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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

We have some very strong, even disturbing, imagery in the readings today. Our Lord commands us to remove body parts that cause us to sin. St. James compares the rich with animals that have been fattened up for the slaughter. These intense images are given to us today to demonstrate the danger of falling into sin or leading others into sin, and how sin separates us from the Body of Christ.

This is a message we need to hear today. When you look at the popular culture, it's clear that we have lost a sense of sin. Someone's sinful actions are excused if no one is perceived to have been hurt by those sins or if there is “consent” to the actions. Some sins are not only tolerated, but encouraged and promoted. The only sins that are publicly scorned are those which can be used to drag a political opponent through the mud. In fact, the only real sin, in the eyes of the popular culture, is daring to challenge someone's actions as sinful.

Contrary to what the popular culture might say, we are still a sinful people in need of redemption and forgiveness. Sadly, because the culture glorifies much which is sinful, we have forgotten what sin is and why it's so dangerous. Even Catholics, long ridiculed for so-called “Catholic guilt” over real or imagined sins, have all but neglected the Sacrament of Confession. There is a real need in the world today to restore an understanding of sin.

We can begin this restoration by defining sin. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (CCC 1849) To put this definition much more simply, sin is putting ourselves and the gifts which we have been given by God over God Himself and those around us. Sin is the opposite of love, and where sin exists, truly self-giving love cannot exist.

With this definition, I hope we can begin to see why Our Lord used such strong imagery in the Gospel passage today. Jesus compared living a sinful life to being thrown into Gehenna, a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where fires perpetually burned. Due to the strict ritual purity laws in Judaism, Gehenna was considered the place that was the most unclean, and casting someone's body there would have been the strongest condemnation of that person, forever cutting him off from the rest of the Jews.

Spiritually, sin has much the same result. When we sin, we cut ourselves off from God and the Body of Christ. As I said before, sin is the opposite of love. In fact, sin is a turning inward on ourselves to the exclusion of others, even God Himself. We become fixated on our needs, desires, wants, and possessions. Other people become either objects to be used, or obstacles that prevent us from doing what we desire. This focus on ourselves is so strong that we are even willing to give up the eternal life promised to us by Our Lord.

If we truly understood the danger of sin, we would act immediately to separate ourselves from those things that regularly lead us to sin. These occasions of sin are things and situations in our lives which are dangers to our moral lives, leading us to perform sinful actions. Much as we try to avoid those things and situations that could cause us to be hurt or killed, we should make every effort to avoid the occasions of sin that we encounter on a daily basis. This is what Our Lord means when he says to cut off your hand or foot, or pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin. It is better in this life to give up some things that lead us to sin and gain eternal life in the next.

Sin is a reality in the world. It hurts us and hurts those around us. May we have a greater awareness of our sinful nature, seek to avoid sin, and ask forgiveness for those sins we have committed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Edit: Added a recording from the 11:30 AM Mass

When you look at the popular media, such as the TV or newspapers, who do they hold up as the most important in the United States today? Is it President Obama or members of Congress? How about the elected officials in the states' governments? Perhaps it's actors, musicians, and other celebrities? In our country today, those who have worldly wealth, power, fame or any combination of the three are held up as the most important and influential people.

Now, let's look at the Gospel passage for today. Who does Jesus say are the most important people? He tells us, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Our Lord takes worldly wisdom, so common in His time as it is today, and turns it on its head. Instead of tying importance to fame, power, or wealth, He challenges us to be servants of all.

Unfortunately, this desire to link power with importance also exists within the Church. If you asked random people who they thought were the most important people in the Church, they would probably go down the hierarchy: the Pope, the bishops, the priests. They might not mention Mother Teresa and the religious order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. The sisters who belong to this order spend their lives serving and caring for the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa herself spent much of her life in service to the poorest in India. The great majority of her days were spent feeding, clothing, and bathing the poor who were dying.

As Christians, Our Lord calls and challenges us to not seek power and prestige, but to be “the servant of all”. We see this in the hierarchy of the Church, which is built on service of the Church. One of the Pope's titles is “Servant of the Servants of God”. Bishops, when celebrating Mass, will refer to themselves as “me, your unworthy servant”. Priests are called to serve the bishop throughout the diocese, and to serve the people to whom he has been assigned. Lay people who participate in the administrative and ministerial structures of the Church are called to engage their positions in an attitude of service, and not for personal gain. The power that we do have within the Church comes not because we are important, but because we serve.

This is misunderstood throughout the Church, especially within developed countries like the United States. There are those who seek to gain higher positions within the Church for the sake of gaining more power and importance, not to better serve Jesus' people. They become ambitious for personal gain and jealous of those who have the power they seek. St. James warns us against this ruthless desire for power, saying, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.”

We can see this disorder at play in the Church. There are great divisions within the Church today, and many of these divisions come about due to self-centered power grabs. Sometimes we see this in local parishes as a group of people try to make themselves the most important in the parish, often with the consent and support of the pastor. On a larger level, there are groups who want to remake the Church in their own image, with members who have worked their way through the Church organizational structure to positions that they feel hold power and importance. Even the Papacy is not immune to this desire for power, as the history of the Church is riddled with attempts by bishops and cardinals seeking to become the Pope for power, and not for the call to service that comes with the office.

As Christians, we are called by Our Lord to seek out ways that we can become a “servant of all”. We're called to serve Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians. We're called to serve those we like and those we can't stand. As difficult as it can be, we are called to step out of where we're comfortable and reach out to those who make us uncomfortable. We're even called to serve those who might reject us or take advantage of our service. Our Lord tells us, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” May we be willing to serve Our Lord by serving those the world sees as unimportant.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

At first glance, Our Lord sets up what seems to be an impossible contradiction. He tells us, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” On a human level, it's easy be confused by saving our lives by losing them, and losing our lives by saving them. Of course, Jesus isn't talking on a human level, but on the supernatural level, and the life that he's talking about is our eternal life.

So, what does it mean to lose our lives for the sake of Our Lord and the gospel? Jesus tells us that we must be willing to “deny [ourselves], take up [our] cross[es], and follow [Him]”. He even gives us the example that we need to follow. Speaking to the disciples, Our Lord predicts how He will give His life, as He tells them, “the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Our Lord challenges us to deny ourselves and accept our sufferings, but only because He did that first for our salvation.

As we're all pretty much aware, denying ourselves and willingly giving up our lives runs contrary to our human nature. Our natural desire is to save and protect ourselves. We can see this in Peter's reaction, as he wants to protect Our Lord from the Passion and Cross, and gets rebuked for it. If we truly wish to follow Our Lord, even to the Cross, we have to fight the desire to turn back and find an easier path so that we can save our earthly lives. Those who do succumb to this desire may be able to live a good life here on Earth, but put their eternal lives at great risk.

What does it mean to give up our earthly lives? To be clear, this doesn't mean that Our Lord is telling us to give away everything we own and live on the streets, begging for food. To give up our earthly lives, we need to resist the temptations of the world and seek the will of God. In our culture, it's easy to fall into the trap of materialism and consumerism, buying and owning things for their own sake. If we are willing to give up our earthly lives, we use the things of the earth for our own survival and to advance God's will in our lives and those around us.

It's important to realize that this desire to give our lives for Christ and His Gospel is a fruit of the faith that we have in God, and that this faith is itself a gift of God. Because this faith is a gift, we have to be open to the gift and allow it to work within us, but our faith in God is not a private act between us and God. St. James tells us in today's second reading that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If our faith in God is going to lead us to salvation, we must allow that faith to lead us into doing good for others. In fact, St. James reminds us that we demonstrate our faith through our works.

This is in contrast to a position held by some Christians. You may have heard a preacher on TV or a family member say something like, “We are saved by our faith in God, and not by any works that we do.” Usually, this is accompanied by an accusation that Catholics teach that we are saved by “good works”.

Of course, the Church does not teach that we can work our way to Heaven, and in fact, there are two errors here. First, we can't just do a bunch of good things for others and expect to get into Heaven regardless of what we believe about God's mercy and justice. Second, we can't believe that God will save us, but not lift a finger to help others. We must allow for God's mercy to save us, while allowing that faith in God to lead us to do good for others.

When we do sacrifice our lives for the Gospel, we have Our Lord's promise and example that the sacrifice will not go unrewarded. May we be willing to take up our crosses, as Our Lord did, and follow Him.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

We know that medical science has made great advancements in improving people's hearing. Some of you may be reaping the reward of those advancements through the use of hearing aids. Even with all the time, money, and labor put into improving people's hearing, there is one thing that this medical technology cannot do at this time: give hearing to someone who is completely deaf.

Just as medical technology is unable to cure physical deafness, there is another deafness that medicine can't heal: the deafness to God's will for our lives. Most of us, in fact all of humanity, suffer from the deafness in our spiritual lives caused by sin, but there is hope for this deafness. Just as Jesus was able to heal the deafness and speech impediment of the deaf man in the Gospel today, Our Lord is able to heal the spiritual deafness that we suffer.

Even with the medical technology available to us 2000 years after Our Lord walked the Earth, His miracle in today's Gospel passage amazes us even today. I don't know if any of us have ever met someone who was once deaf but now can hear perfectly. If you have met someone like that, or maybe even experienced a miracle like that yourself, you could tell us stories about the amazement that came upon those who witnessed it when the miracle occurred. I think if we were present when a person who is deaf suddenly began to hear, we would be like the crowd and tell everyone we know.

Not being able to hear physically is not the only deafness that we have to deal with during our lives on Earth. Far more common, and more dangerous, is the spiritual deafness that comes with being sinful people. While most of can hear those around us in the physical world, the voice of God in our lives remains a mystery, unheard and unknown. This deafness keeps us from hearing God's call to follow His will throughout our daily lives.

How do we overcome this spiritual deafness? The prophet Isaiah has the answer in the first reading: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, […] He comes to save you.” Just as Our Lord was able to heal physical deafness through the faith of the one healed, He is also able to heal those of us who suffer from spiritual deafness through our faith in Him. As we live our lives allowing our belief in Jesus to influence our actions and follow His commands, we will begin to hear God's call in our lives more clearly. It might be subtle and will take a lot of time, but we will develop an awareness for how God wants us to live our lives in service to Him.

As this spiritual deafness begins to dissipate, our interactions with those around us will also begin to change. We will begin to become more aware how we judge others and treat them differently based on our judgments of them. St. James challenges us in the second reading to be more aware of how we act towards others: “show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” We are called, as Christians, to treat everyone equally. It doesn't matter if they are rich and influential, or poor and powerless. It doesn't matter what skin color they have or ethnicity they come from. It doesn't matter who they are or where they're from, we must treat everyone with the love of Christ without partiality.

As our spiritual deafness is overcome by Our Lord, we may hear that we challenged to allow our spiritual speech impediment to also be overcome. What is spiritual speech impediment? It's the silence when we hear or see injustice being done to someone or a group of people. It's when we don't speak up when someone tells a derogatory joke. It's also the desire to avoid embarrassment by not speaking about our faith in Christ, especially when someone is attacking our beliefs.

Just as Our Lord was able to heal the deafness and speech impediment of the deaf man, He can also heal our spiritual deafness and speech impediment. We need to place our faith in Him, that He will give us the strength to speak up when we should, and give us the words to say through the gifts of the Holy Spirit which dwells within us.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September: The Seven Sorrows of Mary

One of the venerable traditions of the Church that has been somewhat lost over the recent decades is the dedication of each month to a different saint or devotion. During each month, we are encouraged to practice the devotion or focus our devotional life on the saint named during that month. Many people are aware of May being dedicated to Mary, but are unaware that other months are dedicated to aspects of her life.

September is one of those months. The month of September has traditionally been dedicated to meditating on the Seven Sorrows of Mary, as we mark both the Triumph of the Cross on September 14th and Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15th. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this is a long-standing tradition going back almost 800 years. In iconography, Our Lady of Sorrows is depicted with seven swords piercing her heart, which is in reference to Simeon's prophesy that a sword would pierce her heart. (Luke 2:35)

The Seven Sorrows are events recorded in Scripture that were the most sorrowful for Our Lady. The Seven Sorrows, with Scriptural references:

1.The Prophesy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus (Luke 2:34)
2.The Flight into Egypt by the Holy Family (Matthew 2:13)
3.The Loss of the Child Jesus for three days (Luke 2:43)
4.The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross (Luke 23:27)
5.The Crucifixion (John 19:25)
6.The Descent from the Cross (Matthew 27:57)
7.The Burial of Jesus (John 19:40)

Through this devotion, we are reminded that we are not alone in our sorrows that come with life on Earth, but that Our Lady is there with us. May we take the opportunity this month to meditate on Mary's sorrows and join our sorrows with hers.

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us!