Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Transformations - Homily for the 6th Sunday in OT (A)

Ok. Can we take a moment and pray about what we have just heard? I mean, I know that for many of us, Jesus’ words hit us right in the heart—and some of those words may have been hard to listen to or understand. And I think we just need to take a moment and pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us here…

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In my life, I have come to realize that God is not simply in the business of getting people to “fall into line.” God is firstly in the business of transforming us. Let us never forget this: God is in the business of transforming us.

And I’ve found that there are two major kinds of transformation.

The first transformation that God wants for us is that transformation from being adrift in the world to being chosen— from being pagan to being religious—from being just like everyone else in the world to being His. This is why God gave the Commandments: He gave these to choose and to transform a people that would be His own. “This people,” He says through the Commandments, “This people will not be stealing and killing like the others out there. This people will not be marrying many wives or worshipping many gods like the pagans. This people will be different.” That’s what the Commandments do. This is the first transformation.

And I liken it to a kind of fence. I know many of you have seen the movie The Sandlot. It’s a story about kids that play baseball in this field—the sandlot—and there is an old wooden fence that separates this lot from the house next door—a house that has a mean dog called The Beast (very apropos!). So there is the Sandlot on one side of the fence and on the other side of the fence there’s the beast. The fence separates the play and fun and children from what is dangerous and menacing. In much the same way, the Law of God acted as the fence separating and thus initially transforming an otherwise ordinary people into the People of God.

Hence, Jesus upholds commandments like “you shall not kill” and “you shall not commit adultery.” Because that fence is still needed! Cultures—even historically Christian cultures like our own—forget these very basic truths. This is why Jesus doubles down saying, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

So, keeping the law is important. That’s the first part of this Sermon on the Mountain.

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The second part reveals the second transformation: where our “righteousness [must surpass]… that of the Pharisees.” This second transformation is about being not simply a follower but a lover—specifically, a lover who loves as Christ loves.

What this means is that Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not kill,” but He wants to have our hearts transformed in such a way that we avoid the beginnings of that—that anger and resentment and disdain for others. The new transformation—that of charity—is so important that Jesus says that “If you… recall [at the altar] that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there… and be reconciled with your brother and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, in this second transformation we see that we cannot approach the God of love at the altar when we refuse to love another. This why Catholics have the Sign of Peace. At the Sign of Peace, we are really supposed to reconcile with others such that, if there is someone that we are at odds with, we must first be reconciled with them before we can receive communion. Reconciliation before Communion. That’s how much God wants this transformation for us.

Notice, then, the next lesson in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Notice the need for transformation: Jesus doesn’t simply want us to “not commit adultery”—that is important—but He even wants our eyes and hearts transformed in such a way that when we see a beautiful person, we don’t lust over that person as though they were an object—because treating a person as an object is not love. Fifty Shades of Gray is not love. Pornography is not love.

And notice how much Jesus wants this second transformation for us: “If your eye causes you to sin… if your hand causes you to sin…” He says, get rid of it! It’s hyperbole, of course, but it is to prove a point: the transformation to charity is so important that it is worth losing even your limbs over.

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Now comes the sensitive part of Jesus’ Sermon. He says: "[In the past] It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife—unless the marriage is unlawful—causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What is going on here? Ironically, the Pharisees were allowing divorce because, as Jesus points out, “the hardness of their hearts.” I say this is ironic because our culture, when it sees a person upholding laws, the culture calls that person a Pharisee. So, for example, I’ve seen article after article calling Cardinal Burke a Pharisee for upholding the law of marriage. But such articles forget that Pharisees didn’t uphold marriage at all! This is the oddity of the Pharisees: they uphold certain laws, but not the divine ones—and even less do they live them out (as Jesus points out later). The Pharisees allowed divorce for pretty much whatever reason.

To call Cardinal Burke a Pharisee is therefore really rather ignorant. Our world is like the Pharisees. Many Christian ministers, for example, have become like our secular (read: oftentimes pagan) courts and allow divorce for whatever reason (Pharisaical), not remembering that “what God has joined, men must not divide.” They even go so far as to marry previously divorced people.

The papers write about how the Catholic Church is “opposed to divorce.” The reality is, we simply don’t have the power to undo what God has joined.

Clearly, we are dealing with the first transformation here: from the pagan to the People of God.

The question may be asked: then what about annulments? Obviously, this is a question that requires more than a homily to answer, but the principle for them is found in the Gospel when Jesus notes “unless the marriage is unlawful”—implied: an unlawful marriage is not joined by God; it is null. (Hence “annulment”).

When Jesus talks about a marriage being unlawful, it is understood that He is speaking about those who are going through the first transformation: that is, about pagans who have entered the Jewish faith but have three, four, or possibly even more wives. Anything beyond the first is unlawful. That’s what Jesus is talking about. Or when someone was forced to marry—that’s unlawful. The Catholic Church simply applies the principle Jesus gave. So, if someone enters into marriage with no intention of being faithful—then, yes, that could be a problem. But that’s different than someone “falling” out of love. The marriage is lawful—meaning, God has joined it—and man cannot divide that. Here, the second transformation is imperative: “love one another as I have loved you.”

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Here we arrive, then, at the primo problem of our culture. The problem is not only that our culture does not embrace the first transformation (law), but precisely because it no longer embraces law, it no longer understands love. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with killing an infant or an elderly person. But that’s not love!—we cannot both love and kill a person. Love, in our culture, is erroneously reconciled with disregarding the Sabbath (“I don’t need religion to love God”); and so on. The “love” that our culture passes off is a contradictory house built on sand.

This is why our Lord has come. This is why our culture needs a Cardinal Burke out there. For both law and love are united in Jesus. This Jesus who comes to transform us in both. Hence: “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill” and “unless your righteousness exceeds that the of the Pharisees”—in sum “love one another as I have loved you” and “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

So, we who struggle with sins against the law and against charity—it is for us that the Lord has come: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” He wants to transform us. That’s His business. That’s His saving grace. And He is making that offer to you today.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Our Lady of Lourdes - Homily for 1st Solemn High Mass

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Flores apparuérunt in terra nostra. The flowers appear on the earth.

These words are from the Song of Songs and we heard them sung this morning during the Gradual. They tell us that as Jesus approaches, the winter comes to an end. As Jesus passes by, it is as though His every step melts the snow and He frees the flowers that were somehow hidden underneath. The flowers appear on the earth.

At the heart of the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes is the miracle of the spring, the flowing waters that renew the earth. Holy Mary asked Bernadette to kneel and in faith to dig beneath the surface of the Grotto. As Bernadette acted in faith, the pure waters came forth and that which was hidden underneath became visible.

The spring would prove miraculous and a source of healing for many—the snow and winter of illness would melt away and the joy of health in body and soul would bloom.

Since Bernadette’s child-like trust in Mary’s love, thousands if not millions of pilgrims have visited the shrine at Lourdes. I am blessed to be one of them.

And I have found that there are two ways to visit this (and every Marian) shrine: the first is from faith, that humble approach that may not necessarily understand all of the mystery, but which believes something is there; and which so opens itself in receptivity for whatever God has in store for it. The experience is peaceful and often sublime.

The second way is everything else: the curious approach that comes to take something away and a picture of the event; the simply rational approach that comes to solve a mystery; the modern approach that wants a miracle on-demand and leaves wondering why it didn’t happen for them.

For ourselves, I know that there are many who are here who are attending their first Solemn High Mass. For me, I am offering it for the very first time. It is very beautiful and yet a very interesting thing. So much seems to be hidden beneath the surface. Indeed, many will at some point say, “I’m lost. Where are we? I don’t understand." This is totally ok and should be expected—for are we not celebrating “divine mysteries”?

The key is to approach with a faith that is ok and humbled by hidden-ness. That is to say: to spend time at this Holy Mass not trying to simply understand it and in a way conquer it, or even less to be like a tourist that tells Facebook friends of the novelty—but to say to Jesus, “I trust you. Even though I do not understand. I know you are here. And I am here with you. I long to see your face.”

In this way, the waters of Lourdes heal us even now; for they remind us of Bernadette’s simple, child-like faith that trusted in the Motherly guidance of Mary, and which in turn led to the opening and freeing of the miraculous spring. Yes, there is something hidden beneath the surface here. And it is faith that tells us that as Jesus approaches, what is hidden shall soon be seen: The flowers appear on the earth.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Light in the Cosmos - Homily for the 5th Sunday in OT (A)

This homily borrows heavily from Peter Kreeft's Lecture, "Lost in the Cosmos"

On the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi there was an inscription made famous by Socrates: it said: “Know Thyself.” This inscription presupposed two questions: first, who are you? And, second, how would you know who you are?

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In our modern world, it is a strange paradox that many people know more about the arts and sciences than they do about themselves. Some astronomers, for example, know more about the universe than they do their soul. The same can be said of any profession, really. What is interesting is that, today, many people know more about current events than they do themselves. Many can tell you all about the complicated dynamics of the Middle East, but when asked whether they have a soul, they respond: “I don’t know.”

Often, we in the modern world think we are smarter than those who came before us. Ancients, for example, made the mistake of trying to understand the cosmos by myths instead of science. They turned things (like the sea) into persons and so personalized the universe. We know better: the sea is a thing, not a person. But modern man took those conclusions too far and deduced that persons are simply things.

This deduction overlooked a very simple truth that we learned as children, that while there are similarities between things and persons, there is also a fundamental difference: a Person is a “you,” a “me”—and not simply an “it.”  We are a part of nature—and there is something about us that is separate from it—something that is super-natural (literally, something above the regular order of “things”).

And so Jesus tells us: “You are the light of the world.” This is not simply a moral exhortation. It is also a statement about who we are. You are the light of the world—you are not simply another object or another thing in the world. Indeed, there is something about you that illuminates the world. Hence, you are its light.

The discovery of who you are, therefore, is predicated upon having a way to illuminate the illumination. We need more than the scientific method to tell us who we are, because that can only tell us about the natural side of things. We need a way of thinking that can know the supernatural light found in Persons. This higher way of thinking is called wisdom.

It is wisdom that helps us to know who we are. It is wisdom that tells us “You are the light of the world.” It is wisdom we are looking for when we are trying to process, understand, and judge current events. However, it is precisely wisdom that is lacking in our world. Because many lack wisdom, many see the human person and the solutions to his problems as a great unknown.

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In his fictional book, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Walker Percy weaves a tale of a post-apocalyptic world where a remnant of humanity departs Earth in a space craft towards the system Alpha-Centauri, looking for a new home. Upon reaching the system, the space craft is told to halt. The Alpha-Centaurians wish to judge the danger that the Earthlings may pose to them.

In their wisdom, Alpha-Centaurians have found that the cosmos contains three species of intelligence which they call C-1s, C-2s, and C-3s. C-1s are innocent, unfallen, and harmless. C-2s are fallen—alienated from themselves, God, each other, and nature, and prone to selfishness, competition, and violence. C-3s are simply C-2s but who have come to know themselves, become of aware of their predicament, and asked for help—C-3s realize the need for repentance, and humility—which is the beginning of wisdom.

The Alpha-Centaurians determine through some significant and probing questions that Earthlings are not C-1s. Then they ask: “Have you asked for help?” The Earthlings have no idea what that could mean. Then the Alpha-Centaurians realize that the Earthings are C-2s, not C-3s. Permission to land is denied. The last humans die in orbit.

*          *          *

I tell that story not as an attempt to address the immigration issue by some kind of back door. Rather, it is an attempt to address all of our current issues: gender confusion, the definition of marriage, the determination of when life begins, the world’s tendency towards war… All of these stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are precisely because it is wisdom—that supernatural help to our supernatural person—that has been rejected by modern man.

The modern-day philosopher Peter Kreeft rightly points out: the road to hell is not paved with good intentions, but with self-help—to say, “I don’t need a Savior, I don’t need anyone telling me what I need to do. I don’t need anyone telling me who I am.” And that’s a bad position to be in because another wise man, Jesus Christ, said ““I didn’t come to call the righteous, I came to call sinners.” Wisdom reminds us, therefore, that the only people that Jesus didn’t come to save are those who think they don’t need saving. Ironically, those are precisely the ones who are lost.

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When I consider, therefore, the current issues and surrounding world reaction, I turn to wisdom and she counsels me, saying: “Fear not him who is only able to destroy the body. I will tell you who to fear: fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” In other words, do not fear the bombs of terrorism—for bombs only destroy the body. Rather, fear the philosophies of this world that lead to the destruction of the soul.

I mean not to take anything away from those authentic and productive conversations that are being had concerning immigration and other civic matters, but I think Americans—and really, the world—at large should be all the more concerned about its blind assimilation of philosophies and moralities that are foreign to our dignity and which extinguish our supernatural light (or, as Jesus notes: salt losing its flavor). The most destructive of which are secularism, doubt, and practical atheism. These are the bombs that are destroying souls.  And these are particularly insidious because they aren’t, for the most part, carried in by terrorists or immigrants—they are carried in by high school and university professors. And sometimes, God forgive us, by priests and parents and close friends.

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You are the light of the world. This means, 1) you have a supernatural dignity that can only be revealed and known by a higher order of knowledge called wisdom. And 2) this light will point out to the world the narrow way through our current problems—and that the ways is indeed narrow and that to navigate it successfully, humanity needs supernatural light, needs wisdom, needs God. In other words, we need to ask for help. This asking is called prayer and is accompanied by the humility of repentance. You’ll notice that this approach is dramatically different than the riots, rash judgments, and emotional reactions swirling out there. Wisdom is a light shining in the darkness—and that is who you are. Wisdom for the Gentiles, light of the world.

In a particular way, I pray for our youth, that you will surround yourselves with good friends whose light of faith is bright. I pray that our Lord protects you from secularism. And I pray that He give you the fortitude of the Holy Spirit to let your light shine before all to see—and especially when the world has grown dark.