First Sunday of Lent

Dominica I in Quadragesima C

10 March 2019

In a few minutes in the preface of this Mass of the First Sunday of Lent we will hear the following about Jesus and the Gospel scene just proclaimed: “he consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance.”  In our faith and religious use the term “consecration” refers to a solemn act by which something or someone is set apart for God.  For example, a church is consecrated by a bishop in a solemn act, its walls being anointed with the Sacred Chrism that we also use in baptism, confirmation, and ordination of priests and bishops.  Thus, the whole building is a place set apart for privileged encounter with God, distinct and separate from the profane world around it.   This means that secular use of the space is inappropriate, at the very least awkward, and potentially sacrilegious.  A thing once set apart for God is never to be used for any profane purpose.  A sacred object – a thing consecrated – is definitively set aside for God.

But when the thing consecrated is not an object, but a person, there is more to consider.  A person can be set aside for God by a solemn act.  For example, this takes place when a man is ordained.  It takes place when a man or woman takes solemn vows in religious life or a person is consecrated to a life of virginity.  A more fundamental level of consecration takes place when a person is baptized and then confirmed.  The person is anointed, the sign of the Holy Spirit, by which that person belongs to God and is set apart for Him in a special way.  A critically important distinction between the consecration of a person, as distinct from an object, is that a person’s free will must be involved and must cooperate to live in accord with consecration.  An inanimate object does not have free will and so its consecration is accomplished merely by the solemn external act by which it is consecrated.  But a person must use his free will to desire consecration, to pursue the solemn act by which consecration takes place, and – very important – a person must live in accord with his or her consecration for it to bear fruit.  Just as profane use of a consecrated object is inappropriate and even sacrilegious, consider the added weight of moral gravity when a consecrated person set apart FOR God chooses to live apart FROM God by choosing sin.  We can say with good reason that the sins of a baptized and confirmed person, the sins of an ordained person, take on an added gravity of sacrilege because it is the refusal of the consecration of one set apart for God.  While all sin is sin, there is a unique gravity when a consecrated person sins as compared to the same sin committed by a pagan.  So, when we speak of the consecration of a person we are not speaking only of the external act by which he or she is set apart for God; rather, we must also speak of the person’s internal disposition by which he seeks to live for God and to live in accord with the mission given by God.

The Gospel selection about Jesus shows us both dimensions of being consecrated by a solemn, external act, AND the interior disposition, the use of free will, to live that consecration in his mission as the New Adam, the faithful Israel, the Son of God who comes to save us.  The Gospel begins by reminding us that Jesus had just been baptized and consecrated by a solemn, external act in the anointing of the Holy Spirit when it says, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan.”  And the bulk of the Gospel selection shows us the other dimension of the consecration of a person, by which interior freedom must be used to live in accord with one’s consecrated mission.  We see Jesus’ interior disposition, the use of his free will, in his response to the devil’s temptings.  Jesus chooses to live as set apart for the Father by rejecting the devil’s ideas and choosing to live his true identity as the Beloved Son of God.

Why this focus on consecration?  The Preface of the Mass tells us that Jesus’ fasting consecrated the pattern of our Lenten observance.  Fasting for Jesus and for us results, if we are doing it seriously, in a strong visceral reaction and that serves to teach us that we so often respond to even the slightest need, provocation, or physical prompting from the body while it is easy to ignore the soul and our spiritual reality and needs.  When we fast as a spiritual practice we can’t help but be more alert.  We know we are doing something to live more deeply our consecration to God.  We feel and hear the cues from our body in fasting, but we immediately use our higher faculty, our mind and our will, to direct our attention to our deeper hunger to live apart for God, and not simply to fill the belly.  This connection between our Lenten observance and consecration sheds some light on a special opportunity our parish will have in two weekends.  I am using the homily this weekend to encourage us to prepare for a parish-wide consecration to the Holy Family.  Our parish Knights of Columbus presented this idea to me and they are taking the lead in making this rich opportunity happen.  Knights serve and protect things, right?  These knights in our parish see the need to support and to protect living the faith in the family and so they are providing us with this special opportunity.  By means of prayer, confession, fasting, and spiritual preparation in these next two weeks, we have the opportunity to use our freedom to live more deeply the sacramental life that sets us and our families apart as the domestic Church, the place where God dwells in the family home.  As the spiritual father of this community I will personally lead us in the formal prayer by which we will effect this consecration at all Masses the weekend of March 23 and 24.  But it is up to each family, and especially the parents, to prepare for this consecration and to freely engage in what it means to be a family set apart for God, a family who lives the sacred mission of being a domestic Church, a place where prayer happens, where God is welcome, where the moral life is observed, and where the Gospel is proclaimed by the way your family lives its life.  This consecration is, in a certain sense, the call to simply be who we are called to be, who we were made by baptism, confirmation, and which the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony has made your homes to be.

I ask each family to choose to prepare for this consecration and so to be ready to freely engage in the consecration prayer we will say together in two weeks.  Beginning on March 15 for a novena of days, or at least for the week leading up to the consecration, we should be engaged in preparation by family prayer, fasting, and making a confession.  Some of you may be away over Spring Break the week before the consecration, which is why I want you to hear about this now so that you may be alerted to use preparation time well.  Our Knights of Columbus will be present after all Masses handing out preparation materials.

In the spirit of the Gospel I want to warn you, however, to expect some temptations and obstacles to arise leading up to this consecration.  Just as the devil hoped Jesus would not live in accord with his consecration, so he will see to it that temptations come your way too.  Maybe the temptation comes from troubles dealing with a child in the “terrible twos,” or maybe the teen years, who doesn’t want to cooperate and who needs to be reminded who is in charge of the household, especially when it comes to prayer, attending Mass, or formation classes.  Perhaps the temptation will come to simply live Spring Break as if it were a vacation from Lent.  Maybe the temptation is to avoid confessing sin such that we are not renewed in our baptismal life, our most basic consecration.  Maybe the temptation is that there is silence where family prayer in the home ought to take place.  Whatever the case, the Gospel shows us we need to prepare.  Expect to be mocked by the devil and to have obstacles come your way.  Respond with Jesus, using the words of Scripture, “One does not live on bread alone,” “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve,” “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  One final scriptural help is Psalm 91, today’s responsorial.  It is the same psalm the devil himself quotes to Jesus in the Gospel.  And it is a stunning thing for him to quote it, though like a bad scripture scholar he does so out of context.  It shows us how much outright mockery we should expect when we determine to live our consecration.  Psalm 91, you see, was used by Jewish exorcists as the primary exorcistic psalm to drive a demon out of the possessed.  The psalm is still used today in our Catholic exorcism ritual.  Of all the 150 psalms that’s the one the devil chooses to quote!  You can just hear and see the mockery dripping from his lips.  When you are feeling distracted from preparation for our Holy Family Consecration or when you feel pulled from the mission that is yours as a Christian you might pray with and use this psalm.  Where the devil’s promptings seem heavy and impossible to defeat, remember his weakness before God and pray with the hope of that psalm: “You shall tread upon the asp and the viper; you shall trample down the lion and the dragon.”  May the Holy Family of Nazareth inspire us and protect us as we seek to serve God more faithfully, to be the people we have been consecrated to be!


Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

6 March 2019

Today we begin in a solemn fashion the holy season of Lent by observing fasting from food and abstinence from meat and by gathering in prayer, for a ritual that goes back to Jewish practice: the imposition of ashes.  Ancient biblical symbols of penance include prayer, fasting, wearing sackcloth (uncomfortable, abrasive clothing), rending (tearing) one’s clothing, and the use of ashes.

The Scriptures give us some indications and can highlight at least three particular meanings of the use of ashes.  The Book of Genesis (3:19), in a formula used with the imposition of ashes today, takes us back to man’s creation and the fall.  “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”  This tells us that the ashes are a symbol and a reminder of mortality.  Man was formed from the dust of the earth and God breathed life into him.  Yet, because of sin, death has entered mankind’s history.  You and I inherit that original sin from Adam and Eve and we also bear individual guilt for our personal sins.  Thus, the ashes remind us we are all headed in the same direction when we will return to dust through death.  We come from dust and we are returning there.

Ashes also symbolize repentance.  Job, though good and exceedingly blessed, finds himself encountering God who has permitted him to be tested.  Job knows that he is nothing before his Creator whose ways are inscrutable.  And so Job says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Ashes also symbolize interceding for others, doing penance on behalf of others.  Daniel (Daniel 9:3) is a righteous man yet he does penance for his people.  Ashes were part of his practice.  The Book of Esther (14:1-3) also shows us this intercession on behalf of others using ashes.  The pagan king had determined to kill the Jewish people but Queen Esther, humbles herself and her beauty, and enters into repentance and mourning for the Jewish people by covering her head with ashes and dung.  (Dung Wednesday would not be very popular!).

Finally, another passage, along with Esther, shows us some history in regards to the placement of ashes as a penitential practice.  Repentance for sin in the First Book of Maccabees shows us that ashes were sprinkled on the head (1 Maccabees 3:47 [appears only in the Catholic Old Testament]).

The readings today also give us two perspectives on our penance in the gift that is this holy season of discipline and serious return to God our Father.  The Book of Joel shows us the public calling together of a people doing visible penance.  You can’t miss that the people are doing penance: “Blow the trumpet, proclaim a fast, call an assembly” (Joel 2:15).  That is like what we do today.  We are doing something very public, a day of penance for our sins.  Yet, Lent is not only Ash Wednesday.  The vast majority of Lent is not the public visible act of penance.  The vast majority of Lent fits more with the Gospel selection, the observance of penances that are hidden, private, and done in secret where we face the truth of needing to return to our Father who sees in secret.

We have strayed from God.  Lent is an annual gift of training by which we admit just how far we have gone away.  Just like Adam and Eve strayed and were expelled from the Garden because of their sin, we likewise have gone far away.  Our sins expel us from God’s presence.  We need to do serious penance to make a serious return to our Father.  We often encourage the participation of children in Lent by giving up things like chocolate, or soda, or pizza.  And that is well and good… for children.  But as St. Paul calls us NOW to a time to receive God’s grace more deeply, St. Paul would also say to us: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11).  The truth of our straying from God is not explainable by an inordinate attachment to chocolate or to pizza.  No, we need to go much deeper.  We need to be much more serious.  We have a long journey to return to our Father and to arrive once again at the mountain of Easter, newness of life, and restored baptismal grace.  But this does not discourage us because it is our Father who gives us this time of reform.  It is He who desires us and who calls us to deeper life with Him.  Mercy and compassion from the Father who sees what is hidden inspires us to serious engagement in this holy season.  Because it is God who calls us back to Himself we have the courage to move beyond the superficial, beyond the surface, beyond what is visible and to pick up the character of the vast majority of this season: Facing more deeply the source of our separation from God and going more deeply into penance.  “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13).  Tear open your heart and get to what really has caused you to stray from God.  Open that truth to God and do penance confident that He gives you this grace to make a return.  He sees and longs to repay you by welcoming you into deeper life with Him now and ultimate life in the kingdom to come!

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica VII per Annum C

24 February 2019

In the first reading young David goes up against King Saul.  What I find most remarkable about the event is what you don’t hear about it.  If you read the whole passage from the Bible and not just the selection used at Mass, maybe you too would find most remarkable what you don’t hear about the event.  Reading the whole passage, you find that David has two men with him and they are making their plan to go up against King Saul and his three thousand troops.  That’s three versus three thousand and one!  In that passage, David asks his other two men who wants to go with him into the camp of King Saul.  Only one man volunteers to go with David.  That’s two against three thousand and one!  What don’t you hear in the passage?  You don’t hear the stuff that would be going through my mind if I were faced with those odds: “We don’t have enough.  We’ll never make it.”  David, trusting that the Lord is with him and is guiding his every step, does not worry about not having enough.  He doesn’t doubt that the Lord’s generosity will provide.

Since King David is the traditional author of the Book of Psalms, we hear David’s response in the psalm today: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name.”  All my being bless the Lord’s name.  I suggest that David’s words from the psalm show us his reciprocal generosity to God.  David sings of the call to bless God with everything.  All my being.  That means there is a call to bless God with all that I am.  With all that I have.  And not just right now, but in every moment that has been, or is, or will be mine.  Because ultimately my being, what I have, and my time is not my own, but is God’s gift.  That’s how a disciple understands stewardship.  My past, my present, my hoped-for future… may it all bless the Lord’s holy name!

In the Gospel selection the Lord tests the limits of the generosity of those who call themselves disciples.  It is a shocking test of the limits of generosity.  It is a test of whether we understand that being disciples involves the stewardship of our entire being.  Listen to the generosity the Lord places before us: Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, pray for them.  Does someone strike you on the cheek?  Give them the other one as well.  Does someone take your cloak?  Then give him the rest of your clothing too.  And this line, “Give to everyone who asks of you.”  Man alive!  What is the point of that kind of generosity?  It’s crazy.  No, the point is that with such generosity you will be, not children of the world, but children of the Most High God.  Children are supposed to resemble the traits of their parents.  If we belong to God, if we are His children, if we are disciples of His beloved Son, then we are called to a generosity beyond our fallen natural tendency.  Reciprocal generosity can be a scary ratio.  Jesus says, “Give, and gifts will be given to you.”  But in words that I heard once described, believe it or not, as some of the most scary words of the Gospel, he goes on to say, “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  Depending on how we disciples practice stewardship of our time, of our talent, and of our financial treasure, those are either very comforting or very unsettling words.  Our Heavenly Father wants them to be comforting because He wants us to resemble His generosity.

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica V per Annum C

10 February 2019

I’ll never forget the moment.  It was seven years ago this month.  The Archbishop wanted to talk.  He told me he was thinking of naming me the Pastor of St. Monica and he wanted to know what I thought about that.  It came as a complete shock.  While being very happy at the idea of coming here, I was struggling to put words together.  When bishops make assignments for priests they are looking for a clear answer, either a “yes” or a “no.”  And they aren’t really looking for “no!”  I was stammering and I must have sounded as shocked and uncertain as I felt.  The proof of how unexpected this was to me is that the Archbishop called me a week later to tell me he was also naming me the Vocation Director.  In that phone call he admitted he had intended to give me both assignments at once but upon seeing my reaction to St. Monica he said he had decided to slow roll the entire plan!  So, what was going on interiorly in me when I heard the news that I was being given a new calling, a new mission for God’s Church and His people?  I was first thinking of all the reasons why I’m not qualified.  On some days you might want to say, “Father, you should have followed that first instinct!”  Any time a human being is employed to God’s work we can easily find the ways he is unworthy and not qualified.  But I trust that despite that we can all see the good things God manages to do even with weakness and inability and with someone like me at the helm.

When God calls, don’t we quite frequently and readily first think of the reasons it is not a

good idea, the reasons why it won’t work?  That’s a human tendency that the Scriptures show us.  In the first reading Isaiah sees a vision of God’s Temple.  Isaiah experiences a call to a mission, to his vocation.  What is Isaiah’s first reaction?  He thinks of the reasons the vocation and mission can’t work.  “Woe is me, I am doomed!  For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”  But God’s ministering angel comes with purifying fire, touches Isaiah’s mouth, and says “See, now… your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”  In other words, Isaiah’s unworthiness is a given.  Of course, Isaiah is unworthy and sinful and incapable.  The call is God’s call and He’s the One who equips the person He calls.  Being made clean and forgiven by God Isaiah can then answer, “Here I am, send me!”

In the Gospel selection, Jesus calls Simon Peter as he begins to bring together his apostles.  Imagine how embarrassing it would be to be an expert fisherman with a fishing business, having just returned after a long night of catching nothing, to then have a carpenter get into your boat and give you fishing guidance: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”  Simon Peter is actually qualified at fishing and he first notes his objection but with humility he is obedient.  And in the face of a miraculous and large catch of fish, Simon follows that human tendency to consider first how God’s call won’t work and how unworthy he is.  Falling at the knees of Jesus, Simon said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  Sounds like Isaiah, no?  Jesus indicates that he will guarantee Simon Peter’s mission and vocation when he tells him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

In the second reading St. Paul’s words resonate so clearly to us in our own tendency to discount what God can do with us.  The difference with St. Paul is that he knows his unworthiness but he believes that far more important is God’s grace and what it can do in him.  Paul reminds the Church of Corinth of his vocation and mission to preach the Gospel he received.  He goes on to list many others who received the Gospel before him.  And then he says this about himself: “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he [the Resurrected Lord] appeared to me.  For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”  Paul knows his grave sin, persecuting and murdering Christians, but he knows that more powerful than even the destructiveness of his personal sin is the life and strength of God.  What a truthful, humble, hopeful, and healing phrase it is to say with St. Paul: “But by the grace of God I am what I am!”  May that be our phrase too when called by God to our vocation or to some particular mission.  Yes, I am unqualified, a sinner, and unworthy, but by God’s grace I am called: I am what I am!

To fulfill the call to be holy we each are given a vocation which defines the larger arc of our life and which carries with it dignity, duties, and responsibility.  But God may also give us a particular work at various moments of life.  We can call this a mission, some thing to accomplish that requires specific attention and effort but which may not define our whole life or be long term, like a vocation. What godly calling and mission is yours?  What godly calling and mission seems unlikely in your opinion?  What is God asking of you that you might first object to and raise the reasons why you are not qualified?  “God, I can’t be…” fill in the blank.  “God, I can’t do…” fill in the blank.  Like Isaiah, like Simon Peter, like Paul, what is God’s call to you to vocation and to mission that you think just can’t be?  You see, a lesson today is that we think more of ourselves instead of God.  That common tendency reveals the error.  Do we really think the source of power for vocation and mission comes from ourselves?  We first consider our skill, our strength, and our preparation.  We need to first think of God and what He can do.  What He can do even with you.  Even with me.  Of course, we certainly need to have a healthy awareness of our limitations and our unworthiness.  Such awareness permits us to focus where we need to call out to God in prayer for what only He can provide.  The Scripture lesson for us today is not a call to ignore our inabilities.  Rather, the lesson is to think first and more about God’s abilities.

What might this say to us in various examples of callings?  A teenager or a child might first fear to be a disciple among peers in school and in groups of friends.  You fear being rejected or standing out for being an example of Christian faith.  Trust that God will give strength in the lunchroom and in hallways.  Someone dating might face the struggle to live that relationship in purity and chastity as is God’s moral teaching.  If someone is a follower of Jesus he or she has a mission to stand against the societal trend to live together before marriage.  Our doubts might make us consider our weakness in the face of the call to live in purity.  But turn to God’s grace first.  Some young men may have a vocation to be priests.  They might tend to say, “That can’t be me.  God couldn’t choose me with my sins.”  Oh really?  Listen to the voice of the Master, “From now on you will be catching men.”  Spouses have a vocation to sacrificial love, to be faithful to one another, and to be open to the gift of children.  But at times it’s not easy.  There are fears and legitimate challenges and exhaustion.  Raising children takes so much.  Spouses may want to doubt the call and think themselves incapable.  But the dynamic of the Scriptures today speaks to you: “Do not be afraid.”  God’s grace “has not been ineffective.”  Maybe someone who struggles with same-sex attraction can’t at first accept the vocation to single chastity.  Could the Lord really expect a life of such purity when the world speaks the exact opposite?  Remember: It won’t be your own strength.  Think more of what God can do in you.  Maybe the invitation of God is to be more generous or sacrificial in financial giving or in lending your own talents to some area of parish life or to some Christian work done out in the world.  Is your first response fear that you won’t have enough?  How can I give more from what little I have and with my debts?  Put out into the deep and let God’s power and work bless your generosity.

What vocation and what mission might God be giving you?  What is your first response?  Is it, “I can’t”?  Or is it, “God can”?  Today we have the example of only three of the many and countless unworthy servants God calls: Isaiah, Simon Peter, Paul.  God’s grace equipped them for vocation and mission.  God’s grace filled what was lacking in them and transformed them for the task at hand.  Surely no one here could be more unworthy or less likely a candidate than Paul who had been a murderer!  If God can call and equip them, He does the same with the vocation and mission that He gives you.  He says to us: Your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.  Put out into the deep.  Do not be afraid.  May our response be: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”


Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica IV per Annum C

3 February 2019

This weekend’s Gospel selection picks up immediately where last weekend’s selection left off.  Being made numb by the 24-hour news cycle and TV broadcasts that seem to be nothing but a series of “Breaking News” and “News Alerts,” we might not appreciate it, but Jesus’ words are a true bombshell!

As we heard last week, Jesus read from Isaiah the prophecy of what the Spirit of the Lord would accomplish in the Anointed One.  What’s the bombshell, the true “breaking news?”  Jesus said,

                “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing!”

What’s at stake?  What does this mean?  It means that with and in Jesus the time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises is over!  Today it is fulfilled!  In your ears, in your midst, God’s promises are here!

And how did Nazareth respond to the bombshell?  The Gospel told us, “[A]ll spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  But as quick as a breaking news alert, what happens in just a few brief moments verses later?  The sentiment turns and the synagogue crowd is now “filled with fury” at Jesus.  They rise up and drive him out of town.  They are prepared to kill him!  In the Gospel passage today Jesus got a clear experience of what his mission is up against in our fallen world.

Adopting an uncritical and irrational mob mentality is not unique to Jesus’ time or to folks in Nazareth.  With that in mind, I want to reflect on recent events in our society.  These past two weeks, I haven’t been able to shake the need to address the unhinged lunacy around us.  Why, why would I bother about that in a homily?  Because it’s the air that we breathe, like it or not.  This is the atmosphere in which we live, in which we raise and form our kids.  Like Jesus in his time and place, this is the setting which we are called to be prophets to evangelize in the face of hostility.  When we are dismissed and even violently opposed we are called to announce: Today God’s promises are in your midst because Jesus Christ is here and he remains here in his Church!

The last two weeks in American society reveal our communal sickness of mind and sickness of soul.  When I first saw the brief video of a Catholic boy from Covington, Kentucky, standing face to face with a Native American beating a drum, and when I heard news describe the boy’s actions as disrespectful and racist my reaction was: “Where are these alleged actions the video is supposed to show?  What is he doing that would be fairly called disrespectful or, worse, racist?”  All I could see at first was two people standing uncomfortably and oddly close to one another.  The longer video shows that those boys are not guilty of disrespect or racism.  It is absurdity that false reporting like this goes on with impunity from alleged professionals.  The result is people have been trying to ruin the lives of kids.  And it is all the more shameful and embarrassing that some Church leaders joined the pile on with the unhinged mob.  I know a priest from Covington, Kentucky, who is a chaplain at another Catholic high school there (not the one in the video).  I spoke to him this past week and he told me that his school also received death threats.  Let that sink in.  The information mobsters are so irresponsible and so indiscriminate in their rage that they are (1) crazy enough to threaten kids with death; and, (2) they can’t even manage to do enough homework to level their nonsense at the correct school involved. 

Yet, this is the atmosphere we live in and in which we must proclaim the truth that God was made flesh and dwelt among us.  For we are called to be his prophets.  And we must not proclaim the Gospel without charity, without love.  If we did, we would simply be just like so much of society around us.  We cannot be of service as members of the Body of Christ if our proclaiming of the Gospel is little more than a “resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”  It doesn’t matter how right you may be.  If all we do is add to the noise and add to the heat then it is nothing and useless.  We are called to be prophets, and so you and I must keep ourselves filled with the love of God, armed with His presence, because it will be incredibly difficult to be evangelists in our society, just as it was for Jesus in the Gospel we heard.  If we aren’t praying daily in serious communion with Jesus to remain in his strength, if we aren’t being regularly healed of sin in confession, if we aren’t finding accountability and support in good Christian friendships, if we aren’t receiving Holy Communion with moral rectitude and utmost reverence… well, we simply won’t be up to the task!

And the next news cycle showed us just how desperately important it is that we be up to the task of proclaiming Jesus as his prophets.  It is as if some pit of hell has opened up in a matter of weeks where politicians have become so extreme in their thirst for abortion on demand that the push is on to allow it up to the moment of birth.  New York lawmakers and a Catholic governor formed a Satanic choir cheering the passing into law of late term abortion.  Within days a Virginia legislator attempted an equally extreme measure and that State’s governor, a physician, made some of the most extreme remarks yet, indicating that a living child who survives an abortion might still be dispatched even though alive after birth.  That governor is now embroiled in a different personal controversy which just might force him out of office.  But how telling is it that he is in trouble NOT because he endorsed infanticide!  This is how warped the moral compass has become.  Forty-six years of legalized abortion in this country have malformed consciences such that not only is abortion not seen for the extreme depravity it already is even in early stages, but now some of the most extreme supporters, as if without shame, can utter support for abortion up to birth and even infanticide after birth.  But folks, this is the extreme to which all abortion support tends because you can’t keep murderous killing cloaked for long in euphemisms like “choice,” and “healthcare.”  It is a poison that invades one’s whole vision.  I think this is in part the explanation for the societal landscape that we must evangelize as prophets.

I think it is providential that the first reading today reminds us of the foundation and the origin of man’s dignity, a foundation that has been rejected in popular society: God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…. a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”  What has contributed to society’s hostility to the Gospel of life and to the Lord of life?  One reason is the perversion of sexual love through contraception and abortion.  At St. Monica we are so blessed with lots of kids.  Visitors here frequently remark about this.  I want it to be clear that we want to welcome lots more kids.  But the larger society is selfish toward life.  The result is our generosity has become so atrophied by our lust that we can no longer see things clearly.  It has become so bad that otherwise intelligent human beings play word games about what is conceived in the womb and feign compassion while promoting the murder of the most innocent.  These ways cannot be our ways.  Or else we will fail in the work of announcing Jesus as his prophets, announcing his favor and blessing.  These ways cannot be our ways.  Or else we will be little more than a noisy gong in a society where the prevailing attitude is “might makes right.”

Jesus calls us to be united to him in proclaiming that today God’s promises are in our midst.  He calls us to be united to him in such proclamation even to a hostile world.  It won’t be easy.  But just as he miraculously passed through the mob unharmed, he will do amazing things with our cooperation.  Let’s be hungry for the amazing and unexpected reversal that God will work through our cooperation and in the face of a depraved society.  I’ll tell you right now, Covington Catholic High School had better get ready for an unusually high number of future priests to come out of that school because, I predict, the crucible of the unhinged media mob has unleashed something there that God will use to astounding effect in calling those young men to be prophets.  And something tells me this will all lead right back to the March for Life in Washington, DC.  The huge attendance there by a significantly young crowd is a tidal wave of truth and charity that is already sounding the trumpet of God and the defeat of the culture of death.  That the main stream media is so afraid to give the march any fair coverage, tells you just how weak the grip is of those who promote the culture of death.  The culture of death is so desperate now that it is showing its extreme depravity in New York and Virginia.  It won’t stand.  As God’s word also said through the Prophet Jeremiah: “They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you!”  With and in Jesus the time of waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises is over!  Today it is fulfilled!  In your ears, in your midst, God’s promises are here!  Rise up, yes!  Not in fury against the Lord.  Rise up in charity and truth to proclaim Jesus Christ to a dark world desperate for mercy.


Second Sunday In Ordinary Time

Dominica II per Annum C

20 January 2019

Towards the end of the Christmas season the Church observes the great solemnity of the Epiphany.  “Epiphany” is a word coming from the Greek meaning “manifestation,” a “showing,” or an “appearance.”  In the context of our faith we observe that the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth is a manifestation, a showing, among mankind of God’s divine presence because Jesus is God-made-man.  In these weeks after the Solemnity of the Epiphany we have actually a season of epiphanies presented in the gospel selections.  The visit of the Magi is followed a week later by the gospel of Jesus’ baptism where God the Father calls him “Son,” and God the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the River Jordan.  And after that epiphany, a week later we have the gospel of the miracle at Cana this weekend.  A traditional hymn for Epiphany shows us just how broadly the Church has always viewed the Epiphany, all the events wrapped up in it, whereas we tend to view it only as the visit of the Magi.  That hymn is titled “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise.”  Listen to the verses:

“Songs of thankfulness and praise,
Jesus, Lord, to Thee we raise,
Manifested by the star
To the sages from afar;”

That sounds like what we tend to expect from an Epiphany hymn, right?  But then the verses continue:

“Manifest at Jordan’s stream,
Prophet, Priest, and King supreme;”

That’s last week’s observance of the Baptism of Jesus.  And the verse continues:

“And at Cana, wedding guest,
In Thy Godhead manifest;
Manifest in power divine,
Changing water into wine;
Anthems be to Thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.”

The birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, the baptism, and the first miracle at Cana are indeed epiphanies, manifestations, showings, that God has come in Jesus of Nazareth.

A profoundly rich lesson is ours this week, a lesson we will never stop returning to in order to deepen our faith.  The lesson is stated beautifully in the first reading: “For the Lord delights in you…. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”  You see, God established marriage to be a sign of the covenant relationship He desires to make with His people, with each of us.  The Bible begins and ends with a wedding (Adam & Eve’s as reported in the Book of Genesis and the marriage supper of the Lamb as John’s vision reports in the Book of Revelation).  God Himself is the Groom and mankind is His beloved bride, the one He beholds, pursues, and delights in.  This is God’s consistent covenant image throughout all of Scripture.  And so, Jesus manifests his presence as God in the midst of the celebration of spousal love at Cana in Galilee.  The miracle of turning water into wine shows Jesus’ power and it reminds us that bride and groom are to permit God to be an active presence in their marriage and family life.  The place that husband and wife are called to permit God to have in their married life is, as it was at Cana, ordered to making new disciples.  At Cana Jesus’ first miracle led his disciples to begin the journey of belief.  Likewise, in marriage the faithful love of husband and wife is intended both to inspire others to believe in Jesus the Bridegroom who delights in us, and the faithful love of husband and wife is to literally make disciples of the children that they should always be open to receive from God, as a result of spousal sexual love, which God made to be good.

Believers should not view marriage as simply a common arrangement.  Burdened by an excessively secular vision, we often do not understand nor easily accept that marriage is a vocation, ordered to drawing others into the family of God by serving as an example that gathers others into the Catholic Church.  And, more directly, our age does not understand nor does it easily accept that marriage is a vocation ordered to drawing others into the family of God by keeping married love in its every act open to life so that new children may literally become disciples by baptism and ongoing formation.  What might help us more easily accept all that the Church holds about Holy Matrimony?  Actually, even more broadly, what might help us accept all of the Church’s vision for life in this world and life in the next?  I suggest the starting point is the beautiful and foundational message of today’s Scriptures: Namely, that God delights in you!  God looks at you with the thrill and anticipation with which a young man looks upon his bride!  He unites Himself to you in Christ Jesus!  He rejoices in you!  No disciple can ever be finished returning to this lesson and diving more deeply into the rich message of God’s love for us manifested in Christ.  By returning to the depth of Christ’s love for us, how can we NOT be interested in what His Church teaches about the vocation of marriage?  How can we NOT be moved to leave behind the ways of sin in order to seek the superior wine of God’s love?  Have you stopped recently to meditate upon the magnitude of the love Christ has for you?  One image for the magnitude of his love is six stone water jars each holding twenty to thirty gallons!  That’s 120 to 180 gallons of good wine, an image of God’s love, God’s joy, God’s Spirit placed in us!

The gospel shows us that Jesus is ready to manifest his divine power for us.  The gospel shows us Mary in her twofold work of bringing needs to Jesus and rightly instructing us: “Do whatever he tells you.”  Yet what will determine how many “gallons” of grace is produced in us?  Like the servers in the Gospel we too have a response to make to Jesus’ desire for us.  The servers didn’t simply put some water in the six jars; rather, in obedience, they filled them to the brim!  In all of our inferior ways, in our poverty and weakness, in our emptiness, we have an invitation to bring ourselves completely to Jesus so as to be filled by him.  Each disciple is called to obedience to Jesus so as to produce the greatest volume of superior vintage possible.

The invitation to us is to never let the joy of Jesus’ presence and love run dry in us by turning away to drink from other jars, or by turning to the false affections of other loves, of idols.  Rather, we are constantly instructed by Mary to “Do whatever he tells you” so that we may strengthen our belief in Jesus and live always in the joy of our Divine Spouse.

Christmas Midnight Mass

Nativitas D.N.I.C.

25 December 2018

One of mankind’s biggest challenges in relationship to God is making the time to consider God, to consider His ways, His teachings, to consider Him real, and real enough that He actually has a claim on my life.  We are busy and we focus on so many other things instead of God such that we train ourselves to give Him little focus.  This is a challenge even for self-professed religious people like you and me.  That puts us on a trajectory of having a tangential acquaintanceship with God or, at worst, keeping Him at a distance.  Whatever the case, we aren’t building a friendship with God when we don’t consider Him and work against the tendency to give Him little attention in the real time of our daily living.  If you want proof of the risk of this tendency, then look no further than the screen time report on your smart phone.  Compare the amount of screen time with your amount of prayer time.  Yes, it is a real tendency of ours to place greater focus on things that are not God.

So many other things about our life seem so much more pressing as compared to God.  That’s not a unique challenge.  It seems it was present surrounding the birth of Jesus in his time.  People were traveling, they were busy, they were figuring out what they had to do to comply with the requirements of the census called for by Caesar, and they were taking care of their real worldly and bodily needs.  And God was right there, hidden just beyond sight in Mary’s womb.  In the midst of this busyness and the focus on so many other things, the gospel tells us of this common human tendency to fail to make space for God by reporting: “There was no room for them in the inn.”  An outlying cave and a place for animals was all the room God could find.  The focus, the attention, the minds and hearts of God’s people were not focused on Him.

Recently after Mass talking to people in the narthex I was holding an infant.  The baby was calm and happy to be cradled in my arms.  I looked down at the baby and he looked up at me.  We locked eyes on one another for quite a while actually as I was standing there with his parents.  When you hold a baby don’t you also just naturally look at the baby?  You gaze at the infant and, if awake and calm, the infant gazes back at you.  As I was looking into this baby’s eyes I found myself wondering: What is he thinking? What is he seeing?  What is on his mind?  What is his mind able to perceive and process as he looks up at me?  What’s going on inside him, in his mind and heart, as he gazes at me?  He had my attention and my pondering, as I marveled at new life.

Reflecting later on about this experience the idea came to me that perhaps this is how we understand God’s method of breaking through our common tendency to be focused on other things and distant from Him.  Does this perhaps explain some of the divine logic in God’s choice and plan to enter as an Infant the creation He desired to save?  Perhaps to draw us naturally to Him?  Maybe we understand the birth of Almighty God in the smallness of human flesh as the means by which God could break through our distraction and self-centered thoughts such that in reference to God we too might wonder about Him: What is He thinking?  What does He think about me?  What is going on with Him?  What does He perceive in me?  What does He see when He looks at me?  Mary and Joseph had the very distinct privilege of holding the Infant God in their very arms.  Maybe they thought the same things I described in holding an infant.  Even though we live centuries after his birth and even though we don’t get to hold him physically in the form of an infant, we can however dwell on that common experience of the pondering that arises in us as we hold a child and find renewed focus to train ourselves to consider God and His ways.  That can be our response to the truth of faith we celebrate today, that God took human flesh and was born an infant in Bethlehem.  We can find in this day and this season renewed reason to train ourselves to act against that common tendency to keep ourselves so busy and full that in us too there is no room for them in the inn.  We can imagine what arises in us so easily while holding an infant and find in that a good lesson for needing to gaze upon and ponder God in such a way that He and His commands actually have a claim on our life.  This can be our response to the invitation that is deep in the mysterious infant eyes that Mary and Joseph gazed upon.

Our cynical world might want to accuse me of taking a human experience and simply placing it upon God as if the human explains the divine, as if the limited explains the infinite.  Fundamental error in philosophy, Father!  Don’t they teach you that in that seminary you went to?  But Sacred Scripture reveals to us authoritatively what God is like and I think we find there some reason to trust human experience as a lesson about God.  When you read throughout all the Scriptures, especially in the Old Testament, God’s lamenting of the distance and infidelity of His people you find strikingly emotional language and language that borrows from human relationships.  Listen to just a small selection of examples that I found that describe God’s lament at our distance and His desire to get our attention. 

From the Book of the Prophet Michah: “O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me” (Micah 6:3)!

From the 81st Psalm: “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me… O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways”  (Ps. 81:11, 13)!

From the Prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing… and burning incense to idols.  Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love” (Hosea 11:1-4).

The Prophet Isaiah reports God telling His people not to fear because He has redeemed them, called them by name, and loves them…  God says, “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Is. 43:4).  Isaiah goes on to report the Lord saying: “ ‘Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?’  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15).

How in the midst of the crush of the demands of daily living (whether around 3 BC or 2018) does God effect the fulfillment of His plan and get His people to consider Him?  To think of Him?  To ponder Him and His ways?  Today we observe that God desires to provoke a focus on Him by being an Infant who can be held.  Mary ponders Him and all the things about Him in her heart.  She becomes the model for how His incarnation calls us to ponder Him.

Psalm 131, in a verse I chose for the window of our baptistry, expresses the calm and peace of a soul attentive to God: “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast is my soul” (v.2).  God desires us to enter relationship with Him in regular worship, rather than giving our sacrifices to idols.  He calls us to rest in Him in regular time each day for prayer, by which we turn our attention and our gaze upon Him, so as to train ourselves to combat that tendency to focus on other, lesser things.  To highlight one type of prayer, Adoration is such a good training ground to combat the tendency to not consider God.  In adoration in our chapel we kneel and spend time before the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  He’s really there, God-with-us!  We look upon Him and we train our gaze to rest in His presence.  In so doing, we live lives of deeper friendship with Him now and we are prepared to gaze upon Him in the eternity of His blessing in Heaven.  God comes in our flesh, born as a baby, that our natural tendency to look upon, to ponder, and to wonder about a baby might draw us to consider Him and His ways as having a claim on our living.  As St. Paul wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires.”  And so with the Gospel, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  Come, let us gaze upon Him!  Come, let us ponder Him!  Come, let us adore Him!

Third Sunday of Advent

Dominica III Adventus C

16 December 2018

The change of vestment color for this weekend and the permission to decorate the sanctuary with flowers serve as a visual reminder that over half of Advent is in the past.  The color rose – rose being traditionally associated with joy – and the repeated message of the Scriptures call us to rejoice.  And so this day has been called “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday.”  This weekend the Church calls us to step up our joy because we have completed more than half of this holy season and are drawing near to the celebration of the source of our joy, the birth of Christ Jesus.

The gospel selection is the continuation from last Sunday of the preaching of that famous Advent figure, St. John the Baptist.  If you back up to the start of Chapter 3 of St. Luke, from which chapter the gospel is taken, you see the world scene into which St. John was sent to preach.  St. John the Baptist is preaching his message in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate is governor of Judea, and while Herod ruled as tetrarch of the Jews in Galilee.  Each of these figures in St. John’s world has a checkered legacy.  If you find yourself lamenting how bad things are today (and they are!), and if by that you uncritically adopt the notion that it was easier in Jesus’ time (it wasn’t!), then you need to correct that thinking.  Tiberius is associated with adultery, murder, and political executions.  Herod’s life is associated with lavishness, jealousy, and sexual excess.  And Pontius Pilate.  We know that story.  St. John’s preaching was at times a seemingly non-threatening proclamation.  Things like: “I am not the Christ” (Jn. 1:20), “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Jn. 1:23), “He who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Mt. 3:11), “I am not worthy” to untie his sandal (Jn. 1:27), “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:36).  These are the sorts of messages that are easy to hear from a preacher.  But St. John also knew how to deliver the hard truth.  Things like: “Repent” (Mt. 3:2), “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7), “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9).  St. John was a tough and wild preacher.  After all he wasn’t arrested and beheaded for failing to speak the truth.

When you think of the very different personalities who listened to St. John and who heard him preach – the powerful rulers, the religious authorities, the everyday people – what accounts for the difference in those who responded to his message versus those who did not?  I think an answer is that question that three different groups ask in the gospel.  “What should we do?”  In St. John’s time, and as now, some people are going to hell and are heading there with wild velocity.  Then, like now, some people are trapped in grave sin but perhaps various circumstances or personality struggles lessen their guilt.  Then, like now, some people are basically holy but are still working out the lesser sins.  Then, like now, our lives might be marked by some or all of this.  Then, like now, some are responding to God’s grace and making their way to deeper friendship with God.  What should we do?  It’s a question from those we hear about in today’s gospel, a question that shows a serious engagement with the message of St. John.  That serious engagement makes all the difference and leads to repentance.

What should I do?  Are you willing to hear the call of God across the ages to repent and prepare for His day, culminating in His arrival in our flesh to save us?  Or are you here but sort of coasting through the drama of salvation?  It is time to listen to the call of God and to seriously engage with the need to repent and to engage with the generous offer of God’s loving mercy.  What should I do?  It’s a question we should ask ourselves.  The answer, like it was for the crowds, for the tax collectors, and the soldiers, is not too high, lofty, or impossible for us.  If you have two cloaks and enough food, give some to the person with none.  Like the tax collectors heard, stop cheating and do your work well and fairly.  Like the soldiers heard, don’t use your power to lie and to take advantage of others, but be loyal and satisfied with what you have.

When we engage seriously with the call to repent and to foster life with God we stop treating the Gospel we hear as simply a collection of faith stories from the past serving purely to remind us to be religious.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we allow the drama of salvation to be something alive and active within us who are still being saved by God’s grace.  When we engage seriously with the call to repent we are willing to be moved out of our stagnation and to ask that uncomfortable question that betrays that I need to change.  “What should I do?”  It is the willingness to ask that question of ourselves day in and day out of our earthly journey that permits us to live the joy and rejoicing encouraged by this Gaudete Sunday because repentance, confession, and conversion lead us away from a relationship with God’s wrath and instead to a relationship with the Father who saves us by placing the irreplaceable gift of His Son in our midst.  What cause for our rejoicing!  As we heard in the first reading, “Shout for joy…. Be glad and exult…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.”