Monday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

Could you do that? You have someone close to you at home, and you know Jesus is near and one visit could heal her or him. Yet, you realize the unworthiness that you have, that we all have, for him to come under your roof. Would you have faith enough to tell him not to come, but just say the word? Would you be confident enough that his word would heal your loved one? I think that’s an important question for us, because we are often completely solid in our faith until something happens, and then we tend to fall apart. But faith is so necessary, especially in those trying times.

We pray the centurion’s iconic words just before we all receive Holy Communion. We acknowledge our unworthiness, and we also express our desire that our Lord would say the word so that our souls would be healed. And then he does, by feeding us on the Eucharist, giving us grace and strength to live the Gospel and live our lives.

So that’s the faith we are called to have, and I wonder if we have that kind of faith when we pray. Do we trust God enough to let him “say the word” and then know that we don’t have to set “Plan B” in motion? Today’s Scriptures call us to greater trust as we begin this Advent journey to the house of the Lord. In what way do we need to trust God more today?

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus says to us today, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This includes all of us, past, present and future. We will all live, in some way, to see the end of days, either here on earth, or from the joy of heaven. We are all part of the new generation of God’s loving creation.

So what will we see; what things will take place? We will see the signs of a new creation. Just like the first buds of the fig tree and other trees that Jesus spoke about, all of which signaled the beginning of summer, so the signs of the new creation are evident among us. Sins are forgiven, people return to God, miracles happen. Granted, all these are imperfect in some ways now, given that they happen to us fallen creatures, but one day they shall be brought to perfection in the kingdom of God. Then, we will see “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” as our first reading promises.

And so, in these closing days of the Church year, we pray for the coming of the kingdom, and hope for the salvation of the world as Jesus promised.

Thanksgiving Day: People of Eucharist

Today’s readings

Just yesterday, MaryAnn Fenton shared with me a letter she received from one of our Food Pantry clients. We had gone beyond food and helped her pay her rent this month because she was in a particularly bad spot. Just hearing her story brought tears to my eyes and it wasn’t a real hard decision to help her out. Well, very often when we do that, we don’t hear much back, maybe just a thank-you when they pick up the check. But this time, the woman decided to write us a letter, in which every word was filled with gratitude and love. What we had done for her didn’t seem like much, but to her it was everything; it had lifted a great burden of worry that she was carrying.

That act of gratitude provides a rich framework for what I want to talk about today, and it’s an interesting illustration of today’s Gospel reading. That reading is scandalous, because it seems that nine believers – people who should know how to be grateful to God – failed to express their gratitude over a miracle that literally gave them back the life that leprosy took away from them. It’s almost unthinkable. Maybe we can cut them a little slack, because when you look closely at the story, Jesus really didn’t say or do anything indicative of healing – all he did was say “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Now, it was the priests’ job to take care of ritual purity, but I’m guessing they had seen priests about their illness in the past and obviously had not been healed. So I can see how they would have been confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little angry at Jesus’ response. But they absolutely could not have been confused about the fact that they had been healed. And yet the only one who thought to give thanks and praise to God was the other guy, a Samaritan – a foreigner and a religious outcast who wasn’t expected to know the religious etiquette that one should follow.

Maybe the most deeply scandalous part of this whole reading is not just that nine lepers forgot to thank Jesus. I think the most scandalous part of this Gospel is that it really can be a kind of mirror of our own society, and perhaps even our own lives. Because these days gratitude is not a common occurrence; more often our society gets caught up in entitlement – we deserve blessings, we have a right to grace and mercy. Just as we think we have a right to everything in the whole world, we lay claim to God’s grace in ways that are deeply scandalous and even more than a little heretical.

Just like those ten lepers had no right to lay claim to Jesus’ healing powers, so we too have no right to lay claim to his grace and mercy. Those things do not belong to us, and even more than that we are quite unable to earn them, even if we had a desire to earn them in the first place. But here’s the really great thing that shatters the scandal: even though the lepers had no right to be healed, Jesus healed them anyway. Even though we have no right to God’s grace and forgiveness for our many sins, he gives those things to us anyway, without a thought of doing otherwise. As the saying goes, God is good, all the time.

And so the message today is that we have to decidedly leave behind our attitudes of entitlement and embrace an attitude of gratitude. And honestly, I think that can make us happier people. Grateful people live differently. Grateful people look for the blessing in every moment, they hunt for the grace constantly at work in their lives. When you’re grateful, it’s amazing how much more you seem to be blessed. Only it’s not necessarily that you’re blessed more; instead it’s that you’re more aware of the blessing. Thankful people are happier with their lives, because they’re simply more aware of what God is doing, how God is leading them, and they feel the touch of God’s hand leading them through life. Being grateful is a choice, but it’s a choice worth making, it’s a choice that makes our lives richer and more beautiful every day.

As Catholics, we are a people who, at least liturgically, constantly choose to be grateful. Our Eucharist – which, as we know, is the Greek word for thanksgiving – is the Thanksgiving feast beyond all of our imagining. Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior. He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence. He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin. His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins. And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life. Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery. Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing. As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude. That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day? Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us. Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond. As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad. And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!

So we’re not like those nine lepers that somehow missed the grace and blessing that was happening right before their eyes. We’re more like the food pantry client who realized, though she had no claim on our generosity, received it with joy and humility and gratitude. On this day, we gather because we choose to be grateful. On this day, before all the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, we stand up and bear witness that our God is good all the time, that there is grace and blessing all around us, and we can see it if we choose to do so. We grateful ones come into this holy place to show a watching world that we are who we say we are – a people of Eucharist – of thanksgiving not just on this day, but every day. And we proclaim to a cynical world that gratitude is the antidote for entitlement, and it’s an attitude that can make the world a more blessed place. Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving, our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times. May we never cease offer our gratitude to God, singing to him our songs of thanks and praise.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe. I often wonder if this solemnity is one to which many people can relate. Our system of governance in America does not include the idea of a King, and even if it did, so many people don’t recognize or accept any authority outside of their own personal opinion of what is okay. So I wonder if the whole idea is completely foreign.

Now, if we were looking for a king, what kind of king is this? Our gospel reading today presents a picture of a king who, objectively speaking, seems to be a complete failure. This is not a king who lived in a lavish palace and expected the blind obedience of all those around him. This is not a king who held political office, or led a great army. His message was always quite different than that, and now today, just look at him hanging on the cross between two hardened criminals. That one of them thinks to ask Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom is almost laughable, but, well, there it is.   There is our king. This feast leaves us on the very last Sunday of the Church year with more questions than, it would seem, could ever possibly be answered.

This wasn’t the kind of thing the Jews were expecting, of course. They had long been expecting an Anointed One, but never one like this. Their whole picture of a Messiah had been one of political greatness and military strength, one who would restore the sovereignty of Israel and reestablish Jerusalem as the great political and religious city that it had once been. That was the Messiah they were looking for, but what they got was one who was so much of a suffering servant that he ended up on a cross. Pilate’s inscription, “This is the king of the Jews” was sarcastic and completely offensive to them, which of course is exactly what he intended.

So it’s easy to see why the Jews might not have noticed that this one was their king. It’s easy enough to even see why they would have chosen to ignore his kingship. But we can’t miss it: we have heard the Word proclaimed all year long and we know that this is the way that God chose to save the world. There are times, of course, when we could do with a bit more opulence and certainly a lot less suffering. But Jesus is the king of our reality, not of our fantasy, and so he is not ashamed to herald the cross as the gateway to the kingdom and the instrument of our salvation.

And we have to admit that we are a people who need a king like this. We might want a king to give us greatness and rest from our enemies, but that’s not real. What’s real is our suffering, whether it’s illness, or grief, or job dissatisfaction, or personal troubles, or family strife, or broken relationships, or any other calamity. Suffering happens, and that’s why Jesus chose the image of the Suffering Servant as the motif of his kingship. St. Paul says today in our second reading from his letter to the Colossians that “in him all things hold together.” Even when the world seems to be falling apart for us, we can trust in the Suffering Servant to walk with us and hold everything together.

And so, as preposterous as it may sound to others, we know that Christ is our King. His Kingship, he says in another gospel, is not of this world. No, he was not a king who came with great fanfare, oppressing peoples and putting down vast armies. No, he was not the king who restored Israel to the Davidic monarchy that began in this morning’s first reading. His power was not exercised over the political forces of this world, as much as it was exercised over the power of evil in the world. He is the King who conquered, once and for all, the things that really plague us: evil, sin and death. His Kingdom was not defined by his mortal life, but in fact begins just after he gives up that mortal life. Unlike earthly kings, his power is everlasting.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI, in the face of rising nationalism and Fascism, instituted the Feast of Christ the King to reassert Christ’s sovereignty over all forms of political governance. Jesus Christ is not just one king among others, but rather he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Perhaps, if this feast had been instituted today, our Church might be reasserting Christ’s sovereignty over all powers of cynicism, relativism, and apathy. Jesus Christ our King is, as he says in another place, “the way, the truth, and the life” and there is no other way to the Father, no other way to the kingdom, no other way to life eternal than to take up our cross and follow our King through the sadness of sin and brokenness, through the pain of death, to the glory of his kingdom. And so we have to say with boldness and conviction on this day that one religion isn’t as good as another; that it’s not okay to skip Mass to go to so that your child can play basketball; that Sunday isn’t just a day to sleep in, or shop the malls, but rather a day to worship our King who is the only One who can give us what we really yearn for; what this life is all about.

And so this is how we wrap up our Church year. Next week we begin anew, the first Sunday of Advent. On this last Sunday of the year, it makes sense that we stop for a minute, and look back at the year gone by. How has it been for us? Have we grown in faith? Have we been able to reach out to the poor and needy? Has our faith really taken root in our lives, have we been people who witness to the truth with integrity and conviction and fearlessness? Have we put our King first in our lives or have we been worshipping false gods, attaching our hopes to impotent kings, recognizing false powers, and wandering off the path to life?

If we have been lax about our faith this year, if we have given ourselves to relativism and apathy, then this is the time to get it right. On this eve of the Church’s new year, perhaps we might make new year’s resolutions to worship our King in everything we say and everything we do. Because nothing else is acceptable, and anything less is offensive to our King who gained his Kingship at the unimaginable price of his own precious life that we might be able to live with him in his kingdom. Maybe we can resolve to get to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, not just when it works out in our schedule, and including those times when we travel (there are Catholic churches pretty much everywhere). Or perhaps we can resolve to reinvigorate our prayer lives, making time every single day to connect with our Lord, to remember our Sunday worship, to seek his guidance in all our endeavors and plans, to strive to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in the quiet moments of our prayer. And certainly we must resolve to live the Gospel in its fullness: to reach out to the poor and needy, to live lives of integrity as we participate in our work and in our communities, to love every person God puts in our path. On this “new Church year’s eve” we must resolve to be followers of the King in ways that proclaim to a cynical and apathetic, yet absolutely watching world, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and that there is absolutely no other.

Our prayer on this glorious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King must be the prayer of Saint Dismas, the “good thief” as he hung upon the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary

Today’s readings

St. Elizabeth was the daughter of the king of Hungary, and she married Louis IV of Thuringia when she was fourteen years old. They were happily married and had three children together. Together, they tried to live the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, so they sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor. This upset Elizabeth’s in-laws, who probably were hoping to inherit the things Louis and Elizabeth owned. When Louis was on the way to fight in a war, he was killed. Elizabeth’s in-laws forced her out of the palace, and she and her children went to live with her uncle who was a bishop. After Louis’s friends returned from the war, they restored Elizabeth to the palace and her rightful place. St. Elizabeth is a woman who lived a simple life and dedicated her life to loving others and helping the poor. She is the patron of Catholic Charities.

As we come to the end of the Church year, we hear about the opening of the scroll in the Revelation, and Jesus weeping over the impending demise of Jerusalem. All of this, of course, foreshadows the end of time and the coming of Christ the King, which we will celebrate on Sunday. Saint Elizabeth and her husband King Louis knew who was their king, and lived in such a way that their castle in that kingdom would be a great one. We too have the opportunity to build our heavenly castle by living the Gospel and remembering the poor.

Monday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Today’s readings

“What do you want me to do for you?”

I think that is perhaps the important question in the spiritual life. In fact, when I begin working with someone for spiritual direction, I usually have them spend some time reflecting on this Gospel reading. When I myself go on retreat, I reflect on it too. Because unless we’re clear about what we want God to do for us, we won’t ever see any change in our spiritual lives.

I think that question – “What do you want me to do for you?” – is especially important in our world today. Too many people don’t think God does do or can do very much in our world today. We in particular are from a society that prizes its independence and can-do spirit, and so that starts to seep into our spiritual lives. Or perhaps we don’t think we should bother God by asking for what we truly need, as if he had better things to do than deal with us. Let’s be clear: he made us in his image and likeness, breathed us into life, and so he certainly has concern for our welfare.

But maybe the most prevalent reason people don’t ask enough from God is that they don’t think about him very often. Maybe as a last resort, yes, but not so much that there is that ongoing conversation and relationship with God which enables us to ask whatever we need in his name and trust we can get it, as Jesus famously promised.

Honestly, I’ve struggled with this question at various times in my own life. Because to really answer that question, you have to get over the struggle of asking for what you think he wants to hear. You have to get past the embarrassment of asking for something you think you should be able to get all on your own. You have to truly acknowledge where you are in your relationship with him, and ask for what you need. It’s not easy, but it’s a question we should ask ourselves often.

We’re coming to the end of the Church year. We’ve lived another year in his grace. It’s time for us to reflect on where we are, how far we’ve come, and what we still need.

What do you want Jesus to do for you?

The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“My whole world is falling apart.” We’ve all heard someone say that, or maybe we’re the ones who have said that, at some point in our lives. I think today’s Gospel points to that kind of experience.

But to really get at the experience Luke’s Gospel was getting at, you have to imagine how we would feel if we came to Mass one day and found this beautiful Church demolished and in ruins. I think we’d all be devastated and feel hurt, abandoned, and lost in some ways. And that’s just exactly how the original readers of Luke’s Gospel felt. Luke’s Gospel was written somewhere between 80 and 100 AD, so 50 or more years after Jesus died. And at this point, the glorious Temple of Jerusalem, once stately and glimmering white and gold in the sunlight, now lay in ruins, having been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. For the Jews at that time, the Temple meant something more for them than the center of their worship, which was crucial. But in the Temple they also found the symbol of their identity as a nation. It was a sign that God favored them among all the nations on earth and had chosen them to be his own. Jerusalem was no more, and a world ended with it.

But as I mentioned at the start of this homily, we all go through something that makes it seem like the end of the world at some point in our lives. Family, friends and our communities experience various forms of dying and they are never easy. Cancer debilitates a formerly-vigorous and full-of-life friend or relative; a marriage breaks up; an injury makes it impossible to keep a job; aging diminishes a once-vibrant person. And more. Our churches offer more and more empty seats, our nation moves from one crisis to the next, we scratch our heads as legislatures seem incompetent or cantankerous or ineffective, perhaps we are dismayed by the recent election season, or are fearful at the growing violence in our major cities. We might even think of devastating natural disasters like the hurricanes and earthquakes that happen around the world. When we experience any of that, it can seem like the world is ending.

And when things like that happen, it’s hard to find words to express our sadness, fear, pain, and desertedness. It can even be hard to find words to speak in prayer. But Jesus knows this will happen to us and promises that if we persevere, we will gain our lives and that God himself will give us a wisdom in speaking that cannot be refuted. In Christ, we can find wisdom to make painful circumstances occasions for God’s grace. What we experience as difficulties and painful endings, he sees as opportunities to witness to our faith in him.

Very often when catastrophic things happen, people read it as the coming end of the world. Sometimes people even see these things as signs of God’s displeasure at the way humanity has been behaving. But today’s Gospel doesn’t support those kinds of ideas. God alone knows the time for the world’s ending, and he’s not going to provide definite signs. Not only that, but catastrophe is the symptom of evil in the world, and not necessarily a sign of God’s feelings.

As the Church year comes to a close, it may be well for us to look back at our lives over the past year and take stock of our growth in faith. Has our relationship with Christ led us to a place where we can weather the storms of life, and hear his voice even when the world is falling down around us? Have we grown in our ability to make God’s presence in our world known when the world around us seems rudderless and adrift? Have we been open to God giving us words to speak in witness to the faith, so that we stand up with integrity for what we believe? If this year has not been a solid experience of growth for us, that needs to be our prayer for the year to come.

On the second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, it would have been wonderful for the Liturgy to tie up all the loose ends and give us a happy ending. But that’s not what we have here is it? Why? Because life isn’t that way. Jesus tells us as much today. The message that we have is that, no matter how messy things may be, we can praise our God who is with us in good times and in bad, and promises to lift us up even when the world seems like it is coming to an end.