Thursday, March 23, 2017

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT


Homily for March 24th, 2017: Mark 12:28-34.

          The man who asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments,” is called a scribe. He is himself a teacher of the law. He is giving Jesus an orthodoxy test. By answering with a verse from the Old Testament book Deuteronomy about total love of God, Jesus passes the test.

          People today are still asking the scribe’s question. What is most important in our faith? Is being baptized most important? Or going to Mass, especially on Sunday? Or is being kind to our neighbor most important? Or trying to serve the poor and struggling for a more just society? There are strong arguments for all of these things. Jesus’ answer remains true, however. The practice of our faith begins with total love of God. That is the indispensable foundation of everything else.

          Devout Catholics today recite three times daily the Angelus prayer: morning, noon, and evening. In Jesus’ day devout Jews recited three times daily the verse from Deuteronomy about loving God totally which Jesus cites in his answer to the scribe.

          Jesus then goes on to cite a second Old Testament verse, this one from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). The scribe praises Jesus’ double answer, saying that loving God and neighbor is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” We find the same thing said in many of the Old Testament prophets. The equivalent statement today would be this: loving God and neighbor is more important than all novenas, litanies, pilgrimages, and prayers to the saints.   

          As the conversation concludes, Jesus tells his questioner: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” “Not far” he says, because of the new commandment which Jesus will give his disciples before his crucifixion. “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12-23). Perhaps someone is asking: How can I do that? Jesus was divine. I’m only human. The answer to that question is simple. On our own we cannot love as Jesus loved. Aided, however, with the Holy Spirit, we can love as Jesus loves us. So we pray in this Mass: Come Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

COMING INTO THE LIGHT

March 26th, 2017: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A. John 9:1-41.

AIM: To strengthen the hearers’ faith.

 

          Is there someone here today who comes here discouraged – by frustration, failure, or defeat? by the seeming meaninglessness of life? If so, consider the man in the gospel we have just heard.           

          What could be more discouraging than to be blind from birth, reduced to begging as your only means of subsistence? To this poor man Jesus gives the greatest gift possible short of heaven: sight. He does so out of sheer goodness: not because the blind man was good enough, but because Jesus is so good that he wants to share his goodness with someone who has next to nothing, to bring the man from darkness into the light.

          The gospel writer intends this blind man as a symbol of human life without God. He is so understood by the Church, which in the introduction to the  Eucharistic prayer on this Sunday, which we shall hear in a few moments, tells us that what Jesus Christ did for this man is what he wants to do for every one of us — if we will let him. He never forces himself on us.

            By the mystery of the Incarnation, he has led the human race that walked

            in darkness into the radiance of the faith and has brought those born in

slavery to ancient sin through the waters of regeneration to make them

your adopted children.         

The story, in other words, is about more than the gift of physical sight. It tells us also that Jesus gives us spiritual sight: the inner light of faith.

          Notice the progressive stages of the blind man’s journey. Jesus might have healed him with a word or touch. Instead Jesus invites the man to cooperate in his own healing by going to a certain pool and washing from his eyes the mud Jesus has smeared on them. Following those peculiar directions required faith. How easy it would be have been for the man to say: “Oh, that won’t do any good.” By his willingness to do this simple thing which Jesus asks of him, the man, without knowing it, begins his own journey of faith. 

          The blind man’s journey to faith brings him into conflict with those who are certain they already possess all the light there is, people who know all the answers.  The blind man starts with very few answers. Asked who healed him, he first says: “The man called Jesus.” Later he adds: “He is a prophet.” Finally, questioned by Jesus himself, the man accepts Jesus as “Son of Man”: God’s anointed servant, the Messiah, before whom he bows down in worship. Starting with the recovery of physical sight, he has completed his journey from the blindness of disbelief into the spiritual light of faith. 

          Those who are confident that they have all the answers already are journeying, meanwhile, in the opposite direction: from self-assured enlightenment to the inner darkness of disbelief. Initially they seem ready to accept the man’s healing as genuine. Then they begin to question it by raising questions about the man’s identity. When this has been firmly established, they resort to bullying: “You were born totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?”

          Finally, these self-righteous spiritual leaders who presume to sit in judgment on Jesus are in turn judged by him. “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” Refusing to acknowledge their need for God and the enlightenment that only his divine Son can give, they are condemned to their own self-imposed darkness.

          The story asks each of us for a decision. Where do I stand? With the blind man, or with his critics? The blind man’s journey from darkness to light is possible because he admits his need for light, and trusts the One who offers it. What condemns his critics to journey in the opposite direction is their complacent certainty that they know all the answers already. Confident that they do not need what Jesus has to offer, they turn their backs on him, only to have him turn on them with the terrible words: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

          If you can make little sense of life; if you cannot see the way ahead; if you do not know sometimes whether you believe in anything – then come to Jesus Christ as the blind man came. Show him your needs, your fears, your doubts, your blindness. Tell him you want what he alone can give.

          And as you tell him, trust him as the blind man trusted when he obeyed Jesus’ simple command: “Go and wash.” Show Jesus Christ your need. Trust him, and go on trusting. He will do the rest.

          I would like to close with a brief personal statement. A week from tomorrow it will be sixty three years ago that I knelt before the bishop to be ordained a priest in the Church of God. It was the fulfillment of the dream I had had, without a single interruption, from age twelve. Have every one of those sixty-three years been happy? Of course not. That does not happen in any life. All of us must travel at some time another through the dark valley. For seven years, 1974 to 1981, I was without assignment and unemployed. Resident in St. Louis but belonging to a bishop in Germany, I was like an Army officer who has got detached from his regiment. The clerical system did not know what to do with me. Those years were hard, and terribly lonely. I survived only by prayer. And there were other hard years as well.

          If you were to ask me, however, whether I have ever regretted my decision for priesthood, I would reply at once: never, not one single day. I’ll say it another way. If I had my life to live over again, knowing about all the hard and difficult years which lay ahead, would I still choose priesthood? In a heartbeat. I would change just one thing: I would try to be more faithful. Priesthood has brought me pain and sorrow, yes. But it has also brought me joys beyond telling. Those joys are the reason why I say every day, more times than I can tell you: “Lord, you’re so good to me, and I’m so grateful.”                  

          The greatest joy is the privilege, beyond any man’s deserving, of standing at the altar day by day to obey Jesus’ command at the Last Supper, to “Do this in my memory.” Celebrating Mass was wonderful the first time I did it sixty-three years ago. It is, if possible, even more wonderful today. My prayer today and every day, starting some fourteen years ago and continuing on into the future, is twofold:

That the years which remain to me may be dedicated every more completely to the Lord God; and –

          For a happy and a holy death.

          I would like to close with a prayer composed by the great 19th century English convert, now Blessed John Henry Newman, at the end of his long life a cardinal, which has been dear to me since childhood.

Support us, O Lord, all the day long; until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.   

THE DEVIL


March 23rd, 2017: Luke 11:14-23.

        We are just half-way through Lent. Today is the 20th of the 40 days. As our pilgrimage to Easter continues, the gospel readings at Mass show the opposition to Jesus mounting. Today, when Jesus heals a man previously unable to speak, some are amazed; others are critical. And some of the critics charge that Jesus is able to do such things only because he has entered into a pact with Satan. Still others find the miracle of healing unpersuasive. They demand “a sign from heaven.” All agree on one thing, however: Satan is a real person, of great power.

        That is anything but modern. Most people today, even many Christians, think of Satan as just one of the many legends from the past which we enlightened moderns have discarded. We still pray, however, in the words of the one prayer which Jesus gave us, “deliver us from evil.” Here is what the Catechism says about that prayer.

   “In this petition, evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God.” In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the name for the Devil is diabolos. That gives us the English word which describes the Devil’s work: “diabolic.” The first part of the Greek word, dia, means “through” or “across.” Bolos is from the Greek word for “throw.” The Catechism says, therefore, “The devil (diabolos) is the one who ‘throws himself across’ God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ.” (No. 2851) Satan is no long discarded legend. He is person of real power. Both Scripture and the Catechism call him “a murderer from the beginning … a liar and the father of lies, the deceiver of the whole world.” (No. 2852)

        When we ask, in the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, to be delivered from the Evil One, “we pray as well [the Catechism says] to be freed from all evils, present, past, and future, of which he is the author or instigator. In this final petition, the Church brings before the Father all the distress of the world. Along with the evils that overwhelm humanity, the Church implores the precious gift of peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of Christ’s return. By praying in this way, she anticipates in humility of faith the gathering together of everyone and everything in him who has ‘the keys of Death and Hades,’ who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (No. 2854)

 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

MOSES GIVES THE LAW


March 22nd, 2017: Deut. 4:1, 5-9.

          God’s chosen people, the Jews, were slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries, over double the life of slavery in our country. Oppressed people follow the law of the jungle, inflicting on one another the cruelty and oppression inflicted on them by their oppressors. 

So the ragtag group of people who crossed the Red Sea with Moses had grown accustomed for centuries to a life of lawlessness. The Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses, were designed to bring order out of chaos, to establish justice and peace among a people who had long since forgotten the very meaning of those words. The Commandments were not then, nor are they now, fences to hem people in. They were and are ten signposts pointing the way to human flourishing, freedom, and peace.   

          That is why Moses tells the people in our first reading to observe God’s Commandments “that you may live.” Doing that, Moses says, “you will give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence” to other nations. But Moses tells them that they must do more. “Take care … not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” What things is Moses referring to? He is speaking about the whole marvelous, indeed miraculous, story of his people’s deliverance from their more than four centuries of slavery.

          Why is this remembering so important? Why does Holy Scripture so often record the story of God’s mighty deeds in the past? Because God never changes. The record of God’s miraculous care for his people in the past assures us of his care today, and its continuance into the future. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus Christ is the same: yesterday, today, yes and forever” (13:8).

          The Church’s central act of worship, the Mass, is a recalling of what God’s Son, Jesus, has done for us at the Last Supper, on Calvary, and at his Resurrection. But this is not merely a mental recalling. Because the Mass is a sacrament, it makes present, spiritually but truly, that which it commemorates. We are there with the apostles in the Upper Room. We are there with the Beloved Disciple, Mary, and other women on Calvary; and we are with them also, astonished, at the empty tomb, with but one exception. We cannot see him with our physical eyes; but we do see him with the eyes of faith. And seeing, we adore.

Monday, March 20, 2017

"I CANCELLED YOUR ENTIRE DEBT."


March 21st, 2018: Matthew 18:21-35

          “Lord, when my brother wrongs me,” Peter asks Jesus, “how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” “No,” Jesus replies, “not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.”  The number seven was the number of fullness, for Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus was saying that the duty of forgiveness was unlimited. Then, as so often, Jesus tells a story to illustrate his teaching.

          The story’s opening is ominous. A king, for Jesus’ hearers, was a man with power of life and death over his subjects. The people with whom he intends to settle accounts are officials responsible for collecting the king’s taxes. “One was brought in, who owed a huge amount.” A lifetime was insufficient to pay it. The king’s cruel punishment, ordering not only the man himself but his whole family to be sold into slavery, would have shocked Jesus’ hearers. Then comes a surprise. When the man pleads for time to pay the debt, the king suddenly shows mercy: “Moved with compassion, the master … forgave him the debt.”

          No sooner delivered from his desperate plight, the official finds a colleague who owes him “a much smaller amount,” and demands immediate payment in full. The second official’s reaction to the demand that he pay his debt mirrors that of the first. “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” The sole difference is that the second official’s debt could easily be paid, given reasonable time. How shocking for those hearing the story for the first time to learn of the first official’s harsh response. Seizing his colleague by the throat and throttling him, he insists that the man be imprisoned until the debt is paid.

          In the story’s conclusion the colleagues of the two debtors go and report the injustice to the king. Summoning the first official again, the king reminds him of the unmerited mercy he has received and, in an act of grim irony, grants the man what, in his original desperation, he had requested: time. Now, however, the time will be spent not in repayment but in prison, under torture. This detail would have deeply shocked Jesus’ hearers. In Jewish law torture was unknown.  

The story’s lesson is simple: if we are not forgiving toward others, as God is already forgiving toward us, we risk discovering one day that the forgiveness God has extended to us has been canceled. Jesus is telling us, in short, that our treatment of others, here and now — and especially of those who have wronged us — is already determining where, how, and with whom we shall spend eternity.   

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"JOSEPH DECIDED TO DIVORCE HER QUIETLY."


March 20th, 2017: Matthew 1:18-25.

Luke’s gospel tells us that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that God wanted her to be the mother of God’s son, Gabriel also told her that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, though far beyond child-bearing age, was also, as they say in England, “in a family way” – six months pregnant, in fact. With typical generosity, Mary decides to go and visit Elizabeth. She couldn’t start right away. It was a man’s world. A woman, especially a young teenager like Mary, could not travel alone. She must have at least one chaperone.

Organizing that took time. Since the whole purpose of the visit was to help with the birth of Elizabeth’s son, Mary was away from home for some months. By the time she got back to Nazareth, she was visibly pregnant. A film I saw a few years ago – I think it was called The Birth of the Messiah – shows Mary’s encounter with Joseph after her months’ long absence. The look on his face is unforgettable.

          According to the law of that day, an unmarried woman who got pregnant could be stoned for bringing shame on her family. Though Joseph assumed that Mary had been unfaithful to him, Joseph still loved her and did not want to be responsible for her death. Rather than bringing public charges, Joseph decided simply to break off the engagement quietly.

Then something unexpected happens. An angel visits Joseph in a dream and tells him: the baby growing in Mary’s womb has no human father. He is God’s Son, the anointed Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, whose coming Israel’s prophets have predicted for centuries. Then Joseph wakes up and realizes it was only a dream.

Or was it only a dream, Joseph wonders? Suppose it’s true? With great courage, and almost super-human faith, Joseph decides to go ahead with his longed planned marriage. For the rest of his life, whenever Joseph had doubts or second thoughts about the life he had chosen, all he had to go on was the memory of a dream when he was only a teenager.

            Friends, we too have staked our lives on a dream: that God exists; that he is a God of love and of justice; that he has called us, as he called Joseph, to be friends and  servants for Mary and her Son Jesus.

Friday, March 17, 2017

WAS THE ELDER BROTHER SHORT-CHANGED?


March 18th, 2017: Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.

Was the older brother short-changed? Don’t we have a sneaky feeling that his complaint was justified? Unlike his shiftless younger brother, he’d never left home. He’d never asked for his father’s money. Nor had he wasted what his father had been good enough to give him.   

All that is true. But the older brother=s reaction to his younger brother’s shame-faced return shows that the elder brother too was in a distant country: physically at home, but far removed from his father=s attitude of love. He never noticed his father=s grief all the time his brother was away. Now that he is home again, the elder brother refuses to acknowledge him. AYour son,@ the older brother calls him, as if to say: AYour son, perhaps, but no brother of mine.@ He is filled with resentment, envy, and hate. Yet the father does not condemn this son any more than he had condemned his younger son: AEverything I have is yours,@ he reminds the elder brother. Farther than that love cannot go. 

AWho in the story suffered the most?@ a Sunday school teacher asked the class after reading them this story. One of the brightest children answered at once: AThe fattened calf.@ Next to the fattened calf, however, comes the older brother who remains outside while the party goes on inside. He does not even taste the fattened calf he himself probably helped to raise. 

Or did he? Did he change his mind and go in after all? Jesus doesn=t tell us.  Jesus leaves the story open-ended. He does so because us wants us to supply the ending. This Mass C every Mass C is a celebration of our heavenly Father=s freely given love and forgiveness. The price of that forgiveness was the poured out blood of his Son, who, as St Paul tells us, “did not know sin, but whom God made to be sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). We supply the ending to the story by confronting honestly the questions Jesus is putting to each of us right now:

Is the Mass for you a celebration of joy at your heavenly Father’s love, given not just to good faithful people like yourself, but to all, without limit? In other words C Have you heard the good news? Are you joining in its celebration?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"THE KINGDOM OF GOD WILL BE TAKEN WAY FROM YOU."


March 17th, 2017: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46.

          Opposition to Jesus has risen to a point where the religious leaders of his people are about to reject him. Jesus gives them a final, solemn warning: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit." The parable’swarning continues today: for our country, for us American Catholics, for each of us personally.

          First, the warning for our country. Few nations have been so blessed by God as ours. From small beginnings we have become the world’s only superpower. Jesus’ parable warns us that all our wealth and power will be taken from us, and given to others, if we are not willing to share with those less fortunate than ourselves the abundance God has given us. 

          The parable is also a warning to us American Catholics. The position of influence we enjoy in the Church, because of our numbers and financial resources, will be taken away from us and given to Catholics in Third World countries, if our Catholicism is complacent, conventional, and lukewarm — while theirs is dynamic, daring, enthusiastic. 

          For each of us personally Jesus’ parable is a warning that merely conventional, formal religion is not enough. And our religion is conventional if all it means, at bottom, is fulfilling a list of “minimum obligations”: dropping in at  Sunday Mass to get our card punched, avoidance of serious sin, but not much beyond that: little generosity, little love or consideration for others, because we’re too busy looking after Number One. How much would a marriage be worth in which the spouses were merely concerned to fulfill their “minimum obligations” to one another? Think about it!

          In the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church God lavishes on us treasures beyond counting: all his truth, all his goodness, power, and love (which the theologians call “grace”). He looks for our answering love in return. The treasures God bestows on us are meant to be used, not put away for safe-keeping. They are to be shared, not hoarded. If we fail to pass on to others what God so generously gives to us, we shall lose God’s gifts. We can’t keep them, unless we give them away! That is what Jesus’ warning words mean: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

          Someone has said: It doesn’t take much of a person to be a Catholic Christian. But it does take all of him — or her — that there is!