Saint John Bosco, Priest

Today’s readings

Saint John Bosco was a master catechist who knew the meaning of Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel: “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?”  He was a priest who was concerned with the whole person of the young people he taught: he wanted them to fill both their minds and their souls.

John was encouraged to enter the priesthood for the specific purpose of teaching young boys and forming them in the faith.  This began with a poor orphan, who John prepared for First Holy Communion.  Then he was able to gather a small community and teach them the Catechism.  He worked for a time as a chaplain of a hospice for working girls, and later opened an oratory – a kind of school – for boys which had over 150 students.  The needs of teaching them also encouraged John to open a publishing house to print the catechetical and educational materials used in the classrooms.

He was known for his preaching, and that helped him to extend his ministry by forming a religious community – the Salesians – to concentrate on education and mission work in 1859.  He later formed a group of Salesian Sisters to teach girls. By teaching children self worth through education and job training, John was able to also teach the children of their own worth in the eyes of God.

Jesus says in the Gospel, “For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.  Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear.”  Saint John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching this truth to young people.  In today’s Eucharist, may our thanksgiving be for the teachers in our lives, but perhaps we can also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of Saint John Bosco.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, bishop and doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the pre-eminent theologians of our Church.   At the age of five years old, Thomas was promised to the famous Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino.  His parents were hoping that one day he would become the abbot of that community, which was a very prestigious and politically powerful position.  He later went to Naples to study, and a few years later abandoned his family’s plans for him and instead joined the Dominicans.  By order of his mother, Thomas was captured by his brother and brought back home, where he was kept essentially in house arrest for a year.

Once free, he resumed his stay with the Dominicans and went to Paris and Cologne to study.  He held two professorships at Paris, lived at the court of Pope Urban IV, and directed the Dominican schools at Rome and Viterbo.  He is very much known for his prolific writings, which have contributed immeasurably to theology and the Church.  Thomas spoke much of wisdom revealed in Scripture and tradition, but also strongly taught the wisdom that could be found in the natural order of things, as well as what could be discerned from reason.

His last work was the Summa Theologiae, which he never actually completed.  He abruptly stopped writing after celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273.  When asked why he stopped writing, he replied, “I cannot go on…. All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”  He died March 7, 1274.

Thomas has taught us through his life and writing that the only thing that can cause the house of the Church to crumble is ignorance.  We strengthen ourselves and our community by studying the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, applying reason and revelation to the challenges of our world and our time.  “Hence we must say,” Thomas tells us, “that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act.  But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpasses his natural knowledge” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 109, 1).

In our Gospel today, Jesus speaks of one not being able to break into the strong man’s house.  We are blessed to have the fruits of Saint Thomas’s vast work to guide our understanding of God and strengthen us in the fight against evil.

The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I want to begin my homily by reminding you of the words we heard in our first reading from Nehemiah:

He read out of the book from daybreak till midday,
in the presence of the men, the women,
and those children old enough to understand;
and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

So if you think my homily is long, just think about that!  We could be going from daybreak to midday!

Today we’re talking about teaching and the Scriptures, which is very appropriate today as we begin Catholic Schools Week.  This week reminds us that we have the gift of a wonderful school that teaches not just the usual subjects you find in every school, but also helps to teach the faith and gives witness to the joy of the Scriptures being fulfilled.

But as far as that goes, we are all, always and forever, in the “school” of the faith.  We don’t ever graduate from that school, until, of course, that great day, when we stand before our Lord to be judged, relying on his mercy and on our relationship with him, which is always a gift.  Those who unite themselves to our Lord in faith throughout their lives, those who continue to study the Scriptures and see them fulfilled in our hearing, they have the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

Saint Jerome underlined this for us.  He said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, because for all of us who did not live in the same time as Jesus, we rely on the Scriptures not just to tell us who Christ was, but also to have a relationship with him, remembering that Jesus is always present in the proclamation of the Word of God.

There are three Scriptural moments in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  First, the Word is proclaimed.  Second, that Word has an effect on its hearers.  Finally, the Word is fulfilled.  So first, the Word is proclaimed, and we see that twice.  First, in the first reading, Ezra the priest reads from the scroll from daybreak to midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand.  It was quite the proclamation, and also included a kind of homily, apparently, since the reading tells us that Ezra provided an interpretation.  The second time we see this is in the Gospel reading.  Jesus takes the scroll of the law, and finds a particular passage from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims it.  He too provides an interpretation, in the form of his very life.

The second Scriptural moment is the Word’s effect on its hearers.  For Ezra, the Word produced a very emotional response.  The people bowed down in the presence of the Word, and began to weep.  The weeping is presumably because, hearing the Word, they realized how far they were from keeping its commandments.  I think we might have that same reaction sometimes.  Nehemiah then instructs them not to weep, but instead to rejoice and celebrate, because the proclamation of the Word on this holy day was an occasion for great joy.  We don’t get any idea of how the rest of the congregation at the synagogue reacted to Jesus’ proclamation of Isaiah, but one would think that it would have been a pretty tame reaction until he announced that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy.  Then we can imagine they had a lot to say and a perhaps indignant reaction.

Finally, the Word is fulfilled.  Jesus’ instruction in the Gospel that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled in the synagogue-goers hearing tells us that Word is never intended to be a static thing.  We do not just passively sit through the proclamation of the Word, nod our heads, and move on to the Eucharist.  The Word is a living thing and it is intended to have an effect on its hearers.  Indeed, the Word is always proclaimed with the intent that it be fulfilled, and that fulfillment began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In his person, all of the promises of the Old Testament are brought into being, and the real hope of the world begins.

We continue to celebrate the Word in those three moments.  We come now come to this holy place to hear the Word proclaimed, and have it interpreted in the homily.  Our Liturgy of the Word, then, goes back to ancient times, and looks much the way Ezra proclaimed the Scriptures.  Except, of course, it’s a lot shorter now!  We continue to be affected by the Word’s proclamation.  Of the stories we hear, we have our favorites, and there are stories that move us within, emotionally and spiritually.  We too may be moved to tears as we hear of God’s goodness, and think of the way we have fallen short.  We too need to hear Nehemiah proclaim that the preaching of the Word is a time for great joy.  Finally, the Word continues to be fulfilled among us.  Having sent his Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the fulfillment of Scripture, every time someone hears the Word and acts on it.

I want to try a bit of an object lesson.  Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him.  That is true too for all of us who have been Baptized and Confirmed, because we receive the Holy Spirit in both Sacraments. So I would ask all of you to close your eyes for a minute and listen to these words from Isaiah spoken not just to Jesus, but also to all of us:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent you to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

You may find yourself ill-equipped to break people out of prison.  But I know that you know at least one person who is in some kind of prison.  Maybe they are imprisoned by illness or old age.  Maybe they are imprisoned by fear of acting to better their lives.  These people need you to journey with them and be present to them, thereby setting those captives free.  You may not be too sure about how you can proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.  Maybe you don’t even know anyone who is physically blind.  But you probably know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.  Or maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that they are suffering from an addiction of some sort.  Maybe you know somebody who is blind to the fact that someone they are close to needs them in a special way.  You can be present to these who are blind and to gently but firmly lead them to recovery of sight.  You probably have no idea how to let the oppressed go free.  But you may have an hour or two to serve a hot meal to those oppressed by homelessness at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.  You may be able to spend some time occasionally with those who are oppressed by not knowing how to read.  By giving of yourself, you can let these oppressed go free.

We have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in order to bring glad tidings to the poor.  By acting selflessly, we can turn things around in our own little corner of the world.  By hearing and acting on the Word, we can proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  May the Words of this Holy Book be fulfilled today – and every day – in your hearing.

Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church.  She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life.  She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord.  Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful.  Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight.  But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.

Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her.  And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian.  She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear.  She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity.  It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation.  It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So we’ve taken down the Christmas decorations, and we won’t see the lights and poinsettias and manger until next year.  Yet we’re not quite done with the Christmas season in the Church.  Traditionally, some aspects of Christmas joy remain in our Liturgy through February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  Today is an example of that.  I almost think this should be called the Third Sunday of Epiphany.  I say that because the Church has traditionally held that there are three traditional Epiphanies.

We’ll back up just a bit here.  The word Epiphany, as we discussed two weeks ago on that feast, means a “manifestation;” we often think of it as a kind of “aha!” moment.  It is basically God doing a “God thing” so that we will sit up and take notice.  And so on the Feast of the Epiphany, we traditionally think of the first Scriptural Epiphany: the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  The other two traditional Epiphanies are, first, what we celebrated last week: the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River by his cousin, Saint John the Baptist.  And then what we have in the Gospel this week: the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana.

So in each of these Epiphanies, we learn something about our Lord.  In the first Epiphany, the Magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which reveals that this is no ordinary child.  No, this is the Child come from God who is to be anointed priest, prophet and king.  The myrrh in particular foreshadows Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross, all to pay the price for our sins and bring in the joy of God’s mercy and redemption.  In this Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the One who has come to manifest God’s love in an incredibly generous way.

In the second Epiphany, Jesus is baptized.  John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, which clearly was not necessary for Jesus.  Instead, his baptism consecrates the waters of baptism, so that every person ever to be baptized is washed with the same water that touched our Lord.  In our own baptisms now, we can inherit divinity because the Divine man, Jesus Christ, was washed in that same water.  Because Jesus humbled himself to be baptized, because he humbled himself to share in our humanity, we can be exalted to share in his divinity.  In this Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the One who claims all of broken humanity to be made new by God’s mercy.

In the third Epiphany, Jesus changes water into wine.  But we know the symbolism of these things.  Whenever we see water in the Scriptures, the Church thinks of Baptism, and whenever we see wine in the Scriptures, the Church thinks of the Eucharist, the blood of Christ.  Here gallons of water, set aside for washing – another baptismal image – are miraculously turned into the best wine ever, poured out in superabundance to quench the thirst of those who gather for a feast.  Clearly these are Eucharistic images for us.  In this Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the One who provides life-giving blood, the best wine ever, for all those who are baptized, all those who follow him in faith.

Over these three weeks, we have come to see who Jesus is in some very particular ways.  If we had never heard of him before, but came to Mass these three weeks, we would have learned of a God who cares enough for us, his creatures, to provide a way for them to be healed from their sinfulness, cured of their brokenness, and changed from profanity to divinity, from death to eternity.  If we had never before heard the Gospel, these three weeks would reveal very good news indeed!

But, of course, we have heard the Gospel and been raised in the faith.  And so these three weeks are an opportunity for us to look once again at our precious Lord, in the great outpouring of God’s love that the Incarnation truly is, and see that he continues to reveal himself and his grace in so many ways among us every day.  Have you had an experience of Epiphany this week?  Has God given you what you need – probably through someone else – in just the way you needed it at some time recently?  Have you seen God’s love active in a new way this Christmas season?  If so, now is the time to give thanks for that experience.

And we have to remember that Jesus wants us to be Epiphany as well.  God wants to use us in some way to reveal his love and grace to others.  It doesn’t have to be a bit and incredible experience.  It might just be doing, as Saint Therese of Liseaux used to say, little things with great love.  Then others can see Christ at work in you and me.  Then we can be Epiphany and shine the bright light of Christ’s love in a world that is sometimes dark and weary.  How do we do that?  Mary’s instruction is all that we need to hear: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Saint Anthony, Abbot

When Saint Anthony – and this is not the Saint Anthony who helps us find lost things – was about eighteen years old, his parents died, and left him to care for his young sister and the family home.  They had left him with an inheritance to take care of this.  Saint Athanasius writes that one day, as Anthony was praying in church, he was reflecting on how the Apostles had left everything to follow Jesus when he heard this verse from Scripture: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor – you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

So that’s what he did: he went out and gave most of the family property to the local villagers, and sold off all of his other possessions, giving the money to the poor.  He wanted no distractions for his sister and himself in living the Christian life.  The next time he visited church, he heard “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” At this point, he gave away everything he had left, and put his sister up in the local convent, and went off to dedicate himself to living his call.

Anthony devoted himself to asceticism, living in poverty, reflecting on Scripture, and growing in friendship with Christ.  He was a fearless leader of the Church through the Arian controversy, and spoke out boldly, hoping for martyrdom.  He founded a sort of monastery with scattered cells (as opposed to a great building), forming a fusion of the solitary life with community life.  He is known to be the father of monasticism.  Saint Anthony is said to have died at the ripe old age of 105 in solitude.

In a day when we spend a lot of time and energy on the stuff that we have, and the care of our possessions, Saint Anthony’s life comes as a challenge.  He gave up everything to follow Christ, trusting that God would take care of him.  His left a great mark on human history, and his rule of monasteries has been the basis of many monastic rules ever since.  His challenge to us today is this: what do we need to give up to follow Christ more closely?

Monday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It seems like just yesterday that John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.  Oh wait, it was just yesterday!  But today’s reading fast forwards a bit and takes us to a time after John has been arrested.  John isn’t dead yet, not yet out of the picture, but clearly he is decreasing, as he said in Saturday’s Gospel reading, so that Jesus can increase.

And Jesus is certainly increasing.  His ministry is kicking into full swing, and he begins by preaching that the kingdom is at , and he begins to call his followers.  Simon and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, two groups of fishermen, give up their nets and their boats and their fathers and turn instead to casting nets to catch men and women for God’s kingdom.

You know, even though today is the first day of Ordinary Time, we continue some aspects of Christmas and the Epiphany right up until February second, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  So today’s Gospel fits right in with that.  Today’s Gospel gives us a little more light to see what Jesus is up to.  He calls us all to repentance and to accept the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.  He says to us just as he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John: “Come follow me.”  The year ahead can be an exciting spiritual journey for us.  Who knows what Jesus will do in us and through us and with us to further the kingdom of God?  We just have to answer that wonderful invitation – “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Saturday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

By these words, St. John the Baptist indicates that the Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord in the flesh, is complete.  John’s disciples have got it wrong; they took offense at Jesus baptizing when he himself had been baptized by John.  They assumed that because John had baptized Jesus, that Jesus must in some way be inferior to John.  But John knows his mission as the Forerunner.  He knows that his ministry was one of paving the way for Jesus and the Gospel.  He knows that his own baptism was a mere precursor of the baptism that Jesus would bring, a baptism that imparts the fullness of the Holy Spirit to all believers.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

St. John the Evangelist tells us in his letters that we are to be on guard against those who come in the name of Jesus but are not of him.  We must be wary of pretenders and totally turn away from false idols.  He has spent this past week in our first readings giving us the standards of discernment that help us to know the Truth.  Anyone of the Truth will testify to the Incarnation of Jesus in the flesh.  Anyone of the Truth will love deeply, and will love neighbors as well as God.  Anyone of the Truth, he tells us today, will cast out sin, from himself and from others.  Even though he may not be perfect, still he will battle sin and turn to Christ incarnate in the flesh for the indwelling of the Spirit, for the grace of his baptism.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

Christ came in the flesh because, as the Psalmist tells us today, the Lord takes delight in his people.  As his people then, must also delight in him.  We must remember that we are all in the service of the one who came to set us free.  We must remember that our own thoughts, our own desires, all of these are not the be-all and end-all of existence, and quite often, we must die to them in order that God be manifested among us.  As we offer and prepare our gifts for the Eucharist today, may we also offer the decreasing of ourselves in order to pave the way for the increasing of Jesus Christ.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

The feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the fact that Christian life looks like something.  Because Jesus has appeared on the earth and taken our own human form, because he has walked among us and lived our life and died our death, we know what the Christian Way looks like.  We know that the Christian life consists of embracing our humanity, with all its weaknesses and imperfections.  We know that it consists of living our own lives well, mindful of the needs of others, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and spreading the light of the Gospel wherever it is that God puts us.  The Galileans in the synagogue in today’s Gospel were amazed at Jesus’ speaking words of grace.  We too are called to do this so that all will recognize in us the presence of Christ.

Because Christ is still manifest among us.  Every encounter with someone else is an opportunity for Epiphany.  It is an opportunity for us to look for the presence of Christ in that other person, and for them to see Christ at work in us.  How we do that depends on the situation, certainly, but it must always be our top priority if we are eager to be called Christians.  John’s words in the first reading are clear, and are words of indictment on those times we forget to be the Epiphany to others: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Christ is made manifest in all of us and among all of us.  In the ordinariness of our lives, we can find Christ’s grace abundantly blessing us, or we can reject it.  If we make it our priority to be Christ’s presence in the world in every encounter with a brother or sister, we may find that we are blessed with epiphany upon epiphany, constantly growing in God’s grace.  This is all part of our faith, of course, and it is this faith, as John tells us, that conquers the world.

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