The Difficult Questions

Homily, Lenten Sunday 3C

Since the dawn of mankind, one question has forever plagued the minds and hearts of every human being that has taken the time to reflect. One question has perplexed philosophers and confounded the wisdom of sages. One question continues to shake me to the very core of my existence: Why do bad things happen… to good food? Why, when I lift that last piece of pizza from the box, something would happen to throw off my balance and lose my grip and send that piece, toppings down, to the ground? And even if there’s still something salvageable in this case, after doing my best to remove any bits of grass and hair, and hoping against hope that the rest of what I still see is just black pepper, this doesn’t change the stark reality that in the case of good soup, whatever is spilled is ultimately lost to me. Sir Isaac Newton claimed to find the reason, as a tasty apple fell upon his head on its way to the ground at his feet. As he mourned the loss of that apple, he formulated the law of gravity, that the things of earth tend towards the earth. Still, the mechanics of how these tragedies happen are not very satisfactory as an answer to the question of why.

Whether small or big, we all face tragedy in our lives, times of disappointment and loss, even times when it seems the very foundation of our existence is shaken, or our world is turned upside down. And we all search for reasons. Why would a good, supremely loving, supremely just and merciful God allow these things to happen? Is God in control or isn’t he? And if he is, why does it seem like he isn’t paying much attention? These are the same questions the Israelites faced during their oppression as slaves in Egypt. And in the time of Jesus, they faced tragedies of the sacrifice of human blood and the deaths of eighteen people when a tower collapsed. And in our day, we have seen sudden deaths, traffic accidents, devastating earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, terrorist attacks, cancers and other diseases. 

In the time of Jesus, they often thought of these disasters as punishments for personal sin, but Jesus very clearly rejects this explanation. They didn’t suffer these things because they themselves were greater sinners. Jesus also demonstrates this in his own crucifixion. Jesus is the sinless One, who nevertheless suffers great torments and dies, not for any sin of his, but for proclaiming the truth for our salvation. Much of the evil we suffer stems from our sins, but we can’t ignore the fact that we often suffer at the hands of others or because of forces beyond our control. And it is very little consolation to understand the physics or the biology of how so many suffer and die. And we might blame the devil, but God is infinitely more powerful than the devil, so we can’t escape the reality that God does allow these things to happen. 

I still remember the first time that I had to come to terms with death and tragedy in a real way in my own life. Growing up, I had this sense that God was always protecting me and my family and those close to me and that nothing really bad could ever happen to us, and for a long time that seemed to be the case, and I never experienced the death of anyone I had known very personally. Then when I was in fifth grade, one evening as we were praying the rosary at home, the phone rang, and my mom answered it. And when she hung up the phone, she told us that Chris DeBuhr had just died in an accident on the road. And I thought, “Well, it must be some older relative with the same name. It couldn’t be the kid that I had sat next to in school and watched him storing a short pencil inside the bottom of his shoe. The kid that I had argued with and laughed with. It couldn’t be that Chris DeBuhr that they were talking about.” But then I had to face the reality that accidents happen and God allows them to happen.

What do we do in the face of real tragedy? What questions come up for us? And are we willing to really face these questions and bring them to God? Or do we look instead to distractions, something to try and numb the pain and the emptiness that we experience? I’ve always found it comforting that of the 150 psalms, the words that God himself gives to us in Scripture to pray to him, over 40% of the psalms can be classified as psalms of complaint. I think a lot of times, we feel like when we pray we need to just thank God and pretend that everything’s great and maybe ask for a few things. But the psalms of complaint actually encourage us to bring to God these difficult questions, our struggles in faith, our wavering and broken hearts, the raw pain and even anger of what seems to be “just not fair.” God is big. He can handle himself. We won’t hurt his feelings by bringing to him what we are really going through. We should not curse God or blaspheme, but he wants to hear from us, who we really are, and not just who we pretend to be. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together in front of God. He knows our need and wants to live in us. He wants to comfort us, perhaps in ways that we do not expect, but that only happens when we bring to him what we are really going through.

The dying and rising of Christ that he wants to live in each of us is a mystery. This mystery demands our faith, our trust in God’s love and providence in our lives and in the world, even amid so much that appears like evidence to the contrary.  We can’t always tell how the tragedies and evil of our world will be transformed into the new life of the Resurrection, but even now we are given a foretaste of heaven in this Eucharist, as Christ renews his sacrifice of love for each of us and for the salvation of the world. Bring to Jesus the difficult questions. Pour out your hearts to God so that he can fill you with his own divine life. We won’t be freed from pain and suffering until we reach the fullness of the heavenly kingdom, but even in this life, we will never suffer alone. God is with us. God wants to be with us. Do we want to be with him? 

No Pain, No Gain

Homily, Lenten Sunday 2C

We’re all probably familiar with the exercise motto, No pain, no gain. Even biologically, they find that in order to get your muscles stronger, you need to exercise to the point of burning and doing some damage to your muscle fibers, so that they’ll adapt and rebuild themselves stronger than before. This is why getting started on an exercise routine can be so difficult. In order to see and start to experience real progress in our health, it takes going through some real pain, and many of us get discouraged before seeing much of a positive change. For those who do persevere through the effort and pain, they begin to understand at some level the value of suffering. They can start to see the pain differently. Instead of discouraging them from exercise, pain can serve as a challenge that motivates them to reach new heights. No pain, no gain. And this is basically what Jesus is trying to communicate to us in his Transfiguration, to prepare us for the sufferings that he will endure. 

His disciples were unable to understand that the Son of Man must be rejected, suffer and die, in order to rise triumphant on the third day. No pain, no gain. The first time that Jesus mentions this, St. Peter scolds him and says, “God forbid, Lord, that this should ever happen to you.” It should be easy for us to understand Peter’s reaction. In our second reading, St. Paul mentions those who “conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.” How often do we conduct ourselves as enemies of the Cross? How do we view suffering? How often do we set ourselves against any suffering or shame, and even go out of our way to try and avoid the slightest inconvenience? Do we grow comfortable with our sins because we are unwilling to endure the necessary pain to be rid of our sins and to experience the new life of Christ? 

Getting into a routine of spiritual exercise can be even more difficult than getting started on physical exercise. The same principle often applies. No pain, no gain. In order to really start to experience some spiritual health and to attach ourselves adequately to Christ, we are often called to endure some pain and suffering as we strive to break our attachments to lesser things. Lent is an opportunity for many of us to renew our efforts to really strive for holiness, to seek the things that are above, the things that really matter and eternally endure, even as we temper our desires for earthly things. 

On the Mount of the Transfiguration, we receive the assurance that all our efforts and any sufferings that we endure for the love of Christ are really worthwhile. Moses and Elijah discuss with Jesus the exodus that he will accomplish in Jerusalem, the deliverance and salvation that he will win for us precisely through his loving obedience, through his willingness to endure any suffering or shame to free us from all fear, and to triumph over death itself. The glory of Jesus is revealed, and the Resurrection comes about only through his suffering and death. Later in the Gospel of Luke (12:50), Jesus will even speak of his great desire and eagerness to undergo this baptism of suffering for the sake of sinners. The pain of the Cross, far from discouraging Christ, actually motivates him to reach new heights in expressing God’s great love for us. Jesus invites us as well, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). In other words, no pain, no gain. As we receive Jesus himself in this Eucharist, may God grant us the grace to persevere through any pain or suffering in our following of Christ. May we embrace his Cross so that we may also embrace the glory of his Resurrection. 

Going through the Motions

Homily, Lenten Sunday 1C

A man reading the paper one morning came across an article that talked about how women use far more words than men do each day. He was excited to show this to his wife and prove that he had been right all along when he would tell her that she talked too much. So he showed her the article that said that men use about 2,000 words per day, but women use about 7,000 words. His wife thought for a moment before saying, “Well, that’s because women end up having to repeat almost everything we say.” And the man replied, “What was that?” 

There is an old saying that repetition is the mother of all learning. So much of what we say at every Mass is simply repeated, it’s what we say at every Mass, but the danger is that we stop paying attention to what we’re saying, and we no longer let ourselves be challenged or changed by the Word of God. Our first reading today from Deuteronomy contains what many scholars believe is a very primitive creed of the Hebrew people. They would repeat this same formula every time they came to offer the first fruits of their harvest. “My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation great, strong, and numerous.” And so on… It was a summary of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how God fulfilled these promises by bringing them into the Promised Land and granting them an abundant harvest. Much like the Nicene Creed that we repeat every Sunday is a summary of how God fulfilled and surpassed all his promises in Christ his Son and by revealing himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But do we still pay attention to what we’re saying as we recite the Creed? Are we able to make it our prayer and an expression of the faith we place in the saving power of Christ? 

And besides the Creed, the whole Mass, everything we hear, say, and do at Mass is meant to be our most exalted prayer that we offer in union with Christ’s own prayer. So are we able to pray the Mass or do we just try to ‘get through’ the Mass while our mind is in a thousand other places? Are we present in body but absent in mind and spirit? A great blessing for me as a new priest has been having to read and repeat the prayers of the Mass and really think about what we are doing and what we are praying for. If we start to really mean what we say, these are the most powerful prayers. But it always remains a challenge to really pay attention to what I’m saying and doing and not let it become just routine. As I said before, routine and repetition are not the problem. The problem is when our routine prayers become separated from living faith. In the midst of his temptations in the desert, Jesus always took refuge in the Word of God. This is why Catholics memorize prayers and why other Christians memorize passages of Scripture, so that when we are tested and go through trials, we can fall back on the Word of God. And it is especially in times of temptation and trial that we are challenged to actually mean what we say and exercise our faith.

A good Lenten practice would be to strive each day to really be present where we are and to what we are doing, to be present to those around us, really listening when someone is speaking to us, and when God speaks to us as the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass; and to strive each day to really mean what we say. When we tell someone, “I love you,” on St. Valentine’s Day, then we should prepare ourselves to sacrifice and suffer for the one that we love. And when we stand and say, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” then we should prepare ourselves to sacrifice and suffer for the love of Christ, and to profess our faith to the world by the way that we live every day. Our world does not need Catholics who simply go through the motions. Our world needs Catholics who go through the motions animated by living faith. Even in the midst of temptations and trials, may all our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. 

Receiving Communion and the Lenten Journey

Bulletin Article, Lenten Sunday 1C

As we finished up the training sessions for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, many of them thought a refresher course on how to receive Communion would be good for everyone. Now I do realize far fewer than everyone actually read the bulletin, but maybe those who do can share with the rest. 

As we reach the front of the Communion line, we should clearly indicate if we are asking for a blessing by crossing our hands over our chest or by covering our mouth. If we are receiving on the hands, the best way is usually to hold our hands flat and level, palms up, with our dominant hand underneath as the host is placed on our other palm, and then to proceed using our dominant hand to pick up and convey the host to our mouth. Unless we have use of only one hand, we should not normally grab the host out of the minister’s fingers. We should receive, rather than take, Communion. I’ve heard one priest call those who would ‘take’ the host, Body snatchers. I’ve also asked the ministers to be vigilant about those who might try to take the host with them out of the church, so we shouldn’t go too far before consuming the host.

When receiving on the tongue, it is helpful to actually stick out one’s tongue and provide surface area for the host to adhere. It is also very important to hold still while the minister is placing the host, whether receiving in the hand or on the tongue, so that we can avoid dropping hosts or licking the fingers of the host ministers. Also, please stand close enough to the ministers so that they aren’t having to reach too far, and be mindful of how tall, or not tall, the minister is compared to your own height. 

This might seem like a lot to keep in mind, but moments of supreme importance merit some preparation, and not only spiritual preparation, and receiving Jesus Himself in the Most Blessed Sacrament is a moment of supreme importance. Lent is a time of preparation for the joys of Easter. Hopefully, our Lenten observance will bring about real growth in us, strengthening us in the virtues that will serve us well beyond this Lent, so that when Easter comes we don’t just abandon all restraint and regress back to where we were before Lent began. Moses was leading the people somewhere during the forty years in the desert, and God was always saddened by the desire of the people to return to their slavery in Egypt whenever the road became difficult. This Lent, may God give us the grace and desire to persevere and truly leave behind our former ways of sinfulness and embrace “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). 

And by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day. Be mine. Yours truly,
Fr. Darin 

Confessions of a Hungry Man

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 5C

Somehow, I’ve developed a reputation here, especially among the staff, as being a person who likes to eat. And if you ask me what my favorite kind of food is, I would say that it would have to be free food. So let’s imagine that you bring a tray of food into the parish office one day; not sweets, because you know that Fr. Schmidt gets tired of eating sweets, but you bring this tray of food in, wanting to provide a snack for the staff, but especially for Fr. Schmidt with his high metabolism; and I happen to be standing there and see you with this food, and so I put both my hands up and say to you, “Depart from me, for I am a hungry man.” Now, you would probably be more than a little confused at this reaction. Of course you already knew that I was a hungry man; that’s the whole reason you brought the food in the first place. So you think, well, he must be fasting or something. He wants to stay hungry, and that’s why having food around would just make it more difficult. Or, you might think, well, maybe Fr. Schmidt just wants me to leave, but to leave the food before I go because he doesn’t want to scarf down this whole tray of food in front of me. I’ll just let you ponder what might be the more likely explanation. But you should be confused to hear me say, “Depart from me, for I am a hungry man,” when you’re holding in your hands the solution to my hunger, and when the whole reason for your visit was to relieve me of my hunger.

And as we look at our readings today, if God were ever capable of being confused, he would be completely dumbfounded at the reactions he gets from Isaiah and from Simon Peter. Isaiah says, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” But it is the King, the Lord of hosts, who visits him precisely to cleanse him from his sins and uncleanness. God alone can relieve us of our sins, so why does it surprise us so much when God longs to draw close to us sinners, especially when we have wandered far from him? God loves us with infinite mercy, and so he pursues the lost sheep more diligently than the best of shepherds. 

Simon Peter says to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And Jesus must be thinking to himself, “Of course, I know you are a sinful man. That’s the whole reason that I’m here, to save and to call sinners to a more abundant life. All the more reason that I refuse to leave you, because I alone can bear your sins.” And he says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Thinking that we are too sinful to approach God or to approach and enter his Church, this is a false humility and a temptation from the devil. Christ came to save sinners. He sees our need and knows that he alone can save us and bring us relief. God not only wants us to approach him, but he himself pursues us with his mercy. 

This is the grace of God, the free, unmerited, often unlooked-for, gift of God’s forgiveness that changed Paul from the worst of sinners, persecuting the Church of God, into the greatest of the Apostles, who carried the Gospel to the nations. This is the free, unmerited grace and mercy of God offered to each one of us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Especially during this year—which Pope Francis has named the Year of Mercy—and as we enter into Lent, even if it has been years or decades since you’ve been to Confession, and even if you have committed the worst of sins and can’t even come to forgive yourself, please know that God longs to forgive you in the Sacrament of his Mercy, to speak to you through the words of his priest, “I absolve you from your sins.” During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has extended to all priest confessors the authority to absolve from the penalty of automatic excommunication those who have cooperated in an abortion. There has never been a better time to be reconciled with God and with his Church. At the start of this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis also simplified the annulment process, making it necessary for only one diocese—instead of two—to rule on each case. 

Now this is where I especially need your help. I don’t know all the people in this parish very well, let alone those who used to belong to this parish or to the Catholic Church. But if you know others who used to be Catholic, who—for whatever reason—no longer felt welcome in the Church, or who simply decided to try something else for a while, please share with them the message of God’s mercy and invite them back to the Sacraments, back into this Church of sinners. God is wanting to pursue those who have wandered, and he wants to pursue them through your voice, through your words, through your smile and in your friendships. God wants to make all of us into fishers of men. So if you know of anyone who is divorced and remarried and still needing to go through the annulment process before they are able to receive the Sacraments again, please invite them to speak to a priest about it, and let them know that God wants to bring about a great healing in them and a strengthening of their current relationships through the annulment process.  

I was in St. Peter’s Square once to hear the Angelus address of Pope Francis on Divine Mercy Sunday. I was also there because I knew they would be handing out something for free. On that occasion, Pope Francis said that God never tires of forgiving our sins. God never tires of forgiving our sins. We are the ones who grow tired of asking for forgiveness. We must not be afraid or grow tired, but renew our efforts in receiving God’s grace and mercy, and letting it transform our lives in accord with God’s will, that we may proclaim the Good News of God’s infinite mercy to everyone we meet. “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” Amen.