Stay Awake, Keep Watch and Pray

Homily, Advent Sunday 1A

Very rarely do I ever listen to the radio in my car, and as the staff here can attest, I very rarely even use my car, but on Friday, I was with my sisters, and against my better judgment, we were on the road on Black Friday, and I was disappointed to find that on the day after Thanksgiving, almost every radio station seemed to be playing Christmas music already. Hearing Christmas music before Christmas is not necessarily a problem, but it can make it more difficult for us to really appreciate and enter into the liturgical season that we begin today, the season of Advent. 

Advent was the last liturgical season to develop in the Church’s history, as a penitential season in preparation for the 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 us. As we begin Advent, and for the next few 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 towards the end of Advent, on December 17, does the focus shift to Christ’s First Coming into our world, as a baby in Bethlehem. The 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. 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, Christ’s promise to return at the end of time, and His promise to give us new life here and now, the virtue of the season of Advent is hope. Christian hope desires and obtains what God promises to give, and God especially wants to give Himself to us, in this Eucharist and in the communion of prayer. Most people are familiar with the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and most Catholics try to give up something or do something special for the season of Lent, but do we ever do something special for the season of Advent, to exercise our hope and to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ? 

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. So a 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 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 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 mp3s, to shut off the TVs and the Netflix to make more time for silence and 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 let ourselves desire with eager longing the coming of God’s kingdom? The end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ should only be scary for those of us who are too caught up in the busyness of this passing world. Something for us to consider today is whether we look forward to the end of the world with hope or with fear, and if it is with fear, how might God be inviting us to change and to be transformed, so that our outlook can be transformed by 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! 

Home for Thanksgiving

Homily, Thanksgiving Day

It’s really wonderful to see so many gathered here for Mass on this Thanksgiving Day. As Catholics, this is the most important way that we express our thanks to God. The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving, and as we gather to unite ourselves to the perfect thanksgiving sacrifice of Christ, we share as our meal God’s greatest gift to us, His own Son Jesus, in Flesh and Blood. As we share in this sacrifice and meal, we are united to Christ, and through Him, we are united with all the saints and our loved ones throughout the world, and also with those who have passed on from this life. It is very good that we are here today.

As the pilgrims learned on that first Thanksgiving Day, so often it is only through various trials and sufferings that we come to better appreciate all that we have been given. There’s that old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And while you might think that’s especially true in the case of certain relatives, whose presence we find difficult to endure, having to go without certain things or having to be away from certain people for a time can help us to really appreciate them in a new way. I’m sure this was true for the Samaritan leper in today’s Gospel, who experienced disease for so long that he is overwhelmed with gratitude when he is restored to health once again. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. This was also my experience having to celebrate Thanksgiving Day for four years in Rome. If you’ve ever been outside the United States for Thanksgiving before, you probably know that it’s just not the same. We did our best at the North American College to make it feel like home, and we tried to invite other Americans in Rome to join us for our Thanksgiving celebration, but there were certain things that were definitely unique. It usually took a few years for the Australians and Canadians at the College to catch on to the meaning of this American holiday, of Turkey and feasting and football. And with an Italian kitchen staff, the first course was always ravioli. I had never heard of a Turkey Trot before studying in Rome, and for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a race, often 5 kilometers, that you run on Thanksgiving morning, I think so that you don’t feel as guilty about eating too much later in the day. Our Turkey Trot in Rome is probably the only one in the world that goes around a sovereign nation because we would run around Vatican City. I ran every year and tried to win the costume contest, since I had little hope of winning the race. Still, even with all this to keep us occupied, we longed to be back in the US, we longed to be home.

As we recall the blessings of the past year, we thank God for his gifts of life, of love, of family and friends, of food and shelter, clean water, and the great privilege of living in the greatest country in the world, these United States. As we commemorate with the Church throughout the world, 117 Vietnamese martyrs, we thank God especially for the gift of our Catholic faith, which so many have lived and died to hand on to us. We thank God even for the trials and sufferings of the past year, all that we have learned from them, and for all that these crosses have helped us to better appreciate. May God be with you and your families and friends on this Thanksgiving Day, and may Jesus bring us all one day beyond our trials and the exile of this life into our heavenly home.  

Christ Enthroned on the Cross

Homily, Christ the King C

The Catholic faith is full of paradoxes, things that seem like a contradiction. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, but this King and Lord of all takes as His throne the Cross, an instrument of torture and public execution. Christ’s execution is, at the same time, His exaltation and coronation. 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 that has the power to rule over human hearts more surely than any emperor or president or any other king throughout history. Every Christian martyr is proof of God’s sovereignty.

But the same temptation remains for each one of us. Will we place our faith in the 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 cross and follow Christ, or will we continue to rebel against that sort of King, to revile Jesus with the crowds and with one of the criminals saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Can’t you see that the world is spinning out of control? With natural disasters, with acts of terrorism, with incompetent and corrupt political leaders? Jesus, what are you waiting for? Intervene. Where is God? Where is His power?

Even in our own personal lives we might become frustrated 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 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 children, not as His slaves.

Now imagine the faith of that other criminal in today’s Gospel, whom tradition gives the name of St. Dismas. It’s fairly easy to acknowledge Jesus as King when He feeds the five thousand or when He enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, 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? And to believe Him when He replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” even as we die upon a cross.

This is the same faith that God is asking of us today. That as the chaos of our world and of our own hearts continues to threaten our life and our freedom, there is One and only One who can deliver us from final death. 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. With St. Peter, who died upon a cross of his own, can we confess that “there is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12)?

Jesus Christ, our crucified and Risen Lord, is the only King of the Universe. Even as we endure crosses of our own, may God give us the faith of St. Dismas and of St. Peter to transform the questioning in our hearts, “Are you not the Christ?” into the confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, King and Center of all hearts, have mercy on us.

World-Sustaining Worship

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 33C

Regardless of how you voted on Tuesday, or if you voted early, or even if you’re not yet old enough to vote, and regardless of what you think of the results of the election, one thing unites everyone in giving thanks: the campaign season is finally over once again. As Fr. Cimpl and I would sit at the rectory watching the debates of the last few months, Fr. Cimpl commented more than once, “This could be the end of the world.” And I would usually reply, “Maybe not the end of the world, just the end of the United States.” Now I’m hopeful that our beloved country will continue on for a while longer, and the world keeps spinning, but only time will tell what the future holds in store, and Jesus reminds us throughout the Gospel that no one knows the day or the hour. There will be signs, but there have always been signs. The one thing that Jesus seems to guarantee, is persecution and trial, for those who choose to truly follow Him. 

One of the difficulties in trying to understand the meaning of these passages in Scripture that speak of the end times is that, at the time of Jesus, many related events and concepts were joined together in the Jewish mind. So, just as we might think of the end of the United States of America as the end of the world, the Jews and early Christians associated the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem with the end of time, the end of the heavens and the earth, and the return of the Messiah in glory. 

It’s not always clear which prophecies were meant for the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Jewish world, and which prophecies apply to the end of the world in general. The destruction of the Temple took place in the year 70, just one Biblical generation after the death of Jesus on the Cross. It might be difficult for us in the modern era to understand why the Temple in Jerusalem was so important to the Jews. We tend to think it doesn’t make any difference, where you pray to God, whether it’s here at the Church, or in your pajamas at home. God is everywhere. But what was special about the Temple? Even in the time of Jesus, there were lots of synagogues where Jews would meet to reflect upon the Scriptures, not just in Jerusalem, but in almost every town that had a Jewish population. 

So what was different about the Temple? The Temple in Jerusalem was the only place in the world where Jews were allowed to offer sacrifice to God, and in the ancient mindset, sacrifice and worship were basically seen as the same thing. Without sacrifice, worship of God in the full sense was no longer possible. You could still pray, and praise, and read Scripture as they did in the synagogues, but you really wouldn’t be able to worship God. That’s why Jews saw the destruction of the Temple as the end of the world, because then sacrifice and worship of the one true God would cease from the earth, or so they thought. This is the same reason that shortly after Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple, He institutes a New and Eternal Covenant at the Last Supper, a new Sacrifice to God of His own Body and Blood, a new worship of the one true God, in Spirit and in truth, not just in Jerusalem, but throughout the world at the hands of His Apostles and their successors.

So what can we learn from the faith of the Jews when it comes to the Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate? Are we convinced, as they were, that there is nothing in the world more important than the proper worship of God? Do we recognize and believe that this Sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood is what actually sustains the whole world, and that if it were to cease, the whole world may as well come to an end? There could be many other things that we think we cannot live without, things we might associate with the end of our world, for example, if the United States ceased to be a nation, or closer to home, if I no longer had control of my own life, or lacked the resources to do what I want when I want. What is it that you cannot live without? And if the Eucharist is truly “the source and summit” of the Christian life, as the Church teaches, where in our own world do we place the worship of God and the Presence of Christ in this Sacrament? What are our priorities?

Even if none of us is still around on the day of Christ’s final return at the end of time, each of us will meet Christ on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour, at the end of our life. Will we be ready for the Day of the Lord when he returns for us? Will we fear that Day, as a day of fire and destruction for the wicked, or will we be able to welcome the Sun of Justice, who brings healing and mercy in His radiance? May God prepare us to meet the Lord today in this Eucharist and at the end of our world. 

The Wager of a Lifetime

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

Hope in the resurrection and in the living God should cause us to live differently as Christians. How strong is our faith in the resurrection? How much would we be willing to bet? In our first reading today, from the second book of Maccabees, seven brothers and their mother are willing to lay it all on the line, to be tortured and put to death for the sake of God’s law in the hope of the resurrection, even though they lived more than a century before Jesus Christ would rise from the dead. How does our faith measure up to theirs, or to the faith of the Christian martyrs? How often are we unwilling to suffer the slightest inconvenience for the sake of God’s law or the Church’s teaching, unwilling to give up our most unsatisfying sins or our most irrational ways of thinking?

The readings this weekend remind me of something I learned in philosophy, something called Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager is named for Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician. According to Pascal’s Wager, all of us, by the way that we live our lives, are either betting that God exists or that God does not exist. Pascal wants to say that it is always in our best interests to wager that God does exist, because the only thing we might risk losing would be some limited, finite happiness in this earthly life, but what we stand to gain is infinite, unending happiness in heaven. If instead we live as though God does not exist, we risk infinite, unending punishment and separation from God in hell only for the sake of some limited, finite gains in this short life. 

Blaise Pascal, in the 17th century, tries to spell out in terms of mathematical probabilities what Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel, “What profit would there be for someone to gain even the whole world but to lose his soul?” And “whoever loves his life in this world loses it, but whoever loses his life” for the sake of Christ and His Gospel will live forever. What are we willing to lose for the sake of Christ in the hope of His resurrection? If someone who didn’t know you followed you for a day, would they think you’re betting that God exists, based on your words and actions, or would they conclude that you’re wagering God does not exist? Now it might depend on the day. All of us probably have bad days from time to time, but in general, most of us have a lot of room for improvement every day, I know I do, in trying to bring our words and actions into conformity with the Mystery of Christ.

The mortality rate of the human race is still 100%. Whether we like it or not, we have to place our bets for eternal life or eternal death, because here on earth, “we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). If we hope to gain eternal life, to be like angels and the children of God forever in heaven, what should we be willing to leave behind? We may never be put to the test quite as dramatically as the seven sons and their mother in our first reading, but every day of our lives, our faith in the resurrection is put the test, and by our words and actions, we bear witness that God exists, or we bear false witness that God does not exist. At the end of our lives, when our opportunity for changing our bets is over, what will you wish you had done today? How will you wish you had spent your life? I make St. Paul’s prayer my own for us today: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” Amen. 

The Weight of a Single Issue

Bulletin Article, Ordinary Time Sunday 32C

With the World Series finally over—congratulations to the Cubs, by the way—there’s probably just one thing left on most American minds. I hope that you’ve been praying for our country, that God would guide our minds and hearts in the upcoming election. Thankfully, that, too, will be over soon, but we may be dealing with the consequences for many years to come.

One thing that seems to come up during each election season that I’ve never really understood is the criticism leveled against what are characterized as single-issue voters. Now, I tend to doubt the accuracy of this characterization. I don’t think that very many voters actually just look at one issue and ignore the rest, but even if that is how they choose to vote, whether that’s a good, bad, or intelligent thing to do would depend on the weight and importance of that single issue. As intelligent voters, we should realize that not all issues or party platform items carry the same weight. Certain issues are much more fundamental and foundational.

If the single deciding factor I use in my consideration of a candidate is, for example, their favorite color or their favorite fast food, of course this would be ridiculous and a very poor criterion to use when it comes to voting. Other issues and rights, though, can be a necessary condition for anyone to enjoy the rest of the goods of society. The right to life leaps to mind as one such foundational right. Personally, I tend to have very little confidence that a candidate or party will have our best interests at heart in the areas of education, the economy, concern for our military men and women, or any other areas, when this same candidate or party have professed themselves unwilling to defend—or even actively opposed to—the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” of the most vulnerable, the unborn.

Now I’m not a single-issue voter myself, despite what many might say about it, but I do realize that had I not been born, little else would make much difference to me, so I don’t look down upon others who care enough about life to make it their primary focus when it comes to casting their vote. In this election, the appointment of a new Justice to the Supreme Court by the next President is another concern to be weighed. Religious liberty is another area that continues to be a concern in our country. In South Dakota, we have a number of ballot measures to vote on (constitutional amendments, referred laws, and initiated measures), and it is very helpful to read about those before being handed your ballot on Tuesday, both to speed the process and to be sure that you understand the measures. You can see a list and read about the South Dakota ballot measures online.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, may Jesus Christ reign as King in our lives and our decisions, and may He raise up many saints in our country and throughout the world.

The Meaning of Life

Homily, All Saints

It always seemed a little strange to me as I was growing up that there was one question that popular culture seemed to regard as unanswerable. On TV, in movies, books, and songs, and in the comic strips, no one seemed willing or able to give an answer, or even to convey the hope that an answer actually exists, to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Or, to put it differently, what is our purpose? What is the goal that we should be working towards in all our various activities? It seemed strange that an answer was never given or attempted, because to me the answer always seemed so clear. What is the meaning of life? The answer is Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

This is the answer that was discovered by all the saints we celebrate today, all those who have been canonized, but also so many others who have attained eternal life with God, but whose names may no longer be remembered by anyone on earth, or even the saints we knew in our own families. The saints in heaven have reached the one goal of human life that will be the only thing that really matters in the end. Whether they were successful during their life on earth or endured a life full of failures, whether they were rich or poor, man or woman, boy or girl, powerful and influential, or almost entirely unknown, they all have one thing in common now. They look upon the face of God and live forever. The question we need to ask ourselves today is, are we headed for that same goal? Are we directing all that we do and all that we suffer towards that one and only goal of human life? What keeps us from really surrendering the whole of our lives to Jesus Christ and becoming saints ourselves?

When we think of all the human activity throughout the world and throughout history, the births, the deaths, the waking, sleeping, thinking, feeling, eating, and the feverish toils of all human generations, the obsessions, the discoveries, the violence and pain, and the manic pace of life in the modern world, what is it all for? What is our goal, in life and beyond this life, and if we don’t have a goal in mind, how will we ever make progress? “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” (Léon Bloy). So what’s holding you back? What are you waiting for? We get one shot at this life. Let’s make it worthwhile.