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