The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Rite of Welcoming of Candidates for Full Communion

Today’s readings

There are a lot of experts out there.  And those experts will be happy to give you their opinion.  Really, there is no shortage of places these days from which you can get information.  Television, print media, and especially the internet – God knows what we did before the days of Google! – all of these will gladly disgorge information on just about any topic, and so the days of searching high and low for information are pretty much long gone.

But one has to wonder about the quality of the information that we get.  Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t make it true!  We know that.  And ask any teacher and they will probably tell you that they are sick of students quoting Wikipedia and their lot.  Even if a site isn’t intentionally giving poor information, there’s almost no way to verify what they’re telling you, unless they have provided proper sources or footnoted their claims.

And the same is certainly true for those who would give us opinions on religion.  I can hardly count the number of religious opinions I have been given that began with the words “In my opinion…” or “I think…” If you hear someone start a comment on religion or morality with those words, you have my permission to stop listening to them, because quite frankly, it’s very likely going to be a waste of your time.  When it comes to matters of faith and morals, one’s opinions don’t really matter; what is important is what is truth.

In today’s Gospel, the people are astonished at what Jesus was teaching them.  They couldn’t believe their ears.  And what is striking about that is that they are astonished because Jesus was obviously preaching with authority, “and not as the scribes.”  That’s a pretty sad condemnation of the scribes of the day, because the scribes were charged with copying the Scriptures and making sure the faith was taught to all people.  If they couldn’t be trusted to speak the truth, well then, who could?

What is astonishing for them is that they finally found the One they could trust: the One who spoke with authority.  Jesus didn’t give them some lame opinion or say “I think…” No, he gave them revealed truth, revealed in his words, and in his miracles, and ultimately in his sacrifice.  The religious leaders of his day might not like what he was saying to them, but they certainly could not refute the Truth he preached.

And that Truth wasn’t just for that one time and place.  That Truth is authoritative today.  Against the widespread opinion that one can be “spiritual but not religious” – whatever that means; against those who think that human life is expendable, or that it can be manufactured for research, or that it can be regulated by government mandate; against those who think that matters of conscience and freedom of religion don’t matter when they become inconvenient; against those who think that any religion is just as good as another, or that religion should never tell people what is right and wrong – against all these lies, Jesus’ Truth stands eternal.

Today, our Candidates for Full Communion with the Church have joined us and we have welcomed them.  We are one in Baptism, because our Creed proclaims one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  But they wish to draw nearer to Christ and to be one with us in the Eucharist, to be Confirmed in our faith.  They will receive these sacraments soon, and today we pledge to journey with them.  Together, we embrace the Truth our Christ reveals and we proclaim the truths that make us one Body, one Spirit in Christ.

Our Psalmist today reminds us that if today we hear God’s voice, we should not ever harden our hearts.  As we continue our worship today, may we renew our commitment to seek the voice of God in every moment, embracing the Truth that is revealed to us.  And may we be a people who open our hearts to that truth, and eagerly live it and proclaim it by the way we live our lives.

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings

Have you ever thought how depressing life would be if this is all there was? Do you know people who would say that they believe there is nothing else after this life?  I’m not sure how people like that can get out of bed in the morning, let alone keep on living day after day. Questions about life and death and last things and life after the last things are what’s going on in the Church’s mind and imagination in these last days of the Church year.

It’s little wonder these questions grab us in these waning days of the year. The trees are losing their foliage. The daylight hours are getting shorter. The air is a bit colder. We can sense there is a change approaching, and perhaps it isn’t one that we look forward to. Even with the festive atmosphere of the upcoming holidays, or perhaps even because of that, many of us feel depressed or blasé, and the festivity of the holiday season only serves to highlight it for us. Please God, let there be something more.

Fundamentally, we human beings need to make connections. We want life, we want light, we want peace, we want love. And because we want all these things, we know we are alive. We attempt, don’t we, to fill them up as best we can. We hope that our attempts are healthy, but sometimes we find ourselves stuck and attempt to fill our desires with things that are well, just shoddy. We anesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol. We enter into relationships that are unhealthy. We work ourselves to death. We distance ourselves from loved ones. We sin.  We often just try to fill up the something more that we desire with something less than that of which we are worthy.

And that’s exactly what the Sadducees were doing.. The Sadducees, we are told, were a group of religious authorities that taught there was no resurrection. So these Sadducees come to Jesus and seem to have an earnest question. They speak of a woman seven times widowed and wonder whose wife she will be in the resurrection of the dead. Except that their question wasn’t earnest at all. Clearly they were out to discredit Jesus, even embarrass him. So you think there will be a resurrection, they say, well then, what about this?

The Sadducees didn’t get it when it came to the resurrection, and they weren’t willing to open their minds to any kind of new possibility. If what Jesus said didn’t fit what they believed, then it absolutely must be wrong. They were filling their desires with the sin of pride instead of the possibility of eternal life. What a horrible, shoddy way to fill up their desires!

But swing that around and look at the seven brothers in the first reading. All they would have to do was eat a little pork and they could have lived. Yet they patently refused to do so. One by one, they are tortured and killed. Why would they have let themselves be treated that way? All they had to do was eat some pork, for heaven’s sake; surely God would forgive them, right? But listen to what the first brother says: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.” These brothers and their mother realized that there was something greater, something more. They knew their desire could never be filled up with a little pork, or the shoddy life that would come about as a result of giving up their beliefs. What a stark contrast they are to the prideful Sadducees!

We may be tempted to settle for something less, but we know there is something so much better in store for us. There is something that will fill up our desires once and for all, and that something – or rather someone –  is Jesus Christ. It’s not going to be our pride, boasting of our elaborate wisdom or ability to take care of ourselves. It’s not going to be a little pork, or giving in to whatever temptation comes our way to take us off the path. It’s not going to be alcohol, or drugs, or unhealthy relationships or Dr. Phil or Oprah or anyone else. It’s only going to be Jesus, only Jesus who will fill up the desires that touch us to the core of who we are.

The Church in these waning days of the Church year would never deny that there is suffering in the world. But she will encourage us to open up our desires to be filled with our Savior who comes not to make our suffering go away, but instead to fill it up with his presence. There is something more, and we can expect to be filled up with it when we realize that the fit for the hole we have in our hearts is Jesus Christ.

Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. To him all are alive. So in these last days of the year, if we find ourselves desiring peace, desiring wholeness, desiring comfort, desiring love, desiring fulfillment, or desiring anything else, that’s okay. Because what we’re really desiring is Christ, and he is always there to fill us beyond our wildest imaginings.

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

What wonderful words we have in today’s Gospel to close out the Christmas season: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”

We have come a long way since December the 25th.  Jesus, the Son of God has become the son of Mary, and has sanctified the world by his most merciful coming.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity has taken on flesh and become one like us in all things but sin.  He took that flesh as the lowliest of all: as a baby born to a poor young family in the tiniest, poorest region of a small nation.

But during his Epiphany, which we have been celebrating ever since last Sunday, we saw the importance of this Emmanuel, God with us.  Magi came from the East to give him symbolic gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for the High Priest, and myrrh for his burial.  Today, the Epiphany continues with the second traditional reading of the Epiphany: the Baptism of Jesus.  Obviously, Jesus didn’t need to partake of the baptism of John, because it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  But Jesus’ taking part in that baptism manifests himself as One who has come to be with sinners, to take on their sinfulness, and to sanctify those waters of baptism so that they can wipe away our sins.

And here’s a wonderful thing: even though the Christmas season officially ends today, we continue to celebrate it in some ways, all the way up to Candlemas day, February the 2nd.  We see that especially this year, because next week, we get the third traditional reading of the Epiphany, the Wedding Feast at Cana, in which Christ is manifested in his ministry, ready or not.

The secret to our celebration of the Epiphany is that we must be ready to accept the manifestation of Jesus in our own lives.  We have to let him be our king and priest, accepting his death for our salvation.  We have to celebrate our own baptism, which is only significant because Christ has gone through it first, long before us, sanctifying the waters.  We have to let him minister to us as he did at the wedding feast, giving us the very best of food and drink, in great abundance, to nourish us into eternal life.

This is the One with whom the Father was well-pleased; he is the One with whom we are in awe.  We are moved to silence before our Christ who came most mercifully to sanctify our way to heaven.  That silence can only be appropriately broken by the exclamation of the Father:  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased!”

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Today’s readings

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  John the Baptist was certainly voicing the question others probably were asking; they may have been envisioning quite a different kind of savior, one who was strict and zealous, who sought to restore Israel to international greatness.  But Jesus makes it clear that he is a Savior who comes to heal and bind up wounds, to forgive sins, and to bring people back to God.  People today are still asking if Jesus is the one who is to come.  And they are asking us.  Our lives must give witness that Jesus is still restoring sight to the blind, giving new strength to the lame, cleansing those whose infirmities keep them marginalized, helping the deaf to hear, giving new life to those whose dead in their sins, and preaching the good news to the poor.  The watching world needs to see all of that in us.

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is very interesting compared with yesterday’s.  Yesterday, Herod was trying to figure out who Jesus was; today Jesus is asking who people said he was.  What is most interesting is that the answers both times are the same.  The people advising Herod gave the same answers as the Twelve did today: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets.  The question is a good one and it’s worth asking and answering.  Peter had the right idea, but didn’t fully understand it.  It’s easy for us to know the right answer but not fully understand it too.  Who is Jesus for us?

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

“Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” You’re going to hear those words again in a few minutes, because they are the beginning of the Third Eucharistic prayer, which I’ll be using today. I think they speak well of what we hear in today’s Gospel.

I remember back in my second year of seminary, I took my first moral theology class. One of the first tests we took had that line from the third Eucharistic Prayer on it: “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” This line came along with the question: “Rocks are part of creation. So how does a rock give God praise?” Only a Jesuit moral theologian would ask a question like that! The answer, we had been taught, is “by being a rock.” Certainly a rock could not sing a song of praise or pray a psalm, but just by being what it was intended to be—a rock—it gave God praise.

That’s what today’s Gospel is all about. Not about being a rock, that would be silly, but by rightly giving God praise by being what we were created to be: the most fully human people we can be. Now that might seem like a no-brainer. Hey, we can all be human, right? But that, I think, is based on a flawed notion of what it means to be human. How many times have we all said something like, “sure, I am a sinner; I’m only human, right?” But being a sinner is not the same as being fully human. The most fully human person that ever walked the face of the earth was Jesus Christ. Jesus, we believe, was like us in all things, except sin. This is how we know that sin is not part of what it means to be fully human. And sin obviously is not something that gives God praise. Indeed, that last line of the Gospel seems to leave no room for sin, and sets a rather high standard of what it means to give God praise: that we must bear much fruit – not just some fruit, but much fruit – and become disciples of Jesus.

To become more fully human is a life-long task, and we know that it will never be fully realized this side of heaven. But while we are on earth, that’s our primary responsibility: to give God praise by becoming more fully what we were created to be in the first place. Today’s Gospel gives us a picture of how we’re supposed to do that. It mentions two specific things we are to do.

The first thing we are to do is, quite frankly, painful. And that is to get pruned. I’ve pruned more than a few bushes at my parents’ house in my day. When I was growing up, I made the mistake of doing it well, and so I got that job every spring! I didn’t really mind doing it though, but I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub. It involved cutting away branches that looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving, and even cutting some branches radically away.

Well, we have to give in to that kind of painful process in our own lives too, I think. We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people. This process is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous. However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be.

The second thing we must do is to remain in Christ. That’s what he says in the Gospel:

Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.

And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote! “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be tossed out and burned as rubbish. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.

I think we can all get on board with remaining in Jesus, because this reading makes it sound completely wonderful. And it is wonderful. If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.” And that’s true. How many times have we tried to better ourselves and lost sight of the goal before we even started? Don’t even ask me about my new year’s resolutions! How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again? How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way? When we forget to start our work and continue our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Well does he advise us to remain in him.

But what does “remain in me” look like? Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel. And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person. Just like my pruning of mom’s shrubs wasn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ. And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away. But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth. We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day. That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it. We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.

On this Mother’s Day, I am particularly struck by the spiritual example of my mother and my grandmothers. These women have been faithful witnesses to the Gospel for me and have always encouraged me to live the most fully human life I possibly could. They encouraged me to become all that God had created me to be, and if not for their witness and their urging, I know I would not be standing here today. One of the many gifts God gives us in this life to encourage us in the very hard work of pruning and remaining is the gift of those who have been mother to us. These might have been our natural mothers and grandmothers, our godmothers, our aunts or sisters or some other nurturing female presence in our lives. For all of them today, let us give thanks, and praise our God for the ways they have helped us to be what God created us to be.

All creation, as Eucharistic Prayer III tells us, rightly gives God praise. But we aren’t rocks. It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be. But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy. May we all support one another in our times of pruning and through our journey of remaining.

St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor

Today’s readings

You surely recognize these beautiful words:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in being with the Father.

These words emphasize the divinity of Christ, an essential truth of our faith. The Liturgy also says: “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus asserts his divinity, which troubles some of his hearers who cannot bear to accept it. Many turned away and returned to their former way of life. But the Twelve did not, they were convinced (all but one of them) that Jesus had the words of eternal life.

The Arians, led by the priest Arius in the third century, did not believe this. They believed there was a time before Jesus existed, that he was not one in being with the Father, but rather was created by the Father. This position denies the divinity of Christ, which is an unacceptable position for our faith. If Christ is not divine, he has no power to save us.

St. Athanasius was a great champion of the faith against the harmful teachings of Arius. But it was a hard battle. He was exiled not once but actually five times during the fight against Arius’s teachings. His writings are almost all a great defense of the faith and are so sound that Athanasius was named a doctor of the Church.

We have St. Athanasius to thank for the wonderful words of our Creed. We often say them, I think, without a whole lot of thought. But we need to remember when we pray the Creed that each of those words was the result of dedicated work, intensive prayer, and hard fought defense against heresy. Because of people like St. Athanasius, we may indeed come to share in the divinity of Christ.

Thursday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

It’s interesting that in the Gospel reading it’s the unclean spirits who recognize the holiness of Jesus.  The religious leaders of the time didn’t get it, and sometimes I think we don’t either.  The author of our letter to the Hebrews today puts it rather clearly: “It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.”  I think we tend to get rather easily the immanence of Jesus: that he is our friend, that he is close to us.  And that’s good because it’s absolutely true.  But sometimes we miss the transcendence of Jesus: his holiness and the fact that he is above and beyond anything we can possibly imagine with regard to grace and divinity.

If we knew and appreciated the holiness of Jesus, we would never enter the church without a trip to the Tabernacle, even a brief one.  We would call on him to bless all our endeavors and plans because his ability to act on behalf of his beloved comes from his place in the Blessed Trinity.  We would conscientiously genuflect and bow in adoration of him at all the appropriate times.  We would be careful of how we used the name of the Lord in our speech.

It’s a great gift to us that Jesus is both immanent and transcendent: he is both near to us and far beyond our wildest imaginings.  We can never know him fully, because there is infinitely more of him to know.  That’s what keeps our spiritual lives fresh: we can come to know Jesus and be one with him, but there is always more of him to grasp, more that we can learn, more that we can experience, more that we can love.  That’s why spiritual growth is a life-long process, really a life-long gift.

And so, today we should take time to step back and see how it is that we have come to know Jesus.  We are grateful for what has been revealed to us, and eager to find what is still to come.  We are grateful that he is close to us, and we rejoice that he is beyond us in ways we cannot even come close to knowing.  If even the unclean spirits are impressed at the holiness of Jesus, then we have to be too.  We have the word of God and the ministry of the Church to remind us of who Jesus is.  Everything we say and do should reflect what the unclean spirits said: “You are the Son of God.”

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent: O Adonai

Today’s readings

“Come, let us worship the Lord, for he is already close at hand.”

Each day from the seventeenth through the twenty-third of December, a verse is assigned to each day that we call the “O Antiphons.”  We hear the “O Antiphons” is the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Today’s verse is “O Adonai” or “O Sacred Lord.”  The verse for Evening Prayer or Vespers is “O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.”

The fulfillment of that prophetic verse is, of course, Jesus Christ.  This was the message Joseph received in his dream. No, the child to be born was not a random child born out of wedlock. He was instead the hope of the nations, the Lord of Lords, the one who would save his people from their sins. Just as Isaiah foretold one who would be called “the LORD our justice,” so Joseph would name his child Jesus, a name which means “the LORD is salvation.” We await the coming of our Savior who is our salvation, our justice, our hope of eternal life. He was long desired of every nation, and he is needed in our hearts today.

The song we sing in these days is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” If you look at the verses, you will note that there is a verse for each of these “O Antiphons.” Today’s verse for O Sacred Lord is:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

In these later days of Advent, we find ourselves in heightened anticipation for the coming of our Savior.  We remember his incarnation, his coming into the world so long ago.  It changed everything in the world, and made possible the salvation of every person.  We look forward to his coming in glory, when he will take all of us home to be with him, and everything will be made right.  Only the great Lord of Might, O Adonai, Jesus Christ, could do that.  And so we pray: Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly, and do not delay!

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