Homily for August 18th, 2013: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
Is it easy to follow Jesus Christ –
or difficult? Sometimes Jesus makes discipleship sound easy . . . In other passages Jesus makes discipleship
sound very difficult.
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Friday, August 16, 2013
Homily for August 17th, 2013: Matt. 19:13-15.
The world in which Jesus lived was certainly not child centered. Children were supposed to keep out of the way: to be seen, perhaps, but not heard. That is why Jesus’ disciples thought they were doing him a favor by shooing children away from him.
Jesus surprises his disciples (he’s still surprising people) by saying: “Let the children come to me.” Then he adds something which he repeats, in one form or another, throughout the gospels: “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” – in other words, to children. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that, to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must “become like little children” (cf. Mt. 18:2ff, Mk 9:36, Lk 9:47).
What is it about childhood that Jesus recommends? First, an aspect of childhood which he certainly does not recommend: two little ones in the playpen fighting over a toy that interested neither until the other one picked it up. Even young children can be selfish. As we grow older we learn ways of hiding our selfishness.
One thing about children that Jesus does recommend is their natural sense of dependence. It never occurs to little ones that they can make it on their own. Few things are more devastating for a young child than to be separated from Mummy or Daddy.
Another feature of childhood recommended by Jesus is the ability to wonder. Everyday things which we adults take for granted amaze little children: birds in the sky, flowers, balloons. Sadly, TV has robbed children of this quality. By age 3 at the latest, they have seen it all on the Boob Tube. Artists retain the ability to wonder – and saints. A painter sees a piece of driftwood on the beach and gives it a place of honor in his studio at home. Bl. Teresa of Calcutta’s face was wreathed in smiles whenever she picked up a small child.
We pray, then, in this Mass: “Lord, give me always a sense of my dependence on you. Help me to gasp with wonder at the beauty of your creation!”
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Homily for August 16th, 2013: Matt. 19:3-12
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus is asked in today’s’ gospel reading. Jesus responds not by an appeal to law, but by reminding his questioners of what God did in creation. “From the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” -- something possible only for people of different genders. Divorce, Jesus says, was never part of God’s plan. It originated “because of the hardness of your hearts” – in other words, as a result of sin.
There is hardly a family today which is not touched in some measure by divorce. Despite talk about “no fault divorce”, it is always painful. How could it be otherwise when marriage is the union of a man and a woman “in one flesh”? The ending of such a one-flesh relationship is comparable to the amputation of a limb.
Since Jesus refers his questioners to the Creation story, it’s worth looking back at the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter one God says after each stage of creation: “It is good.” After making man and woman together, he tells them: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Parenthood is thus the first purpose of marriage. And only a man and a woman can fulfill that purpose. At the end of that first chapter, God looks at all he has made and says: “It is very good” (vs. 31).
The first thing that God looks at in Creation and says, “It is not good” is loneliness: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” we read in Genesis 2, verse 18. The creation of woman follows. Her fashioning from the man’s rib is of course a pre-scientific tale. But it shows that woman was made to complete man. The two sexes were not made for rivalry: domination on the one hand manipulation on the other. That came about through sin. They were created by God to complete and support one another. That is the second reason for marriage.
Mindful, then, of Jesus teaching, we pray in this Mass especially for married couples who are are experiencing difficulties or stress in their marriages; that God, for whom all things are possible, will help them to remain faithful.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Homily for the Assumption, August 15th, 2013.1 Cor. 15: 20-27
AIM: To present Mary as the model of faith and our intercessor before God.
Mary, the Second Vatican Council says, "shines forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God" (LG 68). Our pilgrim way is beset with difficulties. We are reminded of them each time we read the morning headlines, or watch the evening news on television.
On this feast of Mary's Assumption we are reminded that Mary also confronted difficulties on her own pilgrim way. We know remarkably little about Mary's life. What we do know, however, shows that she had to walk often in darkness. There were many things which, as Luke tells us, Mary "did not understand" (Lk 2:50) and could not understand.
What did Mary understand about the angel's message that even before her marriage to Joseph she was to become the mother of God's Son? She understood at least this: that in a tiny village where everyone knew everyone else and gossip was rife, she was to be an unmarried mother. Yet Mary responded without hesitation in trusting faith:"I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say" (Lk 1:38)
That act of trusting faith was not blind. Young as Mary was -- and Scripture scholars think she may have been only fifteen -- she asked what any girl in her position would have asked: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" (Lk 1:34) Even this question, however, reflects faith. Mary was questioning not so much God and his ways as her own ability to understand God's ways.
Nor was Mary's faith a once-for-all thing. It needed to be constantly renewed. Before her Son's birth, Joseph wanted to break their engagement. When the couple presented their newborn child to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple, Mary heard the aged Simeon prophesy the child's rejection and his mother's suffering (Lk 2:34f). Three decades later, after Jesus left home, he seemed on more than one occasion to be fulfilling his command to his disciples about turning one's back on parents and other relatives (cf. Lk 14:26). At the marriage at Cana, Jesus seemed to speak coldly to his mother. She seems not to have been present at the Last Supper. Only at Calvary was Mary permitted to stand beside her now dying Son, along with "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 19:26); deliberately unnamed, many Scripture scholars believe, to represent the ideal follower of Jesus Christ in every time and place.
The last glimpse we have of Mary in Scripture is immediately before Pentecost. With the apostles and Jesus' other relatives, she is praying for the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). Thereafter Mary disappears. Her work of bringing Christ to the world was taken over by the Church.
How did Mary's life end? We do not know. In defining Mary's Assumption on All Saints Day 1950, Pope Pius XII said simply: "When the course of [Mary's] earthly life had ended, she was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven." The body the Pope referred to is Mary's new resurrection body: the body with which Jesus rose from the dead -- the heavenly and spiritual body which, as St. Paul says, each one of us will receive in heaven (cf.1 Cor. 15:35-53). There Mary continues to pray for us on our pilgrim way. As the Catechism says: "The Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary ... and to entrust supplications and praises to her." (No. 2682).
For many Christians, however, and for almost all Protestants, Catholic teaching about Mary, and our devotion to her, are troubling. Especially troubling is the Catholic practice of praying to Mary. Surely, Protestants say, we can pray only to God. Strictly speaking, they are right. When we Catholics pray to Mary, or to any of the other saints, what we are really doing is asking them to pray for us. The conclusion of the classic Marian prayer, the Hail Mary, makes this explicit: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death."
If it makes sense to ask our friends on earth to pray for us, doesn't it also make sense to ask the prayers of our friends in heaven, the saints? The Catechism says it does: "Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven ... do not cease to intercede with the Father for us. ... We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world." (No. 956 & 2683)
Without Mary's prayers, I would not be a Catholic priest today. Let me tell you how I know this. Before I was a Catholic priest I was an Anglican priest, like my father and grandfather before me. Leaving the church which had taken me from the baptismal font to the altar, and taught me almost all the Catholic truth I know, even today, was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Starting in 1959, and for almost a year, the question of the church, and of my conscientious duty before God, was not out of my waking thoughts for two hours together.
One of the many obstacles to my decision was the need to abandon, possibly forever, the priesthood to which I had aspired from age twelve, and which had brought me great happiness, with no guarantee that it would ever be given back to me. In Holy Week 1960 a Trappist monk at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, himself a convert from Judaism, who was helping me along the last stretch of my spiritual journey, said to me: "Why don't you give your priesthood to Our Lady, asking her to keep it for you, and to give it back to you when the time is right?" With his help I did this.
Had I known then that it would be eight years before I could once again stand at the altar as a priest, I would never have had the courage to go through with it. During those years I had many difficulties -- so many that well meaning priest-advisers told me I should forget any idea of priesthood and embrace a lay vocation. That I was never willing to do. I knew that Our Lady was keeping my priesthood for me, and I was confident that she would give it back to me one day.
After eight years, on January 27th 1968, I knelt before the bishop of Münster in northern Germany, where I was then living, to receive the Church's commission to stand at the altar once again, as a Catholic priest. I had never told the bishop about entrusting my priesthood to Our Lady. You can imagine my joy, therefore, when, at the end of the ninety-five minute ceremony in his private chapel, the bishop turned to the altar and intoned the Church's ancient Marian hymn: Salve regina, "Hail, Holy Queen."
Homily for August 14th, 2013: St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Just five days ago we commemorated a 20th century martyr: St. Teresa Benedict of the Cross, born Edith Stein, killed by the Nazis in the gas ovens of the Auschwitz concentration camp on August 9th, 1942, because of her Jewish birth. Today the Church commemorates another World War II martyr, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Born in Poland in 1894 to devout Catholic parents, who gave him the name Raymond in baptism, he was a mischievous boy. After his mother scolded him one day for some misdeed, he changed. He explained later that in the night the Virgin Mary had appeared to him holding two crowns: one white, the other red. “She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both."
At age 16 Raymond entered the Franciscan order, received the religious name Maximilian, and was ordained priest at age 24. During years of ministry in Poland he founded a Marian sodality, as well as a printing press and radio station to spread the gospel. From 1930 to 1936 he served as a missionary in Japan, where he mastered the local language.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 Fr. Maximilian arranged shelter for 3000 refugees, 2000 of them Jews. Soon arrested by the Nazis, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz. There he shared his meager rations with others, prayed with them, and heard many confessions. In the summer of 1941 three prisoners managed to escape. In retaliation the camp commander ordered 10 prisoners, selected at random, to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the men selected cried out, “My wife, my children!” Fr. Maximilian immediately asked to take the man’s place.
In the hunger bunker Fr. Maximilian prayed with his fellow prisoners, celebrating Mass with tiny amounts of bread and wine given him by friendly guards, until only he was still alive. After 2 weeks the Nazis killed him with a deadly injection.
The man whose life he had saved was present at his canonization as a “martyr of charity” by Bl. Pope John Paul II in October 1982. As we commemorate him today, we praise God that the age of martyrs is not dead.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Homily for Aug. 13th, 2013: Matt. 18:1-5, 10, 12-14.
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” Jesus’ rhetorical question invites the answer, “Of course, any shepherd would do that.” In reality, no shepherd in his right mind would think for a moment of doing what Jesus’ question suggests. That would risk turning a minor misfortune, the loss of a single sheep, into a major disaster: the dispersal and possible loss of the entire flock.
‘That’s how good God is,’ Jesus is saying with this simple parable. God’s care for us is not reasonable, measured, prudent. God’s love for us is reckless, according to ordinary worldly standards. When we stray from him, God will go to any lengths, and wait without limit, to get us back.
But what about Jesus’ following words about the shepherd rejoicing more over the one lost sheep than over the ninety-nine who never strayed? Shouldn’t there be some rejoicing, at least, over those who never left the flock?
To answer that question we must ask another. Who are these ninety-nine who never went astray? Do you know anyone like that? I don’t. Oh, I know many people who think they have never strayed from their heavenly Father’s love. But they are wrong. How can there be any rejoicing over people who are so mistaken about their spiritual condition?
In reality all of us stray from our heavenly Father in some way and at some time. All of us need the Father’s loving forgiveness. With this short and simple parable, Jesus is telling us that God’s care, his love, and his forgiveness, are available to us always. Or as our wonderful Pope Francis never tires of telling us: God never gets tired of forgiving us. It is we who grow tired of asking for forgiveness.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
Homily for August 12th, 2013: Deut: 10:12-22.
“You must befriend the alien,” Moses tells the people in our first reading, “for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” Moses’ words touch a sensitive nerve for us American in 2013. The subject of immigration, especially illegal immigration, is a matter of often heated political debate in our country today.
A leading voice in this debate is that of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. Born in Mexico, but long a naturalized American citizen, Archbishop Gomez published a book on this subject just weeks ago: Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation. He reminds us of a truth long known to historians: history is written by winners.
In consequence, most Americans have forgotten that our country’s first immigrants were not the English Protestants who came to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. A full century before that, Catholic missionaries from Spain were already active in Florida and the American southwest, including California. They brought the gospel to the Native Americans whom they found already here. They understood that those people were their brothers and sisters. Those missionaries were responsible for city names like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Corpus Christi – all Catholic names.
A major problem today is the presence in our country of some 11 million illegal aliens. Arresting them and shipping them home can mean that a father arrested at his workplace disappears without notice, leaving his wife without support and their American-born children penalized for the sins of their parents. Is that justice?
Finding just solutions to this problem is not easy. A necessary first step is recognizing that we’re all descended from people who were once aliens. Rather than resenting and fearing the aliens in our midst today, we called to befriend them. They are our sisters and brothers. Treated with compassion and justice, they too can do what immigrants to these shores have done for three centuries: build a society and nation that is today so much the envy of the world that millions clamor to come here.