Homily: Important and Urgent

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) go to readings
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1st Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

I have often spoken of my appreciation of Steven Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and I have used his principles as examples. Today we have another one. It’s about urgency and importance. You can put them on a grid of four quadrants. The top row are high urgency things, and the bottom row are low urgent things. The left side are high importance things, and the right side are low importance things.

In the first quadrant, you have those things that are both urgent and important. Important deadlines. Things that have to be done as soon as reasonably possible, or bad things will happen if you don’t. At work, it’s putting out the fires. Down in the Quadrant 3, we have things that are high in urgency and low and importance. Things that seem like we have to do them right now, but really if we took a longer look, they’re not that important. They’re the annoying or procrastinating things that aren’t that important that get in the way of being more productive. You don’t want to be organizing your collection of trolls when you should be doing what your boss asked you to do. Over in quadrant 4, you have the things that are low in importance, and low in urgency. It doesn’t really matter much if they get done, and it doesn’t really matter when. For example, organizing your collection of trolls.

But the magic happens in Quadrant 2: This is the category of things that are high importance, but rarely get the attention they deserve because we’re too busy putting out the fires of Quadrant 1 stuff. Quadrant 2 is the stuff that we know we should invest time in. Preparing our investment portfolio. Reading the pile of books we mean to get to. Calling or visiting that friend that keeps coming to mind. Practicing our musical instrument or hobby. All those things that make our life richer, make our future more positive, builds relationships, and we keep putting it off because we’re too busy. So it either becomes urgent, and rushes into Quadrant 1, when we now have to take care of a long term project with insufficient time, or it gets puts down in Quadrant 4, where we just never get to it, and our life is less flourishing by its neglect.

Most of us put our religion, our relationship with God, building a habit of prayer, and getting to know our faith, out in quadrant 2. Yeah, I know it’s important, but I’ll have time to do that later when I’m not so busy with the stuff I need to do now. Our readings today, here at the beginning of the liturgical year, are to teach us to put our faith where it belongs: In quadrant 1. It’s important and urgent. It’s every day, every moment, every situation, every relationship. It’s everything.

Last week we saw in the Gospel of John, Andrew and another disciple, possibly John, have their first encounter with Jesus, after they were directed to him by John the Baptist. Then Andrew introduced his brother Peter to Jesus. This week we have the Gospel of Mark, and we have a different version of the story. Jesus is walking along the shore, and happens to see Peter and Andrew, and simply says, “Follow me,” and they immediately go. Then John and James, who leave their nets and their father, follow also. No long intro, no discourse. Call and response.

We might take issue with these two gospel versions of Jesus gathering his disciples. Which one is right? The Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mark? Notice that in John, John the Baptist is there pointing out Jesus, and the disciples spend an evening talking with him. Here in the beginning of our reading from Mark, it starts out, “After John had been arrested.” So this is clearly a later event. And perhaps that’s why the disciples leave so quickly: they’ve been prepared, their hearts have been set on fire with the hope of encountering Jesus again, and when he calls them, they jump at the invitation.

His invitation to these fishermen, that Jesus will make them “Fishers of men” is not just a neat play on words. It’s also fulfillment of prophecy. The prophet Jeremiah taught the Israelites to look forward to a new exodus which would eclipse the original exodus in its significance. And this exodus will be the restoration of Israel when he calls them and they all come streaming back from all the nations of the world. The kingdom of the northern tribes of Israel had been conquered and scattered by the great enemy to the northeast, the Assyrian Empire, in the 7th century BC, because of the northern kingdom’s corruption and other sins against God. Jeremiah says, “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them…

Also, there’s another prophecy in play, from the book of Daniel. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar received an image in a dream of a large statue of different materials, gold, iron, and clay, which Daniel, an Israelite slave in the king’s court, interpreted for him to mean that there would be a succession of kingdoms: The Babylonian Empire, the Median/Persian Empire, Greek Empire, and the Roman Empire. Then in the dream a stone falls from heaven onto the statue, and the statue crumbles, and the stone grows to become a great mountain. And this is the kingdom of God. This prophecy from Daniel was popular among the Jews of Jesus’ time. So when Jesus comes on the scene saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news,” and “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” it caused quite a stir in Israel.

Our first reading, about Jonah, has this same urgent call as our gospel. Jonah, much to his dislike, was called by God to minister to the capital city of that same pagan empire: the Assyrians, that had attacked and destroyed the northern tribes of Israel. Jonah had already tried fleeing to the other end of the world. That’s when the storm caused Jonah to be thrown overboard where he was eaten by a fish, and three days later found himself alive, back where he started, like Groundhog Day, with the firm order from God to go to Nineveh. So he did. He proclaimed the message God gave him: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” It seems like Jonah didn’t really want Nineveh to be saved, and said no more than he had to, in the hopes that God would destroy this enemy city. But Nineveh was saved. They repented of their evil, petitioned the God of Israel, not even their own God, to spare them, and God did so. Again, we might balk at how the scripture states it: “God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them.” First, how can God repent, and second, why would he have threatened evil? Well first, the implied fuller message to Nineveh was “If Nineveh doesn’t repent within 40 days, it will be destroyed.” So since Nineveh repented, God’s ultimatum was satisfied, and he didn’t have to carry through with his sentence. That’s not a change in God. And second, in ancient Hebrew, there was no word for suffering. So all the related words were communicated by the same term: suffering, evil, misery, distress, etc. So it’s not that God was threatening to do evil, but that he was threatening them with the suffering for their sin. An interesting observation is that Nineveh repented at the preaching of the prophet, and they were saved. Israel did not repent, and God used Assyria to punish them.

In our second reading, the urgency of the Christian life reaches its highest pitch. Saint Paul writes, “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out…For the world in its present form is passing away.” And he tells them, live in this world, but detached from it. Be ready to sacrifice all for God when he calls, that’s our first priority. Love your wife, your home, your job, your life in the world, but love God more and be ready. Whatever you’re going through, grieving, rejoicing, whatever you’re doing, buying, selling… this is like a description of the people of Noah’s day, who were doing all the everyday “important” things, instead of listening to Noah and preparing for the flood.

And lastly, our psalm connects with an important part of this weekend. “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths; Guide me in your truth and teach me.” Saturday evening our students in 8th grade entered into the last stage before receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. This is the sacrament giving us the grace of witnessing to the world as a Christian, responsible for our actions, for our habits and lifestyle, for our example to others, for our salvation. They leave the school of childhood formation in the faith, and take their place among the ranks of Christians who must know their faith and live it out in a world that might be opposed to us on important, life-or-death matters. Hopefully by this point they have a discipline of daily prayer, of growing in relationship with our Lord and with the Blessed Mother, and they have a firm foundational understanding of our faith on which to build their character and their future faith development. We pray for them, as we pray for the whole world, that we may urgently serve our Lord in His truth, love, and mercy.

Homily: The Baptism of the Lord

The Baptism of Jesus (Year B) (go to readings)
Isaiah 55:1-11
(Responsorial) Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6
1 John 5:1-9
Mark 1:7-11

The best way to start this, I think, is to ask the question most people ask: Why would Jesus go to get baptized, if he had never sinned? I hope that by the end of this, you’ll have a good answer to that question. Now, you can take the snarky approach, and answer the question with, “For the same reason that Jesus went to get crucified, although he had never sinned.” That touches upon the real answer to the question, so we’re going to look at this close connection between the Baptism and the Crucifixion.

In God’s revelation of himself as the Holy Trinity, God the Father is the source of all being, all that is life, all that is good, true, and beautiful. God the Son is the communication, the logos, the expression, the Word, of God, to everything outside of God. Every outward expression of God is an interaction with the Son, an act of, or through, the Son. It is through the Son that the angels and the heavenly host and our material world is created; it is through the Son that God reveals himself in the world, most especially to humanity. God the Holy Spirit then is the enduring presence of God that sustains everything. It is by the Holy Spirit that the heavenly host exists and praises God; it is by the Holy Spirit that the logic and order and being of all creation is sustained; it is the Holy Spirit that breathed into Adam, giving us not just natural life, but particularly human spiritual life, that enables us to be persons oriented toward communion. That is why it was not good for Adam to be alone, and God created Eve for them to be in communion, in a particular relationship only available to those with a spirit.  

In the fall of humanity in Adam and Eve, our spirits were distorted from their original likeness; we lost our communion with God, we wounded our relationship with each other, and even within ourselves. In losing our relationship with God because of sin (although God never stopped loving us), we are unable to be in the presence of God, the infinite furnace of divine love. It would burn us up. And since our souls are immortal, we would not die, we would be burning for eternity, which is far from the eternity of peace and communion that God wants for us. And so heaven, God’s presence, is unavailable to us. We cannot reconcile with God by our own power. Humanity created a barrier, from our side of the relationship, which we cannot tear down.

And so God began the long process of preparing humanity for his gift of reconciliation. In the fullness of time, with the consent and cooperation of the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary, the Word of God, God the Son, entered into our fallen human nature, fully retaining his infinite divine nature.

His mission was to tear down the barrier from the human side of the relationship between humanity and divinity. Only in his divinity did he have the infinite power to do so, so only the infinite God in his perfect mercy and love for us could do this. He didn’t have to do this; this was his free choice, made in love.

When Jesus, humanity and divinity united in one person, reached the fullness of his maturity, which at the time was believed to be about 30 years old, he began his earthly ministry, his divine mission, to tear down the barrier, and to bring humanity back into common union, communion, with God the Father, that we may have the way of eternal life restored to us. Jesus entered into this act of baptism, being washed in the waters of the Jordan River, the river that Israel had crossed to complete their exodus and enter into the Promised Land. From that point forward, Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit, in union with the Father, for they are all one, and began collected into his humanity all the sin, death, suffering, illness, and burdens of fallen humanity.

As he neared the completion of his mission, he gave his disciples, who were the foundation stones of the Church that would continue his presence and mission on earth, the way by which they could forever re-enter into and renew their participation in the covenant of his saving act of self-sacrifice: the Holy Eucharist.

In the final act of his humanity, in the moments of his death, he says, “It is finished,” or in the Latin, “Consummatum est,” it is consummated. In this act, all the sin that separated us from God was itself put to death. The Son of God had consummated his mission that began with his baptism. The Word achieved the mission for which it was sent.

For just as from the heavens
  the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
  till they have watered the earth,
  making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows
  and bread to him who eats,  
So shall my word be
  that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
  but shall do my will,
  achieving the end for which I sent it.

(Isa 55:10-11)

In the Gospel of Mark, he only combines the words “torn” and “Son” in two places: when the heavens were torn open at his baptism, as the voice proclaimed to Jesus that “You are my Son in whom I am well pleased”; and at his crucifixion, when the temple veil was torn down the middle, and the Roman centurion proclaimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” The Temple veil was blue and embroidered with the constellations, representing the heavens, and it veiled the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the place of the Ark of the Covenant, the place of God’s presence. In the consummation of his mission, God the Son, the Word in our humanity, tore the veil that separates us from God. He paid the price and reconciled us, as only he, in his great mercy and power, could do for us.

I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.
I will proclaim the decree of the LORD,
he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
Ask it of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.

Psalm 2:6-8

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Isa 42:1, 3, 6-7

When Jesus’ side was pierced with a lance, water and blood flowed out. Water was the sign of baptism; blood the sign of the crucifixion. Jesus had asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:58). The Holy Spirit unites these events and fills them with divine life, and communicates that life to us. “And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one who testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.
So there are three that testify,
the Spirit, the water, and the blood,
and the three are of one accord.

If we accept human testimony,
the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this,
that he has testified on behalf of his Son.

1st John 5:6-12

Then, in his glorious resurrection, Jesus shows us the restoration of human life free of the burden and despair of sin. He reveals human life in glory, in reconciliation and communion with God, God the Holy Spirit joyfully and beautifully infused into human nature and filling humanity with divine life, which is grace.

In this victory, in this reconciliation, he invites all humanity to follow him through this journey on which he has led the way, the first fruit of the resurrection. And our first step on this journey to follow him is our baptism.

Heed me, and you shall eat well,
  you shall delight in rich fare.  
Come to me heedfully, listen,
  that you may have life.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
  and the wicked man his thoughts;
Let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
  to our God, who is generous in forgiving.  

Isa 55:2-3, 7

In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.

1st John 5:2-3

In our baptism, we enter into the mystery of his baptism, which points toward, and is empowered with, the mystery of his death and resurrection. We enter into the tomb of baptism. We die to our sin, our old way of life, our fallen human nature full of sin and despair, just as he was laid in the tomb, having borne the cost of our sin. And in the same moment, we rise from the baptismal water, filled with his victory, his freedom from sin, his divine life in us, reconciled to God through him. We become members of his mystical body, as we embrace his life in us.

Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.

Rom 5:3-5

The muddy waters of the Jordan River are infused with the waters of the river of life that flow from the wellspring of divine love, and flow through the heavenly city of God. And we are washed clean in this supernatural water, and united with the heavenly communion and Holy Trinity in eternal life, which we possess and live in faith even in this world.

With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.

Isa 12:3

Without baptism, we would still be stuck in our sin, without hope, without salvation. Of course, God can do what he wills, and we can always hope that those who are not baptized, by no fault of their own, might be saved. But this is what he has revealed to us for our life, and it would be foolish not to listen to him. But even those who are not themselves baptized, any hope they may have they have through the mystery of Jesus’ mission of reconciliation.

So, why would Jesus go to get baptized, if he had never sinned? Because by entering into his baptism, he gives us our entrance into his death to sin and its consequences, and our rebirth to the life of grace and reconciliation with God, so that we may enter into our earthly mission to witness to Jesus as the Son of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and our life in His Church, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Homily: Epiphany

The Epiphany of the Lord (go to readings)
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
Ephesians 3:2-3A, 5-6
Matthew 2:1–12

[In the United States, the Solemnity of the Epiphany is moved from its traditional date of January 6 (the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and Jan. 8].

“Epiphany” is from Greek, epi- meaning “on or upon,” and -phany meaning to shine. So, on the feast day of Epiphany we celebrate the shining, or revelation, of the divine light of Jesus onto the world.

So first, let’s talk about the magi. The word magi is related to our word magic or magician. Originally a magi was like a philosopher-scientist, who studied the the truths of the world, so someone who studied philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, astrology, biology, theology, perhaps even psychology, at least as these fields of knowledge existed at the time, and were far more overlapping and less separated than they are now. Such wisemen were often part of a royal court as advisers. So these magi arrive, carrying gifts. The important thing is that they were from the east; they were not Israelite, they were pagan wisemen. Ancient Roman and other pagan historians at the time make mention that not only Israel, but many pagan nations also, were expecting a great, wise, and glorious king to rise up in Israel.

And that ties in our first reading, from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. This prophecy of hope and glory, given at a time of suffering after the return from the Exile, when Israel seemed to have neither hope nor glory, tells of a future day when all the kingdoms of the world would come flowing toward Jerusalem, as the whole world worshiped the one true God, present and worshiped in the Temple of Israel. They would bring their riches into Jerusalem which would be the center of human civilization in every aspect. Jerusalem would be a beacon of light drawing all the world by its glory. Not only that, it says, “they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses.” So there’s also the Israelite dream of the restoration, the re-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel. And particularly interesting for todays’ feast, Isaiah says, “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… they all gather and come to you… bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.”

A quick look at the Responsorial Psalm refines this image. This psalm is titled, “Of Solomon,” but it doesn’t mean it was written by Solomon, but written by David about his son Solomon, the royal Son of David who was a great king renowned for his incredible wisdom, at least at the beginning of his reign. This was the high point of Israel’s monarchy, an international kingdom of great justice and flourishing. And in this psalm, David makes a similar prophecy: The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.” We might remember that the great and wise queen of Sheba, the Queen of the South, had come to meet with Solomon, and gave a wealth of gifts in honor of his unprecedented wisdom. And going back to our gospel reading, there is something greater than Solomon here. But our first reading and psalm today help to explain why the gospel reading says “magi,” and yet we sing about “We three kings.” Also, the bible doesn’t say that there were only three; just that there were three gifts. There could have been many magi in the caravan, some could have been women. But we traditionally have three wise men because there were three gifts named, combined with the prophecies we heard of kings bearing gifts.

Ok. So let’s now look at Herod, in our gospel. Herod was placed in power over Israel by the Romans, with the simple task of keeping the Israelites in line. Herod was not an Israelite but was from a nearby kingdom. He was quite wicked, and very insecure…a dangerous combination in a despotic leader. Historians tell us that Herod had his own wife and some of his children killed on suspicion that they were plotting against him. So when the magi show up asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,” it says, “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Jerusalem, or by extension, all of Israel, knew that if Herod’s panic and paranoia were enflamed, it could only bring something very bad.

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. As it turned out, it brought the Slaughter of the Innocents, so they were right to be troubled. The sad irony is that Herod had no true reason to fear. Jesus wasn’t coming as a rival, to displace him. If Herod had embraced Jesus as Messiah and Lord, Herod could have been a great king, an instrument of the Most High God, to be a king of mercy, justice, and peace, and have a reign that was secure and stable. But instead, Herod gave in to his fear and pride. The dark side.

So let’s wrap this up with a nice little bow. Three closing thoughts.

First, the particular gifts that the magi brought: why gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Well, we saw in our first reading that gold and frankincense were among the gifts and treasures the kings would bring to Jerusalem. But more interestingly, the only other place that all three gifts are mentioned are in the Song of Songs, and they are mentioned at least loosely in connection with preparing for a wedding. We’ve talked many times about Christ coming as the Bridegroom to consummate a new and everlasting nuptial covenant; and it would embrace all nations, because Israel had been dispersed throughout all the nations, so to re-gather Israel, the new covenant would have to include all the nations. Not only that, but Jesus in his own person is the wedding of divinity and humanity.

Another aspect of these three gifts is that they may make reference to the three-fold office of Christ, anointed to be priest, prophet, and king. Obviously the gold corresponded to his royal majesty. Frankincense is a kind of incense, which is used in the liturgy of worship, denoting Jesus as the True High Priest. And the myrrh was for his anointing as a prophet of God’s truth, and, perhaps also an indication that, like so many prophets before, that as the perfect prophet of God’s word, it would inevitably lead to his death, and myrrh was among the traditional oils used in preparing the body for burial.

So second closing point: Jerusalem was often referred to by the prophets as the “virgin daughter Zion,” the beautiful virgin of God, raised, cared for, and protected by God (and in a different aspect in some prophecies, a virgin courted by God to be His Holy Bride…). And also, Jerusalem was considered to be the mother-city of the people of God, especially with the Ark in the Temple, where God was present with His people. We mentioned on the day we remembered the Slaughter of the Innocents (the Monday after Christmas) the prophecy of Rachel crying out from Ramah that her children were no more. Rachel was the wife of (Jacob) Israel, and in Israelite tradition she had a sort of maternal intercessory role for her descendants, her children (hmm… a maternal intercessory role…). In the Gospel reading for the Slaughter of the Innocents, Matthew is quoting Jeremiah’s image of despair as the inhabitants of Jerusalem were taken into exile. So there’s a connection in Israelite conscience of the maternity of Rachel and the maternity of Jerusalem. That’s where we get the word “metropolis”: mother city. Recall the quote from above, where Jerusalem rejoices at her sons and daughters gathering and returning to her.

So Jerusalem is both a virgin and a mother. Where else do we have a reference to a virgin mother, I wonder? Who, in today’s Gospel reading, may have been “radiant at what you see… as caravans of camels come to you bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD”? The magi-kings didn’t present their gifts when they got to virgin mother Jerusalem, but when, “on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother”: the “blessed virgin mother,” as the Church (the new people of God, of every nation) will call her for all generations. The magi came to Mary, and did homage to Jesus. An unexpected fulfillment of our first reading: they came to the virgin mother of the presence of God—but it wasn’t Jerusalem, it was Mary— and they paid homage to God with gifts.

This conflation of images for Jerusalem as holy city, virgin, bride, and mother, may help explain why the Book of Revelation seems to conflate Mary with the Church, and the Church with the Bride of the Lamb, and the Bride with the holy city of the New Jerusalem, and why the readings for some of Mary’s feast days prophetically celebrate the glory of Jerusalem. This dual symbol of virgin-mother may also help explain how Mary can be both the Mother of Jesus and the image of the New Eve, the bride of the New Adam. It can seem a little weird, but that’s mystical theology for you.

And our last point… the magi received a message in a dream not to return to Herod, and returned to their country by a different way. That’s our reality here and now: To follow the light of Jesus, to seek Jesus, to offer all our treasures and gits before him at his disposal, for his glory. And then after this divine encounter, we are to return to our world different, not in the way we came, but by the way he leads us afterward. We just had this beautiful experience at the end of 2020 of seeing the Christmas Star, the Star of Bethlehem. Maybe it was supposed to be more to us than, wow, this hasn’t happened in 800 years, and how weird is it that it happened at the end of 2020? Maybe it was, HEY! Seek Jesus! Find him! And guide your life by his light! Seek him in the holy scriptures, seek him in the holy sacraments, seek him in his presence within you, and in your neighbor. Seek him. Know him. Love him. Serve him.