Homily: Love Thy Neighbor

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (link to readings)
Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

Today’s Gospel reading connects beautifully to the readings we’ve had the last few weeks. What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” In other words, render unto God what belongs to God. We can be Caesar’s good servants because we are God’s first. All these are different ways Jesus is reminding us of that first and greatest commandment: First, things first, and God is always first, in every way, with all of our being.

How do we respond and comply to this first and greatest command? By keeping the Lord’s Day holy and set apart. By actively participating in the holy sacrifice of prayer and worship that is the Mass, on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. By daily and frequent prayer and reading with the holy scriptures. By praying the rosary and participating in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as much as reasonably possible. By tithing our income. By volunteering and participating in the Church’s ministries, groups, and events. By living one’s life in perfect conformity with the truth God reveals to us in his word and his Church. And by regularly reconciling with God and his Church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever one falls into mortal sin. Essentially, uniting your will, your mind, your heart, your soul, to God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you will live.

In Jesus’ time, it was common for scholars of the law, the scribes, to test an unknown rabbi and their interpretation of the law by asking them to choose which of the hundreds of laws was the most important. Jesus didn’t quote any of those hundreds of laws. He quoted the Shema, the verse of Deuteronomy that faithful Jews recited three times every day, which everyone knew, the way we know the Our Father. The full text of the Shema says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words, filling one’s life with God’s presence and truth at all times, in all places, in all conversations, including diligently passing this on to the children of each generation. Just as the Our Father is the perfect prayer, the Shema is the perfect commandment.

Then Jesus goes one step more. He gives us the practical application of this perfect commandment, the way for us to fulfill it in the way we live and witness our love for God. He says: “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ah, there’s the rub. As Saint John says in his first letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Jesus took his first commandment from the Shema in the Book of Deuteronomy, and he takes his second commandment from the book of Leviticus: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” I’ll remind you that when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” his response was the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that we are called to show mercy to everyone: in a liberal, not a restrictive, interpretation of the words “neighbor,” and “your own people.”

So what does that look like, for us as the people of God? It looks like our first reading. We go back to the 2nd book of the bible, Exodus, in a scene in which Moses has just come down from the mountain of God with the ten commandments, and he is instructing the people in the moral code that is to be the law of Israel. It is the Torah, the great gift that sets Israel apart for the divine wisdom of their law. God connects his law with Israel’s recent experience in Egypt, as strangers in another people’s land, vulnerable, and dependent upon others for their survival.

Thus says the LORD: ‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” Immigrants have a humanity, a human dignity, that morally must be honored, under all circumstances. There is great risk and suffering in attempting to settle your family (or just part of your family) in a new country for a new life, assimilating into a new culture and community. They–and the people of the nation they’re looking to for hope–need better than a broken, inhumane system. Our national immigration policy hasn’t been sufficiently updated or funded, and it needs to be fixed as an urgent priority. But immigrants, aliens, asylum seekers, are of particular concern of God and his people, because they are vulnerable, in a position of weakness and need of protection, affirmation, and hospitality. And it is an act of divine love to welcome them and support them.

You may remember a situation in 2015, when (after an ACLU lawsuit) Catholic Charities was eliminated from the government's program of temporarily housing and caring for immigrants because Catholic Charities did not include access to abortion in the healthcare offered to its refugee/immigrant residents. This example, and that of Catholic Charities pulling out of the adoption services in Illinois' adoption program because it refused to adopt children to same-sex couples, illustrates the difficult dynamic of faith-based providers (adhering to their faith) working with (and receiving funding from) government social services.

You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.” What is this? Social injustice, systemic dependency, racial prejudice, unlivable wages, systemic poverty, unaffordable or unavailable medical and mental healthcare. These are all issues described by the US Bishops as grave sins against the dignity of human life. We cannot address these issues with any flavor of Socialism or Communism, which the Church has clearly condemned for their systemic sins against human dignity. We can never solve a sinful problem with a sinful solution. And the government is not necessarily the best way for these problems to be solved. But there would be no outcry for Socialism if these problems were to be solved voluntarily, without the need for the government to compel by legislation.

And the last one from our reading, “If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.” To me this might sound a bit like the cry of those trapped under decades of student loan payments, looking for hope. I get that students willingly agreed to take out these loans, and we can say that their consequences are just. But also remember that their oppressive student loan debt is a factor in their cohabiting and putting off marriage, delaying having children by using contraception and abortion, and the general despair, depression, and outcry about economic inequality. A lot of moral problems we lament could be greatly helped by finding a merciful solution to this problem. And that applies to many of the issues the bishops outlined in their document on forming consciences according to Catholic social teaching. Absolutely, abortion is the most urgent and egregious issue. But while we combat that issue, we must also combat the myriad other issues of systemic injustice and sin that infect our society and violate Catholic social teaching. Again, I encourage you to read the Bishops’ document if you haven’t done so yet.

Lastly, this social dimension, the second commandment of Jesus, takes on a particular importance in the Christian covenant. Not only does our neighbor bear the image of God in his or her humanity, but through baptism, our neighbor is our brother or sister in Christ. The poor and vulnerable come to us as Christ our brother, in need of our compassion. What you did (or did not do) for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did (or did not do) for me. And so because our neighbor is Jesus who has come to us in need, and because Jesus is God, this two-fold commandment folds back up into a single commandment of love: love for our neighbor is love for God, and justice denied to our neighbor is justice denied to God.

To love ourselves is to desire for ourselves justice, freedom, dignity, affirmation, kindness, truth, and salvation through Christ. And to love our neighbor as ourselves is to bring our desire for them to have that into our desire for our ourselves to have that, because they are united to us in Christ.

The cross is the center of our faith. The horizontal, social dimension, and the vertical, transcendent dimension, meet and are united in Christ. We are called to reach out in mercy to others, in Christ, because God has reached out in mercy to us, in Christ. We are our neighbors’—our brothers’ and sisters’—good servants, because we are God’s first.

Homily: Unto God what is God’s

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Isaiah 45:4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1st Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

I have made it a habit, in the weeks leading up to a presidential election, to make reference to the US Bishops’ document on forming consciences for faithful citizenship, which I gave to you in the homily two weeks ago. I decided to do it early this year, to give you more time to consider its wisdom, and to give you more time to read the document for yourself, and so that you would experience more of the political rhetoric leading up to the election through the lens of the gospel. It might have been an inspired choice, because I’m glad that through the lens of that wisdom, we can also reflect on today’s readings.

In our first reading, from the old testament prophet Isaiah, we have an oracle from God to the Persian king Cyrus. The Persians had defeated the Babylonians while Israel was enduring their Babylonian Exile. So it was the Persians who freed Israel to return back to their homeland. Cyrus was obviously not an Israelite, not one of God’s holy people. But God tells Cyrus that he is God’s anointed, that it was God who lifted him up to his lofty position, so that God might direct him for the sake of God’s people, Israel, and so that through Cyrus, even though Cyrus did not know God, that God would be glorified through him. Now that is not to suggest any candidate as a modern parallel to Cyrus, so please don’t infer that. But it is to affirm that God can work through people, even those who are not faithful to him, even national leaders, to accomplish his own divine purposes. But he can accomplish more through those who are open to his guidance, and less through those who reject his guidance. So regardless of who is elected, we need to pray for them to seek and obey divine wisdom, that even with their personal vices, our nation might be blessed through their leadership.

Our psalm for today brings out a different aspect of our first reading: Israel’s development of God’s absolute divinity. In the beginning, Israel believed in God as their own national and cultic God, one among many gods. That gave way to understanding God as the greatest of all gods, the supreme god. Today we see the final revelation that God is in truth unique in his divinity. God the only God, the creator, and there are no other gods. He makes that clear in our first reading, and again in the psalm. When we pray in the creed, we believe in One God, we echo this faith, and then we begin the Eucharist by our offering of the gifts of blessing to the Lord God of all creation.

Our gospel reading is, as always, the highpoint of the liturgy of the word. “‘Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…’” The Roman emperor owned all the coins. They bore his image, his likeness. They had his inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Jesus didn’t allow himself to be dragged down into the “us vs. them” squabble of whether or not to pay the Roman tax. He tossed off his divinely clever escape from that trap: “then give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Then in an even greater move, he elevates their focus above the question of secular obligation, to divine obligation: “But render unto God what is God’s.

The inscription on the coin, again, said, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Son of the Divine. Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the authority of the one who sat enthroned in the Roman capital, than they were about the authority of the one who was supposed to be sitting enthroned over their hearts, the true Son of the Divine, the true Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the inscription of the words of Caesar on the coin, than they were about the inscription of the law of God on their hearts. They were more concerned with the one whose image the coin was made in, than they were about the one whose image they themselves were made in.

In many languages, there is no possessive “apostrophe s” like in English. In those other languages they would say “God’s” as “of God.” The Spanish, for example, for “Give to God what is God’s” would be closer to “Give it to God, that which is of God.” (Dale a dios lo que es de dios). We are “of God,” made by him, in his own image and likeness. As it says in Psalm 100, “He made us, we belong to him.”

Our lesson is perhaps best summed up in Jesus’ words earlier in the Gospel of Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides.” In other words, we tend to be more mindful of taking care of our secular obligations first, and then we let that dictate how we take care of our spiritual obligations. We define ourselves by our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, and then judge Christ and the Church in relation to all that—rather than the other way around. To seek first the kingdom of God, to render unto God what belongs to God, is to begin with Christ and the Church, and then to discipline our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, based on that. And not only that, but as Jesus said, when we seek first the kingdom of God, all these other things will be given to you besides. When we render unto God what belongs to God, it gives us greater clarity in where our obligation lies in rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. When we seek first the kingdom of God, we become in truth better citizens of the kingdom of Caesar. Not always in the way that Caesar would like, when Caesar would like to act sinfully, but in the way that helps us to understand and advocate for divine truth, goodness, and authentic love, against human ignorance, error, and intrinsic evil.

One of the great classic movies of contemporary Catholic Tradition, up there with “The Bells of Saint Mary’s,” “The Scarlet and the Black,” “Becket,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess,” is the movie, “A Man for All Seasons.” It’s the story of Saint Thomas More, who was the High Chancellor of England in the 16th century, under King Henry VIII. When Henry was unable to get an annulment for his marriage to his wife, Catherine, so that he could divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn, Henry confiscated Catholic-held properties in England and established the Church of England (or “Anglican” Church), with the monarch, Henry himself, as the head of the Church. For those who were faithfully Catholic, like Thomas More, this became a profound problem.

As part of this scheme, he required all those in political posts to sign the “Oath of Supremacy,” which declared, first, Henry as head of the Church in England, and second, that his marriage to Catherine was void. Thomas More refused to sign. There is a wonderful line in the movie, in which Henry implores Thomas to support him, as Henry says, not just because Thomas is honest, but because he’s known to be honest. Henry needs a man of Thomas’ intellect, character, integrity, and reputation to lend validity to his claim, and Thomas, because of his intellect, character, and integrity, which has earned him his reputation, will not do so. So Thomas was stripped of his title, imprisoned, tried and convicted with a corrupt key witness, and executed for treason.

Snark Amendment: Justice Scalia's Inauguration Hat

It might be interesting to mention that St. Thomas More was the favorite saint of the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wore a replica of St. Thomas More’s iconic hat to the 2nd inauguration of President Obama—Scalia, then, being the mentor to the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who has shown herself to be similar to Thomas More in intellect, character, integrity, and reputation. Thomas More never said he rejected the king’s political authority. He simply refused to call true what was not true. At his execution, Thomas More announced, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” In the beautiful homily for the funeral of Justice Scalia, his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, made reference to his father’s affection for St. Thomas More, by saying “Dad understood that the deeper he went in his Catholic faith, the better a citizen and public servant he became. God blessed him with the desire to be the country’s good servant because he was God’s first.”

We cannot restrict our religious fidelity based on our political views. Rather our religious fidelity raises up and purifies our political views. We render well what is Caesar’s unto Caesar, because we render first what is God’s unto God. We are able, then, to be our country’s good servants, when we are God’s first.

Homily: Faithful Citizenship

In just over a month, we will be voting for the next president of the United States (and of course, other elected offices as well). As I did in 2016, I would like to provide some insight from a document from the United States Bishops Conference called, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It presents the key points of the Church’s teaching of faith and morals as they relate to current social and political issues. I am not going to tell you who to vote for. Your homework is to learn more about each of these issues, and then to learn more about each candidate, and then to use your vote in accord with Church Teaching and a well-formed conscience. I put a link to the document on the parish website, and I highly encourage everyone to read it.

I want to start with this unfortunately long quote: “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that [intrinsically evil policy]. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position—even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act—may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods… This is not to bring a ‘Catholic interest’ to the political sphere, it is to insist that the truth of the dignity of the human person, as discovered by reason and confirmed by revelation, be at the forefront of all political considerations.

I want to elaborate on that quote, because it sets up the Catholic struggle of voting in modern American politics. First, it says it is morally acceptable to vote for a candidate whose position includes a morally grave and intrinsic evil. But there are two required essential conditions. The first is that someone voting for that candidate has to be voting for them despite that morally grave evil, not because of it. You can’t promote a position that is incompatible with Catholic teaching on any grave moral issue, and you can’t vote for a candidate in order to promote a morally grave evil. The second condition is that you can vote for a candidate who promotes a morally grave evil only for truly grave moral reasons, and not just because of other issues of less moral gravity.

Next thing about this quote is when all candidates’ positions embrace morally grave evils, then what? Then there are three options. First, you choose not to vote and cooperate with grave moral evil. Second, you find a third-party candidate whose position is more morally acceptable. Or third, you vote for the candidate who is less likely to actually promote the morally grave evil aspect of their policy, and more likely to accomplish more positive aspects of their platform.

And lastly, concerning this quote, is that it is not a matter of “well, this is what I believe, but I can’t make that choice for others.” If something is good or bad, true or not true, it applies to all humanity. It isn’t that the Church teaches that some moral truths only apply to Catholics. It’s that the Church teaches it’s evil and harmful for all humanity. Others may not be culpable for the evil of their sin, out of ignorance, but they are still wounded by the effect of the sin. The truth sets you free, and lies ensnare you, whether you believe them or not.

The paramount issue is the dignity of human life. And the primary issue regarding the dignity of human life is abortion, “the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, which is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed.” This is distinct from delicate surgical procedures when a pregnancy becomes life-threatening. In that case, morally, the lives of both the child and mother must be preserved as much as resources and technology allow, and may even involve the near-certainty of the tragic death of the child. But this is not the same as the act whose intentional purpose is to bring about the death of the unborn child. Sometimes euphemistically branded as “women’s healthcare” or “women’s right to choose,” no one has the legitimate moral choice, under any circumstance, to choose what abortion intends to do, either through surgical procedure or a pill. This is not a religious or faith argument, and not exclusively a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue, and its foundation is in science, biology, and reason. So, any candidate or party that promotes this intrinsic grave evil is morally unacceptable to vote for… unless, in the conditions mentioned above. First, that one chooses such a candidate despite their promotion of abortion, and to do so based on a greater moral issue. However, there is no graver moral issue than abortion that legitimizes voting for such a candidate. Second, that when all reasonable candidates promote an intrinsic grave moral evil, it is acceptable to vote for the candidate less likely to effectively promote the evil, and more likely to promote other issues of grave moral concern.

Other moral issues concerning Catholic Social Teaching are opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, torture, racism and other unjust discrimination, human cloning, in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryonic stem cell research, and redefining marriage, sexuality, and gender in such a way that distorts their essential nature; and the promotion of the humane treatment of immigrants, prisoners, employees, and the mentally ill; reasonable access to healthcare, food, housing, education and employment; and the protection of the environment, and of religious liberty: to freely and faithfully live out one’s religious convictions in public and professional life.

These are many of the issues, and the document goes into much more necessary detail in explaining these and other issues. I’m assigning it as required homework reading. It’s either that, or I spend the next 10 homilies reading it to you. I thought you’d prefer it this way.

When I finished giving this type of homily leading up to the 2016 election, someone told me that the person behind them had muttered, “Well, that didn’t tell me anything.” I understand. It’s messy and confusing. No candidate is in line with the Catholic Teaching even on grave moral issues, much less all issues. And even if a candidate or party is on the right side of the issue, it doesn’t mean they have a successful strategy to address the issue.

And there’s also a lot going on that’s not strictly political policy, but related to our political and social situation: protests and riots, racial tension, economic uncertainty, COVID-19, corruption, human trafficking, gun control, international tensions, judicial appointments, media bias, pineapple on pizza, and so on.

If I accomplish nothing else in this, I at least want to have laid the groundwork for two things: First, that as the watchman I am appointed to be, I have instructed you in right and wrong, life and death, and it is up you to choose life. And second, that when the dust settles after election day, that we don’t look toward any of our brothers and sisters in the pews with us with any lack charity over who should and shouldn’t have been voted for. And whatever happens, we got this, we stick together, with Christ the King, our true leader, to guide us into his everlasting kingdom. God bless you.

POSTSCRIPT: I know some people have difficulty with some things in here, because they have difficulty with some things the Church teaches, because they struggle or disagree with what the Church teaches, or they have committed an act of sin that gives them a profound sense of shame. Please do not leave the Church. God loves you infinitely, and embraces you with his infinite mercy. If anything discussed here, or anything the Church teaches, is such a difficulty for you that it endangers your relationship with God or His Church, please contact me however is best for you.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: This homily, delivered at the pulpit of a Catholic Church, is the magisterial teaching of the Church (well, maybe not the part about pineapple on pizza). I know there are many resources online from strongly right and left leaning writers and speakers that put things in much starker (or for some, more ambiguous) terms. In my opinion some things are being said from the pulpit are more opinionated than magisterial. I don’t necessarily disagree with what is said, but might disagree that it should be preached. I gave here the teaching as presented by the Bishops of the Church. If you want to know my opinions, in a setting where I am more free to express opinions in terms or interpretations that are not magisterial, I would be more than happy to have that conversation individually.

“The aim of this instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, wanting to be teachers of the law, but without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance” (1 Tim 1:5-7).

Homily: “Offer it up”

Finding Meaning in Suffering - For Your Marriage

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (see readings)
Jeremiah 20:7-9
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

In our readings for this weekend, we see Peter initially reject Jesus’ revelation that the divine plan is for Jesus to suffer and be killed and raised again. Jesus then uses Peter’s rebuke as an opportunity to teach discipleship, which is our share in the mystery of Jesus’ cross: not only will He suffer, but to be His true disciple, we must also deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. As St. Paul says in our second reading, our role is not to conform ourselves to the ways of this world, but to offer ourselves as a sacrifice, an oblation, to unite our cross to the self-offering of Jesus. We get a hint of that in the Mass, when we lift up our hearts, we lift them up to the Lord, for it is right and just. We unite our offering of ourselves and our prayers to the sacrifice on the altar, and the priest invites us to pray that God might accept his sacrifice and ours. The Mass isn’t a spectator sport, or a theater show: we’re not an audience, we’ve got work to do! We “offer it up”—we participate in Christ’s redemptive suffering. We can even offer up our suffering through annoying guidelines and rules we have to follow that we might not agree with.

We’ve often heard these terms used: “offering it up”… “redemptive suffering.” So I thought since the readings suggest this theme, we might explore more about what that means. I thought it would work best if I try to illustrate it through a story.

The main character of our story is Rodney. Rodney is a basically good person, who, in our story, gets sick, and needs a kidney donor. So Rodney’s friends decide they’re going to begin a campaign of sacrificial offering, or redemptive suffering, for Rodney in his illness. Every time they endure any suffering, they “offer it up” for Rodney. So how does this work?

So, a few things we need to establish right out of the gate. First: nothing that Rodney’s friends do can earn the forgiveness of Rodney’s sins. Only the grace of the cross and resurrection of Jesus can forgive sins. Second: God loves Rodney more than Rodney’s friends do. So, Rodney’s friends aren’t going to convince God to decide to be nice to Rodney. God is already generously providing for Rodney’s salvation. Third: God knew, from the beginning of time, what Rodney’s friends were going to do on Rodney’s behalf. Rodney’s friends will make their choices by their own free will, but God, who is outside of time, knows what they will do, and includes their choices (all of our choices) in his divine plan. And Fourth: Sin has both eternal and temporal consequences. While only God’s grace can forgive Rodney’s sins and save him from hell (which is the eternal consequence of sin), there are a lot of temporal consequences of sin: attachment to sin, bad habits, wounded relationships; and some of those things can have their own indirect consequences—disease, regret, despair, anger, unforgiveness, etc.

So, Rodney’s friends start offering sacrifices and sufferings for the special intention of Rodney’s healing. Every red light they have to wait through, every stubbed toe, every sleepless night, every ache and pain, every rosary prayed, is offered up for the intention of Rodney’s healing and recovery. I hope we all have friends like that! But what are they accomplishing?

First, let’s look at what Jesus accomplished. As the union of humanity and divinity, Jesus, in the Paschal mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection, earned for humanity infinitely more grace than humanity could ever possibly need. Jesus didn’t end suffering, as you may have noticed. Instead, he gave suffering meaningfulness and usefulness. He gave it hope, when experienced in love and faith. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus, each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris).

Saint Paul said, in his letter to the Colossians, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). The sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross was perfect and infinitely sufficient. But by grace, there’s more to Jesus’ body than what was nailed to the cross, resurrected, and ascended. We, also, are parts of the body of Christ. So as the physical body of Christ endured suffering for the healing of the world, so we as the mystical body of Christ also unite ourselves and our sufferings to him and his suffering on the cross… which not only accomplishes for ourselves a greater unity of ourselves with Jesus, but also makes us part of God’s healing of the world. In one sense, that was accomplished in the past, on Calvary. But in another sense, it continues to unfold until the end of time, through the mystery of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.

God loves his work, and he always invites us to help him in his work, like a Father who invites his children to help him in the garage. The children are sometimes more of an obstacle than a help, but he loves them, loves spending time with them, loves seeing their joy they experience in getting to help with whatever project the Father is doing. He invites us to help in his divine act of Creation (in our work, and in our procreation of children); and he invites us to help in his divine act of Re-creation, in joining our suffering to his, in our loving compassion and service to others. He doesn’t have to work through us. But he has chosen to include us as instruments in His work, in his love for us. He formed us in body and spirit after his image, but it’s in the time we spend with him, and learn from him, and follow his example, that we are conformed to his likeness.

So now that we’ve said all that, we can say a lot more about what Rodney’s friends might accomplish. First, God might really have spared Rodney’s earthly life because of the prayers he knew his friends would freely offer for him. Prayers truly are effective and important. God himself tells us to pray, and how to pray, and that it’s important. We don’t know what our prayers accomplish, but we know by faith that they do work. And perhaps in heaven we will see all the good that was the fruit of our prayers.

In all their prayers for Rodney, his friends spent all those times thinking about him, and not about themselves. They grew in selflessness because of their love. Like Simon of Cyrene, they helped Rodney carry his cross, and in turn, they were blessed for their generosity. Their sufferings became moments of grace. They didn’t see the red lights or achy joints or sleepless nights just as pointless burdens, but as opportunities to put to good use, to fill these parts of their lives with meaningfulness. With all the rosaries they said for Rodney, they grew in their love of the Blessed Mother, and of the mysteries of the Life of Christ.

Their concern for Rodney made its way into their conversations with friends, family, and co-workers. One of these co-workers, going through his own experiences in God’s plan, heard Rodney’s story, got himself tested, was a match for Rodney, and offered to donate his kidney. This of course lifted Rodney from his growing despair, and filled him and his friends with gratitude and hope. The medical staff saw his growing joyfulness, and enjoyed spending more time with him and his needs, and it brightened up their day, especially one who was about to give up on her nursing career because she felt it was all too negative and emotionally draining.

Especially aware of the sacrifices of his friends, Rodney started reading the scriptures more, and growing in faith. He became more open to receive God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.

The young man who was donating his kidney reminded Rodney of his son-in-law, the husband of his estranged daughter, and he decided to call her, and they reconciled.

Before his surgery, he made a powerful confession of his sins to a priest, for the first time in years, and received the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist.

In the midst of Rodney’s surgery, the surgeon happened “by chance” to notice a different medical problem that had up then been undetected, and an expert in that field “by chance” was visiting the hospital for another patient, and came in to successfully correct Rodney’s issue. In the weeks of recovery, the doctor said Rodney’s body was healing surprisingly, miraculously, well. He was following the instructions and looking forward to the future.

Having been so moved by all that had happened, Rodney was opened to discerning his vocation as a permanent deacon. In the rest of his fruitful and happy life, his ministry affected and inspired countless numbers of the faithful, particularly in his visits to the hospital, and his own story, and his frequent reminders about offering up suffering for others. Because of the faith of his friends, and the sufferings they offered up for his sake, his sins were forgiven, and he was healed, and made new. And God’s plan of love unfolded superabundantly.

The beautiful Catholic tradition of the morning offering is an expression of what we’ve been talking about. You can find more about the morning offering by clicking here. I might recommend memorizing one of the prayers, or putting it some place you’ll see everyday, like next to the bathroom mirror, or the coffee maker, and make it a part of your morning routine!

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Homily: Sicut erat in principio


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Psalm 85:9-14
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

I’ve wanted to talk about the things going on in our society, to help us to digest everything and, ultimately, to frame everything in the context of our primary lens, which is our faith. Every weekend, I do my homily research, and then I look up to the image on the wall in front of me of Christ on the cross, and say, “Ok, tell me what you want to say to your people,” and then I go take the dog for a walk and contemplate. And every week, what comes to me has been about teaching the truth in the readings, such as last week’s focus on the mystery of the Eucharist, and the week before that on being patient, relying on our trust in God that he knows there’s weeds in with the wheat, and he’ll sort it all out in his time. So finally, this week, he said, “This is the week. These are the readings. This is the right framework. Now let’s talk about it.” I’m probably not going to give you all that you want to hear. God doesn’t usually work that way, as you may have noticed.

I’ve never been good at keeping up with the news, and so the news articles shared through social media have been a great help to me. But it’s both a blessing and a curse to have friends across the entire political and social spectrum. I see the news articles that my friends share, because they find them informative and helpful, as the right way to understand the events unfolding, and where events are likely to lead. And they are all over the map.

The difference between right and left news sources isn’t just about the interpretations, they report different realities. And without fail, when I actually take the time to go behind the reporting of an event, I find that both sides have cherry-picked the facts that support the “truth” that they want to report. And so, if you’re following only one side, then there’s a strong temptation (based on what you have read) to uncharitably judge people on the other side as evil, or stupid, or both. The divisive bias of reporting on the issues is its own part of the issues. And the disparity in the reporting has led to irreconcilable differences in believing what our society was, is, and should be, and how we should respond to that. And that’s aside from the more important irreconcilable difference, between those who follow Christ, those who oppose Christ… and then, there are those who think they can do the former in their heart and the latter in their actions.

Once in a great while, I’m tempted to jump in (for one side or the other) and add my two cents. And every time, I get busted down. Both sides have their rhetoric, their facts, and their memes to shut down any opposing posts. And every time I get busted down, I get an unmistakable message that it wasn’t just my friend calling me out, but Jesus reminding me, “I told you not to get into it. You’re not to get down into fighting for one side or the other. You’re to transcend above it, to minister to the people on both sides, and bring the attention of those on both sides to what transcends the sides, which is the shared human reality of needing love, needing hope, and meaning, and encouragement, and joy; and you’re to pull people toward me, toward personal holiness.”

So my focus, my response, to all that is going on, is that we’ve lost our focus. Our eyes are focusing on the storm, and not on Christ, and that’s when we get that sinking, drowning feeling of fear. That’s Peter in the Gospel. Whenever and wherever in our life that we get all panicked, we need to reach up, for Jesus to embrace us, and pull us up out of our sinking, and out of our panic, and we return our gaze to him. And at least in our hearts, he calms the storm. He says to us, “Oh my dear little one, why did you doubt?” And we respond, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when I do that, he grounds me back on the steady rock that is himself, and my storm is calmed.

Jesus was constantly being tempted to take sides. Most particularly, perhaps, you may recall a question that was posed to Jesus regarding whether to agree to pay the Roman tax or not. Jesus, with divine insight, transcended the question of sides, and brought the focus of the people of God back to God, “and all were amazed at him.” 

Yes, we unequivocally reject and oppose racism, and all unjust prejudice, and any abuse of trust and authority by police, or clergy; we oppose the willful taking of innocent human life, the willful destruction of public property or the private property of another, for example, the destruction of stores, or homes, or churches, cemeteries, and images of saints. Yes, we also reject laws that infringe upon the inalienable right to liveprivately, and professionally, and in managing our businessesaccording to the truth of human nature as revealed by our faith, and not be forced to choose between acting against our conscience, or sacrificing our professional position or career.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Church and her children have her rights offended. The Church and the world have always been in conflict. But up until recently, we have been used to Western society coming from Christian Europe, and its foundation in “Christendom,” with the Church having a privileged position and respected voice of authority in society. But that’s no longer the case. Christianity is essentially being slowly pushed back into the catacombs, as it was when it flourished in its beginning.

In 1969, in the tension of all that was going on in the world at the time, Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, gave an interview in which made a prophetic prediction. He said, “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church… It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church… And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times… But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 1969 (51 yrs ago) he said that.

So in our society, and in our life, the Church won’t be the strong imposing establishment that it once was. Older Catholics already lament the loss of the “parish culture” they remember from their youth, providing a scaffolding of support to bolster faith and morality, providing a social context that helped some more timid souls get to heaven, by protecting them from spiritual danger. The dominant flow now goes in a different direction, and souls that are not strong enoughor not taught well enoughto resist the current, are in greater peril. It will be harder to be Christian, which will bring more difficulty and suffering, and more falling away.

But what was elucidated for me in all this was that this is how Christianity started: with a network of Christian communities, with emissaries like Paul and Barnabas connecting them together with common texts and practices; sharing stories of troubles and successes; exchanging resources; building each other up; ministering to those searching for more (meaningfulness) than what society seems to offer; ministering to those imprisoned, lonely, depressed, and sick, and of course coming together to pray, worship, and grow in love for God and each other. Certainly, the early Christians gave to the Church for its expenses and needs, but this was not a substitute for personal ministry, but a deeper personal investment in what it means to live the Christian life.

The description of a church like this may seem to us to be uncomfortably new, a shadow of the church’s former glory. But for the Church, it will be familiar: a new springtime, as Pope Saint John Paul II called it (though perhaps not in the way he envisioned it). A renewed and deeper conversion of the members of the mystical body of Christ. I’ll close with this quote, originally attributed to St. Barnabas, which was part of last Sunday’s Liturgy of the Hours: “When evil days are upon us and the worker of malice gains power, we must attend to our own souls and seek to know the ways of the Lord. In those times, reverential fear and perseverance will sustain our faith, and we will find need of forbearance and self-restraint as well. Provided that we hold fast to these virtues and look to the Lord, then wisdom, understanding, knowledge and insight will make joyous company with them.

We will have our rights violated, and our faith mocked. That’s already happening. We should not be surprised if the secular courts favor the secular world. But we will keep pushing for justice, for the rights of human dignity, for ourselves and for the needy and vulnerable.

But I think we should individually hold on to and keep coming back to today’s readings. I think these readings for today are a constant reminder for our consolation and humble confidence; our reminder of God’s calming presence in the stormy world we’re passing through. Jesus, God, is calling us out of our comfortable safety, for us to push aside the distractions, the fear, and the storm; to faithfully, obediently, and humbly walk toward him, neither to the right, nor to the left; to trust the calm whispering voice that says in the quiet depths of our heart, “Take courage. Do not be afraid. Come. Follow me.”


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Homily: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord - Church of Santa Maria ...

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A)
Matthew 21:1-11 (Gospel for Procession with Palms) 
Isaiah 50:4-7
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2:6-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Welcome to Holy Week!

Holy Week opens with “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” Since Easter begins its own liturgical season (starting with the Easter Vigil), today’s celebration contains the entirety of Holy Week, the finale week of Lent: beginning with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the passion, crucifixion, and death, and ending with the silence of the body of Jesus laying in the sealed tomb, all in today’s readings.

Before getting into the main part of our reflection, I just want to share two precursory thoughts.

The first thought is about our “processional gospel reading” of Palm Sunday. It says that the people spread their cloaks on the road, and waved palm branches, as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on an ass. The first part of this is the fulfillment of Psalm 118 Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD… The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!” So it’s a royal celebration of welcoming the procession of Jerusalem’s king, who will then proceed to the temple and offer sacrifice to God. And certainly that fits with what Jesus is going to do in this final week. And ordinarily, the faithful of the church joins across time with the people in ancient Jerusalem, as we hold our palm branches, sharing in the glorious entry of Jesus up to the house (sanctuary) of the Lord. 

And the second thought is that, of course, we’re not celebrating Palm Sunday, or any of these celebrations, as we ordinarily do. And I share in the deprivation that our current situation brings to these central celebrations at the heart of our faith. But here we are. As we have been doing since this situation began, let us even more fervently bring into this week our growing desire for, and spiritual communion with, the celebrations of the mysteries of Lent and Easter. Let us intercede on behalf of those who continue their preparation to enter into full communion with the Church, and those who have entered into situations that wound their full communion with the Church, and those who are merely slothful and apathetic about their communion with the Church. Of course, it’s perhaps a mixed blessing that with the current situation, the focus hasn’t been on the abuse scandal and the bankruptcies of Catholic dioceses. But there many who have been so wounded by the abuse and scandal that their love for the Church has become a source of pain, shame, and suffering. So let us intercede for all these people, offering our own sacrifice–of not being able to be physically together with the church and receive her sacraments–as an offering to God for them, and for our own growth in faith also.

Following the example of Dr. Brant Pitre’s reflection on our gospel reading, I want to touch on seven points, particularly as they are uniquely presented in St. Matthew’s gospel.

First point…

Matthew emphasizes over and over again that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. He goes on to recount the words of institution and the Last Supper. The Passover meal was the annual memorial of the deliverance of the 12 tribes of Israel from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. So, on the Passover night, the lamb was sacrificed, unleavened bread was eaten, and Israel embraced their redemption. They were delivered. And they began their journey to the promised land. Each generation united themselves to that original generation that left Egypt: a perpetual memorial which also makes present the reality of what it celebrates. So when Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, in the context of the Passover meal, he is inaugurating the New Passover (or the Passover of the New Covenant). It involves the sacrifice of the Lamb with the 12 Apostles, as they enter into the event that will free them from slavery to Satan (and sin and death), and set them on their journey to the new promised land, and will give them the heavenly bread of life for the journey. It will be a perpetual memorial, with each celebration of the Last Supper making present the whole Paschal Mystery of Christ for all generations. So the Last Supper is a New Passover, in which the sacrificial lamb is eaten, beginning a New Exodus to the Promised Land of God’s presence in heaven.

Second point…

Matthew emphasizes the beginning of Jesus’ Passion with his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. This one is a bit more speculative. Jewish tradition had that in the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree, and that the tree of life was an olive tree. Gethsemane, in Hebrew, refers to an olive press. So Jesus is on the Mount of Olives, in a grove of olive trees, preparing himself for the cross, which by his passion and blood will become the tree of life, the source of eternal life for all who embrace it. There’s also a Jewish tradition, a bit more ambiguous, that Jerusalem is where the Garden of Eden was. We mentioned last week about the Gihon river, which feeds the pool Jesus told the blind man to wash in, was named for one of the four rivers of Eden, and that this washing was Jesus re-creating the blind man’s sight. It was thought that Adam and Eve were buried somewhere (way down) in Jerusalem (perhaps specifically Golgotha). Sometimes you will see icons of Adam and Eve underground beneath the cross, so Jesus is the New Adam, in perfect obedience to the Father, providing the Tree of Life, superseding the old Adam, who in disobedience to the Father, led humanity into the slavery of disorder and death.

Third point…

Matthew emphasizes the cruel treatment of Jesus, beginning with the Sanhedrin at his trial. They spit at him and beat him, and he does not recoil or reply. Jesus is personifying the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, which is a mysterious figure described in four excerpts in the last section of the book of Isaiah. The third excerpt is our first reading today.  “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” We often hear excerpts about the Suffering Servant, that he is a man of sorrow, pierced for our offenses, led like a lamb to the slaughter, as a lamb before the shearers is silent, he opened not his mouth, that on him was laid the guilt of us all, that by his stripes we are healed, etc. At the altercation in the Garden, Jesus tells his disciples, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?” Jesus is intentional in following the plan of the Father. Jesus is the Suffering Servant.

Fourth point…

Matthew talks about the betrayal of Judas, and is the only one to mention the thirty pieces of silver being paid. This might call to mind a much earlier parallel, of Joseph, of the technicolor dreamcoat fame. Joseph was righteous, the favorite of his father (the father of the twelve tribes of Israel), but betrayed by his brother Judah (Judah and Judas are the same in Hebrew), and sold for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph was sent down into a pit, and considered dead. But then, he’s found to be alive! By his righteousness, he was vindicated, favored, honored, given great power, and led to the feeding of the multitude, which led to reconciliation and reunion with his father and brothers. So Jesus is a new Joseph. 

Fifth point.

Jesus vs. Barabbas. Most people get the contrast between Jesus, the prince of peace who by grace will redeem the world, vs. the violent revolutionary in Barabbas. But Matthew takes it deeper than that. It becomes even more poignant when we know that “Barabbas” is “Bar Abbas” – “Son of the Father.” And even more so, looking some manuscripts of Matthew, in which Barabbas’ first name is given… as Jesus. So given the choice between the true Jesus, Son of the Father, who comes in peace, meekness, and healing signs, but challenges the corrupted ways of Israel, vs. Jesus, son of the father, who comes in violence and rebellion, who wants to liberate Israel from the Romans, the people, egged on by their leaders, shout their choice of the second one. Pontius Pilate, seeing no crime in Jesus, washes his hands of the guilt of innocent blood, and the Jews infamously accept the consequences: “his blood be upon us and upon our children.” This line was used for centuries of deeply ingrained anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution, even into the 20th century. The Jews, it was said, accepted the guilt of crucifying Christ, a diabolical act, of infinite scale, and so rebelled against their covenant with God, who has cut them off as forsaken. The Catholic Church, in the wake of the Jewish holocaust, has accepted the guilt of contributing to this anti-semitism, and taken measures, including in the text of the liturgy, to clarify that we definitively do not hold Jews of any time and place guilty for Christ’s death, or deserving of prejudice. The crowd in the gospel is representative of everyone of all time and place who sins, and thus participates in the need for Jesus to be crucified for the sake of their redemption. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says beautifully, in paragraph 598: “All sinners are the authors of Christ’s passion.” As Dr. Pitre says in his commentary:

In other words, there’s a real sense that at a mystical level every single person who has ever been born, every single sinner, is responsible for the death of Jesus, because when we sin we, in a sense, crucify Jesus once again. We participate in the evil that led him to the cross. So I just want to stress that. Christians today need to make very clear that the statement of this particular Jewish crowd at the trial and death of Jesus is not something that makes all Jews of all time in all places collectively responsible for Jesus’s death. However, as Pope Benedict points out in his book Jesus of Nazareth, by saying “his blood be upon us and our children,” the irony is that at a deeper spiritual level they are in a sense praying for precisely what all of us need, which is for the powerful redeeming blood of Jesus to “be upon us and upon our children,” so that it might cleanse us from sin and set us free from sin and death. So there’s an irony in their words here.

Sixth point…

Is about the “Cry of Dereliction,” or Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A lot of people have a lot of wrong ideas about this. A lot of modern commentary expresses the opinion that God the Father, who is all good, turned away from Christ, who was covered in the imperfection of our sin, and that Jesus was truly abandoned by the Father, until his death, when the sin was also put to death, and Jesus was cleansed of all our sin, and we along with him. While it is true that Jesus was indeed experiencing the human anguish of the crucifixion, and perhaps a feeling of the separation from God we experience because of our sin, Jesus is God the Son, in perfect union with God the Father, and truly was not forsaken by the Father. What Jesus is really doing here is calling to everyone’s mind Psalm 22, which begin with that cry of dereliction, written by King David. The psalms didn’t have a numbering system at the time of Jesus. They were known by their opening words (as the church still does with many prayers and church documents). The important thing about Psalm 22 is not only that it very much describes the experiences of Jesus in his passion, but also that the psalm ends with hope, vindication, and all the nations coming together in worship of God. Psalm 22 doesn’t just describe Jesus’ crucifixion; it describes his whole messianic mission. After the next point, which is the seventh and last, I give you Psalm 22 in its entirety, along with some notes and commentary in green, to deepen the experience and meditation on this psalm, which is perfect for contemplating during this final week of Lent.

Finally, the seventh point…

The burial of Jesus in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Jewish upper class, and part of the Sanhedrin, and one who came to Jesus at night. He asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, that he might be given a proper burial. Of course, this would be highly unusual for crucified Roman criminals, so evidence of a buried man with both Jewish burial rites and crucifixion wounds would be pretty unique (a compelling point regarding the Shroud of Turin). Also, Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” remained sitting and facing the tomb. So some people say that when they returned on Sunday and found the tomb opened, they mistakenly had the wrong tomb. Nope, they knew exactly which tomb it was. And finally, in another irony, the Pharisees were so paranoid about the possibility of Jesus’ followers taking the body from the tomb and claiming that he had risen on the third day as he had said, that they requested Pilate to seal the tomb and provide soldiers to guard it. And so by that, the Pharisees made it absolutely certain that if the tomb were to end up opened and empty, it was not carried out by a conspiracy of Jesus’ followers.

And that is where we leave things on this last Sunday of Lent… with the tension of the sealed tomb, holding the dead body of the crucified Christ, and the unresolved question of whether he was indeed the Messiah, the one was coming into the world, who would be raised from the dead on the third day, as he had said.

And so, as promised… Psalm 22 in its entirety. God bless you!

For the leader; according to “The deer of the dawn.” A psalm of David.

“The deer of the dawn” seems to be the tune for singing the psalm.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.

The psalmist’s sense of isolation and dehumanization, an important motif of the psalm is vividly portrayed here.

All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:

“He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”

These words are echoed in the mockery shouted at Jesus on the cross.

For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God.

Not really part of our reflection, but “I was thrust from the womb” means that *I* was there in the womb and then thrust out when my mother bore me, for those Christians who think that the bible permits abortion… just saying…

Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me.
They open their mouths against me,
lions that rend and roar.

The enemies of the psalmist are also portrayed in less-than-human form, as wild animals. Bashan was a region of a grazing land northeast of the Sea of Galilee, famed for its cattle.

Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.

As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.

The dust of death is the netherworld, the domain of the dead.

Dogs surround me;
a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet
I can count all my bones.

While it is a mystery what David might have meant in speaking of his hands and feet being pierced, this was experienced literally in Jesus’ crucifixion.

They stare at me and gloat;
they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.

The Roman soldiers cast lots for the seamless garment Jesus had been wearing. Those who are crucified, are crucified naked, adding to the shame and humiliation.

But you, LORD, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the grip of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.

Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the assembly I will praise you:

Here begins the praise of God given by someone offering a Todah sacrifice, giving his testimony, to all assembled in the Temple, of his experience of God saving and delivering him in answer to his prayer…which thereby becomes an exhortation to praise and trust in the LORD. 

“You who fear the LORD, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!

For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out.

“Turn away”: lit., “hides his face from me,” an important metaphor for God withdrawing his favor/protection/delight from someone. Notice that in referencing this psalm by its opening words, Jesus is affirming that the Father did not turn His face from His Son, as many modern commentators have asserted in their interpretation of his very use of those opening words. 

I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.

The poor will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!”

Not only could this be a reference to the Todah sacrifice being shared with the poor who come to the Temple looking for assistance, but also a reference to the poor being tended to with Christian care (“whatsoever you do for the least…”). Also, it could refer to the pious and devout having their deepest needs met in the New Covenant in Christ, namely grace, and communion, and everlasting life. 

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD;
All the families of nations
will bow low before him.
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
the ruler over the nations.

The Scriptures (bold Old and New) abound with prophecies of all the nations uniting  in a single faith and praise of the one true God, in a new covenant. Isaiah (42:6) foretold, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations.” How can a person be a covenant? By being the covenant sacrifice whose blood is spilled for the forgiveness of sins. Kingship belongs to God, the transcendental standard of truth, justice, and righteousness, and earthly rulers are subject to their stewardship of their office: the Cathedral outranks the Capitol.  

All who sleep in the earth
will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust
will kneel in homage.

This could be a reference to Jesus, in the three days after his death, going into Sheol, the underworld, and bringing the just ones who died and were in the Bosom of Abraham, through the gates of heaven to the glorious reward for which they have waited. This connects directly with our second reading, the Philippians hymn:

“He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

And I will live for the LORD;
my descendants will serve you.
The generation to come will be told of the Lord,
that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn
the deliverance you have brought.

The generation to come is the Church, the New Israel in the New Covenant. We have received the Good News of the Lord, the Gospel… that we may proclaim it to those who have not yet turned to the Lord, “a people yet unborn” in water and spirit to new life, and deliverance from sin and death, through the blood of Christ.

Psalm 22 is the psalm of Christ’s passion, but also of His deliverance by God, and the fulfillment of the plan of salvation. Of course, immediately following Psalm 22 is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Not only does this express a restful, personal trust in God, this psalm was used in the ancient Church to teach about the sacraments (restorative waters, the anointing with oil, the overflowing cup…). The sacramental life of the Church, and the covenantal relationship with God, flow directly from passing through the cross, through our feeling of abandonment and darkness and suffering, to the glory of the life of the resurrection, the life of grace, and eternal life.

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Homily: The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus - YouTube

5th Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

The readings today all revolve around the theme of death and resurrection, quite fitting given that next Sunday we have Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord. Additionally, there’s been a trajectory of our readings over this Lenten season.

The first Sunday of Lent we had the temptations in the desert, as Jesus purified his humanity to rely on God alone for his mission. He would accomplish what he came to, by the will and power of the Father, despite all temptations. Likewise, he gave us the model for resisting temptations: to apply the wisdom of the holy scriptures, and disciplining ourselves against the three-fold concupiscence of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and pride.

The second Sunday of Lent we had the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity and his fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets, and assuring his followers that despite appearances, we are to listen to him and trust that everything is happening according to God’s plan, including the betrayal and passion.

The third Sunday of Lent we had the Samaritan woman at the well, and the desire of Jesus to unite himself intimately with his people, both Jews and gentiles, into a new covenant of living water and spirit and life.

Then last week, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we had the healing of the man born blind, the reading that began with the question of whose sin caused the man to be born blind, and Jesus’ answer that it was not any personal sin that caused it, but that through it, God may be glorified, and Jesus may reveal his glory.

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus leads directly to the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, then the anointing of Jesus by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, and then the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, which is our reading for next Sunday.

The first reading for today is from of the Old Testament story of the valley of dry bones. Israel is in their Babylonian exile, and God shows the prophet Ezekiel this valley of lifeless bones, and God instructs Ezekiel: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!” so the bones start rattling and coming together, and forming skeletons, then sinews and flesh form on the bones, yet without life. So then God tells Ezekiel, “Say to the breath: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet; [then] He said to me: ‘…these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Then our first reading is God’s response: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel… O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live… thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” If that sounds a bit familiar, we use it in the thirteenth station of the cross. Israel is dead in their sin, convicted of their corruption, and sentenced with exile from their land and separation from God’s presence in his holy temple. In this prophecy, God is promising that Israel will be brought to life again, and more gloriously than before, and when it happens, they will respond in joyful faith. While they were joyful when they were freed from Babylon to return to and rebuild Jerusalem, the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, who gives the people of God the Holy Spirit, the wellspring of living water within them.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives the last of his signs before his passion: he performs the divine action of raising the dead to life. Of course, this event isn’t the fullness of the resurrection in Christ. Whatever might be different in the new life Lazarus has received, he again will still die another mortal death. But the point is that only God can raise from the dead. This sign that Jesus is God will bring many to believe in him, and follow him to Jerusalem, to witness his death, and believe in his resurrection, which is foreshadowed by his raising of Lazarus.

There’s something relevant to today’s situation at the beginning of our gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is about to die, and he chooses to delay his return, as it says, out of love for Lazarus. That’s super interesting. Why does Jesus do that? Well, it’s one thing for Jesus to heal a sick person. But it’s a much greater thing for Jesus to raise a dead person. He’s going to give Lazarus the honor of being the beneficiary of his greatest sign, which is going to lead to a great increase of faith. I know many of us are getting a bit weary of being separated from Jesus in the sacraments and the church. But perhaps this is a parallel—that Jesus is delaying our reunion with him as an instrument of a great increase of faith, and he will bring the dead back to life! So we trust in Jesus, and we wait for him with hearts expanded in faith.

Jesus wept - WikipediaThe second thing to point out in this delay, is that he knew Lazarus was very ill and going to die. He knew it would cause great anguish and suffering to Mary and Martha. They both lamented that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. But Jesus chose to allow all that to happen. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus, nor was Mary and Martha’s suffering assigned to them as punishment for something they did. In fact, Jesus shared in their suffering. In English, it’s the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept.” There’s a lot going on in those two words. He is close to the brokenhearted. He is God who is compassion, love, and mercy. He is God who grieves our separation from him more than we do.

But what if Martha and Mary found out at that moment that Jesus deliberately delayed returning until after Lazarus’ death? I think they might be a bit confused, a bit angry maybe. But at that moment, they didn’t know the plan. We struggle when we’re stuck part-way through the plan, and we don’t know where God is leading. But if we persevere in faith, the road of suffering leads to resurrection. The promised land is worth the wilderness.

Martha, ever the more active of the two sisters, rushed out to meet Jesus, and in their dialogue, she makes a confession of faith rivaling the greatness of Peter and Thomas. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” Then we have one of the “I AM” statements of Jesus, where he uses that divine name, I AM, and reveals part of the mystery of his identity, his mission, and his power. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As Saint John wrote his gospel to his community suffering persecution and martyrdom, no doubt this was a message of great consolation and confidence, allowing them to bravely profess their faith during their suffering.  

Ending with this, this assurance of death leading to eternal life is the message of our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” There’s that fulfillment of the prophecy from first reading. The Spirit of God dwells in us. We put our old selves to death in the sacrament of baptism, and rise to the life of the Spirit dwelling within us. So we do not live to serve our fallen desires, we are redeemed from our slavery to mammon, and now belong to Jesus, our redeemer. We are not of the flesh, we are of the spirit. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” And this is the point of all our readings: that Lazarus is our assurance, our sign, we have the promise that if we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him, we will share in the resurrection of Christ, and live forever in the pure light of his divine glory.

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Homily: The Man Born Blind

Image result for man born blind

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) Laetare Sunday

1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7,10-13a
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4,5,6
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Continuing the pattern of having long gospel readings for Lent, we have a long gospel reading today. I know there’s an option for a shorter reading. But I prefer the longer option. It’s more important for you to hear the word of God, rather than just my commentary about it. It’s the Word himself, Jesus, who is the way, the truth, the life. I just try to help us to match it up with our own lives and experience. With such an extended reading, we’ll just take a look at the general themes that we’re being given by the church, in this choice of readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent.

This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so it is Laetare Sunday! Laetare is the Latin for Rejoice! from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon in Latin…

Latin: Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ.

English: Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.

Image result for laetare jerusalemWhy are we called to rejoice? Because the season of Lent points us to the celebration of the Lord’s redemptive passion and glorious resurrection! And today, we’re half way there! Also, it is to remind us that even in Lenten sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—and even in the suffering from our current quarantine situation—we are called to give thanks to God in every circumstance (1 Thess 5:18), and that it is right to lift up our hearts to the Lord, to give him thanks and praise, always and everywhere.

The first theme we’ll look at together is the opening question of our gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples saw a blind man, and they asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” This is important and comes back later in the reading, because the pharisees say the same thing: he was blind because he was born in sin. The faithful are always faced with an apparent paradox: if God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering? The Church in her wisdom, has something of an answer to this question. God doesn’t will evil and suffering. And he most often doesn’t overpower the laws of nature with a supernatural act that removes evil and healing. But because, in his perfection, he knows that particular evil and suffering will happen, his plan accommodates the evil and suffering, if they are responded to in a holy, faithful way, to lead to greater holiness and faith (conversely, if someone reacts with weak faith, he may reject the opportunity to grow, and reject faith; so perhaps this is an example of Jesus words, “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away“). God knows that suffering can be good, in that it often has the effect of stripping away our distractions, and focusing us on what is truly important, what truly matters and endures. So this man in the gospel isn’t blind because it’s punishment for sins. He’s blind because that’s what happened naturally, but God is going to use it for an increase of holiness and faith.

The second theme follows right after that: the contrast between light and dark. This is a contrast that appears all over the gospel of John, right from the first words: “Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). Jesus says in our gospel reading, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This ties into our second reading from St. Paul: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness,” and then Paul quotes what is probably a hymn at the time, based on Isaiah, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” As we talked about a few weeks ago, after Jesus identifies himself as the Light of the World, he will also tells his followers that we are the light of the world, and we are to let his light shine out through us, for others to see him, that they might give glory to God and be healed and saved by him.

The third theme is the healing miracle itself. This is a strange thing Jesus does to heal this man. He doesn’t just say, “be healed.” Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, ‘Go wash in the Pool of Siloam’… So, he went and washed, and came back able to see.” There was a tradition in Israel (especially in the Essene community, which seemed to have had a strong influence on John the Baptist and Jesus) that in the Creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, when God formed Adam from the dust, God used his own spit (in some mysterious way), to make the clay from which he formed Adam. And that’s key, because that’s what Jesus is doing: he’s repeating the act of creation, creating anew this blind man’s eyes, anointing and healing his vision. So we have Jesus being clearly presented as performing a divine action. And it hearkens to Jesus’ mission: to recreate, to restore the world, to make all things new in Himself. Jesus told the man then to wash in the “Pool of Siloam,” which was fed from the Gihon River, which was named after one of the four rivers in the garden of Eden.

And throughout the gospel reading, we have this progression of faith from the man born blind. First he calls Jesus a man, then he calls Jesus a prophet. In his exchange with the Pharisees, he defends Jesus as a man sent from God. Then in his exchange at the end, he says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe,” and worships him. Of course, worship belongs to the Lord God alone.

And finally, the fourth theme I want to bring out, the exchange at the end of the reading between Jesus and the pharisees. Jesus declares, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not also blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.’

This is ironic response is similar to another response from Jesus 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 is saying that the Pharisees are just as much sinners, just as spiritually sick, just as blind, as the people they think of as worse off than themselves. The pharisees think they are not sick, without sin, not blind. But because they fail to see their own sinfulness, they are not open to the forgiveness they need, and so they remain spiritually sick, blind, and sinful. Jesus says he came for judgment, to reveal judgment: The judgment is that those who know they are spiritually sick and blind and ask for healing will receive it. But those who are too prideful to be aware that they are being spiritually sick and blind will not ask for healing, and so they will remain spiritually sick and blind.

And that ties to our first reading, about the anointing of David by Samuel. Samuel had anointed Saul as king, and that had gone badly. So Samuel had it in his mind what the new king should be like. But he was looking with the eyes of fallen humanity, not with the eyes of God. It took God to reveal to Samuel, David as the true king, the one who would be a shepherd after his own heart. And of course, our Psalm was that beautiful and beloved Psalm 23, written by David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd king: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul

So why these readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent? I mean, they’re great, but why now, in Lent? Because they are chosen to encourage the catechumens of the Church who are preparing for baptism, preparing to be made new, to be re-created by Christ. In the Ancient Church baptism was sometimes called the sacrament of illumination, of receiving the Light of Christ (symbolized by receiving their baptismal candle), and illuminating our lives to be his light in the world, and to see the world by his light, having our vision healed by grace. Like the blind man said, and quoted in the hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

According to commentary from Dr. John Bergsma, there is a particular appropriateness, then, of having Psalm 23 in our readings today. In the catechesis of the Church Fathers, Psalm 23 was one of the favorite texts for sacramental instruction, taken as a typology of the sacraments:

(1) “Beside restful waters he leads me, he refreshes my soul” — these are the waters of Baptism, that give us rest from our sins, and “refresh” (better: “restore”) our souls by infusing us with divine life.

(2) “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes”—this is the altar, the banquet of the Eucharist, which gives us courage and strength in the midst of the persecutions we experience in this life at the hands of our foes—Satan, his demons, and our persecutors.

(3) “You anoint my head with oil”—this is the oil of Confirmation, that strengthens us to give witness (in Greek, “mártyras”, the root of our word, “martyr,” one who witnesses with the full measure of life and death) despite the opposition we encounter from others.

(4) “My cup overflows”—this is the Eucharistic cup, which always overflows with the Holy Spirit, giving us new life.

Lastly, I want to revisit the theme I’ve been trying to get across this whole time we’ve been suffering through the temporary closing of the churches. That with fallen, human eyes focused on the world, we might take pleasure in the lifting of the obligation for Mass, as a relief and a welcome break. But for those with eyes (and heart) healed by grace, we can see this truly as a time to grow in longing for God, longing for the sacraments of the church. Perhaps this is the healing and renewal of love for the sacraments that the church needs right now, that God is providing by bringing good out of suffering. I posted online a quote from the catechism that during the season of Lent, the church unites herself to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, in the arid wilderness, hungry, thirsty, and longing for comfort, as he is prepared during this time to be strengthened, to be focused on his mission, to reaffirm his reliance on God alone. And so we can ask Jesus to unite ourselves to him, and to the man born blind, that we might see by the light of faith; we can ask Jesus that when our exile, our period in the wilderness, is over, that our purification will be profound and enduring, that ever after, we would take no part in the fruitless works of darkness, but to live as children of light in the Lord.

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Homily: The Meeting at the Well


Our newly acquired retired permanent deacon (he retired and moved to the area, and helps out generously!) Deacon Jim had approached me a few weeks ago, and asked if he could preach on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, because he had a homily on the Woman at the Well he wanted to give. I was all to happy to give him the opportunity. He doesn’t preach much anymore, and the people of the parish should hear more from him, and are probably happy to hear less from me once in a while! So this is my homily from the last time these readings came up in the lectionary cycle. God bless, and may it be fruitful!

3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

John Smith was the first non-Catholic to move into a very Catholic neighborhood.  On the Fridays of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak, while all of his neighbors were eating fish for supper. The men of the neighborhood decided that he was tempting them with his steak each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore, and so they decided to convert John, which they successfully did. As he was baptizing John, the priest said: “You were born a heathen, you were raised a heathen, but now you are a Catholic.” The next year’s Lenten season came around, and on the first Friday of Lent, when the neighborhood was sitting down to their tuna fish dinner, came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. They arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you are a fish.”

The gospel reading for this Sunday is thick and savory, like the smell of a good steak on a grill. There are many layers in this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. As usual, as much as I try to lay out before you the rich feast available in the divine word, much of it has to be left out, because there’s just so much that God has prepared for us. 

If you’re a first century Jew encountering this gospel story, you’re going to be struck by some things that we in our modern day aren’t attuned to. For example, the well. In Jewish scripture, when a man is waiting at a well and a woman approaches, there is going to be a nuptial aspect to the event. Many figures in Jewish history—Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all had this theme of the man meeting a woman at a well. But in this case, it’s no ordinary man and no ordinary woman, and so no ordinary nuptial theme.

Second, we have to understand who the Samaritans were. When the Assyrians dispersed the ten northern tribes, they settled the land themselves, and there was a lot of intermarriage between the Israelite Samaritans and the pagan Assyrians. So Samaria became the image of this half-breed, half-Jewish abomination. Their pagan religions eventually gave way to the worship of God, but with their own scriptures, their own priesthood, and their own place of worship (in Gerezim, not in Jerusalem). They worshiped God, but on their own terms, not on God’s terms. So there was this rejection of Samaritans, and when Jesus, a Jew, asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, she’s shocked.

Image result for springs of living waterThird, we have to understand the term, “living water.” The common meaning of “living water” was moving water, like a stream or a spring, water that seemed to have a life of its own, in contrast to the stagnant water of  a pond, or even a well. Jesus offers the woman “living water.” Not just natural water for natural life, but eternal life. She doesn’t quite get it—she wants it so she doesn’t have to come to the well to draw more water. But she asks, so Jesus has the opportunity take her to the next level.

All of a sudden, Jesus moves the topic away from the well, and onto her and her sin. He knows her heart. And she totally changes the subject. We have a hard time grasping what a scandal it would have been for her to be five-time divorced and living presently with a man she’s not married to. She would have been a pariah, shunned. Some have suggested that’s why she’s drawing water at the well alone at noon, and not with the other women.

In the midst of this discussion, she brings up the Messiah. And he identifies himself. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’” In the Hebrew, it says, “He who is speaking to you, I AM,” explicitly using the divine name.

Just then the disciples return, and are surprised. Why would the disciples be startled that Jesus is talking to this woman? He talks to women all the time. But Jesus is talking to a woman alone by a well. As we said, that (in the minds of the first century Jews) had nuptial connotations. They get it. It looks like he’s courting a future spouse. Why is he doing that? We’ll come back to that.

The whole thing about food, and sowing and reaping might sound like a tangent, but it’s not. Jesus ties it all together himself, saying, “I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.” It’s a Eucharistic image! He’s referring to the Samaritans. The Jews saw half-Jewish unwashed mongrels, but Jesus sees a field of souls ripe and ready for the harvest, like wheat. The seeds were planted by Moses, Isaac, Jacob, and are now ready to be gathered by the apostles.

So what’s it all about? The image of Jesus as not just the Messiah, the Savior, but Jesus as the Divine Bridegroom who has come in person to wed humanity through the new covenant in his blood. So the woman at the well (for all her sin, yet her thirst for forgiveness, and faith in Christ) is a bride, and Jesus the bridegroom. The Samaritan woman is an image of the Church. She’s both Israelite and pagan, Jews and Gentiles, waiting for a savior to come and save them from their sin, from their adultery and idolatry. Jesus the Bridegroom meets this woman, at a well, offering her living water. Another meaning of “living water” was the ritual cleansing water of the bridal bath. She would wash in “living water,” like a baptism. So when Jesus promises this living water, he is proposing to His Bride, symbolized by the Samaritan woman, washed clean of her sin, without spot or blemish.

Image result for blood and water from jesus sideSo what does that mean for us? When Jesus is pierced on the cross, it’s the living water and blood of the covenant, the life of His Bride, the Church, that flow from his side (which just might be related to Adam having his bride taken from his side; and may also be related to the psalm of life-giving water flowing from the right side of the temple, from the sanctuary…). And when do we individually receive the living waters that wash us clean from our sins? In our baptism. When you get baptized, all the sin and the effects of sin are washed away at that moment of baptism. This reading is preparing catechumens to receive the living water at the celebration of their baptism (and the other sacraments of initiation) at the Easter Vigil.

CCC 1617 beautifully ties this together: baptism, Eucharist, and matrimony: “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already, Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.

Our catechumens are entering into this mystery. At the Easter Vigil, they are going to receive the baptism, the anointing, to enter into the Eucharistic wedding feast as new members of the bride (and of the body of Christ, for in marriage, the two become one).

If you take our first reading and the Psalm, about God providing life-giving water in the desert, and not hardening our heart, and combine it with the Gospel of the woman at the well, it’s about repentance. We want to be like the Samaritan woman, who doesn’t harden her heart. God has the power to make the living water spring from the Rock to wash you of your sin. That’s what he did Good Friday. The Rock is Jesus, the life-giving water springing from the Rock is the covenant, the water and blood that flowed from his side. Now the living water flows to us in baptism, washing us, to be members of His bride, the Church.

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Homily: Jesus’ Triple Temptation

Image result for jesus tempted in the wilderness matthew

1st Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The Lectionary is set up on a 3-year cycle of readings. Each of the three years, we work through a different “Synoptic” Gospel book (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and each year the first Sunday of Lent features the temptations of Jesus in the desert, from that year’s gospel. Our reading can raise certain questions: Why does Jesus go out into the desert? Why is He there for 40 days? And what is the significance of these three temptations? Are they really temptations for Jesus?

The first two of these we can take care of in quick order. When the scriptures use the number forty, it refers to a period of testing, purification, and preparation. In a similar way, the desert, too, was the place for testing, purification, and preparation. It was a reminder of the years of the Exodus, when Israel was being purified of their wounds of Egyptian slavery and paganism, tested in their obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land. So Jesus, after his Baptism, was driven by the Spirit into the desert (wilderness), fasting for forty days and forty nights, preparing him for the challenges of his earthly ministry, purifying his will, that he would fully embrace the mission from the Father: to be the Lamb of God, who by his cross and resurrection, would take away the sins of the world.

So why these particular temptations? “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Jesus was human, and had been fasting for forty days. I’m hungry after forty minutes. Yes, it was a real temptation for Jesus! His natural desire would have been to satisfy his hunger with food. But he responds instead by quoting Isaiah: “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Then the devil…made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you…” Interestingly the devil quotes from the Scriptures. Also interesting, this is from Psalm 91, which in Jewish tradition, was a deliverance prayer, a psalm of exorcism. So the devil knows the power of this verse. But of course he misuses it, and pulls it out context. So be careful of people who do that, too (the next line in the psalm is about trampling the serpent under foot!).  Jesus is being tempted with pride: show everyone your power, and they will follow you. But Jesus again quotes Isaiah, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” His mission wasn’t to overwhelm the people with his divine power, but to convince them by winning their free choice to follow him, by his miracles, by his parables, by his love for them.

Then the devil…showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” The devil is showing Jesus all the kingdoms—all the souls—of the world. He says, “I will give them to you; all you have to do is worship me.” It’s the temptation to save humanity without the cross. Jesus responds: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve,” again quoting Isaiah. St. Peter will a bit later repeat Satan’s temptation to bypass the cross, and Jesus will rebuke him with a similar response: “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will do the Father’s will, in the way the Father wills: he will lay down his life, and show us the depths of divine love.

These three temptations of Jesus are called the “triple concupiscence,” the three primal weaknesses in human nature. The 1st letter of Saint John describes this three-fold disorder: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” And they go back even to Adam and Eve before the Fall, which is our first reading. We can see how the devil tempts Eve toward the forbidden fruit. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.

So first, the “lust of the flesh.” This is the desire for pleasure of the bodily senses, the desire for disordered pleasure, or to pursue pleasure in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent. Eve saw that the fruit was good for food. She wanted to taste it. And Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread.

Second, the “lust of the eyes.” This is the desire for possession, to want something bad, or to want something in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent . Eve saw that the fruit was “pleasing to the eyes,” and she wanted to have it, even though it was forbidden. Jesus was tempted by the presentation of all the kingdoms of the earth. It could be his, if he would just worship the devil instead of God.

And third, “pride of life.” Eve saw that the fruit was desirable for gaining wisdom (for becoming like God, but apart from God), and Jesus was tempted to exercise power in human terms, overpowering our human freedom to choose to have faith.

Any temptation we endure, or sin we commit, is one of these three areas of temptation: pleasure, possession, or pride. The triple concupiscence. I’ve used this image before, connecting the triple concupiscence with the seven capital vices:

Triple Concupiscence and Vices


The Catechism (540) tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” How do we do that during Lent? Well, on Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading was Jesus’ teaching on Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.

Jesus calls us to fast — to strengthen our will’s power over our bodily appetites — in order to overcome our disordered desire for pleasure.

He calls us give alms, to the poor, to the church — to free ourselves from affection for our possessions, or marks of social status, and their tendency to rule over us — in order to overcome our disordered desire of possession.

And he calls us to pray — humility is the antidote to pride. When we pray, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not; we are dust and to dust we will return.

So we can unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert… and on the cross! It’s ultimately on the cross that Jesus completely defeats these three temptations (1) his lack of pleasure, in the physical pain, thirst, and agony of the crucifixion (2) his lack of possessions, crucified naked, and even giving away his mother to the blessed disciple; (3) and his definitive defeat of pride, in the humiliations of crucifixion, exacerbated by the mocking of his persecutors. Exercising our penitential practices of Lent, we will be able to resist these three primal temptations of the devil, and of the world.

The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love) also relate to the triple concupiscence. Hope requires that we trust in the Lord’s Promises if we conform ourselves to His Truth (overcoming the lust of the flesh, our pleasures). Charity requires that we selflessly give in love of our neighbor, especially the poor (overcoming the lust of the eyes, our possessions). Faith requires that we put God, and our relationship with Him, first above all (overcoming our pride).

Also, now that I think of it, we are called to deny ourselves (pleasure), pick up our cross (possession), and follow Him (pride). I’m sure many other sets of three like these could be part of the divine teaching for overcoming the triple concupiscence, the three-fold weakness of human nature.  

As Jesus went into the desert to recapitulate (and redeem) Israel’s 40 years in the desert, we can participate in it, through Jesus, as well. We, too, are being purified of our wounds of slavery and false beliefs, tested in our obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land of Heaven.

In Greek mythology, creatures called the Sirens lived on an island and, with the irresistible spell of their song, they lured sailors to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island. When Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was sailing past that place, he put wax in the ears of his sailors, so that they might not hear the sirens’ singing. But King Tharsius, who also made the journey, chose a better way. He took along with him the great musician Orpheus. Orpheus sang a song so beautiful that it drowned out the sound of the lovely, fatal voices of the sirens. The best way to break the charm of this world’s alluring voices is not trying to shut out the world, but to have our hearts and lives filled with the sweeter music of faith, hope, and love: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When we are enthralled by our love and desire for heaven, then the alluring voices of the lesser things of this world —pleasure, possession, and pride—will be powerless over us.

The Prayer after Communion

Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope increased,
and charity strengthened, (a reference to the theological virtues)
we pray, O Lord,
that we may learn to hunger for Christ,
the true and living Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth. (a reference to the first temptation, and Jesus’ response)
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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