16 February 2018

Homily - 14 February 2018 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Much like Saint Valentine’s Day, we might say Ash Wednesday is a day about love. It might seem strange to say so, given that February 14th has largely become associated with romantic notions of love, and that on Ash Wednesday Mother Church calls us to “take up battle with spiritual evils.”[1] Today, then, is an opportunity for us to consider the nature of love. Saint Paul exhorts us, saying, “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (II Corinthians 6:1). There is much to unpack in these few words, much that concerns love.

If we are to heed the Apostle’s warning, we must first know what he means by grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life.”[2] To put it perhaps more simply,

God’s grace denotes his gift of love, the love made known most dramatically in the sending of his Son (cf. John 3:16) and in the gift of the Spirit in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5). Grace thus signifies that God holds nothing back in reaching out to us in love.[3]

Yet despite this gift of grace we all too often fail to reach out in love to God.

Saint Valentine, a priest in the city of Rome, realized the tremendous gift we received in Christ and he devoted his life to helping others realize the same; he sought to help them live in grace. When Roman soldiers were forbidden to enter into marriage, me married them anyway, because he wanted to be sure husbands and wives received the grace to keep the promises of their marriages and so reflect God’s love for the Church. When he refused to stop witnessing the marriages of soldiers, he was beheaded. So it is that the color of Saint Valentine’s Day is red; it calls to mind the blood of this martyr, blood shed in and for love of God and neighbor. Valentine heard Saint Paul’s admonition and did not receive the grace of God in vain; he allowed this grace to bear fruit in his life and be caught up in the life of God.

Saint Augustine of Hippo at first resisted God’s gift of grace and so received it in vain, yet one day he yielded. His interior longing for God prevailed and he exposed his heart to grace saying that famously moving prayer: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[4]

Each of us received this grace of God’s love, we received a share in the divine life, in the waters of Baptism, but it is a grace to which we must respond again and again if we do not wish to lose it; it is a love we sometimes resist. This is why the Lord says to us through his prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12-13).

By giving his life for the sake of others, Saint Valentine imitated the Lord Jesus and so we see the life of Christ reflected in this martyr. By devoting his life to his portion of the Lord’s flock, Saint Augustine imitated the Lord and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his teachings. In a similar way, husbands and wives are to live for each other, not for themselves, and so imitate the selfless love of Christ. “What does it mean,” then, “to receive the grace of God in vain except to be unwilling to perform good works with the help of his grace?”[5] Indeed, we see that “Paul’s exhortation not to receive God’s grace in vain is an appeal to deeper conversion, that is, to avoid becoming partners with evil and to continue to purify [ourselves] in mind and body.”[6] This is what today is all about.

We have come before the Lord because we know we have not always kept ourselves pure in mind and body. We have received the grace of God in vain. We have failed to love both God and neighbor and we have not always allowed the Lord to reflect his love through us. We have heard the Lord’s call to “proclaim a fast” and to “call an assembly,” and so we cry out to him, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (Joel 2:15; cf. Psalm 51:3).

The ancient symbol of Saint Augustine is a heart on fire and pierced with arrows. The heart symbolizes his restless longing for God; the fire his burning love for God and neighbor; and the arrows the many times he was pierced by God’s grace, pierced by God’s love. The restlessness of his heart and his encounters with God’s grace taught Saint Augustine, as he said, that “nothing cleanses the heart but the undivided and single-minded striving after eternal life…”[7]

In these coming days of Lent, let each of us follow his example and strive after eternal life with undivided hearts. With Saint Augustine, let us not shield our hearts from the Lord, but let us instead hold them up to him. Let us expose our hearts to be pierced by his grace and set afire with the love of God and neighbor. If we do, the Father will reward us and give us back the joy of salvation, the joy of love (Matthew 6:4; Psalm 51:14). Amen.

[1] Collect of the Mass for Ash Wednesday.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996.
[3] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 191.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1. Henry Chadwick, trans., Oxford World’s Classics: Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
[5] Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 126.5. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 251.
[6] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians, 148.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the Mount, 2.3.11. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 128.

Homily - 11 February 2018 - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We heard a few moments ago those simple and demanding words of Saint Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1). The Apostle is only able to imitate Christ because he knows Christ, because he has a friendship with him, a relationship which he nurtures and values above all else. Why else would Saint Paul have willingly - and repeatedly - suffered so much because of the name of Christ? If we are to imitate Saint Paul - if you and I are to follow his counsel; we, too, must be friends of Jesus Christ and treasure this relationship above everything else. As Saint Augustine is said to have said, “Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all.”

Establishing and maintaining a friendship with Jesus is really much like doing so with anyone else; in order to be friends with Jesus, we must spend time with him. One of my heroes, Saint Damien of Moloka‘i, reminds us that

Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please Him. His goodness knows how to proportion itself to the smallest of His creatures as to the greatest of them. Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.

Is this not what we do with our friends? Do we not tell them of our miseries and our fears? Do we not introduce them to others who are dear to us? Do we not share our projects and our hopes with them? Of course we do; this is what it means to be friends.

If we do all of this with one another, why do we not speak so intimately with Jesus? Why are we often hesitant to spend time with him? Why are the Scriptures so very often at the bottom of our reading pile? Why do we not turn off the television or put the phone down and pray? Could it be that we are afraid of him?

St. Francis of Assisi often said, “What a man is in the eyes of God, that he is and nothing more.”[1] When we spend time with our friends, we often encourage each other and look past each other’s faults. We tell each other that we are not as bad as some might think, that we are better and more skilled than perhaps we really are. We inflate each other’s egos, all in the name of self-esteem, but is it really good to have esteem for oneself? Does it not do us more harm than good to think so highly of ourselves and distort reality?

“What a man is in the eyes of God, that he is and nothing more.” To realize this is true humility because humility is not so much debasing ourselves as much as it is seeing ourselves as God himself sees us, both the good and the bad, as Saint Bernard of Clairvoux teaches us. When we spend time with the Lord he sees us just as we are – nothing more and nothing less; he sees our good works, the kindnesses we have shown and the ways we have faithfully followed him, he sees also all of the times we have failed, our sins, mistakes, and flaws. He sees the beautiful at the same time he sees the ugly; he sees what we portray to others and what we hide. He looks past nothing and ignores nothing. Strange though it may seem, it is for this very reason that his is the greatest of all possible friendships. There is no reason for fear because his friendship is real and sincere.

In friendship with Jesus there is no flattery, no puffing up, no undeserved compliments or unnecessary praises. There is no ignoring of sins and faults. All is laid bare. There is nothing but faithful love. Is this, perhaps, why we are afraid to spend time with Jesus? Do we not know that he will show us our sins and demand something from us, that he will hold us accountable even as he offers his mercy?

If we are to be friends of Christ, we must be honest with him and not attempt to keep anything hidden from him before whom nothing is hidden. The longer we are in his company and the more honest we are with him, the more he reveals our faults, failings, and sins to us just as he calls us to be like him. As all true friends do, Jesus challenges us to grow in holiness and shows us the way to do so, but we must first spend time with him and speak with him as one friend to another.

As we do so, we will realize that each of us has been rightly declared unclean on account of our sins. We have all sinned against the Lord, yet he still desires our friendship. To be friends of the Lord Jesus requires that we acknowledge our failures to love both God and neighbor. Once we have done so, we can say with King David, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt you covered not” (Psalm 32:5). After our confession we can echo his words, “Blessed is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).

The leper said to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:40). He did not dispute his unclean state; he did not make excuses; he did not blame others; he simply acknowledged he was unclean and professed his confidence that Jesus could cleanse him. This is how the humble seek friendship with Jesus and so the Lord said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean” (Mark 1:41). Jesus sent him away saying, “but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed” so proof of his healing could be presented to the community (Mark 1:44).

What is it that Moses prescribed for the cleansing of a leper? This is what a leper was to do:

If the priest finds that the sore of leprosy has healed in the leper, he shall order the man who is to purified, to get two live, clean birds, as well as some cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop. The priest shall then order him to slay one of the birds over an earthen vessel with spring water in it. Taking the living bird with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, the priest shall dip them all in the blood of the bird that was slain over the spring water, and then sprinkle seven times the man to be purified from his leprosy. When he has thus purified him, he shall let the living bird fly away over the countryside (Leviticus 14:3-7).

Whereas the leper was cleansed and healed through the priest’s sprinkling him with the blood of the bird, we are cleansed and healed through the priest’s absolution and the Blood of the Lamb of God.

To his friends, to those who allow him to know them through and through and allow him to challenge them to grow in holiness each day, Jesus still says, “but go, show yourself to the priest.” Let us not be afraid to be with Jesus, to renew and strengthen our friendship with him. When he shows us our sins and tells us to seek his mercy, it is only because he wants us to be whole and clean. He wants to save us from the leprosy of sin, but if we do not recognize and accept the symptoms of our disease he cannot give us his medicine to heal us.

The true friends of Jesus come before him saying, “Lord, ‘if you wish, you can make me clean.’” In this way we truly can, as Saint Paul urges us, “do everything for the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31). Having heard the depth of our faith and the strength of our love for him who first loved us, Jesus will say to us, “I do will it. Be made clean,” and we, too, will be able to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” because we will have become like our friend. Amen.

[1] Saint Bonaventure, Minor Legend, 6.1.

07 February 2018

Homily - 4 February 2018 - The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I am a few days late in posting this, but here is the text of the homily I preached this past Sunday:

The Fifth Sunday of the Year (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The fever of Simon’s mother-in-law must have been truly severe, for she could not even see to the basic requirement of hospitality. She is not the only one among us who lays “sick with a fever” (Mark 1:30). Indeed, there are many fevers under which humanity falls and suffers. Our fevers weigh so heavily upon us that the service of Christ, that growth in virtue and holiness – our true happiness – is difficult and we become lethargic and stagnant. These varied fevers are unavoidable and come to us all, but it is precisely for this reason that Jesus declares, “For this purpose have I come” (Mark 1:38).

Elsewhere, Christ, the Divine Physician, says, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Mark 2:17). The fevers from which we suffer are truly many. There is the fever of anger or greed; of lust or envy; of sloth, gluttony or pride. There are also the fevers of “ideologies, idolatry, [and the] forgetfulness of God,” each of which is becoming more rampant today.[1] The greatest of these – and the one that gives rise to them all – is the forgetfulness of God, the failure to recognize him and the beauty and wonder of his will for our lives.

When the forgetfulness of God sets upon us, it is easy to ask with Job, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery” (Job 7:1)? It is easy to say with him, “I shall not see happiness again” (Job 7:7). Those who forget God come to think God has forgotten or abandoned them; those who forget God fail to realize he “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). How often do we forget the Lord?

In the classic movie The Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts says to the Princess Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The Psalmist put it somewhat differently: “Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone” (Psalm 90:10). That, Saint Augustine tells us, “is why Christ, that is why the new life, that is why eternal hope, that is why the consolation of immortality has been promised us and in the flesh of the Lord has already been given us.”[2] Yes, life may be short and filled with pain and many fevers, but, as the Lord said to his disciples upon receiving word of the illness of Lazarus, “This illness is not to end in death,” just as we see in the Gospel today (John 11:4).

When he saw the illness of Simon’s mother-in-law, the Lord Jesus “approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up” (Mark 1:31). As sometimes happens because translating a text is more an art than a science, our English translation does not quite capture the richness of Saint Mark’s words. The word he used in Greek when he said Jesus “helped her up” is, literally, the same word the Evangelist used to describe Jesus’ own Resurrection. So it is that “this woman’s recovery from illness is a foreshadowing of the resurrection on the last day.”[3]
With Job, we, too ask the Lord, “When shall I arise” (Job 7:4)? We shall arise, we shall be raised up, when the Lord approaches us and grasps our hand on the Last Day. This is why our heavenly patron says,

He rose again, you see, to give us hope, because what rises again is what first dies. So [Christ’s resurrection] was to save us from despair at dying and from thinking that our whole life ends with death. We were anxious, I mean, about the soul, and he by rising again gave us an assurance even about the flesh… He descended in order to heal you; he ascended in order to lift you up.[4]

We shall soon arise, for he has indeed come among us. On his glorious Cross, he “took away our infirmities and bore our diseases” (cf. Matthew 8:17). He has come to grasp our hand and to lift us up, just as he did with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, if only we will let him (cf. Mark 1:31).

This is the very message the Apostle Paul is obliged to preach; it is the good news of victory over sin and death the Lord has won for us (cf. I Corinthians 9:16). No longer are Job’s words true: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope” (Job 7:6). Because “Christ Jesus our hope” is risen, we, too, should be filled with hope, for “the Lord sustains the lowly” (cf. I Timothy 1:1; Psalm 147:5). Life becomes a drudgery only for the one who has no hope because he has forgotten God; life becomes a drudgery only for the one who does not see the mysterious beauty of the Crucifis.

The one who remembers God has hope; he has Christ; he knows he will be taken by the hand and lifted up. What is more, he knows the Lord desires to take him by the hand even now.

And he does so in all ages; he takes us by the hand with his Word, thereby dispelling the fog of ideologies and forms of idolatry. He takes us by the hand in the sacraments; he heals us from the fever of our passions and sins through absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He gives us the possibility to raise ourselves, to stand before God and before men and women. And precisely within this context of the Sunday liturgy, the Lord comes to meet us; he takes us by the hand, raises us, and heals us ever anew with the gift of his words, the gift of himself.[5]

In just a few moments, the Lord will approach little Piper Mae. He will take her tiny hand, lift her up, and heal her of the fever of original sin.

From this day forward, it will be your duty, parents and godparents, to keep her hand always stretched out towards the Lord’s, to keep her hand always open to his grasp. Teach her to flee from the fevers that will seek to overtake her. By your own witness to the Gospel, may you teach her to love God and neighbor, so that she will always know the joy of being loved by God. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 5 February 2006.
[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 359.9. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. VIII: Psalms 51-150, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2007), 167.
[3] Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 49.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 261.1.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 5 February 2006.