Monday, October 22, 2012

We Are Made to Find Joy as Suffering Servants

Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

Today’s first reading from Isaiah probably sounded familiar to many of you.  It is part of a passage that is read on Good Friday, that we have come to know as the prophecy of the Suffering Servant.  Christians immediately recognized that Jesus Christ, particularly in his passion and death, embodied the man spoken of centuries earlier by Isaiah.  It was not a great leap to make the connection: the suffering servant described by Isaiah would silently and without anger bear upon his shoulders the guilt of the many and like a lamb be led to the slaughter.

What comes to our minds when we picture the suffering servant?  I imagine that the scene looks pretty miserable.  He is bent over and looks defeated and weak.  His beard is all scraggly – a travesty.  And he is skinny, because miserable people are always skinny.  His face looks forlorn as he grimaces in pain.

The idea of a suffering servant conjures up for most of us the image of someone who is miserable.  But our Gospel, and many other teachings of Christ, and the witness of the lives of the saints who have followed after him should give us pause before we accept such a miserable picture.  In fact, we have reason to believe that in the very midst of his passion, Christ was experiencing a deep and abiding peace.
That even in though the suffering servant suffers, but he does not resent his suffering, he is not existentially shaken by his suffering, he is not miserable.  He might even have, at the depth of his being, something very close to joy.

Joy in the midst of suffering?  The idea seems so na├»ve and pollyannaish, doesn’t it?  And that is why we need to speak about our Gospel and these readings so clearly today.  Because they show us a truth about who we are that is so counter cultural and forgotten in our day.

In the Gospel, Christ teaches his disciples that what brings joy and fulfillment in life is not seeking to preserve your life, but seeking to give it away.  He turns the survival instinct on its head: we are not mere animals who live in a slavery of finding survival by being the fittest.  We are made in the image and likeness of God.  And what is God like?  God is love.  That means that his joy and his very existence come not from what he receives - because who can give anything to God – but from his continuous giving of his life and his love.  We are made in the image of this God who finds joy in giving, not in the image of an animal who finds joy only in receiving.

That is what Jesus revealed to us on the cross – that we are most ourselves when we give our lives away, because it is in this act of offering our lives that we live most fully in the image and likeness of the God who made us.  We are made to find joy in being suffering servants, in offering our lives as a sacrifice to God and to others.

And so while it is possible for human beings to act as if they were mere animals, preoccupying themselves with ensuring that all of their needs are met and desires satisfied, to do so is to ignore the way that we are made and to take a path that will lead to misery, not only for ourselves, but for our world.   The goods of this world are limited, and so when our lives are dominated by the concern for worldly things we begin resent others, we deceive others, we develop hatreds for others.  Other human beings become our competition, they threaten our survival, or at best become useful tools on our path to success.  Even our own children can be perceived as threats to our happiness and fulfillment, and, like many animals, can be trampled if they get in the way of our quest for our own needs.  When we are motivated by the same desires as other animals, we act like animals, and our culture becomes a jungle of hatreds, rivalries, resentments, and fears.  A culture of death.

On the other hand, when we accept and live the truth about the sacrificial nature of human life revealed by Christ we find joy and life.  Instead of resenting the demands others make upon us, we embrace them because we understand them as opportunities to become more Christ-like, and in becoming Christ-like, find joy.  We are motivated to offer our lives and gifts freely, not counting the cost.  And we are freed from fear, because if you are trying to give your life away, what can anyone take from you that will not help accomplish your purpose?

A Christian culture, a culture of suffering servants offering their lives is sacrifice, is one of joy, peace, goodwill, and freedom.  A culture that loves its children and elderly and disabled because they bring the best out of us and help us to be more fully human as we serve their needs.  A culture that is bound together in a profound social commitment and solidarity, because nothing is such a cross to love as another human being, and we know that happiness is found when we take up our crosses and follow Christ.

In a half hour or so we will leave this sanctuary where we are nourished and incorporated into the one, eternal offering of Christ and step out into a world that is makes it easy to forget who we are and what will make us happy.  How long will it take us before we start thinking about what we need, about what we didn't get, or shouldn't have to give?  Maybe when we turn on the television, and a commercial draws our attention to a product or political failure?  Or when a spouse or child or parent or friend makes a request of us?  Or when we are presented with an opportunity to be of service?  Or when something stirs within us to sit with Christ in prayer?  Remember at that moment: we are not animals whose happiness depends on the fulfillment of our needs and desires.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, the suffering servant.  We will find misery if we try to find happiness the way animals do.  God has made us differently - so that we find life, joy, freedom and peace when we offer our lives in sacrifice to God and to others.

So back to that image of the suffering servant?  What do you see?  I see someone whose countenance radiates a depth of character and deep peace, whose eyes sparkle with a love and joy that is contagious, and whose step is confident and unafraid.  I see the full stature of a human being living in the image and likeness of God.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Door of Faith Is Always Open for Us

Homily from the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012

This past Thursday, October 11th, marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome in 1962.
And this year, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict has on the anniversary inaugurated a year of faith for the Catholic Church throughout the world.

As he launched us on the year of faith this past Thursday, the Pope explained his hope for the Church this coming year.
He said “We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is “the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; ... and also the source from which all its power flows.”  At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility.
To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year.”

Now the Church speaks of faith in two senses.  The first sense is the content of our faith, the what of faith, the content, what we find in the creed and in the catechism.  The second sense of faith is our faithfulness to God, or our devotion to him and to his will for us.  In this year of faith, our Holy Father has asked us to work on both aspects: on a deeper understanding of the mystery of our Christian faith and on an intensified devotion to Christ in our daily lives.

These two aspects of faith support one another, don’t they?  
The more we know about God, the more we love him; the more we love God, the more we want to know about him.  Faith seeks understanding, and understanding deepens faith.

So, concretely this year it will be important to seek ways to bolster and deepen both aspects of faith: our understanding and our commitment.

In some ways building our understanding is the easier part.
We live in an information age.  We have access easily online to every ecumenical council document and papal encyclical promulgated.
Multiple translations of the Bible are online, along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. Thomas’s summa theological, the Catholic dictionary, and countless other resources.  The difficulty is knowing where to begin, or how to start.  Pope Benedict has given us some advice.  This year, he says, start with the Catechism and with the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  And I will give you a great hint on exactly how to do that.  If you go to the site and subscribe, a small piece of the catechism will be emailed to you each day this year, so that after the year is done, you will have read the entire Catechism.
You only have three days to catch up on if you start today.
I also would encourage you to make sure you have a New American Bible, and commit to reading through all four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles this year.  Also, if you don’t subscribe already, subscribe to the Magnificat.  It’s a little book that each day gives a brief biography of the Saint, the readings for Mass, and Morning and Evening Prayer.

Our Parish will also be providing many opportunities throughout the year to grow in faith, in addition to the current offerings for adults, including a series on the documents on the Second Vatican Council.
So that’s the first aspect of the year of faith, growing in our understanding of the teachings of Christ and his body, the Church.

The second aspect of faith is a bit more tricky: the fidelity, the commitment.  When we say that faith is a gift, I think it is in particular in reference to this aspect of faith.  You can know the Bible inside and out, you could have the Catechism memorized, without having faith.  Even the devil knows the Bible and the Catechism. In fact, he knows it better than any of us.  True faith is not just knowing, it must also be a receiving and adherence to what we know by faith.  Faithfulness, fidelity to Christ and the teachings of his Church is what makes us Christian. Otherwise we would all just be good students of Christianity.  No, the Catholic doesn’t just know what the teachings of the Church are and say “Oh, that’s nice.” “That’s one point of view.”  Faith means that we accept the teachings of Christ that have been handed down to us through the Church as the guideposts for our lives, and that we are faithful to those teachings even when it is not easy.

How can we strengthen our commitment to Christ, our adherence to his will in our lives?  Certainly knowing more about him helps – deepening our understanding of who he is and what he has done for us.  But as I said earlier, even the devil has that.  Something more is required.
And this is the mystery – where does the desire to follow Christ come from?  Ultimately it is a grace, it comes from him.
He gives us the desire to know, love, and serve him.  He gives us the desire that makes us want to be faithful.  But we can make ourselves more open to that grace, we can take steps that will encourage in us a desire to do God’s will, to follow him.

The first step is Baptism.  And thankfully we all are usually given that one by our parents.  The second is the life of the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Eucharist – where through heavenly food God builds up in us the taste for heavenly things, he builds our hunger for him, for his will, for his love.  The third is in prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament.  As you know, we are beginning a perpetual adoration chapel this year.  If you are feeling a bit luke warm in your desire, a bit distant from God – as I imagine most of us feel most of the time, than take this concrete step.  Commit yourself to an hour with him once a week.  Maybe with your spouse or with a friend.
If you seek him, he will answer you.  If you knock, the door will be opened.  If you genuinely are working to do his will, he will show you the right path and give you the strength to follow him.
But you have to create an opening in your life, a time when he can work in you and break through the business of this world.  Will you spend one hour with him?  How much time do we spend pursuing trivial things, things that do not last?  Jesus warns us in the Gospel today that our stuff, our wealth, our need to be entertained, to be comfortable, can get in the way of our relationship with him.  Is there really a good reason why any of us cannot spend an hour a week with the Blessed Sacrament getting to know the God who made us and loves us and is trying to save us?
In the Gospel, the rich young man walked away.  He walked away from Jesus.  Because it was too hard.  He didn’t want to give up what he needed to give up.  He didn’t want to make the sacrifice that Christ was asking of him.  But true faith always requires something from us.  We can’t just observe Jesus’ work of salvation from the sidelines like a spectator and expect to share in his victory over sin and death.  We have to have some skin in the game, to be personally invested – willing to be counted and identified with Christ.  His teachings have to become our teachings, his ways our ways, his will our will, his life our life.

I will close with the words of our Pope addressed to all of us as we begin this year of faith:
“The “door of faith” is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism, through which we can address God as Father, and it ends with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, whose will it was, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw those who believe in him into his own glory. To profess faith in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is to believe in one God who is Love: the Father, who in the fullness of time sent his Son for our salvation; Jesus Christ, who in the mystery of his death and resurrection redeemed the world; the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

From the Beginning He Made Them Male and Female

Homily from the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

As most of you know, our readings for Mass each weekend are given to us based on a three-year cycle.  So the theme of marriage that we find highlighted in today’s readings is one that the Church has highlighted every three years on the 27th Sunday of ordinary time for decades.

Yet as we listen to these readings this Sunday, we hear them in the context of a profoundly contentious cultural debate about same sex marriage.  As much as some have tried to argue that this cultural debate about is not over a religious question, but a civil rights question, all one has to do is read the editorial section in the paper each day to find out that everyone, on both sides of the debate, is using religious arguments.
In fact, those who are seeking to change the definition of marriage this fall have very deliberately worked to highlight clergy who agree with the proposed change, and many of those knocking at the door have been quick to tell those who answer that they are Catholics.

And so it is my duty as your priest, in the face of continuous religious arguments in favor of this change, to try to present a reasonable articulation of the Christ’s teaching on marriage as we hear it in the Gospel today, as difficult as that may be in 7 - 10 minutes, which is what they tell me is your attention span.  To be clear, I’m not trying to bully anyone from the pulpit, but as you prepare to vote on this issue, it is important that you have the opportunity to hear the basic gist of the Catholic position from your priest.

I don’t think that Christ’s teaching on marriage has ever been particularly easy to hear.  As we hear in the Gospel, divorce was permitted in the Mosaic law.  Yet in the face of the common practice of divorce, Jesus taught his followers that the law of Moses did not reflect the fullness of God’s plan for marriage and the family.  Instead, he began with Genesis.  “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

Now, when this passage was read at Mass a few decades ago, I imagine that the challenging aspect of the teaching centered around divorce.  In the face of a culture where half of marriages end in divorce, Christ’s teaching is very hard to hear: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”

But today, as we prepare for another vote on the question of same sex marriage, the challenge to our culture in his teaching is found in his claim that from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female, and that in marriage these two leave mother and father and become one flesh.

From the beginning, Jesus teaches us, God created human beings in a complementarity,  male and female, and remember, after that day he said “it is very good.”  Our gender is not a liability, an obstacle to be overcome, but a blessing given to us by God to allow us to share in his life, his love.  Genesis clearly teaches that this form of human relationship, the complementary relationship of male and female is the primordial and foundational human relationship.  Reason shows us that homo sapiens sapiens reproduces heterosexually in the union of a man and woman; what Genesis teaches us that this complementarity of genders that can give birth to new life is not arbitrary, is not a liability of our species, but is intended by God and is good – is very good.

And marriage is the natural institution or social arrangement that acknowledges and protects and upholds the goodness of this complementarity and fecundity of our species.  It exists to promote and shelter the relationship between husband and wife, between parents and their children.

Now some might say, well that’s your opinion, Father, and you’re entitled to it.  But look, it’s not just my opinion.  What our Gospel shows us so clearly today is that this is the teaching of Jesus Christ handed on to us faithfully by his Church.   It is the teaching outlined in the Catechism and taught by the bishops throughout the world.  This is not a question of what color vestments to wear or at what age children should receive their first communion.   There are practices of the Church that are debated and change depending on historical and cultural context and circumstances.  But this teaching has to do with the very core of how we understand the human person, how we understand the relationship between men and women, how we understand the relationship between parent and child, the family.  And the consistent teaching of the Church, based on faith and reason, has always been that the natural family is a blessing given to us by God that should be acknowledged and promoted by society in the institution of marriage.

Now some might say, that may be the belief of your church, but what gives you Catholics the right to impose your view on everyone else?  Clearly, not all citizens see things the same way, why can’t you just live and let live?  Your unwillingness to allow others to act in accord with their deeply held beliefs amounts to bigotry and hatred.

That simply is not true.  And that is because the government’s regulation of marriage is overwhelmingly dominated by positive law.  This means that changing the definition of marriage would not only allow same sex couples to marry, but would more importantly mandate that our government through its laws and regulation promote an entirely different vision of marriage for the whole of society.  Despite assurances to the contrary, this active promotion by the government of a vision of marriage and the family based solely on love and no longer tied in any way to the complementarity between men and women or to their natural children would profoundly impact our culture.  We need only look at the impact of no fault divorce laws on our society, when the government abandoned its promotion of permanence and indissolubility in marriage during the last century.  Now half of marriages end in divorce.  Laws matter – they not only keep people from doing what is wrong, but they also express and promote values that have a formative impact on the culture.  As Catholic men and women, we have the duty and obligation to advocate for and support laws and policies that will help our culture to remain vibrant and healthy, and help our families to live according to the truths of our faith.

Now this support of laws and policies that reflect Catholic teaching on marriage can never, never be motivated by a distain or bigotry or ambivalence toward the needs of others.  Our Church is clear on this: there can be no tolerance in our midst for homophobia, for anti-gay slurs, for bullying, or for any kind of lack of charity directed against another because of their sexual orientation.  Despite what we might hear sometimes in the news, I think that our Church is actually remarkably accepting to all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  Who can begin to count the number of Catholics who are attracted to the same sex or have experienced some uncertainty in their sexual orientation and yet remain active and dedicated to the practice of their faith?  Most of us have family members and friends who are of a different sexual orientation.  We’re all working to try to get to heaven, we’ve all got issues that we’re working on and gifts we’re trying to develop.  No one is checking sexual orientation at the door, and no one will be checking sexual orientation at the gates of heaven.

To be Catholic is to be about the work of following Christ – because we know that he is the Way and the Truth, and the Life: he reveals to us who we are and the fullness of God’s plan for us.  And an essential and beautiful part of that plan, Jesus tells us very clearly today in the Gospel, is found in a man and woman bound together in a complementary love - a married love - that makes them one flesh and offers them the grace to cooperate with their creator in bringing new life into our world.