Keep Watch and Pray

Homily, Advent Sunday 1A

Seems like every year they start playing Christmas music on the radio earlier and earlier. I think the Hallmark Christmas movies started playing back at the end of October, and they’ve continued, uninterrupted ever since. Listening to Christmas music or watching Christmas movies before Christmas is not necessarily a problem, but it can distract us from really appreciating and entering into the unique graces of the liturgical season that we begin today, the season of Advent. Even as we shouldn’t be chowing down on chocolate rabbits in the middle of Lent as we prepare for Easter, a certain amount of restraint is appropriate during this time of preparation for Christmas. 

Advent was the last liturgical season to develop in the Church’s history, as a penitential season leading up to the full joy of Christmas, just as Lent is meant to prepare us for Easter. The name Advent simply means ‘coming,’ and the season focuses on three moments when Christ comes to meet us. As we begin Advent, and for the next couple weeks as reflected in our readings at Mass, the focus is on the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world and the judgment that each of us will face at the end of our lives. Only with the Third Sunday of Advent the focus will shift to Christ’s First Coming into our world, as a baby in Bethlehem.  

That First Coming of Christ in weakness at the First Christmas was in the past, and the Second Coming of Christ in power and glory will be in the future. The third moment that Christ comes to us is in the present, today, through grace and the Sacraments, even right now in this Holy Mass. God’s work in our world and history is not just a thing of the past or of the future, but God wants to transform us today, and in every present moment through the coming of His Messiah into our lives. 

Now because Advent focuses on the fulfillment of God’s promises, His promises to the people of Israel long ago, Christ’s promise to return at the end of time, and His promise to give us new life here and now, the virtue that we should especially foster during this season is hope. Christian hope desires and obtains what God promises to give. There are many things that we hope for, even on a natural level, and God is generous in pouring out His blessings upon us, even if we do have to suffer from time to time. But even more than the blessings of health, food, shelter, and education, or any other good thing, God especially wants to give us Himself, in this Eucharist, in the communion of prayer, and ultimately in the eternal life of heaven. 

So how do we go about exercising our desire for God and His gifts during this Advent season? Most people are familiar with the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and most Catholics try to give up something or do something extra throughout the season of Lent, but do we ever commit ourselves to doing something special throughout the season of Advent? During Advent, the focus is not so much on fasting or almsgiving, but we are called to “Stay awake!” to keep watch and to pray, even as the readings remind us today. “Stay sober and alert.”  

very appropriate practice for Advent is to keep vigil, to spend some extra time in prayer and in silence, especially in the darkness of night or early morning. We observe in nature, at least in the northern hemisphere, that this is the darkest time of the year with the shortest days of sunlight. True Christian hope waits with patience and perseverance even in the darkness, for the dawning of the Light of Christ. In nature, this is also the most quiet time of the year, all except for the windThe rest of creation waits with us in silence for its renewal in Christ Jesus. During this season of Advent, we might make more of an effort to shut off the radio and the podcasts, to shut off the TVs and the Netflix to make more time for genuine silence and for prayer, for waiting and watching with patience and hope for the Advent of Christ our Savior. 

How often do we really think about heaven and what it’s going to be like? To exercise our desire for the coming of God’s kingdom? Every time we pray the Our Father, we prayThy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, but many of us have grown quite comfortable with our lives on earth, living very often according to our own will, rather than God’s. And we’re not all that eager for Christ to return. Something for us to consider today is whether we actually look forward to the end of the world with hope, or do we dread it with fear? If the return of Christ at the end of the world or at the end of our lives is something we fear, how might God be inviting us to change and to be transformed, so that our outlook can be infused with Christian hope? Please do what you can to make this Advent season special, to make it an opportunity to step back from the busyness of the world, to wait and watch in darkness and in silence for the coming of Christ into every moment of our daily lives. Stay awake! Keep watch and pray! 

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

Homily, Christ the King C

The Catholic faith is full of paradoxes, things that at first seem like a contradiction. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, but in the Gospel we just heard, what is the throne that Jesus chose for His coronation? He reigns as King from the Cross, an instrument of torture and public execution. He is crowned, not with silver or gold, but with thorns that tear into His head. Christ’s execution is, at the same time, His exaltation. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (12:32). Every crucifix continues to proclaim the love of God and the sovereignty of Christ that has the power to conquer and rule over human hearts more surely than any emperor or president or any other king throughout history. 

Those who try to rule by superior strength, by military might, or economic influence, these have always come and gone, and their kingdoms rise and fall in every age. Jesus conquers, not by demonstrating His superior strength, but by laying down His life for us, being wounded for us, stretching out His arms and having His heart pierced for us. When Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, draws us to Himself, we are faced with a decision, the same decision as those who witnessed the crucifixion in Christ’s own day. Will we place our faith in this mysterious power of Christ, the power that is “made perfect in weakness,” in trial, in persecution and suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9)? Will we freely take up our own cross and follow after Christ as His disciples? Or, will we rebel against that sort of King? Do we revile Jesus with the crowds at his crucifixion and with one of the criminals saying, “‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.’ Jesus, can’t you see that the world is spinning out of control? With natural disasters, with acts of terrorism, with incompetent and corrupt political and religious leaders? Jesus, what are you waiting for? Intervene. We’ve had enough of God’s vulnerability already. Come down from the Cross. It’s time for Him to show His strength.” 

Even in our own personal lives we might become frustrated and impatient with God’s gentleness. There might be a sin or several sins that we’ve struggled with for years, keeping us as slaves, or we see a family member or close friend enslaved by sin and wonder, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us. Take control. Force us to be good. But in freeing us from the slavery of sin, God refuses to subject us to a new slavery of His goodness. God always invites. He does not force His way. Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20). He waits for us to respond, to open ourselves to Him. God wants us as His friends and His children, not as His slaves. 

Now imagine the faith of that other criminal in today’s Gospel, whom tradition gives the name of St. DismasIt’s fairly easy to acknowledge Jesus as King when He feeds the five thousand or when He enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of “Hosanna in the highest, or when our life and our world is going according to our plan, but imagine seeing this King crucified and you yourself suffering and dying next to Him on a cross of your own, and somehow, you have the audacity, the foolishness in the eyes of the world, you have the faith to say to this dying Messiah, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How many of us would be prepared to say that? To acknowledge the coming kingdom of a God so seemingly powerless in the face of all the evil in the world as to be killed by His own people? And then to believe Him when He replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  

This is the same faith that on November 23, 1927, allowed the martyr Bl. Miguel Pro to stretch out his own arms in the form of a cross in front of the firing squad, and to proclaim with his final words “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King! even as he had seen his beloved Mexico ravaged by civil war and by corrupt and anti-Catholic governments and dictators over the course of the previous 10 or 20 years. Put to death when he was only 36 years old, and just two years into his priesthood, Miguel Pro had probably hoped and planned on many more years to serve God and His people. When life doesn’t go according to plan, when we suffer injustice and tragedy, when God seems to ask too much from us, or when He seems silent in the face of great evil, do we still have the faith to proclaim that Christ reigns as King over all? That long after every other human power has passed away, long after every earthly kingdom or empire has risen and fallen again, one kingdom of heaven will endure.  

God grant us the grace today to transform the questioning in our hearts, “Are you not the Christ?” into the confession of faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King!

The First Thanksgiving

Bulletin Letter, Christ the King C

During my assignment at the Cathedral in Sioux Falls, one of the other priests there started a small garden next to the rectory, growing basil, peppers, and tomatoes. Every so often, he would use a very fragrant fertilizer made from fish parts. If you’re familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving, you’ll recall that the Native American Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant their crops along with placing fish in the ground for fertilizer. This helped them to even have a harvest to celebrate Thanksgiving in October of 1621. What we probably don’t realize, and what most history books don’t mention, is that the feast in 1621 among English settlers was actually not the first Thanksgiving Feast held in what is now the United States.

The First was actually celebrated among Spanish settlers near what would become St. Augustine in Florida on September 8, 1565, more than half a century earlier. After making it to shore, the chaplain of the expedition, Fr. Francisco Lopez, celebrated Mass (the word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek for ‘Thanksgiving’) to give praise and thanks to God for a safe voyage. Being September 8, they celebrated in honor of the Birthday of Mary, the Mother of God (nine months after the observance of her Immaculate Conception on December 8).

After Mass, Fr. Lopez ordered that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers. That first Thanksgiving meal consisted of the supplies of the voyage, salted pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread, and red wine—after the Body and Blood of Christ received during Mass, of course. The meal may have also included Caribbean foods collected when they made a stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on their way to Florida. If the Timucua natives contributed food, it would have likely included corn, fresh fish, berries, or beans.

Even the presence of Squanto and what he did to aid the survival of the Pilgrims leading up to the later English Thanksgiving was due in part to the help of Spanish Catholics. Squanto had been taught English and trained as an interpreter by settlers from previous expeditions in New England, but one of the officers took him back to Europe and planned to sell him into slavery. Franciscan friars in Spain found Squanto and ensured his freedom, instructed him in the faith, and likely baptized him. He later made his way to England, where he worked as a shipbuilder while improving his English. He joined an expedition to return home, where the Pilgrims would meet him a year later at Plymouth.

This Thanksgiving, we praise God for the many blessings He continues to share with us, our families, our friends, our State and country. We thank Him especially for the great gift of our Catholic faith, the salvation Christ won for us, and the nourishment He provides in His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist, that First and most awesome Thanksgiving meal.

Faithful to the Living God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 33C

The end is near. Keep watch, and be ready. It’s likely that every generation has had members who were convinced that the end of the world was going to take place within their own lifetime. I was able to find a list of the different dates and years that have been predicted as the end of the world, many of which were even proposed by Christians. One hundred and seventy-four predictions that have come and gone, and the world keeps spinning. No doubt there have been many, many other predictions that are not found on that list that have also not come true. The signs that Jesus talks about in the Gospel, “wars and insurrections,” nation rising “against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” … “powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place, and awesome sights and mighty signs” from the sky, we know that all these things Jesus mentions have been part of every age in human history, and our own is not all that unique. 

Still, today, there are many convinced that the end is finally near, whether from climate change or even because of signs and events in the Catholic Church. If you don’t pay much attention to news coming out of Rome these days, you’ll probably have a more peaceful life. But those who have been watching are no doubt aware of different controversies that arose during the recent Amazon Synod.  

The most noteworthy was probably the allowance at the synod and events connected to the synod of a certain image that came to be known by the name of Pachamama, the name of a fertility goddess revered by indigenous Amazonians. Wood carvings of this image were present at an opening tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens, in which participants formed a circle with the Pachamama image at the center and bowed themselves to the ground toward it. The images were also present in a church just down the road from St. Peter’s while the synod was going on. The images were at one point taken out of the church by a Catholic man and thrown off a bridge into the Tiber River nearby. They were later recovered. The person who threw them into the river did so because he thought this was a clear instance of idolatry that had been allowed into the Vatican and into a Catholic church. Those looking for signs of the end times might point to such things as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel, the “abomination of desolation” set up in God’s holy Temple. 

Now I don’t personally have intimate knowledge of the history of Pachamama in the Amazonian missions or what the participants in the tree-planting ceremony would say they were doing, what significance bowing to the ground towards any statue has in their culture, or who or what they would say was being depicted by those wooden statues, so I can’t say with 100% certainty that it was a case of pagan idolatry, but from the outside it definitely looks that way to many Catholics.  

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the whole affair was the response from members of the Vatican press office, even from bishops and priests in that office. One explanation they gave is that we shouldn’t see the images as pagan or sacred, neither depicting Pachamama nor Our Blessed Mother Mary, but merely as symbols of womanhood, life, fertility, mother earth, etc. But then, my question would be, where else in a Catholic context would it ever be appropriate to pray to or venerate symbols of abstract concepts or inanimate objects? Seems to me that’s the very definition of idolatry. As Catholics, we pray to persons, to conscious beings, to the angels, to the saints, to those who can hear and respond to our prayers and intercede for us. We pray to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Source of every blessing, and we worship Him alone. Mother earth is not a person. She’s not listening. There were lots of people who would pray to “symbols of fertility.” Every pagan, naturalist religion has used fertility idols, but these are the very false gods that the First Commandment absolutely prohibits.  

So when what’s at stake in allowing the Pachamama image or whatever it was into the Vatican or into a Catholic church, when what is at stake is the false worship that was punished with death in the Old Testament, and then the explanation is just that these should be seen as symbols of life and fertility, if there’s any doubt at all, any possibility that this even could be idolatry to the false goddess of Pachamama or any other false god, then it shouldn’t have been allowed on Vatican grounds or in any Catholic church. And the fact that the Vatican spokesmen seemed confused as to why this seemed like such a big deal to so many Catholics makes clear that they really don’t understand what is at stake. 

I certainly hope that no one here is in the habit of praying to or bowing down to a football or to a volleyball, or any symbol of sportsmanship. I hope we understand what’s at stake and strive to offer true worship to God alone. May the Holy Trinity continue to purify us from all our idols and false gods and give us perseverance to live the true faith, even when we are handed over, as Jesus says, “by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,” by members of our own household of faith, even to death. The most bitter persecution of the Catholic Church is the persecution that comes from within, persecution from our own fellow Catholics. Whether the end of the world is near or not, the end of each of our lives will come “on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour.” Stay faithful to Christ above all. Persevere to the end, and you will have life without end. 

Put the Lord to the Test

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 33C

Someone once pointed out to me that the only time in the Bible that God ever tells us to test Him is in connection to the practice of tithing. Malachi 3:10 reads, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure!” Tithing is the practice of giving back to God 10% of everything we receive. It is an acknowledgement that our life, our abilities, everything we are and everything we have has been given to us by God, and we are meant to use it to honor and serve Him. It is also an act of faith that God will not be outdone in generosity, that He will provide for us and bless us abundantly if we are faithful to Him. In an agricultural society, tithing usually involved bringing the first 10% of the harvest, the first fruits of the field, into the Temple. Today, many are more likely to make monetary donations to charities and to their churches.

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48). What has God entrusted to you, and how is He calling you to use it for the building up of His kingdom? We usually talk about time, talent, and treasure when we talk about stewardship. If we follow the Old Testament ideal of tithing and giving the 10% back to God, 10% of our income is easy enough to calculate. Less clear would be 10% of our talent, but it would be pretty sad to see someone putting forward only ten-percent effort when they volunteer. Something I had never really considered before is what 10% of our time would be. If we take 24 hours to be the total amount of time that God gives us each day, ten percent of that would be 2.4 hours. Now how many of us could confidently say that we are faithful in giving God 2.4 hours of our time each day?

I don’t think we should necessarily just use a simple formula. God might be asking more of us or less of us depending upon our circumstances, but looking at the numbers can at least get us thinking and perhaps challenge us to give more of ourselves than we have before. Please prayerfully consider where and how God is calling you to get involved. This is your parish. Take pride in it. Take responsibility for it. Resources and training are available to help you get involved. Step out in faith. You will not regret it.

O Morning Star

Welcome Letter, Christmas on the Prairie 2019

With great joy and gratitude to God, I have the privilege to welcome you, on behalf of all the volunteers, staff, performers, and sponsors, to the annual Christmas on the Prairie Concert. This is actually my first time attending, and I have appreciated the many welcomes extended to me as I settle into ministry in such a magnificent church.

The theme of this 16th concert, “O Morning Star,” reminds us to keep our eyes open to even the first signs of the coming dawn. Very fitting that today is December 8, usually observed in the Church’s calendar as the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary within the womb of her mother, Good St. Anne.

God prepared for centuries—through the Patriarchs and Prophets and all the trials of His people Israel—for the sending of His Son into the world in our own flesh. One of His final preparations was to choose a mother for His Son. When God revealed Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He instructed the Israelites to make from pure and incorruptible materials the Ark of the Old Covenant, to house the stone tablets of the law, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff. So much the more would God make pure and unblemished, even from the first moment of her existence, the mother who would house and nourish in her womb the Word made flesh, the true Bread from heaven, our Eternal High Priest.

The Immaculate Conception was when God preserved Mary from every stain of sin so that His only Son would have a fit dwelling place through which to enter the world. It was also the first great victory over Satan and the dominion of sin, a signal that his reign on earth was coming to an end. This is why the Virgin Mary is often called our Morning Star. Even as the planet Venus reflects the rays of the sun, so Mary reflects the light she receives entirely from God, and she signals the coming of full Dawn, Jesus our Savior, who is one God with the Father and Source of all Light.

“The night is far spent, and the day is at hand. So we should cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). In darkness, we still await the Final Dawning and Return of Christ our Light at the end of the age. Until then, let’s draw near with Mary to the manger scene, to learn with her how to reflect this Child’s Light to others, so that we too can be lights and signals of hope amid the darkness of our world today.

May His Light shine and guide you in all your ways.

Nice Idea or Living Reality

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

Two plus three equals five. That’s a true statement. But even though it’s true, and we can have a certain appreciation for mathematics, I don’t think there have been many people willing to die for “two plus three equals five.” But millions of Christians have been willing and have actually died for statements like, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” or “Jesus is risen from the dead,” and, “there exists only one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” For the martyrs, these statements of faith are not merely true in an abstract and impersonal way—like we might consider the truths of mathematics—but they had come to know Jesus personally and to experience God, not just as a nice idea, but as a reality, significant for every aspect of their lives.

Even the martyrs that we heard about in our first reading from Maccabees died not so much for the Jewish law that forbade them from eating pork, but they had courage to die because they knew and trusted personally the God who had given the law. They knew that all life is in His hands, and through the course of their own lives they had experienced God’s power and His providence for them. They knew that the One who had first given life to their souls and bodies would give life to them again in the resurrection, if they remained faithful to His commandments.

How many of us today, who have the advantage over those Jewish martyrs of all that Jesus reveals for us—and the testimony unto death of the Apostles who saw, and spoke, and ate with Jesus after He had risen from the dead—how many of us today would have such faith, such courage, to die for the God who gives us life? To believe so firmly, so personally, in the resurrection as to have no fear at all of what others might try to take away from us? Or is our faith still too abstract and impersonal? Nice ideas, but not really significant in my daily life?

The martyrs were content to have all their property taken away, because God can provide for us a more lasting inheritance in His heavenly kingdom. The martyrs who were sent to prison and put in chains knew that belonging to God, being His children, is a more authentic and lasting freedom. And the martyrs who suffered torture and gave their lives gave them gladly, because they knew the love that Jesus has for us, the love that led Him to suffer and die on the cross, with every last drop of His Precious Blood. To the martyrs, these were not just nice ideas, abstract and impersonal. Instead, the love and promises of God were personally significant realities they had come to know through their daily lives of faith and prayer, and in their experience of God’s presence in the sacraments.

Two plus three equals five. Jesus is risen from the dead. Which of these truths has been more significant in our lives? Would we be willing to sacrifice any of our own property, knowing that the God to whom everything belongs is able to give us far more and far better in return? Are we willing to sacrifice any of our own desires, getting our own way, knowing that God’s will for us is able to accomplish much greater things than we could ask or imagine? For love of you, Jesus willingly suffered and died for your sins. Do we treat this just as a nice idea, or is it real for us on a personal level? Can we say with St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me”?

Until we stop viewing the love of God as an abstract idea and actually allow the weight of all that God has done to move us, all that God continues to do in our daily lives, to provide, to bless, even to entrust us with sufferings, joining us to the dignity of Christ’s redeeming Cross, until these are no longer just nice ideas for us, God will continue to wait for our response. Two plus three equals five. So what? God loves you. So what are you going to do about it?

People, Look East

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

For one of the breaks from school I had during college seminary, I decided to visit the home of a classmate from the Diocese of Joliet in Illinois. He also came from a large family, and during the week they would load up their van to attend Mass each day in a parish on the outskirts of Chicago. Mass there was pretty much what I was used to, with maybe just one or two exceptions. 

When the priest went to the altar for Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer, he faced the tabernacle, the same direction as most of the people. He also spoke in such a way that it was clear he was talking to God and not to the people assembled there. Otherwise, the Mass was in English as usual, and it was fairly ordinary. As someone in the pews at that time, I was amazed at what a difference it made, just to have the priest facing the same direction, all of us facing and praying to God together. After being ordained a priest, there was a time at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls when the skylight was leaking onto the altar, so for a regular weekday Mass, I simply used the opposite side. On his way out, one of the parishioners commented, “I really liked that, Father. It felt more like we were all praying with you, rather than being talked at or just watching.” 

The practice of ad orientem worship (literally, “towards the East”), with priest and people facing the same direction, goes back for more than 1000 years in the Roman Church. If Jews faced Jerusalem to pray and Muslims faced Mecca, Christians traditionally faced east, the direction of the rising sun, because when Christ, the “Sun of justice,” returns again—it was always thought—He will appear in the east (Cf. Malachi 4:2). Impressively enough, both St. Anthony in Hoven and St. Augustine in Bowdle are built in such a way that in saying Mass toward the high altar and tabernacle, both priest and people actually face east. But even in churches where this is not the case, Christ present in the tabernacle or represented by the altar and crucifix was considered liturgical east. 

This is all so much to say that I would like to begin using the high altars in our churches for the celebration of Mass during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when we especially look forward to Christ’s return at the end of the age and celebrate His first appearance among us in human flesh. This should also simplify setup for the concert in Hoven. I realize many of you have been to Mass celebrated this way before. I hope our openness and appreciation for how the Mass was prayed for so many centuries will continue to mature and deepen. 

Hosting Jesus

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31C

I’ve mentioned before that I split my time between the two rectories in these parishes, mostly to save on mileage and driving time, also because they’re two of the best rectories in the diocese. I’m very privileged to be pastor here, but living in two places does have its challenges. I still haven’t completely unpacked and settled, but I also don’t have much occasion for hosting people at the parish houses. I did host my brother and his family once already a number of weeks ago. They live in Aberdeen and came over to Bowdle once for Mass and supper. I didn’t cook for them, so don’t worry. They brought the food with them in crock pots. But I kind of had to scramble to move the piles of stuff to the less public parts of the rectory. I’m kind of amazed at how ready Zacchaeus was to welcome Jesus into his home. How many of us would have some tidying up to do, if Jesus suddenly invited Himself over to our house or into our rooms? Would we be able to rejoice right away—as Zacchaeus does—to hear Jesus say, “I need to stay at your house”? Or are there certain things we wish he wouldn’t see? Maybe certain sins that we’ve let into our homes, sort of kept as pets, and that we make excuses for?

In the Gospel today, the tax collector Zacchaeus has very little opportunity to do much cleaning up around the house as Jesus invites Himself over. With infinite mercy, Jesus is willing to enter in to the mess of Zacchaeus’s house and whatever He will find there, and Zacchaeus is able to welcome him without embarrassment, without anxiety, but instead with overwhelming joy. But this experience of God’s great mercy does not leave Zacchaeus unchanged. His life is transformed. He confesses his faults and repents of his sins as he says, “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.” Far more important than cleaning his house before Jesus arrives, Zacchaeus wants to set his heart in order, to cast out all greed and indifference, so that God can find a lasting home within him.

At every Mass, we, too, are given the awesome opportunity and privilege to welcome Jesus into our own homes and into our lives, into our minds and hearts. How do we prepare ourselves to receive such an honored Guest? How do we conduct ourselves in his Presence? Jesus is the King of the whole Universe, of all that exists. He’s more important than the pope or the president of the United States, and he comes to visit us at each and every Mass. And, at all times, Jesus is here in the Tabernacle, waiting for us. When we come into the church, are we attentive to the Presence of Christ? Do we silence not only our cell phones, but even more importantly, do we silence our minds and hearts, and do we arrive early to give ourselves the time we need to put aside our distractions and plans and worries, all the clutter, so that we can really focus, and welcome Jesus with joy?

Another priest shared with me his amazement that so many people would never think of arriving late to the movies, after the show had already begun, and then how so many people are willing to wait at the end through the entire credit sequence to see if there’s just one last scene. And yet, so many Catholics think very little of arriving late to Mass or of leaving before the final blessing and dismissal. What do we really value in life, and how do our actions show to God what we think is really important? One of the practices that I grew up with in Elk Point and in Jefferson and that I am glad to find in these parishes was that after the final hymn, everyone in the church would kneel down in silence to give everyone a chance to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the great gift that we had just received, to speak with Jesus, still dwelling within us from Holy Communion. Do we silence our conversations as we enter this church, before and after Mass, to give one another the opportunity to speak heart to heart with Jesus?

As Jesus enters in to the mess of our lives, our experience of God’s mercy is meant to transform us, even as it transformed Zacchaeus, who not only confessed his sins but truly repented and made the necessary changes in order to welcome Jesus fully and follow him in his daily life. Have we allowed God’s mercy to change us, to actually free us from our sins? Or do we become presumptuous and treat the mercy of God casually, comfortable with where we’re at or giving up on the freedom and transformation that Jesus promises and desires for us? When we are more focused and attentive to the Presence of Christ in this church and in this Eucharist, we open our minds and hearts to the transforming power of the mercy of God, who wants to dwell within us not only every Sunday, but every day and every moment of our lives. May God fill us, as he filled Zacchaeus, with the burning desire to see Jesus, to climb any tree or to put aside any sin or distraction, and to be transformed.

The Power of Humility

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 30C

When I was a junior in high school on the football team, my coach decided to move me from wide receiver to the offensive line. And I wasn’t any bigger back then than I am now, so it became my task to try and block guys who were usually more than 50 pounds heavier than I was. But in football, weight is not always as important as leverage. Our coach always told us, “Stay low and keep your feet.” My one advantage happened to be that I was usually lower to the ground than the defensive linemen. Now I never became an All-American lineman, but by staying low I was able to hold my own and not get injured, and I’ll always remember that advice: “Stay low, and keep your feet.” Another saying that our coaches would repeat was, “The low man wins,” and this seems to echo what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today: “The one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Football coaches understand on a natural level the importance and value of this distinctively Christian virtue that is so often misunderstood. They understand how important it is to be grounded, to stay low and keep your feet, and that this lowliness is never meant to make us shrink back in fear, but provides the grounding we need to move forward.  

Too often when we think of being humble, we might associate it with some kind of self-hatred, or never thinking of oneself, or even a denial of the gifts and talents that we have from almighty GodHumility has been called the foundation of all the virtues, but too often people think they’re being humble when they’re really just being cowards. The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or ground, and humility is what keeps us grounded in reality, grounded in the truth of who we are in relation to God and to our neighbors. Humility keeps us from pride, from illusions of grandeur and the endless pursuit of power, domination, and self-importance. But humility also keeps us from selling ourselves short and helps us recognize the gifts we have from God, the gifts we’re called to use to serve Him and our neighbor. Humility keeps us on the solid ground we need to move forward, to strive always towards the high calling and dignity that is ours in Christ. This is what my coaches understood about humility, that being grounded, having a firm foundation underneath us, staying low and keeping your feet, is the best way to gain the leverage to not only hold your ground but to move forward in spite of opposition, and this aspect of humility is illustrated nicely in our readings today. 

In our second reading, St. Paul is definitely not selling himself short. In fact, he might even sound like he’s boasting, more like the self-righteous Pharisee from the Gospel rather than the humble tax collector. He tells Timothy, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.” This might almost sound arrogant, but we should also notice how Paul is different from the Pharisee in the Gospel. While the Pharisee distances himself from “the rest of humanity” and from the tax collectorgreedy, dishonest, adulterous” people, as he characterizes them—St. Paul confesses instead that not only will he receive a crown from the Lord, but so will “all who have longed for his appearance.” St. Paul goes on to talk about his lowliness, and being deserted by all when he appeared in court, but he was grounded in the reality of God’s presence and protection during his trial, and this humility and trust in God gave him the strength to go forward in confidence, and persevere in preaching the Gospel in the face of powerful opposition, even ultimately to the point of laying down his life in witness to Christ. 

The tax collector, on the other hand, as Jesus describes him in the Gospel might not at first seem very strong. He “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Isn’t this just the self-hatred I warned about earlierIsn’t he shrinking back in fear? No. If we remember the culture of his day, it becomes clear that this humble tax collector is actually very boldTax collectors were viewed at that time as being traitors to the Jewish nation and collaborators with their Roman oppressors. They were seen as public sinners and enemies of the freedom of the Jews. That’s why out of everyone else at the Temple, the Pharisee singles out the tax collector. And Jesus is criticized throughout the Gospel for dining with tax collectors. Good Jews should not even associate with them. By coming to the Temple area to pray, the tax collector exposes himself to the scorn and contempt of the Pharisee and of everyone else there who thought that tax collectors had no business praying at all and no hope of being heard by God. But the tax collector is grounded in the truth of the mercy of God. He acknowledges himself to be a sinner, he stays low, but he keeps his feet and does not despair. He throws himself upon the mercy of God, and he allows God to forgive, to justify him, to transform him and give him new life. His humility and trust in God give him the strength to step out, to pray to God in the face of public opposition and scorn 

Our first reading describes the strength of his prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” As we approach Christ present in this Eucharist, we ask God for His humility, to pray with perseverance, to imitate the boldness of the tax collector and of St. Paul, to be steadfast in preaching the Gospel of Christ in the midst of a culture and society more and more opposed to the Catholic faith. In our own journey of faith, we need to stay low, and keep our feet.