The Foundations of Our World

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 33B

Often, when we think of the ‘end times’ or hear people trying to predict when the end of the world will be, we think of earthquakes and other natural disasters, wars and violence, great tribulation, and signs in the sky, but a lot of these things have been happening more or less often ever since the world’s beginning. Every period of history has had its own fair share of signs of the end. So, speculation about when the end of world was going to be was never a very compelling concern to me. God alone knows the day and the hour, and that’s just fine. What was always much more of a concern—as I was growing up in junior high and high school—was what would happen to me if anything were to happen to my parents.

Being the youngest of nine kids, my parents were in their fifties, and to a teenager, that seemed pretty old. I didn’t think about it too often, and it wasn’t really a source of anxiety, but I did always pray that my parents would survive at least until I was out of high school. I was confident that God would always take care of me, no matter what, but I didn’t want to feel like a burden to anyone else or have to move away from the friends I already knew. At that stage in my life, even more than my own death, the death of my parents represented for me the end of the world, when everything I knew could change.

At the time of Jesus, the Jews and the early Christians associated several different events with the end of the world, monumental events when everything could change, including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Coming of their Messiah, the Christ of God. Now we also distinguish between the First Coming of Christ into the world at Christmas and His manifestation to Israel during His life, death, and Resurrection, and then the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead. But in the minds of Jesus’ contemporaries, all of these events were wrapped up together, in one concept of ‘the end of the world.’ So, in the Gospel, when we hear Jesus talking about the end times, we can often have trouble figuring out just which of these events He is specifically referring to.

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, God’s chosen dwelling place, represented the end of a world for the Jews, when they would no longer be able to offer animal sacrifice to the one true God. Jesus Himself becomes God’s definitive Temple and dwelling among men. Jesus talks about His own death and Resurrection as the destruction of this Temple that he will raise up in three days. As we hear in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus becomes the “one sacrifice for sins,” the “one offering” that “has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated,” making the animal sacrifices of the Jewish Temple obsolete, and changing the order of the world.

By his death and Resurrection, Jesus has made new heavens and a new earth. He himself becomes the New and Indestructible Temple. This is how he could say in the Gospel that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Just forty years after his own sacrifice on the Cross, the Jewish Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Instead of animal sacrifice, we are now called to put our faith in Jesus Christ, to depend upon His one perfect sacrifice, signified and made present to us at every Mass. “Heaven and earth”—as they were before the time of Jesus—have now passed away in a certain sense, but the Word of Christ will never pass away. We can depend upon it.

Now I should mention—in case anyone is still wondering—that both of my parents are still alive and well, and this is well after my finishing high school and going through eight years of seminary and three years in the priesthood. But a good question for us to reflect on today is, what are the things or the events that we associate with the end of our own world? What are the things that could happen to me, that—even if the rest of the world continues to go on around me—I would be shaken to my foundations? What do we fear, perhaps even more than our own death? In light of what we see so often on the news and even some aspects of our own culture that make it more and more difficult to live the truth in our daily lives, we might fear the end of many of the freedoms and securities that we have taken for granted, an end of independence and the free exchange of ideas.

For many of us, especially in our individualistic culture, independence is the main issue, the main thing that we have come to depend on, and we find it very difficult to have to depend on others. More than anything else, we fear feeling like a burden to those around us. My sense is that this is one of the most difficult aspects of aging or chronic illness, having to give up certain areas of our independence and rely on others for help. Independence can be a very good thing, but the reality is, at different stages of our life, we need to be able to depend on others, and we always depend upon God. Faith is fundamentally a surrender to our dependence on God, dependence upon His Truth and His love for us, so if we struggle with this and feel like a burden, God is inviting us to a deeper faith, a more profound surrender to His providence in our lives. A sudden illness or accident, or even the gradual effects of aging that leave us unable to do what we could once do on our own, can seem like the end of the world to us, but these can also be opportunities to deepen our relationships, to surrender in faith and in love.

The image of St. Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet is a good image for our pride and stubbornness at times. The Scriptures today invite us to a deeper faith, to have Christ as the unshakable foundation of our world and of our lives. To accept His one sacrifice for our sins, and to allow Jesus to bear us as His burden and to feed us with His own Flesh and Blood. As we surrender to a deeper communion with Christ in this Eucharist, he also draws us into greater communion with one another. Don’t be afraid of letting go and of letting others love you. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all the family of God. Receive the love of God through the people around you, so that you will be able to love in return.

In all circumstances, Give Thanks…

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 33B

As we know from the story that’s usually told of the first Thanksgiving Day on this continent, so often it is only through various trials and sufferings that we come to better appreciate all that we have been given. Not having enough can help us appreciate all the times when we have more than enough, rather than taking things for granted. 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 really help us to appreciate them in a new way.

This was definitely my experience of having to celebrate Thanksgiving Day for four years as I studied 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 actually 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 it around the borders of 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 privilege of living in the greatest country in the world, these United States. We thank God especially for the gift of our Catholic faith, for which so many have lived and died to hand it 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 this Thanksgiving, and may Jesus bring us all one day beyond our trials and the exile of this life into our heavenly home.

Beyond Our Human Limits

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 32B

During this past summer, I went on a hiking trip with some Confirmation students and a few other chaperones to Bear Trap Ranch near Colorado Springs. On one of our longer hikes, I was talking with one of the students about running, and he mentioned a camp that he had gone to for wrestling and how he’d managed to run something close to a half marathon. Before going to that camp, he never would have thought that he could run that far, but the main theme of the camp was to reach—and then to push beyond—their own physical limitations. Most of us like to stay in a sort of comfort zone that we set up for ourselves, and to always have plenty in reserve, whether that’s effort or energy or time. We’re comfortable with things that come easily to us, things that don’t require our full effort or undivided attention. Most of us don’t really enjoy reaching our limits, having our weaknesses exposed, even if just to ourselves. There’s always that doubt and fear at the back of our minds. What if my best still isn’t good enough? What if I give everything I have, my full effort, all that I’m capable of, and still come up short?

The Scripture readings today present to us two women, two widows who have reached their own limits but are able to respond to God’s invitation to go beyond. The widow in our first reading is interrupted as she is preparing for what she thinks will be the very last meal that she’ll share with her son. She’ll use the very last bit of flour and oil in the house and be left with nothing. But a stranger comes along and asks for a drink of water, and that she prepare something for him to eat before she makes something for herself and her son. This widow, who was actually not part of God’s chosen people, not an Israelite, she steps out in faith to follow Elijah’s instructions, even to put her own life and last meal on the line. She believes that the prophet’s God can provide even as her own resources are on the verge of running dry.

The widow in the Gospel steps out in faith as well. Jesus tells us that the people making large contributions to the Temple still have plenty for themselves left in reserve, giving “from their surplus wealth.” But with the two small coins of the widow, she “has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” She believes that God Himself will provide what she truly needs, taking her beyond the limits of her own circumstances.

How does our own faith compare to the faith and trust of these poor widows? Do we ever risk anything in believing, in professing the Catholic faith? How often do we venture towards the limits of our comfort zones and risk coming up short, needing to depend on God or others for help? Or do we always just play it safe, comfortable in our own self-sufficiency? If getting acquainted with and pushing beyond our physical limitations sounds intimidating—discovering that we can only do 12 push-ups, jog for 60 seconds, and be left wheezing for a lot longer—getting acquainted with and pushing beyond our spiritual limitations and fears is a much more exciting and important task for us.

When we’ve given everything we have, our full effort, all our resources, and still come up short, when our very best still doesn’t seem good enough, God is still there. Do we really believe that God can provide flour and oil till the end of the drought? Do we really believe that Jesus can multiply five loaves and two fish to feed thousands? God is never outdone in generosity. When we reach our limits and think that we can’t take another step, God invites us to step out in faith, even as he invited the poor widows. What is our response? Where is our faith? Do we trust in our own comfort and security, or do we believe in the power of God who can do all things? As we come to this Eucharist, to witness the Body of Christ given for us upon this altar, the Blood of Christ poured out for our salvation, the Sacrifice that obtained for us Rising from the dead, may God cast out from our hearts and minds all fear and doubt. That we may respond by giving ourselves entirely to God, who has given Himself—without limit—to us.

God First

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 31B

We live in an Information Age, constantly bombarded with endless words, images, and competing ideas. I vaguely remember a time when cell phones were actually used primarily for making phone calls, and as I was growing up at home, we still had a couple sets of encyclopedias, which many people younger than I have probably never seen. Before the days of Wikipedia, when you had a question about something, instead of “Googling it” or asking Alexa or Siri, we would actually take a book off the shelf and try to find it alphabetically. In the sea of information available to us today with the Internet always at our fingertips or in our pockets, we can definitely understand the motivation for the scribe’s question to Jesus in today’s Gospel. What’s the main point? Could you narrow it down for us? What’s the most relevant information for me? What am I going to have to remember for the test? “What is the first of all the commandments?”

At the same time, though, the scribe’s question should also seem kind of odd or just too obvious, to us and to any of the Jews that lived in his own time. He asks, What’s the first commandment? We immediately think of the 10 Commandments written on stone tablets, maybe recalling the scene from one of the many movies that have been made about the Exodus. And the Jews of his own day would have thought of the same thing. Though they hadn’t seen the movies, they’d heard the story of Moses and the Exodus many times from their parents and in the Temple and the synagogues. And of course, the first of the 10 Commandments is this: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall not have any strange gods before me.”

But the scribe has seen and heard that Jesus rarely gives the standard or expected response. And so the scribe wants to know, from this One who teaches with authority and who has no bias for anyone’s social status, how would Jesus answer this question? Instead of replying with the first of the 10 Commandments, Jesus quotes one of the laws from the Book of Deuteronomy. The center and motivation of our response to God, what’s most important, is love, and that we love God totally, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And Jesus goes on to give a bonus answer of the second greatest commandment: to “love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Now it should seem rather obvious, but it’s important that we keep the first commandment as the first and our greatest responsibility, and to keep the second as the second. Total love of God is more important than anything else, and love for our neighbor is next on the list. So many of the disorders and unhealthy patterns in our own lives, so much of the dysfunction in our relationships and in our families, these stem directly from placing love for myself above my love for God or neighbor. Or I place love for my neighbor, for what others might think of me or trying to please everyone around me, I place these concerns above my love for God, and I end up being unfaithful to God to please and to keep false peace with my neighbor.

A common misconception that’s been around for quite a long time says that we can love God only through loving our neighbor. This is false and has led to major problems even within the Church. We need both, love of God and love of neighbor, and we can’t really have one without the other, but they’re not always the same thing, and our love for God needs to come first. If we’re not setting aside time and energy each day just for prayer, for silence, to be alone in the presence of our God, our relationship with Him will not be what it needs to be, and all our other relationships suffer. God is First. And when He’s not, everything else is affected and becomes disordered.

Now even if we give God, let’s be generous and say that we even give Him two and a half hours every Sunday, that’s still less than 1.5% of our entire week. Not quite loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Each and every day, do we wake up and say to God, “Lord, I give this day to you. Whatever good I am able to do, whatever happens, whatever I have to suffer, I offer or endure it for love of You”? We are Catholic Christians not just on Saturdays or Sundays, but also on Tuesdays, and every other day of the week. The relationship we have with God should affect what we do every day, how we conduct ourselves in the workplace, in the classroom, on sports teams, in music and the arts, in the grocery store, even in heavy and incompetent traffic on the road. Do we live differently because we know Jesus Christ and because He knows us? Do we actually put God first in our lives, or is He relegated to second, third, or fourth?

What can we start doing this week to help us remember God in our daily lives? Maybe something as simple as starting each day with the Morning Offering: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”

The One Goal of Human Life

Homily, Solemnity of All Saints

It always seemed 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, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For us—for every human being—for those who lived thousands of years ago, whose names and actions are completely forgotten on earth, our life is meaningful and has lasting significance only to the extent that we live in relationship with Jesus Christ, who is our Resurrection. The meaning of life is for us to live forever, but not here. Not on earth, but in heaven. And to live forever with God is worth any sacrifice.

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 entered into eternal life with God 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 filled with one failure after another, whether they were poor or rich, man or woman, girl or boy, powerful, influential, and famous, or known only to a few other people, 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? Is there any point, any really lasting significance? 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 keeps you from living for God? We get one shot at this life. Let’s not hold anything back.