The Transfiguration and the Eucharist: A taste of heaven on earth. Homily for 3/17/2019

Gen 15:5-12, 17-18;  Ps 27; Phil 3:17-4:1;  Lk 9:28-36

Today’s passage about the Transfiguration occurs right after two important gospel events: 1) Peter’s confession of faith in the divinity of Jesus, and 2) Christ’s prediction about His own Passion and Death. The Transfiguration is the bridge between these two realities; it’s a foretaste of Christ’s glorification, yet His suffering is still present. Jesus appears in glory to Peter, James, and John to confirm their belief in his divinity, and also to strengthen them for His impending death, and their leadership of the early Church. Later, He would take these same three apostles into the Garden of Gethsemane, and, although they’d run away in that moment, Peter would remember the Transfiguration for the rest of his life (2Pet 1:18).

            Appearing alongside Jesus are Moses and Elijah, who were both well-known miracle workers who fasted for forty days. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus also fasted for 40 days. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets, summing up the entire Old Testament, which Jesus fulfills. Only St. Luke tells us what they were discussing: “They were speaking about the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem”—meaning, His death. So even during this glorious event, Jesus was thinking about His death, the reason He became man. There are two other “hidden” characters in this scene: the voice and the cloud. The cloud symbolizes the Holy Spirit, while the voice from the cloud is God the Father, repeating those familiar words: “This is my chosen Son. Listen to Him.” ‘Listening to Jesus’ enables us to enter into relationship with God our Father, who then says the same thing about us: “You are my chosen Son; you are my chosen daughter.”

            The Transfiguration happens within the annual Jewish feast of Tabernacles, an agricultural feast which commemorated Israel’s wandering in the desert, when the people lived in tents. Some Jews believed that tents would be the dwelling places of paradise. By speaking about building three tents, Peter wants to give permanence to this vision; he thought the time of glory was here to stay. But Peter misunderstood the vision, because Jesus still had to descend the mountain in order to suffer and die. Jesus shows us that we enter into glory only through suffering. Even for Our Lord, there is no glorification without the cross.

            At the end of the gospel passage, the three apostles see Jesus alone, looking as He always has. The glory will take permanent form only after He suffers and rises from the dead in Jerusalem. And so we see a major contrast between the Transfiguration and the account of the Passion: here, Jesus is privately revealed in glory, shining in dazzling white, standing on a high mountain, surrounded by light. In His Passion, Jesus is publicly humiliated, with clothes torn and divided, surrounded by criminals and darkness (Office of Readings). On the mountain today, light pours forth from Christ; on Calvary it will be blood. God always shines upon us; but the rays of His glory sometimes take the form of light, and at other times take the form of suffering. Think of that moment: Jesus on the cross—the very darkest moment in human history, the apparent defeat of the Son of God amid dark clouds and evil. And yet! When everything seemed against Him, when his defeat seemed sure, He rose from the dead. The moment of his “defeat” was only hours before his ultimate triumph. When facing difficulties, we should recall this important lesson, and apply it to our own lives.

            Peter, James, and John were privileged to witness this extraordinary event. In our first reading, Abraham also experienced something extraordinary—entering a sacred agreement called a covenant. A covenant is different from a contract, because a contract is an exchange of goods (time, money, and the like), while a covenant is an exchange of persons. Abraham is our father in faith. But before he was called Abraham (“father of a multitude”), he was known as Abram (“exalted father”). Both names are ironic, because at that point, he had no children. However, because he believed that God could do incredible things, he was rewarded with a son, Isaac, even as an old man. Two mysterious things occur in the first reading: 1) God enters into a covenant with Abram through a strange ritual, called “cutting a covenant”, when both parties would walk between the two parts of a dead animal, as if to say, “Let me die like this animal if I’m ever unfaithful to the covenant.” But notice who goes between the animal carcasses: God, in the form of a flaming torch! In other words, there is no possibility that God will be unfaithful to the covenant and the promise He made to Abram.    2) The other intriguing detail is that God promised to multiply Abram’s offspring like the stars of heaven. While it’s impossible to count the stars, “‘Just so,’ God added, ‘shall your descendants be.’” And Scripture says, “Abram put his faith in the Lord.” The only problem is: God took Abram outside during the day! For later in the reading, we hear, “When the sun had set and it was dark…” So Abram is a man of faith, not because he believed God based on what he could see, but because he believed God on what he couldn’t see. He couldn’t even see the stars, yet he still believed God’s promise about countless descendants. That takes immense faith.

            It also takes faith to believe in the Church that Christ founded. The Church is divine, because her Founder is divine, even if the divinity isn’t visible now. Peter, James, and John all saw Christ’s glory on the mountain, and the others witnessed the many miracles that He performed, but only one of the Twelve remained with Jesus in His hour of need. So even the Lord’s hand-picked apostles abandoned Him, but the Church continued, because she’s the Body of Christ, not some merely human institution. I’ve heard that some people are walking away from the Church at this painful time because of the human sins and failures. What’s completely ignored is the divine side of the Church, for example, the glories of the Eucharist. Like with Abraham, God enters into a covenant with us through visible signs—today, we call them sacraments. God gives Himself to us, and we’re expected to give ourselves entirely back to Him. Most often, though, we see only the visible, human side of our faith—the human failures of the Church or the visible Eucharist, which looks like a piece of bread. And that can easily make us shift our expectations into the human realm. It always pains me to hear people say, “Mass is boring.” But the liturgy isn’t meant to entertain us—it’s meant to glorify God. So what are we putting in? That includes a joint effort—not just the priest or the musicians or the assembly. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the one offering the sacrifice. If we do our best to praise God individually, then we’ll be praising God collectively. But if we consistently arrive late or leave early, dress very casually, are busy checking our phones, failing to join in the hymns and prayers, or tune out during the homily…..then it makes sense why we don’t “get anything out of Mass.” In the Mass, we are privilege to be present at the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. So our minds shouldn’t be occupied with earthly things, but as St. Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” God has called us here today, and praise God that we’ve responded to that invitation. But that’s only the beginning; He wants to take us so much deeper. So we can’t stop at the bare minimum or limit God’s ability to work because of our lack of faith. The earthly realm should serve to elevate our minds to heavenly glory, to catch a glimpse (like Peter, James, and John did) of heaven on earth. We’re asked to make an immense act of faith in the Lord, not based on what we can see (a piece of bread and some wine), but based on what we can’t see (the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus). And if we truly believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, then that makes all the difference in the world, particularly how we approach the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Every so often, and it’s been happening here with alarming regularity, someone finds a Host stuck in a hymnal or underneath a pew. Or someone attempts to leave church without having consumed the Eucharist. This is a sacrilege—a tremendous affront to the Lord. We must consume the Eucharist immediately after receiving It, not back at the pew, and not outside either. So please help us; if you ever notice anything like this, please immediately inform an usher or a priest. Together we have to guard the sacredness of our Lord’s Eucharistic presence.

            The Eucharist is tangible proof of God’s presence with us. Today, Jesus comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine. We can’t see his dazzling garments, nor do we hear a voice from a cloud. But the Eucharist is a foretaste of future glory, the spiritual food that will lead us to everlasting life. By receiving the Eucharist, we become more like Jesus—we become sharers in His divinity. Do we truly believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Are we spiritually prepared to receive Him? After this mystical experience of encountering Him in the Eucharist, we have to come down the mountain and return to our homes and our jobs, for we haven’t reached the end of our journey. The Transfiguration anticipates the immortal triumph of the Christ’s Resurrection, and becomes a symbol of our own resurrection, when Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like His own glorious body. God’s presence, action, and glory have broken into our world. He is so near to us—in this Mass, He becomes our food. So may we put our faith in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence and give ourselves entirely to Him in this sacred banquet, where we catch a fleeting glimpse of heaven on earth.

Facing and overcoming temptation. Homily for 3/10/2019

Deut 26:4-10;  Ps 91;  Rom 10:8-13;  Lk 4:1-13

On the first Sunday of Lent each year, we hear the familiar story of the temptation of Jesus. And there are several reasons for this annual reading: 1) to remind us that Jesus Himself practiced 40 days of prayer and penance. During these 40 days of Lent, we, too, are meant to go deeper in prayer, and to temper our earthly pleasures in order to strengthen our resolve to follow Christ more closely. 2) To show us that the devil is real—he tempts even the Son of God Himself. Scripture tells us that “the devil is prowling like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1Pet5). Our governor’s recent comments about infanticide, and the very fact that 44 U.S. senators (including the two from Virginia) voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act show that the devil is very active in our world. We also need to acknowledge the existence of hell and its eternity. Hell is the sad and lamentable state of eternal separation from God (CCC1035). And those who scoff at the existence of hell and the devil give him greater ability to prowl and devour. The devil’s “delay tactics” are very enticing—he tells us to push off our prayer time, and to delay our conversion from a life of sin. But eventually, there will be no more time or possibility to repent. St. Paul said, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2Cor 6:2).  

            3) We learn from Jesus how to conduct ourselves in temptation. It’s curious that Jesus “was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” This phrase helps us to reflect on the nature of temptation, and especially the 6th petition of the Our Father: ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ “The original Greek means both ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation.’ God doesn’t actually tempt us; in fact, He wants to set us free from evil. We’re asking him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin” (cf. CCC2846). On the other hand, temptations can be helpful for our spiritual growth because they make us stronger. Temptation teaches us to know ourselves and our sinful inclinations, and to give thanks to God for His goodness and mercy (cf. CCC2847). Although Jesus didn’t have to undergo these temptations, He was giving us an example to follow, teaching us to have confidence in God our Father. And because Christ was tempted, He is “able to help those who are being tested…” (Heb 2:18). Jesus didn’t trust in earthly riches or glory, nor did he perform a miracle (although He could have). Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Father didn’t take away the suffering from His Only-begotten Son. But He did send an angel, similar to the protection promised in today’s psalm. So God still takes care of us, even if He doesn’t answer our prayers exactly as we might expect.

            The temptations come from three sources: the flesh, the world, and the devil.  The devil first appeals to Jesus’ humanity, telling him to perform a miracle to satisfy a purely earthly desire. But Christ didn’t come to serve Himself. Miracles, for their part, are meant to elicit or reward greater faith, but the devil isn’t interested in that virtue. Besides, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3). We need to become familiar with the Word of God. Notice how Jesus counters all three temptations with the Scriptures, thereby teaching us to do the same. There are still six more weeks in Lent. So during the rest of this season, can we read one book of the Bible slowly and prayerfully, maybe one of the gospels or one of St. Paul’s letters? The Bible possesses a power in itself, because it’s the Word of God.

            The 2nd temptation comes from the world. By offering fleeting images of wealth and glory, the devil tries to distract Jesus from His mission. Jesus will receive power and glory, but from His Father, not the devil. Besides, the devil doesn’t have the authority to give away all the kingdoms of the world. Scripture says, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Yet, this glorification comes not through riches and earthly strength, but at the cross. Christ achieves definitive victory over sin and death through obedience to the Father—through suffering and death. However, the devil often uses the same enticement for us: material possessions and worldly status. And then he becomes the great accuser when we do fall. Fasting from material pleasures enables us to focus on God and eternal life.

            The third temptation comes from the devil himself and stems from pride—that Jesus should misuse his divine power recklessly. Here, the devil quotes—or rather, misquotes—Scripture, trying to use it to his advantage. The humorous thing is: he chose the wrong passage. Because yes, the angels will guard you in all our ways, but the very next verse (today’s psalm) says that you will trample the viper and the dragon, both symbols of the evil one. And this is exactly what Jesus does in His Passion, Death and Resurrection—He conquers sin and evil. So the devil can misquote Scripture and deceive others, but he will not win in the end. And responding as He does, Jesus uses a delightful play on words: Jesus is God, and “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

            Jesus thwarts all the devil’s attacks, but our passage ends with the ominous words: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” The devil’s time would resurface in the Passion, when Jesus endured the greatest onslaught of evil: the betrayal of Judas, the scourges, the horrible mental and physical suffering. The devil attacks Jesus at his weakest (in his hunger in the desert, and in the Passion). So we have to be alert, especially when we’re weakest. That’s why we should never be on the internet when we’re bored, lonely, angry, stressed, or tired. If we want to avoid sin, then we have to fight against temptation also. St. James wrote, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). For example, if we’re trying to lose weight, then we can’t have junk food around the house. If we’re having evil or impure thoughts, then we should consider what we’re putting into our heads. We have to “set our minds on the things above and not on things of earth” (Col 3:2). And to be ruthless in avoiding sin. St. Dominic Savio once said, “I would rather die than commit a mortal sin.” How many of us share that outlook, when it’s much easier to commit the sin and then go to confession later? Yes, God is very merciful, but the fight against sin is a daily battle. Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” A more modern translation might be “If technology causes you to sin, cut it off.”

           Two more points about temptation: 1) Temptation in itself is not sin. “The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for growth, and temptation which leads to sin and death. We have to discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation” (CCC2847). A fleeting thought that comes to us isn’t necessarily a sin. Do we go back for a second glance? Do we relish in the thought of revenge? It’s what we do with that temptation that will determine sinfulness.  2) The way to lessen temptation is to preempt it. Each day, we face the same three attacks, from the flesh, the world, and the devil: sensual gratification (such as gluttony and lust), greed for material possessions, and pride. But the threefold practice of Lent helps to combat these weaknesses. By fasting and self-denial, we learn self-control against the sins of the flesh. By almsgiving and charity, we learn detachment from material things. By prayer, especially the Scriptures, we learn humility before God and our utter dependence on His grace. So by cultivating prayer, self-denial, and virtue, we begin to root out our predominant faults. Jesus counseled His followers: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Mk 14:38). So the way we pray and sacrifice (in advance) will determine how we handle temptations when they come. We can always rely on the help of God, even in the very moment of temptation. God does not abandon us, but along with every temptation, He gives us the necessary grace to overcome it (1Cor 10:13). We should confidently call on Jesus in time of temptation, and also repeat the holy name of Mary, because she’s already crushed the head of the serpent by her obedience to the will of God. This Lenten season, let’s be aware of the devil’s tactics, and cling faithfully and daily to Christ—who has already conquered temptation, sin, and death—so that we might share fully in His glorious Easter victory.

Charity, the golden rule, and judging. Homily for 2/24/2019.

1Sam 26;  Ps 103;  1Cor 15:45-49;  Lk 6:27-38

Jesus spoke often about the most important virtue: charity (or love). The old standard was basic and legalistic: to love those who love you, to greet your friends and neighbors only. But in his ministry, preaching, and especially in His example, Jesus raises the bar for us: “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). His love looks like that (crucifix). The foundation of charity comes from today’s gospel, and is sometimes called the “golden rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” That’s the bare minimum, but Jesus calls us to something even greater. Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you. From the cross, Jesus prayed even for His persecutors (Lk 23:34). In today’s gospel, He teaches multiple short phrases which are easy to say, but much more difficult to live. But Jesus shows us how to practice them—once again, we go to the cross. Taken together, these teachings help us to live out the high standard of charity, which would be impossible without His help, but with Him, isn’t only possible; it’s expected of us. We can do great things because of the God’s grace, which raises us beyond our natural abilities. So in our friendship with God, are we doing just barely enough to get by, or are we striving for great holiness? To answer that question, we might consider our attitude and respect in interacting with other people.

            When it comes to sin and vice, we usually have no problem giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. But are we as lenient with others as we are with ourselves? Or let’s look at another perspective: wouldn’t we want others to forgive us when we sin? Jesus is saying that if we expect to receive patience and mercy from others—including God Himself—then we have to show patience and mercy to others. It’s in our best interests! And God provides us many opportunities to practice these virtues, right from the comfort of our own home. If your family is anything like mine was, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

            Unfortunately, we’ve watered down the true meaning of the most important word in our language: love. I can love God, my mom, the dog, my sports team, and even food! We use the same word, “love,” to signify totally different realities. At its root, love isn’t a feeling, but a decision—it’s a choice we make—an act of the will. God is love (1Jn 4:8), which means that love is sacrificial, centered on the good of the other person, and that certainly has to include their eternal good. That’s why the man and woman who live together before marriage can’t possibly love one another because they’re not only putting themselves willfully into a sinful situation, but they’re saying it’s not a big deal to live with a person-of-the-opposite-sex outside of marriage. That’s not an ideal way to prepare for a future married life. Jesus elevates the standard of love by laying down his life on the cross. And then he calls us to do the same. Even St. Paul likens marital love to the cross—that spouses are meant to imitate Christ’s sacrificial love (Eph 5). Far from being mechanistic, true love goes beyond feeling and even death itself, all the way to the very essence of God’s life, for God is love.

            We have to understand Christ’s teachings in the proper context. An immediate example comes from today’s gospel: “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” Sometimes, Christians get labeled as being judgmental, or we may not speak out against injustice or sin because we fear that same label. But even here, we have to make a necessary distinction between judging a person and judging an action. If a child tries to put his hand on a hot stove or run out into traffic, we don’t ridicule or disparage him, but hopefully we’d point out the irrationality of the action. And yes, even if that person said, “I can do what I want with my body.” No. We most certainly can (and should) judge actions, especially if they go against reason, faith, or the natural law. But since we don’t know all the circumstances or internal factors, we can’t judge a person’s mind or soul. Perhaps by questioning the motive or beliefs, we can determine their reason for making that decision. So distinguishing between judging actions and person can help us lead others to the truth. But if we truly love someone, then we have to be concerned with their flourishing, and that extends to their eternal wellbeing.

St. John of the Cross once said, “At the end of our lives, we’ll be judged on our love” (CCC1022). He’s referring to love of God, of course, but also to love of neighbor. So let’s recommit to living out the virtue of charity with great generosity, so that when we’re called to account for all the blessings God gave us, we might hear those uplifting words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come share your master’s joy” (Mt 25:21).

Beatitude, from God’s perspective. Homily for 2/17/2019

Jer 17:5-8;  Ps 1;  1Cor 15:16-20;  Lk 6:17, 20-26

Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ famous teaching in the gospel of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount. But today we read Luke’s version, where Jesus gives similar advice, while standing on a stretch of level ground. It might have been the same sermon told from a different perspective, but most likely, Jesus gave these teachings often. After all, we find such counsel in the Old Testament, like in Jeremiah today (“Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord”), and all throughout the Psalms, including today’s psalm: “Blessed are they who hope in the Lord” (Ps 1:1). The word “blessed” also means “happy”, and refers not to an emotional state, but to a fortunate situation. God will reward those who are faithful to Him. But there are differences between the two sermons. While Matthew includes eight blessings, Luke recounts four blessings and four woes. In Luke, immediately before this passage, Jesus has just chosen His 12 apostles. Now, notice how Jesus “raises his eyes to his disciples.” He speaks directly to his newly-chosen followers, which means that the beatitudes describe the actual condition of Jesus’ disciples. They are poor, hungry, weeping, and mistreated—just reading any of St. Paul’s letters to learn what he suffered for the sake of Jesus. And finally, instead of Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn,” like in Matthew, in Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor” and “who are weeping now.” There’s a more personal and immediate emphasis in Luke. But if we think about it, Jesus is the man of the beatitudes; He is poor, hungry, excluded, and hated, not only during His life of earth, but even today. As followers of Christ, then, we should expect nothing less for ourselves. In fact, Jesus still suffers and is persecuted in his members—in the Church. But in the midst of the pain and suffering, the light of the resurrection shines through, bringing us a joy and blessedness that the world cannot provide or understand.

            The beatitudes remind us to see things from God’s perspective, which is so different from that of the world. Why are the poor and outcast of this world the truly fortunate ones? Well, think of the many people that Jesus encountered during His life on earth: the poor, the crippled, the blind—those unable to help themselves. If they’d been strong and powerful, maybe Jesus wouldn’t have singled them out for personal attention. But he did, because they were weak. Our helplessness attracts God’s mercy and love. Think of the newborn baby who is completely dependent on the love and assistance of his parents; God wants us to rely on Him that much. A fundamental step in our friendship with Christ is to recognize our need for a Savior. And also our own inability to save ourselves. So often, Jesus allows us to share in his cross, because if we’re healthy and wealthy, then we usually overlook our need for Him. The poor don’t flaunt their achievements before God. “They don’t stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on an equal footing” (BenXVI, JoN,76). Rather, the poor rely on God to bestow His gifts as He sees fit; they’re grateful to live in closer conformity with Him.

            In the Old Testament, earthly riches were a sign of blessing. But in the New Testament, they’re a curse—not in themselves, but because they easily distract our attention from God. Thus, Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich.” The beatitudes flip our understanding of true happiness, which isn’t found in riches, gratification, entertainment, or fame, but only in God. But we know this from experience: no amount of money or fame will satisfy us. Elsewhere in the gospel, the rich young man went away sad. In a different parable, Lazarus went to heaven, while the unnamed rich man suffered eternal torment, because he neglected the poor man on his doorstep. If we seek consolation in earthly riches, then we tend to rely only on those material possessions and not on God. Jesus said, “It will be difficult for one with riches to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24-25). So the beatitudes refocus our attention on our final end: the kingdom, vision of God, participation in divine nature, eternal life, rest in God (CCC1726). “The beatitudes confront us with decisive choices concerning earthly goods; they purify our hearts in order to teach us to love God above all things” (CCC1728). However, earthly pursuits do show us one thing: we have an endless desire for fulfillment. In fact, we have innate desire to see God. It’s an infinite desire, placed by God in every human heart in order to draw us to Himself (CCC1718). Unfortunately, people try to fill an infinite desire with finite things, and many go to great lengths to be loved by others. But in reality, we don’t have to prove to God that we’re worth loving. He already showed us that truth on the cross. Sacrificial, unconditional love. Jesus provides a heavenly banquet for those who are poor and hungry. God will satisfy our need. But those who are already full of earthly things have no taste for eternal delights. This is one reason why we fast for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion: it’s meant to increase our hunger for the spiritual food that satisfies our deepest longing—union with God.

            One beatitude has always puzzled me: “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.” Does God expect us to be sad and sour-faced? No. But there are two types of mourning, best characterized by two of the apostles. The first kind is a hopeless self-pity, which mistrusts love and truth, and turns inward upon itself. Judas is an example of this first kind; struck with horror at his fall from grace, he loses hope and hangs himself in despair. St. Peter shows the other kind of mourning; he weeps because he has denied his best friend. Yet the gaze of Jesus restored him to grace, and Peter wept bitter tears of repentance and conversion. We, too, need to recognize that our sins aren’t only horrible for us—they’re an infinite offense against God, who’s more than our best friend—He’s our Father. And yet, God always waits to restore us to His love. Perhaps the saddest scene in the Bible is Our Lady standing at the foot of the cross. Her heart wasn’t hardened at the injustice or the pain, but she offered herself in union with her Son’s sacrifice. In this moment above all, Our Lady exemplifies true com-passion (the word means “to suffer with”). Which is exactly what Jesus shows us in our own weakness and sorrow. Not that He immediately takes away our suffering, whether that’s a physical illness or some other crisis. Even God the Father didn’t take away the cross from Jesus, but He did send an angel from heaven to strengthen Him. In our pain and mourning, Jesus suffers with us, thereby enabling us to find meaning in human suffering.

            St. Therese once said that we come with empty hands before God. Hands that are filled with material possessions have no room for God’s gifts. But God can fill only those hands that are completely empty and ready to receive. After hearing these beatitudes again today, perhaps we might reflect on the following questions, “Do I delight more in God’s love or earthly possessions?” And “In whom do we trust?” Every dollar and coin in our country has the words, “In God we trust.” But do we actually trust more in the money or in God? As human beings, we’re made in the image of God, but sometimes we refashion God in our own image, and try to bend God’s commandments to suit our lifestyle. Or we complain about challenges and setbacks, or even turn away from God when they come. We probably all know people who blame God when things go wrong. Instead, that’s the time to turn even closer to the Lord and to allow Him to heal and strengthen us. Human suffering would make no sense at all without the resurrection, but we know the end of the story: suffering and death leads to the resurrection. As St. Paul said in our second reading, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.” But then he continues very emphatically, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Where Christ the head has gone, we, the members of His body hope to follow. Those who are poor and weeping now will be satisfied in the kingdom of God, as long as they persevere to the end in the grace and mercy of Jesus. Although counterintuitive, the beatitudes are the assurance that those who trust in the Lord will be rewarded, maybe not according to our expectations in this life, but certainly in the life to come.

Jesus’ call to Peter through a miraculous catch of fish. Homily for 2/10/2019

Is 6:1-2ff;  Ps 138;  1Cor 15:1-11;  Lk 5:1-11

Call and response. God’s call and the human response. The Scriptures and human history show that God’s call to everyone is the same—a personal and real call to holiness—but the circumstances and the human response varies. Some people turn down God’s offer. But today’s readings give us God’s personal call to Isaiah and Peter. It was the same radical call—to go on mission—and their response started them on the path to becoming the saints they are today.

            Let’s consider Peter’s call in the gospel today. If you’ve ever told someone you’d gone fishing, the first question is invariably, “Did you catch anything?” Peter was from Bethsaida, on the Sea of Galilee, and so fishing was his livelihood—not simply a hobby or recreation. However, in the gospels, he doesn’t appear very successful at it. As a fisherman, though, Peter knew that the ideal time for fishing was at night, in the shallow water. And yet, for all his hard work, he had caught nothing. Now, he and his companions were cleaning the nets by hand, which wasn’t an easy process. And then they’d go home to their families with a sore back and calloused hands, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Perhaps they wouldn’t even eat that day.

            Enter Jesus, a teacher from Nazareth, located about 20 miles from the Sea of Galilee. In other words, not very close to the water and clearly not a fisherman. Peter already knew Jesus, having hosted Him in his home (Lk 4:38). But Peter was likely preoccupied with the frustration and failure of the previous night. He had already disembarked, but Jesus asks to get into his boat—Jesus wants to be with him personally. Peter continued to listen to Jesus speaking the word of God. But then Jesus gave the challenging command: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Humanly speaking, this command made no sense at all, and Peter recognized that instantly. Plus, what would everyone on the shore think of him, throwing the nets into deep water during the day? They may have ridiculed him. But already in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others in the home. So he knew that Jesus was no ordinary preacher. But the nets, plural? They had just finished cleaning them! “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets” (Lk 5:5). Despite any misgivings, Peter trusts Jesus at His word, and brings in such a tremendous catch that nearly sinks two boats.

            We can apply this gospel to our own lives in several ways: 1) Jesus meets us in our ordinary circumstances. He encountered Peter in the act of fishing, Matthew at the tax collector’s post, Paul on the road to Damascus. We’re often surprised by the encounter with Christ, that He comes to us under the appearance of such ordinary things as the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the gospel, Jesus’ divinity is hidden under the veils of His humanity. But Peter’s perspective changes; originally he called Jesus, “Master”, but after the miracle, he calls him “Lord.” The Hebrew people, who weren’t permitted to utter the holy name of God, substituted the name, “Lord,” for God (cf. CCC209). So by calling Him, “Lord,” Peter is confessing the divinity of Jesus, for no mere man could produce such an abundant catch. And this miracle is a microcosm of the Church: how could 12 ordinary and not-very-well-educated men transform the entire known-world in the course of a generation? It happened through the grace of God. The miraculous catch of fish foreshadows the multitude of men and women that would enter the boat of the Church through the preaching of the apostles. Jesus rewarded Peter’s faith, not only with a personal call to be his friend and a fisher of men, but also to become the first pope. He didn’t choose John for this role, who was the most devoted and enthusiastic of the 12, nor Matthew or Judas, who were likely the most intelligent of the group. Jesus chose Peter, who was initially slow to believe and who denied Him three times, protesting that he didn’t even know the man (Mk 14:71). By that time, Jesus had already changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “rock” (Jn 1:42). This should give us hope, because we are ordinary and weak, and yet Jesus calls us by name to extraordinary holiness, and He is the source of our strength and fidelity.  

            2nd lesson: We trust in the word of Jesus, even if we don’t understand His reasons. Or to put it more succinctly: God will provide; He always does. It doesn’t mean things will be easy. But as Jesus says repeatedly in the gospel: “Do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid of facing opposition or ridicule for being a Christian. Friendship with God outweighs any earthly relationship. Isaiah responded eagerly, “Here I am, send me!” He knew that God would be strong in him. Peter’s faith brought about an abundant miracle: he invested a little, and Jesus gave a lot. So we can always trust that Jesus is in complete control, even if that’s not immediately apparent.

            3rd lesson: We should feel unworthy in the presence of God, but this sense of unworthiness should draw more attention to Jesus and His mercy. We can’t let personal sins and weaknesses keep us from seeking God. In fact, “faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, we learn our own insignificance” (CCC208). Isaiah and Peter understand this completely. But because God is holy, he can forgive the person who realizes his own sinfulness. God has purified us, like Isaiah. And despite our sinfulness, Jesus still calls us His friends (Jn 15:15), beginning on the day of our baptism. Even though Peter said, “Depart from me…” he spent the whole rest of his life following Jesus. Peter’s reckless love for Jesus transformed him, even leading him into the hostile courtyard of the high priest. And tradition tells us that Peter asked to be crucified upside-down, because he didn’t feel worthy to die as the Lord.

            These readings also parallel the Catholic Mass, for we repeat “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts” at each Mass. And as in the gospel, Jesus feeds the people first with His word, and then with physical food, so also Christ feeds us in the Mass first with the Scriptures, and then with the Eucharist. At each liturgy, we also recall our own unworthiness when we say the prayer, “I confess to Almighty God…” then “Lord, have mercy” and finally, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

            One way to bring all these elements together, practically speaking, is through Eucharistic adoration. Adoration is a logical extension of the Mass, where we come into the presence of Jesus, truly present, though hidden from our physical eyes. We’re blessed that our church is open all day, and we have Eucharistic adoration in the chapel on Wednesdays, and throughout four nights of the week. Jesus asks to borrow some of our time, to come away with Him alone. Sure, others might be around, but Jesus wants to encounter us personally, to speak to us, and to reveal Himself more fully to us. In adoration and prayer, we stop what we’re doing to listen to the Lord. All earthly pursuits weigh us down, and to be honest, we’re not as effective as we think. But time spent with Christ is always worthwhile and we find that Jesus rewards those who trust Him. No, we aren’t even worthy to enter His presence, but He’s healed us and He desires us much more than we desire Him. Our efforts are fruitless without the grace and presence of Christ. So through it all, we have to cultivate a healthy balance between two important verses from Scripture. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5). And St. Paul added, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). I encourage you to sign up for an hour of weekly adoration, and to make time to visit Jesus in the Eucharist every day, maybe before or after work. If a daily visit to church is impossible, then we can carve out time to be with the Lord in our home. This may require creativity amid the distractions of family life, but God wants to encounter us personally and daily. He can produce an abundant miracle with the little that we give to Him. He calls us to become saints, and that begins by spending time with Him each day in prayer. At the end of today’s gospel, after that powerful encounter with Jesus, Peter and his companions “left everything and followed him.” Are we willing to do the same?

A prophet boldly speaks God’s message. A prophet prepares for persecution. Homily for 2/3/2019

Jer 1:4-5, 17-19;  1Cor 12:31-13:13;  Lk 4:21-30

The Old Testament is full of unwilling prophets: Moses complained about a speech impediment, Gideon tested God several times, Jonah tried to run away, and Jeremiah protested that he was too young. But the Lord reassured Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jer 1:5). His direct calling from God was to be a prophet. Now, prophecy isn’t primarily about foretelling the future, because a prophet first and foremost speaks the Word of God faithfully. That’s why the prophets often began their message with: “Thus says the Lord God…” A prophet is called to speak God’s authentic word to His people. So why were these men so unwilling? Well, the prophets had to deliver a challenging message regarding sin, judgment, and repentance, and so they always faced opposition. Persecution: that was the ultimate sign of being a true prophet from God. The Church links our first reading with today’s gospel because of the similarities between Jeremiah and Jesus. Both men were consecrated from their mother’s womb; both were likened to a sacrificial lamb; both were rejected by their own people; both called out the injustices of the religious leaders and were eventually condemned to death. As Jesus said, “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” By calling Himself a prophet, Jesus links his destiny to that long line of Old Testament prophets who suffered rejection or violence because of the unpopularity of their message.

            Now what’s all this got to do with us? Well, at our baptism, we were given the privilege and responsibility of being prophets. We were anointed with oil and sent to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ. God called us and appointed us, like Jeremiah—before we were born—to be a prophet to the nations. A prophet speaks the word of God, regardless of the consequences, even if it makes people uncomfortable. For example, John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets, and he was so passionate about his message and the conversion of Herod that it cost him his life. Jesus Himself is neither driven—nor intimidated—by public opinion. The people drove him out of the town and wanted to hurl him down headlong. But “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.” Being a loyal Christian and speaking God’s message today is a risky business. In other countries it might mean physical death or bodily harm. In our own country, it may mean threats, lawsuits, or being ridiculed on social media. Certainly it means being misunderstood. But persecution is nothing new for a follower of Christ. And so, especially in a world where Christian values are unpopular, we’re called to encourage those already on the right path and to call out those who are straying. So don’t be afraid to stand up for the truth. As St. Peter said, “Always be ready to give a defense for the hope that is within you, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pet 3:15). Why did God choose and call us to be prophets? Not because of any accomplishment on our part, but only out of sheer gratuitous love (cf. CCC218).

            A good person can’t stand idly by while injustice prevails, such as when the innocent are slaughtered or mistreated. Today, there’s a profitable business in killing the vulnerable—the executives at Planned Parenthood make a killing in more ways than one—and this enables them to support candidates who perpetuate the slaughter by legislation. Human trafficking and the pornography industry also come to mind as injustices that produce financial gain at the expense of the innocent. So we can never remain silent in the face of evil, even if we might lose a friend or fear being labeled. We need to cultivate firmly-Christian convictions—always with love and respect for others—without encouraging sinful behavior. Ultimately, whatever we do must be done out of love, not to win an argument or to support a political party. Like Jesus at Nazareth, we must be charitable, forgiving, and honest, aware that persecution will be our lot. St. Paul said that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” To love means to will the good of the other. And at the root, that means their eternal good. We may have to say something difficult like: “It’s because I love you that I can’t attend your wedding outside the Catholic Church or support you living with your boyfriend. It’s because I love you that I’m putting filters or limits on technology.” Why do we go to great lengths to try to blend in with a culture that’s so hostile to Christian values? We permit violent video games in the home and then wonder why so much violence occurs in public. We watch TV shows or movies that are harmful for the soul, and justify them because they’re artistically impressive. Our culture hates Christianity and yet we try to appease it by our silence, or worse, by becoming complicit in the evil. But eternal salvation is worth infinitely more than public opinion, a pat on the back, or a five-star parent rating. Nor can we let ridicule derail us from our quest for personal holiness and following the commandments of God.

            Satan has already been working overtime against human life this year—he knows his time is short. After all, January was the anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. And less than one week the New York legislature not only passed but also “celebrated” a sickening abortion law, the Virginia General Assembly proposed a similar law here. The bill rightfully failed, but how horrific that this bill was even introduced in the first place! As Bishop Burbidge rightly noted, “Abortion of a baby in the final stage of pregnancy borders on infanticide.” Not that an earlier-term abortion is any less staggering, but our own governor alluded to the fact that he might be willing to stretch the border even further. We’re seeing an open hatred and disrespect for the inherent goodness of every child. Our bishop continued, “The governor’s statement and this bill demonstrate how far abortion advocates are willing to go in taking the life of a precious child.” At this critical moment in our Church and society, I echo our Bishop’s call “for all the faithful to advocate for the right to life of all people, including the unborn and those children whose lives are at risk even during the process of birth.” We have inform our elected officials where we stand on these issues, and how every human person has the right to life. I encourage you to read the Bishop’s full statement and to subscribe to www.vacatholic.org for more updates.

            If we consider ourselves followers of Christ, then we should courageously prepare for persecution. In fact, we should be ready for the same things that Jesus faced: rejection, persecution, death . . . but then resurrection. Without giving in to sarcasm, hatred, or self-righteousness, we must recall that Christ’s message is exactly that, His message. Therefore, it’s not for ourselves alone, nor should we fear personal rejection, because they’re not rejecting us, but Christ Himself. In the end, “Prophets speak out about injustice, yes—but in the hope that all will repent and be saved by receiving the love of God” (John Bergsma). Or as Jesus Himself said: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). We continue to seek the mercy of God for ourselves, our legislators, and all people in need of conversion.            

In this time above all, God needs you and me to be His prophets, to be bold in speaking the truth, even if other people have closed their minds to it. Remember, we’ve been empowered through baptism, and we’re strengthened with the Eucharist to be heralds of the good news that Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead because of his tremendous love for us. Love is a Person, Jesus Christ! And even He chose to become a tiny baby in the womb of His Mother, Mary. By sharing in Christ’s prophetic duty, we become His living witnesses by our example of faith and love, and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise. Will this mission be easy? The tide rises higher, and the threatening clouds grow darker, as the devil’s work goes on around us. Christian values and even common sense itself are under attack. But remember God’s promise to Jeremiah, and by extension, to each one of us: “But you, stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account as though I would leave you crushed before them . . . I have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass . . . They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (Jer 1:17-19).

Believe what you read! Homily for 1/27/2019

Neh 8;  1Cor 12:12-30;  Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21    

At the start of Year C of the three-year lectionary cycle, we begin Luke’s gospel, which we’ll be reading on Sundays throughout this year. The Gospel of Luke is sometimes called the Gospel of mercy, because he records stories that are unique to his narrative: the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Pharisee and the tax collector, and the lost coin. Only in Luke do we meet the repentant thief and Zacchaeus. In these first verses of his gospel, we encounter Theophilus, to whom the gospel is written. Theophilus could be a real person, perhaps Luke’s patron or a close friend. But the Greek name, “Theophilus”, literally means “God-loving” or “loved by God”, so it refers to all of us. In other words, Luke wrote his gospel directly to each one of us! Luke’s preface, brief but packed with meaning, accomplishes several things: 1) he is compiling a narrative of events. These are not a random set of happenings, but they occur as part of God’s orderly plan, many being foretold in the Old Testament; 2) his gospel is based on eyewitness accounts, to which Luke adds his own name to testify to the truth of these events; and 3) He has taken the time to investigate everything accurately anew. On a human level, Luke is no doubt a capable and trustworthy writer.

            This preface aids our understanding about the Scriptures in general. No one doubts the historical existence of George Washington, Mohammed, or Julius Caesar. But when it comes to Jesus and what He did and taught, many people today approach with skepticism. The gospels contain eyewitness testimony! Of course, the Scriptures aren’t written as a historical or scientific textbook. But neither is the Bible a dead fossil from the past; it’s the living and enduring word of God. As we said in our Psalm: “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life” (Ps 19). Ultimately the purpose of the Scriptures is to lead us to salvation. Now, God can be known by reason alone, but He chose to reveal Himself in a specific way, so that we might have solid certitude and no trace of error in finding him (DV,6). The Scriptures are one aspect of divine revelation, whereby God reveals Himself to us, and they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God, who cannot err, is the ultimate author of the Scriptures. While not dictating the exact text, the Holy Spirit made use of the powers and abilities of the human authors. He acted in them and through them, such that “they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (Dei Verbum, 11). So the Scriptures truly are God’s word in human form. “It follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV,11). In our first reading, look at the reverence and devotion with which the people approached the word of God: Ezra read the law from daybreak to midday! So why all the skepticism today? The Old Testament outlines the beginnings of God’s revelation, and the covenant God entered into with Israel, especially through Abraham and Moses. The old covenant prepared for the coming of Christ through prophecies and types, which were fulfilled in Jesus, the redeemer, and the human face of God. The New Testament, which contains the teaching and saving work of Jesus and the early Church, is the fulfillment of the Old. The Catholic Church has always affirmed the historicity of the gospels, which faithfully hand on what Jesus actually did and taught for the purpose of human salvation. While not offering a complete biography of Jesus, the gospels have firm historical foundations and can be trusted with sure faith. So we can believe everything that we read in the Bible.

            Jesus said many things in the gospels, some comforting, some more demanding. Today, He makes His own the words from Isaiah the prophet: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives…to let the oppressed go free…”  At the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus lays out the game plan: He has come to preach good news (the gospel), to give sight to the blind, and to set captives free. Freedom from slavery to sin. Freedom from death.

            Another area where skepticism prevails in our country today is the ongoing debate about human life. In his majority opinion in the tragic Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that the court “was not in a position to speculate as to the answer” of when life begins. But then he did just that, speculating that, “There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live birth” (Blackmun, Opinion of the Court #56). But this isn’t true at all. We’re seeing more and more evidence that even an unborn baby is a living, feeling human being. The theme at the recent March for Life was Unique from Day One: Pro-life is Pro-science. Yes, scientific advances are testifying to the truth about human life. And hundreds of thousands of people showed up in Washington D.C. once again to witness to the dignity and sanctity of every human life. It’s always hard to tell how many people attend this event, but there were easily a quarter-million people there, though some estimates were 400,000 or more. Earlier this week, the New York legislature approved nothing less than infanticide, determining—by majority vote—that at any point during pregnancy, a mother can willingly end the life of her unborn child. It’s bad enough to permit abortion before the third trimester. But this is a new level of demonic. And after this decision was announced, there was cheering in the chamber, while the governor of New York and others “celebrated” the decision. It absolutely boggles the mind, and makes me sick. We should all feel this suffering acutely because the Church is Christ’s body, and when “one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” 60 million babies in our country have been slaughtered since 1973. We need to continue praying for those legislators and others who deny the fundamental and precious gift of life. Thank God, then, that we have our own miracles going on more locally, where the Manassas abortion mill that closed and was purchased, was then converted into the Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic. Where death prevailed, life is now promoted! And after only one year in operation, the clinic is now offering prenatal care. To assist in this endeavor, the Knights of Columbus donated their 1,000th ultrasound machine to the clinic. The staff, volunteers, and benefactors of this clinic are helping local parents to see the image of God within them. But this miracle was only possible through the grace of God and the prayers of so many in our community. We didn’t see the results right away, but once again, God is working miracles all around us. As St. Paul said, “If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

            Our culture says, “Seeing is believing.” But there’s a whole other part of reality that can’t be seen or measured, namely, the immaterial world: God, faith, eternal life. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29). One of the saints approached God with “a faith that seeks understanding” (St. Anselm), not starting with skepticism, but with faith. We believe in God—we believe in his Word—because He who made the promise is trustworthy. So instead of beginning with doubt or disbelief, let’s begin with faith in the Lord. Let’s take up the Scriptures anew with renewed faith in the One who speaks to us today. Perhaps we can commit to a daily encounter with the written Word—maybe the gospel from daily Mass or systematically reading through the Gospel of Luke, however long it takes. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Even though we don’t always see good news around us as we progress through this valley of tears, we still put our faith completely in the Lord Jesus, because He, God-made-man, entered our world to die for our sins and to purchase eternal salvation for us. He rose from the dead “in accordance with the Scriptures,” and He wants to set us free from our sins and weaknesses. And that, my dear friends, is the good news that Jesus came to proclaim.

At Cana, Jesus is the Bridegroom, who provides the wine, and Mary is the Woman. Homily for 1/20/2019

Is 62:1-5;  Ps 96;  1Cor 12:4-11;  Jn 2:1-11

How fitting that only four days after the 100th anniversary of the 18th Amendment (on Prohibition), in today’s gospel, Jesus produces nearly 180 gallons of wine. Catholics definitely know how to celebrate!

            One of the most important themes in the Scriptures is marriage. The Bible begins with a man and woman united in marriage, and it ends in heaven at the wedding feast of the Lamb. In between, the Bible recounts many stories of husband and wife (Abraham/Sarah, Jacob/Rachel, Tobiah/Sarah, and so on). Most often, the stories recall a man who searches for his bride. Marriage is a key to understanding God’s word. After all, the prophets, including Isaiah in our first reading, liken God’s relationship with his people to a faithful marriage: “As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you” (Is 62:5). Even from creation, God has been pursuing us so that He might enter into a mystical marriage with us. And that union will reach fulfillment in heaven, when we will become one with God.

            All this is background to the familiar story of the wedding feast at Cana. This town is located only nine miles north of Nazareth, so Mary and Jesus likely knew the bride and groom personally, perhaps even as a family member. About 500 people lived in Nazareth at the time of Jesus, and Cana was a similar size. In other words, a lot of people were invited to the wedding. And to run out of wine not only reflected poorly on the hosts, it was also a bad omen for the couple. When reading this story, some people are content to say that Jesus simply wanted to spare this poor couple from embarrassment. And sure, that’s a good start. But in Jesus’ day, it was the groom’s job to provide the wine. So who’s the real groom in this story? And for that matter, who’s the bride? The evangelist John purposely leaves them unnamed. So let’s look closer at some aspects of this story, because John is an absolute master of theology.

            From the very outset of his gospel, John points our attention back to Genesis. That’s why the two books begin with the exact same words: “In the beginning…” Genesis recounts the first week of creation day-by-day. Interestingly, John gives a day-by-day recap of the first and last weeks of Jesus’ public ministry. But here let’s just focus on the first week: chapter one highlights the first four days, as Jesus encounters John the Baptist and the first disciples. Chapter two begins with the words, “On the third day, there was a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee.” In Genesis, God did something very important—and different—on the seventh day: He rested. In John’s gospel, Jesus also did something extraordinary: He performed His first sign on the seventh day. Or rather, “on the third day,” similar to how He would perform His greatest miracle of all—His resurrection—on the third day. Coincidence? Not at all. John is saying that the Word (capital W), through whom God created the universe (in Genesis)—remember how God spoke and things came to be—has become flesh in Jesus, and now He recreates the world by His presence on earth. So it makes sense that this re-creation should begin to be made manifest at a wedding feast.

            The most confusing part of the story is Jesus’ encounter with His mother. Our Lady simply tells Him: “They have no wine.” She brings it to his attention, knowing that He can and will take care of the details. What a novel way to pray: not telling Jesus what needs to be done or how we’d solve the problem, but merely informing Jesus and trusting that He’ll handle everything.   But His reply seems harsh. Here, there are three things to consider: 1) we don’t know the tone of Jesus’ voice;  2) the English translation is poor. The literal translation is: “Woman, what to you and to me?” So instead of making her request seem detached from Him (“How does your concern affect me?), her concern is His concern. 3) There was no punctuation in the original text. So this seeming rebuke (“My hour has not yet come”) could be translated: “Has not my hour come?” In any event, in John’s gospel, whenever Jesus refers to His “hour”, He’s always speaking of the cross, because the cross is the “hour” of His glorification.

            One thing is certain, though. At the time of Jesus, the title “Woman,” while being a respectful term, wasn’t the way a son would address his own mother. So there must be more going on here. John gives us a clue, but we have to go to chapter 19, to the foot of the cross. John mentions Our Lady only twice in his gospel, and both times he calls her “the mother of Jesus”, never her given name, “Mary.” And both times Jesus addresses her as “Woman” (e.g. “Woman, behold your son.”) Why is this title, “Woman,” so important? In Genesis, the first woman was created without sin, and she became the mother of all the living. But it was her disobedience (and Adam’s as well) that led to the downfall of the human race. Yet immediately after that original sin, God promised that the offspring of a woman would crush the head of the serpent. Mary, conceived without sin, is entirely obedient to the will of God, and she gave birth to Jesus, who brings this promise to fulfillment. By calling his mother, “Woman”, Jesus is making her the mother of all the redeemed, and including her in human salvation. But at Cana, Jesus is reminding her that once He performs this first miracle, He would be heading directly to the cross. In other words, Mary was consciously putting Jesus on the road to the cross, because that was His mission. And in doing so, she fully cooperates in the redemption of the human race.

            Consider that Our Lady made the initial request, and Jesus performed his first miracle at her bidding. It shows that she’s a powerful intercessor on our behalf, and Jesus expects us to have recourse to her. Through Mary’s faith and Jesus’ power, (our gospel today ended with the words), “And his disciples began to believe in him.” Mary’s role is to strengthen the faith of Jesus’ disciples. She does this at Pentecost, when the disciples gathered around her in prayer. She does this at the foot of the cross, when the disciple took her into his home. Jesus wants us to take Our Lady not just into our physical home, but into everything that we hold dear. No problem is too great for Our Lady, as long as we approach with faith and confidence in her maternal intercession and love. In today’s reading, we find Mary’s last words recorded in Scripture: “Do whatever he tells you.” Simple, but beautiful advice from Our Lady.

            By being at this wedding, Jesus shows the goodness of marriage, and makes Christian marriage a sign of his presence (CCC1613). But for this to happen, every marriage must be rooted in the Lord Jesus and Our Lady. Spouses must spend time together each day consciously in the presence of the Lord. For Jesus promised that “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). And in a marriage, there are already two built-in. Jesus wants to help and heal couples and families, but we need to cultivate His presence on a daily basis through prayer.      

            I asked earlier: Who’s the real groom and bride in this story? Remember: the groom provides the wine . . . which means that Jesus is the real groom. And Our Lady, in her very person, embodies the bride (i.e. God’s people), who are meant to be faithful to God like a faithful spouse. In the Old Testament, the Chosen People acted unfaithfully by their worship of false gods. Jesus takes the old water used for ritual purification, and replaces it with something much better: the sweet-tasting gospel message. The New Covenant is like a marriage where Jesus will care for his bride, the Church. We, like Our Lady, are transformed by the presence of God within us through the sacraments. And we’re expected to say “yes” to the will of God, like she did. The prophets said that when the Messiah came, the mountains would drip with new wine (Amos 9:13; Jl 4:18). This first miracle shows that the Messiah has truly come! It’s amazing to think that from all eternity God knew that wine would be the sign of his presence. For Jesus performed a great miracle of transforming ordinary water into wine. And the quality of that wine was off the charts! It gives us a small glimpse of the abundance of God’s love—Jesus didn’t just produce enough wine for a wedding reception; He created 180 gallons of wine! That’s about 900 bottles! But only a few years later, He would work an even greater miracle: transforming ordinary wine into His Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, poured out in abundance for the salvation of the world. What closer union on earth is possible that the union we have with Christ in the Eucharist, the Eucharist which is sometimes called a pledge or foretaste of eternal life? Jesus’ desire for union with us is so strong and so real that He enters inside of us when we receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Like a bridegroom, He wants to make us fruitful when we receive Him. So today, let’s respond generously to the Lord’s desire for union with us, because He’s already given Himself to us in the Eucharist, and now He awaits that perfect union with us in the kingdom of heaven.

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.