Independence Day

Today’s readings: Isaiah 57:15-19 | Philippians 4:6-9 | John 14:23-29

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document of inestimable worth, authored by passionate men.  The independence that document brought came at the price of many lives, and so that independence and the rights it brought forth, must always be vigorously defended and steadfastly maintained.  Almost 200 years later, the bishops of the Church, gathered in synod for the second Vatican Council, spoke boldly of the specific liberty of religious freedom.  They wrote:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. 

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.  (Dignitatis Humanae, 2.)

So the Church teaches that the right to free practice of religion belongs to each person as part of their fundamental human dignity.  A person’s right to form a relationship with, worship, and live in accord with the God who created them is foundational to all civil liberties.  And while having this right in a nation’s constitution is important, actually putting it into practice is another matter entirely.

In our nation, the free practice of religion was so important that those passionate men took the radical step of breaking ties with the country of their patrimony, and forging a new nation.  Because of that, we have inherited the freedom they fought hard to arrange.  But again, we have to be vigilant to protect that freedom, or it can become just words on paper.

Freedom of religion was never intended to be freedom from religion, a notion that well-meaning agnostics, atheists and secularists have sought diligently to popularize.  The Church teaches that true freedom isn’t some misguided notion of being able to do whatever on earth we want, regardless of the needs and rights of others: our own freedoms are never meant to impinge on the freedom of another.  As Saint John Paul said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

So it is important on this Independence Day, to take a stand for freedom that is truly free, to defend the freedom to which our Founding Fathers dedicated their lives, and to insist that our freedoms are not just freedoms on paper, but instead, true freedoms, extended to every person.  Because it is that freedom that leads us to our God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives to his Apostles, and to us, the peace that comes from the  abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  That Spirit leads us to truth and peace and ultimately into the presence of God himself.  Blessed are we, free are we, when we put aside everything that gets in the way of the Spirit’s action in our lives and impinges on our true freedom to walk with our God.

In the last line of the Declaration of Independence, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on freedom: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  They gave everything so that we might all be free.  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.

The Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Freedom!

Today’s readings

“For freedom Christ set us free.” So writes Saint Paul in our second reading today. And it’s a beautiful reflection for this weekend, when we are getting ready for our Independence Day celebrations. When our nation’s founders set up this fledgling republic 240 years ago, freedom was certainly one of their primary concerns. Freedom of religion was of primary importance, and they also held dear freedom of expression, freedom of association, and many others. We are the beneficiaries of their hard work. As “they” say, freedom isn’t free, it is purchased at a price, and at this time of year we remember those who paid that price for us, and those who continue to do so in the military every day.

In that second reading, Saint Paul is reflecting on the freedom that the early Christians had. This freedom was a freedom from the constraints of the myriad of laws that they observed, laws that encouraged people to replace true devotion to the spirit of the law with mere surface-level observance of the letter of the law. Paul reminds them that their freedom was purchased at the incredible price of the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord who died that they, and we, might have life.

For the Galatians, as well as for all of us, freedom had to be defined a little more exactly, and that was St. Paul’s purpose in today’s second reading. Because freedom isn’t free, it can’t be taken lightly or casually, and so he makes it clear what the freedom truly is. The Galatians had the mistaken notion that freedom meant the same thing as license, which isn’t the case at all. Freedom didn’t mean license to act against the law and to live lives of immorality and corruption. That would be replacing one form of slavery with another, really, since immorality has its own chains. The freedom Christ won for us is a freedom to live joyful lives of dedication and devotion and discipleship, all caught up in the very life of God. Real freedom looses us from the bonds of the world and sets us free to bind ourselves to God, who created us for himself. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This distinction between true freedom and license for immorality is one that we must take seriously even in our own day, as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s own independence. Because in our own day, we too have confused the freedom we have inherited from our founders with a license to do whatever the heck we want. And that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is not the gift we have been given. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we have the right to express ourselves in a way that slanders or ridicules others. And if you don’t think that’s an issue, just listen to some talk radio or watch some daytime television, or perhaps listen to any of the current campaigning for office. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, and it doesn’t mean that we have to practice our faith in secret and not let people know that Jesus Christ is Lord by the way we live and talk. And you know that’s an issue: in the courts, in our places of business and our schools, and in our communities. Being free doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want; being free means we are free to better ourselves, our families, our churches and our communities. Real freedom is freedom to be who we have been created to be.

This freedom to be who we have been created to be is a matter of some urgency for Elisha in today’s first reading and the would-be disciples that Jesus met in today’s Gospel. All of them received the message that when God calls, the time to answer is now. But all of them found that there were things going on inside them that kept them from answering the call; that kept them from being free to follow God in the way they were created to do that.

Certainly the rebukes they all received seem a bit harsh to our ears. After all, they had good excuses, didn’t they? Who would deny a person the right to say goodbye to their families or bury their dead? But there are a couple of subtle distinctions that we have to get here. First, it wasn’t as if they had ever been told to follow the call instead of taking care of family and burying the dead. Yet they were using those things as an excuse to put off their response to God’s call. Second, following God’s call very well could have meant doing those exact things they were involved in, but in a way that honored God. The call was to put God first, and one could conceivably do that and still take care of family, friends and business.

What’s at issue here is right relationship. Responding to God’s call must always come first, but responding to God’s call may mean raising one’s family, tending to a sick parent or elderly relative, reading to one’s children, grieving the loss of a loved one or battling an illness. It’s a matter of priorities, and true freedom means putting God first in all of that, trusting that God will help us to make sense of it all.

It’s important to know that God pretty much always calls people out of the ordinariness of their lives. That was true of Elisha today. He was minding his own business – literally – by plowing the fields. And yet he gives it all up on the spot to follow God as Elijah’s successor. It must have been an incredibly moving event for Elisha, because he was so excited that he ran back, slaughtered his oxen and chopped up the yokes to use as fuel to cook the flesh and feed his people. Doing that was a complete break with his former life, and showed the lengths to which he was ready to go in order to do God’s will.

On this Independence Day, may we all remember that true freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, regardless of the implications for others and ignorant of our relationship with God. I hope we remember that true freedom doesn’t mean license to live an immoral life. Instead, true freedom is about living the life God has called us to live and following as committed disciples, free to be caught up in the life of God. True freedom means breaking with anything that holds us back from becoming the free sons and daughters of God we were created to be. True freedom means putting God first and serving him in the ordinariness of our lives, following his call to our dying breath. True freedom means finding the same joy that our Psalmist finds today when he sings, “You are my inheritance, O Lord.”

Memorial Day

Readings: Isaiah 32:15-18 | Psalm 72 | Matthew 5:1-12a
Mass of Peace and Justice

One of the effects of a presidential election year for me, is taking a long hard look at who we hold up as our leaders or our heroes. In some ways these days, a presidential election is an emergence of whoever is the least objectionable candidate, because in this day and age, it’s hard to get good people to run for office. And who could blame them? It’s so hard for candidates to deal with all that public scrutiny, the months of campaigning, the financial outlay. It seems sometimes that those willing to go through all of that aren’t exactly the cream of the crop. But apply that to any other field of interest. What about our sports heroes, or entertainers? How many of them turn out to be flawed in many ways? The people we want to hold up as heroes are very often not very heroic.

But today is a day to celebrate true heroes. Memorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country. So today we remember those men and women who have given their lives for peace, justice, righteousness, and freedom. These have been people who have given everything, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

On this day, I think it would be a mistake to glorify warfare. I don’t think that is the point of this day, or is even best way to honor the memories of those who have fallen in war. Our Church’s teachings counsel that war is not the way to peace and that developed societies like ours can and must use our resources to seek other ways to solve problems. But we have to acknowledge that there are and have been times in our nation’s history that have called on people to fight for our freedoms and to fight for justice. Today we honor their memory with immense gratitude, because without their sacrifice we may not be free to worship today.

Our heroes should always include those who have given their lives for justice, righteousness, and the faith. Today, we might call to mind the great martyrs of the Church, those who have shed their own blood that we might have the Gospel. Perhaps they inspired those who have given their lives in service to our country.

Today we pray for those who have been part of our lives, part of the life of our Church, and the life of our country. These are the ones who have been people of faith and integrity and are true heroes that God has given us. These are the ones who have laid down their lives for what is right. If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: The Road Less Traveled

Today’s readings

When I hear today’s readings, I very often think of the poem, “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost. It goes, of course, like this:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

I think of that poem because today’s readings speak, more or less, to the same sentiment, but with a more radical and crucial twist. Frost’s opinion is that both roads are equally valid, he simply chooses to take the one most people don’t. But the Gospel tells us that there really is only the one valid path, and that certainly is the road less traveled. We commonly call it the Way of the Cross.

Moses makes it clear: he sets before the people life and death, and then begs them to choose life. Choosing life, for the Christian, means going down that less traveled Way of the Cross, a road that is hard and filled with pitfalls. And maybe the real problem is that there is a choice. Wouldn’t it be great if we only had the one way set before us and no matter how hard it would be, that was all we could choose? But God has given us freedom and wants us to follow that Way of the Cross in freedom, because that’s the only way that leads to life; the only way that leads to him.

Our Psalmist says it well today:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

So in today’s first reading, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers.  What a foreshadowing this is, isn’t it?  It certainly foreshadows Israel’s slavery in Egypt that led to the Exodus, but it also foreshadows the selling of Jesus into the hands of his executioners by one of his own brothers, Judas Iscariot, and, of course, ultimately by all of his brothers and sisters, namely you and me.  We must never forget that Jesus paid the price for our sins.

But, it also foreshadows our own slavery too.  We too have been sold into slavery to sin, enticed by the power of the evil one.  The chains of our slavery to sin might look like always needing to be right, constant self-pity or self-doubt, blaming others instead of taking responsibility, criticizing others constantly, refusing to move on from the pain of our past, taking joy in the misfortune of others, giving ourselves to endless worry, putting others down, using stereotypes and participating in racism, refusing to forgive, thinking of oneself over others, and the list goes on.  We well know the chains that bind us to sin.

As the Psalmist tells us, the King eventually freed Joseph from his chains and put him in charge of his household.  Lent is about allowing our King, Jesus Christ, to break the chains of our slavery to sin, and accepting the discipleship responsibilities he gives us.   We are never forgiven and just left to go on our own: we are forgiven and sent on mission – grace is always given to us that we might share it with others.

As we continue the prayer of Mass today, we offer those chains to Jesus, asking him to break them, and accepting the gift of discipleship for the honor and glory of God.  Remember the marvels the Lord has done!

Homily for Independence Day: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Famously begins the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the American colonies on July 4, 1776.  Sometimes, I think, it seems we have strayed pretty far from the ideals found in this wonderful document.  Just that first sentence says a lot about who our forefathers wanted us to be: it acknowledges the Creator God who gives people a dignity and rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights must still be vigorously defended today.

The right to life seems like a no-brainer.  But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred.  When does life begin?  What lives need to be protected?  The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death.  That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong.  These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.

The right to liberty is similarly blurred in today’s society.  Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms.  And nothing should.  But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want.  Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person.  Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person.  Saint Paul says that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love.  None of that happens in a coerced way.  Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.

And finally there is the pursuit of happiness.  We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life.  We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place.  We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.

We Catholics teach that with all these rights come responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, to keep our nation from harm, to work for lasting peace in the world.  Toward that end, we are mindful and grateful of the work so many have done to secure our rights and freedoms, both those who have gone before us and those still fighting wars today.  In our prayer, we long for the day when war will be no more, and the peace that is the presence of Christ will rule over a world still in need of the perfection of life, liberty and happiness.

In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.


Thursday of the Nineteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the greatest sins there is, I think, is the sin of not letting go.  And, if we’re honest, I think we all do it, all the time.  I know I do.  Whether it’s an long-standing argument with a loved one, or a touch of road rage, or demanding what we think we’re entitled to have, we can be real good at holding on to things.  It’s pretty much the original sin: as soon as Adam and Eve found out they couldn’t have the forbidden fruit, they couldn’t let go of it until they had it.  The reason I think it’s the greatest sin is that this is the sin that doesn’t let God in: when we’re grasping on to things, we’re not reasonable; when we’re grasping on to things, we can’t let go and let God be God.

Today’s Gospel parable is about the danger of not letting go.  The servant had no reason to expect his master to forgive his debt.  He had, in fact, run up that debt, and it was his to pay.  The problem is, he could never pay it.  The master had every reason to turn him over to be imprisoned for the rest of his life, or until he paid off the debt, whichever came first.  But the master was moved with pity and didn’t just give the servant more time to pay up, but instead he wrote off the debt in its entirety.

One would think that the servant would be so overjoyed, that he would forgive others the same way.  But he isn’t.  He comes across a fellow servant who owed him a paltry sum, and hands him over to be imprisoned until he can pay the debt.  So naturally, the master finds out and revokes his own mercy.  If that servant had just let go of what he was holding on to, he would have been more than alright.  But he couldn’t do it.

The debt we owe to God is ridiculously large; we’ll never be able to repay it.  But we don’t have to because through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our debt has been forgiven.  In its entirety.  We can’t be like the wicked servant.  The joy that we have in celebrating our forgiveness in this Eucharist has to help us to let go of what we are hanging on to, or it’s no help to our salvation.

Maybe we can pause today as we offer our gifts and offer to let go of something so that others can be set free too.