Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Discerning Celibacy: Part I

As a new vocation director, I have found myself often working to explain aspects of the priesthood to those who are discerning.  And certainly one area that requires great explanation is the aspect of priestly celibacy.

I feel like I could write all week about celibacy and not write enough to address the questions and confusion and opposition that I have encountered toward celibacy in my brief seven years as a priest.  It is hard to even know where to begin.

One of the things that drives me nuts is the widespread notion that in order to embrace the celibate life, a young man or woman must negate the value and goodness of intimacy and the family.  It is common, when suggesting that perhaps a young man might have a vocation to the priesthood, to hear the objection that he must not because he either "likes girls" or because "he would be such a great father."  It is viewed as contradictory for a young man who likes girls or values and enjoys being around children to voluntarily promise to live a celibate way of life.  What could possibility motivate someone to renounce such important areas of fulfillment and happiness in life when he finds himself drawn to them and values them?  

I have asked myself this question.  How is it that I was able to freely and happily make the promise of celibacy even while affirming that I was attracted to and valued the intimacy of marriage and goodness of family life?  How could I value something and seemingly reject it at the same time?  How could celibacy lived in such a state of seeming contradiction not be anything other than a torment?  Why is it that I am not miserable?

A number of months ago a metaphor came to me that I have found much more helpful than some kind of theological or psychological discussion in explaining an answer:

Marriage is a masterpiece of God's creation.  When God created human beings, he created them to be male and female in a stunning complementarity that allows them to share in his love and his creative work in the world.  Each marriage is a unique work of art in which God weaves together the personalities, gifts, and experiences of two people in a way that allows them to grow and enrich one another and our world and become more truly who he made them to be.  

It is really quite amazing to think that God entrusts such an incredible gift to so many people.  In giving a husband and wife to each other, he places into their hands a precious work of art that is to be crafted and cared for and protected over the course of their lives.  He invites them to play a critical role in his creative work, becoming fellow artisans and co-creators with him in building the kingdom of God as they strive to fulfill their marriage vows.

The celibate priest does not despise this artistic endeavor or in any way reject it.  No, in this metaphor the priest is like the curator at an art museum.  He is a great lover of the art of marriage, in fact, he is a connoisseur.  He spends his whole life bringing works of art into the home that has been prepared for them to keep them safe and to allow them to bring joy and happiness to all.  He spends his days dusting them and placing them where their beauty will be most clearly seen.  When works are brought to him in need of repair, he spends long hours in the careful work of restoration.  He guards them from thieves who would steal them in the night.  He ensures that they are properly stored so as not to fade or tarnish. 

But when he goes home at night, he does not take them with him.  They do not belong to him.  As curator, he serves a cause greater than himself or his own possessions.  And he is content with that.  In fact he is happy to dedicate his life to being the curator in a place of such incredible beauty, doing work that gives joy to so many.

Who loves art more, the artist or the curator?  Who serves art more, the artist or the curator?  Neither.  They are complimentary.  And so are the vocations of celibacy and married life.  They compliment one another.  A priest can love and serve marriage without possessing it as his own.  In fact I would argue that he must be ready to love and serve marriage if he is going to be a happy and healthy priest.  Celibacy is not a rejection of marriage any more than curating is a rejection of art.

Traditionally, the pastor of a parish has been called by the title of ‘Curate.’  I hope that more people can see that he is not merely the curate of buildings or of golden vessels or liturgical books.  No, most importantly he is the curate of the families he serves – he is the curator of the beautiful marriages, the masterpieces of God’s love placed within his care.  And in this work he finds great joy and life and love.                              

End of an Hiatus.

I fell off the blogosphere last May as life became crazy with new adventures and transitions.  This spring, Bishop Robert Deeley named me Vocation Director for the Diocese of Portland and chaplain to St. Dominic Academy.  The move and initial effort to settle into my new position have made it impossible to post, particularly since I have no longer been celebrating a regular parish Sunday Mass and thus do not always have a Sunday homily prepared each week as I have in the past.

In recent months I have been debating whether I should continue to try to maintain a blog.  I was concerned about how consistently I would be able to post, given the demands on my time.  It is one thing to post Sunday homilies – quite another to work on blog posts for their own sake.

Yet I think I will give it a shot.  I am not sure how often I will be able to post something, but there are things that I would like to write about and that I hope can be of use to others – particularly with regard to discernment and the vocations work that I am now doing.  So I will continue on with this experiment of Sparks and Stubble – albeit in a different mode. 

Thank you to all who have commented and encouraged me over the past few years!  May God bless you and your families.

Monday, May 5, 2014

What Are You Discussing as You Walk Along?

Homily for the 3rd Week of Easter, 2014

We live in an information age – we have so much information at our fingertips.  And we collect it, we sort it, we manage it.  So much social information, so much technical information – when you think of all the stuff that we have to keep track of today – how much information daily life demands of us.

How many jobs now really are heavily occupied with collecting, managing, and using information?  Probably the overwhelming majority – and it doesn’t matter which jobs – from the doctor’s office to the Walmart counter – so much of what we are doing comes down to processing information.

“What are you discussing as you walk along?”  Our Lord’s question breaks through their discussion of worldly information and events.  It derails their conversation and stops them in their tracks.

Their response is not particularly respectful.  “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”  Basically: “Have you been living under a rock?”They take for granted that of course everyone would know about what they are discussing – everyone is talking about it!

But our Lord is not put off.  He presses them:
“What sort of things?” he asks.

His question makes them step out of the immediacy of the conversation, the immediacy of the information, and reflect.  And notice that when they do they reveal that they have gotten it dead wrong.

“Oh, how foolish you are,” Jesus tells him.  He pressed them a little for an explanation, and they did not really know the answer.  They knew the information, but they didn’t know the answer.  They knew the what, but not the why.

And aren’t we vulnerable, in our technological age, to the same weakness – more vulnerable!
We are so used to collecting and managing and using information.  But do we know what it is for any more?

I find this all the time in pastoral settings – a simple why question upsets the whole cart of apples.  A couple comes for a marriage prep meeting.  “So why do you want to get married?”  Uhhhh….   No idea.  “It’s what you do?”  “We love each other?”  Yeah, well I love my sister, but I’m not going to marry her!  Later on in our meetings we talk about children and I ask “So why do you want to have children?”  Same thing…  “It’s what you do?”  “I like kids?”  Well than go work at a daycare!

Now these are some basic questions!  And there are hundreds more like them.  “What defines a human person?”  “Does human life have a purpose?”  “What is a successful human life?”  “What brings fulfillment in life?”  “Why is it important to learn about the world?”  “Why should people do good and avoid evil?”

But you know – you ask these questions and you get a weird look – you disturbed their conversation along the way.  “Well of course everyone knows what brings fulfillment in life!”  “Okay, what?”  “Um…you think too much!”

Think too much!?  Since when was it thinking too much to ask who we are and where we’re going?

I’m convinced we need to start a new radio program.  Instead of Catholic Answers, we can call it Catholic Questions.  It seems that no one is asking the most basic, fundamental questions in life.  Instead, we are amassing worthless piles of information and then making people feel like social outcasts if they don’t know about it.  “What? Are you the only person in the country who doesn’t know the latest about: fill in some sports or entertainment or political flash in the pan -?”

“Oh how foolish you are.” Christ says to our culture.  “Walking along talking about all these recent happenings and you don’t even know who you are or where you are going.”

Now Peter was no fool.  After his abject failure in the face of the cross and restoration in Christ, he had done some serious soul searching.  And one thing is clear: he had figured out who he was and he where he was going.  He belonged to Christ and he was following him.  Listen again to his words to us in the second reading today.  “Beloved: conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.”

Reverent conduct in the presence of God means asking him questions, seeking his will.  If our identity is rooted in him, then it makes sense that we would be trying to figure out what that means.  Faith is not so much a clear understanding of God, as it is a way of life seeking to understand him.  It is not nearly as important that we teach our children all the Catholic answers as it is that we show them how to ask Catholic questions.  That we show them what faith seeking understanding looks like.

“What are you discussing as you walk along?”  Jesus poses this question to each of us today.  On your way home in the car.  This evening around the dinner table.  On the phone with a child living out of state.

“But Father,” some might say, “Isn’t that a bit much?  This isn’t a monastery.  Lighten up, have a beer.  How ‘bout those red sox?”

How about a beer and red sox and spiritual conversation?  Spiritual conversation does not need to be contentious or heavy.  It can be light and enjoyable and enriching to everyone.  I think most people yearn to speak with friends about the things that matter to them.  Healthy spiritual conversation happens quite naturally if we are not afraid of questions that get to the heart of the matter, questions prompted by faith seeking understanding.  We have a natural desire to know who we are and what we are made for.

I see this played out every day on facebook.  There are all these personality quizzes that people fill out.  “What kind of flower are you?”  “Which star wars character are you?”  And we give these add companies all kinds of personal information just to get some program to make some pronouncement about who we are.  “You are a daisy.” Great.

We are made to ponder the bigger questions, not just survive each day.  Our culture, our families, need and yearn for real discussions about the meaning of life, not just the facts of life.  Indeed, when we break through the facts and talk about what really matters, when we seek to understand the God who made us and walks with us, we find great joy and fulfillment.  What did the disciples say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

What are you discussing as you walk along?





 


Monday, April 28, 2014

Mercy: the Medium that is the Message

This morning I went town to Rockport to give a workshop at the youth convention about technology and social media.

So this past week, as I’ve been preparing this weekend’s homily, I was also preparing the talk I would give.   One of the people who I referenced in my talk was the Canadian professor Marshal McCluhan, who some of you may remember.  Many do not realize that McCluhan was a Catholic convert, or as he said “A Catholic of the worst kind.”  But his field of research was modern social media and communication.  He coined the famous phrase “The Medium is the Message.”  In other words, he said, it is not just the content, but the way that the content is experienced, that is the message.

So this idea was floating around my mind as I was reflecting on the readings for this weekend, for Divine Mercy Sunday.

This is a remarkable weekend for our Church, an historic weekend, as we watch two current popes at the canonization of two popes of recent, modern memory.  And on Divine Mercy Sunday.


This is not accidental.  The timing of these canonizations, and the saints who are canonized come together to teach us something very important as we seek to follow Christ in the modern world: that mercy is the medium of the message of God’s love.  Mercy is the way that our modern world is able to hear the Gospel.

What do we mean by mercy, by divine mercy?  I think sometimes we can have this idea that it is God’s pity for us.  We think of the forlorn looking statues…  Mercy is paired in our minds with guilt, as if we cannot celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday without feeling guilty.  And we might even wonder why St. John Paul II decided to place this Sunday not only within the season of Easter, but on the 1st Sunday afterward.

But if we think of Divine Mercy as the medium, as the way that God’s love is lived and experienced, I think what becomes clear is that this Sunday is actually a deep reflection on the Easter mystery, on the mystery of Christ, risen from the dead.  Last weekend as we came to the empty tomb we learned that in Christ love is stronger than death.  This weekend we find out how much stronger.

And this is because what characterizes mercy, what defines mercy is love in a certain contrast.  Mercy is love in the face of sin, love in the face of falsity, love in the face of ugliness.  Mercy is light in the midst of darkness.  Divine mercy is the reality of God’s immeasurable love powerfully at work, not in the perfect places in our world, but at the furthest reaches and darkest corners.

Divine Mercy reveals the breadth of God’s love: how far his love will go - that it will go all the way to the gates of hell, that God’s love will leave the 99 in search of the 1, that there is no place in the universe that is isolated from the love of God.  Divine Mercy shows us that Gods love is universal in space.

And Divine Mercy shows the faithfulness of God’s love – that God’s love never fails, that it never ends, that it is without limit.  The love of Christ is always ready to forgive, to extend backward and forward in time to bring healing.  No time is isolated or deprived of God’s love.  Divine Mercy shows us that God’s love is universal in time.

As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, then, we are really celebrating the universality of God’s saving love in time and space – that through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, all time and all space is permeated with love of God.

And so it is very fitting that we canonize these two popes on Divine Mercy Sunday.  They were men who emphasized the wideness, the breadth, the faithfulness of God’s love.

I’m not sure how much you have heard the media coverage of the canonizations, but I have found some of it to be very frustrating – just continually politicized.  “Pope Francis chose to canonize Pope John XXIII to please the liberals, and to canonize Pope John Paul II to please the conservatives,” I heard recently.  I’m not sure where to even begin in responding to that… it’s just such an impoverished and distorted understanding of what is happening.

No – Pope Francis chose to canonize these two great men together because, he said, that he wanted to show that they worked in harmony, teaching and guiding us along the same path.  In a sense we might think of St. John XXIII as the pope who taught us of the faithfulness of God’s love, of his mercy in time – that he has not abandoned the Church in the modern world, but that he still walks with us and guides us.  And Saint John Paul II taught us the breadth of God’s love – as he traveled all over our world he spread the message that God’s love reaches out to all people and extends to every corner of the world.  In a sense we could say that St. John XXIII opened the doors of the Church, and Saint John Paul II walked through them.  Both of them worked to bring the Church more deeply into an encounter with the modern world so that we could be the medium of mercy, the tangible presence of God’s love among all people today.

In our second reading today, St. Peter, the first pope since he was the first bishop of Rome, proclaimed this same message of God’s mercy:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
And he also taught us about the universality, the breadth of God’s mercy and love, saying that in Christ we have received “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”

This weekend let us pray for the intercession of our two newest pope saints along with St. Peter - to help all of us to proclaim the same message, to be signs to our world that the Easter victory of God’s love over sin and death was not limited to the tomb on Easter morning, not limited to certain holy men and women, and certainly not limited to those who worship within these walls.  We show that by being the presence of God’s love in the darkness, in the furthest corners of life – by showing that God’s love extends to  the places where people think God is absent.  There may we be the medium that is the message, the light in the darkness, the vessels of Christ’s merciful love in our world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Christ Our Beloved Friend Is Risen!

Homily for Easter Sunday, 2014

There is this you tube video – I believe it’s called Jeff Gordon test drive - you may have seen it.

Jeff Gordon is a world famous race car driver.  So they set up this prank – he goes in disguise to a car dealer and asks to test drive the chevy camaro. The salesman gets into the passenger side with him, and – well, let’s just say that Jeff Gordon puts that car through its paces.  Over the course of their hair raising test drive, his passenger has what we might call a “come to Jesus” experience - he is calling out to God, he is praying, begging God to get him out of that car.  When Jeff Gordon finally skids to a stop back at the dealership, the salesman jumps out, ready to call the police.  Jeff and the camera crew stop him, they show him the cameras, and Jeff pulls off the disguise.  “It’s me, Jeff Gordon – you’re on camera.”  The salesman stares for a minute, still breathing hard – then asks “Want to do it again?”

Now that he knew who was behind the wheel, everything was different.

Another story, this one not on you tube, I made it up:

A new neighbor moves in next door – he immediately comes over and introduces himself to the family and over the next few years he becomes great friends with all of you.  He is incredibly smart and generous.  He tells wonderful stories, he mows the lawn and takes care of the pets while you are away.  He is out there shoveling the snow before you wake up so that you never get a chance to start up the snowblower.  Just an incredible guy.  You see each other just about every day – he is at all the family functions, he shares your holidays with you, you go on vacations together – you couldn’t ask for a better friend.

Then one day you see all these black SUVs pull up, haul the guy out of the house and take him away.  What is going on? You are all in shock.

Three days later you get a call.  It is your friend – he is calling you from Saudi Arabia.  He is fine – actually, he is the new Saudi king.  He was hiding out in your neighborhood, concealing his identity while he was completing his doctoral studies.  He wants to know your bank account number so he can transfer a gift your way.

When we teach others or talk about Jesus, often we start with the idea that Jesus is God, and then we talk about how he became a man.  And certainly, as far as time and space are concerned, we know that Jesus was God before he became man – that Jesus has always been God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

But that was not the experience that the disciples had, was it?  For them, Jesus was first a man.  For most of them, he was a man who just walked up one day while they were working at their boats.  Certainly, he was a remarkable man – so remarkable that they left everything and followed him.  They traveled with him and listened to his teaching, they saw him heal thousands of people and feed thousands more from just a few loaves and fish.  And over the course of their years with him they became his friends.  He saw them at their best and their worst – when they were arguing and grumbling, and when they were praising God for his goodness.  It was an incredibly intense three years of ministry that they spent together with him – and they grew to love him as a brother, as a father – and they knew that he loved them dearly.

They had an inkling, they had a notion that he was chosen by God, that he was the promised Messiah – but they were not sure what that meant.

And certainly nothing prepared them for Easter morning.  On Easter morning, they were confronted with a most incredible fact: their friend, the man that they had been travelling with, the man who had been so good and generous to them and who they loved, was alive.  And not just alive - he was glorified.  He was unlike anyone they had ever seen – he was the person of God himself.

Their friend, their teacher, was the God of heaven and earth.  Can you imagine trying to comprehend such an incredible discovery?  You can understand why they were so stunned - why it took them a long time, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to wrap their heads around what was happening.

Because it wasn’t just Jesus whose life radically changed in the resurrection, was it?  Since Jesus was their close friend, since Christ loved them so dearly – the fact that he was the Almighty Ever-living God in the flesh meant a radical change for each of his disciples.  They were now friends of God!  They had been for a while, but they had not realized what that really meant until they saw that empty tomb.  Until the disguise came off, they had not realized who was behind the wheel.

Now what are we to make of this on Easter morning?
Brothers and sisters – too often, I think, we begin with God in the highest, and then try to become his friend by being good.  We start with God who is all powerful and the creator of all things, and we try to cozy up to him.  That is not what happened to the disciples, that was not their experience, and that is actually not what has happened to us.

No – Christ has never been a distant and remote God for us either.  He called each of us by name in Baptism, just as he called his first disciples.  He has ministered to us as his friends: he has fed us at this altar, he has forgiven our sins in confession, he has healed us when we have been anointed, and he has sent us out two by two, just as he did those first disciples, to spread the good news of the kingdom.   And we have heard his voice – the same teaching that he gave his first disciples.  He has given us the same promises, and he has shared with us the same mysteries of the kingdom, and he has told each of us, as he told them, of his great care for us, that he knows every hair on our heads, that he loves us and will never abandon us, that we are not his slaves, but his friends.

And so today, as we come to the empty tomb, we realize that  Jesus - who has called us, who has nourished us, who has healed and forgiven us, and who has taught us of his great love for us – that this dear friend of ours is the living God.  The bread that we break with him is the bread from heaven!  The teachings that he gives us are from the mouth of God!  The forgiveness we receive when we confess our sins to him is the mercy of God!

You and I will only understand the full impact of the empty tomb, when we understand that the person behind the wheel is not a distant savior, but is Jesus Christ our dear and beloved friend.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Do Not Be Distracted by the Blood

Homily for Good Friday, 2014

Today, as we contemplate the passion and death of Christ, we must face a truly horrifying scene. Recent movies have dragged our imaginations down the streets of Jerusalem, following in Christ’s bloody footsteps, shuddering at the pain he endured, wanting to turn away as we watched him tormented by his executioners.  Who could do this to someone, we might ask?  How can people be so brutal?  And I think we can, subconsciously place ourselves as spectators in the scene – onlookers.  We haven’t crucified Christ, we have not beaten him, we have not spit on him or mocked him, or nailed his hands and feet to a tree.

And it is true.  We haven’t.  We are his disciples – we are like those who followed him throughout his ministry and were instructed by him and fed by him in the upper room - and that is why today is especially painful for us.

Christ surely knew the Roman soldiers for what they were – thugs and brutes.  He knew that to them he meant nothing – that he was just one more crucifixion in a vicious world.  The pain that they inflicted upon him was ruthless, to be sure – but he knew that they were doing what they were trained to do – to be brutal.

It was when he looked out at the crowd, as he looked up and searched their faces, that the most cruel and agonizing pain enveloped him.   The 72 disciples with whom he had labored for months and years – teaching them the mysteries of the kingdom, multiplying loaves and fish to feed them were not to be found in that crowd - they were gone.  He was scorned like a leper by the lepers he had cured.  Cast aside by those from whom he had cast demons.  Overlooked by those to whom he had restored sight.

And the twelve…  The twelve who he had called by name, who had followed him all over the countryside, who had shared in his joys and sorrows, who had seen him walk on water, transfigured before them, who had watched him raise Lazarus, to whom he had revealed the mysteries of the kingdom, promising that he would never abandon them, that he would give them eternal life – and who he had warned on multiple occasions of precisely this dark day, who had sworn that they would not abandon him, that they would remain faithful.  Where were they?

The only faces before him he recognized were those of his mother, of the women who could be there without danger, and of the youngest of his twelve, John, who was still such a child, a bit of a mamma’s boy.  The rest had deserted him.

As we look upon this cross, brothers and sisters, do not be distracted by the blood.  The most excruciating agony of the cross was not the violence inflicted by strangers, but the betrayal and denial inflicted by friends.

And of that we are most assuredly complicit.  For as Christ looked out upon our world from his cross, his gaze was not limited to the crowd that gathered on Golgatha.  His gaze penetrated the depths of time and space – even to now, even to here in Winthrop.  He looks out upon the vast crowd of his friends, the friends that he nourishes through the sacraments, that he teaches through the scriptures, that he guides through his Spirit present in the Church.  And he searches for the faces of those he loves, who he is dying to save, for our faces in the crowd.

Sometimes he finds them to be sure, but today we acknowledge how often he has not, how often we have turned away through our sins, as if we have not known him, do not know him.

Yes, it is true, that when we speak ill of others, when we are stingy, when we neglect prayer, when we objectify others, when we give vent to anger and desire revenge, when we spurn those who ask forgiveness, when we manipulate or deceive others, when we lie or steal, when we obsess over the things of this world – these actions require that we turn away from the gaze of Christ on the cross, that we act as though we were not his friends, as if we were not his followers, as if he were dead to us.

Our Lord speaks the words of Psalm 55 to us today:
If this had been done by an enemy I could bear his taunts.
If a rival had risen against me, I could hide from him.
But it is you, my own companion, my intimate friend!
How close was the friendship between us. 
We walked together in harmony in the house of God.

This, brothers and sisters, is how you and I crucify our Lord.  We crucify him not with whips and scourges, with nails and spears.  Through our sins we crucify Christ with the weapons only a beloved friend possesses: denial, betrayal, and rejection.
And these weapons make nails and spears seem mere toys in the hands of children.

Oh wonder of your love for us, Lord.  That even as we crucify you, even as we reject you, your pour out your life for us.  Tonight we praise your infinite love and mercy!


Friday, April 18, 2014

Inhibition

Homily for Holy Thursday, 2014

Who is going to have their feet washed this year?  It seems to be one of the penances for someone in the parish each lent: trying to find people who will have their feet washed – especially men.  For some reason, men just don’t line up every year to have their feet washed.

And, as we hear in the Gospel today, there is a long tradition of this – going all the way back to St. Peter himself.  “You will never wash my feet,” he says, as he sees the washbowl coming his way.

Why not?  What is it about guys not wanting to get their feet washed?  I would say that for many, feet are kind of a private thing.  I mean, who knows the last time you clipped your toenails, right?  I bet most of the people who are having their feet washed this evening have already washed them, scrubbed them, today - maybe even a full pedicure.  Talking to my sister last night she said if I was washing her feet she would have written on her toe nails “Hi Fr!”  That’s why she is banned from coming into this parish.

But we have to face a certain amount of social inhibition during this rite, don’t we?  Especially we mainers.  Is that what was going on with St. Peter?  Did he have ugly feet?  Maybe a big wart on his toe?  Probably not, and certainly that is not the lesson of our Gospel today.  One thing is certain, Christ is not trying to teach us to let go of social inhibitions.  Christ is teaching us something more profound.  He is teaching us that we who have been invited to sit at his table, to share in his inheritance, must allow him to wash away a different kind of inhibition, a spiritual inhibition.

Something inside us protests with Peter at the idea of God washing our feet: “Master, are you going to wash my feet?”  “This part of me that is caked with the dust of the road and the refuse of a thousand animals?”  Why does Jesus need to wash them?  It just doesn't seem right, seem appropriate.  God should anoint our heads, a slave should wash our feet, right?  They are way down there for a reason – they are dirty, they are smelly!  They are functional – they get us where we need to go, that’s about it.  Why can’t they just be left to themselves under the table while we share a meal together?  Would it not be more appropriate for us to at least wash our own feet?

“Unless I wash you,” Christ says “you will have no inheritance with me.”  That is not a suggestion, it is a fact.

Remember after Adam and Eve sinned.  What was one of the first things that happened to them in the garden?  They became spiritually inhibited.  They hid from God, they covered themselves.  They were no longer comfortable in his presence. They no longer were comfortable with him ministering to them, they felt unworthy of his love and care for them.

Christ has come to heal this division, to wipe away this reticence, this inhibition in his presence.  We are no longer strangers, he says, but friends. When we come to receive his most holy Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he invites us to enter the Holy of Holies, the Heavenly Jerusalem.  Here, his love is poured out for us, his friends, at the intimate setting of his own table.  He calls us in this Eucharist to share in his own inheritance, to be members of his family.

And this should be humbling.  It should be overwhelming, that God would wash our feet, would care about our daily lives, the road we travel, the places we walk.  That he would want us to be refreshed – not just in some esoteric way – some heady theological way – but from our heads to our toes.  That he would come down from heaven and take the form of a slave so that we can walk with him in newness of life.

In a homily on Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict spoke about Jesus washing our feet.  And I would like to close with his words:

“God is not a remote God, too distant or too great to be bothered with our trifles. Since God is great, he can also be concerned with small things.

God's holiness is not merely an incandescent power before which we are obliged to withdraw, terrified. It is a power of love and therefore a purifying and healing power.

God descends and becomes a slave, he washes our feet so that we may come to his table. In this, the entire mystery of Jesus Christ is expressed. In this, what redemption means becomes visible.
The basin in which he washes us is his love, ready to face death. Only love has that purifying power which washes the grime from us and elevates us to God's heights.

The basin that purifies us is God himself, who gives himself to us without reserve - to the very depths of his suffering and his death.”

Monday, April 14, 2014

So Much for Milk and Honey!

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

In our Gospel today, we do not hear about the resurrection of Lazarus: we hear of the raising of Lazarus – his resuscitation.  In other words: Lazarus was only revived by Jesus – revived in order to finish out his earthly life and finally meet death like all of us.  He was given new life: but not the new life of heaven, the new and eternal life we await – no, Lazarus was given new life in this world; he was brought back to life as a mortal man, as the same old Lazarus who still would have to deal with all the trials and challenges of life in this world.

It probably did not take him long, as he stumbled out of that tomb and took in a big breath of the stench around him, to figure out that he was not in heaven.  Maybe that’s why we don’t hear anything about what he says after Jesus raises him.  I can just imagine him being kind of upset: “What the…?”  "So much for milk and honey!"  He must have been relieved to find out that he was just resuscitated!  And maybe after they got those wrappings off him and gave him a bath he was even grateful to have a few more years to be in this world before the Lord would finally take him home and give him the eternal life for which he truly longed.

Now we have no idea what resurrection will be like: maybe a few glimpses here and there.  But in Lazarus, we can gain insight into how Jesus resuscitates his people in this life: about what it is like to be resuscitated.  And this insight is critical for us, because unlike the resurrection, which happens once at the end of life and is shrouded in mystery: Jesus wishes to resuscitate us continually in this life in a myriad of different ways: to give us new life, to remove the chains of sin and death from us in this world as we continue our earthly journey.  And the season of Lent is especially a time when we ask for and think about this process, this experience of resuscitation, of renewal, of conversion.

So what can we learn from Lazarus’ experience of resuscitation that will help us to be open to the new life Jesus wants to give us?

To be patient.  Jesus waited – he did not go right away when he heard of Lazarus’ illness, but waited two days.  And notice that no one could really understand why Jesus did not intervene earlier.  “If you had been here,” Martha tells him, “my brother would not have died.”

How many of us are tormented in the same way that Martha was – and we ask the Lord “Why haven’t you intervened?”  With my children who are struggling, with the illness that my spouse is battling, with the sins that I cannot break free of?

We all, at one point or another ask why God hasn’t resuscitated us or those we love yet.  And so listen to Jesus today: When giving new life in this world only God can understand how and why and when.  The new life Jesus breathes into this world when he resuscitates us comes from beyond this world and doesn’t conform to the logic of this world, it is beyond our control: mysterious.

And so most of the time we must simply trust, as Martha did: that if we seek what is good and true and beautiful, God will accomplish what is good for us.  But as for how and when: that is up to him.

A second lesson to be learned, is that Jesus empathizes with our suffering.  He did not stand by like some passive observer as his dear friends mourned for Lazarus.  He joined in their tears, he felt their pain.  As much as we may feel alone in our sin or in suffering because of the evil in this world, Jesus is never far.  He does not withdraw from sharing in our guilt, our shame, our suffering.  He embraces us where we are, and he suffers with us, he sheds tears with us.

How important it is for us to remember that when we confess our sins, Jesus not only stands before us as our Lord, but he also stands beside us as our advocate and friend and brother.

A third insight we learn from Lazarus is that Jesus’ compassion for us causes him to act, to resuscitate us, even now.  This is the sign of Lazarus, that even now, before the resurrection, we can share partially in the redemption that is to come.

Jesus Christ does not wait until death to give us life: we live in a world permeated by his Holy Spirit, who works within the limitations of time and space to bring heaven to earth in a thousand different ways.

So we should not be content with mediocrity, with settling, trusting that things will get worked out at the end of life – sitting back and waiting for the final judgment with dread or foolish confidence.  No, Jesus wants to intervene now in our lives, just as he intervened with Lazarus.  He does not want us to wait for his life until the Resurrection, but even now he gives us a taste of that new life and freedom of heaven.   What are the sacraments, if not one of the principle ways that Jesus gives us the life of heaven even while we still live in this world?  We Christians have been given the bread from heaven, and we should settle for nothing less, not even in this world.

A final lesson of our gospel?  To recognize, as Lazarus surely did, that there is a great difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  We must remember that we live in a world where the stench of death still remains, the wrappings of sin still remain.

As much as we should settle for nothing less than a share of heaven, we must also recognize the limitations on earth.  Even after he was resuscitated, Lazarus came out of that tomb wrapped in smelly rags, blind, and unable to do much.

Lazarus shows us that resuscitation - that conversion - does not mean the end of suffering and pain, like resurrection.  In fact, sometimes it can mean that we suffer more for a time, as we begin the hard work of removing the bonds of sin that have been killing us. And so, like Lazarus, we need the help of the Church, of the sacraments and of one another to heal from the effects of our sin after Jesus has resuscitated us.  And sometimes that can be a long process.

Today let us ask for the intercession of Lazarus and pray with him:
Lord, please save us from the death of sin, not only for ourselves, but for the good of our families, our community, our parish.  During this season of Lent come to us as you came to Lazarus.  Reach out to us where sin and evil have kept us bound and in the darkness.  May the beauty of your eternal life shine through thousands of little resuscitations in our parish this lent, bringing glory to our Heavenly Father.

"Give Me A Drink"

Homily from the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A  2014

Normally in the sales world, you begin by telling someone what they will get, then you tell them the price.  When I was in Europe, there were merchants who would do this sometimes – they would come up, especially to kids, and give them a toy or something, and then they would ask them to pay for it after they had it. Sometimes you had to leave the item on the ground.
They would not take it back.  That’s what you call a hard sell.

But Jesus is not a salesman.  And he is not selling a product, that is clear in the Gospel today.  What is the first thing he says to this woman who he does not know at the well?  “Give me a drink.”  No please, no explanation like “I normally would not talk with you but my disciples are away and I am really thirsty.”  Just “Give me a drink.”

I was tempted to preach about all kinds of things this weekend – the dynamics that are at play, the way this beautiful drama unfolds in the Gospel this weekend.  But I decided to stop right here – with the first sentence.  “Give me a drink.”

It is a short request that we will hear from Christ again in just a few weeks, isn’t it?  “I thirst.”
When I offered Mass for the Missionaries of Charity at their little soup kitchen tucked into the Vatican wall, on the wall of their little chapel they had those words “I thirst.”  Later, I went to Kolkata and realized that Mother Teresa insisted that those words be on the wall of every one of her sister’s chapels.

As we know, the word of God is not ineffective.  It is through God’s word that all creation exists.  God spoke his word and all things came into being.  He commanded and all things were made.

But we are not like the rest of creation.  God does not command our obedience, he does not require our service.  He makes a request, he asks – and he is willing to enter into the difficult and messy circumstances of our lives to make his request.  He risks the scandal of being seen alone with a woman at a well.  He risks the greater scandal of being seen crucifies between two criminals. He goes where he must go in order for us to hear him, to hear his request “Give me a drink.”

Now, it may not be a command, but it is not a suggestion either.  The request is clear.  It is jarring.  Christ asks us to cast aside the social conventions of our time.  To go out on a limb.  To be inconvenienced.  To act in a way that will draw the disapproval of others.  To be seen with a stranger, with a foreigner. To be associated with a religious radical, a “churchy” person.

“Give me a drink.”

She resisted.  It was against the conventions.  She would be judged.  “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”  How could he ask this of her?  She had so many things on her plate, so many challenges.

But he responds “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

Christ teaches the Samaritan woman, and wants to teach each of us – that his request is actually a gift.  When we listen to him, when we serve him, when we give him what he thirsts for, then he quenches our thirst – a deep thirst that many times we did not even realize we had, that we had tried to ignore or to wish away.  A thirst for fullness of life with him, for living water.

But we must lower the bucket first.  We must listen to his words and respond, willing to risk the conventions of our time and to be inconvenienced.

How many times a day do you hear it?  Those simple words.  “Give me a drink.”  Do you stop?  Do you pray?  Do you give?  Do you forgive?  Do you listen?

“Jesus is God,” Mother Teresa said.  “Therefore His love, His Thirst, is infinite. He the creator of the universe, asked for the love of His creatures.  He thirsts for our love… These words:
‘I Thirst’ – Do they echo in our souls?”

Climbing Mount Tabor

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A  2014

Jesus and his disciples journeyed for many days on their way to Jerusalem.  It was a religious pilgrimage that they were making, with thousands of other Jews who gathered in the temple area for the celebration of the Passover.

It is not easy to be a pilgrim.  Traveling far from home, trying to find the things you need, relying on the generosity of others.  We know of some instances when Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed in certain towns.  And because word traveled fast about him, Christ had the added challenge of navigating the mobs of people who followed him hoping for a sign or a healing.

Then, as we hear in the Gospel today, Jesus decides to go up to the top of a high mountain to pray.  Not just any old mountain, but a high mountain.  I know from experience that when you have been travelling on foot for miles, the last thing in the world that you want to do is go up a steep mountain like mount Tabor.  I can just imagine the comments:  “Why do we have to go up that mountain to pray?  What - is God not down here?  All this preoccupation with externals and symbolism.  We are wasting precious daylight!  There are people waiting for us, people following us.  We need to get to our evening destination and figure out what we are going to have for dinner and where to stay.”

So I don’t imagine that the other nine were particularly upset to not have been chosen by our Lord to go on that hike up the mountain. Peter, James, and John might have wondered why he wanted them to come, since he had gone off alone to pray on so many other occasions.  What was different about this time.  But the followed as he led them away from the dust and the chaos of the road and up the steep pathway that led to the summit of the mountain.

As they reach the top, Christ was transfigured.  Quickly, Peter realizes that something incredible is happening.

“Lord, it is good that we are here.” He says.  Suddenly the hike was worth it.

Life is a pilgrimage.  Christ walks with us and teaches us and heals us along the road.  We encounter him many times in the dust and chaos of the road – busy work and prayer schedules, the constant interactions and errands and appointments.  And it may seem like this is enough – it may seem that this is what we are called to – that this life of the road demands our attention and that we do not have room for anything else.

And to an extent that is true.  To know and serve Christ in this ordinary, daily way along the road is the bulk of our Christian life.  But there is a hazard if we never leave the road.  We can begin to obsess on the daily grind, the experience of the pilgrimage, of traveling, of our needs and of the social dynamics around us, and we can lose sight of what we are doing, where we are going, who we are traveling with.  Our lives can begin to become superficial – looking for our next meal, the next thing at work.  Soon, like the disciples, we find ourselves arguing about who is the greatest.  Or, like Peter, we begin to question why Jesus should allow suffering and death to be a part of life.  Our vision becomes worldly – we become secularized.  And we start to lose our way, to forget where we are going and why we are traveling along this road in the first place.

I think this happens to us more easily than we would like to admit.  We are fickle.  We get caught up with the road.  Something bad happens, and then the whole world is against us.  Something good happens and God loves us.  Our moods change and we can easily find ourselves muddling along just putting one foot in front of the next.

Christ knows that we have this tendency – to be distracted, to be superficial, to be moody.  That is why, especially at decisive moments in life, he asks us to follow him up mount Tabor, to leave behind the preoccupations of daily life and to climb the mountain, to be with him in prayer.

Some of the ancient churches used to have long, steep stairs that climbed up to the front door, making it clear that when we came here, into this holy place we were leaving the superficiality of daily life behind and ascending to a place of encounter with God.  The Church architecture wanted to teach us that when we come here we follow the command of our Heavenly Father, who says to us “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

As Peter came to the crest of that mountain he realized why Christ had invited him: so that he could be grounded in the truth, in the transcendent.  And we need that too: to be reminded of why we are on this pilgrimage in the first place.  We need the perspective of prayer.

I will close with a quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”

If we never climb the mountain, if we stay on the roadway of life, we risk getting lost or distracted or confused… It is easy to drift away.  Lent is meant to be a time of intensified prayer, a time when we allow ourselves to be led up the mountain – to remember who Christ is, to remember who we are, and why we are here.  Christ wants to reveal himself to us, to teach us about who he is and about the incredible plans he has in store for us.  We are challenged in this time of Lent not to settle for a superficial faith, not to settle for the dusty road.  To follow Christ up the steep path to Mount Tabor, trusting that when we reach the top, we too will say with St. Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sin Has Nothing To Do With The Fruit

Homily from the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A, 2011
(Rather than post my homily from this weekend, which I did not particularly like, I am posting this one that I gave three years ago.)

I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that the Catholic understanding of sin is becoming more and more difficult to understand in our time – not only in our culture as a whole, but even among Catholics.  It just doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us.  This idea that through this guy Adam’s sin we are somehow all fallen and in need of redemption – the idea that there is the possibility of us suffering for our sins, especially after we die.  How does that all fit with the belief in a good and loving God?  How can sin really have consequences that are so severe?

Today we don’t think of sin as disobedience, we think of it as personal imperfection.  We envision sin as a failure to do what we know is right, or maybe as the violation of a command that God has given us to follow.  But it all has to do with ourselves – not living up to what we know we should be doing, not being the best that we can be.

But this is such an impoverished and distorted understanding of sin.  And this is because it doesn’t recognize how intimately God’s will is involved in our decision-making.  God hasn’t just given us a rule book and then said “Alright, let’s see how well you do and I’ll judge you when it’s over.”  The reality is that God dwells with us and that his voice speaks to us continuously: through the teachings of our faith and in our consciences when they are well formed.  The Holy Spirit dwells in this world and lets us know of God’s will if we are open to listening to him.

And so when we choose to sin, when we choose not to inform our consciences by listening to him, or to go against our well informed consciences or choose to ignore them or not consider them,
we are not merely letting ourselves down or breaking rules, we are turning a deaf ear to the Holy Spirit and telling God to pound sand.  We are, in essence, persisting in choosing our will over his will as it is made known to us through his Holy Spirit.  There is no way of getting around the reality that sin is always disobedience.  It is always a turning away from God, it is always destructive to our relationship with him.

Look at the reading from Genesis today.  The trick that the devil plays on Eve is precisely in trying to find a way for her to be disobedient.  “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” He asks.  Of all the trees in the garden, he finds the one from which she’s not supposed to eat.  And he convinces Adam and Eve that God’s rules are either arbitrary or designed to keep them from something good that they could have.  And in any case, the consequences of breaking those rules would certainly not be death!  They would gain knowledge!  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I mean, would a good and loving Father really allow you to die from doing such a piddly thing like eating the wrong fruit?

What a lie.  The perniciousness of the temptation is that it obscured the fact that the sin of eating from the tree had nothing to do with the fruit and everything to do with the disobedience.  It was the disobedience that was destructive: the choice to disobey God, to turn away from him and his will in their lives.

God’s will is life because there is no life unless he will it – all life persists only because of his will.  And so disobedience of his will always leads to death.  It really is that stark.  It may not be total death, but every time we sin, every time we choose something other than God’s will, a part of us dies.  The fruit, the sin, is just the occasion of the disobedience.  It is the disobedience, the rejection of God’s will that is deadly.

Intuitively I think we know this – it is clear to us at a very deep level that if our will is not aligned with God’s will, we are dying, not living.  Yet how often we fall victim to the little lies and deceptions of the interior life:

“It’s just a small thing.  Certainly God isn’t going to punish me for this.  He must understand.”
“God made me this way, with these desires and weaknesses, so how can he punish me for them?”
“How can it be God’s will that I do something that is so difficult?”
“Look at the good that seems to be coming from this, can it really be all that bad?”
“No one is really getting hurt – so what is it going to matter?”

Excuses and deceptions, every one of them.  And why?  Because they are all questions about the fruit – speculative, hypothetical, abstract, prejudiced questions about the fruit, just like the ones posed to Adam and Eve by the serpent.

Sin has nothing to do with the fruit, and everything to do with God’s will.  Either we’re trying to follow his will or we’re not, we’re either choosing life or we’re not.  Because the fruit of doing God's will is always life.  The fruit of not doing God's will is always poison.

Adam and Eve were fooled.  The Lord Jesus, who after 40 days in the desert, was not such a fool.
May he help us to see past the lies, past the fruit, to God’s will, and may he give us the strength to follow his example of obedience to the will of our Heavenly Father.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Deep Winter Amnesia

Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

This time of year is one of the most difficult for most of us, probably…  Winter seems to grow more menacing in February.  It is no longer merely a short passing season – no, it becomes a vast and oppressive foe, stretching across every horizon blotting out all recollection of happiness and goodness in life.

Maybe not that bad, but the long cold days do cloud the mind – we experience a kind of collective amnesia – as much as we miss summer, we forget what it is.  We forget what it feels like to live in a climate that is not hostile.  And I think that is what makes this time of year particularly difficult: it is not just that it is cold, but it is that we have forgotten that there is anything but cold.

And this same late winter dementia can afflict not only the mind, but the soul as well.
It can happen to us – perhaps we have not even realized it, we have slowly become acclimated – but the memory of God’s favor and his providential care, of the warmth of his love, it can grow cold.  It is not only that we do not feel his presence, his warmth in our lives at this moment – but we may even forget what that is like, what it is like to live in the warmth of God’s love.

To be a bird of the sky – launching into the wind, soaring, cutting through the air, gliding through life effortlessly, the days passing beneath us, out of the reach of danger, the sun at our back.

To be a lily of the field – kissed by dew in the morning, transparent and open to the world, unafraid to be splendid, to be beautiful, to be loved and admired and doted on by bees.

How far away these memories of birds and lilies can seem in the first days of March – as mere fairy tales.    As Christ speaks of his providential care to us this morning, perhaps we realize that we have made plans as if the Son cannot bring true warmth and joy to our hearts - that a kind spiritual winter will last forever.  Maybe even subconsciously we started to believe that life in the Church, that the life of faith, is a cold life of penance and restraint, of austerity and privation, of sacrifice and discipline.  Of stockpiling wood, insulating wall after wall, roof after roof, with adding oil tank after oil tank after oil tank.   Making do.  Our souls slowly and methodically buried beneath the soft walls of insulation, protected from the cold, locked behind closed doors, huddled around familiar sources of warmth.  Restless, listless, wanting more.

And then we hear from our friends who have moved down to Florida, who have left the seasons of the spiritual life behind.  “Why not bail out on the whole project?” they ask.  Maybe we have taken trips down that road – when we felt we just couldn’t handle the cold any longer.  But Florida is boring and flat.  Yes, it is warm – but in a humid, sticky, cockroachy way.  Fake.  There is no ebb and flow, no depth to life.  Nothing dies, but nothing is reborn either.  It is easier – you don’t have to give up your Sunday mornings.  You don’t have to remember, you don’t have to trust.  Until the hurricane.

No – the soul is not made for Florida, for a flat, season-less, resort existence.  Our life in Christ has seasons, seasons that can are meant to teach us to remember and trust, to sacrifice and love, even in the depths of winter.  Seasons that show us that new life is born from sacrifice, that great beauty and goodness arise from ground that once seemed frozen and dead.  That the cross brings the resurrection.

Christ reminds us of these things today – he heals our deep winter amnesia, reminding us of our hope, of summer, of his care and compassion.  

“Remember,” he tells us, “what it is like to go outside in a t-shirt, to drive with the windows open?  Remember the smell of soil that is warm and fertile, of flowers, of hot pavement after a thunderstorm, of a grill on a warm summer’s eve?”

“Remember, o soul, how I breathed life into you and set you on this earth, the gifts that I have given you, how you have received so much good from my hands?  Remember how I upheld you and consoled you with my words, how I rescued you from the chains of your sins and nourished you with heavenly food?”

May we never forget the goodness of God, his providential care for us – even as we trudge through deep winter.  May our prayer today echo the words of the psalmist: “Only in God be at rest, my soul, for from him comes my hope.  He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold: I shall not be disturbed.”

The cold will ebb away, this Wednesday we enter mud season, beginning with the cross smudged on our foreheads.  The seasons are constantly in flux, God’s grace is at work in varied ways – there are seasons of consolation and of desolation, of challenge and of reward.  But in all seasons may we remember and treasure and be upheld by the memory and the promise of the warmth, the beauty, the goodness of God’s providential care.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Christ Enjoins Not Impossibilities But Perfection

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

There is a certain….  well we might call it satisfaction, that many of us might find ourselves feeling when someone gets their just deserts.  The internet is full of these little anecdotes today, isn’t it?
Someone cuts off a driver, and then runs into the back of a tractor trailer.
Someone says something mean and then smacks into a cupboard door.
Someone is rude to a waitress and then gets a pitcher of cold water in the lap…

And there is something that seems right about many of these things - it is as if God intervened to make sure that evil did not go unpunished.  When I was a kid, it seemed like many times when I did something bad, something bad would immediately happen to me.  Tease my sister - slip on the ice and fall on my face.  Say something mean - get my zipper stuck…  My mom used to call it instant karma.

In the ancient world, retaliation for wrongs was often swift and extreme.  A kind of instant karma.  If someone stole, their hand was severed.  If someone lied, their tongue cut off.  If they committed adultery they were stoned.  And many times retaliation was carried out against whole households, even down to three generations.

This kind of extreme retaliation was understood to be important and necessary in order to discourage sin and evil.  It makes sense: if you want to keep people from doing evil, make sure that the penalties are so staggering that no one will even attempt it.  If good will does not control them, at least fear will, right?

Now, some may think that we are far from that kind of a cruel world.  But I don’t think we really are.  Recently I saw the movie “Ender’s Game,” and in the movie there is a scene in which the main character gets into a fight with the bully and not only defends himself but goes a step further to seriously injure him.  Why?  Because, he explains, he wanted to make it clear to the bully and to everyone else that he was not weak, so that he would not have to deal with bullying again.  Weakness invites aggression, right?  Or in the first Harry Potter movie, you might recall that Harry’s horrible and abusive adoptive family is turned into pigs, and Harry and all the good people laugh and are satisfied that they received their just deserts.  How many times in movies today are we encouraged to sympathize with those who retaliate with extreme violence?  As if by committing a crime a criminal somehow is no longer human – as if they have forfeited their rights and dignity and can be treated like an animal.

Just look at what is going on in the Central African Republic as we speak.  Mobs of men who claim to be Christian are going out slaughtering Muslim men, women, and children in retaliation for the violence and torture that they endured in recent years.  And I don’t think that we are so much better.  It is the fallen human condition: it starts with us when we are even very young.  “He hit me first!”  We are so quick to think that violence is justified against the wicked, and that God himself must approve.

That was what we first thought of God: that he himself must hate the wicked and wish to destroy them.  But over time God began to show us the truth about himself and about his will for all of us.  In the first step in this revelation, Moses taught what most great civilizations and rulers have thought reasonable: that a just retaliation must match the severity of the initial crime.  Only an eye for an eye – not a life for an eye.  Only a tooth for a tooth, not a hand for a tooth.  When retaliation for a wrong exceeded this proportionate response, Moses taught that the people were falling into revenge and hatred and were doing evil in God’s sight.

And I think that this is where most of the world is today – what they think.  If someone kills, then you can kill them.  If they punch you, you can punch them.  If they are irresponsible, sue them, but the amount has to be reasonable.  Seems fair.  Seems the way that God would want things.

But Jesus shows us that God is not like this at all.  He is not the God of instant karma, of retaliation, even of proportionate retaliation.  Instead, Jesus says, our heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  If we wish to be his children, Jesus says, we must follow his will, his way.  When someone strikes us on our right cheek, we should turn the other one as well.  And we should love our enemies as God loves them and pray for those who persecute us.

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, St. John Chrysostom writes beautifully about the path that Jesus leads us on through this gospel passage:

“Note through what steps we have now climbed, and how God has set us on the very pinnacle of virtue.
The first step is, not to do wrong to another;
the second, that in avenging a wrong done to us we be content with retaliating equally;
the third, to return nothing for what we have suffered;
the fourth, to offer one’s self to the endurance of evil;
the fifth, to be ready to suffer even more evil than the oppressor desires to inflict;
the sixth, not to hate him of whom we suffer such things;
the seventh, to love him;
the eighth, to do him good;
the ninth, to pray for him.”

By the progressive steps of this teaching, Christ leads us along the way of the cross, the way of perfect charity, that leads to eternal life.  He shows us how to be freed of the slavery that comes from hatred and retaliation and how to find the peace that comes from perfect charity.

And as we are about to say that this is too much, that ordinary men and women cannot possibly follow where Christ has trod, St. Jerome tells us: “Many, measuring the commandments of God by their own weakness, not by the strength of the saints, hold these commands for impossible, and say that it is virtue enough not to hate our enemies; but to love them is a command beyond human nature to obey. But it must be understood that Christ enjoins not impossibilities but perfection. Such was the attitude of David towards Saul and Absalom; the Martyr Stephen also prayed for his enemies while they stoned him, and Paul wished himself anathema for the sake of his persecutors.  Jesus both taught and did the same, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Christ instructs us.  We are not made for imperfect love, we cannot be satisfied with it.  In a world that all too often claims that violence and revenge are necessary, justified, or at least understandable, you and I must teach our children the truth: that our God is not a God of karma, that revenge is never his way, and it can never be the way of the Christian.  Our Heavenly Father is perfect love, he always wills the good for all people.  And so, with his grace, may it be for us.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love Does Not Recognize a Right to Privacy

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2014

This weekend we hear probably one of the most challenging teachings that Christ has given us.  He speaks to us very concretely about the law of love, and he gets very specific, doesn’t he?

Our Lord is specific, I think, because he knows that it is tempting for us to let the words “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Be good to those who persecute you” run over the surface of our hearts but not really sink in, not let them convict us.  When our consciences start to sting a bit, how easily we can find ourselves saying things like “Well, I’m basically a good person.” or “I’m not as bad as so and so.”  Whether it is our pride or fear of condemnation or reluctance to change – how quickly the defenses can go up, and soon we start thinking about all the other people who Jesus must be talking about in this teaching.

So before we go any further, I think we need to let our guard down.  And we can because we remember that Jesus Christ comes not to condemn us but to save us.  He comes that we might have life and have it abundantly.  He comes as our redeemer and our creator – he knows what we need, he knows how we are made, he knows what will bring us peace and happiness and blessing.

With confidence let us open ourselves to this teaching today praying, asking:  “Lord, we want to stand in the light of your truth, in the light of your teaching, even when that means that our failures and our sins will be revealed.  Show us how to examine our consciences well, so that we can leave behind anything opposed to your will.  We want to follow your commandments.  We do not want to settle for the ways of this world, we want to learn your ways, we want to follow your law of love. ”

Now, with prayerful trust, we are ready to hear what Jesus teaches us about the stunningly high moral standards that are required by the law of love.  What does he tell us?

It is unacceptable, Christ says, to write anyone off.  No one can be dead to us.  Is there anyone with whom we are not on speaking terms?  Maybe they injured us, or maybe we injured them.  There was a break: maybe it was sharp and immediate, maybe there was just a slow parting of ways.
So many families and friends are divided.  People just decide that they are done with one another.  They move on, pretending that another person does not exist.

Now this does not mean that we should submit to behavior that does harm to our spiritual, psychological, or physical health.  But only the behavior can be rejected.  Never the person.  As followers of Christ, as Christians, the law of love requires we can never disown or repudiate another person.  We always must seek reconciliation.  That is the bar, that is the standard that we are all, as followers of Christ, called to uphold.

Further, Christ teaches us that it is a serious sin to be spiteful, scornful, or malicious toward one another.  To say “you fool,” he says, is a grave sin!  To think of ourselves as superior to others, to look down upon them.  To think ill of others – or to wish any ill upon them.  To be happy or content when they suffer.  To be harsh and cruel in our thoughts when they do not do as we would like or as we think they should.  To not give people the benefit of the doubt, to make harsh assumptions about their motives or intentions.  The law of love, Christ says, forbids any uncharitable thoughts and actions.  As St. Paul says so beautifully in another place “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Further, Christ is clear in his teaching that the law of love requires that we not use or manipulate others in our fantasies for our own pleasure.  Jesus teaches us that we injure others when we imagine actions or words or circumstances that would be harmful to them, or turn them into mental slaves of our desires.

So yes, it is wrong to fantasize about bad things happening to our bosses or people who cut us off on the road, or anyone for that matter.  It is wrong to fantasize about romantic encounters that don’t respect the dignity of the other person or the commitments of our lives such as marriage or holy orders.  And yes, it is wrong to spend time consumed with angry and resentful imaginings about another person, beating up on them and yelling at them and punishing them, thinking of all the things we would say to them and how we would tell them off.

The law of love, the command to love your neighbor, does not cease to be a command inside the privacy of the mind or heart.  No. Jesus teaches us that the law of love applies with greatest rigor within the mind and heart, since it is in the mind and heart that all actions find their origin.  The law of love requires of us a purity of mind and heart, a consistent and persistent willing of the good for all those we meet throughout the day.

The bar is so high.  So high!  Does that mean that we freak out and go to confession every other day?  No, of course not.  But maybe once a month.  We know that God is merciful and loving and patient, but we also know love is the law for us!

Fr. Robert Barron recently described Catholic moral teaching so well.  In an article titled Extreme demand, extreme mercy, he wrote:

“The Catholic Church’s job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives.  Its mission is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold or people with good intentions; its mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue.  Are the moral demands… extravagant, over the top, or unrealistic?  Well, of course they are!  They are the moral norms that ought to guide those striving for real holiness."

"The Church calls people to be not spiritual mediocrities, but great saints, and this is why its moral ideals are so stringent.  Yet the Church also mediates the infinite mercy of God to those who fail to live up to that ideal (which means practically everyone).  This is why its forgiveness is so generous and so absolute.  To grasp both of these extremes is to understand the Catholic approach to morality.”

Which, I think we could add, is the approach that is patterned on the teaching of Christ himself.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Salt and Light: the Beauty, the Goodness, the Sting.

 Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

Salt and Light.  These are two images that Our Lord uses to describe his disciples in the Gospel today.
At first blush these two realities might seem to be universally appealing.  Who doesn’t like salt and light?  Salt makes things tasty, and light – well do we really even need to say why light is good?

But wait…it’s not that simple, is it?  How do you like salt in a wound? Hmmm?  Not so much.  You ever mix up the salt with the sugar and put it in your coffee?  Not so great.

And light – beautiful light – that is, until you are driving down the road on a rainy night and trying to see where you are going.  Then it seems downright dangerous.  Or what about a neighbor’s really bright security light shining through the bedroom window when you are trying to sleep?  Fun.

A little salt brings out the taste, too much obscures it.  A little light helps us to see, too much light blinds.

Fr. Seamus, why are you trying to ruin this parable?  We like our nice warm and fuzzy light and our yummy salty popcorn.  Me too.

You may know, or may have heard, that today has been designated by the Church “World Marriage Day,” and this coming week “National Marriage Week.”

And today I don’t think any term illustrates what I am saying about salt and light better than this word: Marriage.  Is there any issue in recent years that has seemed more like salt in a wound?  That has seemed more like a security light beaming through the bedroom window?

“Why go there, Father?” you might ask.  Why not just stick with warm candles and popcorn?  Because I think we need to talk about this.  I don’t think we have really as a Church processed what happened around the whole marriage debate here in Maine.  Our Church has taken a very public stance and really caused a firestorm.  There are many Catholics who left the practice of the faith over the issue, and my sense is that there are many more who are still sitting in the pews but who feel more distant - whose identification with the Church has been weakened.

If you are not one of these men or women, certainly you know them, right?  And how many of you have been a part of the very difficult and tense conversations in recent months and years… around dinner tables, after Mass, at the workplace, and in so many other places?

Do we just pretend that none of this happened?  That the Church lost the marriage battle and so now its on to other things…  Let bygones be bygones?  I don’t think we can.  If we have any love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we have any love for the Church we can’t just move on.  We have to find a way to move forward.  We cannot let the impression stand – especially with younger generations – that salt and light are too harsh and intolerant for polite society.  That taking faith too seriously, living faith too publically, is a kind of social bullying.

Some might suggest that we just put the light under the basket for a time, let the salt mellow for a bit.  I think that is a natural response after such a contentious period.  Not to take such a public profile.  Let some of the memories fade with time.  Don’t say “Catholic” quite so loud.

But Christ clearly teaches against this move in the gospel today.  And I think we can see why on multiple levels.  First, to withdraw from society would not really address the issue.  Instead, it could seem like a ploy, like a kind of tactical retreat.  Instead of mending bridges or healing injuries, to withdraw from the discussion would only perpetuate an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

Furthermore, there is a great need for salt and light today.  People are hungering for it, craving to hear the good news of the Gospel.  They need to encounter Christ in us, tangibly and visibly.  We need to be Christ to them, for them.  And despite what some might like to pretend, you and I can’t do that if we don’t publically associate ourselves with Christ and his Church.

And finally, you can’t keep light healthy under a bushel basket – it needs oxygen.  And salt gets all clumped up and hard and useless if it is not used regularly.  Faith that is not alive, that is not active, atrophies and dies.  You cannot be salt, you cannot be light unless you are shared with the world.  Faith must be love in action.  By definition faith is relational, it is shared.

So we cannot retreat from society and become our own little walled city on the hill.  We cannot just do our own thing and let everyone else do their own thing.  Jesus did not do that, the apostles did not do that – and they had a lot more to lose.  They lost their lives because of it.  Christianity has never been a private religion, an individualized or customized faith.  We must live out our faith in the world, we must be salt and light for the world.

Yet let us be clear: Jesus did not ask his followers to go dump truckloads of salt on people or shine spotlights on them.  We cannot be blundering, haphazard or callous Catholics.  We will cause more harm than good.  That is why our faith, our Catholic tradition, has always underlined the necessary wedding of faith and reason.  Faith seeks understanding.  It is not irrational.  And so you and I cannot be true witnesses to our Catholic faith if we are not sure of the reasons for what we believe.  On this World Day of Marriage, I want to underline how important it is that all Catholics really strive to understand and know what the Church teaches about marriage, and to not be afraid to have conversations or read more if they have difficulties understanding the teaching.

But a correct understanding of Catholic teaching is not enough.  To be salt and light for our world, faith must be rooted in a life of virtue.  Genuine faith requires prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.  It requires fasting and abstinence, it requires long hours of prayer, it requires a community of believers, it requires sacramental grace.  To be salt, to be light for the world is not a thing that any of us can afford to be flippant about.  These are poignant realities - salt and light.  You don’t just trot them out on a whim.  Catholic faith requires deliberate, informed, and prayerful action.  Only then will we know how to be salt and light for the kingdom.

Pope Francis has communicated this well, hasn’t he?   Unlike what some media outlets have opined and some fearful Catholics have criticized, the Pope has not changed the teachings of the Church.  He has not put the light under a bushel basket, he has not lessened the flavor of the salt.  But he has shown a deliberateness and thoughtfulness in his words and actions that I think can guide us as we try to be salt and light to the world in which we find ourselves today.

Pope Francis has taken the path that is spelled out so beautifully in our first reading: “Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall be quickly healed.”

Salt will always sting those who are wounded.  Light will always blind those who dwell in darkness. Some will turn away.  Some will refuse to be seasoned and will reject the light.  But please Lord may we not needlessly cause any to be lost through our superficial or lukewarm or haphazard witness to the Catholic faith.  Instead, by the grace of the sacraments and through our diligent efforts to grow in wisdom and virtue, may we be persistent in our witness - yes, to the sting - but also and especially to the beauty and goodness of salt and light.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Refining Grace

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation, Sunday Feb. 2nd, 2014

Spotless, immaculate, unblemished, impeccable, untarnished, unsullied, pure.
These words seem old fashioned today, don’t they?  Or at least in reference to a person.  They are words we might use to describe the state of a house, or of a thing.  An antique car might be untarnished or unsullied.  Water is pure.  A painting is unblemished or impeccable.  And a kitchen is spotless or immaculate.

But a person, a soul?   The only person who I think most Catholics would comfortably speak of in these terms is the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Immaculate Mary.  She’s not a person, she’s a saint, right?

But even attributed to her the language sounds archaic today – remote, almost like a fairy tale, some far off distant place.  Can you imagine saying to someone “Christ is at work purifying me so that he can present me as an offering to God, holy and blameless in his sight.”
“He’s doing what!?”  “Are you sure that you don’t have psychological problems?”

Instead, we so often speak and hear about God’s activity in the world in reference to evil and sin.  Either he is condemning and punishing, or he is forgiving and healing.  He’s the good cop or the bad cop.  But he’s the cop.

But today he is not the cop.  He is not the law.  He is not turning over tables and driving out sin and evil from the temple.  Instead he is presenting to God the reward of diligent and persistent effort, he is nourishing and building up, he is giving strength and vitality, he is bringing to fulfillment hopes and promises.  Today Christ enters the temple as a builder, as an artist.

In our first reading, the prophet Malachi speaks of Christ in these terms, in the terms of a craftsman: he is the goldsmith who through fire refines ore into a precious metal, he is the fuller who with lye cleanses wool to prepare it to be dyed and spun into cloth.  In other places in the scripture I’m sure you recall the descriptions of God’s activity in similar terms: the potter who shapes and molds clay into a vessel; the gardener who plants and tends his vines so that they produce good fruit.

But how often we think of God as a janitor, not an artist.  Instead of someone who takes what is good and refines it and purifies it and makes it beautiful, we think of him as someone who goes around mopping up spills and fixing broken windows and cleaning toilets.

We lose the sense of a long term and committed and covenantal relationship, of patient and dedicated effort on his part.  Instead, God is portrayed as one who comes in at the last moment and condemns or cleans.  As if all of his activity and involvement were concentrated at the moment of conception and the moment of death.

But that is not the way of an artist.  An artist is persistent – through trial and error, over years of different experiments and interactions, working in harmony with natural tools and materials, an artist creatively weaves them together, purifying and strengthening, sifting and intensifying: honing to a sharpened edge, burnishing to a bright luster, pruning to a bountiful harvest.  Over years, over decades, with sweat and tears and blood.  Through joys and struggles, setbacks and victories, working diligently to prepare, to build, to create beauty, to reveal truth, to nourish goodness.

Who were Simeon and Anna if not the fruits of these labors?  The Gospel tells us that the Spirit was upon them.  They were temples who had been purified within the temple.  Year after year the Lord had worked with and in them, diligently perfecting and strengthening them, helping them through trial and error, preparing them for the day when they would be present and Christ’s presentation, as members of his body, the Church.

What did Simeon say:  “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word.”  Now your work in me is complete.  This is the final brush stroke, the pinnacle.

Simeon and Anna are the image and the sign of what we are all meant to be in Christ: offerings to God who have been purified and refined and built up in the Spirit.  The presence of Simeon and Anna in the temple today prefigures the final day when Christ will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem and present all of us, the work of his hands, to our heavenly Father.

As we come together let us ask Christ to help us cooperate with and be open to the work of his creative and purifying Spirit.  May we not shy from our divine sculptor’s chisel, or the Master gardener’s pruners.  May we be docile in the hands of the potter and submit to the honing file.  We are being purified.  We are being molded and shaped and transformed in Christ, an artist who is gentle yet firm.  As Hebrews tells us in our second reading, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We are being prepared by the mysterious workings of God’s grace alive in us.  The grace we receive here at Mass and in the sacraments is fundamentally a constructive and refining grace, a grace that is at work to build us up, purify us, and make us fully human.  May we trust in the skillful hands of Christ, in the steadfast and never-failing efforts of the Divine Artist, who is at work to make of us, his Church, a pure and holy masterpiece revealed in all her splendor in the final presentation.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Leave Aside Your Nets For a While

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

A fishing net is a pretty nifty little tool, and it’s been around forever.  You just throw this thing over the side of the boat and wait – presto, when you haul it back in, you’re in for a treat… maybe.  Or maybe not.

Life is kind of like that, isn’t it?  Each of us is given this web of gifts and experiences.. .and we work diligently throughout life with the help of parents, mentors and friends to weave them together into a kind of net.   And each day we heave this mesh of gifts and experience into the mysterious waters of life, waiting to see what we will end up with – hoping that we will get what we need or want.  But we can never be sure, can we?

It’s a pretty anxious life, being a fisherman, especially when your life, and the lives of those you love depend on bringing in a catch.  And so it’s no surprise that so many spend hours worrying and working tirelessly to make sure that their nets are in good order.  From the earliest years we instruct our children on how to build a net that will get as many fish as possible – starting with good grades, we urge them to develop the traits that will make them successful.

Yet so much is outside of our control – the dark waters of life have a mind of their own and it is impossible to see into their depths with any accuracy.  We can only hope that we’re in the right place with a large enough net.

Then there is the constant reality of storms that seem to come out of nowhere with such fury – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a crisis in the family.  We scan the horizon, trying to be vigilant, hoping that we won’t be caught out at sea and suddenly lose everything.  The dark waters of life are fraught with unseen dangers and we have all seen what happens to those who do not navigate them with care.

In our time, don’t these waters of life seem have grown more dangerous, expanding into a massive sea?  Small ponds no longer seem to exist.  We have all been immersed into the massive ocean of a global economy where the fish are bigger, but the storms are bigger too.  And we do our best to navigate increasingly dark and mysterious depths of this great sea of modern life, but we can’t help but be more anxious, more nervous about the future than ever.

And then today in our gospel we hear a voice, strong and confident from the shore, from the seaward road that Isaiah speaks of in our first reading – in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.  It is a voice that has not stopped ringing out for the last 2000 years, piercing the darkness like a light as from a lighthouse in the midst of a gloomy sea.  It is a strange voice, barely audible above the roar of the waves.  “What are you doing out there?  Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

What does that even mean, telling us all to come to shore?  Telling us to leave the concern for our nets behind.  Is he crazy?  Doesn’t he care for our survival?

But then he asks us:  “What assurance do you have that all of your efforts and labors will gain you anything?  Do you really think that you are immune to the storms of life?  You are not made to merely cling to survival, to be constantly on edge, worrying about life.  You don’t need to live like this.  Leave aside your nets for a while.  The net is not the proper tool for the kind of fishing that you need to be doing.  Stop trying to drag everything you can from life into your little boat.  You will find no happiness in these waters,
no peace.”

What Jesus tells us again and again is that true security, true happiness is found not by weaving our gifts and time and energy into a net in order to get what we can from life, but when we freely give what we have received to others.  This love of others is the art of fishing for men – the art of giving of our lives to one another.

One of the greatest tricks of the evil one is to convince us that this kind of fishing, the love of God and neighbor, makes us less secure, makes it harder to survive.  That we will only be secure if we weave our time and energy into some kind of safety net honed to get what we can from life for ourselves and those we care about.

But what is more secure: an expensive alarm system in the right neighborhood, or neighbors on all sides who know you and care about you?

What is more secure, all the right pedigree, degrees and promotions, or long-lasting and trustworthy friendships that are life-giving and meaningful?

What is more secure, a retirement account that is well funded, or relationships with children and grandchildren who are close to you and love you?

What is more secure: professional counselors and doctors who are sometimes able to treat your ailments, or a relationship with a loving God who you know and trust will guide you through anything?

And during a storm, a net is useless.  It means absolutely nothing.  You can have the largest, toughest, most sophisticated net in the world.  It will only drag you under during a storm.  And as far as fish – well who wants to spend the latter part of their lives with a stockpile of fish.  Fish don’t keep very well – just like the blessings that we receive in life.  They are better enjoyed fresh.

So follow the example of Peter and Andrew in our gospel today, and leave your nets aside more often.  That’s not to say that our fishing days are over, but we will not be able to adequately love those around us if all of our gifts and time and energy are wound up together in a fishing net.  And this means that each of us must consciously work to unravel the nets, work to place more of our time and energy and gifts directly at the service of those closest to us.

We must teach our children what real fishing looks like – teach them the joy of serving others, the joy of being an engaged husband or wife, of being a close family, of life-giving friendships, of being a good neighbor, an active parishioner, an involved member of the community.  If our children learn these fishing skills they will be able to weather whatever storms this dark sea of life throws at them.

We don’t need nearly as many fish as we might think we do, and remember that Jesus is the great multiplier of loves and fish.  Come to the shore more often, spend time in prayer, involved in the parish, with your wives and husbands, your children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents, parishioners, neighbors and friends.  Sacrifice for them, give your time and energy to them.  Become a fisher of men.  And then your days at sea won’t be as anxious, your net won’t feel so heavy, the catch won’t seem so light - because you will already have everything you need.