Homily: The Holy Family


The Holy Family (Sunday within the Octave of Christmas) (Year A)
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

I had Brussels sprouts this year for the first time (and last time). I always avoided them, but I was recently at Bully’s, and they just came as the vegetable for that entree. So I thought, ok, given how delicious and savory the food is at Bully’s, this is giving Brussels Sprouts the best possible chance of success. If I don’t like them here and now, they blew their chance, and that’s that. A fair, even favorable, trial was held, and the verdict was rendered: Never again. Right down there at the bottom of my list with oatmeal raisin cookies. 

How did I escape my childhood without ever having had Brussels sprouts? That is one of our great family traditions. The story, as I remember it, is that when my parents were newlyweds, they figured out that neither of them liked when they were forced to eat Brussels sprouts as kids. And so, embracing their autonomy as a new family, they declared that they never had to eat Brussels Sprouts again. And so, my sister and I reaped the blessings, as we in our childhood innocence were preserved from the abomination of Brussels sprouts.

That was good. It’s a family’s prerogative to set up their home in the way that brings happiness, peace, and order. When I moved out on my own, I did the same thing, dropping some things I had grown up with, adopting some new things. But with that comes the responsibility to persevere in things that you don’t like, but you need to do. When I moved out I stopped going to church. I was much more interested in worldly pleasures. Life was not that good during that time. A lot of it was fun. But it wasn’t good. And some very bad habits were picked up along the way.

I’ve had a lot of parents lament to me that they’re worried that their children don’t go to church, and maybe their grandchildren aren’t even baptized. Young adults are declaring their independence. But as often happens, not always in a good way (especially in the long term). Parents, having gained wisdom, can more clearly see the dangers their children with blissful ignorance are heading toward. As one of my favorite sayings goes, “Good judgment comes from a lot of experience. And a lot of experience comes from bad judgment.” Young adults don’t always recognize the long term effects of their choices… bad habits they pick up, good habits they drop, like dropping their religious faith. Parents struggle with, “How much do I give my advice? How far do I let my kid go off the rails? How hard do I press that they need to practice their faith? How much do I give to help them?”

Among the many tensions in our society is the generation gap. As a card-carrying member of Generation X (well… we never got around to making the cards), I do get some enjoyment at sitting back with a bucket of popcorn and watching the liberal millennials and the conservative boomers fight it out over social media. It might be tempting to interpret this tension as just another facet of the rancorous left-right divide. But then there’s the old quote, “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a conservative when you’re middle-aged, you have no head.” The generational crisis, like the immigration crisis, like the church crisis, are important issues that need to be attended to. But these are also persistent tensions that flare up from time to time in human history. As Mark Twain quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I take some comfort in our readings today on the feast of the Holy Family, because they tell us that generational tension has always been a thing. Parents aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their children, and children aren’t necessarily going to feel respected by their parents, but both are called to love, respect, and forgive one another. That’s what makes a family a holy family.

God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her children. Whoever honors his father atones for sins… When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother he who obeys his father brings comfort to his motherMy son, take care of your father when he is old… revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten…” Being respectful of one’s parents is an act of righteousness, which mitigates against sin; an act that invests treasure in heaven. The Old Testament books of Wisdom aren’t necessarily bound by culture, time, and place. Wisdom is universal and eternal. There’s something essential about the good of human nature that is tied together with family bonds, even if the humans involved aren’t that good. God gave us the blueprint for a family: a holy marriage of man and woman faithfully living out their vocation to self-giving nuptial commitment, together as the parents to their children. Now there’s lots of variations of that. Some of that is good, like adopted children and foster families. Some of that is tragic, like infertility, disease, or death in the family. Some of that is sinful, like cohabitation or other romantic partnerships that aren’t healthy. We forsake God’s blueprint at our own peril. And when we oppose God’s plan, we don’t just damage ourselves, but others as well. Love isn’t enough. It takes everyone involved to love with divine grace: selfless, forgiving, patient love. Sure, a good, loving, stable family doesn’t necessarily require Christian faith. But the graces of the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of marriage and living out those graces: That’s what makes a holy family as an icon of divine love.

Our lesson continues in our second reading from St. Paul. Let’s get the last little part out of the way first. “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them.” It sounds kind of denigrating to women, especially strong-willed, intelligent, type-A personality women. But if we combine this with Ephesians 5, yes, women are to love their husbands as the Church does Christ. But husbands are also to sacrifice themselves in loving service to their brides as Christ does for the sake of the Church. So it’s a submission to each other that is mutual but different, not in dignity, but in design. A husband is to submit himself to his wife in a masculine way that serves her and the family in self-giving love. A wife is to submit herself to her husband in a feminine way that serves him and the family in self-giving love. Neither one is slave or master. Both lovingly serve God by lovingly serving one another with devotion, faithfulness, and humility.

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord. Parents, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged.” Again, we have the admonition to respect and obey one’s parents. Again, the generational gap has always been and will always be a source of tension: parents wanting to keep their children safe and on the right track, and children looking to spread their wings and venture out into the big open world. How each family virtuously and lovingly navigates that tension will be unique to that family. But it must be done virtuously and lovingly, with trust, patience, and compromise on both sides.

The larger first part of the second reading is Paul’s guide for living in holy relationship with others. This reading is sometimes used in the blessing of family homes. It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt (and children), and nowhere is the holiness and goodness of relationships tested more than in the trenches of everyday family life. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another. If one has a grievance against another, as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love… in all wisdom teach and admonish one another… And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…” If you could read this instruction every day as a family, and strive to live it out, and constructively help each other live it out, that would be key. Our Lord Jesus is of course the key to the holy family.

The Holy Family of Nazareth gives us a great model of the virtues we need as a holy family, especially in a crisis situation. Jesus is the incarnation of God. Mary is the Immaculate Conception. And then there’s poor, normal Joseph, in charge of them. Joseph was chosen because of his character: he is just, he is faithful, he is virtuous. Joseph is not only entrusted with the holy family of Mary and Jesus, but he is also patron saint of fathers, and families, and patron and protector of the Church, God’s entire family of the brothers and sisters of his only begotten Son. Joseph pours himself out in loving service to his family. Mary, seeing how good Joseph is, how beautifully he gives himself, willingly serves him, not in any way detracting from her own dignity. Jesus selflessly loves, humbly respects, and is obedient to, his parents, even though his dignity is infinitely beyond theirs.

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Lastly, in our gospel reading, we continue with the beginning of the book of Matthew. The Holy family is still in Bethlehem. The magi have just left, not returning to Herod because they picked up on his malicious intent. Joseph again receives his instruction from God through an angel in his dreams: Flee to Egypt, King Herod wants to destroy Jesus, whom he sees as a threat. “Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” Our reading skips a few verses, in which we have the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Herod’s order to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem two years old and under.

A lot of people use the plight of the Holy Family in relation to the contemporary political problem of immigration. Certainly, the fairly common journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem or Jerusalem is not a good analogy. But the flight to Egypt is a stronger parallel. Without getting into the political quagmire, the Church’s steadfast teaching is that we have a preferential option for the poor, suffering, and vulnerable. As such, we not only need to advocate and work toward a functional and compassionate immigration and asylum policy (and practice), but also we need to tend to the human needs and dignity of all people at all times. Those who venture to leave their dangerous or impoverished familiar homes with the hope of something better somewhere else, especially those who do so with young families, do so with courage and trust against great risks. It is also the host country’s right to reasonably vet those seeking immigration to promote the health and safety and flourishing of its citizens and guests. It’s a complex situation which requires a great deal of resources. Again, our role is to promote and assist in an adequate and just handling of immigration which respects the dignity and safety of all persons involved, especially the most vulnerable.

An unknown amount of time later, Joseph again receives an angelic visit in his dreams. “‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there… he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’

Herod Tetrarchy3Herod the Great, in power at Jesus’ birth, was well known for his cruelty and insecurity, a dangerous, corrupt combination. After his death, his son Archelaus became king, but only of Judah (Judea), not all of Israel. He was just as brutal. So Joseph understood that the angel hadn’t meant to return to “Israel” in the general sense, but the northern territory of Israel specifically (under Herod Antipas), avoiding the southern territory of Judah, where Bethlehem and Jerusalem were. So Joseph went back up to Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had been before the census sent them down to Bethlehem.

Here, as Matthew tells us, Jesus grew up as a Nazorean, as the prophets foretold. Except Nazareth isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament at all. Most likely Matthew is referring to the text we read about the shoot, or branch, growing out of the stump of Jesse, the father of King David. The Hebrew word for shoot or branch is almost the same word as Nazareth. So Matthew is connecting Jesus with the prophecy of one who is a new shoot or branch, a netzer, from Nazareth, a child who is one of the “Branch.”

Image result for domestic churchIn today’s society, there are many sinister attacks on God’s plan for the family, both the holy family in the home, and the holy family of the Church (in other words, the hierarchical church, and the domestic church). Those sinister attacks come in the same form as the Enemy has always used: abuse, broken trust, lust, greed, and pride. If we are going to resist these attacks on the family, we need to increase our devotion to the Holy Family, especially to Saint Joseph, and ask for his intercession.

Holy Child Jesus, have mercy on us.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.

St. Joseph, patron saint of fatherhood, and patron and protector of the family, and of the Church: pray for us.

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Midnight Mass
Isaiah 9:1–6
Psalm 96:1–2, 2–3, 11–12, 13
Titus 2:11–14
Luke 2:1–14
Mass at Dawn
Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

As we are gathered in this most solemn celebration, we’re like the shepherds. They were just doing their thing, when the world changed in a dramatic way. It wasn’t a change that could be seen or heard, or even felt. It was a spiritual shift in the very nature of creation. And a huge shift, a monumental change. It wasn’t a change that could be sensed, but it was a change so immense, that a heavenly multitude of angels were sent to proclaim the good news, especially to those who were poor, vulnerable, humble, and who would be the most receptive to believing the message, acting on the message, and spreading the message. What was the message? That God, the Creator, has humbled himself to enter into his own creation to free humanity from our sinfulness, to show us and lead us on the way to the gates of paradise, and to plant his kingdom among the nations of humanity. The newborn king has been born to us! Christ the King!

So then, are we like the shepherds? Have we allowed God to interrupt our status quo, our daily plans and activities, to stop and be amazed at his glorious light? Well, we are all here right now, we took time out of our preparations and gift wrapping and cookie baking and everything else, which itself is an exception to the ordinary routine of the rest of the year. So we’re here. And that is good.

When God interrupted their life with a choir of angelic multitudes, I very much doubt that the shepherds were the same after that. An encounter with the heavenly reality would be life-changing. One would be absolutely compelled to live life differently after such an encounter, after having all the hubbub of religious tradition taken flesh and visible and verifiable. The angel gave them a sort of sacramental message: an outward visible sign that makes present the invisible spiritual reality it communicates.

The invisible spiritual reality is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises of the long-awaited messiah, who is God himself: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord!

And the outward visible sign of that is what they were instructed to go see: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Now personally, I’m not sure I would need to go see the baby for proof. I think the fear-inspiring sight of an angel appearing with the glory of the Lord shining all around, and a heavenly multitude praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest…” That would be enough for me to be able to say, “Ok, I believe you!” And no doubt the shepherds did believe at that magnificent visitation of the angel choirs. Still, the shepherds went to behold for themselves the sign, the newborn king.

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So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed.” That’s the power of sacramental reality: outwardly, in the visible reality, it’s a baby wrapped in cloths lying in an animal feeding trough. In the true, spiritual reality, invisible to us, it’s God come as the long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David, the savior who is Christ and Lord.

And of course, how could the shepherds be the same after that? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

So then, are we like the shepherds? At every celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we have that same invitation as the shepherds! I am so inspired each year as our 2nd graders are close to receiving their first communion! They’re so excited, so full of anticipation and joy! If only we would approach the Eucharist each and every time with that same awesome desire, that same reverent appreciation and humble awareness that we don’t fully understand, but we know, that this is God… the Eucharist is Him.

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So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we anxiously seek with such joy and humility God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, God who saves his people from their sins? Do we have the eyes to see through the bread and wine, as they saw through the flesh and swaddling clothes, to truly see the concealed reality of the true flesh and blood of him who is Christ and Lord? Do we make a beautiful throne for him with our hands or our tongue, reflecting the royal throne we have prepared for him in our hearts, in the center of our lives, from where he reigns supreme over us as his loyal and loving holy people?

So then, are we like the shepherds? Do we drop what we’re doing, and go to seek him about whom the prophets have spoken, and angels sing? And upon beholding him for ourselves, and experiencing the fulfillment of the promise of our forgiveness, our healing, and our redemption, do we return to the world glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen?

Of course we know this miraculous coming of the Lord at Christmas points us toward that even greater appearance of Our Lord on the day of his resurrection… which itself points forward to his resurrected and transfigured flesh and blood, soul and divinity, appearing through the power of the Holy Spirit every time the Holy Liturgy of the Mass is celebrated. So that for all ages, not just in spirit, but in the fullness of his humanity, spirit and flesh, he is Emmanuel, God with his people, that his people themselves (we) may be sacramental signs of his (presence in, and) love for the world.

How could we not go to behold him? How could we put other things before the supernatural importance of Sunday Mass? The weekly celebration when God comes to us anew, concealed in the swaddling clothes of the sacrament of the altar. He was underwhelming to the senses as a newborn infant. He’s underwhelming to the senses, appearing as bread and wine. Yet he is fully present as Christ and Lord. (Lord we believe, help our unbelief!)

Bethlehem in Hebrew means “house of bread,” and in Arabic it means “house of meat” (so I’m told). The Eucharist, the bread of heaven, the sacrificial oblation for the forgiveness of sins and thanksgiving to God, is also the meat, the flesh, of the incarnation of God most high. His supernatural flesh is true food, our holy communion with him, and with the whole mystical body of Christ, the Church. And then we go out rejoicing, spreading the good news of how we ourselves have been forgiven and healed.

So then, are we like the shepherds? Let us resolve that we are. Let us be sent from our heavenly encounter fully engaged, the thrill of hope, rejoicing, glorifying and praising God. That’s the shepherds. That’s the Good news. That’s the substance of the Christian life. That’s the meaning of Christmas. God bless you.

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Homily: Fourth Sunday of Advent

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4th Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 7:10–14
Psalm 24:1–2, 3–4, 5–6
Romans 1:1–7
Matthew 1:18–24

There’s a popular image that floats around social media, often shared by pro-life advocates, that says, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” The message of course is that if Mary had reacted to her unplanned, crisis pregnancy the way many women are advised to do so today by those who mistakenly believe that abortion is a legitimate option that simply makes the problem go away, then the Christ child would have been killed in the womb, and sinful humanity would have remained in the darkness of sin, having aborted its hope for redemption.

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But let’s go back to that saying, “One unplanned pregnancy saved us all.” A friend of mine, and former parishioner in Hanover, Paul Oakes, had a very insightful response, that really ties our readings together beautifully (he gave me permission to quote him). He said:

“I have noticed several posts floating around lately that call Jesus’ birth an ‘unplanned pregnancy.’ However, I offer up to you that it was very much planned. Please hear me out!

If it were unplanned, God would have simply impregnated Mary without her consent and, then, 9 months later, she would have been like “Oh my gosh, I’m having God’s child!” Could you imagine the devastation that would’ve had on the Holy Family? How hurt and betrayed Joseph would have felt? How ashamed and used Mary would’ve felt? IF it had gone down that way?

But it didn’t. God planned it. The angel Gabriel told Mary about God’s plan. She said yes (her fiat). And when Joseph learned the truth, he accepted it too. At every point in history, God gives each of us free will. Mary and Joseph could have just as easily said “no” to God’s plan for their lives. He wasn’t going to force either of them to choose His way. But because they understood that Christ’s birth was bigger than their own plans, they accepted. Even if they didn’t have all the answers at first, they trusted God in faith and hope. They loved God above everything else and willingly submitted themselves to His plan. This Advent season, imagine what the Lord could do in our lives if we just said “Yes” to His will.”

That message “One unplanned pregnancy saved the world” is a pretty interesting insight, but that response just blew me away.

Most of the time when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus, we hear readings from St. Luke, who is sometimes called “St. Luke the Physician,” because certain details of his gospel reveal not only a very intelligent use of Greek, but also suggest evidence of medical training. One theologian pointed out the surprising connection that it is St. Luke the Physician who gives the most detail about the miraculous virginal conception of the Lord in the womb of the Blessed Mother. But in our new liturgical year that started with the first Sunday of Advent, we’re now in the year of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and from St. Matthew, we hear Joseph’s side of the story.

So we have some things to unpack that Matthew’s first century Jewish readers would have known right away, but are culturally unfamiliar to us. First, Mary was betrothed to Joseph. That does not mean they were engaged. They were married. Betrothal was the initial stage into the marriage, while the bride remained in her family’s home and the bridegroom established a home for her. Then they would have the wedding feast, and he would take her home and they would consummate their marriage. So for Joseph to find Joseph and Mary talkingMary returning from her visit to Elizabeth, Mary now at least three or four months pregnant, and Joseph knew it was not by him, he’s got a dilemma. Jewish law required that a woman who committed adultery would be publicly stoned. But Joseph, being a just and righteous man, struggled with the tension of being just and being merciful. So to preserve his righteousness, and her life, rather than denounce her publicly, he decided to divorce her privately, and she could go off and live somewhere else. Such was his intention.

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David.’” Joseph was a descendant of David, but Joseph would have been called, Joseph, son of Jacob, his father’s name. So whatever the angel is about to tell Joseph, it has to do with his lineage all the way back to King David. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” To confirm what we said earlier, the angel calls Mary his wife. And he is to continue and fulfill their betrothal, and the wedding celebration, and take her to their new home.

For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” Now that’s gotta be a tough pill to swallow. Perhaps Joseph struggled with that. I mean, this is a dream, and as people have been pointing out for 2000 years, it’s much more likely that the child has a human father than a divine father.

And the angel continues, and perhaps this is enough to sway Joseph from his doubt. This is a pretty well-developed dream, and maybe it really has angelic inspiration to it. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” In the bible people’s names are often given or changed by God, or they get titles, that in Hebrew have a particular meaning, and then usually that meaning is explained as their role in the divine plan. For example, the patriarch Abram, which means “exalted father.” God says, “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” The best example is probably the first chapter of the prophet Hosea, in which God tells Hosea what to name his children, as a series of messages to the people of Israel. And of course we know of Simon the fisherman, whom Jesus renamed Peter, based on the Greek word for “rock,” saying, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

In our gospel reading we have this twice. First, the Hebrew name “Jesus,” (actually “Yeshua”) means “God saves”. The angel tells Joseph to name the son, Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Then immediately St. Matthew cites this angelic instruction as the fulfillment of a key prophecy from Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” And we’ll get to that in a moment. So Jesus, who will save us from our sins, is connected to the promise that God is with us.

Also, it’s significant that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. Mary had also been told by the angel to name the child Jesus (in some translations it says, “and you shall call the child Jesus,” with the added significance that the child had been divinely named Jesus, and they were to call him by the name he already had). In Israelite culture, the father would take the child upon his knee, and give the child his or her name, as an expression of claiming the child as his under the law. I’ve never been a fan of the modern habit of calling Joseph the “foster father of Jesus,” because foster father means one thing, and legal father means something much more permanent and important. Jesus is conceived by Mary while she is Joseph’s wife. Joseph claims Jesus as his son, with the legal and hereditary rights as the first-born son. As Fr. Cornelius Lapide (whose rich 16th century commentary I rediscovered last week) says:

Joseph was the true and lawful father of Christ, after the manner which I shall explain presently. Christ was the heir of David’s throne and scepter, not through Mary, but through Joseph, according to God’s promise to David. The scepter, therefore, of Judah devolved upon Jesus Christ, not only by the promise and gift of God, but by the right of hereditary succession. For if, by common right, sons succeed to their fathers’ inheritance, when they are only accounted their sons by common repute, how much more was Christ Joseph’s, His father’s, heir, since He was the Son of his wife, by the power and the gift of the Holy Ghost? Wherefore as Joseph had a parent’s right over Christ, indeed, all rights which parents have over sons, so on the other hand, Christ had, with reference to Joseph, all the rights which sons have in respect to their parents. He had therefore a right to the kingdom of Israel after Joseph’s death. Hence the question of the Magi, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

(I hadn’t really considered that at the time of Jesus, Joseph was really the true heir to the throne of David; I just thought Joseph was one of many valid descendants of David, who was chosen by God to be Mary’s husband. But if Joseph really is the one with the true claim, then Jesus really is—by both his divine father and his human father—the King of the Jews!)

Joseph then awakes from his dream, fully confident in Mary’s innocence and the miraculous importance of her unborn child, and does as the angel instructed him, taking Mary his wife into his home.


The prophecy that St. Matthew quotes is, conveniently, our first reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. But inconveniently, our reading doesn’t really give us much context to understand it. After King David’s son Solomon, Israel broke into the small southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was, and the king was of the Davidic dynasty, and then the larger, more prosperous northern kingdom of Israel. Then they had their neighbor, Syria, which was an on-again/off-again relationship, and the great and powerful empire of Assyria, whose capital was Nineveh, which was a brutal tyranny that extorted huge tributes from their conquered nations, which included Syria and Israel (hence Jonah’s hostility toward his mission to preach to and save the people of Nineveh, and his anger when they actually listened and God forgave them). So Syria and Israel had decided not to pay the tributes to Assyria anymore, and wanted Judah’s help to battle Assyria. The king of Judah, King Ahaz, saw this as a stupid idea, and said no. So Syria and Israel turned around to attack Judah. Now Ahaz is being told by his court advisers to ask Assyria for help (which was also a stupid idea), which is like making a deal with the devil. And then the prophet Isaiah confronts Ahaz, who is not particularly courageous, virtuous, or faithful, and Isaiah tells Ahaz that God is with them, will defend and uphold them, as long as they remain independent and not solicit the help of Assyria.

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God says to Ahaz through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” So God gives Ahaz a blank check. Ask for anything to prove to you that I will protect you, and I will give you that proof. But Ahaz had already made up his mind to go to Assyria. So faking to take the pious route, Ahaz answered, “I will not ask!  I will not tempt the LORD!” Now, Isaiah knows what kind of person Ahaz is. It’s like a politician with a track record of consistently promoting legislation antithetical to church teaching suddenly announcing what a faithful Catholic he (or she) is. Neither Isaiah nor the LORD are impressed by Ahaz’s hypocrisy. Isaiah responds, “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?” Oh, you descendant of the great King David, on his throne, how far you have fallen. It’s not enough for you to patronize me. But to mock faith in God as well. The sign to be given is no longer to persuade Ahaz, but will now be to confirm the truth of what the prophet has spoken. It’s no longer to fortify Ahaz’ faith, but now to shame Ahaz’s failure to be faithful. And indeed, Judah is almost completely wiped out, with Jerusalem itself being besieged.

Last thing: The prophecy itself. The word being translated as “virgin” is the Hebrew word alma. Critics of Christianity love to point out that alma doesn’t exactly mean virgin, as in a woman who has not had relations with a man (our modern use of the word). But alma is better translated into English as “maiden,” which is a young woman, unmarried, and presumably chaste, and so by extension, a virgin. It could apparently also refer to a young woman who was married but who had not yet had her first born. That wasn’t as common, but it’s this usage that is key to this issue. Christianity originally used the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and the translation of alma into the Greek was parthenos, which literally means virgin (as in the Parthenon, the Greek temple of the virgin goddess Athena). The prophecy of Isaiah, in context, is that Ahaz should not panic but rather trust in God, because by the time a young woman gives birth and “before the child learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of those two kings whom you dread shall be deserted.” Which in the general sense, means in less than a few years. But specifically, in Israel’s conscience, Isaiah was prophesying the birth of King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz and his young wife Abia (like Mary, the young wife of Joseph), and Hezekiah was a great and holy king. And so it is Hezekiah that Isaiah is calling the sign of God’s fidelity to Israel, Hezekiah is the living sign of Emmanuel, God is with us (historically, this is anachronistic. Ahaz ruled for 16 years, and Hezekiah was 23 when he succeeded his father. So Hezekiah had been born before Ahaz had ascended to the throne. But centuries later, that detail was overlooked, and Hezekiah was held to be the one spoken of in Isaiah’s prophecy)

Isaiah most likely didn’t know that his prophetic words meant more than that, something infinitely more important, 800 years after him. Yet when the Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to use those words, the Spirit already knew that he would also inspire Matthew to grab hold of those words, and that while they were fulfilled directly by the birth of the royal son of David, Hezekiah, they were ultimately intended to be perfectly fulfilled by the royal and divine son of David, Jesus.

Isaiah was faithful in speaking the words the Holy Spirit inspired in him. Mary and Joseph were faithful in accepting their role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan he had known since the foundation of the world. Ahaz had not been faithful, he had already made up his mind despite God’s plan, and it did not go well for him or for those around him. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re asked the same question again: Will we be faithful in accepting God’s plan, or have we made our plans without God? Are we willing to throw our plans away to accept God’s will for our life, that might be completely different than our plan? That’s the effect Jesus has, to the extent that we allow him in our hearts, and give him our permission to rule in our hearts. We know God is with us. The question is, are we with God?

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Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and could also be read,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homily: 1st Sunday of Advent

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

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

In other words, waiting is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homily: Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homily: The Bridegroom King


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva Cristo Rey!

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Homily: “Lo, the day is coming…”

entrance to the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homily: Hope for Heaven


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Homily: Zacchaeus


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love the quote that I saw that says, 

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

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

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

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

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