Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree.  It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon.  You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross.  When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung.  The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.

Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth.  Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite.  He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order.  His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned.  In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent.  But then, so does that nail ornament.

Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about.  Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Blessed Pope Pius IX instituted the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, 1854, when he proclaimed as truth the dogma that our Lady was conceived free from the stain of original sin.  This had been a traditional belief since about the eighth century, and had been celebrated as a feast first in the East, and later in the West.  So let us be clear that this celebration pertains to the conception of Mary, and not that of Jesus, whose conception we celebrate on the feast of the Annunciation on March 25.  It’s easy to keep this straight if you remember the math: nine months after this date is September 8th, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Nine months after the Annunciation is December 25th, or Christmas, the feast of the birth of our Savior.

Today’s feast celebrates our faith that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be our Savior, and gave to him a human mother who was chosen before the world began to be holy and blameless in his sight.  This feast is a sign for us of the nearness of our salvation; that the plan God had for us before the world ever took shape was finally coming to fruition.  How appropriate it is, then, that we celebrate the Immaculate Conception just before Christmas, when our salvation begins to unfold.

The readings chosen for this day paint the picture.  In the reading from Genesis, we have the story of the fall.  The man and the woman had eaten of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat.  Because of this, they were ashamed and covered over their nakedness.  God noticed that, and asked about it.  He found they had discovered the forbidden tree because otherwise they would not have the idea that their natural state was shameful; they had not been created for shame.  Sin had entered the world, and God asks the man to tell him who had given him the forbidden fruit.

This leads to a rather pathetic deterioration of morality, as the man blames not just the woman, but also God, for the situation: “The woman whom you put here with me: she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it.”  In other words, if God hadn’t put the woman there with him in the first place, he never would have received the fruit to eat.  The woman, too, blames someone else: the serpent.  As if neither of them had been created with a brain to think for themselves, they begin that blame game in which we all participate from time to time.

Thus begins the pattern of sin and deliverance that cycles all through the scriptures.  God extends a way to salvation to his people, the people reject it and go their own way.  God forgives, and extends a new way to salvation.  Thank God he never gets tired of pursuing humankind and offering salvation, or we would be in dire straits.  It all comes to perfection in the event we celebrate today.  Salvation was always God’s plan for us and he won’t rest until that plan comes to perfection.  That is why St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and us, today: “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.   In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ…”

And so, in these Advent days, we await the unfolding of the plan for salvation that began at the very dawn of the world in all its wonder.  God always intended to provide an incredible way for his people to return to them, and that was by taking flesh and walking among us as a man.  He began this by preparing for his birth through the Immaculate Virgin Mary – never stained by sin, because the one who conquered sin and death had already delivered her from sin.  He was then ready to be born into our midst and to take on our form.  With Mary’s fiat in today’s Gospel, God enters our world in the most intimate way possible, by becoming vulnerable, taking our flesh as one like us, and as the least among us: a newborn infant born to a poor family.  Mary’s lived faith – possible because of her Immaculate Conception – makes possible our own lives of faith and our journeys to God.  There’s a wonderful Marian prayer called the Alma Redemptoris Mater that the Church prays at the conclusion of Night Prayer during the Advent and Christmas seasons that sums it all up so beautifully.  Pray it with me, if you know it:

Loving Mother of the Redeemer,
Gate of heaven, star of the sea,

Assist your people
who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us, poor sinners.

Our celebration today has special meaning for us.  Because Mary was conceived without sin, we can see that sin was never intended to rule us.  Because God selected Mary from the beginning, we can see that we were chosen before we were ever in our mother’s womb.  Because Mary received salvific grace from the moment of her conception, we can catch a glimpse of what is to come for all of us one day.  Mary’s deliverance from sin and death was made possible by the death and resurrection of her Son Jesus, who deeply desires that we all be delivered in that way too.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.  Amen.

Monday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Very often, when we hear this story about the widow’s mite, the story is equated with the call to stewardship. That’s a rather classic explanation of the text. And there’s nothing wrong with that explanation. But honestly, I don’t think the story about the widow’s mite is about stewardship at all. Yes, it’s about treasure and giving and all of that. But what kind of treasure? Giving what?

I think to get the accurate picture of what’s going on here, we have to ask why the Church would give us this little vignette at the end of the Church year, in the very last week of Ordinary Time. That’s the question I found myself asking when I looked at today’s readings. Well, first of all, it’s near the end of Luke’s Gospel so that may have something to do with it. But I think there’s a reason Luke put it at the end also. I mean, in the very next chapter we are going to be led into Christ’s passion and death, so why pause this late in the game to talk about charitable giving?

Obviously, the widow’s mite means something other than giving of one’s material wealth. Here at the end of the Church year, we are being invited to look back on our lives this past year and see what we have given. How much of ourselves have we poured out for the life of faith? What have we given of ourselves in service? What has our prayer life been like? Have we trusted Jesus to forgive our sins by approaching the Sacrament of Penance? Have we resolved to walk with Christ in good times and in bad? In short, have we poured out everything we have, every last cent, every widow’s mite, for our life with Christ? Or have we held something back, giving merely of our surplus wealth?

In this last week of the Church year, we have to hear the widow telling us that there is something worth giving everything for, and that something is our relationship with Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Today’s readings

I think this Gospel reading is wonderful because of the rather vivid picture that it paints.  When I hear it, I can’t help but picture the king separating the sheep from the goats, making known their good works, or lack thereof, and ushering them into their version of eternity.  It would seem that the moral of the story is very clear: we are all put here to do some very important things for the Kingdom of God; we are called to use our time, talent, and treasure to serve those in need.  These are the corporal works of mercy, and we should all certainly know them and do them.  They aren’t mere suggestions, they are, apparently, the way that we get into heaven.

And that would be a very good message, but I think Jesus is going for something else because that message would be a good one any time of the year.  So, the question we have to ask ourselves is why this message at this point of the Church year?  And perhaps just as poignantly, why this message so close to the end of Jesus’ life?  This reading comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which is just twenty-eight chapters long.  Indeed, in the very next chapter, Judas begins to conspire against Jesus.  So here at the end of Jesus’ life, and on the very last Sunday of the Church year, why this particular parable?

Well, we don’t have to look very far for the answer.  The very setting itself tells us what Jesus was getting at: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…”  So this is clearly a prediction of the end of time, particularly the day of judgment.  And I think this setting makes that vivid picture even more vivid.  Here our Lord has all the nations before him, and he begins to separate them out.  There are two places that they might go: the kingdom or eternal fire.

I think we all know what line we’re supposed to get into.  But just in case there was any doubt, the Gospel makes it very clear.  The kingdom, he says, was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  For you.  The eternal fire, on the other hand, was “prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So not for you.  And this echoes a truth that has been preached all along the way of this Church year.  We were made for heaven, heaven is our true home, and we are just passing through this place.

But just because the kingdom was prepared for us doesn’t mean we can’t make the wrong choice.  The devil and his angels have already made their choice, and they’re hoping to take as many of us with them as they can.  They do that by convincing us that we can live our lives any way we choose.  They try to convince us that morality isn’t really objective, that anything is okay as long as it works for me.  What they want us to say is that we are in charge, that there isn’t any God.  They want us to choose life outside the Kingdom of God – you know, that kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.  And the really frightening part of that is that they are having quite a bit of success.  Just reflect on the news, and even your experience in the community.  Aren’t these attitudes prevailing ones?

And we ourselves can choose that if we want to, but it will be a lonely place, with more than our share of sadness.  To get to the real Kingdom, all we have to do is to accept the wonderful sheep and shepherd imagery that we have in today’s readings.  In our first reading, Ezekiel portrays our God as a shepherd who goes out of his way to seek out and save the ones who are lost.  This is a shepherd who wants to heal our brokenness and make us fit for the Kingdom of God.  In just the same way, the sheep who are destined for the Kingdom might recognize the Son of Man throughout the Church year and throughout the Gospel and respond to his call to live for the Kingdom and not just for today, to care about others and love as we have been loved, and let that Love take us to our rightful place.

Today, on the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe.  We proclaim boldly that our Jesus is King of kings and Lord of Lords and there is absolutely no other.  We profess that one way of life isn’t just as good as another, that there is only One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that is our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is King of the Universe and King of our hearts and our lives.  When we make the right choice to follow our King and do what he has commanded, we can follow him to that Kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Thanksgiving Day: People of Eucharist

Today’s readings

Several years ago now, my sister emailed me pictures of a storybook that my niece, Molly, wrote for a second grade school project.  It was a story about an unnamed boy and girl – but we might as well name them, because it was clear to me that the girl was the author and the boy was her brother Danny!  The boy and the girl were having a discussion, and later an argument, about what they wanted to be when they grew up.  At some point, they were called to dinner, and the table was set with their favorite meal: pizza and fries.  They both enjoyed the meal and cleaned their plates and the boy said, “I want more.”  He didn’t get more, of course, because his demand was rude, but the girl did, because she asked nicely and thanked her mother.  Then she told her brother, “Use your manners.”  The really scandalous part of this exchange is that I’ve heard the real girl demand things without using her manners on more than one occasion!

That little story provides a rich framework for what I want to talk about today, and it’s an interesting illustration of today’s Gospel reading.  That reading is scandalous too, because it seems that nine believers – people who should know how to be grateful to God – failed to express their gratitude over a miracle that literally gave them back the life that leprosy took away from them.  It’s almost unthinkable.  Maybe we can cut them a little slack, because when you look closely at the story, Jesus really didn’t say or do anything indicative of healing – all he did was say “Go show yourselves to the priests.”  Now, it was the priests’ job to take care of ritual purity, but I’m guessing they had seen priests about their illness in the past and were probably ignored, or even shunned in the name of ritual purity.  So I can see how they would have been confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little angry at Jesus’ response.  But they absolutely could not have been confused about the fact that they had been healed.  And yet the only one who thought to give thanks and praise to God was this other guy, a Samaritan – a foreigner and a religious outcast who wasn’t expected to know the religious etiquette that one should follow.

Maybe the most deeply scandalous part of this whole reading is not just that nine lepers forgot to thank Jesus.  I think the most scandalous part of this Gospel is that it really can be a kind of mirror of our own society in this day, and, yes, I’ll say it: even our own lives.  Because these days gratitude is not a common occurrence; more often our society gets caught up in entitlement – we deserve blessings, we have a right to grace and mercy.  Just as we think we have a right to everything in the whole world, we lay claim to God’s grace in ways that are deeply scandalous and even more than a little heretical.

Just like those ten lepers had no right to lay claim to Jesus’ healing powers, so we too have no right to lay claim to his grace and mercy.  Those things do not belong to us, and even more than that we are quite unable to earn them, even if we had a desire to earn them in the first place.  But here’s the really great thing that shatters the scandal: even though those lepers had no right to be healed, Jesus healed them anyway.  Even though we have no right to God’s grace and forgiveness for our many sins, he gives those things to us anyway, without a thought of doing otherwise.  As the saying goes, God is good, all the time.

And so the message today is that we have to decidedly leave behind our sinful attitudes of entitlement and embrace an attitude of gratitude.  And honestly, I think that can make us happier people.  Grateful people live differently.  Grateful people look for the blessing in every moment, they hunt for the grace constantly at work in their lives.  They are like radios which are powered on so that they can receive the broadcast.  When you’re grateful, it’s amazing how much more you seem to be blessed.  Only it’s obviously not that you’re blessed more; instead it’s that you’re more aware of the blessing.  Thankful people are happier with their lives, because they’re simply more aware of what God is doing, how God is leading them, and they feel the touch of God’s hand leading them through life.  Being grateful is a choice, but it’s an important choice worth making, it’s a choice that makes our lives richer and more beautiful every day.

As Catholics, we are a people who, at least liturgically, constantly choose to be grateful.  Eucharist, as we have been taught, is the Greek word for thanksgiving.  And so the Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we sinners have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist actually brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least our corner of it!

So we’re not like those nine lepers that somehow missed the grace and blessing that was happening right before their eyes.  On this day, we gather because we choose to be grateful.  On this day, before all the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, we stand up and bear witness that our God is good all the time, that there is grace and blessing all around us, and we can see it if we choose to do so.  We grateful ones come into this holy place to show a watching world that we are who we say we are – a people of Eucharist – of thanksgiving not just on this day, but every day.  And we proclaim to the world that gratitude is the antidote for misery of entitlement, and it’s an attitude that can make the world a more blessed place.  Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving, our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  May we never cease offer our gratitude to God, singing to him our songs of thanks and praise.

The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel can be a confusing one, perhaps even a little difficult to hear.  It’s very disconcerting to see Jesus as being callous to his mother and not receiving her when she came to visit.  But our gut – or rather our faith – tells us that Jesus and Mary had a relationship that transcended that kind of thing.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about Mary; it’s just that he knew he really didn’t have to worry about her.  She had been filled with grace from the moment of her conception, and would never be without the benefit of that grace.

Theirs was a relationship in which Jesus instinctively knew that his mother was okay and he needed to attend more to the people he ministered.  And it is for that reason we celebrate Mary’s presentation today.  As with Mary’s birth, we don’t really know anything official about Mary’s presentation in the temple.  An unhistorical account tells us that her parents, Anna and Joachim, offered Mary to God in the Temple when she was three years old.  This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless.

Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose.  It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the birth of Mary.  It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.  We celebrate Mary, full of grace from the moment of her conception and all throughout her life.

We pray the words of Mary in the Responsorial Psalm today: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”  Mary was always aware of the amazing grace that sustained her throughout her own very difficult life-long mission.  We are graced like that too, and we celebrate that grace with Mary today.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God; that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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, even hoarding things.  They would eat leftovers well past their freshness dates.  It was just their response to having nothing, completely understandable.

And that’s the lens through which I think we need to see this week’s Gospel parable.  Here Jesus presents the often quoted story of a rich man entrusting his slaves with a great deal of wealth before he sets off on a long journey.  The word “talents” here does not mean what we mean when we use that word: here we are not talking about gifts or abilities, but rather money, and a large sum of money at that.  Scholars suggest that a talent was equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years.  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 who is it, then, that is receiving such a magnanimous gift?  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It 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!  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.

It’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s see where we can go.  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.  So let’s be clear that this parable is not about us using our gifts properly; it’s about we slaves receiving something very great, some inestimable wealth.  What could that possibly be?  Well, of course, it’s God’s love, grace, and favor, which is undeservedly ours and given to us without merit.

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.  But it was still 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 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.  That was the cardinal sin for Matthew in his Gospel.  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.

[[ Today we welcome our candidates for full Communion with the Church.  They have all been baptized in other Christian communities, and have come to us to become Catholic.  They have already been meeting with our RCIA program to grow in their knowledge of the faith and experience of God’s presence in their lives.  Welcoming them today, we have marked them with the sign of the Cross, helping them to remember the treasure of grace and love that God has already entrusted to them in baptism.  As we invest our faith in them today, we have hope that they will do the same for others, so that many more believers may be found for the kingdom of God.]]

We have come to 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?

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.”