Friday, March 29, 2013

Why Didn't You Stop Us?

Homily for Good Friday, 2013

Today we turn to Christ who hangs before us on a tree, suffering.  In marking this moment this past Sunday during the Way of the Cross procession and then again this afternoon when the 8th graders from our school presented the Stations of the Cross, I noticed that none of us wanted to look when Jesus was raised up on the cross – we all wanted to avert our eyes from the scene.  It is so vulgar, so heinous, so degrading – to strip a man bare and nail him up before the crowd, using his suffering to create a spectacle, his pain to entertain the mob.  A calculated scene made to capture the morbid curiosity of those who walk by: "Look at the blood, how he is shaking, look how he is crying out.  Will this break him?  Will he renounce his Father in Heaven?  Will he curse his persecutors?  Will he show that when faced with suffering and pain he can love no better than the rest of us?"  The crowd watches to see him flinch, to see Christ betray the slightest hesitancy, watching to see if anyone can really love deeply in the face of death.  "He talked about loving enemies – well, will he really do it?"

Christ on the cross is Christ in the crucible, Christ put to the test, God on trial.  And the whole world watches, the whole world waits.

And then Christ dies.

And today we realize what just happened.  We just killed God.  It was possible - he let us do it.  We hoped that he would stop us, we hoped that he would put an end to our hatred, that he would keep us from driving in the nails, that he would stop our tongues from hurling insults.  That he would save us from ourselves, from our sinfulness, from our cowardice and rivalries.  But he didn’t.  He offered no resistance to the evil that infects us, he let us have it.  Like a lamb – he just let himself be tormented and killed.  He just let himself be run over by evil, cast aside like refuse.

He could have come down from the cross, he could have stopped us at any time, yet he did not.  Instead, upon the cross, Christ allowed himself to fall beneath the horrible specter of evil and sinfulness.  “Why Lord?,” we ask.  “Why do you not stop this?  Why do you allow evil to continue on?  Why do you allow us to persist in our sins, to be so hateful of others?  Why do you allow us to do what even we know we do not want to do?  You let us muddle through life, making mediocre attempts at holiness, neglecting the things that are most important, compromising our principles, entertaining juvenile infatuations, mistreating those we care for, turning a blind eye to the needs of others.  Why don’t you stop us?  Why do you submit to this, why do you tolerate it, allow your life to be snuffed out from our midst, allow us to forget you, mistreat you, malign you?  Why don’t you reach down from the cross and save us from ourselves, from our forsaken paths?  Don’t you want us to be good?  Come down from the cross and save us!”

Today looks like defeat.  Sin persists in our world.  Evil is everywhere around us.  People are constantly suffering and dying.  And now our Savior is dead.  A soldier pierces his side to verify and blood and water flow out.

“Beloved,” St. John Chrysostom’s voice comes through to us from centuries past, “Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought.  It has a hidden meaning.  It was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam.  As God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, in the same way Christ gave us the blood and water after his own death.”  The Church is born in this blood and water, in Baptism and the Eucharist we are given the greatest treasures ever bestowed on the human race.

Christ offers no resistance to the spear – he allows it to pierce his side.  And this is because resisting hatred does not create love.  Preventing vice does not instill virtue.  Squelching pride does not produce humility.  Silencing scorn does not induce praise.  And avoiding death does not give birth to eternal life.

Love, virtue, humility, praise, and eternal life – these are all gifts, not negations.  And they are given to us from the cross – they are given to us by Christ who allows us to kill him so that we can be born through the gifts of blood and water, of Baptism and Eucharist, that flow from his side.  From the cross Christ does not prevent us from doing evil, he inspires and equips us to seek holiness.  He does not force salvation, he offers it to us.  And what an offering, made at the price of his blood, an offering of blood mixed with water poured from his pierced side.  Christ freely chooses to give his life for us on the cross so that we can freely choose to give our lives to him .  He chooses love even to the point of death so that we can choose love that points the way to eternal life.

Colanders, not Basins

Holy Thursday Homily, 2013

Today is about charity, about love, about the Eucharist.
About how we live, about what it means to be a Catholic living in the world.

Communion in Christ, Communion with one another.
Nothing else matters in the end but these two pathways of intimacy, these two bonds of love.  Love of God, love of neighbor.

And at the deepest level, how we desire them!  Who of us does not yearn for an intimacy with the living God that is sustained and deep.  That is not subject to distraction or wanderings, doubts and misgivings.  Who among us is not working to be more disciplined in prayer, for their thoughts to be turned more frequently to the will of our Heavenly Father?

And likewise we find such fulfillment in intimate friendship, in sharing our time and efforts with others.  How many of us wish that we spent more time intentionally with those we care about, reached out to them more frequently in compassion and concern, were not so distracted by our own needs and desires?  Who among us would not want to do more for the poor, the suffering, the needy and the abandoned?

Today reminds us that the Catholic faith, the Catholic church, is precisely this community of hungry people, those who are striving to receive and give these greatest loves, love of God, love of neighbor.  Who are not willing to settle for paltry, passing fancies, for infatuations and attractions that are superficial and selfish.  Who know that we are made to receive real love and to give real love.

Is that not why we come here each week for the Eucharist?  We know that true love is offered to us here at this altar, the altar of the Cross.  There is no love more real than the love of Christ poured out for us on the cross at Calvary.  There is no offering, no sacrifice of life more profound, more deep and fruitful, than the sacrifice offered to us at Mass, the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all time to the Father.  Even with the failures and sins and limitations that everywhere surround us and dwell within us, the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is given to us freely, completely, and perfectly when we receive the Eucharist.  We receive true love, perfect love, perfect gift.  All of Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity.

This love, given to us completely in the Eucharist, is what makes us into a Church – Jesus’ life poured out into us, his Spirit dwelling within us, is what makes us brothers and sisters.  We share the same life, the same love – we have been made tabernacles, vessels of divine life.

Yet what Jesus shows us as he bends down to wash the feet of the 12 today is that his love has been poured into us so that it can be offered through us to the world.  The Church is not a repository for sanctity, but a dispensary of God’s love and grace.

Unlike the basin that is used tonight to catch the water that is poured over feet, Catholics must be like colanders – not collecting God’s love, but letting it pass through us to others.  Pouring into us and then out of us.  In and out.  And this is the incredible reality that we celebrate today.  Jesus could have chosen to save the world without our involvement.  He could have chosen to redeem all of humanity directly.  But instead he chose to involve us intimately in his work of salvation, to gather us around his table, to make us members of his body that he offers in sacrificial love for the world.  We bear his name – Christian – and are sent into the world as other christs.

We are truly not our own, we have been adopted, drafted, called, set apart to be vessels of God’s love in the world, to sanctify the world by actions that are united with Christ and animated by his Spirit. When we wash feet, we not only follow Christ’s example, we are Christ who continues to wash the feet of his disciples.  He redeems and sanctifies and heals and consoles and encourages through and in us.  True love pours through the Church into our world,  pours through us into our world.  Love that is genuine, love that is selfless, love that is freely offered to all, especially to those who suffer or are alone.  When I think of how many of you visit the sick, care for those who are alone or suffering.  How many of you make such efforts on behalf of your children and parents.  How many small and unnoticed things – hours spent in prayer, little gestures, even smiles to a visitor at Mass.  How much love, how much sacrifice, how much compassion?  The love of the Eucharist truly does flow through our Church.

Do we wish it flowed more strongly?  Of course.  We are hungry, we strive to love as Christ loved even as we are aware of our sins and failures.  Yet even in our hunger, even in our striving, today it is important to praise and thank God for the Communion that we share in him and in one another: for the Eucharist that is God’s life poured out for us, and the for Church that is all of us, all of our lives poured out for the world.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Processions?

Homily for Palm (Passion) Sunday, 2013

As many of you know, once again this year we are preparing for the Way of the Cross Procession this weekend.  It is something of a novelty for us, this kind of public, outdoor procession, but in most of the Catholic world, processions are not actually all that uncommon.  I was in Spain during holy week a few years back and the week was marked by processions and pageantry.  In Italy and many other parts of the Catholic world there are continual processions commemorating various occasions or events in the life of the Church.

But we are not as used to such things in these parts – particularly in New England.  I guess we do have parades, but even in parades, half the time the people are driving something – a tractor or a fire truck or the big L.L. Bean boot or something.

Maybe it has to do with living in a cold or mosquito-infested climate.  We tend to stay in screened in areas.  And it also might have to do with the rugged individualism and an understated way of life that is typical up here.  We can imagine a local asking: “Why do you people have to go and make a big show of things.  If you want a parade, do it in your living room where you can parade around to your heart’s content in your slippers and bath robe for all I care.”

No – I think that it is safe to say that processions do not come naturally to Mainers.
Yet as we enter Holy Week today, we enter a time full of processions here at church.

Today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  In churches throughout the world, Catholics gather in places that are distant from their church and walk in procession with palms, marking our entrance into the Holy ground of Holy week with our Lord.  Then on Holy Thursday, after receiving Holy Communion, the people process with their priests, carrying the Blessed Sacrament to an altar of repose where they will keep watch in prayer with the Lord, recalling the night that our Lord spent with his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane.  On good Friday, the Cross is solemnly processed into the church, and then we will all process up to the cross to venerate it as we recall Christ’s great sacrifice of love for all people.  And finally, at the Easter vigil, Mass begins with the service of light outside of the entrance of the church as the Easter fire is lit and then all of the people and ministers process into the church with lighted candles, filling the sanctuary with the new light of Christ, risen from the dead.  One procession after another, really.

So I think that we who are somewhat procession-challenged, we Mainers, may find it helpful to have a little procession primer as we begin Holy Week.

Why processions?  Why does the Church encourage us to move around?  Why not just stay put in our pews or in our homes for that matter?

Entering into a procession speaks to something very important: that we are not mere passive onlookers as time marches past us.  To be a part of a procession is to be a protagonist, to be involved in the drama of life that is unfolding, to be a part of the scene: to be counted, to be on the record.  And I think that perhaps this is the most challenging reality of a procession for many of us.  We are not comfortable being pegged by others, being counted, being judged.  We do not want to enter the street and submit to the scrutiny of the bystander.  We prefer the anonymity of the sidelines, prefer our lives to be our own, our beliefs to shielded from scrutiny: not to be accountable for our actions, not to live under the public eye.  All of us, at a basic level, would rather be the spectator who judges than the actor who is judged.

But this is a toxic tendency for a Christian, and one that I think is having a tremendously negative impact on the Church, especially here in Maine.  The unwillingness to take part in something we do not control, unwillingness to be judged as belonging to anyone or anything other than ourselves.  To be branded.  Even to be branded as belonging to Christ and his Church.

And yet the irony is that in trying to remain spectators, in refusing to have a part, to be counted, we cannot escape the scene.  There are no sidelines in life.  We are either loving God and others or we are not.  There are no spectators to salvation.  All of us are part of the pilgrimage of human life on earth: we either accept that and work to follow Christ, or we fight him the whole way, but there are no bleachers, there are no bleachers.

Jesus Christ teaches us this week in an indisputable way that even God is not a spectator.  That God is anything but a spectator.  In Christ, the creator of all things enters into human history as its greatest protagonist, and he calls us to follow him: to leave the false refuge we seek in the bleachers and with faith and trust to instead enter into the great drama of salvation at work around us.  Spectators don’t love their neighbor, they just watch their neighbor.  Spectators don’t do good to those who persecute them, they just watch those who persecute and are persecuted.  Spectators don’t love God with their whole heart and mind and strength, they just watch– and they don’t even understand who they are watching because they have not walked in his footsteps.  Holy week teaches us, these processions are meant to teach us, that just as Christ is not a spectator God, neither can we be spectator Christians.  Christ has made us actors, he has given us his mission to accomplish, his word to preach, his Heavenly Father to love, even his cross to carry.

As he enters Jerusalem today, as he passes by, his presence walking among us asks each of us a question we cannot dodge, no matter how ruggedly independent we Mainers might be: will we be counted, will we take our places with Christ, will we join his procession to the father, the pilgrimage of love even unto death?  Will we take up our cross and follow him together with our brothers and sisters, or will our lives be one prolonged attempt to hide on the sidelines, sidelines that don’t even exist.  And so we process.  Why?  Because sometimes our feet follow our hearts, and sometimes our hearts follow our feet.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

While We Are Away...

If you are having a difficult time finding the courage to go to confession, chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is probably the best thing that you could possibly read.  The chapter begins with the parable of the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin, before our Lord finishes his lesson on repentance with the timeless account of the prodigal son that we hear in the Gospel reading this weekend.  This is not the only place in the scriptures that Jesus speaks about the beauty of repentance and forgiveness.  He preached on the theme of reconciliation continually.

As we hear the familiar words of the parable of the prodigal son once more today, might we ask ourselves, “Why does Christ place so much emphasis here?”  “What is our Lord trying to teach us, to teach you and I?”

On the face of it, the lesson might seem simple:  That God is good and merciful.  And this is a lesson that I think is pretty clear just in a simple reading of these passages of scripture.  Most Christians have learned this lesson, at least in theory - that God does not exact revenge or keep grudges.  Now and then I do hear someone expressing an idea that something bad was visited on them as if God had it out for them, as if they deserved it because of their sinful past.  But this mistaken idea that God harms us in retaliation for our sins is not very common.  Most people, I think, have a very robust faith that God will forgive them no matter what happens, that if they turn back to God he will never turn away from us.

But there is another lesson that our Lord implicitly gives throughout his teaching on reconciliation that I think is far more important for us to encounter in all its depth today.  And really it is not so much a lesson as it is a perspective, the correct way of seeing how God interacts with us: understanding the truth about God’s great intimacy and empathy and self-identification with us.

God’s forgiveness is part of a bigger picture, it only makes sense in the context of a thoroughly intimate and profound relationship.  Again and again, Christ made this point throughout his ministry.  That there is not a hair on our heads that is unknown, there is not tiny pebble that passes beneath our feet without our Heavenly Father’s notice.  When the prodigal son is away, the father’s eyes are constantly scanning the horizon.  How many sleepless nights were there?  How many times did he wonder if he was still alive?  Wish that he would come home?  Think of the things he would like to share with him, like to give him.  Lament that he could not entrust him with his life’s work.  In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd almost foolishly leaves the 99 in search of the 1 – as if he had an inordinate attachment to it – just could not stand not to hear it’s bleating in the flock, it’s absence almost painful.  The parable of the lost coin shows this same almost obsessiveness – someone who tears apart the whole house and stays up half the night, calling all her friends over to help until she finds this coin – the coin she just has to have, that cannot simply be replaced, that is not expendable.

The parables demonstrate not just that God is generically good and merciful to those who call upon him because he can’t help it, but that he is personally invested in us.  Why does Christ use the image of a Father and Son when speaking about God’s relationship to each of us?  The way that a parent loves a child, is invested in the wellbeing of a child is the closest thing he can point to in our experience to indicate how God cares for us.

But we have a hard time understanding this way that God loves.  We can only love maybe one or two people with a bit of this kind of intensity – maybe a few more if we have a large family – some of the saints has given us glimpses into what this kind of deep personal investment in each human being might start to look like - but even their example pales in comparison, is just a shadow - you and I can’t even begin to fathom loving the whole human race with the intensity that God loves us.  How he pours out his life on this altar – what this even means…  we are at a loss.  All of our hopes and fears, our anxieties and temptations, our joys and consolations… Christ is so connected to it all, so alive in it all that he calls it his own, he says that we are his, that we are him – we are his body, the Church.

And this perspective, this understanding, this knowledge of reality, of the truth about God, about the way that he cares for us, that he is connected to us… is foundational, is critical.  It is especially critical if we are to understand the sacrament of penance.  Because it is only when we understand the depth of the gift of Christ to us, in us, with us that we realize that our so called private sins are not only personal failures, but sins against Christ.  It is only when we understand God’s great compassion for each person, the way that Christ identifies himself with every brother and sister we encounter, that we see that we must confess our sins against others in the confessional.  We understand clearly that when we injure others, we injure Christ.  And when we sin against our brother or sister we not only apologize to them before coming to this altar, but we must also be reconciled with our Lord who cares for and and identifies himself with our brother and our sister and with each of us.

In short, Christ’s parables show us that when we are away on prodigal paths God does not just continue on as if nothing were wrong.  No, his eyes are constantly on the horizon.  He is always waiting.  Our wanderings always trouble him.  Our injuries always injure him.  We never wander, we never sin alone, privately – we always dissipate our lives under the loving gaze of our heavenly Father, every sin is in some way a sin against his love. St. Paul urges us today “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”  The light is on for you this week.  Go to confession.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 2013

Today all three readings present us with a lesson in what we might call spiritual or theological presumption.  In the Gospel we hear Christ basically warning his fellow Hebrews about presuming that the suffering that is afflicting the Galileans will not afflict them simply because they are the chosen people.  He also rails against the idea that those who suffer or die young in this world have somehow brought their misery upon themselves because of their sins.  And in his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells them sternly that they should study the sins and failures of the Old Covenant so that they can work to avoid falling into the same traps, never presuming that because of God’s grace they are somehow beyond falling.  No, he tells them, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.  Moses seems to be completely oblivious that he is on the holy Mount Horeb, and just walks right up to the burning bush.  He receives a stern warning: come no nearer.  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.

I think it is very important that we brush up on this theme of presumption from time to time because we live in a religious environment that is heavily influenced by protestant culture, and there are some very stark differences between the Catholic and protestant theology in this area.

Protestant theology teaches that if we have accepted Christ as our Lord, then his grace covers over our sins like snow, and even in our sinfulness we can be certain we are destined for heaven.  That is why a protestant can say that he or she is saved even while they are aware of having committed very serious sins or persisting in sin.

Catholic theology teaches that it is presumptuous to make such a declaration.  And that is why Catholics often don’t know how to respond when they are asked “Have you been saved?”
A Catholic response to the question would be “I am working on it, I trust that with God’s grace I will be, I am filled with confident hope and trust that God is leading me along the pathway to salvation.”   But a Catholic would not dare to say that he or she is definitively saved.

And this is because from the earliest days, the Church has taught that salvation requires cooperation with God’s grace, it requires that we use our freedom to love God and love our neighbor according to God’s will.  Luther used to say that God’s grace covers us like snow over a pile of dung – that we remain wretched even when we are saved and redeemed.  But this is entirely contrary to what we believe.  We believe that God saves us not simply by covering over our sins, but that he saves us by sanctifying us, by making us holy from the inside out.  Through the sacraments, Christ is at work continually helping us to die to ourselves and be more and more alive each day in him, and this is what we believe makes us holy, this is what we teach brings us salvation.  And because we fall short of that regularly, because we often resist Christ’s work of salvation in our sinfulness we also are very aware that we cannot, any of us, presume salvation.  That doesn’t mean we should fear damnation.  But it is clear that life is a constant struggle of working with God’s grace to achieve one and avoid the other.  No one can claim to be secure or lost until their last breath.

This is why the Church, following the teaching of Christ, urges us to be extremely cautious in any assumptions about the state of our moral life or the moral lives of others – both in the positive or negative.  If you look, for example, at our funeral prayers –
they speak about our hope, about our trust, about our certainty in God’s love and compassion and mercy.  But never will you hear Catholic theology stating with certainly that someone is either in heaven or in hell - except in the case of canonized saints, and that is because in those unique cases of a canonized saint there have been two confirmed miracles attributed to that person that prove that he or she must be in heaven.  Outside of that – no comment.

This may all seem a bit speculative.  Let’s look at the practical application to your life and to mine.   There are different ways that unhealthy spiritual presumption can manifest itself, both in the positive when we mistakenly assume we are guaranteed salvation, and in the negative, when we mistakenly presume that we cannot help but go to the other place.

A first and common level of presumption would be the sort that we see with Moses today: it is a kind of rashness or presumption in our approach to God.  Sometimes it is just a carelessness.
We can begin to presume a kind of informal and unserious relationship with God.  We get sloppy with sacred things, times, and places.  Don’t treat them with the care they deserve.
And this is presumption in the sense that we kind of dispense ourselves from the rigors of the spiritual life.  We give ourselves a pass – easy excuses – I’m doing better than I was, I could be like so and so, at least I (fill in the blank).  I’m a good person (that’s one of my favorites).

All of these lines of thinking are presumptuous.  Why?  Because notice, they have nothing to do with what God has asked of us or told us that he expects.  Instead, they have to do with what we want to do, to justify, or with our own judgment, or the judgment of this world.  And it is presumptuous to think that our judgment, or the judgment of this world, is on the same level as God’s.  No – we are held to his standards and his standards alone – he is the judge.  We cannot, any of us, dispense ourselves from the teaching of Christ any more than we can dispense ourselves from having two arms and two legs.
This about an example in daily life when we might be the ones who have established the rules:  When the teenager arrives at the door late at night (or early in the morning) saying “Well, I know that you have constantly told me that I need to be home by 10:00pm, but I figured that was a bit harsh and that it would be fine if I got back by 2am.”  Or better “My girlfriend said that you would understand.”  That doesn’t go over well.  Presumption.

Another line of spiritual presumption has to do with the future…  to presume that we can repent later, that we can change our lives later, that we can accommodate sin for a bit longer before we get our acts together.  That’s the presumption that Jesus goes after today in the Gospel and that St. Paul warns against in our second reading.  We can never presume our ability to repent in the future.  Repent now.  That is a constant refrain in the scriptures.
The time to do good and avoid evil is now.  And this is repeated again and again by Christ to help us combat the lies and temptations of the evil one who is always trying to get us to put off doing good or avoiding evil just one more day.  God is merciful, and as Jesus teaches us in the Gospel passage today that he will give us the opportunity to bear fruit even when our track record has not been great.  But there will be a harvest: that is not a threat, it is simply reality.  We should not put the grace and mercy of God to the test.  We cannot presume upon God’s mercy as if we would live forever.  He will do everything he can to save us, but he will not violate our free choices.

And this leads to another and final area of presumption of a different sort that can be very problematic: when someone presumes to think that they will be always be trapped by sin, that they are tainted, that they have done something that cannot be forgiven.  On a few sad occasions I have heard someone say “God will never forgive me.”   Who are we to say?  That is not our role.  No, Christian hope tells us that we should seek and strive for holiness and that it is presumptuous to think that God’s grace is not capable of overcoming any obstacle and of making us saints.  In fact, what we do know from Christ is that God’s most intent desire and greatest effort in our world is directed toward bringing us to a sanctity and holiness that will give us true and lasting joy.  It is the height of presumption to think that somehow we could be beyond his ability to save, to think that we do not share in his plan of salvation, that we have not been made like every human being: for holiness, to be a saint.

How to we fight against sins of presumption?  We follow the example of Moses.  We remove our sandals. The sandals that would track into the Holy Ground of Christ’s teaching the rocks and dirt of our own judgment, the judgment of this world.  Instead, in all humility we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us to stand with bare theological feet before God and ask him to teach us his ways, to show us who he is and what he desires for us.  And then do our best to follow without compromise or hesitation, repenting quickly when we fail, not presuming, but trusting, that through the grace at work in us Christ is leading us along the path to eternal salvation.