Sunday, August 15, 2010

Homily for Solemn High Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

    Some of you may be wondering who I am today. I have attended in choir at this Mass a few times but this is the first time I have Assisted at the altar. My name is Deacon Matthew Hardesty and I am a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Louisville. I was just ordained a Deacon in April. It is a great honor for me to Assist as the Subdeacon alongside my good friends Fr. Paul Beach, the celebrant, and Fr. Fred Klotter, your pastor and the Deacon for today. Add to that, it has been a good while since a Solemn High Mass has been celebrated here at St. Martin's and the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the most beautiful Feast days that Holy Mother Church celebrates. This is truly a monumental occasion.

    After hearing Fr. Klotter chant the Gospel reading, I fondly remembered an inscription on the baldachino standing over the altar at the seminary. It is the first phrase of Mary's canticle of praise to God - Magnificat anima mea Dominum – My soul magnifies the Lord. At every daily Mass at the seminary, going back to when I first entered seminary in August of 2005, I have read that phrase and pondered its meaning. What does it mean for one's very soul to magnify the Lord? What does it mean for all of us today on the Feast of the Assumption of the B.V.M.?

    The answer begins in the Old Testament with the widow Judith, who was the object of the epistle that I chanted. We hear her being praised for her victory over the Assyrians on behalf of the Israelites, but we do not hear exactly what she did. Due to her splendid beauty and surpassing wisdom, she was able to get close to the enemy king. She had great courage and faith in the Lord's protection and strength. When the king was asleep she took his sword and decapitated him, much to the horror of their enemies who fled in fear and were defeated. The Israelites praised her as blessed "above all women upon the earth." They declared that God had magnified her name on that fateful day and that her praise shall come from the mouths of men forever. Judith was considered the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the honor of her people.

    The Church presents Judith to us today so that we might turn our eyes to the woman par excellence, most resplendent in beauty, most blessed among women, whom all generations shall call blessed – the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the glory, the joy, the honor of Israel, too be sure, but also of all mankind. By her courage in saying Yes to becoming the Mother of God and by her faith and hope in God's promises she brought about a victory much greater than one nation over another. As Judith won victory for Israel by a fatal blow to the head of the enemy king, Mary brings about the victory over Satan by bearing our Savior, Jesus Christ, who crushes the head of sin and death underfoot. The Lord God prophesied to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." But, Mary does not magnify herself by her virtues. She sings, "my soul magnifies the Lord." What does this mean? It means that her entire life joyfully proclaims to all generations our Lord's conclusive victory over sin and death.

    Due to the fall of our first parents, sin took hold over the beginning and the end of human life. At his conception, man inherits original sin and what we call concupiscence or the tendency toward sin. And at his very end he must suffer the wages of sin which are death and the decomposition of his body. But, the Blessed Virgin Mary shines forth as a beacon from God's heavenly kingdom, showing us even now, before Christ's second coming, that he is completely victorious over sin and death. The Lord, by Mary's Immaculate Conception, saved her from original sin before she could be sullied by it, thus showing his victory over the beginning of life. By freeing her from the snares of concupiscence, he prepared her to live a life free from actual committed sin. And by assuming her body and soul into heaven he showed his victory over the end of life. Mary was saved completely from the dominion and the bonds of sin and death.

    When Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption in 1950 he defined the essence of the dogma to be thus: "The Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death" (Munificentissimus Deus). This is what Catholics must believe. But what does this have to do with us?

    First, Mary's Assumption is the guarantee that those who share in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, will share in his glory. Even though the Fathers of the Church differ on this point, I believe that Mary did die. But, the key difference between her death and ours is that our death will happen by necessity because we are fallen and sinful. On the other hand, Mary's death was not by necessity because she had no sin, weather that be original sin or committed sin. Her death was a grace from God so that she might be conformed to her Son even in his death. And her death lasted only an instant, in order to serve this purpose and in order that she might continue to be conformed to him in eternal life. Her body was joined to her soul in heaven at the moment of her death, so that it would not know decay, and so that she would not have to wait for her Son's second coming, wherein all of our bodies will be joined to our souls in heaven, hell, or purgatory. Her body and soul were immediately assumed into heaven.

If the kingdom of heaven has a king, that is Jesus Christ, then it must have a queen, the Blessed Virgin Mary. By sharing in Christ's sufferings at the foot of the cross, and by sharing in his death by a singular grace from God, she proved to us that Jesus keeps his promises: she shares in his heavenly glory. If we offer up our sufferings, great and small, to the Father and die to ourselves, our passions, and our own will, each and every day, we too will share in Christ's glory alongside our Blessed Mother who reflects the glory of her Son every time we look to her.

    The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary also teaches us the honor due to our father and mother. Jesus followed the fourth commandment to its ultimate degree by bringing his mother, body and soul, quickly to his side at the moment of her death. He crowned her queen of heaven and earth. As Mary described in her canticle of praise, "He that is mighty, hath done great things to me; … he hath exalted the humble." Fr. Matthias Scheeben, the brilliant German theologian of the mid 1800's, described beautifully the honor that the Son of God showed His Mother: "As He on the third day had raised from the sepulcher that holy and incorrupt body which He had taken from her and had united to His own person, so also this mother was snatched from the grave and conformed to her Son; and as He had descended to her, so she, as being closely united with that greater and more perfect tabernacle, was taken up into heaven." How do we honor our father and mother, especially as they approach old age or death? Do we forget them or abandon them? Do we "honor" them by squabbling over money or inheritance? Jesus Christ is calling us today to honor our father and mother as if they were his Heavenly Father and his Blessed Mother for they have been given to us to lead us to these Holy Parents.

    When I return to seminary next week for my last year, I will again kneel in the chapel and read that inscription over the altar each and every day – Magnificat anima mea Dominum – My soul magnifies the Lord. Oremus pro invicem – Let us pray for each other, today and during this year. Let us pray that through the intercession of our Blessed Mother, Queen of Heaven and Earth, we will not magnify ourselves by our faith and works, but instead always magnify our Lord. Let us pray that through her intercession we will share in his suffering and death and so share in his glory. That through her intercession we will honor our father and mother and give them the crown that they deserve. Finally, let us pray, that through her intercession we too will be brought swiftly to the side of our Lord when we die. In the Name of the Father… Amen.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Homily 18th Sun O.T. Year C: Rich in What Matters to God

    At the seminary, the accumulation of books is the last acceptable materialism. Seminarians do not make any money. The Archdiocese, using money from various initiatives like the Building a Future of Hope Campaign and other funds, pays for our tuition, room, and board. But for anything outside of that, we rely on donations and a monthly stipend. We often cry, "Woe is me, I'm a poor seminarian" but we have a knack for accumulating books like you wouldn't believe! I think I have four whole bookshelves at the seminary, full of books. And I tell myself that I need them, or that someday I will refer to them. Many of them are in fact very useful, but most of them go unread. And so at the end of each semester, at least at St. Mary's where I study, we have a tradition of leaving things we want to get rid of at the end of the hall so that other seminarians that may need them can freely pick them up. This is a very liberating exercise. Not only does it help practically in packing up to go home, but it also relieves that spiritual and psychological burden that escalates as we – as I – accumulate more and more books and things. One feels like a 50 pound weight has been lifted off of his shoulders as he returns from the end of the hall to his room.

I pray that I don't lose this tradition – the impulse at the end of each semester to pare things down, to unload a bit, to free myself of so many things that distract me from what is most important. We see this impulse especially in the elderly and most especially in those who are preparing for death. Facing death causes one to look back at how well one has lived. "Did I live well? Did I do the right thing? Was I a good husband and father? How well did my children turn out? Will my family be OK?" All of these are questions that I have heard elderly people ask as I have visited them at home or at the hospital. And the point that many make is that the things they thought were most valuable, really aren't that valuable anymore in the grand scheme of things. Many feel a certain disappointment or embarrassment. They fought and worked so hard for so many decades in order to have a wealthy retirement or to finally enjoy all of the things they felt cheated out of as they concentrated on raising their family. Now all they want to do is be free of it all, to have peace and quiet, to see virtuous living among their children, to give and to receive love, to share the stories and the lessons they have learned. And the wisest of the elderly want to die well, detached from all of the things and all of the plans that now have little value before the eternal value of their own soul and their preparedness for eternal life.

In one of the most important encyclicals of our Catholic Social Teaching, Populorum Progressio, On the Development of Peoples, Pope Paul VI wrote, "Increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations nor of individuals. All growth is ambivalent. It is essential if man is to develop as a man, but in a way it imprisons man if he considers it the supreme good, and it restricts his vision." Our first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes began by exclaiming "Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" The Hebrew word, translated here as "vanity" really means "a breath" or "a vapor" and "vanity of vanities" is the Hebrew way of saying, "the merest breath." The author isn't talking about being "vain", he is emphasizing that the things we work so hard for in life, what Pope Paul VI called our "increased possession," are like "a breath", like "a vapor", they pass away with the wind. Those who are approaching death from sickness or old age readily see how their things will pass away like "a breath", like "a vapor" and the wisest among them are liberated, not embittered by this fact. Why can't most of us, who cannot see our death approaching, have the same liberation?

I often find that once I have finally gotten that rare book from that awesome theologian, I flip through it, put it on the shelf, and then focus on what the next book will be. The fact is, God put into man an insatiable desire for the infinite, but we try to fulfill that desire with finite things. Because we do this, we live in constant frustration, going from one thing to the next, never satisfied. But, our satisfaction will only come, even in this life, when we satisfy our infinite desire with infinite things. Perhaps we need a healthy reminder that death could come for any of us at any minute. This need not cause us to be nervous or anxious. Instead it should cause us to live each day valuing what is most important, what is infinite, what does not pass away. St. Athanasius, in his biography of St. Anthony of the Desert, wrote: "A person who lives as if he were to die every day - given that our life is uncertain by definition - will not sin, for good fear extinguishes most of the disorder of our appetites; whereas he who thinks he has a long life ahead of him will easily let himself be dominated by pleasures."

It is not a sin to be rich. We have many saints in our tradition who were kings or queens. But it is a sin to value finite things over infinite things. Our things should be instrumental toward our salvation. They should not amount too our salvation or be the source that we look to for a sense of salvation here on earth. Our lives should be characterized by an accumulation of infinite things. One should look back on us when we die and say: "Yes, he lived a life accumulating, day after day, year upon year, grace, prayer, charity toward his family and neighbors. He claimed parishioner after parishioner who decided to be a more faithful Catholic because of his example. He accumulated rosaries prayed, confessions humbly given, novenas offered, hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament. And he didn't accumulate these just so he could provide a final tally to God and say, 'Look at all that I did!' No he accumulated these spiritual things because they brought him fulfillment and happiness. They brought others relief from their burdens. They were pleasing to God." Will these things be said of us? Or instead will God say to us what he said to the foolish rich man, "'You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?' Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God."