The Solemnity of All Saints (Vigil Mass)

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 evil: 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 our guard. The second mistake we might make is that we look for evil everywhere, and that just shuts us down and keeps us from living the Gospel. Neither of these is a good thing, and both of them play into Satan’s plans for us.

So let’s talk about Halloween. Its origins are a bit murky, and many people think that what happened is that we sort of baptized a pagan festival. Yes and no: 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 particularly special. More likely, Halloween was a celebration of the Eve of All Saints – hence the name, Halloween, All Hallows Eve. 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 more or less 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 celebration. But we are not fundamentalist Christians. So we remember that God is good, and that he is always in control, and we do not give the demonic or the evil any power it doesn’t already have. In fact, 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 do 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 depend on 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, perhaps in favor of costumes honoring the saints, and any party games that summon evil, like Ouija boards.  In fact, if you have an Ouija board in your house right now, I want you to go home and destroy it and throw it away – don’t even give it to someone else – it’s not a party game.  All these 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 usually see, every single moment. He is a wonderful patron, and we should memorize the prayer to him and pray it often. Saint Benedict battled evil temptation in his own life by rolling around in briars rather than give in to a lustful memory.  The Saint Benedict medal is particularly powerful in warding off evil.  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 a few 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.

Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles

Today’s readings

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, but he’s not that Judas.  Matthew and Mark call him Thaddeus.  We have in the New Testament the letter of Jude, but scholars say it 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

This weekend we continue our preaching series at Saint Mary Immaculate called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”  Please continue to pray for the success of this preaching series, and for the openness for all to receive the grace God is pouring out on us in these days.   So far we have spoken about the fundamental Good News of our faith that we are saved by Jesus Christ.  God did not abandon us in our sinfulness, but in love sent us His Son, Jesus, to free us from sin and death by His own life, death and resurrection. God desires our salvation and healing.

In following God’s plan, we connect our lives to His through prayer, which we spoke of at length last week.  Hopefully over the past week you’ve had a chance to reflect on the way you pray, why you pray, and perhaps even tried some new way of prayer.

So this week, we are reflecting on our call to discipleship, our living of the Good News of Jesus Christ in such a way that it is infectious to others.  This call to discipleship isn’t just for Sundays, or even primarily for Sundays, but an everyday decision to follow Christ and walk in the way he has marked out for us.

Looking at the parable in today’s Gospel reading, I’m going to be very bold and say, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

And, in those days, tax collectors were despicable human beings. There was no taxation with representation, so the tax collectors worked for the Romans and were in league with the foreign occupation. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable – that was how they were paid. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and often bordered on extortion. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what’s the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector, of all people, end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Think back to your grammar lessons: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. The text even says that the prayer he prayed, he said to himself.  Did you catch that?  Not to God, but to himself!  For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

So I think today’s Liturgy of the Word is asking us a very important question: have you been aware of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame not only from God, but also from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christians. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

So who here was the disciple?  It would seem like it would have been the praying, fasting Pharisee.  But is it?  Discipleship involves discipline – they have the same root word – a discipline that binds oneself to God and is committed to real change.  The Pharisee was self-righteous: he prayed to himself, did what made himself look good, it was all about him.  The tax-collector, on the other hand, had a righteousness that came from the mercy of God.  Because he depended on God, he was able to find forgiveness, bind himself to mercy, and go home justified.  Disciples don’t follow themselves, they follow Jesus.  They don’t pray to themselves, they follow Jesus.  They aren’t righteous in themselves, they are righteous in Jesus.

Disciples aren’t perfect – certainly the tax-collector was not – but disciples are open to conversion, open to a true change in their lives that allows the mercy of God to make them a new creation.  Disciples think of everything in terms of their walk with Christ and living the Gospel.  They do it every day, not just Sunday.  When a decision needs to be made at work, they think about Jesus’ example and how the decision might affect others.  When deciding where to spend their family’s resources, they think about the good they are called to do.  When working through a relationship issue, they think about where God is in that relationship and direct their energies in that way.  Disciples see themselves first and foremost as sons and daughters of God, and everything else in their lives falls in line with that identification.  They may not be perfect, but they are open to being perfected.

Disciples find themselves in the Church, receiving the Sacraments the Church offers them in order to perfect their lives of faith.  They receive the mercy of God in sacramental confession, and they live on the strength of God by receiving God’s Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord at Mass.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy place to pray today. What is our prayer like? Are there sins that have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

I want to give you the opportunity to pray with this today…

Pray the tax collector’s prayer after me: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sin is exhausting.  Just like the barren tree was exhausting the soil.  Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in his or her life can tell you that.  Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christian men and women and flourish in the world.  That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who suddenly became aware of and ashamed of their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, and to Saint Paul who prayed over and over to get rid of his “thorn in the flesh. ” So when we are exhausted by sin, we should not be surprised.  That’s just the way sin works.

But we don’t have to be content with that either.  Our God continues to cultivate our soil and fertilize our lives with the Sacraments.  And, as Saint Paul tells us in the first reading today from his letter to the Romans, sin doesn’t get the last word.  Those who did not know Christ had to live according to the law, with all of its precepts and principles and technicalities.  But the law doesn’t sanctify a person, it only makes them more aware of their guilt and unworthiness.  That’s why God sent his only Son into our world.  It is only through our relationship with Jesus Christ that we can ever be cleansed, only through his sacrifice on the Cross, that we can ever be reunited with our God.

As the Psalmist says today, we are the people who long to see God’s face.  Because nothing else will heal us.  Even if our sin makes us want to turn away and hide, we cannot hide from our God – indeed we dare not hide from our God if we ever want to be unburdened of the exhausting weight of our sinfulness.  At this Eucharist, we celebrate our Lord who cares enough about us to bring us back unstained to the banquet of the Kingdom.  We open ourselves to his mercy, revealing our brokenness, our sinfulness, our shame and our unworthiness.  He opens himself to us in love, binding up that brokenness, erasing the sinfulness, healing our shame and lifting up whatever in us is unworthy.  Jesus Christ is our salvation and our redemption.  Our sins do not define who we are before our God, and we who receive him in the Eucharist today do not ever have to settle for being exhausted by our sins.

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 1; has always been one of my very favorite psalms. One interpretation of this Psalm is to look at it as a blueprint for blessedness. In Biblical terms, of course, blessedness equals happiness. So the person who doesn’t follow the counsel of the wicked or walk with sinners but instead meditates on the law of the LORD is happy, or blessed. This person is productive and vibrant, and all of his activities are prosperous. This person is contrasted to the wicked person who is anything but enduring. These are unhappy people who are driven away by the first storm that comes along.

On the other hand, the Church has also looked at the blessed one in this psalm as referring to Christ himself. None of us is able to steer clear of evil all the time, nor meditate on God’s law day and night. But Jesus is the One who is like us in all things but sin and who is the fulfilled promise of God’s law. Jesus definitely is the tree planted near running water, which takes root strongly and shades us from the burning heat of evil under his never-fading leaves. Jesus is the one who can prosper any work that we do, if we just ask him to do so. If we want to know the person who really embodies the spirit of Psalm 1; then all we have to do is look to our Savior.

But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to become holy enough to take up the spirit of this Psalm within ourselves. We certainly don’t want to be the chaff which is driven away by the wind. Joining ourselves to our Savior, meditating on him day and night, as best we can, we can be refreshed by those running waters and become the sturdy trees that shelter the Church in good times and in bad. Blessed indeed are all of us who hope in the Lord.

Monday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There are two things: the promise, and the response.

The promise has echoed down through the ages.  God called Abraham and promised descendants as numerous as the sands on the sea shore or the stars in the sky.  Through Moses, God made known his intent to bring his people out of slavery and into the promised land.  Through Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who speaks in today’s Psalm, God announces that he will make good on his promise to send a Messiah to his people.  And through Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all the promises, we have the promise of salvation and eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  From Abraham to us today, the promise has echoed, and still echoes, in the Church and in the world, down through the ages.  There is the promise.

The response has always taken many different forms.  One would think the response would be complete adoration, obedience, and devotion to our God who keeps his promises.  But sometimes the response has been arrogance, thinking that anything good that happens is the result of our own feeble efforts, like the foolish rich man in today’s Gospel.  Sometimes the response has been entitlement, as if we were actually worthy of grace, and due the gifts that come our way.  Sometimes the response has been apathy or disinterest, not even taking the time to notice the graces and blessings that come to us.  Sometimes the response has been outright rejection – refusing the gift and ignoring the Giver.  Sometimes we have been very unworthy and unappreciative of the promise.

But there is still the promise.  And there is always time for a different, better, more appropriate response.

The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Connecting with God and the Power of Prayer

Today’s readings

This weekend we continue our preaching series at St. Mary Immaculate called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”  The purpose of the course is to address some core beliefs and practices of Catholics to help people, especially those who have left the practice of the faith or struggle with some of the basics of the faith, get back on track with their faith life.  But we can all benefit from hearing more about the basics of our faith.  Today we are addressing the fundamental ideas of what prayer is, and how we connect with God.

Before I start on that topic of prayer, I want to invite all of you who are interested in digging it to this topic a bit deeper, all of you who might have questions about prayer, to come to a 30-minute discussion that will be led by members of our team.  That will take place in the small meeting room right after Mass.  If you didn’t come to the discussion last week, you’re welcome to come this week.

Prayer is one of the most important elements of the Christian life, of the life of a disciple, and yet it is also, I think, one of the most difficult to master. Still, it’s something that we work at every day of our lives, and the working it out should be one of our greatest joys. In today’s Liturgy of the Word, we have just one element of prayer, and that is the element of persistence in prayer.

Now I’m going to be real careful here. Lots of people give some lousy advice about prayer.  You’ve heard it, I’m sure: if you just pray hard enough and long enough, everything will eventually work out all right.  I’m not going to tell you that, because things often don’t work out perfectly, at least not how we would see a perfect resolution, no matter how much we pray, and they almost never work out the way we’d like them to. So why even bother praying? Well, hang in there, we’ll get to that.

We have a wonderful image of prayer in our first reading. I invite you to raise your arms with me if you’re able, and leave them raised until you can’t any more. This is what Moses had to do to keep the Hebrew army in a winning position against Amelek and his warriors. The minute Moses lowered his hands to rest, things went ill for the Hebrews, but as long as his hands were raised, things went okay.  Sometimes it’s hard to be persistent in prayer. Sometimes you get tired. Maybe your arms are not yet weary, but they might soon get there.

I can think of a few times in my life when I’ve grown weary of praying. One of them was in my late thirties when I was trying, once again, and once and for all, to figure out what God wanted me to do with my life. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and it didn’t seem like God was answering at all. I finally grew weary of prayer and told God that he should give me a big challenge and whatever it was, I would do it. Then one day, the day of the Easter Vigil that year, I got a letter in the mail from a friend and it made everything crystal clear. Six months later I was in seminary.

Sometimes in our weariness we have to let go of what we think we would like God to do for us and just let God be God. Because praying isn’t supposed to be comprised of telling God what to do. Praying never ever changes God, but prayer frequently changes us.  

But how are your arms doing? Are you weary yet? Well if so, you’re in good company. Moses found that to really be persistent in prayer, he needed friends – Aaron and Hur – to hold him up. That’s true for all of us, I think. There comes a point when we need to admit that we need friends to hold us in prayer, to take some of the burden of prayer when persistence has become difficult. If you haven’t already, you can put your arms down now.

Then what are we to make of the gospel reading? I mean, are we really supposed to think that God is an unjust judge who has no respect for anyone? Obviously not. I think that we’re supposed to see in this little parable that if even an unjust judge – one who neither fears God nor respects any person – if even that judge will eventually give in to the widow pleading for just judgment, well then how much more will our God who is infinitely just and doesn’t just respect us but loves us beyond all imagining, how much more will he pour out his blessings of justice on all of us?

Which isn’t to say that he will definitely answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Those persistent prayers will be answered in God’s way, in God’s time. He may say “no” or he may even allow something like an illness or some other disappointment. We may have to bear the burden of disease or the sadness of grieve the death of a loved one. But in all of that, God will be with us. He may heal us in other ways, that we might come to know God’s love in the midst of our burdens.

When we persist in prayer, sometimes the change that happens is not the situation, but ourselves. We may grow in grace in some way that we would not otherwise experience or even expect. We may grow in our capacity to love, or in our awareness of the needs of others, or in our ability to be steadfast in the midst of chaos. All of these give honor and glory to God, which after all, brothers and sisters, is our ultimate purpose in life.

So let’s get back to that question that I asked at the beginning of the homily. Why even bother praying if we’re not going to get what we want? I think we pray for three reasons. First, we pray to grow in our relationship with God who is our friend. As in any relationship, we open ourselves up to conversation, watching for God’s response, listenting, and accepting God’s will and his desire that we grow in love for him.

Second, I think we pray because God genuinely cares about us. If we are to grow in love, we have to know that he is open to us and desires that we communicate our needs, our hopes, our fears, our deepest longings to him. It’s not that he doesn’t know these things already, but the process of expressing them in prayer helps us to know those needs in deeper ways and helps us to be aware of God’s action in our lives.

Third, I think we pray because that’s how we grow in holiness. The more that we bind ourselves to God by receiving his mercy and grace and knowing his love for us in prayer, the more we become new people, new creations.

At the end of the Gospel today, our Lord asks, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That’s an incredibly important question. So often it seems like the world, or even our lives, have gone horribly wrong. We may be upset about our country’s values, or the decisions of those who govern us, or the seemingly constant wave of crime, terrorism, or natural disaster. But it’s important that we remember that we can’t stop praying about these things. We always have to be people of faith. We have to persist in our prayer, even if we don’t see things changing as quickly as we would like. The Psalmist reminds us today that “Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Every prayer may not be answered in our time and in the way that we’d like. But by persisting in prayer, we will eventually and always become something better.

So it’s easy for me to tell you how to persist in prayer.  But one of the biggest questions I often get in confession is “Father, I’m trying to pray more consistently, but I just can’t get it going.  Can you help me?”  And it understand the issue.  As I mentioned, I’ve struggled in my prayer life just like everyone else.  Prayer is something we have to keep working on throughout our lives if we are to be people of faith.  

I usually give people some advice that has helped me.  First of all, try to find a time that works for you to pray.  Don’t keep forcing yourself to pray more at the end of the day if you keep falling asleep during that time; maybe try first thing in the morning, or break it up and do a little throughout the day.  In my pre-seminary days, I used to put prayer on my to-do list, and keep a little devotional book in my desk drawer.  And try different types of prayer.  If the way you’re praying isn’t working, mix it up and try something else for a while.  It’s good to keep different types of prayer in your “prayer toolbox” because different situations, different seasons in our lives all require different kinds of prayer.  Remember that prayer consists of different things: adoration, contemplating our Lord’s Blessed Presence; contrition, asking God for his mercy and forgiveness of our sins; thanksgiving, remembering God’s gifts to us and expressing our gratitude; and supplication, giving ourselves, our lives, our families, our vocations to God for his greater glory.  All these kinds of prayers are necessary for a rich connection with God.

It’s important to realize that if you’re having difficulty with prayer, you should still stay with it.  Just like Moses, and the widow in the Gospel parable.  Many saints tell us of dryness in their prayer life, and all of them say that key to overcoming it is to persist in it anyway and trust in God.

But sometimes people have difficulty even expressing themselves to God.  So let’s try a little prayer experience…

Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests, and Companions, Martyrs/Make a Difference Day

Today’s readings

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 the Huron language, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

Anything worthwhile costs us something, and that’s especially true of our faith.  If we are serious about it, if we love God and want to be caught up in his life, we’re going to have to pay for it in some way.  Saints Isaac, John, and their companions make that clear.  One of the biggest costs to us, I think, is our comfort zone.  To really live the faith, we have to get out of that comfort and do what God wants of us.  In the Gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples that they would have to give witness to him.  And they understood that that would cost them something – perhaps cost them their lives.

We disciples are also going to have to pay some price for living our faith.  Probably not something as drastic as being tortured and beheaded, but something fairly costly for us.  For us today, perhaps that cost is giving up a beautiful fall Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or sing songs at a nursing home, or any of the myriad of projects we are planning today.

Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, spend time in adoration praying for our community, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using us to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life. Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something is likely to be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith.  But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace.  We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of.  And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words.  God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments!  I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.

The Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Our God Heals|Our God Saves

Today’s readings

Today we begin our “Crash Course in Catholicism.”  It’s our hope that through this four-Sunday series of homilies, those who are seeking answers from the Church and those who are wanting to get back to the practice of the faith can find some help in sorting out the obstacles they have been encountering.  For all of us, I think, these four Sundays will give us some important pieces to add to our “faith tool box,” ideas and concepts that will help us when life takes a turn we don’t expect or appreciate, or when people ask us questions we find hard to answer.  As we begin this series, I’d ask you to keep this endeavor in prayer.  And as we begin each of the homilies for these four weeks, I invite you to pray that Jesus would open all of our hearts and minds to accept the faith more fully.

Today’s readings give us the opportunity to discuss two very important concepts: healing and salvation.  These things, honestly, are the whole reason Jesus came to us, the whole reason he left his heavenly throne, took on our flesh, and died on the cross.  These readings are really Good News!

A lot of energy gets expended around the concept of gratitude when this Gospel reading is discussed, and it’s easy to see why that is – just one of the lepers came back and expressed his gratitude.  But I think he also might have been the only one who was really healed.  Here’s why I think that:  For Jesus, the physical ailment wasn’t usually the most important thing he wanted to heal.  Usually, he was looking for interior healing, almost a kind of healing of the person from the inside out.  So yes, the lepers who came to him were in need of physical healing.  “Leprosy” was the name given to all kinds of skin diseases – but only some were really Hansen’s disease, our modern name for leprosy.  The rest were various types of skin eruptions and rashes. When the skin became diseased, people called it leprosy, and the victim suffered exclusion from the community (cf. Lv. 13-14) and became ritually unclean.

So Jesus sends the ten of them off to show themselves to the priests.  When they heard that, it had to be confusing.  The priests are the ones who would have to certify them healed so that they could participate in worship again, but since they hadn’t yet been healed, they had to grumble a bit about being put off to someone else.  Except that on the way they were cleansed (notice carefully that it doesn’t say they were healed).  When that happened, they couldn’t possibly mistake the grace they had been given, but nine of them took it no further than that.  Only just the one returned to give thanks, a sign that he had indeed been healed in body, mind and spirit.

For us then, we need to know that not every healing takes place in the way we would expect, or even in the way we think is best.  God gives us grace according to his purpose and the kind of healing he gives us could well be something we wouldn’t exactly choose.  Perhaps we have found ourselves healed when:

  • A person who loves us tells us a hard truth we need to hear about ourselves.
  • We experience, in a long relationship, opportunities for growth in generosity, forgiveness, patience and humor.
  • Parenting teaches us to give our lives for another in frequent doses of our time, energies, hopes and tears.
  • We suffer a broken relationship, go for counsel and the guidance we receive gives us hope for our future.
  • We seek help for an addiction and the group members offer us wisdom, support and helping hands when we fall and support us “one day at a time.”
  • We suffer the death of a loved one and family and friends are there to grieve with us and eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.

What is important to get here is that faith is the key to all of this.  Our faith has to have us open to whatever God intends for us.  Our faith has to give us the ability to cry out to God in our need.  Our faith has to make us ready for whatever healing God intends for us.  That’s not easy: that’s why they call it a “leap of faith,” and sometimes it is just that.  Notice the words that Jesus speaks to the Samaritan leper at the end of the reading: “Go your way, your faith has saved you.”  God can do a lot for us, but it is our own act of faith that helps us to see God’s hand in our lives and cooperate with his grace.

I think that’s a good turning point for our second concept, and that is salvation.  Many of us have probably been asked by friends or even strangers who are Evangelical Christians, “Are you saved?” and “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”  So let’s be clear about the answers: Are we saved?  Of course the answer is “Yes” — no ifs, ands or buts.  As I said at the beginning of my homily, this was the reason God sent His Son Jesus into the world.  Salvation is the gift won for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  When we unite our lives to His in Baptism, we are saved.

But what does this even mean?  What are we saved from?  The answer to that is sin and death.  These are the things that separate us, have always separated us, from real happiness with God.  It was the effect of Adam and Eve doing what God told them not to in the beginning, and ever since, it has caused all of us to desire things that are not God, things that, while they seem nice, can never give us real happiness.  This is what causes the human condition by which we so often end up doing the very things we don’t want to do, and because of which we are not able to do the things we want to do.  That is the basic effect of sin, which leads to the breakdown in all kinds of relationships — between fellow human beings, our connection with creation, our relationship with God, and even with ourselves.  Left to our own human devices we can do nothing about these breakdowns of relationships.  That choice in the beginning, which we call original sin, unleashed a torrent of sin and death with us at one side, and God on the other.  There was no way for us to cross it.  But God didn’t create us for death, so in an amazing act of love, he sent his own divine Son, who took on our flesh and paid the price for our sins.  By dying on the cross, that cross became the bridge for us to cross that torrential river of sin and death, and come to our God, to the place he has prepared for us, to the real happiness for which we were created.  That is the essence of our faith.

This is why Saint Paul says to Saint Timothy in our second reading today: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.  I bear witness to Him so that you may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.  If we die with him, we shall also live with him in eternal glory.”  We proclaim boldly that there is a remedy for death, and it is Jesus Christ.  We profess that there absolutely is a Savior, and He is Jesus Christ.  

So have you been saved?  Well, absolutely.  But have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  That’s more of an individual question.  That process began at your baptism, when either you, or your parents and godparents, accepted that sacrament which makes you part of the Body of Christ.  At your Confirmation, you reaffirmed that by accepting the gift of the Holy Spirit, which leads you to salvation.  And every time you receive the Holy Eucharist, you become what you receive, by incorporating the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ into your own being.  

But it’s easy to do those sacramental things and not have them really change us.  So there is that challenge to really accept that sacramental grace and really accept the salvation God offers us in Christ.  Catholicism is an experiential faith, a living relationship with Christ.  A Catholic is not a person who merely accumulates intellectual knowledge about God nor simply fulfills tradition and the letter of the law.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized that Catholic Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.  That encounter happens all through our lives as we pray and grow in our faith.  This encounter with Jesus is the subject of our prayer life, and we will talk more about that in next week’s homily.

In the meantime, what answer should you give to the Evangelical who asks you if you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?  My suggestion would be very simply: “Yes, I have.  Every day.”

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: