Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Distance between Veni and Emmanuel - An Advent Reflection

Veni, veni, Emmanuel, captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel.

You know this song as O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This week, I taught my seventh graders how to sing it in Latin. Why? For a whole host of reasons… one of which is that I have found them to listen more attentively to lyrics when they are in a foreign language; and another of which is that the Latin provides great opportunities to discuss the deeper meanings of the song—deeper meanings which are sometimes lost in translation.

Take veni for example. The kids easily saw the connection between veni and Advent: to come towards. Ad = towards; venire = to come. Advent. But who is coming? We know the answer: Emmanuel!

But what does Emmanuel mean? This is where there was some head-scratching. Well, yes, it is Jesus. But what does Emmanuel mean? More head-scratching; the idea that names mean things was foreign to the young students. Well, I told them, we know that Jesus means “God saves.” Emmanuel means something too. It means “God is with us.”

God is with us. We’ve heard that phrase before in various forms. Gabriel the Archangel greets Mary and says “The Lord is with you”—Catholics also pray that in the Hail Mary. We hear Emmanuel in Isaiah’s prophecy: Emmanuel is the one who is to come. We also hear it in the form of a promise when Jesus ascends to heaven as He says, “I am with you until the end of the age.” At Holy Mass, we are alerted to the name when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

Now, when we compare veni and Emmanuel, we see something interesting. When we say veni, come, we are forming a prayer, asking that God come to us. But immediately we then say Emmanuel, God is with us. This is interesting: on the one hand, we have a repetition of the initial words of the prayer, a kind of deepening of the intensity of the petition: come, Jesus, really come, be with us, we need you. On the other hand, we realize that Emmanuel is one of God’s names. And names bespeak identities.

What can we draw from this? That this name reveals to us God’s longing—dare I say, part of His very Being—to dwell with us. Being with us is an extension of love, which is God. God is with us because He loves us; because He wants to be.

Then why the prayer asking Him to be with us? What is keeping Him? Isn’t He already? The answer is found in the next line: captivum solve Israel, qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio (release captive Israel, who mourns in exile deprived of the Son of God). Wow. Not exactly what you hear in the English version of the song! Ok, so how is this an answer to the question? I will show you how in the remainder of this reflection. The answer will be evident at the end of it.

First, we can say that we find that Israel is (and really, we are) in captivity. What is captivity? Bondage, in prison, enslaved, stuck. How can this be? Well, on the one hand, you do have Israel literally in bondage—not in Egypt, but in Babylon (and Assyria). They are literally in exsilio—in exile. On the other hand, you have us, who are freed by Christ, but yet we still find ourselves enslaved to our vices and bad habits. Even more, we too are in exsilio. To be in exile means to be banished, to be not-at-home. Where are we not-at-home from? Or, more positively: if here is not home, then where is home?

I recall the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen.” In that prayer, we say to Mary “to the do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” Qui gemit in exsilio: who mourns in exile here. The exile is from the Garden of Eden; from Jerusalem; from heaven. And why was there the exile—from Eden, from Jerusalem, and from heaven? Because man chose not-God. Adam and Eve chose sin, taking from the apple tree. So did Israel. So do we. Man chose exile—to be away from home. Home, then, is not simply something geographical. Home is being with God; home, dare I say, is God.

The coming of Emmanuel, then, is not simply a past event, as in the case of Isaiah and the prediction of a Messiah who is born in Bethlehem many years ago. Nor is Emmanuel’s coming merely a future event, when the Christ comes at the end of time to bring the holy and righteous into the heavenly home. Emmanuel’s Coming is also a coming that takes place in the eternal present: God comes to dwell in the hearts and home of man himself.

I am reminded of words from Sacred Scripture:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me (Rev 3:20).

This, in turn, reminded me of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus is coming to a town and passing by. Zacchaeus, as you recall, was a tax-collector and also a man short in stature; he was not well-liked; he was a sinner. But, for some reason unknown to us, Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus’ coming. What is interesting, is that Zacchaeus climbs a tree, thinking that climbing a tree will make him more able to see God. Jesus, as He comes, sees Zacchaeus and says,
                        Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today
(Lk 19:5).
Here, not only does Jesus come and knock on the heart of Zacchaeus, but He does so by inviting himself over (I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me). He will be with us.

And might I add that the whole thing is fragrant with the Eucharist?

The coup de grĂ¢ce occurs when we find that it is not simply Zaccahaeus who is wanting the Lord to come, but it is Jesus who prays that we might come down to Him! Jesus says to us: veni!

What are we coming down from? Perhaps the inflated heights of pride and sin (Adam and Eve and their grasping from a tree....). Whatever it is we are coming down from, we are to come down and, like Isaiah, say to Our Lord: “Here I am.”

And when we do, we find that our Lord says to us in return, “I’m here too.”

Emmanuel. God is with us.

Here, then, is the answer to the question posed above, the question about how, if God is with us, then why are we praying for him to come? On the one hand, we are asking for a future event, the Second Coming, just like Israel begged for a savior to return Her from exile. But on the other hand, we are asking God to come into our lives right now: because we have yet to come down from the tree, to put away sin and walk in faith, we are away from the Lord; we feel the distance between God and us caused by sin. We pray “Come,” asking God who is already here to break through our sin and pride and fear, to draw us close to him, and free us from the captivity of being stuck up in that tree.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Speeding Through Cemeteries - Homily for the First Sunday in Advent

Fearing the End of the World as We Know It

            Today’s gospel seems out of place, doesn’t it? We hear of cosmic destruction and the end of the world. Why does the Church start off the beginning of Advent by contemplating The End? The simple reason is because when we consider The End, we are spurred on to prioritize what is important in our lives. If there were no tomorrow, wouldn't you live today differently? If we knew that we only had a month to live, we would certainly reassess our priorities; that which we once thought so important might not be anymore. And what we took for granted would suddenly become very important. Fear of The End has a way of moving us.

Catholics React to the Cuban Missile Crisis

            Fifty years ago, during many late-October days in 1962, Catholics—and, in fact, all Americans—faced the very real possibility that their lives—and Life Itself, really—had reached “The End.” The Soviets had developed nuclear missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Tensions ran high and Americans fully expected nuclear war. There was some panic, some rushing to the store and runs on supplies; some had built bomb shelters while schools practiced bomb drills. But there was something else that Americans did during that time: They prayed. A priest of the Archdiocese once told me about those days. He told me how he heard confessions that Friday night until the early hours of the morning; how he got up later that day, offered Mass, and heard confessions until the early hours of the morning again, only stopping to take the occasional break.
Some modern men might look back on that time with cynical eyes and say that man just hedges his bets in times of crisis. Maybe so. But at least that man who hedges is prudent: he understands the gravity of The End and his failings to pass through it alive. It’s the modern man, I think, who should be feared, because ultimately he lacks something—something I discovered at the cemetery this week.
Speeding through Cemeteries

            It was at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. I’m sure you’ve been there before; it can be really moving, seeing row after row of white tombs. It was there that I carried out the rite of burial. It was very beautiful and reverent. But when I returned to my car, I realized that I needed to hurry back to the parish. It was a very busy day here: I was on a schedule. And so, I wanted to speed.
            Now, this isn’t a homily about speeding, but the speed limit at Jefferson Barracks is 10 mph. The temptation to break the law was great. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just going to hurry home. But then an amazing grace: a light speaking to my heart. It was the Lord. He said to me, Anthony, who are you to be breaking the law? What is so important in your life that you think you can speed through a cemetery? Where is your respect?
            I was taken aback by this; God hit me across the head. I had to drive slowly through the cemetery. And I did. The odd thing was, that as I kept this small command, the Lord gave me a chance to look—to really look: I looked at row after row of the tombs of men and women who served our country, tombs that I took for granted and had just passed by in previous hurries. I thought of those men and women: who they were, where they had been, how they died, …. I began to pray for them.
And then something strange happened. As I passed row after row, it was as though I heard the men and women speaking from the grave, speaking the gospel to me. They were telling me:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life--And from Christmas shopping…. Don’t let that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone—everyone! just look at the tombs!—it will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Therefore, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent—imminent! not tomorrow, not December 21st, not years from now, but imminent! as though the missiles were ready to go right now. Be vigilant and pray that you have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.    
And then I could hear Jesus: The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise.   

Advent: a Season to Regain that True Fear of the Lord

            I thought a lot on my drive home. Who had I become? How had I become so arrogant to now think that I could do whatever I wanted? How did I become so forgetful so as to overlook the gravity of the world around me and my place in it and the reality that there are laws and that I must follow them? How did I lose sight of my end: that I will one day die and come before Jesus and every little thing that I have done and everything little thing that I haven’t done but should have—it will all come to light? and that I will be judged according to His laws which He gives through the Church? When did I stop fearing the Lord?

Fear of the Lord. That is what modern man lacks; for, if modern man feared the Lord, he would think twice before breaking a commandment. He wouldn’t speed through life, precisely because he respected its gravity. Fear of the Lord.
What is it?
It is a grace given by God whereby we have a holy gravitas of God’s GOD-ness, His awesomeness, His completely Other-ness. Fear of the Lord impels us to a profound respect for the majesty of God; of His laws; His power; His being GOD. Fear of the Lord slows us down in cemeteries; it impels us to walk humbly to communion and to refrain if we aren’t recollected or in grace. Fear of the Lord brings us to a love of God’s laws and His Church, to keep holy every Sabbath day and every holy Day of Obligation; it brings us to the confessional line.
Fear of the Lord is not firstly a dread of His punishment; it is firstly an encounter of divine love wherein we are not anxious about the things of the world, but about whether or not we love God—a love we show by slowing down and pondering his commands—and then keeping them.
Fear of the Lord reminds us that He is the only one, the only one in all the world and in all those cosmos who endures forever. And so, as all the world is tumbling down around us, God is remaining strong as a rock. He is our stronghold. He who is Love never fails. He is the one that keeps us safe and secure in our time of trial. This holy gravitas, then, translates into hope: It is in hope that, when we see the signs of The End beginning to happen, we will be able to stand erect and raise [our] heads because [our] redemption is at hand.
Fear of the Lord, strangely, gives us courage to address the fears of our life. It is precisely in the fear of the Lord that David finds his victory. You remember the story of David and Goliath…. David has no chance. But, moved by fear of the Lord, the One who is Lord of hosts, David picks up his sling and conquers his fear and the giant.
Fear of the Lord, then, translates into peace and joy.

Conclusion: The Offer of Divine Friendship

            Advent offers us a time to rediscover the deeper meaning of life and to reassess our priorities. We encounter The End precisely so that we might look to the One who brings us to the new beginning, so that we might look beyond the world that is tumbling down and discover the King whose Kingdom is without end. Our observance of Advent will be fruitful in joy and peace if we take a moment to consider The End and our obedience to God’s commands—to ask the question: Do I have fear of the Lord?
            What is interesting is this: this fear of the Lord and the keeping of the Lord’s commands translates into divine friendship. The Psalmist writes: The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him. And Jesus: You are my friends if you keep my commands.
            And that’s what we want for when the Lord comes again: to be his friends, to be friends of the Bridegroom who approaches, friends welcomed into His kingdom. This is what we celebrate at the coming of Christmas. This is what Advent prepares us for right now.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The World is Not Enough - Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King

            Pilate is facing a paradox today. Before him stands the King of Glory, the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ—but where is the glory? Pilate only sees a man, the “King of the Jews.” Yet, Jesus tells him that His kingdom is “not of this world.” That strikes me: didn’t Jesus tell us His kingdom is “at hand.” How is it “at hand” and yet “not of this world”? I find myself, like Pilate, scratching my head, wondering who this is in front of me.
            The solution to the paradox requires a greater sight than the power my eyes possess. There is something beyond the visible going on here. On one level, I can recall beyond my mere power of sight that Jesus has done many glorious things while He walked on earth: so many miracles: walking on water, feeding the multitudes, healing the impossibly infirm, raising the dead, teaching with deep wisdom, acting with great dignity and patience. So many glimpses of glory He gave to us: the sky being torn open at His baptism; the manifestation of His glory at the Transfiguration; His Resurrection from the dead and walking among us, glorified; His ascension; His promise to return in glory. Why do I not remember these when I am faced with a humble Jesus—a Jesus whose noble kingship is presently being questioned by Pilate?
John in his Book of Revelation tells us that “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” This is a promise and a warning to us: we must remember Jesus’ glory and we must look to it. We must look beyond the mere things of this world and remember and anticipate the glory of the “one who is, who was, and who is to come”—the one who Daniel “saw… coming, on the clouds of heaven.”
Pilate could not see. Perhaps he was blinded by a lack of faith. Perhaps he was blinded by his own desire for power. Perhaps he was worried about having a king greater than the earthly one to which he had sworn his life. Perhaps Pilate was anxious about the change that this King, Jesus, would require if He were to rule in his life. Whatever it was, Pilate had to look beyond the kingdom of this world, to look to something “not of this world,” for if there was a lesson that Pilate needed to learn in that moment, I think, it was that the world is not enough.

            You may have heard of the name Ian Fleming. He is the author of the James Bond books which have been created into the movies of which many of us know. Ian Fleming, when he was a boy, attended a boarding school in England in the 19-teens. Down the road from the boarding school was a large mansion, built during the Elizabethan era of England—in the mid-1500s, a time when Catholics were being persecuted in that country. The persecutions were so bad that many Catholic families found themselves having to smuggle in priests to have Holy Mass said in their homes. Some families even altered their homes and built priest hideaways in the floors or in the walls so that, when the police came looking for the priest, the priest could escape and the family would avoid persecution. This mansion down the road from Ian Fleming’s boarding school was built during that time and he found it very interesting. How do I know this?
            Well, the name of the family that owned the house was the Bond Family. In fact, the creators of the new Bond film have taken this detail from Ian Fleming’s life and have incorporated it into the new film—but you’ll have to see the film to see how they do that.
            What strikes me is this: the Bond family lived during a time when Jesus Christ, the King of Glory... when His Kingdom appeared meek and humble. When… like Jesus before Pilate today, the glory was not evident. There was skepticism, doubt, arrests, questioning, mistrust, persecution. The Bond family, however—they had everything. A large home with everything in it. Yet they lived in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. If there was a time when a people would recognize that the world was not enough, it would have seemed to have been during that time. And the Bonds, you would think, would have learned that lesson well. 
            But did they? Every noble family in England would have had a family crest, with emblems and imagery, telling the family history and story, showing to others what was important to the family. Below the crest would have been a Latin motto. The Bond Family had a crest and it had a Latin motto. You might be interested in what is said. It read: “Orbis Non Sufficit.” Translation: The World Is Not Enough.
            I believe the Bond family figured out during that age of persecution that, no matter how much a person has or owns, no matter how much power or fame a person possesses, it will never be enough. It can be taken away in a heartbeat. And what is left?

            Before Jesus died, He beckoned us to pray. And He gave us the best prayer of all: The Our Father. There is a great line in that prayer. We pray: Adveniat Regnum Tuum: “Thy Kingdom Come.” What a great prayer for us who are suffering, who are looking for The More. What a great prayer for us who are comfortable, to remind us that all is passing away. What a great prayer for us all, to exhort us to look forward to the glory that is present now but hidden, to be revealed soon. Adveniat… Advent… waiting for His Coming.
            I will admit: it is tough to live in this “in-between time”—the time in-between Jesus’ glorious Ascension and His coming again in glory at the end of time, when “thy kingdom come.” But Jesus’ Kingdom is “at hand”! We, like Pilate, are faced with the paradox of a glorious God-King presented as a humble, meek, and lowly servant Jesus, “having become a slave.” In this Eucharist, Jesus is just as humble, just as lowly. But just as present! We have reminders to alert us that there is a King here: the gold vestments, the beautiful candlestands, the altar, the music, the prayers, the testimony of the Word of God, the witness of the martyrs and saints who have come before us and worshipped.
            Like Pilate, we are being presented the King, humble. It is here that I realize the next line of the Our Father. It says, “Thy Will Be Done.” This is the tougher of the two lines in that prayer. It is easy to ask God to bring His glory. It is tougher to say to God: I’ll be a servant for your glory. Your Will Be Done. Because that means that we aren’t the king.
            Pilate could not accept this. He would not give his allegiance. He would not serve.
But Pilate is missing out. In refusing to serve Jesus, Pilate ironically becomes a slave to the world—a world that is passing away. Pilate misses out on being a prince in the Kingdom of God that is eternal; for, as we hear in Sacred Scripture, “you have become heirs of a kingdom.” Did you know, brothers and sisters in Christ, that you are adopted sons and daughters of the Father? And since He is the King, did you know that this makes you princes and princesses in His Kingdom! What dignity you have!
            And what a calling! To be dignified: to not get caught up in the muck of the world, to not be entranced by the long lines purchasing a fleeting world on Black Whatever-Day. What a calling! to hold ourselves up with confidence, walking in the grace of Christ the King, being able to hold our heads up even while all the world around us falls down. My friends, “Be of good cheer” for Christ Our King has “overcome the world”!
            St. Ignatius Loyola, a great saint in the Church, was once a soldier for a king. Ignatius one day learned that the world is not enough and that there is a greater king, a king of glory who gives us a great inheritance worthy of giving our life for it. When Ignatius discovered this humble King, he realized that he had to do everything “for the greater glory of God.” And so he penned a beautiful prayer, offering this King, Jesus, his allegiance and love. I will leave you with his prayer.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the Occasion of the Upcoming Anniversary of the Implementation of the Roman Missal

Of three things in life we can be certain: death, taxes, and liturgical changes.

That might sound cynical, but if we were to take a step back in time and look upon each of the past six decades, we would notice many changes surrounding the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Say, for example, you were to attend Holy Mass in 1960 and then attend in 1970, you would notice quite a few changes-- the most changes of any decade. Likewise, if you were to then attend in 1980, you would notice a few more (but, honestly, not nearly as many as before). Some things would change if you were to attend in 1990 and also in 2000, but those things that changed would not be quite as noticeable. Skip ahead to 2012, and you would see more differences.

And, of course, the degree of changes and the speed to which things were changing would depend on where you lived and which bishop pastored your diocese.

In recent years, liturgical matters have been moving-- in comparison with how ecclesial things often move-- at lightning speed. Last year, at the beginning of Advent, you may recall that a few words of the Holy Mass changed. Time flies.

(And if you have a particularly cognizant pastor, more than just "And also with you" changed too.....)

During this Year of Faith, it is important to kind of "catch up" on what the Church has been saying about the liturgy during the past seven years. I pick seven because the year 2005 begins Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate-- a pontificate which has done much with regards to faith and worship.

Recently in St. Louis, Most Reverend Peter Elliott, auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Australia, gave a lecture on current liturgical matters. He provides a fine summary of current thought, trends, and the new liturgical movement happening today. To those who have no care for the Holy Mass, these matters might seem trivial. But for those who truly believe that at the Mass we find the "source and summit" of the Christian faith, such matters might be something worth becoming acquainted. 

Bishop Elliott's quite readable and heavily footnoted lecture can be found here. If you do not have time to read it all, I would humbly submit the following line as the golden nugget of his lecture:

"The hermeneutic of continuity means that we should interpret the Second Vatican Council as part of the continuous growth of the living tradition of the Church, that is, only in continuity with all other Councils, not as a sharp break with the past. [Pope Benedict XVI] thus rejects the distinction between “pre-conciliar” and “post-conciliar” Catholicism."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Homily on the Solemnity for All Saints Day

Why is All Saints Day a Holy Day of Obligation? And more: why do we Catholics ask the saints to pray for us? Why not just go straight to Jesus? – have you ever been asked that?

In this Year of Faith, we are called to look more closely at our faith and begin to give eloquent defenses of our faith. So let’s answer these questions.

When we explain to people why the saints are important, we can use the Story of Two Kings:

The first king: he has beautiful tapestries and art, beautiful music, growing more and more beautiful the closer you get to the throne room. And then you hear the voices of a happy people, each arrayed in glory and beautiful to behold. And then you see Him, the one which drew you in with all of the beauty and glory, the great king who lavishes his wealth and love upon all who are around him.

The second king: he has nothing beautiful around him; no art, no music, no people-- nothing that could possibly take your attention from him. It is then that you realize why. Because this king is jealous of his glory. He doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything else.

Which king is more glorious? The first, of course. Because this king is glorious and generous, he lavishes his glory on everyone and everything that surrounds him. He is not jealous of his glory, nor is he worried that you will focus for a moment on the beauty of a tapestry or of a person in his court. That you would marvel at these things itself gives greater honor and glory to the king.

Jesus is that first king. And He invites us to get to know the saints so that we can be drawn in to His glory.

So, why ask for their prayers? James tells us:

"The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit" (Jas. 5:16–18).

Yet the saints in heaven are more righteous, since they have been made perfect to stand in God's presence (cf. Heb 12:22-23) than anyone on earth, thus meaning their prayers would be even more efficacious. This does not take away God's glory. Rather, God's glory shines through them-- and he employs them still (in a way, like the angels) to bring others (namely, us) into His glory.

A few saints, then, for your consideration.....

St. Paul.
Was Jewish. Killed Christians. Was feared by Christians everywhere. Then something happened and he wrote a few letters that we still read at Mass. Was martyred.

St. Augustine
Lost his faith as a youth, led a wild life, made his mother cry. Told the Lord: “God, give me chastity and continence – but not just now.” But one day, he uncovered a Bible, studied, converted, and sold all he had. Why? He said because “Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.”
St. Monatnus and St. Maxima.
A married couple. Arrested by a Roman Governor, Probus, for being Christian. Probus publicly questioned them and tried to persuade them to deny Christ. Much to the surprise of the crowd, their fidelity and apostolic courage proved to be great. In fact, when St. Maxima stood up to speak, she defended her faith so convincingly and with such eloquent zeal that Probus cut the trial short, fearing mass conversions to Christianity. Probus promptly beheaded them and threw them into the river.

St. Francis of Assisi
Everyone knows him, but they focus on the animals. They forget that he was once a soldier and a prisoner of war. When he converted to the faith, he was disowned by his family. Oh, and he founded the Franciscans. Wanting never to find his comfort in worldly things, Francis on his deathbed gave his cloak away and then proceeded to lay down on the bare ground, asking one of his brothers to read the Passion of Jesus according to St. John—at the end of which, naturally, he died.

St. Kateri Tekawitha
Was canonized less than two weeks ago. Born of a Mohawk chief who hated Christians, Kateri nevertheless was attracted to Jesus. As a young girl, she nearly died from smallpox, which left her with scars on her face. She asked to be baptized and was—and as a result she was shunned and abused by her relatives. She escaped towards Quebec where she did work with poor and the orphaned. The miracle after her death which sealed her canonization was that of Jake Finkbonner. Jake had a flesh-eating bacteria on his face that was so bad that doctors gave no hope of recovery. Jake received last rites. But the family had a devotion to Kateri. Jake miraculously recovered. And all that was left was… yes, you guessed it… a few scars on his face, just like Kateri.

St. Bernadette
Born as a poor peasant girl, Bernadette was hired out as a servant by her parents and became a shepherdess. She didn’t know how to read or write. But Mary visited her and asked Bernadette to follow her. Bernadette obliged and Mary led her to a spring. Since then, nearly 200 million people have come to this spring and many have been miraculously healed. You might know of the town where this spring is. It’s Lourdes. Oh, and when Bernadette asked Mary her name, Mary said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” An interesting name given to a shepherdess who couldn’t read; it was the same name that was made a dogma just a couple years prior.
St. Gianna
A modern-day saint. Gianna was happily married and had three kids. But during her fourth pregnancy, she was told that she had an illness that would kill her if she gave birth. She was advised to abort the child. She refused, telling the doctors: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save her.” Gianna gave birth and died a week later. Oh, and Gianna was a pediatrician. When Pope John Paul II—now a blessed—canonized her, he said, “The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.” And did I mention that Gianna liked to ski?

As you hear these stories, I'm sure some things might have surprised you. The human-ness... maybe it was how many were such sinners...  maybe it was the conditions in which they lived. For me, I am just struck by God's generosity. His grace turns sinners into saints; gives ordinary men and women the extraordinary strength to lead extraordinary lives—even, and especially, in ordinary circumstances.

These saints inspire me, encourage me, call me on to persevere, and they give me hope: the same God that bestowed glory upon them is the same God that offers us His glory right here, right now. And there is the added hope: the saints were just like us. They started as sinners in need of grace.

In this Eucharist, let us find the God who lavished His glory upon them. And ask Him to be generous with us once more! So that, one day, we might join into the company of the King and All His Saints.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Faithful Catholic and The VP Debate - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily

To Love Without Exception

            In today’s gospel, we see a young man approach Jesus and ask a really important question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a great question. Jesus responds by saying we must keep the commandments. But instead of citing all of the commandments, Jesus only quotes the second tablet—the tablet that has to do with love of neighbor. The young man says he has followed all of these. At which point, Jesus says that the man is “lacking in one thing.” What is that one thing? It is the first tablet.
            The first tablet of the commandments is about love of God: Have no other gods besides me; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; keep holy the Sabbath day. This is what the man lacks: the first tablet: love of God from a heart that is oriented entirely to the Lord. This is why Jesus says, “go, sell what you have…” Until the man does this, his heart will be divided. Jesus doesn’t want the bare minimum; Jesus wants us to strive for love without exception. And so, Jesus wants the man to sell everything, selling which then will create a void, a void that can then be filled with God, so that the man can follow God without exception.
            What are we attached to in our lives? What keeps us from loving God without exception? Sure, we may keep the commandments, but is it from a heart oriented entirely to the Lord? We may do well in fulfilling the second tablet—love of neighbor—but God wants that love to flow from the first tablet: love of God. Without love of God, our love of neighbor comes to little. If we have exceptions when it comes to our love of God, our love for neighbor will quickly falter.

A Historical Moment: An Occasion for Fidelity

            On Thursday, the universal Church celebrated the opening of the Year of Faith, a year in which we are invited to examine the Church’s teachings and to grow deeper in love with the God who comes to meet us. Pope Benedict XVI called this Year of Faith to open on two important anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Council and the Catechism are thus two very important pieces of our faith that we must take time this year to study so that we can become more and more faithful.
            There was another historical event that happened on Thursday: we saw for the first time two Catholic politicians in a debate for the Vice-Presidency. Ordinarily, I would not bring up their debate in a homily, but in their debate they discussed the Catholic faith. I will start with Paul Ryan.

Paul Ryan

            Paul Ryan said that he believes that the baby in the womb is, in fact, a baby. Thanks be to God. But then he said that he would follow the Romney policy that “in the rare cases of rape and incest” abortion would be acceptable. Now, I cannot speak from personal experience about the horrors of rape and incest. But I am certain, very certain, that rape and incest is horrible. Absolutely horrible. And I completely understand where he is coming from: sure, maybe he wants votes; but I am sure that he is more concerned about being merciful to the woman who has experienced such a horrific crime.
            But do these things change the reality that there is a baby in the womb? Does the circumstance in which a life is conceived change the nature of the life conceived? A baby is a baby no matter how. And it is never permissible, never allowed, to kill a baby. A baby is a baby and it must never be killed—especially in the womb. No exception.
Paul Ryan, then, is “lacking one thing.” He needs to go and sell what he has and have a heart undivided to God. Perhaps God will do something for that woman; perhaps God has plans for that child. We cannot ever call murder “mercy.”
            I wish he would sell that attachment. I weep for him.

Joe Biden

            Joe Biden also calls himself a good Catholic. And he too says that an unborn baby is human. Thanks be to God. But his position is worse than Ryan’s. Whereas Ryan was motivated out of a false sense of mercy, Biden simply says that he “will not impose my morality on others.” At first hearing, this may sound attractive, because it seems to uphold free will. But let’s take that for a spin. When we say that it is a crime to defraud money from others, haven’t we imposed a morality on others? When we say that it is a crime to kill another in cold blood, haven’t we imposed a morality on others? Shoot, even when we put up a stop sign, haven’t we imposed a morality: namely, that it is good to stop and bad to plough through an intersection? Every law is an imposition of morality!
            This means that when Biden says that he will not impose his morality on others, he already has! He already has imposed his morality. And what is his morality? Relativism; that while others kill a baby in the womb, we can say and do nothing, because that's their reality. Shame! One the one hand Biden imposes the morality of charity to the poor, but then he won't impose the morality of charity to the unborn child?  How can he hold this foolishness? Well, it is because his belief, that the baby in the womb is human, is not—in his mind—a universal. If you don’t believe it’s a baby, then it’s not a baby.
            But that’s crazy. Not only does this go against God and science and reason, but against fundamental notions of reality itself. We do not define reality and morality. To define our own morality goes contrary to the reality of the commandments: that God defines morality. Thus, Biden simply doesn’t undermine the commandment “thou shall not kill,” but he undermines the commandments' very existence.        
            Biden, more than Ryan, is called to a greater selling. I pray for him.

Mother Theresa: Love of Neighbor Predicated Upon Love of God – First Tablet Before the Second
            This has devastating consequences for social policy. For now, I will simply say this: both vice presidential candidate’s social policy seems, at first glance, to fall within the confines of allowable policy under Catholic social teaching. Catholic social teaching allows a wide umbrella of acceptable governmental and economic structure. Some argue that Biden’s social policy is more faithful to Catholic teaching than Ryan’s.
            But let me comment on the fundamental difference in their social policy:
“By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, that father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. The father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
This was said by Mother Theresa. You see, while it is true that taking care of the poor is an essential facet of our faith—love of man is the second tablet—our preferential option for the poor is undermined when a social policy holds to or advances abortion. While it is true that oppression of the poor falls under intrinsic evil, doing good—like the commandments—are ordered hierarchically. If we undermine life itself in its most vulnerable state, then it doesn’t matter what we do socially. That is Catholic teaching, and Mother Theresa, the saint of the poor, echoed that sentiment. Do you wish to argue with her?

Called to be Catholic: Wise and Faithful

            It pains me that both republicans and democrats—both who claim to be stewards of the poor and vulnerable—have never put an end to abortion. They are “lacking in one thing.”
            Objectively, I tell you all of this not so that I can convince you to vote for one candidate or another. I am not a Democrat, I am not a Republican. I am a Catholic. Since the Second Vatican Council, I know there has been delineations of Catholics into “liberal” and “conservative.” And I hate those categories because they are ultimately political. We are called to be faithful—and that is the category by which we will be judged. Judgment requires wisdom, which is mentioned in our first reading. It takes wisdom to cut through the emotions and political affiliations that we are attached to. It takes wisdom to see that if we truly wish to serve the poor, we must first serve life. It takes wisdom to judge that political policies of two candidates differ not only in their political orientation, but in fidelity to God.
When it comes to fidelity on the first social issue that grounds all other social issues, we can judge Catholic candidates’ fidelity. We must judge this, for our own eternal life depends on it.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds: “Go, sell what you have… and come, follow me.”

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In the Beginning - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily Notes

This morning our Lord speaks to us about marriage and family. And Jesus has taught us also about divorce. Now, I know that there are some with us today who are divorced or who have been divorced in the past. And instead of putting my foot in my mouth, let me just say this: if you are divorced and if you feel condemned by Jesus today or if you have questions about your situation and what the Church teaches, why don’t you come and see Monsignor or me? Let’s do that. Because I know that this is not an easy teaching for you to swallow. And Monsignor and I are here to help. So, let’s do that: give us a call and let’s meet. I think you’ll be refreshed by what you will hear when we sit down together.

Jesus calls us this morning to contemplate the beginning—the beginning of all things, and in particular, the creation of man and woman. Why does He do this? Because those who are challenging Him today are arguing from the past—but from a past that is not far enough back. They say that Moses allowed for divorce. Jesus says, ok, but we need to go further back in time: to the beginning. And in the beginning, before Adam and Eve sinned, things were a little different. Actually, things were fundamentally different before the first sin: before the first sin, our hearts weren’t hard. Jesus, then, by calling us back to the very very beginning calls us back to the time when man’s heart was not hard, when man knew clearly and well the plan of God. And this is why he calls His audience to the beginning too: their hearts had also grown hard.
So Jesus says, “From the beginning of creation… God made them male and female.” My question is: “why?” Why did God bring into being two forms of our species? And why did he make their union the very means by which He could issue forth His new creation? And why, having made them both in His own image, did he make them complimentary? This is what Jesus wants us to ponder this morning: to ponder our very creation, to ask the deeper questions about His plan, and about what that means for us who are created in His image and likeness, and also as male and female.
            To speak about God’s image and likeness, we must know who God is. And you all know that He is Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a communion of persons whose very life is love. Simply, God is Family. He is the first family; the Source of all families, the bond of communion. This means that we, who are made in His image, are made for communion—and that our families are an image of family. If we are to be a family, it is because God is Family first. And so, if we want to be a family, shouldn’t we have God at the center of our family?
            But what else is God? We know that He is love. But this love is not fluffy love or love like a candy bar. It is not selfish love or love that wavers. God’s love “bears all things… endures all things…” God’s love is powerful. *The Cross* When we see the love that newlyweds have, we see passionate, self-giving love. But that is the image. God is the source. This means that God is in His very Being ecstatic, passionate, life-giving, powerful, selfless love. This is why He creates in the first place: to share this love. Love necessarily pours itself out as gift.
            This all said, why did God create man and woman to be united in marriage and to have their union be the means by which love and life—His very image—would increase? Perhaps His plan all along is to have marriage point beyond itself. Have you ever thought about this? That God made marriage for a purpose? On one level, marriage is to bond the couple together, to bring forth life…  But on a whole-nother level, marriage is to draw the man and woman into the very ecstasy of heaven. Human marriage is meant to be a foretaste and a means by which God draws the man and woman into communion with Himself—to know Him and to love Him.
            This means too that the very person, made in God’s image, reveals to us the mystery of God. The body itself points us to heaven and to God, for the body reveals that we are made for communion, that we participate in the bearing of life, and that we can offer ourselves as gift—as images of God, who said: “This is my body, given for you.”
            Marriage and Family and Male and Female—they are made to point us beyond ourselves.

            And that’s all well and good, but we all know that marriage can be messy. It is not easy. We find that we’re often battling—battling with our spouse, battling with our own interior desires. (This is why, after St. Paul describes marriage in Ephesians 5, he then speaks about the Spiritual Armor and the Spiritual Battle in Ephesians 6). We often lose sight of where marriage is supposed to point us. We turn marriage in on itself and we think marriage is an end in itself instead of a means to something greater. We can do the same thing to the person and to the body. And when that happens, we’re no longer loving. We’re using.
            The opposite of love is not anger, says Pope John Paul II (because anger bespeaks a love betrayed or disappointed or hurt. One can still love and be angry). The opposite of love is use. When we use somebody, we don’t love them. We are turning them into an object for our self-gratification. That is not love; that’s selfishness.
            Lust is a form of use. Lust peers at the body, longs for its consumption, and when used, lust discards the rest. The problem with lust, then, is not that it sees too much. The problem with lust is that it sees too little: it doesn’t see the God which the person images. Lust distorts the image and obscures the heavenly vision. Lust says, “This body: this is your heaven.” Lust turns the body into an idol, when the body is really an icon. Lust destroys the icon. It is iconoclasm.
            Let me back up for a moment. There is a difference between the temptation of lust and the sin of lust. Here’s the difference: when a thought enters into your mind, you have an opportunity to show it the door or to let it sit down for a while. We sin when we don’t show the temptation the door.
            Now, Jesus comes to us today and bring us back to the beginning because, in the beginning it was not so. There was no lust. Adam and Eve could look upon one another and see God in each other clearly. This is why they were “naked and without shame.” They did not experience shame because they had pure sight; and so they had no need to protect themselves from the eyes of use.
            Jesus comes to us today to offer us pure hearts again; for, “Blessed are the pure of heart. They shall see God.” He wants to enter into our marriages and families; He wants to enter into our hearts so that we will stop using others; He wants us to see His plan so that we can practice being a gift to others, instead of consuming others. This self-mastery is called chastity.

            But this is doubly tough in a world were the distortion is normal. All men and women experience the temptations that I have described above. It can also be said that some experience these temptations such that they are attracted to a member of the same sex. I say this to all our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, to all who struggle with lust or use or same-sex attraction: in the beginning, it was not so. We are all called to contemplate the beginning and to pray to be open to God’s plan for marriage and for man and woman. This is why Jesus speaks to the disciples today: in their hardness of heart, they had made normal something that was not in His plan. And, in doing so, they had made themselves slaves to their desires.
            My friends, we are not called to be slaves to our self-seeking desires. Our hearts are meant for more. They point to something greater: to God and to heaven. But if we normalize lust or abuse or same-sex attraction, we lose that vision and we become slaves again.

            This is why I am most concerned about past legislation in recent times that has sought to redefine marriage and family according not to God’s plan, but to certain politicians’ whims. It concerns me even more that this legislation that fundamentally disregards God’s plan should be passed off to us and couched in terms of equality and “rights” of law. What great damage this does to our families and to our hearts and to our children! The right of law has no right to redefine the laws of God!
            In a democracy, the duty to protect the laws of God fall to us. There is no king on our structure of government. We rule in his stead; our vote takes his voice. And so, if we should let marriage and family be destroyed—and it has suffered a lot in recent decades (and I dare say it is close to crumbling)—then its destruction should not be the fault of someone in Washington. It would be our own.
            This is why “responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do. … Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics… as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens human life and dignity.”
            God is Family. We are made in his image. It is no hyperbole to say that God is under attack as family is attacked too. And I’m not surprised: because it was like that too in the beginning….

Almost paradise /
We're knocking on heaven's door /
Almost paradise / 
How could we ask for more? /
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes / 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hell and Prophecy - Homily Notes for the 26th Sunday in OT

A Gospel that Makes Us Cringe
            This Gospel shakes me up a bit. It’s pretty gruesome: cutting off a hand, a leg—and to consider it in light that in Jesus’ time, there weren’t modern surgical instruments or anesthesia—it makes me cringe. I cringe when I think of the millstone and drowning under its weight; it’s not the way I’d “like to go.”
            Why is Jesus using these “cringe-worthy” images today? I think it’s because He wants us to remember. We remember this passage well, don’t we? And what is it that He wants us to remember? That as painful as these things are, hell is much, much worse.           

            We find today that Jesus compares hell to Gehenna. What is Gehenna? Historically, it was a little valley outside of Jerusalem where ancient cults offered sacrifice to the self-gratifying gods Molech and Baal. Jesus’ disciples would have known this; they would also have known of the horror that happened there too: the sacrifices that those cults offered involved children—the cults would burn children alive. Yikes.
            At the time of Jesus, the cults had since disappeared, but the Jews remembered what had happened there; and so no one wished to live in such an accursed place. Instead, the people used it as the garbage dump. They would throw their trash there and light it on fire. It was the place where the “worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
            And it was this place—the burning garbage dump, the place of ancient human sacrifice—that Jesus used to described hell. Yikes.

            No one really wants to go to hell. But some people argue that no one is going there these days. But if that’s the case, then why would Jesus need to be so stern with us today? Why would he have to warn us? If there were no hell and if no one was going there, then He wouldn’t have had to say anything about plucking your eyes out or being wary of leading children into sin or anything about millstones and doing everything in your power to avoid hell.
If no one was going to hell, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would have been simply, “Do what you want. Believe what you want.” At which point, Jesus wouldn’t have had to build His Church to remind us about His Commandments or about hell, nor would He have had to promise Peter that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church.
For me, personally, I would never have to warn you about movies like Magic Mike, books like Fifty Shades of Grey, or anything else that puts your souls in danger. I wouldn’t have to mention anything about the upcoming election. I wouldn’t have to mention anything that makes you cringe, nothing about the things that endanger you souls, because with no hell there is no danger.
And that’d be great for me, because then I wouldn’t have to worry much about homilies or about what people would say or do after Holy Mass. Shoot, I wouldn’t even need to pray for your eternal soul.
But then I read in Sacred Scriptures St. Peter exhorting us to wake up. “Be alert!” he says, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” In Ephesians, Paul says for us to put on armor, girding ourselves with the Truth. Why would we need to do that?

            Some people say, “Father, how could a good God allow hell to exist?” I understand that. Hell is so horrible—it seems to offend God’s goodness. And, at best, it seems unfair. This is a matter of justice. Justice means to give someone their due; justice is connected with goodness. And so, we pride ourselves on being a just society—a society that gives people their due. Justice is connected to goodness.
            That said, let’s say that we have a mass-murdering guy on my left and Mother Theresa on my right. Would it be just of God to say to both, “Sure, come on in!” Wouldn’t that offend justice? and thus goodness? In fact, it would seem to me that an evil god would be one that would treat evil and goodness indiscriminately, as if they were equals.
            Some people tell me that the eternity of hell can’t possibly be a fair punishment to the “small” crimes that we commit. Well, we know here in the US that crimes against the most innocent and loveable—namely, crimes against children—demand the severest punishment. They cry out for justice. And why? because they are against those that deserve the greatest love. Now, if that’s our approach to children, then what about our approach to the most loveable and the most innocent of all? Namely, God? Wouldn’t crimes against Him be treated with the greatest severity?
            And if this were all true, and if God were merciful and good, then wouldn’t we expect Him to give us fair notice?—telling us in severe and cringe-worthy terms the true consequences of actions for and against his laws? Isn’t that what Jesus is doing today?
            One of our fellow parishioners said to me about the readings today: “I’m hoping to turn things in my life around before I get to the point of having to cut off my hand.” Good point.

At Heart: Relationship
When we discuss heaven and hell, we are discussing relationships. In human relationships, when we love someone, we get to know them better, we spend time with them, we talk with them, we listen, and we grow in love with them. On the other hand, when we take someone for granted, or dislike someone, we fail to spend time with them, we do other things, we don’t talk with them, we aren’t around them, we don’t learn about them, we might even take offense at them. We grow separated from them.
When it comes to our relationship with God, when we die that choice for relationship becomes eternal. How incredibly charitable and awesome it is that God would make the love we have here on earth and all the union and joy that comes with love—how awesome it is when He makes that love eternal—never to falter again! That’s heaven.
Hell is when the separation which one has chosen and all its isolation and anger and pain—hell is when that is made eternal. And that is just. A good God does not force you to change your mind. But He tries His very best by giving you fair warning today.

So, Those Who Aren’t Catholic Are Going to Hell?
What I find interesting is that there are often three extremes when people talk about hell. On the one hand, no one is going—or, at the very least—many live as though there are no eternal consequences. On the other hand, there are some who preach that everyone is going to hell—and that’s just an outright lie. But a third extreme is when someone hears a hard doctrine that they aren’t following. They say, “Well, I don’t believe x, y, or z… so I guess I’m going to hell.”
It’s an unfair card to play. It’s a kind of cop-out. And, ultimately, it is not hopeful. Don’t be so quick to condemn yourself—or the teachings. When we do that in order to exempt ourselves from right living, we exempt ourselves from the hope of grace—and heaven. Such “card players” wouldn’t be going to heaven because they don’t believe x, y, or z per se. They wouldn’t be going because they are exempting themselves from the grace that helps them believe x, y, or z.
This brings us to a principle in today readings: grace is offered to all people, and mighty deeds can be done by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. And a second principle: you are responsible for what you are given.
Are Baptists going to heaven? Sure. Buddhist? Quite possibly. They must respond to that which they are given.
As Catholics, we are given much. We are given the fullness of Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. We are given the fullness of Truth. We are responsible for that. And to the degree that we fulfill our responsibilities as Catholics in the world is the degree that we will be judged.

The Children
            Earlier this week, I was walking down a subdivision road and a couple youngsters were walking towards me. I was in my blacks and collar. One asked me as we were passing: “Are you a priest?” I stopped and said, “yes.” “Cool,” he said. (Immediately, I knew he wanted to talk). So I asked him: “Are you a Catholic?” He said he was. “Sweet!” I asked him where he went to Sunday Mass. He said he only went on Christmas and Easter. “Huh.” He seemed like a smart and good kid, so I asked him: “Do you know that Jesus commands us through the Catholic Church which He Himself built on this earth that we must go to Holy Mass every Sunday, and if we don’t, then we are in great danger?” He said he did not know that. I asked him: “Would you like to go to Holy Mass?” He said he did, but his parents don’t take him—they sleep in on Sundays.
            Now, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. We’re all here at Sunday Mass. Obligation fulfilled (woo hoo!). But who is responsible for that kid? It’s his parents! How are they going to stand before Jesus and explain this to Him? Do they think their excuse is going to trump his command? Sure, they believe they can be “good people” without Holy Mass and without God. But it doesn’t take long for a generation without God to figure out that it can do whatever it wants: even be bad.
            Whether they feel it or not, they are leading their children into sin. They are not teaching them the faith. They are gong to receive the millstone! And I weep for them.
Would that they were all prophets!
            “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” This is a great prayer for our time when so few know the faith. This is why we need prophets today. A prophet isn’t one who tells the future. A prophet is one that proclaims the truth in season and out of season.
            This is where we come in. You see, it’s not just the parents that are responsible. We are too. We have a duty to go out from here and talk to people about heaven and hell and the relationship which Jesus offers to us all—and how that’s life-changing and awesome. And sometimes, to warn and admonish the sinner. That is what is called a “spiritual work of mercy.”
            And let’s be honest: prophets are tough to listen to. It is even tougher when that prophet is our spouse or our coworker or a teenager. We dismiss their message; it can’t be true; they cannot know; God can’t be working through them. They are unpopular. And so we cry out: “Moses, my Lord, tell them to stop!” or “Jesus, we tried to stop that man from casting out demons….”
            To which Jesus responds: “Do not prevent them.”
            I know that many of our parishioners do not go to Holy Mass every Sunday. I know how many of our day school children and PSR children are not here every week. We need to live out our baptismal call that we received there *point to baptismal font* to prophecy like Jesus and to invite our friends—encourage them—to come to Jesus.
            This is “giving them a cup of water,” that Jesus talks about. He calls it a “mighty deed done in my name.” And He says about those who do this, that they will not lose their eternal reward.

            As we come before the Eucharist today, I know that we are being called to beg our Lord for mercy for our sins. We don’t want hell. We want mercy and heaven. And not just for us, but for everyone. And so we ask Him for strength to be prophets in the world—a world which needs to hear His voice and His love and peace. Let us bring these petitions before our merciful Lord. Amen.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Competition to Be Loved - Homily for the 25th Sunday in OT

So I’ve noticed that the world is pretty competitive these days. Have you noticed that? It’s a competitive culture out there. And I’m not simply talking about sports. There’s lifestyle competition and job competition and husband competition. We compare vacations with other families… we compare cars… additions to the house… And yes, there’s sports too. We’re always trying to be the greatest, always trying to have the best or be the best. But to what purpose?
Today’s readings have this tinge of competition. St. James asks:
Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Why all this competiveness?  St. Mark tells about how the apostles were discussing among themselves who was the greatest. They too are competing.
And that’s really ironic. Here they are competing about who’s the greatest, and because of that they are missing out on the fact that “The Greatest” is right in front of them. Their “jealous and selfish ambition”—blind ambition—blinds them to Jesus who is right there. Here we find a reality about competition: it can blind us to the deeper realities and deeper dimensions in our midst. It can flatten our world.
I’m very competitive. I grew up with two older brothers and I didn’t like getting beat. So I grew up to make it a point to win. It wasn’t enough to “play for fun”—I had to bring home hardware. This competition carried over to other dimensions of my life, sometimes in good ways (like school), but in ways which I didn’t foreseen: like going out bowling with friends on a Friday night. You see, because I was so competitive, I HAD to get the highest score bowling with friends. And if I didn’t, I’d feel bad about myself or there would be a damper to my evening. As a result, I missed the deeper reality and the deeper dimension of life: namely, joy with friends on a Friday night. Why was I trying up my value—and my friendships—in a bowling score?
But we are a competitive culture. Go to a little league game and you’ll sometimes see parents yelling at kids—not instructing them, but yelling at their children. How many parents compete through their kids?—it is as though the parent has wrapped himself and his value up in his child such that if his child doesn’t do well on the field, the parent is embarrassed. That tells me something….
Have you noticed that even the way people talk today is competitive? Brian Regan, a very funny (and clean!) comedian noticed how when we’re talking and someone’s telling a story about what job they do or what vacation they’ve been on, the people listening are waiting for that moment to jump in and talk about… themselves! “Oh, you’ve been to the Grand Canyon? That’s nothing! I went on an Alaskan Cruise!” It’s competitive story-telling. We all do it—we wait for their lips to stop moving…  “uh-huh, uh-huh…  you..  you..  uh-huh….   ME!”
That tells me something too…
When I hear the competitive story-teller or the competitive parent or the competitive wives out in the breezeway at pick-up talking about what lifestyles they have or what their husbands do or not do at home, I hear something. I hear their heart saying: “I want to be valued. I need attention. I need someone to listen. I don’t feel valued. And this”—whatever this is—“is what I got that I believe is of worth. It’s my best.” This is why the competitive story-teller tries to “one-up” everyone, why they think their story is most important; it isn’t necessarily because they are prideful or narcissistic (it could be), but oftentimes it’s because they want to be heard. They want someone to say, “Hey, you are important.” “Yeah, you are the greatest.”
I think this gets at the heart of our competitive nature. At the root of it all, our desire to be the best, our desire to be heard, is at root the desire to be loved. We all have days where we don’t feel loved. Or we’ve grown to believe that we have to earn love. We want to be heard, we want to be acknowledged. We want someone to know the depths of who we are and to say, “you know what, I value you. You’re important to me.” We want to have that affirmation because deep down we have a fear that we aren’t good enough—and maybe we’ve been told that by someone close to us—and really, deep down, we want to be loved. What we need to learn then—and needed to learn as children—is that God has never asked us to compete for His love. We’ve always had it.

This is why Jesus interrupts the apostles’ competition about who’s the greatest by circling them up, bringing a child into their midst, and then—then he does something quite amazing, something quite tender: He wraps His arms around that child. Jesus is trying to tell the apostles something. He’s trying to tell them that they don’t have to compete against one another—they already have His love. And we’re that child—YOU—you are that child in His arms. He loves you; you are so important to Him! You don’t have to have the championship trophy… because when you’re 31, childhood trophies collect dust and get packed away in boxes and are forgotten. You have my love. Why do you compete with your lifestyles? Why do you compete with your children? Why do you compete with one another? Is not my love enough for you? Let me be the one who competes for you.
I mean, if that was enough for us—I mean, if we truly believed that Jesus thinks we’re the greatest and that He loves us—wouldn’t this inspire us to give a second thought to why we’re doing what we’re doing? Wouldn’t it give us pause to evaluate our priorities? our lifestyles? our children’s schedules?

The competition that comes from refusing to be embraced by God translates into a flat world, a shallow existence. It is shallow to reduce soccer to simply a game about winning trophies or not. It is good to compete—and we should compete (go for gold!)—but there must be a moment where we can step back and look at the beauty of the game—reflectively, almost philosophically, soaking it in. Have you ever just sat back and pondered the miracles that happen in soccer?—I mean, the human capacity to run and jump and kick, and to strategize and exhibit logic, while working within the laws of gravity on a tiny spread of grass hurdling through the cosmos…. Is there not some deeper glory that we will miss out on if we reduce soccer to whether or not you were the greatest in CYC or SLYSA?
            If we allow Jesus to wrap His arms around us and if we listen to Him when He tells us, “Hey, you’re important to me, I value you, I love you,” we can put down that navel-gazing shallow competitiveness that oftentimes blinds us to the deeper dimensions of soccer and of life. And it’s the deeper dimensions that really cultivate in us the love of the game—and a love of life.
            Thus it can be said that when we story-match, we flatten our world because we’re missing out on the deeper dimensions of others. The story-matchers are so concerned with themselves and their own story that they never think to ask questions, those deeper questions that go hand-in-hand with getting to know another person. Receiving the love of Jesus, then, brings the story-matcher outside of herself: since she don’t have to story-match, she can listen more attentively and then ask questions—and find out the deeper stuff of the person next to her, and the relationship deepens.
            There is another reason why Jesus embraces the child in front of the apostles. Not only does Jesus want them to believe that He loves them, but also that they must now in turn love those who aren’t loved.
The child in Jesus’ day would have been one of the weakest members of society. They had no rights. They were pushed aside. By taking the child and showing His love for it, He is telling the apostles: Now you do the same. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One [the Father] who sent me.”
Who is the weak one in your midst? Which child are you being called to love? Maybe for some of the grandparents out there, you struggle being patient with your grandchildren. Parents, maybe one of your children believes that they have to earn your love or that their value is tied up with how they do in school or in soccer. Maybe there is a “child” in your family or in your workplace who is crying out to be loved, to be seen as important and value—who competes, who wears masks, who comes off as prideful…

            If the apostles do not realize that they themselves are loved by Jesus, then how will they be able to serve those whom He is calling them to serve? If they continue to compete with one another and do not receive His love, they will not be able to give—because they won’t have.
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble writes James (4:6). The grace given here is His love—a love which helps us to love others and which also helps us to love ourselves. This, in turn, deepens our view of life and its beautiful dimensions.
And it reminds me: children are children. They are not adults. Don’t expect them to love as adults quite yet. They are kids—we are to teach them how to love like God. One way we teach is through the way in which we discipline. Do we discipline with wrath and anger, vengeance? Or do we bring mercy, quick instruction, opportunity for redemption, affection? Do we give affection only when a good job is done? And if we do, doesn’t that teach the kids something about where we believe their value is?
Perhaps like God we could give affection, wrap our arms around our children, “just because”….

Children are important to God. And our first task as parents is to teach the children that. Their value is found in Him, that they are important to him. They don’t need to find their value in the trophy or the status of lifestyle or in tabloids. But if they are going to find that God loves them, we must know that we are loved, and then wrap our arms around them. And it also means we need to give the kids the quiet time they need in order to hear Him tell them that. Or else they were turn to those other things.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, ask Jesus to help you re-discover your value in Him and not in your stuff or your status or your schedule. Ask Him for the grace to help you to prune your stuff and your status and your schedule. Your children will notice. And they need that witness. We must re-evaluate our priorities and look at why we do what we do.
As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, let yourself be received by Jesus into His arms. You don’t have to compete with others anymore. To Him, you are enough. You are His everything.