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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

In the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that we just heard, we are presented with one of the great ironies of Christianity. The letter states that “when [Our Lord] was made perfect, He because the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.” (Heb. 5:9) So when did Our Lord become perfect? He became perfect when He gave up His life on the Cross. He was glorified when He hung on the Cross, the most painful and humiliating form of punishment the Roman Empire ever used. He became perfect when he glorified the Father's name through His sacrifice.

This is the great irony of Christianity. Those who are greatest in the Church are not those with the most money, the wealthiest in the Church. It's not those with the most power in the Church. It's not even those with the most authority in the Church. The greatest people in the Church, the ones we hold up as the examples to be followed, are the Saints, those men and women who humbled themselves and were willing to give of themselves for Christ. Those who are given as the highest examples for us to emulate, the martyrs, were willing to give up their lives for their faith in Christ. People who would use the Church as a vehicle for gaining power and authority are often quickly forgotten, brushed away as another unpleasant aspect in the Church's history.

This reversal of importance within the Church causes no end of confusion to those who are firmly entrenched in the world. They can't understand how Catholics can celebrate someone like Mother Teresa, who was very poor and humble. Someone might say, “Why is she so important? All she did was take care of a bunch of poor people. She didn't do anything that mattered.” They can't understand how we can respect and want to emulate someone like her, while refusing to listen to celebrities and politicians who have the power and prestige that the media grants them.

Those who are entrenched in the world can't see why we would shun wealth, power, and authority to live a humble life. They can't see that when we cling to this life to the exclusion of anything and anyone else, we lose in the long run. In fact, Our Lord tells us in our Gospel passage today who will have eternal life. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (Jn 12:25)

As Christians, we are not to use this life it's own sake. We are not to hang on to our life in this world merely to get the most out of it, but we are to live the most out of this life for Christ's sake, for the sake of the Kingdom. We are to live for ourselves to grow closer to Him and to bring others with us through our living out the Gospel.

Jesus tells us that “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.” (Jn 12:26) As Christians, we are called to follow Our Lord's example. Our Lord went around preaching the Gospel, lifting up those who were lowly, those who sick; who were poor and downtrodden; who were looked down upon by the culture. He lifted them up, and brought them to the Kingdom.

That's what we're called to do as Christians. We're all called to follow that example, to humble ourselves and give of ourselves for the service of the Kingdom, to help spread the Good News of Christ throughout the world and to bring others to know and love Him. This Good News was given to us by Our Lord, and is why He died on the Cross. He tells us, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn 12:32)

Jesus suffered and died so that we might gain eternal life. May we live that message, and bring others into His Kingdom.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Throughout the history of the Old Testament, the Israelite nation kept falling into a regular pattern caused by sin. First, they fall into sin and ignore the warnings of the prophets sent by God to turn away from those sins. In the case we heard this morning, the people of Judah were falling away from the worship of God the Father and were instead turning towards the false gods of those tribes that surrounded them, including offering sacrifices to those false gods within the temple in Jerusalem. God regularly sent prophets to warn the people against worship of false gods, but the prophets were mocked or ignored, and the people continued their false worship.

Because the people were continuing their worship of false gods, punishment, the second stage of the cycle of sin, comes upon them. Judah is conquered by the Babylonians, who take many Jews into captivity and disperse them throughout the Babylonian Empire. Now, God's promised people are no longer within the Promised Land, but are forced to live within a foreign nation.

Finally, after many years, this exile from the Promised Land leads the Jews to repent of their sins, the third stage in this cycle. They express sorrow for their sins and God forgives them, allowing them to return to the Promised Land once again and rebuild the temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians. They're back in right relationship with God until the next cycle of sin starts up again.

While God permitted this cycle of sin to work within the people of Israel, it wasn't His plan for His people. Instead, He wants all of humanity to be in union with Him throughout all eternity, and doesn't want sin to get between us and Him, so He sent His Son to die for our sins. Sin leads to condemnation, but Our Lord's death on the Cross put an end to the condemnation and opened the gates of Heaven to us. Just as the Israelites were healed from the poisonous bite of snakes by looking at the bronze serpent that Moses raised up in the desert, Our Lord's death on the Cross heals us from the poisonous bite of sin in our lives. He broke the cycle that sin holds on our lives, and now we can receive the eternal life that has been promised to us.

St. Paul makes it clear that we do not receive this salvation because we're “good people”, because we are sinful people in need of redemption. Salvation is not something that we can work towards as if it was a promotion or pay raise that we might receive at a job for working hard. Instead, St. Paul tells us “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God”. (Eph. 2:8) In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, faith is defined as, “[belief] in God and [belief in] all that He has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because He is truth itself.” (CCC 1814) This faith is a gift from God, and we need to be open to that gift.

The Catechism continues by reminding us that faith apart from the other theological virtues, hope and charity, “does not fully unite the believer to Christ.” (CCC 1815) The salvation that God offers to us, the eternal life that we hope for, is not something that we're entitled to, not something that is automatic. In order to receive this salvation, we must allow our faith in God to be an active faith and to allow it to show through in our lives. When we allow our faith to be united with the virtue of hope, desiring the kingdom of heaven and eternal life for happiness (CCC 1817), and the virtue of charity, loving God above all things for his sake and loving our neighbor as ourselves (CCC 1822), we will be united with Christ and be open to the gift of salvation.

We need to be careful, as St. Paul also reminds us that this salvation “is not from works, so no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:9) A common mistake made by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike is assuming that the Church teaches “working your way to Heaven.” This is not a part of Church teaching, and never has been. Instead, as I said earlier, the faith we have must be an active faith, that is a faith which shows itself through the good works that we perform, but those works must lead from our faith in God. We cannot do work to achieve salvation, as salvation comes through faith, but our faith must lead us to do good for others.

As we journey through life, we need to allow the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity to work in and through us. May we live these virtues and be drawn into the salvation Our Lord promises us.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

In our second reading, St. Paul lays out for us one of the great mysteries of the faith. How can Our Lord's death on the Cross be both a sign of faith in God and part of His wisdom? When we understand this mystery, we can see how our suffering on Earth can share in Our Lord's suffering on the Cross.

When we read through the Gospels, we see many who come to Our Lord looking for signs and miracles. In fact, today's passage tells us that “many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” They believed that if He could perform these great signs of healing, He had to be a prophet from God.

Even those Jews who were in the Temple agreed with this view. When Our Lord chased out the moneychangers and those who were selling the animals for the Temple sacrifices, the Temple authorities demanded a sign from Jesus to show that He was doing this on God's authority and not His own. Our Lord gave them a sign, but not one they expected: his death and resurrection. If Jesus was the Messiah – the anointed one of God – as some claimed, he would become a great earthly king who chased out the oppressing Romans and was ruling over a renewed Kingdom of Israel, instead of suffering and dying on a Cross.

For the Greeks, Our Lord's death on the Cross presented a difficulty as well. Greek culture at the time treasured logic and philosophy. It would not have been uncommon to hear the latest philosophic thought being discussed in the marketplace, much as we might discuss the results of the basketball game or stock market.

For those who loved philosophy, to preach a great king who performed miracles, but was not recognized by His people and killed in the most brutal manner possible would have been ridiculous. Dying for your beliefs was considered an act of heroism, as Socrates was held up as a hero for boldly defending his philosophy to his death. In contrast, Our Lord did not die boldly proclaiming His teachings, but suffered and died humbly without even defending Himself to Pontius Pilate when the opportunity arose. As St. Paul mentions, following this philosophy would have been foolishness.

Just as the Greeks viewed Our Lord's suffering and death on the Cross as foolishness, we live in a culture that views any kind of suffering as foolish. There are many around us who want to live life without any pain and suffering. Obviously, developing tools and inventions that make our lives simpler is not a bad thing. Likewise, developing medications that control pain is a good and worthy goal.

The problem arises when we want to eliminate all pain and suffering. A phrase that is becoming more and more common in medical circles is “quality of life”. Exactly what it looks like to have a high quality of life is up for debate, but there are many who think we need to measure our lives by this standard. For those whose quality of life is impaired, some want to offer “death with dignity”, also known as euthanasia, but more commonly known as physician assisted suicide. If you have too much pain, or if you have a terminal illness that will cause extreme amounts of pain, you can ask for a physician to provide a prescription that will end your life on your schedule. There is concern that euthanasia will become legal here in Montana due to a judicial decision a few months ago. This decision is currently on appeal, but is something that could be upheld.

The willingness to promote euthanasia is a sign that our culture denies any redemptive aspect to suffering. When we suffer from pain or illness, or for any other reason, we can offer that pain to be joined with the suffering that Our Lord experienced on the Cross. This suffering, even as small as the pain from stubbing your toe on a table leg, can be used to atone for our sins and the sins of others. If you've ever heard or used the very Catholic phrase “Offer it up”, it comes from our belief in redemptive suffering. Our culture doesn't recognize any value to suffering, and can only see suffering as an impediment to our quality of life.

As Christians, we do believe that there is a redemptive aspect to our suffering, and that we are to offer up our suffering to be united with Our Lord's suffering on the Cross. We are also called to defend life, even if that life may not be viewed as “quality”.

Homily for the First Scrutiny (Third Sunday in Lent)

Those who follow along with the readings may have noticed that we didn't hear the normal readings for Year B, which we might have expected, but rather went to the readings for Year A. We're doing this as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation, as today we begin the Scrutinies. This year, we have the great privilege of welcoming 8(?) new members into the Church.

As part of this RCIA process, the elect are asked to undergo the Scrutinies. While the term “scrutiny” is frequently used as something done to a person, like being watched by a supervisor, we understand that the Scrutinies are rites of self-searching and repentance on a spiritual level. Through these Scrutinies, the elect are to learn a process that we're all challenged to undergo on a daily basis. First, the elect are challenged to find and uncover all that is week, defective, and sinful within their souls. Secondly, they are tasked to discover and strengthen all that is upright, strong and good within themselves. These tasks are not something that should be done once, but are something all of us should do on a daily basis throughout our entire lives. We're all called to find the bad and strengthen the good that is within us.

This week, we are beginning the process of the three Scrutinies, which will continue for two more Saturday evenings. We do these Scrutinies so that the elect and those of us who are already members of the Church may realize the power sin has on us and increase our desire for salvation. These Scrutinies are not only for the elect, but to remind us as well.

Tonight, with the first Scrutiny, we are given the Gospel passage about the Samaritan woman at the well. This woman came to look for physical water, but found the spiritual water that she was thirsting for. This woman, who was living in a sinful relationship, found the cure for her thirst through Our Lord.

All of us have a thirst, a desire for something greater than us. We know that there is something more than what we can experience with our senses, and we desire it. Sin promises us that it will fulfill that thirst, and often will quench it initially, but later makes us all the more thirsty. Much like a sugary drink that seems to fill our earthly thirst but actually drys us out, sin worsens our thirst instead of reducing it.

When speaking to the Samaritan woman, Our Lord promises her that He is the living water that will quench her thirst. This thirst is not the physical thirst that water fulfills, but is the desire to be united with God. When we turn away from sin and place our trust in Jesus, we will receive this living water which will quench our spiritual thirst.

When we try to fulfill our spiritual thirst through sin, we find that it fails to satisfy that thirst, but following Our Lord satisfies it more than we can imagine.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent

Within Christianity, there are a great many mysteries about God that we cannot explain, but have to accept through our faith. Our Gospel today contains one of those mysteries, how Our Lord can be both fully human and fully divine.

We see a scene in the Gospel which should be very familiar to each of us. After explaining to His Apostles that He is to suffer and die on the Cross, Jesus takes three of them, Peter, James, and John, up Mount Tabor in the region of Galilee. There, he is changed, and becomes as bright as the sun. At the same time, two of the greatest figures in Jewish history appear and begin to converse with him. Elijah, considered one of the greatest of the prophets, and Moses, who gave the law which dictated Jewish practices both in their daily lives and in their religious observances.

Through this transfiguration, this change in Our Lord's appearance, Jesus showed His Apostles that He was more than just a wise human teacher. His man, whom the Apostles spent most of their time following, was also the Son of God! He was not only a Son by adoption, but fully the Son of God by nature. Jesus, this rabbi from Galilee is both fully human and fully divine.

As far as mysteries go with in Christianity, this is one of the most difficult to understand. How can one person, Jesus, be both fully human and fully divine? Many heresies have surrounded what has been revealed to us by God about the relationship of the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Was he two persons, one human and one divine? How about half-human, half-divine? The short answer is no to both questions. No, he wasn't two persons and he wasn't half-human, half-divine.

In a way of explaining how this works, there is a ritual which priests perform at every Mass, without exception. After pouring the wine into the chalice, the priest takes water and pours just a little drop into one of the chalices saying, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” From that point, the water can no longer be removed from the chalice, as it has completely mixed in with the wine. Even boiling will not separate just that drop from the rest of the wine, as it would boil off with the water that is naturally within the wine. You still will not be able to remove just that drop of water.

In the same way, the human nature of Jesus is completely inseparable from His divine nature. Within the Creed that we profess at Mass, we say that He is “one in being with the Father”, and that He “came down from Heaven and became man”. He was not an apparition that appeared to be human but was fully divine, as one classic heresy put it. He also was not a created being that was adopted by God from the beginning. The Council of Chalcedon declared in 451 that Jesus was fully human and fully divine “without confusion and without change, without division and without separation”. To put this in simpler language, Jesus wasn't schizophrenic. He wasn't a human who was adopted and made fully divine by God. He wasn't made up of two persons, one human, the other divine. He also wasn't a half-human, half-divine hybrid.

This might seem like making extremely fine distinctions, but it has grave consequences when considering Our Lord's Sacrifice on the Cross. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God's promise, but this sacrifice would only affect Abraham and no one else. By Jesus being fully divine and fully human, He was able to take on the sins and nature of all humanity. A classic formulation in theology is, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed.” If Our Lord would not have taken on the fullness of humanity, He would not be able to redeem all of humanity and its sins.

This was just the tip of the iceberg of what theologians have come up with surrounding Jesus being fully human and fully divine. Even with all that these theologians have learned about Our Lord, we still are no closer to understanding what this truly means than the Apostles were when standing on Mount Tabor watching the transfigured Jesus speaking to Elijah and Moses. We just have to take this mystery which has been revealed to us as a matter of faith.