Friday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

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Today’s readings represent some of the deepest longings of the human heart, and expose one of the deepest wounds of the human heart.  The deep wound is the feeling of abandonment that we experience in the midst of trial.  Just as the Jews must have felt abandoned by God when the walls of the city fell, the Temple was burnt down, and everyone was marched off to exile in Babylon, so we can sometimes feel abandoned from time to time when we struggle with the many trials that come to us.  Whether it’s illness, death, or even a wayward family member, whether it’s unemployment or underemployment, or whatever the trial may be, it can be so devastating, and gives us the feeling that we are all alone.

It can be easy to forget God in those times when it seems like God has forgotten us.  And so the Psalmist expresses one of the deep longings of the human heart: “Let my tongue be silenced if ever I forget you!”  The Psalmist meant Jerusalem, but Jerusalem was really for them a symbol of God himself.  When people get to the place of forgetting God, all hope is really lost.  Remembering God in adversity at least gives us the light of faith, the glimmer of hope.  How people get through the hard times in life without faith, I’ll never know.  The Psalmist today desperately prays that no one would ever have to find out.

The leper in the Gospel reading expresses the second of the deep longings: “Lord if you wish, you can make me clean.”  When we have sinned and fallen from God, we often don’t know whether God would want anything to do with us.  We can feel unworthy of salvation, which of course is what Satan really wants to have happen to us.  Because when we’ve turned away from God in shame, again we lose that light of faith and that glimmer of hope.  But the answer to the Leper’s question is what we sinners all have to hear today: “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

God would rather die than live forever without us.  We have to remember that those deep longings of our heart were put there by our God who never wants us to forget him, and who desperately wills that we be made clean.  We may from time to time in our lives have to sit by the streams of Babylon and weep.  But we must never lose hope in the One who always wills our salvation.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

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I read a quote recently that said, more or less, that you can have a relationship with anyone, but you have intimacy with relatively few people.  The evangelical call for everyone to have a relationship with Jesus Christ is, in fact, lacking.  If salvation were something magical that came about as the result of just saying a simple prayer, once and for all, then everyone would pursue a relationship with Christ.  But the fact is, salvation is hard work.  It was purchased at an incredible price by Jesus on that cross.  And for us to make it relevant in our lives, we have work to do too.  Not the kind of work that earns salvation, but the kind of work that appropriates it into our lives.

Because people who are saved behave in a specific way.  They are people who take the Gospel seriously and live it every day.  They are people of integrity that stand up for what’s right in every situation, no matter what it personally costs.  They are people of justice who will not tolerate the sexist or racist joke, let alone tolerate a lack of concern for the poor and the oppressed.  They are people of deep prayer, whose lives are wrapped up in the Eucharist and the sacraments, people who confront their own sinfulness by examination of conscience and sacramental Penance.  They are people who live lightly in this world, not getting caught up in its excess and distraction, knowing they are citizens of a heaven where such things have no permanence.  Saved people live in a way that is often hard, but always joyful.

Not everyone who claims a relationship with Christ, not everyone who cries out “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  We have to build our spiritual houses on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, living as he lived, following his commandments, and clinging to him in prayer and sacrament as if our very life depended on it.  Because it does.  It does.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist

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john“What, then. will this child be?”  That question from today’s Gospel is certainly key for the celebration of the birth of St. John the Baptist, but definitely also appropriate for all of us too.  At the birth of John the Baptist, the Incarnation was starting to get noticeable.  God’s plan had already been worked out with Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah.  But now their relatives and neighbors were starting to see things happen.  Unusual things.  Like the birth of a boy to a couple way too old to be starting a family.  Naming him something that no one in their families had been called.  It’s no wonder that people were starting to notice the mystery and asked “what, then, will this child be?”

And that’s a question that’s important for all of us.  Every time a new child is born, we might wonder what their life and their world will be like.  This Sunday, I baptized seven children and I couldn’t help but wonder where life would take them.  What, then, will they be?  Because we all have a purpose.  Just as John the Baptist was called from his mother’s womb to be the forerunner of Christ, so we all have a call – very much from our mother’s womb – something God has always intended for us to do.  It is, of course, the great project of our lives to work that out.  And we must pray daily for the discernment necessary for us to know God’s will so that we would be what God intended.  That’s the only way we can be really happy, I’m convinced of it.

We are all, as the Psalmist says, wonderfully made.  We are all called to live a prophetic life that gives witness to Jesus Christ, just as his cousin John the Baptist did in his life.  When we finally embrace God’s will for us, that’s the only time we can be truly free.  Just as finally accepting God’s plan and naming the child according to God’s plan freed Zechariah’s tongue.  God’s will in our lives is never constrictive: it is freeing, and when we freely choose to follow, we can never be anything but happy.

This wonderful feast of John’s birth is really a tradition.  Just like we don’t know the exact day of Jesus’ birth, John’s is not known either.  There were no birth certificates back then!  St. Augustine was the one who taught that this should be the date of John’s birth – six months before Jesus was born.  And he was born near the summer solstice, at the point where days start getting shorter, while Jesus was born at the winter solstice, at the point where days start getting longer.  This mimics John the Baptist’s statement in John’s Gospel that “He (meaning Jesus) must increase, and I (meaning John the Baptist) must decrease.

What, then, will we be?  Where will God’s will take us?  God knows.  So we just pray for the grace to receive it, so that we can be really, truly free.  Because when we decrease so that Jesus can increase, great things can and will happen.

Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time

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On March 4th, in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second President of the United States, for the first of four terms.  As he began his presidency, the country was in economic crisis, mired as it was in the depression.  There were all kinds of concerns in the country at that time, with the economy going into some frighteningly uncharted waters.  In his Inaugural Address, he addressed those concerns head-on:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  That one phrase – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – became the watch phrase of his presidency and has been quoted in many terrifying situations ever since.

Sixty years later, in 1993, for the occasion of his fifteenth anniversary of elevation to the Papacy, Pope John Paul II, of blessed memory, did a series of interviews with Italian Radio that were collected into the wonderful little book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.  The first interview concerned his acceptance of the papacy in his own life.  His Holiness was asked if he ever hesitated in his acceptance of Jesus Christ and God’s will in his life.  He responded, in part:

“I state right from the outset: ‘Be not afraid!’ This is the same exhortation that resounded at the beginning of my ministry in the See of Saint Peter.  Christ addressed this invitation many times to those He met. The angel said to Mary: ‘Be not afraid!’  (cf. Lk 1:30). The same was said to Joseph: ‘Be not afraid!’ (cf. Mt 1:20). Christ said the same to the apostles, to Peter, in various circumstances, and especially after His Resurrection. He kept telling them: ‘Be not afraid!’ He sensed, in fact, that they were afraid. They were not sure if who they saw was the same Christ they had known. They were afraid when He was arrested; they were even more afraid after his Resurrection.

“The words Christ uttered are repeated by the Church. And with the Church, they are repeated by the Pope. I have done so since the first homily I gave in St. Peter's Square: ‘Be not afraid!’ These are not words said into a void. They are profoundly rooted in the Gospel. They are simply the words of Christ Himself.”  And these words – the simple three-word phrase – became the watchwords of his papacy: “Be not afraid!”

Both of these courageous men echoed the words of the Gospel that had formed them.  Roosevelt had been formed in an Episcopal boarding school whose headmaster preached the duty of Christians to help the less fortunate.  He had lived through polio.  Pope John Paul as Karol Wojtyla had lived through and beyond the Communist control of his country, buoyed as he was by his Catholic faith.  Both of them heard the same words we have in today’s Gospel, words that inspired and encouraged them, and words that they lived by:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?
Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
Even all the hairs of your head are counted.
So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

These words echo through a world that is, at times, an extremely frightening place.  Even now, our own country faces some very uncertain times, and we are in a place we haven’t been in some time.  Wars rage on in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Relations with many other nations are strained.  Some of our traditional allies have not been able to stay with us.  Prices on everything from oil to milk are skyrocketing.  It’s hard for us to see where our society will be in the near or distant future.

Then, too, we have worries in our own lives.  So many people are facing the prospect of losing their jobs.  Unemployment is creeping to a level we haven’t seen in some years.  People are in danger of losing their homes.  Then there are the periodic worries that affect us all from time to time: illnesses suffered by ourselves or a loved one, the death of those close to us, raising children in a society that has more opportunities for danger than have been present in the past.

To all of our worries, both global and personal, the words of FDR, the words of JPII, the words of Jesus himself confront us: BE NOT AFRAID.  The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  You are worth more than so many sparrows.  Not a hair of your head goes uncounted.  God is in control.  We worry when we can’t see the big picture, or even the light at the end of the tunnel.  But the only words we need to focus on are the words our Savior shouts into the vortex of our whirlwind world today: BE NOT AFRAID.  God is in control, and his power is sufficient for any worry, global or personal.

I don’t bring you this message casually or even glibly.  I know the pain of many of these situations.  I have seen it on the faces of those I have been with in even just two years of priesthood when times are difficult.  But I continue to firmly believe that God is sufficient for our weakness, as St. Paul often tells us.  The One who can overcome the disaster of sin and death by his own sacrifice on the Cross can certainly help us through the rocky roads our lives sometimes travel through.  So be not afraid.

Jesus echoes the words that our Psalmist sings today:

“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”

God will not forget us, not even forget a hair on our heads.  We are worth more than many sparrows.  Be not afraid.

Friday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

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I have to admit I was totally at a loss with the first reading.  It's hard to read the names, let alone get the meaning.  I think it can be done, but I opted out because I was moved by the Gospel.  And that's totally okay!

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  What a beautiful – and challenging – word we have today from the Gospel.  We could use this as an occasion to talk about stewardship, and that might be legitimate.  But I think that Jesus is getting at something a bit different here.  The clue to what he’s getting at, I think, is the little saying that comes right after this.

“If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;
but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.”

My mother always says that “the eye is the window to the soul.”  That’s kind of what this saying is about.  What is it that we are letting into our souls through the windows of our eyes?  There is an ancient church virtue of the “custody of the eye.”  What we let ourselves see has a direct result on what happens in our spiritual life.  If we find that our lives are off track, that we aren’t praying well, that our relationships are tense at best, well, maybe we’re seeing the wrong stuff.  Television, movies, the internet – all of these provide occasions of sin for all of us.

And Jesus is right, when we allow our eyes to be bad, our whole body – even our soul – can be in darkness.  If we really treasure our spiritual lives, then our eyes and our hearts will find that they are on things that are worthy of being seen and experienced.  So maybe this summer is an occasion for a little less TV, better chosen movies, and some serious time with a good book, or perhaps, the Good Book!  For where your treasure is, there your heart, and your eye, and your mind, and your soul, will be also.

Thursday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

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Sadly, the prayer that our Lord gave us to avoid multiplying words and babbling like the pagans can so much become for us an occasion to do that very thing.  We can rattle off the Lord’s Prayer so quickly and second-naturedly that we totally miss what we’re saying and miss the real grace of the Lord’s Prayer.  We really ought to pay more attention to it, because it serves so well as the model for all of our prayer.

First, it teaches us to pray in communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This week, in our Office of Readings, we priests and deacons and religious have been reading from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian.  On Monday, that treatise told us: “Above all, he who preaches peace and unity did not want us to pray by ourselves in private or for ourselves alone.  We do not say ‘My Father, who art in heaven,’ nor ‘Give me this day my daily bread.’  It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation, or to be delivered from evil.  Rather we pray in public as a community, and not for one individual but for all.  For the people of God are all one.”

Second, it acknowledges that God knows best how to provide for our needs.  We might want all the time to tell him what we want, or how to take care of us, but deep down we know that the only way our lives can work is when we surrender to God and let God do what he needs to do in us.  And so the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  The whole point of creation is that the whole world will be happiest and at peace only when everything is returned to the One who made it all in the first place.  Until we surrender our lives too, we can never be happy or at peace.

Third, this wonderful prayer acknowledges that the real need in all of us is forgiveness.  Yes, we are all sinners and depend on God alone for forgiveness, because we can never make up for the disobedience of our lives.  But we also must forgive others as well, or we can never really receive forgiveness in our lives.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” might just be the boldest prayer we can utter on any given day.  Because if we have been negligent in our forgiving, is that really how we want God to forgive us?  When we take the Lord’s Prayer seriously, we can really transform our little corner of the world by giving those around us the grace we have been freely given.

And so when we pray these beautiful words today at Mass, or later in our Rosaries or other prayers, maybe we can pause a bit.  Slow down and really pray those words.  Let them transform us by joining us together with our brothers and sisters, surrendering to God for what we truly need, and really receiving the forgiveness of God so that we can forgive others. 

Monday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

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We have been reading the last several days from the very challenging portion of Matthew’s Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the formula: “You have heard it said … but I say to you…” Basically, in all of these instructions, Jesus is taking the old Jewish law and cranking it up a notch.  We heard that anger, vengeance and libel are as disastrous as murder.  We heard that lust is as morally reprehensible as adultery.  Today’s take on the formula is a bit different.  It’s more of a positive expression.  We are not to love only our neighbor and hate our enemy, but instead we are to love everyone, just as God loves all of us.

In our first reading, we see what’s at stake here.  Ahab had murdered poor Naboth and taken his vineyard.  He hated his enemy enough to kill him and steal his ancestral heritage.  But the Lord noticed what happened, and through the prophet Elijah brings the consequences of Ahab’s evil to bear.  But because Ahab repented of his evil, God does not bring the evil upon him, but does vow to bring it during the reign of his son.  Which is kind of bad news for his son, I guess.

God is a God of justice, and no evil deed can go unpunished.  The problem, though, is that we don’t have to be as conniving as Ahab to merit the wrath of God.  We are all sinners, and in justice, there must be punishment.  But, thanks be to God, he sent his Son Jesus Christ into our world to take our sins upon himself and suffer the punishment we so richly deserve.  We have been granted grace and mercy through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, and it’s a debt we cannot hope to repay.

But we redeemed and forgiven people have a command from Jesus today: “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  We must strive for perfection in our thoughts, words and deeds.  Will we get there completely?  Not this side of heaven, I think.  But many saints have come very close by joining themselves to Jesus and showing mercy to their brothers and sisters.  Perfection is the goal for all of us, the goal for all of us redeemed and forgiven sinners.