To Be with God

Homily, Christmas

I’ve mentioned before that I was the youngest of nine children in my family, and being the youngest of the family, I was never really around babies very much as I was growing up. I was twelve years old before my first niece was born, and at that point in my life, I wasn’t all that impressed. I couldn’t understand why everyone was so excited about this new baby. Babies don’t do very much, besides sleeping, crying, eating, and filling their diapers. What’s so great about that? What’s the big deal? 

As I think of the story of Christmas and the manger scene, I can’t help but think how strange it was that God chose to enter the world as a Baby. The Greeks had lots of stories in their mythology about gods breaking into our world, usually with violence and great force. We ourselves believe that God is all-powerful, and He could have chosen another way to enter our world as a conquering Messiah, so why did He choose instead to enter so quietly, almost entirely undetected, and to live such an unremarkable life for so many years? To grow in the silence of Mary’s womb for nine months, and to live in obscurity a seemingly unproductive infancy? Do we ever wonder as we look at the manger scene: What’s so great about this Baby? What’s the big deal? Even as Jesus grew and worked as a carpenter with St. Joseph, we might think His years could have been better spent doing something else. Why didn’t He do more? Why doesn’t God do more, why doesn’t God do more to answer my prayers, to fix our broken world and set it right, to heal the diseases of my friends and relatives? What’s so great about this Baby in the manger? What’s the big deal? He doesn’t seem to do all that much for me.

But still, we gather today to proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and there is no other. We gather to be reminded that this tiny Child is Emmanuel, God-with-us. So often in the frenzy of our hurried lives we forget the main goal of our existence, the whole purpose for which we were created and came into this world. We forget that the goal of our lives is not to be productive or to be successful or to be happy and healthy and undisturbed by any sort of suffering or trial. No. Our ultimate goal in this life and in the next is to be with God. The Son of God took upon Himself our humanity to become Emmanuel, which means, God-with-us. He takes upon Himself even our weakness, our infancy, our dependency, our vulnerability, our inability to do much of anything productive. He takes upon Himself the monotony of human work and the obscurity of a hidden life. Jesus takes upon Himself even the consequences of our sins, suffering and death, our own brokenness, to show us that God is with us in everything, that there is no disease, no trial or suffering, no failure, and not even death itself, that can separate us from God, if we have lived our life to be with Him. 

In Jesus Christ, in this tiny Baby in the manger, God has given us the Way to eternal life, to be with God forever. If we’re still asking, what’s so great about that or what’s the big deal about living forever with God, we might want to take a look at the direction our life is going. God is with us in Jesus Christ, but He does not force Himself on anyone. So is it clear to you and to those around you that your main goal in life is to be with God forever? Or are we still living for something, or for someone else? Come, Lord Jesus. O Come, Emmanuel, and teach us to thirst for God, to desire above all things to be with You forever. 

Called Beyond this World

Homily, Advent Sunday 4A

I’ve always greatly admired St. Joseph, and he’s always been a special patron of mine. In 1870, St. Joseph was named the patron of the entire universal Church; he is also the patron of our Cathedral and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, and he’s the patron of my home parish in Elk Point, so at every level of the Church I saw that St. Joseph was always praying for me. He and I seem to have a lot in common as well. From all indications, he was a man of very few words. In fact, in the whole Bible, we don’t find any words of St. Joseph recorded. And—here’s something we might all find encouraging—I’ve always considered St. Joseph to be a special patron of those who fall asleep during prayer, because so many of his most important communications from God occurred while he was sleeping, through dreams. 

In today’s Gospel, God communicates his will to St. Joseph in a dream, challenging his understanding of God’s plan for him and his wife, and even calling him beyond the practices that were considered acceptable and justified in his own day. At the time of St. Joseph, who, we are told, is a righteous man, according to societal standards and even in Jewish practice, it would have been perfectly justifiable for him to divorce his wife, when he knew that the child she was bearing was not his own. But God calls St. Joseph to something greater, something almost unimaginable, to become the guardian and foster-father of God’s own Son. Amazingly, once St. Joseph knows what God’s will is for his marriage, he immediately obeys and takes Mary, his wife, into his home, even though he probably still struggles to fully understand what this is all going to mean for him, how this is possible, and what sacrifices he will be called upon to make as he becomes the Head of the Holy Family and the Husband of the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. In faith, St. Joseph is able to follow God’s call, to go beyond the standards and practices considered acceptable in his own day.

Throughout history, God has challenged and called His holy people beyond the standards of the world around them. Jesus challenged his Jewish contemporaries on their understanding of marriage and divorce, calling them on to something greater. It’s not surprising then, that authentically Christian marriage has always had standards that go beyond those of secular society. What makes Catholic teaching distinctive is that it is not a product of man-made religion; Catholic teaching is not subject to the same changes and shifts that we see in secular society. Fundamentally, it’s not about what we think of God or our search for God or heaven or happiness. 

Catholic teaching is about Revelation. Christmas is all about God coming to us, seeking us out, God’s initiative to reveal Himself in human flesh, and as He does so, God challenges our understanding of ourselves and, in faith, calls us beyond what we thought was possible, beyond even our own desires. God reveals His design and plan for humanity, and in doing so, he also makes clear those things that are incompatible with our true fulfillment.

In our own day, God wants to continue to call us beyond what the world offers us, to fulfill His will and to cooperate with our salvation in Christ. And the difference between Catholic standards and the standards of the world is still most noticeable in this area of marriage, divorce, and chastity. Marriage and the family are the very foundation of society itself, and yet, we have seen in recent years how quickly this foundation seems to be shifting under our feet. But God, through the Catholic Church, continues to call us to something greater, despite the prevailing currents of society. 

Now I realize that there are even many well-intentioned Catholics who think that the Church will eventually have to accept things like gay marriage, contraception, cohabitation prior to marriage, or divorce and re-marriage without recourse to the annulment process. There may even be Catholics who think that the Church will eventually accept abortion, but I am here to tell you that the Catholic Church is the custodian and steward of God’s Revelation, the Church is not its Master or Author. There is no Pope or bishop or council which has the power to change what God has revealed, even to make things easier for us or to make the Church more fashionable. Personally, I consider it to be the height of false compassion to offer people the false hope that the Church’s teaching could change in these areas of God’s design for human sexuality. 

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. It is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the Church, to alienate or exclude anyone. Every last human being is invited into faith and relationship with Jesus Christ and into His Church, but if God has a real plan for us, and if He desires our free cooperation in that plan, if we’re called not just to be passive onlookers, but to actually follow Christ and to become his disciples, it only makes sense that there are behaviors, choices that we can make, sins that we can commit that place us outside God’s plan for us, that take us off the Path that Christ lays out for us, and these require repentance. Almost everyone still acknowledges murder as something that definitely places us outside of God’s plan, but there are many other actions that fall short or go against what God asks of us. 

Please also understand that I hope to have, and hope that everyone will have, the utmost compassion for those who experience homosexual attractions, for those who go through divorce and would like to try marriage again, for married couples who contracept, and for couples who live together before being married, many of whom have never been presented with an alternative in any real way. I am a sinner as well, and I’m more blameworthy because of all that I have been given, but we don’t do anyone any favors by condoning behaviors and lifestyles that God has revealed cannot lead to their true happiness and fulfillment, according to His plan for their life. 

Please pray for me as a shepherd of God’s people. And may St. Joseph intercede for us all, to follow Christ in real faith, as God continues to challenge every one of us to become His holy ones, to become Saints, to endure many trials and to go beyond the standards of this passing world, to experience a joy and lasting peace that is far greater than anything we could ask or imagine. 

Hell: Whether Hot or Cold, It’s Best to Steer Clear

Bulletin Article, Advent Sunday 4A

As I was growing up, winter was always my favorite season of the year, but with the temperatures we’ve had recently, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember why winter was my favorite season. A couple Sundays ago, the High School Youth Group learned about some of the visions of the three shepherd children of Fatima. One of the visions was of hell, and the students asked why hell seems to always be depicted as a burning fire. I answered that this is the primary image that Scripture uses. Jesus speaks often about Gehenna, the constantly burning trash dump outside Jerusalem (Mark 9:43). 

I do think the depiction of hell as fire, though, is somewhat culturally conditioned. In that part of the world, Jesus and the Biblical writers often experienced oppressive heat, but after experiencing the life-sapping effects of four Minnesota winters during my college years, to me, a hell of ice seems almost as likely. In fact, Dante Alighieri in his well-known Divine Comedy depicts Satan frozen in ice up to his chest in the deepest part of hell. Whether hot or cold, hell is not a pleasant place, and the worst part is being separated from God for all eternity, being consumed in our own isolation and individualism. We shouldn’t be overly preoccupied with what hell is like. We just need to do all that we can to make sure we don’t end up there, to open ourselves in love to God and to those around us. 

We’re coming up on the 100th Anniversary of the visions our Blessed Mother gave to the shepherd children of Fatima, which began May 13, 1917, and led to tens of thousands of people witnessing the Miracle of the Sun on October 13, 1917. The message of Our Lady of Fatima is clear and still timely in our own day. If we want God to rescue us from the disastrous consequences of our sins, even from world wars, persecutions, terrorism, and ultimately from hell, we need to cooperate with His grace, to pray and do penance in reparation for our own sins and for the sins of others. Attend Mass at least every Sunday and day of obligation. Frequent the confessional. Pray the Rosary daily and offer the First Saturdays Devotion.

It’s not popular to talk about hell anymore, but I find it striking that hell seems to be a regular topic of conversation for a great many of the Saints, for St. Paul in his letters of the New Testament, for our Blessed Mother in her apparitions, and for Jesus Himself in the Gospel. As we continue our preparations for Christmas, may the cold of winter motivate us to be set on fire with God’s love, that the Christ Child may find a fitting dwelling place in our hearts, that we may no longer offend God through sin but do all that we can to bring ourselves and many others into His Kingdom. 

Mother and Model

Homily, Immaculate Conception

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” What would be your reaction if an angel said these words to you? Would you be surprised to be called “full of grace”? Would you think he must have made some mistake? We tell ourselves: he must have the wrong house or he’s confusing me with someone else. The angel Gabriel said those words to Mary at the Annunciation, but that’s okay because she never sinned. She is full of grace. God was always with her. But I’ve sinned and pushed God away too many times. I’m definitely not full of grace. That’s what we tell ourselves, but if we pay close attention to the second reading today, we might be surprised to find that a lot of what we say about Mary is exactly what St. Paul is saying about every baptized Christian.

Part of the process of our conversion is to realize that our true identity is not in our sins and failings but in the redeeming love God has for us from all eternity. We are sinners, but the model for our lives is the Sinless One. In the Immaculate Conception, we profess that God chose Mary even before she existed and prepared her to serve as the Mother of God’s own Son by making her “full of grace” and without any stain of sin from the first moment of her existence in the womb of St. Anne. The Immaculate Conception of Mary was an extraordinary grace, but St. Paul tells us in our second reading that God also “chose us in [Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him,” to be saints and immaculate in the presence of God. And as Mary was destined to be the Mother of the Redeemer through the merits of the Redeemer, St. Paul says that “in love [God] destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ.” We are made brothers and sisters of Christ and citizens of heaven.

And if we ask, as Mary did in the Gospel, “How can this be?” We are given the same answer: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Mary was preserved from all stain of sin and given grace in the first moment of her conception; we were cleansed of all sin and given grace at the moment of our Baptism. Through the Holy Spirit given to us, we became holy and immaculate, brothers and sisters of Christ and children of God. Mary received the Word of God, the eternal Son, and allowed Him to take flesh in her. In a similar way, we are called to allow the Word of God that we receive to take flesh in our lives through obedience and love. 

But we know that, unlike Mary, we often ignore and resist the Word of God and fail to love as we should. With great patience and mercy, God gives us the Sacrament of Confession to renew our baptism and restore us once again “to be holy and immaculate in His presence.” In our struggle against sin and the patterns of sin in our lives, in our struggle against those tendencies to seek the easy way or to rebel against the sufferings and trials that come to us, we look to Mary Immaculate for the confidence to surrender ourselves with boundless trust into God’s hands. Mary was always open to God’s will, even when that meant ridicule and pain for herself. May she teach us to say to God with increasing conviction every day, “May it be done to me according to your word.” Whatever you want, Lord, is what I want. Jesus, I trust in you. 

With Mary we are called to magnify and praise “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” and who has truly made all of us “full of grace” by giving us His own Son, the Source of every grace. As we now prepare to imitate Mary, the Mother of God, in the most tremendous way at this Mass, to receive into ourselves the very Flesh and Blood of our Redeemer and Lord, even as Mary carried Jesus for nine months in her womb, God grant that she may teach us to live at all times in communion with Christ her Son, that we may be, to all those we meet, the love of God made visible.  

Beyond the Surface

Homily, Advent Sunday 2A

I don’t remember a whole lot from my homiletics course in seminary, and our preaching practica was mostly trial and error, but there was at least one thing that was made abundantly clear to us as we prepared to preach the Word of God: you probably shouldn’t start your homily by insulting your congregation. Now I’m not sure where St. John the Baptist went to seminary, but he seemed to have a somewhat different policy, at least when it came to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Don’t get me wrong, calling your audience a “brood of vipers” or the offspring of snakes can definitely serve to get their attention, which is often one of the goals of an introduction, but hurling insults at them probably does very little to establish the sympathy of your listeners. So was St. John the Baptist in need of some sensitivity training? Or is there something else going on in today’s Gospel?

It might help us to keep in mind who the Gospel tells us were the ones that really embraced the message of John the Baptist. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will say that it was the tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John and repented of their sins (Matthew 21:32). What was special about tax collectors and prostitutes at the time? They were public sinners. Everyone knew and could recognize them. They weren’t able to hide behind any façade. There was an authenticity and sincerity about them. Tax collectors and prostitutes knew that they were weak, they knew themselves to be sinners, and they knew that they could not save themselves.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were of a very different sort. These were the religious authorities at the time. Their public appearance was very impressive, with prayers, fasting, and almsgiving, but Jesus describes them as “whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth” (Matthew 23:27). They have a holy appearance. In public, they act like they have it all together, but their focus on the merely external observance of God’s Law prevents them from recognizing and acknowledging their own need for salvation, all the ways in which, despite putting on a brave face and keeping up appearances, they are broken and hurting inside. 

God is not as interested in your public persona as he is with your heart and soul. “Not by appearance [does] he judge, nor by hearsay [does] he decide.” Underneath all the posturing, are we able to authentically relate to God and to another human being? Or are we constantly covering ourselves with walls and layers of defense and illusions to prevent anyone from seeing, to prevent even God from seeing, how vulnerable we truly are, how broken and desperate for salvation? God wants to meet us there, behind all appearances and false fronts, and hopefully there are other people in your life that you can really trust, and around them, you can just be yourself without any disguises. 

No amount of social media can satisfy our need for real intimacy, of knowing that underneath it all, in all our brokenness, we are loved, we are valued, we are appreciated. St. John the Baptist wanted to break through the false fronts and the hardened hearts of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not because he didn’t care about them, but because he knew that this was his best chance at freeing them from their own illusions, that it is when we become truly vulnerable before God that we can be free, and only in being able to really share our weakness with another human being do we find true strength. Jesus has shared in all our weakness as a fellow human being, and He raises us up into the power and the love of God. May we have the strength today to open ourselves fully to Christ in this Eucharist, to let God see and save who we really are, behind all appearances. 

Spiritual Guides

Bulletin Article, Advent Sunday 2A

“St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle…” With Michael as my middle name, I’ve always had some devotion to the angels, whether the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, or our guardian angels. Pope Francis, as a good Jesuit, has also highlighted the activity of the enemy of our human nature and the other fallen angels and evil spirits that strive to lead us away from the path of Christ, even as the angels do all that they can to guide us into the Truth. A spiritual battle rages for each of our souls. Which side will we choose?

This time of the Church year can also highlight the role of angels. “When God leads the first-born into the world, he says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship him.’” Whether you have a star or an angel at the top of your Christmas tree, for the Jews, stars were symbolic of angels. That’s why you have in the Book of Revelation the dragon sweeping a third of the stars down to earth (12:4). This represents the fall of the angels who followed Satan in rebelling against God’s plan. 

At Christmas, the star leads the Magi to the Christ Child, and the angels bring the poor shepherds to the stable of their King. Like our Mother Mary, Star of the Sea and Queen of Angels, the one goal of the angels of God is to lead us to the Christ and join us in worshipping God. Many of the Prefaces of the Eucharistic Prayer during Mass mention these messengers of God as we join “with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven” in their angelic hymn of praise: Holy, Holy, Holy (Isaiah 6:3).

May we always allow the angels to guide our feet into the way of peace and salvation.