Wednesday, August 28, 2013

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C–Share Your Faith, Broaden the Narrow Gate

Before I entered seminary in 2005 I was a software developer for an investment firm in Louisville. I was on a team that made in-house software that our portfolio managers used to track their performance. I did that for about 2.5-3 years and it was during that period that I discerned the priesthood. I felt like God had led me to Louisville via that job so I decided to study for the Archdiocese of Louisville rather than the Diocese of Owensboro where I was born and raised.

Toward the end of that job, I decided to send an email out, not only to my software development team but to the whole company, all the traders, portfolio managers, finance folks, etc. to tell them how happy I was to work with them and to explain that I was resigning in order to study to be a Catholic priest. After I sent that email, I got replies from many people who I had interacted with off and on over those three years but who I had no idea were Catholic. They would say, “Hey, I think its great what you’re doing… I’m Catholic too!” As I thought back on that later I realized that there was a piece missing from that whole experience. Why did I not recognize so many of my coworkers as Catholic? Why did they not express their Catholicism to me until that email at the very end? I think our readings this weekend provide several phrases we can use to piece together an answer to this type of problem: rubbing shoulders with people day-in and day-out without our Catholic faith being known.

“I come to gather nations of every language… that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory… to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the Lord” to the prophet Isaiah. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus walks with a crowd of disciples and followers. One shouts out a question, “Lord will only a few people be saved?” Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. He answers the question they should have asked. They should have asked how to be saved, not how many. He said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” By this our Lord implies that it is not easy to be Christian or to be saved. It is difficult. It is a “narrow” gate.

It is not enough simply to belong to the Church, to the new covenant People of God. We should not have false confidence. In our Lord’s parable, when the people knock on the door of the kingdom, they say, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” How else do we eat and drink in his company than by the Eucharist? How else does he teach in our streets than by the proclaiming of the Gospel and of our faith? But, it is not enough to simply be passive receivers of these. For our Lord replies, “I do not know where you are from… you evil-doers!” It is not enough to simply belong and receive, we have to DO well. We have to DO good, animated by our Catholic faith.

God desires all to be saved. In order to bring that about, he commands each one of us here today, in the Responsorial Psalm to “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.” “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees,” the second reading said, “Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed, but healed.” We have an image of someone bowed low by the difficulties of this life. Nevertheless, our Lord wants us to go out to all the world, with our heads held high, with confidence and with zeal to work with him for the salvation of souls. It is a call to be exemplary, to encourage those who are wavering or have less strength of faith. When someone who has great suffering can still be a joyful witness, that makes a profound impact on people.

I will send fugitives – a better translation is “survivors” – I will send survivors; survivors of the difficulties of this life “to the nations and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations”… and from the Gospel we heard that “people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” This has been fulfilled; the Church proclaims the Gospel in all four corners of the globe, but it is not yet complete. There are still so many who do not know Jesus. We must say with John the Baptist to those around us, “Among you stands one who you do not know.” Among you stands one whom you do not know.

We must play a part in the Church’s evangelizing mission. We each have a responsibility to help others to find the narrow gate that leads to heaven. A document from Vatican II, on the apostolate or the active ministry of the laity explains, “Inserted as they are in the Mystical Body of Christ by Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, it is by the Lord himself that they are assigned to the apostolate… to bear witness to Christ all the world over” (Apostolicam actuositatem 3).

It is not about doing something odd or peculiar or neglecting our family or work to do it. Since I had been such a lukewarm Catholic for most of my life, when I had this life-changing conversion upon researching answers to my girlfriend’s questions about Catholicism in my senior year of college, my mom was rightly concerned that I would be this obnoxious Bible-thumper, all up in everyone’s face! But that’s not what this is about. It is precisely in the midst of our family and work, where we already are, that we find the place for this mission. It may even be a silent witness. Often it is simply the peace and joy with which we live our lives that has a more profound effect on others than any argument or statement we put together.

We can bring Christ to where God has placed us in several ways: By our example, the way we live our lives; by putting our faith into practice; by being cheerful, being someone people can easily approach; by refusing to be perturbed by the difficulties that are the common lot of all mankind; by encouraging others with the joy that comes from following Christ; by giving new hope to those near despair, fighting the temptation to always just mind our own business; and by helping others go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With this last one I have in mind many of our elderly who have an acute desire for this sacrament but have no one who is willing to take them.

These last few weekends we have found much fruit in these readings for our nightly examination of conscience. Some questions this weekend that we can ask ourselves are: Do those who know us recognize us as disciples of Christ? Do we rub shoulders day-in and day-out with people who have no idea that we are Catholic, like I did at my old job? How many have we helped take a decisive step toward heaven? How many have we spoken to about God? How many have we recommended a good book too, that may provide that extra encouragement someone needs? How many have we explained the Church’s teaching to on marriage and family? How many have we shown the joy that comes from giving of ourselves?

And again I think about confession – and this is going to take me away from my outline but I don’t care – How many have we helped to go to confession? This time I refer to our children and youth. You all are going to get tired of me preaching about this, but it is too important for me to ignore. I have heard the confessions of very few children and young adults since I’ve been here. This worries me because I love you all and I know that we cannot grow in holiness on our own strength; our souls are fragile, we need the help of that sacrament. I know that our children who go to Catholic schools go to confession once or twice a semester but that is not enough. We need to be helping them find the narrow gate by bringing them to confession.

I have heard the horror stories, about being forced to go to confession when you were young, every Saturday, whether you had something to confess or not. I have heard how you had to just make something up to get through the confession only to have the priest be mean to you or rush you along. These stories weigh heavily on my heart. It doesn’t have to be this way, once a month is a healthy practice. And I promise to all of you that I will never be mean to you. I will never yell at you. I will never rush you to get you outta there… though I may ask you to be succinct if Mass time is approaching. I will be serious, but I will always be merciful with you. I am nothing to be afraid of. This sacrament is too important for some jerk priest to turn you away from it forever.

Back to my outline, my final point is that what the soul is to the body, the Christian is to the world. Is that said of us in our family, at work, at school, or at a football game? Are you the soul of wherever you happen to be? No one is excused from this type of mission and no one is excluded from receiving it from us. Every generation needs to redeem and sanctify its own time. True, we are faced with ideologies which use powerful means of communicating a contrary message. Just think about those closest to you and start with them. Don’t worry about feeling like you can’t share your faith very well or you are too few to make a difference. Our Lord will multiply our strength and the Queen of Apostles will assist us. If we cooperate with them they will make the narrow gate broad for us.

Monday, August 19, 2013

20th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C–On Fire but Not Consumed

It is startling hearing Jesus use all of this fiery language today; language about the earth being ablaze and division among families. This goes against the vision we sometimes have of Jesus as a meek and mild character. But, language of fire is something we’re all familiar with, we use it often in reference to our spiritual and emotional lives. Spiritually, there are Catholics who are “On fire” for their faith – they are bold and courageous, they have zeal and excitement for their faith, they want to share it and participate in it to the full. There are also Catholics who are “lukewarm.” This perhaps is the worst kind of Catholic – The Book of Revelation describes how the Lord “spits out” the lukewarm, like water that is distasteful to him (Rev 3:16). Lukewarm-ness is that wishy-washy, uncommitted middle ground wherein a Catholic is not “on fire” for his faith, but hasn’t necessarily “gone cold” to it either – he just doesn’t really think about it, going through the motions every week. Moving further away, some Catholics have “gone cold” toward God, maybe due to an illness, or death in the family, or other difficulty that tempts them to reject him or be angry toward Him.

We also use language of fire in our emotional lives. We speak of “burning with passion” or lust – a temptation comes and it overcomes like a fire. There is also “burning with anger” – someone cuts you off in traffic, says an insulting remark, or makes your job at work more difficult and you can feel the anger boiling inside you. Or the “fire of resentment” – where just the sight of someone who slighted you in the past burns you up inside. Or the “fire of jealousy” that burns every time you see the person that got something you’ve been eyeballing all year. If it’s not fire in our emotions, sometimes it is Lukewarm-ness, which is experienced as a sort of malaise, or complacency, or indifferentism – just coasting through life, day to day. And coldness comes when we feel alone, isolated, alienated from family and friends, or self-centered.

I think Jesus uses language of fire to redeem our experience of the degrees of fire in our spiritual and emotional lives. Jesus burns with a fire too! He burns with a holy impatience to bring to fulfillment his baptism, to accomplish the Father’s Will, to suffer, die, and rise again for us to save us from our sins. “How great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” we hear him exclaim in our Gospel today. But, the difference between his fire and ours is that he burns with love, a fire that burns continuously but does not consume or destroy. On the other hand, the fires we experience in our emotions – lust, anger, resentment, and jealousy – DO consume us as they burn; they burn us out, they burn us up. And the fire in our spiritual lives is quick to die down. Our Lord today wants to transform these fires into fires of love that burn continuously but do not destroy us – like the fire in the burning bush from which God revealed Himself to Moses – “although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed” (Exodus 3:1-4). The first reading illustrated this transformation. The fires of anger that caused the king’s princes to throw Jeremiah into the cistern to die, are later in the story transformed into fires of mercy that cause the king to send his court official and three men to save him.

Our Lord burns for each one of us personally, to save us from the pits that our sins cast us into. But do we burn for Him in return? Last week I talked about how a nightly examination of conscience can reveal the small signposts that tell us we are on The Way or have gone astray. Part of that examination could be to ask ourselves how we burn for God. Does our faith stoke the fire when our feelings don’t? This is a very important question! Often we let our subjective feelings dictate the objective truth. Sometimes when we do not feel the warmth of God’s love or the warmth of his closeness to us then we conclude that He must not be real or must be distant from us. But if the truth was based on our feelings, which often come and go, then we would never know the truth. On the other hand, the fires of faith tell us that God is Love and He is close to us, even if we do not feel it. You could ask yourself, “Do I have a faith that fuels perseverance, or do I ‘go cold’ toward God at the slightest difficulty?” “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us,” the second reading said, “and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” Two very powerful ways for stoking the furnace of faith, perseverance, and love are the sacrament of confession and Eucharistic Adoration.

In Dante’s narrative poem Divine Comedy, he describes an epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In the first part, Dante’s “Inferno,” it is interesting to note how he describes the ninth circle, the deepest level of Hell. It is not like a lake of fire and brimstone with huge blazing flames like we usually imagine. Rather, it is a frozen lake of ice, with Satan trapped in the ice and gusts of icy wind blowing all around him.


Dante probably describes it as ice rather than fire because fire has connotations of warmth and comfort. Sure, Satan loves to stoke destructive fires of lust, anger, resentment, and jealousy within us. But, if it has been a while since you have been to confession, it can also feel like he has been packing ice onto your faith and love. Every time we sin, Satan packs more and more ice onto our hearts. Sometimes you can even feel the chill. But, remember what the prophet Isaiah foretold about our Lord: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20). If we carefully carry the small ember still burning within us to the confessional, our Lord in his gentleness and mercy takes it carefully to Himself. Then, through the confession of our sins, the counsel of the priest, absolution, and forgiveness he adds more brush and twigs to the ember until it is built back up into a bonfire. Here, the lukewarm are emboldened and those cold to God are warmed up to Him.

If you have not been to confession in a while, let Jesus’ fire of love purify you and reignite you. “Then flew one of the seraphim to me,” Isaiah also foretold, “having in his hand a burning coal which he has taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’” (Is 6:5-7, RSV). Rekindled, we can return to our duty of enkindling the world with true fires of love as Jesus desired, in such a way that no one who comes in contact with us will walk away empty. Either through a smile, an act of deference, a kind word, a supportive arm, a prayer, or an outstretched hand, everyone we meet will be touched by the fire of love in us. It only takes a spark to ignite a blazing fire.


Finally, Eucharistic Adoration also keeps the fire going. Of course, as you know, when a host is consecrated at Mass it becomes the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. What looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread, and smells like bread, after the consecration, is not bread, but the living Presence of God with us. And on Monday morning after the 10am daily Mass, I take one of those hosts and display it on the altar in a beautiful structure called a monstrance. This display has a beautiful gold base and stem and a window surrounded with gold beams like the rays of the sun. There lies our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament waiting for us to visit Him throughout the day and to talk with him as with a friend.

Come… listen to his voice in your heart… tell him about your children, your siblings, your parents, your neighbors, your friends… tell him about your joys, your sorrows, the raise you got, the demotion you got, the “A” you got, the “F” you got. Tell him about your birthday, your healing, your progress… tell him about your illness, your disappointments, your failures. Let him love you and give you his light and his strength. Learn from Him how to set a fire of love to the world. Let him transform the destructive fires that burn within you. Let him embolden you to withstand any hardship. The fire is set, but it is not yet blazing. Will you be a part of the flame or a part of its extinguishing? Let Jesus, through confession and adoration, set you on a blazing path that burns its way to everlasting life.

Solemnity of the Assumption– At the Mass during the Day

I fondly remember an inscription on the baldachino standing over the altar at the seminary I went to, St. Mary’s, in Baltimore, MD.  A baldachino is an architectural element, a canopy structure on four pillars.  It is the first phrase of Mary’s canticle of praise to God that we heard in our Gospel- 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 read that phrase and pondered its meaning.  What does it mean?  I think this is both a statement of humility and a statement of victory.  Mary does not magnify herself by her virtues.  She sings, “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  And her entire soul, 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 it this way: “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?

Mary’s Assumption is the guarantee that those who share in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, will share in his victory.  Some of the early Church Fathers differ on this point, but many taught 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, whether 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.

By sharing in Christ’s sufferings at the foot of the cross, and by sharing in his death, she proved to us that Jesus keeps his promises: she shares in his heavenly glory.  If we humble ourselves, we too will be exalted.  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 victory and glory alongside our Blessed Mother who reflects the glory of her Son every time we look to her.  Today we can say with St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18).

That inscription in the seminary chapel helps us reflect on Mary's humility and victory.  One final reflection today that may be easily overlooked, is what the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary also teaches us about the honor due to our father and mother.  Jesus followed the fourth commandment - Honor Thy Father and Mother -  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 from our Gospel, “The Almighty has done great things for me; … [he] has lifted up the lowly.”  How do we honor our father and mother, especially as they approach old age or death?  Do we place them in nursing homes and then forget them or abandon them?  Do we “honor” them by squabbling over money or inheritance?  Jesus Christ is calling us today to follow his example, to honor our father and mother as he did at the Assumption and Crowning of His Blessed Mother.

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.

Vigil of the Assumption

Celebrate Mary as the New Ark, as a Victor, and as the Perfect Disciple.

Interesting to have a first reading on the ark of the covenant.  What does it have to do with Mary’s Assumption?

David commanded the chiefs of the Levites
to appoint their kinsmen as chanters,
to play on musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals,
to make a loud sound of rejoicing.

We too rejoice in the presence of an ark, the ark of the new covenant.

In the Old Testament the Ark is described as being about 2.5ft square and about 4.5ft long.  It was made of special acacia wood which was incorruptible, was covered inside and out with the purest, finest gold, and had a ring of gold on top. On each of the two sides were two gold rings that two wooden poles went through to allow the Ark to be carried. Even these poles were sheathed in gold. Over the Ark, at the two ends, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward one another. Their outspread wings over the top of the Ark formed the throne of God, while the Ark itself was his footstool.

The Ark of the Covenant was built so magnificently because it stood for God’s very presence among the Hebrews. The Book of Lamentations called it “the beauty of Israel.”  It was pure, incorruptible, and of the highest beauty. It also held inside three items that were crucial to their faith and identity: the tablets of the 10 commandments of God’s Law; a golden vase containing the manna from heaven that fed them in the desert; and the rod of the high priest, Aaron, that bloomed in affirmation of his priesthood. But the beauty of the ark was not only due to what it symbolized or what it contained but what it prefigured, what it pointed to in the future: The beauty and purity of the Ark of the New Covenant: The Blessed Virgin MaryWe celebrate today a New Ark of a New Covenant with a beauty the Old Ark only aspired to have.

This point is packed with meaning! First the gold lining and covering of the old Ark pointed to the Immaculate purity of the Virgin Mary, the New Ark. And the three things the old Ark contained – The tablets of the Law, the golden vase of manna, and the rod of Aaron – are also in the New Ark, in the person of Jesus Christ, when Mary carried Him in her womb. He is the author of the Law, He is the Bread from Heaven, and He is the eternal High Priest.

In Israel’s history the Old Ark traveled often with them, finally resting in the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem where scholars believe it was lost when the temple was destroyed in 587 B.C.  This too prefigured something greater. Today we celebrate Mary’s entrance, body and soul, into heaven as the entrance of the new ark into the heavenly temple of Jerusalem.  Immaculate in soul and virginal in body she is without corruption and found worthy to enter immediately into glory.

In celebrating the Assumption we also celebrate the victory of Christ, as our second reading suggests:

When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

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 escaped both.  She 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, thus showing his victory over the course of life.  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 it this way: “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?

Mary’s Assumption is the guarantee that those who share in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, will share in his victory and glory.  By sharing in Christ’s suffering and death at the foot of the cross, Mary 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 victory and glory alongside our Blessed Mother.

Finally, in the Gospel we celebrate her as the perfect disciple.  She traveled a rough road to the glory she now enjoys.  She was active and cooperative.  She said Yes throughout her life.  She had faith, she trusted God without knowing the future.  She surrendered completely to his will even to the death of Jesus on the cross.  She is the mother of Jesus, but also his disciple.

To be a disciple of Christ is more blessed than to be his mother.  The woman in the crowd praised Mary for being Jesus’s Mother.  But when Jesus replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” he was making a point that Spiritual relationship is more important than blood relationship.  Of course, She was blessed on both accounts.  St. Augustine said, “Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was to her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood.  Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master.”

She is taken up into heaven not only as his mother but as the perfect disciple.  She heard the word of God and kept it.  We are invited to follow her.  How is God calling you to follow Him in your particular state in life?  To know, we need to be open to the Word and respond with our own Yes.  If we respond like this, like Mary, we too will be glorified.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

19th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C: Await the Blessed Hope

When we think of our family history we tend to think back a couple of generations to our grandparents or great-grandparents and the memories of where have lived and grown up and where we have come from. There is more interest now than ever-before in genealogy and family trees. People love to know where their roots are. In fact I had a family come in this past week who were not Catholic but were interested in finding a record of their great-great-great grandfather. And we saw a couple weekends ago at the Manton Music Jam how many people from all over the region came to listen to some good bluegrass music and recall their roots at Holy Rosary.

Sometimes we hear people say, “I come from a long line of…” any given profession. For example, “I come from a long line of farmers… or soldiers… or doctors.” Children look back to their fathers and grandfathers to find direction for their own lives in the present. Our readings helps us to see that we have a spiritual family that goes back much more than 2 or 3 generations. In fact, we have a family history that goes all the way back to Abraham and the Israelites of the Exodus. We are as much a part of that spiritual family line as we are of the family of our last names. And we can look back to our fathers in faith for spiritual direction in our lives today.

The second reading described the calling of Abraham, his summoning into the desert. God gave him no direction, no destination, no departure time; He just said “Go” and promised that he would make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars. Abraham loved and trusted the Lord so much that he did go; he just started walking. The first reading described the summoning of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. God promised he would free them. He gave Moses very specific instructions regarding a Passover meal. The people were to consume an unblemished lamb and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts. When the angel of death swept through to punish the Egyptians for enslaving God’s people, he saw the blood as a sign, and passed-over their houses. The Israelites ate the Passover meal in haste, ready and eager to follow Moses and God’s call to the Promised Land.

Our fathers in faith trusted the Word of God, put their faith in his oaths, and were convinced that what He promised, He would do. They did not live to see these promises fulfilled. Abraham’s descendants didn’t truly become as numerous as the stars until Christ and His Church appeared. The Passover that freed God’s people from slavery to Egypt to pursue a territorial Promised Land wasn’t truly fulfilled until the Last Supper and the Eucharist which frees God’s people from slavery to sin to pursue the Promised Land of Heaven. But, we too still wait for a fulfillment, the final fulfillment that will come with Christ’s Coming – either at our death or at the end of time – whenever that will be. Will we be as watchful, trusting, and vigilant as our fathers in faith were? Will we follow their direction?

To be vigilant in our faith doesn’t mean scrupulosity. But it does mean being attentive to the small victories in our day-to-day spiritual lives. We do not know the hour when Christ will come for us. Vigilance through the small victories will ensure that we are ready and will make Christ’s coming a joyful one. But, if we are lukewarm in our faith, not trying to learn more about it or grow in it, or if we have turned away from the Lord, then his coming will not be joyful, but will be like a thief in the night.

A daily examination of our conscience and of the day, at the end of each day, is a helpful tool for discerning how vigilant we really are. When we prayerfully think back over each day, we can notice the small signals, the little red flags that show us that we followed The Way or had gone astray. A daily examination helps us to become more astute observers of all of the little temptations of each day that can in turn become many occasions for compiling victories.

St. Francis de Sales has a wonderful reflection on this approach in his great work, The Introduction to the Devout Life, which I highly recommend to you. It is very accessible and readable. There he emphasizes that many small victories are better than a single great victory in the spiritual life (In Conversation with God, 57.3). When an enemy force is attacking a castle, they focus all of their strength on the front gate so that a clever spy can go unnoticed to the back of the castle and infiltrate it through a small crack or crevice. It is the many small temptations and victories that we should not lose sight of. Little things are a prelude to greater things. Small daily victories strengthen the interior life and mold it to be more sensitive and receptive of divine things.

St. Francis de Sales also gives some very helpful examples of these many opportunities. One, he calls the “heroic minut:” that minute when you first wake up or when your alarm first goes off. Heroically getting up in that first minute – I’m so terrible at this! – is a small but very good victory! Another example is overcoming, when you first sit down to perform a particular duty or responsibility, that first temptation of curiosity that leads to a waste of time. Overcoming the first temptation to see if your favorite blog has been updated, or to check your email, or to check for facebook comments is a wonderful small victory! Other examples are offering a self-denial at meals – overcoming the temptation for second or third helpings or the desert you know you don’t need; living sobriety at social engagements – stopping at 2 or 3 beers at the family cookout or wedding reception; or offering pleasant conversation to others – injecting a kind word when your friends begin to gossip about a neighbor. These temptations come many times each day. It can be inspiring to consider, St. Francis de Sales says, that “For all the battles we win against the small enemies there will be a precious stone placed in the crown of glory that God prepares for us in his holy kingdom.”

One final bit of advice he gives is to make each small temptation an occasion for payer or an act of love. The devil tries to infiltrate our lives, to pick away at us little by little with all of these small temptations in the hopes that the more they are indulged, they more he can lead us to even greater transgressions. But if every temptation brings a prayer to God then he will cease to tempt us. The last thing he wants us to do is pray! Men… every time you see a young lady immodestly dressed say a prayer for her in that instant rather than staring at her, then the devil will cease his efforts at driving you to lustful thoughts or actions.

As these little victories compound, we will find ourselves growing in peace, serenity, and joy “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” We will find ourselves vigilant and ready for the final fulfillment of God’s promise to us of true freedom in heaven. Living this way, when the Lord comes, he will find us not only ready, but joyfully awaiting him as servants who await a master to prepare a feast for them; as a bride who waits for her groom to take her to the wedding feast; as a young mother who waits for her husband to return home from battle. This isn’t a gloomy waiting or a gloomy readiness, this is a joyful readiness! This is how the Lord wishes to find us when he comes again.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Rich in What Matters to God

As Christians, when we think about avoiding materialism, we focus on trying not to accumulate things just for the sake of accumulating them, like clothes, shoes, DVD’s, whatever it may be. But it seems like the accumulation of books is an acceptable form of materialism. The guys who helped me move into the rectory will tell you that much! I have four bookshelves over there filled with books on philosophy, theology, the spiritual life, the sacraments, etc. They go on and on. 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 have only been read in bits here and there.

The guys who helped me carry in box after box of books may not believe this, but I actually gave away many books as I packed up to move here. That was a very liberating exercise. It not only helped me have less to pack, but it also relieved a bit of that spiritual and psychological burden that escalates as we – as I – accumulate more and more books and things. I felt like a 50 pound weight has been lifted off of my shoulders as I gave those books away. My dad says for every one book I buy I should take two off of the shelf. Well, then they would just pile on the floor!

I pray that I can retain an impulse to periodically pare things down, to unload a bit, and 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 he has lived his life. “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”; “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 and experience the same freedom of detachment?

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 things that have eternal significance. Perhaps we need a healthy reminder that death could come for any of us at any minute. This might cause us to be a little nervous or anxious; maybe it should. The better reaction though is to live each day valuing what is most important, what does not simply pass away on its own, for example, the share in God’s own divine Life in the grace of the sacraments; the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love; the spiritual growth of our children and grandchildren; the peace and fulfillment that comes from working with “wisdom and knowledge and skill,” as the First Reading put it; or the freedom that comes from interior detachment from the things that we own.

It is not a sin to be rich or to own many things. We have many saints in our tradition who were kings or queens. But it is a sin to value finite things over eternal things. Our things should be instrumental toward our salvation; they find their value in the way they help us toward it. They should not amount to our salvation or be the source that we look to for a sense of salvation here on earth. When you and I die, what will people say? Will they say: “Yes, he lived a life accumulating, day after day, year upon year… grace, prayer, charity toward his family and neighbors, parishioner after parishioner who decided to be a more faithful Catholic because of his example. He thought ‘of what is above, not of what is on earth,’ as St. Paul wrote to the Colossions. He accumulated rosaries prayed, confessions humbly given, novenas offered, hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament. And he accumulate these not so he could provide a final tally to God, but because they brought him true fulfillment and happiness. They brought others relief from their burdens. They were pleasing to God.” Or… instead… will God say to you and me what he said to the foolish rich man in today’s Gospel: “‘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.”