Saturday, December 7, 2019


Homily for Immaculate Conception

         Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously said, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church…” He was referring, of course, not simply to the institution, but more to what the Catholic Church teaches.
         Let’s look first at what this doctrine is not. It does not refer to the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary, nor does it mean that Mary was somehow miraculously conceived. Mary was conceived in the normal way as the natural fruit of the marriage of Ss. Joachim and Anne, but at the moment of her conception she was preserved from original sin and its stain.
         As we know, the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, became their bitter legacy to us. Original sin deprives us of sanctifying grace, and the stain of original sin corrupts our human nature. But by God’s grace, given at the moment of Mary’s conception, she was preserved from these defects, and so from the first instant of her existence Mary had the fullness of sanctifying grace, and was unburdened by the corrupt nature caused by original sin. In this way, Mary becomes a “second Eve,” conceived in the same state of original purity as God intended for mankind.
         Why would God do this? We state the reason every time we say the Creed. When we profess that Jesus Christ “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,” we’re proclaiming that God took human flesh upon Himself. And from whom did He take that flesh? From Mary. So the question must be asked: would God – who can have no part in sin – take upon Himself that which was fallen, stained and corrupt? The answer is obvious: of course He wouldn't. So, as we can see already, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has as much to do with our Lord Jesus Christ and His Incarnation, as it does with the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, as we explore the various Marian dogmas, we see this consistently. What God does in and through Mary finds its ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ.
         We can find a strong implicit reference to the Immaculate Conception in St. Luke 1:28. In the original Greek text, when the archangel Gabriel is addressing the young Virgin Mary, the word used is translated to say that she is “full of grace.” In some translations of scripture, Gabriel’s words are translated as “highly favored one,” but that translation doesn’t capture the best and fullest meaning. The original Greek clearly indicates that Mary was filled with grace in the past, and the effect of it continues into the present. Understanding that, it’s apparent that the grace received by Mary didn’t come about through Gabriel’s visit; rather, she was always filled with grace.
         Here’s another point used by those who doubt the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: They ask, “What about the words Mary spoke in her Magnificat, when she says, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”? If she wasn’t a sinner, why would she need a Savior?” Remember, Mary was a human being, a descendant of Adam and Eve. When she was conceived, she was certainly subject to the contracting of original sin, like all of us. But she was preserved from it – and how so? By grace. Mary was redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way; that is, by anticipation. There’s a helpful analogy which has been used by the Church to illustrate this very fact: a man falls into a deep pit, and somebody reaches down and pulls him out. It would be true to say that the man was “saved” from the pit. A woman is walking by that same pit, and she’s about to fall in, but at that very moment someone reaches out and pulls her back from the edge. She also has been “saved” from the pit. And in fact, she didn’t even get dirty like the poor man did, who actually fell in. God, who is outside of time, applied Christ’s saving grace to Mary before she was stained by original sin, rather like the woman in the story who didn’t get dirty because she was prevented from falling into the pit. So yes, Mary had a Savior, and He is none other than Christ, her Son and her Lord.     
         Then we’ve got Romans 3:23, where St. Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Did St. Paul mean this statement to be understood in an all-inclusive, no-one-excluded way? Well, let’s consider. First of all, we certainly have to exclude Jesus Himself. Even though He was fully man, we know He didn’t sin. And what about a new-born baby? If sin is the deliberate disobedience to God’s law, could we say that a little baby has committed sin?  Although St. Paul was certainly stating the truth about mankind, his purpose in writing this section of Romans wasn’t to discuss the possibility of exceptions; rather he was constructing an important argument about law and grace, justification and redemption. If anybody wants to apply Romans 3:23 to Mary, then they’d have to apply it to babies and young children, too.
         Sometimes people object to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception using this argument: “if we’re saying Mary was without sin, then we’re making her equal to God, because only God is without sin.” But we need to remember that in the beginning, Adam and Eve were created without sin, but they weren’t equal to God. The angels were created without sin, and in fact, from Scripture we know that only some of the angels sinned – Lucifer and his friends – but that means a lot of angels never sinned. And they certainly are not equal to God.
         Tragically, after the fall of our first parents, sin became commonplace and even expected. In fact, think about how often someone will say, after doing something wrong, “Well, I’m only human,” as though sin is perfectly natural, and somehow even defines humanity. Actually, sin is unnatural. We weren’t created to sin; we were created to know God, and to love Him, and to spend eternity with Him in heaven. In Mary, because of the Immaculate Conception, we see a human being as God intends all of us to be. What was maimed by the first Adam and Eve, is restored by the Second Adam and the Second Eve.

Friday, December 6, 2019


Homily for December 7th, 2019: Matthew 9:35-10:1,5a, 6-8.           

          “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give,” Jesus tells us. I prefer another translation: “Freely you have received, freely give.” Can you think of something that is all your own, and not a gift from God? Many people might cite their achievements, the money they have earned, the awards they may have received. Would any of that be possible without the talents and abilities God has given us? When you stop to think about it, everything we have is given to us by God. There is one exception: our sins. They are all our own. Everything else comes ultimately from God – not because we are good enough to deserve God’s gifts – for none of us is. God showers his gifts on us not as rewards for being good, but simply because He is so good that he wants to share his goodness and love with us. 
          What is the appropriate response? We can describe it in a single word: thanksgiving. Here’s a question we all need to ask ourselves from time to time: Am I a thankful person? If we are people of prayer – and you would hardly be here if you weren’t – then we’re probably pretty good at asking God for things. Are we equally good at saying “Thank you,” when our requests are granted?
I was born before universal air travel. In my childhood I remember hearing about the Pastor of a wealthy parish who regretted that so many of his parishioners were lost at sea every summer. When they asked him, How come? he explained: “Lots of my people ask every June for Masses for a safe passage to Europe. Come Labor Day I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Masses of thanksgiving requested for a safe return.”
What is the best way to thank God for all his gifts? The closing words of our gospel reading tell us: “Freely you have received, freely give.” In other words: we can’t keep God’s gifts, unless we give them away.” And it gets even better. When we do give them away, they come back to us, increased and multiplied. If you doubt that, just try it!


Thursday, December 5, 2019


Homily for December 6th, 2019: Matthew 9:27-31             

          “Do you believe that I can do this?” Jesus asks the two blind men who ask for healing. “Yes, Lord,” they respond. This declaration of faith is crucial. Faith opens us up to the action of God, as the sunshine opens up the flowers to the sun’s life giving warmth and the morning dew. Jesus reaffirms the close connection between faith and healing as he says: “Let it be done to you according to your faith.” Whereupon he touches the two and they are immediately healed.
          Now comes a surprise. “See that no one knows this,” he commands. Why? Bible scholars have been puzzling over this question ever since the gospels were written. The most convincing answer seems to be that Jesus did not wish to be known as a sensational wonder-worker. If all those who preach Jesus Christ today were to follow his example, a number of hot gospelers on TV have to go off the air. In Jesus’ day many of his people thought that when the long awaited Messiah came, he would be a person of power and glory. The only power that Jesus had was the power of love. His only glory was acceptance of the cross – an instrument of shame, degradation and death.
          Pope Benedict gives perhaps the best explanation for Jesus’ unwillingness to reveal his true identity until after his resurrection. Identifying himself publicly as Messiah, the anointed servant of God, “would undoubtedly have been misinterpreted in the public climate of Israel [Pope Benedict writes] and would necessarily have led to false hopes in him and on the other hand to political action against him. … The true Messiah is the ‘Son of Man,’ who is condemned to death as the precondition for his entrance into glory as the one who rose from death after three days.” (Jesus of Nazareth: from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, pp. 297f)
          The two newly healed blind men know nothing of all this, of course. Overwhelmed with gratitude for their newfound sight, “they went out [Matthew tells us] and spread word of him throughout all that land.” Now, after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has removed all false expectations of the Messiah, Jesus invites us to do the same: with words when necessary, but in any case through a joy no less intense and contagious than that of the two men in today’s gospel: previously blind, but now able to see.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Homily for December 5th, 2019: Isaiah 26:1-6; Matthew 7:21, 24-27.

          “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells us, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Who are the people who say, “Lord, Lord”? We are! Every time we pray – and your presence here shows that you do pray – we are saying, “Lord, Lord.” God asks for more, Jesus is telling us. If our prayers do not bear fruit in our lives, they are useless.
          The parable of the two houses which follows shows the difference between words and deeds. It may reflect something Jesus himself had witnessed: a house built on sandy, low lying ground, swept away by heavy rains and storms. Those of us who live in the Mississippi valley witness that every decade or so. Houses built, despite all previous experience, on the floodplain are swept away, or rendered uninhabitable, when the Father of Waters, as the Native Americans called the river, overflow its banks. Meanwhile, those who build on higher ground, with solid foundations, experience no loss at all.
          What does it mean to build on sand? It means basing our lives and hopes on things that are unstable and fleeting: money, success, fame – even health and prosperity. To build on rock means to build our lives on God. The Bible often compares God to solid rock. We have an example in today’s first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, “Trust in the Lord forever,” he writes, “for the Lord is an eternal Rock.” Simply calling out ‘Lord, Lord,” is useless, if the good things we do are not done for Him, but for our own glory, to impress other people.
          Here is a prayer written by a man who built on God: Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, a hero to his people for defending them, at great personal cost, during the cruel and terrible German occupation of World War I. It goes like this: “O Holy Spirit, Beloved of my soul, I adore you. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do. Give me your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that you desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me. Let me only know your will. Amen.”
          I pray that prayer every day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Homily for December 4th, 2019: Matthew 15:29-37.

          This story of Jesus feeding the vast crowd in the wilderness was clearly a favorite with Christians in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection. We find it told, with variations, six times over in the four gospels.
What accounts for its popularity? I can think of three reasons. First, it shows Jesus’ ability to solve what, to us, is insoluble. Second, it is an example of what is sometimes called “The Law of the gift.” And finally, it helps us understand the central Christian mystery: the Eucharist. Let me speak briefly about each of these three.
Feeding a vast multitude with seven loaves of bread and a few fish was clearly impossible. Not, however, for Jesus. The story tells us that when we place our resources, however inadequate they may be, into the hands of Jesus Christ, we discover that they are inadequate no longer. Jesus is the Son and representative of the God of the impossible.Second, the story helps us understand what is sometimes called “the law of the gift.” This tells us that when we give something to the Lord, it is not lost. It comes back to us. But it comes back transformed, and enlarged. That is because God is, in the words of the theologians, sufficient unto himself. He needs nothing.
Third and finally, what we offer to God in the Eucharist -- a little bread and a small quantity of wine, gifts every bit as insignificant as the seven loaves of bread and a few fish offered to Jesus in this story -- comes back to us transformed into the Body and Blood of God’s Son: all his love, all his goodness, all his  strength, all his purity and compassion, all his willingness to forgive.
And friends, when we have Him – Jesus – we have everything.

Monday, December 2, 2019


Second Sunday in Advent Year A. Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15;4-9; Matt. 3:1-12.
AIM: To instill hope by showing how the celebration of God’s mighty acts     assures us of their continuation and inspires us to work for justice.
          Why do we Christians still read the Old Testament? Hasn’t Christ’s coming made those dusty old books obsolete? Many people ask those questions. Paul answers them when he writes in our second reading: “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by patient endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scriptures Paul is talking about are the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. The New Testament didn’t yet not exist in Paul’s day. 
          We’ll look in a moment at just what Paul meant when he said that the Old Testament scriptures encourage us to have hope. First, however, we must note that the Old Testament is incomplete. It looks forward to a fulfillment in the future.  Today’s first reading, describing the ideal king from the family of David, is a good example of this future orientation. The king Isaiah writes about in that first reading had not yet appeared. Isaiah looked forward confidently to his future coming.
          The New Testament proclaims that in Jesus Christ this future has arrived. John the Baptist makes this claim in today’s gospel when he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Even the New Testament, however, which proclaims the fulfillment of all the old promises of God’s decisive intervention in history, still looks forward to the completion of this intervention, when Christ returns in glory at what the first letter of Peter calls “the consummation of all things” (4:7). 
          Both parts of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, look forward. Yet both also constantly recall the past by telling and re-telling the story of God’s “mighty acts” on behalf of his people. Central in the religion which Jesus learned from Mary and Joseph, and at the synagogue school in Nazareth, was the recalling of Israel’s most important feast, the Passover, the greatest of all God’s mighty acts: the deliverance of his people from their oppressors in Egypt.
          Trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and the waters which blocked their flight, God’s people had experienced miraculous deliverance, and their enemies’ destruction. Recalling and celebrating that mighty act in the Passover ritual each year, Jesus’ people believed – and faithful Jews believe today – that the unique, unrepeatable event from the past becomes, through its liturgical celebration, a living reality in the present.
          Why is it important for us to know this? Because we Catholics believe the same about the Eucharist. The Mass is not merely a mental recalling of the Last Supper and Calvary. It makes these unrepeatable past events, through which Christ won our salvation, a living reality in the present. The reliving, through liturgical celebration, of the past event assures us, the worshipers, that the God who delivered his people from certain death long ago remains today – and for all future time – the same: the God of the impossible, whose characteristic work it is to bring life out of death.
          That is why the Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike, delight to recall God’s “mighty acts.” They reveal who God is: not just who he was, but (because God cannot change) who he is today, and will be for all time to come. At the heart of biblical faith is the conviction that God’s mighty acts in the past contain the assurance of further saving acts in the present and future. For us Christians, therefore, the Old Testament will never become obsolete. Its record of God’s acts in the past gives us hope for the present, and points us toward the future.
          We are not to await that future passively, however. Too often Christians have cultivated a false “other-worldliness” which treats this world as a ‘vale of tears’ through which we must trudge mournfully to get to heaven. Such a spirituality removes the hope we derive from God’s past mighty acts from this world to heaven. Karl Marx, the intellectual father of communism, called that kind of religion “the opium of the people.” And in that at least Marx was right. 
          Of course, biblical faith teaches that the complete fulfillment of hope belongs not to this world but to heaven. But because we are already, through baptism, “citizens of heaven”, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), we are called to establish “colonies of heaven” here on earth. 
          Answering this call means working for the justice and peace described by Isaiah in powerful images in our first reading. There Isaiah prophesies a descendant of the great King David who will “judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.” His reign, when it comes, will establish world peace, symbolized by Isaiah’s prophecy that under this ideal king “there shall be no harm or ruin ... for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.”
          When the Pope and the bishops speak, therefore, about issues of social justice – protecting the unborn and the aged, the poor and oppressed, and correcting unjust structures of society which produce these evils – they are not mixing up religion and politics, as their critics inside the Church and out like to claim. People who contend that religious leaders should speak only about spiritual matters would make religion into a purely private affair – something like stamp collecting, bird watching, or jogging – for people who happen to like that kind of thing. A religion that never ventures out of the four walls of the church into the rough and tumble of the public square is irrelevant or worse. Karl Marx was right to call such a religion the opium of the people: something used by the powerful to blindfold people to injustice here and now by promising them pie-in-the-sky-when-they die. Only to the extent that we are willing to work here and now for the justice and peace of which Isaiah speaks in our first reading do we become people capable of receiving that perfect justice and peace which come from God alone.
          In the gospel we heard John the Baptist’s summons to this task: “Repent ... Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Luke’s gospel describes the kind of repentance John demanded. The well off were to share with the poor. Tax collectors were to stop exploiting people. Soldiers must not steal or accuse people falsely. (Luke 3:10-14) In John’s day such demands were just as controversial and unpopular as statements about social justice by the Pope and our bishops are in certain quarters today. 
          John warned that those who reject his summons to repent are like a tree which is cut down because it bears no fruit; or like the chaff which is burned up once the wheat, which alone has value, has been separated from it. Translated into modern terms, John’s teaching tells us that our attitude toward the world in which we live is determining, even now, whether we belong to the chaff which the wind blows away; or to the grain which the Lord of the harvest, Jesus Christ, will gather into his heavenly Father’s barn.
          Here in the Eucharist we celebrate and relive our Passover deliverance at Calvary: the ground of our hope for the present, and for the future. As the Eucharist ends, Jesus, our high priest, sends us forth into his Father’s world with the commission described by Paul in our second reading: “with one accord [and] one voice [to] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” by working for his justice and his peace.


Homily for December 3rd, 2019: Luke 10:21-24.

          The seventy-two have just returned from their missionary journeys to tell Jesus: “Even the demons are subject to us” (Luke 10:17). Jesus responds with the spontaneous hymn of praise to his heavenly Father which we have just heard: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the merest childen.” The wise and learned are those who fail to respond to Jesus, because they feel no need for God. Jesus’ disciples are the childlike, whose hearts and minds are open to the Lord.
          Who are today's wise and learned? They teach in our elite universities; they run the great foundations, with names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates. They dominate Hollywood and the media. With few exceptions they consider the killing of unborn children whose birth might be an inconvenience to be a wonderful advance in humanity’s ascent from ignorance and superstition to enlightenment and freedom. They charge those of us who consider abortion for any reason a crime and a grave sin with waging a “war on women.” They look down with patronizing scorn, disbelief, and hatred on those who insist that life is precious at every stage: in the womb, but also in old age, when Grandma’s mind has gone ahead of her, and her meaningful life is over. When we contend that marriage is the union of one man and one woman; and that re-defining marriage is an injustice to children, who have a right to a father and a mother, they denounce us as homophobe and bigots.
          Who, on the other hand, are today’s merest children? We are! We pray in this Mass that our merciful and loving Lord may keep us always so: aware that we can never make it on our own; that we are dependent every day, every hour, and every minute on the One who came to show us what the invisible God is like; who always walks with us on the journey of life; and who is waiting for each one of us at the end of the road – to welcome us home!


Sunday, December 1, 2019


Homily for Dec. 2nd, 2019. Matt. 8:5-11.

          Immediately before the healing story we have just heard, Jesus has healed a leper by reaching out and touching him. Obedient to the law of his people, Jesus sends the man to the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. Jewish priests were quarantine officials. With a priestly certificate of good health the leper, previously bound to live apart from others, lest they too become infected, could enter society again. There is irony here: later it would be priests who would conspire the arrest Jesus.
          The centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant is a Gentile military officer. This is clear from his response when Jesus says he will come to heal the servant. The officer shows both courtesy to Jesus and respect for the Jewish law by saying: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” He knows that in entering a Gentile house Jesus could become ritually unclean. So he suggests an alternative: “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” I do that all the time, he says. I give orders to those under my authority, and they do what I command.
          Upon hearing these words, Matthew tells us, Jesus “was amazed.” Normally it is the witnesses who are amazed at Jesus’ healings. Here it is the Lord himself who shows amazement. I have not found faith like this from my own people, Jesus says. This outsider, who has neither our divine law, nor our prophets, he tells the people, shows greater faith than you do.  
The words which follow about people coming from east and west to take seats at God’s heavenly banquet alongside Israel’s heroes are a prophecy of the Church. Originally a sect within Judaism, the Church would break out of its Jewish womb to become the worldwide community of Gentiles as well.
          The centurion’s words continue to resound two millennia later. We say them as we approach the Lord’s table to receive his Body and Blood, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” Even after a good confession, we are still unworthy of the Lord’s gift. He gives himself to us for one reason: not because we are good enough; but because he is so good that he longs to share his love with us.