Monday, February 1, 2021

Why I Am Not Vaccinated, Yet - My Two, Personal Reasons

* updated for greater clarity in the concluding paragraphs on 2/4 at 9pm


I am writing this article cognizant that there are some who are wondering whether to receive the Covid-19 shots. And I am cognizant, too, that there are many who have never even thought about not receiving the shot-- it's just a foregone conclusion that everyone is. Well... I'm not. Yet. And here's why.


1. Because Science

First, I'm a big fan of science. And it's weird that I have to tell you that, but I feel as though I do, since many, when they hear that a priest isn't taking a shot (yet), they simply chalk it up to the Church being deaf (and even persecuting) Science. Again. 

As an aside: regarding that narrative of Religion v. Science, I direct you to atheist Tim O'Neill who rightly notes:

I love to totally stump [those who say the Church is against Science] by asking them to present me with the name of one - just one - scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists - like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa - and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.

Long quote. But one of my favorites. I've digressed. Sorry.

Because I love science, I was curious as to how the new Covid shots would work. And I had time to do so, after all, since Covid had cancelled everything. 

And the long-and-short of it was that the delivery system of the new Covid shot was not in the way I had expected. Instead of using some kind of material from the Covid virus (as the measles vaccine uses material from the virus that causes measles, to take one example from many), the Covid shot uses a person's mRNA. Now, I'm not initially against that.

But even as recently as October 2019-- one year before Pfizer's Covid announcement-- the respected scientific journal, "Nature," described the technology as "emerging," and that, as of 2018, only one such therapy had been granted larger approval. The article ends with a good timeline that leads to some excitement about the possibilities ahead. And it ends on a note that lauds the accomplishments made in the past two decades-- but the note is one that alerts me to the importance of getting mRNA therapies right: "The biggest barrier to RNA therapy has long been delivering RNA to the correct place in the correct cell."

Because, you know, what if it goes to the wrong place in the wrong cell?

That is what clinical trials are for. And the clinical trials for the Covid shots have been proving successful thus far.

But, here's the thing: we have little information on possible long-term side effects. We have info on the short-term side-effects. But the technology is so new and, specifically, the Covid shot came out in "warp speed," that I have to pause and ask: did we get it right? and what happens if we didn't? and since, by the very fact that we have not had time pass to know what, if any, long-term side-effects may be, are we not taking... a risk?

I mean, I'm not thinking we're heading to an I Am Legend scenario (a dated movie reference?), but I do have to recognize that there is some unknown risk if only because the pharmaceutical companies are asking me to recognize risk when, before getting the shot, I am asked to sign a form giving my consent and acknowledging that I am participating in an ongoing scientific experiment and waiving any claim to hold them responsible for any "undesired outcomes."

So, here's the deal: we need to weigh risk.

If you are 65 years and older, you need to weigh the risk of becoming sick with the virus vs. the risk of taking the shot with its yet-unknown long-term side effects.

What does that weighing look like? 

If are 65 years old and over and you come down with the virus, there is a good risk of you developing some pretty bad symptoms that may become long-lasting (e.g. lung damage) and which could result in death. That's real stuff. I've had a couple of funerals because of that. 

Weigh that with any possible long-term and yet-unknown side-effects from the shot.

You may judge, therefore, that the risk of coming down with the virus is higher than the risk of getting the shot and its long-term side-effects. At which point, you could rightly sign that waiver form and be fine. Great. You can (and maybe even should) get the shot.

But for a late 30-year-old, the risks of the virus doing long-term damage or proving fatal are incredibly small. Some may say the long-term risks of the shot are equally small-- but they don't know. 

And if they are wrong and there are long-term side-effects, then that 30-year-old may have to live with those long-term side-effects for another 30, 40 years. That seems like a pretty big risk to prevent against what is a, for a healthy 30-year-old, small-risk virus. Could that 30-something be wrong? Sure. But what if he is right? I know of a least a couple of parents who quickly gave their teens the HPV shot first came out and long-term side-effects weren't well known. Those teens came down with long-term side-effects that they will be living with forever. That personal knowledge gives me pause.

So, from a scientific side of things and the weighing of risk, I as a healthy 30-something want to see more of the long-term effects before I consent.


2. Because Religion

I firmly believe the words of Jesus when He says, "Do not fear the one who can kill the body, but the one who can send the soul into the fires of hell" (Mark 10:28). So, even if there is a great good to benefit the health of the body, I must ask: "But is it good for my soul?"

There has been some talk about whether the Covid shots were developed by killing babies in the past year. The quick answer is: No, babies were not killed last year to roll out the Pfizer and Moderna Covid shots.

The long answer, however, is that in the 1970s, there were a few women who had "elective abortions"-- that is, they did not have a miscarriage, but they did actively chose to kill their babies-- and the babies' kidney cells were used to develop a cell line that would act as a kind of scientific control for research and testing. No fake news there-- Nebraska Medicine and others say as such.

Were the Pfizer and/or Moderna Covid shots developed from this cell line (known as HEK 293)? No. The AztraZeneca one, unfortunately, was.

Where Pfizer and Moderna muddied the waters is that they did use that line of cells from the aborted baby not in the developmental phase, but in the testing phase. Disappointing. That didn't have to be done. But they did.

As an aside, I find it unfortunate that, in an effort to avoid fear (and really, in a move that betrays the thought that the lay faithful are not very smart), I have seen some priests shy away from using such direct language as "cell lines from aborted babies" and instead use euphemistic language like "testing material gained from a deceased fetus." We can do better, priest brothers and bishops!

That said, can a serious Catholic take the Covid shot that was tested on cells that came from an aborted baby in the 1970s?

At face value, it would seem that, for those who believe the most-basic moral maxim that you "cannot do an evil so that good may result," then no. But Pope Francis has said-- and other bishops have said-- that you can. Are they just dismissing Catholic teaching? Or, is something else going on?

The clearest and most-efficient way I can put it is like this. You pay your taxes. Some of your taxes are funneled to support abortions at Planned Parenthood (and now, sadly, throughout the world because of President Biden's recent Executive Order, a.k.a, the Mexico City Policy). So, you pay your taxes and some of that money leads to the death of children and the destruction of women's (and men's) lives.

Are you guilty of that death and destruction? Well, provided that you aren't desiring the death of babies, then no, you are not guilty as an individual. When you go before Jesus at your judgment, Jesus isn't going to say, "You're going to hell because you paid your taxes." You gave to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, after all-- and you probably did so under protest.

This is what is theologically called "Remote Material Cooperation in Evil."

You did not desire to do the evil (killing babies), but you did give material (your taxes), but there were many other steps and many other people involved and in-between your giving of taxes and their killing of children (thus, you are remote and not near). Therefore, your culpability (that is, being guilty) is minimal and, if it was under protest or force, your culpability is not at all.

I like to think of this by using the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Let's say you give money to someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Kevin Bacon. And let's say you give that money knowing that someone, way down the line, may use that money for killing Kevin Bacon (even though you like Kevin Bacon). Are you guilty of killing Kevin Bacon? No. You are so far removed-- six degrees removed-- from it that you are no longer responsible for it.

But you would be responsible if you gave money to someone who then immediately turned and used that money to kill Kevin Bacon, because you would be proximate, near, a degree removed from the evil. And in such a case, you would be responsible. A clearer example: the Post Office delivery man who sorts mail heading to Planned Parenthood is in a much different place than the Planned Parenthood attendant who is in the room handing the so-called doctor (butcher) a knife. The mailman is far from the evil, whereas the attendant with the knife is quite close. And thus the varying degree of their responsibility for the evil done there. The Post Man is not at all responsible, whereas the attendant with the knife is. The attendant is what is called "proximate."

What I'm getting at is this: remote cooperation is allowed, whereas proximate cooperation is not.

Proximate cooperation in evil must always be avoided. 

Remote cooperation, if it can can be avoided, should be. But sometimes it can't be avoided (like with taxes).

What does this all mean?

Since we are dealing with a Covid shot that was tested on cell lines that were developed from a baby that was killed in the 1970s, we are dealing with a remote situation.

Practically speaking, therefore, a person can take the shot even though they know it is remote cooperation in evil. (So Pope Francis is correct).

But, the question de jour is: should they?

That depends on whether it can be avoided.

In the case of those 65 or so and older, taking the shot may be unavoidable. Like paying taxes (you are kinda forced to pay taxes). Or if the person is in a nursing home or in another area of high risk. For the sake of the high-risk community, the remote cooperation can be done.

But in the case of the 30-something, it would seem like it could be avoided. (After all, one doesn't have to cooperate in remote evil if they can help it.)

Which brings me to the "Yet" of my article's title.

Monsignor Pope's 10 Hard Truths about 2020.

As 2020 A.D. ended, Monsignor Pope, from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., wrote two fantastic articles that not only gave some chronicle of the events of the past year, but also gave ten "hard truths" that we have come to see with 20/20 hindsight. I post his two articles-- written on 31 December, 2020, and 13 January, 2021-- here as one, both for your edification and as a kind of journal entry for myself so that, in case I do not interiorize these lessons, I will be given a reminder.

from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/2020-vision
and: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/5-more-hard-truths

The year 2020 began with great hope and expectation. I distinctly remember welcoming in the new year just after the homily at our midnight Mass. Many remarked that because “20/20” is the term for perfect vision, the Lord would surely give us greater clarity and vision. We had no idea what we were saying!

Though I was in exceedingly poor health from January through mid-February, the year still began with great hope. The economy was roaring, unemployment was near zero, and the President’s State of the Union address brimmed with robust optimism. The annual pro-life march was invigorated by the first attendance of a sitting U.S. President. Although there was debate about immigration, border walls, Russian collusion, race, sex (the #MeToo movement) and whether the president was a hero or a demon, America seemed to be moving forward. Patriotism was strong, at least among conservative Americans.

As early as Jan. 9, though, there were reports of a mysterious viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The first case of COVID-19 reached our shores on Jan. 21. On Jan. 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency and by Feb. 2 the President had imposed restrictions on those traveling to the U.S. from China. Dire predictions of massive death tolls circulated throughout February (predictions which were later scaled back). By March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency and banned incoming travel from most of Europe.

Shutdowns and “stay-at-home” orders quickly followed in many states. The previously bustling economy screeched to a near halt with so many forced closures, and unemployment soared. Then, the unthinkable happened: Catholic priests were ordered to cease all public liturgies. Some bishops ordered churches locked, and a few even forbade the giving of sacraments under any circumstance. The crucial seasons of Lent and Easter were lost to the faithful. I cannot even begin to describe my dismay and shock at the cancellation of Mass. The year was off to an awful start, and it would only get worse with months of racial unrest and then a hotly contested election.

We need to remember the panic-stricken atmosphere in those early weeks of March, lest we be too severe in our judgments of those who had to make difficult decisions. But if 20/20 means perfect vision, we were certainly shown that we had hard lessons to learn and that we got a lot of things wrong. We were quick to entrust ourselves into the hands of professed experts, surrendering many of our rights as well as abandoning our religious duties and blessings.

Rather than merely chronicling what was surely the worst year in a long time, I would like to speak to some of the lessons we were taught. I propose to do this in two articles: this first one focuses on the social and political order while the next one will be on the responses in the Church.

 

Lesson 1: Fear can be coercive.

One of the most astonishing observations is the worldwide panic that has crippled us with fear. So intense is this fear that I cannot ascribe it simply to human means such as globalists or the media; it is surely demonic as well. Scripture attests to this:

Now since the children have flesh and blood, Christ too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Thus, Scripture teaches that the fear of death can hold us in bondage. Never before in most of our lifetimes has a fear of sickness and death so assailed us. Our parents, grandparents and other relatively recent ancestors went out daily into a world with far greater dangers than COVID-19. They faced smallpox, tuberculosis, polio and other life-altering and deadly illnesses. Despite this, they went to work every day, many in dangerous and/or unhealthy settings such as mines, mills and factories. They did not have antibiotics or many other of the medicines routinely available today. Yet they went forth. 

Today, the level of fear of a virus that kills less than one percent of its victims under the age of 65* is astounding to me. Media coverage explains part of it, but there is also something mysterious and demonic in the intensity of the fear. Because of it, many are all too willing to surrender freedoms to the heavy hand of the State.

The 20/20 vision granted us here is that fear can coerce us into accepting severe and even draconian measures to make us feel safe. We can argue endlessly about what preventive measures are needed and for how long. Prudent measures have their place, but never before in American history has there been such a lengthy and severe lockdown. We have had pandemics in the past, but we quarantined the sick and vulnerable, not the healthy and strong. 

Some 10 months into these severe measures, “cases” continue to rise; the goalposts keep moving, from a vague “flattening the curve” so as not to exceed hospital capacity, to now insisting on a COVID-free world before we can return to normal life (if even then). It is shocking to me that we have accepted for so long these severe measures in what was once called the land of the free and the home of the brave. Fear has us in its powerful grip, and I wonder, “When it will abate?”

In the Scriptures, God repeatedly commands the faithful not to be afraid. Notice, he commands this. He is not merely consoling the faithful. We are not to be afraid because he is near to deliver us. Perhaps this crushing fear is a result of widespread secularism and an absence of God in the hearts and minds of many. Whatever its full cause, it has made us vulnerable to manipulation. Life is important, but so is liberty. As Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

 

Lesson 2: Other things and other people matter, too.

The COVID-19 crisis has an almost exclusive preoccupation with those who might get seriously ill or die from the virus. I am one of those predisposed to suffer serious illness from COVID-19 due to lifelong pulmonary weakness. Yes, my life and the lives of other vulnerable people matter, but so do the lives of millions who have been deprived of their livelihoods, schooling, sports, recreation, numerous life events and rites of passage, and even the ability to comfort dear friends and relatives during their final days. 

Many small business owners have lost everything they’ve worked for their entire lives. We are perfectly willing to see enormous economic and social costs borne by others, especially lower-wage workers who cannot “virtually” sweep floors or assemble products. 

Further, there is evidence that depression, addiction, domestic tension, and suicide have all increased. How do we regard their suffering? The metrics are less clear than the 300,000+ dead (from/with COVID-19). But clearly, tens of millions of Americans have seen their lives limited in significant and often devastating ways. I can only speak for myself, but as one of the “vulnerable” (who spent more than 11 days in the ICU with COVID-19), I can say that I am responsible for my health and I do not ask to be protected at such a high social and personal cost to my fellow Americans.

How do we balance all these competing interests? In the past, we quarantined the sick and vulnerable. Never before have we shut down the entire nation to protect a much smaller number. The balance is off; simply accusing people who raise this of not caring that people die is neither constructive nor true. All lives matter and the effects on everyone during this time of pandemic must be considered. We need better 20/20 vision.

 

Lesson 3: The ability to dissent is rapidly disappearing.

One of the most serious issues in terms of its widespread effect is the suppression of alternate views to the State and media narratives. Our 20/20 vision has supplied us with clear evidence that free speech is dying in our country. This has been widely noted on college campuses, but more recently we have seen it on the large social media platforms that ban or suppress voices not in agreement with mainstream media narrative. 

Posting any COVID-related information that does not agree with what media-approved experts assert could get one’s account shut down, or at the very least slapped with a warning label. The rather obvious suggestion that rioting, burning and looting were not good or appropriate responses to racial injustice, could result in similar measures. The media, along with social media platforms, exercise great power in what they report or do not report and in what posts they allow or actively suppress. 

The increasing suppression of writing and speech not in conformity with a particular narrative is a disturbing trend indeed. Vigorous debate about ideas has been the hallmark of the American scene. Free speech was once a pillar of liberalism, but this has radically changed. Dissenting views are now regarded by the left not merely as “wrong,” but as dangerous, necessitating their suppression so as not to “hurt” others. There is a growing range of views that are labeled hateful, “phobic,” “violent” or intolerant. Unfortunately, this trend only appears to be getting worse. With 20/20 vision this matter has become shockingly clear.

 

Lesson 4: Those who question are demonized.

There is always the temptation to dismiss one’s opponent on simply personal terms rather than via logical argumentation. Many are quick to label someone a bigot, racist, xenophobe, homophobe or religious zealot if he has a different point of view.

Regarding COVID-19, some have questioned if the numbers of those who have died are accurate; others point to the low death rate for those under 65; still others question if the shutdown “cure” is worse than the disease. Such questioners are very often simply dismissed as reckless or heartless, not caring that more than 300,000 have died. They are demonized as selfish and unconcerned with the welfare of their neighbor. There is return fire, too, wherein those who support mandates and shutdowns are described as brainwashed sheep or fearmongers.

The racial strife in our land during 2020 has similar parameters. One side is caricatured as filled with racist white supremacists guilty of using their white privilege to profit from systemic racism. The other side is vilified as obsessed with perpetual victimhood.

Somewhere we have lost the ability to have a real argument. Relativism and subjectivism have rendered everything personal; the objective truth is dismissed as non-existent. The year 2020 has brought this problem into clearer 20/20 focus.

 

Lesson 5: Respect for authority is plummeting.

In 2020, the government, journalists and scientists have all lost credibility to a significant degree among Americans. The unrelenting attacks on the current president from the media and the tone of press conferences has given 20/20 clarity to heavy bias in most media coverage. This has been a long trend, but in the past few years all pretense of fairness or commitment to reporting all the facts has been cast aside.

The politicization of everything, from science to sports, has not only divided us further but has made people cynical of everything they read or hear. Scientific experts have too easily been coopted to announce facts rather than to discover them. Calls to “follow the science” are met with deserved derision by many Americans who long ago realized that science has become highly politicized and is only to be followed when it serves desired views. It is a sad thing to behold — science should be stubbornly concerned with the facts and data, wherever they lead. This is seldom the case today, at least in the world of media reporting on science.

All of this has tended to undermine the respect Americans once had for science, government, and journalism. Add to this the fact that many do not believe the reported results of the November election. There is a broad cynicism that everything is agenda driven, and this has replaced respect and trust for leaders of all kinds.

This, too, is bad for our culture and has led to a situation in which many live in echo chambers in which everyone in our side is of a single mind and we all presume that the other side is lying to us. Whom can we trust? Even in the Church, Catholics have lost faith that the clergy is honestly sharing the truth with them.

There are so many other things I could mention but suffice it to say that we are in a dark and deeply divided place as a nation, and 2020 has brought this into 20/20 focus. In my second installment I would like to look at the Church’s response and see if we can find some 20/20 focus there as well. +++


In the first part of this reflection we reviewed the painful year of 2020, focusing on the social and political ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. This installment examines the Church’s response to the situation. Sadly, we didn’t handle things well, but I am hopeful that we have learned some valuable lessons. I am sympathetic to the fact that the initial reports on the potential impact of COVID-19 were dire. Nevertheless, given that hindsight is “20/20,” let’s look back at and examine the mistakes we made so that we can avoid them in the future.

First, we should not have completely suspended public Masses. While it may have been necessary in some (or maybe even many) cases, it was not necessary in every case. Even at the height of the pandemic shutdowns, meetings of 10 or fewer were still allowed in most areas. Early on, several dioceses completely suspended public Masses even though their governor still permitted gatherings of up to 250 people; others did so when 50 were still permitted by the governor.

Why was this done? If only 10 were permitted, then we should have celebrated Masses for 10 people, especially the most devout daily Mass attendees. Why close down entirely? Even when there were “stay-at-home” orders, a visit to a church or house of worship was still permitted in most regions. Why insist upon suspending all public celebrations of the Mass? We could have observed civil mandates while still celebrating Mass for some small number. Did some bishops think that parishes could not manage to adhere to the smaller numbers?

Even more egregiously, some pastors were instructed to lock their church entrances, barring the public from entering even for private prayer. Some bishops directed that Holy Communion and confession were not to be extended to anyone under any circumstances. This went far beyond what civil mandates required.

In my own diocese, thankfully, we were encouraged to keep our churches open for prayer, hear confessions, and hold Eucharistic Adoration, provided we did not exceed the mandated attendance limit. We had adoration every day and never exceeded the number. If there were too many people, some would wait outside until others left. When I celebrated my “private” Mass, I had three seminarians serving (all of whom resided in the rectory) and several religious sisters from our convent attended; all of them were “permitted” to receive Holy Communion. When several lay persons would quietly slip in, I would offer them Communion as well.

In all that time, we never exceeded the attendance limits set by the civil authorities or disregarded any of their policies. Ten to 15 people in a church that seats 700 is hardly a crowd!

Why were many dioceses stricter than even the secular leaders required? Was it fear of the virus? Was it fear of litigation? If shutdowns are imposed, we ought to be no stricter than is required by the secular leaders! If necessary, we should fight for our religious liberty to safely assemble, as some have already done.

Second, we were not as creative as we should have been in extending the sacraments to people outside of Masses and liturgies. Even if we had to limit the number of people inside our churches, why did we not try to get Holy Communion to people in other ways? The practice of giving Holy Communion outside of Mass is discouraged except for a serious reason. Well, a worldwide pandemic certainly seems like a pretty serious reason! Some priests tried such innovative solutions as parking lot Masses and drive-by Communion or confession. Others (like me) waited in the church on Sundays and then distributed Holy Communion to any of the individuals praying privately who requested it. It wasn’t hard, and again, we never disobeyed any of the rules put in place by civil authorities. Why were so many priests discouraged or forbidden from trying such solutions?

In my diocese, we were permitted to hear confessions provided that the screen was covered with a cloth, masks were worn, hand sanitizer was provided and the confessionals were regularly sanitized. In some dioceses, however, confessions were either outright forbidden or were required to be held maintaining a six-foot distance and out in the open, violating to some extent the right of the faithful to anonymity.

Were such things really necessary? Why did we restrict ourselves beyond what was required? We must learn through our 20/20 hindsight to do everything we can in the future to keep the sacraments available to God’s people, even if we cannot assemble in large numbers.

Third, we have overemphasized livestreamed and recorded Masses. Virtual is not real. Much has been made of the explosion of online connections that priests and parishes have made as a result of shutdowns and social distancing mandates. There is an aspect of this that is good: some meetings, Bible studies and classes can work well online. However, many have grown weary of endless online meetings and miss the community-building that comes from physical human interaction.

The word “virtual” means “sort of like, but not really.” For example, to say, “He went virtually crazy when he heard the news,” is to say that he was not actually crazy but kind of crazy. There is a place for livestreamed or recorded Masses, but they are no substitute for being physically present at Mass. You cannot receive Holy Communion online, or confess online, or have true fellowship online. You must actually be there; virtual doesn’t cut it.

There was also much talk about people making spiritual communion. This, too, has its place, but it is not a concept that should be emphasized when one can reasonably receive Holy Communion physically. There were even some Catholics who scolded others for having “spiritual gluttony” when they were rightly saddened at being denied the sacraments. They were told that they should be satisfied with livestreamed Masses and spiritual communion.

We have traditionally provided a televised Mass for the homebound, but as the pandemic restrictions are removed, we ought to discontinue all but one diocesan-sponsored Mass for shut-ins. Too many people have been heard to say that they prefer televised Mass because it’s so convenient to be able to stay home in their pajamas. This is wrong; they must attend Mass to actually receive sacraments. Our 20/20 vision must lead us to reasserting that virtual is neither the same nor as good as real.

Fourth, we squandered a crucial teaching moment. One of the great problems of the modern age is that many see no meaning to suffering and death. So meaningless does suffering seem to the modern world that euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide are proposed in order to alleviate it.

But as a Church, we were too fearful that the world would criticize us by saying, “You don’t care that people are dying.” Of course, that is not true — it is precisely because we do care that we try to give meaning and purpose to the suffering and death that inevitably come to all of us. In fact, our scriptural traditions teach us that suffering and ultimately death are among the most meaningful events of our lives! The fullness of our life is not here — it is in Heaven. On the subject of suffering, St. Paul said:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

If we are faithful, the day we die is the greatest and happiest day of our life because we leave this sometimes-insane world and go home to meet God in Heaven, where things make sense.

I remember lying in the Intensive Care Unit the first days of my COVID illness pondering the fact that I might well die. On 100% heavy oxygen and still struggling to overcome respiratory failure, I certainly had a natural fear of death, but I rested in the words of St. Paul, who said:

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. So what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed. But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and will continue with all of you…” (Philippians 1:21-26).

I do not know what those who have no faith think about death, but do I know this: We must give them our vision that death is not the end, that our entire life in this world is an invitation to go higher and seek that which is above, not below (cf Colossians 3:1). God is offering something better, something higher. Death (as well as the suffering that points to it) is not the worst thing. This world is not our lasting home. Our goal is to be with God in Heaven. Suffering or dying from COVID-19 is not our greatest threat — dying in mortal sin is.

This leads to the final observation in this reflection.

Fifth, we conveyed the idea that the physical body is more important than the soul. By canceling Mass and denying Holy Communion and confession for such an extended period, we seemed to send the message that our bodies are more important than our souls. While it may have been reasonable to suspend large gatherings, we did not try hard enough to provide access to the sacraments in other ways.

The unprecedented shutdowns and mask mandates, the intrusive interviews and the disclosures from government health departments about COVID-19 patients demonstrated an intense focus on the possible threat to human life and wellbeing. Whatever your views on these matters and the degree to which they were necessary, they surely manifest an intense focus on the bodily threat of COVID-19. Would that people everywhere had such focus on the disease of sin and the deadly and eternal effects of mortal sin! Imagine if people were willing to take drastic measures to prevent the spread of sin and the giving of scandal. An old song from the 1950s has this line: “Everybody’s worried about that atom bomb, but no one seems worried about the day my Lord will come.”

It is a grave concern to me as a pastor that a significant number of people got the message that the sacraments are not that essential. As the thinking goes, you might have to risk your health to go buy food or liquor or to engage in a protest, but receiving the sacraments is not important enough to risk getting sick. Never mind that there are few reported incidents of Catholics contracting COVID-19 at Mass.

To date, only one-third of those who were attending Mass before March 2020 have returned to Mass and the sacraments. If the plague were to end tomorrow, I am doubtful that 100% would suddenly return. Many got the message loud and clear: Sacraments just aren’t that important. Of course, the problem is that sacraments are essential, and that is why the Lord gave them to us. They are food and medicine for our souls! “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

We are going to have to work very hard to undo the message many received and summon them back to the sacraments with a sense of both joy and alarm, with encouragement and warning.

So here are five lessons we were taught by 2020 and which we learned via “20/20” hindsight. The uniting factor of too many of these is that we as a Church weren’t there for God’s people when they needed us. We had little to say other than to refer them to the media and the folks wearing white lab coats. While we did significant virtual outreach, for too many, finding the church door locked and the rectory shuttered was a real countersign.

There are many wonderful exceptions to this: priests and parishes that were creative, that were out and about in the community with Rosary and Eucharistic processions, that celebrated outdoor Masses, and so forth. But too many of us were hunkered down, giving the impression that the Church doesn’t really have much to offer during a crisis and isn’t all that relevant.

May we never allow this to happen again! We are, by the gospel of Jesus Christ, the keeper of meaning, the giver of hope and the herald of courage. We should have been a shining light, but at least collectively, I fear we were hidden under a bushel basket. We waited to hear what the experts would tell us and sometimes begged the local authorities to allow us to reopen and to deem us “essential.”

Afterword: As the pandemic restrictions begin to lift, does your parish have an evangelization plan that is more than “Let’s hope they come back?” We’re going to have to do better than that if we ever hope to rebuild our devastated numbers. People need Jesus. They need the medicine of the sacraments and the formation of the Holy Liturgy. What are you and your parish ready to do to rebuild God’s flock? In my next article I will share a plan that my parish has used in the past and intend to use in the spring, and which I hope will benefit yours as well.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Immersion - Homily for the Baptism of the Lord (2021)

Last year, I had the blessing to go to Israel and the Holy Land and to visit the place where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan River is reached by driving along a desert flat, pock-marked by years of bombs in war. When I arrived at the Jordan, I was expecting a large, crystal blue river. Instead, among the scattered palm trees, I saw what us Midwestern folk would describe as a creek or a stream. And it wasn't crystal blue as I had imagined it would be. Rather, it was milky tan with desert sand. If you were to put your hand into the river, you would quickly be unable to see it. I understood why Naaman, the Syrian, would have balked about being washed in the Jordan's waters as a cure to his leprosy (see 2 Kings 5). And yet, this is the place-- a very humble place, indeed!-- where Jesus inaugurated His saving mission by highlighting and entering into Baptism.

Typically, when we think of Baptism, we think of water being poured over the head. But the word, "Baptism," comes from the Greek and it literally means "to be immersed." Which means that, when Jesus was baptized, it wasn't that John the Baptist simply poured water over Jesus' head; rather, Jesus was plunged fully under the waters of the Jordan. Immersed.

As I stood along the banks of the Jordan, I realized something quite important. Imagine it for a moment: Jesus enters into the Jordan waters. The waters are up to His waist. And they are milky and muddy. You can't see Jesus' lower half. And then, imagine Jesus being fully immersed in the Jordan, its waters totally covering His head. From an onlookers' perspective, all we would see is John reaching into the water; Jesus would have totally disappeared under the waters. Even from John's perspective, Jesus would have been totally buried under the water.

Had Jesus stayed there, He would have drowned. But John lifts Jesus from the waters. It is a movement-- from immersion to emersion-- to emerge, to be brought out. Jesus is brought out of the waters. And He is covered in the milky water, like a newborn brought from the womb, brought into new life. And in this moment, we see the Holy Trinity: Jesus emerging from the water, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice of the Father speaking, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased [in whom I delight]."

In this moment of Baptism, Jesus was brought out of death and into life. He was immersed into water and, then, as He was brought out of the water, He was immersed into the new waters of the Father's love.

What does this mean for us?

When you were baptized, whether you were immersed or sprinkled-- when you were baptized, you were immersed into Jesus Christ, such that, the Father, when He looks upon you, sees not only you, but His Son. The Father's words, then, are not only for Jesus. They are also for you. The heavenly Father says to you: "You are my beloved child in whom I delight!" Let me repeat that-- and let it sink deep into your soul: "You are my beloved child in whom I delight!"

So often, we can be immersed in so many other things in life. Our own pursuits; our own thoughts; even our own lies about who we are. And today Jesus and the Father reveal who you really are deep down: "You are my beloved child." And, more: "I delight in you."

That is to say: your identity and value are not defined by what you do or what you have or have not accomplished, nor even by your sins. The heavenly Father defines who you are. And you are a delight to Him. You are His beloved child.

Admittedly, I easily forget this, for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes (and I'm probably not the only one here)-- sometimes it is easy to doubt this. I mean, Lord, how can you love someone who has done bad things?

In those moments of darkness and doubt, whether we intend to or not, we call into question the Father's words. "I don't believe you, Lord. I don't believe what you say about me. I don't trust you."

That's what our actions say when we seek other avenues of our self-worth, whether in possessions, popularity, worldly aspirations and definitions of physical beauty, and so on. "Lord, I don't trust what you say about who I am."

How does Jesus respond to this?

He says, long after this moment with John-- Jesus says, "There is a baptism with which I must be baptized. And how I am in agony until it is accomplished!" (Luke 12:50). 

But, wait. Jesus had just been baptized, so what is He talking about when He says there is a baptism that He still desires? 

When Jesus says, "There is a baptism [immersion into] which I must be [immersed]," He is talking about His crucifixion and His death.

Why does He say this? And why is He in agony about something so painful?

Because it is going to be the very proof of God's love for you. He is in agony until the moment when He can give you definitive proof of that Father's love-- and how you can really trust Him.

Let me explain that.

In the first baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is baptized in water. In the second baptism on the Cross, Jesus is baptized in blood. 

In the first, the muddy waters cover Jesus as a burial in death. In the second, Jesus died and is literally buried and covered by the earth.

In the first, John lifts Jesus out of the milky waters into the Father's love. In the second, the Father Himself lifts Jesus from the tomb into the glory of Everlasting Life.

In short, when Jesus is immersed into death, the Father's love for Him is so great that the Father will not leave Jesus in death, but will immerse Him in the newness of eternal glory and joy and life. This is because Jesus is the Father's beloved Son in whom He delights. And what Father would leave His Son in death if He had the power to save Him?

The Resurrection proves that the Father is a Father who actually loves His Son-- not simply in word but in deed.

And if the Father has so loved His Son, then will He not also love you-- you who are truly His beloved child? Love you-- such that, no matter what you are immersed in-- even death itself-- our heavenly Father can pull you out, resurrect you to eternal life.

And that you may believe this and live always in this, there is a final baptism-- a final immersion that our Lord gives you. And it is seen in the dove (the same dove that hovered over the waters at Creation and the same dove that held the olive branch during the time of Noah and the Flood). That final baptism, the final immersion, is the immersion into the Holy Spirit. It is from the Holy Spirit that we cry, "Abba! Father!" And we say that, crying out from our soul, precisely because we are His children.

This is so very important today, because there are so many people whose souls are crying out-- and who believe that there is no one to hear them. So many souls cry out and their parents don't hear, or their teachers don't hear, or their pastors or their political leaders-- so many cry out and do not believe, even, that God Himself hears. Or, if He does, that He does nothing about it-- which may be worse than not hearing at all!

But, brothers and sisters, Our Father hears you. And He tends to your soul. Because you are His child. And He does love you. And as proof of this, He brought out of the grave His other beloved child, Jesus-- proof to you and to all the world, that no matter what you are immersed in, if you cry our to our Lord, He will hear you and pull you out and immerse you in His love.

So, go ahead, dear soul. Draw near to our heavenly Father. Cry into his breast. Let Him comfort you. Let Him immerse you in His almighty and merciful love. Let Him fill you with His Holy Spirit. Let Him call you His beloved Child. And as you find your feet again, let Him fill you with His wisdom: I give to you Jesus, the Rock, your stronghold. Listen to Him.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit and from the miry clay. He set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm. And He put a new song in my mouth. [Psalm 40] 

 



Monday, December 28, 2020

A Dignified Gift, a Great Mystery! - Extended Homily Notes on the Feast of the Holy Family (2020)

This morning, our heavenly Father bestows to us the gift of the Holy Family: the fact that Jesus came, not as an isolated being, but as one born into the ordinariness and even messiness of the human family. 

If there has been a word that has received much reflection during these days of pandemic, it has been “family.” Over the past months, we have experienced the good and the bad. On the one hand, we have had our kids and our spouses home more often and we have rediscovered the beauty of home again. On the other hand, we have also experienced the sadness of not being with family—like at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And some have even had “too much” of family, feeling “cooped up” or “trapped.” So are saying “get me out of here!” 

Perhaps this Feast Day of the Holy Family happens at an opportune moment as we reach, what we hope is, a turning point in these days. 

Many years ago, in 1917, Our Lady of Fatima appeared to three shepherd children. In these miraculous, popular, and approved apparitions, Mary, as you remember, called the world to repentance and prayer—especially the Rosary. (The “O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell” prayer at the end of every decade of the Rosary comes from these apparitions). 

Mary also told a most important prophecy: that Satan would wage his fiercest attacks in the years ahead—attacks specifically meant to destroy the family. The Family, Mary foretold, would be under severe attack. 

Now, I will leave you to judge whether Mary’s prophecy has come true. 

In order to judge the validity of her prophecy, let’s take a very brief tour of the past one-hundred years and the family. 

Since Fatima, we have seen several generations affected by war: World War I, and II, and Korea, and the Cold War, and Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War, and Afghanistan, and a hundred other conflicts in-between. And in each battle, many—literally, millions—of men and women died in battle. Many children lost a parent in these wars. Additionally, those men and women who did return home would return home, in many cases, broken: with PTSD or alcoholism or other trauma that would impact their spouses and their children and their home life. 

Since Fatima, we have seen a dramatic rise in contraceptive use and in sterilization which (and this is factual, social science speaking here)—these have opened the door to loss of communication between spouses, feelings of being used, infidelity, the sex-slave trade (most grievously in the East where certain governments’ one-child rule has been devastating and in the West where pornography has run without any scruple). 

It’s almost embarrassing to have to note the dramatic rise of divorce and so-called “no fault” divorce in these years and how “broken families” and “one-parent families” are much more the norm. We have a couple generations of children who have grown up without a parent. 

Concurrent with this, we had Catholic Schools (and perhaps they did too good of a job in the early 20th century) where parents relied almost exclusively on the school to teach the faith and the prayers and the scriptures and to give the kids the Sacraments. As a result, religion became something that you simply did at school—pray at school, go to Mass at school—but something that ended or wasn’t exactly present or lived at home. I mean, how many parents not only take their children to Sunday Mass—but how many parents bring their children to the Sacrament of Mercy which is Confession? Perhaps this is how the faith became so compartmentalized in the 1980s. 

Also during the 1980s, there was a flatting of the faith into a simple mantra of “Jesus loves you” but with little explanation about who He is, about what He demands, and about what He does in the Sacraments. Indeed, the Sacraments became what we do—like Confirmation: I confirm my faith—instead of what God is doing. The result was that when couples came to be married in the Catholic Church (which is a rarer event these days), they would came because they loved each other, yes, but when pressed about why, specifically, they wanted to get married in the Catholic Church, they could not find any reason but it was a family tradition or it “wouldn’t feel right” or it’s “just something that you do.” I have rarely heard a couple say, “We believe that God miraculously forges us into an unbreakable union here” or, more simply, “We need the Sacrament.” 

It is no surprise to me, given the lack of an approach of intellectual rigor and integration, that when many of our Catholic students go off to college and are faced with the winds of secularism, doubt, and sophisticated intellectual arguments against the faith, the house of their faith—a house built on sand, really—so easily collapses. 

And, given the state of family and fatherhood and motherhood and marriages, when those arguments concern the definition of marriage, masculinity, femininity, and so on, it is no surprise to me that confusion emerges along with frustration for what seem to be antiquated social constructs. 

Was Mary’s prophecy true? … 

Please know that I do not intend to make you feel condemned in any way if any of these relate to your story. Jesus, after all, came not to the clean places of humanity—He came with His Mercy into the mess. 

And the things that I have told you this morning—they aren’t just simply theories to me. I have related to you my own story. So much what I have told you about this morning actually happened to me: I come from a family who lived through the wars, where alcoholism and its dysfunction and unhealthiness ran rampant; I grew up not knowing my faith, where religion was mere routine and not relational nor reasonable; my parents divorced and there was the trauma that surrounded it. 

You may wonder how Father Gerber became Father Gerber. Quite simply: my mom gave me and my siblings and the family to the care of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. 

This was The Pivotal moment in the Gerber family. When crisis hit, my mom started to pray—really pray. She opened up the Scriptures (which had been just decoration at our house). She went on a retreat with the women’s group at church. It was the rubber-meets-the-road moment where faith either grows or dies. 

I cannot emphasize this enough. Her “yes” was the pivotal moment when us kids started to change. Mom had said to Mary: “Mary, these are your kids. Be the mother that I cannot be for them.” And she turned to St. Joseph—“And you be the father that my husband cannot be for them.” 

This act of entrusting her family to The Holy Family began a slow, but real transformation in our family. And while it did not save her marriage, it put us kids on the road to healing, to healing and counseling, to a rediscovery of our faith, to practicing the faith again, and to reconciliation among family members. 

I am convinced that when mom placed Jesus into our family, our family’s direction was forever changed. We started to realize the reason for our family, its meaning, its essence—we had a source of mercy and charity and joy. We had a stable ground and a meaningful direction again. Our dignity as a family began to be realized. 

I tell you all of this because, so often, people think that us priests just descended from Mars or are robots or aloof to the great, great difficulties that you experience in your family life. And I just want to let you know that we are with you—the Church is with you—and we believe in you and support you! 

During the Year of the Family, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote a famous Letter to Families. He wrote in his typical, mystical style, but his point was clear: and that is that Jesus came to heal our families and help us see the great dignity of the family—precisely by having entered into family. 

The Pope noted that we often do not see the dignity of the family nor the high bar of its mission precisely because the bar has been lowered so drastically over the years. 

If you would indulge me for just a few more minutes—I think this is so important, brothers and sisters!—I want to tell you how important you are and how high your dignity really is. 

First, John Paul II said in his letter that you are “The first school of humanity.” 

If we think civilization has lost its humanity and needs humanizing, see in your family a great mission. In the family home, great virtues and habits can be learned. A healthy mentality can be developed. How important it is for a child, when it skins its knee when it is young or when it does something stupid as a teen (and we all did!)—how important it is for the child to find in his or her parents a listening ear. Not simply an ear that echoes the anger or the sadness—“just listen to me mom, dad”—but a heart that embraces and says, “I am with you” and “we’ll get through this together.” When a hurt child is embraced and listened to, not only is the skinned knee healed, but the heart is strengthened and given a greater confidence—a confidence that is so needed: namely: the be able, when we become adults, to look up at the heavenly Father, and, when we are in pain, to believe that He will come to our aid and embrace us. Oh to have such confidence in the heavenly father! This starts at home! 

John Paul also said that you are the “First school of prayer.” We often pray with our children at bedtime when they are little and sometimes over meals. But that can so easily disappear! They learn that prayer is “just for little kids.” Or, in more devout families, attempts are made at saying the family Rosary, but impatience fills the air when kids run around the room. Parents: say the Rosary anyway and let the kids run around the room. Have an open spirit in your home that allows playtime to exist with prayer—who equates play and prayer? We should! Because then we would develop a sense at how close prayer and joy are! So, pray the Rosary—and your perseverance will slowly bring those satellites into your orbit. 

Most of all, spouses should pray together. Not simply with the kids or for the kids—open your hearts to God with each other. This is one of the most intimate acts you can offer to your spouse, and your spouse to you. To become true soul-mates! 

Other titles that the Holy Father gave to your family: He said you are the “first and principle teachers of the faith”—not the Catholic School. And you, not the parish, are “the domestic church.” 

In sum, Pope John Paul II said that you are “the fundamental building block of civilization.” Which means that, how your marriage goes, so goes the family. And how your family goes, so goes the community. And how the community goes, goes the culture and the country and our civilization—and, really, our church. For you are the “domestic church” and the “fundamental building block of civilization.” 

What a high dignity you have! And such an impressive mission! 

And, in all of this, you are not by yourself. You don’t have to do this alone. You can’t do it alone or on your own strength. 

You needed and still need the Sacrament of Marriage—call upon those graces! 

And entrust your family to the care of Jesus, Mary, Joseph. 

Pope Francis has, in a most special way, called for this next year to be a Year of Saint Joseph. This is so providential, for it was Saint Joseph that protected the Holy Family. 

Indeed, I believe that—far from being an aloof or silent father—he was a good and strong man; a man that cherished Mary; a man who had earned her trust; a man that was open to God’s will; a man that did good work at his job and who had Jesus at the center of it; a man who protected his family and who said Yes to his family and his marriage precisely by saying Yes to Jesus as the focus and meaning of his family. 

Joseph helps us to rediscover the Love Story that was and still is at the heart of every marriage and family. And I believe that, as Pope Francis lifts Joseph up for our consideration this year, perhaps we can be like my mom who gave her kids to Mary and to Joseph. 

Joseph, be the husband and father I so struggle to be! Joseph, I entrust you with my family. Saint Joseph, help us to be open to Jesus in my family. So that we may grow not only in holiness, but also in healthiness, and in our humanity, and in our prayer, and in Jesus’ joy and peace and mercy! 

I pray this for you. And I ask you to join me in praying this for you and for all of our families. We know that many of them are not here, that they are struggling. And they need someone to lift them up to Jesus, too. So we do that now. 

Holy Family, we give you our family. Be our healing and our health and our peace! Amen!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Jubilee - Homily for the 3rd (Gaudete) Sunday in Advent (2020)

In ancient Jewish practice, there was something called the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee would take place every 49 years and during that year anyone who was in debt would be forgiven of that debt; slaves would be let free; if your family had lost its heritage, your homeland would be returned to you; and fields would be at rest. The reason for the number 49 is the connection to the seventh day of creation—that is, the Sabbath, the Day of Rest—multiplied by seven (7x7=49). In other words, this Jubilee Year is the Sabbath of Sabbaths; the Rest of Rest; the Peace of Peace; the Joy of Joys. 

It is the Jubilee Year that Isaiah proclaims this morning when he says: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me”—Isaiah then announces the Year of Jubilee: “he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.” 

Over time, the practice of the Jubilee Year disappeared. It became a sort of sentimental relic of the past (“… ahh, the old days…”) or a impossible ideal only attainable by the trumpet blast announcing heaven and its Eternal Rest and Joy. 

Several centuries later, however, when Jesus begins His public ministry—that is, after the Spirit of the Lord comes upon Him when He is baptized by John; and after Jesus’ battle with the devil in the desert—Jesus goes to His hometown in Nazareth. There, at Nazareth, He enters the synagogue and begins to teach them by reading from a scroll. 

The passage that He reads—of all of the passages Jesus could have chosen—the one that He reads is this: 

The spirit of the Lord is upon me…. He has sent me to bring glad tidings… [and] to announce a year of favor from the LORD. 

Jesus was announcing the Year of Jubilee. But the people of Nazareth would have received those words simply with the sentimental, “remember those days?” sort of way. They don’t believe Jesus is actually announcing an actual Year of Jubilee. 

But then Jesus shocks them by saying, 

These words are fulfilled in your hearing. 

In other words, yes: Jesus is announcing the Jubilee Year—not a sentimental past, nor an idealized future heaven. But, now. Now is the Year of Jubilee. And not simply a paying of monetary debts, but the paying of more expensive debts (“the wages of sin”) by giving mercy and forgiveness; nor the release from iron chains, but from that worse slavery which is to the devil and to death. Jesus literally comes to bring freedom and rest and joy 

                        I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly. 

It is fitting that Jesus began the annunciation of the Jubilee Year in His hometown, Nazareth (“what good can come from Nazareth?”). And you would think that the people there would have been overjoyed. 

Instead, they grumble, saying: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph, the carpenter?” 

(Good job, Nazareth, keeping the stereotype alive!)

Jesus responds by telling them about the many times that God healed foreigners (like the leper, Naaman, the Syrian) but did not heal the children of Israel—for the children of Israel did not believe. In fact, they persecuted the prophets (“no prophet is accepted in his native place”). 

Jesus is telling his own people of Nazareth that not only are they just like all of the other towns of the past, and not only is He is in the line of prophets, but also that the true joy of the Jubilee Year will not be theirs (it will only be a sentimental relic or an impossible ideal) precisely because of their hardness of heart. 

John the Baptist had said, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths.” Why? Because the Lord, Jesus, was bringing the Jubilee Year. He was bringing great gifts of freedom and mercy and joy. This preparation required not only repentance, but it also meant “making straight” (from the word "ortho" to make straight-- from which we get the word orthodoxy (straight teaching))—and thus having an openness of heart where God could quickly enter. Not by winding roads, but straight to the heart!

The people of Nazareth were slow. And unrepentant. They did not heed John. And, as a result, on hearing Jesus’ words—words of freedom and joy, mind you!—they violently lay hands on Jesus and bring Him to the brow of the hill to throw Him over the cliff. He escapes, but it will be the last time He is there. 

As a contrast to the people of Nazareth, the readings offer us a reflection on Mary’s heart. Mary is the one spoken of in the second half of Isaiah’s reading. There, it says: 

I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice… like a bride bedecked with her jewels. 

That’s Mary! But why does Mary rejoice heartily? Because she has received Jesus in her womb, yes. But we receive Jesus into our bodies in the Eucharist. So, perhaps there is more to it. 

A lot of it has to do with her disposition. Yes, she was prepared by God and so had no need of repentance—being without sin does open us to joy. But also, Mary was open to whatever God’s plan was. “Let it be done to me,” she said, “according to your will.” She wanted what God wanted. 

The joy comes, then, not only when she gives birth (there is joy there, of course!), but the joy continues when she visits Elizabeth. Do you remember the story? It is called the Visitation. Mary visits Elizabeth. They are both pregnant. The Holy Spirit comes from Jesus and Mary and descends upon Elizabeth and upon John in her womb. And he dances. And Elizabeth rejoices. And Mary sees: she sees that freedom and joy have been brought by Jesus in her womb: the Jubilee really is here! 

Mary then, in that very moment when she sees, Mary exclaims the words we heard in the “psalm” today: 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked up his lowly servant. … He has remembered his promise of mercy. 

Mary recognizes the Jubilee and rejoices in it. 

To be joyful, therefore, means a two-fold movement in our souls. First, we must be sorry for our sins and repent of them, as John says and as Mary is. And, second, we must be open to do whatever God wants. 

Here, I think of a woman to whom I was recently introduced. Her name is Claire Crockett. 

Claire was born in 1982 in Northern Ireland, so she’s a year younger than I am. She was an actress on Nickelodeon and was becoming pretty popular. She had an easy time getting boyfriends. And she loved to party and she loved to drink and to smoke. And she was a total jokester. Yet, for all of that, she would go back to her hotel and the end of the day’s filming and feel empty. 

On one particular Good Friday, a friend of hers invited her to the Good Friday service—which is where you have a chance to kiss the Cross. Claire saw everyone doing it and so she thought she might as well, too. When she did this, this simple act of being open—even half-open—to God, grace poured upon her soul like rain. She started wondering if this was what she was looking for. 

She talked with the priest and she went to confession and began to live by a simple premise in life: To do whatever God wants. 

She started changing. And some of her friends noticed. One of them said, making fun of her: “Claire, if you keep this up, you’ll become a nun!” 

Claire—with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other—took a puff from her cigarette and said, “Well, if that is what God wants, then I’ll become a nun.” 

They all laughed. But Claire was changing. And she put away the drunkenness and the cigarettes and she started praying and helping with the kids. And she became radiant and joyful. And yeah, she became a religious sister. And you can see clips of her on youtube—and you can tell: she found the difference between pleasure and joy. 

In repenting of her sins and being open to whatever God wanted, Claire Crockett had found the freedom and the mercy of Jesus. She had found the Jubilee. 

And that is what I proclaim to you today. Mercy is offered to you who are sorry. And freedom and joy are yours who are open to whatever God wants. And that’s what God will lead you to—for He desires to give you mercy and freedom and joy! He Himself is the Jubilee!