Sunday, January 19, 2020

Systems and spiritual ruts


Homily: 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle A
          As many of you know, I used to be an engineer before studying to become a priest.  (No, I wasn’t one of those cool engineers who drives trains, but rather was one who designs and builds things.)  Because of this, I know that engineers can be very good at many things.  I also know, however, that having an “engineering mind” comes with limitations.  One of the things that engineering minds do is that they see things in systems.  In other words, they see a problem that needs to be overcome (or, perhaps, just a way to make things more convenient) and they immediately start to see the system that could be put in place to overcome it (or make it more convenient).  Think of those automatic one-cup coffee makers, like a Keureg.  Pop in a pod, push a button and voila, the system takes care of the rest.  This is how my brain works and so I like systems.
          This has presented me a challenge, however, in my spiritual life.  You see, I expect that, by systematizing my spiritual life, I’ll make it better and easier to manage.  I create a schedule and gather the necessary tools (bible, spiritual reading, rosary, etc.) so that when I sit down to do it, it’ll just work.  This, at least, is what my mind expects.  The problem with this, however, is that our spiritual lives don’t quite work that way.  While it is possible to make our spiritual lives system-like, they can never be totally systematic; if by that we mean mechanized and impersonal (that is, not if we expect to achieve any sort of satisfaction with it).  In other words, if the engagement that we give to our lives as disciples is nothing more than we give when we push the button on the coffee machine, then we don’t have much of a spiritual life at all.
          This is why I dislike Ordinary Time.  In Ordinary Time we focus on our discipleship, on our spiritual lives, and (if we’re paying attention) we’re constantly being challenged to examine how we are doing (that is, to examine our systems) so as to change and improve and grow.  A system that is living in this way is much more difficult to cultivate and maintain than one in which we just push a button or punch a clock and forget about it.  Thus, you can see why I dislike it; because it says that “my system is never good enough, that it still needs tweaking, that this project is still ongoing.”
          When I’m really honest with myself, however, I realize that all my “systems” end up leaving me in a rut.  I find that if all that I’m doing each year is pulling out the same practices, reading the same spiritual books, or praying the same rote prayers, that my spiritual life begins to feel lethargic.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with repeating things that have worked for you in the past, but the challenge is to engage these things anew each time.  And so, if I’ve made a personal commitment to pray a rosary every day, then I have to search for something new in it every day.  After years of praying it, that’s not going to be easy.  But if it is truly a prayer—that is, truly an opportunity to engage my relationship with God—then there will always be a chance that I will find something new (if I’m looking for it).  This is hard work: the kind of hard work that Ordinary Time challenges us to do, which is why it is not my favorite time of the year.
          A few years ago, I decided to try something new.  I decided to change my attitude about Ordinary Time so as to engage it more intentionally.  I decided to take a deep look at these familiar readings that we hear each week in the context of this familiar liturgy that we celebrate in order to find how they challenge me to grow, both as a person and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I decided to be content with the fact that my “spiritual life” project isn’t finished (and probably never will be), but that I can’t leave the project undone, either, and so I put myself to work at it.  This year I intend to do the same and I hope that you all will come with me.
          In these weeks of Ordinary Time leading up to Lent and Easter, I’m going to look for some particular thing that will challenge me to go deeper in my spiritual life so as to make it stronger and more fruitful; and I hope to share that with all of you.  Perhaps these will help you to go deeper, too.  So, where do we begin?
          This week, I think that we begin with John the Baptist’s prophetic proclamation: “Behold…”  I think that if we are going to go deeper in our spiritual lives that we must begin by beholding who it is that we are following.  Of course, we have the opportunity to do this here in the Eucharist.  Right before Communion, I will raise the Blessed Sacrament and say to you “Behold the Lamb of God…”  This kind of beholding we also do in Eucharistic Adoration, which we have every Wednesday night and Friday afternoon.  Perhaps in these next weeks, each of us can make it a point to try and spend some time beholding Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament during adoration.
          We also behold Jesus whenever we read and meditate on the Scriptures.  A seminary professor used to tell us that “Every encounter with the Scriptures is an encounter with Christ.”  Therefore, we can behold him in the Scriptures.  Finally, we can behold him when we acknowledge Jesus in our brothers and sisters in need.  Saint Teresa of Calcutta used to say that she saw the face of Jesus (in other words, she beheld him) in the men and women she served.  And so, we too can behold the face of Jesus when we love those in need around us.
          “Is that it, Father?  This sounds like it’s going to be a slow process.”  Yes, it is; and this will be enough for this week.  Have you ever been sick and had to stay home from work or school for one, two, or more days?  Didn’t those weeks seem to be longer than the rest?  They weren’t, but they felt longer because we were forced slowed down.  If we want to go deeper in our spiritual lives, then we must learn to go slow and let the process work on us.  If in this week we can learn to break out of our systems (and the spiritual ruts they can lead us into) and to behold Jesus in our daily lives, starting right here in the Eucharist, then we will be ready for what comes next.  Come, then, and let us behold him.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 19th, 2020

Sunday, January 5, 2020

To be a star to others



Homily: Solemnity of the Epiphany – Cycle A
          Fr. Mike McKinney was the pastor to whom I was assigned as a newly ordained priest about seven and a half years ago.  He’s a good pastor and I learned a lot from him.  One of the things that always impressed me about Fr. Mike (well, I should say that it shocked me at first, but then I was impressed) was his lack of inhibition with talking to strangers about their religious lives.  During my first weeks in Logansport, Fr. Mike took me around to different places in order to get me orientated to business related stuff in the parish (you know, like putting my signature on file at banks and things like that).  At almost every stop, he would inquire into the religious life of the person who was helping us.
          Being a newly ordained priest, I wasn’t yet used to the fact that walking around with a collar on basically gives you a free pass to talk to people about religion and so I was a little bit shocked when Fr. Mike would ask these strangers if they went to church and if so what church they went to.  Almost just as shocking, however, was that fact that multiple times the answer was “no, I’ve never gone to church.”  Did you hear that?  It wasn’t “oh, I was going to this church, but I stopped,” rather, it was “I’ve never gone to church.”  Talking about this later with Fr. Mike, he assured me that this was a rather typical response from people: that many people there had been growing up completely “unchurched.”
          The three wise men—a.k.a. the Magi—were also “unchurched,” (at least in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term).  These "kings" from the east were astronomers and probably practiced some sort of pagan religion (if they practiced any religion at all).  Thus, they knew little to nothing about a God who purportedly had chosen a specific people, living in the land of Canaan, to be his own people and that this God had promised to send them a Messiah, a king who would rule on the throne of one of their great forefathers.  What they did know, however, was that the appearance of a great star in the sky was an indication that a great king had been born.
          Thus, when these three wise men from the orient saw the great star appear in the west, they knew what it meant.  And even though they were pagans, they were good men and, thus, they knew that it would be right to make a journey to find this newborn king and to pay him homage, bringing him kingly gifts to honor him.
          Here a couple of thousand years later, we find ourselves at a bit of a disadvantage to those kings.  We live in an age when rulers—that is, those who govern societies—are chosen from among the people whom they will rule.  In other words, we elect our government officials.  For better or for worse, this is what we are used to.  Back in the time of the Magi, however, great rulers were born—that is, destined from infancy to be royalty—and great natural signs were often cited as accompanying their births as a signal that the child’s destiny had been ordained by God.  We, as a people, however, have decided that it would be better if we relied more on our reason; choosing our government leaders based on what we perceive to be their merits, rather than on the interpretation of some natural sign.
          As a result, we have generations of people who have stopped looking for signs.  In other words, we have generations of people who have stopped believing in God’s providential presence among us and have come to rely completely on themselves to make decisions in their lives.  Thus, there are many people—including many who live around us here in Tippecanoe County—who are fumbling in the dark, trying to make sense of life without the providential guidance of God, which is readily available to them!  The only thing that keeps them fumbling in the dark is that they haven’t seen a light bright enough to break into the darkness and lead them out of it.
          In the first reading today, we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim to the people, “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.  Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.”  My brothers and sisters, this message applies to us today just as much as it did to the Israelites over two-thousand years ago.  We, the Church, are the New Jerusalem; the city on which God’s light shines.  Thus, we are called to be a light to the nations, to those stumbling in darkness around us.  Yet, for the most part, it seems, we are content to cover up that light as we walk out of this place so that those walking in darkness never see it.  We’re embarrassed to engage friends and neighbors—and often even our own family members—about faith, about what we believe, and about how what we believe makes a positive difference in our lives.  We’re embarrassed to pray in public, even if it is just a small prayer of blessing over a meal in a restaurant.  No, even though we receive life itself when we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus from this altar, we are content to let those walking in darkness to remain in darkness because we worry that they would be offended or think that we were stupid if we talked to them about it (or, worse yet, that they would start asking us about our faith).
          My brothers and sisters, the world desperately needs another star, like the one those wise men saw nearly two-thousand years ago.  The world needs a new Epiphany!  Our task as those who profess Christ as Lord is to be that epiphany.   In other words, we are called to be that star, shining brighter than any other star, that catches the attention of those dwelling in darkness and leads them to an encounter with Christ: an encounter that will manifest the light of salvation for them so that they may live in the joy that comes from knowing him.
          My brothers and sisters, this is the new evangelization that the last three Popes have called for, but it won’t happen overnight.  In order to be that star for others, we first need to renew and deepen our own faith.  This year our parish is offering many different opportunities for you each to learn more about our faith (like a series on the Mass during Lent) and there are a multitude of other resources out there of which you can take advantage (our parish continues to subscribe to Formed.org, which has an unbelievable amount of material, and there is the CD and book rack in the gathering space, just to name a few, readily available resources).  By this intentional effort to renew and deepen our faith, we will grow in confidence in the truth of our faith.  When that confidence grows, so too will grow a desire to share our faith with others; in other words, our desire to be that star for others will grow.
          Friends, we need a sense of urgency about this.  Remember that, throughout Advent, we were reminded that the second coming of the Lord is imminent and that he is coming with judgment.  Thank God he hasn’t come today!  Just think of all of the people we know who would be lost to the fires of hell because we refused to share Christ’s light with them.  I can name three right off the bat: my cousin Joe, my friend Jake, and my sister’s husband Jason.  My guess is that most of us can at least think of one.  If so, please pray for that person: that God’s light would shine into their lives and turn him/her to Him.  Pray also for God’s wisdom to know how he is calling you to be his light for that person.  Then pray for the courage to do it.  My friends, I promise you, God will not fail to answer these prayers.
          First things first, however.  First, we need to come to Christ ourselves to honor him as our King and the good news is that he will be appearing before us soon, here on this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 5th, 2020

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Resolutions

          I did not preach the homily this past weekend, so in lieu of a homily I thought I'd share an idea I had regarding New Year's resolutions.  New Year's Day is the great "self-help" holiday, in which we are full of hope that the new year brings and some healthy (and often a lot of unhealthy) self-contempt.  The problem is that we often focus way to much on the externals: losing weight, exercising, learning a new skill, etc.  If you're a Christian, however, I'd charge you to think more spiritually.  Here are three resolutions that will bolster your spiritual life in 2020 (or create one, if you've been lacking it!):

  1. Grow in piety: Piety is a devoted fulfillment of one's duty.  The pious person prays daily, frequents the sacraments, studies the Bible, and does other spiritual reading.  These pious practices are like core exercises: they're sometimes boring, but they make your whole body stronger.  Resolve to grow in piety by doing these things:
    1. Pray more/better.  Check out this video from Ascension Presents for a plan to do this.  https://youtu.be/1UPIvsvWcUc
    2. Go to Mass and Confession.  Mass every Lord's Day (Sunday) and Holy Day of Obligation (there are 5... look them up!).
    3. Study the Bible/Read.  Spend time every day doing this!  Start with 10 minutes a day and grow from there.  If your parish has a Formed.org subscription, there are plenty of study/reading resources there.  If not, ask your parish priest for some resources.
  2. Be a better evangelizer: Evangelization is not much more than communicating the good news that Jesus is our Savior and in him we have hope of eternal happiness.  We can do this though our words (spoken and written) and our actions (self-sacrificing acts of charity, both small and big).  Using words is often a challenge for folks, so here's three simple steps to prepare yourself to be an evangelizer:
    1. Spend some time thinking about your own faith story.  How did you come to know God and Christ Jesus as your Savior?  What impact has that made on your life?  What is the hope that you live with because of this?
    2. Write this story down and think about how you would share it.  Most people don't talk about their faith because they've never really verbalized it.  By writing it down, you give words to your story, making it easier to share when the opportunity arises.
    3. Share it!  Now that you know how to verbalize the Good News (because you've verbalized how it has been good news for you), you are ready to share it with those around you.  Do not be afraid!
  3. Help relieve suffering wherever you can: The Kingdom of God is a return to the Garden of Eden when all of creation dwelt in harmony.  Sin destroyed that harmony and suffering is the result.  But now that Jesus has conquered sin, we can begin to re-establish that harmony around us by helping to relieve suffering and by always striving to make a positive impact on those around us.  Here are some ways to do that:
    1. Practice random acts of kindness.
    2. Engage in regular service to those in need.
    3. Perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
          These are three very broad resolutions, but they are resolutions that can be repeated year after year and never exhaust their fruitfulness.  Don't expect perfection for yourself, but do expect growth.  Write down some weekly goals for each of these resolutions and spend some time writing down how you did each week.  You'll begin to see your growth, even amidst setbacks.  Still further, your relationship with God will grow, and there's nothing more valuable than that.

          Remember that I'm walking this journey with you!  Let us encourage and support one another as we strive for the heights of happiness in this world in anticipation of the incomparable happiness we'll know in heaven.  May God bless you all in this year of grace, 2020!  Verso l'alto!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

True and Lasting Happiness Restored



Homily: The Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day) – Cycle A
I’ve been a priest for over seven years now and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s that only the most sophisticated folks show up for Christmas Mass.  Looking out over the congregation, it appears that my observations hold true.  Therefore, I feel like it would be pretty safe to bring up the Greek philosopher Aristotle without getting too far above anybody’s head, and so here we go.
          One of the core things that Aristotle taught was that all living things have an end for which they are striving—a telos in Greek.  For example, by his observation, a plant is striving for the sun.  He could see this by the way that a plant will stretch out its leaves way beyond its roots in an effort to reach the rays of the sun.  We, of course, know that the plant needs the rays of the sun to hit its leaves for photosynthesis to happen, in which it converts the energy from the sun’s rays into nutrients to help it grow, but it doesn’t change the fact that the living spirit in the plant—the anima, if you will—is striving always towards the sun as if reaching it was its ultimate purpose.
          Now, I think that we can all agree that we human beings are little more complex than a plant.  Nonetheless, Aristotle still thought that we have a telos: an end to which we are striving.  When Aristotle observed human beings in order to determine for what it is that we are striving, he concluded that the end we are all trying to reach is happiness.  In other words, when he looked at the reasons why human beings do anything, he could see that all of them boiled down to one thing: happiness.  Simply stated: everything that we choose to do, we choose because we think that it will make us happy.  We, of course, could be wrong about whether or not it will make us happy, but the fact remains that we choose it because we think that it will make us happy.
          Saint Thomas Aquinas lived a little more than 1500 years after Aristotle, but he was one of the first to truly synthesize Aristotle’s philosophy into Christian theology.  Saint Thomas agreed that human beings have a telos, and that this telos is happiness.  Because Thomas was a Christian, however, he could tell us that the truest and fullest happiness for which we can strive—the happiness for which we were made—is what Christian theologians call the Beatific Vision: that is, standing face to face with God, in perfect communion with him.  Therefore, because of Saint Thomas, we now have a criterion from which to decide whether or not what we choose is what will truly make us happy: because if what we choose moves us closer to the Beatific Vision, then it truly will make us happy; and if it doesn’t, well then it won’t.
And so, why do I bring this up here today?  It’s because of this.  For the last month, we’ve covered our lives with the sheen of “Christmas Spirit”.  Lights, trees, shopping, parties, lots of food, lots of drinks... in other words, we’ve covered our lives with a spirit of celebration.  Yet, in spite of what all of the songs on the radio, your spotify playlist, or in stores and restaurants say (…It’s the most wonderful time of the year...) … in spite of what all of these songs say, underneath it all we realize that we really aren’t happy.  Sure, for a few days (maybe even a few weeks) we’ll feel good: connecting with family, reminiscing about old times, enjoying the exchange of presents (especially watching the joy and excitement of children opening gifts), and a day or two (or more) off work can truly give us a sense of comfort amidst the toils and labors of our lives.  By the time January 1st rolls around, however, all of those good feelings have mostly vanished, and we’re left with the toils and labors, perhaps with few “fleeting flashes of perfect” mixed in.  When this reality settles back in, once again we’ll have to confront the fact that we really aren’t happy.
My friends, this is really important to say on this Christmas Day, because the truth of the matter is that, since the fall of man (the first sin of Adam and Eve), NOBODY HAS BEEN TRULY HAPPY!  Ever since the fall, mankind has sought his happiness in the world and has always come up short.  While we can be temporarily successful, none of us is capable of achieving true and lasting happiness by our own efforts.  Why?  Well, because (as Saint Thomas taught us) our only lasting happiness is the Beatific Vision—seeing God face to face.  This means a return to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve walked in communion with God.  Sin caused them to be expelled from the garden, and a great chasm between us and our happiness appeared: a chasm that mankind can never bridge himself.
Therefore, if, underneath all of this “holiday sheen”, there’s a gnawing in you that says, “Is this all there is?” or “It’s too bad that this is all going to end soon”, well then I’ve got good news for you: You’re normal!  You’re a human being, searching for your telos, your true and lasting happiness, and no amount of tinsel and lights and cookies and egg nog and corny songs and tacky sweater parties can satisfy the longing for happiness in you!  Only perfect communion with God can provide that.  To this, I have still more good news: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  This is what we celebrate tonight: not that we made it back to God, but that God came to us to bring us back to himself—to save us from our unhappiness so that we could return to life with him.
This, my brothers and sisters, is why we are bold to speak the words of Isaiah in the Mass: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’ … Break out together in song, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the LORD comforts his people, he redeems Jerusalem … all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.”  My friends, God our Lord has come to comfort us, his people, by redeeming us from our sin which separated us from him!  Why, then, do we keep looking for happiness in the ethereal... in the aesthetic... in the “sheen” of Christmas?
My friends, the prologue to John’s Gospel, which we heard today, reminds us of this wonderful truth that God, who existed before all time, made all created things through his Son, the Divine Word; and, when his creation went astray and in the fullness of time (meaning, when the time was right), his Son came into the world to be our redemption and, thus, to restore us to our true and lasting happiness.  In the generations since his birth, however, we have often allowed ourselves to forget that it is through him, Jesus Christ, that we find our true and lasting happiness and thus begin to seek our happiness by our own frustrated efforts again.  The season of Advent reminds us to turn back to the Lord and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!  Save us from this unhappiness!”  And today we gather to say to him, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus, for you have come and you have saved us!”
Friends, I am going to say something to you here and I want you all to look at me and listen.  (Are you looking?)  Nothing—absolutely nothing—that you do this Christmas matters more than what we are doing right now in this church: giving praise to God that he has sent his Son to save us from our unhappiness so that we can find our telos, our true happiness in him.  Let us, therefore, let the wonder and awe of this great mystery—the Son of God appearing in our humanity—envelop us today, so that the happiness of this time might remain with us, even after we return to the labors and toils of our lives, and thus preserve us in faith until Christ, our Mighty King, returns to take us home.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 25th, 2019

Monday, December 23, 2019

The obedience of faith


Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
Although it may not be the first thing that you think of when you think of a king/queen, every king/queen is called to be a servant.  What I mean by that is this: the authority that a king/queen possesses is given to him/her so as to govern the people of the kingdom in such a way that they might flourish.  We all know, however, the old saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and so we all know how often kings/queens are corrupted by the power that they wield and seek to have their people serve them, instead.  Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the role of the king/queen is to serve; and if they serve well, then they rightfully receive the honor and homage of the people.
Still further, throughout history being a king/queen almost always included a religious component.  Royal lineage was often seen to have been appointed by God and royalty have often held positions of authority in religious matters.  This continues today.  For example, the Queen of England is also the head of the Church of England.  As such, she must be not only a servant of the people, but also a model for religious piety and practice.  To do otherwise would discredit the Crown and the religion that she leads.  Sure, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the de facto head of the Church of England, but the Monarch of England still stands as the model for all.
This, of course, was true of the ancient Israelites, which gives color to our first reading today.  The brevity of this reading gives rise to the thought that the Church included it primarily to recount for us the source of the prophecy of the virgin birth (which is very important, obviously), but the broader story also provides us with some insight and so I’m going to incorporate some of it here.
Ahaz was not a good king.  I don’t know whether he was a good guy, but he wasn’t a good king.  He let being a king get to his head.  If we remember back to the prophet Samuel, when the Israelites demanded that he anoint a king for them (for they had never yet had their own king), he first rebuked them for suggesting that they didn’t already have a king (for the Lord God was their king) and then he predicted that most of the kings that they would have would be corrupt or weak (or both) and that the people would suffer because of it.  The people insisted, anyway, and God instructed Samuel to anoint a king for them.  Many hundreds of years later, Samuel’s predictions would come true and Ahaz was one of those weak kings who let being a king get to his head.
Ahaz forgot that he was king so as to serve the people for their flourishing.  He also forgot that the true King of the Israelite people was God.  And so, when God allowed the insanely powerful Assyrian army to amass themselves against the Israelites (because the Israelites had fallen away from faithfulness to God under the rule of Ahaz), Ahaz sought a worldly solution to the problem (he was brokering and alliance with the Egyptians).
Isaiah brings him God’s message that said, “The Assyrians are here as a punishment for your lack of faithfulness; but surrender to them and I won’t let them destroy the city or kill you.”  Ahaz didn’t like that answer because he didn’t trust God and thought that he needed to rely on himself.  Isaiah clapped back and said, “No, for reals: God is going to take care of you. He’ll give you a sign, anything you ask for.  Just ask him.”  Ahaz, not wanting the sign because he wanted to make his alliance with Egypt, invokes some false piety and says, “oh no, it would be improper to put the Lord to the test.”  Isaiah, frustrated for God, responds that God will give him a sign, anyway, and predicts the virgin birth of a son who will be “Emmanuel - God with us” for the people.
In the end, Ahaz would make his alliance with Egypt and the Assyrians would conquer him anyway.  He would die, Jerusalem (including the temple) would be destroyed, and the people would be exiled for 70 years.  Ahaz, as the king and religious leader of God’s people, refused to get behind God’s plan and the people suffered.  And the sign that God called for wouldn’t be seen until hundreds of years later.  By refusing to acknowledge God as the one King, and by refusing to be an example of right religion, God’s plans for his people were disrupted.
In contrast we heard of the “annunciation” to Joseph in today’s Gospel reading.  Joseph was a man with no worldly power.  He was a laborer in a small town in a seemingly inconsequential region of the world.  Yet, he was a righteous man: which means that he was just and followed God’s law closely.  We hear also that he was merciful, for although he knew that he couldn’t take Mary into his home after the discovery of her pregnancy, he decided to divorce her quietly so that she wouldn’t have to suffer any more indignation than what she would already suffer by being a single mother in that culture.  For Joseph, God was Lord; and when he heard the message of the angel that told him to do something that every righteous and merciful bone in his body told him not to do, he obeyed.  Through his obedience, God’s plan for mankind was finally fulfilled.  Joseph placed himself, in the state of life and situation that he was in, completely at God’s service, and God’s good will for mankind was fulfilled.  In this way, Joseph was a much better king than Ahaz.
My friends, I’m certain I will surprise no one here when I say that there is a lot more Ahaz than Joseph in our world today.  In other words, there’s a lot more people—especially those in authority—who refuse to acknowledge that there is an authority higher than themselves to which we owe obedience.  For this reason, the kingdom of God is disappearing among us.  Sure, there is still plenty of goodness among us, but it’s dwindling into smaller and smaller pockets of our public life.  While it is important that we recognize that and seek to put in authority persons who recognize God as the ultimate authority and seek to obey him, it is just as important to recognize that there is probably more of Ahaz than Joseph in each one of us.  I mean, isn’t it true that we each want to be Lord of our own lives and, thus, act like we know better when God asks something uncomfortable of us (for example, surrendering to forgiveness of someone who has hurt us)?  Because of this, just like king Ahaz, much of God’s will doesn’t manifest itself among us.  Friends, we do not get to lament the state of society without asking ourselves how we have each played a small or large part of it becoming as it is by our refusals to allow God to be Lord of our lives.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, therefore, we are reminded that, as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s birth among us (and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy!), we are preparing also for the coming of our King.  And so, the question comes to us, “Have I given my preparations over to Him (like Joseph)?  Or am I expecting that he will make my plans successful, in spite of what he may want (like Ahaz)?”  In other words, “Am I the king/queen and expect, thus, God to serve me?  Or do I see myself as a servant before the true King?”  My brothers and sisters, I charge you to reflect on these questions over these last days of Advent: for judgment will be merciless on those who made themselves king, but full of mercy for those who acknowledged the true King and sought to serve him.
Friends, the true King is coming.  May he find us ready to honor him with our obedience of faith so that his will for bringing forth the full flourishing of his kingdom might be known in our time.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 21st & 22nd, 2019

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Don't give up on waiting


Homily: 3rd Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
Is it Christmas?  No.  There, I’ve just given you every small detail of the website whose sole purpose seems to be to answer that question.  The website’s address is isitchristmas.com and when you go to the site all that you see is a big fat NO in your face.  I’m not sure what happens on that website on Christmas, but my guess is that it’ll either say “Yes”, which is boring, or it will invade my computer with a virus, rob my identity, and cause my computer to self-destruct, which would be much more exciting, for sure, but not the kind of exciting that I’m looking for.
You know that we’re a little bit crazy about Christmas when there are websites whose sole purpose is to remind us that it isn’t Christmas yet.  And I think that this is a sign that, frankly, we just don’t get it.  Every year, it seems, we demonstrate that we are so impatient for our self-indulgent winter holiday celebrations that we can’t wait even the three to four weeks of Advent before we start indulging.  I intentionally use the phrase “winter holiday” here because, at least in my experience, these almost never have anything to do with Christ and his coming among us in our human nature (except, perhaps, as a “pious excuse” for having them).  The fact that “winter holiday” decorations come down on December 26th is evidence enough that our celebrations were over long before the event itself arrived.
You may call me “Scrooge” for thinking like this, but I tell you this comes from a deep place of concern.  You see, I’ve read the Scriptures (it’s kind of a necessity of this vocation) and I’ve read about what happens to folks who give up on waiting for God.  Let’s go back to the book of Exodus.  There, in chapter 24, God calls Moses up onto Mount Sinai (the mountain of the covenant) in order to give him the Ten Commandments.  Moses goes up and spends 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain.
Then, we hear that the people got anxious waiting for Moses to return and so demand that Aaron (Moses’ brother and the guy who was left in charge while Moses was gone) build them an idol to worship.  Aaron ceded to their demands and fashioned a golden calf before which the Israelites bowed in worship and then feasted: eating and drinking in excess and otherwise celebrating with great revelry long before Moses returned with the Ten Commandments.  God alerted Moses to this and said that he would slay them right then and there.  Moses intervened, however, and God relented.  Moses then went down the mountain to find what God had described and himself became enraged.  He called forth the Israelites who had not worshiped the idol nor had engaged in revelry and had them punish those who had done those things by putting them to death.  The passage ends with this somber verse: “Thus the Lord smote the people for having had Aaron make the calf for them.”  The Israelites refused to wait and instead gave into self-indulgence: for this they were severely punished.
Advent, my brothers and sisters, reminds us that we are in a time of waiting, and that this waiting is not aimless; rather, we are waiting the return of Jesus.  And not just Jesus our friend who has been away for a while (as joyous as that homecoming would be), but Jesus, our King, who will come with judgment and to usher in the fullness of his kingdom in which right order is finally reestablished through all of creation.  Those who are found in faithful preparation will be like the sheep Jesus describes in the parable of Matthew 25, to whom he says “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  To those who are found to have given up on waiting, that is, to have given up on their faithful preparation for his coming, the King will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  I hope now that you can see why I am so concerned that we have given up on waiting.
In the Letter from Saint James, from which we heard in the second reading, he instructs us: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord... Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand... Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates. Take as an example of hardship and patience … the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”  Saint James is exhorting us not to give up on waiting, because our King’s advent, that is, his coming, is closer than we think.  Friends, by dutifully waiting to celebrate until the day of the Nativity of Christ, December 25th, we remind ourselves that we must dutifully wait and prepare for Christ our King’s imminent return.  We do this both internally, by repenting of our sins and turning again to the Way that Christ has shown us, and externally, by doing the works of mercy and, thus, producing the signs that the King who is to come has indeed already come.  Friends, everything else is secondary.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard how John the Baptist, imprisoned by King Herod, sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Jesus, with great love for his dear relative and friend, sends them back with this instruction: “Go and tell John what you hear and see...” that is, that the signs of the Messiah of which Isaiah prophesied—blind who now see, lame who now walk, lepers who are cleansed, deaf who now hear, and the dead who now live—these were now happening through him.
If someone asked any of us today: "Is Jesus the one who was to come, or should we look for another?" what would we say?  Could we say, "Yes! Look, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised"?  Perhaps you might say, “No, but Jesus isn’t here with us to make those things happen.”  True, but didn’t Jesus say to his disciples, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these”?  My friends, we must say "yes", that Jesus is the one who was to come, but we must also manifest the works of the kingdom, that is, the works of mercy, among us so as to declare that he is still to come again.  Otherwise, even the John the Baptists of the world—that is, persons of great faith—may give into doubt and fall away before the time of his coming.
You know, the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, the apostle James, and those of their time never asked the question “Is it Christmas?”  They, rather, were concerned with a greater question: “Is it Advent?  In other words, “Is it the Coming of the one who is to come?”  For the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist the answer would have been a single “Yes”, for they would not live to look for the second coming (in this world, anyway).  For the apostle James, however, and for every Christian for the last 2000 years, the answer is “Yes and yes”: meaning, “Yes, the one for whom we looked to come has come” and “Yes, it is he for whom we are preparing to come again”.
My brothers and sisters, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus our King that we encounter in the form of bread and wine from this altar is the bridge between these two “yeses”.  As we encounter Him today in this Mass, let us ask for the strength to wait and to faithfully prepare for his second coming, so that we might be welcomed into the fullness of His kingdom to rejoice with Mary and the saints for all eternity.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 14th & 15th, 2019

Monday, December 9, 2019

Repent and be ready to receive the King


Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent – Cycle A
Friends, last week, if you were here and heard my homily, you heard me say that what we celebrate in Advent is really a continuation of our celebration of Christ the King, just from a different perspective.  I said that while the Feast of Christ the King acknowledges and celebrates that the Divine Son of God united himself with our human nature so as to establish God’s definitive kingdom here on earth, the season of Advent spurs us to remember that this very same king will one day return in all of his glory to take his kingdom back unto himself.  Jesus’ exhortation to “stay awake” because we will know neither the day nor the hour on which he will return is our urgent Advent message: for Christ himself said that on that day (the day of the coming of the Son of Man) “one will be taken, and one will be left...” meaning, “one will be lifted up into glory and one will be left to descend into eternal death.  Jesus gives no indication as to who will be lifted up and who will be left except to imply this: that those who were prepared for that day will be lifted into heaven, while those who failed to make preparations will be left behind.  I thus exhorted us to make our Christmas preparations more about preparing for and hailing the coming of Christ our King so that this day will not catch us unaware and, thus, left behind.
This Sunday we continue to focus on Christ the King.  In the reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear just what kind of king Christ will be.  The kings of the world would nearly always rely on fighting wars and making a name for themselves by great military victories and then would use their power and influence over others to take advantage of them.  And this was not just for the wicked pagan kings.  No, we need look no farther than the great Israelite king, King David, to see that this pattern holds.  On the feast of Christ the King, we heard how the Israelites acknowledged that David deserved to be king because of the great victories that he won.  Later we would see how he would use his power and influence to take advantage of his people when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then compounded his sin by trying to cover it up: ultimately making it so that Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was killed on the battlefield so that David could take Bathsheba for his wife.  David, of course, humbled himself before God and sought forgiveness, but it nonetheless illustrates the pattern that even the best worldly kings tend to fall into.
Isaiah paints a different picture of the king who is to come.  This king will be a king upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest, making him wise and just beyond any other king the world has seen.  He will not use force to rule over peoples; rather, the wise words that come from his mouth shall be the power by which he will slay his enemies.  Nor will he take advantage of the people; rather, he will judge the poor with justice and do right for all peoples throughout the land.  Under this king, there shall be unprecedented peace and harmony; and not just among people, but throughout nature: for the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid...  In other words, this is the king who will restore right order to the universe, the king who will lead us back to the Garden of Eden.
We see that Christ, indeed, is this king by his ministry recorded for us in the Gospels.  How many times did he confound the scribes and the Pharisees by disarming the traps they had set for him by his wise responses?  And how about the Roman rulers, too?  John’s gospel records how Jesus’ words confounded Pontius Pilate and left him literally washing his hands of Jesus because he could not withstand the power of his words.  And how many times did his disciples seek to retaliate with violence only to have Jesus rebuke them for seeking to use worldly means of gaining power?  Jesus was just in his public ministry, treating everyone equally and favoring no one.  And his miracles—especially his miracles of healing—show that he came to restore right order to the universe so as to lead us back into Eden: that is, the kingdom of God.
Friends, this is the Christ—the great King—whose first coming we are preparing to celebrate and whose imminent return we are called to anticipate.  Both of these demand that we listen to John the Baptist who calls us today to prepare through repentance.  Why repentance?  Because when the King comes he will look to have his kingdom in order, with his subjects doing the work he gave them in the manner that he instructed them to do it.  Now I know that, as persons who live in a free society—one that was founded in response to throwing off the rule of a monarch—it may be difficult for us to live as subjects of a king who has absolute authority over us.  Nonetheless, that is what we are called to do and that is what Jesus expects of us when he returns.
Remember, however, that his is not the king/queen of England, but rather the great king who the prophet Isaiah foretold would come, and so we should not be afraid to make ourselves subjects of this king.  In fact, we should have a healthy fear of not submitting ourselves to this king and his order, because, as John the Baptist relates, He is coming with his winnowing fan in his hand to clear his threshing floor; gathering his wheat into his barn and throwing the chaff into an unquenchable fire.  The wheat are those who have subjected themselves to his authority and the chaff are those who haven’t.  The wheat, therefore, will be taken up into glory on the last day and the chaff will be left to descend into everlasting death.
Our task of preparation, therefore, is one in which we examine ourselves—soberly, yet seriously—and ask ourselves, “In what ways am I denying to be a faithful subject of my king?”  The answers to these questions are what we call “sins”: ways in which we have denied to act as faithful subjects of our king.  Then, having identified those things, we must make a positive decision to turn from those ways and subject ourselves to him with our whole hearts, minds, bodies, and strength once again.  This starts with a good sacramental confession and continues through changed behaviors and attitudes.  The former is simple enough to complete (there are many opportunities for one to make a confession every week).  The latter, however, will take a good amount of work.  You’ll know that you’ve done it, however, when you’ve detached yourselves from your wants and desires and seek rather to know and to do what God wants: which is to spread the good news of Jesus and to relieve suffering wherever you are able.  My friends, this is true repentance, and this is the way that we are called to prepare for the coming of Christ our King.
Last week I warned you all about a specter running around called “The Christmas Spirit” that convinces people to believe in a domesticated Christmas: a Christmas that’s all about family reunions, meals, and shared gifts.  This, I argued, is a false spirit, because the true Spirit of Christmas is the one that leads us to prepare for and to hail the coming of Christ our King.  This week, we see clearly who is this king for whom we are preparing and the way for us to prepare for him to come.  My brothers and sisters let us earnestly take up this work of repentance with great hope in our hearts: for Christ our King loves us and longs for the day when he will return to take us up into his glory.  This Eucharist, in which his advent is made present to us even now, is the guarantee of this truth.  Let us, then, not be afraid: for his kingdom of justice and peace awaits us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 8th, 2019