25 February 2018

Homily - 25 February 2018 - The Second Sunday of Lent

The Second Sunday of Lent (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

What does it mean to be devoted to God? We heard a few moments ago how the Lord God called Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah” and how the Lord’s messenger said to him, “I know now how devoted you are to God” (Genesis 22:2, 12). To be devoted is to be dedicated by a vow, to have sacrificed oneself, and to promise solemnly.

Stjorn Manuscript, Arni Magnusson 227 fol., fol. 23v
It is not difficult to see how devoted Abraham was to God, even if it is difficult for us to understand his devotion.

Abraham trusts totally in God, to the point of being ready even to sacrifice his own son and, with his son the future, for without a child the promised land was as nothing, ends in nothing. And in sacrificing his son he is sacrificing himself, his whole future, the whole of the promise. It really is the most radical act of faith.[1]

It is the radicality of Abraham’s faith that gives us pause because our faith is not so radical; it is often more practical and pragmatic. We are devoted to God to a certain extent, but not fully; we are often unwilling to sacrifice everything to God and trust fully in his promise, his vow, to us.

God’s devotion to us is seen in that he “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). He held nothing back, but gave us everything. As Abraham was willing to offer Isaac to the Father, the Father willingly offered his Son – and the Son willingly offered himself – for us. What more could God have done for us? The depth of his love for us cannot be doubted because while we were in sin “he first loved us” (I John 4:19). How can we refuse to give everything to him in return? Seeing the death of his Son, and his Resurrection from the dead, how can we not see the depth of his love for us? How can we fail to trust I his love? If God did not withhold from us that which he loves, how can we withhold from God what we love?

God proves his love and care for us – he proves his devotion to us - in a truly heart-wrenching way. Christ Jesus called his brothers and sisters – he called us – to repent of our sins and live. As proof of the truth of his Gospel, he healed the sick, he cast out demons, he fed the hungry crowds, and he raised the dead. He entrusted his ministry of healing and reconciliation to his Apostles. And for all of this he was mocked, tortured, stripped, and lifted high on the Cross as a sign of contradiction before the world.

As he endured such unthinkable mistreatment, he cried out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even before he was crucified, when the two brothers asked, “do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume” a village that refused to welcome him, Jesus did not permit it (Luke 9:54; cf. Luke 9:55). So great is his love for us, so great is his devotion to us. “If at times, the flame of charity seems to die in our own hearts, know that this is never the case in the heart of God!”[2]

The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we gladly abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, or whether we do so with a grumble. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we spend time in prayer each day, or only for a short time on Sundays. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we participate in the Holy Mass every Sunday and holy day, or whether we do so when it is convenient for us. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we speak the truth in love, or simply say whatever is easiest in the moment. There are many times each day that the Lord’s messenger can see how devoted we are to God; what does he see?

In his Message for Lent 2018, His Holiness Pope Francis reminds us that “Lent summons us, and enables us, to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our life.”[3] In other words, Lent summons us to a deeper devotion to the Lord and enables our love to be full. There are signs when our love is not what it should be, signs indicating our devotion to God is strong enough: “selfishness and spiritual sloth, sterile pessimism, the temptation to self-absorption, constant warring among ourselves, and the worldly mentality that makes us concerned only for appearances, and thus lessens our missionary zeal.”[4]

When the zeal and devotion of the Apostles began to diminish, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor to reveal to them his glory. He had just told them “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). This was too much for them; they were grieved at the thought of losing their Master and Friend and so Peter said to Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Peter meant well, of course, but he did not understand or trust the promise of the Lord. Jesus allowed himself to be transfigured before them to give them a glimpse of his Resurrection, to give them a glimpse of his divinity and strengthen their devotion to him.

NAF 4515, fol. 34r.
In his description of how Jesus appeared during his Transfiguration, Saint Matthew includes a detail omitted by Saint Mark, namely that “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). It was an answer to that great cry of every human heart voiced by the Psalmist: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me” (Psalm 27:8-9). In that moment, the Lord Jesus allowed his Apostles to see him as he is; he allowed them to see “that Face which in the coming days of the Passion we shall contemplate disfigured by human sins, indifference, and ingratitude; that Face, radiant with light and dazzling with glory that will shine out at dawn on Easter Day.”[5]

Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Face of Jesus “the sun to the eyes of the heart.”[6] By this curious phrase, he indicated that the light of Jesus’ face illumines our hearts, shedding light upon our shadows and darkness that we would rather conceal. The more we allow the light of his Face to shine upon us, the more like him we become, which, of course, is the very purpose of Lent.

“Let us,” then, “keep our hearts and minds fixed on the Face of Christ” so our devotion to him may deepen.[7] By contemplating the beauty of his Face, let us hold fast to the promises we made in Baptism and learn to trust in the promise of the Lord’s own love. By contemplating his devotion to us in the mystery of the Cross, may he find us devoted to him in return and bring us to the full vision of his glory. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 4 March 2012.
[2] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2018.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, ibid.
[6] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 78.2. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. Ib: Matthew 14-28, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2002), 54.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, ibid.

20 February 2018

Homily - 18 February 2018 - The First Sunday of Lent

The First Sunday of Lent (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Have you ever noticed how people react upon seeing a rainbow? For those of us who do not often experience them, rainbows elicit a great excitement and a certain childlike joy as we see the colors stretching across the sky, and the fuller the rainbow, the greater our excitement.

A rainbow over the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Moloka'i
21 February 2010
We know perfectly well why the bow forms as sunlight passes through the droplets of water and yet still we pause to look at them. There is something about a rainbow that simply captures our attention. How often do we see through the rainbow - beyond the arc and the colors and the natural wonder - to the covenant the Lord made with us?

After the waters of the Flood receded, and after Noah built an altar to the Lord and offered sacrifice, God said to him: 
This is the sign of the covenant that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings (Genesis 9:12-16). 
This covenant was first made with Noah and renewed with Abraham and then with Moses and fulfilled and perfected in Jesus Christ. It was this covenant that we received at Baptism, the covenant sealed in the Blood of Christ. If the Lord of heaven and earth recalls the covenant he has made each time a rainbow appears, should we not also recall this covenant? Too often we are forgetful of God, though he never forgets us.

Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, tells us the waters of the Flood “prefigured baptism, which saves you now” (I Peter 3:21). Just as Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the Flood inside the ark, so, too, Christians are saved through the waters of Baptism in the Church, the Barque, the ship, of Peter. Baptism “is not a removal of dirt from the body,” Saint Peter says, “but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (I Peter 3:21-22).

When Jesus accepted John’s baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sin,” the Spirit “immediately impels him into the consequences of that decision – consequences that will eventually lead to the cross” (Mark 1:4).[1] Just as Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise (cf. Genesis 3:24), so “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” to be tempted for forty days (Mark 1:12), just as Israel was tested for forty years in the desert (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2). When he allowed himself to be driven out into the desert, he accepted the history of Israel. “Jesus relives the story of Israel, but as an obedient son who is totally faithful in his own trial in the desert.”[2]

When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert he was given the same choice as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the same choice as Israel in the desert. But unlike Adam and Eve, unlike Israel, Jesus remained faithful and obedient and now sits at the right hand of the Father, victorious over Satan, sin, and death, because he accepted his Messianic ministry from the Father in full obedience, docility, and love.

NAF 4508, fol. 23r
Jesus goes into the desert for one purpose: to be “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12). From ancient times the desert symbolized the realm of evil, which was represented by the beasts dwelling there. Jesus goes to be tempted by Satan, “the prince of demons,” whose very name means “adversary” (Mark 3:22). It is this adversary, this enemy, who seeks to thwart Jesus’ every move throughout the gospels.

When he enters into the desert, Jesus “enters into Satan’s territory deliberately, to begin his campaign against the powers of evil. He is looking for a fight! Yet he will confront Satan not with a blast of divine lightning, but in his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.”[3]

This battle with Satan that Jesus begins today is the very reason for his coming among us at Christmas, but why would he wish to fight the adversary in this way when he could easily fight him with his glory and majesty? Saint Lawrence of Brindisi says:

…in order that his victory might be the more glorious, he willed to fight Satan in our weak flesh. It is as if an unarmed man, right hand bound, were to fight with his left hand alone against a powerful army; if he emerged victorious, his victory would be regarded as all the more glorious. So Christ conquered Satan with the right hand of his divinity bound and using against him only the left hand of his weak humanity.[4]

He did so as an example to his disciples, as an example to us; he showed us how to overcome Satan and temptation by fasting, prayer, and complete trust and obedience to the Father.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the attacks of the adversary increase all the more after Baptism as Satan tries to steal us back. But we can be confident of victory if we follow the example of Jesus; if we fast, if we pray with patient hope, and if we remain attached to God in obedient trust, the victory belongs to us, or, rather to Jesus Christ, in whose victory we will share.

This is why the liturgical color for this season is violet. It is both the color of repentance and of royalty. The violet vestments call us to repent of our sins and to amend our life even as they remind us of the victory of Christ over Satan.

These, then, are the weapons that we take up in the battle against Satan: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. The weapon of prayer enables “our hearts to root our secret lies and forms of deception, and then to find the consolation God offers.”[5] The weapon of fasting “weakens our tendency to violence” and “revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger.”[6] And the weapon of almsgiving “sets us free from greed” and allows us to “share in God’s providential care for his children.”[7]

These three weapons, these forms of penance, we call the Lenten discipline. The word discipline comes from the same root as the word disciple, a root that refers to a student. Discipline is always meant to teach; the disciplines, the weapons, of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving teach us to live more like Jesus; they teach us to be faithful to God even as they fight off the attacks of Satan.

This fight with the tempter is serious and one in which every Christian must engage.

Fighting against evil, against every form of selfishness and hate, and dying to oneself to live in God is the ascetic journey that every disciple of Jesus is called to make with humility and patience, with generosity and perseverance.[8]

Jesus’ example and victory in the desert show us how to live in this way. In the desert, as on the Cross, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (I Peter 3:18).

Let each of us also enter into the desert this Lent and fight against our temptations, whether they be to pride or greed, to lust or anger or gluttony, to envy or sloth. Let us take up our weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and fight the good fight. As we do so, let us recall the covenant the Lord has made with us, seeking in these days of Lent to renew the promises we made at Baptism to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in order that the glory of Easter, the joy of heaven, might be ours. Amen.

[1] Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] From A Word in Season: Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours (Villanova, Pennsylvania: Augustinian Press, 1999), 7:245.  Quoted in Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 39.
[5] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2018.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 1 March 2006.

16 February 2018

Homily - 14 February 2018 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Much like Saint Valentine’s Day, we might say Ash Wednesday is a day about love. It might seem strange to say so, given that February 14th has largely become associated with romantic notions of love, and that on Ash Wednesday Mother Church calls us to “take up battle with spiritual evils.”[1] Today, then, is an opportunity for us to consider the nature of love. Saint Paul exhorts us, saying, “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (II Corinthians 6:1). There is much to unpack in these few words, much that concerns love.

If we are to heed the Apostle’s warning, we must first know what he means by grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life.”[2] To put it perhaps more simply,

God’s grace denotes his gift of love, the love made known most dramatically in the sending of his Son (cf. John 3:16) and in the gift of the Spirit in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5). Grace thus signifies that God holds nothing back in reaching out to us in love.[3]

Yet despite this gift of grace we all too often fail to reach out in love to God.

Saint Valentine, a priest in the city of Rome, realized the tremendous gift we received in Christ and he devoted his life to helping others realize the same; he sought to help them live in grace. When Roman soldiers were forbidden to enter into marriage, me married them anyway, because he wanted to be sure husbands and wives received the grace to keep the promises of their marriages and so reflect God’s love for the Church. When he refused to stop witnessing the marriages of soldiers, he was beheaded. So it is that the color of Saint Valentine’s Day is red; it calls to mind the blood of this martyr, blood shed in and for love of God and neighbor. Valentine heard Saint Paul’s admonition and did not receive the grace of God in vain; he allowed this grace to bear fruit in his life and be caught up in the life of God.

Saint Augustine of Hippo at first resisted God’s gift of grace and so received it in vain, yet one day he yielded. His interior longing for God prevailed and he exposed his heart to grace saying that famously moving prayer: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[4]

Each of us received this grace of God’s love, we received a share in the divine life, in the waters of Baptism, but it is a grace to which we must respond again and again if we do not wish to lose it; it is a love we sometimes resist. This is why the Lord says to us through his prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12-13).

By giving his life for the sake of others, Saint Valentine imitated the Lord Jesus and so we see the life of Christ reflected in this martyr. By devoting his life to his portion of the Lord’s flock, Saint Augustine imitated the Lord and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his teachings. In a similar way, husbands and wives are to live for each other, not for themselves, and so imitate the selfless love of Christ. “What does it mean,” then, “to receive the grace of God in vain except to be unwilling to perform good works with the help of his grace?”[5] Indeed, we see that “Paul’s exhortation not to receive God’s grace in vain is an appeal to deeper conversion, that is, to avoid becoming partners with evil and to continue to purify [ourselves] in mind and body.”[6] This is what today is all about.

We have come before the Lord because we know we have not always kept ourselves pure in mind and body. We have received the grace of God in vain. We have failed to love both God and neighbor and we have not always allowed the Lord to reflect his love through us. We have heard the Lord’s call to “proclaim a fast” and to “call an assembly,” and so we cry out to him, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (Joel 2:15; cf. Psalm 51:3).

The ancient symbol of Saint Augustine is a heart on fire and pierced with arrows. The heart symbolizes his restless longing for God; the fire his burning love for God and neighbor; and the arrows the many times he was pierced by God’s grace, pierced by God’s love. The restlessness of his heart and his encounters with God’s grace taught Saint Augustine, as he said, that “nothing cleanses the heart but the undivided and single-minded striving after eternal life…”[7]

In these coming days of Lent, let each of us follow his example and strive after eternal life with undivided hearts. With Saint Augustine, let us not shield our hearts from the Lord, but let us instead hold them up to him. Let us expose our hearts to be pierced by his grace and set afire with the love of God and neighbor. If we do, the Father will reward us and give us back the joy of salvation, the joy of love (Matthew 6:4; Psalm 51:14). Amen.

[1] Collect of the Mass for Ash Wednesday.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996.
[3] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 191.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1. Henry Chadwick, trans., Oxford World’s Classics: Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
[5] Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 126.5. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 251.
[6] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians, 148.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the Mount, 2.3.11. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 128.