Homilies Ordinary Time

Thursday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think, because these readings are just hard to hear.  The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening.  And even if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience first thing in the morning, I think.

But there is a spiritual principle at work here.  We are being called to mindfulness.  If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing.  God is bringing the whole of creation to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it.  We dare not be like those who missed the time of their visitation.  We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.

And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us.  We must not be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time. We know the time is running short.  The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like.  The leaves have gone from the trees.  The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost.  These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment, at least for the meteorological year.

But if the encroaching winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days.  Let us not be like Jerusalem; we dare not miss the time of our visitation!

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’ve often heard stories of those who grew up in the great depression.  Many years later, they still had deeply engrained in them the scrupulous care for everything they have that was etched into their very being during that horrible time in our history.  They spent a lifetime wasting nothing, which was a good thing, except it sometimes spiraled into hoarding things.  They would eat leftovers well past their freshness dates.  It was just their response to having nothing, so completely understandable.

And that’s the lens through which I think we need to see this week’s Gospel parable.  Here Jesus presents the very familiar story of a rich man entrusting his slaves with a great deal of wealth before he sets off on a long journey.  But because this is such a familiar parable, I think it often gets interpreted wrongly.  Often this parable gets turned into a lesson on sharing your gifts with others, but that’s not actually what’s going on here.  The word “talents” here does not mean what we mean when we use that word: here we are not talking about gifts or abilities.  No, a talent was a unit of money, and a large sum of money at that.  Scholars suggest that a talent was equal to something like one thousand days’ wages.  So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

So we have this huge amount of money, given as a gift.  And that gift is being given, not to whom we would expect: not to senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  No, the text says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

And we know the story.  Two of them take what they have and very successfully invest it and when the master returns, are able to hand over the original sum with one hundred per cent interest.  Very impressive, especially for a slave!  But the slave who received just a “little” (even though it was certainly still a lot of money), out of fear buries it in the ground and gives it back to the master untouched, with nothing to show for it.  It’s much like a person having gone through something like the great depression placing money under a mattress rather than trust the banks, which they saw fail miserably in their lifetimes.

That’s the backstory, and there’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get at it.  We’ve established that the gift they are receiving – even the slave who received little – is worth an incredible amount of money, especially to a slave who would never have the opportunity to see such wealth if not for the trust the master has placed in them.  We could almost understand, I think, if a servant hoarded the wealth entrusted to him, or used it for himself and his family.  So that the third servant even gave it back seems like a good thing. 

I guess we have to unpack though, what the talent, the money, represents.  Here, these slaves have received something very great, some inestimable wealth.  What could that possibly be?  We should be able to see this pretty well.  What’s of inestimable value for us?  Well, of course, it’s God’s love, grace, and favor, which is undeservedly ours and given to us without merit.  That’s what the God, the master, was entrusting to his servants.

So just for background, this is yet another indictment of the Pharisees and religious establishment of the time.  They were the ones who, because Christ was not yet present in the world, received just one talent.  They received that in the form of the covenant and the law that was the basis of their religion.  And let’s just acknowledge that God choosing them among all the nations was a huge sum of grace!  Yet, their practice was to protect it so scrupulously by attending to the minutiae of the 613 laws of the Torah, that they missed the opportunity to really invest God’s love in the world and grow the faith to full stature.

So we disciples can’t be like that.  We can’t have the faith taken away from us and be tossed out to wail and grind our teeth.  We have to take the faith we’ve been given, the grace we have received in baptism, and invest it mightily in the world, without fear, so that everyone will come to know the Lord and we would all go on to be put in charge of greater things, in the kingdom of heaven.  That is our vocation in the world, brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have to get that right.  We can’t cower in fear, or think our faith is too little, or we don’t know enough.  In Matthew’s Gospel, fear is a huge sin.  “Do not be afraid” is a term we see over and over in the readings.  We have to be bold disciples and make sure that Christ is known everywhere we go, everywhere life takes us.  That is the only acceptable response to God’s love.

We have come here today on the second-to-last Sunday of the Church year.  Next week, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, and then look forward to a new year as we begin the season of Advent.  And so it is important that we take today’s Gospel parable seriously.  We need to spend some time reflecting on how well we have invested God’s grace and love in the world around us.  Have we been good examples to our family and others?  Have we been people of integrity in our workplaces, schools and community?  Have we served those who are in need out of love for Christ?  Have we been zealous to grow in our spiritual lives?  Have we taken time to root sin out of our life, and to receive the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance?  Have we been unafraid to witness to our faith in every situation?  In this most difficult year, have we been able to get beyond ourselves to care enough about others to do what we can to keep people healthy in the face of a pandemic, to respect people of every race, color and creed, to witness to life and vote according to our formed consciences, to keep the doors of discussion open so that understanding can grow?

If we can’t answer all these questions affirmatively, we have some new-Church-year’s resolutions to make.  Because, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, brothers and sisters, the alternative is wailing and grinding of teeth.  And forever is a long time to be doing that!  No; God forbid.  Our desire is to hear those wonderful words from our Lord one day: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master’s joy.”

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So here’s one of those occasions when we have what seems to be a pretty odd parable in the Gospel reading.  It’s a story that challenges our notion of who Jesus is and what he was about – it almost seems in this story that he’s being “un-Jesus-like” in the story.  But hang on to that idea that for a second, because I think it will become clear what’s really going on as we unravel the story.  I always maintain that when a Scripture gets us riled up, then God is trying to tell us something important, and I definitely think that’s what’s going on here.

So, first, we have to understand the details of the parable.  This probably doesn’t sound like any wedding to which you have ever been.  Wedding customs in first century Palestine were a little different than those we know today.  The wedding was a rather drawn-out affair, beginning with the betrothal.  After that, the couple was basically married, but would not live together until the sometimes-complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete.  When that was done, the bridegroom would journey to the bride’s house and bring her to his own house.  Then there would be a splendid feast that would go on for several days, complete with feasting and abundant wine and all kinds of festivity.

So the parable we have in today’s Gospel puts us in the moment of time just as the negotiations are complete and they are expecting the bridegroom to go to the bride’s house.   The virgins are there ready to begin the great feast, but the bridegroom is delayed a bit, and they all fall asleep.  However, that is not the problem.  The problem is that half of them were unprepared.

And here I think is the point that gets us riled up a bit.  I think we bristle at the whole notion of the wise virgins’ refusal to share their oil with the foolish.  Jesus was always for sharing and charity, so what’s the deal here?  Well, since we know Jesus regularly encourages kindness to others, I think we can safely conclude that is not the point of the parable and move on.  The point of the parable then, may well be the oil itself.  What kind of oil is he really talking about?  Of what is this oil symbolic?

The Church Fathers help us a bit there.  They talk about the oil as the oil of salvation.  This would be an oil that can only be had in relationship with Jesus.  It’s an oil that can’t be begged, borrowed, stolen or bought at an all-night Walgreens.  We fill the flasks of our lives with that oil through daily prayer, devotion, the sacraments, and a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ, our Savior.  So the foolish virgins were looking for oil too late — too late not just because it is midnight, but too late because they should have been filling their flasks with this oil all along.  It’s not the wise virgins’ fault they did not share: indeed this is an oil that cannot be shared, any more than one could live another’s life for that person.

What astounds me is that five of these virgins showed up unprepared.  We may not be familiar with first-century Palestinian wedding customs, but they certainly were.  So they would have known the wedding would go on for some days.  How is it, then, that they forgot to bring extra oil?  Even if the bridegroom had not been delayed, they certainly would have needed it!  What was so important to them that they forgot to attend to the most basic part of their job in preparation for the wedding banquet?  It would be like the maid of honor in a wedding today forgetting to plan a wedding shower – unthinkable!

Just so, we certainly have nothing more important to do than to show up at the wedding feast of heaven with our flasks filled with the oil of salvation.  No other concern should distract us for our most basic job on earth, which is preparing for our life in heaven.  We must not be deterred from prayer, devotion, good works of charity, fasting, and zealous reception of the sacraments lest we hear those awful words the bridegroom spoke to the foolish virgins: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”

When we get to the feast, if our flasks are not full, it is already too late.  The last Sunday of the Church year is two weeks from today.  So this is a very good time to take a look back and see how well we have filled our flasks in the last year.  Have we been zealous to attend to our spiritual lives?  Have we been careful to be sure we have received the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis?  We have safely had confessions here for over five months, so we have it down to a science.  Like everything else these days, it’s not the same, but it is still good.  You still get sacramental grace!  Similarly, going back to Mass isn’t okay for everyone, and it’s definitely filled with inconvenience, and we still don’t have an obligation to attend Mass, but we have Mass, and if you can come, there’s no substitute for the Eucharist.  That’s always the same.  Beyond the sacraments, do we take time to reflect on our relationship with God and try our best to live our lives as we have been called?  Have we even thought about what is the purpose of our lives right now?  Are we, at this point in life’s journey, walking with our Lord through good times and bad?  Or have we veered off the path, not even concerned about having the oil of salvation?  Have we been content with oil that does not burn brightly and which runs out just when we need it?

If that’s where we have found ourselves this year, then we have some work to do in the coming weeks.  As we wind up this year and begin the next, we need to steadfastly resolve to fill our flasks to overflowing with the oil of salvation in the year ahead.  The only way we can do that is by zealously seeking our God, praying the prayer of the Psalmist:

O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Tuesday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Go out to the highways and hedgerows
and make people come in that my home may be filled.

Way back on Friday, we began hearing the story from Saint Luke’s gospel about the time Jesus was invited to a dinner at the home of one of the leading Pharisees.  At that time, Jesus performed a miraculous cure for a man who suffered from dropsy.  In today’s passage, Jesus is still at that table.  In this part of the story, one of the people at table says to him, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the Kingdom of God.”  While not disagreeing with that person, Jesus intends to clarify who will be at the table and who will not.  Those who will be dining in the Kingdom are those who intentionally live in it.  While the Pharisees may have thought that meant it was they who would be blessed, Jesus tells a parable to clarify the matter.

The parable illustrates that those who were invited were occupied with other matters: a new field, a new team of oxen, a new spouse.  Their rejection forced the host to offer the dinner to a new group of people: those outside of the accepted group.  And so his servants went out into the streets and alleys, hedgerows and highways to fill the house, because none of the original invitees would be welcome at the table.  So Jesus is doing something new.  Since the religious establishment had found other more pressing matters than relationship with their God, he would now turn to those who were rejected and marginalized, and invite them to dine in the Kingdom.

But that command to the servant is for us, his servants. We’re commanded, as that servant was, to bring people to the table of the Kingdom of God.  We’re commanded, in the very strong language of this gospel passage to “make people come in” that God’s home may be filled.  There’s plenty of room in the Kingdom; the table is large and the spaces at it are plenty.  We are being sent out to the margins to “make people come in.” This demands that we be missionary disciples.  We have to be the ones to help people to know they are welcome, no matter how far they have strayed, no matter who has refused to welcome them in the past.  The mission is always new, and always pressing. If we are serious about serving our God, we have no other choice but to go out looking for dinner guests!

Homilies Ordinary Time

Friday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus was always on the lookout for people who needed healing.  The ones we hear about in the Gospel stories, like the one we just heard today, were needs for physical healing, sure, but the stories also tell us about the need for spiritual healing.  Sometimes our bodies are sick, but sometimes our souls are sick too.

The man in today’s Gospel reading had what they called dropsy.  I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up.  Basically, it’s a build-up of fluid in some part of the body, very often a limb like a leg, or even in the foot or ankle, or hand.  Today, we might call that edema, and usually it is caused by some other disease, like congestive heart failure.  Usually people with this condition have trouble moving around or really doing anything in their everyday life, so I’m sure the man in the Gospel story was very happy to be rid of it.

All this happened at a dinner in the home of one of the leading Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a faction of religious leaders at that time.  They were all observing Jesus carefully, and we now know they were doing that so that they might have some reason to discredit him and ignore his teaching, and even to get rid of him.  Eventually, their suspicion of him brought Jesus to the cross.  Maybe we wonder why they were like that: well, it could have been jealousy.  Or maybe they just felt threatened.  Either way, the Pharisees had lost sight of the mission.

You could see how they would have been jealous: here they are working long and hard to take care of the many prescripts of their religion, attending with exacting detail to the commandments of God and the laws that governed their way of life.  But it is Jesus, this upstart, and not them, who is really moving the people and getting things done.  People were being healed – inside and out – and others were being moved to follow him on his way.  That had to make them green with envy.  And, yes, they probably felt threatened.  The way that he was preaching, the religion he was talking about – well, it was all new and seemed to fly in the face of what they had long believed and what they had worked so hard to preserve.  And Jesus was successful while they were not: people were being healed, they hung on his teaching, and followed him wherever he went.

But how had those Pharisees lost the way?  Because what Jesus advocated was really not a different or surprising message: it was all about how God loves his people and that we should love God and others with that same kind of love.  That message was there: buried deep in the laws and rules that they were so familiar with, but somehow for them, the laws and rules became more important than the love.

The Pharisees wanted to preserve their religion and the way of life they had lived for so long.  Jesus wanted to help people to experience God’s love, forgiveness of their sins, and true healing – healing from the inside out.  It’s not that the rules of religion are not important, but the underlying message and the greatness of God cannot be overshadowed by the rules.  That is the argument in today’s Gospel; that is the argument that ultimately brought Jesus to the cross.  He would rather die than live without us; he paid the price that we might be truly healed and might truly live.  Thanks be to God!

Homilies Ordinary Time

Tuesday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The injunction for wives to be submissive to their husbands, given in our first reading, certainly offends our modern ears.  That’s just not the kind of thing we say in this society, at least not in these days.  Yet this was the norm in the society in which Saint Paul ministered.  So that command would hardly have raised an eyebrow.  What would have been shocking in Saint Paul’s time was the reciprocal injunction to husbands to love their wives as they loved their own bodies.  Indeed, Saint Paul’s point was not to rile either husbands or wives, but more to promote the living of harmonious family relationships.

So how would it look now?  Today, I think Saint Paul would insist that husbands and wives would live as equal partners, showing mutual respect, and living the love of Christ in their relationship.  Saint Paul would certainly say that men and women should work together to foster families in which God’s love could be shown and made manifest in the world through them.  

The real point of this reading, we must remember, is that the love of husband and wife echoes the love between Christ and the Church.  He says this in the second-to-last line of the reading: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”  The marriage of man and woman is intended to be an icon, a reflection, a window where all can see the marriage of God to the Church and to the world.  It’s a challenge and a decision that married couples must make every day, as well as those of us wed to the Church through Holy Orders.

May we all love one another as Christ loves his bride, the Church.

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Mike was one of my favorite people in the world.  He owned the service station where my family had, and still has, our cars repaired and maintained ever since we first moved out to the suburbs, almost forty years ago now.  Dad used to joke that with all the cars we brought in there over the years, we probably had ownership in at least the driveway by now.  Mike was the kind of guy who, if you brought your car in for a tune-up, would call you and say, “your car doesn’t really need a tune-up yet, so I’ll just change the oil and a couple of the spark plugs and you’ll be fine.”  He was honest and did great work, and it seemed like everyone knew him.  He taught that to a kid who came to work for him when he was just sixteen.  When Mike retired five years or so ago, Ted took over for him and runs the business just the way Mike taught him.

Mike was a regular at the 7am Mass on Sunday, and after his retirement was a pretty regular daily Mass-goer.  The church would sometimes ask him to help a person in need with car repairs.  This he did gladly; he was always ready to serve.  A couple of years ago, when Mike died, I took Mom to his wake.  It took us an hour and a half to get in to see him and his family, and it was like that all night long.  His funeral packed the parish church, and eight of us priests concelebrated the Mass.  Mike left his mark on our community in incredible ways, and nobody ever forgot it.  Mike truly understood the kind of love that Jesus calls us to have in today’s Gospel.

Today’s gospel reading speaks to us about what may be the hallmark of Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor.  This two-pronged approach to loving is what life is all about for us, it is, in fact, the way we are all called to live the Gospel.  The scholar of the law is testing Jesus to see if he can come up with a way to discredit him.  But Jesus’ answer is one that the scholar can’t take issue with.  He boils all of the law and the prophets down to just two basic commandments: love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and then also love your neighbor as yourself.  There were over six hundred major and minor precepts in the Jewish law, and the scholars argued about them all the time.  But they can’t really take issue with what Jesus said.  In fact, the first of the laws that Jesus quoted, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and soul…” was once that so many students of the law had memorized from the time they were little children.  In fact, many Jews did and do post that particular quote of the law on their doorposts and reverence those words when they enter the home, so this was not new ground for them.  What was new was putting the love of neighbor parallel to that law.  And when you think about it, this is so common-sense.  If we love God and neighbor, there won’t be any room for sin or crime or anything like that.  It’s so simple.  And yet so hard to do.

But it shouldn’t be that way: it shouldn’t have been hard for the Pharisees and it shouldn’t be hard for us either.  The Pharisees made up the strongest part of the religious establishment of the time.  They were so concerned about getting the law right, that they often missed the whole point of the law in the first place.  Jesus was always taking them to task for that.  The law came from none other than God himself, and he gave it for the good of the people, but the Pharisees used it to keep people under their thumb, which was what they were trying to do to Jesus here.

And, to be clear, God is all about justice.  So if that’s how he wanted it, the law would indeed be very rigid.  But as we see from the small sample of the law we have in our first reading, God wanted justice to be tempered with mercy.  Sure, go ahead and take your neighbor’s cloak as collateral on a loan.  But you better give it back to him before sundown, because that’s all he has to keep him warm in the night.  Justice in the eyes of God, is completely useless without the application of compassion.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to those of us who have learned, as early as we can remember, that God is love.  God is love itself, and God cannot not love.  That’s what God does and who God is: he loves us into existence, loves us in repentance, loves us with mercy, and loves us to eternity.  God is love in the purest of all senses: that love which wills the good of the other as other.

So when Jesus boils the whole Judaic law down to two commandments, it’s not like he’s made it easy.  As I said; it is simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy.  It means giving the person who just cut you off in traffic a break, because you don’t know what’s really going on in their life.  It means showing kindness to your family after a long day, even when they’re testing your patience.  It means finding ways to be charitable and help those less fortunate.  And it means cutting yourself some slack when you mess up, even when you’ve just committed the sin you’ve been trying to stamp out of your life forever.  You have to love yourself if you are going to do what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That’s one that people miss all the time.

The whole law and the prophets depends on love.  The way we live our lives needs to show that we depend on love too.

So let’s pray with that right now.  Closing your eyes for a moment, take some quiet time to think about someone who has wronged you in some way.  Or, if it’s closer to your heart, think about a sin or cycle of sin that you’ve been struggling with. (…)  Take a moment now to place that person, or yourself, in Jesus’ presence.  Give him the offense the person has committed against you, or give him the sin you’ve been struggling with personally. (…)  Give him the feelings you have around this right now. (…)  Let Jesus tell you how much he loves you right now.  (…)  Tell Jesus about the love you have for him. (…)  Ask for his help to love the other person, or yourself, in the same way that he loves you. (…)

Thank you, Jesus, for loving us.  Thank you for giving us the example of your love on the cross.  Thank you for laying down your own life out of love for us.  Thank you for never not loving me, no matter where I have gone or what I have done.  Help me to love as you love.  Help me to love you, love others, and love myself in the same way that you love me.  I love you, Lord, my strength.

Homilies Ordinary Time

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

People often don’t really get who Jesus was and what he came to do.  So many people think it’s the “kumbaya” kind of love and harmony.  They would assert that Jesus was all about being peaceful and accepting.  But saying that is really misunderstanding Jesus and who he was and what he came to accomplish. Because peace wasn’t necessarily his primary interest, at least not peace in the way that we would probably define it.

Because sometimes I think we misread what peace is supposed to be. We might sell peace short and settle for the absence of conflict. Or even worse, we may settle for peace at any price, swallowing our disagreements and never coming close to true healing in our relationships. There are families in which never a harsh word would be said, but the underlying hostility is palpable. There are workplaces in which there are never any arguments, but there is also never any cooperative work done. Sometimes there are relationships where fear replaces love and respect.

And this is not the kind of peace that Jesus would bring us today. Frankly, this isn’t the kind of peace he even came to bring us: that kind of peace isn’t worthy of dying on a cross, is it?  No, our Jesus is the One who came to set the earth on fire, and his methods for bringing us to peace might well cause division in the here and now. But there is never any resurrection if we don’t have the cross. Just so, there will never be any peace if we don’t confront what’s really happening. The fire may need to be red hot and blazing if there is ever to be any regrowth.

And so today we have to stop settling for a peace that really isn’t so peaceful. We may just have to have that hard conversation we’ve been trying to avoid. Of course, we do it with love for our brothers and sisters, but out of love we also don’t avoid it. We have to work for true healing in all of our relationships. May all of our divisions lead to real peace!

Homilies Ordinary Time

The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Homecoming Mass for Benedictine University

Today’s readings

Well, I would like to welcome all of you home to Benedictine University for Homecoming 2020.  Except, of course, that we aren’t at our “home”: we are celebrating this Mass at my parish, Saint Mary Immaculate in Plainfield, Illinois, a little over twenty miles south and west of the Lisle campus of Benedictine.  And, most of you aren’t even here; hopefully some of you are watching the livestream.  So this is a very weird homecoming indeed!

My name is Father Pat Mulcahy, and I myself am an alum of Benedictine.  I was part of the class of 1986, when the institution was called Illinois Benedictine College.  My major was Religious Studies, with a minor in Philosophy.  Probably my most notable accomplishment for Benedictine was that I was erroneously reported as deceased in an edition of Benedictine Voices, back in 2007.  The actual deceased Pat Mulcahy was my father; reports of my death were, as Mark Twain famously quipped, greatly exaggerated.

I’ve maintained a connection to Benedictine University and the Benedictines over the years, which has been a great blessing to me.  Saint Procopius Abbey was the place where I had my canonical retreat before my ordination to the priesthood in 2006, and I’ve spent a few days there now and again for times of reflection and rest.  I keep in contact with many of the monks.  I’ve been privileged as well to celebrate Mass for the sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery occasionally over the years, which helped me to remember my time in college working in campus ministry and being blessed to meet many of the sisters there.

In my time at IBC, now BU, I would say that in addition to all of the academic work, there was definitely formation which encouraged us to become good citizens of the world, but also people who had a relationship with God and expressed that relationship in terms of service and worship.  I think that’s the whole idea behind today’s readings.

When a couple comes to me to prepare for their upcoming marriage, one of the things I have them do is to write me letters, individually, asking to be married. I ask them to reflect on their relationship and to say something about their faith. Over the years I’ve received a lot of letters and some are very deep, some are very emotional, some are kind of surface-level. I usually find something in every letter to quote in my wedding homily. A while ago, I celebrated the wedding of a couple that was very faith-filled. They had been raised by strong Catholic families, had gone to Catholic schools, and faith was and continued to be a big part of their lives. One of the most quotable lines in their letters came from the groom. He said, “Many people want to think of God only in times of trouble or sadness; (my fiancé) and I want to think of God all the time.”

I think he got at what our Liturgy of the Word is teaching us today. In the Gospel, the Pharisees are at it again: they want to trap Jesus in speech so that they’ll be able to bring him to justice. And so they decide to ask him if it’s lawful to pay the census tax or not. It was a no-win argument: if he said it was not lawful, then he’s a revolutionary and should be put to death; if he said it was lawful, then he’s an idolater – putting the government over God – and should be put to death. But, as usual, Jesus answers their question with a question. “Whose image is this (on the coin) and whose inscription?” Since it was Caesar’s, his instruction is to give Caesar his due, but then, to give God what he is due.

This then becomes a reflection on the first commandment of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” This is echoed by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.”

There’s a reason that this is the first commandment: it is foundational to all the others. If we get the first commandment right, the others should follow pretty easily. If we know and live that God is in charge, that God is God and we are not, then we will easily live the other nine commandments dealing with love of God and love of neighbor. The trouble is, even though it’s easy to say, it’s difficult to do.

Modern life does everything it can to distract us. It’s hard to get to Mass because the kids have sports or dance or studies or whatever. And as wonderful as those things are, they don’t lead the children to God, so they can’t take precedence over Mass. It’s hard to take time for prayer because we are busy – we have studies and work, and we have family commitments and we have things we want to do in the community. And as great as all that is, it doesn’t lead us to God, so they can’t take precedence over our prayer. It’s hard to be of service because we’re busy people, and that’s a shame because service – stemming from a love of neighbor – leads us to love of God, and we’ve said no to it again. Just like those Pharisees, we have too often allowed ourselves to be distracted from what’s really important, we’ve said no to a relationship with our God, and we have put him out of our lives and our families’ lives time and time again.

Giving to God what belongs to God is foundational. Failure to do that leads to all other kinds of sin. Today, we have in our Scriptures an examination of conscience. Have we been zealous to give to God what belongs to God? Have we taken time for prayer? Have we been of service to our brothers and sisters in need? Have we made teaching the faith to our children our primary priority? Have we been vigilant to prevent anything from getting in the way of celebrating Mass as a family? If we have fallen short in any of those ways, this is the time to reverse the course and get it right. Caesar gets what’s his one way or the other. We have to be the ones who are on fire to give to God what belongs to God.

The whole point of our life on this earth is to travel through it and become perfected so that we can go to heaven. A huge first step in that is putting God first, giving to God what belongs to God. And he wants all of us: our hearts, our souls, our lives. As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule, “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10)…  Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”  Is there something that we have been preferring to Christ?  What are we called to turn from so that we can turn to him?  What step do we need to make to give to God what belongs to God this week?

Homilies Ordinary Time

Saint Teresa of Avila (Saint Teresa of Jesus), Virgin, Mystic, Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings: Romans 8:22-27 | Psalm 19:8-11 | John 15:1-8

Today we have the joyful memorial of Saint Teresa of Avila, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus (but not to be confused with Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, also known as Saint Therese of Liseaux, whose memorial was earlier this month!).  Saint Teresa was a virgin, mystic, nun, reformer of the Carmelite order, and, with Saint John of the  Cross, foundress of the Discalced Carmelites. When she was a girl, her father sent her for a time to live in an Augustinian convent, until she became ill about a year or so later.  During her illness, she began to contemplate the prospect of living a religious life, and eventually decided to join a convent of Carmelite nuns, which her father strongly opposed.  After she turned twenty-one, she did join, and her father gave up opposition to it.  She was known to be a woman of prudence, charity and personal charm, and so many people came to be devoted to her charism.

Teresa struggled, though, with personal prayer until her early forties.  Persevering in prayer, she found that she more and more enjoyed being in the presence of the Lord, and really began to grow in friendship with him.  This is the message of today’s Gospel: “Remain in me,” Jesus says to us.  The way that we do that is by persevering in prayer, whether it is difficult or easy.  The saints all tell us that staying with prayer, even in the hard times, is the key to a fulfilling spiritual life.  Sometimes it may feel dry or unfruitful, but the Spirit continues to work in us as we continue to pray.  It’s okay if we struggle with prayer, as long as we keep up the struggle.  When we give up and forget about prayer, that’s when things go wrong.  Saint Teresa’s struggle with prayer led her to a deep, mystical friendship with God.

Saint Paul tells the Romans the same thing today: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”  So today we trust that, just like for Saint Teresa, the prayer of our hearts would find expression in whatever way God wants for us, and that we might always remain in Christ.  And for those struggling in their prayer lives, may Saint Teresa intercede for us and lead us to deep relationship with our Lord.