Uniquely Gifted by God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 8A

In today’s culture, where personal choice is thought to have such importance, we don’t often think about how so many aspects of our lives are simply given. Now maybe one of you remembers differently, but I don’t remember ever being asked by my parents, or by God beforehand, whether I actually wanted to be brought into existence and given life. To my knowledge, I was not consulted as to which country I wanted to be born into, and if I had been given the choice, I definitely would not have chosen Iowa as the State of my birth, to be stuck with that on my U.S. Passport for the rest of my life. God did not ask for my permission to create me in the 20th century rather than any other age of the world. And I did not choose to have an almost entirely German ethnicity and temperament, or to be naturally shy, or to be given a very analytic mind, or even my stunning good looks. No, so much of what you see and hear from me is not anything that I can realistically take much credit for.

Each one of us is uniquely gifted by God. The providence of God that we hear about in today’s readings pertains to the basic necessities that are common to everyone, our need for food, clothing, and shelter, but God’s love for us extends also to every aspect of our existence and to those things that make each of us unique. So in those aspects of our lives that we did not choose or perhaps would not have chosen for ourselves, are we able now to accept them as a gift from God, to gift thanks, and to move forward in a healthy direction? Or do we choose to rebel against what God has provided for us, constantly wishing to be someone else, or something else? Or to live in another time of history or in another place?

I just saw on the news recently some renewed enthusiasm for eventually colonizing Mars, so now you can even choose to spend your time lamenting the fact that you were born too early in history to be a Martian like you really wanted. You were born on the wrong planet. Others spend a lot of time fantasizing about living in medieval times, the time of knights and chivalry and plagues. Every time in history has its opportunities and its problems, but living too much in the past or in the future can distract us from the real opportunity and unique mission that God is entrusting to us today.

Particularly challenging for us and for our faith and trust in God are what we might see as crosses in our lives, aspects of reality that we wish we could change but don’t have the power to do so. Our limitations. Our weaknesses. Disabilities. Forgetfulness. Illnesses. The effects of aging. Many of these aspects of our lives were not part of God’s original plan for us. They are evils that stem from living in a fallen world, inundated by the effects of sin. And our new creation in Christ continues to be experienced in mystery, but just as Christ freely accepted His Cross, though it wasn’t anything that He deserved, God can make use of the crosses in our lives to continue His work of redemption, when we freely choose to accept these crosses and to move forward with them.

One aspect of being human and being limited that many have begun to see as a burden is even our own sexuality and being born male or female. Like many other conditions of our lives, our gender is not something that we choose for ourselves before being born, and we need to ask ourselves whether it is very healthy to try to change our gender later on in life, or are there healthier ways of dealing with the anxiety or insecurity that might surround our gender identity, just as we might have insecurity about our age or ethnicity?

When it comes down to it, are we able to receive ourselves, and each aspect of our limited existence, are we able to receive who and what we are as a gift from God, or do we experience our life or identity or personality as more of a burden? Now I don’t think any of us experience life perfectly one way or the other, as a great gift or as an unbearable burden, but we need to bring this to God in prayer when we experience the anxieties of life and the tensions between the reality that confronts us and our own desires and aspirations. To ask God for the faith and the trust, to be able to sincerely thank Him for all that He has done for us, for all that He is doing in us, and for the plan that He has for our life, to take us beyond even our own limited desires, beyond the limits of this world, into the true life of heaven.

Days and Discipline of Lent

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 8A

Every year around this time I hear discussions about how many days are really part of Lent or if Sundays are included, so I did the math to try and set the record straight, but it is not exactly clear-cut.

The first oddity we encounter is the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Now why would a season of the liturgical year start in the middle of the week? Most likely, this happened back when every day of Lent was a day of fasting, and fasting not in the loose sense of giving something up for Lent, but in the strict sense of eating only what is necessary to maintain strength and not eating between meals. The exception was always Sundays because in honor of the Resurrection, it was never thought appropriate to fast on Sundays or Solemnities. The six weeks of six days of fasting came out to 36 days, so they added the four days leading up to the First Sunday of Lent to make it an even 40 days of fasting.

So, for a long time there have actually been more than 40 days of Lent—46 total, if we include the six Sundays of Lent—but the current Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (1969) give us yet another way of counting the days. In paragraph 28, it says, “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper” on Holy Thursday. So according to current legislation, the Easter Triduum from the evening of Holy Thurday until the Vigil of Holy Saturday is not part of Lent. When we actually count the days, we end up with just shy of 44 days of Lent (less than 38 days if we leave out the Sundays, which the norms do not leave out). If this seems confusing to you, it should be. The four days that were originally added to make for 40 total days of fasting now seem to give us four extra days of Lent.

Regardless, we still talk about Lent having 40 days because this symbolically harkens back to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, after His baptism in the Jordan by John and before His public ministry. The number 40 also recalls the 40 years of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert out of slavery in Egypt.

Today, Catholics from the age of 18 until age 59 exclusive are still required to fast in the strict sense on just two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting on these days means limiting oneself to one full meal. Two additional smaller meals are allowed if necessary to maintain strength, but these smaller meals together should amount to less food than the full meal. Eating between meals is not allowed.

Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent are still days of abstinence from meat for all Catholics age 14 and older, but on these days the Church allows us fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments of any kind, even when these are made from animal fat.

As for our own Lenten practices, giving something up or doing something extra in the areas of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the Church does not legislate how we do these. You can decide to maintain them throughout the season of Lent, even on Sundays and Solemnities, as long as they are not in conflict with giving thanks for the Resurrection, or you can decide to take a break from them on the Sundays of Lent.

May the Holy Spirit lead you throughout the season of Lent, as He led our Lord Jesus in the desert.

Learning to Trust and Follow

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 6A

When I was studying in Rome, one of our professors was from Poland, and he talked about three different approaches to the role that the law has in people’s lives, as illustrated by the legal systems of three different countries. He said that in France, by and large, all things are allowed except what the law prohibits. And this is probably the healthiest approach for human beings. The law is there to point out the pitfalls and blind alleys, but otherwise allows for great freedom. The term ‘laissez-faire,’ live and let live, is French in origin. In Germany, however, the trend is that all things are prohibited except for what the law allows, so kind of the reverse, where the law exercises a lot more control over people’s lives. Now in Italy, the approach has been, instead, that all things are allowed, especially what the law prohibits.

In our own lives, because of the rebellion in our hearts, many of us can tend to have a very Italian approach to what we decide to do, and that telling us not to do something just makes us want to do it more. I think back to when I was a teenager—now to some of you, I probably still look like a teenager—but at that time, I often just couldn’t imagine that my parents had any idea of what they were talking about, at least when it came to understanding what I wanted or how I should live my life. Now it didn’t take me too long to figure out that my parents were actually right about a great many things, but how often do we question the wisdom of God’s Law for us and the teachings of our holy Mother Church? What would God know about what I’m going through, about my desires, and what it means to be human? What does the Catholic Church know about how I should live my life, or what will bring me happiness and fulfillment?

In the Gospel today, Jesus presents a very high standard for those who chose to follow Him in carrying out the fullness of God’s Law and wisdom. To help us avoid the pitfalls and blind alleys of this life, Jesus calls us to put away from our hearts not only sinful actions, but also those things that lead us into sin, the anger and resentment, lust and self-indulgence, boastfulness and deceit. But as St. Paul tells us, God’s Law is a mysterious and hidden wisdom, “not a wisdom of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.” So Jesus and His Church always call us beyond the standards of this passing world. 

Why should we listen? God knows us, and He knows what He made us for, and in Jesus Christ, He knows us intimately, from the inside, of what it means to be human, and of what our humanity is really capable of, through the power of His Holy Spirit. God knows that simply to follow the standards of this passing world can never truly satisfy us. God made us for more. God offers us more. Through the Catholic Church, which draws upon more than 2,000 years of human experience, God continues to call us on to something greater than what the world offers, and through the power of the Sacraments, God gives us the grace we need to truly follow Christ, even when it is difficult, even when we don’t fully understand. 

God grant that our hearts be opened in faith and trust, to the mysterious wisdom of His Law in the teachings of our loving Mother, the Catholic Church, to keep us clear from the pitfalls and blind alleys that the world offers us, so that we might reach, at last, our eternal home. 

The Sound of Silence

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 6A

During my time in college, one of the most interesting classes I ever had was a collaboration between the music department and the physics department. The class was titled “Musical Acoustics,” and it even counted as a lab science at the University of St. Thomas. We learned some music theory and how some of the first philosophers and mathematicians discovered the natural relationships between the different notes of a scale. We also looked at the evolution of different instruments and how their design affects the physics and quality of the sounds they produce. Every part of the class was interesting, but there is one topic that I still continue to think about on a regular basis: room acoustics.

Room acoustics deal with how sound travels and echoes within or between different spaces. Some materials and surfaces reflect sound while others absorb. The amount of sound that travels between different rooms of the same building and the sounds that come in from outside can make a huge difference in our lives. When I lived in dormitories, I often gave up on trying to sleep until things had settled down in the hallway or other rooms. During the mission trip in Belize, it became next to impossible to make myself heard while celebrating Mass in a church with only a metal roof during a torrential downpour. There are very few things that affect us and our relationships on a more regular basis, but many of us don’t really think about it.

Since taking the class, I am much more conscious of how sound travels and affects my own prayer life and the prayer of others. I often find myself battling with other people to keep the doors of the worship area closed when possible, to help dampen the sound entering from the narthex, which can get rather loud at times. The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves, especially through silence, for Holy Mass, this matchless moment of encounter with God. “Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in the adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 45).

Even if you think you don’t need silence, many of those around you do, and for many of us, our time in church might be some of the only silence we are able to get throughout the week, so please be considerate of your own spiritual life and of those around you. Silence has the effect of amplifying our interior life, raising to our awareness unspoken desires, important events and memories, but also hurts and frustrations. Many of us find it uncomfortable at first, but if we really want to bring to God and have him transform the deepest parts of ourselves and our existence, silence is one of the greatest helps. The Prophet Elijah was able to find God, not in the violent wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in “a light silent sound” (1 Kings 19:12).

God grant us the silence to be more aware of His Presence.

Job Performance Review

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 5A

My dad likes to give me a hard time. He says that because I started seminary right out of high school and now that I’m a priest, I’ve never actually had a real job. And sometimes, I tend to agree with him. I never had to go through an interview or give references to be appointed as parochial vicar here at Holy Spirit. And I’ve never sat down with the bishop to go through my job description and evaluate how things are going since I started here. During seminary, I had yearly evaluations and discussions of my progress in spiritual, pastoral, academic, and human formation, but now a lot of the formality of that process is no longer there. But I hope to continue to grow and be challenged and held accountable by God in my ministry and in my life of prayer.

The Gospel today challenges each one of us to take seriously the work and the mission that we have received from God as followers of Christ. “You are the salt of the earth.…You are the light of the world,” and “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” If you had to meet with God today, to evaluate your job performance as a Catholic Christian, how do you think you would do? I, for one, would probably be more than a little nervous. Am I really making good use of the time, talent, and treasure that God has entrusted to me, to bring glory to His Name? 

Our first reading from Isaiah provides us with the main outline of what we might call a job description for us as the light of the world. For a fuller description, we should call to mind all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. First, the corporal or physical works of mercy: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick or imprisoned, and to bury the dead. How often do I proclaim the Gospel of Christ by participating in these concrete acts of God’s mercy? When was the last time that I served at the Banquet or the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House, or visited someone in the hospital or nursing home, or even those in the prison? When was the last time I gave clothing to the poor, when I have so many clothes at home that I never really wear?

Next, the spiritual works of mercy can be even more challenging: to instruct the ignorant and advise those in doubt, to admonish sinners and to comfort the afflicted, to bear wrongs patiently and to forgive offenses willingly, and to pray for the living and the dead. How often do I really bear witness to God’s truth in the midst of a culture of relativism? To actually warn the sinner about his sin, to have enough concern for the good of his soul and enough courage to risk the tension of a conversation about those behaviors or choices that we recognize as unhealthy and unholy? Or how readily do we participate in workplace gossip without regard for the dignity of those that we talk about? How long do I hold onto grudges, instead of growing in real patience and forgiveness? 

Our world is in desperate need of the light of Christ. Our homes, our schools, our workplaces, every relationship, and every human being need the light of Christ. How well are we doing in our work and mission of spreading that light through these spiritual and corporal works of mercy? The mission entrusted to you by God is not about doing more here at the church. It’s not about being an usher, or an extraordinary minister of Communion, or a musician or choir member, or a reader, greeter or server, or any other of those good things that we might volunteer to do here at church. No. Your mission is to bring the light of Christ that you receive in the Word of God and in this Eucharist, to bring that light into the world, into your families, to your coworkers, into all your relationships, into every day and moment of your week, and to spread that light to everyone through the works of mercy.

God grant us the grace to be stirred into action, by the fire of the Holy Spirit, to stop waiting for someone else or for some other saint, but to become saints ourselves and fulfill our mission of bringing the light of Christ to everyone that we meet.