Homily: Important and Urgent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: The Baptism of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isa 55:10-11)

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

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

Psalm 2:6-8

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

Isa 42:1, 3, 6-7

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

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

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

1st John 5:6-12

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

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

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

Isa 55:2-3, 7

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

1st John 5:2-3

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

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

Rom 5:3-5

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

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

Isa 12:3

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

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

Homily: Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday in Advent (Year B) (go to readings)
2nd Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

I saw a quote on social media recently, that I really liked. It said,

It was shared by a group called, “Limping toward Jerusalem,” and that sounded pretty appropriate, too. I went and checked out that group’s page, and the next quote was just as good:

I really thought that these simple quotes summed up well a good message for our last few days of preparation for this year’s Christmas.

This is Christmas in the year 2020, and it’s not going to be a normal celebration for most families. Some families are tighter on money than in previous years, some have their jobs or businesses compromised or at risk, most everyone has family members who are at risk health-wise, and might not be part of the traditional family gatherings, because of distance or quarantine concerns. And it’s likely that the month of December, like much of 2020, stormed through faster than expected, and we might not be feeling that “Christmasy.” That’s okay. We might want to do it up for the kids, who have done a great job being as resilient as could be expected of them… with remote learning and all sorts of new rules. It’s natural to try to protect their innocence from the concerns of the grown-up world. But kids aren’t dumb. Obviously, they know this year is different. And it’s okay that they know. You don’t have to give them the best Christmas ever, and get a ton of presents, especially if it’s an imprudent sacrifice. To quote another phrase I’ve seen online recently,

It’s a stressful year, and especially Christmas season, and that’s okay, too.

Joseph and Mary had travelled far from home, a poor couple alone, far from their families in the little village of Nazareth, lost in the city of Bethlehem, directed toward a stable to stay in, and to have their first child in, this child that so much had been said about. Mary had received the glorious encounter of the Annunciation from the archangel Gabriel (which we just heard, in our gospel reading from Luke). Joseph had received a similar message in a dream (which we heard Friday morning, from the gospel reading from Matthew). And here they were, giving birth to the Son of God, the Son of David, the promised Messiah, in a stinky, strange barn in a strange (rather inhospitable) city, without their families and friends. But the gift they received was everything: Jesus!

In our first reading, we heard the prophet Nathan give to King David the promise that—because David had so faithfully and devoutly served and worshiped the Lord, even through, or maybe because of, his awareness of his sinfulness, and David’s awareness of how inappropriate it was that he as king was living in a palace, but the ark of the covenant as the dwelling place of God Almighty was still kept in a portable tent, that he wanted to build a proper building for God and for the ark of his presence, reflecting the splendor of God—because this was the kind of heart and faith David had, Nathan conveys God’s promise to David: Do you think it is you, who will build a house for me? I took you from tending sheep in the fields, I anointed you, led you in battle, I made you great, I led you to the royal throne, and I planted Israel firmly in its own land and have given you a time of peace. It is not you who will build a house for me! I will build your house: your offspring will sit on the throne forever, I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. That promise was good for many generations(14, to be precise). But then a crisis came, when after the Babylonian exile, the dynasty of David’s descendants ended. His family lived on, of course, but no longer a royal family, no longer a son of David sitting on the throne of Israel. By the first century (another 14 generations later), “King” Herod was on the throne, and he wasn’t even ethnically part of Israel! But the promises of God are always fulfilled, in the divine wisdom of his own time. The promise of the rise of the son of David got enmeshed into the promises of the long-awaited Messiah, and the return of “one who is to come” in the spirit of Moses, and bring a new law, a new passover, a new exodus, a new promised land… a whole new heaven and earth.

And the full-blown fulfillment of that glorious divine promise unfolded in this decrepit little stable, with this poor young couple, in this strange city, alone and far from home.

But you might say, What about the multitude of heavenly hosts of angels gloriously singing the good news, a child is born, who is Christ and Lord, Messiah and king? Yes. That was true. That was the spiritual reality… hidden from sight in this humble scene. And the same is true of your little Christmas, whatever that might look like. What it is… is always more than what it looks like.

Saint Paul mentions in our second reading, “the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested…” The “mystery kept secret for long ages” is the hidden spiritual reality of God’s plan, unfolding behind the years of waiting, years of suffering, years of wondering if God is doing anything in all this mess around us. And the fulfillment (the “revelation” and “manifestation”) of the mystery is the birth of Jesus, into this humble little family, from a humble little town… a town that happens to be filled with descendants from David, such is this honorable and virtuous man, Joseph, and his wife, Mary. (A town whose name, “Nazareth,” is related to the word “branch or shoot” in Hebrew; hence, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse”: Jesse was David’s father; and the “stump of Jesse” is the cut-down dynasty of David; so the “shoot” is a new beginning of the dynasty of David… and Nazareth, “shoot-town”, is full of descendants of David, including Joseph and (probably) Mary!)

We might not feel Christmasy right now. But it’s not about the feeling, it’s about the reality. We might feel stressed, I’m sure Joseph and Mary were stressed, too. We might be sad that loved ones are not with us, I’m sure Joseph and Mary missed their families in this moment, too. But your Christmas, however humble and compromised and simple it might seem, is surrounded by the spiritually company of choirs of heavenly hosts (and the communion of saints!) singing to your spirit about the good news being celebrated! So this is your permission to “have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

To reference one last quote,

Don’t confuse a particular celebration of Christmas, which is perhaps a bit less grandiose this year, with the mystery of Christmas, which is infinite in glory and spiritual joy. Keep the focus on the joy of our hope being born into the world, that the humblest little Christmas is a pure and beautiful participation in the full mystery of Christmas, and that even in times of apparent darkness and chaos, God is always at work guiding his beloved children according to his loving plan, and always keeping his promises.

Homily: Ready With Virtue

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (go to readings)
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
1st Thessalonians 5:1-6
Matthew 25:14-30

Our readings today beautifully tie together two themes: First, the theme we talked about last weekend and throughout the daily Masses this week about personal virtue and holiness. And second, the theme we always get as we approach the end of the liturgical year: the theme of the end times and the divine wisdom to always be prepared for its unexpected coming. Next Sunday is the feast of Christ the King of the Universe, which is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin the new year again with Advent.

Normally our parish hosts a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration, followed by a spaghetti dinner, for our candidates for Confirmation. This year we have decided not to have the spaghetti dinner, but we will still be offering our Christ the King holy hour at 4:00 p.m. this upcoming Sunday.

The key to our parable is the praise given to the first and second servants: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” First, this clues us in that we’re not talking about an ordinary master, but a special master. Second, the reward for being a virtuous servant is twofold: trust with greater responsibilities, and sharing in the master’s own joy. This gives us an indication that Jesus is talking not about an earthly master, but about God, and the reward for virtuously using your talents (or blessings) is that you receive more. And third, you are rewarded by sharing in heavenly joy, if you are found being virtuous whenever the master might return.

Then we get to the third servant. So first, this servant insults the master to his face, calling him a thief, harvesting where he did not plant, and gathering where he did not scatter. Then he uses that as his excuse for having no fruit for what he was entrusted with. The clear expectation of the master wasn’t that he wanted back what he gave, but that he wanted the servant to use it wisely. As Saint Jerome says, he offered excuses for his sin, so that to slothfulness and idleness was added also the sin of pride. For he who ought to have honestly acknowledged his fault, on the contrary, insults the master, and implies that he did so rightly, because it was the master’s fault in being so demanding.

The commentary in the New American Bible provides an explanation of the allegory. The Master going on a journey represents Jesus, and his journey is the Ascension. The talents represent the blessings which God has bestowed on each of us. The Master’s return represents Jesus’ Second Coming, and the Master’s dialogue with the servants represents the reckoning of Judgment Day. The parable teaches us that God will hold us accountable for what we have done—and what we have failed to do — with the gifts and opportunities presented to us. Our reward will depend on how we have developed and used our gifts to their fullest advantage. I’m reminded of another of Jesus’ sayings: that the one who tries to save his life will lose it—that’s the third servant who doesn’t want to risk anything, but just hides the unopened gift—but the one who loses his life will save it—that’s the first two servants, who hand over their gifts as an investment for the greatest good.

My hero of this story is the second servant, which is the character most applicable to most of us. He’s not envious of the first servant, wasting time comparing himself with his co-worker who is literally “more talented.” He doesn’t complain that he only got two talents.  He just gets to work and does what he can with what he has. In the end, his diligence receives the same reward as the first: to share in the master’s joy. It’s a message to all of us to focus on the duties of our state of life: focus on doing the small things of our lives with great love and great faithfulness.

That’s the image we have described in our first reading from Proverbs 31: The Poem of the Woman of Worth. It’s really unfortunate that we only have snippets of this description, and you really should read the whole little chapter. And while this is clearly and beautifully describing a woman of great virtue, it’s also a personification of Wisdom, whose attributes have been praised as Lady Wisdom (the feminine Greek word, “Sophia,”) throughout the book of Proverbs. While some might say it’s just an obsolete image of the virtuous woman in the time of ancient Jerusalem, the important thing is the image of the virtues she displays, and the blessings that her virtue brings, which are timeless.  

On this online version, I decided to include the entire poem here. One of the special things about this poem is that in the original Hebrew, the Hebrew alphabet is given by the first letter of each sentence! The parts that are in the liturgical reading are in bold-face (where the translation in the NAB is different than the liturgical reading, I used the liturgical reading).

When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.

She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.

She obtains wool and flax
and works with loving hands.

Like a merchant fleet,
she secures her provisions from afar.
She rises while it is still night,
and distributes food to her household,
a portion to her maidservants.
She picks out a field and acquires it;
from her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength;
she exerts her arms with vigor.
She enjoys the profit from her dealings;
her lamp is never extinguished at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her fingers ply the spindle.

She reaches out her hands to the poor,
and extends her arms to the needy.

She is not concerned for her household when it snows—
all her charges are doubly clothed.
She makes her own coverlets;
fine linen and purple are her clothing.
Her husband is prominent at the city gates
as he sits with the elders of the land.
She makes garments and sells them,
and stocks the merchants with belts.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and laughs at the days to come.
She opens her mouth in wisdom;
kindly instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband, too, praises her:
“Many are the women of proven worth,
but you have excelled them all.”
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;
the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her a reward for her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.

The first word, the kind of lead term here, is the Hebrew word hayil. Hayil means strong or capable. We might say she’s independent and well-skilled in her work, whatever her work may be. She doesn’t loaf around, gossiping, she doesn’t slack off and do the minimum, with sloppiness and carelessness.

The second virtue is that she is faithful: “the heart of her husband trusts in her.” So, they are a strong team. Again, she’s not gossiping about him, she’s honest and faithful. They depend on each other, and work with love and devotion to build each other up, including in how they speak of one another to others.

The next characteristic is the one that links with the parable, that she is diligent. She’s hard-working. She “seeks wool and flax”, she “works with willing hands”, she “puts her hand to the distaff”, in other words she’s not idle. In ancient Israel, women worked very, very hard. They worked primarily in the domestic sphere, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t have an important role. She’s managing the home resources, she’s making quality clothing so her family is dressed well, and warm, and this represents them, and her, honorably and well.

Another virtue, the fifth one here, is generosity. “She reaches out her hands to the poor and extends her arms to the needy.” With her virtue and industriousness, and that of her husband, thanks to the efficient running of the household, they can generously give to the poor who ask for alms.

And then lastly, it says, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” So her faith and her holiness are the engine that drives her virtue, and her virtue, as well as her reputation for the quality of her work, and her generosity, and the praise from her family, earn her the respect and praise of the people of the city.

You can imagine why this scripture has been so appreciated over the centuries. While the secular society is praising the exploits of heroes and superstars, here we have the more noble praise of an unsung hero, the beautifully holy ordinary person.

The second reading, finishes out our series of readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. But here’s where we get the other half of our theme for today: “…You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them… We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” In our gospel reading on Friday, Jesus reminded us that in the days of Noah, and the days of Lot, people were just going about the hustle and bustle of everyday life, right up to the sudden catastrophe, that they should have seen coming. Here, Paul, like Jesus, is reminding us that the master will return at an unknown time, and suddenly, and we best have our lamps lit and ready, with virtue and the fruits of virtue, at all times. A while ago we talked about the Latin phrase, “memento mori,” remember death. And we remember by living in such a manner that we’re always ready, with a pure conscience, with faith and virtue, and a generous life.

That was the end of the homily. But I want to connect that with some recent thoughts that God has been giving me to roll around in my brain. You know how I love conceptual connections!

In last week’s homily, we talked about the material offered by Dr. Andrew Jones, and the Catholic view of society being more the image of a family (albeit, with its difficulties), with relationships based on charity and virtue, rather than the image of constant conflict held in check by a leviathan authority of policy and enforcement. I appreciate all the positive responses that homily received. Dr. Jones went on to develop that idea that the improvement of society lies not in better laws, better politics (which, again, in the Catholic worldview, is impossibly bad, because you can’t sufficiently legislate people to be good except by narrower and narrower legislative restriction of freedom, and because the use of political compulsion is by nature a failure of personal charity and virtue), but rather the development of individual responsibility, character, and virtue. It’s odd to imagine a society growing in holiness, but if the people who make up the society are intentional about growing in holiness, that’s what society is.

Then I ran across this video from Dennis Prager (with Jordan Peterson, who I admire). Now I agree with a lot of what Prager says in the 2nd half of the video, but he’s much too partisan for me to share in good conscience. Because my goal is the hope of reconciliation, or at least civility, of right and left, as well as merging the best of both (and the vices of neither), into an even better option. Here’s the video, and you’ll see why I found it interesting (and possibly why I found it imprudent to post without such a disclaimer):

And I was thinking about, wow, that matches up really well with my previous homily. And I kept thinking about that analysis. Now I do disagree that the left en masse excuse themselves from personal improvement by waving the flags of societal improvement, and that the right is the opposite. Both do both, although generally there seems to be some truth to what he says. And as I was thinking about that, and talking it over, I got ready for the next daily reading homily, which was from St. Paul’s letter to Titus (2:1-7):

You must say what is consistent with sound doctrine,
namely, that older men should be temperate, dignified,
self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance.
Similarly, older women should be reverent in their behavior,
not slanderers, not addicted to drink,
teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women
to love their husbands and children,
to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers,
under the control of their husbands,
so that the word of God may not be discredited.
Urge the younger men, similarly, to control themselves,
showing yourself as a model of good deeds in every respect…

There you see exactly what Dennis Prager and Andrew Jones have been talking about! Yes, of course, we have to publicly and collectively advocate for correcting the societal problems, such as abortion, political corruption, prejudice, etc. But the real key is personal virtue. And I say “virtue” instead of “values” because values are personal and subjective, while virtues are objective and objectively good (there’s probably a whole lot more to write on that!). Your *values* should be *virtuous*.

I think back to the message that Abby Johnson gave (quite passionately) here in Lancaster a few years ago: not just to end abortion, but to make it unthinkable. We’re not going to end abortion by making it illegal; we’re only going to end it by changing the people (and their situations) of those who would seek one. The changing of hearts is the key, not the changing of laws. Of course, good laws and public policy do help. If pregnancy centers who provide support for women and families in crisis pregnancies got as much (or more) government and donated resources as abortion providers got, that would go a long way not only to ending abortion, but also to providing for the needs of the poor and vulnerable, and everybody wins (except the abortion providers).

I would also posit that the right is guilty a bit about what Dr. Prager accuses the left of: putting too much emphasis on societal systems, problems, and corrections (fixing the errors of others), while arguing, defending, and reacting to others with a scandalizing lack of virtue, particularly for a Christian advocating for the need for a more virtuously correct society. I see Christians being more enthusiastically Republican than Christian. I would include in this spreading unfounded insults, conspiracy theories, and other accusations and/or logical fallacies, that by reason one should not go so far as to assert. I have attempted to address some of these unvirtuous displays by conservatives, to have their vitriol turned on me. Of course that doesn’t affect me, because I don’t care what they think about me. But it does affect me in that they continue to negatively affect the public reputation and character of the same labels–such as Catholic, conservative, and even clergy–that fit me as well.

And so my battle cry is bolstered mightily by these recent reflections and insights into the Catholic worldview and virtue: Take part in the social-political arena, but do so as a Catholic, meaning, acting with Catholic virtues, reason, and charity (or if you’re not Catholic, at least do so virtuously). We can’t win the battles and lose our souls. That hearkens back even to the few homilies before this, in talking about rendering unto God what is of God, putting God first, and being society’s good servant by being God’s first.

God bless you!

Homily: Catholic in Public

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (go to readings)
Wisdom 6:12-16
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
1st Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

So I’m not going to talk about politics. Yay.

But I do want to talk about… talking about politics. I recently re-listened to a recording of an interview I remembered pieces of, that I remembered being very good, and on listening to it again, it was still very good. So, this time I typed it out and posted it, so that I could search the text of it in the future. The interview was between Matthew Leonard, who runs his blog called the Art of Catholic, and a Church history professor named Dr. Andrew Jones, and the topic was about the relationship, or the modern errors of the relationship, between Church and State. And so, the combination of having this rolling around in my brain, and our present political situation, and some recent conversations, and today’s readings, suggested that this might be a good little reflection for today. [link to interview]

I want to just take a dip into the beginning of modern history, at least as we’ve been taught about it, about the time of the so-called Enlightenment (which it wasn’t, really). And what we’ve been taught is that as the European kingdoms started emerging, and the Catholic Church, which was already fifteen centuries old and the dominant power in Europe, there was this violent tension of political power between the ecclesiastical power of the Church and the national power of the kingdoms. And at the same time there was the religious splintering of the so-called Protestant Reformation (which it wasn’t, really), and now different kingdoms had different state religions. And this came to a head in the so-called religious wars, where kings went to war against other kings, and the religion of the kings, and of the kingdoms, got embroiled in the conflicts, so you also had Catholics fighting Protestants, and condemning each other to hell, by death, or at least by excommunication, and it was a bloody mess, literally.

And what came out of this was the emergence of these conceptual categories of religion and belief on the one side, and politics and economics on the other side. And the category of religion and belief was the private thing, and the category of politics and economics was the public thing. And this was also being fed by new Enlightenment philosophy, which happened, maybe not by chance, to fit very nicely with Protestant theology, which undermined the public dimension of Christianity, and morphed it (or distorted it), heavily emphasizing the more private, personal, me-and-Jesus aspect of Christianity.

And of course, this is the dichotomy that runs the show today. The religion box can have anything you want, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Satanism, or it can be empty, because that box doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that it’s personal opinion, it stays in its box, and it helps you live in the other category, of politics and economics, as a basically good, mostly harmless, productive person. And that’s how you can have Catholic politicians who might be Catholic on Sunday mornings, which is a private thing, but not so far as that means anything to the way that they do their public political thing.

Now I want to jump to an idea that’s developing alongside this. And this is (interestingly) dependent on the Protestant theology of original sin, that humanity after the Fall is completely depraved, corrupt, and utterly incapable of good unless acted on by an outside authority. As the 18th century Protestant preacher Jonathan Edwards, said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” And so, in the secular philosophy that accompanied this time, you have the emergence of the concept of “The Sovereign,” or (in the writing of Thomas Hobbes) “The Leviathan.” And the concept of the Leviathan is that humanity is in a natural state of war of all against all. And so to escape this, all people implicitly enter into a social contract in which they surrender their capacity to do violence to a single authority, the Leviathan, who had the all-encompassing power to do violence in the name of society. If anyone gets out of line, society can compel that person, with whatever violence is seen fit, to get back in line. There is no area of life in society where the Leviathan, the State, does not have authority. So we can have constitutions and rules for restraining this all-encompassing power, sure. However, the State can also declare a condition in which the constitution and the restraints no longer apply. And as long as it has the power to do that, it has the power to do anything it wants.

But the upshot of that is that it means that the political and economic category has absolute authority over the category of the private and religious. Even the idea of “religious freedom” only extends as far as the political category allows it, and religion has to ask permission for its rights, and has to articulate its arguments and propositions in the terms of the political state, to be considered valid. Otherwise, it is religion venturing out of its box, and the political box will vengefully and forcefully hammer it back into its assigned place.

Take someone like the 17th century John Locke, for example. John Locke basically defined religion as that category of a person’s life that is a matter of opinion, a matter of personal beliefs (if I had a nickel for every time a religious teaching was called “your opinion”). And what defines it as that, is that it doesn’t have social consequences. So, for example John Locke is all about religious liberty… but not for Catholics. Why? Because he’ll argue that Catholicism isn’t really a religion. Catholicism is political. Because Catholicism makes demands outside the private box of religion and extends into the realm of politics and society. And so that makes it political, by definition, not religious.

And there’s truth to that, a lot of truth to that. Catholicism doesn’t play by the rules imposed by modernist society. Because Catholicism predates those rules and comes from a time when those categories of church and state didn’t exist, and therefore they didn’t exist in conflict. The world was seen as sacramental: the visible realm of Creation sings of the glory of God. The visible reality of the kingdom of man was a sign of the invisible reality of the kingdom of God. And the role of the kingdom of man was to participate in the kingdom of God, in enacting truth and wisdom, in preserving peace and justice, and correcting the wrong doer with the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The Catholic worldview does not match up with the modernist worldview. And that’s because we don’t share the foundational assumptions on which modernism is built. We don’t believe that humanity is completely corrupted and depraved, and absolutely requiring external force for us to play nicely. And we don’t believe that the natural state of humanity is absolute conflict. We believe that humanity is wounded by sin, and in need of grace and guidance. And we believe that the social structure of humanity is naturally more closely related to a family with difficulties, rather than an all-out war of all against all. And so the solution, in the Catholic worldview, is the flourishing of the intrinsic virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and all the natural virtues. Lead humans to rule themselves with internal virtue, and the need for an imposing, external political power, like a race for control of the government, recedes. In this view, the political solution is a failure of the real solution of charity, because politics is by definition resorting to external force (up to the use of violence), rather than the fruit of internal virtuous choice for charity. There’s no violence in the kingdom of God, and so the (need for the) use of violence in the kingdom of man is always when man has failed to manifest the kingdom of God. The goal is for the need for politics, the compulsion of external law, to recede, as the internal law of charity prevails, as it should in a family.

So that’s where we connect back to our readings. Our gospel reading about always being vigilant for the unknown hour of judgment, with the lamp of faith, fueled by the oil of the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, which fuels the life of faith, and allows its light to shine and shed its light on the world. At first glance we might question why the wise virgins didn’t share their oil. But if indeed the oil, as many ancient commentators on the gospels agree, represents the righteous deeds of the faithful, then these can’t be shared. Each person is responsible and required to bring to judgment their own witness of the life of faith and good works. And if their light isn’t shining when the Bridegroom comes unexpectedly, the door will be closed and locked against them. Not because of the unkindness of the wise, but because of the failure of the foolish. If your parents or grandparents were righteous and faithful, their good deeds can’t add fuel to your lamp. All they can do is give you their example of the wisdom to tend to your own lamp and its oil. Our faith is not restricted to the box of going to church on Sunday mornings, this private dimension that has no social/political relevance. It’s putting our faith into works, private and public, into worship, but also generously working for the common good and speaking out and working against evil in the public world. We who call ourselves and identify as Catholics are called and obligated to work in the kingdom of man in economics, politics, business, education, whatever vocation God gives you, as a Catholic fruitfully faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. This is not a controversial statement, and neither is it negotiable.

This being watchful and vigilant is also the theme of our first reading: vigilant for divine wisdom to guide the way, to shine in the darkness of confusion. And not only being vigilant for wisdom, but actively seeking wisdom: “Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her; and found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire… For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.” There’s the connection of wisdom and action, or virtue.

So, we covered a lot of ground today, and that was my goal. Principally, to show that there is no real separation of religion and politics in the Catholic faith. We can talk about political obligations in Church, and must live our Church obligations in the political world. We have the divine obligation to live the self-revelation of the truth, the way, and the life; to be vigilant and actively seeking the wisdom of God, requiring us then to apply that wisdom in private and public acts of religious worship and political-economic life. And stemming from that obligation to live our faith publicly, politically, and economically, comes the natural right to do so, whether the secular, modernist society likes it or not, or permits it or not. It doesn’t matter which Caesar sits on the throne. We must render unto God what is of God… which is everything.

Homily: All Saints’ Day!

All Saints Day (Year A) (go to the readings)
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12a

The feast of All Saints’ Day goes back at least to the 4th century. It was mentioned in the writings of several of the early Church Fathers. It honors the multitude of the faithful, known and unknown, who enjoy the heavenly bliss of being in the blessed communion of God for all eternity. Many of the saints in heaven we know by name, and we know something of their story. Some of them have feast days that we celebrate, some of them aren’t assigned a day, and an untold number we don’t even know.

We’re very blessed here in this parish, as our beautiful stained glass windows are filled with the images of the saints. Many of the traditional images of saints have some unique feature that helps us to identify them, such as Saint Agnes holding a lamb, Saint George slaying the dragon, Saint Cecilia playing on an organ, and so on. But more importantly, our windows help us to remember, first, that the saints are surrounding us with prayers and intercession, the great cloud of witnesses who were victorious in their struggle, who embrace us as we gather here in the name of Christ, just as they did in their time; and second, that in the spiritual reality that we cannot see, that the saints are celebrating the sacraments of the Church with us, as we all participate in the one great feast of heaven and earth: the marriage supper of the Lamb and the Bride, which is the spiritual reality of the Mass.

Our first reading for today’s feast comes from the Book of Revelation, that mysterious, mystic last book of the bible. “I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God.” What do you do with a seal? You mark—you seal—something as yours by your authority. “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Now this Christian prophecy is very cool, because it’s one of the 700 or 800 references that the Book of Revelation makes to images in the Old Testament. In this case, it’s a reference to Ezekiel, chapter 9, which says, “And there were six men coming from the direction of the upper gate which faces north, each with a weapon of destruction in his hand. In their midst was a man dressed in linen, with a scribe’s case at his waist. They entered and stood beside the bronze altar. Then the glory of the God of Israel moved off the cherub and went up to the threshold of the temple. He called to the man dressed in linen with the scribe’s case at his waist, and the LORD said to him: ‘Pass through the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the abominations practiced within it.’” In this translation of the bible, it says to mark an X. But in the Hebrew, it says, to mark with a Tov, which is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which, in the ancient form of Hebrew, looked like a little cross. And in Ezekiel, it describes the glory cloud of the Lord leaving the temple, and the temple is going to be destroyed along with the rest of Jerusalem. But those of the faithful who lament the abominations—the faithlessness and corruption—of Jerusalem, they will be marked to be saved.

Fast forward back to our first reading here from Revelation, (“back to the future”), the reality is the same: a small cross being placed on the foreheads of the faithful servants of God—that same little cross that’s placed on the forehead at baptism, and again at confirmation, and is the more ancient way that Christians typically signed themselves with the sign of the cross—are sealed by the Spirit as belonging to God, and they will be saved.

I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand marked from every tribe of the children of Israel.” Numbers are always interesting in the bible. It’s 12, the number of tribes of Israel, times 12, the number of Apostles, times 1000, the number of fullness, like a thousand years. 144,000…. From the every tribe of the children of Israel. So this is a symbolic number of the Jews who come to Christ, those who participate in the fulfillment of all the old testament covenants and promises about the Messiah and the restoration of Israel. “After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Now we see great multitude of the gentiles, the pagan converts to Christ and their descendants from all over the rest of the world through the end of time… a great multitude which no one can count. So, the saints in heaven aren’t only 144,000, it’s a great uncountable, multitude.

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, ‘Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you are the one who knows.’ He said to me, ‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.’” Now, I’m not one for doing laundry. But I do know that you don’t make something white by washing it in blood. But we’re not just talking about blood—we’re talking about the blood of the Lamb! And the Blood of the Lamb washes us clean of the dirt of this world: sin, and death. Those who are washed in the baptismal bath of the paschal mystery—the power of the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection—are those whose spiritual garments have no stain or blemish. When we’re baptized, we clothe the newly baptized in a white robe: an alb (which just means “white” in Latin). Symbolically, all of us who are baptized could be wearing these white garments, and holding our baptismal candles, and singing the praises of God. “Holy, Holy Holy! Lord God of hosts! Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb! Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever!” That’s heaven. And that’s the Mass. It’s the same celebration. Practically speaking, we don’t have everyone wear white, but we do see it in the vestments of the priest and deacon, who wear the white alb beneath their liturgical vestments, and our altar servers, and other ministers, when we have them. And what are these white garments? They’re the wedding garments! Because the Mass is a wedding, the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Bride, and we, the Church, are the Bride of Christ, as Saint Paul tells us. If we jump forward in the Book of Revelation, to chapter 19, we read, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment. (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who have been called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’” That last part should sound familiar, because the priest says it right before communion.

We might remember, a few weeks ago, the man who was chastised by the king for being at the wedding without a wedding garment, in a parable by Jesus in the Gospel reading. This man was called to the wedding (as we all are) but he did not have a wedding garment, and he was thrown into the darkness outside. Many are called, but only those who bear the clean garment are chosen to abide and share in the feast. The garment washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb is from our vertical relationship of love with God; the clean white garment of righteous deeds is from our horizontal relationship of love with neighbor. We get into the feast of the kingdom by the cross. We saw that last week. See, it’s all connected.

The saintly, holy Christian life that we’re called to is given to us in the paradox of the beatitudes. Blessed (or truly happy) are those whose lives are marked with this image given in the Beatitudes, because it, too, is the image of the cross. Jesus gives us the beatitudes as a sort of self-portrait: the Beatitudes describe his example of what living the kingdom looks like in human virtues. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the clean of heart… Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness…” And it’s the paradox of the cross, because the first part of each beatitude involves suffering (at least suffering our purification to more perfectly embody these virtues), and the second part of each beatitude involves a spiritual fulfillment, a grace. The more we embrace the cross, the more we reflect spiritual glory. The cross, of course, is our dying to our human sinfulness, error, and ugliness, as we unite ourselves more and more with divine truth, goodness, and beauty. As Fr. Mike Schmitz recently said, “Saints are ruthless in saying no to sin, and relentless in saying yes to God.”

So today, the Church gives us this beautiful feast of All Saints—not just all the saints known and unknown in heaven—yes, that’s the main focus—but also all the saints on here earth, the holy ones, in a single holy communion with God and with the saints in heaven (the one and entire mystical body of Christ; the communion of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church); who are sealed with the sign of the cross; who love God, and show it through their love of neighbor; who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; who render unto God what belongs to God; who unite themselves with the paradox of the beatitudes, accepting the temporal suffering of the cross, for the eternal glory of the resurrection.

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.

From the prayer of the faithful for today’s Mass:

For our nation:
     May the upcoming election be completed with integrity and honesty,
     may the response to the election be peaceful and safe,
     and may the candidate elected serve the common good with honor and
          Let us pray to the Lord.

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).