Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Esplanchnisthe" - Homily for 16th Sunday

            It’s been a tough week for many this week… Right now, it seems there are many parishioners in the hospital and families are praying; we’ve had a few funerals and families are grieving; this is not even to begin to mention the discouragement and sadness we have experienced with this week’s news of the shootings in Colorado. Add to it all another week without rain and the heat… And yeah, I know that many of us feel like the crowd in today’s Gospel: they were in the desert, in a remote and lonely place, many miles from the towns. They had all come for various reasons: maybe they were weary from the week or tired from the everydayness of the towns. Perhaps they just wanted a change or had a curious heart and wanted to see who this Jesus fellow was.
            And there is another crowd that is tired too: Jesus and the apostles in the boat. The apostles had just gotten back from being on mission in the countryside, healing the sick, expelling demons, and teaching. Jesus invites them to tell him about their week. He wants to know. He says to them: “Come away with me and rest for awhile.” But what happens? The same thing that we often experience when we start telling Jesus about our week when we pray: something comes up and we’re working again. The apostles come away with the Lord and they see the large crowd—a crowd that’s hungry. And what do you think the apostles’ reaction was: “Oh…. no….!”

            How does Jesus respond to all of this? The Gospel says that “his heart was moved with pity for them.” Why was this? Well, in his compassion he felt their tiredness, but also he saw that they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were wandering in the desert; hungry, tired, looking for rest… and for answers. And why were they there? Because the old shepherds of Israel—the kings of the past—did not take care of them.
            Now, when it says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” it doesn’t simply mean that Jesus felt sorry for them. This English translation doesn’t give the full oomph of the original Greek word. The original Greek word is “esplanchnisthe” (say that fives times fast!)—it means a deep-down, earthly and visceral pouring out… your inner self in powerful love. Esplanchnisthe.
            I have to admit, the Catholic geek in me loved this Greek word and so I wondered if it was used anywhere else in Scripture. What I found was pretty interesting: the word is rarely used, but when it is, awesome stuff happens.
            So, on one occasion, we see Jesus passing a funeral procession. A young man has died and the only family left is his grieving mother. (A little foreboding about what Mary would feel…). What does Jesus do? Jesus looks at the coffin and at the woman and “esplanchnisthe”—his entire being pours out in love. I know this feeling having buried a 23-year old this week. I would have given anything to be able to give the mother her son. Jesus, however, has that power; He goes to the coffin and tells the young man to rise. And that is exactly what happens. The young man is miraculously raised from the dead.
            Another occasion is in the course of the Good Samaritan parable. You know the story: a man has been beaten and robbed by robbers who leave him half-dead along the Jerico road. A Good Samaritan passes by and sees the man and—“Esplanchnisthe”—his heart is moved with great pity. And so the Good Samaritan picks up the man, lifts him up, bandages his wounds with oil and wine, takes him to the inn, and tells the innkeeper to take care of him until he returns. [For those keeping score at home, Jesus is the Good Samaritan, we are the ones who have been robbed (and robbed of original grace—and who was the robber? the devil and sin), the oil and wine prefigure the sacraments, the inn is the Church, the innkeeper is the vicar of Christ (Peter, the Pope), who is supposed to take care of us until… Jesus returns at the Second Coming.          
            A third occasion is the Prodigal Son. Again, you know the story: a young man leaves his father and enters into a life of sin. The young man realizes his folly, turns around in repentance, and begins to long journey home. Now, the father never stopped loving his son. And we know that because the father was searching for his son. We know that because the Gospel says that, “while the son was still at a distance, the father say him.” The father never gave up on him. And what happens when the father sees his son?  Esplanchnisthe!—the father’s entire being pours out in love and he runs to his son, embraces him, forgives him, brings him home and places a ring on his finger, a robe on his shoulders, throws him a banquet, and exclaims to the whole household: “My son was lost and is found! He was dead and is now alive!”

             Paul makes all of this personal when he says today:

In Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have become near [to the Father] by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace…
He came and preached peace to you who were far off
[like the crowd in the desert; the Prodigal Son]
and peace to those who were near
[like the other son; like the apostles in the boat…]

What he is telling us in the second reading, then, is that Jesus is not just looking at the crowds in the past there in the desert. Rather, Jesus is looking at each one of you right now—and esplanchnisthe: His heart pours forth in tremendous love. His entire being longs for you. He wants to bring you peace. He wants to bring you home.
            We just heard three incredible occasions when Jesus experiences this esplanchnisthe—and they are three occasions of amazing grace, powerful forgiveness, and great rejoicing. Imagine what great miracles and graces the Lord is pouring out to you right now!

            But let us return for a moment to the Gospel. What great miracle did he work today? Well, if we were to continue reading in Mark, we would see three miracles after Jesus “felt pity in his heart.”
            The first is that Jesus would tell the crowd to recline and he would multiply five loaves and two fish and feed the entire crowd—and there would be leftovers! Pretty amazing miracle!
            The second miracle is that Jesus gives the apostles a heart like his. Why is this so miraculous? Well, remember: the crowd has been lost because it was abandoned by its shepherds. This is why Jeremiah was so angry in the first reading. Jeremiah then prophesied that the Lord would be our shepherd AND that the Lord would give us shepherds after His [the Lord’s] own heart. This is why Jesus will later take Peter aside and ask him: “Peter, do you love me?... feed my sheep… tend my lambs…” Peter is to shepherd the Church. And with what is he to feed the Church? Well, at the multiplication of loaves and fish, Jesus gives the people the heavenly food and heavenly teaching. These he gives to Peter and the apostles to then distribute to the crowds. This is the reason for why Jesus invites them to come away with Him for a while: to see the kind of heart the True Shepherds must have.
            The third miracle is that Jesus brings all on this shore to a profound rest. The heavenly food will eventually become his own flesh and blood (“unless you eat of my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you”). These deserted shores, then, are turned into a heavenly oasis: the green pastures. This is why Mass and daily prayer are so important: three reasons:
1)      We receive a moment of immediate rest. Our bodies are tired and our souls are weary. We need this moment, else we will burn out.
2)      In this moment of rest with our Lord, we receive a heart like His: we are given insight, and our hearts receive order and prioritization, the horizon of our vision is expanded and we see who we are to love better. In a word, we see better where we are to invest our time and energy, and we see better where we have been wasting our time and energy.
3)      And so, precisely because we now know where our time and energy would be more wisely spent and where we foolishly waste it, and once we start spending our time and energy wisely, we will find that we have—wonderfully enough—more time and energy to spend on those things which our heart longs to love in the first place. And that’s refreshing!
Thus, as we carve out a moment in our day to enter into what seems to be a confining moment of wasting time in silent prayer, we are actually making the best investment in our freedom that we could possibly make. But, this has to be an intentional act; we have to wake up a moment earlier or we have to turn off the electronics and give the Lord our undivided attention. Praying in the car is good… but we still need those five minutes of undivided attention with the Lord.
            Can I be quite frank with you? Even though the crowd receives these miracles, half of them return to the towns and to their usual way of life. (cf Jn 6:66). They don’t believe; or they don’t like the truth Jesus has given them. Jesus’ esplanchnisthe then turns to sadness:
 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” Jesus weeps, “how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37).
This is unrequited love.
            I’ve noticed that our culture is full of love songs. And I often wonder why: what is it that our hearts are longing for? Listening to the lyrics of many love songs, I wonder whether what they are truly expressing is a yearning for the divine. Some love songs, however, seem to express God’s longing love for us. Here, I think of the Righteous Brothers Unchained Melody. As I read these, imagine they are Jesus saying them personally to you:
Oh! My love, my darling, / I've hungered for your touch, / a long, lonely time. / 
And time goes by, so slowly, / And time can do so much, / Are you still mine? / 
I need your love. / I need your love. / God speed your love to me. /
Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea, / To the open arms of the sea. /
Lonely rivers sigh, wait for me, wait for me, /
I'll be coming home, wait for me.

It’s the question to Peter: “Peter, do you love me?”  “Peter, will you also leave me?”

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life" ...  "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."

Then here is my heart. Now go, feed my lambs.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Strike While the Iron's Hot!

Jesus began to reproach the towns
where most of his mighty deeds had been done,
since they had not repented.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the mighty deeds done in your midst
had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes....

            There’s an old saying: “Strike while the iron is hot.” In order for iron to be shaped, it has to be put into a fiery hot furnace. This helps to make the iron malleable. Only when it is hot can it be shaped into something beautiful. So, the iron is taken out of the furnace and the blacksmith immediately begins to hammer on the hot iron, molding it into what it was meant to be. If the iron is not crafted immediately, it becomes cold and hard and the blacksmith won’t be able to mold the iron into what the blacksmith wants it to be. He will have to stick the iron back into the fire.
            In today’s reading, Jesus is not only declaring a kind of condemnation upon the people, but he is also expressing a lament: the people have heard Jesus, been on fire with his words and actions, but they refuse to be changed by them. He laments because they are missing their opportunity to be changed into something beautiful. But why do they simply revel in the fire instead of being changed? Because hammering iron is hard work—much harder than simply sticking it in the furnace. It is easier to become on fire for the faith and even to feel sorrow; it much more difficult to do the work necessary to change iron into lasting beauty.
We only have so many opportunities to be changed. All of us have experienced a moment where we are “on fire” for the faith. Like the iron, we were hot and ready to be shaped. Maybe it was when we were in RCIA; maybe it was when we encountered a death; or when we decided to come to daily Mass; a retreat; maybe it was when we were at a conference or heard an amazing homily that really hit home. Whatever it was, there was an opportunity to be shaped. And it was then that the hard work needed to be done.
            How easy it is to grow cold and hard. We can quickly miss our chance to be shaped into something beautiful. And when that happens, we have to be thrown back into the fire. And who knows when that will happen again.
            Maybe it’s now. Maybe there is still a little warmth in you yet. Now’s your chance. Now’s the time for the hammering. What resolution did you make in the past that you now need to keep? What sin do you need to put away? What virtue do you need to grow in? And what is the concrete step that you’re going to take today having received God in the Eucharist? This Eucharist is that fiery furnace. The hammering awaits as soon as we emerge from Mass.
            Woe to us if we do not change today!
Strike while the iron’s hot!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Father

All of us experience moments of enlightenment or conversion-- intellectual, religious, or otherwise-- when we receive a certain understanding about the nature of the world and our place in it. Usually these moments come and go, like a rainbow after a storm. Sometimes, they linger and you can never forget them.

As a man who grew up as a boy with a father whose love I often doubted, I realized that God was more of an idea, a concept, a phantom whose love was more or less, again, on the conceptual plane-- a heady idea, but not very moving, not terribly present. Better than my earthly father? Absolutely. Present in the Eucharist? Sure.

Admittedly, I had this "phantom focus" of God even through my first year of seminary-- the kind that some peaceful people who meditate in open parks claim to have. And that might sound weird, since the obvious question is: shouldn't a seminarian know the personal love of God-- especially since they are giving their life to Him in service? Of course. I was just simply content knowing that He was the Truth. That was enough for me.

Don't get me wrong, there were moments that I had encountered the Father in the past. But these moments were like rainbows. Nice for a moment, but not easily remembered. Thankfully, over time, these moments did begin the accumulate, like virtues that grow with repeated preparation and practice. Only, it wasn't me that was doing the preparation. God was preparing me.

What he was preparing me for was what I would read this week six years ago. It was a small biblical passage from an obscure prophet in ancient Israel. The prophet was speaking to the nation on a personal level-- speaking, in fact, for God.

What I heard in my heart as I read with my eyes was something different. I was hearing the Father speak to me. Personally, really, truly... speak. To me.

I am going to share that passage with you now. It is one of the most intimate expressions of God's love for you. Read it as though God were speaking it to you-- personally. To you.

Having encountered Him, I can say with certainty that He wants you to know this, to hear this, to hear it with your heart. It is more than a rainbow. It is true love. It is our Father.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba'als, and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught E'phraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one, who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.

Over the weekend, the high school teens at St. Joseph's went to the Steubenville conference. During one of the talks, they sung an amazing song. It's been in my heart since-- and especially today (since, today, the same scripture passage above was read at holy Mass).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The President's Own Words

What is President Obama's surface-level reasoning for continuing the HHS mandate push? Watch the video.

Transcript, with commentary:

It is absolutely true that religious liberty is critical. I mean, that is what our country is founded on (... uh huh....). That’s the reason why we exempted churches, we exempted religious institutions. [Except....] But we did say that 1) big Catholic hospitals or universities, who 2) employ a lot of non-Catholics and who 3) receive a lot of federal money, that for them to be in a position (that is, a moral position) to say to a woman who works there, “you can’t get that [contraception, sterilization, abortion] from your insurance company”—even though the institution isn’t paying for it (but they would)—that that crosses the line (which Obama himself has drawn) where, that woman, she’s suddenly is going to have to bear the burden and the cost of that. And that’s not fair. ("... that's not fair." What are we, in the second grade?).

So, we tried to strike a balance (note: he is about to change the meaning of this word). Obviously, there’s going to be some disagreements. But, ultimately, I think our goal here is not to in any way encroach on the Catholic Church or any other religious institution (But we will take away your moral voice). It is to balance their interests (Wait... a... minute! He, the President, is going to balance the Catholic Church's interests? And that's not encroachment, how....?) with the interests of women so that they [women] can control  their own health care choices. (Because, apparently, the Church is not interested in women or women's health). 

I mean (because my above logic is flawed and unconvincing, let's try once more), these are concrete issues where it might cost women $500 (bs)… $700 (bs)… $1000 (bs). I mean, these are significant burdens (psst... we have a $16 trillion debt) and they shouldn’t be having to bear that burden if they don’t share that same faith. 

(Let's take that logic for a spin: mothers: if you see a child screaming bloody murder because he can't have the candy bar in the grocery store check-out line, you should just buy that kid a candy bar. We don't care if you and the child don't share the same moral outlook. Give him the candy!!!! It's not fair that he doesn't have the candy!!!!! And if you don't buy it, then you are a horrible mother who doesn't care about kids).

UPDATE: if you're looking for a response to the objection that since the Church receives federal money, She should capitulate to the President's demands, see this post here.