Sunday, December 29, 2013

Our holy, broken families (Holy Family)

This time of year, we all see the Hallmark-Card images
of family that are hard—
no, make that impossible!—to live up to. 

So it was with my family, growing up; 
probably yours, too, I imagine. 
One of the best things I ever did 
was to accept the reality of my family’s brokenness, 
instead of the ideal that never was.

Speaking of “best things,” 
my father says one of the best things he did, 
as a husband, was to take mom out for a date 
every Saturday night. 

This goes with something Pope John Paul the first said: 
“Parents begin to educate their children 
by their love for each other.” 
This is one reason why, 
when married people come to confession, 
I sometimes give this penance: 
“Do something romantic for your spouse.”

I bring that up because what my father said—
and what the pope said—calls to mind 
something truly amazing: 
God, in becoming a true human being, 
an infant at Mary’s breast, growing up in a home, 
“learned” about love from Mary and Joseph!

This is the mystery of the Incarnation: 
God becoming like us in all things but sin.
He whom all heaven could not contain, 
into Mary’s womb came to dwell. 
The all-powerful Creator became a defenseless child! 
The Ancient of Days learned about human life and love 
from watching Joseph and Mary.

And you worry about what you teach your children!

On this Feast of the Holy Family, 
let’s acknowledge some things:
Sometimes, in church, we talk so much about married life, 
we neglect those who are single, 
or those whose married life together ended in deep pain.

We often don’t know what to say. 
Well, we could start with, “I’m not going to judge you; 
and I do want to welcome you!”

Some people don’t “fit the mold”; 
some can’t marry as God and nature define marriage. 
It’s not our place to redefine marriage; 
but it is certainly our place—indeed, 
it’s absolutely our obligation before God—
to embrace everyone without mockery, 
without ugliness, as Christ in our midst!

This is a subject that deserves a lot more time than a Sunday homily.
But this is just about my only chance to address it with you.
Let me just say here something that may not be obvious.
What’s at issue with the question of marriage 
is two very different understandings—
what our culture is tending to think about marriage
and what our Faith teaches.

More and more, our culture understands marriage 
to be essentially about personal fulfillment.
But what our Faith understands about marriage is self-gift and family.
These two understandings are moving in opposite directions.

We hold up the Holy Family as an ideal; 
but Christ knows well how “dysfunctional” 
our families can be. 
That’s why he came to be part of our human family!

You and I are also painfully aware of family troubles 
we don’t like to talk about: 
Alcoholism or other addictions; 
anger, emotional abuse or physical violence; 
depression or other emotional problems. 

Yes, Christ took a beating on the Cross; 
but he never inflicted such abuse on anyone—
and neither should we!

To make matters worse, some of these issues 
aren’t dealt with openly, 
but instead become shameful secrets, 
wounds that never heal.

Don’t we call this the season of Light? 
Christ offers his Light to heal these wounds. 
Will we let him?

Christ, who came to carry the Cross 
of all our human sinfulness, 
will give you courage and walk beside each of us 
on our own Way of the Cross. Will we let him?

Our second reading talks about the role 
each of us has in our families. 

Christ is the child among us—should he witness 
parents berating and demeaning each other?

Christ the teenager: we have no idea what music he liked. 
But do you think he would have tolerated music 
that demeans women and exults violence?

Christ was a worker; 
but he did not make work an excuse to neglect his family.

Christ the man saw women as Images of God, 
not as servants, or imaginary partners on the Internet.

Christ was strong enough to bite his tongue; 
he didn’t need fists or words to prove himself.

Men, are you and I “man enough” 
to follow the leadership of Jesus Christ?

And Christ the healer never shamed anyone he met; 
not the prostitute, not the tax-collector, 
not the leper or the alien.

And he will never shame nor despise any of us 
for our sins, our wounds, our secrets… 
whatever they may be.

Yes, our families are far from the ideal. 
But they, too, can be “holy families.”
Not because they look like a Christmas card, 
but because we let Christ bring courage, 
and healing, and hope:

Not to the families of our dreams, 
but to the real family life we actually have.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The message of an angel (Christmas homily)

If I asked you to close your eyes right now, 
and tell me exactly how many angels 
are visible in this church, what might you guess?

I went around earlier and counted seventeen.
You have to look closely at the windows and the artwork.
I may well have missed some.

You might know that for each Mass for Christmas--
tonight and tomorrow--the readings are all different. 
But did you know that angels 
are mentioned in each set of readings?

We don’t talk about angels much, 
which is appropriate; 
because angels never talk about themselves! 

In the Old Testament, an angel would appear, 
and the way the text describes it, 
it’s not clear if Abraham or Hagar or Jacob 
was speaking to an angel--or to God himself. 
There’s a very good reason for that. 
“Angel” means messenger; 
and an angel has no other message but what God sends.

So it’s like when your friend calls you on the phone.
Technically, you’re speaking to the telephone; but who says that? 
We say instead, we spoke to our friend. 
The phone simply bears the message.

And the message of angels is always good. 
Not always easy or pleasant. 
But they always bring the truth.
Some mornings my alarm clock sounds pretty harsh. 
But I need it!

You may have noticed that when angels appear, 
their first words almost always are, “Do not be afraid.”

When the archangel Gabriel came to Mary, 
he said, “Do not be afraid.” 
Again with Joseph: “Do not be afraid.” 
And with the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.”

Why are we afraid? What are we afraid of?

Sometimes the holiness and truth of God frightens us. 
If you come over to my house on the wrong day, 
I may keep the lights turned low, because the house isn’t tidy!
When we are in the presence of God, 
our lives don’t show so well in his light.

But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid”! 
Isaiah promised those who walked in darkness 
have seen a great light.
And we can enter into that light--
the light of God’s Holy Spirit--
and be changed, if we want.
God offers us that light to be purified by it.

This is what happens in the sacrament of confession:
One of the most misunderstood of God’s gifts!
“Do not be afraid”; yet fear keeps so many 
from enjoying the beautiful light of God’s mercy.

Let me ask again: why are we afraid?

Are we afraid of hell? We should be; 
but angels come to block that path.
Are we afraid of heaven? I think sometimes we are!
As Pope Benedict said, 
sometimes we are afraid of God, 
because we think God will take something away from us. 
Something we cherish, some part of our lives.

But the truth is, God seeks not to take from us 
what gives life depth--but what keeps us in the shallows. 
What holds us back from giving these things up
isn’t that our wrath or our greed or ego or lust 
Are really making us happy; 
but that other voices say, you can’t live without me! 
You’ve tried and failed, so many times! 
Hope is an illusion!

But the angel of the Lord says: “Do not be afraid!”

We’re afraid for one more reason. Angels aren’t us.

The images we paint of angels are misleading. 
Scripture never describes pleasant, fair-haired figures 
with flowing robes and feathery wings.

No, Scripture refers to “thrones and dominions” 
and “cherubim and seraphim”--
“creatures” with multiple wings--
and covered with eyes!--
and often shrouded in fire.

When the Ezekiel describes cherubim, he often says, 
“I saw something like”; 
meaning, they were hard to describe.

We’re not angels, and angels aren’t us. 
As good as they are, they are literally “unearthly.”

I imagine meeting an angel 
might be something like meeting a ghost. 

This is the profound sadness of what humanity’s first sin, 
and all that came after, has done to us.

Right after Adam and Eve turned from God, 
they hide--and God calls out, “Where are you?” 
God knew where they were; but did they know? 
God did not lose humanity; 
humanity lost God and so lost itself.

How sad, then, that when God sends messengers to find man, 
Instead of the greeting of friends, the words are, “Don’t be afraid!”

And so, the final messenger God chose 
wasn’t an angel--but himself;
born as a child, just like us.

Who can be afraid of a small child?

When God became man, what we are,
although God is still God, 
still holy and pure, still all-powerful, 
filling us with awe,
Still, God as one of us gives us courage to come near.

When angels would visit, it was a mixed blessing.
People were no doubt relieved when they left; 
yet they’d ask: where is God? 
Does he see? Does he care?
When God comes, born a child like us, 
we need no longer ask; we know where God is! 
We know he sees; because we see the face of God!
And we are not afraid!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It easily could have been different (Sunday homily)

I can only reconstruct my homily from memory, as I had only a mental outline. This is close.

When I meet with couples preparing for marriage, 
I ask them about how they met, how they started going out, 
how they got engaged, and so forth. 

And then I show them how, in the things they described, 
there were many points at which their lives might have gone this way or that: 
He might have gone to a different college; 
she might have gotten a different job. 
He might not have found the nerve to ask her out; 
she might not have called him back! 

It's an opportunity for them to reflect 
on how contingent their lives are; 
how different it might have been. 
So much depends on such little things; 
on decisions, the consequences of which, 
we can never imagine.

It's the same in the story of our salvation, 
particularly as the Gospel describes it. 
Mary didn't have to say yes; 
and Joseph didn't have to do as the Gospel describes. 
How easily he might have dismissed his dream as "just a dream."

Another point. How did it happen that Joseph had the inner resources, 
he spiritual resources, to respond as he did? 
Consider what he might have felt, learning Mary was expecting. 
He knew she had taken a vow of virginity; 
he was marrying her to be her guardian and protector. 
Now he learns she's expecting--what might have gone through his mind? 
His character, his ability to sense, spiritually, what was going on, didn't just happen. 

It was a product of a lifetime of choices. 
So when we wonder, why do we go to Mass every Sunday? 
Why pray? Why go to confession? 
Why make the choices, the sacrifices, we make? Why the discipline? 
This is why: to prepare us for our Saint Joseph moment, 
which we won't likely see coming, or even realize is as momentous as it is.

Now, as we saw, our lives take twists and turns, 
and perhaps some of them we're not proud of. 
We may have regrets. 

I had hopes of attending Boston University; 
I hoped for an Air Force scholarship. 
But then I didn't get the scholarship,
and there went my dream of going to Boston U. 
Instead I went to U.C. 
While there, I left the Catholic Church; ten years later, I came back. 
And in all that, there were things I was ashamed of, and regrets.

But had I taken different courses, 
I might not have ever become a priest. 
But here I am, and I'm happy to be here!

So if you have those regrets, that sense of shame, 
don't underestimate what God can do with that. 
We so often give God a mess--
and he says, "I can make something of this!" 

Then there are those prompts of the Holy Spirit; 
they come unlooked for in unexpected ways. 
I remember the nudge that got me back to the Church. 
I was driving past a church, and the thought came to me: 
I needed to get to confession. 
And I did: my first confession in ten years!

When those nudges come, pay attention: 
they may be far more consequential than we realize!

I hope we all make it to heaven. 
It's my job to get you there; and I hope you help me get there. 
So if we make it, we will be able to look back at the path that brought us there, 
zigging this way and that. And we'll say, WOW!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Here's your chance to rewrite Catholic sexual morality

Imagine a new pastor arrives at a parish, full of zeal and plans. He's convinced that the parish would benefit from clear, enthusiastic preaching, particularly on the sacrament of confession. And so, in short order, he begins a series of Sunday homilies, expounding the Ten Commandments.

When the time comes to explore the meaning of the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery," he of course talks about more than marital infidelity. Just as the Catholic Church has always applied this--in conjunction with other Divine Revelation and Natural Law--to the entirety of sexual morality, he covers the waterfront. He addresses masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, homosexual behavior, contraception, and even the immorality of other sorts of sexual behavior that's incapable of being procreative. And, for good measure, he talks about the nature of marriage: indissoluble, monogamous and intrinsically heterosexual.

And because he doesn't want anyone to be unclear--and he is brimming with zeal--he lays it all out very clearly and bluntly.

All this provokes the various reactions one might anticipate, from positive to negative. Among those reacting negatively is someone who writes for a prominent, allegedly Catholic publication that has long advocated a "new" sexual ethic, no longer based in Natural Law or "antiquated" interpretations of Scripture. This progressive writer, both infuriated and dismayed by the "rantings" of this "throwback priest," writes a scathing account of the offending homily. After the article is published, the pastor sees it.

Amidst all the priest's reactions--from anger to shock to sorrow to reflection--he decides to reach out to the parishioner who penned the article. They sit down in a booth in a local eatery, and the priest says the following:

"I read your article--twice. Clearly you not only take issue with me and how I chose to approach these subjects; and no question I made my own mistakes or misjudgments in how I handled the topic.

"But it would be fair to say, wouldn't it, that after taking away all my own flaws of judgment and presentation, that the underlying Catholic doctrine on these matters is still a huge issue for you, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, Father, you're exactly right."

"All right. Well, you realize that that's not up to me, of course; and so I won't blame you for not wanting to engage this next question. But I would really like to know. I'd like to understand something. If you take away Natural Law--you really don't buy that, right?"

"Not so much, no," the intrigued columnist says with a wry smile.

"All right. So let's set that aside. It's unreliable; outdated. Whatever. And let's do the same with the traditional understanding of Scripture. Because you can both argue it is being misunderstood or misused; or you can argue that it's time-bound. So let's say you set that aside for now, as well, OK?"


"Here's my question. This is what I don't get. What is the Catholic--Christian--sexual morality that you have left? What should take the place of what we have? What are the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of Catholic sexual morality--and why?

"You've probably heard me say that I think the only thing left is whether something is consensual. Am I wrong? Can you see--and explain--any other "nos" from the Church?

"See, it may surprise you, but I don't particularly enjoy telling people they can't remarry, can't marry someone he or she loves, and is attracted to, because they're the same sex, and so forth. I wouldn't--if I didn't think I have to--"

"See, you have to stand up to the authoritarian church! Why don't you--"

Father put up his hand. "Hold on. When I said 'have to,' I didn't mean it in that sense. I meant, I have to, because it's true. All I'm saying is, I'm not telling people 'no' to these things for any other reason. Who would? Maybe someone would, but not many.

"So, the thing is, if the Church is going to say anything is wrong, 'don't do this, this is a sin,' there has to be a pretty strong argument--right?"

"Of course."

"And that's at least one reason you objected, not only to my presentation of Catholic sexual morality, but what the Church says."


"Right. So back to my question. If you could make the case, not to me, but to the pope or bishops, whoever's going to articulate the new, and correct morality, what would that new morality be, and--because it might involve, still, some 'nos'--what's the criteria? What's the justification for any remaining 'thou shalt nots'? Obviously I can't promise I'll agree. But if you're willing, I really want to hear you lay that out.

"It's one thing to say, as you have, that what we've got now is wrong. You're clear on that. But what I don't know is what you propose instead--and how you would justify it, particularly where it still says 'no' to any choices people want to make--assuming you don't just say 'yes' to everything."

Father stopped there, as if to say, "the balls in your court." The columnist pondered the question a moment before he began his answer.

Now, dear reader--particularly if you are aligned more or less with the views of this invented columnist--how would you answer? To be very clear: I'm not looking for a restatement of the current teaching. Tell what it would be without Natural Law and Scripture?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why are incest and polygamy wrong?

For purposes of discussion, Natural Law and the Bible are not admitted as arguments.

Not because I don't believe them; or because you don't.

But because we've been told for some time neither of these are acceptable grounds for sexual morality--and we can do without them.

That's the reason why we're supposed to accept contraception, in vitro fertilization, and now, equivalency between homosexual and heterosexual activity.

So tell me: what are the criteria for sexual morality, if not, (a) Natural Law and (b) the Bible?

Make your case. Tell me why incest or polygamy are wrong? Or, if you think they aren't wrong, then tell me what the criteria for right and wrong, in matters of sex, are?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Panic! What do I do if I don't like the pope?

I like the pope; but I am hearing from Catholics who don't like some of the things he's said, and they are very uncomfortable about it. This post is for anyone wrestling with this.

First, let's air out the grievances:

> The pope seems to be a little hard on more tradition-minded Catholics.

In his recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis coined a somewhat obscure phrase: "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism." While it could fairly be applied to more "progressive" types, in the context, it seems aimed more at traditional folks. As Thomas McDonald observed here, it's puzzling that the pope would seem to be singling out folks who have been very faithful, very ready to listen to the pope. And more traditional folks are noticing, as are the more "progressive" types who don't conceal their disdain for them.

Then there is the case of a Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. This group of religious apparently have had some internal disputes, and someone from Rome got involved; but now Rome seems to be applying some rather severe discipline. A lot about this has appeared on a particularly odious site, that began calling the pope a heretic within hours of his election, I refuse to send any traffic there. Instead, I'll link to this priest's article, recommended by my friend Father John Zuhlsdorf. I am not really conversant with the whole thing; you can judge for yourself.

> In his free-wheeling manner, especially in published remarks, the pope is needlessly causing confusion.

Early on, Pope Francis gave an interview to a writer at La Repubblica; and as I reported here, the pope regretted the interview and the confusion that arose about what he believes and teaches.

The other example I'd cite was his decision to dispense himself from the norms regarding Holy Thursday, and include women in the foot-washing ritual that can be included in the Mass for that evening. (This will surprise some people, but: the norms for this ritual are explicit, that only males be chosen for it. That this norm is widely ignored doesn't change the truth of what I just wrote.) While many applauded the pope's attempt to be generous and welcoming, the nagging question remains: did he just eliminate the norm? Or did he, as I termed it, merely exempt himself? If the latter, just what does he expect priests and bishops--who can't exempt themselves--to do?

> Some of the pope's remarks and actions could be construed as failing to appreciate the situation of parish priests.

See prior paragraph for an example of this. Another would be his comment--the day after his election, as he went out of his way to pay his bill at the hotel--that he did this to set an example for parish priests. I always pay my bills; what parish priests is he talking about? And again, in his recent letter, he make a couple of observations about how parish priests ought to handle homilies and sacraments that left me scratching my head, and I suspect other priests as well.

> He seems pretty harsh toward capitalism.

Of course, this was amplified when Rush Limbaugh, and someone at Fox News, began flogging this idea; but there's no denying that several comments in his recent exhortation are critical of "unfettered markets" and various ills that arise from them, or are not solved by them.

I had a phone call from at least one lay Catholic who was pretty deeply hurt by what the pope said. This from someone who works hard, earns a good living, and tries to do good with what s/he earns. And, of course, free enterprise makes it possible for there to be lots of such people--not just giving to charity out of their surplus, but also providing jobs and growth to the benefit of society. I suspect there are others who feel similarly.

So what do we do with this?

Well, first, let's be clear about what we do--and do not--owe the holy father. He is the successor to Saint Peter, the vicar of Christ on earth. We owe him our love and devotion, our friendship and loyalty, our prayers and our attentiveness as he carries out this precious and difficult task.

When the pope speaks, I hope we all listen. If we find his words challenging, we owe his remarks our best efforts to take his words to heart.

And yet, that doesn't mean every word of every statement, oral or written, is to be taken as something that cannot be challenged, as irreformable dogma.

This is confusing, particularly since there are so many varieties of communications from the pope: encyclicals, "apostolic constitutions," "apostolic letters," exhortations, and that exotic creature, a "motu proprio." What do they all mean?

Without going through this in detail--which would require some careful research on my part--these divide into two categories: documents that teach and those that deal with governance. (Of course, it's possible to do both at the same time.) So Pope Benedict issued a motu proprio freeing the celebration of the older form of the Mass--that was about governance (as are "constitutions"); but Pope Francis' recent document is an "exhortation"--it's about teaching.

Further, there seems to be an understanding--if not a formal policy--that the more "high level" the pope intends something to be, he'll term it an "encyclical" or an "apostolic letter." For example: Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical in 1995, called Evangelium Vitae, that explicitly sets out several areas of infallible teaching. (I don't always cite Wikipedia, but I think it can be safely cited here.) And then, when Pope John Paul II declared the ordination of males only to holy orders a closed subject, he did so in an apostolic letter called Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

So what's an "exhortation"? Something still from the pope--and thus deserving our respect and attention--but something less formal in its intention to teach. To put it colloquially, I think Pope Francis would consider that what he wrote in the exhortation merely restated--with his own personal touches--what the Church already teaches. And, by and large, that's what most encyclicals do. Popes only formally (and infallibly) define doctrine when they must.

Now, there is a little trick some play: they'll say, oh if it's not infallible, I don't have to believe it. It's not that simple; and that's not what I'm saying.

Instead, I'd prefer to say this: when the pope issues any sort of statement, presenting what we believe, he intends us all to understand it not as something that takes the place of what went before, but as a page added to what went before. See the difference?

When Pope Francis talks about the economy, and markets, and caring for the poor, he doesn't wipe away what all his predecessors said; he intends his words to be an added commentary. Very frankly, I prefer what Pope John Paul II wrote on this subject; but I think the differences are more a matter of emphasis than fundamental content. I had the benefit, in the seminary, of reading a hundred years of papal documents on the social teaching of the Church, and that gives perspective.

In any case, Pope Francis knows that he's building on what John Paul II did. And in any case, we owe both of them our heedful attention.

But what if someone says, I don't like what Pope Francis said here--or did there? Is that person a bad Catholic?

No; no more than if you say the same about your parent, that makes you a bad son or daughter. It's more in how you say it, and how you approach your mother or father overall.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

'Spiritual window-shopping' and John the Baptist (Sunday homily)

You may or may not have noticed this, 
But every year, on this Sunday—and next Sunday too—
we always hear about Saint John the Baptist.

And Saint John gets two days a year when we honor him:
The day of death, but also the day of his birth.
And for a long time, it was almost automatic 
that a church would always have an image of John—
as we do to my right, your left.

So the point is, John is someone we are invited to look at closely.

And the question I was thinking about this week—
which I’ll now put before you—is…Why?

Why John the Baptist, as opposed to so many other figures?
The fact is, after the Blessed Mother, 
no other saint is so honored as much.

But before we answer the question, 
let’s notice something else.
This time of year, 
there’s obviously a lot of and advertising and gift-buying.
As a result, we all do a kind window-shopping:
We see in the ads, or in the stores, 
all the marvelous things 
someone else can afford to buy—but we can’t.

How many people expect 
to get a Lexus or an Audi for Christmas?

So most of us 
are like the kid with her nose against the glass, 
thinking, oh if only!

And, of course, this is one of the challenges for us:
Because for too many people, 
their dreams aren’t for a diamond necklace or a video game—
but just new shoes or clothes or food or diapers.

So we still have tags on our Giving Tree.

While that’s what goes on in the commercial part of Christmas,
That is not what’s going on when—in our worship—
we look at saints like John the Baptist or even the Blessed Mother.

We’re not doing a kind of spiritual window-shopping,
Where we are supposed to see what great gifts they got—but not us!

On the contrary, when we look at 
the Virgin Mary, or John the Baptist,
or Mary Magdalene, or the Apostles,
what we’re looking at is a gift God gave them—
that he also gives to us, if we want.
If we ask.

So what do we see in John?
John was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb.
Do we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

But that gift of the Spirit isn’t just a toy for us to play with;
The Holy Spirit has only one purpose:
To make Jesus Christ known!
And that was the whole of John the Baptist’s life.

I remember giving a talk once 
to some school kids about John the Baptist—
and the only thing they seemed to notice 
was his strange clothes and his diet.

Locusts and wild honey doesn’t sound very appetizing.

But there is a temptation we all face, 
to make food and pleasure way too important.
You can probably tell—I like food!
John reminds us that other things are more important.
And when we make sacrifices—both in Lent, and all year long—
we teach ourselves that other things matter more.

John was a lot more concerned about the things of God—
and what was eternal—than he was about clothing and food.

John sounds pretty harsh doesn’t he?
He calls some of the folks a “brood of vipers.”
But notice he didn’t send them away; 
He was waking them up.
And he said, don’t presume you’re on easy street.
That’s excellent advice for us.

When we come to Mass, Sunday after Sunday,
 we might think, we’re pretty good people, 
God must be pretty happy with us.

But we don’t go to Mass to please God.
The angels fill this church every Mass—
whether we come or not.
Mass isn’t something we do for God;
It’s something God does for us. 

The Church offers us Saint John the Baptist as an example.
But if we want the gifts God gave him, are we ready to join in his mission:
To have all we are and do, point to Jesus Christ?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hope in the Cross and Resurrection (final talk of Saint Cecilia Mission)

When we ended last night,
we were talking about the perfection of the Cross:
In how we discover and experience God in the Cross.

So, “God with us” in our human experience
Is complete--perfect--in that
he goes all the way with us,
through suffering and death, and resurrection.

At the center of our understanding of the Cross
is the basic truth: he died for our sins.

But we learned from Saint Thomas Aquinas
that even one drop of his precious blood
would have washed away all sin;
so that makes the Cross an astonishing extravagance.

We might think of the scene in the Gospel
where the woman breaks a precious alabaster vessel
Pouring out a fragrant and costly ointment on our Lord’s feet.

And Judas said, what a waste!
He didn’t get it.

We see this same, supposedly “wasteful” extravagance
at the Wedding of Cana.
He created all that wine--far more than they really needed;
and at any rate, they’d already “drunk freely”--
so maybe Jesus should have made coffee for them?

And again, the “extravagance” in how we give ourselves away?
I think of Francis of Assisi.
His family thought he went too far.
Maybe they said, why this waste?

In fact, that’s precisely what people do say
when men and women choose
to give up the great good of marriage,
and enter religious life or the priesthood.

They’ll call a priest, “Father What-a-waste”!
That’s if he’s good-looking.
They never said it about me!

This is where celibacy, in Christianity, is unique.
In other religions, it’s about denial.
In Buddhism, the goal is the negation of all desire.
But not in Christianity!

For us, celibacy is about the resurrection.
It’s about expectation--and hope!

If you’re on your way to a great dinner,
You don’t stop and eat on the way.

And all anyone sees is that you passed up
a really splendid, extraordinary dinner,
then that means
what you’re waiting for must be truly awesome!

That’s what celibacy is about:
Passing by the great good of marriage,
to be a sign and witness
that something truly extraordinary lies ahead.

As much as we’re all about the Cross,
there’s no real understanding of it
without the resurrection.

It’s not about death, but life;
But sometimes a death comes first.
Sometimes it needs to.

Before we move from the Cross,
There’s still another aspect of how perfect
God’s Plan of Salvation--
and it has to do with how God involves us.

This is tricky to get right.

On the one hand, we have the undeniable fact:
The salvation of the human race is God’s gift.
We could not ever have saved ourselves.

Add to that:
God WANTS to save us; and,
God, who is all-powerful, CAN save us.

And then you have what the New Testament makes clear:
Trust him! Don’t be afraid!

So we have a lot of our fellow Christians who say,
look: God did it; we SHOULD trust him!
It’s complete, and even we can’t undo our own salvation.
So relax and ride the wave.

Now, I don’t agree with that, but--
I understand how they got there.
These fellow Christians are tapping into something that’s true,
And it would be a mistake just to dismiss this.

They’re wrong, but not totally wrong.
They’re right about emphasizing God’s being “for us”
and that all God’s power and desire
is bent toward our salvation.

They may even be “mostly” right;
You can get a recipe 99% right;
But leave out one, small ingredient
and you ruin the whole thing.

So what are they leaving out?

It is that God’s Plan was designed with our participation.
It didn’t have to be.
But that’s how God did do it.

This is what Saint Augustine said:
“God who created you without you
won’t justify you without you.”
He COULD--but he won’t.

And when you think about it,
isn’t that a more perfect,
a more complete healing and redemption of humanity?
Because this way, God is also healing, and reclaiming,
our freedom and our will.
Not working around it--but, in a sense, through it.

After all, that is what wrecked us:
the human will rejecting God and choosing self.

Back to the cooking analogy I just used.
If you have a child, you’ve done this.
You’re making a cake. You can do it without her.
Probably faster, and less messier, right?
And yet, you find something for your child to do.
Maybe you put the cup of raisins in your boy’s hand,
and then guide it to the mixing bowl.

I’m not asking why it’s important to the child;
I’m asking, why does the parent think it’s important?

It’s the same with God.

God wants us to be participants in his work of salvation.

And it begins at the Cross!
Jesus alone was on the cross;
He alone is our Savior;
Yet he was not alone!

Saint John, Mary Magdalene and the others who were there.
We think of his Mother:
Was she only a spectator?

This is where Mary’s role shines out.
You could say, perhaps, of everyone else,
Yes, they simply witnessed it and received the benefit.

But to quote Bishop Fulton Sheen again,
Mary is one person who, looking at Jesus, can truthfully say,
“This is my body; this is my blood.”

The instinct of faith tells us: Mary “participated” somehow.
You would have to have a heart of stone
to see her there, and not admit
that in some mysterious way, she shared in that Cross.

Christ didn’t need any human being.
So yes, he didn’t need Mary;
yet he chose to “need” Mary.

Here’s God’s extravagance again.
When we talk about the gifts God gave Mary,
All of them presage something like them being given to everyone.
She began her life, conceived without sin.
But that’s what God wants for us: to be immaculate.
She is the Mother of God;
Yet her Son said,
everyone who does my will
is my mother, and brother and sister.

Mary is crowned in heaven?
But Saint Paul says, we will all receive crowns.

And nothing pleases Mary more!
She said: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
And her perfect cooperation with her Son
has “magnified” his work of salvation.

So Mary, as the perfect example
of how we answer Christ’s invitation,
not only to accept the salvation that flows from the Cross,
but also to take up the cross and to share in the task;
And where Mary has gone, we follow!
Now, a bit ago I talked about
how many of our fellow Christians get this wrong,
and end up saying, Christ does it all, we do nothing.

That mirrors how we Catholics get this wrong.
We hear Jesus say, take up your cross.
We hear him say, if you love me,
keep my commandments.
And we hear his warnings
about what we face if we fail to forgive,
if we fail to care for the least of his brothers and sisters.
Be watchful, he says: you might be taken, or you might be left.

So we hear all the cautions; and we can go too far,
And hold back from trust--and hope.

Our salvation isn’t just one item
on God’s infinite “to-do” list:
His being Creator and being Savior
is all one thing--and it’s all him.

Remember what Saint Paul said:
“If God be for us, who can be against us?”

So salvation isn’t a Lazy-Boy chair: just lie back!
It is a lifeboat.
But, fellow Catholics,
realize Christ is paddling toward you--
not away from you!
He’s trying to drag us in.
If we work with him,
we have excellent reason to hope!

In planning for our participation in the work of salvation,
One thing we realize is that salvation
isn’t just an individual thing,
Any more than sin--the original problem--
is solely a problem on an individual level.

In ways we really have a hard time unraveling,
sin goes beyond our own choices,
and involves others, affects others,
and in some way,
we develop sinful structures in society.

Last night, we heard from Saint Paul
how all Creation is affected by sin.
Somehow Creation has been made subject to “futility.”
As if it was all one big “misfire.”

The world is still good--very good--and beautiful,
and it is pregnant with God’s goodness;
yet something wrong was introduced into Creation
by humanity’s first sin.
That something is corruption and death.

And that, plus the evil that men do to one another--
either by direct action, or by neglect--
explains all the suffering in the world.

Once more, we can marvel at the perfection of the Cross!
Notice what God did.
He did not say, I will save you through escape.
You’ll escape your human experience,
and we’ll just forget about it.

Notice, when he delivered Israel
from slavery in Egypt, he took them out--
but they didn’t forget. Every year, they remember!

By putting the Cross at the center of salvation,
what is most hateful about human history
isn’t avoided or papered over.
It is transformed.

Something similar happens in the sacrament of confession.
In every sacrament,
we speak of the “matter” of the sacrament--
the ordinary things that God’s power acts on,
and transforms, and works through.

So the “matter” of the Mass? Bread and wine, right?
They are transformed--into God’s own Body and Blood!
Each of the sacraments can be looked at that way.

Do you know what the “matter” of the sacrament of confession is?
Our sins!
God takes the most horrible, awful and worthless thing
we can offer, and his power turns it into something wonderful!

This is one of many reasons I love being a priest!
And why I invite men to consider it:
Because I get to be a witness--
and an instrument--of that miracle!

And that, of course, is what the Cross is.
What do we say: He was crucified for our sins.
All the sins of the entire world. All the corruption.

And so Saint Paul says--I can imagine him shouting this:
“O death, where is your victory?
“O death, where is your sting?”

Paul loved the Cross--
and when we understand better what it is,
how can we not? Of course we do!

So one of the questions from last night:
What about suffering? Where does it fit in?
One thing we do is bring it to the Cross,
And Christ condescends to let it become part of the Cross.

This is the meaning of the advice,
my mother and yours, gave us: “Offer it up.”

Any suffering, great or trivial, take it to the Cross,
And what was worthless or evil can be transformed.

There’s something wonderful here.
Christ says to us, to every person:
There is not a single atom of human experience,
Not a single tear, that is not precious to him.
And there is nothing that will not be redeemed!

All this time, you may have been waiting for me
to talk about Resurrection.
But I played a trick on you:
that’s what we have been talking about!

Notice when our Lord rose from the dead,
as different as he seemed to be in so many ways,
he still had his wounds!

We wouldn’t have objected had it been otherwise;
but oh, how beautiful that he kept them!
And shows them!

He is not ashamed to show his wounds.
We never need be ashamed, either!
And when we have our bodies back,
in the resurrection, in some fashion,
I think--I can’t prove it--
but I think we’ll still have our wounds, too.

You don’t have to agree with that.
But if I’m right, it will mean that our scars
aren’t something we have to hide.
We can boast: this is who I am; and see where I am!
Look what Jesus did for me!

So in this last part of our time together,
let’s get right into the resurrection.
What do we believe?

We believe that in death, our soul and our bodies separate.
Our body dies but our soul lives on.
At the moment of our death,
we cross from this world of time into God’s time.
Into eternity.
We talk about “time” beyond death--
but no one knows just what that really means.

At that moment, we face our individual judgment day:
Heaven or hell.
And if either we take heaven for granted,
or if our fear of hell is beyond what’s healthy,
Remember what I said earlier about balance.

God’s whole will is bent on getting us to heaven.
Will we surrender our will to his, and work with his grace?
It’s like the guy who, on his judgment day, says God,
All my life I prayed to win the lottery--
and you know all the good I could have done with it.
But you never answered my prayer!

And God said, gimme a break: you never bought a ticket!

So let’s be watchful--but let’s be hopeful!

I don’t want to dwell on hell,
but I don’t want to minimize it.
Jesus talked about it--a lot.
He wanted us to take it seriously
and be serious about avoiding it.

If we didn’t have mercy offered to us,
That’s where we’d all end up.

One clear and hopeful thing our Lord said--a lot: Show mercy; you’ll get mercy. Forgive; you’ll be forgiven.
Don’t forget the least of these; I won’t forget you.
And finally, when it was all but too late,
A thief said, remember me; and he did!

What about purgatory?
Purgatory is not a third place.
It’s the anteroom to heaven.
No one headed to hell goes there--
because it can do them no good.

Purgatory is the hospital that heals the wounds left by sin.
We’re already forgiven by that point.
Everyone in purgatory is 100% forgiven! Saved!
They are saints--but they need some finishing-up.

Now, I’m not saying no one bypasses purgatory.
One way to understand self-denial and penance
is that we are trying to have this life be our purgatory.
But what I am saying
is that everyone in purgatory becomes a saint.
Because everyone in heaven is a saint.

I can’t recall who said it, but the pain of purgatory
May be this: that we are right at the threshold of heaven,
And even if our “time” there is measured in seconds,
It’s a suffering to face any delay at all.

Now is heaven the final chapter?
A lot of people think so. But no!
There’s one more chapter: Resurrection.

In addition to the individual moment
of judgment each of us receives,
There will come, at some final moment,
a conclusion to all human history as we know it.
This is what we call the Second Coming.

A lot of people are interested
in what will happen in the world between now and then.
It’s actually always been that way.
In the Old Testament, God’s People
would be in trouble, and they’d wonder,
maybe God will come and put it all right.

In the New Testament,
we have people wondering, when will it happen?
Will it happen soon?

Remember, the Apostles asked Jesus about this.
And how did he respond?
I would argue that the majority of his responses
weren’t about satisfing curiosity about the time or the events,
but instead to say, Be ready!

Let’s fast-forward to the Day, at last!
“The trumpet will sound,”
Saint Paul tells the Corinthians,
“and the dead will be raised,  incorruptible”;
“in an instant,” “in a twinkling of an eye.”
“And we shall be changed.”

That’s the moment of resurrection.
We will have our bodies back.
New and improved!

It’s very important
not to end the story of salvation too soon.
That’s what, I fear, many do:
they imagine “salvation” is, we get to heaven.
We’re happy souls in heaven--
and our bodies are no longer a concern.

But notice: Jesus did not come back
from the grave as merely a soul.
He said: I am not a ghost--
“a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”
And he eats a piece of fish in front of them.

Why is this important?
This is what we’ve already talked about:
There is absolutely nothing of God’s Creation
that he does not plan on redeeming.

And this is important because it means
that everything about us--
and every choice we make--matters.

Look at how a lot of people think today--
including a lot of Christians:
Sin isn’t so much about what you do with your body--
but what you think and intend in your soul.
The body is just a shell.
It’s for utility--and for pleasure--but that’s it.

But no: what God shows us
is that the body and soul were made for each other.
That separation, in death, isn’t the goal!
It’s temporary and unnatural.

So, for one, Catholics honor the body even in death.
It’s not just dust to scatter.

That’s why some of the sins
God warns us against
seem mostly to be about our bodies:
gluttony, being unchaste, and being lazy.
It can be hard to see how these impact the soul.

Who cares about the physical expression of love?
Men, women, mix-and-match?
And the answer is that the body
is as much a key to our identity
and our eternal vocation as our soul.

This is why, I think, a lot of people
don’t get the Church’s teaching on contraception,
and on artificial technology for conceiving children.
They’ll say, look, as long as there’s love--
that’s our soul in action--
does it matter so much about the physical details?

One answer, it seems to me,
is to try to imagine human life
if we’d never been given a body in the first place.

We wouldn’t know what it is to taste anything.
Imagine all the ups and downs of life without any emotions.
No thrill of victory; no agony of defeat!

I don’t know what “suffering” would mean without a body.
Now we might say, that’s good, right?

You and I would never wish suffering on anyone else.
But what would we be, had we never suffered?

Would you be a better person; a truer friend;
more compassionate--
more joined to the fate of others--
If you’d never suffered?
For myself, I can’t see it.

And then, of course,
the one thing that would be strictly impossible
without a body is to be a life-giver.

When God created us with a body,
He gave us a promotion:
We move into a privileged place very near God.

Now you say, no that’s the angels.
But look at this.

Only God is the Creator.
But there is one moment
when we come whisper-close to being like God,
and doing what only God can do:
And that’s create something out of nothing.

And that is when a man and woman come together.
We call it “procreation” because we don’t do it without God;
But it’s the moment when humanity is most God-like.

Angels can’t do that.
We couldn’t do it without a body.

And another way to put it:
only with a body do we realize
what it means to be a life-giver.

This is why chastity is important--
whether we’re single or married.
If it’s just about pleasure--and about the self--
Over time we wreck our understanding of ourselves:
This part of ourselves isn’t about what I get;
but what I give.

This is why separating life-giving
from love-making simply can’t work.
Once we do that, we lose what love really is,
Love is always about life.
But separating them, we get a shadow; it‘s incomplete:
Just like the body without the soul
or the soul without the body.

And this is why, all the best intentions notwithstanding,
The current experiment in saying,
anyone can marry anyone,
because it’s only about love, won’t work.
Because it’s also about being a life-giver.
Man, woman, child; Marriage, sex, family.
It all goes together.
It’s how we were built.

Now, at this point, people will say:
This is very hard; it’s unfair. It’s too much to ask!
Those couple moments always open to life?
To wait for marriage? To stay married?
To forego marriage?

I’m not going to be glib about it.
But please consider this.
One the things you who are parents,
learn from being parents--
And for the rest of us,
We see this in our parents--
is that this is an unavoidable,
costly part of both loving and giving life.

I should have one of you parents come up and say this:
It is in having and raising children,
you really discover yourselves,
and what life is, and what love is.
That’s not to say you only discover love when children come.
But when children come--it’s a whole new dimension.

And I think I should say one more thing
about the question of marriage,
Beyond how we’ve always understood it.

This isn’t about whether anyone is allowed to love.
Truly loving, caring for, being a friend, a companion,
giving oneself generously, sacrificially:
There is no law that forbids this!

But the acts proper to marriage?
I go back to what the resurrection confirms:
Our bodies aren’t incidental or a shell; they are who we are.
And they tell us what being fully human means.
And that is where we see
our fundamental orientation toward giving life.

And we see this not just in actually having children;
but in how at each stage of our life,
we are either turned inward or outward.
We give life through all we do in life, young or old.

I’ve known people in their 20s who seem empty and dead;
And people in their 90s fertile and generous.
And so have you.
I realize some of what I’m saying isn’t easy.
But that’s the thing about love.
There is no easy way.
The only “easy” way is not to love at all.

Now, God could have avoided all this by not giving us bodies;
But then, that means he wouldn’t have made human.
We simply wouldn’t be us, at all.

So the question I was supposed to answer tonight was,
why do we hope for resurrection?
The resurrection of our bodies
means the redemption of all that we are.

Our hope isn’t to be less human,
or to escape being human,
But at long last,
to know what being human really is!

Monday, December 02, 2013

Saved in hope: What is salvation?

(My notes for tonight's second talk for Saint Cecilia's Mission, "Christ our Hope.")

In that reading from Paul,
you may have noticed him say,
“For in hope we were saved.”
That’s tonight’s topic.
So we’ll look more at just what “salvation” means.

And you may recall Pope Benedict XVI
wrote a letter using this very passage as the theme.

If you want to go through what Scripture says on the subject,
Benedict’s letter is a great resource.
I’ll touch on it a little,
but you may want to go look at it in more depth.

I don’t know if people realize that Pope Benedict
may well have been one of the finest scholars
ever to be elected pope. I repeat: ever.

So let’s take a look at what he said.
First, he talks about the world into which
Christ our hope was born.

The non-Jewish people
to whom Paul and the other apostles
brought the news of Christ were not without any religion.

But the key thing about the pagan religions of that time was this:
The purpose of their ritual and sacrifice
wasn’t to draw closer to God--that wasn’t possible!--
Rather, it was merely to see
if you could gain some favor from supernatural powers;
or at least, keep them from turning against you.

To quote Pope Benedict:
“The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces,
but a God to whom one could pray did not exist.”

Remember the opinion survey I cited last night?
About how many people, in our time, believe exactly that:
if there is a God, we can’t really know anything about him.
For whatever reasons, our society looks more and more pagan every day.

A little bit of paganism in all of us

And before we point the finger at someone else,
let’s look closer to home.
Do we ever look at prayer and religious observance
as being about winning favors
or warding off some divine retribution?

Let me tell you a story about myself.
One of my bad habits--which I’m getting better at--
is that I tend to let my gas tank run down too close to empty.

And the trouble with that, of course,
is that sometimes, I’d cut it too close, and run out.

Father Weber--weren’t you with me that one time,
when we were driving from the seminary in Mount Washington
to Thomas More College?
It happened right there on I-275!

So this a bad habit of mine.
If I’m late tomorrow night, you’ll know why.

At any rate, I remember one time,
getting into the car, taking off,
and only after I’m on the highway do I notice:
oh my goodness, it’s on “E.”
And I remember now, it’s been on “E”
the last two times I got into the car.

I don’t recall where I was going, but I was in a rush;
and I really, really, didn’t want to run out of gas.

So I did what you would do: I prayed!
Oh God, I’m sorry!
Please, please just get me
to the next gas station, and I promise!
I won’t ever do this again!

Now, I don’t even remember whether that worked!
But I did realize, pretty quickly, how silly I was being:

Because it was as if
my running out of gas was a capricious punishment--
from a God whose favor I’d lost--
and now I was going to bargain to get it back.
Rather than it being a case
of something that would happen naturally
Because I tried to drive too many miles on one tank.

So there’s a little pagan in me;
and maybe you can think of times
you have thought the same way.

Now that’s a trivial example,
but it is a mindset we often have.
More often, about things that matter a whole lot more.

Have you ever known anyone
who gets into trouble--real trouble--
and they’ll say, they wonder if God is punishing them?

We can find people in the Bible who acted this way.
Let’s look at Job, in the Old Testament.
At the beginning of his story,
He is dutiful about his religious observance,
wanting to keep God’s favor.
When everything falls apart, what happens?
His friends say, you must have done something wrong!
And he says, No, I know I didn’t do anything wrong--
so why is this happening?

And when God finally speaks,
He tells the friends: you were wrong to accuse Job of sin!

And he says to Job:
All the goodness of this world, which I created,
is not something you buy from me, but it is a gift!

And Job learns that what’s important
isn’t the stuff God gives him,
but knowing God himself.
Once God speaks to him,
he asks nothing more.

The reason this is important to pay attention to is this:
If we fall into thinking that our faith,
our relationship with God,
is a kind of transaction, a contract,
where we do certain things,
expecting God to do certain things in response:

So, for  example, we go to confession and Mass,
train our kids in the Catholic faith,
and in exchange, God gets us at least into purgatory.

But if it’s a contract, that’s not salvation.

Let’s recall Saint Paul again, from this same letter to the Romans:
“But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

So let’s state it plainly:
to be saved, by definition, isn’t something we earn!
Salvation is 100% gift!

We’ll look at that some more in a moment.
But I want to return to the way Pope Benedict
was describing the religious emptiness
of the pagan world into which Jesus Christ was born.

He quotes an epitaph from a grave:
In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus 
(How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing);
And he says, “In this phrase
we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making,”
About how many lived without God--and without hope.

So we have the picture.
And if we were filling
the whole side of the church with a mural,
we could paint lots of images
representing all the ways humanity,
even now, is in darkness, and without hope;

Including so many who have decided
the only thing they can “hope” for
is whatever pleasure or meaning they can get
out of a few decades on this earth.
And then they die.

Notice, for example,
how much people are advocating planned suicide,
and “mercy killing” for those who are disabled.
Even for children!

There it is: a world of darkness and no hope.

Let’s not stay in that darkness!
As Father Jamie would say: “Amen?” Amen!

God dwells with us

Let’s go to Pope Benedict one more time to get out of that darkness.

He asks the question, what’s the relationship between faith and hope?
And he takes a familiar passage from the Letter to the Hebrews
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.”

Now, he actually goes pretty deeply into that word “substance”
but I’ve got to skip over all that.

Then he shares something from St. Thomas Aquinas,
who taught that faith is a habitus--that’s Latin--
Which means “a stable disposition of the spirit,
through which eternal life takes root in us
and reason is led to consent to what it does not see.”

Now, that word, habitus, is interesting.
It the source of our word, “habit.”
But it’s also related to another word, “habitat”--
a dwelling, like a house.
So you have that great charity, “Habitat for Humanity”--
and they build houses for people.

So what that means is that a “habit”
is a behavior that, in a sense, “builds a house” in us;
It takes root and it’s always there.

Here’s why I think that’s interesting.
Because what Benedict is saying is that our faith--
our choice of believing, and our practice of the faith,
Builds a home in us where hope can live!

So against the desolate scene
we painted of hopeless darkness, we find a house!
And it is filled with light!

Isn’t that the image we have of the birth of Jesus Christ?
We have the long tradition of him being born at midnight--
which is why we have Midnight Mass on Christmas.

While the world is in spiritual darkness,
At the middle of the night; at the darkest time of the year,
Christ was born!

But there’s something else here.
We might wonder, why this plan?
Why did God become human anyway?
Why not just send a messenger--
and remember, that’s what a lot of people say Jesus is,
only a messenger, not God himself.

So what’s wrong with that idea?

Well, because of what Pope Benedict--
working from Aquinas--said:
Hope needs a secure dwelling in us in order to take root.

And what is a better, or more secure “dwelling”
than to have God himself with us!

Not a vision, or a prophecy, or even a messenger--
“but true God from true God”!
Say it with me:
“For us men and for our salvation,
came down from heaven,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit,
was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

That’s a secure dwelling! God dwelling among us!

And when we look around our world today,
And wonder what we can say to a world
that thinks it knows everything and has everything,
That’s what we say!

Light shining in the darkness

And if we want to draw others, then we know what to do:
We have to be that dwelling where light shines out.
That’s what our parishes need to be;
What our families must be;
What each of us must be.

If we wonder
what God wants us to do with our lives--there it is.
That’s our basic vocation.
And it’s a necessary one.

Look at this church, right now.
It’s all lit up; it’s dark outside--
so right now, we can’t enjoy the beauty of these windows.
But anyone who’s outside can!
Anyone walking or driving down Madison Road sees that light.

So there’s a simple but pretty complete plan
for how each of us is called to live our lives:
Let his light shine out for others.
It’s prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist,
that feeds that fire, and makes it burn warm and bright.

When we simplify our lives,
we’re clearing away the stuff that crowds our life,
but doesn’t really add to the fire--it creates no light.
It just sits there, taking up space,
and taking our attention.

The sacrament of confession can be understood two ways.
If we’ve closed out the Holy Spirit, by sin,
we cut off the air, the oxygen, that feeds the fire.
And sin also clouds the windows, obscuring the light.

In confession, we allow Christ
to wash away all the crud
and to open us up again to the oxygen of the Holy Spirit.

Now, in theory, just one confession can do it.
In theory.
In practice, we need it again and again and again.

Parents, you’ll get this one:
The habit of being dirty
needs to be replaced
with the habit of being clean.

I notice you put out a sign on Madison Road saying,
Eucharistic adoration--come in!
Wonderful! That’s the exact idea!

Our Lord is here on the altar,
just as he was there, in that stable,
surrounded by Mary and Joseph,
perhaps some animals, and before long, shepherds.

If you ever feel that not enough people come to Mass,
remember that night.

The God-man born to die

Of course, God’s plan for our salvation
wasn’t just being born among us--
but also dying for us.

I want to recall something Bishop Fulton Sheen said.
Jesus is the one man who was born to die.

The shadow of the cross
reached all the way back from Calvary,
to the moment of his birth.
In fact, even before.
When Gabriel appeared to Joseph, he said,
You are to name him Jesus,
Because “he will save his people from their sins.”

Notice, not: “from the Romans,” or “from their enemies”--
but from their sins.

It was just a hint.
But Joseph and Mary would have known
that the Prophet Isaiah had described
a “servant,” a “Just One,”
who would suffer “for our sins,”
And his wounds would “justify many.”

They and others would have remembered,
again from Isaiah, that this servant
would give sight to the blind
and would set captives free.

Keep this in mind as we recall
Jesus walking into the synagogue,
and reading from the scroll of Isaiah, saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me”--
to do these wonderful things--
And then rolling up the scroll, he tells them:
“This passage has been fulfilled in your hearing”!

So often people will write about our Savior,
and claim he didn’t know
what his mission was, or who he was.
But that is not what the Gospels show us.
He knew who he was and why he came.

It was everyone else who was confused--
even his closest friends.
So when he told them, the Son of Man must suffer and die,
It was Peter who said, Oh no, not so Lord!”

Again, as Bishop Sheen said:
Jesus is the one man who was born to die.

Why did Jesus ‘have’ to die?

So just as we might wonder why God’s Plan
called for him being born among us,
even more we wonder, why did he die?

Why was that the plan of salvation?

I’ll say more about that tomorrow,
but I won’t completely leave you hanging tonight.

There is a sense in which the Cross was “necessary”--
Jesus speaks of it in the Gospels--
but it was not a necessity anyone imposed on him.

He said: “No one takes (my life) from me.
I have power to lay it down
and the power to take it up again.” (John 10)

Saint Thomas Aquinas said something
I think is astonishing when you think about it.
“Any suffering of his, however slight,
was enough to redeem the human race.”

Any suffering of his--however slight!

That means that when our Savior was an infant,
and he was circumcised.
Or if he ever scratched his finger or scraped a knee.

“Any suffering of his, however slight.”

That means that the “necessity” of the plan of the Cross
was something God “imposed” on himself.

Where the minimum would have been more than enough,
God chose to do the maximum!

So when we talked earlier about the gift of salvation,
there it is again.
God didn’t have to give us the gift;
and he didn’t have to give it in the way  he did;
and he didn’t have to be so astonishingly--
even shockingly--generous.

There’s more to be said,
about why the Cross was the perfect plan.
Not just for us as individuals,
but for what Paul said in the reading we began with:
The need of all Creation, “groaning” in futility, to be redeemed.
Because that points to the Resurrection:
Not just escape from this life,
But reclaiming and truly restoring life--
our human life--to what it truly is.

Just a hint of what this means:
When God became human, and lived among us;
And when he rose from the dead
and his friends saw him in a new--
and sometimes strange--way,
In none of this was he in any way “less human.”

On the contrary: in all this
they were seeing what being human truly is!
And that’s something we still only get a little glimmer of.

Christ was born, has died, and his risen for us.
All those things have happened. They are solid for us.

But what we shall later be?
If we cooperate with him,
and let him work his plan in us?

What will resurrection mean for us?
That still lies ahead!

We’ll talk about that tomorrow night,
when we go from the Cross
to Empty Tomb, and beyond.

Now we have time to pray,
to receive the Benediction of the Lord himself,
and then go to confession,
And receive the generosity of his salvation,
Not in the future, but here! Tonight!

The Promise of Hope: Abraham and Mary

(Here are my notes from last night's talk. Tonight it will be "Saved By Hope"--and we'll find our way to the Cross. See you at 7 pm at Saint Cecilia in Oakley!)

The theme of this mission is Christ our Hope.

Tonight we’ll talk about the Promise of Hope.
Tomorrow, how we are saved in hope.
And Tuesday, about the hope of resurrection.

What is hope?

So tonight it’s about Promise.
When I was working up my thoughts on this,
at first I wanted to talk about “promise”--
but actually, we need to start with “hope”: what is hope?

Well, as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans,
The gaze of hope is fixed that which lies ahead--
it isn’t something you already have.
That’s why it’s true to say that in heaven, there is no hope!
Sounds funny, doesn’t it?
But it’s true: if we make it to heaven, and we have the fullness of life,
the enjoyment of God’s love and beauty and truth--
if we have all that, then at that point, what would we hope for? Heaven is the hope!

So: hope looks forward.

But then the question comes to mind:
just what do we fix our hope on?
For example, is it actually heaven we hope for?

I think a lot of folks around us set their hopes a lot lower.
I saw a survey about the British people,
that something like a quarter of them say,
well, there might be a God,
but they don’t think they can know anything about God for sure.

I didn’t find a survey for the U.S.,
But lots of people here think the same thing, don’t they?

So what that means is that if we have
some hope of good after this life,
it ends up being pretty vague.

In the meantime, what we see around us,
what we can obtain here, that is pretty definite.
So that’s what a lot of people focus on.

Let me give some examples of how we do that.

Look at television. What do you see more of?
What heaven might be like?
Or what your next meal can be like?

We have a whole network--broadcasting 24 hours a day--
all about that next, glorious experience with food!

This is supposed to be Advent.

Yet almost everywhere we will go
tomorrow, and for several weeks, it’s the “Christmas Season.”
It’s partly fun; but it’s partly insane!
Of course, a lot of it simply about stuff!
Look at the craziness on the day after Thanksgiving;
and because that wasn’t soon enough,
in many places, it started on Thanksgiving.

Now, some of you are thinking, I don’t do any of that.
OK: but how much time do you spend on the Internet?
What a wonderful tool--but what a vast time-sink!
We don’t have to say much
about the darker side of the Internet--
although this is becoming a huge problem.

But for a lot of us, it’s just about getting all the news we can.
That’s me--I’m an information junkie.

The point is, one way or another, we fix our hopes here.
We set our sights on finding happiness here.
And the more we do that, do you realize what that means?
We’re people without hope--
because, as Saint Paul said, hope is what we look forward to;
but if we have everything we think we want,
there’s nothing left to hope for.

So that helps us see suffering a little differently.
As we get older, and the body doesn’t look as good as it used to,
and you can’t do the things you used to,
it gets harder to hang onto merely earthly hopes.

Then we have a choice: either new hope--or despair.

And that is where I think a lot of our society is now:
trying to find our happiness here and now;
and when that fails, as it inevitably will, they despair.

Pope Francis, in the letter he published just a week ago,
called the “Joy of the Gospel,”
talks about the “great danger in today’s world,
pervaded as it is by consumerism,”
which leads to “the desolation and anguish
of a complacent yet covetous heart…

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up
in its own interests and concerns,”
he writes--and with the “pursuit of frivolous pleasures,”
there is no longer “room for others,” for doing good;
and in fact, God’s voice is no longer heard.

Even though the holy father was making a different point,
What he said applies here:
Living life with no hope--because it’s all focused on this world.

So there’s a question we might want to ponder:
Where is our hope fixed?
Is it so much about the promises of this world--
or something more?

Abraham and the promise

Let’s take a look at someone who set his hope on a promise.
Let’s look at Abraham and Sarah, from the Old Testament.

This is from the book of Genesis.

These are the descendants of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran begot Lot. Haran died before Terah his father, in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah.

Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and brought them out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to go to the land of Canaan. But when they reached Haran, they settled there. The lifetime of Terah was two hundred and five years; then Terah died in Haran.

The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.

Abram went as the LORD directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

What’s so significant about the Land of Canaan?
Well, it was on the Mediterranean: waterfront property!

It wasn’t necessarily a better land.
Where they were was good for farming; plenty of water.
And, as you saw in that passage,
it was Abram’s father who first wanted to go there,
but we don’t know why.

Let’s see if we can figure it out.

You’ll probably remember that Genesis has a series of “begats,"
giving us the family tree that comes down from Adam to Noah, and Noah to Abraham.

And you might recall that in that family tree,
you have folks who lived a really long time:
Methuselah, 969 years; Noah, 950 years; Noah’s son, 600 years.

What’s important to notice about that is this:
With each generation, people are living shorter lives.

Because they’re getting further from the Garden--from Life.

Something else happens.
For every generation, when we read,
So-and-so begot So-and-so,
“and he had other sons and daughters” (see Genesis 11).

So then we come to Terah, Abram‘s father.
He had three sons: Abram and two brothers, Nahor and Haran.
And one of them, Haran, dies young.

Then, when we come to Abram and Sarai
we learn they couldn’t  have children.

In the generations down from Adam and Eve,
that hadn’t happened yet.

So let’s ask again, why did Terah, Abram’s father, want to leave?
Maybe he thought, this place is death--
let’s go somewhere else! And that’s what they do.

But notice something else.
They only went half of the journey!

Isn’t that what we do?
We’re like Terah,
and we realize we’re in a place in our lives
where we’re not drawing life. Not real life.

We’ve already talked about
some of the craziness of this time of year.
And about how much we can turn our hearts to stuff,
to empty things that don’t really nourish us,
but fill our time and crowd out the quiet we need.
Like Terah, we wake up to it, and we look around, and say:
this isn’t a place of life.

Maybe that’s why you’re here tonight.

So then we make a resolution: no more of that!
We start on the road to a new place…
but, like Terah, we get far enough where it’s better…
cleaner air, it‘s quieter…we‘ve been working  hard…

No reason to rush…

Just a little rest…

We’ll get there tomorrow…

And tomorrow never comes. And for Terah, it never did.

This is when God calls Abram.
“Go forth from your father’s house, from your relatives.”
And that’s what he does.
But why?

And there’s something I don’t think I noticed
until just two days ago, as I was preparing this talk:
it wasn’t Abram who brought up having a child.
It was God!

Abram was 75 years old at this point.
He’d been married to Sarai for some time.
As heart-breaking as it is not to have children,
perhaps he and Sarai had made their peace.

So we might wonder,
was God re-igniting a hope Abram had given up on?
Stirring up Abram, out of his comfort?

How’d you like to start a new life at age 75?
Well, that’s what Abram does.

If we fast-forward a little, we find Abram, living in the land,
With lots of wealth and respect.

And God speaks to him again, saying,
“Don’t be afraid”; “I am your shield.”

But Abram comes back at God:
“What can you give me, if I die childless”?

And that’s when God repeats his promise
that Abram will have descendants and he adds,
“look up at the sky and count the stars--if you can!”

“If you can!”

Let’s pause on that for a moment.

Those of us who live in the city, how many stars can we see?
Because of the lights and energy of the city, not many!

We have all this activity,
and we have a lot of benefits from it--
hospitals and grocery stores and water plants
and all that makes city life possible--but it also closes us in!

All this work of our own hands--
At most a few hundred years old--
Keeps us from seeing the glory of God’s universe,
which is as old as anything is.

So here’s another challenge:
Is there noise and “light pollution” in our lives
that we need to turn off?
So we can hear God speak--and see his glory?

We could go on, but let’s leave Abraham and Sarah here.

We know, of course, that God gave Abraham a son: Isaac.
And from that beginning, came Jacob, Joseph,
and all the tribes of Israel.

From Abraham to Christ

There’s something wonderful
in the promise God gave Abraham, of course:
Because the promise of a son,
and of descendants more than the stars of the sky,
Was fulfilled in a second and greater way:
The birth of Jesus Christ.
That’s how we come into the family tree.

Just like Abraham’s family came to a dead-end--
and that’s when God intervened and revived his hope,
So, generations later, God’s People were in a similar bind,
under the heel of the Romans--
and that’s when God intervened again,
and sent his own Son into the world.

One of the questions we wanted to look at tonight was,
“How does the birth of Christ bring us hope?”

To answer it, let’s look at one more passage of Scripture;
this time, the words of Mary when she visits Elizabeth,
and Elizabeth greets her, saying,
“blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

And Mary said--and you know this already!--
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
And then she says--listen to this:
“From this day, all generations will call me blessed.”

Why is that important?
Because she remembers what God told Abraham:
in him, all peoples would be blessed.
And now, Mary realizes,
the time for that promise has come!

Isaac was born for Abraham; Jesus was born for us!

What else does Mary say?
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit.”

Wait, that’s a little tricky!
If we are pretty satisfied, and secure,
we may find our the rug of our conceit
pulled out from under us!

But the good news is, “he has lifted up the lowly”
And he fills the hungry with good things--
while sending the rich away empty.”

Christ is good news if we’re hungry;
he’s the mercy of God that every generation needs.
And he is the strength we need when we have none ourselves.

That’s what Mary said when Jesus was just in her womb;
before he touched the rejected and cast out,
Before he gave heaven to the thief on the cross--
and with him, to everyone else who will say to him,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”!

When Abraham spoke to God, he looked up into the sky;
he could see the stars, but he couldn’t see God.

When Mary spoke to God, she saw him in her Son:
God here, God a human child, God our brother, God with us!

I mentioned in my homily this morning the letter
our holy father published just last week called
“The Joy of the Gospel.”

And I want to leave you with something from that letter.

One of the key things the pope is saying to us is that
the purpose of the Church isn’t to build things,
to organize things, to raise money for things,
to create structures and programs.

These are important.
But only if they happen with something else in mind:

The primary purpose of the Church is to enable people
to know and to love Jesus Christ!

Pope Francis said, at the beginning of his letter:
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment,
to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,
or at least an openness to letting him encounter them;
I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”

What’s our hope in Christ? There it is:
A personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Why don’t we just stop now, and spend some time with the Lord?
If it helps, let’s recall the questions I posed:

* Have we, like Abraham’s father, found ourselves
in a place of no life--and do we need to get out?

* What noise and distractions do we need to turn off,
so we can have silence, and hear God speak,
and see his handiwork?

* And, finally, where are we putting our hope?
In things that will pass away--or in Christ?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

'Christ our Hope': Mission at Saint Cecilia begins tonight at 7 pm!

I just finalized my notes for my first talk tonight: "The promise of hope."

Come be with us at Saint Cecilia, in Oakley, from 7-8 pm.

We'll have Exposition of the Holy Eucharist, my poor offerings, and then some time to pray silently with the Lord, followed by Benediction.

Tomorrow we'll have confessions after the talk, which is called "Saved in hope"; and Tuesday, the topic is "the hope of resurrection."

I hope to see you there!