A Faith Unchallenged, A Faith Unlived

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 4C

I’ve never had much interest in politics, although in junior high and high school, I was successfully elected as class treasurer each year, but I don’t think we had much of a campaign, and there was probably only one year where there was even another person running for the same position. It’s not too hard to win an election when yours is the only name on the ballot. So I’m no expert in campaign strategy, but this speech given by Jesus in today’s Gospel doesn’t seem to win him much favor among his constituents. This is the first speech Jesus gives back in his own hometown of Nazareth after beginning his public ministry. At first his listeners are very impressed, but then they begin to have their doubts as they remember watching Jesus grow up as the son of an ordinary carpenter. The rest of his speech pushes them over the edge and provokes them to react rather violently and try to kill him by throwing him off of a cliff. But Jesus escapes from their grasp and walks away.

What was it in the speech that caused such a violent reaction? When Jesus mentions the widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon, and Naaman, the leper from Syria? Just imagine if one of our presidential candidates went on TV or YouTube saying that under his policies, foreigners would receive the largest benefit, or that foreigners would be the only ones to benefit. That’s basically what Jesus is telling the people in his hometown. Even though the Messiah came to save the Jewish nation, his benefits would largely pass on to the Gentiles, the foreigners, because many of the Jews would fail to recognize the time of their visitation. His listeners failed to acknowledge that the Christ and the Jewish nation were always meant to be a light and a source of blessing and salvation for all the nations of the world.

This is the hard truth that Jesus was trying to communicate, that as the Messiah, he wasn’t just going to make the Jewish nation great again by kicking out the Romans. Jesus wasn’t very interested in politics. He would say later on, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” Instead, Jesus wants to reign forever in human hearts, to conquer sin, death, and fear, not just for the Jews but for all humanity. The crowds react violently because they don’t understand. They can’t understand or refuse to understand because they are blinded by their own selfishness, greed, indifference, and the lies that they have bought into.

When we hear the truth, even challenging truths, are we able to recognize and accept it? Or even when we still disagree, are we able to understand both sides of the issue and respect those with whom we disagree, or are we tempted instead to react violently as in today’s Gospel? Nowadays, there is a lot of debate over issues, but I would venture to say there isn’t very much intelligent discussion or dialogue. Genuine dialogue can only occur where there is mutual respect and a sincere search for the truth. Too often we choose sides without really understanding those with whom we disagree. And anger and frustration bordering on violence and defamation too often characterize our debates.

Now, more than ever, I’ve come to appreciate those who disagreed with me as I was growing up. Those who challenged me in my Catholic faith during junior high and high school, especially around the issues of praying for the dead and the role of Mary and the saints, but also the issue of abortion and the role of government and human rights, all these challenges to my own beliefs helped me to not only learn and appreciate what the Catholic Church teaches but also why, the reasons behind the truths that she proclaims. The term used for this is Catholic apologetics, an exploration of the reasons behind the teachings of the Church. As the challenges to my faith spurred me on to read the Catechism and Catholic apologetics, I began to actually understand my Catholic faith, and I don’t know whether I would be a priest today if my beliefs hadn’t been challenged like they were.

A faith unchallenged is a faith unlived. The early Christians had a strong sense of their Christian identity because of the persecution they received for the Name of Christ. There are still plenty of challenges to the truth that the Church continues to proclaim as a prophetic voice in the world today. Have we bought into some of the lies that the world presents to us, perhaps surrounding gender issues, homosexuality, personal choice, or attempting to redefine oneself rather than receiving the gift of who we really are from the God who made us? Do we see the Church’s consistent teachings as bigoted or behind the times, rather than a reflection of the unchanging, but challenging truth that Christ revealed for our authentic happiness and fulfillment?

I challenge each one of us today to really strive to understand the reasons for what the Church teaches, and also to appreciate the genuine values of those who disagree and challenge the Church’s teachings, so that we can continue to grow in genuine love and understanding of all people, even of those who disagree with us or who have a lifestyle that is not yet in conformity with the truth. Jesus came to call sinners, and we all fall short in many ways. We should be a welcoming community, known for our love, for our hospitality and mercy, but we should not shy away from continuing to proclaim the often counter-cultural truth of Jesus Christ to all the world. We must be convinced that the truth, even when it is difficult, and even when it is met with persecution or violence, the truth of Jesus Christ really does set us free, and this truth is found and preserved in its fullness in the teachings of the Catholic Church. May the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth and strengthen us to proclaim the truth in love by what we say and do, most of all by our patience, understanding, and mercy.

Your Apostolic Mission

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 3C

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor…and to proclaim a year” of mercy from the Lord. And the Spirit of the Lord is upon each of you, because he has anointed you to bring the joy of the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to reach people and places that I cannot reach. This weekend, a number of the youth of our parish will be receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation at the Cathedral. And just as Jesus sent out his Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to proclaim his Gospel throughout the world, Bishop Paul Swain will be sending the newly confirmed to take a more active role in their lives of faith and in their mission to proclaim Christ in everything they say and do. Now that their own faith has reached maturity, it becomes their mission to hand on to others what they have received from Christ. And their struggle to live and proclaim Christ to many others will allow their own faith to continue to grow. This is an exciting time for our parish and a great opportunity for all the Christian faithful to be reminded of our mission in the world today.

As a priest, my job, in a lot of ways, involves preaching to the choir, proclaiming Christ to those who have already heard the Word of God and who are at least somewhat active in the practice of the faith. My mission and vocation is to provide the teachings, the sacraments, and other spiritual helps to assist you, the Christian faithful and People of God, in your irreplaceable mission to the worldYour mission and vocation is to live out the joy of the Gospel in your homes, in your schools and workplaces and in the wider culture, and to proclaim Christ by what you say and do, even to those who have never heard the Gospel, or who have never heard or seen it lived out in a convincing way, even to those who are not interested or don’t know that they really should be interested. Your mission in the world today is to be convinced yourselves and to strive to convince others, especially by the way that you live, that Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all human desire. And as we heard in our first reading today, in this mission, “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” Evangelization, the spread of the Gospel, and the transformation of our culture by Christian values cannot take place apart from authentic Christian joy. “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”

The other part of our mission as Catholic Christians is to be convinced and to convince others that the Church, which St. Paul calls in our second reading today the one Body of Christ united under one head, that this Church is the privileged place and the one that guarantees and authenticates our encounter with Jesus Christ. We are meant to encounter Christ not just as isolated individuals, but as a community of faith. We encounter Jesus in the Scriptures, through the authority that Jesus gave to his Apostles and which they handed on through apostolic succession, and in the Sacraments of the Church, most especially in this Eucharist, where the offering of Christ is perpetually signified and made present for us, and in which we feast upon Jesus himself in his own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. 

This mission of proclaiming the Church may seem too difficult, that in so many ways over the centuries, the Church, because of the sinfulness of her members and more often the sinfulness of her ministers, this Church has served as more of an obstacle to our encounter with Christ than as much of a help. But if we want to remain faithful to the Scriptures and to St. Paul who view Christ and his Church as inseparable—as head and body but ultimately just one reality—and if we want to remain faithful to the Son of God, who came to earth not to write a book but to build a Church on the rock of Peter and on the Apostles, we need to find a way of rejoicing over the Church as Christ rejoices over the Bride prepared for him, the Church at once full of sinners and yet washed clean, not by her own merits, but by the blood of Christ. 

I still remember what seemed to me the first time that I met a group of people my own age who were actually excited about being Catholic. A lot of my earlier experience had been that those who were actually excited about Jesus and wanting to live not just an hour out of the week but striving to live their whole life for Christ, these tended to be Protestants, and I am endlessly grateful for their example. My experience of many Catholics had been more like what we heard in the first reading, people who tended to groan and weep as they hear the law of God read out to them. But during my first summer of teaching Totus Tuus, just after graduating high school, I met all these other teachers who were actually excited about being Catholic. They were able to experience the Catholic Church not just as a burden or obligation, but as the great gift that she is meant to be to humanity, a light in the darkness and a holy institution that is patient and merciful precisely because she is filled with sinners at every level. 

I’m not saying that this transition is easy, this transition from experiencing the Church and her teachings as a burden towards being able to see them instead as the great gifts that Christ meant them to be. It’s not easy, but I hope that we will never give up. And I pray that when we do encounter others who are able to live the authentic joy and freedom of our Catholic faith, that the encounter will change our hearts and set us on fire like the first Apostles at Pentecost to carry Christ into the world today. 

As Christ told his Apostles that they would accomplish even greater works than he had, as they would spread his Gospel not only to the Jewish nation but to all the nations of the world, I say to all of you as well, that you will accomplish greater works than I ever will in your mission to the world. You will reach people and places that I cannot reach and bring glory to God’s Name and praise to his Church. Go, then, and proclaim a year of favor from the Lord to all the earth, and let rejoicing in the Lord always be your strength. 

The Economy of God’s Abundance

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 2C

Anyone who has been involved in a wedding can start to appreciate just how much work and planning goes into an event that lasts only a few hours. Arrangements need to be made for the church, the reception hall, the invitations, RSVPs, the photographer, the music, the suits and dresses, the flowers, table arrangements, and the rings, just to name a few different things. Now weddings in the time of Jesus were a little different from what they are today. For one thing, instead of lasting a few hours, the wedding reception would typically last for seven days. Now think of the planning and preparation that would be involved in throwing a party that would last a week. I, for one, would not want to be in charge. Still, those were probably simpler times in other ways. At least there were no photographers or rings. And in today’s Gospel, Mary and Jesus point out what was thought to make for a great wedding feast in their day, namely, lots and lots of wine. If you do the math of the wine that Jesus makes after the original supply runs out, Jesus gives them between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. Now that’s quite the open bar. Jesus makes sure that they would not run out again.

But the abundance of wine at the wedding feast was not just for the guests to have a good time. The wine was also symbolic, a sign of the abundance of all God’s blessings, that he would pour out his blessings upon this new marriage. The first of the miracles of Jesus shows us that even when our human limitations result in failure and embarrassment, God’s abundance can transform us and open us up to new possibilities. One of my favorite class sessions of all time was in my course in Rome on Social Justice. We had a guest speaker one day to talk about economics. Most striking to me was a consideration of our starting point and perspective. Many times we start from a perspective of scarcity, that resources are limited and therefore, we need to stake our claim and carve out our own share of the world’s wealth if we want to be successful in today’s economy. Competition becomes the driving force, and eliminating the competition ensures our continued survival and success. But this is not the Christian perspective. 

As Christians, we begin from the perspective, not of the scarcity of resources, but of abundance, the abundance of God’s gift of creation and how it is able to be renewed. New life springs from the ashes of what seemed lost to us. And beyond the merely material, the Spirit of God moves in various creative and dynamic ways, to open up new possibilities, as we heard in our second reading today. And since we start from this perspective of God’s abundance, competition serves a secondary role. Cooperation and mutual understanding are more important than competition. Instead of manipulating the consumer to want and to buy something he doesn’t really need, the best businesses strive to truly understand and to think creatively about how to provide for the genuine needs and desires of those they are called to serve in today’s economy. One economic model is not the only perspective possible. And any economic model that looks too much like simple mathematics probably is too much like simple mathematics. People are involved in the economy, and people are more complicated than a simple formula of supply and demand. If we really want to see renewal and new possibilities, we need to learn to work together and not just compete. We need to discern together with the Spirit of God the direction that is best for our lives, for our country, for our economy, and for our world.

If we are willing, like our Mother Mary, to be attentive to the needs of those around us, if we are willing with her to bring our petitions to Jesus, to think creatively with him and one another about the problems that we face, and if we are willing, as Mary instructs the servants at the wedding feast, to actually “do whatever he tells” us, then Jesus is still willing and able to bring new wine from our dirty water, to bring God’s abundance out of our human limitations, to bring life even out of death and love even out of hatred and terror. May the Lord who transformed water into wine, and who continues to transform bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, transform our hearts into his own, as we receive his fullness and the abundance of his grace. 

Epiphany Blessing

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 2C

It has been a number of years since I first came across the custom of blessing chalk on the Solemnity of the Epiphany. I had never seen or heard of it in my first decade of life. For those who are not familiar, the custom is for each family to gather and pray for God’s blessings upon their home and upon all who enter under their roof during the rest of the new year. The head of the household takes chalk blessed on the Day of Epiphany and writes on the lintel over the main entrance to the house and perhaps over the other entrances or doorways, “20+C+M+B+16” while pronouncing (if possible) in his best Latin, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat,” meaning, “May Christ bless this house.” The letters “CMB” also stand for the traditional names of the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The numbers are for the current year.

Since my ordination to the priesthood last June, I have been wondering what it really means to bless. There is still a tradition of asking a newly ordained priest for his blessing. Bishop Swain, at the end of the ordination Mass, was the first to ask for and receive my priestly blessing. More recently, my dad was at the VA for another knee replacement. When I visited him there, he was very insistent that I give him a blessing before I would leave. It was quite a privilege for me to have these two men ask me for my blessing after I had admired them for so many years and received so many blessings through them. I also had the great privilege of blessing my sister and her husband about ten minutes before the delivery of my new niece.

But what does it mean to bless? The Latin “benedicere” comes from the words meaning “to speak well of.” A blessing has been defined as a calling down of God’s favor or protection upon someone or something. A blessing is the opposite of a curse. And it belongs especially to fathers to give their blessing. First and foremost, God the Father blesses us and speaks to us our true name and identity. He calls us “very good,” as we hear at the end of the first chapter of the Bible, and the Word of his blessing in Jesus Christ through the Sacraments makes us good and restores what we had lost through sin. 

As Christians, by virtue of the royal priesthood that we share in Christ, we are all called to be a blessing to others, to “speak well of” one another to remind each other, and perhaps even to challenge one another, to live up to our true identity in Christ Jesus, to be “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life” (from the “Benedictus” of Zechariah, Luke 1:75). May you be given every favor and blessing in this new year, and may you and your families and households be a source of blessing to many others, and to all who enter under your roof.

A Divine Proposal

Homily, Baptism of the Lord C

One great thing about being celibate and never getting married is that I will never have to think up some elaborate way of proposing. Now, it isn’t always the case, but most guys try to put at least some thought into it. You want the proposal to be memorable and make for a good story in case anyone asks. And you also want to have a lot of confidence beforehand that she is going to say yes. I always get nervous when I see proposals on TV or in stadiums. Anything too public can really end up backfiring. Sometimes it seems like the guy is hoping that the public pressure will ensure an affirmative response, but as we all know, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.

Marriage proposals in biblical times were quite different from what they are today. Getting down on one knee and using a ring wasn’t really a custom at the time. In fact, the woman in question was not necessarily consulted at all until after it had all been arranged. The man would go to the woman’s father to draw up the marriage contract and covenant. Still today, it is the custom in many places to seek the approval of the woman’s father first, even when the actual proposal is made to the woman herself. But in the ancient world, the whole proposal would be between the man and the woman’s father.

Today, in the wilderness, John the Baptist has prepared the way of the Lord. He has prepared a people for the Lord’s possession. He has called Israel back, to repent of their sins and to recommit themselves with fidelity to God, in anticipation of the mightier one who will appear after John the Baptist. In another place in Scripture, John calls himself the friend of the Bridegroom who rejoices at the Bridegroom’s voice. Christ is the Bridegroom, who today, by undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, commits himself in love and fidelity to sinful humanity. Though he himself is without sin and has no need of repentance, Jesus shows that he is willing to take upon himself and share all that belongs to his beloved bride, even the consequences of our sins, the inheritance we have earned by our disobedience. Jesus will even accept death to show the extent of his love for us and to give us unending life with him.

In his Baptism, Jesus weds to himself our sinful humanity, restoring to us the inheritance of his perfect obedience. This inheritance is the Holy Spirit who comes to rest upon him. And the Father of all expresses his approval of the wedding when he says from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Any bride’s father could say the same thing to his new son-in-law. Well, at least for most sons-in-law. So Christ is eternally the Son of God, but he also becomes the Son of God in time by his marriage to the Church, the beloved daughter of God the Father. Even at his Baptism, as we hear in the second reading, Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”

As Jesus renews his covenant of unending love with us at this Eucharist, as he proposes to each one of us as we approach for Holy Communion, we respond with our own Amen, saying “Amen” to all that Jesus has done for us and to all that he still longs to do in our lives. As he pours himself out in love for us, we ask him to strengthen us by his grace to pour out our lives for love of him. By our own baptism, we belong to Christ, and he is our Beloved. May we follow him wherever he would lead us, even to eternal life. 

Our Manifest Destiny

Homily, Epiphany

Most people tend to think that because I spent four years in Rome, I must be pretty good at speaking Italian. That would normally be the case, but in my day to day life over there, I lived among English speakers and had all my classes in English. I also probably speak less in general than the average person, so even when I would walk through the city, I had little motivation or occasion to practice my Italian. There are, however, two very important words in Italian that everyone who spends some time over there learns very quickly, because not knowing these words can result in grave inconvenience. The first of these words is ‘sciopero’ which simply means to strike or to stop working. What it really means is that buses, trains, and airport travel may take even longer than usual in Italy or be impossible for several hours. Luckily, though, and oddly enough, the Italians tend to schedule going on strike, days or weeks in advance so that people can work around them. 

The other Italian word that becomes critical to know is related to the name of the Solemnity we celebrate today. It seems like I don’t hear ‘epiphany’ or the related words ‘revelation’ or ‘manifestation’ very often in everyday English, but the Italian ‘manifestazione’ is fairly common in Italy and refers to a public protest or demonstration. Practically, it could mean spending several extra hours just trying to get from one side of Rome to the other as traffic and pedestrians are redirected around crowds of protesters. Again, I’m familiar with the term largely as a matter of convenience. It might be worth asking ourselves today if we’ve ever experienced God’s revelation or manifestation in our lives as an inconvenience, something we wish we could work around. There are inconvenient truths that might make demands upon us, that might urge us to change the way we think, even to change the way we live. There are scenes from the Gospel that should shake us and challenge us, if we don’t just explain them away. There are epiphanies in our lives, moments of clarity, stars pointing the way, that demand a response from us. And what is our response?

Today, we see the three magi traveling hundreds of miles out of their way to pay homage to the Christ Child. They ask nothing in return for all their labor, but instead, they even bring him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are overjoyed at being able to render this service to the newborn King of the Jews, even though they are foreigners, and the King is unable to give them any earthly reward. Would we be willing to go to the same amount of trouble to render some small service for Christ our King, or for one of the least of his brothers and sisters? Would we be willing to try to live the inconvenient truths of the Church’s teachings, trusting that the Holy Spirit preserves the Catholic Church in truth, and that the God who became man in Jesus Christ knows what will bring us authentic happiness in life?

In Jesus Christ, God has revealed his glory to all the nations, and he continues to make manifest the salvation he won for all humanity. The one area that I remember from school hearing the word ‘manifest’ used in English was in American history. In the 1800s, it was considered the manifest destiny of the United States to stretch from sea to shining sea. In the Incarnation, God has revealed the manifest destiny of all mankind. Now that someone from heaven has come to earth, it is the manifest destiny of those on earth to reach heaven’s shores. St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” We were made to live for heaven, not to get caught up in earthly things, but to direct all things to the greater glory of God. Christ “died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” The three magi lived for Christ and endured every inconvenience. As Christ renews his commitment to us in this Eucharist, we commit ourselves with the magi to live for him and to live for the least of his brothers and sisters. As Catholic Christians, this is our manifest destiny.