4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Hymn to Love

I think most of us would agree that the word ‘love’ is overused, so much that its power and meaning get lost. We use the same word to describe our enjoyment of ice cream, as we do for a parent’s feelings about his/her child. We use the same word in reference to sexual intimacy, as we do to describe what motivated Mother Theresa to care for the dying on the streets of Calcutta. We use the same word to describe our favorite sport, as we do what impelled Jesus to suffer on the cross.

Today’s second reading gives us St. Paul’s famous Hymn to Love. If you attend a Christian wedding, there’s a 50% chance this will be read. A friend once said this is the Stairway to Heaven of scripture readings, meaning it’s overused and tired. I don’t entirely agree. It’s only overused in the sense that we might not bother trying to understand what St. Paul really meant.

You likely know that St. Paul wrote in Greek. In that language there are four distinct words for ‘love’. There is eros, which can be described as erotic love. There is filia, which can be understood as the deep loyalties one has for family and close friends. There is storge, which is exemplified in the love a parent has for his/her child. Then there’s another Greek word, agape. It’s a love that says, “I will love you, even if you don’t love me back, even if stand nothing to gain from it”.

In thinking about love in this way, isn’t that how God—Who is love (1 Jn 4:8)—loves us, even when we don’t love in return? Even when, in our desire for love, we look everywhere else, seeking anything to satisfy our need to feel loved—too often, willing to cheapen ourselves, just to feel that security, a false-love.

Our culture bombards us with messages that tell us that everything is about us, a vision that looks no farther than the ends of our noses, seeking to satisfy our immediate needs or desires. And it all leads to a shallow existence and a prevailing thirst for real love, transcendent love. But agape-love, is not only unconditional, but it’s also, focused on the other; it is self-giving.

The saints show us, in their different ways, how to move toward love. As St. Therese says it:

”Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love”.

Today St. Paul calls us to love like that. As a litmus test, we can use the words from this second reading, and insert our name in place of the word ‘love’: “_____ is patient, ____ is kind. ____ is not jealous, ____ is not pompous, ____ is not inflated, ____ is not rude, ____ does not seek his/her own interests, ____ is not quick-tempered, ____ does not brood over injury, ____ does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. ____ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ____’s (love) never fails”.

This love to which he calls us has the ability to draw us out of ourselves, and if we choose it and work at it, and it will therefore open us up to truly be able to receive love. If we can first love like this, then all our other lesser-loves will find true meaning.

Agape-love is the love that’s revealed when we look at Jesus’ arms outstretched on the cross. It’s the expression of love that awaits us in the Eucharist, reminding us that God ‘wills our good’ so much, that he gave everything for us. May our participation in His love, and meditating upon it, help us to know we’re loved, and to reflect that love.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Jesus, a Sign of Contradiction

At our parish Men’s Group yesterday, we discussed the different elements of this Gospel. It gives us a formal introduction to the Gospel of St. Luke, which we will be hearing from primarily in the Sundays of this liturgical year. Then it gives us Jesus’ very first appearance of his public ministry.

He showed up at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. And as we heard, he spoke that beautiful proclamation of God’s justice: Good news for the poor, for the oppressed, for those who suffer. And as we’re told, the people looked at him and reveled in his words with what sounds like dumbfounded amazement.

That’s where today’s Gospel reading ends, but there’s more. If we continue reading, we learn that no sooner than they had expressed their praise and wonder at his powerful words, it all changed, when he began to tell them even more of God’s great plan of justice. The second part of his message was not well received. They went from being wow-ed to suddenly becoming so enraged that they intended to kill him.

It made me think of something that had been said about Jesus when he was only eight days old. You’ll recall, Mary and Joseph had gone to the Temple to dedicate him to God. There they encountered a mysterious man named Simeon, who took the baby Jesus in arms and told Mary:

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted…” (Lk 2:27-25).

As our Catechism says it: “Many of Jesus' deeds and words constituted a ‘sign of contradiction’” (CCC, 575).

Jesus was indeed a sign of contradiction for the people of Nazareth, who marveled at him, but also wanted to harm him. And I think he can be for us too. Jesus comforts us, but perhaps he also makes us uneasy.

Yesterday morning I was asked to help at a nearby parish for children’s first confessions. It made me think of what I experience pretty much at any parish I go to for first confessions, including our own: that the children tend to want to go to their pastor for their confession, while the parents tend to want to confess to any priest but their pastor.

Most of the children are pretty care-free in that encounter with Jesus, but so often the parents are anxiety-filled, some of whom are grinding through their first confession in years. The children are coming with sins that are like cotton-balls, while the parents lumber forward with sins that may well feel like bowling balls.

By the way, kudos to those parents who witness to their children in doing that, because there are too many parents for whom Jesus isn’t even on their radar. But for all of us, for whom Jesus is part of the landscape, we know within that we shouldn’t have that fear of Jesus, or the life he calls us to—even though to live the way he demands is not necessarily easy or without sacrifice.

In whatever way Jesus is a sign of contradiction—bringing us comfort in some ways, but also causing us anxiety—it may well be that our anxiety is the result of the fact that we’re hearing his voice somewhere in the mix of all the noise, calling us, calling us to something more. And yet we don’t know how to answer that call, or we fear what it will demand of us. In that anxiety, like the town-folk of Nazareth, we may rather just be done with Jesus: Just go away. You’re disrupting the happiness I’ve made.

I remind us that our children don’t instinctively have that fear. If they develop it, they’re likely getting it from us. In that, we’re getting in their way, when in fact, our task is to lead them to Jesus, as we ourselves are trying to move toward him.

For whatever ways he causes us fear, trepidation, please know that he doesn’t want to cause that feeling, and actually, it’s not from him. He wants us to find and feel peace. Furthermore, that fear will remain unless we either drown him out and do away with him, or unless we start taking steps in the direction he’s calling us. Only then will he cease to be a sign of contradiction to us.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Am I, Your Mother, Not Here)

Fr. Jerry Burns and I celebrated Mass two days ago at the Basilica of Our lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, as I do just about every year. If memory serves me correctly, it’s the second-most visited Christian site in the world. It’s positively vibrant with living faith.

 A Mass is celebrated every hour on the main altar of the basilica. One time we con-celebrated at one of those Masses. During the first reading, the principal-celebrant, a priest of the basilica, leaned over and asked me to proclaim the Gospel. I agreed, then said a quick prayer. The Alleluia music began, and I nervously processed to the ambo. The flood of lights obscured my ability to see the people in the pews, and the sound of my voice, echoing through the PA system was disorienting. I got through it fine, and there was a certain joy in it all, but ever since then, our preference has been to celebrate a private Mass in one of the many chapels that are in the balcony, above and behind the pews.

The chapels face toward the main altar, where hanging just above, is the beautiful image that appeared in 1531 on an apron made of cactus fibers, worn by an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego. Christian missionaries had come from the old world decades before, but had made little progress in drawing the people to Jesus. Inexplicably, after the apparition, everything changed: over the next seven years, eight million natives were drawn to life in Jesus through his mother[i].

In the humble image we know as Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are numerous mysterious and interesting details. One that tends to escape notice is the maternity band around the mid-section of Mary’s body: She appeared to the people of the New World, with the life of her Son within her. Mary never comes alone.

But back to the basilica: Outside, above the main doors, are the words:

No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”, meaning “Am I, your mother, not here?”

These are words Mary said to Juan Diego, to help him trust. By extension, they are words to us, inviting us in to come find her Son.

In today’s Gospel, she is the first person mentioned. At the wedding feast, a crisis has ensued, the wine has run dry. The mother of Jesus urges him to act and make it right. His response is curious, and might even seem a little bit jarring: “Woman, how does your concern affect me?”

While the title ‘woman’ was a common way of addressing women of that time, it was not used for one’s own mother. I’ve heard it suggested that Jesus calling her woman suggests a change in Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. It reveals that she went from being just his mother, to becoming also his first disciple. Unfazed by being called “woman” by her Son, Mary promptly acted as a disciple, immediately telling the servers, “Do whatever he tells you”. In obedience to Mary, the first disciple, the servers did what Jesus instructed, and from that, water became wine.

Wine was understood to be a symbol for joy. I remind you that, in the Gospel of John, this was Jesus’ first miracle. But St. John doesn’t call them miracles, he calls them signs, and there would be a total of seven. He calls them signs, because they are principally done to reveal Jesus’ identity. This sign was intended to reveal that Jesus came to bring joy through a marriage with humankind—or as he says it in another part of John’s Gospel: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The water symbolized the human condition, but Jesus came to divinize it, to elevate it, to change it into wine. And Mary says, Let him do it….”Do whatever he tells you”.

She is mentioned only twice in St. John’s Gospel, once at the beginning and once at the end, but never by name, only as “the mother of Jesus”. In this first mention, as we heard it today, she went from being Jesus’ mother to disciple. In the last mention, at the foot of the cross, where Jesus saw the Beloved Disciple, whom theologians suggest represents us all. To him—and by extension, us—Jesus said, “Behold, your mother” (Jn 19: 25-27). Mary went from being Jesus’ mother, to disciple, and now…..our mother.

I urge you, in whatever way you’ve cast aside our Blessed Mother, perhaps as a way to avoid what has sometimes been called Mary-olatry, or maybe believe it to be piety of a bygone era, reconsider. If you want to know Jesus, get to know his mom, the first disciple, our mother. Just as she interceded to Jesus on behalf of humanity, urging him to bring joy, to elevate us, so will she intercede for you. Yes, you can ask our Lord directly, but what would you also ask our mother, to urge her Son on your behalf? She says to you: “No estoy aqui yo, que soy tu madre?”….“Am I, your mother, not here?”

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God….

….that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

 


[i] Elizondo, La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas, 50-86, 105-121.

Epiphany of the Lord

Maybe you’ve heard commercials or seen ads for something called the National Star Registry. For those who haven’t, it’s a service provided to consumers, starting at $40, who wish to name an actual star in the sky after themselves or someone else. Your purchase also includes a letter of congratulations, a detailed celestial map, as well as the exact coordinates of the star, so that should you have the desire to visit, you can find it. The website doesn’t indicate that if by chance there is life on your planet, whether or not the citizens who live there are notified of the change in name, that they live on the star now officially named “Steve” or “Betty”.

But do we even notice the stars? We have so often a clouded sky to contend with, as well as the flood of artificial lighting at night. The majestic stars in the night sky escape our notice, even on a clear night, because our attention tends to be occupied.

Today we celebrate the journey by the magi: on the first part, a light in the sky led them to the Light of the World, Jesus Christ; the second part led them back out into the world with the message of this discovery. The story of the Magi captures our imaginations, partially from the details that narrative provides, but even more from the details that tradition has provided. Artistic depictions of these visitors go back to the 4th century, in the catacombs of Rome.

They’re sometimes called kings, or wise men, but St. Matthew refers to them as magi. Indicating that they were men who looked to the sky; they were stargazers. They saw one particular star, perhaps more accurately, a vision, which called them to a journey. And that’s the first aspect of this story that relates to us. Like these magi, we are all seeking something that’s beyond us. You could call it meaning, purpose, happiness. As people of faith, we would say it’s therefore a search for God. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the people of Israel, Saint Paul and these magi, God calls us forward, to move, to find him. And the thing is, God wants to be found. Like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and St. Paul, the magi found him. A star led them to the house where within, they found the Child Jesus and his mother.

Before him, they prostrated themselves, a gesture of adoration. But in addition to their gesture of adoration, they presented the Christ-child gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Early Christian tradition interpreted each of these gifts as matching a corresponding characteristic of Jesus: gold symbolizing his kingship; incense was used in temple worship and so it symbolized his priestly nature; myrrh, a substance secreted by certain trees, was used to anoint a dead body and so it foreshadowed his future death.

Regardless of the exact meaning of these gifts, we should understand that the baby Jesus had no practical need of such gifts. But perhaps consider that maybe they were not so much gifts, but instead things that the Magi simply chose to leave behind upon discovering Christ. That too is part of our journey: to abandon whatever we must, so that we can discover more deeply, Christ our Lord. I’ve heard it said that it’s only when our hands our empty that we can fully receive what God wishes to give us: the gift of Himself. Unlike King Herod, fearful and clinging to the things he believes he can control, his hands locked and clenched to what they held; there was no way to receive the gift that is God’s Son.

St. Matthew tells us they returned to their country. It was a two-part journey for the Magi. I imagine that their journey back was slower, more contemplative. Rather than looking to the sky for guidance, they looked within, peacefully considering their discovery, what their eyes beheld. They had left behind their riches, they had received him, and they took this discovery back with them, as what could be considered the first witness to Christ.

That’s our journey too—even in this Mass—because our God is one who puts us on a journey to discover him, to leave behind what needs to be left behind, so that we might receive him; and then to take him out into the world—all that, again and again. This story reminds us to look for the signs of God’s call—stars in the sky or even here today, the host held aloft above the altar—and to come to him with empty hands and open hearts and to receive the gift of his Son. As you journey forward in procession, consider what you need to leave….do him homage….receive the Son of God….and take what you receive out into the world.

Mary the Holy Mother of God

It was a week ago today that we celebrated the Jesus’ birth, declaring that born unto us is the Son of God. Today we continue that celebration and conclude these eight days by recognizing that he is also the son of Mary.

What exactly are we declaring as we call her Mary Holy Mother of God? Maybe one way of answering it is go back to the year 431 A.D. to the Council of Ephesus, where a theological dispute was settled. One side argued that the two natures of Christ—his divinity and his humanity—were separate, yet sort of fused together (as though with duct tape or super glue). The other side saw a problem with this thinking. If his two natures were not truly one, in what is called a ‘hypostatic union’ (such as is demonstrated when we co-mingle water with wine at the altar) then his divinity cannot truly lift up and save our humanity. But also, that would mean created matter, such as bread and wine, would not have the capability to impart divine graces upon us. And so the Council of Ephesus formally declared that his two natures formed one person, not two.

The council further declared that because Mary was mother of Jesus’, she is therefore properly understood as Mother of God. This may sound like splitting hairs over stuff that is theological mystery, but it is important to say it right, to the extent we can. Of all the titles that come from devotion that we have for her—Queen of Peace, Seat of Wisdom, Mother most amiable, morning star, mystical rose, etc.—Mother of God is the oldest.

While there is a theological basis for this celebration, there is also a very tender aspect to it as well. I suspect I’m not alone in my appreciation for images that show Mary and Jesus: the image and the reality it represents, a mother gazing lovingly at her young child[i].

Perhaps it’s tender because it speaks to our own beginnings. For nine months, hidden safe within the womb, we all had our first intimate human relationship with the woman who bore us. As we grew and developed from a single cell into a being equipped to contend with the world, we literally shared our mother’s lifeblood. Born into this world, we continued to depend primarily upon her to feed us, to nurture us, and to keep us safe[ii].

This reality that is our shared beginnings is undoubtedly a major source of our capacity to bond with one another, regardless of our skin color or national origin. Like Jesus himself, we were all given life and brought into the world by our mothers.

I believe this is what makes the image of Mary and the infant Jesus, meaningful to us. It invites us to recall with a certain awe that Jesus, our Lord, shared our common origin: He came into the world through the loving cooperation of a human mother[iii].

There’s a song, a lullaby of sorts, that speaks of this tender reality, a reality both miraculous and yet so very ordinary, the mother-child relationship that is at the very heart of today’s celebration. St. Luke tells us in today’s Gospel, that "Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart". In this lullaby, Mary treasures it and reflects upon it as she sings to and worships her infant son:

Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong. Help me be strong. Help me.

Breath of heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me, breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy
[iv].

Yes, as St. Luke declares, Mary treasured this news and pondered it within her heart. As we begin this new year, with many things for which to be grateful, let us be thankful for the gift she gave us: her son, our Savior. Let us also be thankful sons and daughters of so loving a mother: Jesus’ mother, our mother. Let us rest for a moment in her tender embrace.

[i] Fr. Dan Ruff, SJ; The Priest Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Mary’s Song (Breath of Heaven); Christ Eaton, Amy Grant.

Feast of the Holy Family

It's no accident that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family in the Octave of Christmas.

This timing is intended to remind us that just as Jesus took on our human flesh in order to sanctify it and eventually redeem it, so he did with the human family.

Today’s gospel reading is a unique one, in that it gives us a snapshot of Jesus’ life that is both preceded by and followed by years of silence—the hidden life of Jesus, as it’s called. Here, he’s twelve years old, the age when a Jewish son would begin to take on a new level of instruction in order to become a son of the Mosaic Law, what we would eventually refer to as a bar mitzvah.

The gospel tells us that the family had gone to Jerusalem for the annual Passover feast, one of the three annual feasts that Jewish men that lived in Judea were expected to attend in Jerusalem. On their way home, they got separated. Part of the confusion that would have led to this, is that in these caravans, the women and men traveled in separate cars. But nevertheless, children could travel with either parent, and so Joseph perhaps thought Jesus was with Mary, and vice versa.

We can only imagine their sudden sense of panic, when they learned of his absence, racing back toward Jerusalem, a whole day’s travel, and still not finding him until three days had elapsed. At last they found him, with undoubtedly a mixture of relief and anger: “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

In response he gave a mysterious answer that on the surface sounds dismissive and perhaps even disrespectful: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
St. Luke tells us they didn’t understand, and that Mary kept these things in her heart, as though to continue pondering it all.

All of this tells us a few things about the Holy Family.

First, they were not without problems. They had plenty. Secondly, despite the fact that Mary had initially been informed of God’s plan by the angel Gabriel, and despite the fact that Joseph had received messages from God in his dreams, they were still trying to figure this all out, and perhaps also to trust.

But finally, it also tells us something about Jesus. As I mentioned he was twelve years old, entering a new stage of his religious instruction, of becoming a son of the Law. St. Luke tells us that returning home with Joseph and Mary, he advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man. Again, even Jesus had to grow in his faith. Sometimes we think he was just hard-wired with it.

So, what does this tell us about ourselves, in our experience of family? If family life for the Holy Family was challenging, it’s no surprise that it is for us too. While all of us experience at least some level of dysfunction in our families, some of us have families that are deeply divided and disconnected, and some of us carry painful memories and bear living wounds associated with our families.

But family is a mysterious construct given to us by God—not merely a construct of human society—so therefore it cannot be dismissed as unimportant or abandoned as an institution. Our challenge is to lift it up as best we can, to what God intended it to be, to redeem it. Again, Jesus was born into human flesh, but also a human family, to redeem it.

It was in the context of their Jewish faith that Mary, Joseph, and even Jesus, learned and made their way through their struggles and difficult decisions. Therefore, we must likewise bring the faith into our homes, the domestic church, to invite God to be a part of our family life.

  • First, pray together. They say the family that prays together, stays together, and statistics prove this true.

  • Secondly, moms and dads, show your children that God is more important to you than your personal interests. They are learning their priorities from you, more than you are likely aware.

  • Third, stay close to God as a family, especially when crises have you blaming each other.

  • Fourth, communicate and stay engaged. It’s too easy to get frustrated and disconnect.

  • Fifth, don’t take your family members and their love for granted, treating them poorly.

  • Sixth, make family meals a priority.

Baptized into the living Jesus and desiring to draw upon those baptismal graces throughout our lives, let us be part of the redemption of humankind, but also instruments of redemption of the human family. Let us hold this desire and recommit, especially as we, a parish family, brothers and sisters, gather at this table to partake in this meal give us by our brother Jesus, here in our Father’s house.

Nativity of the Lord (Light and Peace)

Long before Jesus was the baby born in Bethlehem, we are told that he was the Word, the Logos: the Eternal One, through whom all things were made in the beginning. St. John describes it this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness….
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…..
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

He’s described as a beautiful and powerful light that entered our darkness.

Yes, the Word became flesh, but for most of us when we think about the Christmas event, we think of another story, one that is altogether more tender and tangible: the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, the animals and the baby who is the object of their attention. The details of the story tell us there was no room in the inn, that there were shepherds in the fields keeping night watch over their flocks, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. It all speaks of this event happening in the dark of night.

We even sing of it: “Silent night, holy night….” So what’s the meaning behind the mention of night-time? Perhaps it can be understood by the fact that night is generally a time of stillness and peace, when the anxieties of life and the worries of work are put on pause, when our bodies and racing minds are given rest, to reflect, marvel and dream. Jesus came at a period in the day when humanity was at rest.

And even more, he was born unto us at a time in history when the world itself was at peace of sorts, a long period known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), rest that followed years and years of wars and conquests.

Jesus came at a time of stillness and peace in our world.

But another way of understanding his coming to us in the darkness, is to understand the very purpose of his coming. For one, he comes to us in the darkest days of the year. The ancient peoples knew that this was the time of year when gradually, the light of the sun begins to find its way back into our days, little by little. The early Christians, having no exact knowledge of the date of Jesus’ birth, saw it fitting that these darkest of days would be most appropriate for this celebration, when Jesus, the eternal Word, the light that shines in the darkness, came to bring us light.

For several reasons, the meaning of that likely gets lost on us, but in part because we tend to only think of it as something that happens to the whole universe, for all humanity. That’s true, but what gets lost is the very personal reality and purpose of his coming.

Think again of the night sky with its majestic beauty: shimmering stars and cool light cast from the moon. But think also of all blanket of dark emptiness. Likewise, with each of us, within there is beauty and light, but there is also a dark emptiness: something we come to realize about ourselves when we move beyond childhood, when we come to discover something amiss in our lives: fear; insecurity; feeling lost; disconnected; depressed; continually desiring something beyond our grasp, even if we don’t know what it is; wondering if our lives actually have meaning and purpose; wanting to be loved and cared for, to matter to someone.

The Christmas story is intended to tell us and remind us that this baby came to bring light into that dark emptiness—for all humanity, but for you individually. That all sounds good, but how?

Perhaps in part, it goes back to the idea that Jesus was born at a time of the day, at a time of history when there was peace. We call him the Prince of Peace, and say that he came to bring us peace, but perhaps for him to come to you, you need to make peace. It may be finding peace with past hurts, or present realities. Maybe it’s peace in your broken relationships. It may be peace with God, in whatever way you feel He has failed or forgotten you. Maybe it’s struggling to find peace with this Church, broken and in need of reform. It may be peace you need within your family. And maybe you need peace with yourself, for past mistakes, regrets, or missed opportunities.

I remind us that Jesus’ birth is an eternal event, not merely something that happened 2000 years ago. He is born unto us, to you, to shine a light within you and within me—to show us our true identity as sons and daughters of a God who loves us; to fill us with light where there is only dark emptiness.

But we must make a place of peace for him: in our lives and in our hearts. How do we do that?

First of all, it demands a persistent desire for it. It must be more than just this moment or tonight. But also, you must do the things that bring peace and nurture it. For those of you who have been far away from the faith, I pray that you would be open to re-engaging your faith. This place and all we do here is built upon trying to cultivate Jesus’ peace. What we do here, with time, I believe will help to make the place of peace within you, where Jesus wishes to be born in your heart, to live within you, to be your light.

3rd Sunday of Advent - An Abiding Joy

Even though the words of the song tell us, “’Tis the season to be jolly….”, physicians tell us there are more cases of depression and cardiac arrest in December than any other time of year. They believe it most probably is due to anxiety, the stresses of shopping, spending, preparation for family gatherings, and perhaps escalated by excessive levels of Christmas cheer, such as grown-up Egg Nog. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but also ‘tis the season to feel anxious and over-burdened.

We see commercials of happy families enjoying lots of gifts and holiday foods, while we are confronted with the reality of those we know who are unemployed. The season calls us to jump into the crowd at the mall to buy gifts, but the fear of a crash in the economy tells us to hold back and be cautious.

This season is built on the joys of being with family, yet some of us have lost loved ones in this past year are facing these losses in a new way or for the first time. And of course, many people live alone or are estranged from families.[i]

Advent, with its contrasting experiences, can leave us feeling conflicted.

Today’s readings perpetuate this contrast: St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice” and Zephaniah proclaims, “Shout for joy!”, but then John the Baptist warns his listeners to straighten up, because there is one coming who will burn with unquenchable fire.

The very nature of our Advent celebration is a clashing of moods: rejoice!…but repent. This stems from its gradual development. Advent was first celebrated in 5th century Gaul (France). For the people of that place and time it was a season to prepare for the coming of Christ though repentance and conversion. But soon after, as the Church of Rome came to celebrate this season, Advent was celebrated with festivity, rejoicing at Jesus’ birth.

The universal Church eventually melded these traditions into the season of Advent that we know. But today we focus on that Roman approach to Advent, lighting the wreath’s rose-colored candle, on this Gaudete Sunday. In the midst of this penitential season, we are to intentionally focus on the cause of joy in it all.      

So what is this joy?

At weddings, I almost always remind the couple that the love they are pledging to one another is not an emotion or a feeling, as we express it in popular music. Love as we understand it in our faith is an act of the will. And it’s true for joy: it’s not a mere feeling or a momentary pleasure; it too is a choice, an act of the will.

Think of St. Paul the beautiful words from the second reading:

“Rejoice in the Lord always…..Have no anxiety at all….the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

He wrote these words to the Christians of Philippi from a prison cell. The joy that inspired and lived in his words was not the result of the circumstances of the moment, but instead something deeper within.

You may know that Beethoven developed a hearing impairment so severe that he began to isolate himself due to the embarrassment of his condition. What a curse for a musical genius. And yet it was while facing the harsh effect of that advancing condition that he composed his beautiful and buoyant Ode to Joy. How? 

I want to suggest that a deeper and prevailing joy—aside from being an act of the will—comes from remembering both God’s promises that await us, and God’s promises that have been fulfilled. Whether it’s the stresses of this season or those that confront us any time of year—the things that cause us worry, the difficult realities that leave us wondering “How is this going to work out?”—in those present causes for concern, we must hold on to the promises fulfilled from the past.

What I mean is that in every crisis of my past, somehow God saw me through. It may not have been the solution I would have had in mind and it may not have been an instant fix, but somehow, He brought things back into order, even if I didn’t see it happening at the time. If He did it then, He’ll do it now.

This call to joy is not intended to ignore the troubling realities of our lives, but instead manages to see beyond them. We all know people who live with an abiding joy. It’s not that nothing ever goes wrong in their lives, but rather that they hold on to the promises of God to see them through.

May we not show up at Christmas to greet our newborn King with only our causes for stresses and worry. These days of Advent call us to meditate on God’s promises. Whether it’s concerns about our family, our work, our finances, our health, our even our grieving and broken hearts, our joy as an act of the will, demands that we make some space to contemplate both His promises fulfilled, but also His promises to come, for each and for all. “Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always… rejoice!...The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all.” Let the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[i] Robert P. Waznak, SS, Lift Up Your Hearts

2nd Sunday of Advent - Prepare the Way of the Lord

Each year on the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist takes center stage, calling us to repent:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…fill the valleys, level the mountains….straighten the winding roads and smooth the bumpy ones….”

John is sometimes called the last of the Old Testament prophets, all of whom, in their own way, pointed to the coming of the Christ. John always seems intense, and his call to repent, to change, might makes us uneasy, but let us understand—he is an agent of God’s mercy. Even in John’s harsh call to reform, we remember that God is always merciful, God is love.

Of course, this cry of mercy from the lips of John the Baptist is a response to our sin.

I remind us that sin is simply something we choose, knowing that it obstructs us from living in God’s love. At our Masses for the Immaculate Conception, we recalled the starting point of our innate tendency toward sin, the Original Sin. It’s there within us: something that draws us toward the very things that we’re told aren’t good for us, and things that we know aren’t good for us. Yet they draw us.

Some people really struggle in this, wanting to do what God asks of them, but in their weakness, have a hard time getting beyond their sin—but they try. For others, perhaps it’s fair to say, that some people don’t really care. Maybe it’s presumption of God’s mercy (“I’m not that bad: I’m not like Adolph Hitler!” or “There’s no such thing as hell anyway”), or maybe it’s pride that has convinced them that they know better than God after all.

John, and therefore the season of Advent, calls us to make ourselves ready for our Lord: make straight the paths, smooth the rough ways. In other words, take it seriously, consider what needs to change in your life, and really try to deal with it.

One of the things God has given us, in his mercy, is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Through it, we can reclaim our baptismal innocence. We can start again. So, when was the last time you made a sacramental confession? For some, it’s been forever. I realize that it can be a cause for fear, but we needn’t be afraid. Jesus is waiting to unburden your heart. For some, they don’t believe in the sacrament itself. For those, I encourage you to check-out and read a short book in our parish library, Confession: Five Sentences That Will Heal Your Life, by Tom Curran.

Because until you deal with it, what’s on your heart, it’s like barnacles on the side of a ship. And as long as it’s there, it keeps your heart from being alive, and even more, from receiving grace in the various ways God desires to give it. So how are you struggling?

  • Is it anger or impatience? Responses that tend to be manifested at those of our households or other drivers?

  • Is it using God’s holy name, or the name of Jesus, as a casual expression or even a swear word?

  • Or do you struggle with setting a bad example for others—especially, your family—of what it means to be a Christian man or woman?

  • Is it that you make other things more important than time for God, such as preoccupation with self-comfort, TV, material possessions, YouTube videos or social media?

  • Or maybe it’s gossiping or being cranky all the time (even at church activities!)

  • Maybe it’s holding on to resentments.

  • Is it struggles with various sins of impurity, including what’s waiting for us to view on our mobile devices, our game systems, our PCs. This so called ‘adult material’ enters our homes and pollutes our hearts, distorts our understanding of God’s gift of human love and human dignity. Statistics indicate the average 11-year-old has already been exposed to it. And as for adults, I’ve seen how it undermines and harms marriages—the feelings of betrayal. (please check out the product, a filter blocker, called Covenant Eyes)

  • Maybe it’s our failure to trust in the truth, telling lies in order to impress others or avoid inconveniences.

  • Finally, though this short list is not at all exhaustive, maybe it’s receiving the Holy Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin.

Whether it’s any or all of these things, or anything else, what are the rough ways that you need to make smooth? What are the things you need to leave behind in order to experience God’s mercy—mercy manifest in the tender child to be born unto us?

Don’t let fear and pride keep you from God’s mercy.

Take home one of the white pamphlets, HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND MAKE A GOOD CONFESSION, and prayerfully prepare, then come back and reclaim your innocence, even if it’s been forever. Re-enter the life of grace and mercy, prepare the way for the Lord.

Solemnity of Christ the King (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi)

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi


In regards to our communal worship, there’s a saying, perhaps you’ve heard: “Lex orandi, lex credendi”. It means simply that prayer leads to belief. And so, if a person wanted to know what we believe, they should know by listening to the words and the ideas that are expressed in our prayer. For example, forty days after Easter, we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, and in that celebration the prayers of the Mass we express in prayer our belief that Jesus has taken his place in heaven, that “God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy” (Ps 47:6)—lex orandi, lex credendi.

But while this solemnity, Christ the King, might sound like it expresses the same focus, it’s different. In fact, we might assume this feast goes back to the Middle Ages, but actually, it’s rather new. In 1925, just after the First World War, Pope Pius XI saw a shift in world power. Fallen, were the once powerful kingdoms and monarchies: the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, the Romanovs. New world powers were emerging: not so much powerful families, but instead ideologies: socialism, communism and Nazism.

Pope Pius saw danger in this and feared these new ‘isms’ could become a new type of monarchy, leading God’s sons and daughters astray.

He wanted to make it known, that while the world is ever-changing, its power structures, its waves of cultural influence, one thing will never change: Jesus, as Lord forever of an enduring Kingdom.

He wrote an encyclical entitled Quas Primas, to declare this belief, but he also realized that pontifical statements have only a limited ability to teach and to foster belief. So he chose to establish this feast day, to be celebrated as a definitive and final statement to conclude the liturgical year, to proclaim to ourselves and to the world “Ave Christus Rex!”. Pope Pius XI knew that this communal prayer would more effectively teach and foster belief that Jesus is an eternal king—indeed, lex orandi, lex credendi.

But as people of the Scriptures, we don’t have to look far to find the problems associated with kings.

In fact, if we begin at the Book of Judges, before the people Israel ever had a king, we see how badly they wanted one. They had hope that it would unify them and give them power to compete with their foreign neighbors. God continually said, “No, an earthly king will only lead you astray. I’m your king”, but the people asked again and again, until at last he gave them what they wanted.

Beginning with Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, and on and on, almost without exception, they proved God right: their human weakness got in the way and interrupted God’s relationship with His people. The eventual solution came when God Himself came to be our King. He was nothing like the kings of Israel. As he says to Pilate in today’s Gospel, “My kingdom does not belong to this world”. I can imagine him there: dirty, bloody, and bearing the crown of thorns that was mockingly placed on his head. He would have been the picture of weakness in Pilate’s eyes. Yes, that is our king, his power exercised in weakness and humility. That is what we pray today: lex orandi, lex credendi! 

But there’s actually a third part to that saying: lex orandi, lex credendi….lex vivendi, meaning that we pray so that we might believe, so that we might live it. It only does so much good to proclaim in our worship that Christ is King, if that belief doesn’t become manifest in our living, in the world out there.

The kingdom he came to bring was to be marked by justice, peace and joy—something we all want, yet has never sufficiently existed in any nation or state, including our own.

Jesus came to establish that kingdom, but it’s still underway. As we say, “It’s here, but not yet”. We who look to him as king, are entrusted with continuing the building of this kingdom of justice, peace and joy.

But the building of this kingdom begins in our hearts. We can effectively build the kingdom out there, only when we have really begun the work of within—freeing our hearts of their disordered desires, giving them more and more to Jesus and to his will for our lives.

Pope Pius XI wanted us to understand that all things come and go—world powers, cultural movements, flavors of the day, our struggles with sin—through the phases of our lifetime, from one generation to the next.

Those are not his kingdom, nor do they endure. As our restless hearts keep searching, let us pray it, believe it, but also live it: the one unchanging thing on which we can hold onto is Jesus Christ our King. Ave Christus Rex!

33rd Sunday in Ordinay Time (Destruction of the Temple)

Destruction of the Temple

Today’s reading is filled with scary and mysterious end times stuff: tribulation, a blacked-out sun, the heavens shaking. Throughout history, people have tried to understand the meaning of this mysterious language, reading the signs of the times, wondering if the end is near. That list includes saints and popes from the early middle ages. More recently, I recall a Christian radio evangelist, Harold Camping, who predicted the end would occur on September 6, 1994. When it didn’t, he revised the date to the September 29th and then again to October 2nd. He later predicted March 31, 1995; then May 21, 2011; then later still, October 21, 2011. Finally, he gave up, declaring that nobody can know.

As far as I can tell, there seems to be one commonality of all end-time predictions: they’ve all been wrong.

The words and phrases Jesus uses in today’s Gospel, likely arouse questions for us, so perhaps a bit of an explanation is helpful. He said, The sun will be darkened….the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…. There are two layers of meaning to this.

On one level, Jesus is giving us a clue of the coming fall of Jerusalem and its Temple. For the Jews the Temple was a microcosm of the entire universe. It’s been described that inside the temple, the veils were embroidered with images of the stars and constellations. “The seven lights of the menorah represented the sun, the moon, and the five known planets.”[i] With that in mind, we should also understand that for the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was the center of their universe, the meeting point of heaven and earth. We can imagine how its destruction would affect them.

To stamp out a Jewish rebellion that occurred roughly 40 years after Jesus offered the words we hear in today’s Gospel, Titus, the Roman general who would later become emperor, began a 5-month siege that slowly brought death and horror upon the Jews, until at last his armies breached the walls, burned the city and reduced the magnificent Temple to a mere heap of rubble.

For the Jewish people this would be the cataclysmic event to mark the end of an age. We should also understand that for the Jewish people, 40 years was meant to represent a generation. Indeed that generation to whom Jesus spoke saw the tribulation, the sun darkened, the moon’s light was dimmed, and the stars falling from the sky, as the Temple was destroyed.

But as I said, there’s a second level of meaning to Jesus’ words today: He was also speaking about his death that was very soon to come.

As the evangelists describe it, at noon, darkness came over the whole land (15:33), the earth quaked, and the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two (Mt 27:51). With this in mind, we recall how Jesus had likened himself as the new temple (Jn 2:19-22), the new and definitive place where God would dwell among His people. And so, on Calvary, the destruction of this new temple, Jesus’ body, was the cataclysmic event that would mark the end of an age.

Both of these layers of meaning speak to an end, an undoing of creation in a sense. It makes me think of St. Paul’s words to the Christians of Corinth—and by extension, to us: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit?” (1 Cor 6:19). Yes, our bodies. I remember asking a doctor, “At what point in our lives do our bodies begin to atrophy or begin their decline?” She said that it was somewhere around the age of 20, which ought to make us all feel good(!). It’s true: like Jesus’ body, and like the Temple itself, these temples as we know them, will one day come to an end: the stars will fall, the light will become dimmed, tribulation.

I realize that the thought of death gives some of us anxiety.

While on one hand, I get it, I also think we would do well to remind ourselves what our faith tells us about death and what follows it. Having recently celebrated All Souls Day, and as we pray for our loved ones, including those represented on our Altar for the Dead, I also bear in mind how the death of those we love weighs on our hearts. For this, let us remember that death does not get the last word, even though we all will face it.

So, for all the ways that the end of days is beyond our knowing—both our own, but also of the whole universal order—our task is not to figure it out, but instead to ready ourselves. From the time we are baptized—odd as it sounds—we are preparing ourselves for death and what follows it.

Perhaps one of the reasons death gives us anxiety is that on some level, we know our hearts aren’t ready. Maybe we fear meeting our maker and having to reconcile with having ignored what he’s been calling us to or for our lukewarm response. So, if you only had a month, a week, a day, what would you change? What would you put your energies into?

As we pray, in a few minutes from now, “Thy Kingdom come…”, and as we receive the promise of our Baptism that’s held in the Eucharist—food to help us as we move a little closer to our end of days—let us remember that now is what matters—this moment, today. Let us put our hearts in order, as though this is our last chance to get it right on this side of death.

[i] Healy, Mary. Gospel of Mark, The (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) (pp. 267-273). Baker Book Group - A. Kindle Edition.

 

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Stewardship)

It just so happens that the organizers of the lectionary gave us this Gospel reading—the Widow’s Mite, as it’s commonly referred to—during the weeks that we are asking you all to consider your stewardship: how and what you give to the parish. But it’s not hard to see the connection. It says that she put in two small coins worth a few cents, while many people put in large sums. The point, of course, is that despite the fact that what the widow gave was less money, she gave more generously. Jesus lauds her because her spirit of giving was great, and that she clearly trusted in God to provide.

And by the way, even though this narrative specifically speaks of money, when we talk about stewardship to the parish, it’s more than just money: it’s time, talent and treasure, and all three pertain to our generosity, and our trust in God.

 

We believe that as the Gospel spread across the world, and eventually was planted here in Issaquah, the purpose was to continue Jesus’ work of building God’s Kingdom. And of all the ways that we continue that work, it’s only because of guidance of the Holy Spirit and your generosity. We depend entirely on what you give in your tithing, and the ways that you participate.

As we do each year, we ask you to re-commit by prayerfully weighing and determining what you can provide financially, then filling out a pledge card. This helps us to know how to budget. But also, we ask you to prayerfully consider how to get involved in the life of your parish.

 

There is a lot that goes on in this parish in order to do the work entrusted to us. And I’ve heard it said that in the average parish, about 15% of the people do 85% of the work. And I see it: there are a handful of people that do so much of it all, and there are a lot of people who have not been involved in anything in years, if ever. They come to Mass—and thank goodness for that—but that’s the extent of their engagement.

Why is that? I suspect they would say it’s because they’re too busy, that life is too hectic. I get it. Just as there’s a part of us that fears not having enough of our financial resources to get us through, there’s a part of us that fears not having enough time to be involved. Fear stifles our ability to trust, and therefore stifles our generosity. The widow in today’s Gospel had no fear.

 

I ask you to consider how to get involved, partially to better distribute the workload, but also to be more connected to your fellow parishioners, to build community. And maybe it’s fair to think of is a sort of partnership: while we have responsibilities to you, you have responsibilities to your parish family.

But get involved also for your own benefit, using your God-given skills and abilities, as one of the workers building God’s Kingdom. It’s good for your soul. In this weekend’s Pastor’s Note, I wrote about the theological meaning of sacrificial giving—what this all is about. Please take a few minutes to read it and consider it.

Recently we asked those who coordinate our various ministries to tell us if they need help. Based upon their responses we grouped the needs and listed them on three large posters in the back. Some of you undoubtedly have hearts for Outreach Ministries, others for activities that build community. Some of you like participating in Liturgical Ministries. On the counter, beneath the posters, are cards on which you can indicate your interest to at least learn more about a particular ministry. You can drop the cards in the baskets on the counter, either today or next weekend. Someone will follow up with you.

 

Throughout the entirety of our lives, God is patiently calling us to refine our priorities that it might open us up to Him, and to trust that He will provide what we ultimately need. Some part of us know it’s true, even if fear keeps us from fully believing in it. I love the way St. Paul said it in his second letter to the Corinthians, in which he was asking more from that community: “He who sows bountifully will reap bountifully. Everyone must give according to what he has decided; not sadly, not grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver. God can multiply His favors among you so that you may always have enough of everything and even a surplus for good works” (2 Cor 9:6-8). Let us trust our sacrificial giving ultimately leads us to Him, and that whatever is given in love to the Lord and for His purposes, is never lost to us.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jesus Our Great High Priest)

Over the course of seven consecutive Sundays, we’re hearing from the Letter to the Hebrews. This New Testament letter is unique to all other writings in the Bible, particularly in how it speaks of Jesus, its particular theology—what we would call Christology. This letter was written to encourage Jewish Christians who were becoming disheartened, to explain that their old Jewish practices were not enough to put them in right relationship with God—they needed the mediation of Jesus, whom the author calls the great high priest (4:14).

Of the many images and titles we have of Jesus, high priest may not be the first one that comes to mind. First of all, although the Letter to the Hebrews refers to him that way, that doesn’t seem to be how he’s described in the Gospels. Furthermore, we tend to think of Jesus as having an adversarial relationship with the Temple priests, the Sanhedrin.

But it’s true, he is our great high priest, and when we connect the dots, we see his priesthood woven into the writings of the Gospels. In it all, in keeping with the basic function of a priest, he stands between God and man—a middle man, if you will—offering a sacrifice to God, for the good of others.

 

So, what’s the point of the sacrifices? On some level, it all seems cruel and senseless. For the ancient people, the sacrifices were understood to be a vicarious offering for one’s sins, to put that person back into relationship with God. The priest was a mediator in this, reconciling God and man.

But the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that while Jesus is a priest, he’s different than every priest before him—he changed the priesthood. First, because he didn’t come from the family line of priests, the tribe of Levi. He was a son of David, the family line of Judah. Also different, we’re told that his priesthood would last forever, and that he would offer one sacrifice for all peoples, for all times. Finally, he is unique in that he is not just the priest offering the sacrifice—he is at the same time, the sacrifice.

In his role as priest, and as the offering itself, he brings us back into right-relationship with God. Every time we celebrate the Mass, we enter into that eternal act that took place at the Last Supper. When he said, “This is my body which will be given up for you”. That’s wasn’t merely a polite gesture, like passing a plate of cookies to your houseguests. It was explicitly sacrificial language, saying that his body will be given up, that his blood will be poured out. That event in the upper room was continued in what would happen the next day on Calvary, where he would be nailed to the cross, where from the cross, he would enact, as high priest, the sacrificial offering of himself.

As we celebrate the Mass on this altar, today or any other day, we enter into that eternal sacrifice. The crucifix on the wall serves as a ‘screenshot’ if you will, of our current activity in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

 

As we prepare the altar for the sacrifice, bringing up the gifts of bread and wine, be attentive to those gifts, because they represent all of us: our fears, our joys, our wounds, our causes for gratitude, our worries and all that we are. Those gifts—that is, we ourselves—are laid-out on the altar. As Jesus lifts-up the sacrifice to the Father in this Mass, he also raises us up and all our causes with it. This altar becomes the portal to the Father, and Jesus stands at the doorway.

And how beautiful it is, that we have a high priest who is not only God, but because he also fully human, he understands our weaknesses, our suffering, our temptations, our fears. Because he is both divine and human, he stands in middle ground like no other priest could.

In so doing, with the same compassion he extended to the blind man, Bartimaeus, he likewise asks us here and now: “What do you want me to do for you?” Not only will I absorb your sins, as I offer myself for you. But as your priest, your intercessor, what do you need me to pray for? Ask it. Friends in Christ, if we aren’t bringing this part of ourselves to him at this Mass or any Masses in which we participate, we are missing an opportunity, but even more, it leaves us wanting.

But even more, as so many great people have shown us, regardless of all the prayers we give to him, solutions we seek, ultimately what we need is Jesus himself. The answer, the solution to our fears, our wounds, is hidden within the Eucharist that he gives to us from this altar. If we aren’t seeking and receiving him as the answer to our needs, again, we’re missing it and will be left wanting.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life)

Jesus’ encounter with the man in this Gospel likely troubles us in some ways, but also leaves us with some questions. About the only thing we know about him is that he was materially wealthy, he had a lot of stuff (probably no one here can relate to that but try your best to imagine). But another thing we know about him is that he wanted something more than his possessions, prompting him to ask Jesus how to attain it: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Asked another way, “How can I get to Heaven?”

The question infers that there are certain requirements to entering heaven. Now some would say that the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, coupled with one’s declaring their belief in him are all that is necessary. But this reading certainly seems to suggest there’s more to it than that. And while we certainly don’t believe that one earns his/her way to heaven, it seems to say that there are necessary ways of living.

         

In his dialogue with Jesus, the man made it clear that he followed Jewish Law. But then we’re given a curious detail: we’re told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. In my prayers, I’ve tried to imagine that, but I interpret it to tell us that Jesus could see through him, and into his heart. He could see what was keeping the man from being fully alive. Despite what he saw in the man, in his love for the man, he wanted to help him to move toward the eternal life he desired.

Jesus said to him (pardon the paraphrase), “Here is what you need to do: go and put your stuff on eBay. After you sell it, give what you earn to the poor….then come and follow me.”  And this too is a curious detail, because the man had asked him how to get to eternal life, yet Jesus told him what he must do in order to follow him, as though Jesus didn’t hear the question correctly. But in truth, he did. To follow Jesus is to be a disciple, and it seems he is saying that’s how you move toward eternal life: discipleship. That clearly wasn’t the answer the man wanted. Sadness consumed him, and he simply went away. It’s worth noting that Jesus let him go. He didn’t water-down the requirements.

 

There are two points I’ll make on this. First is what might seem like a condemnation of wealth. To be clear, while Jesus demands that we care for the poor, he doesn’t call us to live in abject poverty. Remember, there were people of wealth who supported Jesus—Joseph of Arimathea, the unnamed women described in chapter eight of St. Luke’s Gospel. They used their wealth to help facilitate his mission. He doesn’t condemn wealth, but he does send a warning about what it can do to us, and I think he would warn us that wealth requires serious spiritual discipline.

When it comes to wealth, there is no universal norm, such as a fixed amount of how much one should make as an income; how much one should give to help the poor; how much one should pay for a car; or anything else. But as men and women who likely wish to inherit eternal life, who therefore need to grow deeper in becoming disciples, such questions about our money, how much stuff we’re collecting, and if we’re sufficiently contributing to the poor—should be something that regularly re-evaluate. I suspect Jesus would challenge us for any way we are preoccupied with and attached to things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom.

 

But the second point I gleaned from this reading is that there is something demanded of us in order to inherit eternal life. This narrative infers that heaven is not a given for us. And I suspect that if each of us were to ask Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what’s demanded from him would likely be different for each of us.

It’s probably not a question most of us ask, though it would likely do us some good, from time to time. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Be prepared to listen and to take some time with it—give God some space to speak to you. And maybe be prepared to be initially disheartened, because it will likely demand that you detach from something you don’t want to or take on something you aren’t eager to. But despite our reticence, somehow it will lead to discipleship, to a deeper relationship with Jesus, to eternal life. What do you need to cease doing/begin doing, to move you toward eternal life?

Like the man in the Gospel, our Lord invites us to more. Will fear of the demand cause us also to walk away? And will we also like him do so in sadness, knowing that something our hearts long for is still missing from our lives?

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Marriage as Part of Creation)

Most people know there are two creation stories at the beginning of our Bible. While traditionally they were ascribed to Moses, most modern scholars say that they were written by two different authors, in different settings, at different times. Either way, it doesn’t diminish the profound truths they reveal, nor that they were written by authors who were guided by God’s spirit.

The first creation story, occurs over six days, with a seventh day for rest. The account seems to be told—zoomed-out, if you will—as though we can see the entirety of the universe. From out of the chaos, God, as though from a distance, spoke the elements of creation into existence and order. It’s a very systematic account of creation, beautifully and harmoniously ordered. The last thing created before He rested was human beings, male and female, made in His image. He blessed them and issued His first command: “Be fertile and multiply….” (Gen 1:26-28).

Then the second creation story zooms-in to specific coordinates, a location called Eden, where God seems to roll up His sleeves and put His hand in the soil, crafting the first being. This account is less systematized. God seems to adapt and adapt again, until he got it right: the man and the woman, of one flesh, at last, each completing the other. The Bible begins with creation and marriage is shown to be an integral part of it.

 

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone here that fewer couples get married today. Among the various explanations, one reason, I believe, is just simply a loss of faith, or at least a failure to see how marriage is connected to one’s faith. Because if we give credence to what the Scriptures say, it’s clear that God had something important in mind when we created the union of man and woman. But if the Scriptures aren’t normative for our lives, and if God’s will for our lives isn’t either, then should we expect a person to regard marriage as sacred?

 

So, what do we believe God intended for marriage? We regard marriage as a sacrament, meaning that God takes some sort of created matter and changes it or sanctifies it in some way. Just as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus, or a child that is baptized becomes marked on his/her soul, when a couple pledges themselves in marriage, God is doing something in them. The way today’s readings say it, is that He makes the two into one flesh. What does that mean exactly?

It’s similar to the words of consecration prayed over the bread and wine. As the Holy Spirit descends upon those elements to change them from within into the Jesus’ Body and Blood, so when the couple declare their words of consent to each other, God is reaching down into them. I think of it as though God is pouring Himself over the man and the woman and forging them into one in His love.

 

It’s a transcendent act, God working in us from beyond, and its purpose conversely, is to move us toward transcendence: to move beyond ourselves, heavenward. Thus, marriage serves to get the spouses, as well as whatever children God blesses them with, to heaven. The couple is to be a living sign for the world of God’s love.

 

Most anything I’ve learned about marriage comes from experience of working with couples: those who thrive, those who merely endure, and those who don’t endure. I see it: too many couples get stuck in the here and now, stuck in the mud, and lose sight of the transcendent nature of matrimony. It gets reduced to merely an earthly experience. Perhaps, they cease to remember—if they ever considered it at all—what God had done in them on their wedding day, what God intended and hoped for them, and what they had so beautifully pledged for each other. When they lose sight of it, they begin having different criteria for what makes for a good marriage and happiness.

The image of the crucified Jesus says a lot about what marital love should look like, in the sense that it’s about giving everything for the other, with no regard for what is gained for one’s self. Enough couples tell me that marriage is hard and takes so much work. But when couples can find a way to live like that, that’s when marriage becomes transcendent, a building block for the Kingdom of God. That’s when it leads to real and enduring happiness.

If you’re stuck and merely enduring, let’s talk about how it can change, realizing that change from you may not be easy either. If we want that happiness and meaning for our children, I believe we need to rediscover marriage—how it was an integral part of creation, how it is an integral part of ongoing creation, how it is so deeply associated with our faith—to rediscover it and demonstrate it. To show the world what God’s love looks like.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cause These Little Ones to Sin)

I’m blessed to be in the presence of children quite a bit, whether it’s at our school, or children that are here on Sundays. There’s no question that they bring a vitality and joy to our parish and to my life that would be sorely lacking otherwise. Sometimes I am surprised by the things I hear things them say and the behaviors I witness, perhaps especially certain behaviors and relationship dynamics—ones that we don’t generally regard as beautiful or virtuous—that I think, they must have learned that from an adult. Children wouldn’t naturally act that way.

I remember a few years ago, a 2nd grader, asking me what kind of phone I had. I answered his question, and he responded by telling me that I should have an iPhone because they’re better. Never mind that I wasn’t seeking his guidance, but I thought, Where did a 7-year-old get that idea? I still don’t know, but my guess is that he was echoing something he heard his mom or dad say.

I also remember an awkward occasion with a family. The father and the twelve-year-old son were jokingly making cutting remarks about the mother, who tried not to convey her hurt at the disrespect that came from her son, as her husband not only allowed it, but even made light of it. Where did the son learn that behavior?

Lest it sound as though I’m only an innocent party to all this, many years ago, I was in the car with my oldest nephew, who was just a few years old—just the two of us. At some point, as an outburst at someone’s bad driving, I said a word I shouldn’t have said, especially with him. I had naively assumed that it couldn’t possibly be in his vocabulary. A voice from the backseat announced, “That’s a bad word”. Guilty, as charged. We think that they aren’t watching, that their innocent minds won’t pick it up, but we’re fooling ourselves.

 

It was in last Sunday’s Gospel, in which the disciples were caught disputing who among them was the top dog, that Jesus sought to get their minds in the right place by directing their attention to a child (Mark 9:36), symbolizing innocence, carefree attitudes. Only a few verses later, still in teaching-mode with his disciples, and still holding the child before them, he said, as we heard in today’s Gospel, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better if you were thrown into the sea”–rather harsh language, from one we typically associate with gentleness and mercy. From this, it would seem that Jesus is saying, It’s one thing to choose sin for yourself, but it is so much worse to lead innocent ones to sin (see Catechism 2284-5).

 

So, what about our little ones? Our children may not be actively focused on our every word and action, but nonetheless, they’re passively absorbing it, learning from us—even in the moments that it might seem their attention is immersed in other things: TV programs, mobile devices, gaming systems. They’re learning from us, even from behind the closed door of their bedroom.

For sure, at a certain age, their peers become a powerful influence, but it would be foolish to think they aren’t learning from their parents, grandparents, all of us—from the time before they begin to speak, and even when they reach the age that they realize they know everything, and their parents know nothing.

So, what are we teaching them when we cut corners, and cheat in any way; when we justify or explain-away our bad behaviors; when we gossip about others; when we call other drivers idiots; when we speak disrespectfully about authority figures in our children’s lives: coaches, teachers, parents of other children; when we take God’s name in vain, using it in anger; when we argue and fight in front of them, sometimes throwing insults?

 

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better if you were thrown into the sea”. I don’t believe Jesus wants us to be thrown into the sea; he wants us to cultivate virtue and goodness in our children.

In the same way, I don’t believe Jesus wants us to cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes, as we hear in today’s Gospel. His point is that he wants us to cut out the things in our life that perpetuate sin in our lives. I know for myself, the stuff that continues to feed my bad behaviors, my bad attitudes, my struggles with sin. Do you know yours? Could you make a list of one, two, or three things—attitudes, habits, things in our lives that feed into your struggles with sin—that if you cut them out, you might find freedom at last? We’ve got to cut it out of our lives, especially in any way we want to model virtue and goodness for our children or for those over whom we hold influence. Until we do, we can’t expect better from others, especially our little ones. After all, they learn it from us.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Envy)

Sometimes we hear the term Paschal Mystery, but may not even know what it means. The Paschal Mystery is a term used to describe something at the very heart of our Christian faith: Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. In fact, every time we celebrate the Mass we enter into those eternal events. We participate in the Paschal Mystery: the meal shared in the upper room of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion on Calvary, and the Glorified Jesus who emerges from the tomb hewn in rock.

In today’s Gospel, as they were walking through Galilee, Jesus began to tell them about it:“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

He was giving them a glimpse of the very thing on which they would eventually give their lives…..but they weren’t listening. They had been arguing about other stuff, which turned out to be about who among them was the greatest. I can imagine Jesus’ exasperation, thinking, You aren’t getting it. I’m calling you to just the opposite of that way of understanding. Haven’t you heard anything I’ve said up to this point?

 

Their problem is the same problem that we, the disciples of today, fall into. At the heart of an argument about who is the greatest—or as we might more commonly experience it, which is to compare ourselves to others—is envy, one of the 7 Capital (or Deadly) Sins, along with pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. I’ve heard it described that these are perhaps more properly understood as attitudes in the heart that are not yet sin in action. Everyone of them is a form of idolatry. Pride is idolatry of self; gluttony is of food or drink; sloth is of comfort; and so on.

Envy is idolatry of status or possessions. Bertrand Russell posed that envy was one of the primary causes of unhappiness, often leading us to wish misfortune on others (Metaphysics of Morals). Consider Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, or the story of King David, who after having acted out in adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers. David’s spiritual advisor, Nathan, laid it out for him, speaking on behalf of God: I gave you everything. I made you king, rescued you from your enemies, gave you a home and wives, and still more. Why have you taken what did not belong to you? (2 Samuel, chapters 11-12).

 

I talk with enough people to know it’s a common problem. We become preoccupied with other people’s lives (they’re more popular, they get more attention and accolades); their God-given attributes (they’re attractive or highly skilled); their state of life (they’ve got a normal family, they’ve got it easy); their possessions (their car has more bells and whistles than mine, they’ve got the newer iPhone, while my parents have cursed me with the old one). Aristotle defined envy as pain we experience caused by the good fortune of others. We fixate on it all and it makes us increasingly discontent, even to the extent that we find satisfaction in whatever way those of whom we are envious suffer losses.

It all comes from a lie, telling us that our identity—how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us—is wrapped up in all those extrinsic realities: our stuff, the accolades, those we’re associated with, our talents and skills. The lie also tells us that God isn’t enough, that He hasn’t given us enough, and that He doesn’t really love us enough. I need all those other things to feel complete. And from all this—this envy—we lose sight of our many causes for gratitude, our many blessings, His promises.

         

And like the disciples on the way, sidetracked with comparing and unable to hear Jesus telling them about the Paschal Mystery, it’s likely that our preoccupations keep us from hearing it, considering its meaning, and desiring to experience it—while it’s at the very center of who we are as Christians.

Simplicity of life and gratitude (gratitude for who God has made me to be, for what I have, and my life’s circumstances) are the keys to pushing away from the false god that is envy. You might say, “Yeah that would be fine, if my circumstances didn’t suck”, but I’ve known too many people who, objectively speaking, live very hard lives and even suffer, yet live in gratitude and joy. We can always find someone who has it better and others who have it worse. The comparing doesn’t help.

I believe the more we strive for simplicity and a grateful heart, the more we will be able to hear and to get the heart of what our faith is about, and the more we’ll see ourselves as God sees us. If you’re like me, steps toward simplicity of life and a prayerful focus on gratitude might be what leads to more authentic discipleship, living in the Paschal Mystery—Jesus’ suffering, death, and his glorious resurrection.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Be Strong, Fear Not)

Last week in my homily, I spoke about how wounding from the past tends to remain within us, even if dormant, and further, that the effects of those wounds become manifest in our living. Old wounds become manifest in the here and now. But it’s also our experience that something in the here and now awakens those old wounds, whether we thought we had dealt with them or not, whether we were even conscious of the wounds at all. For example, the news of these abuses, horrible as it is. Maybe it stirs up something from one’s own experience. Maybe it shakes our faith in the Church and disrupts the feeling of being grounded in that important dimension of our faith.

But regardless of the nature of the wound or what the experience is that serves as a trigger, one of the things it commonly triggers is fear. We all have fears, whether we’re truly conscious of them or not, and they govern us in certain ways. They hold us back from fully living.

 

I think at the root of our fears is that our Father won’t really take care of us or ensure our happiness; that maybe we’re not really beloved sons and daughters, and that God’s not really enough. And from that root fear, comes every other fear we grapple with: fear that my children won’t keep up with their peers; fear that my spouse doesn’t really love me; fear of an environmental crisis; fear that moral values are withering; fear of commitment; fear that the things bring me comfort and the way I like things will be taken away; fear of not being accepted; fear of not being relevant, and so on. Do you understand your own fears, and how they govern you?

 

As God told Isaiah to declare the people of Israel a millennium and a half ago, he says to us today in this living proclamation:”….to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…”  We’re told again and again, Be not afraid!—and yet we can’t seem to find our way out of it.

I remind us that Jesus, truly took on our human condition. It was not a costume. He knew fear. Consider his agony in the garden, the night before he was to suffer and die. He had a sense of what awaited him and he surely feared it.

 

When we experience fear, it implies that we have a sense of something is not in our control. Well, this is true. The problem is that our fears tell us that God is not in control. Isaiah wanted us to know that God is real, and is with us, and is in control.

Our faith does not deny fear as a reality any more than Jesus denied his fear in the garden of Gethsemane. Tragedy and pain are part of our human condition, just like fear. But we must bear in mind, that in his free and complete surrender to God’s will, Jesus took all the world’s fear with him onto the cross and offered that fear, along with himself, to the Father. And while fear wants us to believe that the chaotic forces are in control, our faith reminds us that God is. And therefore, somehow, all will be well. Isaiah says to us today: “Thus says the LORD: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God”.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (What Goes Into Our Hearts)

 

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”

He names thirteen different manifestations of sin. Maybe we can look at those as we would an examination of conscience and consider which ones apply to us. Maybe it’s evil thoughts, such as wishing harm upon another person. Maybe it’s theft, adultery, envy, or blasphemy, which in this context is meant as slander—that is, making false statements about someone to damage their reputation. Maybe there are some among us who are batting a thousand on all those, but more likely, any one of us would honestly say within, that some of those apply to us, while others do not.

There are different ways to sin. And as St. John further distinguishes in his first letter, “There is such a thing as deadly sin....All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 John 5:16-17). There is deadly sin— that is, mortal sin—and those that are not deadly: venial sin. Yes, there are different

types of sin, and some are more harmful than others, but varied as sin might be, it all comes from one place: the human heart. Gossip, robbery, adultery: they all have a common place of origin.

St. Bede, an 8th century monk, said, “Some believe that evil thoughts are inspired wholly by the devil and that the human will cannot be held responsible for them. It is true that the devil can inspire and encourage evil thoughts, but he is not their origin” (St. Bede, In Marci Evangelium, 2,7,20-21). It’s us, our hearts.

To help us better understand this, let’s consider Jesus’ words: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person”. Let’s not misunderstand him. Just as our bodies are affected, for better or for worse, by what we put in them in terms of food, chemicals, medications, etc., there’s no question that our hearts are likewise affected by what goes in: how we feed our consciousness and form our moral understanding, the things we watch, the things we read, the things we listen to, and company we keep.

The heart, the singular source of sin, is inclined to be a source of sin, depending on how we care for it, what we expose it to, and what we put into it.

But similarly, and every bit as much a part of our experience, the wounds we bear, whether on our bodies, our spirits and our souls, it will affect what types of fruits emerge from our spirits. Those wounds produce what becomes manifested in our living. Each of us has received wounds in our lifetime—sometimes self-inflicted and other times at the hands of another person—and despite whatever way the pain seems to subside, or time seems to heal, the wounds and their effects often remain deep within. Often these hidden wounds become manifested in our struggles in relationships, our fears, our lingering shame and so on.

Just as what goes up, comes down, so what goes into our hearts will come back out. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that he wants to be what goes into our hearts, so that he can be what comes out of them. And similarly, for the wounds that remain deep within our hearts—wounds that affect our bodies, our minds or our souls—it will be in letting Jesus into those wounds, and even the painful experiences from our past that served as their origin, that we will begin to find more beauty that comes out of us.

It makes me think of the beautiful promise God made through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26-30).: “I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you....you will be my people, and I will be your God....I will summon the grain and make it plentiful...I will increase the fruit on your trees and the crops in your fields....” And I believe He would add: I will take away the pain within your broken heart. I will restore the Sacred Heart I gave you when you were born, and from that, from out of you, will come life for others. Just give me space within you. Allow me to live in your heart.