Keep Your Distance, but Stay Close to God

Bulletin Letter, Lenten Sunday 4A

Even as we are told not to gather in groups of more than 10 people to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19, and as opportunities for physical participation in the Church’s liturgy are not as readily available, we must strive all the more to draw close to God. Today, there are more resources than ever to keep us connected as a community of faith through the daily Mass readings (Magnificat has made their publication free online and on your phone), watching Mass online or on EWTN and the Bishop’s Sunday TV Mass, reading and studying the Scriptures and catechism in our homes, praying the Rosary and other devotions, spiritual reading, and making acts of Spiritual Communion.

Back in 1918 during the Spanish flu, when churches were closed and public gatherings canceled, there were not nearly as many resources available to the faithful of that time to remain connected and to grow in knowledge and love of their faith. I am hopeful that this time of reduced physical presence will be an opportunity for our desire and appreciation to grow. Many other areas of the world routinely have less access to Mass and the sacraments due to persecution or priests being spread too thin. We take a lot for granted, so I pray that this temporary absence will make our hearts grow fonder and more thankful.

Christ tells us, Pray at all times, without becoming weary (Luke 18:1). This is still possible and even more critically important when we are not able to gather together with the other members of our parish family. Mindful of God’s presence in each moment and situation, making frequent visits to His Presence in our tabernacles, and striving to bring all our thoughts, words, and actions into line with His saving will, we can deepen our spiritual lives and grow in grace and virtue even during these difficult times.

On a practical note, I still hope to keep something of my regular routine, to be in Hoven’s rectory from Monday evening until Wednesday evening each week and in Bowdle on Thursdays and Fridays. Confessions will still be available—as long as everyone is able to keep sufficient space between them in the pews—though the times may need modifying. Let’s plan on 10 am each Sunday in Bowdle and 6 pm every Monday in Hoven, for however long public Masses are suspended.

Take heart, dear ones. The Lord is with us still. It promises to be a very unique Lent and Easter this year, but it can also be one of the most grace-filled if we choose to use this time well.

Louder than Words

Homily, Lenten Sunday 2A

Usually when people find out that I spent close to four years in Italy during my studies for the priesthood, they often assume that I must be pretty good at Italian. And while I did study the language for a while and tried to become conversant, I actually didn’t have much occasion for using Italian during my time there. I mostly lived among other Americans, Canadians, and Australians, and the theology classes I took were all in English. So beyond being able to understand a bit when someone else is speaking Italian and being able to pronounce the words correctly, speaking it myself is much more challenging. Then there’s often the follow-up question, “Well, didn’t you have to speak it when you would travel or go to the store or restaurants? Or just walking around Rome?” But the thing is, even when I’m here in the United States, I’m not really in the habit of using much English when buying things or ordering food or traveling. So over in Italy I became even more fluent in pointing.

Some psychologists have suggested that in certain situations up to 90% of human communication is nonverbal. That just to see a transcript and text of the words that we speak is sometimes only about 10% of what we’re actually saying. There’s gesture, posture, facial expression, tone of voice, even what we choose to wear, all these things can be involved and can be very important in communication, even beyond just the words that we say.

The Gospel we just heard of the Transfiguration of Jesus involves a lot of nonverbal communication. Have we ever thought much about what God was saying to the Apostles and to us when the face of Jesus began to shine like the sun and His clothes became white as light? What was being communicated to us as God sends Moses and Elijah to speak with Jesus? St. Matthew doesn’t even bother to tell us what they were discussing, just that the great messenger of God’s Law along with the greatest of Israel’s prophets spoke with Jesus, who was shining like the sun. And a bright cloud overshadowed them, the cloud of God’s glory and presence, most likely the same cloud we hear about leading the Israelites out of Egypt, looking like a cloud by day and a pillar of fire during the night. The only words St. Matthew records from God the Father are, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” But God is communicating throughout the events of the Transfiguration, not just when speaks with human words.

The same is true for all of us and for the Liturgy of the Mass. There are many signs, gestures, postures that communicate without using words. Kneeling says something different than sitting or standing. Yesterday evening in Hoven, we had the great joy of celebrating the First Holy Communion of two of our members. And in preparing them for that day and going through the rehearsal with them and their mothers, I thought it would be a great opportunity and occasion for them to receive Holy Communion in the same way as so many of our ancestors did until very recently. So when the time came, they both came up and knelt at the Communion rail, which is actually what it’s there for.

Still today, when I’ve spoken with those who remember the days when the only way to receive Holy Communion was while kneeling—for those who were physically able to kneel—and on the tongue, you can tell that it made a lasting impression on them, even if they were too young at the time to explain much of it. But they could tell that this was different, and so many of the nonverbal cues communicated to them that this was different from ordinary food. Even just to have another person feed you, to place food directly in your mouth is rather strange for those of us old enough—or young enough—to feed ourselves. And those who remember could tell that this was something, some One so special and precious and sacred, that Jesus was only ever placed on gold plates, in gold vessels, only ever handled directly by a priest, who had studied for six or more years to be able to say the Mass and to forgive sins.

Now I’m not giving anyone permission to watch and look around at how other people are receiving Holy Communion or to make judgments about them either positively or negatively. Hopefully all of us are concentrating more on the One we’re about to receive than on what everyone else is doing. But we shouldn’t be afraid as Catholics to ask the question, objectively speaking, Are some nonverbals better than others at communicating what we really believe about Jesus, present in the Eucharist? Are there gestures, postures, acts of reverence that are more effective at signaling to ourselves, reminding ourselves, and even signaling to non-Catholics that what we’re doing when it comes time for Holy Communion is something very different than waiting in line at the store for a free sample?

It’s been in the news that a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center concluded that only about 30% of Catholics in the United States actually believe that at Mass the bread and wine are changed and become the Body and Blood of Christ. 30%. Now even if it wasn’t a perfect survey, even if the real figure would be something even twice that amount at 60%, it really ought to be 100%. And if the only thing we’re willing to change in our approach to communicating about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist are the words that we use, if we’re not conscious about how we’re communicating or not communicating nonverbally, we end up obscuring the light of Christ. We prevent Him from shining like the sun to those who need His light. The glory of God wants to shine out of us not only in our words but in all our thoughts and actions. May all that we think, say, and do proclaim to the world, “This Jesus is our beloved Savior and Lord. Listen to Him.”

Walking Together Towards God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 7A

As I think back on my childhood, I have lots of memories at the dinner table. Some are pleasant memories; many are not so pleasant. I remember many evenings just sitting there, not allowed to leave the table until my plate was clean, looking with hatred upon the broccoli or beets or peas or carrots that still remained. I knew they would probably taste worse the longer I waited and the colder they got, but still I would sit there, brace myself, and plug my nose for every bite. As I look back on it now, vegetables are one of my favorite foods, but it took time, experience, and greater understanding for me to come to really appreciate them.

In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, to love even our enemies, and one of the things that holds us back most from love is a lack of understanding. When I was young, no matter how many times my parents told us how important it was to eat our vegetables, I just couldn’t understand how something so foul-tasting could be good for us. My perspective was limited. My experience was limited. So let’s say someone asks you to carry something for them for a mile, or to give them your coat. And maybe it’s someone you’ve met before. Someone you don’t like. Unless we actually try to view things from their perspective rather than our own, to understand why they’re asking something from us, we’re not gonna be very willing to help. If I just limit myself to my own small perspective and what’s familiar to me in my own limited experience, without striving to really understand the other, even those with whom I disagree, even my enemies, I’m not going to be able to love in the way that Jesus is calling me to love.

Now, as the pastor here, I might make adjustments—and I already have—to how the Mass is celebrated here, maybe to the music, and to how our sacred spaces are utilized, and I haven’t always communicated well the reasons for some of these changes, to help you understand my own perspective and the wider perspective of the Church’s tradition. Part of the challenge is finding a time to talk about these things with the whole parish. If I write in the bulletin, not everybody reads that, and if I’m waiting around for the Sunday readings to touch upon a certain subject, for me to address it during the homily, I could be waiting for an awfully long time. So in those places where I’ve failed in communication, I do apologize, and I greatly appreciate your patience with me.

One of the adjustments I’ve made that’s probably the most conspicuous is to pray much of the Mass at the high altar, facing the tabernacle. In the bulletin, when I wrote about this, I mentioned that to me it seems much more inclusive. At Mass you’re not just supposed to be watching the priest pray, but we’re all praying together to God, and so it’s never made much sense to me to be facing a different direction from those that I’m praying with and to have my back to Jesus present in the tabernacle. Facing the tabernacle also helps avoid having the Mass come across as being like a play or a drama on stage, where you’re just passive spectators, watching the actors and listening to the monologues.

The other reasons have to do with the original aesthetics and architecture of these beautiful churches. They were designed for Mass on the high altar, three more steps up from the low altar that used to be in the middle. And for probably close to 3000 years—including 1000 years in the Hebrew Temple before the start of Christianity—this is how worship and sacrifice was always offered to God, with the priest and the people facing the same direction, praying to God together, as one body, not turned in on itself, but looking together for the Coming of Christ. Additionally, just from my personal perspective as a priest celebrant at Mass, I find it much easier for me to really focus and to pray the words of the Mass when I don’t have the added distraction of being able to see everything that’s going on in the pews or in the choir loft during the Eucharistic Prayer.

For all these reasons, I don’t have much inclination for bringing the low altar back or facing away from the tabernacle while praying the Mass. This may be different from what we’re used to what we might prefer, but I hope that you can understand my reasoning and even, over time, come to appreciate it.

Now I hope you never feel like I’m your enemy, and I’m not asking you to walk an extra mile, but I do ask that we have an open mind and an open heart, so that we’re able to receive the graces and learn the lessons that God has for us, even when our perspectives differ from one another. God is the One who has brought us together as His family here. I pray that we continue to grow together in truth and love, so that we can all be together for ever in His heavenly kingdom.

To the Apostles and Rome

Bulletin Letter, Ordinary Time Sunday 6A

With our new Bishop Donald DeGrood installed this past Thursday, it’s a good opportunity for us to reflect on what a bishop is and why we need one. Even in the time of Moses, his brother Aaron served as the first high priest in the tent or tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant during their travels through the desert. Aaron’s sons assisted their father as fellow priests in offering sacrifices, while the rest of Aaron’s tribe (the Levites) assisted with various other tasks connected with the sacred things while not as directly involved in the priestly duties of Aaron and his sons. This model of sacred ministry persisted through the centuries even as King Solomon constructed the first Temple in Jerusalem: one high priest, several assisting priests, and the Levites.

When Jesus founded the Church upon the Apostles, and as the Church spread from Jerusalem to other cities, they would establish three degrees of ordained ministry as well. The first we read about in the New Testament are the deacons (from the NT Greek diakonoi, “servants,” Cf. Acts 6). Initially tasked with “serving at table” impoverished widows so that the Apostles could concentrate on prayer and proclaiming the Gospel, deacons correspond most readily to the Levites of the Old Testament. Next, we hear of the Apostles Paul and Barnabas appointing priests (presbyteroi, “elders,” Acts 14:23) in each city as they returned from their first missionary journey, to govern the Church in their absence. Eventually, as the Apostles themselves began to be martyred, each major city would have one high priest, a bishop (episkopos, “overseer”) and successor to the Apostles.

Bishop DeGrood now serves as our visible link through all the centuries of the Church to the Apostles and Jesus Himself. He is also our link to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who rightly presides over all other bishops as successor to St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles. Rome is also where St. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, shed his blood for Christ, and at the time of Jesus, Rome was the capital of the known world.

All the ministry carried out by other priests and deacons in each diocese is done as under the authority of and in communion with the local Bishop and the Pope, the two who are mentioned by name in the prayers of every Mass. Through them, we belong to “one flock and one shepherd,” the one Church of Christ spread throughout the world and down through the centuries (John 10:16).

Bucket List from God

Homily, Feast of Presentation

I’m not sure how long ago it was that I first heard about the concept of a bucket list, but I’ve never thought much of it, let alone compiled one for myself. For those who aren’t aware, it’s a list of things that you want to do or accomplish or places you want to visit before kicking the bucket, before you die. Another related phrase that’s come into usage is yolo, which stands for, “you only live once,” which could just be another way of saying, “Carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

Bucket lists and these other phrases can bring more into focus for us the question of, what makes for a meaningful life. What makes a human life worthwhile? And where do our answers to these questions come from? “You haven’t really lived till you’ve eaten this particular dish, or gone skydiving or bungie jumping or visited this amazing destination.” Does true life merely consist in chasing experiences or traveling the world or reaching a certain place in a career? And is it God telling us these things, or do we receive our direction in life, our desires, our goals and ambitions, more from the evil one, or the standards of this passing world?

The old man Simeon, who receives the Infant Jesus in his arms today, as Joseph and Mary present the Child in the Temple, Simeon seemed to have just one thing left on His own bucket list. The Holy Spirit had told him that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ. And as he finally sees with his own eyes the Christ Child in the Temple, and bears witness to the salvation that has come for all the nations of the earth, he prays to God, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word.” Now that I’ve seen the Light of Christ, I’m ready to die. How often is it that we ask God what He wants for us in this life? What are the items that He would place on our bucket list? And by the end of our lives, what kind of legacy are we going to be leaving behind?

A few years ago, I attended a funeral, and the deceased had been cremated, so I knew there wouldn’t be a full casket present, but I was surprised and disappointed with what was chosen as a final receptacle for the ashes. Right up in front of the altar was a fairly cheap, plastic, tackle box. And inside that tackle box was placed the cremains of the one who had died. Now I don’t know who had arranged for this, if it was part of the wishes of the deceased, but it just seemed so strange to me, and reductive of the meaning and value of a human life. I’m absolutely certain that there was much more to this man than the fact that he liked fishing, and I hope that for each one of us, there’ll be much more that people remember at the end of our lives than just one of our hobbies or a devotion to a certain sports team. Will they remember the times that they saw the Light of Christ in us?

All of us here have received much more than Simeon or Anna during their lifetimes. Not just to look upon Christ with our eyes but to become one with Him through the waters of baptism, to share in Christ’s own identity as sons and daughters of God. And most of us here have also eaten His Flesh and Blood, we’ve received His Soul and Divinity in Holy Communion. Do we really believe that we’ve already received the fullness of Life in this great Sacrament? That there’s nothing greater that we’ll ever do or accomplish, that at every Mass heaven itself comes to visit us, and there’s no greater place we’ll ever be in this life? Does receiving Communion change us and transform our priorities? Or for the rest of the week, do we just go back to living as if we’d never seen the Christ?

You only live once. But you will also live, somewhere, for all eternity. What legacy are we leaving by how we’re living today? And could we be living for something more? Something more meaningful, more lasting, more divine? Jesus is the Life of our life. Don’t let it pass you by without living for Him.

Forty Hours Devotion

Bulletin Letter, Candlemas

Forty days after the Nativity of Christ, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple to consecrate Him to God as a firstborn Son and to offer a pair of turtledoves for Mary’s purification after childbirth, according to Levitical law. The number 40 shows up quite a few times in Sacred Scripture, from the number of days it rained during the flood of Noah, to the number of years that Moses led the Israelites through the desert and the years of King David’s reign. In the New Testament, we have the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert after His Baptism in the Jordan and the days that He spent with His Apostles between His Resurrection and the Ascension. 

Another instance that I recently came across was the tradition that Jesus spent about 40 hours in the tomb, from 3 pm on Good Friday to around 7 am on Easter Sunday. Of course, the precise hour that the Resurrection occurred on that first Easter morning is not recorded in the Bible, but from this and other occurrences of the number 40 developed what’s called the 40 Hours Devotion. The 40 Hours Devotion usually involves Solemn Exposition of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for a continuous period of 40 hours. Along with the Corpus Christi Procession, the 40 Hours Devotion is expected to happen at least once a year in each parish. 

Part of the challenge, of course, is that we are never to leave Jesus exposed upon the altar even for a moment without someone there to adore Him and to keep guard in the churchThe nighttime hours can be particularly challenging to fill. Lent seems like an especially appropriate season for us to observe this time-honored practice as we all are called to recommit ourselves to spiritual exercises of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And if we desire spiritual renewal in our parishes, spending time with Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament is the surest way. 

To limit the 40 hours to just one overnight period, I’m thinking of going from 6 am on a Saturday morning to 10 pm on Sunday. We’ll plan on the first weekend of Lent following Ash Wednesday in BowdleFebruary 29 and March 1, and the following weekend in HovenMarch 7 & 8. I’ll have a signup sheet available at the entrance of each church. Please be generous to God with your time and commit to one or more hours as part of your Lenten discipline. Your time spent with our Eucharistic Lord will never go unrewarded. 

Stuck Together by God

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 3A

During this past week, my sister asked me if I like my assignment in these parishes better than my previous assignments, but it’s difficult to compare because it’s so different. This is my first assignment as a pastor. I don’t have to drive the Bishop around anymore as his Master of Ceremonies, but now I have to drive myself around a lot than what I used to. The biggest change and what I noticed most at first is that I live by myself now. And back in July, I realized it’s probably the first time in my entire life. After high school, I entered seminary, and even if I had my own room, I really didn’t live by myself. There were always other seminarians around and people to talk to. After ordination, at my previous assignments as a parochial vicar, I always lived in the same house with one or two other priests. 

I used to think that priests have a lot in common with the disciples of Jesus, and that a call to the priesthood was like the call that we hear in the Gospel today, as Jesus calls His first Apostles by the Sea of Galilee, and as Peter and Andrew, James and John respond, by leaving everything behind to follow Jesus, leaving their nets, their boat, and their father. Priests definitely have a lot in common with the Apostles when it comes to our mission of proclaiming the Gospel and of serving the people of God by exercising authority in the Church. But I often wonder what it was like during those three years of Jesus’ public ministry, to be stuck with the 11 other Apostles, day in and day out. Maybe the eight years I spent in seminary would be somewhat comparable, but most seminaries have more than 12 students. If I really didn’t get along with certain other seminarians, it would have been easy enough to steer clear of them, but in a class of just 12, there wouldn’t be much choice about whom you spend your time with. The other Apostles were stuck with these four fishermen, and with Matthew the tax collector, Simon the Zealot, and even with Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray Jesus.  

For each of us who follow Jesus and become His disciples, a particular challenge for us is to really love—and over time, to learn how to love—those people that God has stuck us with, whether they are family members, relatives, in-laws, coworkers, classmates, or teachers. How would our lives be different if, instead of going out of our way to avoid the people that we find difficult, if instead we went out of our way to makes efforts at showing them kindness and concern, and to spend more time with them? I know in my own experience, in my family and in my preparation for the priesthood, having to live with other seminarians and other priests, it was especially those relationships that I perhaps would not have chosen for myself that have helped me to grow the most. How often in our lives do we end up resisting God’s work in us by avoiding anything difficult or awkward in our families and in our social interactions? 

In our second reading, St. Paul is heartbroken that divisions and cliques have made their way even into the Church at Corinth, that the one family of God has become divided. But Christ is not divided. As we receive the one Lord Jesus Christ in this Eucharist, may He continue to draw each of us closer to Himself, to unite us all together in the one Light and Truth revealed for our salvation. And may we always look to Jesus in the Eucharist as the source of our unity and of the strength that we need to reach out to those whom we would rather avoid or exclude. Lord Jesus, make us one. 

Use Your Words

Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 2A

A few years ago, in a small town much like this one or others in South Dakota, a new postmaster arrived in town, so everyone—as they visited the post office to pick up their mail or to drop things off—was introducing themselves. Towards the end of the week, the local parish priest came to pick up the mail for his parishes. He introduced himself and asked how the new postmaster was settling into town, if he was able to find everything he needed, where he was moving from, how their town compared, and other points of interest like the weather. As the priest finished speaking with him and turned to go, the new postmaster said, “Father, aren’t you forgetting something?” The priest replied, “Do I have a package that I need to pick up?”

“Well, no, but aren’t you going to invite me to come to Mass on Sunday?” The priest was sort of embarrassed and said something about not realizing he was Catholic, but the postmaster went on to say, “Just so you know, Father, since I arrived in town, several members of each of the other churches, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Baptists, I’ve already had several of each invite me to join them for their Sunday worship service, and they didn’t seem too concerned to know whether I was of the same faith tradition or not. They just wanted to share what they found valuable in their own lives. But you know, Father, not even one Catholic that has been through here this week has invited me to join them for Mass on Sunday.”

When was the last time that we shared our faith by simply inviting someone to come to Mass with us, to pray the rosary with us, to come to Confession with us? Have we ever invited anyone else into God’s Wedding Feast, the Supper of the Lamb that we celebrate every Sunday or even every day? In the Gospel today, St. John the Baptist bears witness to One greater than himself, the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. How often do we actually bear witness to Christ in our words and actions?

There’s a popular saying that’s often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The problem with this saying, though, is that St. Francis never said it, and it’s often used as an excuse to never proclaim the Gospel with actual words. Our words are necessary. In his day, St. Francis even risked his life to be able to speak to the Muslim king of Egypt, to tell him about Jesus Christ and invite him to be baptized and convert to the true faith. St. Francis used his words to bear witness to Christ, to invite others to the practice of the sacraments, even when this meant risking being put to death and not just embarrassment or awkwardness or what others might think, or any other excuse many of us use to remain silent about Jesus Christ and His Church.

Since my arrival in these parishes, many have commented that maybe now with a new pastor, and with Mass starting on time, maybe we’ll see a lot of parishioners come back to Mass and to Confession. But it doesn’t happen automatically. It doesn’t happen without people inviting them back, inviting new people in. It doesn’t happen without each of us falling more and more in love with Jesus Christ, with this Sacrament of His Body and Blood, with this perfect Sacrifice of the Mass that is not meant to entertain us but to sustain us. Our parishes will not be renewed until each of us realizes that when it comes to the Mass, it’s not so much about whether we’re able to get anything out of it. More important is whether we’re actually able to bring anything to it. Do we offer to God “the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” of each day? Do we bring the rest of our lives to be offered with Jesus on this altar? And when we receive Jesus Himself in return, what more could we hope for to get out of it?

So what is it that stops you from inviting others in, from inviting others back to Confession, back to Mass? What’s stopping you from actually using your words to talk about Jesus and to share your faith? You might say, Well, Father, that’s your job. But it’s also yours. And I’m just one person. There are people and places that you can reach that I would never be able to reach, in your homes, in your workplace, in your schools, in restaurants, stadiums, and stores. There are ways that you can share the Gospel more effectively and more convincingly than if someone were to hear the same thing from me or from another priest. It’s easy for people to be dismissive of what they hear from a priest. “He has to say that stuff. That’s his job.” But if you were to invite them back to Confession, maybe they’ll listen.

The riches of the Catholic faith are truly meant for all. If there are roughly 7 billion people in the world, and just over a billion Catholics—and of those only a small portion that really believes and practices the faith—what does that mean for us? It means that there are still an awful lot of people in the world that should become Catholic. So, let’s get to work.

The Divine Proposal

Homily, Baptism of the Lord A

One great thing about being celibate and never getting married is that I will never have to think up some elaborate way of proposing. Now, it isn’t always the case, but most guys try to put at least some thought into it. You want the proposal to be memorable and make for a good story in case anyone asks. And you also want to have a lot of confidence beforehand that she is going to say yes. I always get nervous, though, when I see proposals on TV or in stadiums. Anything too public can really end up backfiring. Sometimes it seems like the guy is hoping that the public pressure will ensure an affirmative response, but as we all know, it doesn’t always work out that way.

In the Scriptures, the Lord often describes His relationship with His people as a marriage covenant. The book of Revelation describes the wedding supper of the Lamb that takes place in heaven and is anticipated in every Sacrifice of the Mass. Sin and disobedience to God’s Law and the courting of other gods, allowing anything in our lives to take priority over our relationship with God, this is compared in Scripture to infidelity towards the Lord as our Spouse, as the Church’s Spouse.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist has prepared in the wilderness the way of the Lord. He has prepared a people for the Lord’s possession. He has called Israel back, to repent of their sins and to recommit themselves with greater fidelity to God, “to fulfill all righteousness” in anticipation of the Coming of the Messiah. In another place in Scripture, John calls himself the friend of the Bridegroom—or the best man at a wedding—who rejoices at the Bridegroom’s voice.

Of course, Jesus is the Bridegroom, who today, by undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, commits himself in love and fidelity to sinful humanity. Even though Christ Himself is without sin and has no need of repentance, Jesus shows that He is willing to take upon Himself and share all that belongs to his beloved bride, even the consequences of our sins, the inheritance we have earned by our disobedience. In any marriage, the man and woman are called to share in a real partnership of life. What was hers becomes his, and what was his becomes hers. So when Jesus consummates His marriage covenant with us upon the Cross on Calvary, He will even accept death, which rightly belongs to us, so that we might share eternal life, which rightly belongs to Him.

In His Baptism, Jesus weds to himself our sinful humanity, restoring to us the inheritance of his perfect obedience. This inheritance is the Holy Spirit of God, who comes to rest upon Jesus at His Baptism. The Holy Spirit will be sent to dwell in the Apostles and disciples at Pentecost, those first members of Christ’s holy Church, just as the Holy Spirit continues to fill all those who are joined as members to the Bride of Christ through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation up to our own day.

Today, we also hear the Father’s voice from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, as a light for the nations.” In the mystery of His Baptism, Jesus takes upon Himself everything that belongs to us, so that we can share in everything that belongs to Him, including His obedience to God the Father, which brings about a more abundant life than anything we can experience through sin and disobedience and our many wanderings.

At this and at every Mass, Jesus renews His covenant of unending love with us, and He proposes once again to each of us as we approach for Holy Communion, offering the Gift of His very self, His Body, His Blood, His Soul and Divinity. He offers everything that belongs to Him. What is our answer and response to Christ’s proposal? Do we say, “Amen,” so be it, to all that Jesus has done for us and to all that He still longs to do in our lives? Or too often do we say “Amen” to Jesus at Mass, only to say “No” to Him throughout the rest of the week? If you’re married, you’re not just married when it’s convenient or advantageous. If you belong to Christ, and if Christ belongs to us, it’s all the time, not just to have our sins forgiven and to keep on sinning, but to allow Jesus to actually guide our thoughts, words, and actions, to take up our crosses daily to follow Him in the Way. Jesus committed Himself to us even to the point of death on the Cross. When will we finally commit ourselves, and conform ourselves to Him?

Son of God and Son of Mary

Homily, Mother of God

As I was growing up, math always came easily to me. In fact, all of my siblings and I were good at math when we were in school. To give you some idea, all six of my brothers studied engineering of one kind or another, and my oldest sister is a high school math teacher, so I think it was something genetic that allowed us all to excel in mathematics. And I believe it was in Math class that I first heard about the transitive property or transitive relations. Now I realize that many people struggle with math, and hearing something like ‘transitive property’ might drudge up painful memories or just a general sense of confusion or hopelessness, and it’s probably still a little early after a late night of New Year’s parties to be talking about logic, but stay with me, and I’ll try to illustrate what I’m saying with simple examples.

Let’s use Star Wars as our first example. There’s a new movie out but in one of the original trilogy, we find out that Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker. We also know that Luke Skywalker is a jedi. Therefore, Darth Vader is the father of a jedi. Now for those who aren’t as familiar with Star Wars, let’s take another example. As I mentioned before, my brothers are engineers, and my mother is also the mother of my brothers. Therefore, my mother is the mother of engineers. Make sense? That’s the transitive property at work. We use it all the time, without even thinking about it. We substitute ‘engineers’ in one sentence for ‘brothers’ in another statement, because we know that these two terms refer to the same individuals, that the brothers are engineers, so the mother has the same relationship to both.

Now the Solemnity that we celebrate today honors Mary with the title ‘Mother of God,’ but it also safeguards what we believe about Jesus Christ. This is why it’s always been difficult for me to understand why so many non-Catholics have a problem with this title of the Blessed Mother. If we believe Jesus is God, the Son of God, with the same divinity as God the Father and the Holy Spirit, if we believe that Jesus was truly God even at the time of his birth, and if Mary is the Mother of Jesus, then, quite logically, Mary is the Mother of God.

Of course, we know that the divinity of Christ does not originate in Mary the way that His humanity does. Mary doesn’t give birth to God the Father. And God the Son—as God—has His origin from the Father from all eternity, before time began and before Mary even existed. But calling Mary the Mother of God reminds us that the Incarnation is real. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was really born in time and history from a human mother for our salvation. And the Baby that Mary gave birth to and that we adore in the manger scene did not become the Son of God at some later time, but already, from the moment of His conception in Mary’s womb through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was the Son of God in human Flesh. And the Incarnation is so real that whatever can be said of Jesus in His humanity can also be said of the Son of God, because ‘Jesus’ and ‘Son of God’ refer to the very same Divine Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. So Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is also called Mother of God because Jesus is God.

This title of Mary is also Scriptural, because we find in Luke 1:43 at the Visitation, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth asks, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Mother of my Lord. Who is Elizabeth calling “my Lord” if not the Lord of all, the God of Israel, believing that the Messiah would somehow be identical with God Himself, as we hear from St. Paul in the second reading today, that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” of God. We have confidence that God is close to us, that He really shares in our humanity and raises it up in His divinity. In this Eucharist, Jesus really feeds us with His Body and Blood so that He can also feed us from the fullness of His divine nature. Jesus nourishes and raises up our own body and blood with His, so that in every aspect of our lives, we can live more and more as sons and daughters of God by His grace in us.

As we begin the year 2020, we pray for the resolution to recommit our lives to Christ, to share patiently even in the sufferings of His Cross so that we can share also in the joy and fullness of his Resurrection. We pray for the logic of recognizing Christ for who He really is, Christ our Life and our Light, our Lord and our God, and the confidence to know that staying close to Mary, the Mother of God, will help us stay focused on Christ during this new year and to follow Him wherever He leads us. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.