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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Homily for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Poor Saint Peter. He just can't seem to catch a break, can he? In last week's Gospel, he seemed to have everything well in line, even to the point of realizing that Jesus is the Son of God, and received very high praise and was rewarded for that realization. This week, however, he's not doing so well. In the Gospel reading today, which occurs right after last week's Gospel, Peter gets called Satan and rebuked by Our Lord.

What Peter didn't realize is that Our Lord's death is not something that he could will away. Peter thought that he and the other disciples could protect Jesus from anyone who would harm Him, but he didn't realize that Our Lord's mission was to sacrifice Himself for our sins. Peter also didn't realize that by sacrificing Himself, Jesus is showing us what we need to be willing to do to follow him.

For those of us who are Christians and take our faith seriously, it's not enough to merely say, “I'm a Christian.” It's not enough to believe in God and Jesus. It's really not even enough to come to Mass on a regular basis, as important as that is. To be a disciple of the Lord means having a willingness to give ourselves over to Him completely, even if giving ourselves to Him includes having to give up our lives on Earth to serve His will. The self-sacrifice that is required to truly follow Jesus may not be this extreme, but we should let nothing get between us and Him.

This doesn't make sense to those who are steeped in the world. For those who follow what the world teaches, sacrificing everything we have – our possessions, our plans for our lives, and even our earthly lives themselves – is completely incomprehensible. As Christians, we are called to give up much that the world sees as good, and focus our attention on God's will.
This sacrifice of the things of the world may not mean that we have to give away everything we own. We may even have many possessions, such as nicely furnished house and decent car, and make a good income, but we cannot allow those possessions and things of the world get between us and God. If we are willing to turn our lives over to God's providence and not allow the world distract us, we will receive our rewards in the life to come.

At the same time, we cannot be distant from the problems of the world. We must discern not only what God wills for our lives individually, but also what God's will is for all humanity. It's often hard enough to hear what God is saying to each of us in the silence of our hearts, but it can far more difficult breaking through the noise of the world in order to hear His plan for all creation. We must continually make the effort to discern His will for creation, and work to bring that will to fruition. We must not allow the world to dictate to us, but must allow God's will to work through us to dictate to the world.

Unfortunately, I probably sound a bit like a broken record in some of these homilies, repeating the necessity for uniting our wills to God's will and approaching Him with humility. Sadly, we live in a world where those who are willing to follow God's will are ridiculed and insulted, much as Jeremiah describes in the first reading.

It is not an easy task to run counter to the prevailing culture. While this country may have Christian roots, many of the messages of the culture that surround us are based in a non-Christian view of humanity. Sometimes the culture we live in can even be anti-Christian. It is in this culture that we seek to understand God's will, and to follow Jesus.

How do we hear God's will? First and foremost, we must approach Our Lord with humility, asking for the graces to follow the Father's will. Through regular prayer, especially popular devotions like the Rosary, we will grow closer to God and learn to hear Him speaking to us.

Secondly, we must devote ourselves to finding opportunities to study about God and become more familiar with Him. We must seek to understand the Scriptures more closely, for it is God's revealed word. Likewise, we must find good spiritual and theological reading which will help us to understand what God is saying to us today.

As we seek to hear and follow the Father's will, may we be willing to sacrifice everything in order to follow Him.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary time

You might have had someone say to you, “You Catholics, why do you follow the Pope? Just read the Bible, it'll tell you everything you need to know.” You may have even heard it on the radio or TV, or read it in a pamphlet or book. You may have also had a fellow Catholic say, “Why would I want to follow the Pope? He's old and out of touch with the real world. We need to make the Church relevant. He can't do that.” As the Gospel reading today shows, however, we cannot afford to be so dismissive of the Pope, but need to follow him and his teachings.

Why is the Pope so important? We're all very aware of the popularity of the Pope, especially as shown in his recent visit to New York City and Washington DC, and in the World Youth Day celebration in Sydney, Australia, but why are Catholics, young and old, flocking from around the world just to get a glimpse of the 81 year old German theologian? These are the questions frequently being asked by the news media throughout the world. When looking at the Papacy from a secular mindset, especially when looking at the present office holder, the consistent popularity makes no sense. He's not flashy, he's not risqué, he's not even very good with feel-good, sound bite speaking. It's hard to understand from a secular mindset why the Papacy continues to be an important aspect in Catholic life.

From the viewpoint of Catholics, however, the importance of the Pope stands out in today's Gospel. Jesus wasn't merely content with developing a community of believers who would go out and spread his Gospel message. Instead, Our Lord wanted to establish a Church, a structure that would be the Body of Christ. At the head of this Church, Our Lord placed one of his apostles, Simon bar Jonah, a simple fisherman, to lead in his place. While Jesus is the head of the Church, Simon, now known as Cephas – known in English as Peter, but more accurately translated as Rock – became Our Lord's earthly representative. This representative was promised that he, as the Rock, would be the foundation for Our Lord's Church upon earth. In return, Peter would receive the power to bind and loose, and would inherit the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

To this day, Peter is frequently depicted holding a pair of keys, so what is the big deal about the keys, and binding and loosing? As we see in the first reading, this is a symbolism that goes deep into the history of the Jewish people. Within the Kingdom of Israel, there was a position frequently known as the steward, translated in today's reading as the “master of the palace”. Part of his job was to ensure that the palace would be safe from attacks by controlling who could enter or leave, as he had the keys that could lock or unlock the palace gates. He also had the authority, granted to him by the King of Israel, the control the daily affairs within the palace, freeing the king to focus on the larger affairs of the nation. This was obviously a very important role, which also brought great responsibility and authority.

With Peter and his successors, the Popes, the keys symbolize the authority given to the Papacy by Our Lord. The Pope is not merely a figurehead, but has the authority and responsibility to speak to the world on behalf of Our Lord. Now, this doesn't mean that everything that the Pope says comes directly from God. For example if the Pope decided to speak about his preference in music – Classical, if you're curious – he would be merely describing his opinion. When speaking about matters of faith and morals, however, the Pope is exercising his authority to speak as the representative of Christ. This is what it means for the Pope to be speaking infallibly, which means without error, and obligates us to submit to the teaching of the Pope. By this speaking authority, the Pope is able to bind and loose the faithful, leading and teaching us as Our Lord wishes.

As Catholics, we are to hold the Papacy in high regard. Not all Popes were totally above reproach morally, but all Popes follow in the position of St. Peter, to lead and guide the Church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, may Pope Benedict XVI and his successors continue to guide the Church until Our Lord returns again.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

What a strange response by Jesus to this Canaanite woman who comes to him in need. First, he ignores her pleas to heal her daughter, then calls her a dog. After being insulted in such a way, I think most of us would become upset and leave quickly. The woman, however, perseveres, convincing Our Lord to heal her daughter.

Why did Jesus respond in this way? Was he being anti-pagan, as the Canaanites followed a pagan religion, or was he being racist, attacking this woman because she was part of a different ethnicity or heritage? I would say “No” on both accounts. Instead, Our Lord had at least two reasons, probably more, for his response. First, even though his call to salvation is for the whole world, Our Lord focused his earthly ministry on the Jewish people. Second, He used this event to test the woman's faith in Him, to see if she would persevere in her pleas for healing.

To understand the first reason for Our Lord's response, it's important to repeat that Our Lord's call for salvation is to the whole world. The passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus was not merely for the Jewish people, or for those who followed him when he lived on earth, but was for all peoples at all times. The Prophet Isaiah, writing about 700 years before the life of Jesus, predicted in the first reading we heard that God would open His salvation to all, stating that “[God's] house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The people Isaiah calls “foreigners” are all those who were not of Israelite descent, and were not permitted to join in the temple worship which was reserved only to the Israelite people.

St. Paul, in the second reading we heard, obviously thinks that Isaiah was right, and believes that Jesus' death and resurrection opened the doors to the Gentile people, another term for Isaiah's “foreigners”. St. Paul believed this so strongly that he dedicated his ministry to the Gentile people. He spent much of his life as a Christian ministering and preaching to those who were not Jewish, with the great majority of his time spent in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey. While there were some Jews in this area at the time, they were a small minority compared to the other religions that were prevalent.

While St. Paul shows us that the Gospel of Christ is open to all peoples, Our Lord Himself chose to focus primarily on the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of God. God the Father chose the Israelite people, of which the Jews were the remnant after several periods of being conquered and dispersed, long before Our Lord came to earth. Because God is faithful to his covenant, as St. Paul reminds us when he says, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” Our Lord proclaimed His Gospel primarily to the Jewish people before the Apostles were allowed to spread the Gospel to the rest of the world. Even today, God is still faithful to His covenant with the Jewish people, but like the rest of us, their salvation comes through the Cross of Christ.

Our Lord spent most of his ministry with the Jewish people, but today's Gospel shows us one of the few exceptions that he made. This brings us to the second reason for Jesus' response, to test the faith of the woman. We know that if we ask for what we need in faith, God will answer us, but only if we approach Him in the right way. If we ask for things from God as if He was a divine delivery service, simply put in your order and it shows up a couple of days later, we would be approaching the Father in a prideful manner, expecting Him to do something that we're unwilling to do. As the woman shows us in the Gospel, we need to approach Our Lord with perseverance and humility, begging Him humbly to come to our aid.

This is how the woman responded to Our Lord, willing to lower herself to the level of a dog sitting below a table receiving the scraps from the meal. While a dog might eat well begging for scraps, depending on who was at the meal, this is not how many of us would like to get what we need to survive. Yet, when approaching Our Lord in prayer, we need to humble ourselves and persevere in our requests. Through our perseverance, humility, faith, and trust, Our Lord will hear our prayer and give the answer we need. This answer may not always be what we expect, but we will still receive the answer with joy if we are truly humble.

May we be willing to approach Our Lord with true humility and love, and like the woman in the Gospel, trust Him and persevere in asking Him for our needs.

Homily for the Vigil of the Assumption

This evening, we gather to celebrate one of the great feasts of Our Lady, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. In this feast, we commemorate when the Blessed Virgin Mary, born without sin and unstained by sin, was assumed into Heaven. Her body, never touched by the corruption of death, was brought up to Heaven at the moment of her death by Our Lord, and was reunited with her soul in Heaven, where she reigns with God the Father and Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This feast shows us what our eventual outcome will be at the end of time. After we die, our souls go to Heaven, and our bodies remain in the grave. At the end of time, a new Heaven and new Earth will be created. At that time, our bodies will be resurrected, and our souls will be reunited with our newly resurrected bodies. We will then be living in a new Earth, with Our Lord reigning as our king.

With this Heavenly imagery, the choice of readings today might seem a bit strange. Instead of talking about what Heaven will be like, the first reading shows us King David with the Ark of the Covenant. It becomes clear why this reading was chosen when we look at the readings for tomorrow, the actual feast day of the Assumption. The first reading for tomorrow's Mass comes from the book of Revelation, and shows us an image of Heaven, in which the Ark of the Covenant is seen. After seeing the Ark of the Covenant, St. John says that he sees a woman clothed with the sun. Both the Ark of the Covenant and the woman clothed with the sun are images of Mary.

Why is Mary is seen as Ark of the New Covenant? To begin with, the Ark of the Covenant was the carrier of God's covenant with the Israelite people. It contained a copy of the Mosaic Law, the laws of the covenant between God and the Israelites. It was the most holy object in Israel, because God resided with the Israelite people through this Ark. It was later lost when the region of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian empire approximately 600 years before Jesus' birth.

Mary is seen as the Ark of the New Covenant because she held the second person of the Holy Trinity within herself. Our Lord Jesus Christ, was not merely another human, but fully human and fully divine. The Ark of the Covenant did not literally hold God within it, but Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, received the most unique privilege to carry God the Son within her womb for nine months.

In this evening's Gospel, we hear the woman who calls out, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” Seemingly in contrast to the great honor that Mary received in bearing Our Lord, Jesus replies, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” This is not a denigration of Mary, as some groups of Christians hold, but a re-acclamation. She was blessed because she carried Jesus, but was blessed more so because she heard God's word and responded to it.

As followers of Jesus, we need to follow Mary's example by listening to God's word and responding to it with generosity and love. We need to hear Our Lord calling to us, and say in response, “Yes, Lord, I will follow.” Mary shows us through her life, through her example how we should follow Our Lord, how we should bring ourselves to Him. She gave herself completely to God, literally giving her body to care for Our Lord. She was willing to give everything she had, and was assumed body and soul into Heaven at the end as her reward.

Mary continues to follow Our Lord, and she leads us to him. When we pray to her, when we ask her to intercede on our behalf, through her actions, she is always pointing to Our Lord. We worship Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, but honor Mary very highly as his mother.

May we be willing to give of ourselves to God as completely as Mary did, so that one day we may join her son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Heaven.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

We live in a world filled with noise. How many of us constantly have the radio or TV on at home? We get into our cars, and there's the radio. We walk outside and hear the noise of vehicles, trains, other people. We're surrounded, even bombarded, with noise constantly. This noise prevents us from hearing the still, small voice of God speaking in our hearts.

Our Lord knew the importance of silence and solitude. After feeding the five thousand, which we heard last week, Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him in a boat so that he could have some time to pray in private. These times of prayer are what fueled Our Lord's ministry, kept him going, regardless of the demands that were placed upon him. He also made prayer a priority before any major decision or event. This time, Our Lord used the opportunity for prayer to grieve over the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus knew that he could take all his concerns to the Father in prayer, and that he would receive the grace to continue in his earthly ministry.

We need to follow Our Lord's example. We need to bring our concerns, our challenges, our sorrows to the Father in prayer. When we make a major decision, we need to precede it with time of prayer, asking the Father to lead and guide us so that we may do his will. When we have difficulties in our lives, problems that we feel we can't overcome, we need to bring those to prayer as well, trusting that God will provide the grace to face these challenges.

In our noisy culture, however, it is extremely difficult to bring ourselves to prayer. Because of the constant noise in the world today, it is difficult to silence ourselves and prepare ourselves to be open to God and listen to His response. While it may be difficult to enter into silence, it is all the more important, as the first reading today shows.

When Elijah, long considered Israel's greatest prophet, reached Mount Horeb, he sought to speak with God. I think when many of us picture God speaking, we imagine something like the movie “The Ten Commandments.” We imagine that God has a deep, booming voice that shakes the rocks and causes earthquakes. When speaking with Elijah, however, God doesn't speak that way. He doesn't speak in a great wind, or an earthquake, or even in fire, but in a tiny whispering sound.

This is how God the Father speaks to us today. He doesn't yell at us, he doesn't force us to hear him. Instead, he whispers to us. He speaks softly in our hearts, inviting us to enter into silence and prayer so that we can hear his voice. God does answer our prayers, he does speak to us, but he does it so softly that the noise of the world can easily drown it out.

This is why we must allow for periods of silence in our lives. Every day, we must take time to turn off the TV or radio, get away from the noise of the world and listen to God. We need to spend time in prayer, bringing the challenges of our lives, the struggles we're facing, the sorrows and joys of daily life to God. We also need to spend time silently waiting for an answer. It may not come right away, and it may not even be during times of prayer, but we need to have the periods of silence to open our hearts to God, and prepare them to follow his will.

How do we find this time for silence? It's often very difficult to do, but is so important for our spiritual well-being. One option is to schedule time during the day to spend in a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament. The church is always open throughout the day, so anyone can stop in and spend time before Our Lord in the Tabernacle. I realize that it is often impossible to actually spend an hour in adoration, but I wouldn't be discouraged if you can't do one hour. Even if you only can spend fifteen minutes in front of Our Lord in silent prayer, the graces that we receive from simply stopping by are immeasurable. Our Lord is here in the church, waiting for us to spend time with him. May we have the faith to spend time with Our Lord in silence.

Monday, August 4, 2008

New Translation of the Ordinary of the Mass

Last week, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) formally approved the new translation of the Ordinary of the Mass. This has been a long time coming, as I remember seeing a early draft almost five years ago. Today, the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship released the recently approved parts of the order of the Mass. In my opinion, the new translation will be well worth waiting for. The language is far more poetic, while also maintaining consistency with the original Latin. The imagery within the prayers is far more vivid. The Roman Canon almost looks like a completely different prayer, with a translation that seems to flow better and connects more evenly as a whole.

One example of the improved imagery within the prayers comes in Eucharistic Prayer II. In the Sacramentary, the epiclesis is translated, "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ." In the new translation, the same line is translated, "Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ." I love the imagery of the Holy Spirit coming upon the gifts like the dew on the grass, very gently and peacefully.

I'm looking forward to being able to celebrate Mass using this translation. It's very much worthy of the dignity and beauty of the Mass, and I pray that the rest of the translations are as beautiful as this one is!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

When we look at the feeding of the five thousand, which we see in today's Gospel, it's easy to focus on the surface meaning of the miracle. Our Lord was able to feed five thousand men, plus women and children who were not counted in the five thousand, by multiplying five loaves and two fishes. This in itself would be an incredible event, but there is a far deeper message within Jesus' actions: the deep and sustaining love of God for each of us.

All those who followed Jesus would have considered the gift of bread and fish in today's miracle as a great gift indeed, but few, if any, realized the deeper gift that Our Lord was preparing for his disciples: the Eucharist. Even in his great sorrow over the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, Jesus was willing to give of himself to care for the those who followed Him. He knew the faith of those who followed him, and was able to work with that faith to feed them.

Much as Jesus fed the five thousand, Our Lord is also able to feed us through his gift of himself in the Eucharist. This is not merely a physical feeding, as he was able to do with the five thousand, but a spiritually fulfilling meal. Just as Jesus was able to take five loaves of bread and give them to everyone who was present, Our Lord is able to take simple bread and wine and change it into His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at every Mass that is celebrated throughout the world. Instead of feeding just five thousand, He is able to give himself to all those who follow him throughout time and space.

Just as Our Lord willingly gave to those who followed him out of love, He gives Himself to us out of the same love. Even with his sorrow, Our Lord had compassion on those who followed him, and willingly healed the sick and fed the crowds out of His love. When we receive the Eucharist, we are also receiving the benefit of His love for us.

As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading, God loves us so much that nothing outside of us can separate us from him. Even when Our Lord was in need of solitude, he did not allow that desire to come between himself and His people, but he reached out in pity to those who had traveled far to follow Him. In the same way, Our Lord does not allow anything to come between us and Him, but is constantly reaching out to us in love, constantly sending us the grace to respond to His love and turn to him.

While we can never be separated from God's love, we can still turn our back on Him. Instead of responding to God's love with joy and our own love for Him, we can instead refuse His love and ignore him. God loves us so much that He is willing to allow us to refuse his love and ignore Him. In effect, the only way that we can separate ourselves from God is through our own actions. God will never abandon us, but He will allow us to abandon him.

So how do we respond to Our Lord in love? First and foremost, we need to realize that when we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the greatest gift that Jesus can give us: himself. We need to approach the Eucharist with devotion, and receive it with true joy and a desire to unite ourselves with Him. We need to make sure that we're receiving the Eucharist out of true love for Our Lord, and not merely because it's what Catholics are expected to do when we come to Mass.

As St. Jose Maria Escrivá wrote, we must prepare to receive Our Lord as if it were the only time that we would be able to receive Him. I would venture to say that if we were only able to receive the Eucharist once in our lives, we would prepare for the event much like many people prepare for graduations, weddings, and baptisms. Very few people take these major events for granted, with good reason. In the same way, we should not take the Eucharist for granted.

When we receive the Eucharist, Our Lord reaches out to us in love and feeds us with himself. May we never turn away from Him, but always respond to His love.