Sunday, March 31, 2013

Our hearts are hungry, O Lord...

What a joy to celebrate my first Easter as a priest! It has truly been a beautiful experience so far.  I pray that all of you will know the joy of the Resurrected Christ this day and that his love will be with you to heal you, strengthen you, and give you peace.  Christ is risen!  Alleluia!!!


Homily: Easter Sunday – Cycle C

Well, we made it!  After forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, here we are on Easter Sunday.  What a joy it is to be here with all of you: my still new family in Christ.  Like any good engineer, however, I’m never content just to arrive at my destination.  Rather, there’s always a little part of me that wants to look back at where I’ve been and how I arrived here in order to see if I accomplished all that I had set out to accomplish.  I think that it is a valuable thing for us to do on Easter Sunday: kind of like looking over photos from a trip as soon as you get home so that you don’t quickly forget the experiences you had.

To begin, let’s go back to Ash Wednesday, all the way back on February 13th.  There we heard Christ call us to repent from our sins and to believe in the Gospel and I encouraged you to look hard at what your Lenten fasts would be to ensure that they produced more than just forty days of punishment, but that they would also produce in you a sense of detachment.

Then, on the first Sunday of Lent, we recounted how Christ modeled for us what our forty days of fasting should produce in us.  He spent forty days in the desert, fasting and praying; and the Scriptures tell us that when he emerged from the desert, he was hungry (Duh!).  What Jesus realized during that time of fasting and prayer was that it wasn’t food or other worldly things that he wanted, but rather it was communion with God that all of his desires were pointing him towards.  Therefore, when the devil tempted him to change rocks into bread, to worship him so he could have dominion over the kingdoms of the world, and to put God to the test by throwing himself off of the parapet, Jesus could resist him.  His fasting had led him to detachment from any desire for these worldly things.

A couple of weeks later, we heard about the Samaritan woman whom Jesus meets at the well.  Poor woman was just trying to get to the well and get home without running into anybody, but there was Jesus ready to flip her world upside down.  Jesus innocently asks for a cup of water, but when the woman questions him about asking a Samaritan for something, Jesus reveals to her the real reason why he is there: he tells her that if she knew who she was talking to that she would be asking him for water, because the water he would give would never leave her thirsty again.  What Jesus was revealing to her was that what she was really looking for couldn’t be found in husbands or in a well, but that it was sitting there right in front of her: that what she really thirsted for was to know God and that this knowledge alone would satisfy her thirst.

While I could go on picking out other examples from our Scripture readings from these past seven weeks, I won’t.  Hopefully, however, for these last forty days, this has been the work that we have been doing: removing the old yeast of malice and wickedness, as Saint Paul describes it today, so that we can celebrate this feast with the “unleavened bread” of sincerity and truth.  Hopefully, by our fasting and almsgiving we’ve been detaching ourselves from the things of this world: things that only provide a temporary satisfaction.  And hopefully through our prayer—which is where we meet God like that woman did at the well—Jesus has been showing us what it is that we are truly thirsting for.  And so, hopefully, you find yourself today like Jesus did when he emerged from the desert and like the woman did when she encountered him at the well: hungry and thirsty for what truly satisfies.

If you’ve done your work well, then you probably feel a sense of freedom from whatever it is that you gave up.  Thus, you won’t be easily tempted to go back to it now that Lent is finished.  If, however, you haven’t done this work so well, then you’re probably looking forward to getting out of this Mass as quickly as you can so that you can indulge again in whatever it was that you sacrificed for the last forty days.  Either way, I can tell you that the hunger that all of us are feeling today—the hunger that we are left with after forty days of fasting—is not a hunger for worldly things (although it may feel that way); rather, it is a hunger for God.
Saint Augustine once famously said: “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.”  I think that he could have just as easily said the same thing if he would have said: “We are always hungry, O Lord, until our hungers are satisfied in you.”  And so, whether you have used this time of Lent well or poorly (or not at all), I can tell you that whatever hunger you feel inside of you today is truly a hunger for God and only communion with him will truly satisfy it.

Now, I’m enough of a realist to realize that some of us here see this and some of us don’t.  Those who see it are here today rejoicing with full hearts and full voice that God has not left us alone to die in our sin, but rather that through the resurrection of his Son he has redeemed us so that our hungers can be satisfied.  Maybe, however, that’s only a few of us.  Perhaps, though, many of us have gotten a glimpse of this during Lent and so come here today with great hope that something new is happening in our lives that can move us towards finding meaning and purpose in all that we do.  Yet I am sure that there are still some of us here who just don’t see it at all.  And you know what?  That’s ok.  Because we are all here today, just like Jesus’ disciples were all together on the first Easter.  And we are all hearing the same news—the joyful, compelling, and confounding news: He is risen!

And so regardless of where you find yourself today, the Good News is that He is risen and for the next fifty days we will be feasting on the joy of this day, and everyone is welcome to join in this feast from wherever it is that you are at.  This feast is truly the foretaste of heaven: for it is the joy that on this day nearly two-thousand years ago Jesus the Christ of God rose from the dead and conquered sin and death forever, restoring our communion with God and making it so that we can all truly live in harmony and peace.

My brothers and sisters, if you have been waiting for your invitation to join into this feast, then here it is.  Whatever it is that compelled you to be here today, know that God wanted you to be here and that he invites you to come and experience the richness of this banquet that he has prepared for you—for all of us—from before time began.  He knows that each and every one of us is hungry and he longs to satisfy that hunger.   Therefore come.  Come and experience the satisfaction that only he can give: the union of love that he offers us here in this Eucharist.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 31st, 2013
The Solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rosary Mysteries for Holy Saturday

Some years ago, while doing a Holy Week retreat at Saint Meinrad, I was sitting in the chapel on Holy Saturday morning and decided to pray a Rosary.  I started thinking about what mysteries I should meditate on and quickly found that none of the sets of mysteries that we normally use really fit for Holy Saturday - the full day that the Lord's body spent in the tomb.  So, I decided to make up my own.  I've used them every Holy Saturday since and finally realized that I should share them with others.  I hope that they can help you enter more fully into this day of "Holy Waiting" as we anticipate the joyful celebration of the Lord's Resurrection tomorrow.


Praying the Rosary on Holy Saturday
Pray as normal using the mysteries listed below.
In place of the Fatima prayer, use the “O my Jesus…” prayer provided below.
After the Salve Regina, pray the concluding prayer provided below.
Mysteries of the Holy Sabbath:
First Mystery: Jesus is taken down from the cross
“Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action.  He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea and was awaiting the kingdom of God.  He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.  After he had taken the body down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried.  It was the day of preparation, and the sabbath was about to begin.”  Luke 23:50-54
Second Mystery: Jesus is laid in the tomb
“Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.” Mark 15:46
Third Mystery: The women wait at the tomb
“But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.”  Matthew 27:61
Fourth Mystery: The Disciples gather in the upper room
“When all the people who had gathered for this spectacle saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts; but all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events.” Luke 23:48-49
Fifth Mystery: Night falls on the Sabbath
“The women who had come from Galilee with him followed behind, and when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils. Then they rested on the sabbath according to the commandment.” Luke 23:55-56
“O my Jesus…”
“O my Jesus, you have the words of eternal life.  In the silence of your divine rest, grant us faith in the words you have spoken so that we may keep vigil until the dawn of the new day.”
Concluding Prayer
“Let us pray. O GOD, whose only begotten Son, by His life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life, grant, we beseech Thee, that meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

Friday, March 29, 2013

The wood of the cross, the throne of grace...

Here is my homily for the Good Friday commemoration of the Lord's Passion that we celebrated today.  Now, I need to get to work on my Easter homily!

A blessed Triduum to all!


Homily: Good Friday – Cycle C

For those of you who have seen it, you know that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a powerful film.  It’s a work of art, really, in that it truly draws out the reality of Christ’s Passion and presents it in a way that provides an authentic experience of the events it depicts for its viewers.  If any of you are like me, you remember a lot about your first experience of viewing this film.

What drove me to see the film was, I must admit, a sense of Catholic duty.  Here was a big-budget movie produced by a Catholic artist attempting to evangelize through this medium.  Thus, I felt like it was my duty to support it by purchasing a ticket.  I was unprepared, however, for what the experience of the film would be like and, simply stated, I was blown away by it.

While I could pick out something from just about every scene that had an impact on me, I would say that the scene of the scourging at the pillar sticks out as one of the most memorable.  Probably because, quite frankly, it is the most brutal.  Probably also because the Scriptures don’t give us much description of what a scourging entailed.  In the Gospel of John it says simply that “Pilate had him scourged.”  People of the first century probably didn’t need much more description of that: they probably had first-hand knowledge of what a scourging entailed.  We are left to imagine it, however.  That is, until this film.

The scene begins with Jesus receiving the standard Jewish punishment: 40 lashes minus one (“minus one” because to receive 41 lashes would go beyond the Law of Moses and so to prevent that they always stopped at 39).  We know that this is what he received first because you could hear the Roman soldier counting them off, one by one, as the soldiers inflicted them upon Jesus.  Then the Romans have their way with him.  Jesus’ punishers begin by looking over a table of whips and clubs and one of them selects a whip with multiple “tails”, each having a sharp metal hook on the end.  The soldier previews the device’s pain-inflicting capacity by whipping it down on the table in front of the supervising officer: the metal hooks digging into the wood and ripping off chunks when the soldier pulls it off.

I won’t describe what this device did to Jesus’ body.  But I will say that there was no pre-ordained limit to the Romans’ cruelty.  The scene is gruesome, and then it gets worse.  After the soldiers have had their way with the back side of Jesus’ body, the supervising officer stops them, puts his hand out palm facing down, and then turns it up: indicating that he wanted them to do the same to the front side of his body.  I will never forget that scene: its images are emblazoned permanently in my memory.

And yet, the film continues.  The final condemnation from Pilate, the Way of the Cross winding through the streets of Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, all the way to the penultimate scene—which depicts the Pieta with Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus in her arms and staring directly out of the screen towards the viewers.  This film so vividly portrays the drama of Christ’s Passion that it is nearly impossible not to be affected in some deep way after watching it.

When the film ended and the lights in the theater went up no one in the theater said a word.  After a few moments there were a few people who began making comments, but overall people walked out of the theater speechless.  I saw it with my friend Ann and neither of us spoke as we exited the theater.  We made it all of the way back to the car without exchanging a word.  Finally, after I started the car, I looked at her and all I could say was: “We should go and pray.”

We made our way over to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel adoration chapel—still mostly speechless—and, after we entered, I knelt down and buried my face in my hands.  I was so ashamed of myself.  In part because I knew that it was my sins that added to the suffering Christ endured.   More so, however, I was ashamed because of my “lukewarmness” to all that Christ suffered on account of my sins: that instead of feeling a deep compunction for my sins, I confessed them more out of duty: not acknowledging that each sin, no matter how small, added another blow to his body from that horrific device.  I’m not sure how much time we spent there, but before we left I begged Christ for forgiveness and for the grace to live more consciously aware of all that he had endured for me.

My brothers and sisters, every year we come together on Good Friday to commemorate the Lord’s Passion and yes, in a very real way, it is meant to stir up within us some shame for our sins.  More than that, however, it is meant to stir up a flame within us that shakes us from our lukewarmness and reminds us of our need to run to the Throne of Grace—this altar… the wood of the cross that we will venerate…—and to beg to be forgiven that we have for so long been apathetic to what Christ suffered for us, so as to receive anew the cleansing power of the blood and water that flowed out from his side.

The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that today isn’t the end: just as the Pieta scene wasn’t the end of the film.  The film, rather, ended depicting Christ’s Resurrection—that is, his ultimate victory over death.  For us the same exists.  In fact, the reason why we commemorate Christ’s Passion on Good Friday is precisely because we look towards the same ending: our joyful celebration of his Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

What a truly merciful God we have who would look on our sin and count it as the merit for sending us his Only Begotten Son to suffer and die for us so that we could be redeemed.  We truly do adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross we have been redeemed.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 29th, 2013
Good Friday of the Holy Triduum

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Passionate Week

Even though it won't look good on a t-shirt... I love my Argentinian Shepherd! :D

What a blessing to be entering my first Holy Week as a priest (and I'm already exhausted)!  I'm looking forward to many blessings this week.  May God bless you with a very "passionate week" as we focus on Christ's Passion and his Passover from death to life!


Homily: Palm Sunday – Cycle C

It’s been a week and a half now and I have to say that I am totally enamored with Pope Francis.  Don’t get me wrong, I love and miss Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI.  After Benedict’s election, I was one of the first to buy and wear the “I love my German Shepherd” t-shirts.  Pope Francis, however, has this wonderful “Latin affability” about him that, in a positive way, contrasts him with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s deep German sincerity.  I’ve been eating up everything that Pope Francis has been saying and watching as many videos of him as I can find and I can say that I am really enjoying getting to know our new Holy Father.  One of the things that struck me as I was reflecting on the readings for today was just how much some of our new Holy Father’s actions reflect much of what we learn about Christ in these readings.

One of the primary things that we learn about Christ from these readings is that he is our self-emptying savior.  You know, Christ did not come with a great military force to overthrow all of the powers of the world in order to save us from sin and death.  Rather, it was his supreme humility that saved us.  Though he was God, he came to be like us: and not just any one of us, but he came to be the one who would be the most despised among us; so much so that he even got to the point of despair that he had been completely abandoned by everyone, including God the Father.

Pope Francis, from what I’ve read about him so far, never let his “exalted” status as the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires keep him from meeting people wherever they were at.  He eschewed the espiscopal residence in favor of a simple apartment and walked past the car and driver that awaited him to take public transportation.  He remained known as “Fr. Jorge” the whole time, yet he never backed down from speaking frankly to political leaders who proposed laws that were contrary to the teachings of the Church.  For this he was persecuted at times in the Argentinean media and was even accused of complicity in human rights violations during a military dictatorship there.  In other words, though he was the Cardinal Archbishop, a prince of the Church, he nevertheless always chose to serve among his people, not above his people.

Another thing that we learn about Christ from these readings is that he is also our highly exalted savior.  Again, Jesus did not win this great name for himself—the name at which every knee must bend—by putting down all of his enemies (which, by the way, he could have easily done since he was God).  Rather, he allowed himself to be put down.  In doing so, he showed us how we are to live: standing always for truth, in obedience to the Father who alone has the power to exalt us.

When the conclave started, Cardinal Bergoglio (as he was known at the time) wasn’t on anybody’s radar as being a contender for being elected.  Everybody seemed to know that he had garnered the second highest number of votes in the conclave that elected our now retired pope, Benedict XVI, but no one thought that he had much of a chance of getting a large number of votes this time around.  Yet, his brother cardinals recognized him in his “lowliness” and decided to “raise him up” to be exalted among them—that is, to give him a name above all of their names: that of “Bishop of Rome”.  In other words, our new Holy Father didn’t go out and make a name for himself, rather he received it simply by being obedient to the service he had been given.

The final broad theme that we learn about Christ from today’s readings is that Christ is an example for us.  From the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, to the New Testament testimony of Saint Paul, to our recounting of the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Luke, we see how Christ offered himself for us and for our salvation.  Yet, it is precisely through these same Scriptures that Christ continues to offer himself to us as an example that we are to follow: calling us to empty ourselves for others just as he emptied himself for us.

From the moment that he first stepped out onto the Loggia, Pope Francis has also been offering himself to us as an example to follow.  From eschewing the papal limousine to ride the bus back to the hotel with the other cardinals, to descending from the pope-mobile during the procession after his installation mass to greet (and tenderly kiss) a severely handicapped person, to committing to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at a juvenal correctional facility, Pope Francis has been showing us that he takes his title as “servant of the servants of God” quite literally.  Like Christ, our Holy Father promotes conversion not by demanding change in forceful speech or by coercion, but rather by providing a “lived example” for others to follow.  I suspect that this “lived example” is going to challenge each and every of us (if it hasn’t done so already).

My brothers and sisters, we recall Christ’s Passion at the head of this the most holy of weeks of the year in order to remind us of his self-emptying and that his self-emptying calls us to our own self-emptying.  Our new Holy Father, following this example, intends to empty himself by spending time with the poor this week so as to enter more intimately into Christ’s Passion.  Each of us ought to meditate on Christ’s Passion this week and thus seek our own way to empty ourselves for others.  Maybe we could be like the women from Galilee who stood by Christ in his suffering and make a visit to a nursing home or the hospital.  Or perhaps we could feel the compunction of the Good Thief and do a little “spring cleaning” in our homes, sharing what we don’t need with those who go without through the Salvation Army, the Saint Vincent de Paul store, or the Emmaus Mission.  Maybe we are like Simon of Cyrene and we see a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor who is carrying a heavy cross—perhaps the recent death of a loved one, a broken family, or the loss of a job—and we decide to take it up for them and with them.

Whatever it is, seek to enter into Christ’s Passion this week by opening your heart to be emptied for others, because when we empty ourselves for others like Christ did, we open ourselves to be exalted as he was.  More than that, however, when we empty ourselves like Christ did, we also open ourselves to discover him: Jesus Christ who suffers both in the poor and with the poor.  Thus emptied of ourselves, we become truly ready to experience the joy of the Resurrection: the joy that awaits us on Easter Sunday.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 23rd & 24th, 2013
Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The God that disappoints (sometimes)

5th Sunday of Lent... Holy Week is right around the corner!  And a new Pope to boot!  It's going to be another incredible new experience, I suppose :)  Please pray for me that I'll be able to weather all of the stress and truly pray through this great feast of our faith!


Homily: 5th Sunday of Lent – Cycle C (Scrutinies)

I would guess that most of us here have had one of those “where was God” moments already in our lives.  It seems like it is one of those inevitable experiences in life.  Mom’s sudden diagnosis with stage four breast cancer or grandpa’s sudden stroke.  The best friend who was killed in a car accident or the child lost to miscarriage.  Or perhaps even the loss of a beloved pet.  All of which often leave us wanting to say, like Martha and Mary in our Gospel today, “Jesus, if only you had been here…”

My own family had a moment like that.  Almost twenty years ago now, my brother Douglas was killed during an armed robbery at the place where he worked.  He was 20 years old at the time and my sisters and I were all in our teens.  Needless to say, in the middle of what is already a tumultuous time in the life of a family—the time when all of the children are in that teen age range—this event greatly unsettled our world.

Now my mom is a pretty strong woman.  Like any good Catholic mother, she made sure that all of her children grew up practicing the Catholic faith.  The sudden, seemingly meaningless death of one of her children, however, deeply shook her faith.  (You know when Jesus says in the Gospel “Tonight all of you will have your faith shaken…” and Peter says “Lord, maybe all the rest of them, but me never…” well, my mom is kind of like Peter in that way and the death of my brother was that “faith-shaking” event.)

For a long time my mother was unable to forgive God for what happened.  She, like Martha, blamed God for my brother’s death.  In the process, she had to confront (we all had to confront it, really) the fact that the reality that she was facing brought into question everything that she had believed to be true about God: namely that God was loving, caring, and protecting to those who remain true to his laws and commands.  “I’ve done my part,” I could hear her say, “but where were you!?!?”

Martha and Mary, even though they had the distinct advantage of being able to vent their emotions directly to Jesus, face to face, nonetheless experienced a very similar moment.  A sudden illness had come upon their brother Lazarus and, although they had sent word to Jesus, he didn’t come quickly enough and their brother died.  Jesus, of course, knew what he was going to do and so, as Martha expressed her frustration that Jesus seemingly didn’t try hard enough to come and save her brother, Jesus calmly and warmly invites her to a new understanding of death.  After Martha expresses her faith that her brother will rise again in the final judgment, Jesus, in turn, invites her to see who it is that is standing before her: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells her.  What he seems to be saying is, “You don’t have to wait for the resurrection at the end of time, because the one who is the resurrection is standing right here before you.

What Christ was doing was calling Martha to a radical hope in the face of despair: which was a hope that she already hinted at having when she said, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  And why do we have to be reminded of this?  Well, it’s because sometimes we need a reminder that God didn’t promise that he would shield us from all that could hurt us.  Rather, he promised us that he would never abandon us in our woundedness.  Thus, we hear in the prophecy of Ezekiel that God doesn’t say “Don’t worry, I’ll never let you die,” but rather, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”  In other words, “Although you may feel like you’ve died, not even death will stop me from restoring you to the life that I have promised to you.”  It is this promise, then, that calls us to a radical kind of hope: radical, because hope that comes in the face of despair is the most pure kind of hope that one can have.

I would guess that just about all of us, however, have never experienced the second half of Martha and Mary’s experience: that is, we’ve probably never experienced God actually intervening to bring our loved one back to life, regardless of how much we’ve actually pleaded him for it.  Thus, the challenge for us is to find a way to take hold of this radical kind of hope in the midst of our unresolved despair.  This is a very personal challenge, for it is something that we have to resolve within ourselves.  First, we have to acknowledge our disappointment with God that he did not live up to our expectations (regardless of whether or not they were realistic expectations to have of God, because the fact of the matter is that they were our expectations and, thus, they were real).  Then, we have to find a way to open ourselves back up to him to allow him the chance to show us that he has not abandoned us.  This takes a lot of humility and vulnerability on our part, which, quite frankly, can be scary.

As I mentioned, my mom is a strong woman.  And so, let’s just say that she doesn’t do “vulnerable” very well.  Her faith, however, had been so strong—and so deeply imbedded in her understanding of who she was—that she knew that she had to find a way to get a hold of that hope in the face of this unresolved despair.  So she turned back to prayer.  Through it, and by staying close to the sacraments, she has been able to find a way to open herself back up to God so as to give him the chance to show her the hope that still exists even though the hurt from the loss still remains.  I suspect that she is still finding it, just as all of us in the family are still finding it, each in our own way, even now, nearly 20 years after his death.

My brothers and sisters, Lent isn’t just about “getting right with the laws of the Church.”  Rather, Lent is really about reconciling ourselves with God and with one another.  Unfortunately, just maintaining our Lenten fasts isn’t going to be enough to make that reconciliation happen.  At best, it can make us open to it, but that’s as far as it can take us.  The hard work of Lent is, rather, is this opening of ourselves to God: first acknowledging our disappointment with him and then being open to discovering a new, more meaningful way to be in relationship with him.

With the help of his grace, however, which is found in prayer and in the sacraments, we, too can come to believe, as Martha and Mary did, in the promise God has made to us—that he would open our graves and raise us from them—and, thus, we can find the peace that will allow us to move forward, trusting in the promise of joy that awaits us on Easter morning.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 17th, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Searching for blindness

Just returned from another week at Saint Meinrad beginning the "Good Leaders, Good Shepherds" program.  What an awesome program!  Super well-researched and put together and the leaders were incredibly knowledgeable and prepared for the program.  One of the best all-around programs that I've every experienced... and this was just the opening module!

I have a busy couple of weeks ahead leading up to Holy Week.  Nevertheless, you know that I'll be watching closely to hear from our new Pope (whenever he's elected)!  Please keep praying for the Cardinal Electors!


Homily: 4th Sunday of Lent – Cycle A (Scrutinies)

Some of you may be familiar with the story of Alice and Mark.  Alice, as the story goes, was blind, and she hated everyone.  Being blind, as we can all imagine, is a pretty heavy cross to carry and for Alice, that took its toll on her relationships with others.  Mark, however, was a patient man and he loved Alice deeply.  He was always there for her and she felt that he was someone that she could rely on.  One day she told Mark, “If I could see, I would marry you.”

Not long after that, Alice was notified that someone had donated a pair of eyes to her.  So she had the surgery and, after a week or so of recovery, when the bandages came off, she was able to see Mark for the first time.  Almost immediately, Mark smiled at her and asked her: “Now that you can see, will you marry me?”  Alice, however, was speechless.  You see, Mark was blind.  Immediately she knew that looking at his closed eyes would be a constant reminder of the blindness that she so longed to leave in her past and she wanted so badly to leave that memory in the past that she refused his proposal.  Alice’s blindness, it seems, went much deeper than physical sight.

In our Gospel reading today, the Pharisees are suffering from a similar type of blindness.  As we hear in the Gospels over and over again, these religious leaders were intensely focused on preserving the Mosaic Law and on ensuring that it was carefully observed by all Jews.  Being so “in tune” with the Law that God had given them, they were certain that they also knew what the Messiah, whom God had promised to send them, would look like.  He would emerge from an important family of obvious heritage to their great king, King David.  Jesus, however, didn’t fit that mold.  Remember that the history of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and the great signs that accompanied it, was unknown to the general public while Jesus was still walking on earth.  Rather, all that people knew about him was that he was a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, who was generating a lot of buzz with his teaching and through his works.

No, Jesus’ heritage didn’t jive with what the Pharisees were looking from the Messiah.  Thus, although he was performing the works of God—healing the sick, raising the dead, driving out demons (and, in this case, curing the blind)—the Pharisees were blinded by their preconceived notions of the Messiah and couldn’t see him for who he was.  Like Alice, whose preconceived notion of what Mark would look like prevented her from seeing the Mark that she knew—the patient, caring man who had been with her all this time, the Pharisees’ preconceived notion of what the Messiah would look like prevented them from seeing that the Messiah was actually right there in their midst.

The man who was cured of his blindness, however, had none of these preconceived notions.  So much so that when the Pharisees question him his only response was to say “I know nothing about this man.  I just know that I was blind and now I can see.”  And when pressed by the Pharisees to make a judgment about Jesus, he doesn’t call him the Messiah, but rather a prophet.  What he is doing is speaking from the truth of his experience.  “I was blind, but now I see, which is a good thing.  And if it is a good thing, then it must be from God.  Therefore, this man must be from God.  And so the best that I can say about him is that he seems to me to be a prophet.”  Notice that he doesn’t try to push Jesus into being what he wants him to be, but simply speaks of him according to the truth of his experience of him.

The Elect, those who are preparing to be baptized this Easter, are kind of like this man.  They, like all of us, have been born blind, but, through an encounter with Christ in prayer, in his Word, and through the witness of this community, they have had their eyes opened to the truth of his love and now stand before us to ask for our prayers as they make their final preparations for their Baptism.  They ask for our prayers so that they may be cured of every spiritual blindness and so become like us, “children of light.”

And so to the Elect I have this to offer: the foundation of our faith is acknowledging the truth about our encounters with Christ.  Just like the man born blind—and the Samaritan woman from last week’s Gospel reading—we are called first and foremost to witness to the truth of our encounter with him.  “I can’t tell you if he is a sinner,” the man born blind states, “All I know is that I was blind and now I can see.”  “Come, see the man who told me everything about myself,” the Samaritan woman exclaims, “Could he be the Messiah?”  The scrutinies that the Elect are undergoing are about getting clear.  Just like Lent, for the rest of us, is about getting clear.  In other words, it is about eliminating all of our preconceived notions about God, religion, and what Church ought to be, and getting clear about our experience of Jesus, so that we, too, can worship him, like that man in the reading today, when we see him in his truest, glorified self—his resurrected self—on Easter Sunday.

After Alice’s rejection, Mark left feeling completely destroyed.  A few days later, she received a note from him that said simply, “Take good care of your eyes, my friend, because before they were yours, they were mine.”  Alice could finally see, but then sin—her desire for worldly satisfaction through her eyes—blinded her heart and she rejected Mark’s Christ-like love.  Mark, on the other hand, through making himself blind, truly died to his self and thus to sin.  As a result, he was able to see the sad truth about Alice.  May our Lenten observances blind us to the world—and, thus, to sin—so that we can truly see the love that Christ offers each one of us.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – March 9th & 10th, 2013

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Jesus the Divine Gardener

I gave this homily at Saint Bernard's parish in Crawfordsville this weekend.  I was there giving a "mini-mission" to the parish.  My mission talk was recorded (well, 90% of it was recorded), so if I get the audio/video from that, I'll make sure to post it as well.

I'm off this week back to Saint Meinrad to begin the Good Leaders, Good Shepherds program with a bunch of priests from my diocese.  Looking forward to being back on the Holy Hill!


Homily: 3rd Sunday of Lent – Cycle C

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a woman named Mary in a nursing home.  This home was not her residence; rather, she still lived at home by herself for the most part, but about three months ago she had contracted pneumonia and so was sent to the hospital.  Mary’s no spring chicken and so it took her a couple of weeks of treatments in the hospital for her to overcome the pneumonia.  Her doctors, however, didn’t feel like she was strong enough to return home, so they transferred her to this nursing home for rehabilitation.

My visit to her wasn’t a random one.  Rather, Mary had requested to see a priest.  When I arrived I asked her how she was doing and began to inquire about why she felt that she needed to see me.  What I found was that Mary was depressed.  She hadn’t been home for a couple of months.  She missed her cat and, basically, she was homesick.  Add to that the rigors of daily therapy sessions, which for her didn’t seem to be helping her to get any closer to returning home and she, understandably, was beginning to feel frustrated and a little hopeless.  The thing that made her call for her priest, however, was that the administration had told her that she had one week left to show some effort and progress before they were going to cut off care completely.

Thus, when we talked, she would say things like, “I’m tired” and “I’m ready to give up.”  She also said, “I don’t see why God is keeping me here.  I don’t feel like there is any purpose left to my life.”  Then she turned to speculating about God, saying, “Why would God take my two daughters from me and leave me here?” and “I guess God must not be ready for me yet.”  All this time, I tried to listen and offer some supportive words.  Eventually, however, came the deep, fundamental question that she was grappling with: “Do you think that God is punishing me?”

Ever since ancient times, people have struggled with the idea of suffering.  For the most part, suffering seems to be illogical: meaning, the when and how of suffering is usually not connected to any discernible cause in our lives.  In ancient times, including the time of Christ, peoples made sense of suffering by connecting it to God and punishment for sin.  Thus, when the people in our Gospel reading today come to tell Jesus about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate’s henchmen on the very altars where they were offering sacrifices, the question on their minds was “for what sin were these men punished?”  Because Jesus could read the hearts of men, he also knew that some of them would be pondering the same thing about another tragedy, the eighteen people who were killed when a tower near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem collapsed on top of them.  In their minds, such a random event could only have been the work of God; and since, for the Israelite people, God was good and just, such a work of God could not be the result of malice and, therefore, must be an act of justice, punishing those people for some sin of theirs that was unknown to others.
As I saw with Mary on that day in the nursing home, this notion that suffering is somehow a punishment inflicted on us by God is an idea that remains with us even today.  Even with all of our technological advances, we still have not been able to answer the question about suffering.  Thus, we inevitably turn to where we’ve always turned to answer the unanswerable: to God.  For some, that produces an image of God who is vengeful, cold and distant.  For others, it produces an image of God who is impotent and unable to save us.  Yet for others, it produces and image of a God who just doesn’t care about us.  For Christians, however, it should produce in us hope.  Divine Revelation has shown us that the God we worship is none of those things, but rather he is the God who is all good and just, slow to anger and rich in mercy.  Nevertheless, when the rubber hits the road and we find ourselves in a moment of suffering, it is often easier for us to begin to think of God in one of these other forms.

Jesus, however, turns this thinking around.  When these people come to him to tell him of the men that Pilate had killed, Jesus knew that they were expecting him to say, “Those men must have been great sinners!  Thank God that you are not sinful like them and so have been spared this suffering.”  Instead of saying this, however, he turned the focus back onto them: “Do you think that they were greater sinners than all of you?  By no means!  Repent now from your sins so that you do not suffer the same fate as them!”  Then to emphasize his point, he refers to the people killed by the tower of Siloam in order to show them that his admonition includes all of the Jews: “Whether you are a Galilean or are from Jerusalem, your sins are just as worthy of punishment as all of theirs.  Repent from them now before you die in your sin!”

On the surface, it can look like Jesus is reinforcing the idea that God directly punishes people for their sins.  And so, Jesus offers a parable to help dispel that myth.  He speaks of an orchard owner who plants a fig tree in his orchard.  Now no orchard owner would plant a tree in his or her orchard unless he or she expected that it would produce fruit.  Thus, after three years, when the owner finds that it has produced no fruit, he orders it to be cut down so that the nutrients of the soil could be preserved for a tree that will produce fruit.  It is not to punish the tree that he cuts it down, but rather to preserve the soil so that the other trees may continue to bear fruit.
Jesus’ point, therefore, is not to say that God is punishing people for their sins, but rather that these tragedies should be a wake-up call to remind you to look at your own lives and to root out sin without delay, for none of us know when our final day will come.  And this is Saint Paul’s message, too, in his letter to the Corinthians: For he says that, although the Israelites were close to God in the desert—they stood in the cloud of his presence, they ate the miraculous food from heaven and drank water from the rock—they grumbled against him and were struck down in the desert before they reached the promised land.  He says that these are signs for us to be vigilant against sin and to repent without delay.

The great Christian author, C. S. Lewis, said that “suffering is God’s megaphone.”  In other words, it’s God’s way of getting our attention.  Thus, when we see tragedy—or experience it ourselves—our task is not to question if God is punishing us, but rather to ask, “Am I ready to meet him?”

If your answer is “No” or at least “I’m not sure”, then don’t be afraid.  Remember that in Jesus’ parable there was a gardener who interceded on behalf of the tree that produced no fruit.  This gardener won for the tree another year and promised to cultivate the ground around it and to fertilize it for nourishment.  As we profess at the beginning of our liturgy in the Penitential Rite, we believe that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us.  Therefore, if we have survived tragedy in our lives, it is likely due to Christ’s intercession for us before the Father.

Christ is our Gardener before God, the Father, in whose orchard we have been planted.  This Year of Faith is the year that he has won for us to produce fruit and this Lent is specifically a time for the ground to be cultivated around us—to root-out all that prevents us from producing fruit.  And the fertilizer?  Well, that’s the Eucharist.  The Body and Blood of Christ is all the nourishment we will ever need to produce fruit for our Heavenly Father.

After my meeting with Mary a couple of weeks ago I had a thought.  She had been wondered whether or not God was ready for her.  Perhaps, however, what she should have been thinking—which is something that we all should be thinking—is that maybe we aren’t quite ready yet for God.  May Jesus, Our Divine Gardener, cultivate his love in our hearts so that we may fill the world with its fruit and be ready on the day when he calls us home.

Given at Saint Bernard’s Parish: Crawfordsville, IN – March 2nd & 3rd, 2013