Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Great "If" - Homily for Easter Sunday (2016)

He was of poor birth and of no esteem until we hear of him in the Sacred Scripture. He had little if any formal education; rather, he was known to pal around with fishermen and could even pass for one. In his life, he would change bread and wine into God; he would cure the sick, even just by the passing of his shadow; and he would walk on water, if only for a time. He would be arrested and eventually crucified. And upside-down, for Peter “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped” either.

Yes, I have been talking about Peter. And his story continues…

It was illegal to take bodies down from crosses (unless by decree of the local governor—see Joseph of Arimathea), so the early Christians had to sneak at night into Nero’s stadium in order to remove Peter’s body. Since he had been crucified upside down, Peter’s feet were much higher than reach and haste would allow. So the early Christians had to sever Peter just above (or in this case, below) the ankles, his body falling to the earth, but his feet remaining nailed, high in the air, to the cross.

Quickly, they would carry Peter’s body across the road separating Nero’s stadium from the local cemetery. And there, they would bury Peter, just a few feet from the road, placing a small marker to indicate where he was. Word spread and pilgrims began to visit, leaving tokens of affection and requests for prayers. A small, cement-like gravestone would be built.

Time passed, Nero’s Stadium would be leveled, and the cemetery itself would be covered in several feet of earth, the result of floods and also the Emperor Constantine who desired to build a great basilica in honor of the great apostle which, in its third form, exists today as St. Peter’s at the Vatican.

But as to the tomb of Peter, history became legend. Legend became myth. And some things that weren’t to be forgotten, sadly, were. Nineteen-hundred years passed until, with the rise of archaeology in the 1930s, a team began to dig under St. Peter’s basilica. From the legend, they were able to ascertain roughly were Peter’s tomb would have been. And they began to dig. In time, they discovered the small, cement-like gravestone that was the marker. And underneath it, they found a tomb.

Opening it, they saw some bones. Bones not of a man, but of a mouse. (!!) And next to the mouse, a woman. They were amazed. And confused.

At that moment, they could have given up, chalked it all up to myth.

But one of the archaeologists went back to the cement gravestone and began looking more closely at it. He noticed some markings on its face. They were words, in Greek: “Petros enni”—meaning: Peter is within. Within? Taking the words literally, they began to drill the gravestone and in the gravestone there was a box with more bones. And they discovered something: they were the bones of a man, whose diet was heavily fish, and his feet—they were missing, severed just above the ankles.

Peter had been found.

*          *          *

I learned of this story two years ago when I visited Rome. I went on the famous Scavi tour that goes under the Basilica and I had likewise been given the opportunity to offer Holy Mass at the very tomb of St. Peter. It was there, while I was offering Holy Mass, that I became overwhelmed by the realization that this Peter wasn’t just simply a bed-time tale. Peter was real.

(Of course, I had believed for a while in the reality of everything Catholic. I had come to know and appreciate that there were many, many saints who were much, much smarter than me (or is it I—I don’t know), and who were closer to Jesus and who, as a result, had bushwhacked through the jungle of confusion and doubt thus bequeathing to me a clear path of faith on which I could walk).

But to be there—to be at the tomb-- and to literally breathe in that air…. I will never forget that moment. The history and the reality of it all was palpable.

And maybe I’m reading into it, but a part of me can’t help but think that Peter, upon entering the tomb of Christ, would have felt the same thing. The Gospel says he “was amazed.” He had heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene, she who was a true believer and who had known intimately Jesus’ forgiveness. She had been to the tomb. There was no reason to doubt her….

So, is it true? And what if it’s true?

The question spurred Peter, already an old man, to run. And John, still in his youth, to run as well. Together, young and old, they ran and they found the tomb empty.

*          *          *

On this Easter morning, the Gospel story ends there. “They did not yet understand,” it says. They had questions, yes. And something was different… But that is where today’s Gospel story ends. (You will have to come back next Sunday to hear the next part!)

But I won't leave you hanging. In the first reading, we are fast-forwarded into the future twenty years or so. We see Peter standing up and giving testimony, saying:

“This man [Jesus] God raised on the third day and… [we] ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Peter, who was a coward on Good Friday, standing at a distance, denying Him for fear of being crucified too—he is now bravely standing up and putting his life on the line. So, something had happened. Something had happened between Good Friday and this moment to change Peter.

This is the challenge of Easter. Unlike Christmas which is adorable and peaceful and, let’s face it, nostalgic (see the manger scene and the cute animals?)—unlike Christmas, Easter makes a claim on us. It’s a wild claim about who Jesus is, about the limitations of death, and about whether we believe in what Peter and others have seen. And about what motivates the way we live… and for what we are willing to die. Christmas can be tamed; but Easter is wild.

This is the crux (pun intended) of Christianity: it’s the resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus is just another teacher; just another tragic figure that, while good, was ultimately a casualty of the times and of the unending story which is the pride of men. His “religion” would just be another ethical system from which one could pick and choose—or simply dismiss. Even less would it be something for which to die for…. And tell that to our brothers and sisters who are being martyred in the Middle East!

But if Jesus is raised from the dead, then that’s a whole new ballgame.

*          *          *

Paul puts a fine point on it when he says, “If Christ has not risen, your faith is vain.” Paul was a contemporary of Peter; he could have literally said to him, “Peter, if Christ is not risen, then your faith—your trust, your going to your own crucifixion over this—it’s all vain, it’s all for naught.”

At the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, there is a large and beautiful mosaic in one of the domes of the church and it depicts the moment of the resurrection. Along the bottom of the dome, Paul’s words are inscribed. The thing is, depending on where you stand, a pillar will obstruct the first word of Paul’s line.

So, for example, when you stand at a distance, all you see is “Christ has not risen, your faith is vain.” There’s truth in that: when we stand at a distance from Jesus, we don’t experience the resurrection. Paul’s line becomes the accusation of the world: “Christ has not risen, your faith is vain”—you’re upside-down, your morals are backwards, your religion is make-believe and so on.

And if Christ has not risen, then the tomb is still empty—and, with it, all of our hopes for life after death. Indeed, without the resurrection, all that is left of Peter are just bones in a box. And that will be us someday. That’s the emptiness that leads to despair. Of course, the world tries to tell us to fill that emptiness with stuff and comforts and so on—but it’s never enough, because all the world can’t save a man from death… and his desire for more.

The wonderful thing about that mosaic is that, if you draw near to it, you see the “if.” That small little word is so full of hope. That little “if” beckons us to ask questions, “What if it’s real? What if Jesus is risen? What if the world is wrong and this—this!— is right?” How I wish we would be more willing to doubt the world’s doubt!

Yes, this small “if” lays a claim to us—it is wild and it challenges us to investigate, to study, and to pray—and to do so running (that is, with a zealous eagerness) because we’re talking about matters of the highest kind: about life and death and beyond. What if ….?

*          *          *

Peter had seen. He had touched. He knew it was real. And I, for one, believe that. I saw 24 people from RCIA last night enter into the Catholic Church and I’ve witnessed the changes in their life, many of which could be classified as miraculous. I’ve seen over 2,000 people come to confession here at St. Joe’s during Lent (that’s an approximation—it’s likely more)—and there in those confessionals, I have felt such an overwhelming sense of the divine… I could keep going.

But I tell you this because I know it is hard to believe out there. I know the slavery of the calendar and of keeping up with the Jones’. I know too that there have been scandals—either from priests, or parents, or from those who call themselves Catholic and act anything but. Or maybe there has just been disappointment after disappointment—you’ve been looking, but all you have to show for it is the wrong box with a mouse. Where is God?

I want you to take us priests and those Catholics who really are living out this faith (not those that are here on Sunday, but asleep and doing silly things Monday-Saturday)—I want you to take us by the arm and say, “Tell me! Tell me why you believe!” I want all of us to do this.

Because all of us are going to have to tell Peter why we did or did not believe him. Because Peter is not just bones in a box. He is real; he is alive; and his testimony continues.

I pray that anyone who is at a distance—whether because of doubt, scandal, disappointment, death—anyone who is at a distance, come close. Draw near. There is a great “if,” a great hope for us to discover together. So, take us by the arm; walk with us every Sunday; ask us questions; give yourself entirely to the moral life; pray fervently—old and young, let us run to see!

I think you will find that, as you draw near, your hearts will become full. You will see. You will be changed. And you’ll find yourself with courage and joyful in the Truth:

Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Love to the End - Homily for the Holy Mass of the Lord's Last Supper

+ Before Holy Mass this evening, as the choir was singing its prelude, I commented to Father Chrismer how that song—“How Beautiful”—is quickly becoming a favorite at weddings and also how it fits perfectly with the theme of tonight’s Holy Mass. That is, tonight we see a divine marriage play out. So, let me explain…

The Divine Marriage

In the Sacrament of Holy Marriage, there are certain readings to which most couples gravitate: St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, how love is patient, and love is kind. Or the Gospel of St. Matthew where we hear Our Lord Jesus teaching that, in marriage, the two become one flesh. Some throw caution to the wind and choose Ephesians, chapter 5, the famous reading about husbands and wives.

It is in that last reading on Ephesians that we hear these words:

Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word.

Cleansing her by the bath. This is baptism. But tonight, I couldn’t help to think of Jesus as He pours the bath of water for the apostles’ feet. He kneels, “emptying himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) to free, as a New Moses through a New Red Sea, the slaves of Pharoah, that is, those enslaved to sin. Jesus washes our feet—feet that walked down wandering paths, feet lost in the muck. He tenderly washes our feet as a husband lovingly cherishing his bride.

Paul continues,

For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church…

Nourishes and cherishes it. How? With His own Body and Blood. At that same Last Supper, Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body… take… eat…” This eating was to undo the sin of Adam and Eve that was brought about by… eating. And so Jesus, the divine bridegroom, gives His mystical bride, the Church, His body and blood, so that His body and blood may mingle with her body and blood—in other words, that the two might become one flesh.

*          *          *

Union of Sacrament and Example

This Holy Mass of the Lord’s Last Supper, tonight, celebrates the divine love of our Savior for us, His bride. Pope Benedict XVI calls this the “sacramentum et exemplum” of our Savior’s Love. The Sacrament and the Example. What does this mean?

Typically, we look at the Last Supper as containing two separate events: 1) The Institution of the Eucharist and then 2) the Washing of the Feet. And in them, we see one as a Sacrament (the Eucharist) and the other as a lesson in morality and ministry-- that is, the Example (Washing).

But there is a problem with that, a problem that plagues modern Catholicism: namely, that modern Catholicism compartmentalizes the two. What do I mean by that? Well, for many Catholics, their faith consists solely of “the Sunday thing” (Sacramentum)—but the rest of the week consists of doing our own thing without any recourse or thought of God (Exemplum). There is Sacrament, but no Morality or Ministry.

From a more secular perspective, Catholicism appears simply an ethical system that teaches people how to be good (Exemplum), but which ultimately has no connection to the superfluous meetings on Sunday (Sacramentum)-- hence the "I'm spiritual, but not religious" movements.

In the Last Supper, however, Jesus unites Sacrament and Example. The Eucharist and the Washing are both the outpouring of Jesus’ total gift of self. At the Eucharist, Jesus is pouring out His body and blood. And, just in case we cannot see it or doubt it (because of its hiddenness under the appearance of bread and wine), Jesus pours out His body and blood as water over His apostles’ feet.

We see this union of Sacrament and Example among those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Marriage. They receive the Sacrament, but also the Exemplum:

Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church.

Both the Eucharist and the Washing are one: they are both the outpouring of Jesus’ total love for His bride, the Church.

And He wants us to receive that.

*          *          *

Receiving Love and Giving Love

This is why Peter’s protest to not have his feet washed is quickly rebuked:

            Unless I wash you, says the Lord to Peter, you will have no inheritance with me.

Peter must receive Jesus’ outpouring of love. If not, it does not matter what Peter does—he will not have eternal life.

And yet, at the same time, Judas has his feet washed, but Jesus remarks that

not all of you are clean.

What is going on here? Judas receives, but he does not give back a return of that love. Indeed, he betrays Jesus. Judas has received, but then does not give that love back through an integral living; his eternal inheritance is also in jeopardy.

In other words, Jesus, who is love, desires that we both receive His love and give a return of His love. We must receive the outpouring of God’s love for us—through the reception both of the Sacraments and the reception of other’s kindness to us. And as we receive, so we must give: we must give the outpouring of God’s love in us through liturgical service (that is, worship in the Sacraments) and through service to others which is charity (Example).

In this way, then, we see that Holy Communion is the source and the summit of our faith; the font from which we must receive love; and the summit of outpouring which to which we aspire to imitate.

And, as such, it unites us to God (“the two become one flesh”) and to others (“we are one body, one body in Christ.”) And since we are one body in Christ, whatever we do the least among us, we do to Him. This is why Mother Theresa, a Missionary of Charity, would comment that serving the poor is not “like” serving Jesus; it IS serving Jesus.

This is love. This is the “very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity… of one’s closed individuality… breaking through into the divine.” (Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, pp 54-55). That is to say, as we love, we are transformed into God who is love.

And yet, because the Eucharist is the God who is love, the greatest act of service that both God and man can render, one to another, is the Holy Eucharist.

*          *          *

A Priest’s Love to The End

Let me make this a little more tangible. You may have heard the recent story of a Father Tom. Father Tom is a priest in Yemen and, earlier last week, he had offered Holy Mass for the five Missionaries of Charity in his care and then continued with his morning. This would be his Last Communion. ISIS arrived and began to hunt down the Missionaries. Four were martyred. Father Tom was kidnapped.

But before he was kidnapped, he was faced with a decision. He could run and try to escape, or he could run and save the Eucharist. He ran to the church, went to the tabernacle, and consumed as much of the Eucharist as he could so that the Body and Blood of our Lord would not be profaned. And, perhaps, too, Father Tom went to the church, not only to save the Eucharist, but to be united to the One Jesus who is love and whom he loved.

It is rumored that Father Tom will be crucified tomorrow.

For myself, as one who is ordained and offered my life so as to bring the Eucharist, I must admit feeling a union with Father Tom. I am pained to know my brother is pained. But this pain leads me not simply to tears or changing my Facebook profile picture to a tri-color flag. Rather, it leads me here: to the Eucharist, where I offer my prayers in union with Jesus and the whole Church to the Father.

This is the greatest service I can give to my brother. And, wonderfully, by giving his life for the Eucharist, Father Tom has given the greatest service to me. He has shown me how much this Eucharist is worth, this Eucharist that we are about to receive-- it is worth more than my life; and he has also shown me the great outpouring of love this Eucharist can bring-- to the outpouring of my life in total love.

In other words, Father Tom has allowed me to enter into that sacramentum et exemplum of Christ who pours out His life in Eucharist and in Washing—it is just that, sometimes, the washing is not with water, but with one’s own blood. But it is here that I understand what the Gospel meant when it says:

He loved them to the end.

I pray that those words may enter my heart and all of ours, and that they may become our own. I pray that I may say them to Jesus at the end of my life here on earth: “Jesus, I loved you to the end”—You who loved me, loved me to the end!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My God, My God, Why...? - Homily for Palm Sunday

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Most of us have felt these words. Feeling that God is absent; that we are alone; that things are not going right—and where is God?

The reality is, however: He has never abandoned us. “Even though a mother forget her own child, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15), says the Lord. And, again, as Jesus ascends into heaven, He says, “And lo, I am with you until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). We have not been abandoned; Jesus loves us.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, in his timeless spiritual work, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, writes that Jesus loves us more than He suffers. St. Alphonsus notes [in summary]:

If Jesus had to endure the sufferings of the crucifixion just for you, He would have done it. Or, more, if Jesus had to endure the crucifixion 1,000 times—and just for you—He would have done so, because He loves you more than He suffers. Indeed, if it would have been required that Jesus suffer the cross every day until the very end of time, and just for you, He would have done it.

Because He loves you. And will never abandon you.

*          *          *

If we are really honest, we must admit that we are the ones who so often abandon Jesus. Our sins, our forgetfulness, our busy-ness… We are the ones whose love is hot, then cold—and colder still when He gives us the sufferings of the Cross. We blame Him, instead of seeing the chance to join in a love like His; that is, a love even unto death. And even then, we when are blaming Him, He's holding us, never abandoning us.

So often, I look at the crucifixion from a third-person perspective: over there, there are the soldiers, they are crucifying Jesus. But, the reality is, I am the one holding the nail. I am the one swinging the hammer. I am the one who has placed the cross on Jesus’ shoulders and crowned Him with thorns.

And even then, Jesus has not abandoned me. As I'm sinning, He's praying for me: “Father, forgive them…” Because He loves me.

*          *          *

So here we are in Holy Week in the Year of Mercy. If ever there was a time for us to go to confession and to receive God's merciful love, this would be it. Whether you have been a year away or forty years away, don’t miss this chance. Tomorrow and Tuesday, all of us priests at St. Joe’s will be in the confessional from 4pm until we keel over.

And it’s going to be joyful. You will be like the one who asked Jesus simply to “Remember me.” Do you remember what happened next? Jesus looked at him, forgave the thief’s sins, and then promised him: “Amen, I say to you: today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

That's what Jesus says to us. You will be with me. I will never abandon you.

May your Holy Week be blessed and the mercy of God be yours.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Wrath - Homily for the 5th Sunday in Lent

The scribes and Pharisees held Jesus in contempt. He had challenged their way of life and had even dared to teach them. In their anger, their need for retaliation, they brought into his midst the woman caught in adultery so as to “test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”

Yet, during their impatient calls for the woman’s execution, Jesus is tranquil. He is in total control of his intellect and reason. He is unfazed by this mob and their blood lust.

The difference between Him and the crowd is striking. He forgives; they condemn. He is loving; they are full of wrath.

Wrath. It is the last of our Seven Deadly Sins that we will explore this Lent. And in order to understand it, we have to uncover what breeds it.

*          *          *

It starts with a simple frustration, a sleight, a hurt. Maybe we weren’t heard or maybe someone ignored us. There grows impatience and a rumination about the hurt—like when someone gossips behind our backs. It can also grow from a sense of losing control, as when we worry about making ends meet or losing a loved one to illness.

In this hurt or in this fear, simple frustrations can easily grow. Anger is the symptom, the expression, of our dealing with the hurt or the fear. For example, when we are cut off on the road: we get angry because we feel disrespected and hurt, or because the recklessness of the other makes us fearful.

Sometimes anger can be virtuous, but when it is at the right time, at the right place, in the right degree, and when it is guided by reason and counsel (Schall)—as in the case where anger moves a person to sit a loved one down and have a come-to-Jesus talk about their drug addiction. Anger, therefore, if it is to be virtuous, must walk a middle road, between being overly angry and not angry enough.

In that light, there is a saying, “Tell me what makes you angry and I will tell you what you are. Tell me what does not make you angry, and I will likewise tell you what you are.” If we pause a moment and ask ourselves what makes us angry, we can learn a lot about who we are.

*          *          *

Anger that is locked in the heart and which continues and grows old—this becomes an ill-will. A sullenness. Sometimes, people are so used to being angry that they don’t even know what they are angry about.

Anger that seeks punishment and is not put aside until it has done so, is called revenge. A relative of this is simply being ill-tempered or stern—someone quick to punish, which is opposed to playfulness.

Such anger, when it is focused on one’s neighbor, becomes quarrelsomeness. When it is focused on God, it becomes blasphemy. Sometimes anger is focused on one’s self and this is called self-loathing. Anger, in this way, can even breed depression.

A heart of anger affects one’s speech, and from it comes cussing and profanity. The word, “profanity,” comes from the Latin, pro-fanum, meaning “outside the temple.” Profanity, therefore, is language that is not appropriate for the temple—which you are, being the temple of the Holy Spirit. In time, profanity can become cursing, a wishing of ill things on another, which is the opposite of blessing.

All of these are contrary to love, for “love is patient, love is kind… It does not brood over injury…”

*          *          *

In the His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that,

every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire.

Notice, then: our salvation is tied up with whether or not we put aside our condemning ways. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. This was the problem with the Pharisees: they were condemning the woman and not forgiving. They had yet to learn the Our Father which prays, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…” If we do not forgive, we will not go to heaven.

This is why, in the very next line of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Communion with God first requires communion with each other. In the Catholic Church, therefore, before we receive Holy Communion, we have the Sign of Peace.

The Sign of Peace is not just simply a time of waving and greeting. It is a time where, having received the Peace of Christ, we then extend that forgiveness to others: our spouse, our neighbor, anyone here whom we need to forgive.

If you are not reconciled with your spouse or if there is someone here who you need to be reconciled with, do that first before your present yourself for Communion. Never receive the Eucharist with anger in your heart!

*          *          *

Anger left unchecked becomes wrath. Spitefulness, outbursts, road-rage, passive aggressiveness, domestic violence, murder—all are bedfellows of wrath.

It is foolish. The wrathful person is ruled by their passions; or, in other words, he has forfeited his personal sovereignty over his emotions. We are called to use our intellect and will to temper our emotions. Wrath, however, willingly acquiesces to the tyranny of emotion which, in turn, makes us fools. In the words of Job (15:2): “Will a wise man . . . fill his stomach with burning heat?”

Because it is blinded by passion, wrath does not see. It does not see one’s neighbor as neighbor—and even less does it see the other as a child of God (cf. Cain and Abel, Gen 4:8ff)

Wrath does not see or acknowledge concupiscence—that woundedness which we all share, wherein we do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want (cf. Rom 7:19). The wrathful person forgets that he, too, is a sinner. This is what the Pharisees forgot: they only saw the sin of the woman and forgot their own need to be forgiven.

Wrath never forgives and rarely seeks forgiveness. And, ultimately, it forgets that we are all of us, together, in a spiritual battle against the devil. Really, wrath fights the wrong fight. Instead of fighting the devil, it fights each other.

*          *          *

The virtues that combat wrath are kindness and prudence, the fruits of which are forgiveness and tranquility: “Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.”

To battle against wrath, we must employ our intellect and will so as to temper our passions. In so doing, we will become measured, wise, slow to respond to things that “set us off” and quicker still to forgive. We will also be able to let go of the past and see the beauty of the present moment:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Wrath and anger blind us to the graces that are renewed each morning (Lam 3:23).

So, if you are in an angry rut, go out and get some exercise and clear your head, burn off some of that energy. Punch your pillow or yell into a towel—I know, it sounds stupid, but it’s much smarter than yelling at your spouse, your kids, or kicking your dog.

And be prudent: if you are getting worked up about an article you are reading, it is probably best to avoid the comments section. In that line of thought, when it comes to political discourse, a person can be angry, so long as the anger is virtuous: that is, at the right time, the right place, the right degree, and guided by reason and counsel. Always being angry is not only sullen and not-healthy, but it endangers our soul: “for what does it profit a man if he give his soul to gain the whole world?” —much less, for politics!

And if we have been wrathful, foul-mouthed, spiteful, and so on, let us repent.

Hear the words of Jesus:

“Has no one condemned you?...
Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Friday, March 11, 2016

Envy and Greed - Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent

This morning, Jesus tells us the parable of the Prodigal Son, of his older brother, and of the Father who loves them. In this Year of Mercy, it would seem appropriate to speak about the Father’s mercy: about how he comes out of the house to meet them both; about how he doesn’t even wait for the son to say “treat me as one of your servants”—for the Father loves his son.

Yet, it is helpful to consider how it was that the two brothers needed mercy in the first place. And so, we continue our journey through the Seven Deadly Sins. Today, we see that what brought the sons to need mercy were their sins of Envy and Greed.

(Be forewarned: Greed is going to take 90% of this homily and leave only 10% to envy.)

*          *          *

Greed. Usually we equate greed with money and, even more so, with a kind of “hyper-capitalistic” greed: corporations that are concerned with only their bottom line; landowners who overcharge and do not care for their tenants; individuals who possess the spirit of present-day Gorden Gekko who, in the 1987 movie Wall Street, famously declared “Greed … is good.”

At the same time, however, there is also a “socialistic” greed that says that everyone around me should pay for my lifestyle. (And notice I say lifestyle—not life’s necessities). Socialistic greed wants just as much as the hyper-capitalist. Of course, it would want us to believe otherwise or that it goes about it in a different way. But, it really doesn’t.

That’s because greed isn’t just about money and things. It’s about our expectations. We expect certain things because we think we need them. But, if we are honest, oftentimes our needs are not really needs. For example, an eighth grader may say, “Mom, I need a smart phone!” Does he? Why do you need it? “Well, because,” he begins to rationalize, “everyone has one.” This is not a need. The eighth grader will not die if he does not have a smart phone.

Greed does not know the difference between needs and wants. Greed needs everything. “Father, give me the inheritance that is coming to me,” says the younger son. Does he need it? No. He has all his life’s needs taken care of. Indeed, when he is greedy, he will find himself in dire need: hungry—and not only for food, but for what he needs most: his Father’s love.

*          *          *

When greed becomes cultural, the effects are disastrous. For example, to my high school teens: you do not need a $80,000 college education. Sure, you want one, but you don’t need one. For most of you, it would not be smart to go after such shiny fruit. Rather, you could go to a junior college for two years, get all of the credits you would have gotten at the big expensive institution (but at half the cost), and then transfer to the “places you’ll be from.” Greed says, “No. No, that doesn’t work. I need to take out student loans…”

Well, I tell you, there is no greater modern birth control today than $80,000 in student loans. Really. Graduate with 80k in loans, get married (and we’re not even going to talk about how much people are greedily spending on receptions!), and then see how many kids you can afford. “We’ve got $80,000 in loans” couples are saying. "We’re going to wait to have kids"—which, translated, means “We can’t afford them.” Because #Greed. High schoolers, be alert: you are making your future family’s decisions, now.

Expectations, when they become fossilized, are called entitlements. Hyper-capitalisitc greed and socialistic greed both believe that they are entitled something. And when they aren’t given, there grows the rotten fruit of resentment and even contempt. Sometimes, this grows further into manipulation so as to obtain or, worse, possession by force.

*          *          *

It is worth repeating that greed is not simply about money. It could also be about one’s kids and their vocations. For example, it often happens to me that a high schooler will say, “Father, I think I have a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life, but my mom wants grandkids.” Parents even tell their kids that! “I want you to pass on the family name” or “I’m going to be lonely if you become a sister. Who is going to take care of me?” Well, parents, you should have had more kids.

I have even heard some parents try to manipulate their children by saying, “Honey, you’re too beautiful to be a sister” (as though sisters were ugly! Some of the most beautiful people I know are sisters. Just yesterday I offered Holy Mass at the Carmelite Monastery and a sister there was setting up my vestments in the sacristy. And there was such a holiness about her, a beauty that inspired me and even gave me greater fervor to how I would offer the Mass).

“Honey, you’re too beautiful to be a sister”?—Notice what the greed has done to those parents. It has blinded them to the beauty of their kids’ hearts; it has blinded them to the beauty of vocation; it has blinded them to the beauty of Jesus’ own poverty. For this reason, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Why is this? Because such a man avoids the cross.

When it comes to prayer, the greedy person is distracted by their stuff—the television instead of prayer, the organizing instead of spiritual reading, the vacation and skipping Mass. Even now, we are distracted by what we have to do later today. We are the cold-hearted who say, “When will… the Sabbath be over that we may begin to sell again?” (Amos 8:5)

The greedy person easily becomes a workaholic, busy, and rarely tithes. If he is generous, it is often with the mixed intention of being seen or making a profit from it. They cannot see people, but only the advantage that people give them; numbers. The greedy person will become dishonest, steal, and even defraud so as to get what they want. They are consumed by the things they consume. They are the Pharisees whom Jesus once indicated as lovers of money (Luke 16:14).

How I wish they would “come to their senses.” To visit the Missionaries of Charity here; to give and to not count the cost; to be free…. Come to your senses before God does it in another way!—through financial ruin, through tragedy, or through death (at which point, it is too late. You will be like the rich man who cries out to Lazarus from across the abyss, saying, “just a drop of water to cool my tongue” or “let me warn my children, lest they enter into this fiery hell…”

Repent. And see the robe that your Father will give you, and the ring, and the sandals. The robe is your dignity, the ring—a sign of the family—is your identity, and the sandals (they would have been worn only by the free, not by slaves), this is your freedom. And the feast is heaven.

*          *          *

And so, now..... Envy. The older son is scandalized that the Father would take such a greedy man back. And then—and then!—lavish treasures upon him! The older brother is envious. (And notice, envy is the older brother of greed).

Envy is an emptiness. It is the only of the Deadly Sins that does not achieve its sinful object: gluttony feasts; lust sees; greed hoards… Envy, however, is envious precisely because it does not obtain what it wants. It is perpetually empty. And therefore it is angry. Resentful. And it copes with this through gossip.

For example: notice the older son. When he hears the “sound of music,” he doesn’t go to the source for information—he doesn’t go to the Father. The older son goes to the servants! And they talk about the Father: “Do you know what your father just did?” “I can’t believe he did that.” “You should have been the one to have the feast…”

When the Father learns about his son’s envy, what does the father do? He does the exact same thing that he does with the younger son: He comes out of his home and meets the son—even when this oldest one isn’t walking to him.

And what does the Father say? “Everything I have is yours.”

The ring? It’s yours. The robe? Yours. The sandals, the feast—it’s already all yours. Everything! And yet…. that’s not enough for the older son. He wants the satisfaction of being The Only. Envy cannot welcome anyone to its self-feast.

In so doing, envy—just like greed—has become blind. You see, the Father isn’t just rings and robes and sandals and feasts. The Father has more than that. He has a heart. He has a heart full of mercy. And when he tells the older son “Everything I have is yours,” he is not only offering mercy to the older son, the Father is also saying that you have my very heart of mercy. Within your very chest is my very heart. You have within you the very source and capacity to forgive and to love and to do so superabundantly and joyfully.

This is the greatest of all treasures. But the son does not see it. He does not see its value.

As a result of this, the older son pouts and remains outside the feast—which is Jesus’ way of saying that he is in hell. This is what envy does.

Do you envy others—their possessions, their lifestyle, their health, the apparent blessings that they have in life? Stop it. And take a moment to reflect. “Everything I have is yours.” That’s God saying that to you right now! “Everything I have is yours.” What more do you want?

We must stop and reflect—because all around us is grace! We are awash in gift after gracious gift. We too must come to our senses! Let us repent of our envy!

*          *          *

Let me conclude with something that St. John Vianney once said about envy and greed. He said, “My children, I tell you, you will have less to suffer following the Cross of Christ than from serving the world and its pleasures.”

In other words: I know that the Cross looks frightening. I know it involves suffering. The pain of simplicity and of not having stuff and of looking silly because of it. But that suffering is nothing compared to the pains our hearts will and do feel when we are consumed by greed and envy.

This is Lent. Let us repent. And resolve to enter the merciful heart of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Of Samaritans and Husbands - Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (First Scrutiny)

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman is a pretty iconic moment in the life of Christ. It is in this moment that the woman’s life is changed forever and Jesus’ love for humanity is made known.

This Gospel is read for today’s special occasion: that is, today, our RCIA candidates and elect are with us and will be going through the first of three minor Lenten rites, called “scrutinies.” In these scrutinies, these elect approach Jesus through the Church and for a particular blessing, to strengthen them as they prepare to receive Jesus in His fullness at the Easter Vigil.

For us, the Gospel is also given to us: to remind us to pray for those in RCIA. And not only to pray for them, but also to remind us that we are called to be Christ to them and to the world. The RCIA is kind of a barometer of our evangelizing efforts here at St. Joe’s—it tells us whether or not our faith is alive and attractive and whether we are reaching out to the world, that she may know the freedom and peace of Jesus Christ.

So, this Gospel, then, is not just for the RCIA, it is also for us. That said, let us take a deeper look at the reading.

*          *          *

We begin by noticing that the woman is a Samaritan woman. This is an important detail which requires some back-story. Many centuries before Christ, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and many of the people were taken into captivity and brought to Assyria. Only a few of the poor—many of them farmers—were left behind.

In time, other pagan tribes moved into to the area and they began to mingle with these Israelite poor. The mingling of these tribes with the Israelites became the Samaritans, a hybrid race that knew some of the history of Israel, but which also began to forsake the one God for the worship of pagan gods. Because of this the Samaritans were seen as inferior, impure, and ultimately traitors—and thus despised by the Israelites.

And so, we see Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman. Their conversation covers a few topics: Jesus asks her for a drink, then he asks her to call her husband. Let’s talk about this second request, first.

Jesus said to her,
“Go call your husband and come back.”

The woman answered and said to him,

“I do not have a husband.”

Jesus answered her,

“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’

For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.

What you have said is true.”

All of us probably hear this and think that Jesus is talking firstly about divorce. But, something deeper is going on here. History again gives us an important detail: the word for the pagan gods is Ba’al. And, interestingly enough, this is the same exact word that the Samaritans would use for the word “husband.”

So, when Jesus says, “Go call your husband…” He isn’t just simply telling the woman to call the man who is at her house—He is also referring to her worship of the pagan gods. There is a play on words going on here.

The woman thus responds in kind: “I do not have a husband [Ba’al].” Meaning, not only do I not have a man, but I do not have a God that I worship.”

Jesus responds that she has answered honestly. But then He says, “You are right… for you have had five husbands [Ba’als].” Jesus is not only pointing out that she has been promiscuous in her life (she has), but also, he is pointing out that she has had many gods in her life.

(Anybody want to guess how many Ba'als the Samaritans worshiped? ... Yes, that's right: they had five.)

Therefore, what Jesus is critiquing is not simply the woman’s promiscuity, but also how she does not have the one true God in her life.

the hour is coming, and is now here, 
when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth;
and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him

*          *          *

What is interesting is where this conversation takes place. It takes place at Jacob’s Well. This is very significant. It is the place where Jacob meets and will eventually marry Rachel. (Jacob, as you may recall, had to wait two sets of seven years for her, all the while acting as a shepherd and watering her father’s sheep from this well). Jesus is this new "Good Shepherd" and He comes to meet the lost sheep at this place of love and marriage.

Is Jesus proposing marriage to her?

Well, kind of, yeah.

Jesus wants to be her husband—not in terms of human marriage, but in terms of God: Jesus is God and wants to be her heart’s desire. This spousal language is used all throughout the Old and New Testaments: in the Old Testament, to take just one of many examples, God promises Israel that she will be called “espoused” and will be called His bride (cf. Isaiah 62). In the New Testament, Jesus refers to Himself often as the bridegroom (Mt 9:15; Lk 5:35, etc). And even heaven is referred to as the wedding feast of the lamb (Revelatin 19:7)—all of which implies that someone is getting married (hence the wedding feast). And that marriage is between God and us.

This is why Jesus begins the conversation by saying, “Give me a drink.” Jesus is not simply asking for a glass of water (he is—he is probably thirsty). But more, however, He is asking for the Samaritan woman’s love. Indeed, He thirsts for all of our love!

This is why, on Good Friday, we will see Jesus make this request again, but from the Cross when He cries out, saying “I thirst.” For water? for vinegar? No. For love! God thirsts for our love!

*          *          *

Yet, so wonderfully, it is the woman who is also thirsting. Yes, she is thirsting for water. But more, she is thirsting for God. We see this in two ways:

First, we see it in how many husbands she has had. She has been restless; her heart longing for love; to fill that God-sized-hole in her heart… But she has been doing so with men. The jug that is empty is just like her heart and she longs to be filled!

Second, we see it in her words. She says:

I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ: 
when he comes, he will tell us everything.

She, too, is longing for the Messiah. To which, Jesus replies:

I am he, the one speaking with you.

“I am your heart’s desire,” Jesus is saying. “I am the living waters which you seek. I am the one who will bring fulfillment to your restless life! I will satisfy your life’s deepest thirsts.”

He will do so, quite literally, when, on the Cross, His heart is pierced with a lance, and blood and water pour forth—blood and water which point to Baptism and the Eucharist. (For, on the night before He died, He took a chalice and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. For this is the chalice of my blood…”)

And about Baptism:

whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; 
the water I shall give will become in him

a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

This will all pour forth from the heart of Jesus—the very place of love, saying: “This is how much I love you! I give you all that I am, all from my heart—it is all yours!”

There is a divine marriage there. The two become one flesh: Jesus offers His flesh and blood on the Cross and in the Eucharist so that our flesh and blood may become one with Him.

*          *          *

After hearing this, the Samaritan’s life is changed. She immediately goes and evangelizes her town. They believed “because of the word of the woman who testified.” She brings her entire town to meet Jesus and they are converted!

And that’s what you will do, too! It is not enough that you are just going to receive the Sacraments here. If we truly know and believe Who is here, then how could we not tell others, pull them by the arms of their coats and say, “Come! I want to show you whom I have met!”

And they will believe you. Because you will be full. That pagan lifestyle with all its husbands—it will be behind you. Your life will be different. And they will notice.

They may even notice that you left the bucket at the well. Because your heart has discovered the living waters.

*          *          *

Brothers and sisters, let us pray for these in RCIA. And also for ourselves: that we all may meet Christ again and be filled. That we may know how much He loves us and bring all those we meet to this well of divine, thirst-quenching love!