Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Death, Love, Eve, and The Ark - Homily on the Assumption of Mary (2017)


Today is a celebration of the victory of Jesus’ Cross over the powers of sin and death. It is the day when our Blessed Mother enjoys the fruits of that victory by being brought body and soul into heaven.

Of course, many of our good brothers and sisters at other denominations may ask us why we spend a day celebrating Mary. (You’ve probably heard things like that: “why go to Mary when you can go straight to God?” and so on). Let’s answer this today because, admittedly, at certain local rock-band churches, things like today aren’t celebrated—and we need to know why it’s important that we do.

The answer will come in two parts: one subtle, one scriptural….

I love my mom. Mom has always been my biggest support, the one who knew my vocation before I did, the one who always tells me to “be safe”… But mom is starting to near retirement age. She is getting… older. And with getting older may come the usual health problems. And (I don’t like to think of this but) there will come a day when God calls her from this life.

If it were up to me, I would have mom pass from this life to the next without having to go through any illnesses. Illnesses and death were not part of God’s original plan anyway. Death was the result of sin. If I could have mom go straight to heaven without having to taste death and all that comes before it, I would. And I wish that because I love my mom. Of course, I am not God.

But Jesus is. And He loves His mother. He’s the only one who got to choose His mother. And because death was never part of His plan, Jesus brings Mary to heaven without illness or death. Any son who loves mom wants the very best for mom. Jesus wants the very best for His mom—and He is able to give that to her. Not only because He is God, but also because this is the very effect of His victory on the Cross! He mounts the Cross precisely to claim victory over death. It makes sense then, that He would share the celebration of that victory with His mom. Because He loves her.

That’s the subtle part. You see, people often say “Why go to Mary when you can go straight to God?” The reason is that we learn a lot about Jesus precisely by admitting His love for His mother. He loves His mother. This is important because it orients Jesus in a family—He is not foreign to family. He is not an alien to the experience of being a mother’s child.

Indeed, if you want to get the real dirt on me, you can go to my mom. She knows me very well. So too with Mary: is there anyone else on the face of the earth who had a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ than Mary—the one who literally carried Him in her womb, who fed Him with her flesh and blood, who felt him kick in the night and coo in her arms? Mothers know something about their children. So it goes with Mary.

The subtlety here is love.

Now we turn to scripture. Some say this isn’t scriptural. Au contraire!

We see in the book of Revelation a vision of the Ark of the Covenant and, in front of it stands The Woman and her child. (That’s Mary and Jesus). The question is: what’s this Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant was the sacred vessel that held the two tables of the Commandments, the Rod of Aaron, and the Manna from the desert—all of which were pre-figurements of the presence of God. This Ark was considered holy and only ordained priests could touch it (see 1 Chronicles). It was powerful and whenever Israel carried it in battle, they were victorious. Eventually, when the Temple was built, it was placed in the holiest place: The Holy of Holies.

But this was just a shadow, a foretaste of things to come. The Ark and what it contained was not God—just an image of His presence.

Eventually, this Ark disappears. And nobody knows where it went. Indiana Jones was looking for it. But nobody knows. Where did it go?

We see it in the Book of Revelation today and, in front of it, Mary. What does this mean? It means that Mary is the New Ark of the New Covenant. Whereas the Old Ark contained the objects of the Old and the foretaste of things to come, the image; the New Ark (that is, Mary) now contains the actual presence. She literally carried God, Jesus Christ, in her womb.

So, if the Old Ark was considered so holy and so powerful while only carrying the image of God, how much more so must the New Ark, Mary, be considered holy and powerful!

Scripture.

But, lest we forget how sin entered into the world: it was through Adam and Eve. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (15:20ff) writes how God in His perfection unties the sin of Adam by the victory of a New Adam, that is, Jesus. But God is perfect in His redeeming plan: so, whereas a man and a woman brought sin into the world, a man and a woman will bring redemption. So, not only must there be a New Adam, there must also be a New Eve. That’s Mary. She’s the woman in Revelation, she is the woman spoken about in Genesis 3:15 where she will crush the head of the serpent—the dragon we see in Revelation. This is why many statues of Mary have her crushing the serpent’s head with her foot. “He subjected everything under his feet.” There is no competition here: Mary and Jesus go together—and all the more so than did Adam and Eve.

This is why, in Scripture, it says that Mary’s “soul magnifies the Lord.” If we see Mary, we see God’s plan of love.

In Scripture, it continues, saying “From this day, all generations will call me [that is, Mary] blessed.” That word, “Blessed” means to be holy. It is the same word used in Matthew 5 to describe those in heaven.

Ok. That’s a lot. But this is very important. Mary is important because she helps us to see the heart of Jesus who loves His mother. And not only that, it helps us to see how the victory of His Cross really does conquer death in the here and now.

A woman cries out to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you…” To which Jesus replies, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” What is Jesus saying there? He is saying, “Yes, Mary is blessed—all generations will call her so—and so too are you. That is, you too will be blessed, you too will enjoy the victory of the Cross and the joys of heaven—if only you would receive the Word of God and observe it.”

Which is precisely what Mary did. She received the Word of God—the Word which is Jesus Christ—the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us, beginning in Mary’s womb. She received the Word and observed Him, all that He commanded—just as Mary had told us to do when, in Scripture she says, “Do everything He tells you.”

Yes, Mary is in heaven. She is in heaven because her son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, proved victorious over death by the Cross. She is in heaven because He loved her.

We celebrate that. And it gives us hope and a reminder—a reminder that is subtle and easily overlooked in the middle of August: that we were not made for death, but for heaven—if only we follow Him.

That’s why this random Tuesday is a Holy Day of Obligation. There will come a random day in our future—we know not when—when our Lord will call us from this earth. May today’s celebration give us hope and remind us and prepare us for that moment—that we may be ready, that we may enjoy the victory, that we may be with our Mother in heaven. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”



Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Upper Limits - Homily for the 19th Sunday in OT (A)

Have you ever tried to walk on water? When I was a boy, I went out back to the swimming pool and gave it a try. It didn’t work too well.

Of course, Peter walking on water is a miracle. To walk on water is outside the ordinary, natural course of our abilities. Jesus gives Peter a miraculous grace, something extraordinary, something above nature—supernatural—so that Peter can walk above the water. This is the reality of Jesus: He wants to raise us above what we ourselves consider to be our upper limits to our natural capacities. Jesus wants to take us beyond what we have gotten used to or think is our limits.

I had the pleasure of being able to go to Colorado for a few days with a couple of friends. One of them had never hiked in the rarified air there, where trails are above 12,000 feet. If you have ever had the joy of hiking in elevations that high, you know of the possibility of altitude sickness. That’s where a person starts to get a headache, or dizzy, or disoriented; sometimes even nauseous. It can be pretty miserable. Of course, people endure that possibility because the views at the tops of mountains are pretty phenomenal.

So my friends and I are hiking to a lake above 12,000 feet and my friend starts to get altitude sickness. Now, when this starts to happen, there are voices that start to talk to you in your head—like in the cartoons when you see a little red demon one shoulder and a little white angel on the other shoulder. The white angel whispers “Hey, it’s going to be alright. It’s just a little altitude. You’re gonna make it. You’re not going to die.” The little red demon, however, tries to get you to panic and give up. He says, “Oh my gosh! You’re going to die! Give up! You’re never going to make it!” and so on.

In this moment, my friend sits down on a rock and I can tell she is starting to listen to the discouraging voice. “This rock is fine. There’s a fine view here. You’re too sick, too tired. This is as good as it gets. This is your upper limit.”

I see this and I look at her and say with some seriousness: “My dear, get up. You’re going to make it.” (She would later tell me that she hated me in this moment). But we were only 200 feet from the top. And she was going to make it. She just had to trust—and pray. And believe.

Which is what we did. We started praying the Rosary during those last steps. My brother, an avid hiker in Colorado, once told me that he prays the Rosary when he is facing those hard inclines. Last time we hiked, he said, “Ant, the Rosary is always worth a solid 400 feet of elevation.” It’s true. So, there we are, on the side of the mountain, praying the Rosary. And my friend is thinking about Jesus and about Mary and she is receiving grace. One step at a time, we go beyond what she thought was possible.

And before we knew it, we made it to the top. As my friend saw the beautiful lake and the mountains surrounding it, she put her hands up to her face in astonishment: yes, this view is beautiful; so much better than that rock. And not only that—she began to weep with joy: she had made it. She didn’t think she could make it, but she made it. I got a little weepy, too. No one was ever going to take this away from her. And this memory would always be with her.

I thought about Peter: after he walked on water, no one was ever going to take that away from him. That memory would always be with him. And he would need that for the next time Jesus called him from beyond the comfortable boat of self-contentment—for the next time Jesus stretched him beyond what Peter thought was the upper limit of his capabilities.

Because that’s what’s going on here. I mean, when Peter is called from the boat, there must have been some trepidation: “Jesus, are you sure? I mean, you aren’t really serious, are you? No man has ever walked on water….” Yes, this is beyond Peter’s limits. And with that comes the fear of failure: “Lord, if I do this, I might fail. What then?”

This is where our Lord says to us, “Take courage! Be not afraid. It is I.”

And who is this? This is Jesus, whose name means “God saves.” Yes, when Peter fails, when Peter takes his gaze off of Jesus and Peter sinks, Jesus plunges His hands into the water and pulls Peter up. This is Jesus’ promise: “if you come out of the boat, even if you fail, I will pull you up. You must trust me.”

And yeah: we’re scared: we see the storm, the waves; we hear the wind—all of the things of the world that distract us and grab our attention away from Jesus—we know that our boat is tiny and the storm so big. And the mission to walk on water—it seems so impossible. Yes, it is beyond the upper limits of our abilities. But our Lord calls us anyway: “Take courage! Be not afraid! It is I.” He is going to give us grace to take us to places beyond our wildest imagination—beyond our upper limits.

From heaven, above the waters above us, He is going to plunge His hands into our existence. (You’ll notice the sky is blue; the Old Testament called it the waters above us). God is going to plunge His hand into our lives and pull us up out of “these waters” so that we may walk on “these waters”—that is, if we walk above these waters, we are in heaven.

You see, the red demon on our shoulder wants us to be content just sitting on that rock, thinking “this life—this life is as good as it gets.” And we do that with a lot of things. We look at that difficult relationship with our parents or siblings or co-workers and we say, “Well, that’s as good as it gets.” Or we think we have reached the upper limits of holiness or the upper limits of our ability to forgive—“that’s the best as I will get.” But no! Don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the “little whisper of God” from our first reading who tells us that He is going to raise us up to higher places.

He wants more for you. This is an even greater level of holiness that He will bring to you—a level, yes, that is beyond your natural capacity—but a level that is not beyond the power of His grace.

“Call me out of the boat!” Peter says. That’s our prayer. “Lord, call me out of my self-contentment. Call me out of my funk and my thoughts that this is as good as it gets. Call me out of my doubt and help me to believe. I want to walk on water, Lord! I want to reach those beautiful heights above these waters, Lord!”

When and where will God give this grace? The answer is found in the timing of the miracle. That is, note what happens before and after the walking on water. Before the miracle, Jesus fed the five-thousand with five loaves and two fish. After the miracle, Jesus taught the people that “the bread I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world.” In other words, in the storm, Jesus shows the apostles that the loaves and fishes are not enough to save them, but the Eucharist—the Eucharist is going to be that supernatural grace that will save them from drowning in the stormy waters of death. It is the Eucharist where the supernatural joins with the natural, the extraordinary with the ordinary, where our lives are lifted beyond what we think are the upper limits—and are indeed drawn upward by the divine hand into heaven.

Here, on this “mountain, the Lord of hosts” will provide for His people with the grace to save us and raise us up. Here, at this Holy Mass, Jesus calls us from the boats of fear and anxiety and self-contentment—He calls us to trust Him.

And when He stretches us and we do those things we never thought we could do, we will—like my friend on that mountain—weep tears of joy. And I’ll probably joyfully weep with you. Because it’s beautiful. And nobody will ever be able to take that from you.