The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed.  Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life.  We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding homily I give.  In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests.  We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad.  But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment.  I do this because I know it is the source of pain for so many people, perhaps some people among us today.  It’s important that we all understand these teachings so that we can help one another live faithful lives and avoid making judgments about others which are best left to our Lord.

The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments.  But divorce is not a sin in and of itself.  It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin.  Whatever led to the divorce, on either or both sides, may in fact have been sinful.  Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.  However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment.  Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and then, and only then, are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.”  Annulment is instead recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason or another, had never taken place.  The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage.  The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption.  In every presumption, the opposite may be true.  If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds.  Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3)  The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry.  These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children.  Pope Francis added some other reasons a few years ago, including a fictitious marriage that enabled one of the parties to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation.  In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church.  But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.  This is a very often misunderstood principle.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together.  Certainly, that is the Church’s preference: today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God.  However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible.  The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in a relationship that is abusive and puts one of the parties in danger.  That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety.  The Church will support you in that decision.  If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up.  First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate.  The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God.  Second, people think annulments are too expensive.  They are not.  The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past.  But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses.  Having said that, I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional.  An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless.  But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process.  That person is called a field advocate, and here at Saint Mary’s, that would be me, Father John or Father Mike.  Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for.  Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful.  And we must choose faithfulness each and every day – maybe even every moment.  When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway.  But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for guidance, reconciliation, and mercy.

Just as man and woman cling to one another and become one flesh, so all of us are called to cling to God and become one with him. The Sacrament of Matrimony foreshadows the relationship that God has with the Church and the world.  We are all called to be caught up in God’s life and live forever with him.

The Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing.  In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”  I have talked about this kind of thing before.  The healing is not here simply for us to say, “how nice for that deaf and mute man.”  The healing he intends, the command, “Be opened!” is for us too.  Mark brings us this story in his Gospel because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about.  He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him.  So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.

Saint James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle.  Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way?  Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us?  Do these people have illness that needs to be healed?  Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God?  So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it: ephphatha, be opened, that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.

Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick.  I want to do that because I think it’s a sacrament that is misunderstood, one that we don’t think of much, until someone is near death, and that’s not what the Anointing of the Sick is all about.  In the days prior to Vatican II, that actually was the understanding of the Sacrament.  It was called Extreme Unction, Latin for “Last Anointing.”  But Vatican II restored the sacrament to a much earlier practice, in which the sacrament was intended for healing, and not just sending the dying person on their way to eternal life.

The impetus for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick comes from another passage in the letter of Saint James.  It says: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.  If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15) The sacrament is about healing: physical, sure, but also spiritual.  Having God’s presence in the sacrament with us in our time of illness is of great value – just ask anyone who’s been through it!

So I’d like to identify a few times when it would be appropriate to have the Anointing of the Sick.  The first is before surgery that is either life threatening itself, or is for the healing of some illness or injury.  Very often people will call, and they might come to a daily Mass before their surgery or the weekend before their surgery, and I’ll anoint them after Mass.  This is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament, because they’ve just been to Mass and have received the Eucharist. The combination of those sacraments is a great source of grace and healing.  Here at Saint Mary’s, we also have a monthly celebration of the sacrament at a service, usually the first Sunday of the month (although, because of Labor Day, this month’s takes place today) at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Another time someone might be anointed is if they’ve come to the hospital with a life-threatening illness or injury, perhaps even after an accident.  Or perhaps a patient is hospitalized for an addiction or mental illness.  Very often there’s a priest on call at the hospital who can do that, or if it’s one of the local hospitals here, we will be called to go over.  Being anointed at that time of crisis can be a great source of peace to both the patient and their loved ones.

Another time for the Anointing is when a patient is home bound, or after they’ve come home from having surgery and there is going to be a long time of rehabilitation.  Then a priest might come to the person’s home, anoint them, and then we can arrange for a parishioner to come give them Holy Communion each week.  We have a number of deacons and other parishioners who help us with that ministry, and it keeps the patient connected to the parish and to the Lord during difficult days.  I always like to say, when you’re well, you can come to us, and when you’re sick, we can come to you.

The final time for the Anointing is the one that most people think of, and that is near death. At the time of death, we have what is known as the Last Rites.  The Last Rites are a combination of three sacraments: the sacrament of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Viaticum, which is Latin for “bread for the journey,” one’s last Communion.  If at all possible, it’s good if the patient is well enough to participate in all three sacraments, but very often that’s not the case.  Then we just do what we can of them and entrust them to God’s mercy.

It’s important that we know about the illness so that we can care for the patient.  In today’s society that means a family member or the patient themselves, must call us.  Hospitals can’t do that any more, due to privacy laws.  So it’s very important that we know, and know soon enough that we can respond.  In a large parish like this, it can be hard for us to respond at the spur of the moment because of other things going on, but we do our best to get there as soon as we can.  And if, unfortunately, a patient dies before the priest can get there, there are still prayers we can do.  Sometimes we don’t know that the patient is going so quickly.  I had that happen just the other day, and we still prayed and I was there to spend some time with the family.

The healing work of Christ is what the Church is all about.  Today, Jesus continues to work through the Church to bring healing to all those who need it. He cries out “Ephphatha” that we might all be opened up to his healing work and that every obstacle to relationship with him might be broken down.

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse III: Bread for the Journey

Today’s readings

You may have heard of Viaticum, which we generally think of as one’s last Communion. Indeed, the Church encourages us by precept of the Church to receive Holy Communion in our last moments, if at all possible.  The word viaticum is Latin for “bread for the journey.”  So in our last moments, when we set out on our journey to the life that is to come, we are fed with that Food that sustains us.  It’s a commendable practice and I highly encourage it.

Today we see the Scriptural basis for viaticum, that bread for the journey.  In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has had just about enough, thank you very much.  Despite some successes in preaching the word of the Lord, he has felt that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, just defeated all the prophets of the false god Baal in a splendid display of pyrotechnics on Mount Carmel.  It’s a wonderful story that you can find in chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, and your homework today is to go home and look it up!  I promise, you’ll enjoy the story.  Well after that outstanding success, one would expect Elijah to go about boasting of his victory.  Instead, Jezebel, the king’s wife and the one who brought the prophets of Baal to Israel in the first place, pledges to take Elijah’s life.  Today’s story, then, finds him sitting under a scraggly broom tree, which offered little if any shade, and praying for death.  For him it would be better for the Lord to take his life than to die by Jezebel’s henchmen.  The Lord ignores his prayer and instead twice makes him get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.

Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another.  We all have very difficult journeys to face in our lives.  Whether we’re feeling dejected and defeated like Elijah, or feeling cranky and irritable like the Ephesians, or whether we’re just feeling superior and murmuring like the Jews in today’s Gospel, spiritual hunger is something we all must face sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives.  Soon we end up sitting under a scraggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.  If we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person is Jesus Christ.  This Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and longs to be our Bread of Life, the only bread that can fill up that God-sized hole in our lives.  We have to let him do that.  But it’s not so easy for us to let God take over and do what he needs to do in us.  We have to turn off the distractions around us, we have to stop trying to fill the hole with other things that never have any hope of satisfying us, and we have to turn to our Lord in trust that only he can give us strength for the journey.  Jesus alone is the bread that came down from heaven, and only those who eat this bread will live forever, forever satisfied, forever strengthened.  It is only this bread that will give us strength for the arduous journeys of our lives.

Because this Food is so important to us, because it is such a great sign of God’s presence in our lives, we should be all the more encouraged to receive the Eucharist frequently and faithfully.  Certainly nothing other than sickness or death should deter us from gathering on Sunday to celebrate with the community and receive our Lord in Holy Communion.  We should all think long and hard before we decide not to bring our families to Sunday Mass.  Sometimes soccer, football, softball and other sports or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  I realize that I may well be preaching to those who already know this, and I realize that it’s hard, especially for families, to get to Church at times, but this is way too important for any of us to miss.  It is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who will lead us to heaven – the goal of all our lives and our most important journey, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that we are receiving; we believe that it is the very real presence of our Lord, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the mere appearance of bread and wine.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we should never allow anything to take its place.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we must return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive this great gift around the Table of the Lord.  As we continue our prayer today, let us remember the advice God gives to Elijah: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II – What’s Your Hunger?

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.”  That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to Hungry, of course!  I always think about that when these readings come around because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.  I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.

Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.  And that slavery was not some kind of minor inconvenience: the people were told to take care of the most strenuous of all labor, building the cities and even making the bricks for them themselves.  If they slacked off at all, or didn’t meet their captors’ unreasonable quotas, they were severely beaten.  They were subject to racism at its nastiest form, and their baby boys were put to death to keep them from rising up.  And yet, the people say they’d rather be in Egypt so they could have a little food in their stomachs.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him?  Well, they want more food, of course.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.  So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers to distribute to the whole world, proving that he was enough, and more than enough, to feed their hungers, and they stillwant to see a sign?  Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really.  He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way.  So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  [Very much so for Antoinette, our new catechumen, God has stirred up the hunger in her heart to know him and come to him and to join with us in the Church as we worship him together.]  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Malachi 3:1-7a | Matthew 3:1-12

This evening, as we prepare for Christmas, we have some powerful images to guide us.  The first is the image of burning up what doesn’t belong here, as we have seen in our readings.  the prophet Malachi warns of the LORD who will come as a refining fire, purifying not just silver, but also the sons of Levi, those priests who were charged with true worship of God.  Refining is a process of melting down an impure metal so that that all that is left is the precious metal; in this case silver.  In the Gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist warns the people to repent, lest they be burnt up in the fire that was coming with Christ.  He is one who would purify the people by burning off those who are impure just like a farmer burns up the chaff that is separated from the actual grain.

The second image we have comes from the season of Advent itself, particularly today.  During the last week of Advent, so now, we have the “O Antiphons” as part of the liturgy, particularly Evening Prayer.  The “O Antiphons” are the various titles of Jesus as given to us in Sacred Scripture, and they manifest our longing for the appearance of Christ.  Today the O Antiphon is O Oriens, or O Dayspring.  It could also be translated O Morning Star or O Radiant Dawn.  Today we pray that Christ would come and enlighten our hearts and brighten a world dark in sin.

In essence, this is what Advent is all about: the season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness of a season with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.  Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  As we continue to light the candles on the Advent Wreath, we see more light all the time, up until the feast of that great light which we will celebrate in just four days.

And so tonight, we come together acknowledging that we have stuff in us that needs to be burned off so that we can be the bright lights the world needs to see right now.  Our prayer is that God would take away everything in us that is not him, so that we can be his presence, his light, in the world.  There was a Christian song several years back called “Empty Me” that expresses this well.  Here is the refrain from that song:

Empty me of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition and the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me so I can be filled with You.

Because the world needs us to be the bright light of Christ.  There’s always so much darkness: war, scandal, poverty, homelessness, greed, terror, crime, hatred, bigotry … the list goes on and on.  Every glimpse at the news reveals a world mired in everything evil.  The only thing that will change that ever, the only thing, is Christ.  The only thing that will dispel the darkness of this fallen world is the light of Christ.  And we who have chosen to be his disciples must always be the bearers of that light, nothing less.

So today, we pray that God would burn off all in us that is not him, so that we can burn brightly in a world dark in sin and death.  We pray:  Come to us, O Oriens, ORadiant Dawn, O Morning Star: scatter the darkness of our world and of our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Burn away every bit of foolishness in us, everything that is not you, so that we can be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny II

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy is all about vision and sight and light and darkness.  All of these, dear friends, are things that we certainly take for granted.  Think about it: we don’t appreciate the gift of light until that dark and stormy night when the electricity goes out and we’re fumbling around in the darkness trying to remember where it is we put that new package of batteries for the flashlight.  We likewise take for granted our own ability to see.  I think of my Aunt Mia, who several years before she passed away lost her sight and had to learn how to see things in a new way.

When I hear today’s first reading, it always makes me think of my dad.  He was the kind of Irishman who never knew a stranger.  We couldn’t go anywhere without running into at least one person he knew.  But he didn’t just know them, he knew their story.  And so if someone were to complain about someone he knew, he would always be able to tell them something good about that person, because Dad saw the best in them.  That’s the kind of vision we are all called to have for one another: we need to see the best in them, we need to see Jesus in them.

So what about this miracle story in the Gospel today.  I have to just say it, who cares?  I mean, it’s nice for that man born blind who can now see, but I mean, he lived two thousand years ago, so what business is it of ours if he can see or not?  Why take up so much time with this reading?  Well I’ll tell you why we should care: we should care because the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Well, of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind.  We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives.  It takes holy baptism to cure that born blindness in us.  Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives.  We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life.  We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, who are here with us today, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.

We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, after he has been unceremoniously thrown out of the synagogue, he meets Jesus again and testifies that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship.  As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.

We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Think about it: our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that we will hear proclaimed on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning 
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But you know what?  We’re not supposed to stay that way.

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-36 | Psalm 27 | Matthew 5:13-16

During this time of year, there’s a lot more darkness than I’m sure most of us would like to see. The daylight fades very fast, and there’s a lot of cold and cloudy days. And so, as joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for many people. And then there’s the thought of another year coming to an end: some people look back on the year, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been. And we could probably do without all the news of war, crime and terrorism here and abroad. So if we feel a little dark right now, we’re not alone.

But the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].” This is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world. We do that symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior. But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory. We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives. The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God. The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution. Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight. We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way. Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts. Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us. The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ. As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer. Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Third Sunday of Advent: The Anointing of the Sick at Mass

Today’s readings
#adventnd #anointingofthesick #healing #mercy

Today’s readings and liturgy call us to rejoice.  That’s the reason for the rose-colored vestments and the more joyful tone of today’s readings.  This is called Gaudete Sunday: gaudete being Latin for “rejoice,” the first word of today’s introit or proper entrance antiphon which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near.” The Church takes that antiphon from the words of the second reading today.

We can especially rejoice in the healing presence of our God. Healing is, in fact, a sure way that we know that Christ is present. Jesus said as much in our Gospel today when he addressed the followers of Saint John the Baptist:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

Those who lived in and around Jesus in those days had to be amazed at all they were seeing. Indeed, many of them were moved to conversion of heart and rejoiced in all they were seeing.

I think, though, that it can be hard to rejoice when we are suffering from illness or injury. Sometimes when we’re sick, it can even be hard to pray or find God in anything. A wise person once told me that you have to make sure that you’re praying when you’re well, because when you’re sick, it can be hard to pray. But it those times of illness or injury, that’s when you need to rely on God the most. If you have been praying when you’re well, then that relationship is going to be something you can lean on when you need healing.

Indeed sometimes, for us, healing is a little harder to see. We may have been dealing with a persistent, chronic, or even terminal health condition for years. Or maybe we have been at the side of a loved one who has been ill and for whom we have prayed long and hard, but have seen no healing. If that’s where we are right now, Jesus’ words are still our hope. Because healing comes in all sorts of ways, according to what Jesus sees that we need most. That might come in the form of something other than physical healing: perhaps the healing of relationships, or the conversion of our hearts. In every case, though, Christ promises to be with us through it all if we turn to him in our hearts. And he keeps his promises, giving us grace that sees us through whatever stormy waters we are wading.

And so we gather in faith today to express the prayers of our hearts, asking for God’s mercy, praying prayers, perhaps, that we haven’t been able to utter for some reason or another.  We gather today to place ourselves in God’s hands and experience his healing, in whatever way is best for us.  The Apostle Saint James tells us that we should turn to the Church in time of illness, calling on the priests to anoint the sick in the name of the Lord, knowing that God desires healing, and that the prayer of faith will save the sick and raise them up, forgiving them their sins.

The Church has the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick because of who Jesus was and because of what he came to do among us.  Jesus was that suffering servant from the book of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who took on our illnesses and bore our infirmities.  He was spurned and avoided, oppressed and condemned, all the while giving his life as an offering for sin, justifying many, and bearing their guilt.  God always knew the frailty of human flesh, but when he decided to come to his people, he did not avoid that frailty; instead he took it on and assumed all of its effects.  This is why we treat the sick with dignity: our frailty was good enough for our God, and we know that the sick are very close to our Lord in their suffering, because he suffered too.

So today if you are sick in any way – body, mind, or spirit, – if you suffer from addiction, chronic pain, or emotional anguish – I invite you to approach the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick after this homily. The Church teaches that this sacrament is not to be saved only for the moment of death. No, we are to approach it when we are seriously ill, or before surgery, and yes, in the hour of death. If we have been anointed before, we can be anointed again if necessary, even in the same illness, if it has been some time or especially if the illness has progressed. In this sacrament, we pray for healing in body, mind, or spirit, in whatever way God judges to be best for us, and we trust in his sacramental grace and presence with us in our suffering.

Just a procedural note: During the ritual of anointing we will ask those who are to be anointed to stand, and I will impose hands over all of you at one time for a few moments in silence. Then, when it comes time for the anointing, we will come to those who are not ambulatory and are seated in the front of church. Those of you not seated in front will come forward as for Holy Communion, and we will anoint you in the center aisle.

Today we rejoice because our Lord is near.  We light that third, rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath and we see there’s not many candles left until the feast of the reason for our rejoicing.  We rejoice, too, that we can come to him for help and sustenance and companionship on the journey to healing. We look forward to celebrating the Incarnation, perhaps the greatest and best of the mysteries of faith.  That God himself, who is higher than the heavens and greater than all the stars of the universe, would humble himself to be born among us, robing himself with our frail flesh, in order to save us from our sins, heal our brokenness, and make his home among us for all eternity – that is a mystery so great it cannot fail to cause us to rejoice!  Indeed that very presence of God gives hope even in our most difficult moments – THE LORD IS NEAR!

These final days of Advent call us to prepare more intensely for the Lord’s birth.  They call us to clamor for his Incarnation, waiting with hope and expectation in a world that can sometimes be dark and scary.  These days call us to be people of hope, courageously rejoicing that the Lord is near!  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly and do not delay!

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us new!