us. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles speaks of how people of different languages and nations were drawn together into the one Spirit, in order to share in Jesus’ mission. And that same Spirit was given to us, varied as we are, to draw out from us, our God-given gifts, all for the sake of this same Mission.

It just so happens that this year, this solemnity falls on June 9th, the feast day for St. Ephrem, sometimes called the Harp of the Holy Spirit, known for his lyrical and poetic writings, written for the purpose of teaching the faith.

He was born c. 306 in southeastern Turkey (Nisibis), near the Syrian border. He inherited the Christian faith from his mother. As a young man he began to live like a monk: a strict prayer life, virtually no possessions, and in community with like-minded individuals. Eventually he was ordained a deacon.

Beginning in 338, Nisibis came under attack from Persian forces. Over the course of two decades, King Shapur II pounded away at the city walls, until at last, the people surrendered and were forcibly expelled. Many people, including Ephrem, fled to another city, Edessa, roughly 140 miles west. By this time, Deacon Ephrem was in his late 50s. After 10 years of living in Edessa, Ephrem, in caring for the sick and dying during a plague, contracted the illness. He died on this date in 373.

In his writings—of which, more than 400 poems still exist—he drew upon influences of Rabbinic Judaism, Greek science and philosophy, and Mesopotamian tradition. They are beautiful, powerful, and deeply theological.

Today’s solemnity calls us to bear in mind the unbridled power of the fiery Spirit of God, the sanctifying element that spiritually animates us as individuals according to our distinct gifts. In light of that, we consider the words of the deacon, St. Ephrem, the Harp of the Holy Spirit, in regards to the bread and wine, which before us in a moment will be enlivened and changed by the descending Holy Spirit, to become our Eucharist, the means by which we are spiritually united and made sharers in God’s Divine Life:

“In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot be swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.

The seraph could not bring himself to touch the glowing coal with his fingers, it was Isaiah’s mouth alone that it touched; neither did the fingers grasp it nor the mouth swallow it; but the Lord has granted us to do both these things.

The fire came down with anger to destroy sinners, but the fire of grace descends on the bread and settles in it. Instead of the fire that destroyed man, we have consumed the fire in the bread and have been invigorated.”

In this sacred food, may we receive the Pentecost fire. May it burn our sins away, leaving behind only what is of God….Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

There are several ways to understand this feast: It’s the final element of the great 3-part mystery that we call the Paschal Mystery: Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Also, it marks the pivotal moment in which Jesus’ followers would themselves have to take the reins in the mission of building the Kingdom. Third, it speaks to the moment that humanity formally entered into heaven. These are objective theological explanations, but for the disciples, perhaps Jesus’ Ascension can simply be understood as a period of waiting.

I say that regarding Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel we just heard. Jesus gave his disciples a final instruction, reminding them that much lay ahead for them: that they were to go to all nations preaching repentance, bringing about forgiveness of sins. He told them they were to be witnesses to Jesus himself by virtue of their lives. But then he also told them: “….behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

In other words, before they were to go out into the world, and before they were to give their lives over as witnesses, they would first need the Holy Spirit, the promise that Jesus’ Father would send upon them. After all, without the Holy Spirit, these simple Galilean fishermen would be entirely ill-equipped for so great a task. He makes it clear: for now, stay put in Jerusalem and wait.  

You and I have the benefit of hindsight to know that the promised Holy Spirit would be poured upon them ten days later, which we’ll celebrate next weekend. You and I also have the benefit of having heard how it all happened—that Pentecost event. But for those disciples to whom Jesus was speaking, having been given so little detail, they didn’t know what they were waiting for nor when whatever it was would come. And I suspect that if they had dared to ask for clarity, Jesus would have said, ”Don’t bother trying to figure it out. Just stay put and wait….have faith.” So, they stayed and waited. But with so much uncertainty, that waiting must have been mentally, emotionally and spiritually exhausting.

It makes me think of moments when I’ve experienced people vigilantly remaining close to their loved ones as they move closer to death—not knowing if death will come in the next few minutes or days from now…..waiting in that uncertainty.

It makes me think of circumstances in our lives in which things are not in good order—perhaps as we wait in hope for a call from a prospective employer; as we wait in worry for our children who are making unhealthy or even harmful decisions, wondering when they’ll get it together—those moments in life when we’re left wondering when God’s promises to take care of us are going to take effect.          

Waiting is hard and we tend not to be at our best when left to wait. It’s in that uncertainty that we’re more inclined to wain in our trust in God, wondering if He’s even aware of our circumstances; if He’s even real or truly good. Like the Israelites, who waited at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, day after day for Moses and God to appear and lay out a plan for them, to move them toward the great promise. They gave up on waiting, deciding it might be better to just go ahead and make a god, a golden calf (Ex 32). Not so different, in our waiting, we’re tempted to begin seeking alternative solutions to the things we’re hoping for.

So much of the spiritual life requires waiting. Yet, in a culture like ours that regards waiting as a curse or a burden, we’re so preoccupied with what comes next and building our earthly future, that patience and waiting is not something we’re accustomed to. The consequence to this restlessness is that God has little or no time or space to speak to us, to guide us, to make His presence known to us, and to show us how His promises are being fulfilled. Patient waiting and truly being in the present in the moment is something all of us would do well to nurture.

What God is trying to move us toward: In what He’s calling us to leave behind, is to be discovered in that space. In the gradually revealed answer to what’s out of order in our lives is in it too. To soothe our restless hearts and let us know that we are deeply loved. It’s all comes in the patient waiting, letting Him come to us in the present moment. As he said to his disciples, just before he Ascended, I believe Jesus would likewise say to us: Stay put, remain steady, and wait. The promise of my Father will come upon you.

5th Sunday of Easter - First Communion

For all the ways that the Book of Revelation tends to inspire intrigue and is used a blueprint for predicting the end of the world, today’s second reading shows us there’s much more to it—and it’s beautiful. It’s author, John, describes beautiful visions that were given him, and ultimately what we find is that it’s not a book of terror, but instead a book of promise and hope.

At the end of all the turmoil and the fight against good and evil, the dust begins to settle and suddenly, he sees something: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.….I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…..I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people….The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

It says that God comes to us. There is nothing anyone of us have ever done that is the cause of God’s love, His coming to us. I remind us of what the Eucharist is—Jesus’ Body and Blood, his very life—and it’s generously given to us. In this gift, He not only comes to us, but he dwells in us. We become living tabernacles.

I remind us that we are body and soul. We get it when it comes to caring for our bodies. But the human soul is too often forgotten about and too often neglected. Grace is food for your soul, and this Eucharist grace—that is God’s very life source—is the nutrition it offers.

Parents, God wants to be part of the lives of your children. I remind you that they were his children before they were yours, and he has asked you to care for them, to make Him known to them. I don’t think for a moment that you want anything but goodness for your children, and to love them. But I remind us: The primary task of a Christian parent is not college for their child. It’s not to create for them the infrastructure that makes for comfort, power, and self-reliance. Instead it’s to make sure they come to really know this Jesus who gives himself to them, to get them to heaven.

If that’s not our goal and what we desire in our hearts, then this moment is a little hollow. But if it’s true that your job is to get them to heaven, how is that plan coming together? What kind of foundation has been laid? The point is not to put anyone on the spot, but instead to ask us to reconsider what we’ve set as priorities, and to adjust as needed. It’s not too late.

Be sure, God wants to come down, to descend upon them and make his dwelling within them through this heavenly food. God, who never stops creating, wants to make something new in them through this intimate encounter in Jesus’ Body and Blood.

4th Sunday of Easter - Annual Catholic Appeal

Today is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Throughout the Bible we find God imaged as a shepherd to His people, but it’s in St. John’s Gospel that Jesus distinctly says, “I Am the Good Shepherd”. It just so happens that Good Shepherd Sunday falls on Mother’s Day this year. I suspect it’s not a stretch, for most of us, to think of all the ways our mothers have been like shepherds for us—I know it’s true for me—guiding us, protecting us, sacrificing herself for us.

But as Catholics, we think of our Church as a mother, and similarly, a shepherd for us. I know the Church is flawed, not always a perfect mother, but that’s certainly her ideal, and the task for which she still strives.

Recently you likely received and saw letters from both Archbishop Sartain and Fr. Todd regarding the upcoming campaign for the Annual Catholic Appeal. We would do well to remind ourselves, what exactly is this and why do we have it? It’s a one-time donation we make each year that helps fund about 60 different ministries in our diocese. In this big, diverse diocese of nearly 180 parishes and 900,000 Catholics, there is much to be done in the name of Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

So, for example, your contribution to our Annual Catholic Appeal helps our youth, by means of funding CYO programs (which by the way, many of our St. Joseph boys and girls take part in this). It helps fund the Office for Youth and Young Adult Evangelization, as well as the Newman Centers on college campuses in our state —so important to reach out to young adults. It helps to support our Catholic schools, making places of prayer for our children, 5 days a week. The Annual Catholic Appeal helps fund our many programs that serve the poor and the vulnerable, particularly Catholic Community Services. And there’s more—a whole lot more.

 To fund these services and ministries, our parish will be assessed $135,000. I’m asking for your help. As you surely recall from past years, what we pull together above that $135K comes back to our parish in the form of a rebate. In years past the rebate paid for the pews you’re sitting in, our bell tower; it paid to renovate our beautiful Blessed Sacrament Chapel. It has given substantial support to our outreach programs.

After discussion with our Pastoral Council and other parish leadership, we came to the decision to use this year’s rebate in the following ways:

  • First, we will give $10,000 of our rebate to outreach, in service to those in need.

  • Second, we plan to build walls to serve as a backdrop for the ambo and the presider’s chair. Depending on how long you’ve been here, you may recall when there was nothing but open space in those locations. While the openness it provided was good, we eventually hung the fabric panels you still see. They provided a place to hang seasonal art, to give color, beauty and focus to the sanctuary, the heart of where we worship. The walls we plan to construct will still provide openness and light to pass through, a place for seasonal art and color. You get some sense of it, looking at the architectural rendering in the back of the church. Our intention is to have these built in the summer.

  • But there’s more: We also plan to set aside a portion to help fund next year’s Parish Mission and Parish Picnic.

  • Finally, any remaining amount will be used to fund maintenance needs for our parish facilities.

For whatever way it serves as a convenience for you, we will now give you the opportunity to fill out a pledge card, which can then be placed in the collection basket. I ask you to pray about possibly contributing the equivalent of $1 per day for the year. If you’re not sure if you can do that or even want to, please spend a little time this week praying about. I’m well aware that there are those among us who are struggling to make ends meet, and so any contribution is helpful, even prayers in lieu of a monetary gift. It all helps.

 As a seminarian, I benefited directly from your past generosity: all so that I might be here with you all, to serve in the name of Jesus the Good Shepherd. And if I live long enough to become a retired priest, I’ll again benefit directly from your generosity. For it all, I am most grateful and privileged. For all the ways you’ve made it possible, through contributions to the Annual Catholic Appeal, through prayers, and everything else—for it all, I am truly grateful.

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)

We’re a week removed from Holy Week, from all that went wrong: the abandonment of Jesus’ friends, his arrest, suffering and death. Today’s Gospel follows up that mess, as Jesus suddenly appears to his friends, where they were gathered like frightened bunnies. Instead of anger or laying on the guilt, he simply says, “Peace be with you….Receive the Holy Spirit”. This is the very definition of mercy: receiving something good, even when it’s not deserved.

It’s a curious thing that Jesus shows them his wounds, and that he bears them at all. These are not exactly the wounds, as we contemplated them on Good Friday, wounds that were born of our sins. As Jesus was Resurrected, so his wounds were also transformed. St. Gertrude the Great (D. 1302) once describe her vision of Jesus and how he extended his hand to her, revealing his wounds like radiant jewels—mercy.

It’s no accident that Pope John Paul II—back in the year 2000—established this as Divine Mercy Sunday. But part of this goes back to Poland, where he was born and raised. He knew the story and the writings of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun and mystic who lived during his lifetime. Her writings describe that when she was 25 years old, one Sunday night she was in her cell alone and saw Jesus before her for the first of what would be many occasions. His right hand was raised in blessing and his left was touching his garment, just above his heart. Red and white rays emanated from his heart, which were to symbolize the blood and water that poured out of him from the cross. As he had shown her this image of himself, he wanted the world to know of God’s mercy, to change hearts, to change the world, and so he directed her to have someone paint this image.

Though not without difficulties, she did as instructed. She had the image made, describing what she saw to the artist as best she could. When she saw his finished painting Faustina cried, because it wasn’t close to being as beautiful as she seen in real life. But Jesus later consoled her, "Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush is the greatness of this image, but in My grace." Faustina also wrote a diary of all that Jesus revealed in that image about God’s mercy: our need for it, our need to trust in it, and our need to be merciful to others. To be clear, it’s not that nobody ever knew of God’s mercy before Jesus spoke to Faustina, but clearly Jesus wanted us to experience it in a new way.

Moved by all this as a young man, Pope John Paul II wanted the world to truly know what God’s mercy means for us. In 1980 he wrote his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). He echoed what so many theologians before him had proposed: that mercy is the greatest attribute of our infinite and perfect God, and that we are proof of it. He said that the Church is authentic in her mission when she proclaims God’s mercy, when she brings people close to the sources of His mercy.

And as he says in Dives in Misericordia,Therefore, the Church professes and proclaims conversion. Conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy, that is, in discovering that love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be” (DM, 13). That’s the primary reason there is a Christian Church in any part of the world and it’s the primary reason for St. Joseph parish in Issaquah—to help us receive and live in God’s Divine mercy.

The Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are two of the most powerful ways of receiving and living in that mercy, but we can partake in either without actually receiving it. How? As John Paul II said, the only thing that can keep us from God’s mercy is our unwillingness to give ourselves over to it, to allow it to change us. We must have a true intention and desire to be affected and changed. And we must always recognize it as a gift greater than we deserve.

Some of us are trapped in the realities of past sins. Some of us are trapped in patterns of sin that we can’t leave behind. As he did with the disciples, Jesus would want to come to us with his transformed wounds, to heal ours. Let him. But some of us are too preoccupied to even bear in mind our sins and how we need God’s mercy. Our very ignorance is the barrier that keeps us from being lifted up in his mercy.

But we exist also to make it known to those around us. How? For sure, by proclaiming it, but also by modeling it. As I have heard it said, part of the benefit of receiving God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so that we can learn to be more merciful ourselves. So as a disciple of Jesus, do the people around—strangers, people in traffic, your siblings, your coworkers, your exasperating family members—do they see God’s mercy in you? Do they get better than they deserve, or do you tend to merely mirror the behavior of those around you? We all want things to be better—for our families, for our world. It begins with us. As Jesus told us, “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

And as this same Lord told Faustina,”Humankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.” For the sake of His sorrowful Passion….have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Today’s celebration is known as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Most of us simply know it as Palm Sunday, but it’s important that we see the connection between the palm frond we just received and the passion (passio, meaning ‘suffering’) of Jesus.

Many of you remember the movie Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene was jarringly realistic. Many of the men who survived the invasion on the beaches of Normandy remarked about its authentic depiction of the events. For the rest of us who never experienced anything like that, it gave us some sense of their experience.

The film was powerful because it didn’t merely show us violence and death but made us viewers feel fear as we experienced it. This is in contrast to so many movies and video games in which death and violence are gratuitous or trivialized, where violence and death are a form of entertainment. Saving Private Ryan drew us into the drama and forced us to consider the realities of death and invited us to deepen in our consideration of life.

Today’s liturgy serves as sort an overture to what will happen in the coming days. Like the aforementioned movie, we are to enter into and re-live the events we commemorate: Jesus’ journey to the cross: his passion, death and yes, his Resurrection.

The fact is, the vast majority of Christians who come to celebrate Easter Sunday have not partaken of any of the events that preceded it. They show up to a church filled with white lilies and they hear about the empty tomb and are supposed to be joyous about it. That dumfounding event that we call the Resurrection is only a cause for joy if we properly bear in mind what preceded it and why it was necessary: suffering for our sake, abandonment, and a cruel death that seemed to be the end of it all. Without that, what’s Easter?

At the beginning of this mass you received a palm: a simple slender thing that might serve as a decorative keepsake in your home. But today we consciously hold it as a way of bringing the past and the present together. And as we hold it, it reminds us of the fact that it’s not just Jesus’ story, but also our story. It’s not only an event of the past; it’s happening now, because the Passion of the ‘whole Body of Christ’ is still happening and the resurrection of the whole body of Christ is still a future event. But perhaps also think of your palm branch as a theater ticket, admission to the drama that awaits us.

The story which we are beginning today, like every truly great drama, only has its deepest meaning if it reaches into our lives and challenges us. This week, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, our Lord whom we greeted today will be present to suffer for us, to love us. He’ll be present, but will you? With admission already in hand, we are at the entrance of the venue where the drama awaits us. Don’t let it go to waste.

5th Sunday of Lent - The Woman Caught in Adultery

In today’s Gospel, with its dramatic story, one of the things it stirs up in almost all of us, is sympathy for the woman. We know nothing about her, not even her name. We only know that she was caught in the act of adultery—admittedly, not a good thing, whether in Jesus’ culture or ours. But like you, I suspect, I’ve often wondered why it’s only the woman who is being scrutinized. Why wasn’t the man also undergoing this public trial?

As I thought about it, I considered how this woman was used. First, she was used by the conspicuously absent man. Yes, possibly she was using him too, but in that culture, men held the position of power. She was used for his pleasure.

But then she was used again. The scribes and the Pharisees had brought her and were using her as bait to put Jesus in a precarious position. Again, although the woman had done something immoral, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her.

This past week I saw a movie, currently showing nearby, called Unplanned. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman named Abby Johnson who, as a college student, was recruited to volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Although she was opposed to abortion, she was told that Planned Parenthood, in advocating for and supporting women, actually seeks to reduce the number of abortions. That appealed to her, so she began volunteering.

Over time, she moved up the ranks, having come to believe the claim that Planned Parenthood, helping women, made abortion less common. She eventually became director of a clinic, but soon began to see fallacies in the claims of her employer, especially when, as director, she was told that Planned Parenthood planned to expand their abortion services, and thus the quota on abortions would be substantially increased. When Abby questioned the increase, she was sternly told: “Fast-food outlets break even on their hamburgers. The french fries and soda are the low-cost, high-margin items….Abortion is our fries and soda!” She was told that her 401K and health benefits, were there because of abortion services.

I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, because many of us need to see it, especially in any way we don’t know where we stand on this issue. It would seem, despite Planned Parenthood’s claim to advocate, empower and support women, that they’re instead using them. As the movie reveals, and as my personal experience has shown me, women tend to hurt afterwards, not feel empowered. I’ve seen how they carry the pain afterward.

I had the privilege of serving as the priest on a Project Rachel retreat, where women (and men) wounded by having made the choice to abort their child, were able to face their decisions, the painful loss, and find a path toward healing. What they learned, that they didn’t understand when they made the choice, is that it’s not merely a ‘women’s issue’. They learned it’s not about seeking to control anyone’s sexual or reproductive freedoms, despite how it’s commonly presented.

There’s a baby involved, whose fragile and tender life is hanging in the balance. And despite how we’re told that these services help situations of incest or rape, taking the life of the baby does not fix the pain already inflicted in such cases. But the fact is, most abortions are not the result of incest or rape. Instead, they occur usually because women are in fear, feeling helpless and without support. We must love them and help them.

In fact, even as troubling as the idea of abortion is, and as much as pro-choice advocates might tell us that it’s judgmental or intrusive, we can’t be merely like the accusers in today’s Gospel, seeking to shame. Recall Jesus’ words: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” As we advocate for the right to life for the unborn, we are also sinners, each with our own baggage and immediate struggles.

One of the beautiful and unique things about our Christian faith is what it says about God’s regard for the human person: He loves humanity so much that He became human, to make of us sons and daughters, rather than just His creatures. As he wanted to help the adulteress woman to live in the fullness of her humanity, so he desires it for those who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and their vulnerable and voiceless children. He desires it for you and me. Therefore, we do not use people for our purposes. We use things, but we love people.

In the Gospel, after all her accusers drifted away, one by one, Jesus was left with the woman, undoubtedly scared, feeling powerless, and ashamed. He asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” When said no, he replied in truth and love, with a two-part message: First, I don’t condemn you either. In other words, I want you to live and to know my love. Then he added, But to do that, you must leave your sinful ways behind. We who are baptized into Jesus, are called to mirror this love that heals and gives life, but also like Jesus, to understand that some things that are never ‘okay’. We, even as sinners, are called to speak truth, but always with love.

4th Sunday of Lent - Divine Justice-Mercy

In our faith tradition, there are four virtues that we identify as ‘cardinal virtues’—cardinal meaning virtues from which other virtues come: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Today’s Gospel challenges our idea of justice. Culturally speaking, justice means that someone gets what he/she deserves. If you’re bad, you deserve bad; if you’re good, you deserve good.

Jesus was responding to some people, identified as Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining that he passed time with sinners. He decided to make a point to them by telling a story: the story we know as the Prodigal Son. Jesus described the son’s irresponsibility and selfishness in choosing to leave and putting his family’s financial well-being at risk: all so that he could leave the family who loved him and satisfy his wanderlust. Like any of us hearing a story, Jesus’ listeners would have seen this son to be sinful and foolish.

Jesus then described how the son eventually fell into a desperate situation, having to work and eat with pigs. The listeners would have thought, “Ok, that’s justice, he got what he deserves.” They would also have understood the son’s regret and his desire to go back home: “Father, I have sinned against you and no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me as a servant”. They would have agreed that going back as a hired worker was appropriate. That’s justice, they would have thought.

But then Jesus flipped justice upside down: He described that when the son approached home, his father saw him in the distance and rushed out to embrace him. Before the son could even finish his rehearsed words of repentance, the father smothered him with kisses and affection, clothed him in sandals, a robe and a ring—all outward signs to everyone, that the son’s identity was restored.

A quick word about the older son and his resentment. He believed that he had earned his father’s love by doing what was right, that he had become entitled. Throughout the Christian Scriptures, we are reminded that this is not so. Those of us who regard ourselves as rightful heirs, because of our self-perceived faithfulness, do well to bear this in mind.

But Jesus’ listeners, quite like the older son, listening to the story, would have shifted their focus from the foolish younger son, to the father’s foolish response. He wasn’t following the protocols of justice. Justice would have been to wait until the hungry and weary son reached him, and to take a bowl of rotten vegetables and dump them on the ground at his feet. To say, “Here’s what you deserve”.

We’re likely not so different from Jesus’ listeners: we want virtue to be rewarded and sinners to be punished, whether it’s people in the news or the person driving erratically in morning traffic. But Jesus is giving us a deeper understanding of justice, telling us something important about God the Father—that our Heavenly Father’s justice gives us something better than we deserve—we call that mercy.

And that’s what St. Paul emphasized in our second reading: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them…For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” In other words: God took on our sinful nature, so that we could unite ourselves to God’s divine nature. And as St. Paul says, we did nothing to deserve so great a gift and in fact, he ignored all our offenses.

And God’s brand of justice—mercy—can offend our sensibilities and maybe even scandalize us, as though God condones bad behavior. But the fact is, we’re all sinners. It’s only a matter of degree. At this Mass, you and I are the sinners dining with Jesus. How’s that for justice? And to be clear, God’s mercy does not mean that a society no longer has a judicial system or even prisons, that no one gets speeding tickets. Paying debts to society is not negated, even as God is merciful to those who seek His mercy.

So why do we struggle with God’s justice? Perhaps because unlike the foolish son in the parable, we’ve never dealt with our past transgressions and made things right.

But God’s justice asks us to resist our tendency to write-off a person, to see them as less than a brother or sister. God’s justice asks us to pray even for His mercy for criminals, even as we pray for those they’ve harmed. God’s justice asks us to consider how much God loves that person, and it calls us to love them likewise.

And if God’s justice doesn’t resonate within, I encourage you to gaze into the visible manifestation of that mysterious justice and mercy. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that (you) might become the righteousness of God in him.” God’s justice is mounted to the wood of the cross, and you are the beneficiary.

3rd Sunday of Lent - The Burning Bush, The Heart of Jesus

We all know something about Moses, but I remind us that he had an unusual upbringing: he was a Jew who, since the time he was a baby, had been raised as an Egyptian. As a young man though, he had gotten into trouble, and fled Egypt. He lived for many years as an exile, having established a new and stable life. It’s hard to know how much he was aware of his true ethnic identity. Did he know he was a Hebrew, or did he think himself truly an Egyptian? But even if he knew his true ethnicity, like all the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, he had lost sight of the God of his ancestors.

He would soon have no doubt about his ethnic identity. In his new life, on an ordinary day, doing his ordinary work, a theophany occurred, the God he had never known, reached out to him. To his amazement, Moses saw an ordinary, thorny shrub—yet it was ablaze. In that arid region, a bush like that would have burned up quickly and thoroughly, yet curiously, this one remained filled with fire, yet not consumed.

As he watched it, surely mesmerized, he heard a voice, perhaps like a whisper in his head: Moses! Moses!….I am the God of your fathers….the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry….I know well what they are suffering. I have come to rescue them. In other words: My beloved sons and daughters don’t even know that it is me they need. They have forgotten me, but I never forgot them. 

For all the ways that we are inclined to think of God as something like the Force on Star Wars, or a sort of organic energy that underlies the universe—pantheism, as we would call it—this reading reveals that while God is both mystery and infinitude, he is also proximate, intelligible, and personal. Moses! Moses! I have come to rescue my people. Our God speaks and acts.  

I read a Jewish commentary, comparing the flame in the bush to the flame that then came to life in Moses’ heart[i]. His heart came to burn yet remained unconsumed. Pope John Paul II once compared the burning bush to the Heart of Jesus: A furnace burns everything material, whether wood or other easily combustible substance. But the Heart of Jesus, the human Heart of Jesus, burns with the love that fills it….an unquenchable furnace. In this it resembles the "burning bush" of the book of Exodus….the bush that burned with fire, but is not consumed. Indeed, the love that burns in the heart of Jesus….the human Heart of God-Man, is embraced by the "living flame" of Trinitarian love that never fails. The Heart of Jesus—the burning furnace of charity—enlightening the darkness of night and warming the bodies of pilgrims numb with cold.[ii]  

In the way that God revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb, speaking to Him in that living flame, so He does to us in the heart of Jesus. We often see it imaged as the Sacred Heart, and all the ways it resembles the burning bush: aglow with light, wrapped in thorny branches, and flames emerging from within—and yet it too remains unconsumed.

We see that heart at the intersection of those two wooden beams, in the breast of Jesus crucified. But we also see that heart—not so different from what Moses saw—in the monstrance on the altar. It’s there that God would tell you, “I am here to rescue you. I know your affliction and how you suffer. My heart burns with love for you”.

I want to encourage you during these days of Lent to make some time to come to adoration, to place yourself before Him, to bear in mind whatever ways you are enslaved and need freedom. We may not be slaves in the way we commonly think of it. Instead, we’re enslaved to things like:

  • our destructive habits of the heart, such as anger, pride, envy;

  • a wound within that gives way to fear, self-doubt and negativity;

  • an unhealthy appetite or compulsion, such as drink, food, sexual impulses;

  • a fear of not being relevant or loved, of being rejected, and forgotten;

  • a distorted self-identity, that tells us our measure is based upon our work, our financial success and material goods, an outward appearance of having it ‘together’;

  • an attitude of ingratitude for the people in our lives….

He knows your heart, how it hurts, how it wants freedom, truth, peace. He knows your heart….But do you? What are you enslaved to…even if you usually don’t even bear it in mind….or even if a part of you likes being enslaved to it? As He spoke to Moses from the thorny bush, the burning and Sacred Heart of our Lord says, “I have come for you, to set you free”. Make time for adoration. Come lay your heart before Him in the silence so that you can begin to sort through the stuff in your heart. Then bring it confession and be freed.

2nd Sunday of Lent - The Faith of Abram

In our first reading, we heard what might sound like a downright bizarre story about Abraham. Abraham, sometimes called the Father of Faith, serves as the central character in what can be thought of as the beginning of a new section in the Book of Genesis. Up to that point, it’s as though everything is told from a mile-high view, in cosmic proportion: creation of the universe, the universal condition of original sin, the flooding of the world, and so on. With Abraham—or more correctly at this point, he’s known as Abram—we begin to zoom-in to a specific person and his life.

Abram had been born in a distant land, having no awareness of the God who would eventually call him out of thin air, like a voice in his head: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you….All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Gen 12:1-3). Perhaps inexplicably to us, Abram went, with no certainty of what lay ahead. 

Along the way, God promised him: “I will give you numerous descendants”. Abram had no children despite being already aged, but the cruel irony was that his very name means Beloved Father. Yes, I will give you descendants, and I will give you land, despite the fact that he was a wandering vagabond. All these promises God made, and Abram kept moving, still with no certainty of exactly how or when God’s plan would come together.

Eventually, perhaps worn-out from wondering, and entertaining doubt, Abram asked if he had understood God’s intentions correctly. The LORD told him to look at the stars in the sky, to see if he could count them. As the verses that follow subtly indicate, it was daytime. How could Abram, or any of us, count the stars, especially in the daytime? Leaving Abram still wondering how, the LORD lead him through an ancient covenant ritual, meant for two parties to demonstrate commitment. After sacrificing specified animals, the next step of the ritual would be for both parties to walk between these halved animals (Gross, right?). By doing that together, it was a way of saying, “May what happened to these animals, happen to me, if I don’t uphold what we’ve promised”.

But just before they were to do this, a mysterious phenomenon occurred: a heavy darkness descended upon Abram, putting him into a state of sleep. Then, God, imaged as fire in the darkness—just as He was when the Israelites would later pass through the Red Sea—passed through the remains of these sacrificed animals. It was God’s way of telling Abram, I will uphold my promise to you.  

Perhaps you’ve wondered about your call from God—this call we take on faith, and how fragile our faith can be. Maybe like Abram, wondering, Did He really call me? And like Abram, who for as long as he remained childless and displaced, wondering, “God when are you going to do what you said you would?”. I suspect every one of us has moments—examining where we are in life—wondering if we understood God correctly—where he intended to lead us, and if what He promised is real.

These thoughts and inevitable questions are exactly why we keep the stories of these figures of our faith before us, and why we recount the lives of the saints, time and time again. We can look back on the entirety of their lives in ways that we can’t our own. In looking back on their lives, we see how God keeps His promises, even as it feels to us like we’re wandering and waiting. 

Our reading today speaks of that mysterious event in the darkness, and the sacrificed animals, that “It was on that occasion that the LORD ‘made’ a covenant with Abram”. In English we use the word ‘made’, but in Hebrew the word is karath, meaning cut. As the animals were cut-open, God cut a covenant with Abram.

Just as God cut a covenant with Abram, so He does with you at this altar. To show His commitment, God was willing to be cut, in order to carry out His plan for you. We see it on the cross, but we experience and receive it from this altar, as his Body and Blood serve as his halves. As we process toward his Body and Blood, perhaps not so different from the covenant ritual that would have had Abram passing between those halved-animals, may we be mindful of at least two things: First, that this Eucharist is a living sign of the covenant that God cut with you. May we take it as seriously as He did. And second, that our God keeps His promises, even when we can’t understand how and when they’ll be fulfilled—like trying to count the stars in the sky at daytime. Let us pray for the steadfast faith of Abram.

1st Sunday of Lent - Giving God Our Firstfruits

It’s not often that we hear from the Book of Deuteronomy. It tends to be lumped-in with the other four books that together we call the Pentateuch or the 5 Books of Moses, but it’s a little different. Deuteronomy’s thirty-four chapters are made up of three lengthy discourses from Moses, addressed to the Israelites at the very end of their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. A generation had died in that time span, and many of the new generation were not born when God first laid out the terms of the covenant, the Law.

Deuteronomy means ‘second law’. At long last, they were just about to cross the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land, and Moses called the people together, as an assembly, to re-declare, and it went something like this:

“Before we cross over into the Promised Land, we need to remember who gave us life, who we are, and how we are to live in relationship with the One who gave us life. So please listen as I spell it out. We cannot move forward if we do not remember.”

Today we hear from the second of the book’s three discourses, specifically a section that speaks about what the Israelites are to offer to the LORD their God and how it is to be offered. In that first reading we heard, it explains that the people are to take the first fruits of their harvest, offer it to the priest in a basket, then to offer a prayer about how God has given life in place of death. Then, it explains, that the people are to bow before God as gesture of reverence.

It sounds a little like what we do at Mass: the tithing collection, the bread and wine brought to the priest and placed upon our altar. I remind us that all that goes to the altar represents us in our entirety, as though we are being placed upon the altar to be an offering, an oblation for God. The priest prays a similar prayer in the Eucharistic Prayer as we kneel and bow. But considering today’s reading that speaks of bringing the firstfruits of the harvest, let us ask ourselves: Do I bring my best to God? I don’t narrowly mean financial offerings. I mean all that I am, my state of mind, even my appearance. Ask yourself, “Am I giving God my firstfruits, in terms of my heart and mind? Have I taken any time to prepare for this Mass?” 

I mentioned on Ash Wednesday the Exodus 90 program that I’m going through. A few days ago (Day 45) the reading for the day was from chapter 19 of Exodus, in which the LORD instructs Moses to tell the people how they are to prepare before they encounter God: “Go to the people and have them sanctify themselves today and tomorrow. Have them wash their garments and be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Ex 10-11).

The meditation that followed that reading served as a challenge for how we prepare. Do we treat the sanctuary with reverence and respect, as though we are preparing to encounter the Lord on Mt. Sinai, or is this space reduced to a social hall? The meditation said (paraphrase): God told the Israelite people to wash their garments to prepare for the Lord. Today, grown men attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass wearing flip-flops, shorts and their game-day jersey, and their defense tends to be, “At least I’m here”.

I fully realize also that God loves us for who we are not our outward appearance. I realize that what’s in our heart is most important (1 Sam 16:7). I realize it’s not earning our worth in God’s eyes, because we already are His beloved sons and daughters. And we don’t want people to feel judged for what they wear or what they can afford. But we do well to ask ourselves: Am I demonstrating for myself that I take this encounter with God seriously and that I care? Am I bringing the LORD my firstfruits—inwardly and outwardly—of who I am? Maybe this is part of how we—as individuals and as a collective Church—seek to be reformed in these 40 Days.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Finding God in the Living Word

Why have Catholics traditionally been regarded as being biblically ignorant? You could blame it on the Church, and what has been declared historically about popes and bishops, who in a desire to control people, kept the Sacred Scriptures in Latin, preventing them from developing their own interpretation. You could blame it on our attention to sacred Tradition, saying it dilutes our focus on the Scriptures. While a person who lived prior to the 20th century could have offered these reasons, they don’t hold water for us today.

You might also say that the Scriptures are too hard to understand—that it’s hard to get past what seems like outmoded thinking and an angry, punitive God, and thus it’s hard to find personal meaning in it. But in a parish that has formed.org, regular Bible study groups, and Gospel reflection groups—these ways to dig in and make better sense of it—that doesn’t hold water either.

The Scriptures do have meaning, even for us of this time and culture. But it requires that we engage them. For too many of us, the only time we engage the Scriptures is that fleeting and fragile moment when they are proclaimed from this ambo. And the odds of it being received and taking root are rather slim.

 I remember Matthew Kelly pondering an encounter with God after death:

GOD: “So how was it down there on earth?”

YOU/ME: “Pretty nice, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you enjoy the weather? The food?”

YOU/ME: “Yes, that was nice too, thank you.”

GOD: “Did you read any good books while you were there.....maybe for instance, My Book?”

YOU/ME: “Uh….for about five minutes….a few times….actually, only twice….I always intended to, but just never got around to it”.

GOD: “You know, I’ve only got one Book….one! It’s not like I’m coming out with a new sequel ever six months. Just one!”

Figure it out. Yes, you might have to let go of something in order to fit it into the schedule. But can you imagine saying to God, “I wanted to read it, but that would have meant I got way behind on this series I’ve been watching on Netflix or Hulu. You understand that, right?”

A couple weeks from now we are going to have a parish mission with Dr. John Bergsma. He’s a renowned and highly regarded biblical scholar. You may know, he formerly was a pastor of a Dutch Calvinist church, who found his way to Catholicism through the Bible. Learned in Hebrew, Greek and even Latin, he teaches at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. I’ve read a couple of excellent books by him, which I’ve posted on the TV monitor, in case you want to look into them. I also cited an audio lecture that you can listen to through formed.org. I’m grateful for all the work Jill Carr went to, to arrange his coming. You deserve something like this, so I believe it’s a worthy investment. See the schedule. In a nutshell:

  • Beginning on Saturday morning, March 16, there’s a 3-hour workshop on strengthening families. Maybe our families don’t need help. They’re all built on solid rock, with no troubles or unresolved questions. Maybe not. (see details for childcare)

  • Then on Sunday evening after Mass, a talk on understanding the cohesion of science and a Divine Creator.

  • On Monday evening, a talk about growing in personal holiness.

  • Finally, on Tuesday evening, spiritual warfare through the grace of our Sacraments.

Block out your calendar for this. This is truly a rare opportunity. Do it for those entrusted to you, including your own soul. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE HERE.

Ultimately, it’s in engaging these things—the grace of the sacraments, connections with those of the community of faith, but also the living Word of the Sacred Scriptures—that we slowly come to discover God more deeply—the God who is within us, even if unrecognized, the God who desires to come to life within us. In all this we come to also understand who we are and our purpose. We discover how we are to grow in holiness, how to temper and purify our desires, how to reflect the love of Jesus, and how to deal with the inevitable suffering that finds us and our loved ones.

I think of the words of St. Augustine, who searched here, there and everywhere for truth and meaning, before eventually losing himself in God’s beauty. He said it this way: “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance into the inmost depth of my soul…On entering into myself I saw….your immutable light. It was not ordinary light….”

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you….You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath…. now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burn for your peace” (the Confessions, Lib. 7, 10, 18; 10, 27: CSEL 33, 157-163, 255).

Our Lord is waiting to be discovered and known by you. What’s going to get in the way? Or will you take the step He’s calling you to make?

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Beatitudes

Today we hear St. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Among the ways they differ from St. Matthew’s (Ch 5:3-12), as I’ve heard it suggested, is that Matthew spiritualizes these states of blessedness, as interior dispositions: Blessed are the poor in spirit…..those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Whereas, for St. Luke, Jesus is addressing a material reality: Blessed are you who are poor….you who are hungry. As people who are body and soul, both sets of Beatitudes have meaning for us in this lifetime.

These Beatitudes reflect what I think of as Jesus’ upside-down logic. In nearly everything he does, he’s trying to point us to something beyond our present reality—to the Kingdom, where the realities of this world are turned upside-down. Those who have it all here, will be without there, and vice versa. Those who have it easy here, will have it hard there, and vice versa.

Of course, we see this upside-down logic in Jesus himself: the One through whom all material things of this world were created, who lived detached from possessions; the One who came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, gave up his life; the One who said, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (Lk 9:24).

Jesus intended to bring that upside-down logic of the Beatitudes through his words and his actions. But he also did by establishing a movement, a Church. It began with the Twelve he chose, but beyond that a larger band of followers, a movement.

The Church hasn’t always done this well. As it aspires to be an instrument of the coming Kingdom, it’s comprised of people of this world. And so we’ve had Church leaders at times, who have been at times misguided, weak, sinful and scandalous, including the recently laicized Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. And yet here we remain, 2000 years later. How is that? Why didn’t it die?

One way of understanding what has kept us together and has helped us to live the Beatitudes, in whatever way we’ve succeeded, is that it’s driven by the spirit of Jesus that has worked through Peter and his successors. As we celebrate later this week, the feast day of the Chair of Peter (Feb 22), I think of Jesus’ words to Simon Peter (and here I paraphrase): Simon, Simon, behold Satan is going to try to derail you, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and you must strengthen your brothers (Lk 22:32).

You may know the word chair or seat in Latin is cathedra—from which we get the word cathedral. In the early centuries of Christianity, a wooden chair was on display, said to have been the chair on which Peter sat upon as head of the Church. Over time the chair decayed and deteriorated, but in the 9th century, craftsmen fortified it to endure.

Most all of us have at least seen images of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the far, opposite end from the main doors is the apse. In that high-altar, created by artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, around the year 1650, what one first notices there is the beautiful stained-glass window, variations of yellow and orange, with the Holy Spirit in the center. Immediately around the window, like a frame, are clouds and rays of light, cast from bronze, seeming to spill forth.

Beneath the stained-glass image one sees what looks like a giant chair. Despite its appearance, it’s not a chair; it’s a reliquary that houses the aforementioned Chair of Peter.

Immediately above the reliquary-chair are two bronze angels, each holding a key and together holding a crown over the empty chair. Around the base of the reliquary-chair are four cast-bronze figures, doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom). An optical illusion of sorts, the Chair of Peter appears to be floating between heaven and earth: a powerful image of the Church, both human and divine; neither entirely of earth, nor entirely of heaven.

In whatever way we continue to proclaim the Beatitudes, or gather to hear them proclaimed, and even more, that we carry them out, in their upside-down logic—advancing God’s Kingdom—it’s at least in part due to the prayer of Jesus for Peter and his successors.

May God bless our current pope and those that follow, that they may help us to truly be a Church for the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and those persecuted for their Christian faith—a Church of the Beatitudes and Jesus’ upside-down logic. Let us pray that from the Holy Spirit, so beautifully imaged by Bernini, our pope continues to receive strength, wisdom, courage, and love, necessary for so great a task.

An English Catholic priest named Ronald Knox (D. 1957) once said:

“Perhaps it would be a good thing if every Christian, certainly if every priest, could dream once in his life that he were pope, and wake from that nightmare in a sweat of agony”.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Theophany - Heavenly Vision

Isaiah received his call from God about 740 years before the birth of Jesus. What we hear today is not his first calling, but the beginning of a new phase of his prophetic ministry. It’s extraordinary to hear this event described: he had what is called a theophany—a vision of heaven. The angels uttered those words we say or sing at every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” But given that those words of the angels, from that heavenly setting are the same words we use here at Mass, we should understand that as we sing those words, that we are actually entering that angelic court seen by Isaiah, in which our God Most High, is surrounded by adoring angels. Those two realities become one in that moment.

Coming to grasp God’s holiness, Isaiah began to fear, believing that seeing this God so holy, it would end his life, because he knew he was a not always a man pure of heart. But God wished to make him holy. So an angel brought a burning coal from the incense and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, not for the purpose of inflicting pain, but instead to render him pure.

As an aside, there’s a short, silent prayer that the priest makes as he bows before the altar, on his way to the ambo, to proclaim the Gospel. He says,

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”

In the old Roman Missal, before the changes in the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council, the wording to this prayer made an explicit connection to Isaiah’s experience:

“Cleanse my heart and my lips, O God almighty, Who didst cleanse the lips of the Prophet Isaias with a burning coal; and vouchsafe through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me that I may worthily proclaim Thy holy Gospel.”

I know it gets lost on us—myself included—but all these references to the experience of the heavenly court are not arbitrarily referenced in this experience that we call the Mass. Because the liturgy is designed to take our senses heavenward. In all the ways we can make it so much about us—whether it’s the hymns we sing or just our state of mind—it falls short of what it’s supposed to do for us. While we are God’s beloved, our worship shouldn’t be primarily about us or trying to make God like us.

As you’ve heard me say, for all the good things that came with the changes in the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, the danger in it is that it perhaps brought a tendency to make it more about affirming ourselves, rather than impelling us to transcend beyond ourselves.

But what risked being lost was a way of worship that more clearly moved us into the mystery—the mystery that Isaiah experienced in his heavenly vision.

I remind us of how our altar was anointed with the Sacred Chrism on the occasion of its dedication (December 20, 2014), and how the oil remained on its top over the course of months, slowly being absorbed into the granite. It calls to mind the story of Jacob from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 28). He was making a long trip alone and stopped to rest for the night, using a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream, a vision. In his dream, he saw a stairway or ladder of some sort, connecting heaven and earth. Going up and down the stairway were angels, God’s messengers. God then spoke to Jacob and re-affirmed his familial and covenantal relationship with him.

The next morning when he awoke, Jacob realized that it was more than just a dream, he had really encountered God. He declared, this place is “the house of God, the gateway to heaven”. Which, by the way, are the exact words, boldly proclaimed in the mosaic on the floor, just inside our Cathedral’s great doors: Domus Dei Porta Coeli. Jacob took the stone that he had slept on, anointed it with oil and made it an altar of sorts. Our altar is that stairway, connecting this space with the heavenly court and this building is indeed a house of God, the gateway to heaven.

Furthermore, the bread and wine brought forward and placed on this altar—this gateway to heaven—don’t remain in that state. After we join our voices with the seraphim, singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”, we’ll pray the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon, which asks our Lord:

“In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing”.

Brothers and sisters, what we are in midst of right now is not just a church service. It is a heavenly mystery, active and alive, in the midst of which we are given heavenly food to nourish our souls. Let us look beyond just the here and now and see more than just each other. We are in the midst of angels and saints, God’s heavenly court. Let us desire to enter into that mystery, to discover God of Jacob, the God of Isaiah, our God.