Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XVI per Annum B

22 July 2018

One of the most basic, foundational implications of being a person of religious faith is that we believe there are truths of this world and the next that, while true and certain, are beyond our full ability to explain, to understand, and to appreciate.  Our limited ability to explain and to understand does not make these truths any less true.  I am speaking here of the realm of mystery, things that are true but are higher than the limited human mind can comprehend.  What this means for us as people of religious faith is that our ordinary, daily lives, our lives in the natural world, meet and touch the extraordinary and the supernatural, the spiritual world, already present here and whose fullness we will experience in the life after death.  In other words, there is value, meaning, and truth here and now that is transcendent, that exists also in realms above and beyond us.  Our ordinary, daily life is pregnant with meaning that is true and real, even though it is more than the eyes of the body can see, measure, and evaluate.  One of the greatest tricks of the devil is to keep us so busy that we live more like machines and, by keeping silence and reflection at a distance, we soon forget that our life is marked by mystery and the things of God.

Maybe some examples of mystery will help us appreciate that ordinary life is pregnant with extraordinary meaning.  At almost every wedding I am privileged to witness, standing as I am nearest the groom, I see mystery in what I will call the breathless reaction of the groom when he first sees his bride on the wedding day.  Some physically and visibly gasp.  Others sort of lower their heads for a moment with a brief turn of the head as if struggling with emotion.  Others tear up.  These couples have seen marriage before; they have even been to weddings.  They have seen each other countless times before.  They have spent months talking about and thinking about marriage.  On a mere natural, ordinary level nothing should surprise them.  Yet it does!  It takes their breath away!  That is mystery.  Another example: Most of us can talk about the reproductive process and the gestation of new life leading to birth.  We can do this rather dryly and without emotion.  But I’m willing to bet that if you have been present at or near a newborn’s birth that you might have shed some tears.  This is mystery.  Perhaps another way to communicate the idea of mystery is to say that life is full of beauty.  Deep beauty, not just surface appearances, might be a synonym for mystery.

The beauty and mystery of human life needs our reflection because this week the Church marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most prophetic papal encyclicals, issued by Blessed Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, meaning Of Human Life.  Perhaps you already know that this encyclical communicates the long-held teaching of the Church that to properly live conjugal love in a good moral fashion “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (HV 11).  For the sake of absolute clarity, this means that any “action which, either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is intrinsically wrong and immoral (HV 14).  This is a teaching that we are each obliged to hold.  Furthermore, when this teaching is not being observed individual persons and married couples need the grace of confession and the sincere efforts at learning and following a scientific method of natural family planning.  Blessed Pope Paul VI was prophetic in predicting the societal fall-out that would occur if the beauty and mystery of sexual love were to be separated from the beauty and mystery of human life by various means of artificial contraception.  As he predicted, this separation has led to increased and earlier onset of promiscuity among even the young, increased infidelity, instability in marriage, immoral and evil social engineering in the hands of government authority, increased divorce, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and a generalized category of lower moral standards, which today we can see displayed in homosexual activity, homosexual marriage, and transgenderism.  None of what I am saying should be taken as shaming or judgment upon you.  Rather, I would point to the confusion generated by the sexual revolution and social upheaval going on in the past decades.  Furthermore, I would also borrow God’s words in the first reading: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  New Testament shepherds – bishops and priests – have been silent in confusion, fear, or in their own sinfulness over these same decades.  No wonder this teaching is so misunderstood by folks in the pews.

What I hope to leave you with today is the “why” of this teaching.  And that takes us right back to my beginning: that our ordinary, daily living in this natural world is pregnant with beauty and mystery that touches upon the extraordinary, the spiritual, and the eternal transcendent realm of God.  The Church’s teaching on human life rests directly on the mystery of the spiritual reality of God’s covenant love and the fulfillment of that covenant in the total, self-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Do you married couples reflect on the mystery that there is something more than merely biological or ordinary in the act of your marriage embrace?  The devil wants to keep you so busy and occupied, living more like machines, so that the mystery of your vocation in Holy Matrimony escapes you and you begin to think less of the spiritual and extraordinary, and to live as the pagans do.  The spirit of the world wants you to think that there can’t be much supernatural and eternal meaning to your married love.  But think with me of the history of salvation.  Consider the significant moment of the covenant God made with Abraham.  The sign of that covenant was circumcision that made of the Hebrews a people of God.  Why THAT mark of the covenant?  Why there?  Why did Abraham and those who entered the covenant with God have to bear a mark on their generative organ?  It’s because the ordinary, natural, temporal good of sexual love and its generation of new life in the covenant of marriage is designed by God to be a sign of the extraordinary, supernatural, and eternal regeneration of new life in the covenant God would fulfill in Jesus and which we enter by baptism!  Pure sexual love in marriage has that depth of beauty and meaning!  The covenantal mark that exposes the very organ of the generation of natural life tells us something of the full spiritual meaning, the dignity, the mystery of human love and human life so essentially part of the married vocation.  Your natural life is made pregnant with this meaning by God.  This is the truth that the Church can do no less than to uphold and to teach.  This is part of the “why” of the moral teaching of this aspect of married life lived in purity.  This is what the world and the worldly miss.

What God the Father fulfills in the new covenant of Jesus is accomplished by a total self-gift of the God-man on the Cross.  We hear of this in the second reading: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.”  That total gift of self, by the shedding of his blood, broke down the separation, the “wall of enmity,” between us and God and made possible new spiritual life in the Church and ultimately in the fullness of Heaven.  That total gift of self is what spouses in Holy Matrimony are called to model and to signify by pure marital love free from the various contraceptive measures the world promotes.  Seeing the sad prophetic developments predicted by Blessed Pope Paul VI, we can echo the Gospel where Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity… for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  Marking the 50th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae we thank God for this shepherding from the highest authority of the Church.  We need to take responsibility to learn how to live in conformity with this teaching.  Rejecting the spirit of the world, we find ourselves led to the flowing waters and the fresh green pastures of truth where we see our ordinary lives in their full spiritual and extraordinary meaning!  In Jesus Christ and in His Church we find fulfilled the Father’s words through the Prophet Jeremiah: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock …  and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.  I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the Lord.”

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

24 June 2018

This year the observance of the nativity of St. John the Baptist falls on a weekend, meaning it replaces the normal Sunday Mass.  Most of the saints in our liturgical calendar have a feast day that is placed more or less on the day we call their “birth” into eternal life, meaning the day of their death.  Only a very few saints have multiple celebrations in the calendar, and fewer still have observances of their literal birth in time, their birth on earth in addition to their birth into eternity.  St. John the Baptist is one such saint.  That we observe his nativity tells us that he and his mission are incredibly important to our faith as Catholics.

My reflections on this nativity of St. John the Baptist do not rest so much on the Scripture selections themselves but rather on the simple fact that we are asked to celebrate the birth of a “radical.”  It is rather curious and maybe even comical.  Look at us!  Here we are as thoroughly modern people.  For the most part we are dressed rather well.  We have our comforts and our controlled environment here.  We probably think we know what we need to hear from God.  We may even think we are doing God a favor by being here.  And we gather to celebrate the birth of a guy who went around in camel hair and ate locusts!  And more than that, he spoke a strongly critical message and stern warning about the day of God’s judgment!  Meanwhile we – and by “we,” I mean I – fret about the thermostats before each Mass and when we arrive we say, thanks be to God, no one parked in the spot I like to park in or is sitting in my spot I like to sit in.  This hardly seems like the breeding ground for radicals.  Maybe just the mere fact that the Church has us observe this man’s nativity has more than enough to speak to us before we would consider the Scripture passages associated with this Mass.

St. John the Baptist was a radical.  Are we ready to be radicals?  That’s in part why I think our observance of his birth is a bit curious, even comical.  Do we realize that a radical is being placed before our eyes to imitate?  But here’s the catch: we often misunderstand the term “radical.”  We stop at what is visible or superficial and we think that’s what it means to be a radical.  St. John lived out in the wilderness.  He ate weird stuff.  He wore strange clothes.  We would wrongly conclude that he is an “out there,” free-range spirit, a radical.  That’s not what being a radical means.  And it’s not what the Church is placing before us for imitation.  Being a radical goes much deeper.  That something “deeper” is the real thing we are being encouraged to follow in this observance of St. John’s birth.

I wonder if often we confuse a “revolutionary” for a “radical?”  A revolutionary turns things over, turns things on their head, and bucks the system.  A radical, on the other hand, might do some revolutionary things, but the far deeper reality of a radical is that he is rooted and has a strong foundation.  That’s the core meaning of the term from which we get “radical.”  Radical means being rooted.  As Catholics, beneficiaries of the radical preaching of St. John the Baptist, we are radicals if we are rooted in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  These are our foundations.  It is out of these, or from these, that we must operate to fulfill our calling to be missionary disciples in the modern world.  If we are disconnected from, unaware of, or uninterested in Scripture and Tradition then whatever we are doing in the name of Jesus risks having little to do with our roots, and thereby ceases to be radical, and thereby ceases to be of God.

We are to be rooted in Sacred Scripture (which is God’s word in written form) and rooted in Sacred Tradition (which is God’s word passed on in the oral preaching and witness of the apostles).  By “rooted” I mean that we are to reach deeply into, and to draw spiritual life and wisdom out of, Scripture and Tradition.  Then nourished with such life we stretch forth and go out to be witnesses of Jesus in this world.  Like a living thing, we only have life if we remain with the roots.  Like a living thing, we grow and stretch out to reach new places beyond our familiar territory.  But we can’t be alive and we can’t grow unless we have roots.  Jesus himself used this image: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).  To be radical, like St. John, is to be rooted in God’s word, which comes to us in the twofold font of Scripture and Tradition.

The society in which we live is marked by upheaval from its own roots.  This upheaval seems to be happening at an ever more rapid pace.  Societal change in norms and expectations has made us arrive at unbelievable scenarios, scenarios that were unimaginable even just a decade ago.  To be a person of radical faith in this environment will likely result in people looking at us as if we really are dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts!  People might ask, what are those Catholics breathing and eating?  They think Jesus is actually God and that that actually means their personal lives and societal life truly ought to be conformed to God’s moral commands.  Are they crazy?  Those Catholics think Jesus is not a bygone influence, but that the Scriptures, the Tradition, and the Church continue to speak his teaching with authority.  How medieval!  They think persons being made in God’s image and likeness imparts a dignity that demands the right to life.  They think that sexual love has meaning, that its proper place is actually within the marriage of a man and a woman, that it should not be refused in acts of contraception, and that same-sex activity is not only out of order, but even immoral.  They actually think a person’s genetic code, expressed in the physical appearance of the body, is determinate of one’s gender, no matter how surgery might alter that appearance.  How unscientific!  Those Catholics think that Jesus’ life and power comes to them in sacraments.  They think the Mass actually makes Jesus’ sacrifice present such that bread and wine really become Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  What fairy tale magic!  What are those Catholics breathing and eating?!

If we are radical, if we have roots, I’ll tell you what we are breathing and eating: we are breathing in the inspiration of God’s word and having been made more worthy by frequent confession we are eating the gift that roots us in deep communion with Jesus himself!  By observing the birth of St. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, we are not being called to be revolutionaries.  Rather we are called to be radicals.  We are called to be so rooted in our life with Jesus that we have something worth sharing with our world.  In fact, we have what Jesus wants to be shared with the world so that men and women are called away from error and sin and brought to true and lasting life in advance of the day of judgment.  The devil wants us to sink our roots into the things of this world over which he has some measure of influence because by that he knows he has uprooted us from Christ and neutralized a branch of the vine.  A different St. John, St. John the Evangelist, describes it this way: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).  Observing the birth of St. John the Baptist is our call to be rooted in the things of God and to join St. John in a radical proclamation to the world that God is in our midst: “Behold the Lamb of God!”

Eleventh Sunday In Ordinary Time

Dominica XI per Annum B

17 June 2018

Jesus’ words in the selection from St. Mark’s Gospel teach us about the Kingdom of God.  It is a seed that is scattered on the land that undergoes change and growth while the sower waits for it to come to harvest time.  It is like a seed so small that one would not expect it to become the largest of plants.  These parables remind me too of Jesus’ words in St. John’s Gospel when he says that unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain.  But if it dies it produces much fruit.

What does the image of seed and the process of germination teach us about the kingdom of God?  I don’t want to wade too deeply into plant biology here because to do so would be to wade into a topic I am not qualified to say much about.  However, for the purposes of this parable image of seed we might consider that seed that is scattered, sown, and planted is not a dead thing, but a living thing.  We can say that seed is in a living but dormant state.  The image of seed falling to the ground and dying, rather than having a literal meaning, is an image or analogy: seed that is planted gives up its previous dormant form.  In this sense, it “dies”, gives up itself, and transforms into something different.  Once a seed is planted, water in the soil begins a process by which the seed coat ruptures, and the heretofore dormant embryonic root is exposed and grows into the ground where it begins to extract nutrients and minerals that promote its growth and the production of shoots and leaves.

And Jesus says this tells us “how it is with the kingdom of God.”  God’s kingdom in seed form begins its process of germination in us by faith and baptism.  God’s kingdom is here in our midst the Scriptures say; and we await its fulfillment in the heavenly life to come.  The seed is scattered in us and slowly, imperceptibly, as if on its own, it gives up itself and transforms into something new, growing toward the harvest the sower expects and for which he waits.  The seed of the kingdom has its own inner strength or force that demands and impels toward full development.

The seed of God’s kingdom is scattered here below.  God expects it to sprout, to grow, to stretch, and to reach up to fulfillment in eternity.  Like the sower, He provides everything that is necessary for proper growth.  He prepares the soil – He prepares us – by the words of the prophets to receive the kingdom He plants.  He even sends His own Son, Jesus Christ, to till the ground with the instrument, the plow of the Cross, and to water us with the gift of the Blood and water flowing from his open side.  And He waits patiently to gather the harvest.

As analogies go, parables are not literally applicable in all aspects of the image.  For instance, taking the parable of the scattered seed, God the Sower, unlike the man in the parable, certainly knows how the seed of the kingdom sprouts and grows.  He is, we might say, more actively involved than the sower in the parable in that God continues to give forth all the necessary nourishment in order for the kingdom to grow in us.  In other words, God is not merely waiting for the harvest unaware of how to promote kingdom growth in us.  Likewise, as the parable applies to us, we are not passive in kingdom growth in ourselves.  We have been given the gift of free will and so we are called to be part of, and indeed to be responsible for, kingdom growth in our own lives and in the lives of others.  Disciples are supposed to be witnesses of the kingdom in this world and disciples are supposed to make other disciples.

The second reading comes into play here.  The kingdom being planted in us here below means we are called to undergo ongoing transformation so that the kingdom grows to its full harvest.  The seed planted in us and germinated with faith and baptism means we give up ourselves and the former ways of life so that kingdom life grows in us.  By this we can understand St. Paul: “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.”  With the kingdom planted in us, our “seed coat” of sin must rupture so that kingdom life can grow and flourish in us, taking in all the nourishment God generously provides.  Like Jesus’ words in St. John’s Gospel, the seed planted here below must die, it must give up itself, in order to transform into newness of life.  And so, our use of free will, what we do in the body, matters for kingdom growth in us.  What we do in the body speaks to whether the kingdom harvest is lacking or ripe in us.  St. Paul’s image can be understood then: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.”  Yes, what do in this “seed coat” of the body matters.

The kingdom planted generously and lovingly by God requires that we give up our former way of life and be transformed here below.  Will we give up whatever sin is ours and submit it to God’s kingdom?  That is the question for each of us.  Have you ever heard it said, “Well, I’m okay, I mean I haven’t committed adultery or murdered anyone.”  Such comments excuse and minimize what are the kingdom-limiting factors in one’s life.  When I hear that I want to say, “That’s great, then let’s not waste breath on things that aren’t real for you and let’s get to what are the sins that limit the kingdom in you.”  The growth of conversion requires our cooperation.  Where we struggle to give up old ways and to live more fully on the nourishment God provides, we can take courage in the patient, tender care of God who expects a harvest in us and who does not abandon us in that growth.  Like the tender shoot from the cedar tree in the first reading that is torn off and planted high above Israel, providing proper dwelling, so God the Son, Jesus Christ, has given up his own life to provide us everything we need so that the kingdom grows in us.  At every Holy Mass we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  We might hear those familiar words about earth as having a particular call to us to submit ourselves to the kingdom in this body: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Pentecost Sunday

Dominica Pentecostes

Vigil & Mass of the Day

20 May 2018

The Church concludes this weekend the Holy Season of Easter with this great solemnity of Pentecost.  Pentecost is the celebration of that day when, after having prayed for Christ’s promised gift, the Holy Spirit descended upon the early Church, with His gifts and power being poured out upon the Apostles and disciples.  We also pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us today.  Listen again to part of the opening collect of this Mass: “with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.”  In this weekend’s Mass the Church throughout the world prays that the same Spirit who came at Pentecost would continue to work through us.

Before the beginning of Christian faith, the Jewish faith observed a feast of Pentecost.  For Jews, the celebration of Pentecost was a summons to return to the Holy City Jerusalem to recall their birth as the chosen people of God.  Perhaps that origin in Jewish faith of recalling birth as God’s people is why the Christian feast of Pentecost has always been viewed as a birthday.  It is viewed as the birthday of the Church.  Before the first Christian Pentecost took place Jesus had called together his first followers, gave the Church her essential structure and mission, and declared that his Church would be established upon the rock of St. Peter, a foundation that the gates of Hell would never be able to destroy.  As if the time leading up to the first Christian Pentecost was like a time of gestation, the Catholic Church’s birthday is commonly viewed as that first Pentecost described in the Acts of the Apostles.  Finally filled with the very Spirit of God and empowered with His gifts, the Church Jesus established went out boldly to proclaim Christ to peoples of every tongue, land, and nation.

Sticking with that idea of birth, we might consider how in most cases we expect that a pregnant woman will receive some pre-natal care.  She will avoid things that will harm the child within her.  She will be guided by people with medical knowledge to arrive at that day when a healthy child may be born into the world.  Given that Pentecost is a birthday, and that we pray today for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives, perhaps the analogy of pre-natal care can instruct us on how we should live our Christian life so that Christ comes to fuller birth in each one of us.  Pentecost is the completion of the Paschal mystery that is, the mysteries of the eternal saving value of Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.  He has made it possible for a new life to come to birth in us, a life that will come to full development in the eternity of Heaven.  Pentecost is our call to live this life more fully beginning here and now.  But what sort of “pre-natal care” do we need to give the grace of God in us so that it comes to fuller birth?  You see, we make a mistake if we think there is nothing more any of us must do in order to arrive at Christ’s offer of salvation.  We need to make sure that we nourish, protect, guard, develop this deposit of the Spirit placed in us by faith and baptism.  Christ has redeemed us, yes.  He has bridged the gap between us and God, yes.  He has opened the gates of Paradise, yes.  But it remains for us to live united with Christ now so that having turned from sin we allow his life to come to fuller birth in us.  Only this will lead to eternal salvation.  The Scriptures also can be seen to hint at awaiting this birth where St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19).  In fact, St. Paul goes on to use that very image of birth just three verses later: “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains” (Rom. 8:22).

The whole creation eagerly awaits the revelation – that is, the showing forth, the birth – of God’s children.  How should we care for the life of grace in us?  What changes must we make so that the life of grace isn’t harmed or unable to come to fuller birth?  Certainly our spiritual “pre-natal” care must include the spiritual life-blood of prayer, it must include confession of the poison of our sins that does harm to that life placed within us, it must include the nourishment of the Holy Eucharist worthily received, it must include service to others and study of God’s Word and the saving teachings of our faith.  Will you give God’s grace in you this “pre-natal care?”  The whole creation groans and waits for how our world will be different if we live fully by the Holy Spirit.  You see, Pentecost is not just the birthday of some institution, the Church.  It is your birthday too!  We rejoice that we have been made adopted sons and daughters of God.  We rejoice in the completion of Christ’s saving mysteries.  We rejoice in the birthday of the Church.  Our joy can’t be complete, and we can’t be the people we are called to be for the good of the world, until we let Christ’s life come to fuller birth in us.  And so we pray today and always, Come, Holy Spirit!

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dominica in Pasqua V

29 April 2018

Recently I’ve been wondering about the mechanics of grafting the branch of one vine or tree onto another tree such that the grafted branch grows and thrives.  My wondering ‘stems’ (uh hem!) from a recent visit I made to the Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City.  Among the many tropical plants and trees growing there, the Bridge features various types of orchids.  There are orchids of colors and shapes I have never seen before.  I was surprised at one point when I noticed that an orchid appeared to be growing directly out from the trunk of a very tall, tropical tree.  How does that work, I wondered?  How do you graft together two very unrelated plants and have them grow?  On closer inspection what had really happened is that an orchid plant, in its small pot had been hung on the trunk and, after time, the orchid’s root system had grown out from the pot, wrapping around it and covering it, giving the illusion that the orchid had somehow been grafted onto the tree.

Now I am very far from a “green thumb” and I don’t intend my thoughts to give instruction on grafting or gardening.  While not pretending to know much about how grafting of plants works, it seems generally true that successful grafting of very different types of plants or trees, while it may be occasionally successful, is the exception rather than the rule.  In other words, generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Can you see why my trip to the Myriad Gardens comes to mind with this gospel?  In the Old Testament God’s Word uses the image of a grapevine to describe His chosen People Israel.  God chooses and plants the choice vine, from which He expects a great harvest and a good vintage.  But through sin and disobedience the choice vine of Israel goes wild and produces bad fruit.  God promises through the prophets to fix the problem.  Thus, when Jesus proclaims himself in St. John’s gospel to be the “true vine” he is emphatically stating that God’s choice vine is here, in his very person.  He is that promised vine.  And a good harvest and a good vintage will only come through him.  Disciples will produce what God wants only if we remain in the Lord Jesus.

By baptism we begin life in the true Vine by being grafted into Jesus, thus being made by the Holy Spirit adopted sons and daughters of the Father.  Disciples who remain in the Lord are called to maintain unity of life with the visible expression of Christ the True Vine – his Church, which Scripture also describes as the very Body of Christ.  In the first reading, after Saul’s conversion (becoming known as Paul) we see him seeking to be grafted onto the Church.  Because of his persecuting past, disciples were suspicious, but in time Paul’s newfound faith could grow and remain alive only because he joined Christ in the unity of his Church.  We who have been baptized are only alive in Christ and only producing good fruit to the degree that we remain united to Christ the True Vine.  Our unity grows by deeper conversion and faithful practice of prayer and the Sacraments.  When we sin, when we maintain a weak unity with the Church, when we don’t accept the pruning of God’s Word leading us to deeper conversion, when we don’t make Christ the center of meaning and nourishment in our lives, well, we are ready to be cut off and worthy of being taken away from the harvest of heaven.  Jesus says, the Father “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”  “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Friends, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that being marginal disciples, or Christians pretty much in name only, will lead to salvation.  To borrow the image of grafting, a marginal Christian is about as genetically dissimilar to the True Vine as an orchid to a tropical tree.  The marginal Christian might look like he has life from the True Vine, but on closer inspection he is nourishing himself, just sort of hung upon or near the Vine, much like that orchid I saw on the tree.  To be successfully grafted such that we branches bear good fruit, we must live what was begun in us in baptism, when we were grafted onto Christ.  We do not want to become a branch worth cutting off.  To be worthy to remain connected to the Vine, we are called upon by the Father to bear much, and good, fruit.

Generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.  We can carry this observation into the gospel image.  Obviously I use this idea of grafting to refer not to genetics, but to a greater degree of conversion or Christ-likeness.  We are first brought into the True Vine at baptism.  But that grafting must be lived and must develop as the Father wants if a living (faithful) branch and a fruitful harvest is to result.  Don’t expect an easy path as a Christian.  No, Jesus tells us we will be pruned.  But this serves to help us bear even more fruit.  We can never take for granted our unity with Christ the True Vine.  We should seek, like St. Paul, an ever-greater conversion and a grafting into Jesus’ Church.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says.  Today’s second reading from St. John gives all of us a clear indication of remaining in the Lord.  “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.”

Third Sunday of Easter

Dominica in Pasqua III

15 April 2018

This weekend I want to focus our attention on a prominent theme throughout the Season of Easter.  The theme is the summons to youthfulness in our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

To be clear, this call to youthfulness is addressed to all of us.  It is not a call to live a younger chronological age, which would be impossible.  The call to youthfulness is also not a call to immaturity.  Rather, it is a call to live our newness of life in Jesus by adopting some of those characteristics that we might associate with youth.  Youth in this sense refers not to one’s age, but to one’s soul.  No matter our age, we can each attain this spiritual youthfulness.  We are always called to observe this spiritual youthfulness, but all the more in the Season of Easter does this become a prominent theme.  In my homily for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday I commented on the direction given to the disciples that after Jesus’ resurrection they were to go back to Galilee and meet him there.  The return to Galilee is a return to their origins.  It is a return to where they first encountered Jesus and began to leave everything to follow him, forever shunning pathways that would lead away from him.  It is a return to the vigor of their first attachment to the Gospel and the vigor of their love for Jesus.

Consider in your life what has been an “a ha” moment, a Galilee moment, when you experienced conversion and when you first came to believe that Jesus conquered death.  Whether you were baptized as an infant, or whether you came to Christ’s Church as an older or even an adult convert, what was that moment of conversion like when a personal encounter with Jesus really changed you?  Maybe in some cases you still need to pray and open yourself to such a personal encounter.  Whatever the case, we commonly use youthful terminology to describe such conversions.  It’s a “new birth.”  It’s a new “springtime.”  It’s a new hope.  It’s a new joy.  It’s a restored innocence.  It’s a vigor, a freshness, and a confidence.  It’s a youthful enthusiasm not yet impacted by those challenges and crosses that certainly come to each of us.  Since Easter is about Jesus coming to new life beyond the grave it is easy to see why youthfulness would be an apt description for newness of life that we are called to live in him. 

In the past couple weeks of this holy season the Sacred Liturgy has already presented this call to youthfulness in several ways.  The Gospel of St. Mark from the Easter Vigil told us that upon arriving at the tomb when the sun had just risen on that first Easter Sunday, the holy women found the stone rolled back and inside the tomb was a mysterious visitor.  Other gospels identify this visitor as an angel.  But St. Mark says the following: “they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” (Mk. 16:5).  Not just a man, but a young man.  St. Mark highlights that something about heavenly life seen in the angelic visitor is like youthfulness.  One of the great things we do at our parish, thanks to our dedicated choir, is that we actually use the full scripture setting for each Mass when we chant the antiphons at the entrance and at Holy Communion.  When those antiphons are so commonly replaced by hymns from a book, however good those may be, I suggest we lose something from the Church’s faith that the Sacred Liturgy is trying to communicate to us.  Since our parish chants the entrance antiphon as Mass begins we were enriched last Sunday to hear this: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation, alleluia” (Introit, Second Sunday of Easter).  Again, the call to live our new life in Jesus; the call to youthfulness.  No surprise then that the Collect at the beginning of this Holy Mass had us pray: “May your people exult forever, O God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit” (Collect, Third Sunday of Easter).  No matter our age we can live this renewed youthfulness because, as the Collect went on to say, faith, baptism, and the grace of confession give us the “restored glory of our adoption,” which in turn leaves us looking forward “in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of [our] resurrection” (Collect, Third Sunday of Easter).

You know that nothing we do as Catholics exists in isolation, or in a vacuum.  Rather, we are the beneficiaries of centuries of faith, doctrinal development, and liturgical life which, all together, proclaim and celebrate our life in Jesus and in his one Church.  It seems clearly important then, as an informed Catholic, to be aware of and, to benefit from, knowledge and experience of what precedes us, including the older traditional Latin form of the Sacred Liturgy.  With a very few exceptions the Traditional Latin Mass begins by praying Psalm 42 in which the priest and the server speak back and forth the paragraphs of the psalm.  The priest prays, “I will go unto the altar of God.”  And at two points the server makes his response: “Unto God who gives joy to my youth” (Psalm 42:4).  The word “youth” is not placed on the server’s lips because he is in most cases a young man or a boy serving the Holy Mass.  There is the literal sense of this psalm in that the traditional author, King David, was a young man when he wrote these words.  But, rather for us now, the psalm uses the word “youth” to refer to the freshness, the vigor, the innocence of the soul redeemed by God, a renewal that happens each time we worthily participate in the Holy Mass.

We are first brought to new youthful life as Christians by faith in Jesus and by Holy Baptism which is a spiritual new life of regeneration in the Holy Spirit.*  Once having been born to new life, how do we continue to live Christian youthfulness?

We seek to constantly renew and increase a vigor in following Jesus, returning to the force of our first commitment to him.  A commitment to daily prayer renews and increases this vigor as we seek to live more deeply our intimate communion with God.

With determined zeal we must shun sin and pathways that lead away from Jesus, acknowledging sin for what it is, a path to selfish, stale, and sterile living.  Sin makes us less like the youthful redeemed new man and more like the old man of sin (Rom. 6:6).  Being complacent to live in sin causes us to become dry, lifeless bones (cf. Ezekiel 37) and advances us toward eternal death.  Penance and discipline in spiritual life help us convert and turn from the path of sin.

We must so yearn for life with God that we seek him constantly like satisfying a hunger or a thirst.  In a most particular way, whether we are joyful or sad at any given moment, we should come to Holy Mass with a longing to encounter God on the holy mountain of the sacred altar: I will go unto the altar of God; unto God who gives joy to my youth!  Part of coming to Holy Mass with a spirit of joyful youthfulness, a vigorous enthusiasm, is to make frequent confession whereby our youthful baptismal life, harmed and aged by sin, is renewed by the mercy of Jesus.  Being absolved in the confessional helps us approach the altar of God living as we should our youthful life of restored innocence while longing for its completion in the glory of the resurrection.  In the meantime, like newborns, we long for the spiritual nourishment here that gives us a youthful confidence of inheriting the joy of eternal life, that never-ending youth with the God who loves us!

*Several aspects of the thought developed about Psalm 42 and youthfulness come from the excellent book, Nothing Superfluous, by the Rev. James Jackson, FSSP, pp. 102-103.

Divine Mercy Sunday - 8 April 2018

Dominica in Pasqua II

Divine Mercy Sunday

8 April 2018

The Gospel gives us two glimpses into the room where the disciples were locked away.  Two glimpses, each on a Sunday, one week apart.  The first glimpse was the evening of Easter Sunday, the very day of Jesus’ Resurrection.  The second glimpse, the gospel says, was “a week later.”  In the charged atmosphere of Jerusalem in those days, days that had seen a mob develop calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples are locked away in a room because of “fear of the Jews.”  We can imagine they were locked away as much for shame and trauma as they were for fear that the atmosphere could very easily turn on them and call for their deaths next.

Given the dangers possible and the very real fear that clearly had gripped the other disciples, why then wasn’t Thomas the apostle with them?  In the first resurrection appearance, in that first glimpse into the locked room, the Gospel tells us plainly that Thomas was not with the rest.  Now, as I begin to reflect on this question it is very important to be fair and clear: the Gospel doesn’t tell us why Thomas wasn’t there.  So, considering an answer and some lessons here requires that we admit that this is a spiritual reflection and speculative in nature.  But provided the speculation is not contrary to what is directly said and revealed in the Scripture and in the Tradition, it can have value.

We could cast Thomas as a bit of a realist.  In chapter 11 of St. John’s Gospel, we have the scene of Jesus hearing of the illness of his friend Lazarus and making plans to go to Judea to visit him and the family.  In discussing this return to Judea, a place where the Jews had just tried to arrest and stone Jesus for blaspheming, for making himself out to be God, the disciples all clearly know the danger involved.  Thomas, the realist, speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  It is perhaps good to keep this image of Thomas in mind when we usually only hear him described as the doubter.  Thomas then (in chapter 11) and perhaps now in the gospel passage we just heard, was ready to be out in danger, aware of the consequences.

Why wasn’t Thomas with the rest?  Maybe to some degree Thomas was just sort of getting on with his life.  Perhaps his realist, matter-of-fact ways results, after the days of Jesus’ death, in just telling himself that it is time to get on with things, to go on with life awaiting what Jesus will do next, and to continue speaking and proclaiming Jesus as best he could.  But whatever the case, he wasn’t going to waste time fearing the religious authorities.

Or, maybe, there is a hint of sort of walking away from things here.  He’s not with the others.  And maybe he doesn’t intend to be as closely associated now that things have ended with Jesus’ death.

It’s speculation, but whatever the case, the gospel does tell us Thomas was not with the group on that Easter Sunday.  He had already stepped away from the safety of numbers even at the height of fear and possible danger.

And so it is that a week later, having heard from the others that Jesus is alive, Thomas is with them and has his encounter with the Risen Lord that results in one of the most clear professions of faith, a profession that we borrow as a pious custom when the Body and Blood of Jesus are elevated over the altar by expressing under our breath in silence the very words of St. Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”  So, considering Thomas’ absence and then his profession of faith, what might a lesson be for us?

Is the “high” of Easter sort of already over for you?  Might you be easily sliding into just returning to your day-to-day life?  Now that we have done all that stuff we do over Holy Week are you just sort of getting back to your life?  Don’t let that happen.  Be changed by your encounter with Jesus the Risen One in the living Word of God and the living Sacrament of his presence at Holy Mass.

Another lesson: Many people need to be more deeply impacted by Jesus and by his death and resurrection that redeem us.  We have seen the results in Holy Week – and if you came to the Easter Vigil, you saw directly the results – of new souls coming to Jesus and his Church, being baptized and received as new members of this gathering of disciples.  No doubt there are many such souls out there still, who need your living witness of Christian faith, who need you to go even to places of hostility where Jesus is shouted and drowned out and to draw them to deeper life as disciples.  This doesn’t happen where we keep ourselves locked away in a privatized faith that agrees to cooperate with the fraud of secular culture by resigning ourselves to keep our mouths shut about Jesus.

May our encounter with the living and Risen Jesus here in this place strengthen us as St. Thomas was strengthened by the encounter in the locked room.  May it help us proclaim ever new: My Lord and my God!  And may it help us go out into the world, into daily living, and to get on with being vibrant proclaimers of the resurrection in order, as the gospel said, that others “may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief [they] may have life in his name.”


Easter Vigil & Easter Sunday

31 March & 1 April 2018

On this joyful night [day] as our Alleluia once again rings out we are drawn to consider the premiere evidence of the resurrection: namely, the emptiness of Christ’s tomb, where no stone, no matter how large, and where not even death could keep our Lord bound.  As the gospel of St. Mark tells us, for Mary Magdalene, for Mary, the mother of James, and for Salome, the sight of the empty tomb and the announcement by the young man sitting in the tomb that Christ had risen was something that caused in them utter amazement.  They were not expecting what they saw that day. 

What might we say about what was going on in the minds, hearts, and lives of Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome?  These women had been very busy and keeping a hectic pace.  It had been the high holy days.  Originally two distinct religious observances, by Jesus’ time, the Passover and the seven day-long Feast of Unleavened Bread had been joined together so that the Passover happened on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  That seven day-long feast also required a pilgrimage to a holy site on the seventh day, and that pilgrimage was quickly arriving.  There were many preparations that had to be in place ahead of time for the Passover, and these women certainly would have had much work to do.  To add to this hectic atmosphere, their dear friend Jesus had been executed on a Friday such that they had to quickly bury him without the customary anointing, due to the impending start of the Sabbath, sundown that day he died, since no work was allowed on the sabbath.  All of these things came colliding together in a few brief days.  They were busy about holy preparations and religious ceremonies…sound familiar?

These women were likely very tired.  Offering no rest for the weary, after all the work leading up to Passover, and its requirements, and a Sabbath right on its heels, now the ladies are up very early the day after the Sabbath – up early enough such that they were already on their way to the tomb when the sun had just risen.  Overrun with work and activities and up early again the next morning…sound familiar?

They are preoccupied with the details of how they will accomplish the anointing meant to honor their friend’s body and prepare him, this time, for proper burial.  They somehow need to get to his body, yet there is that very large stone awaiting them and they don’t know what they will do.  How will they accomplish this necessary work?  The obstacles seem too great, yet the task must be done.  The stress and preoccupation of work that has to be done…sound familiar?

And I haven’t even acknowledged perhaps the most significant factor in the minds, hearts, and lives of these ladies – the emotional trauma, exhaustion, and sadness of the death of a loved one.  The hectic pace of holy days and necessary preparations, overrun with work and up early again the next day, stress and preoccupation – all of these distractions perhaps helped the ladies keep their grief at a distance, to talk about who will roll back the stone, rather than talk about the heavier stone on their hearts.  They keep their heads down to avoid as long as possible the site they are coming to visit.  They focus on the spices and conversing about practicalities regarding entering the tomb, and maybe this helped them keep closed just a bit longer the floodgates of emotion and the wound of a terrible death.  When someone dies we frequently hear a survivor say, “it’s good if I can keep myself busy.”  The sadness of death and trying to keep sadness at bay, putting up a good front…sound familiar?

And then they look up and see the stone already rolled back.  They enter the tomb.  And they are amazed!  In the midst of all that was going in their lives and in those days, through the hectic pace and through the many layers of distraction, God breaks through and breaks in!  The young man sitting in the empty tomb delivers an astounding message: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.”  The young man goes on to tell them, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  That second phrase may not seem very important, compared to the first one announcing Jesus’ resurrection.  But earlier in the gospel it is recorded that Jesus, in predicting his passion, said to his apostles, “After I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee” (Mk. 14:28).

What is so significant about Jesus going to Galilee?  What is so important that the disciples need to know not only that Jesus is risen, but that he is going to Galilee and that there they should go to see him?  Galilee, the Scriptures indicate, is where Jesus began his public ministry.  It is where he first announced the Good News.  Galilee is where Jesus first called his disciples to follow him and to have life with him.  Galilee is sort of disciple ground zero for them.  To go to Galilee is to return to their origins, to get back to their roots with Jesus.  Galilee is an important place for them, a significant site in their lives and experience.  Galilee would have the attraction and sentimental value for them that we would experience going back to the place of our birth or visiting a significant landmark in our personal history, like walking the halls of our grade school now as an adult or walking the field or court where our team won the championship so many years ago.  Galilee was familiar ground and it was a calling home.

My friends, what is going on in your life?  What in the life of the women in the gospel sounds all too familiar to you?  What pace and distractions and stress keep you occupied, head down, not expecting to encounter God?  You’re here tonight [today].  But we are all likely very different.  Some of you may be here out of a deep love for God and a sense of his presence.  Some of you may be here out of some felt obligation you can’t seem to shake, at least not on Easter.  Some of you, feeling run down in life, may still be waiting for your moment of amazement.  The gospel shows us that God can break through these things and break into our lives.  But you know what?  While we won’t limit God’s ability or power, I don’t think He wants us to normally so organize our days that He can only choose to compete with our distractions, breaking in much to our surprise.  And I say that because of that curious line from the young man in the tomb: “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  Can you honestly say of yourself, as was said about the women in the gospel: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified?”  Are you really seeking Jesus, and all that it means to belong to him?  In whatever frame of mind and state of soul you find yourself in, Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  That is, Jesus is calling you back to disciple ground zero.  He is calling you back to your origins, to your roots.  Jesus is calling you to return and to consider how you first became his disciple and to recommit yourself to his life right now.  Jesus is telling you this Easter that you need to consider what following him means and what it demands.  He is telling you to consider what your life must look like if you are truly responding to his call to follow him.  Jesus is asking you to get back to basics, to give him more time than you give your distractions, and to develop a zeal in being committed to him.  Jesus can break through whatever heavy, large stone we put in his way, whatever barrier physical, spiritual, mental, or dare I say, digital.  But it seems to me he doesn’t want us to test this ability of his.  Rather, he wants us to respond now to an invitation to return to our roots and to be renewed in our commitment to him.  He calls us to our roots not so that we simply remain there, in our Galilee, for the disciples also could not simply stay in Galilee.  Rather, like the disciples called to go out to the whole world, we are called to go forth so that the next day, and the next Sunday, and the next Easter, we are ready to go tell others the Good News, to help others encounter the risen Christ, and to hear his call: follow me!