Sunday, February 17, 2019

Things of God = Makarios


Homily: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          Doesn't a beach on a Greek island sound amazing right now?  To me, it sounds warm and relaxing, yet full of life; and not so exotic that you are on sensory overload.  Just restful, peaceful... a place where you would love to live if you could find a little work to do to keep your finances up.  I’ve never been to a Greek island, but that’s the impression I have of them.  There's a reason for this: Nestled into the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek Islands are in a great climate and, thus, full of natural resources.  It is said that, at least at one time, the island of Cyprus was so rich in natural resources, that its residents didn't need to go off the island for anything.  They had everything that they needed on the island: they were content in themselves.  This led to the island being nicknamed "makaria"—a name playing off of the Greek word for "divine joy"—makarios.
          Makarios is a word indicating a deep, abiding joy or happiness: one that isn't dependent on external circumstances.  This is why Cyprus was called "island of makarios", because external circumstances didn't affect the ability of its residents to live a comfortable, peaceful life.
          The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to this as he was trying to determine the "end" (or telos) of human beings: that is, the thing for which we are all striving.  By his observations, all living things have something to which they are striving.  A plant, for example, is always striving for the sun.  Not in a conscious way, of course, but in that natural, automatic way that living things strive after the things they need to survive.  Although a little more complicated, Aristotle nonetheless saw that human beings also have a common end toward which they are striving.  Again, by his observation, he could see that, in every choice that we make, either conscious or unconscious, what we choose is based on whether or not we think that it would move us toward that common end; and the end, or telos, for human beings, according to Aristotle, is happiness.  Not just any happiness, of course, but the deep, abiding happiness described by the word makarios.
          Now, we could be right or wrong about whether or not what we choose will lead us towards the greatest happiness and Aristotle certainly has his opinions on what things will move us toward the greatest happiness.  For Christians, however, we can look to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who took Aristotle’s philosophy and interpreted it using Christian theology.  Saint Thomas agreed with Aristotle that human beings have a telos, and that our telos is makarios: a deep, abiding happiness.  Saint Thomas then pointed to the true ultimate happiness that anyone could have: the Beatific Vision, that is, standing face to face with God in an eternal communion with him.  Therefore, for Saint Thomas, the criterion for “choosing so as to become happy” becomes, “whatever it is that moves us closer to the Beatific Vision”.
          Saint Thomas was not inventing this idea, however.  Rather, this idea of makarios is exactly that to which our scriptures are referring today.  Jeremiah, the prophet from whom we heard in the first reading, is teaching about where true makarios may be found.  It is not in human beings or in human/worldly things, he teaches; rather, it is in God and the things of God.  Jesus, in the first of his sermons recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the "sermon on the plain", speaks of this as well.   "Blessed are they..." he says; or, in other words, "Happy with an abiding joy are they..."  Jesus refers to things that cause suffering in this world, but says that we will be happy for suffering it, because in the end we will receive the good things of God.  In contrast, he then warns those who enjoy comfort in this world.  He warns them that it will be too easy for them to forget the things of God and, thus, lose the makarios that God has planned for them.  Implied in all of these statements is that the things of God are truly everlasting, while the comforts of this world are not.
          The challenging thing for us today, I believe, is that the Scriptures seem to be telling us that this is a "zero sum" game: either choose the things of God and be happy or choose the things of the world and be lost.  In other words, "you can't have your cake and eat it too".  "But," perhaps you'll say, "don't we need the things of this world in order to do the things of God?"  And the answer, of course, is “Yes, we do!”  The trick—that is, the work of our Christian discipleship—is not to let the things of this world become ends, themselves: that is, to let them pull our focus away from the things of God.  Rather, we must remain "detached" from them: seeing them as a means towards a greater end, which is to move ourselves and others towards the Beatific Vision.  This detachment means that we must be ready to let them go if they become obstacles in our journey.  (If you’ve ever tried to “Marie Kondo” your house, you’ll know that this detachment isn’t very easy to come by.)
          This is why we come here, to this place set apart for the things of God, each Sunday.  We come here to remind us that true and lasting joy, that is, happiness... makarios, can only be found in God and, then, to equip us with the grace that we need to live in this understanding throughout the week.  (By the way, this is why it is a sin not to take a day of rest from work each week.  Failure to rest leads us to believe that the things of this world are the most important.  Taking a "forced" day of rest reminds us that, ultimately, it is only the things of God that matter.  And so, yes, a sabbath rest is “wasted” time: wasted in the sense that it is sacrificed, that is, “made holy”, because it has been given over to God.)
          Friends, let us not think that we are somehow poorer because we lack some of the niceties of this world (like a home on Greek island).  Rather, let us rejoice that, in Christ, we have every grace that we need to achieve the end for which we are made: our makarios... our happiness; and let us give thanks in this Eucharist for the blessing of this grace.  Then let us go forth from here to demonstrate our thankfulness by living lives focused on the things of God and, thus, on making his kingdom present among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 16th & 17th, 2019

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Receive mercy, give mercy.


Homily: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          In March of 2003, I was an engineer who had set himself on a path towards a career in the automotive industry.  I was at a point in my life when I knew that there were some things that would have to change—not so that I could be successful, but rather so that I could be happy—but I never thought that those changes would take me too far from engineering.  Nevertheless, after participating in a parish mission, I realized that my life might soon be radically different.
          You see, during that parish mission I had encountered Jesus in a very personal way; and when I encountered him I was suddenly deeply aware of my sinfulness (and of how broken I was because of my sinfulness).  There I went to confession for the first time in what had been over 12 years and I experienced in a profound way the depths of God’s mercy.  I left from that week knowing that my life had changed forever—that is, that God would be sending me in a different direction—even though I wouldn’t know what that direction would look like until some time later
          One of the things that I did quickly realize, however, was that my life would now have to be focused on others.  In other words, I knew that, because I had received God’s mercy, God wanted me to be an instrument of his mercy to others.  Thus, even while I prayed to discern God’s vocation for my life, I began to involve myself in the various outreach ministries in my parish.  Of course, (as Paul Harvey was wont to say) we all know the rest of the story: that the specific way that God was calling me to be an instrument of his mercy was to be a priest in his Church.
          The prophet Isaiah was a minister in the Temple of Jerusalem.  One day, while performing his liturgical duties in the Temple, Isaiah was given a vision of the glory of heaven and of the presence of God.  In spite of the splendor of this vision, Isaiah turns away from it because, in the presence of God, he is acutely aware of his sinfulness—and, thus, his unworthiness to stand in God’s presence.  Just then an angel carries an ember from the altar and “purifies” him by touching it to his lips so that he no longer has to fear being in the presence of God.  Isaiah was mercifully cleansed from his sinfulness.  In response, when the voice of the Lord calls out for someone to send on a mission, Isaiah promptly replies, “Here I am; send me!”  Although he was already ministering to the Lord in the Temple, his experience of God’s mercy inspired him to volunteer to be sent forth on a mission to be the voice of God’s mercy to others.
          Peter was a fisherman in Galilee.  He must not have been a bad fisherman, either, because the Gospel tells us that Jesus got into the boat “belonging to Simon” and only those who had been successful could afford to own their own boat.  After Jesus had instructed him to put out into deep water and lower his nets for a catch—at a time of day in which no one would catch anything, and after having spent the night (that is, the good time for catching fish) lowering his nets and catching nothing—Peter was astounded at the catch that was made and knew that he was in the presence of someone powerful.  This realization was immediately followed by an acute awareness of his own sinfulness; and so Peter bows down before Jesus and acknowledges as much before him.  Jesus, however, shows him mercy and gives him a commission to draw others to experience his mercy, too, when he says: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
          And although it wasn’t recounted for us in our reading today, Paul’s career as an Apostle is a direct result of the same pattern.  On the road to Damascus—when he was still persecuting the first Christians—Paul encountered the Risen Jesus.  After that appearance, Paul was acutely aware of his sinfulness.  God showed him his mercy, however, and then sent him out to proclaim the Good News of his mercy to the nations.  Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, does acknowledge this for us when he says “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God [that is, the mercy of God] I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
          This pattern, I think, can be summed up in a simple phrase: Receive mercy, give mercy.  In each of these examples that I’ve recounted—in spite of the very different circumstances in which each occurred—the person became aware that he was in the presence of God and, thus, became acutely aware of his sinfulness.  Acknowledging his sinfulness before God, however, God showed him his mercy.  Having received God’s mercy, he then turned to become an instrument of God’s mercy in the world.  In other words, first he received mercy and then he gave it.  And although this might seem to be something that only “exalted” figures in the church can experience—figures such as prophets, apostles, or priests—this is not an experience only for the “chosen few”.  Rather, it is something that all of us can experience.
          In order to receive mercy, one must first acknowledge his or her sinfulness before God.  We are all sinners and so to acknowledge this openly before God invites him to show us his mercy.  Then, having received his mercy, our lives our changed and we go forth, not to return to our sinful way of life, but rather to live our lives for him and to be instruments of his mercy in the unique vocation that he has given to each of us.  Pope Francis, in a message for Lent a few years ago, said that “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn.”  In other words, when we receive God’s mercy we are transformed and, thus, enabled to give mercy to others.
          Lent is still a little less than a month away, however, and for this I am grateful.  I’m grateful because this is a message that we need to receive in the midst of Ordinary Time: the time in which we focus on our discipleship and the day-to-day living out of our Christian vocations.  This simple formula—receive mercy, give mercy—is the story of salvation in a nutshell; and it is the story that must be on our lips and in our actions when we interact with others.
          If you heard my homily last weekend (or if you pre-read my bulletin column this weekend), you’ll know that I exhorted us to reclaim the Church’s rightful title by becoming evangelical again.  To do so, I identified three tasks of evangelization that we must take up: witness, invitation, and service.  Witness: telling others about the mercy we have received.  Invitation: inviting others to receive that same mercy.  Service: mercy shared with others as a sign of the mercy that has been given to us.  People today are starving to know that there is mercy for them and to experience it.  We are in contact with the fountainhead of mercy, itself; and so we must be ready to help everyone find and experience it.
          Nevertheless, we ourselves must regularly return to the fount of mercy to renew our experience of receiving mercy so that we can be renewed in our efforts to give it.  This is where the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes in.  When we regularly return to this sacrament, we renew that original encounter, in which we acknowledge that we are in the presence of God (and our unworthiness to be there) and then receive from him the mercy of his forgiveness.  Having received God’s mercy we are told to “go in peace”: that is, to go and give witness to the mercy we have received in our words and actions.  Without this regular renewal, our efforts at evangelization will fall short and the Church will continue to shrink.
          Strengthened by our confessions—and, as always, by this Eucharist that we celebrate—we can become great instruments of God’s mercy and, thus, renew God’s Church.  Our Mother Mary, received such great mercy when she agreed to give birth to God’s Son.  She then turned and gave (and continues to give) such great mercy to others.  May she intercede for us so that our efforts will be fruitful; and so that God’s kingdom of mercy may flourish among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 9th & 10th, 2019

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Let's make the Catholic Church Evangelical again

Sports Stadium or Evangelical Megachurch?  You decide!

Homily: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
As you all know, I spent the middle two weeks of January in Central America (El Salvador and Guatemala, to be exact).  I was on a pilgrimage with other priests, deacons, and religious to learn about the Central American martyrs.  If you heard my homily last week, you’ll know that it was a much more sober experience than I expected from the outset, as I learned about the horrible violence that plagued those countries in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I also learned more about how the Catholic Church has been a fixture in these places throughout those rough times.  One of my most consoling moments was concelebrating Mass in the parish church in Santiago, Atitlan, in Guatemala, which is the oldest parish still operating in Central America.  It dates to 1547!  And it is the place where Blessed Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest who worked in Guatemala, stood with the poor who were being oppressed: a stand which, ultimately, cost him his life.
There was a moment of disturbing contrast, however.  On one of the days, when we were traveling by mini-bus from El Salvador to Guatemala, we drove by what we, at first, thought was a sports arena.  Then, we read the sign by the road: “Casa de Dios”... “House of God”... an Evangelical Christian mega-church.  At first, we didn’t believe that we read the right sign, but we had to double back down the same road and, when we did, it was confirmed: this huge building—which looked like it could host Super Bowl 54—was an Evangelical mega-church.
It was no surprise to me that Evangelicals have been in traditionally Catholic Central America.  They’ve been there for some time.  The fact that they are such a large presence as to build such an incredibly large building was a bit of a surprise, however.  That building was a statement that Evangelical Christianity has taken a foothold in Guatemala.  Knowing what I know about religious attitudes of Guatemalans, I safely assumed that the Evangelicals are not winning-over the unaffiliated; rather, they’re winning over Catholics.  After talking with a couple of people, it seems as if it is the same situation that is happening all over Central America: that Evangelicals are going throughout these countries specifically targeting Catholics and seeking to lure them away from the practice of the Roman Catholic religion.  The fact that they are finding success is, to me, a big problem.
But this is just a microcosm of what has been happening around the world and even here in our own community.  How many of us here have watched as our children, grandchildren, godchildren, brothers and sisters have slipped away from the Catholic Church: either to stop practicing the Catholic faith altogether or who have been lured to an “Evangelical” community?  A good number of us, I’m sure.  Oh, and I do mean “lured,” by the way.  In many parts of the world, Evangelicals are on a mission to “convert” Catholics because they believe that what we preach is a false religion.  Let us not be deceived, however, into thinking that this is okay, because they’re still “Christians”.  When Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he said to them, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  My brothers and sisters, some Protestants and Evangelicals are striving to do just that: to divide God’s house; and, in many ways, we are letting it happen.
I think that, as the Catholic Church, we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent.  We’ve allowed ourselves to think, “The world’s been evangelized, so I can sit back, relax and just hang out here in the Church until Christ comes back and everything should be fine.”  We’ve forgotten that the very nature of the Church is to be evangelical.  Thus, one of the things that is luring people away from the Catholic Church is that these other communities are doing what the Catholic Church has been failing to do: they are evangelizing!  So, where are our evangelists?  I’m looking at them!  Yes, I’m looking at all of you (and, if I had a mirror, at myself).  I hope that this does not come as a shock to any of you, but each of us here, because of our baptism, are called to be evangelists.
Our first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that we are all called to proclaim God’s words to his people.  Sure, the words we heard were God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah at a specific place and time.  Nonetheless, they have been preserved up to this day because they are inspired by God and helpful in instructing us in following our own calls today.  And so, what does God say?  “Try to be holy and just show up to Mass and you’ll be fine”?  No!  He says, “Gird up your loins; stand up and tell them what I command you”!
What God is saying to us, then, is that it is not enough for us to give a minimal effort at holiness and to fulfill the basic requirements, like showing up on Sundays.  What God is saying to us, rather, is that we must also speak his words to others, especially those closest to us, challenging them in positive ways to seek God more deeply and then to support them as they do.
Perhaps, however, we are worried that we’ll push our loved ones away or that they will turn against us.  To that, the readings for today also have an answer.  God promised Jeremiah (and, therefore, he promised us) that he “would not leave us crushed before them,” but rather that he “would make us a fortified city….”
Jesus himself did not fear the reproaches of his family or his neighbors in Nazareth.  As we heard today in the Gospel reading, Jesus preached the truth to them and they boiled over with rage against him.  God did not leave him to their rage, however.  Rather, when he was about to be thrown over the edge of the cliff, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.”
Thus, we need not fear the reproaches of our families or neighbors.  If our words inspire them to rage, then so be it.  God will not leave us to be “crushed before them.”  Hopefully, however, and if we speak the truth to them with love (as Saint Paul admonishes us to do today), our words will inspire in them a fervor to seek Christ where he may most fully be found: here in this church and in the Eucharist.
If we still have fear, however, then it probably means that we ourselves need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  If so, don’t worry, because that’s where we come in: part of our duty as parish leadership is to provide you with what you need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  I hope that you will pay close attention to the bulletin and announcements and respond to the opportunities that we are preparing for you.  With that fervor ignited (or stoked, if it was already ignited), our tasks then are the following: fervent celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday, consistent daily prayer and reading of the Scriptures, adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible, faith sharing in small groups, and frequent confession.  Close attention to these tasks will stoke our fervor for the faith into a burning fire.  Witness (telling others about this fire burning in us), invitation (inviting them to experience the same), and service (fervor expressed in the works of mercy), then, become the acts that will ignite that same fervor in others.
My brothers and sisters, we’ve procrastinated long enough.  Today is the day to act.  Let us respond to the Holy Father’s call and reclaim for our Church the name which has always been ours: Evangelical.  And let us be that shining light for Christ that leads our brothers and sisters—our families and our neighbors—to that communion with God that their hearts so deeply desire: the communion that we share here at this table.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 3rd, 2019


Sunday, January 27, 2019

The least are all the more necessary


Homily: 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
These past two weeks, I was in Central America—El Salvador and Guatemala, to be precise—for a pilgrimage with other priests, deacons, and religious from around the country visiting the sites of the Central American martyrs.  These are persons like Saint Oscar Romero, a bishop in El Salvador, and the newly beatified Blessed Stanley Rother, who was a priest from Oklahoma who went to serve in Guatemala. My anticipation when making this trip was that I’d be inspired be these holy priests and others who gave their lives for their people.  From that standpoint (in case you wanted to ask), the trip was great.
In between those visits, our group was inundated (literally, flooded!) with information about the civil violence in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 70’s and 80’s, in which individual witnesses to the violence perpetrated against innocent persons (in some cases, whole villages!) was recounted.  From this standpoint, the trip was horrible (and I mean by that, horrifying). I hope to be able to recount something of what I heard to you all in the next weeks, but now I’ll just say that that the stories of government sponsored atrocities against innocent people were sickening, saddening, and depressing.
Consoling through all of these stories was meeting some of the men and women who lived through these terrible times (which, by the way, haven’t completely ended) and who nonetheless have found a reason for hope in their Catholic faith.  I encountered in the Maryknoll missionaries who worked with these people during these terrible times what it really means when the Church says that she has a “preferential option for the poor”, as they risked their lives to serve the needs and defend the rights of people who had very little resources to defend themselves.  Finally, I discovered in myself an experience not unlike that which the people experienced in our first reading in today’s Mass.
There, the priest Ezra presents the newly recovered scroll of the Law of Moses, which had been lost to whole generations of Israelites as they were in exile in Babylon.  Now, back in Jerusalem and tasked with rebuilding the city and, specifically, the Temple, the Israelites need some inspiration. Thus, Ezra calls the people together to read to them from the Torah (probably the book of Deuteronomy).  As he does, the people weep.  Scholars say that they wept both for joy and sorrow. Joy, because this word of God is filled with wisdom: wisdom that they had never heard in their lives and which they are now happy to receive (wisdom being such an sought after gift to the peoples of those times).  Sorrow, because they remembered the sins of their ancestors that caused them to be taken into exile and because they recognized the sins under which they, themselves, had been living.
As I went through this pilgrimage, I, too, experienced joy and sorrow.  Joy, as the truth of the Gospel that “brings glad tidings to the poor” pierced my heart: wounding me with its beauty.  Sorrow, as I recognized the sins of generations past that have assaulted that beauty (and continue to do so today) as well as my own sins of ignorance, indifference, and inaction.  As we heard story after story of injustices perpetrated against the poor my sadness grew.  Then, I had a realization: I realized that there would be no happy ending to this pilgrimage.  In other words, there would be no end to this story in which all of these negative scenes would be wrapped up into some positive conclusion, and this increased my sorrow.
Early this past week, however, I found words of consolation: words that helped me to see that there can be a “happy ending”.  In the Office of Readings for the feast of Saint Vincent, Deacon and Martyr, these words of Saint Augustine were provided for reflection: “Against Christ’s army the world arrays a twofold battleline.  It offers temptation to lead us astray; it strikes terror into us to break our spirit.  Hence if our personal pleasures do not hold us captive, and if we are not frightened by brutality, then the world is overcome.”  I think that Saint Augustine nailed it right on the head: What holds me back from acting on behalf of the poor except my fear of becoming poor myself or of what others might do to me if I do?  Thus, if I can overcome my captivity to personal pleasures (and, thus, risk becoming poor) and if I can overcome my fear of reprisals (verbal and/or physical), then I can act with full freedom and release the full power of the Gospel and, thus, do something to bring about the “happy ending” for which I am looking.
Looking at today’s Gospel reading, we see that this is precisely the example that our Lord Jesus has given to us.  There, he comes into the synagogue at Nazareth and solemnly declares that he is the one to fulfill the prophesies of Isaiah of the one who would come to liberate God’s people and inaugurate the kingdom of God.  In doing so, he turned his back on personal pleasures and turned his life towards that of being a poor, itinerant preacher; and he overcame every fear of reprisal: reprisals that, ultimately, would lead to his death.
His death (an unjust death, by the way, driven by the fear of the religious elite) led to his resurrection and the chance for every person to find reconciliation with God and eternal life with him.  Our work, as Christians—that is, followers of Christ—is to continue Christ’s work of proclaiming this Good News by helping people break free from their captivity to their personal pleasures and to overcome their fear of the brutality that the world can inflict upon them; and, thus, work to bring forth God’s kingdom: a kingdom in which the poor hear glad tidings, liberty is proclaimed to captives, sight is restored to the blind, and the oppressed are set free.  Friends, if this is not our aim in life, then we are shirking the responsibilities given to us.
Saint Paul, in our second reading, makes this point even more clear.  There he says that, as members of Christ’s Body, we are all one; and that no member of the body, regardless of how important it may seem, is any more important than any other.  In fact, he says, those members of the body that seem to be least important are “all the more necessary” and are “surrounded with greater honor”.  Thus, the question comes to us: Do the poor have an honored place among us?  Or do we keep them at “arm’s length" so as not to make us too uncomfortable?  Do we allow them to show us what a just kingdom might look like?  Or do we condescend and try to instruct them, instead?
Friends, there are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, all over the world, right here in Lafayette, and, probably, right here in our church, who are suffering right now.  Are we suffering with them?  Some of us, yes.  Many of us, however, no.  Probably most of us, not enough.  And so, if these words cut to your heart, good.  Be sober about this reality and examine your conscience.  Ask God to show you the ways that you might better work to bring forth God’s kingdom of justice and to grow in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in our society.  Then risk becoming poor yourself and the reprisals of those who benefit from keeping the poor in their poverty by working to realize the ideals of justice and solidarity with which God has inspired you.  In this way you will truly suffer with the members who are suffering and be honored with those members who are honored.
Yes, friends, be sober about this reality, but try not to be sad: because the victory over sin and injustice has already been won in Jesus.  Rejoice, therefore, for in Christ we have overcome the world; and justice for every person—from conception to natural death, each created in the supreme dignity of the image of God—can be realized when we allow God’s Spirit to work in and through us.  Yes, rejoice and give thanks today for Christ’s victory; and then choose to make the fruits of Christ’s victory—that is, the fullness of God’s kingdom—present among us.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 26th & 27th, 2019

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The drama under the surface


Homily: The Baptism of the Lord – Cycle C
On January 8th, 1978, a baby boy was baptized at Saint Mary Nativity Catholic Church.  Little did his parents and godparents know at the time that this boy would be destined to stand one day right where I am standing and preach to you, the good people of this parish, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  No, they could not know this as the mysterious plans of God would take this boy far and wide until that day that he would come here, carrying this most important news. “Who is this boy?” you might be asking. “Who is this boy destined to bring us Good News?”  Well, my friends, it’s… me. It’s just me.
You know, I remembered my baptism anniversary this past week and I realized that the whole thing was rather… undramatic.  So, I thought I’d try to infuse a little drama into it here in my homily. My guess is that, for just about everyone here, the same is true.  So true that I’m willing to bet that there aren’t five people in this church who know when their baptism anniversary is.  Am I right? Raise your hands if you know the date of your baptism.  Almost all of us here do not remember the date of our baptism.  And why? Well, probably because they were all pretty undramatic, I suppose. Nonetheless, hidden below the surface, incredibly dramatic things happened.
Jesus’ baptism, on the surface, wasn’t very dramatic either.  In fact, Luke’s Gospel barely gives it a sentence. He wrote: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying...”  That’s it. No drama. Just another dip in the water like the multitudes of others that had been coming to John for his “baptism of repentance”. Under the surface, however, this was incredibly dramatic.
Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line for confession; and imagine that this is a “regular” confession for you: one in which you don’t feel the anxiety of anything major to confess, but nonetheless have acknowledged that there are some things in your life that need the grace of God’s forgiveness.  Look up and down the line. You’ll see some folks you recognize and others you do not. Now imagine that one of those folks is Jesus. Which one? Who knows? But this is the situation in which Jesus comes to be baptized by John. Jesus, a guy who looks like anyone else, comes to receive John’s baptism of repentance.  He waits his turn, enters the river, and allows John to baptize him. After, he prays.  No drama.  Hidden below the surface, however, something incredibly dramatic happened: something mostly obscured by what happened after.
What happened after was this great theophany—the manifestation of the Holy Trinity—as the skies were torn open and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the voice of God the Father was heard declaring to him that he is his “beloved Son”.  This was pretty dramatic, to be sure. This public manifestation of Jesus’ identity steals the stage from the drama that happened in the water. The hidden drama in the water, however, was no less significant.
When you and I were baptized, I’ll bet that the most dramatic thing that happened outwardly was that the priest poured too much water and got some in your eyes or your godfather dropped your lit candle on the carpet.  Nonetheless a great drama happened, unseen to any of us: we were cleansed of sin, the Spirit of God descended upon us, and we were permanently sealed by God, marking us as his beloved children. Incredible! Something permanent and infinitely irrevocable happened to us with what looked like nothing more than a splash of water.  This hidden drama of our baptism, though, wouldn’t have been possible without the hidden drama of Jesus’.
You see, what happened at Jesus’ baptism was not God’s adoption of him (as some ancient writers had proposed—as if he hadn’t always been God’s Son and as if he just happened to be, like, the “one-millionth-customer”; thus, winning the grand prize of becoming God’s son).  Rather, what happened at his baptism was the sanctification of water as the means of new life. Jesus did not need John’s baptism: he had no need of repentance. Yet he shows us the depths of his humility by submitting to John’s baptism anyway. In doing so he purified the waters of baptism and made them powerful: able to effect the hidden drama that happens at every baptism that we celebrate today and to be the sign of new life that it inaugurates.
The public manifestation that Jesus is the Son of God was the outward expression of new life that his baptism brought.  From that moment, Jesus’ hidden life in Nazareth was over and his life of public ministry was inaugurated. So, too, for us.  Once the hidden drama of baptism unfolded, a new life in faith was inaugurated for each of us. We were incorporated into Christ and, thus, we can now no longer live a hidden life.  Rather, our lives must consist in being manifestations of the truths that have been revealed to us throughout this Christmas season: that Jesus is the divine person in human flesh—the Son of God—and that he has come to save us.
My brothers and sisters, none of us needs screenwriters to make our baptisms seem more dramatic.  There is a depth of drama already built in, hidden under the surface. What we need, however, is to let the ensuing drama—the drama of the manifestation of Jesus to the world—play out in our lives by proclaiming this Good News (with our mouths!), by living upright and holy lives (for the Saint Paul tells us that “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age”), and by serving those in need, no matter where we are.
My brothers and sisters, God has called each of us to be a manifestation—an epiphany—of his presence to the world.  As we enter into Ordinary Time let us resolve to respond to that call, so that the drama of each of our lives might lead to the greater glory of him: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who lives and reigns forever and ever… AMEN!
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 13th, 2019

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The work that leads to epiphany


Homily: The Epiphany of the Lord – Cycle C
          In its most basic definition, an epiphany is “a moment of sudden realization or insight”.  In other words, it is that moment that makes you stop and say “oh, I get it!”  This usually occurs after you’ve been thinking long and hard about something: a math problem that just doesn’t seem to work out, the missing word in a crossword puzzle, that glitch in your system at work that you can’t quite pinpoint, or how you’re going to get your kids to three different places at the same time with only one car.  Whether it is big or small, an epiphany is a moment when you break through the barrier of unknowing to find the answer that you were looking for.
          As you can see, an epiphany requires some work up front.  It’s not an epiphany to look down on the sidewalk and find a five-dollar bill.  Good fortune, yes, but an epiphany, no.  An epiphany, rather, requires a deep immersion into the subject—a seeking, a longing for an answer—such that the realization of the answer is immediately known.  For example, when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity, he had already spent many years as a mathematician and a physicist.  Thus, when he saw the apple fall from the tree (or, as legend has it, when the apple fell on his head while he slept under the tree), he already had a frame of reference to make sense of it.  It was something new, to be sure, but it was born out of many years of intense study.
          These new insights, it seems, always move those who receive them in a new direction.  Sir Isaac Newton could move and expand his study of physics in a new way because of his insight regarding the force of gravity.  An example a little closer to home: the insight that one could find greater freedom, security, and prosperity here in this country has moved millions of people to take a new direction for their lives.  And so we see that an epiphany is not just “a moment of sudden realization or insight”, but also that this insight is one that moves the one who receives it in a new direction. ///
          The word “epiphany”, however, is also used to describe a “manifestation of a divine or supernatural being”.  Combining these two definitions together we could say that an epiphany is a revelation of something (or someone) previously unknown that provides new insight and thus moves its knowers into a new direction.
          The seasons of Advent and Christmas are full of epiphanies that are recorded for us in the Scriptures.  First, in Advent, we remembered the epiphany of the angel Gabriel to Mary that God would be made manifest in her womb.  When Mary received this manifestation of God, her life would definitely move in a new direction.  Joseph, too, when he in a dream received the epiphany from the angel, would have to move in a new direction.  Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah also faced a new direction for their lives when an angel announced the birth of a son to them: a son who would go before the coming Messiah to prepare his way.
          Now, in Christmas, we have been remembering the epiphany of the angels to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and how it moved them to leave the fields and their flocks to search out the newborn king.  We have been remembering also the epiphany to Simeon and Anna in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought in Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth and how it moved them to acknowledge the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.  And, next Sunday, we will recall the epiphany of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan River and how it would begin the new direction of public ministry for him and the new direction of a retreat from public ministry for John.  In each of these moments, we see people who were seeking an insight or a revelation who were then moved into a new direction in their lives once they received it.
          Today, we focus on the epiphany to the Magi—the manifestation of the God of Israel to the “magi from the east”—and we read how it moved them in a “new direction”; and we see a great contrast in this story today between King Herod and the religious elite of the Jews and these magi from the east.
          I find it extremely telling that, in the story that we recounted from Matthew’s Gospel, the “wise men” notice a great star that had appeared in the sky—a star bright enough to be noticed and which remained there long enough for them to travel a long way from the east to Jerusalem to find it—but that King Herod and the chief priests and the scribes of the people didn’t seem to have seen it.  The magi were looking for a sign and thus responded when they “saw his star at its rising”.  King Herod, on the other hand, was more worried about holding onto, and taking advantage of, his power; and so, even though this new light appeared in the sky, the epiphany was not granted to him. /// And so we see once again that an epiphany is received only when we are first looking for something.
          My brothers and sisters, the truth is that God wants each of us to have an epiphany.  Perhaps many of you are not aware of the fact that it is possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary (recent studies, in fact, confirm that many of you are not aware of this).  Nonetheless, God sent his Son to be born as a human being not only to save us from our sins by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead, but also to manifest himself to his most beloved creatures and thus to make a deep, personal relationship with him possible: a relationship that moves us in a new and positive direction.
          In order to receive this, however, we have to be like Isaac Newton and the magi: we have to be looking for it.  In other words, we have to immerse ourselves in the things that will prepare us for the epiphany that God wants to give us: in prayer, in which we seek to connect with God, and in study of the Scriptures, in which we come to know God and his way of manifesting himself to others.  Then we wait patiently for God’s manifestation.  The magi didn’t fill their lives with other distractions because the stars hadn’t yet revealed anything to them, nor did Isaac Newton give up on studying physics because he hadn’t discovered anything new.  Rather, they waited patiently, looking for the signs that would reveal to them something new.
          And so it is for us.  Regardless of where we find ourselves in our relationship with God, God still wants to reveal himself in new ways to each of us.  And he wants to move us in new directions that draw us closer to him and the happiness of eternal life.  And so why not make a resolution for this new year to seek God’s epiphany in your life—to be ready to be amazed by how God reveals himself to you and then to move in a new and positive direction—to grow in holiness and happiness in 2019?  Make a simple plan to pray and to spend time with the Scriptures each day (and, parents and godparents, to pray with and to share the Scriptures with your children and godchildren); and to seek to understand the Mass more deeply so as to participate in it more fully: for in the Mass we encounter Jesus Christ himself in the gathering of the faithful, in the priest, in the Word proclaimed, and in the sacrifice that we receive from this altar.
          My brothers and sisters, an epiphany is a gift from God to us, but it is a gift that requires some work by us up front.  Let us move, then, like the magi did when they saw his star arise and so seek where he may be found.  And let us allow him to move us in new directions of discipleship (that is, in positive action in the world) and so closer to the eternal happiness he promises us: the happiness to which we draw close every time that we celebrate this Holy Eucharist.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 5th & 6th, 2019

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Do less and accomplish more


Homily: The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God – Cycle C
          Well, here we are!  It’s a new year and once again everything seems possible.  Now I suppose that perhaps more than a few of us have spent the last few weeks lamenting all that wasn’t accomplished in the past year: those resolutions we so fervently resolved which, for a multitude of legitimate reasons, perhaps never quite materialized as we had imagined they would.  Nevertheless, today everything is new and full of possibilities.  And it’s likely that many of us have made new resolutions, which, I suppose, means that we are confident that this year we will actually keep them.
          You know, I like that about us.  I like the fact that even when we don’t always accomplish what we’ve set out to do, that we don’t let that keep us from starting again.  In other words, we don’t despair that there is something more to accomplish, in spite of the fact that we’ve fallen short.  I think this is a very Catholic attitude, by the way.  As Catholics, we routinely acknowledge when we’ve failed to live up to our expectations—in other words, when we’ve “missed the mark”—and, once we do, we decide to start anew, with a clean slate, and strive once again to achieve those good goals we set for ourselves.  Sounds a little bit like the Sacrament of Reconciliation, doesn’t it?  Putting all of that aside, however, and turning back to our resolutions for this new year, I’d like to consider for a moment what it is that Mary has to teach us about making resolutions.
          Throughout these last eight days, the Gospel readings have often reminded us of how, in various situations, Mary encountered things that were distressing, confusing, and astounding; and that, after each of them, how she “held those things in her heart, reflecting on them.”  First was the message from the shepherds of what they had seen and heard from the angels.  Then was the words of Simeon in the Temple, in which he prophesied that a “sword would pierce her heart.”  Finally, there was the losing and finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, in which Jesus’ words confounded her.  After each of these situations, we are told that Mary “held these things in her heart and reflected on them.”  In other words, that she practiced silence.
          I would venture to guess that most all of our resolutions involve something active, that is, something we’d like to accomplish: I’m going to exercise more, take that trip I’ve always wanted to take, learn how to golf, or play an instrument, or how to cook.  And these are all good things, of course.  However, they are all things bound to create “mental noise”: a nagging voice in the back of our minds constantly reminding us that we have yet to accomplish the goal that we set out for ourselves.  But what if one of our resolutions this year was to reflect on more things in our hearts?  In other words, what if we resolved to “practice silence” this year?
          In his final homily of 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered advice for how we can overcome the inevitable disappointments—both with ourselves and with the world—that we encounter in our daily lives.  He said, “we must be able to remain in silence, in meditation, in calm and prolonged reflection; we must know how to stop and think.  In this way, our mind can find healing from the inevitable wounds of daily life, can go deeper into the events that occur in our lives and in the world, and come to the knowledge that allows us to evaluate things with new eyes.”  In other words, our retired Holy Father was encouraging us to ponder more deeply the events of our lives and thus to come to see more clearly how our faith shapes our response to them and our own ability to grow within them.  (Pope Benedict, himself, would, just a couple of months after speaking these words, resign from the papacy: giving evidence that he was practicing what he preached.)
          Thus, it seems that our Blessed Mother does have something to teach us about making resolutions.  In all of these events of her life, she did not turn to media outlets to hear what everybody else was saying about what had happened in order to try and make sense of it for herself.  Rather, she turned to silence.  In other words, Mary learned to pray with these events so as to see more clearly how her faith would shape her response to them and her ability to grow within them.
          Just this past Sunday, we heard in the Gospel that after the incident in the Temple, “[Jesus] went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them” and that he “advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”  I suspect that one of the things that he learned from his Mother—whom we venerate today precisely because she is his mother—was how to reflect on things in his heart: a skill that I suspect he perfected in the remaining “hidden years” in Nazareth before he began his public ministry.
          My brothers and sisters, Mary is our mother, too.  Perhaps this year she could teach us how to ponder deeply in our hearts: that is, how to practice silence.  In doing so, perhaps we’ll find that, in doing less, we’ve actually accomplished a whole lot more.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 1, 2019
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God