“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” This was the question those magi asked after their long and harrowing journey. They had observed the star at its rising and were proceeding to pay tribute to the newborn king. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We know the story well enough; we’ve heard it so many times. But maybe this time, we can make a resolution not to lose sight of this wonderful event in the year to come.
We celebrate Epiphany today, and Epiphany is a revelation, a manifestation of God here among us earthly creatures. Epiphany is God doing a God-thing so
that we will sit up and take notice. But it takes some awareness to perceive such an Epiphany, such a wonderful event. We, like the magi, have to ask the question, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?”
To answer that question, we well might look toward our manger scenes, or assume we’ll only find him in church or in our prayer books, or in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And, of course, we will find the Lord there – those are wonderful places to start. But the event of the Epiphany of the Lord reminds us that God wants to do a God thing in us in all sorts of circumstances. So now we have to find God at work, at school, in our homes, in our community.
Can we see the Lord in the demanding customer, the needy co-worker, the sulky teenager, the hovering parent, the snippy public servant? We have to. We dare not ever miss the opportunity to seek out the newborn King in every situation! How could we ever turn up our nose at an opportunity for grace? Why would we ever knowingly miss a situation that could help us grow in holiness?
Finding the Lord is a journey that we all must make, at every stage of our lives. God wants to do God-things in us all the time, leading us this way and that, helping us to know him in more profound ways and more relevant ways at all the stops and starts of our life-long journey of faith.
The gospel story tells of a light in the sky that guides the astrologers to Christ. We don’t have the star; but grace is continually given to help us find Christ. God’s grace does what the star did for the Magi, it guides us to the out-of-the way places where Christ can be found. The Magi came bearing the types of gifts one would bring to royalty in a palace. But today Christ isn’t found in a palace; he isn’t rich, he is poor. The Epiphany reminds us that each day Christ manifests himself to us in the world’s lesser places and in surprising people. Those are the places to go looking and bearing gifts—starting with the most important gift, which is the gift of ourselves.
We will come forward in a few moments to pay homage to our king, just as did those Magi so long ago. When we offer our gifts on this holy day, perhaps we can also offer the gift of ourselves. Maybe we can offer the gifts that we have received from God. As we begin this year, perhaps we can resolve to make our giving an act of gratitude for all that we have received. Nourished by our Savior today, we can go forth in peace to bring gifts of justice, peace, and light to all the world.
Where is the newborn king for us? Are we ready to make the journey?
We’ve all heard this gospel parable about the sower and the seeds dozens of times. We know, then, that the seeds are the Word of God: not just some words, but Word with a capital “W,” which is Jesus himself, God’s eternal Word, spoken to bring life to a world dead in sin. We know that the seeds are that presence of Christ which fall on hearts that are variously rocky, or thorny, or rich and fertile. We’ve heard the parable, with Jesus’ own explanation, as well as homilies about it, so many times.
But what got me wondering as I read the parable in preparation for this morning’s Mass, was why – why are we hearing this parable now? The liturgical cycle usually conforms to the calendar, more or less, and so why this parable about sowing seeds now, on this day of the autumnal equinox, of all days? Nobody in their right mind sows seeds in autumn!
But God does. He sows the Word among us all the time: every day and every moment. It’s not just once for the season, and if the seeds don’t grow, then try again next year maybe. He is constantly sowing the seeds in us, urging us to make of our hearts rich, fertile soil for the Kingdom. And we do that by enriching the soil through reception of the Sacraments, participating at Mass, enlivening our prayer life, being open to the Word.
The Sower is out sowing the seeds of his Eternal Word all the time. Let’s give him fertile ground, that we can yield a rich harvest.
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2 | Matthew 5:1-12a
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
I think a lot of us could use some comforting in these days. The news of the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about clergy sexual abuse over a period of seventy years, and the real possibility of more of that in every other state was pretty awful. Then add the disheartening news of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians under his care, and possibly a young person earlier, along with the shocking news that men in the hierarchy of the Church knew about it and said nothing as he advanced his career, and it’s understandable how horrible we all feel, how much we mourn. We clamor for our God to comfort us.
I could mention so many emotions that I have experienced in these days: anger, disgust, shame, fear, sadness, brokenness. But as I mentioned in my bulletin column a couple of weeks ago, none of that compares to what victims of sexual abuse have probably felt in these days. In some ways, I imagine they feel violated all over again, and that, friends, breaks this pastor’s heart.
The Church should be a safe haven. The Church should protect young people – it’s the Church’s job to love young people into the glory of heaven. For heaven’s sake, we should not permit them to be violated and then swept under the carpet, left with nowhere to go and no one to whom to turn.
My pastor’s heart is broken, too, because all of this derails the mission of the Church. We want to be on fire for Christ and lead every longing heart to our God. But how can we convince a skeptical world to take a chance on a Church that seems to have a real problem with integrity, justice, love, and truth – all those things that we should be beaconing out to a world grown dark in sin and sadness. How can we be a light for the world when we harbor the darkness of sin and shame? How can people ever trust us with their souls when they can’t even trust us with their children?
And the thing is, we should be getting it right by now. We didn’t go far enough when these things started coming to light in the 1980s. We went much further after the scandals of 2002, but a lot of things got left out. There was no process to discipline bishops who covered up scandal, or even bishops who were abusers. Even though our diocese had a publicly available list of priests who were abusers, far too many dioceses did not. And every time we didn’t go far enough, we gave evil a chance to darken our world.
As your pastor, with a broken heart, I am sorry for the sins the Church has committed – sorry for the abuse that got perpetrated by clergy and covered up by other clergy. I am sorry if you were abused, and I am sorry for everyone who has felt shame because of what is going on. I know these are just words, and inadequate ones at that. But they convey my real feelings, and they are feelings I really want you to know.
Back in my first parish as a priest, I had an initial meeting with a couple preparing for marriage. She was Catholic and he was from one of the main-line Protestant communities. As I walked them through the paperwork, I got to the part where the Catholic has to agree to raise the children in the Catholic faith. I always do that with both parties present, because that’s a decision they need to come to together. Most often, the couple has talked about that and has accepted it. But this time the groom voiced his objection. When I asked him to tell me more about that, he told me that he had been abused by a minister at his church. And though he was obviously scarred from it, he appreciated that his church took it seriously and did everything possible to help him heal. He wasn’t confident the Catholic Church was ready to do that.
I told him about the measures the Church had taken since 2002, and the way that we promote safe environment. They are measures that truly have made a great deal of difference in the years since. I wasn’t able to convince him, and the couple never did marry for that and other reasons. But that interaction rekindled all the feelings I had in seminary when the scandals broke and half my class left.
It’s time to do more. We all have to hold each other accountable for everything – bishops, priests, deacons, faithful. We all have care for each other’s souls and need to say something when things aren’t right. We need to pray that our nation’s bishops, when they meet this coming November, will take the concrete steps needed to make the hierarchy of our Church conform to the witness, integrity, and zeal of the Apostles, whose successors they have been ordained to be. We need to pray that every child and every person in the Church will be treated as Christ himself. We need to pray that the bright light of Truth would scatter the darkness of sin. We need to pray in these days that our God would write his Law in our hearts, that he would be our God, and that we would be his people.
Because, in the face of this, it’s easy to come to despair. It’s easy to think this will never change and it’s all just going to come up over and over again. I want to say two things about that. First of all, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel, the Cross is the heart of what it means to be a disciple. When we are tempted to think it would be easier to walk away from the Church so that we don’t have to feel the pain, we need to say, “Get behind me, Satan.” Because it’s always the evil one who wants to convince us that life is better without the Cross. Second, as I said last Monday to our Confirmation students, there is a place we can go when we can’t see a solution to the problem. Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill up our emptiness, to convert our stony hearts, to sanctify the Church and to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken Church and a broken world.
I remember being in seminary in 2002 when so many of my classmates decided to leave. I certainly wondered why I was still there, and if I should leave too. As I prayed about that, the Bible verse that kept coming to my mind was the response of Saint Peter to our Lord when he asked the disciples if they were going to leave like so many of the others. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” That one verse has gotten me through just about every occasion when I felt tempted – tempted by the evil one – to walk away. And in these days, I think we need to realize how important it is that we are here: tonight, and every day. Because we certainly could walk away, but the Church is our Mother and she means too much to us. The Church and its sanctity and holiness are worth fighting for, and we are the warriors that our Lord has chosen to bring holiness to our Church and to our world in this sad hour. We have to be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness if we ever want to be truly satisfied.
I know I have a lot of nerve asking you to pray hard, to hold us and each other accountable, and to fight for the Church when the Church has let you down. Why won’t they clean up their mess? After all, they are the ones who fouled it up. But the Church isn’t a “they.” The Church is a “we.” And if we ever want the Church to be holy and a beacon of light, then we have the be the ones to fight for it. If we don’t do it, who will?
To all of us who clamor for righteousness, our Lord has made a solemn promise: our reward will be great in heaven. That promise is worth fighting for, friends. It’s worth purifying our own lives, calling out for real change in the Church, and praying for with every fiber of our being. Even if others ridicule and persecute us for our faith, we will be rewarded with greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
I borrowed the idea for our gathering tonight from my alma mater,Mundelein Seminary, who recently completed a Novena for the Healing of the Church. The prayer that they used for that novena is printed in your worship aid. I’d ask you now to stand and pray it with me:
Loving God, turn your ear to the cries of your sons and daughters who seek healing for Your Church.
We are heartbroken. We are bruised. We are hurting.
In these days we again wrestle with understanding the heinous acts of abuse by those entrusted with shepherding Your flock. Ease our troubled hearts. Mend our broken spirits.
Be “ever present in our distress.”
Merciful Lord, send Your Healing Spirit to our brothers and sisters who have endured pain and abuse physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Comfort their weary spirits. Soothe their pain. Grant them justice. May our eyes be opened to see Your image in these wounded members of Your Church.
Shepherd of Souls, make Your presence known to us that these wrongful acts will be addressed. Inspire our leaders of the Church to seek new and effective paths to keep safe the flock they shepherd.
Give us all courage to act and speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable. Rush the winds of the Spirit to scatter the darkness of sin. Pour forth Your healing Spirit to renew our trust and hope in You, who are our refuge and our strength.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Quite honestly, this Gospel story is a little strange, maybe even surprising. I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.” As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy! To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.” And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself. For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says. And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once. It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.
We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith. The prayer that we say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, says this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass. Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.
But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us. True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings us.
You may have heard the saying that “If you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.” It’s so easy for us in our arrogance to think we have everything all figured out. And then maybe God taps us on the shoulder, or whispers into our ear, and sends us in another direction. We’ve all had that happen in our lives, I am sure. And if we’re open to it, it can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be a wild ride at the least, and possibly even traumatic. This is the experience Paul is getting at when he says in our first reading, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.”
Simon and his fellow fishermen must have been thinking that Jesus fell into the foolishness category when he hopped into their boat, after they had been working hard all night long (to no avail, mind you!), and said, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” What foolishness! But something about Jesus made them follow his instructions, he tapped on their shoulders, whispered into their ears, and they did what he said.
And not only were they rewarded with a great catch of fish, but they were also called to catch people for God’s reign. Talk about God laughing at your plans! They had only ever known fishing, and now they were evangelists, apostles and teachers. And we know how wild a ride it was for them. They never expected the danger that surrounded Jesus in his last days. They never expected to be holed up in an upper room trying to figure out what to do next. They never expected to be martyred, but all of that was what God had in mind for them. And all of it was filled with blessing.
So what foolishness does God have planned for us today? How will he tap us on the shoulder or whisper into our ear? Whatever it is, may he find us all ready to leave everything behind and follow him.
I love the words of the Psalmist today: “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”
These are words that are easy for us to pray when things are going well, but maybe not so much when we’re going through rough times. It seems like the psalmist is going through some very good times, but we have no way of knowing that. The only key to the great hymn of praise the psalmist is singing is that he is reflecting on the wonder of creation and the mighty deeds God does in the world. The psalmist sees wonders not just in his own place but everywhere. He says, “The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” Every part of creation has been blessed by God’s goodness. Because of this, God is to be praised not just now, but “forever and ever” and by “generation after generation.”
This fits in very nicely with Hosea’s prophecy in our first reading today. Preaching to the Israelites in exile, he proclaims that God will change the relationship between Israel and the Lord. That new relationship would be a spousal relationship between God and his people, in which the spouses are partners in the ongoing work of creation. God will give Israel the ability to be faithful to God, and for His part, God will remember His faithfulness forever. God’s great mercy and compassion are seen with abundance in the Gospel reading. Jesus rewards the faithfulness of Jairus and the woman with the hemorrhage with miraculous healings. Key to all of these wonderful events, in all three readings, is that God who has created us is committed to re-creating us in His love and faithfulness.
So as we approach the Eucharist today and reflect on all the mighty and wonderful things God does in our midst, may we too sing the Psalmist’s song. May we all praise God’s name forever and ever, and proclaim his might to generation after generation.
I often wonder how people get through the hard times of their lives if they don’t have faith. We can all probably think of a time in our lives when we were sorely tested, when our lives were turned upside-down, and, looking back, we can’t figure out how we lived through it except for the grace of our faith. During the course of my priesthood, I have been present to a lot of people who were going through times like that: whether it be illness or death of a loved one, relationship struggles, job issues, or financial struggles, or a host of other maladies. Some of them had faith, and some who didn’t. It was always inspirational to see how people with faith lived through their hard times, and very sad to see how many who didn’t have faith just broken when their lives stopped going well.
That’s the experience that today’s Liturgy of the Word puts before us, I think. Let’s look at the context. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus has cured two people miraculously. He actually raised Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter from the dead, and he cured the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years. So both stories had occurrences of the number twelve, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Abraham, and later the Twelve Apostles, both of which signify the outreach of God’s presence into the whole world. So those two miraculous healings last week reminded us that Jesus was healing the whole world.
But this week, we see the exception. This week, Jesus is in his hometown, where he is unable to do much in the way of miracles except for a few minor healings. Why? Because the people lacked faith. And this is in stark contrast to last week’s healings where Jairus handed his daughter over to Jesus in faith, and the hemorrhagic woman had faith that just grasping on to the garments of Jesus would give her healing. Faith can be very healing, and a lack of it can be stifling, leading eventually to the destruction of life.
We see that clearly in the first two readings. First Ezekiel is told that the people he would be ministering to would not change, because they were obstinate. But at least they’d know a prophet had been among them. Contrast that with Saint Paul’s unyielding faith in the second reading to the Corinthian Church. Even though he begged the Lord three times to relieve him of whatever it was that was his thorn in the flesh, he would not stop believing in God’s goodness. Much has been said about what Saint Paul could possibly mean by this “thorn.” Was it an illness or infirmity? Was it a pattern of sin or at least a temptation that would not leave him alone? We don’t know for sure, but this “thorn” makes Saint Paul’s story all the more compelling for us who have to deal with our own “thorns” in our own lives. Saint Paul’s faith led him to be content with whatever weakness or hardship befell him, and he came to know that in his weakness, God could do more and thus make him stronger than he could be on his own. That assurance gives us hope of the same grace in our own struggles.
We people of faith will be tested sometimes; that’s when the rubber hits the road for our faith. Knowing of God’s providence, we can be sure that he will lead us to whatever is best. And our faith can help us to make sense of the struggles and know God’s presence in the dark places of our lives. People of faith are tested by the storms and tempests of the world, but are never abandoned by our God. Never abandoned.