Saint Pius X, Pope

Today’s readings

A good starting place for our prayer this morning might be asking ourselves, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

Today we celebrate Saint Pius X, a man dedicated to pastoral ministry, and helping people to let go of whatever would hold them back on the journey of faith.  He was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family.  He became pope at the age of 68, and he wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily.  He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the Eucharist.  During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs.  He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it.  On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me.  I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

Our God has blessed us with love beyond all imagining and invites us to the table of the heavenly kingdom.  To get there, we have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So once again, the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Reflections on the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Friends, I wasn’t going to do a homily today since it’s my last day of vacation.  But I got a message from a friend who was troubled by the Gospel, and I realized it’s so commonly misunderstood that it can be troublesome.  So that said, I’ll just make a few important points.

First of all, let’s just agree that Jesus was always going to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  Probably even before the Canaanite woman asked.  He’s God, after all, and he knows our needs.  And we dare not accuse Jesus of being unchristian!  So some might tell you he did that to test her.  Well, that might be comforting if you love a God who has nothing better to do than test us and make us dance for him.  But that’s not our God.

Instead, I think he wanted the Canaanite woman’s faith to be noted by the people looking on, including the disciples, and perhaps even by the woman herself.  Because the Canaanites were a people that were presumed to be faithless and have no claim on the grace and mercy of God (as if any of us do!).  The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the Promised Land, which was given to the Israelites after being led of of Egypt by Moses.  So the disdain for them was long-standing by this point.

But Jesus notes her faith as opposed to the faith noted elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel.  In just a couple of chapters from now, Jesus will berate the “faithless generation” that included the scribes and Pharisees.  And just last week, Jesus chastised Peter for being “of little faith” when he pulled him up out of the water.  Contrast that with what he says about the Canaanite woman:  “O woman, great is your faith!”

All of this begs the question for us: where are we on the journey of faith.  For most of us, it probably depends on the day.  But are we bold enough of faith to implore God’s mercy when we have no claim on it?  When our sins have been dragging us down and we’ve been committing the same ones over and over?  When we aren’t where we think we should be in our lives?  When we feel like we’ve disappointed almost everyone?  When we’ve disappointed ourselves?

In those moments, are we of enough faith to call on the Lord and implore his mercy?  Because if we are, God is ready to answer us.

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

I have to tell you, we have two of my very favorite readings in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  I like them because they both show God interacting with us, his creatures, in powerful ways.  In the first reading, we see the prophet Elijah literally running for his life.  He has just embarrassed, and then put to death, the four hundred or so “prophets” of Baal – the pagan god worshipped by the gentiles.  Because of this, Jezebel, the wife of king Ahab, vowed to do the same thing to Elijah himself.  So Elijah is fleeing, and complains to the Lord God that everyone in Israel has rejected the Lord, turned to other gods, and have put all the legitimate prophets to death, and that Elijah is the only one left.  So God says that Elijah should stand on the mountain and wait, and soon the Lord would be passing by.

So in Scripture, when it says of the Lord that he would be “passing by,” it means something different than just that the Lord was out for a little walk.  Passing by means that he would be doing “a God thing,” something that God alone could do.  It’s a little like saying that God would be revealing his power to his creatures.  For Elijah, that was intended to be a consolation and a revelation that the Lord God would be with him even though things looked pretty darn bad.  And it’s interesting how it happens.  Elijah experiences some frightening things: destructive and heavy winds, an earthquake and a blazing fire.  But he did not experience God in any of those things.  He only experienced God in a “tiny whispering sound.”

And I wonder about that, to be honest.  Yes, we can take that as a revelation that we have to quiet ourselves and listen for the voice of God’s presence.  But I want to carefully note that this does not mean that God wasn’t present in those other things.  Because we often find ourselves in the midst of mighty winds, earthquakes, or fire.  Even if not literally, we experience these things all the time in the form of the crises of our lives.  And I want to assure you that God is with you in those moments.  But it may take us stepping back a bit, and listening for the whispering sound, to note that happening.

Okay, so that brings us to the second of my favorite readings today, and that is the Gospel.  Because I love Saint Peter.  He’s always making mistakes, but he is always letting Jesus take what little he can give and turn it into something huge.  I love this reading so much that I have this painting on the wall of my office.  It’s a painting that was given to me for my ordination by the seminarians of that time.  It’s even signed by our own Father David!  They gave me that painting because they know of the special place that particular Gospel story had in my faith life.

So in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just fed the multitudes, as you may remember from last week’s Liturgy.  After that, he takes some time alone to pray, and during the fourth watch of the night, walks across the water toward the disciples who were on a boat bound for the other side of the lake.  In Saint Mark’s version of this reading, it says of Jesus at this point that “He intended to pass them by.”  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, very similar to the first reading, Jesus intends to do a “God thing,” to reveal himself to his disciples this time in a very powerful way.  They think they’re seeing a ghost, but Jesus reassures them that it is he, and Peter immediately asks if he can come out and walk on the water too.  Jesus says, “come.”

So think about that.  You see the Lord walking on the water, and you actually ask if you can get out there and join him.  Who even has the nerve to say something like that to Jesus?  Well, Peter, impetuous as always, he does.  And for a while, he does okay. He’s making progress, walking toward Jesus. But then he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking at the storm, and when he sees the storm what happens?  The story tells us: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” So let’s stop right here.  Do you see that? While he’s looking at Jesus, he is able to walk toward him, but as soon as he takes his eyes off Jesus in favor of looking at the storm, he sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asks him, pulling Peter out of the water.

We might be tempted to criticize Peter for his lack of faith.  But I’m in favor of cutting him so slack.  What I think we have to realize is that he at least had enough faith to get out of the boat.  The other eleven did not.  He got out of the boat because that’s where Jesus was – out there on the water.  Was Jesus present for him when the wind and the waves threatened to take his life?  Absolutely.  God is present for us when we are in the middle of the storm.

So I think that’s where these wonderful readings of God’s mighty power take us this week: into the midst of our storms, whatever they may be.  If we’re not going through one now, one will come our way at some point.  And, please God, may these readings help us to find our Lord in the midst of the wind and the earthquakes and the fire.  I hope that the faith these readings inspire in us will help us to step back in those storms and see our Lord passing by in power and might and lifting us up out of the waves.

Now let’s try a little prayer experiment.  I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.  And with your eyes closed, I invite you to think about a crisis you’ve been in recently, or even one that’s still going on.  It might be little or big, but whatever it is, bring it to mind.  That crisis is the waves in the story.  Now you get to be Saint Peter.  You’re on the boat, that safe refuge that is leading you to the place that Jesus has in mind for you.  Only on the voyage, your crisis begins a storm that tosses you around so badly that you can’t even see your destination anymore, and you fear for your life.  But you see Jesus out there, on the water, in the distance.

You call out to him and he calls back for you to come to him.  You think about it for a minute, but you realize you have to give it a shot: after all, you want to be where Jesus is, and Jesus is not in the boat.  So you get out of the boat, that safe refuge that gives you some comfort even in the storm, and you start to walk toward Jesus across the stormy sea, with the wind and the waves of your crises swirling around you.  And you do okay for a while, looking at your Lord, but then you wonder if your prayers will ever be answered, or if you should even bother God with your little prayers, or if there is any hope for your situation at all.  You feel the wind pushing at you and notice that the waves of your crisis are a lot uglier than you thought they were.  And you begin to sink into them, despairing that there is no hope for your situation.  At this point, Jesus reaches out his hand to you, pulling you up out of the stormy sea.  The storm is still raging, but with Jesus’ help, you get back into the boat, and the waves calm down, and you continue the journey to the place where Jesus wants you to be, having made just a little bit of progress, confident that he is with you even in the storm.

That’s a prayer exercise that you can come back to.  Maybe you don’t have a crisis now to bring to that prayer, but when you do, you can pull this out of your prayer toolbox.  Whether we are experiencing wind, waves, earthquakes or fire, we can be confident that our Lord is with us.  We might still have to experience all those things, but we can go through them with hope that comes from the presence of our God, who is with us in our darkest times, whispering to us, or calling out to us from the water.

Saturday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

“Because of your little faith.” If that was what Jesus said about his disciples, those men and women walking with him in person day after day, how much more does it apply to us today?  How many situations absolutely confound us?  How many injustices seem chronically irreparable?  How many emotional crises seem insurmountable?  There are demons of all shapes and sizes and types.  How effective are we at casting out those demons of addiction, ignorance, or apathy?  Why can’t we drive them out?  Well, because of our little faith.

I always bristled a bit at the instruction at the end of today’s Gospel about moving a great mountain.  I was pretty sure I’d never have faith that big, and even if I did, why would I want to move a mountain?!  But we get all this wrong.  It’s as if it depends on us, and it certainly does not.  Are we convinced that God can move mountains, that he can drive out demons, that he can respond to addiction, ignorance and apathy?  Well, sure.  But that kind of believing has to get beyond just being in our heads and come out in our words and actions and living.  That’s the hard part!

Because faith is useless if we never put it into practice.  It might be tough to be in the midst of addiction, emotional crisis, or injustice, but that’s when we need to depend on our faith, because what else is there?  What good is our faith unless it can lead us through hard times and accomplish great things in the midst of the messiness of life?  Our faith tells us that whatever happens, God will never stop being with us.

So maybe we’ll never move a mountain.  Who wants to anyway?  But with faith we can certainly the mountains that confront us: emotional crises, addictions, sin, and all kinds of sadness.  With faith, we can certainly move from a dark place to light, from despair to peace, from sadness to joy.

Saint Clare, Virgin

Today we celebrate Saint Clare, who, having refused to marry at 15, was moved by the dynamic preaching of Saint Francis. He became her lifelong friend and spiritual guide.  So at age 18, she escaped one night from her father’s home, in order to flee the pressure to marry, and was met on the road by friars carrying torches. They led her to a little chapel called the Portiuncula, where she received a rough woolen habit, exchanged her jeweled belt for a common rope with knots in it, and had her long hair cut by Saint Francis himself. He placed her in a Benedictine convent, which her father and uncles immediately stormed in rage. She clung to the altar of the church, threw aside her veil to show her cropped hair and remained adamant.

Sixteen days later her sister Agnes joined her. Over time, others joined them too. They lived a simple life of great poverty, austerity and complete seclusion from the world, according to a Rule that Saint Francis gave them as a Second Order, which became known as the Poor Clares. Francis obliged her under obedience at age 21 to accept the office of abbess, one she exercised until her death.

The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence. Later Clare, like Francis, persuaded her sisters to moderate this rigor, saying: “Our bodies are not made of brass.” The greatest emphasis, of course, was on gospel poverty. They possessed no property, even in common, subsisting on daily contributions. When even the pope tried to persuade her to mitigate this practice, she said to him: “I need to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”

In the Convent of San Damiano in Assisi, Saint Clare served the sick, waited on table, and washed the feet of the begging nuns. She came from prayer, it was said, with her face so shining it dazzled those about her.

We are all called to the holiness of life that leads us to see God’s glory. For Saint Clare, that meant breaking away from her family’s expectations of marriage so that she could be wed to Christ. For us, there will also be some kind of sacrifice involved. Through the intercession of Saint Clare, please God let us be willing to make the sacrifice so that we can see the glory of God.

Monday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What I think the folks in our first reading need to learn – and maybe us too – is that the spiritual life is always about the big picture.  The Israelites in today’s reading have completely rejected the God of their salvation.  God had taken them from abject slavery in Egypt, in which they were oppressed beyond anything we could possibly imagine – let alone endure – and led them through the desert, through the Red Sea (covering the pursuing Egyptians in the process), and into safety.  He is going to give them the Promised Land, but they, thank you very much, would prefer to return to Egypt so that they no longer have to sustain themselves on the bread that they have from the very hand of God himself.  They would rather have meat and garlic and onions, and whatever, than freedom and blessing from God.  What a horrible, selfish people they have become.

And Moses is no better.  He alone has been allowed to go up the mountain to be in the very presence of God.  No one else could get so close to God and live to tell the story.  God has given him the power to do miraculous deeds in order to lead the people.  And yet, when things get tough, he too would prefer death than to be in the presence of God.

And aren’t we just like them sometimes?  It’s easy to have faith when things are going well, and we are healthy, and our family is prospering.  But the minute things come along to test us, whether it is illness, or death of a loved one, or job troubles, or whatever, it’s hard to keep faith.  “Where is God when I need him?” we might ask.  We just don’t often have the spiritual attention spans to see the big picture.  We forget the many blessings God has given us, and ask “Well what has he done for me lately?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus feeds the crowds until they are satisfied and have baskets of leftovers besides.  God’s blessings to us are manifold, and it is good to meditate on them when times are good, and remember them when times are bad.  God never wills the trials we go through, and he never forgets or abandons us when we are in the midst of those trials.  God feeds us constantly with finest wheat.  That’s the big picture, and we must never lose sight of it.

The Transfiguration of the Lord

Today’s readings

“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

This feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord can be a puzzling one for us to understand.  It’s an event we’ve heard about in Gospel readings, but it’s not something that we’ve ever seen.  So it’s hard, I think, for us to figure out.  If that’s true of us, we shouldn’t feel too bad: it’s clear that Peter, James and John, disciples who were clearly in Jesus’ “inner circle” didn’t get it either.  In fact, they were so frightened by it that they hardly knew what to say.  God’s glory can be frightening like that sometimes.  As they walked down the mountain, all they could talk about was what Jesus meant by rising from the dead.  Thankfully, though, we have the help of the Church’s developed theology which those chosen three did not have at their disposal.  So we can delve into the mystery of this Transfiguration, and in it perhaps, be transfigured ourselves.

The Transfiguration is a sign for us of three things: it’s a sign of who Jesus really is, a sign of what would happen in the paschal mystery, and a sign of what is to be for those who believe.

First, then, it is a sign of who Jesus really is.  We get three very beautiful clues to Jesus’ true identity here.  First, there is the transfiguration, or change, itself.  Jesus is transfigured, and his clothes become dazzling white.  He literally shines with the Glory of God.  This perhaps reminded the people of Jesus’ time of the way Moses’ face was said to shine after he came down from the mountain where he conversed with God.  It also reminds us of the way the figure who was “one like a son of man” shone in today’s first reading.  The transfiguration tells us that Jesus is no ordinary man, that the divinity the had from the beginning but set aside at his Incarnation, that divinity was ready to burst forth from him at any moment.  It did in today’s Gospel, and Peter, James and John were witnesses of it.  The second clue is the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus.  This appearance linked Jesus with Israel’s past, Moses representing the Law and Elijah the Prophets.  His conversation with Moses and Elijah underscore that Jesus’ ministry in the world was part of God’s plan for our salvation.  The third clue is the voice of God.  “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” If there had been any doubt, it had to be gone by now.  Rarely does God speak in such a direct manner to his creation, but he did it here.  Jesus was his beloved Son, and Peter, James and John – and all of us too – would do well to listen to him.

Now all of this was important, because in the Gospel, from here on out, the Gospel story is going to unfold very quickly and lead Jesus to Calvary.  Jesus was going to suffer and die a terrible, tortuous and ignoble death.  But that kind of suffering wasn’t punishment, or a sign of God’s disfavor.  Indeed, it was a sign that Jesus is God’s beloved Son.  Though he will suffer for a time, God always intended to raise him up.  And so, if we, we who are God’s beloved children, if we have to suffer for a time, we too can know of God’s favor.  We too can know that God always intended our salvation, all the way back to the time of Moses and the prophets.  Jesus’ true identity is a source of joy for all of us that we are beloved and that those who listen to his beloved Son will inherit the glory that bursts forth from Jesus on the mountain.

Second, the Transfiguration is a sign of what would happen in the Paschal Mystery.  As I’ve said, from here on out, the message of the Gospel will always refer to the cross of Christ.  The incredible event of Jesus’ Transfiguration foreshadows the glory of the Resurrection.  It’s a peek at what Jesus would look like after he rose from the dead.  You may remember that the first witnesses of the Resurrection had a hard time recognizing Jesus.  That may be because he was transfigured by the Resurrection, and so today’s event is perhaps a foreshadowing of what that would be like.  Yes, Jesus would have to suffer and die, but his Resurrection and Ascension would be glorious, and would open the possibility of glory to all of us as well.

Third, the Transfiguration is a sign of what waits for us who believe.  The glory that we see in Jesus today is the glory that waits for all of us.  We have hope of the Resurrection, we have hope of an eternal home in heaven.  The Transfiguration shows us that this hope is ours, if we but listen to the one who is God’s beloved Son.  Sure, we come to that as those who don’t deserve that kind of glory.  We are in need of our own kinds of transfigurations.  We are in need of our sins being transfigured into faithfulness, of our failures being transfigured into joys, of our death being transfigured into everlasting life.  All of those transfigurations are accomplished in us when we but listen to God’s beloved Son.

It is important that we realize that, just as Peter, James and John had to come down from the mountain in today’s Gospel, so we too must come down the mountain of this celebration of our faith, into our daily lives, and transfigure our world into the true image of Jesus Christ.  We must transfigure the violence, hatred, and injustice that is so prevalent in our world into true peace, inclusion, love and justice that is the very image of God, the glory that longs to burst forth from us and every part of our world.