Greater than St. John the Baptist

Homily, Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Summer is officially here, and I hope you’ve been able to spend more time outside to enjoy the longer daylight, at least when it hasn’t been raining. Last Sunday, I got my first sunburn of the year on the back of my hands as I rode the 20 miles of the bike path. But it was just this past Thursday, June 21, that was actually the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day here in Sioux Falls, we had almost 15 and a half hours of daylight. But now from June 21 until December 21, daylight hours will be shortening again each day. Today, we celebrate the birthday of St. John the Baptist, the birthday of the one who said of Christ, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” And, of course, six months from now, we will celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, just when daylight hours will begin to increase once more. John was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light, to point out to us and to all Israel the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Light coming into the world that enlightens everyone.

Later in the Gospel, Jesus will also bear witness about John. He says that there is no one born of woman who was greater than John the Baptist. John became the greatest of the prophets, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare a people for the Lord, and to serve as a sort of bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. All the other prophets before him pointed to Jesus in various ways, through the things that they said, through hints and promises that pointed far into the future, but John is the one who was able to point with his own finger and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” This Man right in front of you, whom you can see and touch, upon whom I saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain, this One is the Messiah that the world has been waiting for. This One is the answer to all of our prayers, the answer to all of God’s promises, the Savior of the world. “I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of His feet.”

John the Baptist was a great prophet, even the greatest of prophets, but Jesus also says that you and I, every baptized Christian is even greater than John the Baptist. Listen to the rest of what Jesus says: “Among those born of women, there is no one greater than John the Baptist, but even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John” (Cf. Lk. 7:28; Mt. 11:11). What does this mean? John was born naturally of a woman, from his mother Elizabeth. But those who enter the kingdom of God are born again, supernaturally, through water and the Holy Spirit, in the Sacrament of Baptism.

We become members of the Body of Christ, sons and daughters of the Most High God, sacred dwellings of the Holy Spirit in our own bodies. And we are called and able to be even greater prophets in our own day. To invite many others to share our Catholic faith, to invite them to Mass, to point with our own fingers to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and say to every longing heart, “Behold, the Lamb of God. Behold him, who takes away the sins of the world.” To everyone who is tired, and bored, and frustrated with all that world offers them or what the world demands of them, we say with John the Baptist: Behold Jesus, your Savior, who takes away every burden and gives true life and freedom to all who are willing to follow Him.

In the scheme of things, our lives are very short, and they will have meaning and lasting value only insofar as we bear witness to Christ with our lives and strive to truly follow Him. “He must increase; I must decrease.” Heaven is everlasting, and hell is also everlasting. Which one are you choosing, by the decisions you make every day? As we celebrate the birthday of St. John the Baptist, let’s not ignore his central message. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Embrace Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church, so that by your truly Christian way of life, you may become prophets even greater than John the Baptist in our own day.

Letting God Drive

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 11B

Patience is a virtue. We’ve all probably heard this saying, and at some point, we’ve probably been annoyed at someone for saying it. We usually hear it in situations that make us feel impatient and angry. I’ve often wondered what it is about driving here in Sioux Falls that is such a test of patience. Usually, I think it’s because of all the other drivers on the road, because obviously, I know how to drive, but I can’t control the actions of the people in the other cars. I’m in control of my own vehicle, but almost constantly, traffic lights and other drivers present themselves as obstacles between me and my destination. On the road, I’m constantly confronted with factors that are out of my control.

In our Gospel today, Jesus presents the farmer as the model of patience. After whatever preparations he is able to make for the seed and the soil, at some point he is left waiting, at the mercy of so many elements outside his control, waiting for signs of the imperceptible growth that only God can provide. In those parts of our state and areas of the world where irrigation is still limited, if it doesn’t rain, there’s not much the farmer can do to force the plants to grow. And even when they do grow, there’s the threat of hail and wind and disease and pestilence that can destroy crops fairly quickly. There’s a natural appreciation for providence and plenty of opportunities for exercising patience for those who live close to the land. At the rectory, Fr. Smith has been trying his hand at some gardening. And whether it’s birds that come and leave empty shells or people that pull up good plants, it has not been a good year for sunflowers.

As in the life of the farmer, the kingdom of God and growth in the spiritual life often comes through patient acceptance and cooperation with forces that are outside our control, growth that God provides invisibly, underneath the surface, through the many trials and crosses of this life. In our first reading today, the Prophet Ezekiel was writing during one of the most difficult times in Israel’s history, the Babylonian exile. The leaders of God’s people had been forcibly taken away from the promised land. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. They found themselves unable to live out their faith the way they wanted to, the way that God Himself had commanded them to by sacrifice.

Yet through this trial, God promises that He is preparing something even greater. Not only will He restore Israel, but all the nations of the world will be gathered to the Lord under the branches of the tree of life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that when He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself. First, Jesus was lifted, upon the wood of the Cross, the New Tree of Life, freely submitting Himself to suffering and death for our sake, to gather the nations under the branches and standard of His Cross. Still today, Jesus is lifted up at each and every Mass, to draw each one of us to His Eucharistic Heart, as He feeds us with His own Body and Blood.

But who would have survived, to return from the Babylonian exile, if the Jews had not trusted in God’s mysterious and difficult plans? If instead they had constantly rebelled and started wars and insurrections, to try and free themselves from their captors, instead of waiting on God’s time and His deliverance, how many—do you suppose—would have ever made it back to Jerusalem? How often do we rebel against the trials and crosses of our lives and refuse to accept them with patience, even when God is trying to bring us new life through them?

I often think of parents trying to teach their children to drive, and how stressful that can be. It often feels like that, when we finally allow God to sit in the driver’s seat of our lives. When we start to see where God is taking us, we want to slam on the breaks, grab the wheel, and say, “No, God, not that way!” God is still too young and inexperienced to hand over the reins completely. But no matter how many times we’ve refused Him in the past, God still wants to give us the grace and strength to really trust Him, to be able to relax and enjoy the ride, no matter how rough it gets.

Today, I invite us to try and identify just one rough area of our life that God has been trying to get us to go through but that we’ve resisted. Perhaps it’s an area of sin that we’ve grown comfortable with; maybe it’s a relationship that has become easier to avoid, a conversation with someone that we should have had a long time ago, an area of excess that God has been calling us to simplify. Jesus, draw us to Yourself in this Eucharist. Help us to fully trust in Your direction for our lives, to grow in real patience, to know—in a new way—that God’s will is our peace.

Louder than Words

By St. Anthony of Padua, priest and doctor

The man who is filled with the Holy Spirit speaks in different languages. These different languages are different ways of witnessing to Christ, such as humility, poverty, patience and obedience; we speak in those languages when we reveal in ourselves these virtues to others. Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak. We are full of words but empty of actions, and therefore are cursed by the Lord, since he himself cursed the fig tree when he found no fruit but only leaves. Gregory says: “A law is laid upon the preacher to practice what he preaches.” It is useless for a man to flaunt his knowledge of the law if he undermines its teaching by his actions.

But the apostles spoke as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. Happy the man whose words issue from the Holy Spirit and not from himself! For some men speak as their own character dictates, but steal the words of others and present them as their own and claim the credit for them. The Lord refers to such men and others like them in Jeremiah: So, then, I have a quarrel with the prophets that steal my words from each other. I have a quarrel with the prophets, says the Lord, who have only to move their tongues to utter oracles. I have a quarrel with the prophets who make prophecies out of lying dreams, who recount them and lead my people astray with their lies and their pretensions. I certainly never sent them or commissioned them, and they serve no good purpose for this people, says the Lord.

We should speak, then, as the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of speech. Our humble and sincere request to the Spirit for ourselves should be that we may bring the day of Pentecost to fulfillment, insofar as he infuses us with his grace, by using our bodily senses in a perfect manner and by keeping the commandments. Likewise we shall request that we may be filled with a keen sense of sorrow and with fiery tongues for confessing the faith, so that our deserved reward may be to stand in the blazing splendor of the saints and to look upon the triune God.

From the Office of Readings for June 13

Lord or Lunatic?

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 10B

Growing up as the youngest in my family, many of my siblings had already moved away to college or finished school by the time I was entering high school. I always wonder how many of them still today just think of me as a little kid and how many of them really understand my vocation to the priesthood. Maybe they just think I have a particular interest in churchy stuff, the way my other siblings might have an interest in computers or sports. Or how we all excelled in mathematics, I just liked to pray more or spend more time in church. But a vocation is much more like how Jesus describes it in the Gospels. The kingdom of God is like someone who finds a treasure buried in a field and out of joy sells everything that he has to buy that field, or like a merchant in search of fine pearls who, upon finding a pearl of great price, sells everything out of joy to buy that pearl. 

Now to the outside observer, the actions taken by the person who sells everything to buy a field or a pearl, these don’t look like the actions of a sane or well-balanced person. For the Apostles who left everything to follow Christ, this was not just their area of interest or a passing phase. When they met this strange man called Jesus from Nazareth, they were changed. Life could not back to the way it used to be. They could keep fishing, but not the way they did before. Their thoughts would always wander back to that Jesus. Who is He? What is it that is so strange about Him, that they had never seen in anyone else before? 

Now imagine growing up as a neighbor or relative of Jesus for the thirty years He spent in Nazareth, working quietly as a carpenter alongside St. Joseph. Then, all of a sudden, you begin to hear rumors that Jesus has left His home and begun to gather followers. He’s performing great miracles and healings. That’s where our Gospel passage begins today. “Jesus came home with his disciples. Again the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul.’”  

In his book called Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argues that based on the Gospel accounts and the other Scriptures, Jesus can be only one of three things: Lord, liar, or lunatic. Apparently, in the Gospel we hear today, the jury was still out but was leaning heavily toward this last option, saying that Jesus was “out of his mind” or “possessed.” The option that Lewis says we don’t have is to view Jesus merely as a good teacher among many others, taking some of what Jesus says but leaving aside what seems too difficult or too extreme. But if Jesus is God, if He is truly the Lord, then He deserves full acceptance, the re-orientation of our entire lives, how we work or go to school and all our other relationships need to change, not just something we happen to do on Sundays just to forget about it during the rest of the week. 

If Jesus is not God, while clearly claiming to be, then he would not be a good teacher. He is either actively trying to deceive us, or he is delusional himself. These are the options that the Gospel leaves us. Many of His contemporaries dismissed Jesus as a liar or as a lunatic, to avoid the difficulties and demands of what He preached, so that they could continue along without making any real changes in their daily lives or in their relationships. How often in our own lives do we dismiss or ignore the teachings of the Church that Jesus founded and guides by His Holy Spirit?  

You’ll hear many voices in the world today, saying things like this: The Catholic Church is certifiably nuts or anti-science or behind the times to believe that marriage is only possible between one man and one woman, even that God created us male and female, and our identity is something received rather than chosen for ourselves. To believe that participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on every Sunday and holyday of obligation is a serious and indispensable duty toward God, that marriage is the only proper context for sexual relations, and that contraception is a serious offence against marriage and leads to abortion. To believe that drunkenness and recreational drug use are serious offences against our own health and dignity. And the list could go on… 

Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), but when we’re the ones engaged in some of those same works, Jesus and His Church can seem like a threat to us. How long before we are finally able to trust that Jesus is who He says He is, to take Him at His word? To know that Jesus came to bring us a more abundant life, to set us free from all that would enslave us, to give us the peace and the joy that the world cannot give. To allow the great wisdom of the Church’s perennial teachings to guide every aspect of our lives. How much longer will we go our own way, forge our own path against God and against the truth that He reveals, to deal with the same frustrations time and again, never learning from our mistakes? Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Lord. He deserves full acceptance and the gift of our entire lives. What is your response? 

Back to the Ordinary…

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 10B

Kids sometimes ask me what my favorite color is, or, more specifically, whether my favorite color is black. I readily understand why that might be their guess, but despite its being the overwhelmingly dominant color of my wardrobe, black has never really been my favorite color. When I was younger, I always remember red being my favorite color, but for a long time my favorite has been either orange or green, and now, if pressed to decide on one or the other, I usually say that it is green. I’m never really sure why these have been my favorite colors, but the reds and oranges of a sunset may be one explanation, and each spring, I marvel at the simple beauty of a green field and green trees.

During the past month, we’ve continued to observe the resurgence of so much that is green, on the branches of trees, and in lawns, gardens, and fields, perhaps some that we’d rather not see in dandelions and thistles. We’ve also seen a return of green vestments after Pentecost. Ordinary Time is named for the ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) that we use to designate the Sundays and weeks, 34 being the total number of weeks possible for Ordinary Time, outside the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The normal color for this longest period of the liturgical year is green.

I’ve always suspected that the reasoning behind using green is that it is the color of most plants and reminds us of the silent but gradual growth and development that we are called to imitate, especially as we go about our daily lives. Special graces and growth spurts may occur in our physical and spiritual lives, especially during the special feasts and seasons of the year, but most growth in nature and in grace is gradual and comes through fidelity in the most ordinary aspects of life, in a commitment to daily prayers, to quality time with family and friends, to exercise, rest, good food, water, and air, not necessarily in that order.

Green plants can also be excellent models of receptivity and fruitfulness. I remember learning in school about why plants are green. Chlorophyll is the name for the green pigments that plants contain to make use of the sun’s energy. Pretty much all the energy that we use on earth has its ultimate origin in the sun’s rays, and green plants have the ability to harness that energy. Similarly, all grace and supernatural energy comes to us through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, also called by the early Christians, “the Sun of justice…with healing in his rays” (Malachi 3:20 or 4:2). In Christian art, green was also the color for hope. During this graced season of Ordinary Time, may God grant us perseverance in what is truly of first importance as we go about our daily lives, that we might receive the healing rays of the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, and grow in all the virtues so that our hope may one day bear fruit in eternal life.

Purchased for God

Homily, Corpus Christi B

When was it that you gave your life to God? When were you saved? As Catholics, we don’t often ask these questions. They’re much more common among other Christians, but it’s helpful for us to reflect on what our answers would be. Have you given your life to God? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? One answer would be: at our baptism. At least that’s where it began for most of us. Even if we were infants, at our baptism, we began to participate, to take part in the life, death, and Resurrection, in the whole saving mystery of Jesus Christ. We were washed clean in His Most Precious Blood. But as we grow and develop as human beings, our faith and our response of faith need to grow and mature as well. When we’re able to think for ourselves and to make free choices and our own decisions, do we use that freedom to recommit ourselves to Christ, or do we stop following Jesus in any tangible way?

A few years ago, I attended a Catholic youth conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, with 43 young people from Sioux Falls. During one of the talks, the speaker led those of us who were willing, in a prayer and pledge, to stand and commit our lives to Jesus Christ. He warned us not to do this lightly, not to just do it because of the people around us, and not to feel pressured into it, but he invited us to freely commit our lives to Christ, if God had prepared us to do so at that time. Now this was a great thing, and a powerful moment for many who felt they had never really done something like that before, and we need to renew our commitment to Christ time and again in our own words or in words that we find fitting for the occasion.

But, as I listened to the speaker emphasize the seriousness of making this commitment to Christ, I couldn’t help but to find myself asking: Don’t we realize, as Catholics, that this is exactly what we’re doing, every time we go to Mass, recommitting our lives to Jesus Christ? Granted, it’s a serious thing to stand and speak your commitment to Christ at a youth conference, but I would say, it’s a more serious thing to become witnesses and participants in the eternal, saving sacrifice of the Son of God, renewed for us at every Mass upon this altar. And much more serious still is to come forward for Communion, to say “Amen, I believe,” to the very Body of Christ, and to receive Jesus Himself, the Holy One of God, into our own bodies.

Whether we realize it or not, in coming to Mass and in receiving Holy Communion, our actions and words make the proclamation that we belong to Jesus Christ, that we have been purchased at a price, ransomed for God by the Blood of His Son. We no longer belong to ourselves but to Him who died and rose again for our salvation. That’s what our words and actions proclaim at every Holy Communion, whether we realize it or not. Do we realize it? Is Jesus in the Eucharist truly the source and summit of our entire lives, or are we just mouthing the words, going through the motions?

Do we realize that when we stand together and profess the Creed on Sundays, when we stand and say together, “I believe in one God,” when we profess the faith of the Universal Church, the same faith for which thousands of martyrs gave up their property, freedom, and life, do we realize that we recommit ourselves to God in that moment and are meant to cling to that faith with the same fidelity as the martyrs who shed their blood for it? Do we realize that when we offer the bread and wine at Mass—and it’s not just the priest who offers the bread and wine, but the priest together with and on behalf of everyone here and of all the Church—that when we offer the bread and wine, we also offer our work, our joys, our sufferings, all our cares from throughout the week, and our very lives to be placed upon this altar, to be united to the one sacrifice of Christ, signified and made present here?

Do we realize what we do at each and every Mass? Do we say what we mean and mean what we say at Mass? Or do we just go through the motions? When we’re young or new at it, it’s important that we learn what to do and what to say during the Mass, the right responses and the postures and everything else, but as we grow and develop and are able to think and act intelligently, do we become more aware of what it is we’re actually saying and doing, or are we still infants in our faith? Do we pay attention to the words and prayers of the Mass, so that we can understand what we’re doing, and pray intentionally, or are we just waiting for it to be over?

All of us here, decided to be at this Mass today. We each decided more or less freely, and perhaps for various reasons, but we’re here now, so be here. Be present to what we’re doing here, to the prayers and actions and what it is that they mean. At every Mass, Jesus makes Himself really present to us. The question for us is: Are we really present to Him?

Just this past Thursday, across the parking lot, Bishop Swain blessed the chapel of the new monastery and dedicated the altar. In a very visible, tangible way, as a diocese and as a parish, we are recommitting ourselves to Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist by providing a home and proper monastery to these Perpetual Adoration Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. This is an opportunity for all of us to rediscover the power of prayer and devotion to Jesus, present in every tabernacle of the world. Jesus is calling each one of us to spend time with Him. Are we willing to stop and listen to His voice, or are we just too busy for the One who redeems us with His own Blood?

The “Holy” Catholic Church: the Church Sanctifying

Apse of Monastery Chapel in Clyde, MO, Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration

By Msgr. Ronald Knox

We must consider the … holiness of the Church. Here we are in a somewhat more embarrassing position when we start arguing with our friends outside the Church; they’re so apt to expect rather too much, aren’t they? The usual explanation the books give … is that “holiness” in the Church is proved partly by the continuance of miracles within her fold, and partly by the existence of the religious orders, with their special cult of perfection. The Church (we are told) has her ups and downs, her bad patches here and there, but we’ve still got Lourdes and we’ve still got Carmel.

I’ve no quarrel with that explanation, but I think you can put the thing rather more simply in this way—Christians of any other denomination, if they describe that denomination as “holy” at all (which they very seldom do), are referring in fact to the individual holiness of its members. Whereas when we talk about the Holy Catholic Church we aren’t thinking, precisely, of the holiness of its members. We think of the Church as sanctifying its members, rather than being sanctified by its members. Sanctity—what a hard thing it is to define! There is a kind of bouquet of mystery about Catholic ceremonial, there is a kind of familiarity about the attitude of Catholics towards death and what lies beyond death, there is a patient acceptance of little oddnesses and inconveniences about the practice of religion, which you don’t find outside the Church itself.

As quoted in Daily Readings in Catholic Classics, edited by Fr. Rawley Myers