Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

Peter and PaulToday we celebrate a feast of great importance to our Church. Saint Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, come together to show how the Church is truly universal, that is, truly catholic. There are similarities between the two men. Simon’s name is changed to Peter after he professes belief in the Lord Jesus, and Saul’s name is changed to Paul after he is converted. Both men started out as failures as far as living the Christian life goes. Peter denied his Lord by the fire and swore that he didn’t even know the man who was his friend. Paul’s early life was taken up with persecuting Christians and participating in their murder. And both men were given second chances, which they received with great enthusiasm, and lived a life of faith that has given birth to a Church.

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both failed on this early on, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.

Both Peter and Paul kept the faith, as Paul says in today’s second reading. If they hadn’t, it’s quite possible we would never have had the faith today – although that was certainly not God’s plan. But because they kept the faith, we have it today, and we must be careful to keep the faith ourselves. Too many competing voices in our world today would have us bracket faith in favor of reason, or tolerance, or success, or being nice, or whatever. But we can never allow that, we can never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal. Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance. Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in. To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to those words of Jesus again:

“Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction,
and those who enter through it are many.
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life.
And those who find it are few.”

Those are pretty challenging thoughts, I think. But they are thoughts we can resonate with. Certainly Lot fell into the trap of going through the wide gate into the land of Sodom, the residents of which our first reading says “were very wicked in the sins they committed against the LORD.” And how true for us as well. Isn’t it always easier to take the road more traveled, despite the fact that that road doesn’t take you anywhere you want to go? We might very well take that easy road time and again, and end up, with Lot, in the land of Sodom.

Because the narrow gate isn’t easy to find and is harder still to travel. Living the Gospel and laying down our lives for others is hard work, and may often seem unrewarding. We may have to set aside our desires for the pleasures and rewards of this life. And we may even fail to get through that gate by our own efforts, due to the brokenness of our lives and the sinfulness of our living. We may find it next to impossible to travel through that narrow gate by ourselves.

But we don’t have to. The one who is our teacher in this constricted way is also the way through it. Our Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and through him we can all find our way to the Father. He even gives us the key to that narrow gate: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets.” As we pledge to live our lives by considering the needs of others just as we would consider our own needs, we will indeed find that traveling that narrow road is the way that gives most joy to our lives. As the Psalmist reminds us today, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

birth of st john baptistToday we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration. Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all on this Sunday points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feast of their Nativity – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve. But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son. But that’s how the story goes. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, that would certainly be appropriate. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

Maybe we don’t know the meaning of our own names, and maybe we don’t know the purpose that God has for our lives, that purpose that God intended even when we were in our mother’s wombs. Whatever our particular names may mean, we are also called Christian, and there is meaning behind that name. To be called Christian is to be called a follower of Christ, which means that like Jesus, we must lay down our lives for our friends, that we must preach the Good News of Salvation in our words and in our actions, and that we must always help people to come to know the love of God. And that, ultimately, is the purpose for which we have been created, the purpose God had for us from the time we were in our mother’s wombs. The way we do that might be different for each of us. Some will work out their purpose in the married life, raising children to love and honor God. Some will do that as priests or religious, bearing witness to all God’s people of the love God has for them. Some will do that in the single state, as models of chastity and courage in a world that can be dark and lonely.

Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And that is a way that we must all be open to following. So often, we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly not where it should be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals. Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

Friday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, it sometimes is amazing to me when I think about all that the early Church had to go through and put up with. We aren’t in that same situation. They had to put up with persecution. St. Paul mentions he put up with persecution from all sides: from his own people as well as the Gentiles. He was beaten often, endured hazardous journeys and perilous weather, as well as every kind of deprivation. His experience was definitely extreme, but others who lived the faith in those days were subject to persecution, torture and death. Our experience is not like that, is it? I mean, here we sit in this air-conditioned chapel and relatively comfortable surroundings. We came here freely to Mass this morning and it is unlikely that anyone will openly persecute us or torture us or put us to death for worshipping our God.

Yet there is a subtle kind of persecution that we must endure. We know that even if our society is not openly hostile to living the Gospel, it is certainly just one step short of that. Life is not respected in our society: babies are aborted, the elderly are not respected or given adequate care, children are not raised in nurturing families, people are hated because of their race, color or creed. Faith is ridiculed as the crutch of the weak. Hope is crushed by those who abuse power. Love is overshadowed by sexual perversion and self-interest. Living that Gospel is dangerous to anyone who would want to be taken seriously in our culture.

To all of us who come to this holy place to worship this morning and who hope to work out our salvation by living the Gospel, St. Paul speaks eloquently. We know that he, as well as all of the communion of saints, is there to intercede for us and show us the way. He says to us today, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant?” He points us to our Lord Jesus who paid the ultimate price for the Gospel, and reminds us that in living that Gospel, regardless of its cost, we store up for ourselves incredible treasures in heaven, because it is in heaven that our heart resides.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious

Today’s readings | Today’s saint

St. Aloysius Gonzaga was a well-connected young man who lived during the Renaissance. His father longed for him to become a military hero, and brought him up in the court society. But Aloysius was affected from an early age by a desire to become one with God, and often practiced great penance and asceticism. By age eleven, he was teaching catechism to poor children, and fasting three times a week. I don’t really remember what I was doing at age eleven, but I know my piety was not nearly as advanced as Aloysius! He eventually decided he would like to join the Jesuits, but had to wage a four-year battle with his father, who eventually relented and let him forsake his right to succession and join the novitiate.

Today’s Gospel is one that Aloysius knew well. He not only prayed the words of the Lord’s prayer but also lived them, letting God’s will be done in him and through him. In his seminary studies, he must have read St. Cyprian, who said of the Lord’s prayer, “When we stand praying, beloved brethren, we ought to be watchful and earnest with our whole heart, intent on our prayers. Let all carnal and worldly thoughts pass away, nor let the soul at that time think on anything except the object of its prayer” (On the Lord’s Prayer, 31). The Lord’s Prayer teaches us this attitude of being changed by our prayer, if we take the time to center ourselves and be present to the prayer and the object of our prayer, who is our God. St. Cyprian and St. Aloysius remind us well today how beautiful a prayer we make when we enter into prayer with our whole being and when we live the words we pray.

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Some people always seem to need to have the spotlight shining on them. If we’re honest, we probably all have a little of that in us. Who among us has not occasionally been disappointed when our best efforts have gone unrecognized? But that kind of attitude is one that Jesus completely rejects. His humility and dedication to doing his Father’s will took him to the cross, and so it must be for we who would be Jesus’ disciples. We need to turn the spotlight off, or even better, we need to shine it on our God, to whom all glory belongs.

There is nothing that we have that is not God’s gift to us. Our lives, our work, our family, the stuff we own, all of this is a gift, freely given by our God who loves us and cares for us. The Gospel says in another place, “freely you have received; freely give.” What Jesus and St. Paul are telling us this morning is that we must be not just willing, but eager to give of ourselves in fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We must be eager to do these things not because it makes the spotlight shine brightly on us, but because it makes the spotlight shine on our God. May everything that we do and everything that we are give God glory, now and through all eternity!

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You know, there are a lot of differences here among us. This is a somewhat diverse congregation: different ethnicities, different cultural backgrounds, different educational levels, different types of careers and vocations. And we are all on different places in the spiritual life: some are traditional and others are progressive; some are advanced on the journey to Christ, some have only just begun; we all like to pray in different ways, and each of us has different experiences even in our common worship. But as diverse as we are, there is one thing that unites us without question: we all need a Savior. King David knew this very well and so it is very appropriate that he helps us to pray in today’s Psalm response: “Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.”

At the bottom of this need for a Savior is the fact that we are all sinners, every one of us. We all fall short of God’s expectations of us – and not just sometimes, but every single moment of our lives. Even our great successes in the spiritual life and our best efforts of discipleship are tainted by the wrong we have done, and the wrong we have chosen, over and over and over again. I know that’s not easy to hear, but it’s also not easy to argue against, is it? It’s not popular to talk about sin even from the pulpit these days, because in our society everything is someone else’s fault. In days gone by, if a child misbehaved in school, woe to him when he got home. Today, if a child misbehaves in school, woe to the teacher when the parents find out the child has been held accountable. If we spill coffee on ourselves and it burns us, we sue the purveyor who sold it to us. Recently an assistant state’s attorney got into a car intoxicated and got into an accident in which she died. Now her family is suing the restaurant where she, a prosecutor who brought intoxicated motorists to justice and who should certainly have known better, drank to excess. Personal responsibility is not something we are ready to accept, let alone teach to our children. Lord, forgive the wrong we have done indeed!

And so all of us sinners who are in great need of a Savior have gathered here for this weekend Liturgy. What we hear from today’s Scriptures is all about sin. First, sin has consequences. Second, repentance is crucial. Third, forgiveness is freely given. And finally, reconciliation brings joy.

Sin has consequences. This was what King David heard in today’s first reading. You may know the story. While the war was raging and his army was fighting for his own survival, David looked out and saw the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who was very appealing to him. He sent for her, and had his way with her. In the society of that day, such an act was an offense primarily against the woman’s husband, and rendered his blood line dried up. When that happened, the man’s property would not be passed on to his heirs after death, and would instead be given to the state. So David’s taking of Uriah’s wife also meant that he stole his inheritance. And just to make the deed complete, he arranged for Uriah to be “accidentally” killed in battle. This was not just a minor sin or a tiny indiscretion. What God says to David in today’s first reading is that yes, his sin is forgiven because God is mercy. But, because of his wrong choices, David has unleashed a chain of events that will result in violence being part of his family’s inheritance forever. That is not punishment for his sin, but rather the consequence of it. Even when our sins have been forgiven, we often unleash consequences we could not have foreseen. That’s how insidious and destructive sin can be, and that is why there is no such thing as a victimless or private sin in which no one else is affected.

Repentance is crucial. We see that move to repentance in King David’s behavior today. When confronted by God, David is quick to repent: “I have sinned against the LORD,” David says. And this is the crucial step. God is always ready to forgive, but we have to recognize that we need to be forgiven. We have to know that we need a Savior. God’s forgiveness takes two: God to offer it, and us to receive it. For us, I think, the move to repentance is easy to make by simply approaching the Sacrament of Penance. We offer it every Saturday here at the parish from 4:00 – 4:45 pm. You don’t have to have committed the sins of David to need this precious sacrament; in fact we are instructed to go at least once a year, because we all have some sins on our soul, and we all have need to receive God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness. I always say this, but if you haven’t been to the sacrament in a long time and have forgotten how to do it, just go. It’s the priest’s job to help you make a good confession and I know that Fr. Ted and I are committed to helping you do that. Remember, the step to repentance is a crucial one. If you want God’s grace, all you have to do is to make a move to receive it. We all need a Savior, and we are all promised one if we will just ask for it.

Forgiveness is freely given. God’s response to David didn’t even take a minute. As soon as he says that he had sinned against the Lord, God’s response comes through Nathan the prophet, loud and clear: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.” And notice, please, that the Lord doesn’t say, “OK, I forgive you,” as in “now that you’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ I will forgive you.” No. The message is that David’s sin has been forgiven; that is, the forgiveness has already happened. It is not necessary that we repent, or do anything, in order that we be forgiven. But it is crucial that we repent in order to receive that forgiveness and grace that is given to us freely, without a moment’s hesitation, by our God who is at his core, forgiveness and grace. We should not, of course, commit the further sin of presumption by assuming that that it does not matter what we do because we are always forgiven. But above all, we should not deprive ourselves of the grace of forgiveness by choosing not to confess and repent and receive what is offered to us.

Reconciliation brings joy. I think what is so important in today’s Gospel is for us to see how great is the joy that comes from sin forgiven and mercy received. The unnamed “sinful woman” is not bathing and anointing the Lord’s feet so that he will then forgive her sins. She is bathing and anointing him because she is overjoyed that her many sins have been forgiven. The little parable Jesus tells to Simon the Pharisee makes that clear: the one who was forgiven the greater debt loves more. He loves not to have his debt forgiven, but instead he loves because the debt has already been canceled. And so we too gather with joy this day because the debt of our sin has been erased. We pour out our time, talent, and treasure, and especially our own lives, on this altar of sacrifice, because our sins have been forgiven and the debt has already been paid by our Savior who stretches out his arms on the cross so that we might have salvation and might be reconciled with our God who created us for himself. Today in that silent time after Communion, I hope I hear weeping for joy from all of us because of the great forgiveness that is ours when we sinful people realize that we need a Savior and turn to find his arms already open to us. What other response is there to that grace but tears of joy?

It might not be popular to talk about sin these days but, brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s the only reason we’re here together this day. If we don’t need a Savior, then we don’t need to waste an hour together, do we? But the truth is we are a sinful people, a people in need of a Savior, who gather together to sing the words of King David, “Lord forgive the wrong I have done.” In our gathering we can cry out in tears of joy for forgiveness freely given and mercy abundantly bestowed. “Blessed” – indeed happy – “is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered.”