Friday, August 7, 2015


Homily for August 8th, 2015: Matthew 17:14-20.

          Today’s gospel reading gives us an example of Jesus using hyperbole. How so, you ask? Webster’s dictionary says that hyperbole is “a statement exaggerated fancifully, as for effect.” The American humorist Mark Twain was using hyperbole when he said: “The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for 3 million dollars; and it is the mistake of my life that I did not do so.” In Mark Twain’s youth 3 million dollars was like 300 million today. The statement is absurd – but also very funny, which is of course the effect Mark Twain was aiming at.

          Helping people understand the power of faith is the effect Jesus was aiming at when he spoke the words in today’s gospel: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move.” That is as absurd as Mark Twain claiming he could have bought Louis for 3 million dollars. No one would expect a mountain to move on command.

          What Jesus is actually saying is that with faith we can accomplish the impossible. What is faith, anyway? Many Catholics would probably say: faith is the list of truths that we profess every Sunday in the creed. That is not wrong. But faith in that sense is properly called the faith.

          The primary meaning of faith is trust. Even in the Creed, we say “I believe in God.” To believe in someone is to trust that person. When we say we believe in God, we’re saying that we trust him enough to entrust our lives to him. Faith in that sense is not something that comes to us naturally. It is a gift. And the one who gives it to us is God.

          Each time we come here we are praying that through his two tables of word and sacrament God will deepen and strengthen our trust in him. We are like the man in Mark’s gospel who comes to Jesus asking healing for his boy, who suffers terrible convulsions. Jesus asks the man if he truly believes that Jesus has power to heal. “I do believe,” the father replies. “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). With this gospel reading Jesus is inviting us to make that man’s prayer our own.  

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Homily for August 7th, 2015: Matthew 16:24-28.

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” Jesus says. “But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” What is Jesus trying to tell us? He is speaking about two kinds of people: the takers and the givers. Takers are the people engaged in what is called “the pursuit of happiness.” Some takers seek happiness through pleasure; others through amassing financial or material possessions. Others seek happiness by trying to gain positions of power; others still by seeking honor and fame.

All of those things – pleasure, possessions, power, and honor -- are good in themselves. They become harmful for us only when we make them central in our lives. That is what the takers do. They think that if only they can get enough of one or more of these four things, they will be happy. Always and inevitably they end up frustrated. Why? Because they can never get enough. As a man of great wealth said: “Anyone who thinks he will be happy if he has a lot of money, has never had a lot of money.” The takers, then, are those who lose their lives – through frustration at never having enough. The happiness they seek always and inevitably eludes them.

Who are those who, in losing their lives for Jesus Christ, find happiness and thus save their lives? These are the givers. They put the Lord God at the center of their lives. Remembering Jesus’ words in the parable of the sheep and the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “Anything you do for one of these little ones, you do for me,” their goal in life is to serve. In doing so they discover that Jesus words are true: “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving” (Acts 20:35). That is the only saying of Jesus preserved for us outside the four gospels. Paul quotes it as something already well known in the Christian community.  

So which are you? Are you a taker, or a giver? If you’re a taker, I can promise you one thing: you will always be unhappy and frustrated, because you’ll never get enough. You will always be wanting more and more and more. It is the givers who find true happiness: the happiness Jesus is talking about when he says: “Give, and it shall be given to you. Good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over will they pour into the fold of your garment. For the measure you measure with will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).


Wednesday, August 5, 2015


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.  1 Kings 19:4-8; John 6:41-51.

AIM: To deepen the hearers’ appreciation of the two eucharistic tables. 

          An African priest studying in Paris was asked by the French priest with whom he lives and unable, because of illness, to celebrate his regular 4 p.m. Mass for nuns in a nearby convent, to substitute for him. When the African priest rang the convent doorbell at 3.55, the Sister who answered was surprised to see an unfamiliar face. Since he was not wearing a clerical collar, which in Paris as in most European cities is worn by relatively few priests these days, she thought the stranger was a street person asking for help. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “We’re just about to have Mass. We can’t help you now. Come back later.” Fifteen minutes later, the nuns called the rectory to ask where their priest was. Imagine their embarrassment when they learned that they had just turned him away.

          Why did these good Sisters go without Mass that day? It was not because they were bad people. It was simply because the priest who came did not look like the person they were expecting. That happened to Jesus repeatedly. His fellow Jews were expecting that God’s long awaited anointed servant, the Messiah, would come dramatically, descending from the clouds of heaven. Jesus was different.  And he was not dramatic. He was ordinary. When Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” they thought he must be crazy. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” they asked. “Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  

          Jesus’ people knew about “bread from heaven.” That was the manna with which God had fed their ancestors during their desert wanderings. But the prophets also spoke of bread as the spiritual nourishment which God gives to those who approach him in faith and try to do his will. Isaiah, for instance, portrays God telling his people: “Come, you who have no food ... Come to me and listen to my words; hear me, and you shall have life”(55:1-3). Another prophet, Amos, warns the people that if they persist in disobedience, God “will send a famine on the land, not hunger for bread ... but for hearing the word of the Lord” (8:11). And Sirach says that if a person keeps God’s law, wisdom “will nourish him with the bread of understanding”(15:3).

          So when Jesus said, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” he was using the language of the prophets, but giving it a deeper meaning. He was saying, in effect: ‘I am the life-giving bread of which Isaiah speaks. I am the one who satisfies the hunger for God’s word mentioned by Amos. I am Sirach’s bread of understanding and wisdom.’ Jesus’ people failed to understand him. Like the substitute priest ringing the convent bell in Paris, Jesus was too different, too unexpected.

          Do we really understand what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel? When Jesus says, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” and “I am the bread of life,” we read those words as a reference to the Eucharist. That is correct. Too often, however, we forget that there are two tables at the Eucharist: the table of the Lord’s body, but also the table of the word. The first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the word, is not merely a preparation for the “essential part”: consecration and communion. It is equally important, and equally essential. The Second Vatican Council said in 1965: “The church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerates the body of the Lord, insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the table of the word of God and the body of Christ” (Verbum Dei, 21). 

          The council was saying that we are nourished not only by the Lord’s body and blood in communion; we are nourished no less by hearing God’s word. In the same passage the Council says: “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the church as her support and vigor, and the children of the church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting source of spiritual life.”

          Our first reading told how the prophet Elijah journeyed “forty days and forty nights” in the strength of the food God gave him through an angel. In the gospel Jesus speaks of how God strengthened the whole people during their wanderings in the desert through manna, bread from heaven. Though this bread gave them strength for their journey, it did not make them immortal.

          Jesus does not hesitate to claim, however, that the food he gives does impart immortality. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” he says. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus means that for those who eat the “living bread” which he gives, physical death will not be the end, but only a way station on the journey to eternal life.

          Jesus gives himself to us as this “living bread” here in the Eucharist. He does so in two closely linked ways: through his holy word, read and proclaimed in our midst; and through his sacramental body and blood, given under the outward forms of bread and wine. Unless we receive the food the Lord offers us at both tables, we risk being spiritually undernourished.

          When we do partake of both tables, however — listening devoutly to God’s word, and receiving the Lord’s body and blood with due preparation and reverence — we begin to realize that the words of today’s responsorial psalm are true:

“Taste and see how good the Lord is; blessed the man who takes refuge in him.”



Homily for August 6th, 2015, The Transfiguration: 2 Pet. 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36.

          The mysterious event which we celebrate today, called the Transfiguration, gives a glimpse, however brief, into eternity. For a moment, before the descent of the cloud, the three friends of Jesus see their friend and Master transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. It was as if his humanity had no limits.

“We were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” Peter writes in our second reading.” The Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s divinity, for a moment breaking through the veil of his humanity. But it is more. It also shows us our potential to become divine.  

          If the goal of the spiritual life is to grow in likeness to God, then the more we progress, the more we participate in God’s own life. When our journey reaches its end, and we have been stripped of all the obstacles to holiness, God’s life will become our life, and we shall be one with God. Then our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory. We too shall shine with an unearthly light — the light that shines from the face of Jesus Christ: our Master, our Savior, our Redeemer — but also our passionate lover, and our best friend. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city which (as we read in Revelation) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21.23).

          As we journey onward to our heavenly homeland the words of an Evangelical hymn, unknown to Catholics, can help us:

          Cast your eyes upon Jesus, / Look full in his wonderful face,

          And the things of earth will grow strangely dim /

                    in the light of his glory and grace.

          Now, however, is the time above all for hearing. We listen for the Father’s voice and heed his command, as he speaks to us the words first uttered to those three friends of Jesus on the mountain two thousand years ago:

          “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.”


Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Homily for August 5th, 2015: Dedication of St. Mary Major.

          The Church celebrates today the dedication of one of Rome’s major basilicas, St. Mary Major. A legend says that a wealthy Roman and his wife, who were childless, made a vow that at death they would leave their possessions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. They prayed that she would show them how to do this. On the night of August 5th, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, where the Basilica of St. Mary Major now stands. And in the same night the couple had a vision telling them to build a church there. Though long recognized as without historical foundation, the legend explains why the church is also known as “Our Lady of the Snows.” It is also called “St. Mary of the Manger,” because of the supposed relic of the manger in which Mary placed her baby after his birth.

          More important than these historical trivia is the reason why we honor Mary as “Mother of God.” Many Christians reject the title on the ground that God, being eternal, cannot have a mother. The title comes from the Council of Ephesus, held in 431. The big question at that council was whether Jesus was truly divine; or whether he was simply the most godlike man who had ever lived, as claimed by a powerful group in the Church at that time, called Arians. The Council defined solemnly that Jesus, while truly and completely human like us (apart from sin), was also truly and completely divine. To express this truth the council gave Mary a Greek title: theotokos, which means “God bearer.” Translated into English, this is “mother of God.” Her child was and is truly God. In reality the statement says more about Mary’s Son than about her. 

          When we speak about praying to Mary or any other saint, what we really mean is that we are asking them to pray for us. The blessings we receive in answer to the prayers of our heavenly friends come not from them. They come from God, in answer to the saints’ prayers. And so we pray, once again, the prayer Catholics have loved to pray for close to two thousand years: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”



Monday, August 3, 2015


Homily for August 4th, 2014: Matthew 14:22-36.

          What began as a routine evening crossing of the lake soon turns into a nightmare for Jesus’ friends in their small boat. The storm which breaks on the disciples so unexpectedly this evening comes from just the direction in which they are eading. This explains why they are still far from their destination in “the fourth watch of the night.” Small wonder that they cry out in fear as they see a human figure approaching across the wind-whipped waves. It is Jesus. “Take courage,” he calls out. “It is I; do not be afraid.”

          One man in the boat is more impulsive than his companions. He no sooner recognizes Jesus than he wants to be with him. He will react in the same way upon recognizing the risen Lord on the shore after a fruitless night of fishing in the lake. (Cf. Jn. 21:7) It is Peter. “Lord,” Peter calls out, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus replies.

          Peter’s willingness to do the unthinkable enables him to experience the impossible. He climbs out of the boat and starts to walk to Jesus across the storm tossed waves. “But when he saw how strong the wind was,” Matthew tells us, “he became frightened. And, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

          Jesus had a special role for Peter. He was to be the leader of Jesus’ friends and thus of the Lord’s Church. This terrifying experience was part of Peter’s preparation. Years later he would remember: as long as he had kept his eyes on the Lord, he was safe. When he looked down, and saw the danger, he began to sink.

          The story assures us that when the storm rages and the night is blackest; when we cannot see the way ahead; when we are bone weary with life’s struggle and our hearts fail us for fear, Jesus is close. He only seems to be absent. In reality he is never far from us. He knows at every moment the difficulties against which we contend. Across the storm waters of this world he comes to us and chides us, as he chided Peter: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

          Happy if we today, in this hour, can respond to the Lord’s saving presence and power as his friends did in that boat. Happy if we too can bow before him in awe-struck worship and say, with those first friends of Jesus:

          “Truly, you are the Son of God!”

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Homily for August 3rd, 2015: Matthew 14:13-21.

          As the sun starts to sink and the shadows lengthen, Jesus’ disciples approach him with an urgent request. “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

          Jesus’ response surprises us: “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” He was having fun with them – teasing them. Jesus knew perfectly well what he was going to do.

          Not realizing this, the disciples point out that what Jesus has asked them to do is impossible: “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” To which Jesus responds simply: “Bring them to me.”

          When the disciples have done this, Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses these hopelessly inadequate supplies, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. “They all ate and were satisfied,” Matthew tells us, adding: “and they picked up the fragments left over – twelve wicker baskets full.” But of course: there were twelve men doing the distribution.

          What does this tell us? Two things. First, when we entrust our pitifully inadequate resources to the Lord, they are inadequate no longer. Second, when the Lord gives, he gives not only abundantly, but super-abundantly. We come repeatedly not because the Lord limits his gifts, but because our ability to receive them is limited.

          The early Christian community loved this story so much that we find it told six times over, with variations, in the four gospels. The reason is clear. It reminded Jesus’ friends of what he does in the Eucharist. We offer him a little bread and wine – and these modest gifts come back to us transformed into his Body and Blood: all his goodness, all his love, all his compassion, patience, and purity. And when have him, we have everything!