Saint Irenaeus, bishop and martyr

When a person faces opposition from erroneous ideology, there is a difference between refutation or winning an argument and correction. It might even be fair to say that many people are up to the task of winning an argument, but it takes a saint to be content with correction. This subtle difference is one that Saint Irenaeus knew quite well.

Irenaeus was a student, well trained, no doubt, with great patience in investigating, tremendously protective of apostolic teaching, but prompted more by a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them in error. Irenaeus did major work in responding to the Gnostic heresy. Gnostics claimed access to secret knowledge imparted by Jesus to only a few disciples, and their teaching was attracting and confusing many Christians. After thoroughly investigating the various Gnostic sects and their “secret,” Irenaeus showed to what logical conclusions their tenets led. These he contrasted with the teaching of the apostles and the text of Holy Scripture, giving us, in five books, a system of theology of great importance to subsequent times. Moreover, his work, widely used and translated into Latin and Armenian in his day, gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.

Saint Irenaeus was concerned with protecting the truth. But more than that, he was zealous about teaching the truth so that people would turn away from harmful errors. All of us are expected to stand up for the truth too, in our own way, among those people God has placed us. The simplest way to do that is to live the truth and to be people of integrity. Our witness goes a long way to teaching the truth and winning people over to the Gospel, which is way more important than simply proving others wrong and making them look foolish. Through the intercession of Saint Irenaeus, may we all gain many souls for the glory of the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

When I hear that the road that leads to life is narrow and constricted, that makes me a bit uneasy.  The reason for that is I am a lousy packer.  I pretty much always over-pack, not being able to shake the worry of not having something I might need.  What if the weather is cold?  I’ll need some warm clothes.  If it’s hot, I sure won’t want those warm clothes then, so I’ll need something light.  Better take along some Advil in case I get a headache, and well, the list goes on and on.  I just hate packing to go on a trip, because I always imagine what I pack will take up less space than it does.

I think that can be true of us on our spiritual journeys as well.  We want to fill up every silence we have.  Better take our mobile phones, a book in case we’re bored, the tablet so we’ll be able to get our email, and who knows what else.  Heaven forbid we should let the silence be silent so that our God can speak to us.  I’m every bit as guilty of over-packing in that way too.

But God doesn’t want our tablets or cell phones.  God just wants us.  He wants us to give him ourselves completely.  Sure, there’s an easier way to go, unfortunately that particular way leads to destruction.  But if we give up what holds us back, then travelling that narrow road to life won’t be so hard.

What do we need to unpack from our lives today?

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us.  First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration.  Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth.  But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all at this Sunday celebration points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ.  In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born.  So the feast of their Nativities – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant.  Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter.  John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons.  But there’s more to it even than that.  In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.”  So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer.  John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is.  Saint John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order.  Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born.  Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning.  He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”

So Isaiah was given his name while in his mother’s womb.  The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel.  Names have meaning, especially the names of the prophets we encounter.  Isaiah means “The Lordis salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile.  Jeremiah means “May the Lordexalt.”  The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.”  And that was in fact the message of his life.  He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

The point is, these men were created for their prophetic calling.  That’s true for us too.  All of us who have been baptized have a prophetic calling that came before we were ever born.  God created us for something special.  He created us to be with him, he created us to follow him, he created us to draw other people to him.  This means that, according to our abilities, our vocation and station in life, we were meant to serve God in some way that God might be glorified and that others may come to know him.

We live in a society that is all about protecting and promoting ourselves.  Saint John the Baptist would have us promote Jesus instead.  That’s what he was about.  As it was for him, so it is for us: we must decrease, Jesus must increase.

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga

Today’s readings

St. Aloysius Gonzaga was a well-connected young man who lived during the Renaissance. His father longed for him to become a military hero, and brought him up in the court society. But Aloysius was affected from an early age by a desire to become one with God, and often practiced great penance and asceticism. By age eleven, he was teaching catechism to poor children, and fasting three times a week. I don’t really remember what I was doing at age eleven, but I know my piety was not nearly as advanced as Aloysius! He eventually decided he would like to join the Jesuits, but had to wage a four-year battle with his father, who eventually relented and let him forsake his right to succession and join the novitiate.

Sometimes our plans, for ourselves or for others, are far different than the plans God has.  I always tell people that if you really want to be happy with your life, you have to do what God wants you to do, whatever that is.  That takes a lot of discernment, and that can take time.  But if we’re ever going to mean what we pray in the Lord’s prayer: “thy will be done,” then we have to be serious about discernment. You don’t know the answer until you ask the question.  And when we all have that happiness that comes from aligning our will with God’s then, I truly believe, his kingdom will come.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is one that’s certainly very familiar to us.  But if we’re honest, every time we hear it, it must give us a little bit of uneasiness, right?  Because, yes, it is very easy to love those who love us, to do good to those who do good to us, to greet those who greet us.  And we know that Jesus is right – he always is! – there is nothing special about loving those we know well, and we certainly look forward to greeting our friends and close family.

But that’s not what the Christian life is about.  We know that, but when we get a challenge like today’s Gospel, it hits a little close to home.  Because we all know people we’d rather not show kindness to, don’t we?  We all have that mental list of people who are annoying or who have wronged us or caused us pain.  And to have to greet them, do good to them, even love them, well that all seems too much some days.

And yet that is our call.  We’re held to a higher standard than those proverbial tax collectors and pagans that Jesus refers to.  We are people of the new covenant, people redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so we have to live as if we have been freed from our pettiness, because, in fact, we have.  We are told to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, but a simple kindness to one person we’d rather not be kind to is all it takes to make a step closer.

The Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I really don’t have a green thumb, but for a while when I was young, I was very interested in growing things. My grandmother on my dad’s side had quite the green thumb: anything she planted grew to be quite prolific.  I have whatever the opposite of that is! But still, I have always been fascinated by things growing from tiny little seeds to become large plants; no matter if they become beautiful flowers to decorate the landscape, or delicious vegetables to bring to the table.

It’s really a miracle when you think about it.  This tiny little dried-up thing looks for all the world to be useless and dead.  But when it gets planted in the earth, and watered by the rains, new life springs forth from it, and a tiny sprout appears, which grows day by day to become a fully mature plant by the summertime. Sure, we or the farmers might do a little work to nurture it and water it and keep the weeds and rabbits away, but we don’t make the plant grow: day by day, almost imperceptibly, growth happens.

And this is the image that Jesus uses today to describe the Kingdom of God.  These parables are a lens through which we are to see life: the life of God, and our life, and how they all come together.  And it’s – I think – an encouraging message that we hear today. Today, our Lord assures us that the Kingdom of God doesn’t come about all at once, in great power and glory, or in some kind of dramatic explosion.  The Kingdom is like those crops that grow to be fully mature plants and yield a harvest, but it happens little by little, almost imperceptibly, always growing, but we know not how.  And the Kingdom is miraculous like a mustard seed which one day is the tiniest of all seeds and eventually becomes a large plant that gives shelter to the birds of the air.

Here’s why I think these parables are so encouraging.  Because we all want to be part of the Kingdom of God.  We all want to grow in our faith.  We all want that faith to sustain us in good times and bad, and eventually lead us to heaven.  That’s why we’re here today.  But the truth is, if you’re like me, you get frustrated sometimes because it doesn’t seem like there’s any real growth going on.  We commit the same sins despite our firmest resolve.  We take one step forward and two steps back.  But still, like the seed scattered on the land, being here in church today isn’t nothing.  Our prayers, however lacking they may seem to be, are still a manifestation of our desire to be in relationship with God.  And God takes those tiny seeds of faith and waters them with grace and the sacraments and the life of the Church, until one day, please God, our faith makes a difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.  And whatever we start with in the life of faith may be as tiny as a mustard seed, but in God’s hands, it can become that shrub that is a shelter for those who are flying around in life from one thing to the next, without any real hope except for Christ in us.

We may not be perfect yet, friends, but we’re graced.  And grace will perfect whatever we sow and make our tiny little beginnings into great things, all for the Kingdom of God.

Saturday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the most vivid Church memories I have was of a friend who was making final vows as a Benedictine many years ago now. It was a very beautiful Mass, but what really stood out so vividly to me was that, while the assembly sang the Litany of the Saints and my friend lie prostrate before the altar, the abbot and some other monks placed the funeral pall over him.  This symbolized that he had “died” to his former life, in order to take up his new life in service to Christ.

So when we hear today’s first reading about Elijah placing his cloak over Elisha, it calls that memory to mind.  Elisha knew immediately what the action meant: he had been called to serve as prophet to succeed Elijah.  So after protesting he was not ready, he immediately set out to put to death everything in his life that held him back: he slaughtered his oxen and burned the plowing equipment to cook their flesh to feed his people. Then he freely left it all behind to serve God.

We too have, at some point, the mantle placed upon us.  Whatever our calling is, it involves a death to whatever has come before so that we can freely serve in whatever way God is calling us.  For most, it won’t be quite so dramatic, but there is that death. For example, for those getting married, it’s a death to the single life so that they can serve their spouse in love and fidelity.  We have to be ready to die to whatever holds us back from fulfilling God’s call, so that we can pray with the Psalmist today, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Friday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We know a little of the back story on our first reading, because we’ve been hearing it this week. You recall that Elijah has just come from soundly defeating all of the pagan “prophets” of Baal, which was very embarrassing to King Ahab and especially to Queen Jezebel, who vowed to take Elijah’s life in retaliation. So he has been hiding out in a cave, not for protection from inclement weather, but for protection from those who sought his life. In the midst of this, God asks Elijah why he is here. Elijah explains that the people of Israel have been unfaithful and have turned away from God, not listening to Elijah’s preaching, and they have put all the other legitimate prophets to death. Elijah alone is left.

So God says that he will be “passing by” which in biblical language means that God will be doing a “God thing.” God will be revealing his presence. And so we have the story: there is a mighty wind, an earthquake and even fire. But Elijah only recognizes the Lord’s presence in the tiny whispering sound. After everything that had happened to him, mighty wind, an earthquake and a fire were just more of the same. But when there was that tiny whispering sound, Elijah heard the Lord speaking to him loud and clear. Then and there he receives instruction on how to move forward.

In our own prayer lives, it’s good to be attentive to the tiny whispering sound. We too have a noisy life – not because we are running from our enemies like Elijah, but more because we have created enemies to a recollected life. The television, the phone, the tablet, the computer, all of that and more vie for our attention in every moment. And then we lament that we can’t hear God’s direction, can’t figure out what it is we’re supposed to do in this situation or that.

In my own life, I have created a little space in my room for a prayer altar. It has my bible, a Crucifix, an icon of Jesus the Teacher, a statue of Saint Patrick, one of the Blessed Virgin one of Saint Joseph, one of Saint Michael the Archangel, and a candle. Now, when I want to hear the Lord, I can turn off everything, settle into a chair, and reflect. And the Lord has been speaking, was all along to be honest. Just now I’ve created a space, like Elijah’s cave, where I can hear him. God is always doing a “God thing” among us. We just have to make it our care to notice.

Thursday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes the Gospel just makes good common sense.  Today, the Gospel expands on the Golden Rule, something we should all have learned when we were very little.  As my grandmother used to say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  But actually what Jesus is telling us today goes a bit deeper even than that.  Jesus equates the hatred in our hearts with outright murder.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this theme from this very Gospel reading: “Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’” (CCC, 2303)

Today might be a good time for us to examine our consciences for sins against the fifth commandment.  Jesus says that these include murder and abortion, certainly.  But also hatred, vengeance and anger.  This might be a good time for us to call to mind those we have yet to forgive, and to pray for the grace to forgive them.  Or at least the grace to want to forgive them.  This might be a good time for us to look deep within us and ferret out any traces of racism, which is simply hatred directed at a certain group or race.  Casual racist jokes and stereotyping are evidence of a hatred that may be buried deep within us that comes out in inappropriate ways.  Today’s Gospel even hints that gossip, backbiting, and sarcasm directed at a brother or sister in Christ is an attitude that detracts from the dignity of another’s life and has no place in the heart or mind of the disciple.

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to us today.  Our witness to the life and dignity of the human person must be absolutely above reproach, or our witness for life is a sham.  And worse than that, we will have opted out of the Kingdom of heaven.

Saint Barnabas, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

Saint Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus, was not one of the original Twelve, but is honored as an apostle because of his work of evangelization in the early Church.  He was closely associated with Saint Paul (he introduced Paul to Peter and the other apostles) and served as a kind of mediator between Paul, formerly a persecutor of Christians, and the still suspicious Jewish Christians.

When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the Church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold.  He and Paul taught in Antioch for a year, after which they took relief contributions to Jerusalem.

We see in today’s first reading that Saints Paul and Barnabas had become accepted in the community as charismatic leaders who led many to convert to Christianity.  The Holy Spirit set them apart for Apostolic work and blessed their efforts with great success.

Above all, these men hungered and thirsted for righteousness, a righteousness not based on the law or any merely human precept, but instead on a right relationship with God.  Just as they led many people then to that kind of relationship with God through their words and actions, so their witness calls us to follow that same kind of right relationship today.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we might follow their call to righteousness by examining our lives in light of the Beatitudes.  How willing are we to enter into poverty of spirit, work for peace and justice and pursue righteousness?  Blessed are we who follow the example of Saint Barnabas and blessed are we who benefit from his intercession.