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.”
Truth is quite a topic these days. Mostly because people choose to define truth in any way that suits them. Absolute truth is taken to be authoritarianism and it’s the real death of any kind of conversation that would lead to conversion. It’s the kind of thing where some people might dote on their pets and go to great lengths to cure their illnesses, yet they would be okay with abortion. When we allow ourselves to accept moral relativism, then any thing goes. Yet it is absolute truth that is at the center of today’s Liturgy of the Word.
Saint Paul exhorts his friend Timothy to be scrupulously careful to teach and defend the truth – “without deviation,” as he says at the end of today’s first reading. And we have to be that scrupulous in teaching truth, because the Truth is Christ. If we persevere in the Truth, we shall reign with Christ, but if we deny him he will deny us. Being denied by Christ our mediator and Savior is tantamount to eternal death. That’s what comes from deviating from the Truth.
Jesus brings the Truth to life in the Gospel reading by presenting us with the basis of all Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor. This is the Truth, it is the basis of the Gospel, it is the summation of all the law and the prophets, which is what the scribe was seeking of Jesus. If we accept this truth, we too will not be far from the Kingdom of God.
Heaven knows there are a lot of experts out there, or at least people who claim to be experts. That’s why blogs and comments posted on news stories and Facebook are so popular: everyone claims to know something about everything. Or at least it sure seems that way. Certainly, it should give us pause when we think about the quality of information we get from these sources. Whether it’s sports news, political news, or even the weather, half the time what we hear is pure conjecture, and not something resembling the truth at all.
This being the case, it should give us all the more pause when people give us their religious knowledge. So often it starts with words like “I think…” or “In my opinion…” and perhaps ends with “I think that’s what’s right.” As if our opinion on what’s right is the truth. But when it comes to faith and morals, it doesn’t matter what we think; our opinions are not truth, and the subjectivity of “what seems right for me” is completely useless. Faith and morals are about the Truth – Truth with a capital “T”, and there is just one source for that knowledge, and that is our Jesus Christ our Lord and God.
For Moses, that relationship with the Truth was life-giving. He was close to the Lord. He had been up the mountain and seen the Lord face-to-face, which no one was thought to be able to do and live. So when he told the people what the Lord had said, they trusted him. In today’s first reading, Moses seems to know that that trust would dwindle after his death, and so he foretells that a prophet would come after him one day, a prophet like Moses himself, who would have the Truth in him. He was foreshadowing our Lord, Jesus, of course.
So Jesus arrives in Capernaum, and you can almost feel the anticipation. I imagine they had heard about Jesus and the things he said and did, and were probably eager to see what might transpire when he arrived in their town. In the midst of teaching the people, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. And this is what illustrates the conflict. The scribes were there. These were the religious leaders of the people. It was their job to write out and interpret the Scriptures and to be the source of truth for their community.
But they didn’t. For whatever reason, they had long since abandoned their vocation and focused instead on adherence to the rules and making profit on God’s word. Thus, they were unable to cast out the spirit from the man, and in fact, they would more likely have cast the man himself out so that he wouldn’t be a disruption. But in order to see what would happen, they didn’t cast him out; they left him for Jesus to deal with.
And Jesus does deal with him. Only instead of casting the man out, he does what was more important and cast out the evil spirit. The man wasn’t the problem; the evil spirit was. That evil spirit was actually an icon, a photograph, of what was wrong with their religion: they tolerated the evil they could not control, and cared nothing for the people who needed their God. The people are then astonished that his teaching was able to cleanse them from the evil in their midst. This was a teaching with authority, and not the so-called teaching of their scribes.
I think this is what we have to catch. There’s lots of teaching out there, but none of it with authority. Broken political promises, self-help gurus on television and in books, blogs that claim to know where the world is headed – none of this has authority. There is only one authority that can cleanse us of the evil amidst us, only one source of Truth and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to do a little more listening to him than to the other noise that’s out there. We need to catch the Gospel and not the latest gossip, and then put what we hear into practice.
If we would listen to our Lord’s teaching, it would indeed help us deal to with poverty, crime, violence, drugs, lack of respect for life, and all the many other demons that are out there seeking to ruin us. And so we have to tune in to the right message. We have to seek the Truth and turn off all the noise . Perhaps it’s time we made a retreat, or joined a Bible study or a book discussion, all of which we offer here at the parish all the time. We have to give way more attention to our prayer lives and put God’s love and God’s will first. If all we’re hearing is the lies, we’ll never get rid of the demons in our midst. But if we would listen to the Truth, if we would harden not our hearts, we will indeed find ourselves healed, and then our land blessed, and all the world made right.
Mass for the school children.
Don’t you hate it when you’re having an argument with someone and they turn out to be right, and you turn out to be wrong? I know I do. But that kind of thinking doesn’t get us anywhere good. That kind of thinking puts up an obstacle to learning what we need to learn because we put up a mental roadblock for the truth to get in. That kind of thinking is also a roadblock in our life with Jesus because we put up a roadblock for him to teach us.
That’s kind of what was going on in today’s Gospel. Jesus had had enough of that generation’s attitude and was complaining about them. He said they complained about John the Baptist because he came across as too strict, but then they complained about Jesus because he looked like he partied with sinners. So neither one of them could please that generation, but the fact was, they were both testifying to the truth, and that generation had put up a mental and spiritual roadblock to the truth.
The problem with the whole story is that when Jesus says “this generation,” it wasn’t just the generation that lived 2,000 years ago. It is this generation: the generation that is hearing it. And that includes us, brothers and sisters. He is saying that we have to stop putting up mental roadblocks to the truth, because otherwise we are just putting up roadblocks to getting into heaven. So we have to stop trying to always be right, and accept the truth of God’s presence in our world.
Here we are, getting close to the end of Advent for us. And so we have to start thinking about how we are getting ready for Jesus. Instead of putting up roadblocks, we have to prepare a space in our heart for him. We have to let him speak to us, let him give us his light.
I read a really short, but good prayer last night that we should pray every day. It goes like this: “Jesus, help me to prepare a space in my heart for you.” It’s a great prayer, and it will help us to tear down those mental and spiritual roadblocks, to stop always trying to be right even when we’re not, and open our hearts and minds up to Jesus and his truth and love for us.
Jesus, help me to prepare a space in my heart for you.
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.”
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.
One of the great obstacles to the spiritual life is when we come to believe that we ourselves have all the answers. When that happens, we may often hold to relative truth, even if we wouldn’t say that we do. Or perhaps we insist on acting according to our opinions, instead of acting on consciences formed by Truth. You’ve heard it before, when having a conversation about a moral issue. People might say, “well I think…” whatever, as if that were the gold standard of morality and truth.
It’s cold comfort to see, in our gospel reading this morning, that we aren’t alone. Jesus’ generation was much the same. John the Baptist came across too strict, and Jesus came across like a drunkard and a partier. But the real problem was that they both proclaimed the truth; Jesus, obviously even stronger than John. But the crowds dismissed them both, because both required them to change their lives and their ways of thinking. If John and Jesus were right, then they weren’t, and that was unsettling.
It’s unsettling for us too, but we have the benefit of centuries of Church teaching to help us. And so we are called to leave behind our own opinions and think with the grace of Truth. It’s time that we considered that perhaps our own point of view isn’t the be-all and end-all of wisdom. Advent is about dispersing the darkness with the light of Christ, and the light of his Truth. The psalmist said it best: “Those who follow you, Lord, will have the light of life.”
What we are celebrating in today’s feast is the fact that prison bars cannot silence truth. John the Baptist was not asked to renounce his faith; indeed Herod was probably very interested in John’s faith and may have even asked him about it on occasion. Not that he wanted to convert, mind you, but he just seemed to have a kind of morbid fascination with the man Jesus, and anyone who followed him. But the real reason that he kept John locked up was that Herodias didn’t like John, who had a following, publicly telling them what they should and should not do. Herod’s taking his brother’s wife was not permitted in Judaism, but, in her mind, it would all blow over if John would just stop talking about it.
But that’s not how the truth works. And John’s one purpose in life was to testify to the Truth — Truth with a capital “T” — to point the way to Jesus. So he was not about to soft-pedal the wrong that Herod and Herodias were doing. And that was something Herodias just could not live with. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she eagerly had John beheaded and rid herself of his prophecy. But that didn’t make her any less accountable to the truth.
This could be a rather sad feast. The end of one who worked hard for the reign of God, and over something seemingly so silly. But, as St. Bede the Venerable says of him: “There is no doubt that blessed John suffered imprisonment and chains as a witness to our Redeemer, whose forerunner he was, and gave his life for him. His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless … does Christ not say: ‘I am the truth?’ Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”
And so, for those of us who are heirs of the Truth, this is indeed a joyful feast. John the Baptist could not keep silent about the truth, whether it was truth with a capital or lower-case “T”. We must not keep silent about the truth either. We are called to offer our own lives as a testimony to the truth, even when it’s inconvenient.