The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Political Weakness

Thousands come together for the 2015 March for Life

Otto Von Bismarck, who famously defined politics as "the art of the possible," was a perfect example of the ideologically flexible politician who could turn on a dime to achieve his desired political ends. (One is reminded of former President Bill Clinton.) As opposed to our current ideologically inflexible president, who seemingly cannot abide the thought of compromise with anyone who opposes him or his ruling ideology, our Republican congressional leadership prefers compromise even when it is politically unnecessary. 

Observing what happened on the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, the psalmist's warming comes to mind: "Put not your trust in princes..." [Ps 146:3] Too many pro-lifers seem to believe that our politicians will eventually come to the rescue and stop the slaughter of innocents, a slaughter that now exceeds 50 million unborn children In the United States alone. As several hundred thousand pro-life advocates marched in Washington, the House Republican leadership caved by pulling a pro-life bill that polls have shown would be supported by a significant majority of Americans.

The bill would, in essence, have prohibited infanticide, the murder of unborn children after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Instead the House passed a significantly watered-down bill prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, something already prohibited by the Hyde Amendment. Time and again our president has declared his support for unrestricted abortion. He believes that abortion must be permitted at any time for any reason, no exceptions. He even supports the post-abortive killing of a child who happens to survive an abortion procedure. He would, therefore, have vetoed this bill after its arrival on his desk. This would have clearly demonstrated his total disrespect for human life. The same would be true of all those politicians of either party who did not vote for the bill. 

Most Republican politicians, who for 40 years have talked much but done little about abortion, want to keep the issue alive, but only in the safe political background, so they can pull it out and use it when hustling for votes among pro-life constituents. Most know full well that without the pro-life vote they would not be elected or re-elected. But despite their fine words while campaigning, their actions have produced little of any consequence. One suspects they consider their careers far more important than the lives of innocents. In truth they have done nothing to slow the progress of our society's acceptance of the "culture of death."  And so today Republican politicians are patting themselves on the back for their "courageous" vote to de-fund abortion, but ignoring their cowardly rejection of a ban on infanticide. "Put not your trust in princes..." 

It should be clear that this horrendous plague of abortion, the greatest killer of human beings, will not be brought to an end by politicians. No, it will continue until the people themselves experience a change of heart, and this can come only as a gift from God, an infusion of His grace. Yes, we must march, but we must also pray constantly that God will come to our aid, to the aid of the innocents.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Homily: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Readings: Jon 3:1-5,10; Ps 25; 1Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20
Did you notice that our readings today all relate to time, or perhaps more specifically, to the passage of time? Of course, at my age – and I suspect more than a few of you share that particular demographic – the passage of time is very evident.

When we were children time crept by, carrying us slowly and deliberately through our young lives. And what a blessing this was! That movement of time let us anticipate and savor the good things of life – to observe, to learn, and to absorb all that we encountered. It also let us distance ourselves from the not so good.

Years ago, Diane and I took foster children into our home – children who often came from difficult family situations. But, amazingly, regardless of the tumult and confusion they had endured, these little ones were able to set it aside. Moved by the love they had for their parents, their fervent hope was to return, to return to a renewed family where all would be set right. One need only look at a child to see the true manifestation of hope as a virtue.

But then, as we age, time seems to move along far more quickly, doesn’t it? It hurries us through our days, pushing us relentlessly to the very culmination of our lives. It’s as if time, like today’s readings, pleads with us, reminding us that we cannot bargain with it; and that for each life, time has a definite limit. And it’s a limit that can come on quickly.

In our second reading St. Paul doesn’t pull any punches, but comes right out and tells the Corinthians and us that, “time is running out…the world in its present form is passing away” [1 Cor 7: 29.31]. Paul wants us to be ready, to prepare for that which is to come, to prepare for God’s transformation of the world, and to prepare for judgment. We are, then, called to prepare – not by our own power, but by God’s gift of grace, through which He comes to us.

Yes, God comes to us. He comes to us here in His Word, proclaimed in our hearing, and entering into our minds and hearts. He comes to us in the Eucharist, joining our very being with His body and blood, soul and divinity, and joining us to one another in this shared Communion. Through the Eucharist each one of us becomes a God-bearer, called to take Jesus Christ to others. And so He comes to us, too, when we encounter Him daily in each other and in His least brothers and sisters: in those in need of God’s love who turn to us in expectation, in hope. Do you see Christ in them? And do they experience Christ in you?

God encounters us in all the times of our lives, preparing us by His gift of faith freely offered. How foolish to ignore these encounters. And yet so many of us do just that when we make the mistake of thinking that the little slice of time we’ve been given belongs to us.

The apostles didn’t make that mistake. They had encountered Jesus in the flesh – hearing, seeing, touching Him – and realized that they had been called, called in God’s time, not theirs. They had no time to do anything but drop their nets, turn away from their former lives, and follow Jesus. They didn’t fully understand it, but moved by the Spirit, they knew it was a special time.
"Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."

Indeed, in that same brief Gospel passage from Mark, we find Jesus beginning His public ministry with the words, “This is the time of fulfillment” [Mk 1:15]. Here is Jesus, the Lord of History, standing at the very center of all time bringing everything that went before to fulfillment – a most special time. The very thought of the Incarnation, God’s thought, was made outside of time itself, in eternity. But with His coming, all has changed.

The time of the Old Covenant has passed. It is no longer present, but has been fulfilled. Yes, Jesus tells us, all of time that came before, every moment from the creation of time itself out of eternity, is brought to completion. His coming has thrust us into His time; and Jesus, our God become man, is now ever-present. We are in the midst of His time.

It is God’s time, for Jesus goes on to tell us: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” [Mk 1:15]. To be sure, then, this fulfillment of time also means the presence of the Kingdom, the time of the Kingdom of the Father. But other than this, Jesus really tells us very little about this time, or what we can expect as it unfolds. He tells us only that God has acted and has fulfilled all.

But then, continuing His teaching at that first moment of His ministry, Jesus commands us to act as well – for we must do our part. “Repent,” Jesus commands, “and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:15]. Instead of telling us what we can expect, Jesus tells us what God expects of us. First, we are to repent. Translated from the Greek, metanoia, it means a change of mind and heart. Combining time and change, repentance calls us to look back, if only to acknowledge the sinfulness of our lives; but then, filled with hope, to look forward to conversion and to the joy of the Good News.

Do you see what God desires of us? He calls us to believe, to accept the Gospel, the Good News, in faith. And because the Good News is so very good, we should greet it with joy. But He doesn’t want us to come to Him only in the joy of the Good News. Yes, His sacrifice on the Cross certainly brings us redemption, and this must be a source of tremendous joy for all of humanity. But first, He tells us, first we must repent and follow the path of conversion. Only then, with our minds and hearts turned toward God, can we experience the surprising joy of the Good News.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus addressed these words to the people of Galilee who gathered around Him that day. He spoke to each one of them, personally, individually, calling them by name, calling them to accept His gift of faith, calling them to repentance, conversion, and joy. And He speaks this same message to each us as well; for we, too, are called. And as Paul reminds us, “time is running out.”

Are we like the people of Nineveh? Like all of us they needed to repent. They had turned from God…until He placed the ultimatum before them. When God set a 40-day limit to their lives, when they heard Jonah’s message, the message of a most reluctant prophet, they realized their time was running out. But they didn’t wait, did they? -- not for a moment. No, they acknowledged their sins, turned to God in repentance, and He lifted the dire sentence He had placed on them. They responded to their salvation with joy.

Repentance, conversion, and joy. Are we like the Ninevites? Is our time, too, running out?

People move here to our little corner of the world to have the time of their lives, don’t they? But all too often they forget that the time of their lives is coming all too quickly to an end. Christ’s message, then, is one of urgency. It’s a message that demands an answer. To put it off is to run the risk of missing the coming of the Kingdom into your life. In the words of St. Augustine: "God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination."

This Gospel message is for every person, for every single one of us, for all of humanity stretched out over the entire span of time. It’s a message aimed directly at the heart, at your heart and mine, for we are loved. God marks each of us for repentance and for the joy that follows.

Brothers and sisters, believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the salvation He offers us, and live that belief in lives that glorify God. Then, and only then, can we truly have the time of our lives.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Homily: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Readings: 1Sam 3:3-10,19; Ps 85; 1Cor 6:13-20; Jn 1:35-42
Do you remember that poem, "The Hound of Heaven", by the British poet, Francis Thompson? If you attended a Catholic school way back when, you probably do. Remember the first lines?
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
"I fled him..."
Those words, and the rest of that long poem, didn’t mean much to me when I was young, but now…well, I’ve come to understand it. Because that’s the way God is: He doesn’t let go. I know, because He’s been after me all my life. That’s right…it started when I was just a kid, and hasn’t stopped.

“Follow me,” [Jn 1:43] He says. Always asking me to stop what I’m doing and change the entire direction of my life. And didn’t He say something about not being worthy to follow Him unless you “took up a cross?” [Mt 16:24] Now, I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t like the sound of that.

But, you know, the more I ignored Him, the more persistent He became. Really irritating. I wasn’t leading a bad life. I suppose it wasn’t a particularly good one either. It was…well, it was normal. Anyway, there seemed to be plenty of folks out there who needed God a lot more than I did. So I went through the motions of Christianity, and ignored the hard stuff…you know, the Cross. But God just kept coming like that “Hound of Heaven”, and I responded…well, just as the poet did…

Foolish, isn’t it? To think we can simply run away from God, that like Adam and Eve in the Garden we can hide from Him, or like Peter we can deny Him: “Who? Jesus? Don’t know Him. Never saw Him before in my life.” Or that we can make so much noise in our lives that it will somehow drown out God’s incessant, but gentle call. And do you know what? Here I am, old and in Florida and He’s still calling -- “Follow Me” -- still leading me to new forms of discipleship.

And if my past is any guide, I’ll take them on in fits and starts. For unlike Samuel in today’s first reading, or Peter and Andrew in the Gospel, “Follow Me” just won’t be enough. As He has in the past, He’ll have to drag me behind Him kicking and screaming.

I suppose that’s the question for each one of us: “What does God want of me?” Well, first of all, He wants us – that’s you and me – simply to listen and to respond to His call.

"Speak, for your servant is listening."
Look again at today’s 1st reading. Samuel is just a child, and when God calls him, it takes Eli to explain what’s happening, to point the way. And so Samuel responds to God’s call with an act of faith: “Speak, for your servant is listening” [1 Sam 3:10].

This is the first thing God wants from each of us. He wants an act of faith. It was pretty much the same for Andrew and Peter in today’s Gospel. Like Eli, John the Baptist points the way: “Behold, the Lamb of God” [Jn 1L29] The disciples heard and followed. This is Jesus’ call, the same call God issued at the very dawn of salvation history when He told Abraham to: “Walk in my presence and be blameless” [Gen 17:1].

Notice, God’s always the One who takes the initiative. It’s He who calls Samuel in the night. It’s He who seeks out Abraham and Moses and Paul, the persecutor of Christians. It’s He who turns to the disciples and speaks to them. Later on in John’s Gospel Jesus states this clearly: “It is not you who chose me. I chose you” [Jn 15:16].

But discipleship has a cost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by Hitler in the final days of World War II, wrote a wonderful book, The Cost of Discipleship. In it he writes:
“And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we will have to go to Him, for only He knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ…knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.”
Yes, discipleship has a great return, but also a cost.  Only Jesus knows the cost. Only He knows the demands. And so He keeps this “cost of discipleship” from the least for now.

Behold! The Lamb of God!
That’ll come later, much later. For now He just asks them. “What are you looking for?” Why have they turned to the Lamb of God? But they don’t answer the question, and instead ask one of their own: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” [Jn 1:38]

You see, they’re not exactly sure what they’re looking for, but they know they’ve found it in Jesus. They want to be with Him. They want to spend the day with Him. And Jesus knows this. His answer is brief, “Come and you will see” [Jn 1:39]. But He’s not speaking of a house. He’s speaking of discipleship, for Jesus stays wherever His disciples are. He abides with them and within them. It’s just what happened to Samuel after responding in faith to God’s call. How does Scripture put it? “Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him…” [1 Sam 3:19].

To be Jesus’ disciple, to be a Christian, we must first respond to His call, and we must do so in faith. But that’s not all. We must live in Jesus Christ and He in us. In other words, we must follow Him wherever He leads us. And of one thing we can be sure. Following Christ always leads to the Cross.

Now I don’t mean that, like Peter and Andrew, every Christian must suffer martyrdom, although in today’s world many Christians are doing just that. There’s no discipleship, no following of Jesus, that doesn’t include His cross.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the disciples. And He asks each of us the same question. What exactly are you looking for? Why have you turned to Jesus?

Is He your security blanket, something warm and fuzzy to hide you from a hostile world?

Is He your problem solver, the one you call on when you mess up some piece of your life?

Is He your miracle worker, a superman-God, the one you turn to when things get really bad?

In other words, are you the kind of Christian who calls on Jesus to follow you? Or, like Samuel and Andrew and Peter, have you turned to Jesus simply because He called you? Simply because He whispered, “Follow me.”

He’s really called you, you know. He’s called each of us. I’m not going to argue the point, because if you don’t believe this, you’re not a Christian. He called Samuel to be a prophet and a kingmaker. He called Peter – weak-willed Peter, full of bluster and empty promises – He called Peter to be the head of His Church. What has He called you to do? You’ll never know until you respond in faith.

“Come and you will see,” Jesus says.

Only if you say yes to Him: yes to joy; yes to sorrow; yes to all His brothers and sisters – the weak, the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the despised, the hated and the haters… all those sinners out there, sinners like you and me. Come and you will see…only if you say yes to God’s call to live the life of Christ.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. What kind of disciple are you? Follow Jesus and you will come to know Him. Live like Him and you will love Him. Live in Him and He will live in you, and you will die with Him and live eternally with Him.

Oh, yes, one final thing…If, like the poet, you decide to run away from Him, if you decide not to be His disciple, your decision means absolutely nothing…because He’ll keep calling and chasing you right up to the moment you breathe your last breath. He does this because He loves you…and that, brothers and sisters is the Good News.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Church and State, Legality and Morality

A few days ago I heard a TV News pundit complain about Pope Francis' comment that freedom of speech was not without its limitations. This talking head, who calls himself a libertarian, was aghast that Pope Francis would say such a thing and even went on to suggest that the Pope was, in effect, blaming the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

Of course the Pope was saying no such thing. He was merely echoing Church teaching that we are not "free" to do what is evil. Indeed the Church teaches that choosing evil is an abuse of freedom and that true freedom must serve that which is just and good. By choosing evil, a person rejects freedom and accepts the slavery of sin [CCC 1733]. The Pope is merely saying that there are moral limits to all freedom, including freedom of speech. The staff of Charlie Hebdo abused their freedom of speech by printing slurs against all religions, not just Islam. This, however, in no way mitigates the guilt of those terrorists who chose a far greater evil when they committed mass murder. The Pope was not excusing the terrorists; he was merely answering a question about the limits to freedom of speech. I think sometimes, when he speaks off-the-cuff, a poor choice of words can lead to misunderstandings, but since I'm just a deacon and he's the Pope I'll forgo any criticism beyond this one comment.

Getting back to our libertarian TV pundit, it would seem he and the Islamist terrorist have at least one thing in common: unlike the Pope, they both think and act at the extremes. The Islamist terrorist despises any thought of freedom of speech, and through acts of terror strives to intimidate all others, forcing them to think and say only that which conforms to his jihadist strain of Islam. To him freedom of speech is anathema. The libertarian plants himself at the opposite extreme and believes freedom of speech includes the license to say (and in most instances do) anything whatsoever. Interestingly, both view the issue from a legalistic perspective: one from the standpoint of a strict interpretation of sharia law and the other from an unrestrained interpretation of the First Amendment to our Constitution. 

The Pope, however, views freedom from a moral, rather than a legal, perspective. And that which is legal is not necessarily moral...and vice versa. Abortion, infanticide -- And what is late-term abortion other than infanticide? -- physician assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, and a whole range of other immoral behaviors are quite legal in many states and nations. But the fact that they are legal under man's law does not make them moral under God's law. And for us Christians, morality trumps legality.

The state, therefore, will often legalize and even encourage immoral behavior and punish moral behavior. When we turn to the New Testament we find these issues well defined. First of all, we are instructed to obey lawful authority, perhaps most clearly by St. Paul in Romans, chapter 13:

"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" [Rom 13:1-6].

This is reaffirmed by St. Peter in his First Letter:

"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor" [1 Pet 2:13-17].
Note, however, that Peter instructs us not to use our "freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God." And so our current Pope is in tune with our first Pope. Freedom has its limits. We must honor and obey lawful authority but only insofar as it does not command that which is evil.

It is Jesus Himself who articulates the principle most succinctly when he tells the Pharisees and Herodians to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" [Mk 12:17]. Here Jesus is declaring that there are boundaries that define our obedience to human authority. When man trespasses on that which is God's -- e.g., when he permits the taking of innocent life through abortion or infanticide -- he must no longer be obeyed. Once again St. Peter comes to our aid to ensure we understand the ramifications of resisting the state when it demands obedience to that which is immoral:

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God" [1 Pet 4:12-16].
Meriam Ibrahim receives Pope Francis' blessing after her release from a Somali prison

Given how Christians are being persecuted throughout the world today, we should pay particular attention to these words of our first Pope who gave His life for the Faith. Just as we should listen to Pope Francis who has repeatedly stated that the ongoing persecution of Christians will serve to unite us in ways that other ecumenical efforts have not:
“Today the blood of Jesus, poured out by many Christian martyrs in various parts of the world, calls us and compels us towards the goal of unity. For persecutors, we Christians are all one!”
Pray for persecuted Christians.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Reflection: Volunteer (Ministry) Appreciation Day

Yesterday our parish celebrated those parishioners who take part in the parish's many ministries. We invited them all to join us at Lake Yale, a large conference and retreat center run by the Southern Baptist Church. Lake Yale is a huge facility located on almost 300 lakefront acres.

More than 200 parishioners attended. We began the day in the auditorium with a welcoming talk by our pastor, Fr. Peter. After the introductions he went on to speak about Pope Francis and the role of the new evangelization at the parish level.

Afterwards we had some free time to wander about the lovely grounds and then enjoyed a hearty lunch in the center's cafeteria. After lunch we returned to the auditorium, where I exposed the Blessed Sacrament for an hour of adoration. During this hour I gave the following reflection on the spirituality of our parish ministries.


Today I intend to reflect briefly on "the spirituality of volunteerism." Actually, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it seemed like a good subject when I had to tell Father Peter what I planned to talk we'll see how it goes.

Fortunately we're in the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and where Jesus is, so too is the Holy Spirit. And so we turn to the Spirit in the certain hope He’ll inspire and guide all of us gathered here today.

I'd like to begin, then, with a prayer, one written by one of our 20th century saints, Blessed Charles de Foucauld. I'll talk about him in a moment, but first his prayer...
Abba, Father
I abandon myself into Your hands.
Do with me what You will.
Whatever You may do,
I thank You.
I am ready for all,
I accept all.
Let only Your will be done in me
and in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For, I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into Your hands
without reserve
and with boundless confidence.
For You, Abba, are my Father. Amen.
Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Blessed Charles was a remarkable man. After a stint in the French Army, a dramatic conversion, and his ordination to the priesthood, he spent the remainder of his life as a Trappist monk in the Holy Land and finally as a hermit in the deserts of North Africa. It was there, on December 1, 1916, that he was martyred, killed by the Taureg people whom he loved. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

I once read that during his life Charles never converted a single person, but in his death God brought into being several religious orders devoted to the spirituality he championed. As you can see by his prayer, it's a spirituality of abandonment, the sort of spirituality not practiced much in today's world. We’ll come back to this later.

Now, as you all know, today is our parish's Volunteer Appreciation Day. And I'm going to begin by doing something that's not very nice. I’m going to attack and undermine the very word itself, the word "volunteer" that is.

"Volunteer" is a very active word. It's one of those nouns that describes someone who acts, one of those words ending in "er", like leader, or teacher, or lawyer, or minister, or doctor...OK, doctor ends in "or", but you know what I mean. Volunteer is a word that emphasizes the person it describes. A volunteer is someone who takes the initiative and does something.

And I suppose that's fine if we're talking about a volunteer in a second grade classroom or someone who helps direct golf carts at a Villages polo match. Volunteering to do these things, and other similar work, is by no means a bad thing, but it all relates to man's work, the work of the world.

The work of the world isn't what we're celebrating here today. We're not celebrating volunteer work; we're celebrating ministry. Believe me, to be a volunteer is not the same as being a minister. And the difference is not trivial. A volunteer decides to do something, which places the credit almost wholly on the volunteer. But a minister responds to a call, a call that originates with God, and so the credit, all the glory, must go to God.

In ministry it is God who takes the initiative. Understanding this leads us to the first truth we must accept as we reflect on our calling within this parish community. Quite simply, you and I are not simply volunteers doing man's work in the world.

Here’s our first truth: We are ministers called to do God's work to change the world. And it's this truth that must define our spirituality.

Yes, it's good for the parish to show its appreciation, for without its ministers, without all of you who have responded to God's call, our parish would be an empty vessel. But it's even more important that you and I thank God for calling us to our ministries. And because ministry is God's work, by its very nature it is work beyond our capabilities. We can't do it alone.

This leads us to our second truth: We need God's help to accomplish His work, His ministry.

What have we discovered so far? As ministers we’re called to do God's work, not ours, and we can't do it alone.

This is harder to accept than you might think. We tend to think of ministry as “our ministry” rather than God’s. We get very possessive about it all, forgetting that it’s not us but God’s work that’s important.

Do you ever get that way? Do you ever find yourself grasping a ministry as if it’s some cherished possession, forgetting that it belongs to God not to you? God’s work must be done, but who does it really doesn’t matter.

Indeed, if we’re unresponsive or indifferent to God’s call, He’ll just call someone else, and quite likely call them from their weakness. It’s as if He’s reminding us, “You see. I found someone else. I found someone who didn’t resist my call, someone who’s willing to let me form them, to fill their emptiness with my love, someone with faith.”

“…to fill their emptiness…”

There’s a wonderful Greek word, kenosis. We encounter it as a verb, ekenosen, in Philippians 2:7 in the midst of St. Paul’s beautiful hymn on the wonder of the Incarnation: “…he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In this emptying, Jesus Christ, the Son of God impoverished Himself by taking on our humanity. In the same way, as His disciples, we’re called to kenosis, to an emptying of self so that He may form us and fill us with His love. You see, brothers and sisters, in His emptying Jesus takes all that is within Him and offers it to us. This is His gift to us. We need only accept it.

But you and I cannot fully accept God’s love in our lives if our minds and hearts are filled with ourselves.  For we, too, must experience kenosis; we must first empty ourselves. How did Blessed Charles put it in his prayer of abandonment?
I abandon myself into Your hands.
Do with me what You will.
Whatever You may do,
I thank You.
I am ready for all,
I accept all.
This prayer of abandonment, this prayer of openness to God’s will – is this our prayer as ministers? Or do we insist instead on telling God what He wants us to do.

This helps us define our third truth: To accept fully God’s call to ministry, we must first empty ourselves of ourselves. Kenosis, therefore, is fundamental to ministry, an essential companion to God’s call.

How does God call us? How does He speak to us? And how can we hear His call?

First if all, God speaks in silence, just as He did with Elijah on the mountainside [1 Kings 19:11-13]. There in the midst of all the noise and tumult and disruptions of the world -- amidst wind, and quake, and fire -- God came to His prophet and spoke in a "still, small voice."  And God still speaks to us that way today. He comes to us in the silence.

Indeed, how blessed we are, for God has left us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the gift of His very Presence, so we can exclaim "Emmanuel" -- "God with us." The Eucharist means God in us, God with us, God increasingly giving himself to us. We can escape all the noise and disruption of the world and kneel in His presence. We can answer in the silence of adoration which waits in patient, expectant stillness. We can wait for God, just like the servant in Psalm 123 who waits patiently, watching for the signal from master or mistress [Ps. 123:2].  We need, then, only respond in that silence, to that silence: "Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will" [Heb. 10:7].

And of one thing we can be certain: God's will for us always includes His will for others, His will for the others in our lives, especially for those least brothers and sisters of the Lord. Listen again to Blessed Charles. Toward the end of his life, speaking of Jesus’ description of the last judgment in Matthew 25, he wrote:
"I think there is no passage of the Gospel that has made a deeper impression on me or changed my life more than this one: 'Whatever you do to one of these little ones, you do to me.' Just think, these are the words of Uncreated Truth, words from the mouth that said, 'This is my body... this is my blood...' How forcefully we are impelled to seek Jesus and love him in the 'little ones'."
That’s right, brothers and sisters, it is to these least ones we are called to minister, for together with them we are the Body of Christ. And so we carry them all with us today in this celebration of our ministry. We carry them into God's presence here.

Are you connected to those with whom You share a little piece of this world? Do you carry them with you today? Have you carried the hungry the Jesus? The sick, the dying, the addicted, the angry, the hurt, the lonely? Have you brought them here with you, spiritually, so you can offer them to Our Lord, here in His presence? God wants to hear your prayer for them.

But God will not be limited. He won’t be constrained. And so He speaks to us beyond the silence. He speaks to us in and through the words of others. He might speak through the writings of a saint, or the letter of a bishop, or even the words of a homily, or the chance remark of a friend, or the comment of someone who’s not at all friendly.  And, of course, He speaks to us especially through the Word of His Revelation, through Holy Scripture. Yes, God will not be constrained.

But do you and I listen? Do we recognize God’s Word when it comes to us? It’s all the doing of the Holy Spirit who accomplishes God’s work in the world, His work within us. Listen to Him! And through the Holy Spirit your Father, or Jesus, your brother, will speak directly to you!

And when we hear God’s Word, nothing is more natural than to answer. You need not answer immediately, for it’s good to take some time to reflect on what God is asking of you. Like our Blessed Mother, you might need time to treasure these things and ponder them in your heart [Lk. 2:19].

And when you answer, keep it short. God really doesn’t need our prayer to be cluttered with words; but you and I need the discipline of a specific answer so we can’t hide from it later.

I even suggest that you write it down. For example, my own journal entry for yesterday included only this verse from First Corinthians:
"What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?" [1 Cor 4;7]
…and a brief reflective comment:
Father, let me always be thankful for everything and everybody you send into my life.
God speaks and we respond.

I’ve only scratched the surface of our spirituality as God’s ministers, but I hope you might find some little piece of it to be helpful as you respond to God’s call to ministry.

And we should never forget that Jesus began His ministry with the words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:14]. With that in mind, I'll finish by once again turning to the words of Blessed Charles:
"Our entire existence, our whole being must shout the Gospel from the rooftops. Our entire person must breathe Jesus, all our actions. Our whole life must cry out that we belong to Jesus, must reflect a Gospel way of living. Our whole being must be a living proclamation, a reflection of Jesus Christ."
God love you, and thank you for your ministry.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Homily: Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph - Year B

Readings: Sir 3:2-6, 12-14; Ps 128; Col 3:12-21; Lk 2:22-40

From the very beginning the Church has consistently taught that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that the Incarnation is God coming into the world as one of us. In His humanity, the Church teaches, Jesus is like us in all things except sin.

And yet, over the centuries, many have tried to make Jesus into someone or something He isn’t. Indeed, most of the heresies that plagued the early Church focused on the identity of Jesus, as the world tried to answer the question Jesus asked His disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” [Mk 8:27] And now, 2,000 years later, people are still giving the wrong answers.

I once heard a television preacher say that Jesus possessed complete knowledge of all the sciences. “Jesus, the man,” he said, “was Einstein, Newton, Pasteur, Curie, Hawking…all the great scientists of the world rolled into one, and then multiplied by a thousand.” He went on to state that “Jesus was the most knowledgeable of doctors, for how else could He have cured all those people? How else could He raise the dead to life?”

I couldn’t help but think: well, if that’s the case, he could hardly be human, like us in all things.

And then, moving toward the other extreme, one of my theology professors once stated that the humanity of Jesus prevented Him from grasping that He was divine. Indeed this theologian taught that Jesus didn’t realize He was the Son of God until the Resurrection. What a surprise that must have been! And, the professor taught, because Jesus, in His humanity, was unaware of His divinity, none of those Gospel miracles really happened.

The real problem for the preacher and professor is that the Incarnation is a mystery, something beyond human understanding, and that just bothers the heck out of them. They can’t accept that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. They can’t understand how Jesus can be truly the Son of God and yet became a man and our brother.

That they’re unable to grasp the mind of God is unacceptable to them, so they manufacture a Jesus they can accept…one, of course, that conflicts with everything the Church teaches.

As the Second Vatican Council stated: “The Son of God…worked with human hands; He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved” [Gaudium et Spes, 22.2]. And yet that human will, “does not resist or oppose but rather submits to His divine and almighty will” [Council of Constantinople III: DS 556].

The Church gives us today’s feast of the Holy Family to remind us of Jesus’ humanity, to remind us that the family is the first church, the domestic church. Yes, Jesus chose to enter into the world as an infant, just as helpless as you and I once were. He didn’t place Himself above us. He didn’t reject the human story but entered directly into it, sharing our humanity, our flesh and blood, our physical mortality.
Although a divine person, He accepted everything that came with His humanity, all the messiness, all the ordinariness, all its limitations. In His humanity He accepted these limitations, and as Luke tells us, would “advance in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” [Lk 2:52]. And He did all this within a human family, a Holy Family under the care and love of Mary and Joseph.

In today’s gospel passage Luke relates the events surrounding the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. According to Jewish law, a firstborn son belonged to God. And so, 40 days after his birth, parents would present their son in the Temple, in effect, buying him back with a sacrifice. And for poor Jews, like Joseph and Mary, it would be a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons. On that same day the new mother would also be ritually purified. Indeed, the feast was originally known as the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin.

Here we see the Holy Family, a Jewish family, living under God’s Law, doing as the Law prescribed. Yes, Jesus, the Son of God, accepts that His mission is rooted in God’s revelation, expressed in the Law and the Prophets. It’s there, in the Old Testament, that God’s plan of salvation is first revealed; a plan fulfilled and brought to completion by the Incarnation.

And so Mary and Joseph enter the Temple to fulfil the law. There they are greeted by old Simeon who amazes them with what he reveals. Simeon welcomes the infant Jesus with open arms and in Him sees redemption of the entire world: “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” [Lk 2:30-32]. He then gives Mary a taste of the sorrows she will experience, for a sword will pierce her heart.

Mary and Joseph then encounter Anna, a prophetess who lived in the Temple, who goes on to reveal more about their child. And just as Jesus advances in wisdom and age and favor, so too does the Holy Family advance in holiness.

But we should also realize that the message of Simeon and Anna is a message for every family. Holiness is nurtured first in the family. In the midst of all the chaos that surrounds any family there are glimpses of God’s presence, moments of grace when God reaches deep into the clutter of our lives and hands us a present that we never expected.

When my mother died, our elder daughter, 6-years-old at the time, told her mother, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Grandma is with Jesus now, happy in heaven.”

In moments like this God ignores all the barriers and debris that we place between ourselves and our redemption and reminds us that we are called to holiness. In those moments, sticky hands are transformed into instruments of grace and stories of the playground and classroom, or the words of a child to her mother become words of wisdom. In those moments, ordinary events take on new meaning and the dinner table can become like an altar.

In my family, those moments didn’t come when the six of us were kneeling piously in church. They were never captured on film or video. No, they were elusive -- sudden and unexpected. And sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, they came in the form of words that amaze.

Yes, Mary knew her Son was special. What had the angel said? “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High… the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” [Lk 1:32, 35]. But to hear this and more in the Temple from these two holy ones…this too was something she would long ponder and cherish.

This visit to the Temple is a story that strikes a chord in every new parent who has wondered and worried about the future of their child.

It’s a story for every mother who has looked into the face of her newborn, the face of innocence, and prayed that God would help her raise that child to holiness.

It’s a story to remind us that as parents we will experience disappointment, sorrow, and sometimes great tragedy…but in the midst of it all we will encounter Emmanuel, God with us.

It’s a story to remind each of us of the depth of God’s love for us, that He calls us to His open arms with forgiveness and mercy.

It’s a reminder to parents that holy moments of discovery and growth are often sudden and unpredictable.

It’s a reminder that God calls us into families — not just to protect us physically, but to nurture us in faith and love, to prepare us for a journey that leads only to Him.

It’s no accident that Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor, and did so in the midst of a family.

It’s no accident that God used that Holy Family — as he uses our families — to reach deep into other people’s lives, to bring them the light of Christ.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and He came as a child born into a family. By doing so, He sanctified the family, making it an instrument of holiness, and reminding us of the awesome obligation we have to protect it.

For the family today is under attack from virtually every quarter. We seem to have stopped investing in children, and now just invest in things. This is the great temptation for us who live in our affluent Western societies with their contraceptive mentality, societies that see children not as our future, but as competitors who threaten future affluence, as things that take something from us.

This is the same mentality that, 45 years ago, Pope Paul VI predicted would lead to increased marital infidelity, a general decrease in morality, especially among our youth, a lack of respect for women, and the continued erosion of respect for human life at all stages. How right he was!

Today, on this beautiful feast of the Holy Family, let us pray for our families, that we may grow together in holiness, love and mutual respect.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph – pray for us.

Homily: Christmas Vigil - Year B

Readings: Gn 49:2, 8-10; Psalm 72; Mt 1:1-17______________________________

People often wonder why the Church includes this Gospel passage, this rather long genealogy, in tonight’s liturgy. It does seem like a strange selection doesn’t it? All those names scattered across the generations from Abraham to Moses, then on to David and Solomon, then to the traumatic exile of God’s People in Babylon, and finally to Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself.

Yes indeed, it might seem a bit odd to have us listen to all those names on the night we celebrate the birth of our Savior. After all, isn’t the name of Jesus enough? Isn’t it enough to know that Jesus is the Son of God? Is it really necessary to tell us about these human ancestors spread out over the centuries from the time of Abraham?

Well, actually, yes! It is.

You see, Matthew is simply saying, “Welcome to God’s family! -- because Jesus’s family is also our family.” Tonight we not only celebrate Jesus’ birth, but we also celebrate our own spiritual roots, deep roots that stretch back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, our father in faith. You can trace that spiritual lineage from the priest (or deacon) who baptized you, through the bishop who ordained him, all the way back to the apostles and to Jesus Himself. And then you need only turn to these opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel and follow the path all the way back to Abraham.

And do you know something else? You and I share these roots. That’s right – we all have that same family tree. What a gift this is! It’s one of the key messages of the Gospel, a message that takes us deeply into those spiritual roots, and binds us in a living connection with Jesus Christ Himself.

Each of the four Gospels begins by telling us who Jesus is, but each tells us in a different way. Mark, in his usual Sergeant Friday, just-the-facts-Ma’am approach, begins by saying: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” Yes, Mark wastes no time identifying Jesus.

Luke’s a bit more subtle. He takes half a chapter before he finally gets to Jesus, and then he lets the angel Gabriel do the honors: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

And John? He echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis and proclaims the eternal divinity of the Logos, of Jesus, the creative Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

But Matthew is different. Writing to a Jewish audience, he offers them a very Jewish family tree of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. He begins by proclaiming: “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” These are titles any Jew would recognize, for these are Messianic titles. At the very start, Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the chosen one. Then, filled with the Spirit, he presents us with a family tree, one generation after another…right here in the very first verses of the New Testament. It’s as if God can’t wait to tell us all about His family.

Realize first that Matthew didn’t intend his genealogy to be complete. And his Jewish readers would know this too. No, Matthew wants to make a point. He wants his readers to understand and accept Jesus’s messianic roots. And so he divides his genealogy into three sections of 14 names, or 6 sections, each with 7 names.

To the Jew 7 and 14 symbolized completion or perfection. And so Matthew completes his genealogy with the first and only name in the 7th group of 7: the name of Jesus. For a Jew this was as perfect as you could get.

Although some of these names sound a bit strange to us, they’re all real people and offer a glimpse into the entire history of God’s People. As we run through that list of names we encounter every aspect of human life, and not just the good parts, but also murder, treachery, incest, adultery, prostitution…

We also meet five women, something rarely encountered in ancient genealogies. The last of these is Mary herself, but the first four – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – are all Gentiles: 2 Canaanites, a Moabite, and a Hittite. Yes, Jesus’s family wasn’t so purely Jewish, was it? Those Gentiles among His ancestors highlight the fact that He came from all of us, and for all of us.
It was also a family of sinners. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to fool her father-in-law, Judah, and ending up giving birth to his twin sons. Rahab was a prostitute, and yet a faithful woman. And Bathsheba? King David watched her bathing from the roof of his house, invited her in, seduced her, and had her husband killed, so he could marry her. Solomon, their son, started right with God, but eventually joined his many wives in worshipping idols.

Some members, like Mary and Joseph, are extraordinary; others, Ruth and Josiah, are faithful; some, like Manasseh and Rehoboam, are despicable; others, like Eliud and Azor, are anonymous, nondescript, men about which we know nothing.

Welcome to my family, Jesus tells us, welcome to my world. It’s the world we encounter when we open the Bible and realize how forgiving our God is.

Yes, Jesus’s family is a human family and like most human families, has its share of saints and sinners. But from this, we learn that God’s plan was accomplished through them all, and that He continues to work through us, His people.

Notice, too, the genealogy relates father to son, father to son, father to son…except at the very end. Matthew completes the genealogy with the words: “Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” For Matthew doesn’t declare Joseph to be the father of Jesus. Jesus, the Christ, is born of Mary, the virgin, with God as His Father.

Again, what a gift – to be members of God’s eternal family! Indeed, what a gift all of Revelation is!

Do you realize how blessed we are to be Catholic Christians? What we believe and how we worship are not things we’ve concocted. For Christianity is really a revelation rather than a religion.

Christianity is God’s Word and Work, not something we came up with. It’s not a collection of man’s feeble attempts to placate some higher power. It comes totally from God Himself. We believe God revealed Himself to us through all those many generations that Matthew enumerates in his genealogy. It’s a Revelation that runs from Abraham to Moses to David through all the prophets and eventually to Jesus Himself – Who is the fulfillment of it all. Yes, it’s a revelation that reaches its climax in the Incarnation when Mary gives birth, as Matthew describes it, to “Jesus, who is called the Christ.”

You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all a gift. As St. Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you possess that you have not received?” The answer, of course, is “Nothing!”

And right there at the top of the list of God’s gifts, is that which we receive through our Baptism: the gift of adoption. We became sons and daughters of the Father, part of the Family of God. And so we can join Jesus on that same family tree described by Matthew. We become heirs and can inherit the fruit of the promises God made to Abraham and to all those who followed him.

But as members of God’s family we must behave as any good son or daughter would behave. We must live in a way that honors the father, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the family.

Another great gift that comes out of this adoption is the privilege of eating at the table of the Family of God. Yes, we can take part in the Eucharistic Feast, the Mass. And what a gift this is! For here, at this altar, Jesus Christ, gives Himself to us, body and blood, soul and divinity, and allows us, the members of His family, to join Him in the most intimate way imaginable. Here, as we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we also join each other in a unique Communion.

Pope Benedict wrote that “Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us His Body and makes us one body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the Lord Himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church is most completely herself – in all places, yet one only.”

Eucharist – the word itself means thanksgiving – is like a great family dinner, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners all rolled into one… and yet far more wonderful and fulfilling.

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God! These roots are deeper, stronger and longer lasting than any human family roots. Indeed, they’re so strong they’ll carry us all the way to eternal life.

Tonight, as we rejoice in the birth of our Savior, let us also rejoice that our names are written in heaven, as members of the family of Jesus Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Navy Beats Army Once Again

West Point's football team gave Navy a bit of a scare today but Navy pulled away and once again beat Army (for the 13th consecutive year). Naturally, I am pleased. And in anticipation of next year's game: Go Navy, beat Army!