Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When I was in high school, I went on our youth group’s senior retreat. On that retreat each of us seniors was given a paperback New Testament in which a verse had been highlighted. They were given out randomly, with trust that the Holy Spirit would speak to us in some way through that verse. That sure worked for me, and I’ll never forget the verse that I received. It was Romans 12:2, from today’s second reading: “Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may know what is God’s will, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” I can’t tell you how often since that retreat I’ve gone back to that verse, praying for the transformation of my life and the renewal of my mind, because God’s will can sometimes be so hard for us to discern. But that is the great project of our lives, isn’t it?

I think Jeremiah, in today’s first reading, expresses the exasperation we sometimes feel when we are trying to discern that will. Sometimes we get to the point where we’d just as soon chuck it all and pretend it just doesn’t matter. But if we do that, we can’t expect even a moment’s peace. Listen to the prophet’s words again:

I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.

We all of us have to come to the point where we realize that what we want to do in our lives doesn’t matter so much as what God wants us to do. Because that’s the only way we’ll ever find true peace with God and true peace with ourselves. We can try, as Jeremiah did, to hide from God’s will, holding back from what we really feel called to do. We can give in to the fear that keeps us from becoming what we were meant to be. We can try to live our lives as if God really doesn’t matter to us. But then, eventually, we will become weary of holding it in. And then we have two possible responses: either give in to God’s will, or give in to despair and disappointment and accept that unfulfilled potential is what we were meant for.

Given that choice, I’ll pick doing Gods will, thank you very much! And in giving in to God’s will, we may well be duped, and yes, we may even have let ourselves be duped. Because God’s will is too strong for us, and we cannot overcome it. Just ask St. Augustine, whose feast we celebrated this past Thursday. He was well-off, intelligent, enjoying the pleasures of the world, and had no interest in the religion that his mother, St. Monica, lived. But eventually, through the prayers of his mother and the grace of God, Augustine realized he could not go on with the sham his life had become. In his famous Confessions, he writes of the beauty that he had missed by being so caught up in the things of this world:

Late have I loved you,
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.

You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Jesus lays this all on the table for us in today’s Gospel. We have to stop, like Peter, thinking as people do and start thinking as God does. And when we do that, it’s not going to be pretty. We’re going to have to take up our cross and follow Jesus, which is surely going to mean some suffering, and definitely some sacrifice. But if we would save our lives, we have to be willing to lay them down, to give them up, to be duped by our God whose wisdom is so far beyond our own understanding.

So how do you know if something is God’s will for you? This is the rubber-meets-the-road question for all of us in the life of discipleship. The art of discernment is something that takes a lifetime to perfect, and indeed may well be completely imperfect until that day when we meet our God in the heavenly kingdom. But until that great day, we disciples are called to practice. And so, here are some principles of discernment that work for me. They are adapted from various sources in the Church.

First, pray. Trying to discern God’s will outside the context of a relationship with God makes no sense whatsoever. If you want to know what God’s will in your life is, then ask him. And be ready to listen. Take the time to listen. Find a way to be silent, whether it’s by sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament or taking a long walk. Pray, and then be silent.

Second, look to the saints. It is highly unlikely that God will call you to do something that hasn’t been modeled in the life of his holy ones. We were meant to look to the saints for inspiration, guidance and intercession – that’s why we have saints in the Church. So if a particular saint’s story has meaning for you, reflect on that, and see if God is calling you to something as a result of that.

Third, look to the Scriptures and to the Church’s Liturgy. We are a people meant to be formed by the Word of God and by the Sacraments. We are called as Christian disciples to live the Gospel. We are all sent forth in peace to love and serve the Lord. Our experience of worship is meant to inspire us and to lead us in being Eucharist in the week ahead.

Fourth, seek counsel from every wise person (Tobit 4:18a). Many people in our lives know us better than we know ourselves. Check with someone you trust spiritually to see if you’re on track or off base. Sometimes a pair of fresh eyes on our discernment can be so helpful.

Finally, be willing to be duped by God. Jeremiah complained about it, but ultimately he was willing – he let himself be duped. And so maybe what we’re called to do is something we have no idea how it will turn out. That’s okay. We aren’t always given the big picture. But being part of that big picture can be the biggest thrill of our lives. And as Jeremiah tells us, we can’t silence it anyway, so we might as well give ourselves over to it.

Clearly, our Liturgy today is calling us to open ourselves up to God’s plan in our lives, whatever that plan might be. We’re all being asked to move in some direction, closer to our God. It can be frustrating, even scary, to be searching in that direction. But the rewards are clear: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” May our quiet moments of the week ahead find us renewing our minds and searching for what is truly good and pleasing and perfect.

Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Today’s readings

What we are celebrating in today’s feast is the fact that prison bars cannot silence truth. John the Baptist was not asked to renounce his faith; indeed Herod was probably very interested in John’s faith and may have even asked him about it on occasion. Not that he wanted to convert, mind you, but he just seemed to have a kind of morbid fascination with the man Jesus, and anyone who followed him. But the real reason that he kept John locked up was that Herodias didn’t like John, who had a following, publicly telling them what they should and should not do. Herod’s taking his brother’s wife was not permitted in Judaism, but it would all blow over if John would just stop talking about it.

But that’s not how the truth works. And John’s one purpose in life was to testify to the Truth — Truth with a capital “T” — to point the way to Jesus. So he was not about to soft-pedal the wrong that Herod and Herodias were doing. And that was something Herodias just could not live with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she eagerly had John beheaded and rid herself of his prophecy. But that didn’t make her any less accountable to the truth.

This could be a rather sad feast. The end of one who worked hard for the reign of God, and over something seemingly so silly. But, as St. Bede the Venerable says of him: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless … does Christ not say: “I am the truth?” Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.

And so, for those of us who are heirs of the Truth, this is indeed a joyful feast. John the Baptist could not keep silent about the truth, whether it was truth with a capital or lower-case “T”. We must not keep silent about the truth either. We are called to offer our own lives as a testimony to the truth.

St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Life’s lessons are most often clearer in hindsight. Toward that end, St. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians today with almost a litany of thanks. He thanks God for all of the members of the Church who have responded to his tireless preaching of the Gospel. For Paul, thankfulness was the only response possible to God’s grace, and he sees it at work everywhere.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Augustine. Augustine was a man who thought he had everything figured out at a young age. He was prideful, caught up in the world’s pleasures and focused solely on what could be learned from his own reasoning. He had no room for the religion of his mother, St. Monica, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. But through her tireless prayers, Augustine began to come to know the God she worshipped, and began to respond to grace. He was baptized at 33 years of age, became a priest at 36, and a bishop at 41. Grace can work fast in a person’s life.

St. Augustine’s Confessions are among the best works on the spiritual life. In that work, he reflects, among other things, on his conversion, and how he felt called to repentance, but did not want to give up the world’s pleasures just yet. But throughout the work, he praises God for God’s work in his life. One of the best-known sections speaks of how the beauty of God was near, yet seemed beyond him:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

St. Paul and St. Augustine were always grateful for the grace they saw at work in the world. Today, may we all be mindful and grateful for those gifts in our lives.

Tuesday of the Twenty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today we have readings urging us to pay attention. Paul tells the Thessalonians in our first reading today not to freak out if they hear about the second coming of Christ. Rather, they should be in the moment and live as they have been taught and formed in the Gospel which Paul preached to them. They need to pay attention to what is going on in front of them, to be attentive to what the Gospel calls them to do, and trust that if the Lord comes in glory, he will find them doing his will and gather them to himself. No need to scramble around in fear of what is to come.

Jesus today scolds the scribes and Pharisees, as he often does, about paying more attention to the minute bits of the law than they do to really doing God’s will. They are so caught up in the ritual cleansing of bowls and cups that they cannot attend to the purification of their own hearts. And that, Jesus tells them, is a complete disaster. Their blindness will eventually leave them out of salvation’s reach.

And so we too are called today to pay attention. We need to be attentive to the needs of those around us, to reach out to the oppressed and forgotten, to always be mindful of the poor – in short, we are to live the Gospel faithfully. We shouldn’t be caught up in details, nor should we be overly concerned about the Lord’s return. We can’t have our head in the clouds nor in the sand. We must be attentive to what’s in front of us, the opportunity to live the Gospel faithfully.

Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Back when I was selling computers, they always taught us that one of the first good rules of sales was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer. I think teachers get taught that principle as well. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s Gospel falls under that heading. Because Jesus certainly knew who he was. But, as often happens in our interactions with Jesus, there’s something more going on. And to figure out what that something more is, all you have to do is go back to the Gospels the last couple of weeks and see in them that Jesus is thirsting for people’s faith. He was thirsting for faith from Peter when he called him to walk on the water. He was quenched by the faith of the Canaanite woman last week as she persisted in her request that Jesus heal her daughter. And now he thirsts for the disciples’ faith – and ours too – as he asks us the 64 thousand dollar question: “Who do you say that I am?”

He actually starts with kind of a soft-ball question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they recount all the obvious and probably much-discussed options of the time. If there were bloggers and talk radio people and CNN in that first century, they too might have said “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets.” So this is an easy question for the disciples to answer. But when he gets to the extra credit question, “But who do you say that I am?” there’s a lot more silence. And, as often happens with the disciples, it’s the impetuous Peter who blurts out the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Very good, Peter, you have been paying attention. So now you will be given the rather ominous blessing of being the rock on which Jesus will build his Church.

And that blessing is ominous. Because it will require much of Peter. But to be honest, Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question will itself require much of Peter. You see, it’s not just a liturgical formula or a scriptural title or even a profession of faith in the formal sense that Jesus is looking for here. He is looking for something that goes quite a bit deeper, something that comes from the heart, something integrated into Peter’s life. He is looking for faith not just spoken but faith lived, and that’s why Peter’s answer is so dangerous. If he is really convinced that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then that conviction has to show itself in the way Peter lives. He can’t just believe that and keep it under his hat. If Jesus really is the One who is coming into the world, the Promised One of all generations, the salvation of the world, then Peter has to proclaim it from the rooftops. And some people are just not going to want to hear it.

So I’m very sorry to tell you all this, but we have all gathered here on a very dangerous Sunday. We too, you know, are being asked today, “But who do you say that I am?” And Jesus isn’t asking us just to recite the Creed, the Profession of Faith. That’s too easy; we do it all the time. He doesn’t want to know what you learned at Bible Study or Small Christian Community. Those things are nice, but Jesus isn’t going for what’s in your head. Jesus is calling all of us today to dig deep, to really say what it is that we believe about him by the way that we act and the things that we do and the life that we live. It’s the dangerous question for us, too, because what we believe about Jesus has to show forth in action and not just word. Our life has to be a testament to our faith in God. And if we cannot answer that question out of our faith today, if we are not prepared to live the consequences of our belief, then we have a lot of thinking to do today.

Because if we really believe – really believe – that Jesus is who he says he is, then we cannot just sit on the news either. Like Peter, we are going to have to proclaim it in word and deed. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities – we must be certain that everyone knows that we are Christians and we’re proud of it. That doesn’t mean that we need to interject a faith lesson into every conversation or badger people with the Gospel. But it does mean that we have to live that Gospel. In St. Francis’s words, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” People absolutely need to be able to tell by looking at our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If they can’t, then our faith is as tepid as the Pharisees’ and that’s nothing to be proud of, as we well know.

Every part of our Liturgy has consequences for us believers. “The Body of Christ. Amen.” When we hear that proclamation and respond with our “Amen,” we are saying “yes, that’s what I believe.” And if we believe that, if we are then filled with the Body of Christ by receiving Holy Communion, then we have made a statement that has consequences. If we truly become what we receive, then how does that change the way that we work, the way that we interact with others? “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” If we accept that command, then what? What does it mean to love and serve the Lord? Does it mean that we just do some kind of ministry here at Mass? Absolutely not. The first word in the command is “Go” and that means we have to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives, in our business negotiations, in our community meetings, in our interactions with peers or the way that we mentor those who work for us.

So if we really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then our lives just became a whole lot more complicated. We may have to give up some of our habits and vices, we may have to make a concerted effort to be more aware of Christ in our daily lives, we may have to learn to treat other people as the Body of Christ. We may have to do all this preaching in a hostile environment, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the Good News. And this is dangerous, because if we really believe, then we have to preach anyway. Peter did, and it eventually led him to the cross. What will it require of us?

So I don’t know just how dangerous this will be for me or for you. I’m not even sure how we will all answer the question right now. But one thing is for sure, all of us sitting here today have the same one-question test that Peter and the disciples had. Who do you say that the Son of Man is?

St. Pius X, pope

Today’s readings

St. Pius would have been a great organizer of the feast that our Gospel tells us about today. The whole point of the feast is that all are welcome, but some choose not to come, or don’t come worthily. Jesus was speaking pointedly to the Jewish rulers who should have had the place of honor at the banquet. But they all had excuses that kept them away. And so the banquet was made available to all the nations – Gentiles too! – if they would come properly attired, that is, if they would come worthily, with open hearts and longing minds.

St. Pius X was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family. He became pope at the age of 68, and he too wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily. He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the banquet. During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs. He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it. On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

“The feast is ready,” we are told in today’s Gospel. May we all take this occasion to receive the Eucharist worthily and often, reviving our devotion and love for the Eucharist every day. May we all be among those brought in for the feast, and found to be appropriately attired with pure hearts.

Tuesday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

These are hard readings today, aren’t they? More than that, I think; they are harsh readings. But that’s probably a good thing, because they make a point that we all need to hear from time to time.

Sometimes when people think about what the greatest sin would be, they might point to a sexual sin, or to something like abortion or murder or genocide. But the Church Fathers have always been a little more heavy-handed against the sin of pride, and I think that’s what today’s readings are getting at. And because the sin of pride is so insidious, it is probably necessary that the reaction to that sin be harsh.

In today’s first reading, Ezekiel has to come down hard on the prince of Tyre, and really all of the people, for thinking they are greater than God; that their own power can get them through any difficulty. He has to prophecy what they don’t want to hear, that their power will not be enough to overcome their enemies after all. And in today’s Gospel, Jesus has to deal with those who are rich. Being rich isn’t the sin; the sin is thinking that because one is rich, he has everything he needs for a successful life. We know that money cannot necessarily buy happiness; what we hear today is that money can’t buy a place in the kingdom of God.

Maybe the reason that pride is such a problematic sin is that when we’re caught up in it, we don’t know we’re caught up in it. We think we have it all together and we don’t need anyone’s help, thank you very much. What is sad is that the outcome is often thinking that we don’t even need God, which may not be what we intended, and could not be farther from the truth.

It might not seem like the sin of pride can ever be overcome. But as Jesus reminds us today, “For men this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” All things are possible if we remain close to God who longs to give us everything we need. If only we call on him and remember that he is God and we are not.