Living out holiness within the family. Homily for 12/30/2018

1 Sam 1:20-22ff;  Ps 128;  1 Jn 3:1-2ff;  Lk 2:41-52

Each year, on the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This last Sunday of the calendar year allows us to reflect on the importance of the family and helps us, as we prayed in our opening prayer “that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity.” Jesus Himself thought it worthwhile to spend 30 (of His 33) years on earth in the context of a family, thereby sanctifying family life by His presence. And while the gospels are almost entirely silent about these years, the silence speaks volumes. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were faithful to their ordinary work and family obligations. Today’s gospel about the finding of Jesus in the temple is the only event that breaks the silence. Here Jesus gives us a glimpse of his total consecration to a mission that flows from his divine sonship (CCC534). In asking, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, Jesus shows by example that the will of the Father must come before all else.

            So on this special feast day, let’s consider the roles of each family member and try to shore up the defenses of the family, because society is built upon marriage and the family. First, men and women are different. Yes, they are equal, but they’re complementary, meaning they complete and mutually support one another. Therefore, the roles of husband and wife within the family are equally important, but not the same thing. St. Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her” (Eph 5:25). Notice “sacrifice” in order to “sanctify” or “make holy.” Christ loved the Church that much (crucifix). A real man never objectifies a woman, but always loves and serves her as Christ does the Church. JPII: “God assigns as a duty to every man the dignity of every woman” (Audience: 11/24/1982). A husband is called to exercise headship over his family. This authority is directed toward service, not domination, because “to be a father means to be at the service of life and growth” (Benedict XVI). But a husband can lead with authority, only if he has first submitted to God’s authority. And since this authority over the family comes from God, then a husband must imitate the love that Christ has for his Church. This means that a husband will take charge by becoming the spiritual leader of his home, praying with his wife and children, and sacrificing for them, whatever the cost. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for others (Mt 20:28). And every man here is called to this same heroic sacrifice.

            We have to distinguish between “vocation” and “career.” A vocation is a calling from God, for example, to be a husband and father. It’s also a path to holiness. A career, on the other hand, is something that helps us to fulfill our vocation. But it can’t—I repeat, it can’t—replace one’s vocation. Your wife and children need a provider, yes. But even more, they need a protector. And a protector is present, both physically and emotionally, to those he protects. Although many work long hours, we can’t use that as an excuse to avoid the duties of home and family life. Jesus lived a life of manual labor, so work can make us holy, as long as Jesus is present to us amid our labors. But our work shouldn’t take us away from focusing on the overall well-being of the family, which involves so much more than just bringing home a paycheck.

            On the other hand, the Christian wife should reflect the Church itself, in its obedience to Christ. This is why wives should love and honor their husbands, in the deepest meaning of those words. If the husband is called to be the head of the family, then the wife is the heart. One isn’t more important than the other, because head and heart are both necessary to the proper functioning of the body. And head and heart must be in frequent communication if the body is to flourish. Women have the beautiful example in Our Lady, who “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Mary is a model of contemplation, because she was always pondering the life and actions of Jesus as she went about her daily duties. You who are wives and mothers can keep this same outlook, even in the midst of what seems to be very ordinary details of daily life, whether that be inside or outside the home. It’s ok if you’re only doing ordinary work for an ordinary family, because the Holy Family lived the same way! They seemed to be ordinary, but they lived extraordinary holiness. So your vocation within your family also, is a path to holiness—a path to sainthood—as long as Jesus is present to you each day.

            A word of encouragement to spouses and parents: keep on fighting the good fight! Make your home a place where holiness and virtue are lived. The family is meant to mirror the life of God, who is a community of Persons bound together in love. In our first reading, Hannah dedicated her son, Samuel, to the Lord. Dedicate your children to the Lord through baptism. Baptism should take place within the first weeks after the baby’s birth, not when it’s more convenient for a family reunion. We want to give the child the grace of God as soon as possible. Dedicate them to God by bringing them to Mass each Sunday. (It’s good to see so many children here!). My mom always said that in church, you can keep young children still or quiet, but not both…and sometimes neither. But keep on bringing them. The family is the domestic Church, and the parents are primary educators of their children, not only in the ways of knowledge and virtue, but especially in the ways of faith. So pray with your children every day! Bless them, perhaps by tracing the cross on their forehead each night. The daily family rosary is a wonderful way to gather the family in prayer. Above all, the Christian family is meant to be a school of discipleship, where sacrificial love and virtue abound. A father, mother, and children are reverential and supportive of one another, despite their various roles and duties. And the Holy Family should be the model for our families, because they live out holiness within the family, especially in their silence, their joy, and their sacrificial love for each other.

            A word to the children and young people here: remember that your parents have given you several things that you can never repay: the gift of life, the gift of faith, and if you have siblings, that’s another gift as well, even if that’s not apparent right now. And that’s why St. Paul once wrote, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord” (Col 3:20). Jesus perfectly obeyed the fourth commandment, as we heard in the gospel: “Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” So pray for your parents every day, love and care for them no matter what their age, and always show your gratitude to them for giving you these tremendous gifts.

            Sr. Lucia, one of the visionaries at Fatima in 1917, said, “The decisive battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be over marriage and the family.” Isn’t that abundantly clear today? Since the devil can’t conquer God, his greatest attack is on the image of God (human beings). And we look out at our world and see many grave challenges facing the family: sex outside of marriage, which is common among people of all ages; rebellious children; artificial contraception, which undermines the true love of a man and a woman; broken homes and marriages; video games and other media which are dividing families even within their own homes. We won’t solve all these problems overnight. But we can begin with our own families, by ensuring that that our home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by us. Obedience to God’s commands will promote peace within the family. God’s plan for the family is: one man and one woman, in a permanent and faithful relationship that’s open to children. Period. Exclamation point! Will this involve sacrifice? Yes. But this sacrificial love isn’t just for the harmony of the family or the good of society, as important as that is. It’s done out of reverence for Jesus Christ! So if we’re wondering how to become holy, both as individuals and within our family, let’s ponder the Holy Family of Nazareth and imitate their faith, hope, and love, so that all our families might become a holy family.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, as seen by the shepherds. Homily for Christmas 2018

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote: “Every other person came into this world to live. [Jesus] came into it to die” (Life of Christ). Yet, is it fitting for us to dwell on the death of Christ as we unite in great joy this evening to celebrate His birth? Yes, because Jesus came into this world to die. But something has always piqued my curiosity: [in today’s gospel] the angels appear to the shepherds and say, “This will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12) A sign always points to something else. For example, if you’re driving north on I-95 and you see a sign that says “New York”, you know you’re on the right road. The sign is pointing you to something else—the real thing: your destination.

            But before looking at the “sign” proclaimed by the angels, let’s look more closely at the persons and location. Shepherds were the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus. But why shepherds and why Bethlehem? The prophet had foretold that a descendant of David would rule forever (2Sam 7). And any true descendant of David would have to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, the king. So through a decree of the Roman emperor, God orchestrated the arduous journey for Mary and Joseph to travel 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

            Kings and prophets longed to see the birth of the Messiah, but Jesus was revealed first to humble, unassuming shepherds, faithfully keeping the night watch over their flock. Their vigilance was rewarded. Truly, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2). Shepherds are known for their poverty, dependability, strength, and courage. Shepherds were outcasts from society, ritually unclean, for they lived outdoors, often in contact with the blood, droppings, and bleating of their sheep. Yet they lived—and sometimes had to die—to protect their sheep. Although lowly in terms of social status, shepherds are usually regarded positively in Scripture. David Himself was a shepherd, and one prophet had already foreseen the arrival of a new shepherd like David (Ez 34:23), who would make a new and eternal covenant with his people. This new and eternal covenant is sealed in the Blood of Christ, which we recall in the words of consecration of every Mass. Furthermore, “The Lord is my shepherd” in Psalm 23, and Jesus calls Himself “the good shepherd,” who not only goes out to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10), but also lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11). Once again, Jesus came into this world to die.

            But why would the shepherds have noticed anything special about this “sign”? Something must have been abundantly clear to them that isn’t to us. Now, there are three parts to the sign: 1) an infant; 2) wrapped in swaddling clothes; 3) and lying in a manger. The customary strips of cloth provide warmth and also restrict the movement of limbs, thus helping infants to sleep. But there’s more to the sign. In the Book of Exodus, God specified that the Passover lamb, chosen for sacrifice, had to be a one year-old male, without blemish (Ex 12:5). Perfect—so we’re talking no scratches, no wounds, and certainly no broken bones. Each household had to procure a lamb, but by the time the sacrifices were offered in Jerusalem, it would’ve been impossible to bring a lamb on such a long journey and ensure that it was still fit for sacrifice. So as customs developed, lambs were raised near Jerusalem and sold to people as they arrived for Passover. It’s fascinating that Jesus drove out the money-changers during Passover (because they were extorting the pilgrims who had no other choice than to pay top dollar for the perfect Passover lamb; cf. Jn 2:13-22).          

            Bethlehem is located only five miles from Jerusalem. And a tradition tells us that the Bethlehem shepherds nurtured and raised the Passover lambs. The Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in the first century, records that over a quarter-million lambs were sacrificed at Passover each year, which leads us to believe that Bethlehem would have been a convenient location for producing lambs for sacrifice. Moreover, the most common breed of middle-Eastern sheep (the Awassi) give birth in December. And so it makes sense that the majority of those lambs, born in December, would be sacrificed in the Temple at the following year’s Passover. Since the Law required the lambs to be without blemish, the Bethlehem shepherds would wrap them in strips of cloth to protect their bodies, and then place them in a separate food trough apart from the other animals. Eventually, the priest would inspect them and pronounce them worthy for sacrifice. If all this is true, then it would’ve been a magnificent sign indeed for the shepherds! For immediately upon seeing the Christ-child, they would have recognized, in Bethlehem, a less-than-one-year old male, wrapped like their own lambs in swaddling clothes, already set aside in the food trough for sacrifice. This baby must be the true Lamb of God! On that note, I highly recommend that you watch a powerfully-moving 19-minute video on the Christmas story, as seen through the eyes of the shepherds. It’s called The Shepherd, and it’s produced by Vidangel.  

            The swaddling clothes also remind us of a mysterious passage from the book of Wisdom, when the Wisdom of God, who was present when God made the world, becomes incarnate in our world. We read, “And when I was born, I began to breathe common air, and fell upon the kindred earth, and my first sound was a cry, like that of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes” (Wis 7:3-4). Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, humbly assumed our human nature to save us from our sins. But before engaging in the battle for our souls and our love, He was first wrapped in swaddling clothes, having become a baby—exactly as our own lives began.

            What else is wrapped in a linen cloth? A dead body. Luke deliberately points out three important details, which could easily be overlooked: Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” This threefold action mirrors the end of Christ’s life, when, after taking Jesus down from the cross, they “wrapped him in a linen cloth, placed him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever been laid” (Lk 23:53). The manger at Bethlehem was likely made of stone—foreshadowing the tomb in which Jesus was laid. Also, the Magi brought a gift of myrrh, an embalming fluid. What a strange gift to present to a child! And yet, it was symbolic that his child was destined to die. After all, the angels had announced to the shepherds that “a Savior has been born for you.” We call Jesus “Savior,” because, as His name implies, He will save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21). But elsewhere in Scripture, we learn that, “There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood” (Heb 9:22). And: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or like a sheep before the shearers, [Jesus] was silent and opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). Jesus is the true Lamb of God, who shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins.

            Christ was tied-up or bound three times in his life: 1) at his birth; 2) at his arrest in the garden; and 3) at his burial. Mary unbound him the first time, for she gave God the human nature He needed to suffer and die. Secondly, the soldiers untied Him so that He could carry the cross for our salvation. But thirdly, Jesus would unbind Himself in the tomb on that glorious Easter morning, as He conquered death by His own rising from the dead. Remember how Peter and John saw the linen cloths in the tomb set aside in a very precise way (Jn 20:6-7)? When we find ourselves bound by the shackles of sin, we can turn to Our Lord, who was also bound, and allow Him to free us from guilt and shame. But this implies that we’re coming back to Him frequently in the sacraments, and daily in prayer. Because if we come to Mass only once or twice a year, and confess our sins only infrequently, then we’re not truly committed to overcoming our weaknesses or strengthening our friendship with God. But if we come to Mass each Sunday, and receive the sacrament of penance regularly, and pray each day, then we give God the authority to work in our lives. We show by means of our time and devotion that He is the most important Person in the world, and that His coming has made all the difference in the world—to each one of us, personally. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t enough just to sacrifice the Passover lamb; the people also had to eat its flesh. Today, as on that first Christmas night in “Bethlehem”—which means “the house of bread”—Jesus will once again come to us. Bread and wine will become the Body and Blood of Christ. We will eat His flesh and become sharers in His divinity, for He humbled Himself to share in our humanity. He becomes our food, so that He may enter inside of us and transform us from within! God became man, so that we might become God (St. Augustine).

            There’s one more parallel between the birth and death of Jesus; Our Lady was the only other person present at both events. So let’s go to her tonight—and every day—with our prayers. Like her, may we constantly ponder the mysteries of salvation in our hearts. We have indeed received good news from the angels, for we sang their message of “Glory to God in the highest” with great joy. The shepherds left the Nativity scene as changed individuals. Luke tells us that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Lk 2:20). After having this encounter with the Lord of the universe, we, too, must leave here filled with joy and hope. As at Bethlehem, so here also, Jesus sure doesn’t look like the Savior of the world, for He looks like common words on a page, and ordinary bread and wine. But those humble enough to recognize through faith that Jesus is indeed among us, God will give “them power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). So today we rejoice that our God has come to save us! By His coming as a baby in history, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and by His coming to us in the Scriptures and the Eucharist, Jesus is the Good Shepherd feeds us with Himself, and the sacrificial Lamb of God, who prepares and empowers us for eternal life with Him in heaven.

Our Lady, the new Ark of the Covenant. Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent. 12/23/2018

Mic 5:1-4;  Heb 10:5-10;  Lk 1:39-45

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, the Church shifts our attention from John the Baptist to Our Lady. Mary had just received the message from the angel Gabriel, and she assents to become the Mother of God. And although Mary is now pregnant, she still goes on this errand of charity to help her elderly relative, which wasn’t an easy journey. About 90 miles separated Nazareth in the north of Israel, from the village in the south where Elizabeth lived, a journey of at least a week on foot. Elizabeth’s village was located about five miles west of Jerusalem, in a town called Ein Karem. Yet, Mary makes the arduous journey out of love for her family member in need.

            Just as Mary shares in the saving mission of her Son, so also Elizabeth is prophetic, like her own son, John the Baptist. In this story of the Visitation, Elizabeth blesses Mary three times. Mary is blessed primarily because she did the will of God. As Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you who believed…”  Her other words have echoed down through the centuries in the beautiful Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. Our second reading explained that an obedient heart is worth more than sacrifices and offerings. Certainly, “we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” But Mary also shows us how to offer our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, because she prepared a place for the God of the universe. Our Lady said “yes” to God in all things: “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:37). Mary’s virtue foreshadows the humility of Christ, who’s born in extreme poverty. In the first reading, the prophet Micah foretold that although Bethlehem was too small to be numbered among the clans of Judah, yet the ruler of Israel would come forth from Bethlehem, the city of David (the king). David was born in Bethlehem, but died in the capital, Jerusalem. Jesus, our king, would have the same trajectory in his life.

            In the Old Testament, the Israelites revered the presence of God in a tangible place. For example, the Ark of the Covenant signified God’s presence. The ark was a gold-plated chest of acacia wood that held three important items: the staff of Aaron, the two stone tablets of the 10 commandments, and a jar of manna—that miraculous bread from heaven. Collectively, the people would carry the ark when they traveled, and eventually they placed it in the inner sanctuary of the Temple. But after the plunder of Jerusalem, the ark was lost to history, perhaps, as we learned in the movie, Indiana Jones, by being boarded up in a huge warehouse. But don’t worry: “We have top men working on it right now…”

            But before it was lost, when David had built his own palace in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant was still in a tent outside the city. A short time later, the ark was transferred to Jerusalem, and this story suggests a mysterious parallel between Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and the movement of the ark to the same hill country of Judea on its way to Jerusalem (See 2 Samuel 6). Both the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament and Mary in this gospel are greeted with “shouts of joy.” Both are sources of joy and blessing for the households which they enter, and both the ark and Mary remain in the hill country for three months. David leaped and danced in the presence of the ark, while John leaped in the womb of his mother. When David saw the Ark coming to him, he asked, “Who am I that the Ark of the Lord should come to me?” Similarly, Elizabeth said, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” These parallels show us that Mary is housing within herself the very presence of God, and thus she is the new Ark of the Covenant, which has become one of the titles for our Lady. And why? Well, what three items did the Ark contain? The staff of Aaron (symbolizing the authority of Moses, the lawgiver), the stone tablets of the 10 commandments (symbolizing the law), and a jar of manna (which foreshadows the Eucharist). The miraculous bread from heaven nourished the people on their journey from slavery in Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land. Jesus teaches with authority; in Himself, He embodies the Law of Moses; and of course, He’s the true bread come down from heaven. But before Jesus could accomplish these realities, Mary became the abode of the Son of God. And so we can learn from Mary how to make a worthy dwelling for her Son, as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas, and here/now, in the Eucharist. Later, in the Book of Revelation, John the apostle had a vision of the Ark of the Covenant, which had been missing for centuries. And what did it look like? “A woman clothed with the sun, crowned with twelve stars, who gave birth to a male child, destined to rule the nations with an iron rod” (Rev 12). Does this sound familiar? It should, because the Ark of the Covenant is Mary, who gives birth to Jesus, the ruler of the nations. She has become, in a very tangible way, the Holy of Holies—the place of God’s abiding presence. In the Old Testament, the people believed that God’s presence abided in the Ark of the Covenant. But now, Luke shows us that God is present in the womb of Mary. And John the Baptist was keen enough to notice this, and thus he leaped for joy!

            Seen in this light, Mary’s arduous journey to visit Elizabeth is much more than just a friendly house call; it shows us that Mary’s womb was filled with God’s presence, and she gave birth to the Son of God, a reality we celebrate at Christmas! “God revealed to Mary his intention to depart his dwelling in Jerusalem in order to establish a new form of dwelling among his people. Enveloped by the Holy Spirit, she became the new sanctuary where the presence of God came to dwell” (JP2, July 1983).

            As the poet Dante wrote, “In God’s will is our peace” (Paradiso, Canto III). Mary knows that firsthand. She was obedient to the will of God, and she gave birth to the prince of peace. Jesus is our peace, and we recall Christ’s words at every Mass: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” But we’ll never have peace in the world, if we don’t cultivate peace in our hearts and in our families. Mary went to assist a relative in need. We can foster peace in our hearts and homes when we act in charity towards others, beginning with the members of our own family. How many of us have relatives who are homebound or lonely, unable to travel during this holiday season? We can go to them! Or at least call them on the phone. This Christmas season, let’s visit someone in need, perhaps an elderly relative. It may or may not be a journey of 90+ miles. But we can show our love for God, whom we don’t see, by loving those in our families, whom we do see (1 Jn 4:20). Let those long familial grudges be wiped out by the mercy and generosity of God, who wants us to become instruments of his love and mercy. Next, let’s pray the daily family rosary for peace in the world and within our families. Our Lady has asked us time and again to pray the rosary each day, and so we simply must commit to this practice. History has shown the power and worth of the holy rosary. And when we pray it with devotion, we continue that beautiful tradition of praising God and calling Mary blessed, thus bringing Elizabeth’s words from our gospel to fruition.

            In these final days of Advent, the whole Church takes on Marian features. Like the original Ark of the Covenant, God is journeying throughout His land, visiting us—His chosen people—and blessing us with His presence. And today, God blesses us with his real Presence in the Eucharist. Such that when we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become living tabernacles of the Most High God. Sure, “Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith” (St. Ambrose). But as Mary knows, the presence of God isn’t meant to be kept for ourselves; that joy is meant to be taken to others. Like Mary, we must “hasten” to do good for others. Our good deeds, like hers, may surprise others with the presence of Christ, and cause something in them to leap for joy.   Mary, our hope, seat of wisdom, pray for us!

Rejoice in the Lord always! Homily for Gaudete Sunday. 12/16/2018

Zeph 3:14-18;  Phil 4:4-7;  Lk 3:10-18

Today is Gaudete Sunday, the Latin word for “rejoice”. And we rejoice today because our King is drawing near. Like last Sunday,our gospel centers on John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord. St. Augustine said that John is the voice, but Jesus is the Word. John’s voice lasts only for a short time, but Christ the Word lives forever. John’s life and preaching was geared toward Jesus, and can be summed up in John’s classic statement: “Christ must increase; I must decrease” (Jn3:30). We, too, are called to point out the way of the Lord, and to say that same thing each day: “Christ must increase; I must decrease.” John was humble in the presence of the Lord; he acknowledged what he was. People already thought John was the promised Messiah, but he humbled himself, not taking advantage of their mistake to further his own glory. And this attitude of humility enabled him to rejoice at the coming of Christ. In our second reading, St. Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” because “the Lord is near.” And so during these final days of Advent, let’s ponder and practice two virtues in particular:joy and gratitude.

            Joy is a sign of a true Christian. In fact, joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit; it’s proof of God’s presence. But the opposite of Christian joy is a spirit of fear and worry, which is not only bad for mental health; it’s even bad for physical health. And yet, it’s so easy to give in to anxiety and worry,because our culture feeds on negativity. After all, bad news makes the headlines. Personally, we face family or financial problems, trouble at work or school, illness, worry about the Church, anxiety about the world. But worrying about all this solves none of the problems. Much better to turn to God and seek His help, for “in God alone is our soul at rest, for our help comes from Him”(Ps 62:5). Even though it seems like the very foundations of the Church and society are falling down around us, we Christians can remain joyful and peaceful as long as we cultivate the presence of Christ within us. Now, St.Paul’s command to “rejoice” might seem unrealistic or naïve. But he himself was writing these words from a prison cell, which wasn’t the most joyful place. He was able to foster internal peace and joy without any material comfort—he knew he was loved and chosen by God. So authentic joy isn’t a giddy feeling that overlooks the pain we face in our families and in our world. However, if we look for our ultimate fulfillment in something here on earth, then by definition, it will fail to satisfy, because every earthly thing either dies, or it could be lost, broken, or stolen. In which case, it isn’t real joy.

            How can we live out a joy-filled existence? Consider St. Paul’s counsel in our second reading: 1)“Your kindness should be known to all”—do acts of love and service for others,beginning with our families. For to serve them is to serve Christ Himself.  2) “Have no anxiety at all.” Rather, trust completely in the plan of God;  3) Pray at all times, including prayers of thanksgiving. St. Paul wrote, “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” Even though many,many things go well each day, we tend to focus on the handful of things that go wrong. And we sometimes forget to thank God for our countless blessings. So we need to practice the virtue of gratitude, by counting our blessings every day.Think of everything we’re grateful for: family, faith, the beautiful world around us, that God has chosen us to be His adopted children in baptism. Does this mean everything’s perfect? No, there’s still a lot of suffering. But a grateful heart is a joyful heart. Besides, God loves us immensely and has given us so much, and He won’t abandon us in our need. When we rejoice with gratitude, we recognize God’s presence and work in our daily lives. The Greek word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”. So every time we attend Mass—every time we receive the Eucharist—we’re actually giving thanks to God. And gratitude shows us that everything we’ve received is the result of His grace.

            In the gospel, the people were asking John the Baptist, “What should we do?” They recognized that the moral life requires action; pious thoughts aren’t enough to make us justified in God’s sight. And notice that John “preached good news to the people.”It doesn’t seem like good news, because his concluding message is rather drastic:“The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Not the most uplifting or joyful message for Gaudete Sunday. In fact, John actually lists a bunch of dos and don’ts. Be content with what you have. Be generous with the poor. And isn’t this what a lot of people complain about in the Catholic Church? There are so many rules, rules about human sexuality and birth control, about marriage being between one man and one woman, about the importance of going to Mass every Sunday.The rules and commandments are the foundation of a holy life, because instead of repressing us, God’s law actually frees us from slavery to sin. So in reality, God’s commandments enable us to live a holy life. Our faith isn’t about rules for their own sake, but the commandments help us to shape our attitudes and actions after the pattern of Jesus, who was born in poverty and humility to save us from our sins. And fortunately, God has arranged for a sacrament of healing, by which we are restored and refreshed by the grace of God. Penance service on Tuesday.

            Today,many people lack joy and gratitude because their focus is only on earthly things. But as Christians, we know the real “good news” isn’t for here and now.Would that practicing our faith might be easy, that our culture would support Christian values and morals! But that’s not what Jesus promised. His good news doesn’t mean living out a comfortable existence without suffering. In fact,Jesus’ words are very stark: “Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple” (Mt 16:24). And “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:20). So followers of Jesus should expect nothing less than the rejection that He experienced on earth. Amid everything seeming to be crumbling around us, we might be tempted to think that the seeds of the gospel have failed, or that the “good news” is meaningless against the forces of evil. But Jesus’good news is about eternal life. Sure, the seeds are planted here on earth, but we enjoy the fruit in eternity. So amid the distractions of earthly cares, let’snot forget that eternal outlook of joy and hope, and “set our minds on the things above and not on the things of earth” (Col 3:2).

            Fortunately,we have a joy that no one can take from us—it can’t be lost or stolen. We’re people of joy because we know the truth about God: that at the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary to die for our sins. His death was the beginning of his ultimate victory, for He rose from the dead after three days. And we enter into Christ’s death and resurrection through the waters of baptism, water being a sign of death, but also of life. Baptism incorporates us into the family of God; it makes us “Christians.” So through baptism, we’ve been adopted by God as his children—we become heirs to heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus.

            St. Paul tells us today to rejoice and to persevere in prayer,because God is close to us. We can rejoice because our God hasn’t deserted us. He loves us, He is mercy itself, and He wants to be in relationship with us. Christian joy doesn’t come from material possessions or human success, but only from the presence of God which we cultivate through frequent reception of the sacraments, and through daily prayer. Prayer is essential,especially in these final days of Advent, because prayer attunes us to the voice of God and heightens our awareness of His presence. So let’s make the remaining days of Advent a time of much prayer and great joy and thanksgiving. Although Christmas shopping and decorations continue full-steam around us, St. Paul’s message is completely different: “Have no anxiety at all. . . Rejoice in the Lord always,again I say, rejoice! . . . The Lord is near.” He’s near, not just in His coming at Christmas, but He’s near to us in our Church, in the Eucharist, and in the sacrament of penance. And now He waits for us to approach him in joy and gratitude,so that at Christmas, we might receive every grace He wants to give us.

Repent! And prepare the way for the Lord. Homily for 12/9/2018.

Bar 5:1-9;  Phil 1:4-11;  Lk 3:1-6

Passages like this that make me wish I had a deacon with me to read the gospel. 

The coming of the Son of God to earth is an amazing mystery to ponder; God prepared His people for thousands of years before sending the promised Savior of the world. But it might tempting for us modern people to think: “Did these events actually happen as described?”Or were the evangelists writing mere stories-with-theological-meaning, or dare we say, fairy tales? No. They were writing real history! Besides, you’ll notice that St. Luke’s account doesn’t begin like most fairy tales do: “Once upon a time, in an enchanted forest, in a galaxy far, far away…” No. He places the coming of Christ within a real, historical context: when Tiberius Caesar was emperor, and Pontus Pilate, the governor. Luke even mentions the high priests and several tetrarchs by name. A “tetrarch” was equivalent to a present-day state official,who oversaw one-quarter of a particular province. In any event, the list of names shows us that God became man in Christ at a particular place and time in human history. So these gospel passages, filled with miracles and allegories, really occurred as described. Luke is writing “real history that had actually happened, admittedly interpreted and understood in the context of the word of God” (BenXVI, JoN, 17). But it shows us that the Incarnation happened, and that Christ’s coming to our world has changed the entire course of history! We must never forget that our God—our faith—is attested to by real people in history,and therefore isn’t some mythical fable.

            A voice cries out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths.” When the first hearers of this gospel encountered these words, they would’ve had a definite image in their minds,because both in the Old Testament and in the days of Christ, whenever a king or emperor visited some far-off place in his kingdom, he would always send a messenger ahead of him to announce the “gospel”, or “good news” of his imminent coming, and to prepare the way. Everyone in that place had to come together,and in arduous labor, build the roads, make straight the paths. You see,crooked roads were dangerous to travel and could put you in the path of robbers. The roads had to be straightened, the potholes filled in, and yes,even mountains had to be leveled at times to make it possible for the king to reach his destination.             That’s what they would’ve understood: the hard labor necessary for the king to approach. And that’s what Advent is. But today, we’re not called to remove piles of rock and rubble. Instead, we’re called to level the mountains of sin in our lives, to fill the valleys of spiritual neglect that make it difficult and often impossible for our divine king to enter our hearts. Jesus our king is coming; and He’s preceded by His messenger, John the Baptist, who announces the“good news” of His imminent coming. Notice that the Word of God didn’t come to any of those important officials (the emperor or governor, for example) in their royal palaces. Rather, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” And then “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

            Of course, John’s baptism wasn’t the sacrament of baptism as we know it today, but it was symbolic of starting a new life, because the Jordan River had great significance for the Jewish people. In the Old Testament,they crossed the Jordan before entering the Promised Land. John was calling the Jews to reaffirm their identity as God’s people and to reenter the Promised Land (symbolically) through water. A new exodus was occurring—not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin. Today, Christ frees us from sin through the sacraments of baptism and penance. He feeds us with the Eucharist, that miraculous bread from heaven. But we don’t have to go out into the desert to find Him; we need only come here, or to any Catholic Church, to find the healing mercy and nourishment that God wants to give us through the sacraments. For example, our parish penance service will be on December 18, with many priests available to hear confessions. We, too, are called to put away our old life, and start a new life of grace in Christ.

            John’s message was “repentance,” not when it’s more convenient, nor when it’s time to prepare for death. Repentance . . . now. The Greek word for “repent” is“metanoia”, which isn’t just “being sorry” for our sins. Rather, it implies a 180º turning—both mentally and physically—from our sinful tendencies. As our gospel said, “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” A mountain stands for pride, which is the root of all sin. Pride says things like “I know better than God,” and “The Church is too old-fashioned and out of touch…”  “This mountain of pride must be leveled before Christmas, because there’s nothing that excludes us more from heaven than pride, thinking we know better than God” (Msgr. Pope). Jesus entered the world in poverty and humility, not in a major city like Rome or even Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem. What about valleys…where are the valleys in our lives? Think about it: many sins stem from low self-esteem,which can easily lead to despair. For example, we gossip because if we put others down, then we feel better about ourselves. We compare ourselves to others, and then waste time and money on the latest fashions, gadgets, or worse, by falling into the greater sins of pornography and other forms of impurity.These valleys have to be filled in, by turning our hearts and conduct entirely to the Lord. Our dignity is rooted in being adopted children of God through baptism. But at our baptism, we were called to bring that dignity unstained into the eternal life of heaven. And so going to the sacrament of penance is the perfect way to prepare for Christmas—to restore that baptismal grace—to prepare the way of the Lord.

            True conversion means that we resolve to do better with the help of God’s grace. God is so generous in giving His grace when we ask for it. So, are we asking for His help through frequent and worthy reception of the sacraments? Are we making time for Him this Advent season by spending a meaningful amount of time in daily prayer? How about even simple prayers throughout the day, like “Jesus,help me,” “Come, Lord Jesus,” or invocations to our Blessed Mother Mary. She can teach us because she knows what it’s like to wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Savior!

            The other part of the repentance-and-conversion process is growth in virtue. Holiness isn’t just about avoiding sin, as important as that is. Holiness isn’t a negative, defensive process. Rather, we grow in holiness by practicing the virtues. So let’s look at our lives—in fact, look at the last week (since Advent began). What’s the sin we need to work on the most? And then, identify the opposite virtue and practice it each day this week. Perhaps we’re struggling with impatience toward a family member; be patient with that person every day this week. Maybe it’s anger, impurity, or pride; look for concrete ways to be peaceful, pure, and humble each day. Focus on one virtue, and then master that one virtue. This may seem like an arduous task—like leveling a mountain or filling in a valley. But God gives his grace to those who ask persistently. And as St. Paul once said, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). All things means all things, even overcoming that nagging sin that’s been part of our life for a long, long time. If we rely on the strength and power of Christ, then we can indeed do all things.

            The king of the universe is coming in a very short time to visit this far-off place in his kingdom. John the Baptist is his herald. But it’s not a fairy tale—it really happened. And He’s coming again in power and glory. So prepare the way of the Lord, by converting back to the God through the sacrament of penance! Make straight his paths by practicing one virtue consciously and daily this week! Because very soon, the good news will come true: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” namely, our God and Savior Jesus Christ, born to free us from our sins.

Being vigilant for the coming of Christ. Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent. 12/2/2018

Jer 33:14-16;  1Thes 3:12-4:2;  Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

Imagine that you’ve invited people to your birthday party. After the guests arrive, they completely ignore you and begin to exchange gifts with one other instead. Remember, it’s your birthday, but no one’s gotten you anything. No one even wished you a “happy birthday” or thanked you for the invitation. We’d probably feel sad or offended that everyone ignored our birthday, right? Sometimes I think that’s how Jesus feels. The next month will be full of shopping, baking, and running around, with very little attention given to Jesus. Sure, everyone loves to celebrate Christ’s birthday, but too often, the birthday boy is entirely forgotten. And in just 23 short days, we’ll celebrate the birth of Jesus with great joy. So what meaningful gift will we give him on that day? The Church gives us the season of Advent to answer this question.

Advent, from the Latin word for “coming,” is time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. It’s always four Sundays, but this year, it’s hardly more than three weeks; it will pass very quickly. Today marks the beginning of the Church’s year. And the liturgical color changes to the purple (the color of royalty) to signify a time of prayer and preparation, as we await the birth of the King of kings. Advent has a twofold character, based on the twofold coming of Christ: yes, it’s a time to prepare for Christmas, in which the first coming of the Son of God is remembered, but it’s also a time to look forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. “At his first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and endured the cross. At his second coming, he’ll be clothed in light as in a garment, escorted by an army of angels” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem). The coming of Jesus is the central point in human history; that’s why even today we tally the years from his birth. But as you’ll notice, today’s gospel deals with His second coming at the end of the world. Most people weren’t expecting His first coming, but we can’t be unprepared for His second coming. Amid the ensuing turmoil and fear, the Son of Man will come “in a cloud with power and great glory.” And so, Christ’s warning is very stern: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life…” Jesus certainly condemns the terrible sin of drunkenness, but more generally, he’s referring to our excesses, when we spend and spend on our wants and our bodily appetites. Our sins and material possessions weigh us down because they burden our hearts. And then we become even more distracted, and tired of spiritual things. Does this sound familiar? Why is it so difficult for us to pray? Perhaps it’s because of our excesses. Our world, especially during the next month, will tell us that we have to spend lots of money to be happy. Instead of being watchful in prayer, the drowsy heart becomes weighed down with sin and excess, and no longer keeps vigil for the Lord. Contrast this image with an utterly poor baby—the Savior of the world—born in the poverty and humility of a stable. Contrast the humility and love of God with excessive materialism; only God will make us truly happy, because He alone brings us true peace and joy.

Jesus gives us wise counsel today: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” When was another time Jesus counseled His followers to be vigilant and pray? In the Garden of Gethsemane. The apostles had been eating and drinking (at the Last Supper), arguing over who was the greatest . . . and then they fell asleep. They couldn’t even watch for one hour with Jesus. They abandoned Jesus in His hour of need. But all these things were recorded for our benefit, so that we’ll learn to avoid the same mistakes. Being vigilant means to put certain practices into effect: prayer, temperance in physical pleasures (fasting from food/drink/technology), fortitude (courage in the face of persecution), and works of charity. Vigilance means spending time with the Lord in daily prayer—focusing our hearts and minds on Him, and ordering our life accordingly. And if we’re truly prayerful, by devoting time to God each day in prayer, then our excesses and anxieties begin to decrease. They may not immediately disappear, but our hearts are set free from distractions to love God above all else, and our neighbor as ourselves.

In between the two comings of Christ is His coming to us in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Therefore, we can speak of Jesus coming in three ways: in history, in mystery, and in majesty. In the Eucharist, God’s desire for union with us is so strong that He gives Himself to us as food. It’s no coincidence that He was laid in a manger in Bethlehem. A manger is a place where sheep and other animals eat; and the word Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” These two ideas are fused together in the Eucharist, where bread is changed into the Body of Christ so that we, the sheep, may eat.

So what are some concrete ways that we can “be vigilant” during this short Advent season? One way is by constructing an Advent wreath for the family dinner table, and then each family member can take turns leading a special prayer before the meal. There’s so much symbolism to the Advent wreath: the evergreens symbolize hope and continuous life, and are woven in a circle, which has no beginning or end. The circle reminds us of the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the eternal life that comes through Christ. There are four candles—one for each Sunday of Advent—three purple and one rose. The purple candles symbolize penance, preparation, and sacrifice, while the rose candle stands for “Gaudete Sunday”—when we “rejoice” because Advent is more than half over, and the coming of Christ is very near. The lighted candles represent Christ, the light of the world, who overcame the darkness of sin and evil by his coming. And the progressive lighting of the candles each week shows our increasing readiness to meet the Lord in all his fullness (cf. Fr. William Saunders, Straight Answers).

2) Prepare spiritually by going to confession this Advent. Interior repentance requires that we turn back to God with all our hearts with repugnance for the evil actions we’ve committed (CCC1431). At the same time, we show our resolution to change our life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in his grace. And that begins with confession.  3) Offer special prayers to Our Lady, perhaps the family rosary each day of Advent. Our Lady knows what it’s like to wait for the birth of the Savior. Although she couldn’t see Jesus, she knew that the Word had been made flesh in her womb, and she was waiting in joyful hope for His birth.  4) Read the infancy narratives: chapters 1-2 of Matthew and Luke. That’s one chapter of Scripture each Sunday of Advent—certainly doable! Advent is a time to cry out with the early Christians: Come, Lord Jesus! And what a beautiful prayer that is to say each day: “Come, Lord Jesus! Come into every aspect of my life, and transform me from within.” The Church, in her wisdom, has given us this Advent season to prepare our hearts to receive the King of the universe. He’s not looking for decorative wrapping paper and bows/ribbons. He’s looking to be the king of our heart, the beloved of our soul, the love of our life. Fortunately, He doesn’t need a physical gift for His birthday; He wants us—He wants our hearts. And therein lies the paradox: on His birthday, He gives Himself to us as a helpless baby, so that we might learn to give ourselves back to him every day of our lives. This is why we must prepare ourselves spiritually this Advent, so that on Christmas morning, the birthday boy will find us ready to give ourselves to Him, He who has already given Himself, the greatest gift He could possibly give.

Long live Christ the King! Homily for 11/25/2018

Dan 7:13-14;  Rev 1:5-8;  Jn 18:33-37

Today is the solemnity of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and celebrated each year on this last Sunday of the Church’s calendar, to emphasize that Christ is king of the universe, and that He’ll establish His rule forever at the end of time. So what does this feast commemorate? Well, in the early 20th century, leaders and nations were ignoring Christ’s authority, and restricting the Church’s power to continue that authority. Sure, 100 years later, the same problems remain. But after experiencing the horrific atrocities of WWI, Pius XI and many others had witnessed the rise of non-Christian dictators in Europe, who tried to assert authority over the Church. The same continues today in Mexico, Venezuela, China, and other countries. It shows that when rulers refuse to obey God’s authority and deny Christ the king, then secularism and injustice are the results. Pius XI understood this a long time ago. At first, this feast can be puzzling to us because the idea of kingship is outdated in our modern world. And we don’t have many historical examples of truly sacrificial rulers. And since Jesus came in poverty and humility, it’s easy to lose sight of His authority and kingship. But this feast day reminds us that, objectively, Christ is king. He simply is. All people, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. And “once we recognize—both in public and in private life—that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony” (Pius XI, Quas Primas, 19). But until that time, we inherit only war and discord. Pope Pius XI hoped the institution of this annual feast would have several effects: 1) That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state (QP,32)—and yes, this includes religious freedom, which is under attack, even in our own country;  2) that leaders and nations would see that they’re bound to respect Christ as the true ruler (QP,31);  and 3) that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the yearly celebration of the feast, since we remind ourselves that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (QP,33).

And it’s this third point that I’d like to address: that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. So, does He? Is He the king of our entire lives? It’s one thing to hear others say that Christ is king. But Jesus directly asked Pilate, as He asks each one of us today: “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” It’s easy to say that Christ is king, but do our decisions align with that truth? To find out, let’s look at these four aspects of the human person (heart, mind, will, and body):

1) Jesus must reign in our hearts, which should love God above all else, including all earthly possessions. If we truly believe that Jesus is our king, then we have to learn from the gospel today that His “kingdom does not belong to this world.” And since his kingdom is spiritual, we can enter it only “by faith and by baptism, which, though an external ritual, signifies and produces an interior cleansing” (QP,15). That’s why a regular sacramental life is so important. God’s divine life comes to us through outward signs, which we call “sacraments.” Yes, our faith is internal, but it’s lived out through external observances, things like receiving the sacraments frequently, doing works of charity. And that’s why it’s a mortal sin to skip Sunday Mass without a good reason. And no, sports is not a good reason. Believe me, I love sports—I play and follow them regularly—but if Christ is our king, then He must be the first priority in our lives. So let’s be generous with our time—to show that God is the most important to us.

2) Christ “must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths of Christ” (QP,33). Jesus tells us today that He came into the world for this one purpose: “to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to [His] voice” (Jn 18:37). A good definition of truth is the “conformity of the mind with reality.” The mind doesn’t create truth or reality, but rather it understands and accepts it. And for this reason, truth can’t change; truth isn’t relative. Reality—and morality, for that matter—can’t be true for one person and false for another. That’s why it’s so sad to read stories and statistics about a priest or bishop being unfaithful to their sacred promises, or that a majority of married couples use contraception, or that countless dating or engaged couples live together before marriage, thus putting their eternal salvation and their future marriage in grave peril. Or that only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Once again, we don’t create reality; rather, it comes to us from God, who calls us to a higher standard than sin and falsehood.

Ultimately, the truth is a Person, Jesus Christ. Pontus Pilate chose to deny Him, but do you and I live the truth that comes through Christ and His Church? If we belong to the truth, then we must listen to the voice of Jesus, even if His words may be difficult to accept. The truth about the dignity of human life. The truth that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. The truth about the intrinsic evils of abortion and artificial contraception. And the truth about the boundless mercy of God in the sacrament of confession. Each day, our free choices determine whether we accept the truth of Christ, and whether we’ll enthrone Him as our king.

3) Jesus “must also reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God” (QP,33). As king, Christ is a “law-giver, to whom obedience is due” (QP,14). This isn’t blind obedience, but Christ’s rule actually enables us to live in freedom, freedom from sin. God’s commands aren’t burdensome, because He gives us His grace to be faithful. Like the rules of the road, God’s commands are in place to help us all get to our final destination safely. But also like traffic laws, disobeying God’s commands is dangerous for ourselves and for others. No, we don’t understand everything perfectly, but as St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). Jesus exercises his kingly power through His Church, which bears witness to the fullness of the truth in love.

Finally, Christ “must reign in our bodies, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls” (QP,33). The human body isn’t ours to misuse through pornography and abuse. We aren’t our own property, for Christ has purchased us “with a great price” (1Cor 6:20)—His very life. Therefore, our bodies are the “members of Christ.” So we should glorify God with and in our bodies.

In the end, the banner of the kingdom of Christ is the cross; Jesus reigns from the cross. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak often about the kingdom of God: it’s like a mustard seed, a landowner, like yeast, like a treasure buried in a field; these gospels abound with images of the kingdom. But John is different; John uses the word “kingdom” only twice . . . only twice, that is, until chapter 18, which is the start of Jesus’ Passion. And in today’s gospel, the word “king/kingdom” is at the fore, because Christ reigns from the cross. And what’s written at the top of every crucifix? The letters INRI, the Latin abbreviation for “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” An eyewitness to this scene, St. John specifically tells us that this inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. These were the languages of the three major civilizations that Jesus encountered during His life on earth. How fitting, then, that these three were united by the cross—such that any passer-by at that time could read and understand that this was Jesus, a king. Although Pontus Pilate and the Romans meant to mock Jesus with this title, they unknowingly proclaimed Him to the world as the true king. But God went one step further: He used a cross (the universal sign of shame) to be the symbol of the world’s salvation. Celebrating today’s feast helps us to appreciate Christ, not as an oppressive dictator, but one who died out of love for us, and whose mercy endures forever. By His coming, Christ radically transformed the concept of kingship. He gave his life on the cross, and through the kingly power of truth and love in his cross, He has conquered the world. And when we submit to the sweet yoke of Jesus, who sets us free from slavery to sin, we become heirs of the kingdom of heaven, which is a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. As a confusing and very difficult Church year draws to a close, we begin the Advent season next Sunday, a season marked by hope and expectation for the coming of Christ. So today, we remind ourselves of the tender love and mercy of God, but also we should examine ourselves to see whether Christ is indeed the king of every aspect of our lives. And we can draw courage from the heroic martyrs of the Mexican Revolution 100 years ago, by repeating their motto in our own day: “Long live Christ the King!”

The Mass as a Sacrifice, and the Four Last Things. Homily for 11/18/2018.

Dan 12:1-3;  Ps 16;  Heb 10:11-14;  Mk 13:24-32

To put this gospel in context, Jesus has just arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. There’s a sense of expectation in the air as He prepares to enter the city in triumph. Instead, Jesus predicts a time of great destruction: “The sun will be darkened, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…” He’s addressing two events in particular: the destruction of the temple, and the end of the world. But these ideas are connected because, in the Jewish mind, the temple was a miniature of the universe: “Images of the stars and constellations were embroidered on the temple veils; the seven lights of the menorah represented the sun, moon, and the five known planets” (Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 267). And since the temple stood for the universe, its destruction would be of cosmic proportions. This prediction was fulfilled in the year 70AD, when the Roman armies demolished the temple, permanently ending the old covenant sacrifices. All that remains of the temple today is the Western (or Wailing) Wall, that supported the temple itself. And if the Western Wall was merely the supporting wall, it shows what a great marvel the actual temple was. Yet even the vast temple was completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt. One stone was not left upon another.

But this physical destruction was part of God’s plan because, Jesus, by His death and resurrection, ushered in the new covenant. He is the new temple and the Lamb of sacrifice. The daily animal sacrifices of the Old Testament pointed forward to the one, perfect sacrifice of Jesus, as our second reading said, “For by one offering [Jesus] has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.” So you and I are included in the one sacrifice of Jesus, which replaced the many sacrifices of the Old Testament. And that’s exactly what we offer in every Mass: the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, but in an unbloody manner. Not that Jesus is killed over and over again. But rather, His one sacrifice, offered at a specific time and place in history, is re-presented on this altar sacramentally. Jesus lives outside of time, so His sacrifice isn’t limited by space and time restrictions. Such that if we close your eyes, we can imagine ourselves—here and now—being present on Calvary, because, in reality, we are there. The Catholic Mass is the high point of Christian worship because it’s Christ’s sacrifice, not simply a communal meal or gathering. The prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayer, are replete with sacrificial language: offering, oblation, unblemished sacrifices, pure/holy/spotless Victim. To skip out on Sunday Mass means to devalue—in our minds, anyway—the dignity and worth of Jesus’ sacrifice, which is being offered in this church right now. That’s astounding(!)…and people say Mass is boring. That’s because the focus easily slips into the human realm. We don’t account for the multitude of angels adoring our Lord here. Yes, we want the human component to be excellent: the music, the vestments, the surroundings . . . the homily. But when it comes down to it, the liturgy is the work of God, not human beings. That’s why the Mass is absolutely essential for us, and why the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.

As the days get darker, and the weather gets colder, our gospel about all the chaos points to the end of the world. We’re drawing very close to the end of the liturgical year. But instead of trying to predict the future, we should prepare for it; Jesus is calling us to be ready. So we must stay awake, spiritually speaking, if we want to secure an inheritance as God’s children. In addition to readiness, Jesus also promotes courage. He predicted the evil times that His followers would face—we’re still living through them now—but the Lord’s definitive triumph is assured. The wicked will receive a stern judgment at the proper time. But for the suffering Church on earth, persecution will give way to ultimate joy. So we continue to hope in the midst of this present darkness.

Where do we go from here? The Alleluia verse gives us the answer: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you may have the strength to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36). Concretely, we can be vigilant by meditating frequently on “the four last things”: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven. First, Death. Very soon, as Jesus said, He “will come in the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds.” So let’s consider our entire life right now.  In a very short time, we’ll return to the dust of the earth; our life passes in the blink of an eye. And we’ll leave everything else behind. So are we more concerned about temporal or eternal realities? Is our focus more on an earthly hobby or career, or on where we’ll spend eternity? Meditating on death isn’t a morbid exercise, because all of us will die. But that’s our gateway to eternal life with God. However, if we’re not at peace with God now, then the prospect of death is a terrifying reality. But developing our relationship with Him through daily prayer heightens our readiness for when that moment comes. “Remember you must die” is a good phrase to keep before our minds each day.

Secondly, Judgment. Yes, Jesus is a friend and teacher who enlightens us, but He’s also the Son of Man who brings definitive judgment on the earth. As our first reading said, “Some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” At the judgment, we won’t be able to make excuses or ask for more time to repent. Our actions on earth will be weighed on the scales. Do we tremble at the prospect of standing before Jesus the Judge? The image of Jesus-as-judge isn’t easy to accept, but the Jesus of our somewhat-frightening gospel is the same Jesus whom we profess in the Creed each Sunday, “will come to judge the living and the dead.” How different this picture is from a ‘nice Jesus’, who some say doesn’t care what lifestyle they live! On judgment day, Jesus won’t look kindly on some of the things we and others have done. So the prospect of a future judgment should call us to conversion now, by inspiring in us a holy fear of God, and by casting ourselves on His mercy. In fact, one great way to overcome the sin of sloth—or any sin, for that matter—is to meditate on judgment day; that should get us moving.

Thirdly, Hell. Let there be no mistake: hell is real and its punishment is eternal. Hell is that sad and lamentable state of eternal death, the eternal separation from God (CCC1035). To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means to be separated from Him forever by our own free choice. There are no second chances after death. But “God predestines no one to hell; for this a mortal sin is necessary, and persistence in that sin until the end” (CCC1037). If someone is so hardened against God’s love and commandments here on earth, why would that person suddenly want to live in His presence after death?

Purgatory, although not strictly one of the four last things, isn’t so much a place, but a state of purification. It’s for those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfect in some way. They’re assured of eternal salvation, but after death, they’re purified to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. In Purgatory, God prepares that soul in its festive garment, so that it can fittingly enter the wedding feast of the Lamb. And right now, we can help these poor souls by offering prayers and Masses on their behalf.

Saving the best of the four for last, we consider Heaven. Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ (CCC1023). In heaven, we shall see God as He is (1Jn 3). As we heard in our first reading, “The wise will shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament.” Heaven is perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme and definitive happiness (CCC1024). Ultimate joy and peace with God forever!

So today, Jesus advises us to get our priorities straight, by focusing the most important things, like where we’ll spend eternity. It’s a simple fact that we find time for what’s important to us, whether it be work, sports, technology, or other hobbies. So why not prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship in the Church? Despite the impending destruction, Jesus gives a word of great encouragement: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So let’s take His word to heart by meditating on the four last things (death, judgment, hell, heaven), and realize our lofty calling from God, who wishes all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim 2:3-4). And we’re called to live saintly lives of prayer and virtue here on earth, so that when we die, we may pass over to the heavenly realities which we offer on this altar, the memorial of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Be grateful. Be generous with God. Homily for 11/11/2018

1Kgs 17:10-16;  Ps 146; Heb 9:24-28;  Mk 12:38-44

How often do we thank God? Amid our crosses and difficulties, we’ve all received tremendous blessings from God: the gift of our lives, our family, our faith, the example of Jesus and all the saints. Each new day gives us many opportunities to pick one of two routes to take: 1) to trust in the Lord and to count our blessings, or 2) to focus on ourselves and complain about what we don’t have. So will we be generous with God or will we grasp onto our material possessions?

Our readings present two utterly poor widows, who both trusted completely in God, and who were praised and rewarded because of that trust. They didn’t hesitate to spend what little they had on God. In the first reading, Elijah tells the widow not to be afraid to share her meager possessions (some flour and a little oil). On a natural level, Elijah’s request seems cruel and selfish; he was taking the last bit of her food! But without God, where would she be anyway? Elijah is challenging her to show her faith, which is what actually saves her and her son from starvation. She took a major risk, but because of her trust in God, she received a great miracle. The Lord will not be outdone in generosity.

In the gospel, Jesus watched how the crowds put money into the treasury. At that time, the copper coins would reverberate in the trumpet-shaped receptacles, thus drawing attention both to the gift and the giver. A bigger gift was better noticed. However, the widow contributed only a few pennies, which didn’t add up to much, but it was her entire livelihood. For example, she gave two coins, when she could’ve given just one. Such reckless generosity mirrors Our Lord, who emptied Himself completely by taking our humanity and submitting to death on the cross. So Jesus commended her for her sacrificial offering—the Son of God paid her a high compliment: “This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.” God notices how we use our possessions, and He especially sees the intention with which we give. We’re stewards of our gifts, not owners, so we need to be generous in giving them away, in putting them at the service of God and others. Are we being generous with the Lord, and for the correct reasons? Or do we rely on ourselves and act selfishly toward God and others?

The widow’s hunger in the first reading is an analogy for her hunger for God. The Lord was going to help her, but He was waiting to see if she trusted in Him. And only when she gave her all, did God reward her abundantly. Her trust outweighed her poverty; we might even say that her poverty enabled her to trust. So why does God allow poverty and suffering? Well, the quick answer is that there are grave pitfalls in riches and comfort: “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mk 10:23). In riches, we tend to trust in ourselves, but in poverty, we can only trust God. We have to! It’s often our poverty that enables God to bless us with true riches; our emptiness allows Him to do his work. But so many rich people live empty lives, devoid of true happiness, because they don’t have God alive in them.

Jesus Himself is our model for generous giving. As Christians, we know that the standard of greatness isn’t earthly riches, but the Cross of Christ. Look at the generosity of Jesus: even when He was dying on the cross, He gave us the wonderful gift of His Blessed Mother. In His extreme poverty, there was nothing greater that He could give! But then, even after His death, Jesus gave his Sacred Heart to be pierced by the soldier’s lance. And from that Sacred Heart—which was broken because of our sins—from that Sacred Heart, flowed out blood and water, the wellspring of the Church’s sacraments: the water of baptism and the Blood of the Eucharist. Baptism, which welcomes us into the family of God. And the Eucharist, by which Jesus enters inside us to transform us from within. Such that St. Paul said with great confidence: “It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). St. Paul was a poor man who suffered a lot, yet he was transformed by the riches of God’s grace. For him, everything was a gift from God.

So let’s cultivate the virtue of gratitude. Like any other virtue, gratitude grows when we practice it each day. Yes, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving Day in a few weeks. But every day should be a day of thanksgiving. The word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”, and the Eucharist is offered every day. But are we truly grateful for the gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that we’re privileged to receive? Do we prepare ourselves for Sunday Mass by praying throughout the week? Gratitude helps us to focus on the good in our own lives, and the good in other people. It means to recognize that we aren’t the source of that goodness; God is. And when we focus on what we have received, we tend to complain less about what we don’t have. Finally, gratitude includes thinking of the needs of others, and using our gifts to help them. Give until it hurts…because if it doesn’t hurt, then we’re still giving from our surplus wealth. But if it hurts—when we make that sacrificial offering of ourselves—then we’re learning to trust in the Lord and to contribute from our poverty, as the widow did in the gospel. Very rich people can easily afford to be generous-givers, since they suffer no real loss in doing so. But a poorer person who gives despite a deficiency is ultimately the more generous giver. And God will reward that person abundantly.

On the Day of Judgment, we’ll have to render an account for what we were given here on earth: our time, possessions, all our blessings and talents. How sad it would be if we were left speechless at this moment because we had failed to use God’s gifts wisely. The poor can’t repay us, and so it’s good to be indebted to them, because God covers the debts of the poor. Besides, Jesus reminded his followers that His gifts are meant to be given away: “Freely you received; freely you are to give” (Mt 10:8). We didn’t earn the love or friendship of God, so we shouldn’t count the cost in being generous with God and others. In the end, God isn’t going to ask we how much money we earned; it’s more likely He’ll ask what we gave away. And not so much the amount, but the intention with which we gave. So generosity goes beyond money; it includes prayer and good works. For example, contributing our time, which is probably the most valuable thing at our disposal. So maybe we could teach in our religious education program, volunteer in our school or food pantry, or sign up for a weekly hour in our adoration chapel. For our high schoolers, this could mean coming to summer Workcamp or our Sunday evening youth group to learn more about faith and service. For everyone, it means giving God his due in daily prayer. God can transform what may seem insignificant, because God sees the heart, and the spirit with which we give

Elsewhere in the gospel, Jesus said, “Much will be expected of the person entrusted with much” (Lk 12:48). We, who’ve been blessed with much, need to open ourselves generously to God and others. If we’re too filled with money and material possessions, then there’s no room for God. But if we learn to be generous with God in prayer and with our possessions, as the two widows were, we realize the truth that God never fails. Of course, this takes trust, and trust involves risk. So, are we willing to risk everything for God? Will we be generous with our time and possessions, so that God can fill us with Himself? Today, let’s thoughtfully meditate on these questions, because our eternal salvation depends on getting the answers correct.

Examine your conscience before God. Homily for 11/4/2018

Dt 6:2-6;  Ps 18;  Heb 7:23-28;  Mk 12:28-34

A scribe, a scholar of the law, asked Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Perhaps this was a test or a genuine inquiry to see Our Lord’s worth as a Rabbi. There were over 600 commandments governing Jewish culture and worship, and it was easy to get bogged down. Jesus summarizes all of these commandments in the two great commandments, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, Jesus isn’t talking about superficial love, but the self-giving and unconditional love that He shows us on the cross. It means to love as God loves, to will what He wills. Jesus was a man of virtue, the beatitudes, and prayer. And if we truly love God, then we’ll strive to do the same—we strive to keep his commandments. Jesus once said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a decision, an act of the will. Sometimes love will come naturally, accompanied by affections that come easily. More often, though, love will be sacrificial and maybe even painful. But if we’re faithful even when it’s difficult, then we know that we’re loving as Jesus loves us.

1) The first commandment: “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength.” Jesus is directly quoting from our first reading (Deuteronomy chapter 6), which every devout Jew prays daily. Originally living among people who worshipped multiple gods, the Jews reminded themselves each day that there is only one God. And this first great commandment is spelled out in greater detail by the first three of the 10 Commandments. 1) Have no false gods. Do we worship the false gods of consumerism, video games or other technology, sports, or food and drink? A good test is to ask ourselves: “How do I spend my free time?” And then, “How much of that time do I give to God?” Sure, healthy rest and recreation are necessary for human flourishing, but it can easily be taken to an extreme, to the detriment of our spiritual life. 2) We never use God’s name casually or as a curse. If we’re doing this, then it’s time to repent and change that sinful habit. 3) Keep holy the Sabbath. This means worshipping at Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, and making family activities central to the Lord’s Day. The presence of God must be in our heart, mind, and soul; God must be priority number one.

The second great commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Here, Jesus quotes the Book of Leviticus (19:18), and by doing so, He completes the first commandment. Taken together, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Our love for God must overflow in our love our neighbor, and our love our neighbor must be built upon the foundation of love for God.  To deny one is to deny both. St. John said in his first letter, “It’s impossible to love God whom we don’t see, if we don’t love others whom we do see” (1Jn 4:20). In other words, our love for God is measured by how we treat others, beginning with the members of our own family. And here we turn to the remaining seven commandments of the Decalogue, beginning with the fourth: Honor your father and mother, and by extension, those in authority. Fifth: we do not kill the innocent through willful murder, which extends to abortion, euthanasia, abusing drugs or alcohol, gossip, and harming one’s reputation. Sixth: we do not commit adultery, whether physically through fornication, or spiritually through pornography. Seventh: we do not steal, which includes vandalism and cheating. Eighth: we do not bear false witness through lies, fraud, or deceit. Ninth and tenth: we avoid jealousy, envy, and complaining about the good fortune of others. This is a consideration of the commandments from a “negative” perspective. Of course, we can and should examine our consciences positively: Am I speaking up for innocent human life, living chaste and fruitful marital love, respecting truth and justice? Am I content with what I have from God? How am I living the virtues, such as obedience, purity, honesty, generosity? Do I sacrificially love my family members and treat them as if they were Christ Himself?

It’s striking that when Jesus is asked about the “law,” He responds with “love,” showing us that law and love can never be separated. Today, we tend to separate the two. And maybe we even fall into the trap that “loving someone” means manipulating them or allowing them to wander into sin. Or that keeping God’s commandments will limit our freedom or make us unhappy. Not at all! Jesus has called us to live in the freedom of the children of God (Gal 5:1). But we can’t use that freedom as an excuse to sin. In Jesus’ day, there were many people who obeyed even the strictest commandment of the law, but they lacked charity towards others. So St. Paul says that “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:8). Just as we can’t separate the two great commandments, neither can we separate law from love.

The scribe in the gospel understood that love and obedience are worth more than all the animal sacrifices in the world. And so Jesus, while praising this insightful comment, also proposes a challenge: “You are not far from the kingdom of God”…. implying that he’s not in it yet. As Christians, we strive for the kingdom of God by keeping the commandments, but we go deeper than the surface level, all the way to unconditional, sacrificial love of God and neighbor. True love knows no limits, because Jesus Himself is the standard.

We can’t separate our faith from our decisions. That’s why it’s always so absurd when a politician says that faith won’t interfere with the policies he or she supports. Our faith is part of who we are, so it must inform the decisions we make. We must never choose intrinsically evil acts, because they’re always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Several of these evils include abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex unions (masquerading as “marriage”). The life issues receive top billing, because the right to life is the basis of all other rights. Every human person, born or unborn, is a great gift from God and has a fundamental right to life. “Abortion denies this right to an entire class of human beings, and therefore, permitting it is gravely unjust and fundamentally at odds with the concept of equality” and human dignity (VA bishops). So we can never support the taking of innocent human life, either personally or by our vote. Our vote matters; it has moral consequences because we’re supporting the political positions of that particular candidate. Are we willing to stake our eternal salvation on a candidate and platform that denies a person the fundamental right to life? A candidate who claims to be Catholic, but supports everything contrary to the faith is living a lie. And someone who votes “no” simply to oppose another without hearing him out, someone who so ardently champions the killing of unborn babies under the guise of “health care” or “reproductive rights” is violating both the fifth and eighth commandments. We need to inform our consciences in accord with the truths of our faith, and hold our candidates to the standard of love of God and neighbor. “A well-tuned conscience is shaped by prayer, the sacraments, learning and discerning the issues at hand, and finally, by understanding the guiding principles of our faith” (VA bishops). So yes, our faith is absolutely essential to the decisions we make, and that includes at the polls.

What can we do right now, especially in these next couple days? 1) Pray and fast. These spiritual practices have produced miracles throughout the Bible and in later Church history. Pray the rosary, and entrust our country and its leaders to Our Lady. 2) Do our homework by informing ourselves on the issues and platforms—not the soundbites, not the 30-second commercials. And I highly recommend checking out www.vacatholic.org.  3) Vote in a way that reflects the dignity of the human person, the common good, and love of God and neighbor. And we can’t forget the law of love, which should guide all of our thoughts, words, and actions. We must show charity for all, even to those with whom we disagree. All people are created in God’s image and likeness, and they deserve our respect, our patience, and our prayers. Moses reminded us that keeping the commandments is necessary for us to enter into the Promised Land (Deut 6). So now is the time to put God first, and to recommit ourselves to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. And to love our neighbor as ourselves, so that we might be counted among the elect in the kingdom of heaven.