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.”

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” or even unchristian in the story.  But bookmark that for a second.  I always maintain that when a Scripture gets us riled up, then God is trying to tell us something important, and I definitely thing that’s what’s going on here.

So, first, we have to understand the parable. 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 complex negotiations regarding the dowry were complete.  When that was done, the bridegroom would go 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 flowing wine and all the rest.

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 such sharing, 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?

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.  As we approach the immanent end of this Church year (there’s just less than three weeks left), 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?  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 our calling is at this stage of our lives?  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, in search of inferior oil with which to fill our flasks?  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.

Pope Saint Leo the Great

Today’s readings

Pope Saint Leo the Great was known to be a wonderful administrator of the Church.  But far from being caught up in purely administrative matters, he was also a very spiritual and prayerful man, many of whose great writings have become part of the lifeblood of our Church.  He was elected to the papacy in the year 440, and he set the tone as a pope who believed in the pontiff’s total responsibility for the flock he led.

His work included extensive defense of the church against the heresies of Pelagianism and Manichaeism and others, he played the role of peacemaker, defending Rome against attacks by the Barbarians, and very significantly helped to settle a controversy in the Church of the east on the two natures of Christ.  His work on that issue was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Leo was well versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, and he also had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people.  We have many of his writings to this day, and some are used in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.  Some of his prayers also exist today in the Roman Missal.

Saint Leo held that holiness consisted in doing the work we were called upon to do in our station in life, but not so much that it costs us our relationship with Christ.  Prayer and spiritual growth are also required of the disciple, and holiness consists of doing both work and prayer in proper balance.  Following that way, we too can say that we have done what we were obliged to do, and trust that God will be pleased with our efforts and bless our lives.

Today’s Gospel sees the steward getting his act together for the next stage of his life.  Knowing he was about to be dismissed, he made agreements with others to make sure that he would have a soft landing.  As we ourselves near the end of the Liturgical year, we too should, according to the example of Saint Leo, examine our work and our relationship with Christ, and set them in proper order if they are not aligned.

Monday of the Thirty-first Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A story is told about the third-century martyr Saint Lawrence that, after the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence, who was the keeper of the material goods of the Church, turn over to him all of the Church’s treasures.  In response, Saint Lawrence brought out the poor, the blind and the lame, to whom he had distributed alms, saying, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”  That act cost Lawrence his life, but it also testified to the real truth of where our treasure is found.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord instructs those dining at the home of one of the leading Pharisees to do much the same.  Rather than inviting those who would give you a boost in social status or cause you to have the opportunity for repayment, instead they should “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” expecting blessing because of their inability to repay the favor.

As we near the end of our liturgical year, the Church gives us this reading to help us to reflect on our discipleship over the last year.  What has been our response to the Gospel?  Have we sought our own honor and glory, or have we instead turned to have compassion on others?  Have we treated people as stepping stones to something better, or have we humbled ourselves?

Friends, Jesus makes it clear that we cannot receive the blessing God wants to give us if we aren’t humble enough to let go of social status and wealth and the high estimation of others.  We cannot receive blessing when we are grasping for things that look better.   So if toward the end of this year, we have not grown in blessing, maybe it’s time we took stock of what we need to get rid of.  Empty hands can receive blessing.

All Souls Remembrance Mass

The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.

Each year, the Church gives us the grace of remembering, and praying for, all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Perhaps the deepest mystery of the human experience lies in the reality of life and death.  Everyone has, or will, experience the death of loved ones, sometimes after a long life, sometimes far too soon, always with feelings of sadness, regret, pain, grief and perhaps even anger or confusion.

That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

I want to pause here and speak a little about the reality of grief.  Because, if there is one thing that we as a society do extremely poorly these days, it’s grieving.  We rush through it and hope it’s all done before we have a chance to feel any kind of pain.  That’s part and parcel of how things work in our world; we have a pill for every malady and a quick remedy for every pain, plagued with a whole host of horrifying side effects.  And what’s important to know is that this is not how the Church teaches us to grieve.  One of the most important reasons that we have All Souls Day each year is to give us the experience of remembering and grieving and healing.  If you truly love, you will truly grieve, and not turn away from it.

The Church’s Catechism (989) teaches us: “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.”  And so we Christians never grieve as if we have no hope.  The Church’s Liturgy echoes this hope in the third Eucharistic Prayer: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.”  One of the Prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers for the Dead makes it very clear that this hope touches our experience of grieving: “In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come (Preface I for the Dead).”

And so I have some tips on grieving that I hope you will find helpful:

  1. Don’t rush into the funeral. It’s hard to make all those difficult decisions at a moment’s notice.  It’s great if you’ve talked about your wishes with your family, because it makes things easier.  But if that hasn’t happened, the family would do well to take its time and avail itself of the resources of the funeral director and the church staff so that a funeral that adequately honors the deceased and comforts the living can be prepared.
  2. Parents: please talk to your children about your funeral. Yes, that’s going to be a hard conversation.  But these days, too many young people are so disconnected from the Church and so averse to any kind of unhappiness, that they really don’t know how to grieve.  You have to help them with that.
  3. Let other people help you. Even if you can do all the preparations, you don’t have to.  Let the Church and others help you and minister to you in your time of grief.  As a priest, I presided at my father’s funeral, but one of the priests who knew him preached the homily.  I found that was very helpful to me in my own grieving.  On that day, I was a son grieving the death of his father; it would have been hard to be the preacher too.
  4. Have a wake. A lot of people try to short-cut this one because they think it will be too painful.  It will hurt a little, yes, but the comfort of others expressing their love for the deceased and for you will do so much to heal you in the time to come.
  5. Don’t be afraid to shed tears. Anyone who has ever seen me preach at some funerals of people I’ve known especially well has seen me get choked up.  Or they have seen me shed a tear when I’ve talked about my father or my grandparents in a homily.  Tears heal us, and it’s good for other people, especially your children, to see you cry.  They need to know that pain and sorrow are part of life so that they don’t feel like they’ve gone nuts when it happens to them.  You aren’t doing anyone any favors by not allowing them to see you grieve.
  6. Understand that grief doesn’t “go away.” Feelings soften with time, yes, but you will grieve your loved ones for many years to come, perhaps your whole life long.  I still grieve for my grandparents who have been gone from my life for many, many years now.  Sometimes those waves of grief will come up all of a sudden, without warning, kind of out of the blue.  And that’s okay.  Remember grief is a sign that we have loved, and loving is the most important thing we will ever do.

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer.  There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long.  And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa.  That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain.  We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss him.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died.  My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, as so many parents do, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision.  Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I can’t say this strongly enough: if we don’t learn to grieve, as early as possible, we will never ever truly love.  We won’t want to invest ourselves in love because we won’t want to ever feel pain.  Jesus so deeply invested himself in love that he suffered the pain of the cross for us, so as to open for us the way to resurrection.  We have to be willing to suffer loss in order to gain anything truly glorious.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in grieving and remembering.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.  And certainly our prayers are heard by our God who gives us healing and brings our loved ones closer to him, purifying them of any stain of sin gathered along the journey of life.

That pain that perhaps we feel won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart.  But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ.  We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.