The Solemnity of All Saints (Vigil Mass)

Today’s readings

Since we’re gathered here on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, I thought I might get your attention by doing a little homily I like to call “Would Jesus Go Trick-or-Treating?” It’s an important topic, because I think a lot of parents wrestle with the message of Halloween and whether or not they should support their children joining in the festivity.

And I think it’s an important thing to wrestle with. On one hand, we don’t want to make a joke out of evil, because evil is real and it’s no joke. But on the other hand, we don’t want to call attention to evil by making a big thing out of it. Exorcists tell us that those are the two common mistakes that we can make about evil: First, we might say think there is no such thing as the devil. Satan would be happy for us to do that, because then we’re not on guard against him. He is real, he’s out there, and we do have to be on our guard. The second mistake we might make is that we look for evil everywhere, and that just shuts us down and keeps us from living the Gospel. Neither of these is a good thing, and both of them play into Satan’s plans for us.

So let’s talk about Halloween. Its origins are a bit murky, and many people think that what happened is that we sort of baptized a pagan festival. Yes and no: there is a traditional pagan festival on October 31st, but apparently there is a traditional pagan festival on the last day of every month, so really that’s nothing particularly special. More likely, Halloween was a celebration of the Eve of All Saints – hence the name, Halloween, All Hallows Eve. All Saints Day originated in the year 609, when it was celebrated in May. But in the ninth century, it was moved to the first of November, which is when the Germanic church celebrated it, and it’s been celebrated then ever since.

The origins of trick-or-treating may have been in Ireland where an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated the harvest and marked the beginning of winter – the time of year when a significant portion of the population would often die. Because of the fear of death that came with winter, these celebrations seemed to have included going door to door asking for treats dressed in costumes, which were thought to disguise the living from life-taking spirits.

So the origins and intent of Halloween are more or less benign, and mostly intended to honor the saints. But in our country, over time, a more sinister tone was added to the celebration. Think of some of the more horrific costumes, extremely elaborate and grotesque “haunted houses,” and parties where more evil customs were brought to the celebration. Add that to some of the more elaborate horror movies that get released this time of year, and you can see how it would be easy to brand Halloween as an evil holiday.

Fundamentalist Christians especially see the evil, and thus throw out the entire celebration. But we are not fundamentalist Christians. So we remember that God is good, and that he is always in control, and we do not give the demonic or the evil any power it doesn’t already have. In fact, a lot of people think that there is more demonic activity at this time of year than normal, but exorcists tell us that is not true. It’s just that people tend to open more doors by their worrying and by doing some things they shouldn’t do to celebrate the holiday.

So now let’s remember what this holiday is really about. Today we celebrate the feast of all the Saints – those who have been officially canonized over the ages, and those that perhaps we don’t know of, but who God certainly knows. This is the Church Triumphant, those who have conquered evil and have mastered holiness. They have accomplished what they were created for, to take up their rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that place that God has prepared for each one of us. Today we celebrate their triumph, and hope for our own triumph, for we too wish to live forever with our God. We celebrate the example the saints have given us and we depend on their intercession, which helps to guide our lives and lead us on the path of life eternal. So it is right to celebrate this as we celebrate other holidays, with great festivity.

I think it’s important that we celebrate Halloween and All Saints Day as one, which is the intent. If we do that, we keep our minds on what is positive and turn away from all that bids us evil. So yes, I think it’s okay to trick-or-treat, to celebrate with parties, and to dress up. But I’d skip the more evil costumes, perhaps in favor of costumes honoring the saints, and any party games that summon evil, like Ouija boards.  In fact, if you have an Ouija board in your house right now, I want you to go home and destroy it and throw it away – don’t even give it to someone else – it’s not a party game.  All these are things that open the door to evil, and we always want to avoid that.

Avoiding evil was the glory of the saints. That was part of the path to holiness for them. As we celebrate all the saints today, we might think of some who famously battled evil and won. Saint Michael the Archangel, my middle-name patron, fights the battle of evil that we don’t usually see, every single moment. He is a wonderful patron, and we should memorize the prayer to him and pray it often. Saint Benedict battled evil temptation in his own life by rolling around in briars rather than give in to a lustful memory.  The Saint Benedict medal is particularly powerful in warding off evil.  Saint Patrick, my principal patron, famously converted the pagan king of Ireland to Catholicism and exorcised the forces of evil in that country. His famous Breastplate prayer is considered a deliverance prayer and a help to those who feel oppressed by evil. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, is a powerful protector of all of us, her children. And let’s not forget our Guardian Angels, who do battle for us on a daily basis. That’s just a few of the saints who battle for our good.

And in the spirit of their glorious battle, we should dedicate ourselves to joining them one day. We are all supposed to be saints, and as tall an order as that may sound, it needs to be our number one priority. Because there is no one in heaven who is not a saint. So then, we need to take all the help God and His Church gives us: we must dedicate ourselves to the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, which together are more powerful than a solemn exorcism. We must put prayer at the beginning, in the middle and the end of our to-do lists, dedicating ourselves to the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of scripture, and devotions, particularly the rosary. We have to make every effort to live the Gospel, and to give witness to the power of God’s love in our lives and in our world. Because if we honor and witness to Christ in this life, he will surely be our advocate in the life to come.

So yes, I think Jesus might trick-or-treat. But we come to him today for the best of all treats, the saving grace that he offers us that we might join the saints in heaven one day. We come to Jesus rejoicing and full of gladness, because we know that those who belong to him will have great reward in heaven.

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

A perfectly respectable reading of the whole Exodus story is an allegorical one.  In this reading, the Egyptian army, its chariots and charioteers and even its horses, symbolize the forces of evil and sin – basically everything that stands between us and God.  God loved the Israelites, who are God’s chosen people, and in a sense, you and me, so much that he rescued them from their abject slavery in Egypt, a slavery that we all have to the forces of sin.  Anyone who has struggled with an addiction or any pattern of sin in their lives, can tell you how sinfulness is really its own kind of slavery, and can really relate to the Exodus story in this allegorical sense.  God leads his chosen people away from sin back to the Promised Land, the heaven he promises us all.  On the way, the forces of evil are drowned in the abyss of the Red Sea, which symbolizes the abyss between this world of sin and the Promised Land of heaven.  The action of being delivered from sin through the sea is a symbol of Holy Baptism, which washes away our sins, and destroys the power of evil to control our eternity.

I love this allegorical reading because we are all pretty well removed from the ancient history of the Israelites and the Egyptians.  But the slavery that we all have to sin at one point or another in our lives is anything but ancient history.  God intends a very real exodus for all his chosen people, and he continues to do the work of salvation in and for all of us every day.  All of us who are sister and brother and mother to the Lord Jesus, all of his family, are too important to be left behind in slavery to sin.

All we have to do is follow the Lord through the desert of purification, through the abyss of whatever the Red Sea looks like for us, into the Promised Land.  And it won’t be easy.  Wandering forty years in the desert is something anyone would look forward to.  But as God sustained the people of Israel during that wandering, so he will sustain us on the journey away from sin back to him.  We too might sing to the Lord for he is gloriously triumphant.  The horse and chariot of our own sinfulness has been cast into the sea.

The Anniversary of the 9-11-01 Tragedy

Today’s readings

Seventeen years ago today, I sat in my room at seminary waiting for my first class to begin.  My classmates were already in their first classes; I had taken that particular class in college, so I didn’t have to take it again in seminary.  While I waited for class to begin, I flipped on the morning news, and just caught the end of something about a plane colliding with one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  I tried to get more information on the internet, but Yahoo news was running slow because of all the people trying to find out what happened.  Later, as I watched on television, I learned of the tragic events of four plane crashes that day and the thousands of lives that were lost.  Our world, in those tragic hours, was changed forever.

And so today, it can be very hard to hear the words Saint Paul speaks to the Corinthians today.  He speaks about letting ourselves be cheated and allowing the injustice that sometimes happens to us, rather than fighting it by committing the same sins ourselves. He exhorts us to treat each other as brothers and sisters.  And yet, when we look at an injustice like the tragedy of 9-11, it can be hard to see our persecutors as brothers and sisters.  It’s almost unthinkable to just let it happen to us and not lash out. But his point is that fighting against it by perpetrating injustice to others is sinful too, and he’s right.

The point is that we have to live the peace and justice and righteousness that we want to see in the world.  If all we do is respond to evil with evil, we don’t ever change anything.  But if we respond by making our corner of the world a better place, it can change everything. The Gospel Verse today says, “I chose you from the world, that you may go and bear fruit that will last, says the Lord.”  And evil never lasts, because Christ has conquered it.  Peace, justice, and love – those things last, because their source is God himself.

So I think we have to look at ourselves.  Have we been sources of peace or sources of anger, hate and violence?  And I don’t even mean that on any grand scale. Maybe we’ve just been jealous in petty ways, or have held on to the occasional grudge.  Maybe we have decided not to call the relative whose phone only seems to accept incoming calls.  Maybe we have sent a nasty email without stopping to consider it for any due time.  Maybe we have made or laughed at a racial joke, or have decided not to confront a person who uses racial slurs.  To whatever extent we have not been peaceful, we have added to the hatred and evil of which our world is already full.

And so today we pray for ourselves, that we might be more forgiving, for our world that it might be more peaceful, for our enemies and ourselves that we might come to know each other as children of God, for an end to evil and terrorism and murder and injustice of every kind.  Toward all of that, I offer today the prayer that Pope Benedict offered ten years ago at Ground Zero:

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost …
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

Amen.

Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The presence of God, in some ways, is quite often really unwelcome, at least to those who have made their own gods. Saint Paul urges the Corinthians in today’s first reading to be good discerners of this reality; to turn away from the spirit of the world so that they can turn toward the Spirit of God. That’s good advice for us too, of course. In today’s Gospel the demons that possessed the poor man knew who Jesus was and what he came to proclaim. Those demons wanted no part of Jesus, in fact, they wanted him to go away. But of course, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life will not let the man remain possessed, and the demon flees.

But the demons that oppose God’s presence remain in our world and are quite active. They possess people, institutions, and social systems. They attempt to cloud a respect for life by preaching the so-called truth of “choice.” They attempt to oppress whole peoples and developing nations with greed and rampant consumerism. They attempt to derail justice with corruption, peace with selfishness, respect for authority with a kind of false freedom of expression. We have even seen evil present in our Church in these days.

So the demons would like Jesus to go away and not even recognize them, but Jesus will not go away; he will not be overcome by anything; he will be always omnipresent. Evil will never be triumphant. Jesus speaks words of authority; an authority that gives him power even over these unclean spirits. So we have come to believe that the forces of darkness will never have the last word. For the truth will overcome them like the thief in the night, and all that darkness will be put to flight in the bright light of day. We then are people of light, and we are called to sing of the Lord’s truth so that all people will continue to be amazed, just like the bystanders at the casting out of the demon. And with the Psalmist, we can rejoice that “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

Tuesday of the Twenty-second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The presence of God, in some ways, is quite often really unwelcome, at least to those who have made their own gods. In today’s Gospel the demons that possessed the poor man knew who Jesus was and what he came to proclaim. Those demons wanted no part of Jesus, in fact, they wanted him to go away. But of course, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life will not let the man remain possessed, and the demon flees.

But the demons that oppose God’s presence remain in our world and are quite active. They possess people, institutions, and social systems. They attempt to cloud a respect for life by preaching the so-called truth of “choice.” They attempt to oppress whole peoples and developing nations with greed and rampant consumerism. They attempt to derail justice with corruption, peace with selfishness, respect for authority with a kind of false freedom of expression. The expression of truth in our society is so relativistic and centered around “me.”

But the Jesus will not go away; he will not be overcome by anything; he will be always omnipresent. And we believe that forces of darkness will never have the last word. For the truth will overcome them like the thief in the night, and all that darkness will be put to flight in the light of truth. So may we Christians continue to sing of the Lord’s truth so that all people will continue to be amazed, just like the bystanders at the casting out of the demon. And with the Psalmist, we can look forward to the full revelation of the truth: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the Beloved Disciple didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

So John isn’t just telling us what time it is.  When he says “and it was night,” he is telling us that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to its apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very, very dark night indeed.

But we know the end of the story.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night and burst forth with him to the brilliant glory of morning.

Thursday of the Thirtieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The question that Saint Paul asks at the beginning of today’s first reading is one that we’ve all heard countless times: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  We might even be tempted to pass by that question and move on to something else in today’s Liturgy of the Word, but I don’t think that’s wise.  Because it’s an important question, and one that confronts us all, in some way, time and time again.

We might go through a rough patch in our lives: loss of a job, death of a loved one, a severe and trying illness, damage to a marriage or strain in any relationship.  These are the issues that try our souls and sorely test our faith.  We might even at times be tempted to give in to despair and lose our focus in such a way that it affects our health and well-being.  But we believers dare not do so, because God is for us.

We might hear news that is difficult to absorb.  Our society may be in a sad state of affairs; the political climate may be divisive and disheartening; we may be fatigued or even alarmed by the rise of terrorism and the proliferation of war; morality of our communities may be far off-base and all of this might cause us to question what is going on.  We might be tempted to throw up our hands and lose all hope.  But we believers dare not do so, because God is for us.

There is someone, certainly, who is against us, and that one is Satan, and yes he and his threat are real.  Even the celebration of this Halloween day might make us shake our heads.  But Saint Paul reminds us that even Satan cannot ultimately take us down, because God is for us.  Saint Paul quite rightly insists that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is the same consolation that comes from devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Divine Mercy.  It is the consolation for which we gather this morning at the Table of the Lord.  It is the consolation that takes on every threat we encounter this day or ever in our lives: nothing and no one can separate us from God’s love.  Nothing.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading contains four of the most chilling words in all of holy Scripture: “And it was night.”  Those narrative words come just after Judas takes the morsel and leaves the gathering.  But the Beloved Disciple didn’t include those words to tell us the time of day.  In John’s Gospel, there is an overriding theme of light and darkness.  The light and darkness, of course, refer to the evil of the world that is opposed by the light of Christ.

That John tells us it was night meant that this was the hour of darkness, the hour when evil would come to an apparent climax.  This is the time when all of the sins of the world have converged upon our Lord and he will take them to the Cross.  The darkness of our sinfulness has made it a very dark night indeed.

But we know the end of the story.  This hour of darkness will certainly see Jesus die for our sins.  But the climax of evil will be nothing compared to the outpouring of grace and Divine Mercy.  The darkness of evil is always overcome by the light of Christ.  Always.  But for now, it is night.

In these Holy days, we see the darkness that our Savior had to endure for our salvation. May we find courage in the way he triumphed over this fearful night.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny II)

Today’s readings

Today’s Liturgy calls us to clear up our clouded vision and become people of light.  The gospel gets at that pretty quickly, healing the man born blind in the first couple of minutes of what is admittedly a pretty long reading.  And that’s a good thing because, honestly, who cares about the man born blind?  I know that sounds terrible, but he lived a couple thousand years ago, and he was healed, so you know, good for him, but how does that affect us?  I’ll tell you how it affects us: the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: none of us sees others or even sees ourselves as God does. The first reading then is a wake-up call to us.  And we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because, well, they just don’t want to.

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Of course we are.  We are, first of all, born blind. We don’t have a way of seeing the Truth that is in front of us; we can’t acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ and the King of our lives. It takes baptism to cure that born blindness in us. Secondly, we have a kind of blindness that affects us all through our lives. We often lose our vision and wander off the path to life. We are affected by temptation, by cyclical sin and by the darkness of our world. That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but it also proclaims that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little mud on our eyes.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision.  We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision.  Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see.  Our Elect, Brandon, will experience that in a very literal way this coming Easter Vigil.  In baptism, our inherited sin and evil is washed away; the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World.  We see that light shine brighter and brighter in today’s Gospel.  During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer.  At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him.  Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. As he sees more clearly, his faith becomes bolder.  We make this same journey ourselves.  From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  It kind of reminds me of the last section of the Exsultet that Deacon Chris Lankford will proclaim on the evening of the Easter Vigil. That last section tells us:

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever. 

Christ’s peaceful light changes everything. It clears up the darkness of sin and evil, and allows all of us blind ones to see the glory of God’s presence.  All of us have, indeed been born blind.  But we’re not supposed to stay that way.

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