Monday of the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings speak to us about the wonderful, spiritual quality of goodness.  We have the creation story, or at least the beginning of it, in which God is not only creating the world and everything in it, but also creating it in goodness.  And I think that we can relate to that in some way, because we find created things good all the time.  Think about a vacation or road trip you’ve taken and found some beautiful countryside.  Maybe you’ve seen mountains, or the vast ocean, or hiked some incredible trails through rich forested countryside.  When you’ve been there, looking at all that wonderful creation, perhaps stood there as the sun was setting or rising, maybe you’ve even said a prayer of thanks to God for creating such wonders and allowing you to see them.  You too see that it is very good.

But there’s even more than that in it for us.  When we behold such wonders, such things that are very good, we can also see in them the One who is Goodness itself.  We see God in his creative genius, imparting some of his own Goodness into our world so that we might find goodness too.  In the mountains, we see God’s strength and might; in the forests, his embrace; in the waters, his refreshing mercy.  Our Good God has painted the world with his Goodness, so that we might desire the Good and come at last to Him.

Goodness is all around us, because God created the world to be good.  Today, we can look around to see the good we might otherwise miss: good in people and good in creation – all of it bringing us back to our God who is Goodness itself.  The psalmist leads us today in the prayer that we are moved to pray when we are in the presence of such Good:

How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures;
Bless the LORD, O my soul! Alleluia.

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter in today’s Gospel reading is a nice story, but I think it goes deeper than that. In this encounter, we see five very important principles of the life of a disciple. So I would like to reflect on these principles because we always need to grow in our discipleship, and conversion is an ongoing thing for all of us.

So let’s dive into these five principles. The first principle of the disciple’s life is that we don’t choose God; God chooses us. Simon Peter didn’t put out an invitation to Jesus to join him in the boat. He probably didn’t even want the company, to be honest. He was washing his nets and cleaning up the boat after a very long, and very unproductive night of fishing. They’d been up all night, they were frustrated, and they probably just wanted to be left alone. But Jesus gets into Simon’s boat without even asking if he can come aboard, sits down, and tells him to put out a short distance from shore so he can teach the people from that boat-pulpit. If we think we are all here today because we chose to be here, chose to be God’s people, then we’ve gotten it all wrong. God chose us to be here, and we might not even know why, but God does, and he will reveal it in his own time.

The second principle of the disciple’s life is that it’s not about what we can do. As I’ve pointed out, Simon and his co-workers had a very unproductive night. And that’s horrible for them because this is their livelihood. They weren’t out for a relaxing night of fishing, they were out for fish to sell at market to feed their families, and they’ve caught nothing. It wasn’t just that they caught very little; we are told that they’ve caught nothing – zero fish, or at least nothing they could sell or eat. And that’s not unusual. Whenever you see Peter and the others fishing in the Gospel, they are always catching nothing when they are on their own. Try it – go through the Gospel and look for those stores, you’ll see. So it might seem strange that Jesus would call fishermen to be his Apostles, but it almost seems like fiduciary misconduct to pick fishermen who were such complete failures at their craft. In fact we are told that the only really qualified guy he chose was Judas Iscariot, and we all know what became of him, don’t we? It’s not about what we can do, how successful we are, what personal gifts we have. God has something special in mind for us, and he can call anyone he wants. And he does.

The third principle follows from the second, and that is that it is always God who does the really great things that we seem to accomplish. For Peter and the others, we see it very simply … Jesus tells them to put out into the deep water, and despite their utter exhaustion and their better judgment, they do so, they lower the nets, and they can hardly bring the huge catch of fish in to land. They are extremely successful, but only because they have relied on God’s grace for their success. If we are serious about our success, either in our business or in our discipleship, then we too have to be ready to give it over to God’s grace. It’s hard because that involves letting go, giving God control, taking the good with the bad, constantly seeking God’s will. But that is our calling, fellow disciples, that’s what we do.

The fourth principle is extremely important for us to get, because this is so insidious. This principle tells us that we are completely unworthy of such grace in the face of how awesome God is. And it’s true, none of us is worthy of the calling we have received. I’m not worthy to be a priest, you may not be worthy to be a parent, perhaps you’re not worthy of the work you’ve been called to do. But God has called us to do all of this anyway. Yes, we’re sinful, and perhaps like Peter we’d like to say “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” or woman. Perhaps like Isaiah in our first reading, we find that we are men or women of unclean lips living among people of unclean lips. Who are we to proclaim the Gospel? Who are we to lead others? Satan throws this kind of thing in our faces all the time: he would love for us to give in to it. Because if we are caught up in our unworthiness, we can never be used to accomplish God’s will. But, unworthy as we are, it’s not about us, it’s about God and what God can do in us, so we have to seek forgiveness, pursue conversion, and then do what God asks of us. We must remember that forgiveness and conversion, like every other gift, is never meant just for us, it’s meant for us to share, and the way that we share that is to do God’s work in whatever way He’s called us to do it.

And the fifth principle is that God always sees better stuff in us than we see in ourselves. Jesus saw past Peter’s inadequacies as a fisherman and saw that he would be really great as an Apostle to bring people to the kingdom. He saw past Isaiah’s vulgarity to know that he would be just the person to speak his word. God knows that our sins do not define who we are; having created us, he alone knows of what we are capable, and he gives us a commission that goes beyond what we think we can do. He asks just one thing of us: “Do not be afraid.” This means we can do anything God calls us to do. Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.

Lent is coming. Lent is a call to conversion, re-conversion, and growth in discipleship. We would do well to remind ourselves yet again this Lent that it is God who chooses us, that it’s not about what we can do, that it’s always God who gives us the grace to do truly great things, that our unworthiness does not define us in the eyes of God, and that God knows of what we are capable and sees great things in us. Maybe Lent can find us putting aside whatever fears keep us from answering God’s call and instead allow ourselves to be truly changed, truly used by God to do great things. Do not be afraid.

Saint Agatha, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

As is true for many, or perhaps most, of the virgin martyrs, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha, other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century. Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death. When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things. First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ. If they could witness to Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to turn away, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered? But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation. We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God. Second, these stories always point to Christ. Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.

Saint Agatha’s life is a participation in our Lord’s call to take up our cross. She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom. Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it. May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you alone.”

Monday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We could look at today’s Gospel reading as an interesting miracle story of Jesus casting a demon out of a long-possessed man. But I think we should dig a little deeper than that this morning. Because many of us, I think, have to tangle with the unclean spirit from the tombs that infests us from time to time. If you’ve been in that situation, you probably can relate to having chained that spirit down with mighty strong chains, only to have them smashed to pieces. Then that unclean spirit starts crying out once again and injuring us in the process.

For some, that demon is some kind of addiction. Or perhaps it’s a pattern of sin. Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Whatever it is, there is nothing we can do to stop it all on our own. None of us is strong enough to subdue it. It is instructive that, when Jesus asks the demon what his name is, the demon responds in the plural: “we are Legion.” Indeed, legion are the demons that can torment us, legion are the past hurts and resentments, legion are the sins, legion are the broken relationships. 

When we find ourselves in that state of affairs, we have to know that human power is useless to subdue our demons. We have to do the only thing that works, which is to beg Jesus to cast those demons out. I often tell people in Confession that it’s okay to pray for yourself and that God doesn’t expect us to subdue our demons on our own. Jesus is longing to cast out our legion demons, all we have to do is ask. The voice of the psalmist today sums up the peace that can come from this Gospel: “Let your hearts take comfort, all who hope in the Lord.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s readings remind me of one of my favorite theological facts: we were all created for something.  I think it takes the better part of our lives sometimes to see what that purpose is, but rest assured: God has a purpose.  In our first reading, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…”  Those words are spoken to the prophet Jeremiah, but also to all of us.  God has personal knowledge of every person he has created, and has created each one of us for some special purpose.

It’s an important thing for us to hear in this day and age, I think.  Sometimes I think we take the cynical scientific position that each life is a happy accident.  Molecules have just come together in the right way, and so, well, here we are.  Whatever becomes of us, then, is either fate: something we inevitably take on, or happenstance: we take on the persona of whatever is expedient at any given time.  So if all that is true, then there doesn’t have to be a God, or if there is one, he has set things in motion and stepped back to observe our progress like someone observing a science experiment.

But our faith teaches us that none of that is true.  Faith tells us that God is really active in the world, that he has personally created each one of us, that he desires our happiness, that he gives us grace to become what he created us to become.  That doesn’t mean that every life will be easy and that there will never be suffering or pain.  Sin is a consequence of free will, and the evils of disease and disaster and sadness all run through the world as a consequence of that.  If God desires our happiness, Satan certainly desires us to be unhappy, even unto eternity.

So if there is purpose to our lives, and if God desires that we be happy, then that purpose is well expressed in our second reading from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This letter is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to any number of church weddings.  It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding.  But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for.  Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do.  Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice.  If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier.  If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships.  Young people would never turn away from their families.  Parents would never neglect their children.  Spouses would never separate.  We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery.  Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.

And that’s why St. Paul has to tell the Corinthians – and us too! – that love is patient, kind, not jealous, and all the rest.  In fact, that passage from St. Paul defines love in fifteen different ways.  Because love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more.  All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day.  If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children.  Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on.  Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love – true love – makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular.  In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb.  That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations.  God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him.  But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over him.

For Jesus, it was those closest to him who rejected him.  In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Wait a minute: isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Hey, who is he to be talking to us this way?”  When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – that crosses the line for them: it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

So we have been created in love, created to love, and created for love.  God is love itself, love in its most perfect form, and out of that love, he set us and the world and everything there is into being.  Out of love for us, God continues to be involved in our lives and in our world, giving us grace, and revealing himself to us when we seek him with all our hearts.  And when we seek him with all our hearts, we do that out of love for God, which is in fact God’s gift to us!  Love is a complex and beautiful thing and love is the purpose of our lives.  Love is a still more excellent way than anything we have in the world!

May the call of all of our lives remind us that we are all embraced in God’s love, and that because of God’s love, we all must decide to love in our own way, according to our own vocation and station in life, every single moment of our lives.  May our love for God, our love for others, and our love for ourselves permeate and give new purpose to a world that has forgotten love, and forgotten how to love rightly.

Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church. She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life. She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord. Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful. Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight. But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.

Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her. And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian. She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear. She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity. It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation. It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

Tuesday of the First Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is opening the eyes of his hearers, which includes us, as to who Jesus is and what he came to do.  He speaks of Jesus our God, who is higher than the heavens, who became flesh, essentially “lower than the angels.”  The author points out that he did this so that he could become our brother, making all of us sons and daughters of God.  This is helpful because we sometimes don’t see Jesus clearly: maybe we think of him as so far beyond us, or maybe we see him as a best buddy, but really he is both of these, God becoming man so that we can be led to God.

It is always interesting to me how clearly the unclean spirits know who Jesus is.  For them, Christ our God inspires fear and rebellion.  But even these unclean spirits, hearing his voice, begrudgingly obey.  Jesus teaches with authority, as the people standing by admit of him.  This is a teaching that cannot be ignored. Each person may hear it and respond differently, but they do respond.  Many hear his voice and follow.  Others turn away.

In these early days of Ordinary Time, we essentially have the continuation of the Epiphany event.  We continue to see Christ manifest in our midst, and continue to decide what to make of him.  Today we see him as one who teaches with authority and who has authority over even the unclean spirits within us.  Today he speaks to our sinfulness, to our brokenness, to our addictions, to our fallenness, to our procrastinations, to whatever debilitates us and saddens us and says “Quiet! Come out!”

That can seem remote to us because we don’t have that same kind of demon.  But the truth is, we have to deal with demons all the time: demons of ignorance or apathy, demons of laziness or short-temperedness, demons that lead us to all kinds of sin.  But in Christ, those demons never get to have victory.  This Epiphany of Christ as dispossessor of demons is an epiphany that does more than just heal us.  It is an epiphany that calls us out of darkness, one that insists we come out of our hiding and step into the light, so that the light of God’s love can shine in us and through us.All of this leads us to proclaim with the Psalmist: “O LORD, our Lord, how glorious is your name over all the earth!”

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate a feast that is commemorated in the first Luminous Mystery of the Rosary.  The Luminous Mysteries were popularized by Saint John Paul II, and illustrate the various ways that Christ’s nature and the purpose of his coming were revealed to us.  That is, they are luminous mysteries because they shed light on who Christ was and is.  I like to think of the Luminous Mysteries as particularly appropriate during the Epiphany part of the year, because as we discovered last week, Epiphany means manifestation; it refers to light being shed on the person of Jesus Christ.

I call this the Epiphany Season.  Epiphany was last Sunday, and today, the Baptism of the Lord is the end of the Christmas Season.  But the Epiphany goes on in some ways for a while: traditionally until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord.  So we will see in the readings in this first part of the year, more and more about who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Today we have some wonderful words of Epiphany in today’s Gospel reading.  Here, it is God the Father who speaks of his Son:“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”  Talk about a message of Epiphany.  Anyone who heard it cannot possibly be in doubt about who Jesus was. It was certainly enough to convince Saint John the Baptist, who later testifies to the “Lamb of God” and proclaims that “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

So, if you stop to think about it, we have come a long way since December 25th.  Jesus, the Son of God, has become the son of Mary, and has consecrated the world by his most loving presence.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity has taken on flesh and become one like us in all things but sin.  He took that flesh as the lowliest of all: as a baby born to a poor young family in the tiniest, poorest region of a small nation. He has grown up now, and stands ready to take on his ministry – we will hear more about that next week.  He begins all this by doing what is a very odd gesture: he receives John’s baptism, which is for the forgiveness of sins.

I say it’s an odd gesture because obviously, Jesus didn’t have sins to be forgiven.  So what is this all about?  Why would he set foot into waters that could not wash him from anything?  Well, traditionally, scholars find two reasons for that.  First, by accepting John’s baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners, that is, with all of us – the people he came to save.  Nowhere in the Gospels did he ever distance himself from sinners, because of his great love for us.  This then signifies the beginning of his ministry to sinners: the people he would famously dine with and spend time with, and heal and call to conversion. Secondly, his baptism does something to the water.  If the water could not wash him, he could certainly consecrate the water.  By our God setting foot in the waters of baptism, he forever sanctifies the water with which all of us sinners are baptized.  So his being baptized is an act of mercy for all of us, those he came to save.

The secret to our celebration of the Epiphany is that we must be ready to accept the manifestation of Jesus in our own lives.  We have to let him be our king and priest, accepting his death for our salvation.  We have to celebrate our own baptism, which has become significant because Christ has gone through it first, long before us, sanctifying the waters.  We have to accept and treasure the mercy of sharing in his baptism.

This is Jesus: this is the One with whom the Father was well-pleased; he is the One with whom we are in awe.  We are moved to silence before our Christ who came most lovingly to sanctify our way to heaven.  That silence can only be appropriately broken by the exclamation of the Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased!”

Saturday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

By these words, St. John the Baptist indicates that the Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord in the flesh, is complete.  John’s disciples have got it wrong; they took offense at Jesus baptizing when he himself had been baptized by John.  They assumed that because John had baptized Jesus, that Jesus must in some way be inferior to John.  But John knows his mission as the Forerunner.  He knows that his ministry was one of paving the way for Jesus and the Gospel.  He knows that his own baptism was a mere precursor of the baptism that Jesus would bring, a baptism that imparts the fullness of the Holy Spirit to all believers.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

St. John the Evangelist tells us in his letters that we are to be on guard against those who come in the name of Jesus but are not of him.  We must be wary of pretenders and totally turn away from false idols.  He has spent this past week in our first readings giving us the standards of discernment that help us to know the Truth.  Anyone of the Truth will testify to the Incarnation of Jesus in the flesh.  Anyone of the Truth will love deeply, and will love neighbors as well as God.  Anyone of the Truth, he tells us today, will cast out sin, from himself and from others.  Even though he may not be perfect, still he will battle sin and turn to Christ incarnate in the flesh for the indwelling of the Spirit, for the grace of his baptism.

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

Christ came in the flesh because, as the Psalmist tells us today, the Lord takes delight in his people.  As his people then, must also delight in him.  We must remember that we are all in the service of the one who came to set us free.  We must remember that our own thoughts, our own desires, all of these are not the be-all and end-all of existence, and quite often, we must die to them in order that God be manifested among us.  As we offer and prepare our gifts for the Eucharist today, may we also offer the decreasing of ourselves in order to pave the way for the increasing of Jesus Christ.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

The feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the fact that Christian life looks like something.  Because Jesus has appeared on the earth and taken our own human form, because he has walked among us and lived our life and died our death, we know what the Christian Way looks like.  We know that the Christian life consists of embracing our humanity, with all its weaknesses and imperfections.  We know that it consists of living our own lives well, mindful of the needs of others, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and spreading the light of the Gospel wherever it is that God puts us.  The Galileans in the synagogue in today’s Gospel were amazed at Jesus’ speaking words of grace.  We too are called to do this so that all will recognize in us the presence of Christ.

Because Christ is still manifest among us.  Every encounter with someone else is an opportunity for Epiphany.  It is an opportunity for us to look for the presence of Christ in that other person, and for them to see Christ at work in us.  How we do that depends on the situation, certainly, but it must always be our top priority if we are eager to be called Christians.  John’s words in the first reading are clear, and are words of indictment on those times we forget to be the Epiphany to others: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Christ is made manifest in all of us and among all of us.  In the ordinariness of our lives, we can find Christ’s grace abundantly blessing us, or we can reject it.  If we make it our priority to be Christ’s presence in the world in every encounter with a brother or sister, we may find that we are blessed with epiphany upon epiphany, constantly growing in God’s grace.  This is all part of our faith, of course, and it is this faith, as John tells us, that conquers the world.