About Fr. Steve Kelley

...is a happy Catholic Priest, ordained 2013 for the Diocese of Harrisburg. He is currently assigned as the pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Columbia, PA. He started this blog to provide personal opinions, speculative theology, and commentary on various theological and social issues. "I ask that if you find anything edifying, anything consoling, anything well presented, that you give all praise, all glory and all honor to the Blessed Son of God Jesus Christ. If on the other hand, you find anything that is ill composed, uninteresting or not to well explained, you impute and attribute it to my weakness, blindness, and lack of skill." - St. Anthony of Padua

Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 11:1–10
Psalm 72:1–2, 7-8, 12–13, 17
Romans 15:4–9
Matthew 3:1–12

In the time since I began seminary, I’ve learned about many interesting and beautiful Catholic traditions that I didn’t know about: St. Joseph’s bread, holy relics, St. Blaise throat blessings, the Angelus, and related to today’s readings, the Jesse Tree.

The Jesse tree is an ancient Advent tradition that has its source in today’s first reading from Isaiah: “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him.” As we read the Old Testament by the light of the New Testament, we know that Isaiah was writing about Jesus, even if Isaiah didn’t know it when he wrote it. Jesus is the one that Israel has been waiting for, the fulfillment of the long-awaited hope for the Messiah, the Son of David, to come and begin the new age of the Messiah, which Isaiah writes about so beautifully in his book.

King David had been given a promise by God that his throne, his royal descendants, would rule forever, not just over Israel, but over the kingdom of creation, a kingdom that would have no end, geographically or temporally. But so many of David’s descendants were corrupt, weak, and faithless, that their poor example and leadership led Israel into corruption, weakness, and faithlessness. And God allowed their sinful choices to lead to the suffering of the Babylonian Exile. After the exile, the Dynasty of King David’s family was no more. Obviously, that presented a problem for the ancient hope that one of the kings of David’s line would be the great king of Israel’s future glory, foretold by the prophesy. David’s line had been cut down. It was not like a mighty tree, but a dead stump. There were descendants of David, but they weren’t kings. And after the return from the Babylonian Exile, Israel’s kings weren’t from the line of David, son of Jesse.

Yet God is true to his promises. So, through Isaiah, he gives Israel this reassurance of their hope: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse”. Sometimes it happens that when a tree is cut down, it doesn’t die. It begins to regrow, starting with a little shoot from the seemingly dead stump. A new hope for the mighty tree. In the Gospel of Luke, the genealogy starts with Jesus, and ends all the way back with Adam.

As a way to celebrate Jesus as the long-awaited Son of David, son of Jesse, the tradition of the Jesse Tree developed in Catholic art, especially in artistic biblical manuscripts and stained glass windows beginning in the 11th century. The “shoot” that will sprout is the Hebrew word netser, which also can be translated as rod or branch (or flower, as it was by St. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate bible of the Church). Ancient images of the Jesse tree show a branch growing upward from Jesse, often through David, then through Mary, and then flowering at the top as Jesus. And the space all around is filled with the historical figures or events that lead up to Jesus.

Related imageThe Jesse Tree in modern times is a beautiful Advent tradition, especially for children. Each day, a symbol from Old Testament history is put on the tree, starting from the bottom, starting with images from Genesis, and a little reflection is shared about the image. Each day another symbol is added, with the reflection about its importance, all the way up to Christmas eve, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament with the arrival of Jesus, the Son of David, Christ the newborn King.

This would be a wonderful tradition for our parish families, who want to help their children grow in their spiritual awareness of the Old Testament leading up to Jesus, and their spiritual appreciation of Advent as more than shopping and decorating.

Isaiah describes the shoot of Jesse as filled with the Spirit of God. Then he gives us what we call the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, good counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). “Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide.” This connects to last week’s gospel about two people working, and one being taken and the other left. That is, that Jesus knows the secrets of the heart. Even those who appear to be good, or bad, or the same as others, outwardly, the divine Judge, Jesus, knows fully, and judges perfectly. Isaiah then goes on to describe the world of the Messiah, an image of peace throughout all creation, as a restoration of the Garden of Eden. And peace among humanity, as even the gentile nations will seek out the Messiah. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.

Our Gospel reading today reflects the progressive focus of the Advent Season: The first week our focus is on the Second Coming of Jesus, to remind us to prepare ourselves for Jesus coming in glory to judge the world. The second and third week our focus is on St. John the Baptist, to prepare us for the ministry of Jesus as he manifests his Messianic identity and mission to bring the fulfillment of God’s mercy to those who respond to the invitation to faith. And then the fourth week of Advent our focus is on the unfolding of the events immediately leading up to the birth of Christ. So our Advent season of preparation is designed to spiral us inward from the grand scheme of Christ’s coming to the laser focus on the actual celebration of the holy feast of Christmas.

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John the Baptist baptized with water, inviting people to acknowledge and repent of their sins. He didn’t baptize with water and the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of those sins. That would have to wait until the coming of Christ. But clearly people were responding to John’s message. And his message was that we need a savior, and that being aware of our need for a savior is essential for preparing ourselves to desire him and receive him.

I always found it interesting that Isaiah’s message, without modern punctuation, could be read,

A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord’

and could also be read,

“A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’

We’ll finish then with this beautiful message from Fr. Cantalamessa, the preacher for the papal household.

The heart of the baptist’s preaching is contained in that phrase of Isaiah that he powerfully repeats to his contemporaries: “The voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight his paths!”

Isaiah, to tell the truth, said: “A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). It is not, therefore, a voice in the desert, but a way in the desert. The Evangelists, applying the text to the baptist who preached in the desert of Judaea, modified the punctuation, but without changing the message’s meaning.

Jerusalem was a city surrounded by desert. As soon as a road was traced out, it was soon erased by the sand blown by the wind. When a procession or an important person was coming to Jerusalem it was necessary to go out into the desert to make a more dignified road; brush was cut away, holes were filled, obstacles were flattened, bridges were repaired. This is what was done during Passover, for example, to receive the pilgrims. This is what inspired John the Baptist. Someone who is greater than everyone is about to come, he cries. A road must be made for him in the desert so that he may arrive.

But this path is not made on land but in the heart. To build this road is to engage in conversion. “Straighten the pathways of the Lord!” — this command presupposes a bitter reality: Man is as a city invaded by the desert; he is closed in on himself, cut off by his sin.

Isaiah and John the Baptist speak metaphorically of ravines, mountains, twisted roads and impervious places. We just need to call these things by their real names, which are pride, sloth, lust, gluttony… (the sins and vices that St. Paul talked about last week).

The word of God does not burden us with duties without at the same time giving the assurance that he will do (together with us) what he commands us to do. God, says the prophet Baruch, “has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” (5:7). God makes low, God fills up, God builds the road.”

My brothers and sisters, our advent task is to cooperate with God’s work in us; to trust ourselves to his work of preparing us to welcome the birth of Christ the King into our hearts. Come, let us adore him.

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Homily: 1st Sunday of Advent

Image result for marshmallow test

The “Marshmallow Test” is one of the most famous experiments in social-science research. A researcher brings a child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and places a marshmallow on the table in front of them. Then the researcher offers the child a deal. The researcher was going to leave the room, and if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would get a second marshmallow. Then the researcher left the room for 15 minutes. So the choice was simple: one treat right now or twice the treats later.

As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled in their chairs as they tried to hold on, but eventually gave in. And some of the children did manage to earn their second marshmallow.

In other words, waiting is hard.

Our readings for this First Sunday of Advent are about anticipating the coming of the Messiah. The second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, and our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, put us in the spirit of watchful waiting for the return of Christ, which may happen at any moment, or thousands of years from now. But he is coming, and he will expect his people to be doing his work, loving God and one another with all their being. While there is an element of fear in the waiting, because we don’t presume that we’re anything more than unprofitable servants, yet our waiting is marked by joyful anticipation, for we recognize in God the fulfillment of all of our hopes, and the healing of all our needs. These New Testament readings of our hopeful waiting, and anticipation of the second coming of Christ, are to help us experience the position of Israel, in our Old Testament readings, who were hopefully waiting and anticipating the first coming of the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One

Isaiah is the great prophetic book of the Bible, and is rivaled only by the Psalms as the most-quoted Old Testament book by the New Testament authors. The early Church called the Book of the Prophet Isaiah “the fifth Gospel,” because it contains so much prophecy about the Messiah and the hopes of the Messianic age.

For much of the period when Isaiah was writing (700 years before Jesus), the northern kingdom of Israel was near to being annihilated, and the southern kingdom of Judah had been reduced by the Assyrians to a tiny state consisting of the area around the capital city of Jerusalem. Sincere worshipers of the LORD were few, and the culture was dominated by corruption and religious compromises with paganism. It was a discouraging time for the faithful, who found themselves outnumbered, powerless, and culturally impotent, even in Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, Isaiah provides a vision of hope: “In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house (The Jerusalem Temple, on Mount Zion) shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. (It’s not the highest mountain, but it will be the highest in significance). All nations shall stream toward it (all the gentile nations will come to the Temple and worship the one true God. And where will they worship? In the Temple’s court of the gentiles, which at the time of Jesus, had been turned into a marketplace); many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob (God renamed Jacob as Israel, whose sons were the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel, so the house of the God of Jacob is the Temple of the God of Israel)… For from Zion shall go forth instruction (the Hebrew word Torah, which is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah literally means “instruction,” but by extension it also means the Law, which is for all humanity, to live according to our call to holiness and righteousness) and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (in Greek, “word” is “logos”; remember the beginning of the Gospel of John, “In the Beginning, the Word (the logos) was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh!) So Isaiah is anticipating the glory of God and the splendor of God’s Word, spreading out from Jerusalem and across the world. Which it does, in a way, because Jesus is God’s divine word, and Jesus’ Church spread from his death and resurrection in Jerusalem through the Apostles to all the world.

He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples.” Like Moses judged the Israelites the Exodus, settling the disputes between them with authority, all nations will recognize the authority of God, who will settle their disputes with perfect truth, and so there will be no need for war or the weapons of war. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” So that’s how we kick off the season of Advent, by joining ourselves with the holy prophets and the people of Israel, enduring their daily persecution, waiting with long-suffering hope in the deliverance of God in his Messiah, his anointed one, who will set all things right and usher in the new age, the glorious and New Jerusalem.

Just to touch on the other readings, our Psalm reflects the singing of pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem and its Temple. “I rejoiced because they said to me, ‘We will go up to the house of the LORD.’ And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your walls!” It’s a travelling song for pilgrims making their way up to the Jerusalem Temple, imagining its glory, the destination they’re heading for. Which ties into that overriding theme of Old Testament waiting and being directed toward the fulfillment of Israel’s expectation and hopefulness.

Then the New Testament set of readings, from St. Paul and the Gospel. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” We are in the end times, Christ can come at any moment, we are waiting, anticipating, keeping watch, all the while, being the prudent servant, wisely building up our treasure in heaven. Like Jesus says in the Gospel reading, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.” We cannot remain spiritually asleep, like the people in the days of Noah. We have the Light, it’s time to work, and bear fruit, and harvest. We have to wake the others! Souls are at risk! Live by the Torah, the Instruction, that God gives us for holy and eternal life! Notice that the people in Noah’s time weren’t necessarily sinning, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” but they weren’t paying attention. They wouldn’t heed Noah’s call to be watchful and prepare for the day that was coming.

And finally, besides the anticipation of Israel for the long-awaited Messiah, and the anticipation of the Church for the second coming on the Day of Judgment, we have the annual cycle of the church year, beginning today in Advent, when we prepare ourselves to enter into the annual celebration of the birth of the king, the dawn of divine light into our fallen world, and more deeply into our fallen hearts.

And so, as St. Paul says, “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day.” Let us awaken our hearts, our souls, our lives, to once again prepare the way of the Lord. Happy Advent.

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Homily: Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving

Today’s national celebration of Thanksgiving is a holiday that, in many ways, requires some sense of the supernatural, whether everyone cares to acknowledge it or not. And perhaps some part of the growing secular criticisms of the traditional celebration of this holiday reflects the larger rejection of the God to whom we truly owe our thanksgiving.

Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers are identified as Deists (an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a supreme being, the creator, on the basis of philosophical reasoning, but rejected serious religious devotion). George Washington was raised and somewhat associated with the Anglican Church (the Church of England, and of Virginia). His writing frequently mentions God, and Providence, but never Christ. Still, like many of the Founding Fathers, he held that (perhaps moderate) personal religious belief of some sort was good for the human person, and a society of (perhaps moderately) religious people was good for the nation. 

As devoted members of the the Church, the Body of Christ, we’re not thanking some impersonal cosmic force, or some abstract unknowable deity, that is left distant by the limits of philosophy. We share with deists in accepting the intellectual and philosophical truth of a supreme being, the creator. And we accept the (sometimes metaphorical) history of the supreme being’s self-revelation and his intimate involvement with his creation, particularly his love and care for humanity. We thank the one true God, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of Jesus Christ Our Lord, and Our Father, who has lovingly revealed himself and his goodness to us, for our happiness and our salvation.

I spoke about this before, but there was a particular kind of ritual sacrifice in Israel that was called the Todah. It wasn’t a sin offering, but a thanksgiving offering. It was a festive sacrifice of animal, wine, and bread, offered as part of a sequence of experiences, in which you (1) were in a situation of distress, (2) you prayed to God, (3) and made a vow to offer the Todah sacrifice if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) the Temple priest would ritually sacrifice your offering, but instead of keeping it, he would give it back to you to have a thanksgiving feast, and (7) you gave public testimony in the Temple about how God saved you.

The celebration of the Eucharist is (in part) a Todah sacrifice. Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” We bring our sacrifices of bread and wine (and ourselves and our prayers) to the priest. We often hear the word “oblation” in the Eucharistic prayers. An oblation is a bread (grain) sacrifice. We bring our offering to the priest at the altar (the priest standing in persona Christi, in the person of Christ the High Priest). Christ receives our sacrifice and uses it to present the perfect sacrifice of his own supernatural body and blood to God the Father on our behalf. God then accepts that perfect sacrifice (as both a sin offering and a thanksgiving offering), and then gives it back to us as “our daily bread,” the flesh of the Lamb of God (who said, “I am the bread of life”). Then we go out and share our testimonies of how God has saved us.

(I’m happy to have encountered this concept of the Todah sacrifice, because I had wondered, if we’re sacrificing this and giving it to God, how do we then receive it and eat it. Now it makes sense!)

The Founding Fathers, in their great wisdom, established the nature of their new nation on the inspired principles of divine wisdom, with wise reflection upon human history and experience (Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to have signed the Declaration of Independence, kept feeding them the social theology from St. Thomas Aquinas, without telling him where he got it from). They had recently emerged victorious against overwhelming forces, and from 150 years of near desolation of early settlements, and the frequent threat of weather, diseases, starvation, wild predators, and tensions with native American tribes. They recognized that Divine Providence had to have been leading to the founding of this nation, against such unreasonably unlikely odds. In other words, sharing a sentiment that we might know from our own lives, it had to be God’s doing, because it couldn’t have happened if it had been just up to us.

Image result for george washington thanksgiving proclamation 1789So, the main part of our reflection today is going to be our first President’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, in which his sense of the hand of Providence upon the American Republic is quite clear. Indeed, his mixing of church and state, the symbiosis between belief and practice, is undeniable. Consider the tone, humility, and outlook of President George Washington.

Just seven months after the U.S. constitution became effective (on March 4, 1789), here we have the first president, obeying the request of Congress to assign a day, through government proclamation, to be one “devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficient Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…

By the President of the United States of America; a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the People of these States, to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country—previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness (and particularly the national One now lately instituted)—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite, in most humbly offering, our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several, and relative, duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. George Washington.

And so let us offer our prayers of need and petition, yes; but also our prayers of thanksgiving and praise, giving glory, in all circumstances, to God, whose love and mercy endures forever. Happy Thanksgiving, and God bless you.

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Homily: The Bridegroom King


Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (Solemnity, Year C)
2nd Samuel 5:1-3
Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5
Colossians 1:12-20
Luke 23:35-43

Today we celebrate “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe,” more commonly called the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. We celebrate the message that everything is being brought together to fulfillment in the kingship of Christ. And also, the message that we always need to be mindful of our own end (“memento mori”), so that at our death, we will rejoice to meet our king, having given our life in service to his kingdom.

In the 1920s, a totalitarian regime gained control of Mexico, and the Church was being aggressively persecuted. Under the new Mexican constitution, religious education was banned, and priests were forbidden to wear clerical clothes, speak in public, or vote. Churches had been closed, many priests had been killed, and the remaining ones had to work underground at the risk of their lives.

In 1922, the Holy Father Pope Pius XI published his first encyclical, “Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio,” in which he exhorted the faithful to seek “the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ”. Three years later, in 1925, Pope Pius XI published the encyclical “Quas Primas” establishing today’s feast of Christ the King. It was written in the aftermath of World War I, which saw the fall of many well-established (Christian) monarchies. In contrast, Pope Pius XI pointed to a king “of whose kingdom there shall be no end”. Other regimes were being established, or at least the seeds being sown, that not only rejected the Church and Christian wisdom, but were horrifically oppressive to the Church, and often ultimately to human dignity and freedom: The Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the beginnings of Mussolini’s fascism in Italy and Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, and the Cristiada in Mexico.

This period of the history of Mexico is called the “Cristero War,” or the  “Cristiada.” Faithful Catholics, in a resistance movement called the Cristeros, took up the cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King!”). A Jesuit priest named Miguel Agustin Pro, using various disguises, ministered to the faithful of Mexico City. He celebrated the sacraments secretly to small groups of Catholics. Then in November 1927 he was arrested and executed without trial.

The president of Mexico (Plutarco Calles) thought that Miguel Pro would beg for mercy, so he invited the press to the execution. Pro did not plead for his life, but instead holding the crucifix in his right hand, he extended his arms and shouted, “Viva Cristo Rey!” At that moment the soldiers fired. The pictures of his execution were published in Mexican newspapers to intimidate Catholics, but they were treated as holy pictures by the faithful and had the opposite effect. We celebrated the feast day for the martyr Miguel Agustin Pro yesterday, November 23. For a taste of the times, you might want to watch the 2012 movie “For Greater Glory,” produced by the Knights of Columbus, and starring Andy Garcia and Peter O’Toole.

As providence would have it, after I watched the trailer for the movie, there was a video of Bishop Robert Barron talking about the movie. He mentioned that the biblical scholar N.T. Wright had said that that Cristero battle cry, “Viva Cristo Rey,” the life (and sovereignty) of Christ the king, is the central teaching of Christianity.

The Church’s choice of our first reading for the feast day of Christ the king is a magnificent choice. They didn’t ask me, but I love it. “All the tribes of Israel came to David… and said: ‘Here we are, your bone and your flesh… And the LORD said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel.’ King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD, and they anointed him king of Israel.” David is hailed as the greatest Israelite king. If you said to a first century Israelite, “the kingdom of God,” the kingdom of David is what will come to his mind. Not that David was perfect, his many failures are part of the Holy Scriptures. But his humility, his repentance, his devotion and relationship to God, and God’s favor and blessings upon him, set the standard.

So first, “All the tribes of Israel.” David’s son, Solomon, was the last of the kings whose entire reign was over the undivided kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes split into two kingdoms under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. So one of the prophecies of the Messiah, the king and Son of David, was that he would reunify and restore the twelve tribes into a single kingdom.

Next, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” I love this part. This is a connection back to Genesis, when Adam, the original king and lord of creation, first beholds his bride, who he recognizes and declares to be bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. And with that, there’s a covenant of Bride and Bridegroom, a complementarity and mutual responsibility in a particular kind of relationship. At the heart of the concept of covenant is that it establishes a family bond, an exchange of self-gift. So, the tribes of Israel approaching David with these words is a declaration of covenant familial bond (of course, as they are all descendants of the sons of Jacob, they are family). This is a unique concept of kingship. In Israel, the king is the Bridegroom, the nation is the Bride, the children of Israel, for whom he is responsible, not just as a ruler exercising power, but husband/father, family, for the sake of their safety and flourishing, to lead them according to the Torah, the wisdom and law of God, for their good.

Third, from our reading, “the LORD said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel.” As an agricultural people who had a lot of flocks, and olive trees (olive oil was one of the major industries of Israel), and fishing, in what was otherwise a desert, these images were common experiences of life, and so became metaphors for important concepts. And the concept of leadership as a shepherd over a flock was an easy metaphor. So David is declared and anointed (with olive oil, just as the Church uses now for its blessed holy oil) as king of the twelve tribes, in a single kingdom, as the bridegroom king, the shepherd of the people. And David is the archetype, the model of good and holy kingship in the communal memory of Israel.

As I said, after David’s grandson, Rehoboam, things go off the rails for Israel. The kingdom falls apart. If we look through the bible at Israel’s history, we see Israel’s cycle of flourishing, and getting greedy and corrupt, there’s massive injustice, the prophets warn them, then they suffer horribly, usually at the hands of some powerful and cruel foreign nation. They cry out to God, they’re purified of their sin, delivered from the threat, they do well, they flourish, then they get corrupt, and the cycle repeats. And the hope of Israel is for the long-awaited new Son of David, the Good Shepherd, who will restore Israel, the king who will come and deliver Israel (especially those who are most vulnerable) from that self-destructive cycle with an everlasting kingdom of peace and unity and flourishing.

And what feeds that hope and expectation? Well not just the cycle of suffering, but the constant voice of God through the prophets who says, “I will come, and I will be their king. I will shepherd them. Israel your bridegroom, your lord, is coming, prepare to meet him. And then I will attract the whole world, and the whole world will come under the kingship, the lordship of God.” That’s the central theme of the bible.

I didn’t include the Second Reading in the homily, because I was already far over my limit even without it. But it is certainly well chosen for the feast. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The kingdom of his Son. How does one enter this kingdom? By the forgiveness of our sins. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, through virtue, by which we lead a good and holy life, and by the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are restored to the kingdom, by his grace which again comes into the experience of our struggle against sin and wandering from the fold, and delivers us back into his flock.

The rest of the reading is Paul reflecting on the primacy of Christ, on the one hand through the Greek idea of the logos, the divine Word, as instrumentality of creation and mediation by the One (True God)—For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible”—and on the other hand, with the tradition of Judaism, which reveals the richness of visible and invisible creation—whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold togetherall of which flow from the Father’s creative wisdom, through and for his equally divine Son, in his overflowing generosity and love.

And we, too, are brought into this mystery, in the mystical body of Christ, the Church, won by him, restored by him, Image result for bride of christand united to him, by the glorious mystery of the cross—He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

And of course, it is Paul who most explicitly writes about Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as his holy Bride, in his Letter to the Ephesians:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church… Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her… that she might be holy… ‘For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.”

So then, our gospel reading. Not the gospel reading you would expect for the feast of Christ the King, is it? Me neither.

As soon as Jesus begins his earthly ministry, what’s his first proclamation? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” There’s the Old Testament hope. It has come! Jesus shows God’s role as king… in his outreach to both saint and sinner, to pharisee and tax collector. He offers forgiveness, restoration, healing, love, compassion, in all directions. When Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, he proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” What is that but the reign of God made flesh—the incarnation of the kingship of God.

The response to that is joy, yes, but also the jealous opposition of worldly kingdoms and power. That tension comes to its climax, of course, on the cross. The key confession, ironically, is from Pontius Pilate, who had the sign posted above Jesus’ head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (In Latin, Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, abbreviated INRI). If Jesus is king of the Jews, Israel’s king, he’s the king of the world. He is God coming to unite and shepherd his people (all people). And that’s the message of the gospels. And our feast day for today.

Jesus is criticized and mocked because our fallen human animal brains think divine power looks like violence and force and domination. Image result for the good thiefWhat does divine power look like? Mercy, compassion, hope, love. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What does Jesus coming into his kingdom look like? His death on the cross. Christ mounted the throne of the cross, the altar of his self-gift, where he manifested his divine love. It’s the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep.

It’s the Divine Bridegroom who gives himself to his Mystical Bride, completely, uniting himself to her, which he does by the grace of his resurrected flesh, made present by his Holy Spirit, on the altar in the celebration of the Mass; the Bridegroom consummating his union with his Bride. When we receive the Body of Christ, his body is being united with ours, He the Bridegroom, we the Bride, that the two be made one flesh. The Bridegroom King and his Royal Bride, his people. It’s not just a symbol. It’s so much more. It’s God’s love for us. It’s Christ fortifying us as a stronghold of his kingdom.

Before his crucifixion Jesus is anointed by Mary, the sister of Martha. Not just anointed for his death, but anointed, like David was anointed, for Jesus to prepare to mount his throne, his cross, and come into his kingdom. Anointed… in Hebrew, Messiah.

The Preface for the Feast of Christ the King says,For you anointed your Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with the oil of gladness as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that, by offering himself on the altar of the Cross as a spotless sacrifice to bring us peace, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption, and, making all created things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

And so today, and every day, we claim Jesus Christ as our King, our Lord, and our God, whom we reverently worship. He whom, with thanksgiving (in Greek, Eucharistia) we receive the sacramental gift of his divine, self-giving love for us, making and strengthening our communion, our covenant with him, in flesh and blood.

Viva Cristo Rey!

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Homily: “Lo, the day is coming…”

entrance to the Temple

The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Malachi 3:19-20a
Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
2nd Thessalonians 3:7-12
Luke 21:5-19

In the Soviet Union, Christians were persecuted for their Faith by the Communist regime. One small group of believers used to meet in a family home every Sunday. They would arrive at different times to avoid suspicion. On one particular Sunday they were all inside, curtains drawn and doors locked, praying, when the door burst open and two armed soldiers stormed in. One shouted, “Everybody up against the wall. If you wish to renounce your faith, you may leave now, and no harm will come to you.” Two people left right away, then a third and fourth. “This is your last chance!” the soldier warned. “Either turn your back on this Jesus of yours or stay and suffer the consequences!” Two more slipped outside, crying and ashamed. No one else moved. They fully expected to be shot, or imprisoned. The soldiers closed the door. One of them said, “We, too, are Christians. We are sorry to have frightened you, but we have learned that unless people are willing to die for their faith, they cannot be fully trusted.” In times of trouble our faith is tested, and we have a chance to do for Christ what he did for us: love him to the end.

Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year, with the message that all of time and creation points to and is fulfilled in Christ. This Sunday, then, is the last Sunday reading from the Gospel of St. Luke as Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, teaching and healing along the way, as both His spiritual and physical journey have been leading Him to the final conflict, in Jerusalem, between His earthly ministry of grace and mercy, against the powers of corruption, sin, and death.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes His disciples to the Temple, and they are marveling at its glorious splendor. And in today’s Gospel we hear, “While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, [Jesus] said, ‘All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.’

We might remember that Jesus’ threatening of the Temple was one of the charges brought against Him at his trial, and was also a charge against Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 6:13-14).

The people’s response is to ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” And the rest of our reading is His answer to the question, which then also goes on another 16 verses past the end of today’s reading.

The first part of his answer in our reading is what will happen to the world, the signs that will indicate the end has come. When Jesus is asked about when the end of the world and final judgment will be, He doesn’t answer with a date and time. He gives signs for us to read by the light of faith, that those who have the eyes to see and heart to understand, those who are attentive to the things of God, will know. But on the other hand, how would we fallen humans live if we knew for sure that He wasn’t going to come back in the next 10 years? We would live like the people in Noah’s time, who weren’t worried about the flood coming. We wouldn’t bother with living holy and virtuously. Or, on the other hand, if we knew He is going to come on a certain date 10 years from now, we would procrastinate living virtuously and holy, and then try to cram it all in at the end, not out of love for God, but looking after ourselves. That’s the opposite of the Christian life. And that’s what many people do now, even not knowing when the end is coming, or perhaps caring enough about their spiritual and eternal life.

Jesus says, there will be signs, but no, I won’t tell you directly. Instead, be ready always. Always live as though judgment might be right around the corner. And that’s what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians in response to their laziness and getting into everyone else’s business: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing(RSV translation). We must always be at work with all our heart and all our might in earnest heartfelt prayer, repentance, and a life devoted to fruitful works of the Spirit. Personally, I have never had much interest in speculating about the end times. Because practically, there’s only a chance that I will be alive to face the trials of the end times and the final judgment. But there’s a certainty that I will face my own end and personal judgment, and that is far more urgent. Because even if the end of the world isn’t coming at any moment, the end of your life might be at any moment. People who die in fatal accidents or other sudden events had no idea that morning they would meet Judgment that day, and we enter eternity with whatever state of our soul at our death. And so, Jesus’ answer is, be wise, observe what’s happening, and always be ready.

The second part of His answer is not just what the world will endure, but what His disciples will endure. “Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimonyYou will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

Jesus said all this in response to the question, “When will this happen?” which was asked when Jesus foretold that the Temple would be destroyed.

The Temple was more than just the hub of Jerusalem’s religious life. The Jews saw the architecture of the Temple itself as symbolizing the Heavens and the Earth. The Jewish historian Josephus describes that the bronze pool that was full of water represented the sea. He said that the lamp stand, the menorah in the Temple, represented the lights of the Heavens, the seven planets that you could see in the Heavens. On the Temple Veil, that divided the inner court of the Holy of Holies from the outer court, was woven stars. They actually had the constellations on the veil to symbolize the fact that the veil represented Heaven, whereas beyond the veil represented the Heaven of Heavens. And so the destruction of the Temple was in a mystical sense, a destruction of all of Creation.

And, historically, the Temple WAS destroyed. Not one stone of the temple still stands on the Temple mount Image result for wailing wall(The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”, is a retaining wall surrounding part of the mount, the foundation, not the Temple itself. The Islamic Temple Al Masjid Al Aqsa, “The Dome of the Rock” now sits on the Temple Mount). In the year 70, the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and millions of Jews, and all the temple priests, died. And with that, Temple-based Judaism and the sacrificial system, ended, and Related imageJudaism shifted completely to the synagogue model, with rabbis instead of priests, and scripture study instead of sacrifices. I’ve heard it said that the Catholic Mass is more like the Temple aspect of Judaism (sacrificial liturgies offered by priests), while Protestant Services are more like the synagogue aspect of Judaism (liturgical scripture expositions, led by rabbis). But in any case, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, and the signs that preceded it, were fulfilled on the literal, historical level. But also, on the mystical, universal level, we still await the perfect fulfillment of His prophecy with the unfolding events at the final judgment.

We know from the Acts of the Apostles and other early Church documents that Jesus’ prediction of the persecutions of the Church came true as well. Many Christians gave the full witness of their faith in Christ (“witness” in Greek is the word “martyr”). We have the accounts of many of the early martyrs and their heroic testimony. But also, in a fuller sense, the persecution of the Church, and the call to witness to our faith, is an ongoing reality, in some places worse than others, in every age since Christ, and in every age until Christ’s return, with Christ’s prediction that it will be the worst at the end. We, here and now, are called to witness to our faith, to bear fruit in our love, in our words, in our example, and in what we promote and what we oppose as disciples of the truth and love of God in Jesus Christ.

The question being asked by St. Luke’s Christian community was, “Now that many of these things have happened, and we are being persecuted, what should we do?” Our Gospel reading today, and parallels in other parts, especially the book of Revelation, writings in the bible like these about the tribulations of the end times is called “apocalyptic literature.” To quote the homily resource from Fr. Anthony Kadavil…

Early Christian apocalyptic writings were symbolic in nature, giving more an interpretation of events than an actual prediction. One purpose of apocalyptic literature is to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing. A second purpose is to encourage believers to remain faithful through the coming ordeals. A third purpose is to inspire believers to derive all the spiritual good God offers them through life’s inevitable suffering. So the apocalyptic writers encouraged their readers to interpret their sufferings as a sharing in the birth-pangs of the “end.” The believers were assured that if they remained constant in Faith, they could welcome the end of all things and the beginning of eternity with confidence and joy rather than with fear and dread. 

St. Luke reminds them of Jesus’ assurance that they were to trust His words against their persecutors and to make use of this opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. This test of Faith was also an opportunity for them to bear witness to Him before the court officials and the public at large. Thus, the persecution would become a massive evangelization campaign. Their Faith would serve as a clear witness on the Day of Judgment.  Not only would the individual martyrs see the Lord in Heaven, but the Church would flourish in persecution.

Our responsorial psalm for today continues that theme of hope, rather than fear.With trumpets and the sound of the horn sing joyfully before the King, the LORD… let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy… Before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth, he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity.Yes, the Lord is coming, and for many this bodes of the consequences of suffering for their iniquity and unfaithfulness. But for those whom “he has tested in fire and found worthy of himself,” (Wisdom 3:5, 1 Corinthians 3:13), they will share in the inauguration the New Creation, the restoration and recreation of the world, marked by perfect justice, perfect love, perfect joy, the hidden beauty in everything fully revealed. It’s the manifestation of the perfectly ordered Kingdom of God (as I said at the beginning, everything points to its fulfillment in Christ the King, which we celebrate next Sunday). 

This exhortation to faithfully persevere in times of widespread suffering is the message of the prophet Malachi in our first reading. Malachi was responding to rampant moral corruption in Israel centuries before Jesus, but this excerpt of his writing fits well with today’s Gospel. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire… But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

Related imageMy brothers and sisters, as we enter the end of the Church year, meditating on end things, our eternal life, I remind you of the phrase I mentioned last week, “Memento Mori,” Remember death. Let us pour ourselves out in making sure that our spiritual condition is always ready to meet Jesus Christ our generous savior, and merciful judge, not with empty hands because we focused entirely on this temporal world and things that pass away, but with the treasure we have laid up heaven, our deep devotional life, our good works done in love and service toward others, and our profound holiness and love for God above all things.

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Homily: Hope for Heaven


The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2nd Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

If it’s true that the world is flat, then cats would have pushed everything off the edge by now.

If it’s true that each piece of bacon you eat subtracts 9 minutes off your life, then I died in 1823.

If it’s true that a cat always lands on its feet, and that a slice of bread always lands buttered side down, then you can strap a slice of buttered bread to the back of a cat and invent anti-gravity technology.

These are all forms of the same logical test, called reduction to the absurd (reductio ad absurdum). If this one statement is true, then this second statement is logically also true, and this second statement is obviously absurd, so the first statement obviously can’t be true.

It’s the same test that the Sadducees use on Jesus in our gospel reading. The first statement is that there’s an afterlife, and this woman marries seven brothers, who each die. The second statement is that, in the afterlife, then, she would be married to all seven men, and that’s absurd. Therefore, the first statement, that there is an afterlife, is false. Image result for Now there were seven brothers;the first married a woman but died childless.The trap was that if Jesus agrees, he’d get out of the trap, but in the process, he would lose the large Pharisee group, and much of the crowd, who all believed in the afterlife. So what Jesus did was to show how the trap was wrong in its assumption. The basic assumption of the trap was that the afterlife was like an eternity of earthly life. Jesus responded that life in heaven is not like earthly life. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like the angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

The first part gets many people intrigued. There’s no marriage in heaven? Well, there is one: The marriage of Jesus Christ, the Lamb, the Divine Bridegroom, with the Church, the members of the mystical Bride of Christ. If you think about it, not all of the Church’s seven sacraments would apply in heaven. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick are no longer needed. The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders leave an eternal mark on the soul, and so they would still be part of eternal life. The Eucharist wouldn’t, because the Eucharist is a sacramental sign of the holy communion of heaven, and now that we’re in the reality of heaven, we wouldn’t need a sacramental sign of it, we’d behold and enjoy the full reality of it.

Marriage wouldn’t be eternal. First, the sacrament only binds until death do they part. Once a spouse dies, the sacramental marriage is no longer bound. But also, look at the purpose of marriage: first, the mutual sanctification of the spouses. Related imageThat’s unnecessary in the perfect sanctity of heaven. Second, the procreation and raising of children. That’s also unnecessary in heaven, as all humanity is born in this world. And a third purpose of marriage: to be an icon, a sacramental sign, of trinitarian love in the world. And if spouses are no longer in this world but in heaven, marriage doesn’t apply. Marriage is an earthly sign of (and participation in) the love of the supernatural marriage of the Lamb and the Church, which everyone in heaven participates in in an infinitely greater way than any earthly marriage.

And that’s perhaps the key reason why there’s no marriage in heaven. The relationship of divine love shared between God and every heavenly being is infinitely greater, more intimate, more transparent and self-giving, more joyful, than even the best marriages in human history. Does that mean that you won’t know your spouse in heaven? Absolutely you will.

Image result for falling in loveYou know how intimate and intriguing and exciting it is to explore the infinite mystery of someone you’re in love with? That’s because we reflect the infinite mystery of God. That’s why we exist: so that God and each soul can spend eternity exploring and growing in love and wonder of the infinite mystery of each other. Those people you already have a relationship with, especially your spouse, you already have a huge head start. And your relationship with your spouse (and everyone you already know) will be healed of any wounds. It’s an eternity of growing in deeper wonder of the mystery of God Himself, and His mystery reflected in the being of every other person. That’s the spiritual joy of heaven. There’s also physical joy of heaven, because our human nature is the unity of body and soul. The joy of our bodily resurrection and physical participation in heaven is just as wonderful, and eternal. Jesus says in our reading, that we will be like angels. But we won’t be angels. We don’t earn our wings or play the harp. Angels are completely different creations of a different spiritual species. But we will be like them in their eternal life, in heavenly perfection, and perfect holy communion with God and one another.

Dr. Peter Kreeft has an excellent recorded lecture on Angels, and another on the question of Sex in Heaven (transcribed here!), which of course is a topic I’m not going to get into here!

And as great as I can try to make heaven sound, our imagination cannot possibly come even close. St. Paul assured us that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1st Corinthians, 2:9). So you definitely don’t want to gamble on losing that for anything in this world. Jesus says in our gospel reading that heavenly life is for “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age.” Don’t let modern society trick you into thinking the road to heaven is wide and easy. The way is steep and narrow, but it’s infinitely worth it.

So just a quick look at our first reading. The theme of these readings ties into what I said at the Masses for All Saints Day. November is the end of the liturgical year, when we ponder the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell, and purgatory. So our readings today share the theme of our hope in eternal life in heaven. Jesus gives us a beautiful glimpse in the gospel. Our first reading shows us the potential cost. Our first reading is from the Old Testament Book of Second Maccabees. It’s one of the books that Protestants don’t accept as part of the inspired scripture.

The Second Book of Maccabees continues from the first book the experience of the faithful ones of Israel amidst the persecution from the Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes, who viciously enforced the Greek religion, and punished all others, about a hundred years before Jesus. Our reading is from the account of the mother of seven brothers, showing the 1st century BC Israelite value of martyrdom, rooted in the Israelite faith in the bodily resurrection. Each of the seven brothers speaks an important aspect of Israelite faith in the afterlife, but our reading only has the first, third and fourth. From them we learn, from the first son, that the just ones die rather than sin; from the third son, they will rise with their bodies restored, and from the fourth, for the wicked, there will be no resurrection to life. I also mentioned on All Saints Day that our word “macabre,” is from the French, and originates as a reference to the Maccabees and the gruesome details of the torture they endured, which our reading today thankfully leaves out. But in reading these accounts, we can see how the early Christian Church quickly gained an appreciation for the glory of martyrdom amidst persecutions, as well as the firm Christian faith in the bodily resurrection, both of which are clearly taught in the New Testament, but come kind of out of nowhere if the Old Testament excludes the books of the Maccabees… which also, in another place, talks about intercessory prayer for the dead, and the biblical root for the teaching of purgatory.

Many of the homily resources I used stressed the value of reading the full story of this mother and the seven sons, especially her exhortation to her sons, the tortures they endured, and the final words of each son. This wasn’t delivered in the homily, but I will give them to you here (and unfortunately, I couldn’t address the psalm and second reading without making it way too long!)

The Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons.

(Second Maccabees, all of Chapter 7; translation and commentary is from the New American Bible, on the USCCB website; verse cross references omitted; emphases mine)

1 It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.

One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

3 At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated.

4 These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on.

5 When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him. As a cloud of smoke spread from the pan, the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, with these words:

6 “The Lord God is looking on and truly has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song, when he openly bore witness, saying, ‘And God will have compassion on his servants.’”

7 After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. After tearing off the skin and hair of his head, they asked him, “Will you eat the pork rather than have your body tortured limb by limb?”

8 Answering in the language of his ancestors, he said, “Never!” So he in turn suffered the same tortures as the first.

9 With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up* to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.”

[7:9The King of the universe will raise us up: here, and in vv. 1114232936, belief in the future resurrection of the body, at least for the just, is clearly stated; cf. also 12:4414:46Dn 12:2.

10 After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands,

11 as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

12 Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

13 After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.

14 When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

15 They next brought forward the fifth brother and maltreated him.

16 Looking at the king, he said: “Mortal though you are, you have power over human beings, so you do what you please. But do not think that our nation is forsaken by God.

17 Only wait, and you will see how his great power will torment you and your descendants.”

18 After him they brought the sixth brother. When he was about to die, he said: “Have no vain illusions. We suffer these things on our own account, because we have sinned against our God; that is why such shocking things have happened.

19 Do not think, then, that you will go unpunished for having dared to fight against God.”

20 Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord.

21 Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words:

22 “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of.

Personal comment: biblical argument for human life in the womb before birth. 

23 Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”

24 Antiochus, suspecting insult in her words, thought he was being ridiculed. As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.

25 When the youth paid no attention to him at all, the king appealed to the mother, urging her to advise her boy to save his life.

26 After he had urged her for a long time, she agreed to persuade her son.

27 She leaned over close to him and, in derision of the cruel tyrant, said in their native language: “Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age.

28 I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things.* In the same way humankind came into existence.

* [7:28God did not make them out of existing things: that is, all things were made solely by God’s omnipotent will and creative word; cf. Heb 11:3. This statement has often been taken as a basis for “creation out of nothing” (Latin creatio ex nihilo).

29 Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with your brothers.”

30 She had scarcely finished speaking when the youth said: “What is the delay? I will not obey the king’s command. I obey the command of the law given to our ancestors through Moses.

31 But you, who have contrived every kind of evil for the Hebrews, will not escape the hands of God.

32 We, indeed, are suffering because of our sins.

33 Though for a little while our living Lord has been angry, correcting and chastising us, he will again be reconciled with his servants.

34 But you, wretch, most vile of mortals, do not, in your insolence, buoy yourself up with unfounded hopes, as you raise your hand against the children of heaven.

35 You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty and all-seeing God.

36 Our brothers, after enduring brief pain, have drunk of never-failing life, under God’s covenant. But you, by the judgment of God, shall receive just punishments for your arrogance.

37 Like my brothers, I offer up my body and my life for our ancestral laws, imploring God to show mercy soon to our nation, and by afflictions and blows to make you confess that he alone is God.

38 Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

39 At that, the king became enraged and treated him even worse than the others, since he bitterly resented the boy’s contempt.

40 Thus he too died undefiled, putting all his trust in the Lord.

41 Last of all, after her sons, the mother was put to death.

42 Enough has been said about the sacrificial meals and the excessive cruelties.

There is a progression in the words the brothers address to the king before dying:

  1. The just die rather than sin.
  2. God will raise them up.
  3. They will rise with bodies fully restored.
  4. For the wicked there will be no resurrection to life.
  5. Instead of resurrection, God will punish them.
  6. The just suffer because of their sins, as will the wicked.
  7. The death of the saints has imperatory (obtain by entreaty or petition) and even expiatory (make atonement) value. Thus, the sacred author states the theology of martyrdom and the resurrection of the just.

And so, what we can do with all this, in this month of November, contemplating the last things, is first, to give thanks to God for all that he has blessed you with of his own sheer goodness and love for you, particularly the revelation of himself and his truth, that we may know him, love him, and live by his way of holy joy. Second, apply the traditional Catholic mantra, memento mori, remember death. Always be prepared for eternal judgment. Avoid all sin. Pursue all virtue. And third, build up the strength of your own personal faith in and relationship with God, that you too may have the courage to witness and sacrifice for your faith with love and grace, in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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Homily: Zacchaeus


The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading for this weekend, from the Old Testament book of Wisdom, gives us a beautiful prayer to the Lord. It says, “For you love all things that are, and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it… But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD.” And the use of the word, “LORD” is not a call to some generic supernatural force, but the reverential substitution for the holy name of Israel’s God, who revealed His particular and personal love for His people.

So first, we can get from this the assurance that if we feel distant or unloved by God, that this is our feelings misleading us. God, who is love, loves us, or we wouldn’t exist. Not because He has to, but because He willingly chooses to. We are His beloved, each individual one of us, infinitely. We respond to His love by surrendering our lives to Him, and conforming our lives to His grace, which purifies us of every imperfection and sin.

But, we might protest, what about spiders, and mosquitoes, and oatmeal raisin cookies? Why do these vile things even exist? Or more to the point, what about terrorists, and pedophiles, and cancer cells? What’s up with that? Does God love cancer? Is that why it exists? No. Of course not. God creates all things good.

What is cancer? It’s cells of life, whose internal instruction code gets corrupted, and they start multiplying out of control, like a biological meltdown, where the very mechanism that was designed to regulate becomes the problem. That the cells exist is good. That they have become corrupted from their intentional goodness is not. The same with terrorists and pedophiles. Their existence, their nature, is good. That they have gone down the path of sin and error, and corruption of their goodness, is not.

That is why, except under very particular and rare conditions, the Church rejects the death penalty. Even the most vile criminal, who has twisted and corrupted their moral character, cannot diminish the inherent goodness of his or her human nature and dignity, which has inviolable rights, such as the right to life. 

It goes all the way back to Satan, the most beautiful of the seraphim angels, who pridefully rejected the goodness of the very plan that his own existence was part of. So in the sinful jealousy of his corruption, he led Adam and Eve, the holy stewards of creation, into sin, and so corrupted the order of nature of both humanity and of the created world, which continues to groan in anticipation of its redemption, and its freedom from corruption. God loves the things he has made, and so they continue to exist, even with their corruption. First, because he loves the goodness of their nature; and second, because his plan of restoration and redemption uses even corruption, suffering, and death for healing, love, and eternal life. God’s got it all in his plan, even allowing for our stupidity and misuse of our freewill, and the naturally occurring corruptions of disease and disaster. He uses it all for the goodness of his beautiful plan of love for each one of us, with whom he is especially close when we are suffering and brokenhearted.

Like a society under a corrupt ruler begins to share in and reflect the ruler’s corruption, Adam and Eve were given the divine authority as king and queen of creation, and so in their corruption, all of creation suffers the effect of humanity’s fall from original order.

Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

Speaking not of natural evil, like disease, but of moral evil, which is sin, God is praised for his gentleness and patience, yet his firm intent to turn offenders, sinners, from their sin and wickedness to the life of grace. He doesn’t overpower our wills, he doesn’t bully our freewill. He prompts us, through our conscience, our conversations, our circumstances, to give up our sin, our voluntary corruption, our wounds caused by the sin of others, and to abandon ourselves to the mercy of his healing love and care for us, to live according to the goodness of our created nature (for, as he says on the sixth day, “it is very good”).

Our psalm echoes the praise in our first reading. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness… compassionate toward all his works. Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD… The LORD lifts up all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.”

Our second reading, as we know, isn’t chosen to reflect the theme of the other readings, but is progressing independently through the letters of the New Testament. But today we hear St. Paul tell the Thessalonians, “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is through Jesus Christ that human nature is called to redemption and restoration to original glory and grace. We have not fully accepted the invitation to allow the kingdom of God to rule over our hearts and minds. We still want to retain some relationship with our sinful attachments, because we’re just not ready to hand over every last bit ourselves in complete trust to him; to do what we are supposed to do, and to be what we are supposed to be, for his glory and for our salvation.

The Thessalonians were obsessed with end-times predictions. In this letter is where Paul writes the most about the end times, and so we read from this letter the last four weeks of the liturgical year, leading up to the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday. St. Paul is responding to the disordered way that the Thessalonians were responding to thinking the end times had come, or were about to come. They cannot think the end is nigh, so  work is pointless and slacking off, nor that they might be like the wicked servant, who thinks the master is long delayed in coming, and begins growing in sinfulness. And Paul corrects them to always be prepared for the coming of Christ by always being faithful in living out the Christian life, always bearing fruit, always carrying out their witness of the virtuous and holy life of grace. 

And finally, in our gospel, all of this comes together in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. We remember from last week how much tax collectors were despised as unclean thieves and traitors against their own people. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, a regional director. And a wealthy man. And he’s short.

So Jesus is coming to town, and Zacchaeus wants to see him. Perhaps because of Jesus’ reputation of mercy and kindness toward tax collectors, even naming one among his twelve special apostles. So he runs ahead of where Jesus is going, and climbs a tree, maybe hiding in the leaves. Here’s a rich chief tax collector, climbing a tree like one of the village children.

Children can experience and participate in the celebration of the Mass more easily  without rows and rows of adults in front of them blocking their view of the sanctuary, and Jesus on the altar. 

Jesus looks up and sees him, and invites himself to have dinner with Zacchaeus. And everyone grumbled. Why is he going to that house? Why doesn’t he go to the poor? Why not with the prayerful ones? How can Jesus be who people say he is, if this sinner is the kind of person he’s going to have supper with?

But Jesus is expressing God’s desire to be in communion with those lost in sin, to seek them, find them, and bring them back to life. Zacchaeus had only hoped to see Jesus. Now he’s overwhelmed being the recipient of God’s divine attention and care. God did not just see the corruption of Zacchaeus’ moral character. God also knows Zacchaeus down beneath the corruption to the goodness of his very being; goodness that God wanted to draw out; the life of generous communion he was made for, which is perfected in the communion of heaven. And the effect on Zacchaeus is not just perfect contrition, but also superabundant reparation for his sinful ways. The reading says, “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.’”

Think about what you have in the bank right now, what you own, what your assets are, whatever. Think about saying, I’m cutting that in half, half of that, it goes to the poor right now and you don’t look back. That’s Zacchaeus.

This reparation is like the penance that is assigned in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The penance does not earn the forgiveness of sins. The penance is the reparation done in thanksgiving, as the response to having been forgiven. It is meant, on the one hand, to be therapeutic, to help the penitent grow in holiness and not fall into sin again; and on the other hand, to put good into the world, into the community, to “repair” the effects of the sins they’ve done and now been forgiven for. The Sacrament of Reconciliation forgives the sin in the eyes of God, on the supernatural level. But the effects of sin, the wounding done to the relationships and the community, and an increased attachment to sin, must be amended on the natural level. 

So when Zacchaeus responds in this way to Jesus, what does Jesus say? “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house…’” There’s a play on words, a double meaning.

First, Zacchaeus being restored to righteousness and communion with God by God’s mercy, and Zacchaeus’ response of perfect contrition for his sin, and his abundantly generous reparation shows “that today salvation has come to this house.”

But also, Jesus says this in the context of He Himself coming to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus himself is the salvation that has come to this house. Jesus is the cause of Zaccheaus’ conversion, his restoration to the communion of the children of Abraham, God’s people. Zacchaeus belongs to God, and God has always loved him, and now calls that love to come bursting forth out of Zacchaeus in the form of joyful generosity. And that’s what ties all our readings together. God knew of the evil and corruption of Zacchaeus, and the suffering that he caused, especially to the poor. And now Jesus doesn’t help the poor by destroying their oppressor Zacchaeus, but by lovingly removing the corruption in Zacchaeus, he now becomes a generous blessing and provider to the poor.

For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” And this might remind us of the three parables about God’s joy at recovering the beloved thing that had been lost, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son. One might imagine, with the hatred and resentment the people expressed toward Zacchaeus, and his corruption keeping him away from the liturgical and communal life of worship, which held the community of Israel together, that Zacchaeus might have struggled to see himself as a divinely loved member of God’s people, the children of Abraham. He was lost and separated, by sin and by hatred. And Jesus, salvation incarnate, came to heal the sin and reconcile the separation, that this lost son of Abraham might indeed know himself principally in terms of God’s love for him, and his call to live out that love in holy and generous care for the community, using his gifts and resources for the good of all, especially those most in need.

I love the quote that I saw that says, 

Image result for Long before Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus, the tree was already planted to meet his need

God works all things for good for those who love him and follow his ways. And Zacchaeus didn’t even love him when that tree was planted. God continues to love us, even when we do not love Him in return. God was prepared and ready for Zacchaeus. If God could do this with corrupt, selfish little Zacchaeus, what could he do with you? What would be the effect for the world of your Zacchaeus-like repentance and superabundant restoration? He doesn’t need us, but calls us to exist and sustains us out of sheer generous love for us, that we might repent of our sin, and share in the joy of his divine goodness. We are made to let loose all our potential into his divine service, for his glory, and for the welfare and salvation of others.

God loves you, and he is not angry with you. He wants you—He created you—to share in His joy, and let go of the sin that limits His life in you. Trust in him. Do not be afraid. Let your light shine.

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent… Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you… O LORD and lover of souls.”

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Homily: The Pharisee & The Tax Collector

Pharisee and Tax Collector

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

What kind of person is despised for their poor, unholy reputation? Drug dealers? Rock stars? Abortionists? People calling about the warranty on your car? Then, what kind of person is respected for their high moral reputation? Monks? Teachers? Nurses? That’s the contrast that Jesus sets up in his parable.

A person of a very respected group. A pharisee. We have a jaded opinion of pharisees because most of what we know about them comes from their conflicts with Jesus, and his criticisms of them (such as in today’s reading!). But they were highly respected for their reputation for righteousness. The Pharisee movement was a call to radically live the requirements of the laws of righteousness, and in general they were well-respected for their knowledge of the scriptures, the law, and their propriety. Tax collectors on the other hand, were reviled by the Jewish people. Tax collectors were Jews who paid the Romans in advance for the money due to Rome for taxes, and then collected the taxes from their fellow Jews to repay themselves, often with a comfortable margin for profit. The fact that most tax collectors were rather wealthy, and rather unforgiving toward their fellow Jews who struggled to pay their taxes, didn’t help their reputation. In other words, they collaborated with the Romans and stole from the Jews.  Hence, they were considered by their fellow-Jews to be traitors, unclean and sinful. So Jesus sets up this contrast in his parable: the obvious good guy, the pharisee; and the obvious bad guy, the tax collector. The pharisee, no stranger to the temple, goes up and gives a litany of his righteous habits. The tax collector timidly slips in the back, and mutters a pathetic little prayer.

We talked a few weeks ago about the parables of Jesus having two very common features: the unexpected twist, and the moral lesson (in Hebrew, the “nimshal“) at the end. And this parable fits that description. “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.” There’s the surprise twist.For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” And there’s the moral lesson at the end.

Jesus’ criticism of the pharisee echoes the prophets’ complaints about the Temple sacrifices for centuries before that: people doing the religious actions required by the law, but without the religious devotion, contrition, and holy life those actions are supposed to express. Outward holiness must be the fruit of inward holiness. And this pharisee has a long way to go toward inward holiness. St. Luke even introduces this parable saying, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” So let’s look first at the prayer the pharisee offered: “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself. ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’”

So first, he “spoke this prayer to himself.” His prayer is addressed to God, but he’s praying to himself. He’s replaced God with himself. That’s the definition of pride. 1, he trusted in himself and his righteousness, and 2, he despised others.

I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” So he’s not praising God for God’s mercy and glory, he’s praising himself for being better… than the rest of humanity. Wow. And then he lists the ways he’s better, by the opposites of his own strengths: as a pharisee, he overpays on his tithes, follows the letter of the law, and is scrupulously righteous; therefore “the rest of humanity” is greedy, dishonest, and adulterous.

And then he says, “or even like this tax collector.” The great 5th century homilist St. John Chrysostom commented on this, “To despise the whole race of man was not enough for him; he must yet attack the tax collector. He would have sinned, yet far less if he had spared the tax collector, but now in one word he both assails the absent, and inflicts a wound on him who was present… To give thanks is not to heap reproaches on others.”

If you’re one of the people who have confessed being judgmental and condemning strangers, especially people who appear to have made a life with a pattern of bad choices, that’s like this pharisee: “At least I’m not as bad as that loser.” The good news is that you’re not alone. The bad news is it’s clearly an uncharitable habit that needs to be broken. Jesus just called you out.

So that’s enough picking on the pharisee for now. Let’s turn now to the underdog hero of our story, the miserable tax collector. Here’s where we get the connection to the other readings.

But the tax collector stood off at a distance.” Ok. Score one for the people in the back pews.

He “beat his breast and prayed.” This is a common expression of penitence. In the Penitential Act of the Mass, the Church instructs us to strike our breast, as we say, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” We’re humbly expressing our sorrow for our guilt. First we have to have a sense of sin, that there are things that are objectively and truly in conflict with God’s law of goodness. And we have to examine our conscience and acknowledge that we have sinned, and we’re owning up to it. And we’re contrite, we’re sorry for our faults.

The tax collector simply and earnestly prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s the way to confess sin. Often in the confessional, a penitent (usually one who isn’t frequently in the confessional) will say something like, “Well, I do this bad thing, and that bad thing, because this and that (implying, so it’s not really my fault’). But I do this good thing and that good thing.” No, that’s now how this works. Confession isn’t where we explain away our guilt, and we don’t go into describing our good things, justifying ourselves. That’s the pharisee. Confession is just that: humble, straightforward confession of our guilt and sin against God, our wounds where we need God’s mercy to forgive and heal us. Like this tax collector, who, moved by God’s holiness, and his own lack of holiness, simply and honestly prays for mercy.

Remember tax collectors were generally pretty wealthy. But here’s a tax collector who has been moved by God to come to the Temple, to the presence of God, and confess his spiritual poverty, his many sins, against God and against his neighbor, and his utter dependence on God for mercy and reconciliation and salvation. And it is the tax collector who went home justified, forgiven, reconciled.

In another commentary by St. John Chrysostom, who was referenced earlier, he says, “This parable represents to us two chariots on the race course, each with two charioteers in it. In one of the chariots it places righteousness with pride, in the other sin with humility. You see the chariot of sin outstrip that of righteousness, not by its own strength but by the excellence of humility combined with it. But the other is defeated not by righteousness, but by the weight and swelling of pride. For as humility by its own elasticity rises above the weight of pride, and leaping up reaches to God, so pride by its great weight easily depresses righteousness.”

I’m also reminded of an earlier passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees that they, too, are sick and in need of repentance and not as righteous as they think. But the Pharisees were too proud to understand. But the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, they were well aware of their sin, their spiritual poverty, and were joyful that the divine physician had come to heal and restore them to justice and spiritual health. One commentary on our gospel reading said,The Pharisee got what he asked for, which was nothing, while the tax collector got what he asked for, which was everything.”

One of my favorite movies is “Son of God,” directed by Christopher Spencer, and produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. It’s the Gospel follow-up movie to their History Channel series, “The Bible.” And my favorite scene from this movie combines this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. 

Our first reading, from the Old Testament wisdom author Sirach, says, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds” This is echoed in our Psalm, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” St. Paul says our second reading, “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength… and I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

God is awesome, and perfect, and glorious. And He pours His glory upon us as His love and mercy. We know we can only be made holy by His grace, and our receptivity to His grace; His invitation and our response.

In this life, and in our final judgment for the life to come, if (and wherever in our life) we rely on our own righteousness, we fall, proud and unrepentant, and we will be humbled when we are locked out, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if we humbly prostrate ourselves before Him in utter dependence (especially when we are suffering and brokenhearted), He exalts us. He heals us and unites us to Himself and the saints and angels in holy communion for all eternity. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

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Homily: Healing and Thanksgiving


The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
2 Kings 5:14-17
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

Today our readings teach us about two things: God healing us, and our thanksgiving to God for healing us.

In our first reading, we have the end of the story of the healing of Naaman. Namaan was a Syrian, the army commander of the king of Aram, and he was highly esteemed and respected. But he had contracted leprosy. Naaman’s wife had an Israelite slave girl who spoke of a prophet in Israel that could cure Naaman. So the king sent Naaman to the king of Israel, along with a letter and gifts for Naaman’s safe passage. One of the interesting things about this story is the Israelite king’s response. It says, “When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: ‘Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” The king tells us that the deadly affliction of leprosy is so horrific that it only a god could cure it.

So, the prophet Elisha hears about this, and sends a message to the king: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s dwelling, Elisha sends word to Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River, and he will be healed. And the valiant military leader is a bit insulted. First, Elisha doesn’t even greet him himself, he just sends a messenger out to tell him. And second, the Jordan river is a muddy little creek compared to the great rivers of Syria, and third, just bathe in a muddy river? That’s it? So in anger, he storms away. But his servants plead with him, saying, “if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?

Image result for naamanAnd then this is where our reading picks up. Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of Elisha. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean of his leprosy.” It wasn’t just that his skin was healed of leprosy and became the normal skin of a grown man. He was made new. His flesh was like that of an infant.

And then we have the second part: Naaman is thankful for God’s healing. He tells Elisha, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel… please let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD.” This is a strange request to us, but it shows the belief that gods were territorial, and Naaman wanted to take ground from Israel to worship the God of Israel back in Syria.

So now let’s see how all this relates to the Gospel. Jesus is traveling through Israelite and Samaritan lands and is approached at a distance by ten lepers asking to be healed. “And when he saw them, he said, ‘Go show yourselves to the priests.’ As they were going, they were cleansed.” So leprosy referred to a number of different skin diseases, some of them were temporary, some were not, and included in that was what we know as leprosy, that killed off the nerve endings, leading to infections, until the person died. Image result for israelite lepersIn the book of Leviticus, Moses had established procedures for the priests, who were responsible for protecting the physical and spiritual health of the people, and declaring people clean or unclean, part of, or separated from, the community. So if someone had a skin disease, they would be declared unclean, and they had to stay away from others and shout “unclean” to protect the healthy community. But if it seemed that someone had recovered from their disease, they would present themselves to the priests, who would declare them to be clean, and the person would take a ritual bath, wait seven days (the number of the covenant), then there would be a sacrifice with blood and water being sprinkled seven times, and the person would be restored to the community.

So, these ten lepers don’t shout, “Unclean.” They shout, “Jesus, heal us!” And Jesus responds by fulfilling the Law: “Go show yourselves to the priest.” And as we know, they discovered along the way that they were healed. But one of the ten, not one of the Israelites, but the one that was one of those foreigner, no-good, Samaritans, “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” And at the end it says, Jesus said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith (your trust) has saved you.

Ok. So. Let’s put this all together. The Samaritan and Naaman the Syrian had three things in common. First, obviously they were lepers! Second, they were both healed by their faith and trust in God, after obeying in faith what they were told to do. So that ties us back to last week: faith and trust. And thirdly, they were both foreigners, gentiles. What was our responsorial psalm? “The Lord has revealed to the nations (the gentiles) his saving power.” So part of what is happening here, is not just healing of lepers, but healing of spiritual wounds and division, and the converting of gentiles. Jesus is expanding the covenant, so the New Covenant won’t be just with the children of Abraham, but open to all the children of Adam.

Next thing: Remember what the king of Israel said? “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy?” Who cured Naaman? God. Who cured the ten lepers? Jesus…who is really God.

Naaman tried to thank Elisha with gifts, but Elisha refused, because it was God who healed Naaman. The Samaritan returned glorifying God, and fell at the feet of Jesus, and thanked him. Did Jesus correct the Samaritan? Did he say, “Stand up, I’m just a man, like you”? No. Because he is God, who has the power to heal, and wants to heal, the world—not just Israel, but all humanity.

As a closing reflection… There was a particular kind of ritual sacrifice in Israel that was described by Moses, but it became popular much later. The Todah sacrifice was not offered in atonement for sin or in reparation, but in thanks and praise to God for a specific act of deliverance.  The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a seven-step sequence of experiences, in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) you cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah sacrifice if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was involved, and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you.

So you would bring the animal to God in thanksgiving, and then the priest would ritually sacrifice it, and then rather than burning it up or keeping it, he gave you back to you for a thanksgiving feast. The Passover is a kind of Todah feast… and so is the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist means, “thanksgiving.” From the Psalms, we learn that it was common to offer a wine-libation (offering) as part of the ritual.  This cup of wine, poured out in offering to God, is described: “The cup of salvation I will take up.”  Related imageOver this “cup of salvation” Jesus will later speak: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we bring bread and wine to the priest. The priest offers it to God. God accepts the sacrifice, and changes it into the even greater sacrifice of the meat/substance/reality of the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. God then accepts that sacrifice, and then the priest gives it back to us for our thanksgiving feast with our family and friends, as we share with each other our stories of how God has saved us from our distress.

Those who were at any of the Forty Hours Eucharistic Devotions evening liturgies last week prayed Psalm 116, which is a Todah psalm. It says, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving… I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, In the courts of the house of the Lord...”

In Every Mass, we’re called to grow in this spirit of thanksgiving, because the Eucharist is Jesus’ own prayer of Thanksgiving to the Father. During the Mass, the priest says, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God.” It is our duty and our salvation, to thank God always and everywhere. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave thanks as he offered the bread that would be his broken body, and he gave thanks as he offered the wine that would be his spilled blood. Related imageJesus gave thanks, because Jesus always thanked the Father, because it is right and just. As much as he would suffer in Gethsemane and in his Passion, he was giving thanks, here in the Last Supper, for the victory he knew (through faith and trust) he would have. The Mass is the school in which we participate in Jesus’ own thanksgiving, the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving the Church makes to the Father; the offering made through Jesus, with Jesus, of Jesus. The Church’s perpetual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father through him, with him, and in him, from the rising of the sun to its setting.

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Homily: Having Faith

mustard seed

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10

God does not always respond “yes” to our prayers. Sometimes, he has to tell us, “no.” But very often, he tells us, “Wait. Not yet.” So, “Yes, No, or Wait.” A few years ago some atheist came out with a YouTube video that pointed out that, well, there are only these three logical possibilities. If you pray for something, it will happen immediately, or it will happen later, or it won’t happen. He said, if you pray to a milk carton, what you ask for will happen immediately, or happen later, or not happen. So praying to God is no more reliable than praying to a milk carton. And that seemed to sound very convincing, and probably affirmed a whole lot of people who already didn’t believe in praying to God. 

But it misses something very important. And that is trust. Faith and trust are parts of a relationship. I don’t trust a milk carton to have my best interest, my salvation, as the underlying reality behind whether or when my prayer is answered. Because it’s just a milk carton. But when I offer my prayer to God, I trust that the answer to my prayer, whether it’s yes, or no, or wait, is determined, not randomly or by coincidence, but by His divine wisdom, and his divine love for me. 

In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is wrestling with the two biggest obstacles to faith: suffering and unanswered prayer. Habakkuk was writing as the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem, torching the Temple, and marching the Israelites into exile. Yet Habakkuk, as God’s prophet, is trying to encourage the people to remain faithful (and you think you have a hard job!). So in our reading, he is complaining to God—where are you? How can you let this happen? He says, “I cry for help, but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.

And then God responds: “Write down the vision clearly… so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time… and will not disappoint; … wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” God says, I know about the suffering. But suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Suffering has a purpose, even though it’s painful. I am not only guiding the unfolding of events, but I am with you as you suffer these events. What was the result of the Exile? The Israelites examined themselves, repented of their spiritual and social corruption, and rededicated themselves to their trust in God. Then almost immediately, the king who held them captive was inspired to release the Israelites to return to their land. Huh. Maybe God had it all planned out.

Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote that God sometimes delays answering our prayers because our heart is not yet ready to receive how he intends to super-abundantly answer our prayer. If you’ve really had prayer answered, you know, he’s not going to answer your prayer on the same little scale that you expect. He’s going to blow you away with how it all comes together, nothing like you’d expect. And so he inspires us to remain faithful, while he expands our hearts with longing, until we are truly ready for his gift. God will not settle for giving us less than his best for us. It’s all or nothing. Either we follow his way of preparing us to receive his answer to our prayer, or we impetuously decide that he just doesn’t answer prayers.

Maybe you saw the movie, “Evan Almighty,” where God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears to Evan’s wife and explains to her, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them circumstances that will bring them closer to each other?” He opens her eyes to the fact that He has been responding to her prayers all along; that God doesn’t normally perform big flashy miracles. He works quietly in the situations of life, often in ways that could be missed, because he doesn’t overpower the working of nature, he just lovingly nudges it in the right direction.

We need to maintain our faith, our trust, that God is truly who he says that he is, and that he is doing what is best for us. That might mean he doesn’t answer our prayer. If we pray for something that seems good to us, it might be something that in reality is bad for us, and no matter how much we plead, beg, and desire, God will not give us what we want. And as I’ve said before, all Christian prayer ends (either explicitly or implicitly) with Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Christian prayer is, at its heart, a matter of relationship, a matter of faith, and trust, that God truly has our back, that he is protecting us and providing for us.

So we have faith as an essential aspect of our relationship with God. Here in our psalm we have a second aspect of faith: of responding in faith to God. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We need to respond in faith to what God instructs us to do: to give more generously; to stop for someone who needs help; to fight some habit of sin in your life, or begin building a new good habit; in short, to trust that God is guiding you to do what you need to do, and in faith to obey that guidance.

Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert; Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” Meribah and Massah was a point along the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the Israelites had just recently received the beginning of the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, in response to their complaint of hunger. And now they were quarreling with Moses about being thirsty. And they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” What a bunch of ungrateful jerks! So in this place, God guided Moses to tap the rock with his staff, and water came out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah, meaning the place of “tempting” and “testing.” Although God conceded to their whining, he also said that because of their unfaithfulness—their hardness of their hearts—none of them would enter the Promised Land. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

In the verses immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus implored his disciples to forgive their repentant offenders. Something we know is often difficult to do. And their response is the beginning of our reading: they asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand. In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform. Jesus responds by telling them of the power of faith, even a little faith.

Related imageA handful of mustard seeds looks like a handful of ground black pepper. A mustard seed, like faith, is easy to lose if we’re not careful. It not necessarily the smallest of all seeds, but it was an expression for something very, very small. And yet, when planted, it grows into a large strong bush. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it doesn’t take much to make it grow, like a weed. Like faith.

The mulberry tree’s famous feature was its very strong and expansive root system. There were rules in Israelite city planning, so-to-speak, that trees couldn’t be planted within 30 feet of a well, so that the tree roots wouldn’t damage the well. Image result for mulberry tree rootsBut for mulberry trees, the distance was doubled to 60 feet, because of how notoriously spread out their roots would grow.

And yet, Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” God needs us to leave the door open for him to work through us and in our lives. If we’re cynical, pessimistic, and unbelieving, about God’s desire to heal us and give us abundant life, we’re tempted to close the door on him… to rashly decide he just doesn’t answer prayers.

So the first two aspects of faith were subjective—aspects of faith within us (our faith in God, and our response of faith). This third aspect is objective: the doctrine of The Faith, what we believe as the Church, and who we believe in as God. It is the content of the Christian Faith, contained in Sacred Tradition, which includes Sacred Scripture. So when we profess the creed, the first two words are subjective: “I believe,” and the rest is objective: the core beliefs of Christianity that I believe.

So also in this objective faith is the moral teaching of the Church that has developed to guide people in living out the faith. Jesus gives us clear moral teaching, built on the law and the prophets of the faith of Israel. And the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interprets and applies the moral truth to the new situations and controversies as they have occurred, from the first century to the twenty-first century, since Christ. The understanding of faith and morals develops, it grows, in more detail and precision over time, but it doesn’t evolve and deform into something it wasn’t before. The truth is unchanging, but our understanding of it develops.

And finally, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus gives us a very humbling instruction. He teaches us that if we are doing great works of generosity and kindness, and if we are faithfully living the teaching of the Church, and we’re fighting against sin… we shouldn’t be bragging about our greatness, and expecting a gold star sticker. Living out the truth God gave us is simply the expectation. And our response should be, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

That can be a bit deflating if we’re feeling high on God’s consolations and blessings. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help us along with what St. Therese called “The Little Way.” To embrace our smallness, and marvel at God’s greatness, and what He can do with us if we offer him our humble mustard-seed, childlike faith. It’s the joy we receive from experiencing the great works being done through us as certainly greater than we could do ourselves, and how wonderful God is to bless us as his instruments of his great works… like commanding a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea.

If we are obedient to the life of Faith, if we are faithful to the moral and spiritual teaching of the Church, if we learn to trust, even (or especially) when it seems almost impossible, if we allow God to grow our hearts and souls in humility, that we might in acknowledging our littleness, make room in us for his greatness, then we are truly doing what we are obliged to do: to faithfully live the cross and the glory of the Christian life.

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