Use Your Words

Homily, Pentecost A

You may not know this about me yet, but I often like to joke about not liking Franciscans, those countless religious orders that look to St. Francis of Assisi as their spiritual father, but in many ways I actually do admire them. I even imitate their aesthetic by keeping a beard, often untrimmed, and by wearing sandals most of the time. I think it’s more just the popular misconceptions that many people have about St. Francis that I find particularly annoying. When we think of St. Francis, for example, many of us just have an idea that, well, he liked animals. Okay. That’s not untrue. St. Francis did have a great appreciation for all members of God’s creation, and we can learn from that. Statues of Him often include birds or other animals. But the great love of Francis’ life was poverty, the poverty of Christ that he strove to imitate in concrete ways. To be free of worldly attachments and possessions that so often come to possess us. That’s why he appreciated birds so much. Birds don’t store up food in barns and silos for themselves. They live day to day, depending on the providence of God.  

St. Francis was especially devoted to the Passion of Jesus, His Way of the Cross, when the poverty of Christ was at its height. As He was hanging from the Cross, naked, stripped of everything, Jesus was even abandoned by most of His closest friends and disciples. He was left with nothing and no one on this earth but the Cross and His trust in God the Father. St. Francis was so devoted to the Passion of Christ upon the Cross, he meditated upon this mystery for so many hours and years that God gave Francis what’s called the stigmata, the wounds of Christ manifested in his flesh, the nail marks and some of the pain along with them in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. 

Now you’re probably wondering why I’m talking to you so much about St. Francis on this Feast of Pentecost. I would venture to say that St. Francis is one of the most widely misunderstood saints in the history of the Catholic Church, while at the same time, he was one of the saints that strove most fully to imitate the virtues of Jesus and to become a living image of Christ, and Francis was only able to do that through the grace of the Holy Spirit that he received in his Baptism, in Confirmation, that he also exercised in his ministry as a deacon.  

Now we still haven’t come to the most obnoxious misuse of the memory and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is frequently quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The only problem with this quote is of course that St. Francis definitely never said it. And it goes against much of how Francis himself lived. St. Francis was not the type of person to pass up any opportunity to tell the people around him about Jesus Christ, explicitly, with his words and his actions, even at the risk of his own life. There was a time during the life of St. Francis that the Muslim king of Egypt was offering a gold piece to any of his subjects for every head of a Christian that they would bring to him. So what did Francis decide to do when he heard about this? He wanted an audience with that ruthless king. So he traveled with a companion to Egypt. They were captured. They were beaten. They were imprisoned, but finally, Francis got his audience with the king. And to this Muslim king, St. Francis proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ. He told him to repent of his sins, to be baptized, and to believe in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world. 

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to the Apostles in the upper room, these men who were once frightened and cowardly were emboldened and strengthened to proclaim Jesus Christ to the crowds gathered from throughout the world. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we continually hear how they were even able to rejoice in the sufferings, persecutions, and dishonor that came to them in response to their bold, explicit preaching of Jesus Christ, using words and actions. The Holy Spirit who appeared to them as tongues of fire… if you’ve ever wondered why St. Luke calls them tongues of fire instead of flames. Maybe he calls them tongues of fire because we’re actually supposed to talk about Jesus and use our words to proclaim the Gospel. 

I think many of us like the saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” because we’re lazy and cowardly, because we’re looking for any excuse to not have to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly, in both word and deed, because we don’t want to risk upsetting anyone, really, because we don’t want to risk anything in our following of Christ. We’ve discovered a better way, a safer way, to live as Christians in a world that wants to go its own way, in a world that rebels against the One Way of Jesus Christ. We’ve found a way to stifle the fire of the Holy Spirit, the one who so animated all the Apostles, St. Francis, and every missionary in the history of the Catholic Church. 

The Good News for us is that the Spirit of God is ever ancient and ever new. His strength has not weakened at all over the course of the past 2000 years. He is still able to do marvelous things in those who are willing to risk, in those willing to put themselves out there for the sake of Christ. You have not received any other spirit than the one received by the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs. By your Baptism and Confirmation, you have been strengthened with the infinite strength of God. So cast off all fear and go. Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person under heaven. Risk something. Use your words and your actions. 

In a few moments, I’ll invite the Confirmation candidates to stand and renew their baptismal promises. I’ll pray over them and then anoint them with Sacred Chrism, sealing them with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. They will be anointed on the forehead, which for most of us—unless you have a lot of hair covering it up—is one of the most public parts of the body, a reminder that those who are confirmed are to take a more active and public role in the world in bearing witness to the catholic faith.  

In both Baptism and Confirmation we are given the grace of the Holy Spirit. The main difference is that while Baptism disposes us to receive God’s grace, to assist at Mass, to receive the wisdom and guidance that comes from God’s Word and the nourishment that comes from the Body and Blood of Christ, the grace of Confirmation is directed more towards being able to convey God’s grace to those around you, not just to receive grace for yourself, but to become an instrument that shares the Gospel with everyone you meet. The grace of Confirmation is the grace of the Apostles at Pentecost, not just to be huddled together in the upper room but to go out with boldness to proclaim Christ in the world today.  

After anointing the forehead, I’ll also say to each of the newly confirmed, “Peace be with you,” as I give them a slight slap on the cheek. This gesture has long been associated with Confirmations as a reminder that the peace of Christ—which the world cannot give—is not incompatible with adversity and persecution. That if you actually share the Gospel as you are called to do, if you actually live your Catholic faith fully in the world today, you’ll likely be hated for it. But God gives us the grace as He gave the first Apostles after Pentecost even to rejoice in our sufferings, in our sharing in the saving Cross of Jesus Christ. “Preach the Gospel at all times,” and remember that words are necessary. The grace you receive today is not just for you. It’s for everyone you will meet, everyone who will witness your words and your actions. May they always speak of Jesus our Savior. 

Summer Ember Days

Bulletin Letter, Pentecost A

This Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (June 3, 5, and 6) are the summer Ember Days, observed with fasting, abstinence from meat, and prayer for vocations and for the fields and herds. Ordinations were traditionally held on these days as well. During this past week, Bishop DeGrood ordained three men to the transitional diaconate: Jacob Doty, Jeffrey Schulte, and Scott Miller. Please pray that they serve well as deacons this summer and finish well their preparations for the priesthood during this next year. On Friday, two were ordained to the priesthood: Fr. Michael Kapperman and Fr. Tony Klein. Please join in observing Ember Days this week to pray for blessings upon our land and for the holiness of these new ministers of God’s love.

  1. Can God talk to you if you have a mortal sin on your soul?

Yes. We distinguish between sanctifying (habitual) grace and actual graces. Now the name ‘actual’ grace might make it sound like we’re implying other graces are not ‘real’ graces, but they are named ‘actual’ because they refer to particular and passing actions, whereas sanctifying grace refers to the state of being, the habit of holiness that persists after baptism as long as we do not sin mortally. It’s the difference between doing things, performing certain actions, and being human or, with sanctifying grace, being a child of God.

Mortal sin takes us out of the state of grace. We lose sanctifying grace and the theological virtue of divine charity, but God could still speak to us because those would be actual graces, passing actions that God can grant even to someone who is not in the state of grace. And He might grant them precisely to spur us to repentance, to Confession, and a return to sanctifying grace.

  1. Why does God know that bad things will happen and He doesn’t try to stop them?

God gives us free will and understanding into the natural processes of the world. Responsible action depends on both of these things. Imagine how difficult it would be to act responsibly if we really couldn’t depend on the consequences of the law of gravity, for example. Bad things happen due to gravity all the time. You can fall down, scrape your knees, or much worse. And if God were constantly intervening and suspending the laws of gravity just to make sure we’d never get hurt, we wouldn’t really be able to rely on the normal process of gravity and make adjustments to our own behavior as responsible and reasonable people. The same would hold true with diet, health, medicine, weather, etc. God directs the natural processes of the world according to patterns that can be relied upon so that we can respond accordingly and act responsibly.

 

Looking Forward to Heaven

Homily, Ascension A

If I were to ask you, When did Jesus save us? What was the precise moment when the work of redemption was accomplished? we might have various answers. Certainly the Incarnation, when the Son of God became man and took to Himself our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that moment changed us and changed the world forever. Most would probably point to His suffering and death on the Cross, His perfect obedience even to the point of death making up for the disobedience and infidelity of our sins. We would also point, of course, to His Resurrection, rising from the grave never to die again. These events have consequences for all of us.

We could even point to His ordinary life, the many years that we don’t actually hear much about. Of course, His being born from a human Mother, His growth and development from infancy to adolescence to adulthood. The fact that God experienced all these things in the Person of Christ changes them for us, consecrates them, allows them to be holy events even in our own lives. To know that God worked and sweat as a carpenter changes work for us. That He ate and drank, that He wept at the death of His friend Lazarus, all that He did and suffered and accomplished was part of the work of salvation and consecrating our humanity to God.

One event that we might not often think about as being for our redemption is what we celebrate today, the Ascension, that our own human nature in Christ is now glorified at the right hand of God. That man has finally entered fully into heaven, body and soul, for the very first time. Jesus didn’t just die on the Cross and rise from the dead so that He could walk around on earth some more. He ascended into heaven to lead us there and to show us that we are meant for much more than anything this world has to offer us. Even if we could live forever, this world and the things of this world, even the relationships that we form in this world can never truly satisfy us. We were made for more. We are destined to see God face to face and to become like Him, to share in the communion of all the Saints, or to be eternally frustrated. The Ascension of Jesus saves us from the lie that we could ever be fully satisfied with anything less than God Himself. And in Christ, our human nature comes to its final rest and already enjoys the reward of its labors.

How often do we really think about heaven and what it will be like? To look upon and enter into union with the One who is more beautiful than anything we have ever experienced, more glorious and satisfying than anything we ever could experience in this life. Do we exercise our desire for heaven and allow it to be our strength as we endure the trials, frustrations, and restlessness of this life? If you’re anything like me, we don’t think about heaven nearly often enough. It’s always easier to plan a trip and to deal with obstacles we meet along the way when we have and keep a specific destination and goal in mind for ourselves.

There’s a verse in Sirach that says, “In all that you do, be mindful of the end of your life, and you will never sin” (7:36). We often think of the end of our life referring to our death and the judgment we will then render to God for what we have done or not done during life, but the end of our life can also refer to our goal, what we’re aiming for: heaven. In all that we do, if we are mindful not only of our death and judgment but also of the superabundant joys and everlasting satisfactions of heaven, the false pleasures of sin will lose their attraction for us, all the easy ways out and the overindulgence of the paltry pleasures of this passing world will seem to be “like so much garbage,” as St. Paul puts it, in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ and being found in Him.

All that Jesus accomplished, every part of our life on earth that He redeemed and consecrated, even His victory over sin and death was incomplete until He finally opened the gates of heaven and entered into the lasting rest and exceeding joy that He has promised to those who love Him. “In all that you do, be mindful of the end of your life,” be mindful of the joys of heaven, that you may have the strength to persevere through any temptation without sin, so that where Christ our Good Shepherd has gone before, we might follow and share in His unending glory.

Rogation Days and the Original Novena

Bulletin Letter, Easter Sunday 6A

If you missed the Major Rogation on April 25, you’ll have a few more chances this week on the Minor Rogation Days, which are observed on the three days before Ascension Thursday (which is transferred to the following Sunday in most places). Rogation Days are named for the Latin verb rogare, “to ask,” and are observed with solemn procession while singing the Litany of Saints, the Penitential Psalms, and several other prayers for God’s blessings and deliverance from evil. Fasting, abstaining from meat, and other forms of penance are also encouraged on these days.

The Major Rogation, on April 25 each year, is likely the earliest one observed, probably to counteract and replace the pagan Roman festival of Robigalia, held on the same date with public games and the sacrifice of a dog to the false god Robigus for the protection of grain fields from disease. Rogation Days retain this agricultural connection, and besides the Litany and procession, the blessing of fields and flocks became customary in many places on these days. The Minor Rogations (held on the three days leading up to Ascension Thursday) were introduced around the year 470 in France by St. Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, and observance spread out from there, eventually extending to the whole Church. Both the Major and Minor Rogations came to be observed in the same ways.

We’ll plan to have processions like we did on April 25, from the church to the cemetery and back. In Hoven on Monday and Tuesday (May 18 and 19), just after the Mass at 5:15 pm, the procession should start close to 5:50 pm. In Bowdle on Wednesday, May 20, we’ll start the procession at 7:00 pm. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate. Since May is the month of Mary, we’ll also be asking for her intercession in a special way.

This week also includes the start of the Original Novena. A novena is a prayer said on nine consecutive days, often concluding on the Vigil of a particular feast day. The Original Novena refers to the nine days between Ascension Thursday and the great Solemnity of Pentecost, during which the Apostles and disciples were gathered together in prayer with the Blessed Mother in the upper room, preparing and beseeching God for the great Gift of the Holy Spirit. Starting on Friday and concluding on the Saturday Vigil of Pentecost, a novena for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is fittingly prayed. Using a keyword search, it’s easy enough to find this novena online, including on the EWTN website. Come, Holy Spirit!

Greater Works than These

Homily, Easter Sunday 5A

When we think of the great works that Jesus did during His earthly life and hear Him say in this Gospel that those who believe in Him will do the same and even greater works, what does that mean? Probably what seems most conspicuous and what sticks most in our minds are the many visible signs and miracles that Jesus performed, physical healings from sickness, demonic possession, and disability, allowing the lame to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the mute to speak. We think of the multiplication of loaves and fish, the walking on the water, the calming of the storm at sea, even raising the dead to live again. What could be greater works than these that we still see today from the followers of Christ? 

At least at the time of the Apostles we do see part of the answer even in these more physical signs and wonders. Sts. Peter and Paul do many of the very same things, even raising the dead to life. And in one aspect, they may have even done greater. Jesus healed the woman with the hemorrhage when she merely touched the hem or tassel of His garment. But compare this to the people who were healed as St. Peter merely passed by and as his shadow fell upon them or as others were healed just by receiving handkerchiefs that St. Paul had touched. 

But in the end, all these physical healings and signs and wonders are just temporary things, temporary fixes. Have we ever considered the rest of the story, that all those that Jesus or the Apostles heal or even raise from the dead will—with the passage of time—eventually grow old, possibly get sick again, but ultimately die. A greater work at the time of Jesus and still today is the spiritual healing brought about through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus often uses physical healings to point to this deeper reality and greater healing of forgiveness. Still today, this greater work is brought about through Baptism and in the sacrament of Confession. Even souls dead in sin that had merited the everlasting pains of hell are restored to the life of grace and communion with God. A good Confession can have eternal consequences. But this is not the only “greater work” that the Holy Spirit has for us today. 

Consider the teachings and revelation of Jesus Christ. The proclamation of the Gospel and the deepest truths of human life and ultimate realities is a greater work than any physical signs or wonders. Yet during the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, His proclamation of the Gospel was mostly confined to the Jews in Palestine. But His Apostles after Him would be entrusted with a greater work, to carry the Gospel to all the nations throughout the world. And this is still the same greater mission that is entrusted to us and to every follower of Jesus today, to proclaim His salvation to every man, woman, and child. 

The other greater work that the Holy Spirit strengthens us to accomplish today is another that we witness in the Acts of the Apostles. At the time that Jesus said these words of the Gospel at the Last Supper, He had not yet accomplished His greatest work: His Passion and Death on the Cross, and His Rising from the dead, never to die again. The Holy Spirit greatly strengthened the Apostles and took these once cowardly men who had for many days been locked in the upper room and after Pentecost, allowed them even to rejoice in their sufferings, in being jailed, scourged, and put on trial, for refusing to be silent about Jesus Christ. Later on, they and many, many others would have the strength to rejoice even as they went to their own martyrdom, glad to be able to share something of the Cross and death of Christ in the great hope of His Resurrection. This faith of the martyrs is also a greater work than simply being rescued by God from every earthly trial.  

Despite what we know by faith about eternal life and spiritual realities, many of us can still feel disappointed that God doesn’t often choose to perform miraculous physical healings through our hands or through our prayers. We all know people who could benefit from miracles, afflicted with various diseases and limitations. But again, what is really the greater work? That God would heal someone physically through your presence, that He would take away the symptom of some physical discomfort and pain, temporarily? Or, in an age when so many people around us are pushing for euthanasia, for “mercy” killing, and selective abortions, is it not a far greater work of the Holy Spirit that God would be able to use us today to continue to affirm the value of each and every human life, even in the midst of suffering?  

In some ways, it’d be a lot easier to convince someone of God’s love for them if we could at the same heal them physically, but God calls us to an even greater work, to recognize and have genuine faith in His love even as He allows us or others to continue to suffer. That life doesn’t have to be perfect or free from pain to have infinite value. That regardless of someone’s condition or level of productivity, they still are in the image of God to us and worthy of our time, attention, and unconditional love. That human suffering can have meaning and value, when borne patiently and joined to the saving Cross of Christ, offered for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for our sins and the sins of others. That those who are sick are not the only ones who benefit from a visit, but those who care for the sick can actually receive more than they are able to give. 

These are some of the “greater works” that the Holy Spirit is calling us and enabling us to engage in today, the forgiveness of sins, the proclamation of the Gospel to everyone we meet, to speak and to act prophetically in the face of a culture of death, even through the patient endurance of trials. This is the power of God that He entrusts to each and every one of us, to say to every person that we meet, no matter what their status, their ability or inability, to say to each one, “You are loved by God. God longs for you and wants to spend eternity with you.” And these greater works call for real faith through the Holy Spirit, not just a curiosity or fascination with signs and wonders. Our life on this earth is short and temporary. May the Holy Spirit always be preparing us and those around us, to live for ever. 

The Good Life

Homily, Easter Sunday 4A

What does it mean to really “have life and have it more abundantly”? The Son of God became man so that we might have life. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep so that we might truly live. So what makes for an abundant life? Is it freedom, doing what we want when we want? Or money, being able to buy what we need and what we desire? Being able to travel and see the world? Is it pleasure, health, security, safety? Surrounding ourselves with good things, or being surrounded by good people? And where does our relationship with God fit in? What is an abundant life? What would your answer be? What would my answer be? And is our answer different from what Jesus teaches about what it means to truly live? And if our answer is different from His, why is it different? Where do our ideas about the good life come from?

Every movie and show that we watch, everything we read, all the media that we consume is constantly communicating to us certain ideas about what’s important in life, shaping and influencing our own desires, even shaping what we perceive as needs and essentials. Every commercial and advertisement is trying to sell you something, convince you that your life is incomplete, that it would be so much better or easier or carefree if we would save some money on our car insurance, or if we had some new non-stick and indestructible pans for our kitchen, or the latest iPhone with the best and cheapest provider. Do we ever think about how much we’ve been influenced by the world around us, often by those trying to make a profit from us?

But Jesus, the Good Shepherd, takes nothing from us to enrich Himself. Instead, He gives. Everything. What is an abundant life? And what do our actions—how we spend our time, where we spend our energy, what we spend our money on—what do our actions say about what we really think is the answer to what makes for a good life? This summer, my parents will be celebrating 50 years of marriage. All through my life it’s been clear to me that they value things differently than the world around us, with every reaction I would witness when I’d say that I’m the youngest of nine kids. Even most other Catholics I met seemed to value things differently. And if you’d ask my parents why they had so many kids, using contraception never entered their minds. For one thing, contraception is gravely sinful, but even beyond that, I think, for my parents, it was more about their deep trust in God, that God would provide if they were willing to work. And because of their trust in God, they were willing to accept any and all that God would entrust to them.

I can’t even begin to describe how abundant a life God has given to my parents because they really choose to follow the Good Shepherd, or how abundant a life God has given to me and to my siblings through their generosity. My parents never felt the need to pay for everything for us, to pay for our college. Far more important to them was to educate us on how to work, how to save, how to stand on our own two feet, how to earn scholarships by really studying and understanding, by applying ourselves to whatever we chose to do. I can’t thank my parents enough for all the lessons they taught me, of what’s really important in life. All that world has to offer in this life is just so boring, so overrated, and as St. Paul puts it, all that the world offers is as so much garbage when compared with the surpassing riches of Jesus Christ.

In our first reading, St. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, calls upon the crowds: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Repent and be baptized, every one of you.” Since the very beginning of the Church, catholic Christians have always been called to live differently, to value things differently from the world around us. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, through the teachings and sacraments of His Catholic Church offers us a truly more abundant life. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried” (G.K. Chesterton). Jesus continues to call each one of us by name, and if we would follow Him, leaving the world behind, He would lead us to greener pastures and a life more abundant than we could ever ask or imagine.

Bishop’s Little Hat

Inquiry, April 2020

If you’ve been watching the Bishop’s TV Mass, you may have noticed he actually has two hats, one that’s pointed (called a miter) and a much smaller fuchsia hat. This smaller hat is called a skull cap or zucchetto (Italian for “little gourd,” either because gourd is another name for one’s head or because the hat tends to have seams/ridges like a pumpkin). I have a black zucchetto I wear occasionally, though not during any liturgies. Cardinals have red ones. The Pope’s is white.

The original purpose was to cover one’s tonsure (clerical haircut). Tonsure used to be the first step or initiation into the clerical state. Why or how the practice originated, I am not sure, but may be related in some way even to the practice of the Nazirite vow of the Old Testament (Numbers 6:1-21), practiced also by St. Paul and some early Christians (Acts 18:18; 21:20-24). The main idea is that the hair cut and offered represents the time of one’s life offered to God. Other possible origins relate to the practice of shaving the heads of slaves in antiquity (even as St. Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ” in Romans 1:1). St. Jerome attested to this connection in the 4th or 5th century. Another possibility was that shaving one’s head was a sign of grieving in many cultures (Micah 1:16), a reminder that we live on earth as a sort of “exile,” in a “valley of tears,” as the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen) says, until we reach our heavenly homeland. Certain religious orders keep their tonsure more conspicuous, like many of the Franciscans. St Anthony’s hair did not just grow naturally only around the ridge of his head.

So the little cap was used to keep the part of the head that was bare—either from religious tonsure or natural tonsure (balding)—to keep it warm in the big, stone, often cold churches and chapels. The zucchetto is removed during the Eucharistic Prayer and any time Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is exposed upon the altar or in a monstrance as a sign of reverence to Christ. It’s still customary for men to remove their hats when inside buildings, especially while inside churches. Clerics have a few hats that are worn liturgically, even inside (the priest’s biretta, and the Bishop’s miter, and obviously, his zucchetto), but even the small zucchetto is removed when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

Things like this often arise for practical purposes (keeping the bald spot warm) and theological explanations are often ascribed later. Because of its connection to tonsure and admission to the clerical state, the zucchetto serves as a reminder of religious vows or priestly promises and the duties of a cleric, especially the promise to pray, the promise of chaste celibacy, and the promise of obedience to those who are above us: for a priest, his own bishop and the Pope; for a bishop, the Pope; and for everyone, God.

New Eyes to See the Cross

Homily, Easter Sunday 3A

I’ve never been very good at picking out gifts for other people. Maybe it’s not always the case, but for me, I think it has a lot to do with my being the youngest in my family for so many. For a long time, I wasn’t really expected to give a lot of presents, and then when I did, it was almost always for people older than me. So by the time my nieces and nephews came around, I really didn’t have much experience. When I was still at Holy Spirit Parish, my niece in Sioux Falls was having a birthday party and I was sure what to bring. I had a little Christmas tree in my office and thought, “Maybe she can use it as a nightlight.” I found out later, though, that the lights had already stopped working. My other siblings are much better at giving presents. For the baptism of our nieces and nephews, one of my sisters often gives them a wall cross that looks like it’s made out of kids’ alphabet blocks—you may have seen one before—the blocks spell out “I ‘heart’ Jesus” and “Jesus hearts/loves me.”

A very nice gift to hang in a child’s nursery, but I often think of how far removed it looks from what the actual and original experience of the cross was for those in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. Most of us grow up seeing crosses or crucifixes pretty much anywhere, in churches and in our homes, in cemeteries and in greeting cards. The cross has become a great sign and reminder of God’s love for us, but we can almost become desensitized to the fact that it is a depiction of torture and execution. To understand why the Apostles and disciples seemed to struggle so much in coming to terms with what happened to Jesus, it’s helpful for us to keep in mind the original meaning of the cross.

For those in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, the cross was the most shameful form of public execution. To be hanged naked for hours, on a hill where everyone in the city and in the surrounding areas would be able to see. The more modern gallows or electric chair would be much more humane. And those who died upon a cross were always seen as cursed by God and by man. It was unthinkable that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for and expecting all this time, the chosen and perfect One sent by God to redeem Israel, it was unthinkable that the Christ would die upon a cross. Even Muslims, who erroneously view Jesus as merely a good man and a Prophet of God, really can’t handle the fact that He died on the Cross. Such a thing would never happen to a Prophet of God. They usually say that someone else went in place of Jesus to die on the cross instead of Him. No one besides Jesus Himself was expecting such an end to His life or to the life of any Messiah or Holy One of God, so it’s not surprising that a few days later we have these two disciples on the road to Emmaus talking about the crucifixion and then saying, “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel,” taking as fairly obvious that anyone who dies on a cross is thereby disqualified from being the Messiah and Redeemer. The reports that he had risen from the dead seem only to add to their confusion.

Now before we think that we would have caught on a lot sooner than these disciples, let’s think of all the times that we’ve experienced crosses in this life, illnesses, setbacks, tragedies, pandemics, corrupt systems that seem to be stacked against us, and how many times when we encounter these obstacles do we almost immediately start to question, “What have I done to deserve this? God must be punishing me for something. He must not love me like I thought He did. Why would God put someone He loves through all this?”

You see, most of us, like the disciples before us, just can’t wrap our minds around the mystery of suffering, how any good can come from it. Most of us believe, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether we admit it or not, in what is called the prosperity gospel or the theory of retribution, that those who do good and are faithful to God should enjoy God’s blessings and protection, even in this earthly life, and that if those blessings of health or wealth or prosperity are taken away, it’s because we’ve done something wrong, or God doesn’t love us like He used to. So for Jesus to die upon the cross seemed to be compelling evidence to His first disciples that He wasn’t actually as perfect or as innocent as everyone had thought.

So how do we have our eyes opened? How does the Cross of Christ change for us from being an undeniable curse into being the greatest of gifts entrusted to us by God? Only real faith and a radical shift in our perspective, surrendering to God’s will for our lives, can allow us to persevere in seeing God’s love amid the crosses of this life, to see God’s love for us expressed in a special way even through our sharing in the trials and sufferings of Christ, even as Jesus was the One to redeem Israel precisely through His death on the Cross and not in spite of it. For the first disciples, it took the power of the Holy Spirit to open their minds to the meaning of Sacred Scripture. It took the power of Christ’s Resurrection to lift them up from their fears. I know in my own life, at different times, I’ve often been afraid of becoming too holy, drawing too close to God, because I saw how much so many of the great Saints have suffered throughout history, but the love of God transforms our sufferings. So what’s still holding us back from giving ourselves entirely to Christ, surrendering ourselves completely into the Father’s hands even as Jesus did upon the Cross? What comfort or convenience do we still love more than we love God?

Permission to Grieve

Homily, Funeral of Travis, 39

First, on behalf of St. Anthony Parish, I want to extend to all the family and friends of Travis our heartfelt condolences and a promise to continue to pray for the repose of his soul and that those who mourn his loss would find consolation in God. Over this past week or since I received the news, I’ve been wondering what I should say, or trying to imagine what this must be like especially for N. (wife) and N. (son), what I would most be needing to hear. Of course I can’t imagine what this must be like for you, or for Travis’s sisters or parents, or even for his friends. Travis was one of a kind, and so the grief of losing him is particular to each one of you. But what I most want to convey to you this morning and what I think is most important for us to hear in the face of tragedy is that it’s okay to be sad. It’s normal. It’s okay to be angry. It’s normal in this situation. It’s not fair to have to bury a son, a brother, a husband, a dad, when he’s only 39 years old. It’s not fair. It’s okay to be negative about this.

I think too often we feel pressured to move too quickly to try and put a positive spin on everything. We almost don’t even give ourselves permission or time to really grieve. Certain cultures have more established customs at observing formal times of mourning. In the Bible, it’s usually around 30 days that they observe this time of grieving after experiencing a significant loss. Sometimes the whole nation would be in mourning, like after the death of Moses. They might wear black or dark colors, or wear their hair differently, even as visible signs to the people around them that they’ve lost someone very dear to them.

Even the Church has shied away from some of these customs more recently, and not always helpfully. Black vestments used to be standard at funerals, expressing solidarity with those who are still coming to grips with a significant loss and not just glossing over that reality. Now we often see white vestments at funerals, meant to point us to the Resurrection of Jesus, but we know the reality is, it might take more than three days, more than thirty days, to start to experience something of the Resurrection after such a loss. And that’s okay. Give yourself permission to really grieve.

And when we pray, give to God whatever is on your heart. God wants you. He doesn’t want what you think you’re supposed to be. He wants you. When you’re sad, He wants to hear about it. When you’re angry, express that to God. Too often when we go to pray, I think we have this feeling like we just have to be thankful and pretend that everything’s great when we talk to God, but that’s not actually what we find in the Bible. Job spends a lot of his time complaining to God and wrestling with why tragedies happen to those who don’t deserve it. Jeremiah and his Book of Lamentations are definitely not bubbling over with positivity. And of the 150 Psalms, the Prayerbook of the Bible, over 40 % of the Psalms could be characterized as Psalms of Complaint. I hope you feel comfortable complaining to God because He wants to hear from you even when that’s all that’s in our heart to give Him. Or if all that we can manage is to sit with God in silence.

The other issue I’d like to address is that an accident is just that: an accident. This wasn’t part of anybody’s plan. This wasn’t anybody’s fault. This wasn’t anything that God wanted to happen. It’s tragic. It doesn’t make sense. But God is with you through this. And He will give you what you need to carry on. I’ve always loved depictions of the Pieta. We have one right here on the left side of the church. Just to contemplate everything that was in the heart of Mary in those moments, to see her beloved Son and Lord cut down in the prime of His life. Please ask our Mother Mary to draw close to you during this time. Trust that she knows something of what you’re experiencing right now. And trust that God will give you the strength to bear it, even as He gave Mary every grace in suffering. And entrust Travis, your son, your brother, your husband, your dad, your friend, into her gentle arms.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

Humbled by Trust

Homily, Easter Sunday 2A

Before the events of today’s Gospel, the last time that Jesus had been gathered together with His disciples in the upper room was, of course, for the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus foretold the betrayal that one of them would carry out, but Peter had proclaimed that he would follow Jesus even if that meant having to die with Him, and the Gospel says, all the rest of the disciples made similar professions of their constancy and willingness to suffer. But by the time we see the Twelve on Good Friday, all of them, except for John, had run away and abandoned Jesus. The Good Shepherd was struck and put to death, and His sheep scattered. Judas had betrayed Him. Three times, Peter had denied any knowledge of Him. In the hour of His greatest need, these chosen men who had left everything to follow Him, they finally abandoned their Lord and Savior to public execution by the Romans on the wood of the Cross. Maybe one of the reasons why the Apostles were slow to believe or didn’t want to believe the reports that Jesus had really risen from the dead, was because they were afraid of what He would say or do to them after what they had done, or failed to do, for him on Good Friday. Desertion is a serious crime.

Now imagine if you had been through what Jesus went through, and these Twelve whom you had chosen and invested in for three years had all turned tail and fled during your Hour of greatest need. What do you think would be your first words to them, the next time you saw them? What are the first words of Jesus to His Apostles that we hear in today’s Gospel? Instead of scolding them or asking them where they were while He was being handed over to death, His first words to them are, “Peace be with you.” And when He had shown them His hands and His side to let them know that it was really Him, Jesus even says to them a second time, “Peace be with you.” He not only tries to comfort them after they had so miserably failed to support Him, Jesus even goes on to entrust to them His own sacred mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And He breathed upon them the Holy Spirit, the very life of God.

This is the Divine Mercy that we celebrate today, the infinite mercy of God. Jesus never gives up on us. Even when we have abandoned Him, and denied Him so many times and in so many ways through our words and actions, through our sins, His invitation always remains. His peace is always ready to console us and even to entrust to us His own mission in the world today. We often think humility comes from being humiliated and brought low, and when we’ve let someone down the way the Apostles had abandoned Jesus, we almost want to be punished. We want Him to be mad at us, to scold us, but it often humbles us even more when we are lifted high, knowing that we don’t deserve it. When we realize once again not how angry God is, but just how patient God is with us. Just how good He is. And then to realize that despite the number of times we’ve screwed everything up, He still knows that we are capable of great good if we would finally rely on His power. He trusts us to carry out His own work in the world today, even though we’ve proven so many times to be unworthy of trust. That’s the mercy of God that humbles us, shocks us, hopefully moves us to repentance.

The incomplete, counterfeit version of mercy and love that the world tends to talk about today is merely tolerance or enabling, even indifference. But God doesn’t just put up with us or look the other way. The truly amazing thing about a God who really loves us is that Jesus wants to see us actually turn away from our sins and start to do the very same things that He Himself did during His time on earth. And God breathes upon us His own Holy Spirit, not just to cover us over superficially with the snow of His righteousness, but to really transform our minds and hearts, to redirect our desires and give us that strength to carry out the mission of Christ in our daily lives.

What is the mission of Christ that He entrusted to His Apostles, the work that He started that they were to continue? What is the mission that Jesus still entrusts to each of us today? Nothing less than to reconcile the world to God. The Holy Spirit gives each of us the strength to challenge ourselves and to look for opportunities with those we interact with on a daily basis, to challenge everyone we meet to take more seriously our relationship with God. Even if it’s not popular today to talk about or to be serious about religion, the Holy Spirit helps us to share with others our relationship with Jesus Christ, to invite others back to Mass and to Confession, to invite non-Catholics to become Catholic, to join the one Church that Jesus Himself founded.

I guarantee that it was not culturally acceptable for Peter and the Apostles after Pentecost to tell the crowds, “You crucified the Son of God. Now be baptized, every one of you, into His Name, because there is no salvation, there is no true life for any of us except through the Name and in relationship with Jesus Christ.” What Peter and the Apostles told the Jewish crowds was not culturally acceptable, but this was not a concern for them, and it should not be a concern for any disciple of Jesus Christ. If we are truly grateful for the Divine Mercy that we have received from almighty God, why are we so hesitant to share that with others, to invite others to experience that same mercy, the only life that’s worth living, in relationship with God? And when we know that our sins cannot satisfy us, why do we hesitate to leave them behind, once and for all, to finally allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds, to set us free from the mere tolerance or indifference that the world offers?

Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends each of you, to proclaim the Gospel and to reconcile sinners into right relationship with God. No one else is going to do it for us. The mission of Christ is now our mission, Christ Himself working through us. There is no other work during the course of our entire lives that is going to matter more once we reach the end. Receive the Holy Spirit, and become instruments of God’s infinite mercy.