Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Vigil, Year A: Captivating Joy and Healing Light

Welcome! I welcome all of you today, especially friends and family of our parishioners who are visiting this morning. Whether you are a daily Mass-goer or only occasionally go to Mass, you are Welcome here. We have good people here to pray alongside and support you, to answer any questions you may have and to help you build a more regular practice of your faith. I know that some people remember having a priest that they did not feel like they could go directly to with a question or concern or need. They felt like they had to send someone else to speak for them. They didn’t feel like they could knock on the door or call their priest. I am not that kind of priest. I have a formal way of celebrating Mass but that does not mean that my personality is always like that or that I want to be distant from you. You can always come to me directly with anything at all.

It is such a great joy for me to be celebrating with you this Easter Vigil, my first Easter Vigil as a pastor and as the main celebrant. Tonight’s celebration in which four adults, four candidates, will be Received into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church, will be a beautiful experience. After their own special profession of faith, and reception into the Church, they will be immediately confirmed. They will be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit who enhances and completes the graces they received in Baptism when they were younger. Finally, they will receive their first Holy Communion, in which Christ feeds them with his glorified Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine. What a miraculous night! In one continuous celebration, will be made members of the Church, soldiers for Christ, and share fully in Holy Communion!

The power of this day reaches all of our hearts wherever and whoever we are… just as it reached the hearts of St. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb; and the hearts of St. Peter and St. John, causing them to run to announce the Resurrection to the disciples. Even Catholics who rarely attend Mass, find their way back to this Easter day. Each one of us, from the daily Mass-goer, to the Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, have carried some darkness, some obstacle that Christ today wants to illuminate with his glorious Light. Today, darkness is no more; it yields to and is conquered by, the Risen Son. No matter what it is that keeps us from a deeper, more personal friendship with Christ, today He conquers it with his healing light: whether it be a doubt about our faith, or a lack of zeal or devotion, or a memory of an offense in the past that has kept you away, or the darkness of a tragedy in the family or of frustration with yourself – no matter the darkness, the healing Light of Christ shines on it today.

Have you all ever been to Mammoth Cave in south central Kentucky? I remember going on a field trip there in high school. One of the shticks they do is to lead a group of people into the heart of the cave and then turn out all the lights. Then the tour guide asks the group to put their hands in front of their faces and try to see them. It’s no use, in the heart of that cave, there is no light to get used too. Our eyes will never adjust, he says, not matter how long we sit there. The moment you can start to feel the tension in the cave, the tour guide slowly turns the lights back on much to everyone’s great relief. We got a sense of this earlier, when all of the lights of the Church were off, representing the individual and collective darkness that mankind suffers without the Light of Christ. Soon though the Easter Candle, lit from the Easter fire, showed us the way.

The temptation for each of us, though, is to just get used to the darkness rather than let the Light of Christ illuminate it. We become acclimated to bumping around in the night – it becomes our new normal. And I’m speaking for all of us here today, myself included. We get used to the same bad habit, guilty pleasure, personality quirk, or weakness and we forget that the Light of Christ is much stronger than those things. We forget that the Light of Christ has actually already won. We tend to think of ourselves as downtrodden and hoping for victory, rather than victorious and hoping to maintain the victory

Don’t let the devil rob you of your joy. Again, everyone from the daily Mass-goer to the Christmas-and-Easter Catholic has something holding them back. Today, no matter what it is, let Christ’s Light heal and conquer it. Today is a day of joy and gladness – a joy and gladness that lasts for 50 days, and God-willing well beyond. This is the day when Christ works in our hearts with His grace, getting us more used to him, the Light of the World, than to the darkness and making new, or deepened, faithfulness to Him and to His Church our new normal. Today he leads us and he not only turns on the light, but walks us out of the cave, and he not only keeps the Easter fire burning, but leads us into the Church and into the center of the divine life of the Trinity.

In that great movie, The Mission, Mendoza, a slave hunter on the cusp of conversion, says to the Spanish Jesuit, Fr. Gabriel: “For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough.” Fr. Gabriel replies, “There is. But do you dare to try it?” That is our Lord’s challenge to you and me: Do we dare try to let His Light, His Joy, His Redemption change and transform our lives?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday, Year A: The Passion of the Lord Comforts the Afflicted and Afflicts the Comfortable

As I have examined my own spiritual life and interacted with others at many different parishes throughout the years, one thing most evident to me is that a true concept of sin is quite hard to find. I think we all, myself included, at different times in our lives vacillate between a lack of a sense of sin on one hand and a scrupulosity or shame on the other hand. But, it is when we are not vacillating, when we are not moving from one to the other as we seek with God’s help to find the truth about sin in the middle, then we are really in trouble.

When the lack of the sense of sin becomes concrete and determines our way of life then we have started down a troubling path indeed. Often this isn’t a consciously chosen path, though. It simply happens when a person coasts through each day, one after the next, unaware of the minor sins he commits that often add up to unnoticed serious sins. This person may not go to confession in years but when he does it is very difficult for him to think of specific sins he has committed. An equally troubling path is the scrupulous person. Once scrupulosity becomes a concrete way of life it settles from the soul into the psyche and begins to resemble obsessive compulsive disorder. Minor sins become serious sins and not even God’s mercy in Confession or the Eucharist is enough. Then shame builds, keeping this person from the sacraments entirely.

Thank God for Good Friday. Good Friday is one of the most powerful days for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. One of the reasons it is “Good,” I think, is because it helps us to apprehend the truth of sin and forgiveness. For one who has lost or is losing a sense of sin in his life, Good Friday is a yearly reminder that it was not only the sins of the Romans and Jews of Jesus’ time that nailed him to the cross, but each one of our sins too. Recently I was reading a spiritual commentary on the liturgical year that vividly described the role our sins had to play in the drama of the passion and death of Jesus. The following excerpt definitely afflicts the comfortable:

“Imagine that divine face: swollen by blows, covered in spittle, torn by thorns, furrowed with blood, here fresh blood, there ugly dried blood. And, since the sacred Lamb had his hands tied, he could not use them to wipe away the blood running into his eyes, and so those two luminaries of heaven were eclipsed and almost blinded… Finally, so disfigured was he that one could not make out who he was; he scarcely seemed human; he had become an altarpiece depicting suffering, painted by those cruel artists, producing this pitiful figure to plead his case before his enemies… Therefore, sins – yours and mine – were the executioners who bound him and lashed him and crowned him with thorns and put him on the cross. So you can see how right it is for you to feel the enormity and malice of yours sins, for it was these which really caused so much suffering” (Navarre Commentary, Jn 19:1-3)

Such a reflection is a reality check isn’t it? The minor sins that we commit each day, that we don’t give much thought too – when seen in that perspective, cause us to take them more seriously and to turn to God more often for his mercy and help. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin,” the Letter to the Hebrews explains. “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Heb 4:15-16). Receiving this mercy and help frequently in Confession is the best way to avoid one of the most clever tricks that the evil one plays on us: the attitude that sin doesn’t really matter and that I never really ever do anything wrong. A monthly examination of conscience and confession will help us become more astute observers of sins in our lives and give us continual grace to avoid these sins and grow in holiness. This more examined life brings comfort to our Lord’s pierced Heart.

In Christ’s Passion and Death, there is not only gruesome reminders of the gravity of sin but also much comfort for the afflicted. Those who are scrupulous or filled with shame are also corrected. We find St. Peter, the head of the apostles, falling asleep three times rather than praying and later denying him three times. But we also see him express repentance and upon Jesus’ Resurrection, state three times his love – a love that brings him forgiveness and makes him a pillar of the Church. Throughout our lives, “In this adventure of love,” St. Josemaria Escriva writes, “we should not be depressed by our falls, not even by serious falls, if we go to God in the sacrament of Penance contrite and resolved to improve. A Christian is not a neurotic collector of good behavior reports. Jesus Christ our Lord was moved as much by Peter’s repentance after his fall as by John’s innocence and faithfulness. Jesus understands our weakness and draws us to himself on an inclined plane. He wants us to make an effort to climb a little each day” (Navarre, Jn 18:27). Again, Confession is helpful for the scrupulous person too if it can be seen for what it really is – as the way in which Christ’s victory over sin is shared and applied to each one of us. With God’s grace we can be victorious over sin too! Then when victory brings confidence and mercy softens the heart, harshness with oneself can be relieved. Then guilt can be seen as a good thing that motivates one to renewed union with God and the Church rather than as shame that causes isolation and alienation.

The grace of Reconciliation that Christ won for us today helps us settle into the middle, into the truth of sin and forgiveness. We thank God that we have a heavenly mother to help us with this also. After Christ, we should have a deep, personal friendship with his Mother as well. Jesus from the cross gave her to his beloved disciple and so to all of us. When John took her into his own home, he took her into everything that makes up his inner life. “Mary certainly wants us to invoke her, to approach her confidently, to appeal to her as our mother” (Navarre, Jn 19:26-27) – whether we’re feeling lax or harsh – so that she can teach us about her Son and how to take sin seriously while still living a life of joy.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Palm Sunday, Year A: Living A Deep and Meaningful Life

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Homily after the Commemoration of the Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem

This morning, like the children who cheered in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” when they saw Jesus healing the blind and lame (Mt 21:14-15) – we too shout out with unbridled joy, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mt 21:9) And just as on Christmas morning when a multitude of angels praised the Eternal Word who processed into our lives as a child, singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” (Lk 2:14) so too does a multitude today sing out, “hosanna in the highest!” (Mt 21:9) as our Lord processes among us. From the beginning of Jesus’ life, toward the end, all people from children to adults, sing his praises and bless his Name. But, recently our Lord has been cautioning those he healed to not tell anyone, and he has been hiding from persecution, because his hour had not yet come. But now it is nearly here. Having seen his miracles ourselves and in our own lives, we cannot hold back our cheers. Neither does he desire to hide any more. It has begun. Nothing can stop him now.

Homily After the Gospel

The time from the beginning of Lent through Easter Sunday is marked with a rapid succession of external rituals in the life of a Catholic. We remember Ash Wednesday when we received the blessed ashes on our foreheads. Today we receive palm branches and we fold them into neat little crosses. On Holy Thursday we have the foot-washing. On Good Friday we kneel and kiss the Cross. And Saturday night, the Easter Vigil, is filled with incense, chants, exclamations, water, oil, and light. All of these, even the deadening silence and emptiness of the altar on Good Friday, are rich experiences that flood our senses.

It somehow makes sense that we come in such larger numbers to these liturgies than to the common Sunday obligation. Our Lord made us to be sensing beings and uses our senses to help us know him. But what will we do when Easter is over and the rest of the liturgical year marches on? What will we do when all the sensational things give way to the sobriety and noble simplicity that most often marks the Holy Mass?

We have been re-examining our Faith throughout this season of Lent, but now we are called to do so in light of these rich symbols. We must remember that all of the external rituals of our faith are not ends in and of themselves; rather they remind us of the deeper spiritual realities that they signify. Religious sentiments are good and appropriate in response to these beautiful things for they often serve as invitations to more fully enter into our faith. But our experiences of these things must not stop at the external level or the level of sentiment. We must consider the underlying spiritual effect that is taking place: what the ashes mean, what the palm branches mean, what the foot-washing, the cross, the water, oil and light meanwhat difference they make for our faith.

We are made for deeper realities, for solemnity, for transcendence. Deep down we are longing for something greater than ourselves. Some of the Jews of Jesus time, though, were only caught up with the spectacle of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem; they had not let Him enter into their hearts. St. Matthew describes how his persecutors spat in his face and struck him while some slapped him saying “Prophesy for us, Christ: who is it that struck you?” Later they jeered at him, “Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.” Of course they have no faith him and have no deeper interest in prophecy or miracles – they are only concerned with external signs and wonders.

Today our Lord processes triumphantly into Jerusalem not upon a team of warhorses along a path of gold but upon a peaceful colt and donkey along a path of cloaks and palm branches. This he did to the shouts of praise of a “very large crowd” (Mt 21:8). But, only a few days later, this same group, riled up by the high priests, will shout for his crucifixion. Pilate said to them, “What shall I do with Jesus called Christ?
Why [crucify him]? What evil has he done?” “They only shouted the louder, ‘Let him be crucified!’” (Mt 27:22-23).

It’s easy to shout with praise and acclamation to Jesus when everyone around us is shouting praises too. But when people disperse enough ill will, are we quick to condemn him? Do I preach Christ, and Him Crucified only when I am surrounded by attentive parishioners or brother priests? What do I say to those who disagree with Church teaching or try to persecute the Church? What about when I’m with friends or family and my guard is down? Do I praise him still?

How can we live differently today because of the scenario that has unfolded before us? You and I have to make sure that our faith doesn’t stop at the externals. If we live our lives no deeper than the surface level, then we are easily swayed by those who have the loudest voice. But when we allow the external signs of our faith to take us deeper then we come to know the truth of our faith and come to know Christ for who He really is. Then Christ can begin to mold and transform us into Catholics who are always faithful, always at His right hand, even if we are the only ones standing up for Him, even when there is “darkness… over the whole land” (Mt 27:45).

If we can go deeper, we can be Catholics who wear ashes to show contrition; who wash feet to honor the commandment to Love; who are sprinkled with water to reclaim our Baptism; who receive oil to be sanctified, healed, and strengthened; and who light candles to show the world that Christ is the Light. We never use symbols because “that’s just what we’ve always done” – we use them because their deep and underlying meanings make us holy and glorify God. We use them because they flow from our faith and stir up our faith. We use symbols in order to be empowered to stay true to Him.

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Monday, March 10, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent, Year A: Do Good, Avoid Evil

At first glance we may ask, “What good could possibly come from Jesus’ actions today? He fasted for forty days and forty nights but then he was hungry. And why must we hear about Satan tempting him? It is so unpleasant for us to imagine. But, out of his great humility, Jesus submitted himself to these things to illuminate one of the most basic aspects of human life, one with which we are all painfully aware: the temptation to sin. He doesn’t just exhort us to do good and avoid evil from an ivory tower, unfamiliar with how difficult this can be. He enters this crucible himself, to show us how to pass the test. Only if we are willing to share in his suffering with him through Lent will we be able to share in his glory through Easter.

Every year at this time, the Church instructs us to pray more, to fast on certain days, to give up meat on others, to be more charitable in our support of the Church, and so forth. But equally important is the renewed commitment to avoid sin in our lives. It is a topic we don’t like to talk much about, but we must double our efforts to conquer the temptations to sin, which now more than ever assail us from every side because our sights are set on the Cross and the salvation that it brings. The devil hates to see us with our eyes fixed on the Cross and we can be sure he too will be doubling his efforts in order to turn us away from it. Indeed his temptations are quite horrible.

Let us not despair over being tempted, tempted to eat too much food, to spend too much money, to waste too much time, to love too little; no one is alone in these, and no one is immune from them. Even Jesus the Son of God, was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Mark’s Gospel says that “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” The Holy Spirit threw him right into the middle of temptation so that he could begin, in earnest, his life’s mission and so that we could one day see The Way through and out of temptation.

In our case, God allows us to be tempted out of compassion for us, so that we might grow in faith. God learns nothing by the trials he allows us to face. He is not sitting up in heaven waiting to see the results. But we certainly learn something, of the level of our commitment, our progress in the spiritual life, where our true affections lie, the nature of our desires, and the depth of our love for God and our brothers and sisters. Every temptation poses the question, “Am I for God or against Him? Will I say ‘Yes’ to Him or ‘No’?” Every Yes exercises our faith and makes it stronger. Every single choice for God rather than ourselves steeps us deeper in virtue and his gifts and burns away our affections for sin.[1]
 
Even though we are constantly tempted by the devil, by other people, by unfortunate circumstances in life that are outside of ourselves, God’s will is never thwarted by these occasions. Rather, he wills that every temptation be an occasion for grace. And with every temptation God always provides the way out, but we must have the courage to take it rather than rely on ourselves or give in. And we must build ourselves up with spiritual tools so that we will be able to choose the way out. We often choose sin time and time again, unable to bear the trial, because we come to the occasion crippled by our not being spiritually prepared.

My advice to you today would be that when you are tempted to sin, no matter what it is, great or small, turn the devil on his head! You can foil the devil, just like Jesus did in the desert. After every time Satan tempted our Lord he always replied with Scripture, the Word of God. Even when Satan tried to manipulate Scripture and quote it himself, to fool Jesus, Jesus quoted it right back at him, accurately and truthfully. The devil didn’t have a chance in the face of the Truth and he was forced to leave. Any time the devil’s temptation becomes an occasion for prayer or Scripture his knees are chopped out right from under him.

In the end, it is often not really about the object of the temptation at all. It is never about infidelity, or food, or alcohol or whatever, it is about something much deeper. What we often really want is simply intimacy, intimacy with God and the ones we love. What we really want is just to give and receive love. What we really want is to belong or to be happy, especially to be happy. But sometimes it is the case that we have chosen wrongly so many times that we forget how to properly satisfy these deepest desires (which are good and true). This Satisfaction is only Our Lord, Jesus Christ who never abandons us, especially in our times of greatest need. He truly can fulfill us, infinitely better than any act of lust, overeating, or overdrinking can.

This Lent, enter the desert with our Lord bravely, yet trusting that “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you” and “With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Enter Lent bravely and courageously, because you are humble and reliant on him. Enter Lent believing that this year, with His help, we can overcome our temptations, we can do better, we can be purified. Through our prayer, acts of charity, and penances, we will sacrifice and suffer with Him so that we can, even in this life, experience a share in his victory and his glory.

[1] Cf. Scott Hahn, Understanding “Our Father: Biblical Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, p. 56, 58, 60.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday–Don’t Just Offer Something Up, Offer Something For

This morning, as we enter into the Season of Lent, Jesus sets the tone for the attitude that we should have. He says, “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” meaning, do not be self-satisfied our puffed up about what you do this Lent. Profound humility is the way to enter into and proceed through the Lenten Season.

Today I am struck by the words of the final blessing that I will offer at the end of Mass; I hope that you will listen for it. It says, “Pour out your spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.” That word “compunction” isn’t a word we hear very often. It has the same root as “puncture” and so praying that God will pour out on us a spirit of compunction probably means that we are praying for our inflated egos to be punctured so that we can be purified and disciplined for ongoing conversion. Lent is the great spiritual equalizer; no matter who we are, we are all together in need of the purification that this season brings. We are all together in need of practices that subdue our passions and impulses, practices that tell our bodies to take a step down so our souls can take a step forward. St. Leo the Great said, “Appropriate fasting and almsgiving, together called works of mercy, are praiseworthy and pious actions; in times of inequality of wealth and possessions, the souls of all the faithful may be one and equal in their desire for good.”

I think this “desire for good” that St. Leo says brings us all together during Lent is what it is all about. It sounds like Jesus in our Gospel is discouraging giving alms, praying publicly, or fasting while putting on ashes. But what he is trying to discourage is doing these things with impure motives, with an intention to be recognized rather than with a desire for good. We must certainly give alms during Lent, give gifts to the poor, or to those we love – but not in order to “win the praise of others.”

We must certainly pray publicly – Lent is filled with public prayer like the Stations of the Cross which can serve to motivate others to pray. But we must not do them simply “so that others may see them.” We must certainly fast during Lent and wear ashes today as so many of you have come to do, but not simply so that we “may appear to others to be fasting.” We must do these things only out of a desire for good. That good is our own ongoing conversion and the salvation of the poor and those we love.

This desire for good helps us to see that our Lenten prayers, almsgiving, and fasting aren’t only about us. Often Lent can become a very self-centered season – but then that just serves to inflate our egos, which, we remember, need to be punctured. When you pray, when you offer something up or do acts of charity, when you fast, do these not only to advance your own salvation, but the salvation of others as well. Don’t just offer something up, offer something for.

We are the members of the mystical Body of Christ with Christ as our head. He offered the ultimate sacrifice, His own Body and Blood, for us out of a desire for good, the spiritual good of our salvation. Because we are His members we too can offer sacrifice for the spiritual good of others. And we offer sacrifices, gifts, good things, to God in Lent, not sins. For example, if you want to purify yourself of laziness, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not laziness but five minutes each day of Scripture reading for the good of my grandmother who is sick.” Or if you want to purify yourself of lust, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not lustful actions but reading one article each day from the Catechism for my friend who I know is struggling with this.” Or if you want to purify yourself of gossip, pray “Lord, I will offer up to you not gossip but saying one nice thing about someone each day for the salvation of my son who has left the Church.”

Don’t just offer up sins, offer gifts for those you love. The very act works for good in us too. Instead of simply not doing some sin or excess in your life, start doing the opposing virtue. Let a desire for good motivate your Lenten practices. Being the Mystical Body of Christ makes this possible and gives us hope that if we share in His sacrifice then we will one day share in His glory.