Monday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The immediacy of discipleship is of paramount importance.  The call of our baptism is more urgent than anything else in our lives.  Or, at least, that’s how it should be.  Just like anything else in life that requires something from us, discipleship can take a back seat to other things that come along.  Whether it’s the kids’ soccer game at one point in our lives, or lack of energy at another point, or so many life issues that come along, we can be derailed rather quickly from following God’s call the way we should be.

That’s how it was for the scribe in Jesus’ day.  There was no way he could ever tear himself away from the things that tethered him to this world.  Even assuming that his offer was genuine, it’s unlikely that he ever could have made good on his promise to follow Jesus wherever he went.  Jesus wasn’t letting any grass grow under his feet; he had to go where people needed healing, where people needed to hear the Gospel.

We can too easily be tied to the things in this world that are dead.  But our call is to live the life of the Gospel.  May we all hear God’s word today and follow him with urgency.

Men’s Ministry Lenten Breakfast Talk: How Do Men Observe Lent?

Last night, I was in church for the Living Stations.  The junior high kids were leading it and they did an awesome job.  They even got me to shed a few tears along the way.  I’m half Italian: we just do that!  But what was it that got to me and caused those tears:

  1. 1. That the kids took it seriously and were very reverent and prayerful?
  2. 2. Was it the story of salvation, in awe and wonder that God would send his Son to die that horrible death for me?
  3. 3. Or was it that I was hoping and praying those kids are being touched by the meaning of what they were doing?

And the answer is yes, all of that:  As the father of this big family, my heart is moved in all of those ways and more.  That’s what fathers do.  And so I’ve been reflecting on Lent and what that means for men.  How is it that we men observe Lent?

Maybe I should ask, how is it that we men should observe Lent?  Because I know that we live busy lives, and we can scarcely give Lent a second thought if we’re not careful.  But that does nobody any good: not us, not our families, not our communities or workplaces.  If we want to be the best we can for all of them, we have to let Lent permeate who we are and what we do.

And it’s a quandary with which I’m familiar.  When I worked in my pre-seminary days, if I didn’t put prayer on my to-do list – literally – there would be no prayer.  And when there was no prayer, I was not at my best at work, I was not at my best with anyone.  Lent gives us the opportunity to take stock of this and turn it all around.

Reading: Isaiah 64:4-7

I probably don’t have to pound home that point from Isaiah: we have become like unclean men.  The opportunities to go wrong abound, don’t they?  We intend to be men of integrity, but business is complicated.  We intend to love our families into heaven, but we’re tired, we’re busy, and we just don’t always have the patience.  Our sins abound, and we don’t intend that – we so wish we could turn back to God once and for all.  Would that he might meet us doing right.  Maybe that can happen this Lent.

Here’s a question to think about – we will discuss it later, but for now, just think:  have you ever had a really significant Lent: a time when you felt a new springtime in your faith, a time when you grew as a man and really came to know the plans God had for you?  If so, when was that, and what was it that got to you?

(Pause a minute or two.)

I think Lent encourages at least five manly traits, and I want to reflect on those a bit.  Then I want to take a look at the three habits that Lent demands of us.  Finally, without stomping too much on Dr. Muir’s presentation coming up, I want to take a brief look at three men of Lent and reflect on what they model for us.

So first: five manly traits that Lent encourages.

First, Lent encourages us to be men of prayer.  Yes, men of prayer are men who pray, but not just men who say prayers.  Men of prayer are men who:

  • • pray first and often
  • • look around them and see God’s hand at work
  • • are grateful for their gifts
  • • look for an opportunity to worship
  • • experience the sacraments
  • • teach their families how to pray, how to have a relationship with Jesus
    • o We never go alone to the kingdom … we are supposed to take everyone with us, especially our families!

Second, Lent encourages us to be men of faith.  Men of faith know that God is with them in good times and bad.  Men of faith have that relationship with Jesus that helps them to relate well with others.  Men of faith are courageous, and tenacious, and confident, but they are never arrogant.  Humility marks men of faith because they know the source of their strength.  This is not a false humility that makes them doormats for everyone who wishes to take them on.

Third, Lent encourages us to be men of charity.  This might not mean what you think it does.  It’s not primarily about giving money to the poor, or even doing good things for other people.  Yes, these are acts of charity, but what I mean by being men of charity takes us to the Latin root of the word, caritas.  Caritas is a kind of self-giving love, a love that looks for the good of others, a love that sometimes finds its expression in works of charity, but is always characterized by putting the other one first.  Men of charity are men who have a strong, burning love for God that translates into the way they love their families, spouses, children, co-workers, employees, everyone God puts in their path.  Men who exhibit this charity certainly do not overlook another’s faults, but gently and firmly corrects them because he knows that setting the person right is what is best for them.  Charity sometimes means saying no, or not yet; it means saying do this even though you don’t think you want to.  Think how often God does that to us!

  • • Example from my life: my parents urging me to go on a retreat or be part of a group.

Fourth, Lent encourages us to be men of integrity.  Men of integrity exhibit what we generally refer to as “character.”  These are men who do the right thing even though someone isn’t breathing down their neck or micromanaging them.  Integrity is what we all want to say that we have.  But integrity is definitely difficult to always achieve.  Because integrity means walking away from a lucrative business deal because it doesn’t feel right.  Integrity means setting priorities for yourself and your family that are probably counter-cultural, like saying no to sports or activities that make it impossible to go to Mass or to spend adequate time with our families.  Integrity means we are as good as our word, that we can always be relied on to do the right thing.  God does not want to be a micromanager: he wants to set us on the right path and have us walk it every day.  Men of integrity do that.

Finally, Lent calls us to be men of grace.  This doesn’t mean we are able to burn up the dance floor, it means rather that we are aware of God’s action in our life, that we live by that action, and that we spread it on to others.  Grace says that everything we have is a gift, no matter how hard we think we’ve worked for it.  Grace says that we are sinners, men who have committed sins and are guilty of every possible offense against God, but even so we are loved and forgiven and called and blessed.  Grace says that God is infinitely greater than our sins, that there is no way that we can fall so far that God can’t reach us, that he longs to pull us up out of the waters of death and give us life that lasts forever.

The truth of grace is this:  on one day in time, let’s call it December 25, of the year zero… (footnote Fr. Larry Hennessy).

Men of grace are aware of their sinfulness and bring it to the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis; they are grateful for the gift of forgiveness and celebrate it at the table of the Eucharist.  Men of grace enthusiastically pass the faith on to their families, keenly aware of their vocational responsibility to help their spouse and their children get to heaven.  Men of grace witness to others by being men of prayer, men of faith, men of charity and men of integrity!

Another question to think about – of the five manly traits, which do you find most present in your life?  What do you think got you there?  Which do you find least present in your life?  What do you need to do to pursue it?

So now, three Lenten habits: fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

Fasting helps us to:

  • • give up what we truly do not need
  • • let go of things that keep us tethered to the world, to our own self-interest
  • • find in our hunger that there is nothing we hunger for that God can’t provide.

Almsgiving helps us to:

  • • realize that we are not the center of the universe, and also we are not alone
  • • see other people as God sees them and love them as God does.

Prayer helps us to:

  • • find God in the midst of our business, brokenness, despair
  • • have a relationship with God that sees us through good times and bad
  • o Joke about the guy who was going through a hard time and looked at the Bible randomly for some help
  • • see God’s work in our lives

A question to think about:  What’s your Lenten plan?  How will you implement fasting, almsgiving and prayer in your life?

Men of Lent

Peter: Matthew 14:22-33

  • o A man of fledgling faith
    • ♣ courageous, tenacious
  • o A man of grace
    • ♣ fallen and forgiven

Paul:  Philippians 1:19-26

  • o A man of converted faith (his past)
  • o A man of grace (knows who is in charge, where he is being led)
  • o A man of charity (is concerned about others, and fruitful labor)

A question to think about:  Which of these men inspires you most?  Why?  What can you take from his life to create a powerful life-changing Lent?

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A while ago now, I was working at my home parish, St. Petronille, on the staff as a youth minister.  I remember the parish secretary well, she was a very nice woman named Dorothy.  Whenever you’d ask Dorothy how she was, she’d always say, “Busy, busy, busy!”  And I’m sure that she was busy, but it was almost like she was defending her job or something, afraid anyone would find her sitting around.  In truth, she was the last person anyone would suspect of slacking off.

We have some strange readings today.  Part of the issue is that St. Mark’s Gospel is kind of weird.  As you may know, it’s the shortest of the four Gospels we have.  And so when we read it, we find that everything is packed in a very short space.  Our teens have to read a Gospel for their Confirmation project, and many of them pick Mark because it’s the shortest.  The bad news is, that it’s so short, and with so much packed in, that it can sometimes be a lot harder to understand than the others.

And so as we approach Mark’s Gospel, we almost feel a bit breathless.  The story moves so quickly, and Jesus appears to be a lot like Dorothy: “Busy, busy, busy!”  The man can barely find some time to relax with his disciples, or spend some time in prayer before the crowds are hemming in around him, banging on the door, a whole town’s worth of them, bringing Jesus their hurting and ailing and broken friends and loved ones.  And even though Jesus sympathizes with them, even though he certainly gives them what they ask for, he doesn’t want to be known as the “wonder worker.”  His message is a lot more complex than that, a lot more important than even saving someone’s bodily life.

And the disciples are part of the problem for him.  They don’t get it yet, so they rapidly get caught up in the frenzy.  “Everyone is looking for you,” they tell him, almost as if they too can’t wait to see what Jesus will do next.  And so Jesus becomes a mirror of Job in our first reading, who gives himself to the drudgery of what’s expected of him, without any rest in sight.

Do you feel the weariness?  Do you identify with the frenzy?

I think maybe a lot of us are there right now.  It’s been a long winter, and well, it’s just February, so it could go on another couple of months.  We’ve come through the frantic Christmas season, and just have a couple of weeks to go before we’re into Lent.  Parents, priests, pastoral ministers, all of us are in the middle of frenzy almost all the time.  It can be easy to identify with Job who doesn’t see an end in sight, or at least to feel the frustration of Jesus as he longs to have some quiet time, some time away, to recharge the energy and fill up the reservoir of the Spirit.  And yet it always seems like that time never comes, right?

So I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you have to take some time to be connected to God or to pray more or to have some peace and quiet.  You know that.  You’d probably give anything to experience it.  You probably even know that that quiet, recharging time would make you a better parent, a better employee or employer, a better teacher, a better doctor, a better whatever it is that you do.  We all have obligations imposed on us, just like St. Paul was obligated to preach the Gospel, and just like Jesus had the care of his flock given to him by the Father.  And just like Jesus, when we sneak away – even rising before dawn to steal away for some quiet and prayer – all too soon everybody is looking for us and it’s time to move on to the next thing, and the thing after that.

And we know the problem with all of this.  The problem is that when we run on empty for too long, when we lose track of the last time we had an opportunity to recharge, well, then life becomes a drudgery for us.  And it doesn’t matter that our life is blessed beyond imagining.  It doesn’t matter if we have a dream job, or a wonderful family, or if we’re the smartest kid in school, or live in the nicest house on the block.  If we’re depleted of our joy, then even those blessings are drudgery for us.  Job was right about that, he’s right about a lot of things, and we would do well to read him closely.

So what do we do with this?  How do we make our life less of a drudgery, more spiritual, more connected with Jesus the source and summit of our faith and the source of the energy we need to make our world what it needs to be?  Well, I don’t know that I can give you a recipe.  But I will make some suggestions, and you are free to do with them what you will.

First, make a commitment.  You’ll never do it if you don’t make a commitment right here and now.  So make that part of your offertory today.  As the gifts are being collected, offer a gift of commitment to spiritual growth as a gift to God and yourself.

Don’t the commitment a huge one right away.  Many times people will tell me, “Father, I’ve made a commitment to start spending an hour in prayer every night before bed.”  They may certainly make that commitment, but there is no way they’ll live it.  Forget an hour – I mean it.  If you’re starting from zero, give yourself five minutes.  Or even two minutes if that’s all you can do.  Either before your feet hit the ground in the morning, or right before you close your eyes in sleep at the end of the day.  Then let that amount of time grow as the Spirit prompts you.

Make prayer a part of it.  You have to connect with the Lord, and prayer is the way to do that.  But make it the kind of prayer you can live with.  You don’t need to read a book of the Bible every night before bed, maybe a few verses is what you can do.  If you don’t like to pray the rosary, then don’t promise to do that.  (And I’m not suggesting that you don’t pray the rosary, by the way, I think it’s a very good prayer, and I myself like it, but if it doesn’t work for you then it’s not prayer at all.)  Pray in a way that makes sense to you.

Make quiet a part of it.  Quiet is the part of prayer when we can hear the voice of God or notice the prompting of the Spirit or even just calm things down for five minutes.  Turn off your cell phone (now would be a good time for that, by the way, if you haven’t already), close the door, it’s just five minutes and you and God deserve that quiet time.  You might not hear anything the first 50 times you do this, but you will, when the time is right, when you’ve learned to really listen.

If you mess up and miss a day, don’t beat yourself up.  Just give it a shot again tomorrow.  Eventually, you will find, I guarantee, that you cannot live without this time and you’ll not be able to close your eyes in sleep until you’ve done it.

Be grateful.  Thank God for the two minutes of quiet, or the hour, or whatever it is.  Take note of the blessings that come from it.  Know that all of it is a gift from God and is meant to make your life more powerful and beautiful.

Lent is coming up in a few short weeks.  That’s a good time to recommit ourselves to receiving the gifts God has for us by spending time in prayer.  Some of the energy for doing that has to come from us, we have to make a commitment to God in some way.  But the rest of it will come from God, this God who knows how important it is for us to steal away for a few minutes, even when everyone is looking for us, before we get up and go on to preach in the nearby villages, or take the kids to soccer, or get to the next business meeting, or come to a meeting at church, or whatever the next thing is that’s in store for us.

Our lives are complicated and busy, busy, busy.  But, as the Psalmist says, our Lord longs to heal all of us who are brokenhearted, if only we give him a minute or two to do it.

CREEDS Retreat Conference I: Advent and the Incarnation of Christ

Readings:  Matthew 1:18-25; Matthew 3:1-7

Godspell:  “Prepare Ye” and “Save the People”

One of the single greatest mysteries of our faith is the Incarnation of Christ.  When you stop to think about it, who are we that the Author of all Life should take on our own corrupt and broken form and become one of us?  It has been called the “marvelous exchange:” God became human so that humans could become more like God.  When I was in seminary, it was explained to us by a simple, yet divinely complex rule: Whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.  So God assumed our human nature, taking on all of our frailty and weakness, all of our sorrows and frustrations, all of the things that make being human difficult at times.  As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer puts it, he became “one like us in all things but sin.”

This belief in the doctrine of the Incarnation is essential for our Catholic faith, even our Christian religion.  One cannot not believe in the Incarnation and call oneself Christian.  It’s part of our Creed: “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  This doctrine is so important, so holy to us, that at the mention of it in the creed, we are instructed to bow during those words, and on Christmas, we are called to genuflect at that time.  There is always a reason for any movement in the Liturgy, and the reason for our bowing or genuflecting is that the taking on of our flesh by our God is an occasion of extreme grace, unparalleled in any religion in the world.  If the Incarnation had not taken place, there never would have been a Cross and Resurrection.  First things are always first!

And so it seems that it’s appropriate as we being our reflections on Matthew’s Gospel to begin with the Incarnation.  It’s even more appropriate that we do that during this season of Advent, whose very name means “coming.”  During Advent, we begin this wonderful period of waiting with the cry of St. John the Baptist,

“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’”

And the movie and play Godspell famously does this with the wonderful refrain “Prepare ye the way of the Lord…”  You notice in the movie that this song accompanied the liturgical action of the players being baptized by the Baptist.  Their dancing after pledging repentance of the sins of their past life signifies the joy that we all share being on the precipice of something new this Advent.  They received the forerunner of our sacramental Baptism by the one who was the forerunner of Christ.  This baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins like ours, but unlike ours, did not convey the Holy Spirit.  That would come later, after the death and Resurrection of Christ.  He had to return to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit.

But, as the song suggests, that baptism was essential to prepare the way for Christ.  The Benedictus, the Gospel canticle from the Church’s Morning Prayer, which is based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke, speaks of that baptism and the significance of the Baptist’s ministry:  “You my child will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before him to prepare his way.  To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  Indeed, if our sins had never been forgiven, we would know nothing of salvation, indeed there really would be no salvation.  But that baptism of St. John literally prepared the way of the Lord by helping the people to know that God was doing something significant among them.  That was the reason for them dancing and splashing around in all that water: they too were on the precipice of something new, something incredibly, amazingly, wonderfully new.

Now in Matthew’s Gospel, we have an infancy narrative – a story of the birth of Christ.  “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about,” the Gospel begins.  Mary is found with child through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph doesn’t know what to believe.  But in Matthew, Joseph is the one who gets a visit from an angel, not Mary.  And he is the first one to hear a key phrase in Matthew’s Gospel: “do not be afraid” – “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.”  Fear, for Matthew, is the cardinal sin, because it is fear that keeps us from responding in love to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Apparently Mary had no such fear, because the beginning of the Gospel “finds” her already with child through the Holy Spirit.  The child is born to the couple and at the instruction of the angel, he is named Jesus, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In the movie, there is no infancy.  Christ comes at the end of John’s baptism sequence, and instructs John to baptize him because, as Jesus tells him, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  As he is baptized, Jesus sings, “God save the people,” a prayer that is of course already being accomplished as he speaks.  The play seems to be a bit more pessimistic than the actual Gospel, because Jesus practically pleads for God’s mercy on his people, implying a relationship that was not nearly as close as the Gospels proclaim and our faith believes.  This is one of the little grains of salt we need to take from the movie; in fact it does seem to be an expression of the author’s take on the Jesus event.  So I’d just say don’t take Godspell as Gospel, if you know what I mean!

And so the advent and Incarnation narratives give us some pause in these Advent days.  We have the opportunity to think about our own birth, or rebirth, in faith.  We get to make the paths straight and the way smooth for the coming of our Lord yet again.  Maybe these days find us struggling to come to a new place in our faith, a higher stage, a bold move.  We might tremble a bit at where God seems to be leading us through our study of Scripture.  But Matthew begs us to hear those all-important words – “be not afraid” – be not afraid to go where God and Scripture lead you.  Be not afraid to take the next step.  Be not afraid to ascend to that higher place God longs for you to be in right now.

St. Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today's readings

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St. Bonaventure is known for his theological writings with regard to holiness.  He was chosen to be minister general of the Franciscan Order in 1257, and devoted himself to bringing the Order to a closer living of the principles of St. Francis.  This was especially important to him, since he was cured of a serious illness as a child through the prayers of St. Francis himself.  He is known for his writings, which are very close to a kind of mysticism, even though St. Bonaventure was a very active preacher and teacher, and not a strict contemplative as you’d expect a mystic to be.

The thought that mysticism and active work in the world can co-exist is especially important.  Just because we are busy doesn’t mean we don’t make time to pray.  That was what tripped up the Israelites who thought they were too busy defending themselves that they couldn’t rely on the Lord.  Isaiah prophesied differently.  And that was the thought that tripped up the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida.  They had seen the mighty works of Jesus, but they just couldn’t get past the surface and see how Jesus’ Gospel could relate to their life.

When we get there, that’s a red flag that something has gone wrong.  When we find that we have gotten so caught up in the busy-ness of our lives that we’ve lost sight of Jesus, then we know that we have some repairs to make on our life of faith.  Because the true witness of a person of faith is that he or she does work in the world that testifies to the richness of their prayer.  “Unless your faith is firm, you shall not be firm,” Isaiah tells us today.  So if we find ourselves a little infirm in our living today, we know that we need to turn to our prayer to make things right.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel we find out that Jesus is not above asking a trick question or two to get people’s attention. He asks today, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” And any shepherd worth his salt would say, “Of course not!” There is no way the shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep unprotected to look for one who was lost. It wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Jesus is saying that God would do what no one else would even think of in order to bring back one of his children gone astray. There is no limit to God’s extravagance in reaching out to get us back. God’s wisdom in calling his children back to him is far beyond what we would think of as common sense. God does what nobody would do because we are just that important to him.

I can think of a couple of times in my own life where God has reached out to me in extraordinary ways. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be standing here today, and honestly, who knows where I would be. God pursues us relentlessly because he cannot bear to live without us for all eternity.

All we have to do is respond. And we have those opportunities. One is our Advent Reconciliation service, tonight at 7:00pm. We all have need to come to the Sacrament of Penance so that our God can reach out to us in mercy. The Sacrament is not about what we’ve done wrong, but rather about the way that God wants to pour out his forgiveness and grace with extravagance. Maybe we haven’t been like the lost sheep and gone totally away from God, but we know on a daily basis, we often take a step or two off the path. I hope you’ll all let the shepherd who is our God bring you back tonight. This is a great way for us to create a highway for our God to enter our hearts this Christmas.

Isaiah proclaims today, “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Praise God today for his extravagant grace.

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The thing is, 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.

Because tax collectors were despicable human beings. They worked for the Romans, were in league with the foreign occupation. They were not paid by the Romans for their work. 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. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and bordered on extortion. Often, the border was crossed. 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 is the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector 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? Grammar lesson here: “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. 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.

The trouble here is that the Pharisee doesn’t need God; he can do the whole righteousness thing all by himself, thank you very much. This is known in theology as the heresy of Pelagianism: a belief that we are responsible for our own salvation, and that salvation is achievable through our own efforts. The tax collector knows this is false, and is quite convinced that he needs God and needs God’s mercy. He is also quite convinced that God can be trusted to come to his aid. The bottom line on this parable is that we are all sinners, we are all incapable of any kind of real righteousness on our own efforts, and we all need a Savior.

Someone once told me that it must be so hard for me to listen to all those confessions; that it must be discouraging to hear about all that sin. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Because the truth is, I am quite aware of my own sinfulness, and am encouraged by those who come to the Sacrament to receive God’s mercy. I don’t worry so much about those who confess their sins, because I trust in the grace of the Sacrament of Penance and I trust in the God who is mercy itself. I worry more about those who have not confessed or will not confess, or are too embarrassed to confess. I worry about those who think they can fix their problems all by themselves. I worry about those who don’t think they need a Savior.

This week I noticed how beautiful some of the trees are becoming. I felt the nip in the air and have noticed the shortness of the daylight. It all reminded me that our year is coming to a close. And our Church year is coming to a close even sooner than that: in just four weeks we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last day of our Church year, and the following week we will begin a new Church year with the season of Advent. Where has the time gone? These are the days that have me thinking about my life this past year. Maybe you are too. How have we grown this year, especially in our faith? Have we made progress in Christian life, attacked sin and vice, and grown in virtue? These are the questions we need to put up at the front of our prayer in these weeks.

The Liturgy today is framing all that around one question: have you been more aware this year 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 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 St. 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 today’s Liturgy gives us very good news indeed. 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 can not 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.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this temple, this church, to pray today. What is our prayer like? What is it that we have been trying to work on this year? What sins 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?

Our Psalmist is clear today: The Lord hears the cry of the poor. He’s not talking about simple poverty of riches. He’s talking more about the more complex poverty of spirit that we must all work toward. “God is close to the brokenhearted,” he says, and “those who are crushed in spirit, he saves. The Lord redeems the lives of his servants; no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him.” We don’t have to work hard to achieve our own righteousness. But we may have to work hard to achieve our own poverty of spirit.

God is God, and we are not. Pray it after me: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy of the Word, brothers and sisters in Christ, is a kind of handbook, I think, for the Christian disciple. Those of us who would follow in the steps of Jesus are given several wonderful pearls of wisdom which are meant to guide us on the way. So today, I thought it would be good to reflect on them, even though they may seem disjointed, and see where they are leading us. So let’s roll up our sleeves and work through them.

The first pearl comes from our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews. The first like is perhaps one of the best known verses of Scripture: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Faith is something we all strive to have, but faith is really a gift. We long to be people of faith because it is faith that gives peace in the midst of uncertainty. Faith, as the author points out, is not the same thing as proof. Proof requires evidence, and faith usually provides none of that. Faith, perhaps, is not knowing what will happen, but instead knowing the one in whom we trust. If we know our God is trustworthy, then we don’t need to know all the details of what is ahead of us; instead, we can trust in the One who leads us. The more that we exercise that faith, the more our faith grows.

The next three pearls of wisdom come from our Gospel today. We could really divide that Gospel into three parts, with the wisdom saying at or near the end of each part. The first of these is “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” This part looks a lot like the continuation of last week’s Gospel. Last week we were cautioned not to store up worthless treasure in barns, but instead to invest in whatever will lead us to heaven. Today’s saying is kind of an examination of conscience along that same line of teaching. Here Jesus is inviting us to look at exactly what has been our treasure. Has it been success, power, prestige and wealth? Or has it been compassion, nurturing, mercy and justice? Have we put all of our energies into our work or play time, or have we spent time on our families, in our prayer life, and in works of mercy? What is our treasure? If our treasure is in things of the world, then our heart will be in the world and we will have no chance for salvation. But if our treasure is in our true home in heaven, then that’s where we will find our heart and our salvation.

The next pearl comes at the end of a teaching on the need for watchfulness and waiting. It’s almost an Advent theme right here in mid-August. Here, Jesus says to us: “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” We do all sorts of waiting. We wait in the grocery line and in the doctor’s office. We wait for friends or family to join us at the dinner table. We wait for job offers, for the right person in our relationships, and we wait for the right direction in our lives. In all of our waiting, Jesus tells us today, we must be prepared for the outpouring of God’s grace. If we are distracted by worldly things and worldly activities, we may miss that grace as it is poured out right before us. If we are caught up in things that have no permanence, we may miss our opportunity to follow Christ to our salvation. We must always be prepared for the Son of Man to come into our lives.

And the final pearl is one of my favorites, perhaps the most challenging words I have ever had spoken to me. It comes right at the end of the Gospel today: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” When I was in seminary, they used to put it in the words of another translation of this verse: “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Think about it. We are citizens of the richest nation on earth. We live in perhaps the wealthiest city in the wealthiest counties in that nation. We worship freely, without threat of death or incarceration. Our children have opportunities for education beyond the wildest imaginings of those in other nations, or even in most cities of our country. We sit here in an air conditioned Church and worship with great music, vibrant ministries, and committed ministers of all kinds. We have truly been given much – much more than most people can dream of, much more than we deserve at any given point in our lives. Grace is all around us. So what are we giving in return? Much has been given, and much will be expected. If we are not living our faith every day, if we are not giving back to our world from what we have been given, then we are guilty of stealing it. Much is expected of us disciples, and perhaps today’s Scriptures are calling us to reflect on how we have been delivering on that expectation.

All of these pearls of wisdom are – to use a corporate expression that I absolutely loathe – “raising the bar” in our faith life. The letter to the Hebrews calls us to live our faith and not just say we have faith. Jesus in the Gospel tells us to take that faith and do something with it. He calls us to find treasure in the things of heaven, to wait for our salvation with eager longing, and to give from the rich treasure of that which we have been given. This coming year, our parish vision has us reflecting on stewardship, reflecting on what we have been given and what we are doing with it. Today’s Liturgy of the Word is a great way to start our reflections along those lines. We rejoice today to be God’s people, to gather around the table of Word and Sacrifice. As the Psalmist says so eloquently today: “Blessed,” indeed happy, “the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.”

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today's readings

During World War II, the officers of the Third Reich's secret service forcefully recruited many 12- and 13-year-old boys into the Junior Gestapo. The harshly treated boys were given only inhumane jobs that they were to perform without rest or complaint.

After the war ended, most had lost contact with their families and wandered aimlessly, without food or shelter. As part of an aid program to rebuild postwar Germany, many of these youths were housed in tent cities. There, doctors and nurses worked with them in an attempt to restore their physical, mental and emotional health.

Many of the boys would awaken several times during the night screaming in terror. One doctor had an idea for handling their fears. After serving the boys a hearty meal, he'd tuck them into bed with a piece of bread in their hands that they were told to save until morning. The boys began to sleep soundly after that because, after so many years of hunger and uncertainty as to their next meal, they finally had the assurance of food for the next day.

On the last day of my dad's life about a month ago, I gave him Holy Communion for what would be the last time. He was able to pray with us, and was so grateful to receive the Sacrament of Jesus' own body and blood. We call that last Communion Viaticum which in Latin means "bread for the journey." Like the former Junior Gestapo boys who slept soundly because they knew they had food for the next day, my dad was able to rest in Christ knowing that he would be able to eat at the heavenly banquet table.

On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are called to take comfort in the many ways God feeds us. We know that when we pray "give us this day our daily bread," we will receive all that we need and more, because our God loves us and cares for us. But to really trust in God's care can sometimes be a bit of a scary moment.

It was certainly scary for the disciples, who asked Jesus to "dismiss the crowds" so that they could go into the surrounding cities and get something to eat. They were afraid for the crowds because they had come to the desert, where there was nothing to eat or drink. They were afraid for the crowds because it would soon be dark and then it would be dangerous to travel into the surrounding cities to find refuge and sustenance. And, if they were to really admit it, they were afraid of the crowds, because all they had to offer them were five loaves of bread and two fish – hardly a meal for the Twelve, let alone five thousand.

loaves fishBut Jesus isn't having any of that. Fear is no match for God's mercy and care and providence, so instead of dismissing the crowds, he tells the disciples to gather the people in groups of about fifty. Then he takes the disciples meager offering, with every intent of supplying whatever it lacked. He blesses their offerings, transforming them from an impoverished snack to a rich, nourishing meal. He breaks the bread, enabling all those present to partake of it, and finally he gives that meal to the crowd, filling their hungering bodies and souls with all that they need and then some. Caught in a deserted place with darkness encroaching and practically nothing to offer in the way of food, Jesus overcomes every obstacle and feeds the crowd with abundance. It's no wonder they followed him to this out of the way place.

The disciples had to be amazed at this turn of events, and perhaps it was an occasion for them of coming to know Jesus and his ministry in a deeper way. They were fed not just physically by this meal, but they were fed in faith as well. In this miraculous meal, they came to know that their Jesus could be depended on to keep them from danger and to transform the bleakest of moments into the most joyous of all festivals. But even as their faith moved to a deeper level, the challenge of that faith was cranked up a notch as well. "You give them something to eat," Jesus said to them. Having been fed physically and spiritually by their Master, they were now charged with feeding others in the very same way.

Christ has come to supply every need. In Jesus, nothing is lacking and no one suffers want. All the Lord asks of the five thousand is what he also asks of us each Sunday: to gather as a sacred assembly, to unite in offering worship with Jesus who is our High Priest, to receive Holy Communion, and to go forth to share the remaining abundance of our feast with others who have yet to be fed. After the crowd had eaten the meal, that was the time for them to go out into the surrounding villages and farms – not to find something to eat, but to share with everyone they met the abundance that they had been given. So it is for us. After we are fed in the Eucharist, we must then necessarily go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord by sharing our own abundance with every person we meet.

You might do that by participating in a small faith community, sharing the Scriptures and our own living faith with your brothers and sisters. Maybe you would do that by becoming Eucharistic Ministers, and dedicating yourselves to the ministry of distributing the precious gift of the Lord's own Body and Blood each Sunday. But you could also do that by volunteering to serve a meal at Hesed House, or bringing food to Loaves and Fishes. Sharing our abundance of spiritual blessing doesn't have to be very elaborate. You might just bring a meal to a friend going through a hard time or visit a neighbor who is a shut-in. Jesus is the font of every blessing, and it is up to us to share that blessing with everyone in every way we can. We too must hear and answer those challenging words of Jesus: "You give them something to eat."

What we celebrate today is that our God is dependable and that we can rely on him for our needs. Just as he was dependable to feed the vast crowd in that horrible, out-of the-way place, so he too can reach out to us, no matter where we are on the journey, and feed us beyond our wildest imaginings. Just as the Junior Gestapo boys were able to rest easy as they clutched that bread for the next day, so we too can rest easy, depending on our God to give us all that we need to meet the challenges of tomorrow and beyond. The challenge to give others something to eat need not be frightening because we know that the source of the food is not our own limited offerings, but the great abundance of God himself. We need not fear any kind of hunger – our own or that of others – because it's ultimately not about us or what we can offer, but what God can do in and through us.

In our Eucharist today, the quiet time after Communion is our time to gather up the wicker baskets of our abundance, to reflect on what God has given us and done for us and done with us. We who receive the great meal of his own Body and Blood must be resolved to give from those wicker baskets in our day-to-day life, feeding all those people God has given us in our lives. We do all this in remembrance of Christ, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again.

Memorial Day

Today's readings: Philippians 4:6-9 & John 14:23-29

memorialdayMemorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country. This continues to be the main focus of Memorial Day but this day has also become a time to remember not just those who died in war, but also all of our loved ones who have died. It is above all a time to remember.

As a people, we tend to look for heroes in our lives. Our society gives us all kinds of heroes, most of them really pretty unworthy of the title. How many sports heroes have also been drug users? How many political heroes have also turned out to be corrupt? How many entertainment heroes have found their way into drug or alcohol abuse or have turned out to be flawed in other ways? We are all of us both saints and sinners. We are works in progress hoping for true redemption in Christ. We should therefore look up to those heroes in our lives who have been people of faith, even if they have been flawed in other ways.

And so we remember today those who have been believers, those who loved God and, as Jesus commanded in today's Gospel, have kept his word. These are the heroes we would do well to pattern our lives after, as St. Paul says in today's first reading: "Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

Those who have been part of our lives, and the life of our country, who have been people of faith and integrity are the heroes that God has given us. If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.