Monday, October 15, 2018

'THE SON OF MAN CAME TO SERVE."



Oct. 21st, 2018: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.  Mark 10:35-45.

AIM: To encourage the hearers to find fulfillment through service.
ABe careful what you pray for C you might get it.@  This familiar saying came back to me this week when a friend sent me a set of ARules for Life.@  One of them was this: ARemember that not getting what you want can be a wonderful stroke of luck.@ We all think we know best what is good for us, what will make us happy.  Often, however, we are wrong. 
In the gospel reading a few moments ago we heard Jesus trying to teach this lesson to two of his friends. ATeacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,@ the brothers James and John say to Jesus. They are asking Jesus to sign a blank check. They will fill in the amount when they get it. Jesus might have told the two that their request was presumptuous. That would have put them on the defensive. People who feel they must defend themselves are not open to new insights. So Jesus asks simply: AWhat do you wish me to do for you?@
AGrant that in your glory we may sit one at your right hand and the other on your left.@ That was presumptuous. Jesus still does not rebuke them. Instead he tells them that they have no idea what they are asking. To drive home the lesson he challenges them with a question: ACan you drink of the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?@ 
AWe can,@ the brothers reply lightheartedly. 
Clearly they have no idea what lies ahead for the Master they love and revere. The cup Jesus refers to will contain bitter suffering. His baptism will be, this time, not in water but in blood. Had James and John understood that, they would not have been so eager to claim places on his right and left. Those places, Jesus tells them, are Afor those for whom it has been prepared@ C a reference, we recognize today, to the two thieves between whom Jesus would be crucified.
James and John have understood none of this. The indignation of their fellow disciples on learning what the brothers have been up to continues the misunderstanding. They are upset because two of their number have staked out a claim before they could assert theirs. Patiently Jesus explains that this whole contest for power and honor is totally unacceptable among his followers. AWhoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.@ Jesus reinforces this teaching with his own example: AFor the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.@ In Jesus= language that expression, Afor many@ was actually Afor the many@ C which was another way of saying, Afor all.@ Jesus died not just for some C not just for Catholics or for Christians. He died for all. We are reminded of this in every Mass when we hear Jesus= words at the Last Supper: AThis is the cup of my blood ... It will be shed for you and for all.@ 
The first citizens of God=s kingdom are those who, like Jesus himself, seek not to be served, but to serve. On this Mission Sunday we think of the countless women and men all over the world who are happy to live for years far from their homelands, to serve as missionaries, bringing to others the gospel B the good news that God loves sinners. They have discovered the secret of true greatness, and true happiness. Let me give you are three further examples of people who seek not to be served but to serve, first citizens of God=s kingdom. 
The first is a woman who died 21 years ago in India. She was scarcely five feet tall. She had an oversized nose and a deeply lined face. At her death the only things she owned were two white saris edged in blue and a wooden bucket to wash in. Born eighty-seven years before in Albania, she was known to the world as Mother Teresa. Originally a Sister of Loretto, she was principal of a school for girls in Calcutta. In 1946 she was traveling by train to her annual retreat when she received what she termed Aa call within a call: to give up all and follow Jesus into the slums C to serve him in the poorest of the poor.@
She began in a single room, with no companions and five rupees, then about a dollar. She started a school for slum children. Later she began caring for people dying in the streets C the start of several hostels for the dying which continue in Calcutta today. Slowly others joined her. Over the next half-century the growth of Mother Teresa=s Missionaries of Charity became a twentieth century miracle. In a day in which, in our country alone, over 10,000 Sisters have left the convent, Mother Teresa=s Sisters numbered, at her death, 3,700 in 122 countries C all  inspired by a woman who sought not to be served but to serve, to be the slave of all.  She is now St. Teresa of Calcutta.
My next first citizen of the kingdom is a married woman, the mother of three children. When her first child was born twenty-five years ago she was already a successful lawyer, with prospects of a lucrative career. She decided that her children were more important than a career and the income it would bring. In time she bore two more children. Two of them are now young adults; the third is a freshman in college. All three are young people that any parents would kill for: hard-working, courteous, generous and giving. Where did they get those qualities?  They got them from their parents C first from the mother who sacrificed a professional career because she considered her children more important.
AI never thought of it as a sacrifice,@ she told me once. But it was none-theless. It is an example of what Jesus was talking about when he told us to seek not to be served but to serve. This woman, like Mother Teresa, is another first citizen of God=s kingdom. There are others here in our parish. If I don=t speak about them, it is because I don=t want to embarrass anyone. 

My final example is Pope St. John Paul II.  Thirty years ago, on October 16th, 1978, the cardinals elected him Bishop of Rome. Then a vigorous, athletic man of 58, we remember him today old, bent, and ailing. A few months before his eightieth birthday Pope John Paul issued a letter ATo my elderly brothers and sisters.@ Let me conclude by reading to you the closing passage.

ADespite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God! At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! And so I find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: >At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you.= This is the prayer of Christian hope, which in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting the future to God=s gracious and loving care.

A>Bid me come to you!= [the Pope continued]. This is the deepest yearning of the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it. Grant, O Lord of life, that we may be ever vividly aware of this and that we may savor every season of our lives as a gift filled with promise for the future. Grant that we may lovingly accept your will, and place ourselves each day in your merciful hands. And when the moment of our definitive >passage= comes, grant that we may face it with serenity, without regret for what we shall leave behind. For in meeting you, after having sought you for so long, we shall find once more every authentic good which we have known here on earth, in the company of all who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and hope.@ 

GIVE ALMS.


Homily for October 16th, 2018: Luke 11:37-41.

          Jesus is the guest of a Pharisee, a man who is careful to observe all the provisions of the Jewish law. Offered an opportunity to wash his hands before dinner, Jesus offends his host by brushing aside this Jewish custom. An act of rudeness? So it would seem. As the story unfolds we discover, however, the Jesus had a reason for what looks like an act of discourtesy. He wanted to show his host that mere external cleansing is useless if it is not accompanied by internal cleansing as well.

          “Oh, you Pharisees!” He says. “Although you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil.” What might this mean for us today? A possible modern parallel would be Catholics who are always careful to dress up for Sunday Mass: a suit and necktie for men; for women a nice dress; inside, however, unconfessed and hence unforgiven sins: cruelty, resentment, and hate; dishonesty, impurity, and pride. The Lord in his mercy has given us a remedy for such sins: the sacrament of penance or confession. Correctness in dress and outward behavior is important. Coming to the Lord’s Table as we would to a picnic or baseball game shows scant respect for our host. Yet inner and spiritual cleansing is even more important.

          Now Jesus surprises us (as he does often). Rather than pointing to confession of sins, he speaks of something else: almsgiving. “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold everything will be clean for you.” Luke wrote his gospel for a partly Gentile community. Almsgiving hardly figured in the ancient pagan world of Jesus’ day. For Jews, however, it was important. The Jewish farmer and shepherd gave the firstfruits of field and flock to the Lord. They did so to express gratitude to the Lord who gives us all we are and have, sin excepted. Only when we are truly thankful to the Lord for all the blessings he showers upon us, so many more than we deserve on any strict accounting, are we truly in a right relationship with him. And we show our gratitude by sharing the Lord’s blessings with our brothers and sisters. Only then, Jesus tells us, will everything be clean for us.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

ST. TERESA OF AVILA


Homily for Oct. 15th, 2018: St. Teresa of Avila

          We celebrate today one of the great women of the 16th century, Teresa of Avila in central Spain. Born in 1515 as her mother’s third child and first daughter, she was, in the words of a modern biographer, “a vain and vivacious girl, with a divine agenda.” When she was thirteen, her mother died while giving birth to her tenth child. Devastated, Teresa prayed that henceforth Mary might be her mother. Despite this early piety, Teresa says herself that she was a frivolous teenager, “wearing fancy things, and silly baubles.” This was likely why her father sent Teresa to a convent school at age 16.

          She got on well in the convent. But after 19 months she fell ill and was sent to a deeply pious uncle in the country to recuperate. Conversations with him convinced Teresa that the world would soon end and that if she did not change, she would go to hell. To avoid this, she decided to “bully herself” into becoming a nun. Lacking her father’s permission for this, she stole away at age 20, with the help of an older brother, to the Carmelite convent in Avila. She would remain there for the next quarter-century. It was a relaxed life, with nuns from wealthy families enjoying comfortable suites, pets, and even servants. “Everything about God gave me tremendous pleasure,” Teresa writes, “but the things of the world captivated me. I spent almost twenty years on this stormy sea, falling and rising, then falling again.”

          When she was not quite 40, she had a conversion experience. Her prayer deepened and she began to think of what more she could do for the Lord. Reform of orders for men and women was in the air, and in 1562 Teresa, with only 4 companions, but with the support of her 17 years younger friend and Confessor, St. John of the Cross, founded a new convent with a far more austere life than the one she had left. Teresa would found almost 20 other such convents in the 20 years which remained to her. Exhausted by the travels all over Spain which these foundations required, Teresa died in 1581. She left classic writings on prayer which fill 3 volumes in English translation. They formed the basis for Pope Paul VI’s declaration in 1970 of Teresa of Avila as a Doctor or official teacher of the Church, the first woman to be so honored.

          The modern English Carmelite, Ruth Burrows, writes: “Teresa’s will was identified with our Lord’s. So everything she was, her many gifts and her weaknesses too, were brought into the orbit of her love and dedication. Union with Christ does not mean becoming someone different, renouncing our gifts, changing our temperament; but putting everything we have into our love for God and opening everything we have to his transforming influence. Teresa reached the full potential of personhood: what she was meant to be she became. This is holiness.”

          How wonderful, if something like that could be said of us, when the Lord sends his angel to call us home. To that end, then, we pray:

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us

Friday, October 12, 2018

"BLESSED WHO HEAR GOD'S WORD."


Homily for Oct. 13th, 2018: Luke 11:27-28.

          “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed,” a woman in the crowd cries out as Jesus is speaking. Jesus’ response to this tribute to his mother surprises us. He might have said, “Truly,” “Indeed,” or perhaps just “Thank you.” He owed his mother so much: his humanity, loving care from infancy through childhood, youth, and adolescence. Yet he says none of those things. The response Jesus actually makes seems almost to contradict what the woman in the crowd has cried out. “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

In reality this is not a contradiction. For Mary is the first hearer of God’s word. It came to her first when the angel Gabriel told her that she was to be the mother of God’s Son. How much of that word did Mary understand? Well, she understood at least this: that a difficult future awaited her. Her life would be different from that of all other mothers. Despite this bleak prospect, Mary immediately said yes: “Be it done to me according to your word.”

Mary’s attention to God’s word did not stop there. After Mary and Joseph’s frantic search for their 12-year-old son who, unbeknownst to them, had stayed behind in Jerusalem, they heard the boy’s puzzling questions: “Why did you search for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” On the threshold of his teens, Jesus already knew that God, and not Joseph, was his Father.

Luke (alone of the four gospel writers) tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand” what their son had said to them (2:50). After returning to Nazareth, however, Mary continued to “ponder these things in her heart” (vs. 51).

The Lord asks us to do the same. More, he promises that when we do listen to his word, ponder in our hearts what he says to us, and put his teaching into action, we are “blessed.” And that word, in Luke’s original Greek text, makarios, means “happy.”        

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"OTHERS ASKED FOR A SIGN."


Homily for Oct. 12th, 2018: Luke 11:15-26.

          At the start of today’s gospel Jesus has just given back the power of speech to a man unable to speak, probably from birth. People in those days attributed a condition like that, indeed all illness, to demons. This is reflected in the opening words of today’s gospel: “Jesus had driven out a demon.” Usually those who witness Jesus’ healings are amazed. Here they say, in effect: ‘That’s no big deal.’ Some ascribe Jesus’ ability to heal to his having entered into a pact with the demons who cause illness. Others demand that Jesus show them a sign more dramatic than a mere physical healing: a “sign from heaven,” they call it.  

          The gospels record the demand for a sign in a number of places: some proof so dramatic that it will compel belief. But belief cannot be compelled, any more than love can be compelled. Jesus’ most dramatic sign was the empty tomb of Easter morning. That did not compel belief in anyone. The only people who believed in the risen Lord were those who had known and believed in Jesus before his resurrection. And even they were initially skeptical. The one exception was the man called in the gospel that bears his name, John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Upon entering the empty tomb this disciple “saw and believed,” John’s gospel tells us (20:8). The others came to believe only after seeing the risen Lord.

          Jesus’ closing words about an unclean spirit returning to a house that has been cleaned with seven other even worse spirits tells us that it is not enough to banish bad habits. We must develop good ones. Here is an example. A mother or father confesses being impatient with the children. The priest gives this advice. Don’t bother with making fist-clenching resolutions not to lose your temper with your children. Resolve instead that when you do lose your temper, you’ll be looking for an opportunity as soon as possible to show your children that there is a more loving side to Mummy or Daddy. Praise or thank the children, for instance, for doing something well, no matter how small it may be. In other words, don’t try to pull up all the weeds in your life – your bad habits, weaknesses, and sins. That will never work. Concentrate instead on sowing flowers – the virtues.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"ASK, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE."


Homily for Oct. 11th, 2018: Luke 11:5-13.

This story about the friend coming at midnight emphasizes two things: the need for persistence in prayer, and God=s readiness to hear us: AAsk and you will receive,” Jesus says. “Seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.@ Continuing to pray when God seems to answer only with silence increases our desire and strengthens our faith, as physical exercise strengthens the heart, lungs, and muscles. St. Gregory the Great, who was bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, wrote: AAll holy desires grow by delays; and if they fade because of these delays, they were never holy desires.@

To illustrate his teaching about prayer, Jesus reminds us that God is our loving heavenly Father, and we are his children. God is more loving, however, than the even best human father or mother B and wiser. Hence he will not always answer our prayers in the way, or at the time, that we think he should. When God refuses something we pray for, it is always in order to give us something better.  

 The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen told a story about a little girl who prayed, before Christmas, for a hundred dolls. She didn=t get even one. Her unbelieving father, who had taunted both her and her mother for praying at all, couldn=t resist saying on Christmas day: AWell God didn=t answer your prayers, did he?@ To which the child gave the beautiful answer: AOh yes, He did. He said No!@ In my own nintieth year, I am grateful to have lived long enough to be able to thank God for answering some of my prayers, Not yet; and others, No.

Even when we have done our best to explain and understand prayer, however, it remains a mystery: not in the sense that we can understand nothing about prayer, but that what we can understand is partial only. We can no more explain Ahow prayer works@ than we can explain how the human mind works, or the human heart.

Above all, therefore, we need to ask for the gift of God=s Holy Spirit: the fire of God’s love, to burn away everything in us that is contrary to God, and to light up our way; his wisdom to see what it right and true, and to embrace it when seen. That prayer will always be answered, Jesus promises us. AIf you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?@

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

"ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE FOR GOD."



Oct. 14th, 2018: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.  Mark 10:17-30

AIM:  To help the hearers trust in God and in him alone.

An African priest describes how hunters catch monkeys in his country. They slice a coconut in two and hollow it out. In one half of the shell they cut a hole just big enough for a monkey=s hand to pass through; in the other they place an orange.  Then they tie the two halves together, hang the coconut from a tree, and retire to the bush to wait. Sooner or later a monkey swings by, smells the orange inside the coconut, and slips his hand through the hole trying to extract the delicacy.  Naturally he fails. While the monkey is struggling with the orange, the hunters approach and capture the animal by throwing a net over it. As long as the monkey keeps its fist wrapped around the orange, the monkey is trapped. The animal is not smart enough to realize that he cannot have both the orange and his freedom. He could save himself simply by letting go of the orange. The animal is trapped by his own greed.      
The monkey is not too different from the rich young man in the gospel reading we have just heard. It is tempting to dismiss the story on the ground that we are different: we=re not rich. Even if that is true, this young man with Amany possessions@ closely resembles us in another way. He takes his religion seriously and is faithful to his religious duties. If he lived today, he would be a devout churchgoer who since childhood has made a sincere and generous effort to keep all the precepts of his religion. When Jesus reminds him of God=s commandments, he responds: AAll of these I have observed from my youth.@ Which one of us could say that? We=re talking serious moral effort here. 
How devastated the young man must have been, therefore, to hear Jesus tell him he is still Alacking in one thing.@ When he heard what that was, he was crushed.  >Sell everything?= we can imagine him asking in shocked disbelief. >You=ve got to be kidding!= No wonder that Ahis face fell,@ and that Ahe went away sad,@ as Mark tells us. Wouldn=t you? After all, enough is enough.
Jesus disciples were equally shocked. Their religion taught them that wealth was a sign of God=s favor. And now Jesus has said that riches exclude people from God=s kingdom. It is any surprise, therefore, that the disciples are Aexceedingly astonished,@ as Mark tells us, and ask each other: AThen who can be saved?@ The answer to their question is clear. If entrance into God=s kingdom is reserved for those who, in addition to keeping all the commandments, also give away all possessions, then no one is in heaven, not even the Blessed Mother herself! She might make it on the basis of keeping the commandments. Yet she presumably had a house and a few possessions, however modest. So she would still be excluded on that score. Jesus confirms the impossibility of getting to heaven by our own efforts when he announces flatly: AFor human beings it is impossible@ B only to add at once: Abut not for God. All things are possible for God.@ 
What Jesus is telling us could be paraphrased as follows. >If you think you can get to heaven by your own efforts, forget it. You cannot. That is impossible.  Even keeping all the commandments won=t get you in, supposing you had kept them all B which you haven=t. Heaven is not the result of anything you do or ever can do. Heaven is the result of what God does, for you. Getting into heaven is a miracle, a miracle of grace. Heaven is God=s free gift.=
Jesus did not tell the young man with many possessions to sell everything because riches are evil. Rightly used, wealth is good. Riches become a danger for us, however, when we hang on to them too tightly B like the monkey with his hand keeping tight hold of the orange in the coconut, even when he sees the hunters approaching. And riches are also a danger to us whenever they give us a false sense of security. Money can do this, but other things as well. Jesus mentions some of them toward the end of our gospel reading: family, parents, children, property.  Even our good works can give us a false sense of security when they lead us to suppose that they give us a kind of claim on God which God is bound to honor.  Not all the prayers and virtues and sacrifices in the world give us a claim on God.  God has a claim on us, and it is an absolute claim.         

Jesus summons us, as he summoned the rich young man in today=s gospel, to trust in God and in him alone. He wants us to see that true discipleship goes beyond keeping a set of moral rules and affirming the truths we find in the creed and catechism. The demands Jesus makes on us are impossible. We need to get that straight from the start. They are impossible, that is, for everyone except God. AAll things are possible for God,@ Jesus tells us. That sentence from today=s gospel runs like a golden thread through the whole of Holy Scripture. It was God=s message to Abraham, when he was unable to believe that he could father a child in his old age, and his childless wife Sarah laughed at the very idea. AIs anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?@ God=s angel asked Abraham [Gen. 18:14]. It was God=s message to Mary, when she questioned how she could be the mother of God=s Son: ANothing is impossible with God,@ the angel told her [Luke 1:37]. The Lord is giving the same reassurance to each one of us today.

When life seems too much for you; when you are weighed down by anxiety, illness, injustice, the claims of others, or the nagging sense of your own inadequacy; when God=s demands on you seem too great B whenever, in short, you come up against the impossible; then you are up against God. He is the God of the impossible. In every impossible situation, in every trial that is too hard for you to bear, his divine Son and your best friend is saying to you, with tender love: 

AFor you it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.@

THE LORD'S PRAYER


Homily for October 10th, 2018: Luke 11:1-4.

          With his gift of the Lord’s Prayer, the only prayer Jesus ever gave us, he offers us a pattern for all our prayer, especially private prayer. “Father,” Jesus begins. When we begin like that, we are acknowledging that we can’t make it on our own. From infancy to old age we are dependent on Another: the One whom Jesus addressed with the intimate word, Abba – akin to “Daddy” in English.

Three petitions follow, having to with our heavenly Father himself. “Hallowed be thy name” is the first. It means “may your name be kept holy.” God’s name is kept holy when we speak it with faith, not as a magical word to get his attention, or to con him into giving us what we want. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to, for God acts in sovereign freedom.

          “Thy kingdom come” is a petition for the coming of God’s rule over us and the whole world. We are unhappy, and frustrated, because the world, and too often our own personal lives as well, do not reflect God’s rule. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” extends this petition. In heaven God’s will is done immediately, and gladly.

          The four petitions follow have to do not just with own needs, but also with those of our brothers and sisters in God’s family: for bread, forgiveness, deliverance from temptation, and victory over evil.

          Here is a suggestion which can help you to appreciate the Lord’s Prayer more deeply. Rather than just rattling it off, as Catholics mostly do, take at least five or ten minutes to pray it slowly, phrase by phrase, even word by word. Start with the opening word: “Our.” Ponder the full meaning of that word. Pray that you may be mindful not only of your own needs, but also of the needs of others -- your brothers and sisters. That could be your whole prayer for five or ten minutes. Move on the next day to the word “Father,” and on the day following pray over the words “Hallowed be thy name.” Practiced faithfully, and with patience, this way of praying the one prayer Jesus has given us will help you realize that the words are not just a pious formula. Rightly prayed, they bring you close to Him who tells us in John’s gospel: “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours, and your joy may be complete” (15:11).