Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Homily 1st Sun Advent Year B – Looking Forward to Christ as He Comes Toward Us

sheperd_star_born_jesus Msgr. Ronald Knox, a famous early-twentieth century English convert to Catholicism and a brilliant homilist, characterized Advent as a traveler in the night who with bleary eyes squints at the faint light of his destination ahead. Because the darkness clouds his depth perception he plods forward hoping that the light is only a few hundred yards ahead rather than a few miles. The Hebrew prophets were very much like this traveler as they looked forward to the redemption of their people and the restoration of a true king in the line of David. They did not know how long it would take for this glimmer of light to break out into perfect day, they just knew that some day it would.[1]

We’ve all had experiences like this in our journeys through life haven’t we? One example comes quickly to my mind: driving to Owensboro to visit my family. When I had parish assignments up in Louisville as a seminarian and as a deacon, and when the Sherman Minton bridge was open, I used to take I-64 W to 231 S to Owensboro. When I finally get on 231 S I can’t wait to see the glimmer of the new bridge in the distance that crosses into Daviess County. I always thank God when I arrive there.

Msgr. Knox’s point is that we should always have the attitude of “looking forward” to Christ. To help form this attitude in us, the Church gives us the four weeks of Advent. During this time we look forward to Christ’s advent, his coming, on Christmas Day. Actually the word “advent” can be broken up into the Latin phrase “ad venire” which means “to come towards.” His coming towards us at Christmas isn’t the only one we are preparing for though. Let us not forget his coming at our particular judgment at the moment of death or his Second Coming for the Last Judgment at the end of time. Both will come suddenly so we must be prepared.

But, there is another coming which could be easily forgotten because it happens so frequently: His coming in the Eucharist at this very Mass. Every Mass we attend, daily or on the weekend, is its own little Advent – just as real as Christmas morning – that we should also seriously prepare for. Praise God for the revised translations of the Missal that we begin to use today – hopefully what perhaps as become commonplace can become ever-new.  All of these “advents”, at Mass, at Christmas, at death, and at the end of time require careful and determined preparation.

The prophet Isaiah exclaims in our first reading, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” The author of our Responsorial Psalm pleads with the Lord, “Rouse your power and come to save us… Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.” St. Paul, in our second reading, instructs the Corinthians not be “lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, St. Mark’s Gospel is the most forceful of all. Our Lord pleads with his people in return, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come… May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

How then should we prepare? I would like to propose four ways – maybe you could use the acronym PERM, “P”, “E”, “R”, “M.”, standing for “Purification”, “Examination”, “Reconciliation”, and “Motivation.” Spending some quiet time before or after Mass; during Mass after the Homily or after receiving Holy Communion; or even alone before the tabernacle, or in conversation with your family at home, could help you with this exercise.

First, Purification. What are the things that make us impure and unready to receive the Lord in our hearts at Christmas? Will he find our hearts divided among cares of this world and unavailable to him? If our hearts are not pure we must make use of little acts of penance, called mortifications, that can transform our hearts into our own personal Bethlehem’s. For example, spending 15 minutes to read the accounts of the Nativity in the Gospels rather than our favorite magazine or novel can infuse our hearts with the Word of God. Or praying one decade of the rosary instead of playing our favorite video game or surfing the Internet can let our Blessed Mother, the Queen of Hearts, prepare our hearts for her Son like she prepared the manger.

So that is the “P” in P.E.R.M., “Purification.” Now the “E,” “Examination.” For this we tend to limit it to the examination of conscience that we perform before we go to Confession. And Advent is certainly a good time to renew our efforts in this exercise, to take it more seriously, to give it more thought and time and prayer. But I would like to suggest examination as a normal part of the day as well. Regular examination of our spiritual lives is the beginning of conversion and this will prepare us for a happy death, a particular advent that we need not fear. Again, St. Mark reminds us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” We can practice this, for example, when we wake up in the morning. We can ask ourselves, “How prepared am I for the responsibilities of this day? What prayer should I say, which saint should I turn to for help in today’s particular challenges?” At night before we go to sleep we can ask ourselves, “How did I do today? Did I reveal or obscure Christ to those I met? Did I place myself in occasions of sin? For what sins can I ask forgiveness before I sleep?

So now we have the “P” and the “E” of our acronym P.E.R.M, “Purification” and “Examination.” The third letter, “R”, stands for “Reconciliation.” This time I would like to focus specifically on the sacrament. I cannot say enough how crucial the sacrament of Reconciliation is in the life of a Catholic. Our whole life is characterized by a preparation and a waiting for the Lord, but especially before major feast days like Christmas and Easter. It is a traditional practice that confession lines are always longer before these holy days and priests, me included, should be patient and generous with Our Lord’s forgiveness. Frequent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, monthly or weekly, for both mortal and venial sins, can increase our sorrow for our sins, mature our acts of penance, increase our resolve against occasions of sin, and strengthen our intention to change our lives. Freedom from sin in general, sacramental grace, and the counsel of the priest strengthen us for the journey to the Light of Christ ahead of us. And Freedom from mortal sin in particular allows us to worthily receive Communion at Mass.

Finally, after Purification, Examination, and Reconciliation, we have our last letter, “M,” which stands for “Motivation.” Motivation is an Advent challenge not only to those who are non-practicing Catholics, but also for those who are heavily involved in the Church. The inactive and the active alike must ask themselves, “Why do I do what I do?” Am I inactive because of fear or ignorance? Am I active so that others can see me? Am I inactive because I am too proud to ask for help? Am I active because of the feelings I get when I can behold the results? Remember, whether we are active or inactive, our Lord judges our actions not by their results but by their motivation, by the intention of our hearts. When he comes at Mass, at Christmas, at death, and at the end of time will we receive him with pure motives?

Now we are complete: PERM, “P”, “E”, “R”, “M”: Purification, Examination, Reconciliation, and Motivation. I think these could be good spiritual exercises as we prepare together for Christmas. Then, as Msgr. Ronald Knox would conclude, we can “take the shepherd[s] for our guides, and imagine ourselves travelling with them, at dead of night, straining our eyes towards that chink of light which streams out, we know, from the cave at Bethlehem.”[2]

[1] In Conversation with God, vol. 1, p. 1, by Fr. Francis Fernandez.

[2] Ibid, p. 2

Homily Christ the King Year A – His Kingship is Like No Other

christ_the_king_bigger After high school, I didn’t enter seminary right away like some of the guys I went to seminary with did. I loved computers and wanted to some day work in a high-tech field like web development. I went to Lindsey Wilson College, a small school in south central KY and was a computer science major. I remember when I was a freshman I was looking through the manual for my major and shuddered at the description of the Capstone Project that was required after my senior year. It was to be a completely original project that summed up my entire four years of computer science learning. It sounded pretty scary. My project ended up being a system that gathered and reported data on the technology demands of the buildings and the student body of the college.

Today, we all together have our own sort of Capstone Project: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King. We celebrate it on the last weekend of Ordinary Time, at the end of another Church Year. Next weekend marks the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new Church Year. Why then do we celebrate Christ the King at the end? I think it is for a similar reason that we have academic Capstone Projects. The Church wants to teach us that by putting his Kingship at the end of the year we can see that His Crown is the Crown of the year, the capstone. A capstone is the top stone of a structure or wall but it is also the crowning achievement.[1] All of the action of the Church Year moves forward and up to His Kingship and is summed up by it. He is the King of all we have done in the Church this year and all we have celebrated. Everything from his Incarnation to his Ascension is both a sign of and a testament to his Kingship which is not only spiritual but real and human as well. He can’t be the king of our lives though unless we come to know His Kingship for he is unlike any king we have ever known.

Our first reading from Ezekiel prefigures Christ as a loving shepherd who tends his flock. “I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered,” says the Lord God, “when it was cloudy and dark. I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest.” In our Responsorial Psalm, he gives us, his sheep, repose in verdant pastures; he leads us beside restful waters; he refreshes our souls; and he guides us on right paths. In our second reading St. Paul teaches us that he gives us new life and in our Gospel he is made known in those who are hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, ill, and imprisoned. Does this sound like any of our kings or leaders today? Only the great saintly kings of old gave us a true image of Christ’s Kingship, like Saint Edward the Confessor, King of England or Saint Louis, King of France. Too many of our leaders today follow not the example of these saintly kings but of the one described in the famous 16th century book, The Prince, by Machiavelli. There, “political expediency is placed above morality and the use of craft and deceit is advocated to maintain authority and carry out policies.”[2] This, I’m afraid, is all too familiar.

But, let us not be fooled into thinking that Christ’s Kingship is just a weak alternative. Let us not regard him as simply timid and sweet as we see him at his Nativity. Again, turning to our readings, it is true that in Ezekiel he seeks out the lost, brings back the strays, binds up the injured, and heals the sick, but the sleek and strong he will destroy, “shepherding them rightly.” He will not tolerate those sheep who try to evade or usurp his authority. In our responsorial psalm “he will spread the tables before me in the sight of my foes.” He is not ashamed to lavish rich blessings upon his chosen ones; our foes can jeer all they want.

In our second reading, St. Paul teaches that at Jesus’ second coming, he will destroy all that is evil, even death, the result of man’s first sin. And by his Might and Merciful Justice everything will be subjected to him and he will reign Supreme. Finally from our Gospel we learn of his just judgment; we see that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” And “He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

But, all this talk of shepherding rightly, spreading out tables, having victory over death, and proclaiming judgment is of his spiritual kingship. What about his life as a man? Wasn’t he pretty weak then? Well, I would say that “meek” is a better word. While still in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary he relied on her flesh and blood and the power of the Holy Spirit for life, yet she was still his living throne, a tabernacle. Our Lord was the King Messiah that the Jews had long awaited. The Archangel Gabriel announced, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). As an infant his new throne was a simple wooden manger. Yet the magi, probably royal figures themselves, came to offer him gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. His kingship as a man was meek and moderated. He did not allow the royalty of his divinity, his claim on all creation, to have the glorious splendor it deserved. But this did not make his human kingship any less real or less royal.

Our Lord gradually revealed his kingship so that it could be acceptable and accurately understood. Therefore, on some occasions, when a crowd was enthusiastic about a miracle, "Jesus, knowing that they would seize Him and make Him king, fled to the mountain, Himself alone" (John 6:14). And He often, after working a great miracle told the people not to tell anyone. So many held a false notion of what the King Messiah was to be; they expected a great temporal conqueror who would free them from Roman oppression. But He did not come to exercise earthly power. He wanted a spiritual reign, to rule over hearts. He said as much to Pilate when Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. “Jesus answered, ‘My kingship is not of this world… For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.’”[3] This truth he showed the whole world when he made his cross his last earthly throne: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Upon his death on the cross, “God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee must [bend], in heaven and on earth and under the earth; and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).

What then does Christ’s spiritual and human kingship mean for us? As Vatican II said, the Catholic Church is the “initial budding forth” of the Kingdom of God on earth.[4] Each one of us is called to participate in this kingdom and expand it through our good works. The Lord should be present in our families, present among our friends, present among our neighbors and colleagues at work.

St. Josemaria Escriva taught us firmly on this feast of Christ the King:

Against those who reduce religion to a set of negative statements, or are happy to settle for a watered-down Catholicism; against those who wish to see the Lord with his face against the wall, or to put him in a corner of our souls, we have to affirm, with our words and with our deeds, that we aspire to make Christ the King reign indeed over all hearts.[5]

We cannot wait for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God at the Last Judgment our Gospel describes. Let us work on this Capstone Project now so that Christ the King will reign in our minds with firm belief in truth and doctrine; reign in our will with obedience to the laws of God; and reign in our hearts with love for God above all things. Then we will be able to confidently pray with the good thief who was crucified alongside Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Lk 23:42).

[1] "Capstone." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 02 Dec. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Capstone>.

[2] "Machiavellian." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 02 Dec. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Machiavellian>.

[3] “Kingship of Christ, Queenship of Mary in Scripture,” by Rev. William Most

[4] Lumen gentium, 5

[5] In Conversation with God, Vol. 5, “Christ the King”, by Fr. Francis Fernandez

Monday, November 14, 2011

Homily 33rd Sun O.T. Year A–Love Makes Service Easy

talentsLike my other recent homilies, this is a revision of a homily I wrote a few years ago but never delivered to a congregation.

As we approach the end of Ordinary Time, our readings have been preparing us for the theme of the coming season of Advent: being prepared and ready for the coming of the Lord; not only at Christmas, but also at our own death, and at the end of time. Today’s readings show us a special way in which we can be prepared: by being faithful stewards. I know the word “stewardship” and the familiar phrase “time, talent, and treasure” are used too much. Sometimes I wonder if they have lost their meaning. We focus too much on questions like “how much do I have to give?” rather than questions like “what gifts has God given me?”; “how does their use reflect my love for Him?”; and “what is God’s will for me?” When we move away from focusing on certain amounts of time or money to prayerful discernment of God’s will, then we can truly bear much fruit in this parish. But, these questions are not only significant to the life of our parish. As our Gospel teaches us today, they are significant for our eternal salvation as well.

Our readings provide many examples of the proper way to approach stewardship. In Proverbs the virtues of a “woman who fears the Lord” are extolled. She is one who is reverent, religious, and faithful, and works hard for God, her husband, and her family. I know many of the ladies of this parish to already be this type of woman. But I encourage all of the ladies of this parish to look at our first reading closely, pray with it, and hold up this woman of Proverbs as your example. While the text we have been given reads “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize”, a better translation would be that he, because of this trust, “will have no lack of gain”. Her work and her service are always productive and fruitful, not just for him, but for God and her community too. She has prayerfully discerned God’s call for her life and has lived it joyfully and abundantly. Of her our psalm exclaims, “Blessed are you who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways!”

Our Gospel, on the other hand, offers us, ultimately, a strong example of what NOT to do in regards to stewardship and it issues us a bold challenge. It forces us to take a good hard look at our lives. Sometimes we fail to answer the call to authentic, Christian stewardship. The temptation to be slothful, like the third servant, can be hard to resist. Now, our Gospel uses the word “lazy”, not “slothful” but sloth is definitely the sin described here. And as you all know, it is one of the traditional seven deadly sins. The woman in Proverbs was everything but slothful. What then is this deadly sin of sloth?

In general it means being disinclined toward labor or exertion; not physical labor, but spiritual labor. St. Thomas Aquinas calls it “sadness in the face of some spiritual good which one has to achieve” (ST II-II:35). One theologian, Fr. Rickaby, describes it as the “don’t-care feeling.” We can all go through bouts of this from time to time:

A man apprehends the practice of virtue to be beset with difficulties and chafes under the restraints imposed by the service of God. The narrow way stretches wearily before him and his soul grows sluggish… at the thought of the painful life journey. The idea of right living inspires not joy but disgust, because of its laboriousness.

“In other words,” he says, “a man is then formally distressed at the prospect of what he must do for God to bring about or keep intact his friendship with God. In this sense sloth is directly opposed to charity.” He violates, therefore, expressly the first and the greatest of the commandments: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30).

There is no time to be slothful in our spiritual lives. I tell myself this as well. That said, I have been greatly encouraged by so many of you who obviously have discerned God’s will and work hard with the gifts he has given you: Like those of you who do so many good things that no one sees; those of you who prepare the sacristy, who serve Mass, distribute Holy Communion, and help out with our music; those of you who put so much work into parish events; who participate in parish council and other groups; who perform the daily tasks of upkeep of the parish; and who are involved in religious education and other ministries. All of you serve with such joy and dedication that it gives me much hope for my own ministry.

But, still there remains much more to do be done; not regarding mere dollar amounts or hours spent, like I said before, but regarding prayerful discernment of God’s will for the gifts he has given us. He is always calling us to follow him down the narrow way, to do good, to grow in virtue. The motto of the Benedictines is “Ora et Labora”, prayer and work. We must do both, now, for St. Paul in our second reading reminds us, just like the Parable of the Ten Maidens last weekend, that our Lord will come again suddenly and unexpectedly, he says, “like a thief at night.” “Therefore let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” so that we will be prepared to give an account of our talents.

This word “talent,” interestingly enough, entered the English language directly from the parable in today’s Gospel. Here, a “talent” is a large sum of money roughly equal, at that time, to 100 pounds of silver or 15 to 20 years’ wages of a laborer. The master entrusted a different number of talents to each of his three servants according to their ability and expected them to make a profit for him. The first and second servants doubled what was given to them and both received the same reward: “great responsibilities” and a share in the master’s joyful banquet. But the third servant out of fear and laziness squandered what was given to him so his talent was given to the first servant and he was thrown out of the master’s presence and separated from him.

This parable, like the others, has a deeply spiritual significance. We are the servants. The talents are the qualities God has bestowed on us, both those we are born with, like intellectual capacity and musical ability or those we receive as supernatural graces, like personal holiness or spiritual insight. The journey of the master, during which the servants where to invest their talents, signifies the duration of our life. His unexpected return signifies our death and his settling of accounts is our judgment. Finally the master’s joy, the banquet, is heaven.

Now is a good time to examine our approach to the gifts we have received from God. The Lord wants to see that his gifts have been well administered. Let us make use of the time we have to be ready. F. Suarez, a Mexican theologian explains that, after all,

When God is known well, it is not hard to love him. And when God is truly loved, it is not difficult to serve him… In fact, it even becomes a pleasure to serve him… The third servant knew his master well… [but] he did not love him. And when love is missing, serving becomes very difficult.

It doesn’t matter how many talents, natural or supernatural, we have received; what matters is discerning God’s will, loving Him and our fellow parishioners, and generously putting our talents to good use. Just as natural abilities like playing the piano become more perfect through use or become atrophied through disuse, so also graces that are used lead to an increase of grace, whereas graces that are neglected tend to be lost. We must respond to grace by making a genuine effort through our entire lives. Fr. Francis Fernandez, one of my favorite authors, illustrates this beautifully:

When life comes to an end, perhaps we may think something like a candle has gone out. But we should also see death as the time when something like a tapestry has been completed. We have watched this tapestry being made from the reverse side where the design of the artwork is blurred and the knots and twisted loops of the needlework are prominent. Our Father, God, contemplates the tapestry from the good side. He is pleased to behold a finished work that manifests a life-long effort to make good use of time.