Sunday, January 25, 2015

There Are No Half-Saints In Heaven - Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

This weekend, the men’s club is hosting its annual Trivia Night and so I have a trivia question for you: When Jesus begins his public ministry, what is the very first thing He tells us to do?

(Can I get the Jeopardy Theme from the band, please…?)

I would think the answer is “to love.” To love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But, actually, something comes before these. The very first thing Jesus tells us to do is to repent.


Let me explain. About a month ago, we celebrated Christmas. And at Christmas, we heard the stories about Jesus the newborn king; how He was born during the reign of King Herod and so on. But we never really heard why. Why was Jesus born? Today, He gives the reason: to put an end to the kingdom of sin and death and to inaugurate a new kingdom—a “Kingdom…[that] is at hand!”

And so, the first thing he tells us to do is “repent.” But, why? What does this have to do with His Kingdom?

Repentance: To Return to Love

When I hear the word “repent”—I think of Lent and fasting and sorrow for sins. But in Hebrew, the word has a double meaning. It means “sorrow as for sin” and it means “returning, as to a new way of life.” So, for example, in the story of the Prodigal Son, the son must not only feel sorrow for his sins, but he must also turn away from sin and embrace a new way of life. But to what end? That the young man might return to the Father and, returning, know Him and love Him.

This helps us to understand the Gospel today. Before Andrew, Peter, James, and John can learn about the Father’s love and His Greatest Commandment, they must first leave everything of their old life and take the first steps of a return to the Father by following Jesus. Only then will their lives find meaning and will they discover the riches of the Father’s love. Only then will they become fishers of men.

Repentance, therefore, leads to love. And it is love that identifies the saints of the heavenly kingdom. Repentance, therefore, is the doorway—the separation, if you will—between the kingdom of this world (which is passing away) and the Kingdom of God.

Repentance: To Enter the Kingdom of God

What strikes me about the Gospel is how Andrew and the others respond with such totality and with such immediacy. Who told them that “no one can serve two masters” and that “[y]ou will either hate one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Mt 6:24)? Who told them that the “world … is passing away” and that their time to make a decision “is running out”?

Perhaps they felt an emptiness in them, an emptiness which I felt this week when our nation’s media focused not on the half-million people marching in DC to protest the killing of innocents (do you hear about this?)—but instead, our nation’s attention was focused on deflated footballs. And the reason why the nation’s attention was focused on footballs is because of “fairness.”

This is The Issue of our day? The fairness of footballs? I don’t know about  you, but I find it exceedingly unfair for children to be killed. I would think that this would be our priority… But, footballs.

I turn away from that culture; I repent of it! I wish today’s Nineveh would do the same!

Yes, I think Andrew and the apostles felt something deep within them that came to life when they met Jesus. And they realized that following him would either mean everything or nothing—and not something in-between, just as St. Therese of Lisieux would say: “You cannot be half a saint; you must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” There are no half-saints in heaven.

The King invites us to go all in. Go big or go home. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t "kind-of be" in the kingdom of God. You’re either in or you’re out.

Raising the Bar on Holiness.

That’s all well and good. But let me put some flesh on this.

As a priest, one of the joys of my priesthood is to prepare couples for holy marriage. During our conversations, I ask the lovebirds to tell me how holy a priest should be. And they always place the bar way up here. For the most part, our culture, even after the recent scandals, still holds us priests to a very high standard—as they should: after all, what is a priest if he doesn’t pray and offer sacrifice for his spiritual family or of what worth is he if doesn’t preach or lead by example? After all, he has given his life totally to God. We would expect a total commitment, right?

But then I turn the tables on them. I say to them, where does the culture place your bar? How holy does it expect marriages and families to be? The couples say that the bar isn't even way down here—there simply is no bar.

And so I ask them The Question: What if I told you that someday you may have a priest or a religious sister in your home? No, I don’t mean having Father Holway over for dinner. I mean: what if your future seven-year-old who is sitting at your feet is a future priest? or what if your daughter sitting at your table is a future religious sister? Would your practice of the faith make them ready for the total commitment which the Church expects of them?

And this leads to other questions....

Will your marriage and your discipline teach your future priest or your future sister to be affectionate or to be cold? forgiving or harsh? angry or gentle? present or aloof? wise or foolish? sacrificial or selfish? totally committed or only partially so? Will your marriage teach your children to courageously raise the bar and to go all in when it comes to holiness or to find excuses and other priorities and so lower it? Will they be fishers of men or just mending their nets like everyone else? When Jesus comes, will they have been so prepared that they could drop everything—including a comfortable lifestyle—and follow Him?

And if they are called to marriage, will they have learned to be so holy in their marriage?

Practical Suggestions on How to Fish

Let’s sit with that for a moment…

This is Catholic Schools Week and so I want to give two very practical suggestions on how to live this all out.

First: we must teach our children that confession isn’t limited to the times when they go at school. If confession is just a thing done only at school, then our children’s practice of confession will end when their Catholic school ends. We must all go to confession often, not just at Advent and Lent, and we must bring our children with us.

Second: let us teach our children that prayer isn’t limited to mealtime and bedtime. If prayer is something that we only do at meals and at bed, then our children’s practice of prayer will end when those things end—that is, with childhood. So, we must mature them in prayer, showing them that prayer is not just a kid’s thing, but a mature person’s thing. We must mature the prayer life of our children by praying as a family not only at set times like meals and bed, but when it is tough or dry and especially “just because.” Because love doesn’t love only at meals and at bed, but always and often “just because.”

That’s the call today. The Lord is asking us to leave our nets, to repent if you will, and so follow Him to the Kingdom of God. Our response must be immediate and total or not at all.

So, let us pray.

Lord, I hear you calling me to a deeper relationship with you, a deeper commitment. Strengthen me by your grace that I may leave the nets of this world and so follow you wherever you go. For, Lord,  I know that my time is short and your love too great to let it pass me by. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Procession with the Kings - Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany

Sorry it has been a little while. My Christmas homilies were of a more personal and evangelical nature and, as such, I refrained from publishing them publicly online. So, back to our regularly scheduled program..... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!

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Epiphany is one of my favorite solemnities. I especially love the story of the three kings.

There are many traditions about who the three kings were: that they were kings from an area of Persia; or philosophers; or astronomers hailing from the city of Babylon (which would have been in present-day Iraq, between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf). Whoever they were and wherever they had come from, the fact is that they have come and have traveled a long distance.

Wonder in the Three Kings’ Story

I mention this because it is easy to take this detail for granted. I’ve heard this story so many times that I just presume that everyone who saw the star were immediately compelled to embark on a thousand-mile journey through the desert—which is how far it was from Babylon to Jerusalem.

But look at King Herod. The star is shining right above him, but he doesn’t travel the four miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Four miles.

I also find it easy to overlook what happens at the meeting between the three kings and Herod. The three kings arrive in Jerusalem, pull up to Herod’s place, and say, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star...” This begs the question: how did the three kings know that the star was connected to a newborn king? And notice: they pulled up to Herod’s place expecting that he would know.

In the ancient world, there were prophecies that had spoken about the coming of a Messiah from the land of Judah—which is where Jerusalem and Bethlehem are. But these prophecies weren’t just circulating in the local area; nor where they coming only from the Old Testament prophets. Similar prophecies were circulating in the pagan lands surrounding Israel—including in such lands as Persia where the kings were from. Even the poet Virgil from across the Mediterranean in Italy, forty years before Jesus’ birth—even he waxed poetic about a coming savior. The whole world was receiving word that something big was about to happen. Virgil knew about it. The three kings knew about it. But Herod did not.

And that’s really odd. Because this is the most important prophecy ever—and it has to do with his kingdom! I mean, how could he have forgotten or overlooked the most important prophecy of his kingdom?

So he calls in the priests and scribes and of course they know the answer: namely, that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.

But hang on a second! The chief priests and the scribes knew where the Messiah was to be born? They know and they see the star?!? If they knew and they saw, then why weren’t they all already in Bethlehem?

Don’t we find all of this… odd?

Here we have three kings. Foreign kings. Kings that aren’t even a part of our religion. And they are the ones with the wonder to travel all this way to ask what our prophecies mean?

Shouldn’t this have woken up the chief priests? Shouldn’t this have alerted the scribes? And Herod? And inspired in them a deep desire to go with the three kings—instead of just telling them to go on ahead without them?

RCIA and the Three Kings

As a priest here at St. Joe’s, I am the director of the RCIA—the program of formation for those who are interested in joining the Catholic Church. This year, we have thirty-three people seeking to join us in the faith. As I have gotten to know them, I have been re-awakened to the beauty of our faith and to the fact that there are many people—yes, many people—who are seeking and who are longing to receive what we receive.

This wakes me up. It inspires me to renew my search for Jesus and to fight against the complacency that finds it so easy to tell others to search for Jesus while I stay comfortable where I’m at. It inspires me—and it also softens my heart for those who are searching.

Anyone, no matter what religion they are—if they are a Buddhist, a New Ager, a Muslim, a Protestant, or even an Agnostic Scientist—no matter what religion they are, if they are genuinely searching for the Truth—genuinely seeking—then they are walking in a great procession behind the three kings who come to us today.

And notice: their search does not bring them firstly to Bethlehem. Their search takes them to Jerusalem: the place of the temple and the palace and the prophets. There in Jerusalem, the three kings first discover the sacred religion of God who has called them there by his star. And it is only when the three kings encounter the scriptures—albeit through blind and bumbling Herod and his scribes—only when the kings encounter this religion are they then pointed to Bethlehem. In other words, without this initial encounter with the sacred religion of Israel, the three kings and their New Age spirituality and science would still be searching. This alerts us to the reality that until science and New Agers and all the rest discover the light of faith, they will continue to search. It is this light that has brought many to our RCIA. Praise God!

The Holy Mass and the Three Kings

What can we say from here?

After that initial discovery of the faith, the three kings then begin a humble procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. It is a kind of new Exodus away from an old kind of Pharaoh. It was a procession that would have included Herod and all of Jerusalem, but instead it is a very small procession—like that which we see at the beginning of Holy Mass or in the middle when the gifts are brought forward.

The kings come in procession to Bethlehem—which means “House of Bread.” There, they present to Jesus their gifts—sacrifices and offerings which they pray will be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. But they do not just give. They receive something in return. In that House of Bread and from the manger which was a feeding trough, they receive Jesus, the Bread of Life, God Himself. The three kings, recognizing the great gift they have received, quickly run for the doors. No, they do Him homage. They adore. They know that they have received more than they have given.

Their gratitude overflows and a new procession is taken up. Just as our altar servers take up their candles once more and process from the Mass, the three kings return to their country by another route. What does this mean? It means that their lives will never be the same. Having met Jesus, they will never go back to Herod. And their country is not simply Persia. Their country is now the kingdom of heaven.

I hope you see then, that there is a great connection between the story of the three kings and what goes on here at the Holy Mass: from the procession to the altar, beckoning us to journey in faith to Bethlehem; to the procession of the kingly gifts at the offertory; to the final procession is the journey home by another route—a new kind of living having been changed by who we have received here at Holy Mass. All of these simple actions are not simply movement from here to there, but are truly full of meaning and wonder!

Becoming One of the Kings

Seek and you shall find, says the Lord. Enter into the procession of faith with the kings today. Seek with hopefulness, even if you have been disappointed in the past. Our Lord promises that you will find. Do not give up the search. Because one day you will see. And in that moment you will adore. I pray that that moment is today. And then, having adored, our lives will be changed. We will experience our own Epiphany: we will realize that we have become one of the kings in the great procession that leads to heaven!