Homily: Natural, or Supernatural?

Image result for love your enemy -alcohol

“Love,” by Ukrainian artist Alexander Milov

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany. He preached non-violent Christian discipleship and resistance, encouraging Christians in the virtue of loving one’s enemies. He was arrested after getting caught helping Jews escape Germany, and he was executed in a concentration camp. Image result for Dietrich BonhoefferBonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “We are approaching an age of widespread persecution. Our adversaries seek to root out the Christian Church because they cannot live side by side with us. So what shall we do? We shall pray. It will be a prayer of earnest love for those who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred, and who have perhaps already raised their hands to kill us.” A few weeks ago, I made reference to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering… Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.

We talked about the difficulty of being God’s prophetic people, of living and speaking God’s love, his light, into the darkness and sin of our world, and suffering for it, if necessary. In our readings this week, we get specific instructions, and core principles, of what this looks like in Christian life. The model, of course, is Christ, our Lord, who on the cross showed us that divine power is perfectly expressed in what our world sees as weakness, but in reality uses the tools of the enemy—sin, suffering, and death (which the enemy introduced into humanity as the consequence of the Fall)—and turn them into the tools of Christian virtue—mercy, joy, and love.

Our Gospel reading is the continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘To you who hear, I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.’” Perhaps there’s someone who cost you a job; maybe destroyed your marriage; someone who hurt or killed a friend or family member; someone who assaulted or violated you or a loved one; someone who never stops gossiping, or is a constant drain on your nerves? The one who always causes problems in your family, or at work, or in your neighborhood? Someone who broke your heart, someone who seems to look for ways to cause you problems. Maybe the person who drove slowly in front of you or didn’t use their blinkers. Maybe there’s a politician or someone in the church; anyone from the person who you ignore to the person who fills you with rage, all of them, Jesus tells us, we must love them, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them. That’s what it is to deny ourselves, pick up our cross daily, and to follow Him. It’s the example He gave from the cross, as He prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who hated and crucified Him.

The logic of Jesus’ instructions here is the same “Logic of the Kingdom” evident in the Beatitudes. It is not the self, not victory, not retaliation, not pleasure, not earthly power or riches, that makes one happy. It is agape love, self-giving, generous, appreciative, caring love that is the only thing that truly makes us happy. Because we are made in the image of God, and it is the divine love exchanged within the Holy Trinity that truly makes us happy. That is what we are made for. That is the love of the Kingdom of God. That is the love that Christ embraced in allowing himself to be brutally and tortuously crucified, because he knew that by it, humanity would be freed from slavery to sin, and have the invitation to the divine life of grace.  

The key to the Christian life, to imitating Christ, and the saints, is the difference between reacting naturally, and responding supernaturally. We all have our habitual way of dealing with people and events when they affect us negatively. And if we don’t think about it, we give our natural reaction. The problem is that our nature is fallen and inclined to sin, to selfishness and pride, to fear and impatience. So that’s the nature of our natural reaction—often self-oriented and sinful. But we are rational human beings, we can choose how we respond. And we are Christians infused with divine grace, so we can do better, and are called to do better, than the reflex of our fallen nature. We are called to be supernatural in a natural world; to draw our response from supernatural grace, rather than our natural inclination.

For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…” So Jesus here is saying that to confine ourselves to what makes sense even on the natural level, is not to make a supernatural, transcendent choice. If we’re going to receive what we give, then it’s merely an even exchange; it is not virtuously generous and self-sacrificing.

Jesus teaches us, “But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Good thing for us, too, isn’t it? As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans (5:8), “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” God, in Christ, showed us what kind of forgiving, generous love He has for us, even while we rail against Him. That is the kind of forgiving, generous love we as Christians are called to have and to show to others. “Be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful,” Jesus tells us.

How do we live faith? We make a sacrifice that won’t be justly repaid in this world, but relies on our faith that it might be repaid in the kingdom, in heaven. That’s where we are to put up our treasure. And we can’t just rely on our natural goodness, however developed that might or might not be. We rely on the grace from God, the divine love of Christ within us, by which we are made children of the Most High. And it’s going to take that grace, isn’t it, to love the one who did the worst imaginable sin against you or your family? To pray for the forgiveness and salvation of the worst person in your life.

practice the pauseSaint Vincent de Paul was well known for practicing “the pause.”  This is also a modern piece of wisdom you can practice, especially when you’re already stressed out and someone’s about to make you lose your… serenity. But Saint Vincent de Paul was known for having a short moment before he would respond to someone. And he said, in that moment, that pause, he would pray, that his response would be holy, would be beneficial for the salvation of himself and for those he was speaking with. That little pause of prayer, of inviting God’s grace into that moment, is an example of learning to go beyond having a natural, reflexive reaction, to reaching up to having a supernatural, chosen response. Practice the pause.

Stop judging and you will not be judged.” That’s a popular one today, isn’t it? In recent times, it’s been the battle cry of relativists, those who oppose an objective belief in right and wrong moral acts, and Christians taking a moral stand on a social moral issue. Jesus’ words are true, of course. We don’t judge people. Or at least we shouldn’t. I have found it very useful to apply what’s called “Hanlon’s Razor,” which says, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In other words, be charitable in your assumptions of someone else’s reasons for acting a certain way: “Don’t assume someone did something to be mean if they reasonably just might have done it out of a lack of awareness.”

So we don’t judge people as evil. But we can and should judge actions as sinful. For example, abortion is a sin. That doesn’t mean we call someone who just had an abortion a hell-bound murderer. It means we love and pray for them, because it’s quite possible they might be suffering, or soon suffer, horrible regret for what we know is sinful, and they did out of ignorance, or fear, or pressure. That kind of patience and compassion is how we would want God to minister to us, and so that is how we minister to others. We certainly don’t help people experience the love of God when we confirm stereotypes of Christians as condemning people and presuming to know their disposition in God’s view. And yet that is quite different than those who pray and offer support outside of an abortion clinic, and are accused by customers and staff for aggressively imposing their religion or harassing customers, if this isn’t really the case. 

In our first reading, David as a young man, gives us an example of our gospel lesson. King Saul (Israel’s first king, whose later death would lead to the accession of his successor, David) was an incompetent, jealous, and insecure king who hated the young David because David was more popular. Our reading says Saul went out with three thousand men against David. Three thousand men!? That’s a lot of hatred in Saul’s heart. When David and his friend found Saul and his army asleep, his friend offered to kill Saul on the spot. But David wouldn’t let him, and instead simply stole Saul’s spear and water jug from near his head, to later show Saul that David had been given the chance to react to Saul’s hatred by David’s own act of hatred—to kill Saul—but David instead chose mercy, and hopefully Saul himself would respond with mercy. Which he later did.

In the next verse after our readingthe last verse of the chapter, it says, “Then Saul said to David: ‘Blessed are you, my son David! You shall certainly succeed in whatever you undertake.’ David went his way, and Saul returned to his place.

If David had killed Saul, Saul would have died with that hatred in his heart. David gave him the opportunity to convert to forgiveness, and reconcile their relationship. And doing so, David might have saved Saul’s soul. That’s a real display of love for one’s enemies, and hope for their salvation.

Related imageOur fallen human nature tends to think predominantly in physical terms. We’ve seen images of Jesus all muscled out like he’s on steroids… Rambo Jesus. That’s a depiction of Jesus’ power, interpreted through an all-too-human lens. Jesus, physically, was fit. He was a carpenter, he labored with his physical body. And of course the real strength of Jesus was beyond powerful. But not because of his muscles. Rather, because of his virtue, his meekness, his humility, his willingness to serve and to suffer for others. “Super Buff Jesus” completely misses the point of Jesus’ true message of divine power, a power that even the tiny Mother Teresa could manifest. 

Likewise, our fallen human nature often looks to solve problems at the physical level, even when the problems are not essentially physical problems. Very often, our problems are spiritual problems. The most important problems of our world are never going to be solved by legislation, by resolutions, by summits, by international councils. The most important problems of our world are spiritual problems… Satan, evil, and sin. And so our most important tools for combatting these spiritual problems—our most important weapons against our real spiritual enemies—are not guns, walls, and resolutions, but prayers, Masses, and saints. As Boenhoffer said, “So what shall we do? We shall pray. It will be a prayer of earnest love for those who stand around and gaze at us with eyes aflame with hatred.” As Dr. MLK, Jr., said, “Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.” The weapons of prayer, humility, and trust in divine love are far more powerful than any military force. And it is only these that are effective against the true enemy of world peace. To quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

I recently uploaded the recording and transcript of an incredible lecture by Dr. Peter Kreeft on how we might successfully wage the culture war to save our world. I highly recommend it! We cannot fight and win this battle at the level of our fallen humanity, with the weapons of human warfare. We can only successfully fight and win this battle—this war—with the weapons of Christ: sanctity, virtue, prayer, and divine mercy.

Paul in our second reading speaks about the image we provide. We first have the image of Adam—natural humanity, which was then by Adam distorted and corrupted by sin, and our actions and fallen nature reflect that. But we are called to reflect the New Adam, the spiritual man, not by nature, but by choice and faith, to resemble Christ, by the grace within us, and our response to it—our life of grace. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” So let us make the effort to heal from our old sinful habits of the flesh and instead cultivate new spiritual habits of grace, that we might give witness to the beautiful life that all humanity is called to: life in union with Our Lord Jesus Christ: the divine life of mercy, joy, and love.

never wish them pain

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Transcript: Peter Kreeft’s Lecture “The Culture War”

Image result for peter kreeftI absolutely love this talk. I found a recording of the lecture available for free on Dr. Kreeft’s webpage when I first learned about him. I listened to this recording so much that excerpts of it unceasingly came to mind. I wanted to have easier access to the parts that I wanted to quote, so I took the time to transcribe the recording. I put it here, partly for my own convenience, and partly to share it for others.

And the key to this, of course, is not that the Culture War is “left vs. right,” or “liberal vs. conservative,” but the spiritual war of good vs. evil. The left and right must stop seeing each other as the enemy, and rather see each other as partly their ally, and partly the victim of the enemy. Because we will need to fight together against the greater enemy that can destroy us all: evil. 

imagesDr. Kreeft has a few newer talks on YouTube with the title “Culture War” (including one modeled on “The Screwtape Letters”). But this first one is still my favorite. For those who want to hear the actual recorded lecture, I’ve included a link to it here. You can download it and have it in your own media library. God bless you! Enjoy!


To win any war, and any kind of war, the three most necessary things we must know are

  • First, that we are at war.
  • Second, who are enemy is, and
  • Third, what weapons or strategies can defeat him.

We cannot win a war

  • First, if we are blissfully sowing peace banners on a battle field, or
  • Second, if we are too busy fighting civil wars against our allies, or
  • Third, if we are using the wrong weapons. For instance, we must fight fire with water, not fire.

So this talk is a very basic elementary three-point check list to be sure we all know this minimum, at least.

  • First, that we are at war.

I assume you would not even be coming to a talk titled, “How to Win the Culture War” if you thought all was well. If you are surprised to be told that our entire civilization is in crisis, I welcome you back from your nice vacation on the moon.

Many minds do seem moonstruck, puttering happily around the Titanic, blandly arranging the deck chairs. Especially the intellectuals, who are supposed to have their eyes more open, not less. But in fact, they are often the bland leading the bland. I have verified over and over again that the principle that there is only one thing needed for you to believe any of the one hundred most absurd ideas possible for any human being to conceive— you must have a PhD.

For instance, take Time magazine—please do. Henry David Thoreau said, “Read not the Times, read the Eternities.” Two Aprils ago, their lead article was devoted to the question, “Why is everything getting better? Why is life so good in America today? Why does everyone feel so satisfied and optimistic about the quality of life and the future?” I read the article very carefully, and found that not once did they even question their assumption. They just wondered “Why?” And you thought enlightenment optimism and the dogma of progress was dead? It turned out, upon reading the article, that every single aspect of life they mentioned, every reason why everything was getting better and better, was economic. People have more money. Period. End of discussion. Except the poor, of course, who are poorer. But they don’t count, because they don’t write Time. They don’t even read it.

I suspect that Time is merely Playboy with clothes on. For one kind of playboy, the world is one great big whorehouse. For another, it’s one great big piggybank. For both kinds of playboy, things are getting better and better. Just ask the 75% of Americans who love Bill Clinton, the perfect synthesis of the two.

They love him for the same reason that the Germans loved Hitler at first, when they elected him. Economic efficiency. Autobahns and Volkswagens. Jobs and housing. Hitler wrought the greatest economic miracle of the century in the 30’s. What else matters, as long as the emperor gives you bread and circuses? People are pigs, not saints, after all. They love slops more than honor. I think sexual pigginess and economic pigginess are natural twins. For lust and greed are almost interchangeable. In fact, our society sometimes doesn’t seem to know the difference between sex and money. It treats sex like money, and treats money like sex. It treats sex like money because it treats it like a medium of exchange, and it treats money like sex because it expects its money to get pregnant and reproduce all the time. So we need some very elementary sex education.

There is however, an irrefutable refutation of the pig philosophy: the simple, statistical fact that suicide—the most in-your-face index of unhappiness—is directly—not indirectly—proportionate to wealth. The richer you are, and the richer your country is, the more likely it is that you will find life so good that you will choose to blow your brains out. Perhaps that is a culmination of open-mindedness.

Suicide among pre-adults has increased 5000% since the “happy days” of the ’50’s. If suicide, especially of the coming generation, is not an indication of crisis, I don’t know what is. Just about everybody, except the deep thinkers, know that we are in deep doo-doo. The students know it, but not the teachers—the mind-molders, especially in the media. Everybody in the hospitals except the doctors know that we are dying. Night is falling. Mother Theresa said, simply—

“When a mother can kill her baby, what is left of civilization to save?”

What Chuck Olsen has called “a new dark age” is looming. A darkness that christened itself “the Enlightenment” at its birth three centuries ago. And this “Brave New World” has proved to be only a cowardly old dream. We are able to see this now, as the century of genocides closes—the century that had been called “the Christian century” at its birth by the founders of a magazine devoutly devoted to false prophesy.

We’ve also have some true prophets who have warned us—

  • Kierkegaard, 150 years ago, in The Present Age.
  • Spengler, almost a hundred years ago, in The Decline of the West
  • G. K. Chesterton, who wrote 75 years ago, “the next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality. And especially on sexual morality. And the madness of tomorrow will come not from Moscow but from Manhattan.”
  • Aldous Huxley, 65 years ago, in Brave New World
  • C. S. Lewis, 55 years ago, in The Abolition of Man
  • David Riesman, 45 years ago, in The Lonely Crowd
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 25 years ago, in his Harvard Commencement Address.
  • And John Paul the Great—the greatest man in the worst century in history—who had even more chutzpah than Ronald Reagan, who called them the “evil empire,” by calling us, “the culture of death.” That’s our culture, and his—including Italy, which now has the lowest  birthrate in the entire world, and Poland, which now wants to share in the West’s great abortion holocaust.

If the God of Life does not respond to this culture of death with judgment, then God is not God. If God does not honor the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent victims of this Culture of Death, then the God of the bible, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel, the God of the Prophets, the God of orphans and widows, the defender of the defenseless, is a man-made myth. A fairytale. A comfortable idea as substantial as a dream.

But—you may object—is not the God of the bible forgiving? He is. But the unrepentant refuse forgiveness. Forgiveness, being a gift of grace, must be freely given and freely received. How can it be received by a moral relativist who denies that there is anything to forgive, except unforgivingness? Nothing to judge but judgmentalism? Nothing lacking but self-esteem? How can a Pharisee or a pop-psychologist be saved?

But—you may object—is not the God of the bible compassionate? He is. But he is not compassionate to Moloch, and Baal, and Asheroth. And to the Canaanites who do their work, who cause their children to pass through the fire. Perhaps your god is compassionate to the work of human sacrifice, the god of your demands, the god of your religious preference, but not the God of the bible. Read the book. Look at the data.

But—is not the God of the Bible revealed most fully and finally in the New Testament, rather than the Old? In sweet and gentle Jesus, rather than wrathful and warlike Jehovah? The opposition is heretical. It is the old Gnostic, Manichaean, Marcionist heresy, as immoral as the demons that inspired it. Our data refute it—our live data—which is divine data, and talking data, thus His name is the Word of God. This data refuted the heretical hypothesis in the question when he said, “I and the Father are one.”

The opposition between “nice Jesus” and “nasty Jehovah” denies the very essence of Christianity: Christ’s identity as the son of God. For, let us remember our biology as well as our theology: Like Father, like Son. That Christ is no more the son of that God than Barney is the son of Hitler.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

He does so gladly. The gospels are pop-up books. Open their pages, and he leaps out. Let’s dare to open our data. Let’s see what sweet and gentle Jesus actually said about the sins of the Canaanites, about the Culture of Death.

Many centuries ago, those Canaanites used to perform their liturgies of human sacrifice, their infanticidal devotions to the devil in the valley of Gehenna, or Gehinnom, just outside Jerusalem. It was a vast abortuary, like our culture. When the people of God entered the promised land, the Prince of Peace [the Word of God] commanded them to kill the supernatural cancer of the Canaanites. Even after that was done, the Jews dared not to live in that valley, or even set foot there. They used it to burn their garbage. So the devil’s promised land became God’s garbage dump. And the fires never went out, day or night. No matches, remember.

Now, sweet and gentle Jesus chose this place, Gehenna, as his image for hell. And he told many of the leaders of his Chosen People that they were headed there, and that they were leading many others there with them. He said, to them, “Truly, truly I say to you: The IRS agents and White House interns will enter the kingdom of God before you.” That’s the modern dynamic equivalence translation.

He said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” That is our data. That is the real Jesus. And that is the Jesus who is the same yesterday, day, and forever. I do not think he has started manufacturing Styrofoam millstones.

But—is not God a lover, rather than a warrior? No, God is a lover who is a warrior. The question fails to understand what love is. What the love that God is, is. Love is at war with hate, and betrayal, and selfishness, and all love’s enemies. Love fights. Ask any parent. Yuppie-love, like puppy-love, may be merely compassion, the fashionable love today. But father-love and mother-love is war. God is love, indeed. But what kind of love? Back to our data! Does scripture call him “God the puppy” or God the yuppie”—or is it “God the Father”?

In fact, every page of this book bristles with spear-points, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. The road from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained is soaked in blood. At the very center of the story is a cross—a symbol of conflict if there ever was one. The theme of spiritual warfare is never absent in scripture. And never absent in the life and writings of a single saint. But it is almost never present in the religious education of my students at BC ([Boston College]; BC, by the way, stands for “Barely Catholic”).

Whenever I speak of this they are stunned and silent as if they had suddenly entered another world. They have. They have gone through the wardrobe to meet the Lion and the Witch—past the warm-fuzzies, the fur coats of psychology disguised as religion, into the cold snows of Narnia, where the White Witch is the Lord of this world, and Aslan is not a tame lion, but a warrior. A world where they meet Christ the King, not Christ the kitten.

Welcome back from the moon, kids.

Who doesn’t know we’re at war? Who doesn’t know that the barbarians are at the gates? No—inside the gates, writing the scripts of the TV shows and movies and public-school textbooks and juridical decisions? Only the ones in the lunar-bubble of academia. Or the lunar bubble of establishment religion education programs, with their unprofitable prophets who cry, “Peace, Peace” when there is no peace, the ones who compose those dreary, drippy, little liberal lullabies we endure in contemporary hymns.

The drug dealers know we’re at war. The prostitutes know we’re at war. The beggars in Calcutta know we’re at war. The Polish grandmothers know we’re at war. The Cubans know we’re at war. The Native-Americans knew we were at war, until we gave them firewater and then gambling casinos to dull their dangerously awake minds.

Where is this Culture of Death coming from?

Here. America is the center of the Culture of Death. America is the world’s one and only cultural superpower. If I haven’t shocked you yet, I will now. Do you know what pious Muslims call us? “The Great Satan.” Impious Muslims call us that too, but that makes no difference, we are what we are. And do you know what I call them? I call them right.

But—America has the most just and most moral and most wise and most biblical historical constitution and foundation in the world. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And America is one of the most religious countries in the world. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And the Church is big and rich and free in America. Yes, just like ancient Israel.

And if God still loves his Church in America, he will soon make it small, and poor, and persecuted, just has he did to ancient Israel.

So that he can keep it alive, by pruning it. If he loves us, he will cut the dead wood away, and we will bleed, and blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the Church again, and a second spring will come, and new buds. But not without blood. It never happens without blood. Without sacrifice. Without suffering. Christ’s work—if it is really Christ’s work, and not a comfortable counterfeit—never happens without the cross. Whatever happens without the cross may be good work, but it is not Christ’s work. For Christ’s work is bloody. Christ’s work is a blood transfusion. That is how salvation happens.

And if we put gloves on our hands to avoid the splinters from this cross, if we practice safe spiritual sex, spiritual contraception, then his kingdom will not come, and his work will not be done, and our world will die.  I don’t mean merely that Western Civilization will die, that’s a piece of trivia. I mean eternal souls will die. Billions of Ramon’s and Vladimir’s and Tiffany’s and Bridget’s will go to hell. That’s what’s at stake in this war. Not just whether America will become a banana republic, or whether we’ll forget Shakespeare, or even whether some nuclear terrorist will incinerate half of humanity. But rather, whether our children and our children’s children will see God forever.  That’s what’s at stake in Hollywood vs. America. That’s why we must wake up and smell the corpses, the rotting souls, the dying children.

Knowing we are at war, at all times, but especially as such times as these, is the first prerequisite for winning it. The second prerequisite is knowing who is our enemy.

  • Second, who is our enemy?

For almost half a millennium, Protestants and Catholics have thought of the other as the enemy, the problem, and have addressed the problem by consigning their bodies to graves on battlefields and their souls to hell. Gradually, the light dawned. Protestants and Catholics are not enemies, they are separated brethren who are fighting together against the same enemy.

Who is that enemy?

For almost two millennia, many Christians thought it was the Jews, and did such Christ-less things to our fathers-in-the-faith that we made it almost impossible for the Jews to see their God—the true God—in us.

Today, many Christians think it is the Muslims. But they are often more loyal to their half-Christ than we are to our whole-Christ. And they live more godly lives following their fallible scriptures and their fallible prophet than we do in following our infallible scriptures and our infallible prophet. If you compare the stability of the family and the safety of children among Muslims and among Christians in today’s world, or if you compare the rate of abortion, divorce, adultery, and sodomy among Muslims and Christians in today’s world, and if you dare to apply to this data the principles announced by the prophets in our own scriptures, when they say repeatedly that God blesses those who obey his law, and punish those who do  not, then I think you will know why Islam is growing faster than Christianity today. Faithful Muslims serve under the same general God, though through a different and more primitive communications network. And the same I think is true of the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Quakers.

So who are our enemies?

Many of us think our enemies are the “liberals.” But for one thing that word is almost meaninglessly flexible, and for another thing, it’s a political term, not a religious one. Whatever is good or bad about any of the forms of political liberalism, it is neither the cause nor the cure of the spiritual cancer that makes this cultural war a spiritual one, a matter of life or death—eternal life or death, not political or economic life or death. Whether Jack and Jill go up the hill to heaven, or down the hill to hell will not be decided by whether government welfare checks increase or decrease.

Our enemies are not even the anti-Christian bigots who want to kill us, whether they are communist Chinese totalitarians who imprison and persecute Christians, or Sudanese Muslim terrorists who enslave and murder Christians. They are not our enemies, they are our patients. They are the ones we are trying to save. We are Christ’s nurses. Some of the patients think the nurses are their enemies, but the nurses must know better. Our word for them is, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Our enemies are not even the cankerworm within our own culture—the media of the Culture of Death—the Larry Flints and Ted Turners and Howard Sterns and Time-Warners and Disneys. They, too, are victims, and they, too, are our patients, though they hate the hospital, and go running around poisoning other patients. But the poisoners are our patients, too, for whoever poisons, was first poisoned himself.

This is true also of gay and lesbian activists, and feminist witches and abortionists. If we are the cells in Christ’s body, we do what he did to these people: we go into their gutters, and pick up the spiritually dying, and kiss those who spit at us, and even shed our blood for them if necessary. If we do not all physically go into the gutters, as Mother Teresa did, we go into the spiritual gutters. For we go where the need is. If we do not physically give our blood, yet we give our life in giving our time, for life is time—life-time. Our time is our life blood. Please don’t have children unless you understand that.

Our enemies are not the heretics within the Church—the cafeteria Christians, the à la carte Christians, the “I did it my way” Christians. They are also our patients, though they are quislings. They are the deceived. They are the victims of our enemy, not our enemy.

Our enemies are not the theologians in some so-called Christian Theology Departments that have sold their souls for thirty pieces of scholarship, and prefer the applause of their peers to the praise of their God. Not even the Christo-phobes who wear spiritual condoms for fear that Christ will make their souls and the souls of their students pregnant with his alarmingly active life. Not even the liars who deny their students elementary truth in labeling. The robber-teachers who rob their students of the living Christ. They, too, are our patients, and we, too, do what they do, though unwillingly, in each of our sins.

Our enemy is not even the few really wicked ministers and pastors and priests and bishops and rabbis, the abusive babysitters who corrupt Christ’s little ones whom they swore to protect, and merit Christ’s “millstone of the month” award. They, too, are victims in need of healing.

Who, then, is our enemy?

Surely, you must know the two answers.

All the saints throughout the Church’s history have given the same two answers. For these answers come from the same two sources—from the Word of God on paper and the Word of God on wood; from every page of the New Testament, and from Christ. They are the reasons he went to the cross. Yet they are not well known. In fact the first answer is almost never mentioned today, outside so-called fundamentalist circles. Not once in my life can I recall ever hearing a sermon on it from a Protestant or a Catholic pulpit.

Our enemies are demons—fallen angels, evil spirits. Our secular culture believes that anyone who believes this is at least an uneducated, narrow-minded bigot, and probably mentally deranged. It follows logically, therefore, that Jesus Christ is an uneducated, narrow-minded bigot, and mentally deranged. Most of our religious culture is simply embarrassed at this idea. Therefore, it is embarrassed at Christ. For he is the one who gave us this answer: “Do not fear those who can kill the body and then have no power over you. I will tell you whom to fear: Fear him who has power to destroy both body and soul in hell.” That is Satan, of course, not God, whose work is to save souls, not to destroy them.

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat.” And Peter learned the lesson, and has passed it onto us, in his first epistle: “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking him whom he might devour. Resist, steadfast in the faith.”

Paul, too, knew that we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness against the heavenly places.

Pope Leo XIII saw this truth. He received a vision of a coming 20th century, a vision that history has proved terrifyingly true. He saw Satan at the beginning of time, allowed one century to do his worst work in. And Satan chose the 20th. This pope, Leo—with the name and the heart of a lion—was so overcome by the terror of this vision that he fell into a swoon like a Victorian lady. When he revived, he composed a prayer for the whole Church to use for this whole century of spiritual warfare:

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
by the Divine Power of God –
cast into hell, Satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

This prayer was known by every Catholic and prayed after every Mass until the 60’s—exactly when Leo’s Church was struck by the incomparably swift disaster which we have not yet named, but which future historians must—the disaster which has taken away half of our priests, three quarters of our nuns, and nine tenths of our children’s theological knowledge, by turning the faith of our fathers into the doubts of our dissenters, in a miraculous reversal of Christ’s first miracle at Cana—turning the wine of the gospel into the water of psychobabble. An anti-miracle by the anti-Christ.

The restoration of the Church and thus the world might well begin with the restoration of the Lion’s prayer and the Lion’s vision. Because this is the vision of all the saints, all the apostles, and the Lord himself. The vision of a real Satan, a real hell, and a real spiritual warfare.

I said there were two enemies. The second is even more horrible than the first.

There is one nightmare more terrifying than being chased by the devil, even caught by the devil, even tortured by the devil. That is, the nightmare of becoming the devil. The horror outside your soul is terrible enough, but not as terrible as the horror inside your soul.

The horror inside the soul, of course, is sin. Another word, which—if any were to dare to speak it today—elicits embarrassment from the Christian and condemnation from the secularist, who condemns only condemnation, judges only judgmentalism, and believes the only sin is believing in sin. All sin is the devil’s work, though he usually uses the flesh and the world as his instruments. Sin means doing the devil’s work. Tearing and damaging God’s work. And we do this. That’s the only reason that the devil can do his awful work in our world. God won’t allow him to do it without our free consent. And that’s the deepest reason why the Church is weak, and why the world is dying. Because we are not saints.

And that gives us our third necessary thing to know.

  • The weapon that will win the war and defeat our enemy.

All it takes is saints. Can you imagine what twelve more Mother Teresa’s, or twelve more John Wesley’s would do for this poor old world? Can you imagine what would happen if just twelve people in this room did it? Gave Christ 100% of their hearts, with 100% of their hearts, 100% of the time, and held back nothing—absolutely nothing? No, you can’t imagine it, anymore than anyone could have imagined how twelve nice Jewish boys could conquer the Roman empire. You can’t imagine it.

But you can do it. You can become a saint. Absolutely no one and nothing can stop you. It’s your free choice. Here is one of the most wonderful and terrifying sentences I have ever read. From William Law’s Serious Call.

“If you will look into your own heart, in utter honesty, you must admit, that there is one and only one reason why you are not even now a saint. You do not wholly want to be.”

That insight is terrifying because it is an indictment. But it is wonderful, and hopeful, because it is also an offer. An open door. Each of us can become a saint. We really can. We really can. I say it three times because I think we do not really believe that, deep down. For if we did, how could we endure being anything less?

What holds us back? Fear of paying the price. What is the price? The answer is simple. T. S. Eliot gave it when he defined Christianity as, “the condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” The price is everything. 100%. Martyrdom, if required, and probably a worse martyrdom than the quick noose or stake—the martyrdom of dying daily. Dying every minute for the rest of your life. Dying to all your desires, and all your plans, including your plans on how to become a saint.

Or rather, not desiring to your desires, but dying to the you in your desires. I think this this sounds much more mystical than it is. It is simply giving God a blank check. It is simply Islam—complete submission. Fiat—Mary’s thing. Look at what it did two thousand years ago when she did it: it brought God down from heaven, and thus saved the world. It was meant to continue. If we do that Mary thing, that Islam, and only if we do that, then all our apostolates will work. Our preaching and teaching and writing and catechizing and missioning and fathering and mothering and studying and nursing and businessing and pastoring and priesting, everything.

Last year, an American Catholic bishop had asked one of the priests of the diocese for recommendations for ways to increase vocations to the priesthood. The priest replied in his report, “the best way to attract men in this diocese to the priesthood, your Excellency, would be your canonization.”

Why not yours? But how? We always want to know “how.” Give me a method, a technology, a means to this end. What does that question mean? How can I become a saint? Or give me a means to the end of sanctity. It means, “Give me something that is easier than sanctity, which will cause sanctity, so that if I do this something, or attain this something, than this something will be the middle term, the link, between me and sanctity.”

No. There is none. No prayers, no meditations, no 12-step programs, no yogas, no psychological techniques, no techniques at all. There can be no button to push for sanctity, any more than for love. For sanctity simply is love. Loving God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. How do you love? You just do it. A cause cannot produce an effect greater than itself. And nothing in the world is greater than sanctity. Nothing greater than love. Therefore no cause, no human cause, can produce sanctity. There can never be any technology for sanctity.

Of course, God is its cause, grace is its cause. The Holy Spirit is its cause. Oh, well, why doesn’t God cause it then? If sanctity isn’t a do-it-yourself thing, but an only-God-can-do-it thing, then why doesn’t God make me a saint? If only grace can do it, why doesn’t he give me that grace? Because you don’t want it. If you wanted it, he’d give it. He promised that—all that seek find. It’s back to “Just say ‘yes’.”

It’s infinitely simpler than we think, and that’s why it’s hard. The hard word in the formula, “Just say ‘yes'” is the word “just.” We are comfortable with Christ-and-theology, or Christ-and-psychology, or Christ-and-America, or Christ-and-the-Republican/Democratic-party, or Christ-and-phonics, or Christ-and-dieting— But just plain Christ, all Christ, Christ drunk straight, not mixed, we find far too dangerous for our tastes. Aslan is not a tame lion. Just say yes to him? You never know what he’d do with you.

I conclude with a claim to infallibility. I give you two infallible prognoses.

  1. If we do not use this weapon, we will not win this war.
  2. If we do use this weapon, we will win this war.

Or more subtly—

  1. Insofar as we use this weapon, we will this war, and
  2. Insofar as we do not, we will not.


We can win, because we wield here the world’s most unconquerable weapon, the strongest force in the universe. To translate it from the abstract to the concrete, the weapon is Christ’s blood. Not Christ without blood—not merely a beautiful ideal, and not blood without Christ—not a merely human sacrifice and martyrdom. But Christ’s blood.

Back when there were more communists in Russia than in American universities, Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that the difference between Russia and America was that Russia was the cross without Christ, and America was Christ without the cross. Neither will win. Neither will work. Neither sacrifice without love, nor love without sacrifice. But the blood of Christ will work. For that blood flows from his sacred heart. And the heart of that heart is agape—divine love. That is why it will work. Because love never gives up. And that is why we will never give up, and why we will win. Why we, whose food is this blood, are invincible.

The hard-nosed, successful secularist lawyer Jerry Spence writes, “a small boy and a bully meet. When the small boy is knocked down, he gets up and attacks again. Over and over. Until at last, he will win. For nothing in the world is as fearsome as a bloody battered opponent who will never surrender.” Never.

Winston Churchill delivered the shortest and most memorable commencement speech of all time at his Alma Mater during World War II:

“Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up.”

That’s all. We will win the war because no matter how many times we fall down, no matter how many times we fail at being saints, no matter how many times we fail at love, we will never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up.




Homily: Blessed are you


Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about the call to be God’s prophetic people.

What does a prophet do? A prophet is (a man, a woman, a group) called by God to speak and to live divine truth, in season and out of season (when it’s popular and when it’s not), to provide an interpretation of reality (past, present, and future) through God’s message of mercy and hope, or correction and repentance. A prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one whose message can have a predictive aspect, because he speaks truth, and truth is beyond time. He reminds the world of what is true: that if we act in harmony with God’s truth of reality, we will receive the blessings of our choices; and if we act in conflict with God’s truth of reality, we will be subject to the curses of our choices. To use a great quote from a recent article (The “Wayward Daughters,” written by Haley Stewart) talking about female main characters in different books (Julia from Brideshead Revisited and Kristin from Kristin Lavransdatter, two wonderful books, very popular in Catholic circles), who suffered as the consequences of their bad choices, the author says, “The years of misery they suffer are not punishment inflicted by a parent or by God—the consequences of sin itself are what tortures them. They are punished by their sin, not for their sin.”

Our first reading is from the words of the prophet Jeremiah. We heard his call to prophetic ministry two weekends ago. God had told him, “…Tell them all that I command you… for it is I this day who have made you… a pillar of iron, a wall of brass …They will fight against you but not prevail over you.” We also remember the context of Jeremiah’s ministry: Israel was being tempted to rely on their military strength and their political alliances, and they weren’t in the practice of calling on God.

Now we read today’s reading from Jeremiah, “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” So Jeremiah is reminding Israel of their call to be faithful to God, that God is their strength, their salvation, and the prediction that if they believe that other people, other nations, will be their salvation, they will end up in misery, and the curse of death or slavery.

He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” That’s a pretty desolate, lifeless, hopeless image. That, no doubt, was Jeremiah’s point. The crucial issue is not Israel’s working together with neighboring nations; the problem was Israel trusted in them, and had turned their hearts away from God. Once you turn away your heart from God, the source of life, you become like a shrub in the dry wilderness: not bearing any good (spiritual) fruit. But then on the other hand, 08ee2945540799.5607a6e8c3516Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree, planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” What is Jeremiah’s prophecy? If Israel remains faithful to the covenant with God, they will endure the time of difficulty and receive the blessings of their faithfulness, bearing good fruit. That doesn’t mean they won’t suffer, but that they will not end in suffering, and even in their suffering, they have the certain hope in God’s eventual vindication… which is a very different kind of suffering than one experienced as hopeless and meaningless.

What does it mean to remain faithful to the covenant with God? It’s more than just to believe that God will save them. It’s to live each day according to the truth of the Scriptures, the law, the commandments and worship that defines what it means to be God’s people.

I know I don’t usually reference the psalm, but today it’s Psalm 1, which sets the tone for the whole book of the psalms. two waysAnd like much of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament, it establishes the “two ways,” the way of wisdom, and the way of folly; the way of blessings, and the way of curses; the way of life, and the way of death. The psalm says, “Blessed the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, nor walks in the way of sinners, nor sits in the company of the insolent, but delights in the law of the LORD and meditates on his law day and night.” So if you hang out with good, wise people, you learn from them goodness and wisdom. If you hang out with foolish, wicked people, you become like them.

That doesn’t mean we don’t hang out with our friends (or even strangers) who are on the wrong path. We do want to be friends with them; we want to walk with them, accompany them, support them, and ideally, to help them avoid things that will hurt them and lead them to greater happiness. But we don’t want to encourage or approve of their sins: we want to be the good, wise, holy friend in their life, who doesn’t judge them, but who gives them good counsel. We want to be the prophetic witness in their lives. And then we also need to have other people in our life for our own well-being, who are more good and wise than us. We need to pray the scriptures frequently, and even more frequently the more we’re with people who present bad influences to us. We need the word of God in our heart and on our lips, and the wisdom of how and when to share it in love, sometimes in tough love.

Sometimes people say to me, “My spiritual life is so dry. It’s hard to pray. I don’t feel God’s presence. I feel spiritually fruitless.” A good response to that might be, “How much time each day do you invest in praying with the Scriptures?” If the answer is, “I don’t; I’m too busy,” then the problem is a malnourished faith. The Scriptures are the living waters that our soul should be drinking from, and refreshing itself. It is the flesh and blood of the Word of God that gives life. The Scriptures are Christ. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” We can’t expect to have spiritual life if our spirit hasn’t been nourished in weeks or months or more. And I don’t mean just to read the Scriptures, or even read a lot of scripture, but to read it deeply. The Psalm says, “…and meditates on his law day and night.” It is to gnaw on it, chew on it, listen to it, wrestle with it, squeeze all you can out of it, reconcile yourself with it, and live it. As I said before, lectio divina is a wonderful way of really interacting deeply with the Scriptures.

Our Gospel from Luke is what is often called “The Sermon on the plain,” compared to Matthew’s Gospel which has “The Sermon on the mount.” Even within the sources I used for preparation, they disagreed whether this was two accounts of the same event, or if this was two different events. On the one hand, the scripture says that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, and then came down to, in Greek, “a flat place,” which could mean a relatively flat part of the terrain, but still an elevated place. On the other hand, Jesus, like many public speakers, may have given the same or similar message a number of times to different audiences, and so this in Luke might be a different occasion than in Matthew. Since the Holy Spirit doesn’t make it clear, it’s not an important question. What’s important is what the Gospels say, and even how they compare. For one, Matthew speaks in the third person, “Blessed are they who…” and Luke speaks in the second person, “Blessed are you who…” Matthew only has blessings, he doesn’t include curses. But the blessings, like here in Luke, are not what you would expect. And while Matthew has 8 blessings, Luke has 4 blessings and 4 curses. And lastly (of the ones we’re going to mention), Luke’s are stated more simply. Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” while Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” In both cases, Jesus is being presented as a new law-giver, a new David, and new Moses.

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A lot of people don’t like Luke’s version, because in its simplicity, it’s kind of harsh. Sure, blessed are the poor in spirit, we can all strive to be “poor in spirit.” But in Luke, it’s simply “Blessed are you who are poor,” and then he says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Wow. Ok. “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.” That’s comforting. “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.” How does that big breakfast sound now? “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.” So we also need to understand what Jesus meant, and what situation Luke was addressing his Gospel to.

Jesus was speaking to Jews who knew the Old Testament, and in the covenant-making, law-giving ceremonies, the blessings and curses depended on whether you followed the terms of the covenant. If you did, you received the blessings of lots of children, lots of livestock, lots of wealth and happiness. If you didn’t, you got the curses, the opposite of all that. And that, the blessings and curses, were received here in this life.

In the new covenant, Jesus orients us toward the next life, toward heaven. And the way to heaven… is through the paradox of the cross. Jesus was the perfect, most blessed man, and on the cross he endured the most egregious suffering for sin, although, not for his own sin, but ours. And then he resurrected. His hour of glory, his time on the cross when he poured out his love for us, was the way to the resurrection and eternal glory. “No cross, no crown.” You have to go through the tension of Good Friday to get to the release of Easter Sunday. And we follow him. “Blessed are you who are poor in this world. The kingdom of God is yours” in heaven. “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied” fully in heaven. “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh” in heaven. But woe to you who do not follow Christ in this world, in his suffering and sacrifice. Woe to you who rely on your wealth, for they make you feel self-sufficient and not in need of God’s mercy. And so you have received the consolation of your riches, in this world. Woe to you who are filled and sated and gluttonous in this world, which deafens your ears to the cry of the poor. At judgment, they will have plenty, and you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, woe to you when all speak well of you, because you are of this world and like this world. When the shallow images of this world pass away, and you did not weep for your sins, and you did not endure hardship for the sake of the gospel, you will grieve and weep.

In the Beatitudes, the law of the Christian Covenant, the blessings are curse-like (in the view of this present world), because it is through the curse and suffering of the cross that we receive the blessing and happiness of resurrection glory. Jesus on the cross is the intersection of this world and the next world, judgment, heaven and hell. If we suffer like him and for him, and for the vulnerable members of his mystical body, then we will enter the kingdom of God. But if we have lived according to the immorality of this world, the pleasure and sins of this world, did what was popular, and complacently avoided the suffering that would come from being a heroic and prophetic witness to the gospel, then we will be locked out of the kingdom of God.

It’s not that laughing is sinful: laughing is joyful, and we are called to joy. It’s not that being rich is sinful: we are called to be blessed with abundance from living virtuously, and with prudent stewardship. But our laughing must frequently give way to suffering with those who are suffering, and working with compassion to minister to them in their suffering, and ultimately to help them out of their suffering, if possible. Now, there indeed might be some limited fulfillment in this life: those who suffer now may be vindicated, even in this world (e.g., Nelson Mandela freed from prison, and Jews freed from their concentration camps). Those who are poor do often get out of their poverty. The Israelites in slavery were eventually freed, in the course of history. But even that is a limited fulfillment of the deliverance to the perfect freedom, the perfect abundance, in heaven. 

It’s not that being rich is a sin, Jesus in his ministry had rich people among his disciples. But having wealth presents some real challenges in the spiritual life. For one, having wealth provides the temptation to lean on one’s wealth to solve their problems, and not having to suffer and trust in God’s mercy (that was Israel’s problem in Jeremiah’s time). Also, having wealth tends to siphon our attention toward itself and away from more important priorities in our life (hence the evangelical counsel of poverty, or simplicity of life: the freedom from the trappings of material wealth, to focus on spiritual matters). And there is an increased temptation toward being uncompassionate toward the poor (“I deserve this, I worked hard, I sacrificed, I invested, I deserve this, that is fair” instead of “love your neighbor as yourself,” not in a compulsory socialist or communist way, but in a voluntarily generous way). It’s a self-centeredness rather than other-centeredness. Jesus was spiritually rich, yet he became poor to share his richness with us, and lift us up out of our spiritual poverty. (J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is the only modern billionaire who lost her billionaire-status because of how much she has donated to others). So again, it’s not that it’s wrong to be rich; it’s dangerous to be rich. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with our spiritual life. If you want the best chance for salvation, the only thing that really matters, then it’s better (blessed) to be poor than to be rich. It’s better to be weeping than to be happy. It’s better to be hungry than to be satisfied. It’s better to have an all-encompassing desire for the fullness of heaven than to be satisfied in this life, and think less about heaven. 

One of the major characteristics of Luke’s gospel is the reversal of expectations, very much like this “Sermon on the Plain,” and also very much like the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat: “…He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty…” Luke’s target audience were affluent gentile Christians, who frequently had difficulty escaping the trappings of their affluence to identify with the poor, to minister generously and humbly to the poor and suffering. And so for the sake of their salvation, Luke highlights this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. 

An interesting linguistic point is that Jesus’ main word in these blessings, in the Greek, is not really “blessed,” eulogēmenos, but rather makarios: “happy.” And this parallels Psalm 1. The usual word for blessing in Hebrew is barak. But in the psalm, it is ashar, “happy.” Following God’s law (the Beatitudes, the moral teaching of the New Testament, and of the Church) is the path to happiness. It isn’t necessarily the path to pleasure, and indeed might bring about quite a lot of suffering (like crucifixion), but we are made for happiness (ultimately, the happiness of heaven), and suffering is often the way to happiness. That requires discipline, which involves one of my recently-acquired favorite quotes, “Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now.” If what we want most is eternal happiness, then we have to choose now those things that advance us toward that, and choose against those things which are inconsistent with it, such as many of the ways we pursue a shadow of happiness through immoral pleasures. Sin never really brings happiness, because the little bit of happiness from sin always carries with it a greater unhappiness. And sin, of course is addictive. So we get hooked on that little bit of apparent happiness, and end up getting buried under the burden of the greater unhappiness that comes with it. 

The second reading doesn’t usually relate to the other readings, but today, in a way it does. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “How can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins.” The crucifixion and the resurrection are the key to the beatitudes. They are the key to unlock the paradox of human suffering. We unite ourselves to Christ who suffered and died and rose again. But if he didn’t rise again,  we’re locked in the paradox of endless meaningless suffering and sin. Our upward possibilities are blocked off without hope.

But Paul (who was given his personal encounter with the post-ascension risen Christ) knows first-hand that Christ most certainly is alive, he did rise from the dead, because Paul met him. Paul clearly affirms for us: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead.” We are free, we are saved, we can outlive our suffering, sometimes in this life, but definitively in heaven, where you who are poor are blessed with the kingdom of heaven; where you who are now hungry will be satisfied; where you who are weeping will laugh; where you are hated and denounced (for your prophetic witness) on account of the Son of Man can rejoice and leap for joy, for your reward will be great in heaven.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things

I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken words were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.

(attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier)

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Homily: Divine Encounter

Peter and Jesus Depart from me Lord

Last week, in the first reading, we heard the call from God to the prophet Jeremiah. The last two weeks in the gospel we heard Jesus speak about his call to be the Messiah. This week, we hear of two other calls. In our first reading, the call from God to the prophet Isaiah; and in the Gospel, the call to Simon, who Jesus will later give the new name, Peter. So in this weekend’s readings in particular, and here in the beginning of the season of Ordinary Time in general, we’re getting a sense of vocation (being called) and mission (being sent). It applies not just to men called to priesthood or those called to religious orders. It applies to all humanity. Every person conceived in the womb has their own unique call from God to their own unique life, with their own unique personality and gifts. Not one human soul is extra and unimportant. Not one. Every soul, every day, is here for a reason, even if we struggle to see, or understand it, or believe it.

In our gospel and in our first reading, we have two accounts of God calling someone to ministry. What’s important in the parallel between Isaiah and Peter is not that they experience the same steps—but that they experienced the same steps that we often experience when we have a divine encounter.

Just FYI, for those who are available, a few weeks ago we began offering a holy hour of Eucharistic Adoration at noon every Friday, a wonderful opportunity for divine encounter. No prayers, no readings, no homilies. Just you gazing with love at the Lord, and the Lord gazing with love at you. It’s certainly helped me in the last few weeks. So if you’re available at noon on Friday’s, the day of the Lord gave himself to us for our salvation, I encourage you to plan to come here for the divine encounter in Eucharistic Adoration.

So the encounter. The first step is always God making the first move. He’s always reaching out to us, and sometimes we pick up on it (even we think we’re making the choice to do something good, like our choice to go to God, it’s really us finally responding to his grace). So God gave Isaiah this mystic encounter in which he saw the divine throne room, and the worship of God by the heavenly host. Image result for isaiah vision of heavenI saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above. They cried one to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!’ At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.” The image is of a king high above any earthly king, wearing not just an impressively regal garment, but so impressive it filled the temple. The Seraphim (or Seraphs) are the highest rank of angels, those closest to God. “Seraph” means “burning one” and in Hebrew, the “-im” ending is plural. So the Seraphim are the angels most intensely burning with God’s love, being the closest to his glory. They are so filled with awe at God’s majesty and burning love that they ceaselessly sing out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” (The Hebrew language lacks comparison and superlative modifiers, so the word is repeated to achieve this effect. “Holy, holy, holy” equals “holy, holier, holiest!”) We join our singing to theirs at every Mass, hopefully out of awe, and not just out of routine. The choir of angels sang with such vigor that the temple shook. And the house, the temple, was filled with smoke, which can be said to be the incense used in the Temple, and in the Mass, which is used to signify something consecrated as holy, such as the offerings on the altar, the Paschal candle, or a body before burial. Incense, as described in the Book of Revelation, also signifies the rising prayer of the saints. So Isaiah sees all this glory.

Simon Peter’s encounter was not a mystic vision of heaven, but this strange carpenter getting into Simon’s fishing boat, and telling him how to catch fish, which was not how you catch fish. You catch fish at night, near the shore, not during the day, out in the deep.

On a human level, this is a test for Simon. Simon and Andrew run a fishing business. Zebedee and his sons James and John are co-workers in this business. They’re professionals, who know what they’re doing. Jesus, on the other hand, is a tekton, a carpenter, a builder. And as a general rule, fishermen do not like carpenters telling them how to fish. These fishermen have done everything they knew to do, they fished all night, it’s now morning, they’re tired, they’re frustrated from having caught nothing, and then this carpenter comes along and says, “Well, hey, did you try the deep water? Go out into the deep water and try and put your nets down and see what happens.” It’s a real test. Yet Simon tells Jesus, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”

Related imageBut Jesus had this big crowd following him. Simon, and his brother Andrew, and their co-workers James and his brother John, heard what Jesus was preaching. So when Jesus told Simon to go out to the deep and cast their net, he obeyed. And after not having caught anything all night, they filled two boats to almost sinking. Simon recognized that Jesus had performed this miracle, and that only God could have summoned such a quantity of fish to where there should not have been any. So Simon recognizes that Jesus is not just a strange carpenter, but the God of Israel.

On a deeper level, the ancient Church Fathers saw a spiritual significance in the fact that Christ teaches from the boat of Simon Peter. It’s Peter’s Boat—the “bark of Peter” (“bark” is an old word for a boat). Related imageThey saw in this the mystery of the ministry of Jesus through the successor of Peter in the life of the Church. The “Bark of Peter” is an ancient nickname of the Church. The successor of Peter (the Vicar of Christ) would teach the world from the Bark of Peter, and he would navigate the Church through the sometimes stormy waters of the ages. (Read St. John Bosco’s prophetic vision of the Bark of Peter anchored safely between the two columns, protecting it against the attacks of its enemies!) That’s part of the tradition for calling the main area of a Catholic church where the pews are the “nave.” According to Wikipedia, “The term nave is from navis, the Latin word for ship, an early Christian symbol of the Church as a whole, with a possible connection to the “ship of St. Peter” or the Ark of Noah. The term may also have been suggested by the keel shape of the vaulting of a church. In many Scandinavian and Baltic countries a model ship is commonly found hanging in the nave of a church…

Ok, second step. In the presence of the glory of God, the creator of the universe, the savior of Israel, the God of all majesty, wisdom, and holy glory, Isaiah and Simon become self-conscious of their unworthiness, their sinfulness, their imperfection. That’s the second step: humility, contrition, repentance. Isaiah says, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” The lips speak what is in the heart, and so he weeps for the uncleanness of his heart, and the unclean hearts of the people of Israel. He is filled with fear because no sinner can behold God face to face. Simon Peter says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” We don’t know what sinfulness Simon is guilty of, but in its place, we can put whatever sinfulness we might be guilty of, whatever we’re ashamed of, if we were to come into an encounter with God who can read and reveal the thoughts of our hearts. This repentance should be our second step. Often we think of the Church, and we are faced with the sorry state of our moral life. Often our way of dealing with this tension is then to stay away from Church (like Adam and Eve recognizing their shame, and hiding from God in the garden of Eden). But our response should be humble contrition and confession. It’s our choice how to respond to the tension, to the disconnect between God’s holiness and our sinfulness: we can choose to turn toward God in repentance, or away from God preferring our comfortable sins. Isaiah and Peter are afraid, not because they love their sins more than God, but because they become super-aware of their sin in God’s presence.

The third step is God’s mercy. Isaiah says, “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it, and said, ‘See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’”Isaiah and seraph Now it should be clear that we’re not talking about an actual piece of charcoal. We are speaking in figures of spiritual/mystical realities. So the fire of God’s love, and of the Seraphim, is spiritual fire. And this coal is a figure of cleansing, purifying fire of the altar of prayer; and he takes it and places it on Isaiah’s lips and says “your sins are forgiven.” In a way, this burning ember is like a prefigurement of the Eucharist, which when it is taken from the holy altar and touches our lips, it removes our wickedness and purges our sin (that applies to venial sin—not mortal sin, by which we cut ourselves off from God’s grace; for that we are obligated to go to the particular sacrament given to us by God to reconcile ourselves with Him after committing mortal/deadly sin). But for the venial sins we commit every day, our frequent failures to follow the promptings of our conscience and God’s will, the grace and healing of the Mass give us this mercy. Receiving the Eucharist is a share in the burning love of the Sacred Heart of our Lord. As for Simon, Jesus simply said to Simon, “Do not be afraid.” He doesn’t say, no, it’s ok, your sins aren’t a big deal, you’re basically a good person. Jesus accepts Simons’ confession, and moves him through it.

God is not repelled by our sinfulness. His response is not disgust, but compassion. A parent who sees that his child is wounded is not disgusted and wrathful toward his child, but reaches out in tenderness and love, to give, within his power, comfort and healing. When we sin, we become tangled in that sin. God wants us to be free. But the way to free us from sin is not just to dismiss our sin, but to train us not to choose sin. And being trained, getting disciplined, is not fun, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews confirms (Heb 12:11). This disciplining can feel like God being wrathful against us, when it is really our pulling away from God’s love trying to heal us. God’s wrath is really God’s love, as experienced through sin. God only loves. But when we’re on the discipline-end of that love, God doesn’t mind using tough love, if that’s what he knows will ultimately help us… even if He knows we’ll be angry at Him for a while. 

And lastly the fourth step: commission, vocation.Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.” When we read other gospel accounts of this event, like Matthew’s, where Jesus just says “Follow me,” and we wonder why they just get up and go, here Luke gives a much fuller version of the encounter. It makes more sense after reading Luke’s gospel why these first disciples left everything and followed him. Jesus gave them reason to believe in him. Then he called them. And over time, he will teach them, form them, and ultimately, send them, to continue his ministry and lead the church.

As Brant Pitre points out, an interesting aspect of the Lord choosing fishermen to be the core of his disciples, is that professional fishermen would need to have cultivated certain virtues in their character that would be essential in their future ministry. First, the need to be observant. They need to pay attention to their surroundings, to conditions, to weather, to patterns. Second, the need to be patient. Fishing involves long times of nothing happening, at least by appearances. Fishermen can’t just pull up their equipment and move every time they get impatient. Third, the need to be persistent. Sometimes, you’re going to fish all night and not catch anything. Sometimes, there might be a rough season. But a fisherman needs to keep at it, keep learning, keep applying what he knows, and not give up. And finally, the need to rely on God. There’s a lot about being a fisherman that’s just out of the fisherman’s control. Weather, storms, safety, the fish biting, the nets not breaking, the market being good, there’s just a lot that the fisherman needs, that only trust in God will provide. 

In the Gospel of Matthew (remember, we’re in Luke), Jesus will compare this image of Peter’s great catch of fish to the Kingdom of Heaven: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 13:47-50). In this image, Jesus affirms that many fish of different kinds, good and bad, are caught in the “net” of Peter’s boat, the Church. And, as Jesus reaffirms in another image, that of the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad will remain together in the church until the end of the age. 

Fr. Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, makes the point that people might find this image a little insulting. No one likes to be fished for. Ordinarily, the fisherman is after his own good, not that of the fish. But in the Gospel, we find the opposite: the fisherman who serves the fish. Being “fished for” is not a disgrace, but for salvation. Imagine, he says, that you have survived a shipwreck, and you are floating in the sea, hoping to be rescued. Along comes a rescue helicopter, and fishes you out of the sea, saving you from death. You’re not insulted, you’re filled with inexpressible gratitude! 

And he also makes the point that this is not to put those who are in the role of fishermen in a superior position to those who are in the role of fish. Because every fisherman, every priest, religious, and faithful, are themselves also fish, who the Lord fished for many times before bringing them in. 

Isaiah said, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’” Isaiah, too, was not told that his sins were no big deal, but rather he was humble, confessed his sinfulness, and God’s response was to forgive his sins. And in both cases, of Simon Peter, and Isaiah, and in our case, the forgiveness of our sins is not just for our salvation, but for our mission, our being trained in the way of holiness, that we might respond to the invitation to be sent out. The dismissal of the Mass in English is, “The Mass is ended, go in peace.” But in Latin, the dismissal is, “Ite! Missa est!” “Ite” is the command to “Go!” And “Missa est” is the statement, “it is sent,” meaning the liturgy, the congregation, is sent out, to carry the grace of God’s love into the world.

(1) God comes to us in his glory. (2) We see our sinfulness and we humbly repent. (3) We receive God’s forgiveness. And (4) we are sent to minister to others. I read recently that spreading the gospel is just one beggar sharing with another beggar where to find bread. We can see in Isaiah’s response that having been healed and freed from sin, he shows an eagerness to share the good news, to invite others into God’s mercy. Let us take ownership of our mission to share the good news in our ministry to others—in our words, our actions, our life—for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

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Homily: Prophets of God’s Word

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The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter now famously called, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (which I highly recommend). In the letter he responds to different criticisms he received from various local Christian ministers about the resistance demonstrations he orchestrated.

To the criticism that he is from Atlanta, Georgia, and has no business as an outsider protesting in Birmingham, Alabama, he confirms that first, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has ties all over the South, including Birmingham, he was invited to come by the black community there. And second, he says we can no longer think in terms of isolated communities, since all of society is interconnected, and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Therefore even as a so-called outsider, he has a vested interest and right to stand against injustice, even in Birmingham.

To the second criticism, that he should be promoting negotiation instead of sit-ins and marches, he responds that yes, he absolutely agrees. But those invited to dialogue have failed to negotiate in good faith, either refusing to come to the table, or consistently failing to carry through on their agreements, and those suffering injustice have concluded that negotiation has sufficiently failed.

And third, he responds to criticism that his activity is extremist. And to that, he responds that he is standing between two opposing responses within the suffering black community: on the one hand, the “do nothings” of those so used to things as they are that they’ve lost their hope for change, or those who have enjoyed a bit of prosperity and have not advocated on behalf of those they left behind, and on the other hand, those who have given up on the current social and political system and are angry and ready for violence. He says, “I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest… So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.” King was a Christian leader, a prophetic voice in a time of tension, hope, and suffering. Like many prophets, he was not always well-received, especially by those comfortable with the injustice of the status quo. Like many prophets, he was killed for trying to change it.

In our gospel reading, we get the second half of the story of Jesus going to the synagogue in Nazareth. Last week we heard him read from the scroll of Isaiah of the anointing and ministry of the Messiah. Then Jesus follows this by telling them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today we see their response.

At first, it was a positive response. “All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Then it kind of begins to fall apart. “They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’” In other words, some of the crowd’s response was, “He’s claiming to be the Messiah?? Hmm. I doubt it, he’s just the kid of that carpenter Joseph. That’s all he is.”

Jesus picks up on their disbelief. “He said to them, ‘surely you will quote me this proverb, “Physician, cure yourself,” and say, “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place.’” In other words, Jesus presses on their lack of faith. They will tell him, “You healed strangers in Capernaum, so now heal your own flesh and blood here in your home town. And then we’ll believe you’re more than just a carpenter’s son.”

Jesus instead replies with two well-known Old Testament references. We recently had the story of the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16), a poor pagan woman gathering sticks at the city gates to prepare her last meal, when the prophet Elijah gave her the miracle of the flour and oil that didn’t run out for a year, until the famine was over. And we’ll hear later this year the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14), a pagan general in the army of one of Israel’s neighbors, who was cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha.

Jesus is saying to his audience in Nazareth that in those times, Israel was wicked and faithless, and so God didn’t work His miracles for his people Israel, but instead sent his prophets to work miracles for the pagan nations. And now, he says to his audience, the promised Messiah is here among you, and you also are wicked and faithless, and so the working of miracles is withheld from you, and extended to strangers who actually have the faith you lack. And so yeah, the people got rather angry with Jesus at that point.

Image result for jesus synagogue nazarethWhen we see Jesus get angry like this, and offends people, we need to remember that Jesus is the living love of God. He loved the stubborn people of Nazareth with divine love, but they frustrated him because they were not open to receive the love that God wants to give them. Jesus destabilized the routine of the status quo. He was introducing a new thing that was different and better than the world as they’ve known it. But they preferred the way it’s always been done, and they resisted Jesus’ desire to open them up to God’s healing grace and forgiveness. They were too stuck to turn away from the sin and corruption of the status quo.

Several scripture commentators remark that here at the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus says to the people, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself.'” And at the end of his earthly ministry, as Jesus is dying on the cross, the people say to Jesus, (If you are the) Son of God, save yourself!

At the end of today’s gospel reading, it says, “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.” Saint Ambrose (the teacher of St. Augustine), provides his explanation: “Understand that [Jesus] was not forced to suffer the passion of his body. He was not taken by the Jews but given by himself. Indeed, he is taken when he wants to be. He glides away when he wants to. He is hung when he wants to be. He is not held when he does not wish it. Here he goes up to the summit of the hill to be thrown down. But, behold, the minds of the furious men were suddenly changed or confused. He descended through their midst, for the hour of his passion had not yet come. He passes through the midst of them.

The kind of rejection that Jesus receives for his prophetic mission as the Messiah, first here in Nazareth, and then all throughout his ministry, is foreshadowed first by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. And our first reading is the calling of Jeremiah. “The word of the LORD came to me, saying: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.

A bit off topic, but that’s a very important scripture verse for pro-life advocacy. God creates a person in the womb, with His plan for that person, that person’s unique set of gifts, and with His intimate love for that person. And if we are to be God’s people, we must protect the life of that person, as our brother or sister, a child of God like ourselves, with infinite dignity, and a right to live out their days until God calls them from this life to Himself.

But gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you… for I have made you… a pillar of iron, a wall of brass… against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Jeremiah’s ministry as prophet was one of hardships, of opposition, and suffering. He was called to chastise a people who were not going to listen to him, but punish him for trying to correct their corruption and sin. He was called to bring them back to faith in God and the blessings of the covenant, but they would reject him. But he remained faithful, and God brought him consolations.

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Fr. Tony Kadavil describes this call to Jeremiah by showing how God makes four assertions: “I formed you” (as a potter forms clay), “I knew you” (referring to the intimate relationship between God and Jeremiah), “I dedicated you” (consecrating Jeremiah to do God’s work), and “I appointed you” (to a mission as His prophet to Israel). At the start of Jeremiah’s ministry, God warns the young prophet not to be intimidated by those to whom he prophesies. “They will fight against you,” God warns, “but will not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you.” During his lifetime, Jeremiah was considered a total failure, but in later times he has been recognized as one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

Dr. John Bergsma draws a good number of connections between the life of the prophet Jeremiah, and the life of Jesus, much which also fits the description of Isaiah’s mysterious Suffering Servant (e.g, Isa 52:13-53:12):

  1. chosen from the womb (Jer 1:5; Lk 1:31);
  2. destined for rejection and conflict with their people (Jer 1:18-19; Lk 2:34-35),
  3. called to celibacy (Jer 16:1-4; Mt 19:10-12),
  4. likened to a sacrificial lamb (Jer 11:19; Jn 1:29,36),
  5. betrayed by those closest to him (Jer 12:6; Jn 13:18,38 etc.)
  6. preached against the Temple and predicted its destruction (Jer 26:2-6; Mk 11:15-19, 13:1-2)
  7. opposed and persecuted by the chief priests for doing so (Jer 20:1-3; 26:7-9; Mk 11:18)
  8. condemned to death for doing so (Jer 26:8-9; Mk 14:57-58)
  9. tried by a vacillating, partly sympathetic, yet weak-willed civil magistrate (Jer 37:16-38:28; Jn 18:28–19:16)
  10. cast into a pit and raised up from it again (Jer 37:6-13; Jn 19:40–20:18).

This call to be “a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” does not mean that we can become hardened and callous in our mission. That’s what makes it even more difficult: Even though we will be attacked with (and ourselves accused of) injustice, our vocation is to continue to love, to appeal, to earnestly desire the conversion and salvation of those who oppose us.

Again, from Dr. Bergsma:

The reality of sin in human society means that the quest to be like God, to do the good, to attain holiness, will inevitably lead to conflict with others who are not on that quest.  Our Lord taught us so in his most famous sermon:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:10-12)

That is usually the life of a prophet. Like the opposition experienced by Jesus. And like the opposition that Jesus promised would be experienced by his prophetic people who deny themselves, pick up their crosses, and follow him—People who weep when the world applauds. People who give generously when the world hordes. People who lay down their lives for truth, when the world kills for power and pleasure.

Why would we do that? What is it that marks the people of God as different than the world?

“Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”

In the second readings of the last few weeks, St. Paul has been teaching about the essence of Christian community, how it is a body, which needs all its members to work together in love, to care for one another, and generously share their gifts. In this beautiful chapter today, Paul teaches the community how each member (and how the community) is to know they’re using their gifts in the right way. We can have wonderful talents, we can have wealth, intellect, faith, generosity. But if our gifts (our charismata, as Paul says in the Greek) are not put at the service of love poured out for God and one another, it’s all for nothing.

The Corinthian community was being torn apart by their boasting of their gifts (tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, etc.), and here Paul puts them all rightly at the service of the one gift that gives them meaning, and without which they are wasted. But worse still, if they become a source of pride and rivalry, what a sinful betrayal of God’s gifts!

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Paul then describes love. Like the Beatitudes that Our Lord gives us in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s description of love is really an image of Christ, a portrait in words.

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Image result for faith hope loveOf course, this is a very popular and trendy reading for weddings, because it uses the word “love” over and over, and is a beautiful poem. But (hopefully) more importantly, it inspires couples to apply these attributes to their own love for one another; building up their dependence on grace to purify their wavering, imperfect, human love into enduring, perfect, divine love.

From a homily on this reading by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., the Preacher to the Papal Household:

Paul’s message is quite relevant today. The entertainment and advertising worlds seem bent on inculcating in young people that love is reducible to “eros” and that “eros” is reducible to sex. Life is presented as a continual idol in a world where everything is beautiful, young, and healthy… But this is a colossal lie that generates unrealistic expectations, which, once they are not met, provoke frustration…

In the love between a husband and wife “eros” prevails at the beginning, attraction, reciprocal desire, the conquering of the other, and so a certain egoism. If this love does not make an effort to enrich itself along the way with a new dimension, one of gratuity, of reciprocal tenderness, of a capacity to forget oneself for the other, and to project itself into children, we all know how it will end.

Because Paul’s description is an image of Christ, it should also be an image of every Christian who follows him. Because in the end, it is only generous divine love accepted into our hearts and poured out into our lives that matters.

“If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy  partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.
At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”

In the end, there will be no prophesies: all will be revealed. There will be no tongues: we will understand one another without difficulty. When we enter into God’s presence, we will see the triviality of worldly concerns. As God knows us in perfect light and truth, our partial light and truth will be perfected in Him, and we will behold Him (and one another, and ourselves, as we really are) in His perfect light and truth.

Christ loved his enemies and persecutors, and so must we. Christ loved sinners and the poor, and so must we. Because of his love, Christ suffered rejection, ridicule, injustice, and even death, and so must we.

Rev. Dr. King, in his last Christmas sermon (1967) before his assassination, puts this all in terms of his ministry against the racial tension, injustice, and violence of his time. It is an incredible call to how Christians must respond, to truly be a witness to the image of Christ, the living love of God, in our lives.

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience so that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'”

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