Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 11th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles. The Book of Chronicles is one of the historical books of the Bible, detailing significant people, events, places that shaped the Israelites for good and for bad. The great overarching theme of the Book of Chronicles, indeed all the historical books of the Bible, is that God is actively involved in the lives of the Israelites- they are not the simply makers of their own destiny. Human freedom is always in relationship to God’s freedom to act in the world. It is precisely in relation to God’s freedom that the mission and purpose of the Israelites, indeed the mission and purpose of our own lives, is revealed.

This particular scripture from the Book of Chronicles recalls one of the greatest catastrophes that overtook the Israelites and nearly destroyed them forever- the invasion of the Israelite kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 587 BC.

This event was truly apocalyptic- everything that the Israelites valued was lost- their land, their wealth, their culture, their king, their temple, and for many, their relationship with God.

The Israelites would languish for years in exile, clinging to whatever hope they could muster, hoping that what had been lost might one day be restored.

This reading from the Book of Chronicles hints at that restoration, briefly describing the circumstances through which the Israelites would return to their homeland and rebuild not only their lives, but their temple, and with that temple, their relationship with God.

Why is any of this significant to us?

Well, remember, the Church does not read and re-read the texts of the Old Testaments as an appreciation course in ancient literature, or to teach us a history lesson, but because we believe that inasmuch the Church continues the story of the Israelites, these Old Testament texts illuminate for us our own mission and purpose as God’s chosen people. In other words, hidden in the histories of the Book of Chronicles and the entire Old Testament are not just stories from the past, but our own story, the story of the Church.

(In regards to all this) Today’s particular excerpt from the Book of Chronicles reveals that our relationship to God through the Church is forged in a crucible of fidelity and infidelity- our willingness to live our lives in accord with God’s will or go our own way and position of own will, our own freedom in opposition to God.

The Book of Chronicles understands that it was infidelity, the willful positioning of human freedom, of choices, of decisions against God, that led to the catastrophe of 587 BC and it was only a radical conversion back to God, fidelity replacing infidelity, that opened up the possibility of restoration.

Note that the foremost sign of infidelity, of defiance of God, in today’s scripture is idolatry- elevating a worldly concern or preoccupation to an ultimacy or significance that properly belongs only to God. The great idols need not be mythological beings, that are most often constructed out of our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, idols which in our own time are embodied in our preoccupations with celebrities, politicians, ideology and economics. These are elevated to the gods that will save us- but that is the same lie that doomed the Israelites in 587 BC and in this regard, this excerpt from the Book of Chronicles is a warning.

Will we be faithful to God or not? Will it be God or our idols? We have to choose. We have to decide. The future of the Church, indeed our own future, will be forged in the crucible of our decision.

In the Church’s second scripture for today, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has intervened dramatically in history. How so? Through Jesus Christ.

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ has changed everything and given us a possibility that we did not have before his coming into the world.

This possibility is communion or relationship with God, a communion or relationship that is not constructed by ourselves, but is, instead accepted as a gift from God himself. In other words, God in Jesus Christ offers us the possibility to be his friends, and those of us who claim the name “Christian” are the ones who have accepted this communion, this relationship, this friendship with God.

Any friendship that is authentic and true will change us, and friendship with God in Christ does precisely that- changes us. Friendship with God in Christ does not affirm us as we are, but, initiates us into a new way of life- changing the way we think, the way we feel, and the manner in which we behave.

The apostle Paul conceives of this change, this transformation through friendship with God in Christ as a movement from sin to grace. By this the apostle Paul means a life lived in defiance of God and in a refusal of his offer of friendship to a life lived in relationship with God in Christ, in which we accept his friendship and the new way of life this entails. This is what it means to be “saved” and being “saved” has profound implications for our lives in the here and now and into eternity.

What does being “saved” look like? Well look at your life, what you think, what you do, what you believe and ask yourself how much of all this indicates that you are a friend of God in Christ.

Being saved is not a “get out of hell free card”. Being saved is not an expression of some faith-based form of identity politics. Being saved is being a friend of Jesus Christ. Being saved is not indicated because you think pious thoughts or because you are a generally nice person. Being saved is indicated in the manner in which you accept the way of life Christ offers to you as your own- this way of life is called the Church, and it’s through that way of life, the Church, that you share communion with God in Christ, have a relationship with him and become his friend.

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus makes reference to a strange and miraculous event detailed in the Old Testament Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:9) in which the Israelites are afflicted by the poisonous bites of snakes and in response to their pleading, the prophet Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it up on a pole- all those who look upon this image are healed.

Christ is using this strange story to illuminate the meaning of his death on the cross- his cross will be for all a sign of healing and of hope. The appearance of Christ on the cross, like the serpent on the pole will be off-putting, bizarre, an apparent contradiction, but to those who look upon it in their fears, their desperation, their pain, they will find a divine source of solace and consolation.

Christ the Lord then testifies that the reason for his revelation is not condemnation, but salvation, redemption- hope.

It is not his purpose or his mission to condemn the world. He will name directly and forthrightly the world’s truth, our truth, but his purpose in doing so is not to destroy us, but to save us from those destructive lies that hold us captive and prevent us from fully flourishing.

In other words, Christ comes to offer to us all a new possibility, the best of all possible second chances, a new way of life. This is his mission. This is his purpose. This is the reason for his revelation.

In this regard, Christ the Lord is very clear. But there is more to this Gospel than that.

Christ tells us what his mission is, but he also insists that we have to make a decision, a choice, (in regards to) what he offers (to us)- and we can still refuse (what he offers).

And our refusal is not without consequences.

Christ raises the prospect that while his purpose is not to condemn us, we can, through our refusals of Christ, condemn ourselves. As I said before, being a Christian does not mean that you are the privileged recipient of a “get out of hell free card”. Our refusals of Christ matter. Hell is our refusal of Christ. And our refusals create personal hells for ourselves and for others, not just in an eternity far from our day to day experience, but here and now.

Our willingness to accept from Christ a new way of life and truly live that way matters.

Christ wants to save us, but are we going to let him?



Second Sunday of Lent (February 25th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture is from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first text of the Bible. The purpose of the Book of Genesis is to present stories of origin, beginnings- of creation, of humanity, and God’s chosen people- the Israelites.

Today’s story from the Book of Genesis is, I think, best described as a tale of terror. God tests the faith of Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, by insisting that the patriarch offer to him as a sacrifice his son, his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham passes the test and in the last moment Isaac is spared.

What are we to make of this?

Saints, sages and scholars have racked their brains for centuries over this story, this tale of terror.

First, the story is what is called an etiological text, which means it describes how a particular and significant cultural reality emerges- in this case, why it was that the Israelites rejected a practice that was established in many cultures- the practice of human sacrifice to God or the gods. The meaning of the Genesis story is that God desires an act of faith, but not an act of human sacrifice, which is precisely how the story concludes. It is off putting for us to consider that humans ever believed that God desired killing another human being in order to please him, but it is true, and one of the great distinctions of Biblical religion, displayed in this story from the Book of Genesis, is how the Israelites came to understand that human sacrifice was not something God wanted us to do. In this respect the frightening story of Abraham’s sacrifice is meant to be read a subversive tale, simultaneously acknowledging God’s right to give life and take life, while at the same time indicating that the worship we will institute, while demanding a sacrifice, will not be a cult of human sacrifice. Again, while this will not seem to us as an extraordinary revelation, it was for the ancient Israelites and the fact that they worshipped a God that did not desire that they murder their children was strange to other culture’s that did- and in the ancient world there were many!

Second, the story is not simply about Abraham and Isaac, but it’s depth of meaning is revealed in Christ. The story is about God, with Abraham as a stand in for God the Father and Isaac as a stand in for God the Son- Christ. The demand of sacrifice is the demand of love, willingly accepted by Christ (Isaac). The story prefigures or foreshadows the Incarnation- God who in Christ and for the sake of his love for his creation, accepts a human nature as his own and lives, like us, a real, human life.

This dramatic revelation will inevitably lead to suffering and death, yet God accepts this, why? Because God desires a relationship with the totality of who we are, which means the totality of our humanity and to be human is to be mortal, vulnerable to the raw facts of life- facts like suffering and death. And so, God in Christ accepts the experience of suffering and death for himself, not because he has too, but because he loves what he has created and desires for his creation to know he is with us, not just in some things, not just in things that are emotionally satisfying, but in all things- even the inevitable facts of our existence- suffering and death.

Finally, the story is about the human condition itself and the often pain filled realization that to bring a child into the world is to give life, yes, but it also means that you set that your child on a path that inevitably leads towards death. Again, a harsh truth, a terrifying revelation, definitely not emotionally satisfying, but a necessary fact of human existence that we all must come to terms with, lest we linger in illusions and never come to terms with what is truly at stake in being a parent and how fragile and precious the gift of life we give to our children really and truly is.

Remember, the Bible is not a greeting card, a cartoon fantasy where everything is neatly and easily resolved in the end. The Bible is not a Book of platitudes. The Bible is a Book of Truth- truth about God, about the human condition and when we open up this Book of Truth, it tells us, not what we want to hear, but what is the truth. And it is this fact that makes the Bible so important to us.

Our second scripture for today is an excerpt from an New Testament text, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

The Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul’s tour de force, his magnum opus where he lays out with as much detail as possible what he believes the Lord Jesus has revealed about God and humanity, particularly the relationship of God and humanity.

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ must, St. Paul believes, change the way we think about God, how we worship, how we understand what God wants and what he wants us to do. As such, no one who gives their life over to Jesus Christ, can do so without the change of mind, of emotions, of will, that is called conversion. Concretely this means that our opinions and feelings about God and what we think is important, what we believe the meaning and purpose of life is, must give way to what God in Christ reveals about such things. To be in relationship with Christ means that we say, as St. Paul did, “it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”- and if we can say that honestly and with integrity we are saying that it is Christ who is at the center of our lives, not our egos, not our opinions, not our feelings, and further if Christ is at the center of our lives, we will also be willing to say in response to Christ’s revelation- my life is not about me.

In this particular text, St. Paul is reminding us that inasmuch as God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life, that he knows first-hand the difficulties we face and the struggles we endure, and because of this fact, we should view our relationship with God as something grim and frightening, but as friend to friend. God in Christ reveals he desires what is good for us, not our destruction and he is willing to suffer and die like us to show us the depth of his desire to save us from our sins, to redeem us from our death.

One day, we will all come face to face with God in Christ. Remember, God in Christ is not an idea or a feeling or cosmic force, but a living divine person, and as such we will meet him person to person and in this encounter with Jesus Christ he will be our judge.

God in Christ is our judge, but his judgement is not arbitrary and capricious accusation, but his judgement is the judgement that tells us our truth, what we have done and what we failed to do, and his purpose in telling us our truth is not to destroy us, but to set us free from the lies that inhibit us from flourishing as God intends.

St. Paul insists that as Christ tells us our truth that we will know that he understands the powers that have weakened us, he will know our fears and the desires that afflicted us. And inasmuch as he has lived as a man, he will understand us, and we will know in this that the truth he tells is not intended for our destruction, but to save and to redeem.

Finally, in his Gospel, the truth of Christ’s identity and mission is displayed to Christ’s disciples- who is Jesus- he is God, God who has accepted a human nature and has lived a real, human life. What is the mission of Jesus? To enter into the fullness of the human nature he has accepted as his own- to go himself into the hardest facts of human existence- to suffer and to die and in doing so demonstrate that neither suffering and death are stronger than his power to redeem us, to save us, to love us as his friends.

The disciples see this, but also fail to fully comprehend it. Why? Because it is a revelation from God, and no revelation from God is ever something easy.

The lesson here is about the Lord Jesus yes, but it is also a reminder to us about what Lent is about. Lent is preparing us to receive and understand the great revelation of God in Christ suffering and dying, a revelation we Christians remember with great solemnity during Holy Week. Lent is not merely a faith- based self-improvement program. Lent is preparing us for the events of Holy Week, where what the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced will be given to us and we, like his first disciples, will have to come to terms with a revelation that is not easy to understand and demands that we change our very lives.


First Sunday of Lent (February 18th, 2018)

Note: This homily was prepared to provide a basic catechesis regarding the meaning of Lent. 

Today the Church celebrates the first Sunday of Lent.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of the Church’s year of prayer and worship, the purpose of which is to prepare Christians to appreciate and receive the great mysteries of Holy Week. Lent begins on a day called Ash Wednesday, known as such because the faithful are marked with ashes as a reminder of their willingness to undergo the penitential practices that will prepare them for Holy Week. The season of Lent includes 40 days of penitential practices.

What is Holy Week and what are the penitential practices of Lent?

Holy Week begins a week before Easter Sunday with the commemoration of Palm Sunday. At the Mass of Palm Sunday the faithful hear about Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, where he is greeted with festivity, treated like royalty and surrounded by crowds bearing palm branches. Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, because the story of Christ’s arrest, trial and execution is proclaimed to the faithful on this day. In the days that follow Palm Sunday, the faithful intensify their focus on and consideration of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, accepting and appreciating these events not simply as historical events that happened long ago, but as revelations about God. Holy Week culminates with the solemn celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, during which the faithful acknowledge their appreciation for three great gifts that Christ gives to us- the gift of his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament, the gift of the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the transformation of death from a terrifying end, to a new kind of beginning.

Each of these gifts is revealed to us by God in an extraordinary way and this is why the Church refers to the mysteries of Holy Week, it means that God acted in Christ to do something important, extraordinary and unexpected. Our joy at receiving these gifts is displayed with exuberance at the Mass of Easter Sunday.

What are the penitential practices of Lent?

The penitential practices of Lent, as I said previously, are intended to prepare Christians for Holy Week. These practices are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

What is prayer?

Most of us are familiar with what is called petitionary prayers, that is, asking God for something, and this type of prayer is a good thing, but we shouldn’t reduce the meaning and purpose of prayer to our petitions. Prayer is a disposition, a habit of attentiveness, availability and receptivity to the Lord. Through our prayer, we place ourselves, indeed our very lives, at God’s disposal and then we patiently wait for him to answer us. The answer is always a mission. This answer may come quickly or may come slowly, but this is not the concern of our prayer- the concern is to be ready and willing when the mission is finally presented to us. Prayer like this necessitates that we withdraw from our own projects and preoccupations, giving our time and attention to the Lord, demonstrating to him that we are ready and waiting and open to receiving from him a mission. Once we have received our mission, it will be our prayer, giving time and attention to the Lord, that will sustain us and help us to accomplish what the Lord asks.

What is fasting?

Fasting is depriving our bodies of food. Why would we do this? There are several reasons. One is that the experience of fasting prepares us for mission by signaling to us that whatever mission we are given will necessarily entail hardship and sacrifice. Fasting helps us to understand what kind of sacrifice we are willing to make and what kind of hardship that we can endure. The purpose of fasting also helps us to understand that there are greater things about life than just the satisfaction of our desires and they we are far more resilient than we often expect ourselves to be when we don’t get what we want.

And finally, fasting creates empathy in us for the sufferings of the poor, even if the deprivation of the poor is not food, we know from our experience of hunger, what it is to have to settle for less or even have little or nothing at all. Having had this experience of lack ourselves we hope to be more compassionate with others who suffer from hunger or deprivation or whose options have seemed to have run out.

Finally, what is almsgiving?

The word “alms” originates in a Greek word meaning “mercy”(eleemosune, eleemon). So, literally speaking, giving alms or almsgiving means giving mercy. Mercy is a gift of compassion, compassion that is needed, but not deserved. For Christians, mercy is not an idea or a feeling, but a practice or a work.

Thus, being a Christian means accepting as your way of life the practices or works of mercy- feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying the dead. And counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for one another, forgiving those who have wronged us, teaching others what is true, and warning others about the consequences of living in lies. All these works, these practices are fulfilling Christ’s command that we love our neighbor.

These are works of mercy or almsgiving, not just ideas or feelings or good intentions, but actions, practices, a way of life. These actions go beyond giving away surplus cash or donating to a favorite cause. During the season of Lent Christians undertake these works or mercy with ever increasing intensity, not just because they are good things to do, but because by practicing them, doing them, we become better Christians, we become the people that God in Christ intends for us to be.

You see, your Christian faith is not like an ethnic or racial identity, something that constitutes an identity that is “just there” because you were born into it. Instead your Christian faith is a way of life, a way that must be practiced for it to mean what it truly means, to be what it is supposed to be. Practicing your Christian faith is what makes us Christians rather than hypocrites.

This is what the almsgiving or the mercy giving of Lent is all about- becoming who Christ intends by doing what he asks you to do. The alternative is to claim to be a Christian, all the while knowing that that claim is a lie.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the practices of Lent, and we do these things so as to prepare ourselves for Holy Week. These practices help us to better appreciate and understand what Holy Week is all about- and appreciating and understanding Holy Week is what Lent is all about.


Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2018)

This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.

The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.

In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).

It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).

The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.

While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.

The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.

This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world.  It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.


Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 28th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “second law”, which is a way of saying that it is a second of two law books, the other being the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Deuteronomy presents the content and promulgation of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses is more than just a collection of rules, it is a description of a culture, a unique way of life, through which the Israelites displayed to one another and to the world their relationship with God. The Law of Moses as a unique way of life made the Israelites a visible sign of God’s presence in the world.

Moses was, of course, the great savior of the Israelite people, having acted as God’s instrument to free his people from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians. However, once freed from this bondage, the Israelites needed a way to be a people, they needed an identity and a mission, and this is what the Law of Moses gave to them.

The liberation of the Israelites from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians is described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus and in this book God declares war on the gods of the Egyptians and in terrifying displays of his power, he defeats them. These displays of power are truly frightening and impressed upon the Israelites that God was not to be provoked and his direct intervention in their lives was not be necessity something to look forward to.

Thus, in today’s scripture, the Israelites insist that they desire that God’s power and presence would be mediated for them, that someone would stand between them and the Lord and this someone would make his will known.

Moses then announces that this is precisely how God will act. The Lord will call forth prophets, like Moses, and through these prophets, he will speak. Great and lofty will be the mission of a prophet, but lest the unworthy grasp at this vocation, great and terrifying will be the judgment that falls on false prophets.

This scripture from Deuteronomy helps us to understand the significance of prophets in the Bible. Prophets are not mere predictors of the future, but they are mediators between God and his people, communicators of his will.

The biblical prophets remind the people who God is and what God wants.

But this scripture also indicates how God desires to act in our own lives and in the world- through secondary causes rather than directly. In this way God can meet us in the midst of the events and circumstances of our lives, making his presence known in what is apparently ordinary. Remember, the one, true God is not an idea or a feeling or a cosmic force, but a living, divine person, who seeks a relationship with us, and who chooses those ways in which we relate to the world and to one another as the means of making himself known.

This preference by God, to meet us in the events and circumstances of our lives, reaches its great culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God, who in his desire to share his life with us, accepts a human nature as his own and lives a real, human life. The mediation of God’s will, his presence, his power in the prophets prepares us to receive God’s will, presence and power in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament God speaks his will through the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament God speaks his will through the human voice of Christ the Lord.

Listening to Christ we listen to God.

St. Paul speaks to us through his first Letter to the Corinthians and his words express a message that is as off putting and counter cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.

His words are for Christians, for the Church and in them he expresses that his preference is that Christians choose celibacy as an expression of their fidelity to Christ and availability for the Church’s mission.

Family life produces enough demands on the Christian and the person who accepts celibacy will be able to accept different responsibilities and dedicate themselves to important aspects of the Church’s mission that the responsibilities of a family would inhibit.

Paul insists that the commitment to celibacy should not be imposed, but that it should be freely chosen and Christians should consider as whether or not they have been chosen by God to remain unmarried so as to give a unique witness to Christ and make themselves available in extraordinary ways for the mission of the Church.

What St. Paul is saying is, as I said, no less off putting and counter cultural today as when he said it centuries ago. Remaining unmarried for the sake of Christ and the Church seems to many Christians to be so radical and extreme that it is unintelligible and perceived to be dangerous. Celibates are caricatured as sad losers or hiding some kind of pathology. For other Christians, it is merely a quaint archaism, a hold-over from another time that the Church would be well rid of, its endurance in the Church today inhibits the modernization of the Church and makes it difficult to take care of pragmatic concerns.

And yet, for centuries, it has been the willingness of men and women to choose a celibate life for the sake of Christ and the Church that has moved the Church’s mission forward and often times, take the Gospel into places that most others would not prefer to go.

Finally, in his Gospel Christ the Lord confronts the dark powers in of all places, a holy place, a place of prayer and worship, a synagogue.

Christ is not simply opposed by worldly powers, but by darker and more malevolent forces that have sought to subvert God’s plans from even before the world was created. The Gospels present Christ as actively engaged in defying these dark powers and liberating humanity from their influence. As it was then, so it is now.

The dark powers know that with the revelation of Christ in the world, their domination and influence is threatened, indeed, that it is coming to an end, and since they have been rendered powerless to harm him, they strike out against what Christ loves. Christ will protect us, but we must let him, inviting his power and presence into our lives, into our minds, into our hearts, and letting him defend us.

But what the dark powers fear most from Christ, and therefore from the Church, is the manner in which he teaches- with authority, with the truth- and not merely some worldly opinion elevated to truth, but with God’s truth- God’s word about who we are, what he wants and what will lead to human flourishing. This is the truth that Christ speaks with authority and it is the truth that Christ gives to his Church to speak on his behalf.

The dark powers prefer that the Church would contain the power of Christ’s truth, reducing it to clichés or dumbing it down and making it insipid. The dark powers would prefer that the Church would not speak with authority, but would instead reduce the truth to an idea and a feeling, a mere opinion, that has little power to change one’s life and even less power to redeem and save.

Christ will have none of this and we should have none of it too!

There is another lesson in this Gospel- one even harder to take and more frightening.

Sometimes, opposition to Christ comes, not from outside the Church but from within, from our own no to Christ, our own refusals to love and to serve. We must never forget that in each of us there lurks the potential to refuse Christ, even betray him. In this case, the dark power that opposes him is not a power outside of us, but within us. The enemy is not a demon, the enemy is ourselves.

It is our own refusals of Christ that subvert the Church more than anything else. It is our own resistance to Christ’s authority that deprives the Church of the energy needed for our mission.

Let us not forget that Christ comes into our lives to protect us from dark powers, but also, and perhaps more importantly, he comes to liberate us from our own refusals and resistance to his presence and his power.


Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 21st, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jonah.

We only heard a small fragment of the Book of Jonah and so were deprived of much of the joy of hearing the story of the Prophet Jonah in its entirety.

The prophet Jonah is called by the Lord God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh the significance of which is lost if one doesn’t know the historical context of the story.

The city of Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, located in what is today known as Iraq. The Assyrians were the mortal enemies of the Israelites, having invaded and conquered the northern territories of the once mighty Kingdom of David. The inhabitants of these territories were 10 of the ancient 12 tribes of the Israelites, and as a result of the Assyrian invasion, these 10 tribes would disappear from history. Think about what a catastrophe this must have been like for the Israelites- to have so many of members of their nation deported, enslaved, killed and finally, disappear.

If the Israelites despised the Assyrians they had good reason.

Jonah is an Israelite and God wants him to go to the capital city of the Assyrian empire and preach repentance so as to save the people there from God’s wrath.

The great drama of the Book of Jonah is that the Israelite prophet doesn’t want to do what God is asking him to do. He would prefer that Nineveh and the Assyrians were destroyed. But despite the creative ways Jonah resists, God has his way and Jonah preaches repentance, and barely utters a word of warning and he becomes the most successful prophet in Israelite history- the Assyrians repent and the city of Nineveh is spared destruction.

The lesson here is not an easy one, especially if one has been wronged by someone and expects that what we would prefer to happen to that person is also what God also wants.

When we have been hurt by someone, as the Israelites had been hurt by the Assyrians, our desire for justice is often such, that what we want most is for that person to experience at the very least, the pain they have inflicted on us. Wickedness should be punished and the wicked should know wrath. God setting things right means him bring to bear on wrong doers a terrifying justice- this is what we expect.

But the Book of Jonah offers us God’s perspective on matters of justice and articulates that his preference is that sinners repent, and by repenting be saved, rather than destroyed. The lesson might strike someone who has never really been hurt as comforting and edifying. But if you have been hurt, you might find yourself as perplexed as Jonah that God is willing to be so generous- even to those who have done terrible things.

The ultimate expression of God’s willingness to forgive is revealed in the cross of the Lord Jesus. In the terror of the cross, humanity proves itself capable of torturing and killing God and God in response, would have been justified at bearing down upon us with the full force of his wrath, and yet, surprisingly, mysteriously, that is not what God does- but instead he transforms the very means we used to torture and kill him into the means of reconciling us to him.

Most of us have our own ideas about how God should set a world gone wrong, right, and the lesson of the Book of Jonah is that God has ideas of his own.

The Apostle Paul has his own warning for us in our second scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament First Letter to the Corinthians. His warning is about becoming unduly attached to worldly things and realities, even good and important things and realities. Why? Because this world is passing away and ourselves along with it. We can appreciate what is worldly, even love it. But worldly realities can only suggest to us what is eternal, and we should never elevate what is worldly to our ultimate concern or give to it an honor and attention that should only properly belong to God.

To do so is to make idols, false gods and the great temptation and capital sin of the Bible is to do precisely this. We may take comfort in our idols, convince ourselves that their false promises are true, but in the end, our idols are swept away along with us- they cannot endure the test of time nor grant us access to eternity. Only the one true God can do so, only he can restore what we believe to be lost and bring life out of death. This is what God has accomplished in Christ, and he has revealed Christ to us so that we might believe and understand that beyond this world is a world for us that is without end, and this world without end is the one that really and truly matters, and what we have in the here and now is not an end in itself, but a means to bring us to eternity.

Finally, Christ’s Gospel connects our first and second reading, demonstrating that the two texts are preparing us to receive Christ’s revelation.

Note that the first words of Christ’s public mission are a call for our repentance, reminding us that we are all, each of us, sinners and in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.

Christ comes into the world, into our lives, as Jonah came to Nineveh, insisting that we repent. The difference between the two being that Jonah was reluctant, and Christ is zealous to set us right. He wants to forgive us, for what we have done, for what we have failed to do, and our willingness to repent will indicate that we want the forgiveness that he wants to give. Repentance is receptivity to the grace Christ offers to us.

It is not an easy thing to repent because we are proud and to repent means admitting that we have been wrong or that we are lacking. But no one truly receives the Gospel who has not first repented. Yes, we might hear the words, even know the great doctrines and dogmas of the Church, even appear to the world to be virtuous and righteous, but we will not be in a position to receive the Gospel, the revelation of Christ, unless we first repent.

Also in this Gospel, Christ summons the first of his disciples, the men who will become for him his apostles and the progenitors of the new tribes of his Church.

Once summoned, the do for Christ what the apostle Paul would later insist that we all one day must do- take leave of worldly things and realities.

So extreme is the detachment of these first disciples that they even leave behind, for the sake of following Christ, the means of their livelihood and even their families.

It would be this radical response to Christ’s summons that would become the condition for the possibility for the flourishing of the Church in every age of her long life. You see, the Church is not sustained and does not grow from bureaucracies, offices, procedural handbooks, personnel departments, corporate centers, property management or employees. It is not institutions that sustain and grow the Church, for institutions do not give life, they merely, at their best, house the life-giving activities of the Church.

The Church is sustained and grows from the commitment of men and women who are willing to make the commitment of the first disciples their own- to leave all things for the sake of Christ, to give their lives over to him with the same totality that Christ gives his life to us.

If you sense a kind of stasis, a neuralgia, depriving the Church of the vital energies needed for its mission. If you perceive in the Church an absence of generativity and life, ask yourself and try to identify where are those men and women who embody in their way of life the commitment of the first disciples- forsaking all for themselves so that Christ might sustain and grow his Church from the gift of their lives. Where are disciples such as these- because it is from them, and only from them, that the Church can flourish and grow.




Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (January 14th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the First Book of Samuel, one of the historical books of the Bible.  This means that the emphasis of this book is on people and places, events and circumstances that were significant to the Israelites.  Memory of these things gave the Israelites a sense of identity and purpose and helped them, most importantly, to understand their relationship with God.

Remember, the God of the Israelites, the God of the Bible, our God, is not a concept or a feeling or some kind of cosmic force.  The God of the Israelites is a living, divine person, who seeks to be known and acts in history, in the events and circumstances of our lives.

The story of Samuel is about Samuel, but more importantly, it is about God, and how he acted at a time of great crisis.  The Israelites were at the time of Samuel’s youth governed by judges and priests who had been corrupted by worldliness and were using their offices, not to serve the needs of the people whom they governed, but for their own self-aggrandizement and material advantage. Further the disparate tribes of the Israelites were in a constant state of conflict, leaving the people vulnerable to their enemies and threatened with the loss of their homeland.  And finally, the Israelites were tempted by the customs and beliefs of their pagan neighbors with their false gods.  The promises of these false gods to give the people wealth, pleasure, power and honors challenged Israelite faith in the one, true God.

What God does in response to this situation is to raise up a man named Samuel as his servant, and it is Samuel who will be charged with the mission of bringing order out of the chaos and through his efforts, assuring the survival of the Israelites as a people.

The excerpt from the First Book of Samuel that you heard this morning concerns the quickening of Samuel’s mission.  Young Samuel, whose parents had dedicated him to God’s service when he was but a toddler, experiences an uncanny call, a divine summons, to which Samuel finally responds that he is ready, waiting and listening for God’s instructions, and what God asks of him- Samuel will do.

And the Book of Samuel will tell us precisely what God has Samuel do!

What is the perhaps the meaning of this scripture for us?

Here’s a way of thinking about it.

We live in a culture of self-invention and self-actualization.  We are convinced that we can create not only our own destiny, but impose upon ourselves, on others, on the universe, even on God, the meaning and purpose of our lives- such is our belief in the power of our own will, our own power to invent and actualize ourselves.

This is our vision of what accomplishes human flourishing- the sovereignty of the self and our will to invent our own identity and mission.

It is not a biblical vision.  The story of Samuel’s call is a singular example of the biblical vision of life and human flourishing, how we come to know who we are and what we are to do- a vision that is not self directed or self invented, but God directed and God created.

Samuel finds himself, who he really is, what he is to do, when he listens to what God wants and gives himself over to the mission he gives God gives to him.

This vision is not an archaism from a biblical past, but it is the Christian vision of life and Christian vision of what leads to human flourishing, listening, as Samuel did, to what God wants and then doing what God wants us to do.

That’s the lesson for us.

The great Apostle Paul reminds us that our body is not insignificant in terms of our relationship with God.  Our body matters to our spiritual life.

How we treat our bodies and the bodies of other people has soul impact and influences, not just our lives in the here and now, but is a matter of eternal consequence.  God cares deeply about our bodies and what we are doing with them.  In fact, God cares enough about our bodies to accept a human body as his own, and in communion with that human body, living like us a real, human life.  For this is what God does in Christ.

Why do bodies matter?

Here is an insight from the great Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas taught that the body and soul, bodies and souls do not exist in a dualistic or antagonistic relationship.  Nor, is your soul in your body, like milk in a bottle.  Instead, the soul, your soul contains your body.  So, what the soul and body are, what they represent, is the totality of who we are in relationship to God.  If you are in a relationship with God you do not get to choose which aspects of your life will be part of that relationship.  Instead, God relates to the totality of who you are and this means your mind, your will, your emotions, your soul and yes, your body.

If your body is so significant to God’s plan and purpose that he accepts a human body in Christ as his own, and meets you in that body, establishes a relationship with you in Christ’s body, then we must know and believe as Christians that our bodies matter and it is through our bodies that we will work out our salvation.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus is acclaimed by the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God.  What does this mean?

It does not mean that Christ is gentle and meek like a lamb.  It means that Christ’s mission will be to make of his life a sacrifice, a sacrifice that will bring God and humanity together.

That’s his mission- to offer his life as a sacrifice so that God and humanity might be in relationship with one another.

And that is what we receive in the Blessed Sacrament- his sacrifice, his offering of his life, so that through his offering, through his life, we might have a relationship with God.  That’s what the Blessed Sacrament is- it is a relationship with God.

And that’s why the Blessed Sacrament is important.  That is why the Blessed Sacrament matters.  And it is for sake of receiving and adoring the Lamb of God, the sacrifice, the Blessed Sacrament that we are here.

The Mass has become distorted in its meaning for so many in the Church.  Some perceive it to be irrelevant.  Others, in a mistaken and misguided attempt to restore its relevancy, make of it a cultural jamboree or a form of faith based entertainment.  But these are just corruptions of the meaning and purpose of the Mass.

What the Mass is, is the privileged moment that you see and receive what John the Baptist saw and received- God, who in Jesus Christ, becomes for you, and for the world, the Lamb of God.