All Saints Eve: Would Jesus Trick-or-Treat?

Today’s readings

Since we’re gathered here on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, I thought I might get your attention by doing a little homily I like to call “Would Jesus Go Trick-or-Treating?” It’s an important topic, because I think a lot of parents wrestle with the message of Halloween and whether or not they should support their children joining in the festivity.

And I think it’s an important thing to wrestle with. On one hand, we don’t want to make a joke out of evil, because evil is real and it’s no joke. But on the other hand, we don’t want to call attention to evil by making a big thing out of it. Exorcists tell us that those are the two common mistakes that we can make about: First, we might say think there is no such thing as the devil. Satan would be happy for us to do that, because then we’re not on guard against him. He is real, he’s out there, and we do have to be on guard. Second, we might look for evil everywhere, and that just shuts us down and keeps us from living the Gospel. Neither of these is a good thing.

So let’s talk about Halloween. Its origins are a bit murky, and lots of people think that what happened is that we sort of baptized a pagan festival. And there is a traditional pagan festival on October 31st, but apparently there is a traditional pagan festival on the last day of every month, so really that’s nothing special. More likely, Halloween was a celebration of the Eve of All Saints – hence the name. All Saints Day originated in the year 609, when it was celebrated in May. But in the ninth century, it was moved to the first of November, which is when the Germanic church celebrated it, and it’s been celebrated then ever since.

The origins of trick-or-treating may have been in Ireland where an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated the harvest and marked the beginning of winter – the time of year when a significant portion of the population would often die. Because of the fear of death that came with winter, these celebrations seemed to have included going door to door asking for treats dressed in costumes, which were thought to disguise the living from life-taking spirits.

So the origins and intent of Halloween are relatively benign, and mostly intended to honor the saints. But in our country, over time, a more sinister tone was added to the celebration. Think of some of the more horrific costumes, extremely elaborate and grotesque “haunted houses,” and parties where more evil customs were brought to the celebration. Add that to some of the more elaborate horror movies that get released this time of year, and you can see how it would be easy to brand Halloween as an evil holiday.

Fundamentalist Christians especially see the evil, and thus throw out the entire holiday. But we are not fundamentalist Christians. So we remember that God is good, and that he is in control, and we do not give the demonic or the evil any power that they don’t already have. Indeed, a lot of people think that there is more demonic activity at this time of year than normal, but exorcists tell us that is not true. It’s just that people tend to open more doors by their worrying and by doing some things they shouldn’t to celebrate the holiday.

So now let’s remember what this holiday is really about. Today we celebrate the feast of all the Saints – those who have been officially canonized over the ages, and those that perhaps we don’t know of, but who God certainly knows. This is the Church Triumphant, those who have conquered evil and have mastered holiness. They have accomplished what they were created for, to take up their rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that place that God has prepared for each one of us. Today we celebrate their triumph, and hope for our own triumph, for we too wish to live forever with our God. We celebrate the example the saints have given us and we celebrate their intercession, which helps to guide our lives and lead us on the path of life eternal. So it is right to celebrate this as we celebrate other holidays, with great festivity.

I think it’s important that we celebrate Halloween and All Saints Day as one, which is the intent. If we do that, we keep our minds on what is positive and turn away from all that bids us evil. So yes, I think it’s okay to trick-or-treat, to celebrate with parties, and to dress up. But I’d skip the more evil costumes, and any party games that summon evil, like Ouija boards. Those are things that open the door to evil, and we always want to avoid that.

Avoiding evil was the glory of the saints. That was part of the path to holiness for them. As we celebrate all the saints today, we might think of some who famously battled evil and won. Saint Michael the Archangel, my middle-name patron, fights the battle of evil that we don’t see, every single moment. He is a wonderful patron, and we should memorize the prayer to him and pray it often. Saint Patrick, my principal patron, famously converted the pagan king of Ireland to Catholicism and exorcised the forces of evil in that country. His famous Breastplate prayer is considered a deliverance prayer and a help to those who feel oppressed by evil. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, is a powerful protector of all of us, her children. And let’s not forget our Guardian Angels, who do battle for us on a daily basis. That’s just some of the saints who battle for our good.

And in the spirit of their glorious battle, we should dedicate ourselves to joining them one day. We are all supposed to be saints, and as tall an order as that may sound, it needs to be our number one priority. Because there is no one in heaven who is not a saint. So then, we need to take all the help God and His Church gives us: we must dedicate ourselves to the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, which together are more powerful than a solemn exorcism. We must put prayer at the beginning, in the middle and the end of our to-do lists, dedicating ourselves to the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of scripture, and devotions, particularly the rosary. We have to make every effort to live the Gospel, and to give witness to the power of God’s love in our lives and in our world. Because if we honor and witness to Christ in this life, he will surely be our advocate in the life to come.

So yes, I think Jesus might trick-or-treat. But we come to him today for the best of all treats, the saving grace that he offers us that we might join the saints in heaven one day. We come to Jesus rejoicing and full of gladness, because we know that those who belong to him will have great reward in heaven.

Thursday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The question that Saint Paul asks at the beginning of today’s first reading is one that we’ve all heard countless times: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  We might even be tempted to pass by that question and move on to something else in today’s Liturgy of the Word, but I don’t think that’s wise.  Because it’s an important question, and one that confronts us all, in some way, time and time again.

We might go through a rough patch in our lives: loss of a job, death of a loved one, a severe and trying illness, damage to a marriage or strain in any relationship.  These are the issues that try our souls and sorely test our faith.  We might even at times be tempted to give in to despair and lose our focus in such a way that it affects our health and well-being.  But we believers dare not do so, because God is for us.

We might hear news that is difficult to absorb.  Our society may be in a sad state of affairs; the political climate may be divisive and disheartening; we may be fatigued or even alarmed by the rise of terrorism and the proliferation of war; morality of our communities may be far off-base and all of this might cause us to question what is going on.  We might be tempted to throw up our hands and lose all hope.  But we believers dare not do so, because God is for us.

There is someone, certainly, who is against us, and that one is Satan, and yes he and his threat are real.  Even the celebration of this Halloween day might make us shake our heads.  But Saint Paul reminds us that even Satan cannot ultimately take us down, because God is for us.  Saint Paul quite rightly insists that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is the same consolation that comes from devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Divine Mercy.  It is the consolation for which we gather this morning at the Table of the Lord.  It is the consolation that takes on every threat we encounter this day or ever in our lives: nothing and no one can separate us from God’s love.  Nothing.

Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles

Today, we celebrate two apostles who, as often is the case, are relatively unknown except that they were followers of Jesus.  Jude is called Judas in Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.  Matthew and Mark call him Thaddeus.  We have in the New Testament the letter of Jude, which scholars say is not written by the man whose feast we celebrate today.  Saint Jude is perhaps best known as the patron saint of the seemingly-impossible, reminding us that in God, all things are possible.

Simon – and this is not the Simon who Jesus later named Peter –  was a Zealot, a member of a radical party that disavowed all ties with the government, holding that Israel should be re-elevated to political greatness under the leadership of God alone.  They also held that any payment of taxes to the Romans was a blasphemy against God.

Neither of these men held any claim to greatness here on earth; they found their glory in following Christ.  Their joy was, as St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Ephesians, in that their citizenship was in heaven, as it is for all of us.  We are merely passing through this place, and our task while we are here, as was the task for Simon and Jude and all the apostles, is to live for Christ and to live the Gospel.  The reward for them, then, as is for all of us, is in heaven, their and our true home.

Their message, as the Psalmist says, goes out to all the earth.  Blessed are all of us when we catch that message and live that message, following the way to Christ Jesus.

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

You probably know me well enough that you know I’m going to say that the Gospel story that we have today isn’t about the healing of the blind man. And you’re right; I’m not. But you might be expecting me to say that the story is really about some more pervasive blindness that the man had, and truly, we all have, and the real miracle is that he was healed of that, and that we should reflect on what blindness we have and pray to be healed of that. And honestly, I thought that was how I was going to preach it, until Saturday afternoon when I noticed something I had never seen in the story before.

It’s a throw-away detail, almost, but it changed what the message was for me. It comes at the end of the Gospel, when Jesus tells the man, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” And then it says that it the man received his sight and followed him on the way. So notice the difference: “Go your way” versus “followed him on the way.”

If Bartimaeus had gone his way, as Jesus suggested, he would have returned to sitting on his cloak begging for alms. After all, that was all he knew, having done it his whole life. But he had cast that aside in the pursuit of Jesus, and having received sight, he clearly saw that that was the wrong way, and instead follows Jesus on “the way.” So it’s important to note here that “The Way” was an early way that Christians, before they were called Christians, referred to themselves. They would be known as members of “The Way.” So here we see that the real miracle is that Bartimaeus clearly saw that his life lacked the meaning he needed and that the only cure was following Jesus.

That jibes well with the first reading today. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says to the Israelites in persecution that he would bring them back: back to Israel, back to the Temple, back to himself. Then, even though they departed in tears – as indeed they did – they would return shouting for joy.

So the real miracle here is not one of blindness and seeing, but one of metanoia, which is the Greek word meaning a change in ones life – really a complete reversal – based on a spiritual interior conversion. The Israelites had been going the wrong way, so God gave them over to their persecutors, but because that penance produced conversion, he brought them back. Bartimeus had been going the wrong way living a pointless life of begging, but through giving himself over to Jesus and trusting in him, he found purpose in following him on The Way.

And we have to see what’s going on in our own lives. For me, even though I’ve been busy about the stuff of pastoral ministry, God has been doing amazing things calling me to new holiness. What is he doing in you right now? Have you been coasting in your spiritual life? Have you paid it little attention? If so, maybe God is calling you to forsake your own way, and give yourself over to The Way.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate the feast of Pope Saint John Paul II, who was born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland.  After his ordination to the priesthood and theological studies in Rome, he returned to his homeland and resumed various pastoral and academic tasks.  He was ordained an auxiliary bishop and, in 1964, became Archbishop of Kraków and took part in the Second Vatican Council.  On October 16, 1978, he was elected pope and took the name John Paul II, honoring his two predecessors, Pope Saint John XXIII, and Blessed Pope Paul VI.  His exceptional apostolic zeal, particularly for families, young people, and the sick, led him to numerous pastoral visits throughout the world.  Among the many fruits which he has left as a heritage to the Church are above all his rich theological teaching and the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church and for the Eastern Churches.  In Rome on April 2, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter (or of Divine Mercy), he departed peacefully in the Lord. He was canonized by Pope Francis on that same feast in 2014. Normally a Saint’s feast day falls on the day of his or her death, but because that date would often fall during holy week, and because the Church desired that his feast be celebrated with due solemnity each year, his feast is today, on the anniversary of the date of the Mass for his inauguration to the pontificate.

In many ways, Saint John Paul II embodied the zeal of Jesus in today’s Gospel. “I have come to set the earth on fire,” Jesus says. Saint John Paul indeed set the earth on fire in many ways, contributing to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and reinvigorating the Church through authentic teaching and his own personal charisma. We may remember that he often echoed the Scriptural teaching of “Do not be afraid,” and modeled the freedom of living ones faith and witnessing without apology. May we all be reinvigorated as we celebrate his feast, and devote ourselves totally to Jesus, through Mary, as he did.

Ss. Isaac Jogues, John de Brébeuf and Companions, Martyrs

St. Isaac and St. John were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in the seventeenth century. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the tribes, and eventually St. Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the Indians when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.

St. John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in Huron, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.
St. Isaac, St. John and their companions inspire us to take up the mission: to make Christ known, relying on the treasure of grace he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations. This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification. But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they did. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.

The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Stewardship

Today’s readings

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But honestly, they didn’t even know what they was asking. They had no idea what the kingdom would look like. They even missed the fact that it was in some ways already there. But their ambition is not the point here.

The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory, at least not in the way that James and John were thinking. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the good stuff, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.

When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.

When I first got to seminary, I still had a lot of changing to do. I brought with me a lot of the selfishness of my former life. So when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, so if I was going to be successful in priesthood, maybe I could show it by embracing something menial like serving the others at my table.

From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.

Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives. But let’s be honest, not all of us, probably none of us, are ready to get up there on the cross and die for the sake of the ungodly. Instead, we have to find little ways of love that build up others and take them on despite the millions of other things clamoring for our attention.

This is Stewardship Sunday. On this day, we always call on each other to take stock of the many blessings God has given us and move to respond to that blessing. Today’s Gospel ups the ante and calls us to be the servant of all. I am asking you to prayerfully consider how you can respond to that call. Two weeks ago, you heard our Finance Committee talk about the state of our parish finances and our parish buildings. We have accomplished a lot together, but there is still more to be done. This coming week, you’ll receive a letter from me in the mail, asking you to respond to God’s blessings in your life. I realize that you have many demands on your family’s finances, just as we do here at church. But whatever you can give helps us to accomplish the mission of our parish: worshipping God, educating children and adults in the faith, and reaching out to assist those in need. We cannot do that without your support. There is a form included in the letter that you can fill out to indicate your support. Please return it next week so that we can recognize and thank you for your participation.

I am also asking that you help us with your time and talent. Included in the letter you will receive this week is a volunteer form that talks about a few of our most needed volunteers here at Notre Dame. There are many more ways that you can help, and we would be glad to match you up to a service opportunity that works for you.

Our parish Day of Service is coming up on Saturday, November 21. Please mark you calendars and plan to be a part of this incredible day. We will begin with Mass at 8am, then after a light breakfast, will go out and serve the community and the parish in many ways. It’s a lot of fun, and there are service opportunities for everyone in the family. Sign-up sheets will go up in the Narthex in a couple of weeks.

Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He himself did not think he was above washing the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.