Fr. Bryce McProud

Feb 112018
 

 

Mark 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”  The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.  Then, warning the him sternly, he dismissed him at once.  He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”  The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. 

 

In reflecting on today’s Gospel lesson, I got to thinking about Lenten preparations and from that this question arose: “How many times do we sin in the midst of a blessing and not even know it?” Perhaps we’re like the leper in today’s Gospel lesson. Christ cured him of his leprosy and immediately afterward Jesus gave him two specific instructions: the first was to go to the local priest and get the healing verified according to the OT law, and then the second was “don’t tell anybody.”

There’s no indication that he went to the priest and he certainly didn’t keep his mouth shut. The text tells us that the man went away and began to tell everyone he met about the whole matter. The cured man lapsed into sin in the midst of his blessing.

I think it may be more common than we think. Like the cured leper, we may be euphoric over some really Good News: perhaps there’s been a wonderful promotion, perhaps one of the kids got a full ride to the college of her choice, perhaps there’s been a supernatural healing and the joy knows no bounds. But in response we did something that displeases God. We may have imbibed way too much in our favorite adult beverage. In our joy we may have crossed the line in showing affection to someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t our spouse.

Or perhaps we betrayed a confidence, shared a story that wasn’t ours to tell.  Remember Jesus told the healed leper “mums the word” but he wouldn’t do as he was told; he relayed something he was forbidden to share; he couldn’t or wouldn’t properly channel the exuberance. There are so many reasons which require confession and reconciliation.

Sometimes we disobey because we forget or are overwhelmed by the moment.  I suspect this was the case of this healed Leper. Other times we succumb to a long time temptation, a chronic sin, regularly it concerns one of the three “Ls”: lust, loathing or lucre (sex, hatred, money). They are the stuff of big time sins.

Other times we disobey and offend God because we demand to know why we should be faithful and if the reason doesn’t measure up to our satisfaction, then we say “I’m not doing that. If this instruction can’t be defended to my satisfaction, then I’m not even going to bother to try to be obedient.” That’s often the case with those who use artificial birth control or who opt not to follow rules on fasting or almsgiving.

As you know, hubris, pride, is the foundation of all sin and the basis of hubris is the desire to be in control and to avoid submission to God in all things.  In some things most asuredly, but certainly not all things.  Most of us want to pick and choose. We think or say ‘’Jesus you can be the Lord of my life, except in these specific areas,  I’m keeping control here.”

I’m reminded once again of the old story told about Russian Czar Ivan the Great and 500 of his soldiers. They were to be baptized, but they had some reservations; after much pondering and discussion each man agreed to be baptized, but as he was immersed, he held his sword hand out of the water making it clear that “My sword and my fighting hand will not submit to the Lord Jesus. I get to choose how I engage in battle.”

This story of the unbaptized sword hand is a wonderful illustration of how folks pick and choose to be obedient. Figuratively speaking, if this story were to be re-told about us modern Catholics, what would the illustration be? What would we be holding up out of the waters of baptism? Would we be holding up our wallets, our checkbooks? How about our watches? We offer God our spare time, if and only when we don’t need to dedicate ourselves to more important matters. How about our will, our pride, our sexuality? There are a lot of things that we do and have which we will not submit to God. Let’s ponder some of those things.

How about our unreadiness to forgive or to let go of old grudges? How about our hesitation to be generous, our laziness in taking initiative to help when our aid is sought? How about our social pretensions or our hopes of recognition by people we long to impress and with whom we want to associate? What of our hopes of claiming status for our families and ourselves? Our snobberies and our judgments in careless talk and gossip? Our reverse snobbery in our snide and cutting comments about the affluent and successful? How about our choice to dwell in the past and to be unwilling to come to terms with lesser realities and more current sober circumstances?

How about our tendency to savor and to keep at the ready all that resentful criticism and self-justification? And then there are our secret betrayals and disloyalties to those we love and to those to whom our loyalties are owed. The list is legion.

One of the more common manifestations of sin is a hardened heart, manifesting a lack of compassion and kindness. There is the calloused heart that is the particular sin of people who are competent, those who are efficient and proficient and skilled, they are the ones who get things done. But as a result they often are the ones who get really impatient and critical of those who are less competent, who are not very efficient, who are not proficient and lack skill. It is easy, even common, for those who are blessed with competence to get annoyed with those who are not as gifted. Those with calloused hearts get very disparaging of those who are less capable. Kindness is put aside and impatience is linked with condescension. Those with calloused hearts often detest people who don’t follow through or are perceived as being lazy, confusing behavior with a person’s basic worth. In some cases, folks with calloused hearts become apathetic to the plight of those in need and I would remind you that apathy, not hate, is the opposite of love.

Another frequent manifestation of a hardened heart is the scarred heart. It’s the heart of those who have been wounded by some mal-treatment, perhaps by the abuse of a parent or an adult in authority, perhaps by someone to whom you’ve given your heart and they have scorned or abandoned you and these wounded hearts have become hardened with scar tissue. As a result, there is a strong desire to avoid pain: emotional, psychological and spiritual pain especially, so there is a stuffing of compassion and kindness. If you have a scarred heart, you are not going to make yourself vulnerable.

Those with severely scarred hearts will shut down or lash out irrationally because of the old wound and vulnerable people, children in particular, will be the recipients of neglect or rage and if the wounds of the heart have been severe, then the rage will be savage as it is inflicted on little ones. It’s a prime reason for child abuse in families and both men and women are subject to this.

To soften a hardened heart, whether due to callous or scar tissue, takes prayer and perhaps psychological counseling and of course the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation. If your heart is hardened, I regularly recommend envisioning our Blessed Mother coming to you and with her strong, dexterous fingers, massaging the callous or scar and breaking it up. It may be painful, but the heart does become softened.

It’s important to know why the heart is hard, so then the reason can be addressed and healing can take please. And of course there must be the desire to have the heart be softened so that love and kindness and grace can flow out of it.

I bring all this up now because this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us. It’s time to address our sins and to bring them before the throne of Grace for forgiveness and healing and reconciliation.

In closing, I’d like to share with you this prayer for Lent by the onetime Dean of York Cathedral in England, The Very Rev. Eric Milner-White:

Lord, bless me this Lent.

Lord, let me first most truly and profitably,

By feeding in prayer on the Spirit—

Reveal me to myself

In the light of thy holiness.

Suffer me never to think that I have

Knowledge enough to need no teaching,

Wisdom enough to need no correction,

Talents enough to need no grace,

Goodness enough to need no progress,

Humility enough to need no repentance,

Devotion enough to need no quickening,

Strength sufficient without thy spirit;

Lest, standing still, I fall back for evermore.

Show me the desires that should be disciplined,

And sloths to be slain.

Show me the omissions to be made up

And the habits to be mended.

And behind these,

Weaken, humble and annihilate in me

Self-will, self-righteousness, self satisfaction,

Self-sufficiency, self-assertion, vainglory.

May my whole effort be to return to thee;

O make it serious and sincere,

Persevering and fruitful in result,

By the help of thy Holy Spirit,

And to thy glory,

My Lord and my God.

 

 

 

 

Feb 062018
 

 

Last week we reflected on Jesus’ first public exorcism. In today’s passage from Mark we read that immediately after that exorcism, Jesus goes to the home of Simon Peter and ministers to his, Simon Peter’s, mother-in-law. It’s rather curious why this particular passage should be here and in the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, other than to make the point that Simon Peter was married. This is interesting to explore. We know from a comment that St. Paul made in I Corinthians 9 that Simon Peter was not a widower, that he actually took his wife with him when he went on his Apostolic travels.

As we unpack this, we see a tension developing in the early Church about celibacy; something that is playing out this very day. One might say it was the “St. Peter Camp” vs. the “St. Paul Camp.” We know that St. Peter and at least some of the other Apostles were married and St. Paul was not and as we read in last week’s epistle lesson from I Cor. 7, he, Paul, thought no Christian should be married at all. But ironically he defended his right to have a spouse. He writes in I Cor. 9:5—“Do [I] not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other Apostles and…Cephas?” –another name for Simon Peter.

Because St. Paul thought that Jesus would return at any second, he taught that every Christian should be celibate, especially those in positions of ministerial leadership because marriage and family distracted from being fully prepared for Christ’s return. But he did acknowledge that this was his own opinion and not a direct teaching from God.

The issue of celibacy was as contentious as the purpose and place of circumcision in the NT Church. Over the years other Apostolic Churches, including Orthodox and most Eastern Rite Catholic Churches who are in communion with the Pope, by the way there are some 23 of these fully Catholic Churches and most of them do allow married priests. Along with the Orthodox, these Churches have agreed that Bishops must be celibate but priests and deacons may be married prior to their ordination. But if the wife dies, the priest or deacon may not remarry.

Celibacy, of course, is the official position of the Latin or Roman or Western Rite Church to which we belong. Married clergy like me from other traditions are allowed to be priests as a special favor by the Holy Father in a case by case basis; our presence is not meant to challenge the status quo. Like those in Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, we may not be bishops and we may not remarry if our spouses die. I think I’m the only priest in the Archdiocese of Oregon who was personally “signed off” on by Pope Benedict XVI.

This brings up all kinds of questions. So I turn now to a little article written by Barbara Anne Cusak, Canon Lawyer and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

She writes that: Celibacy is a discipline of the Catholic Church practiced universally in the West. [It is not a doctrine.] Although it is highly valued, Pope Paul VI stated that celibacy “is not, of course, required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church and the traditions of the Eastern rite churches.”

Mrs. Cusak continues: Much has been said about practical reasons for celibacy, such as giving the parish priest more time to dedicate to the children of God, etc. When all is said and done, however, we must understand it as a powerful sign of the presence of the kingdom of God. It is not essential to the priesthood, but it is a radical witness to the reign of Christ in the world. In the West the church eventually adopted the practice of celibacy as a universal discipline. The East, however, never didThis historical situation opened the doors to the possibility of a married clergy in the West under certain circumstances—most notably for those whose lifelong traditions allow for a married clergy. This includes certain Protestant traditions.

Continuing on, Mrs. Cusak wrote: In his 1967 encyclical, “Of the Celibacy of the Priest,” Pope Paul VI called for a study of the circumstances of married ministers of churches or other Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church and of the possibility of admitting those who desire full communion to the Catholic priesthood and to continue to exercise ministry. Pope Pius XII had already granted special permission for some married Lutheran clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood shortly after the Second World War.

In a 1980 statement, Pope [Saint] John Paul II allowed an exception for married Episcopal clergy who wanted to become Catholic priests. As an aside, I am one of these guys. For almost 24 years I was the Rector (or Pastor) of the Episcopal Church up River Road. Several of you will remember the vacation Church schools we cooperated on during several summers back in the 1980s.

Moving on: Some may wonder if there will be a change of position on the ordination of married men becoming priests. Chancellor Cusak responds: The ordination of a married man remains an exception and one that is granted only in very specific cases involving men who had already been called to ministry in another church or Christian denomination and later came into full communion in the Catholic Church.

There are about 200 married Western Rite Catholic priests in the US at this time, including a group of organized formerly Anglican or Episcopalian parishes called the Ordinariate, it’s like a diocese without geographic boundaries. They make use of a modified Anglican liturgy and they have a bishop and a formal structural hierarchy. They function like the gathering of Catholics in the Armed Forces, who also have their own bishop and a diocesan structure. The rest of the clergy are like me, married men who were ordained and became diocesan priests.

So, how does the Church make sure that these men coming from other traditions will truly teach the Catholic Faith? Well, I’ll tell you it takes a lot of training. It was a really challenging experience for me to go back to school at age 60. I had to spend an academic year up at Mt. Angel and I had to pass exams in Ascetical Theology, Canon Law, Church History, Dogmatic Theology, Liturgical and Sacramental Theology, Moral Theology, and Sacred Scripture.

It was rather grueling, eventually taking two days to write out the supervised qualification exam and then I had to fly back to Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey to pass the oral exams. I will always be grateful to Fr. Tom Yurchak, pastor of St. Jude parish in the south hills who walked me through the process. He put in a lot of time and effort.

Formally, the diocesan bishop is required to present the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. A dossier of at least 13 required documents is submitted, including a petition for a dispensation from the impediment of marriage that stands in the way of the ordination. The actual dispensation can only be granted by the pope. That’s when Pope Benedict signed off on me.

One can ask: does this mean that the Catholic Church will now allow priests to marry or that priests who left ministry to marry will be able to return?

The answer is: no. Chancellor Cusak writes that: There is historical evidence and contemporary practice that demonstrates that married men may be ordained. However, there is no tradition in the Church of allowing someone to marry after ordination. These priests who left the priesthood to get married, have lost the opportunity to be reinstated. The rule is married first, and then ordained, with special permission from the Pope. One can’t be ordained and then married.

I hope this is helpful information. Our Gospel lesson for today clearly shows that St. Peter was married and the Epistle lesson from last week shows that St. Paul was not and believed that no Christian should be married. I don’t see the issue of married clergy being resolved in my lifetime and probably not yours either.

 

 

 

 

 

January 28, 2018 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 302018
 

 Mark 1:21-28

Then they came to Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.  The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.  In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!”  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.  All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”  His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

I thought I’d begin by taking a look at the Gospel of St. Mark, the featured Gospel for this liturgical year. It’s the shortest and sharpest of the four Gospels and most scholars believe that it was the first one to be written. It has about it a terseness and snap, the punch of a well-honed delivery. There’s no birth narrative, no story of Mary and Joseph or shepherds or Wisemen; Mark goes right to the ministry of Jesus.

When Mark wrote this Gospel in the mid-first century, becoming a follower of Jesus was a radical and dangerous decision. It usually meant strong disapproval or even outright rejection by friends and family. To be a follower of Jesus,  a disciple if you will, meant that those who at one time avoided each other became brothers and sisters in the Lord:  the affluent with the slave, the devout Jew with the decadent Gentile, Greek patricians with former Roman soldiers, they all joined with ex-harlots and tax collectors and thieves and murderers, banded and bonded together in the worldly absurdity of following a carpenter from some backwater village who had suffered the most ignominious form of capital punishment, knowing that at any moment their faith could result in imprisonment, torture and death by the ruthless Romans.

In spite of all this, as one reads the words of St. Mark’s Gospel, there is a sense of overflowing joy. Mark is fairly bursting with the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, crucified and raised gloriously from the dead. For Mark, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changed the history of the world; in fact it brought history to its culmination. It’s what makes sense of, and brings completion to, all that God did for his people Israel and was foretold in their scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.

St. Mark writes in plain, even blunt, language, a rudimentary style of Greek that made his writings understandable and accessible to those who could barely read. Consequently his writings were often disparaged as being unrefined and even vulgar. Yet there is energy and intensity and urgency in his writing. For example one of his favorite words is euthys, which in Greek means “immediately,”  a word he uses over 40 times in comparison to six times for Matthew and only once in Luke. It gives Mark’s narrative a sense of expediency and fast-pace. Jesus said something and immediately there was action, there was no lag time.

At the heart of Mark’s theology is the Paschal Mystery: the great mystery of the Messiah who enters his glorious reign only through the horror of the Cross. Remember Mark doesn’t even bother with a birth narrative. The cross casts its shadow over the whole Gospel, all the while the resurrection is the ultimate destination.

It also must be noted that Jesus’ teachings direct his listener’s attention to the eternal life that he has come to give them (cf. 8:35b; 9:43 & 10:30) His exorcisms and miracles point to the ultimate victory over sin and Satan and death; his healings prefigure the raising of the dead on the Last Day. He brings a new authority and that is the theme in today’s lesson; so let’s look at the events leading up to this reading.

Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan. The Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove and the Father declares that this is His beloved Son, then “immediately,” there’s that Greek word euthys I just mentioned, immediately the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert to be tempted by Satan.

Afterward, Jesus calls the first disciples and then our Lord sets out with them on his ministerial travels. In today’s lesson Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and a man with an unclean spirit accosts him. The demon recognizes Jesus and screams at him:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed [the man] and with a loud cry came out of him. (Mk 1:24-26).

By this act, Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom (v.15) becomes dramatically concrete. The reaction of the people was astonishment at his authority. In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is not just offering opinions or handing on traditions of interpretation of the scriptures. He is teaching by his own authority and, in so doing, he exposes evil so that it can be expelled. This is a primary step in the eventual establishment of the Kingdom.

This story of Jesus’ first exorcism shows that the forces of evil are invisible, malevolent beings who are bent on destroying humans and hindering God’s plan of salvation. Through the whole of the New Testament and specifically in Mark’s Gospel, these spirits are responsible for both mental and physical maladies. (Mk. 7:25; 9:17-27)

It must be said that some scholars note that the Gospels do not always clearly distinguish between illness and demonic possession and therefore they assert that demon-possession is probably a mythological way to show a primitive understanding from a primitive people.

The Church refutes this.  The Catechism teaches us that:  “Behind the disobedience of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil.’ [Other names are Lucifer (light bearer) and Belezebul (Lord of the Flies)] The Church teaches that Satan [which literally means “prosecuting attorney”—the one who accuses—Satan] was at first a good angel, made by God. The devil and other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”…It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgiveable. ‘There is no repentance for the angels after their fall, just as there is no repentance for men after death.’” (CCC #s 391 &393)

Exorcisms are still performed to this day. The Catholic Church does it right. The Catechism tells us that a simple exorcism is performed at the celebration of baptism, but a solemn or major exorcism can only be performed by a priest with permission from the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is truly dealing with the presence of evil and not a mental illness.

If you have trouble buying this personification of evil, look at the evidence. Consider racial and ethnic cleansing, millions of people are slaughtered because they belong to a particular racial or ethnic group. Look at ISIS and Bokohoran and the incredibly barbaric activities that are occurring in the mid-east and Africa. Think about the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking and the drug trade and abortion mills. All this shows more than a merely human malice at work. Satan finds the weak spot, and then exploits it.

At a personal level, we must never forget that God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. God loves each one of us without reservation. But which one of us has not heard that voice telling us three things: “You are no good. You never were any good. You never will be any good.” That’s a message that carries with it the strong whiff of sulfur straight out of Hell. That’s the message the enemy wants us to believe.

And as frightening and real as the power of Satan and his minions, the authority of Christ is infinitely superior. As St. Mark tells us and as the Church affirms, the power of the Cross and glory of the Resurrection show that Jesus has conquered the powers of Hell. For the present time however, these malicious actions of the enemy are permitted by God, whom St. Paul tells us is able to work good out of every evil. (Rom. 8:28)

In closing, as Mary Healy writes in her Commentary on Mark in the series “Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture”: The grace provided for us in baptism provides protection from all demonic forces and provides us with the strength to resist their seductive influence. (p.48)

That is a wonderful part of the Good News for us today, the same Good News that Jesus delivered to us by St. Mark almost 2000 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 21, 2018 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 212018
 

About 40 years ago I came across the work of a Carmelite Scholar, Sr. Rose Page. In an article in the Fall 1979 edition of Contemplative Review, she laid out the stages of conversion which describe the process of discipleship. I periodically go over her 8 stages to help us understand what it means to be on this road of being a disciple of Jesus. Here are her “8 Stages of Conversion.”(“Direction in the Various Stages of Spiritual Development,” Contemplative Review Fall 1979 p.12ff)

The first stage:

  1.  Awakening. Sr. Rose writes:  “It is more than intellectual acceptance of truth. It seems to encompass…emotions of joy and consolation or fear and dread.” You have an in-depth awareness that “I’m not in this all by myself.” You are prompted to look for something more.

2.  Investigation. You start paying attention to the homilies, you do some reading, you try your hand at Bible study and prayer. You listen to CDs. You go to classes and maybe even a retreat. You ask    more  questions, you talk to your spouse, you talk to your co-workers. You talk to a priest, you talk to your friends;  the nudge seems to be prompting you to be more pro-active. Although you are unsure,   even wary, the nudge gets the better of you and you want to explore the things of faith.

3. Commitment. This is the moment of truth. This is the moment of conversion. This is generally tied in with an event. It may be at a sacrament: your baptism or the baptism of your child or grandchild, it may happen at confirmation. If you’re a long time Catholic, maybe there’s an unexpected experience of holiness at Mass as you receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord. Christ may make himself known to you in a moment of prayer that really shakes you. Sr. Rose writes:  “[It] is a leap into the indefinite, the infinite realm of meaning.  Commitment is the decision to take the leap. For many, this stage is a time of vacillation and anxiety. For some this stems from a need for intellectual certainty, for others, from a kind of faint-heartedness in facing the implications…”

And when you make this commitment there is a sense of relief and joy and peace.  As an example, I read recently of the conversion of the poet Sally Read. Raised an atheist, she recounts that when living in Italy she got into the habit of stopping by a small Carmelite Church and sitting in front of an Icon of Jesus. One day, she was having some difficulty so she relates “I spoke aloud to the face and asked for help. There was no visual or aural hallucination, or anything, as a poet, I can use as a metaphor to tell what happened. The nearest I can come to describing it is to say that it felt like I was an amnesiac in a fit of quiet panic, and suddenly someone walked into the room that I recognized.” She entered the Catholic Church in December of 2010. (First Things p.70 Feb. 2013)

This stage is about committing your life to Jesus, of establishing a relationship and not just about getting your needs met.

  1. Conscious integration. This is a time of getting your act together. This is a time of making sure that your conduct is in tune with your newly formed beliefs. You avoid situations and places that compromise your newly found faithfulness. You strive to have what you believe and profess to be in accord with your behavior. You watch your language. You quit fudging on your taxes, you’re more patient when you drive. You become less critical. Your countenance is sweeter.

You also realize that your faith is personal, but it most certainly is not supposed to be private; it is meant to be shared. It’s essential to go to Mass for example and receive Christ’s precious body and blood with other people. An added aspect of conscious integration is that you become more deeply aware of folks in need and you feel prompted to help out. There are social justice issues that have to be addressed. It’s an expanded understanding of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.

In this stage there is also an increased understanding of the role of the saints in your life. Petitions to the Blessed Mother for example get more fervent.

  1. Fidelity. This is a time of dryness. Sr. Rose writes:  “When we first turn to God we experience emotional satisfaction in our religious practices… [Now] the emotional fervor dries up.  Prayer, meditation, attentive participation takes so much effort.” And she continues—“Also the nastier side of our character, which we thought we had conquered seems to re-emerge.”

You become more easily annoyed and hassled. You get grumpy and grouchy, deep-seated resentment comes to the surface; you succumb to being irritable and defensive; you get really critical of others; you don’t feel like saying your prayers one morning and the next thing you know, it’s been a week since you prayed and you’d quit largely because your prayers seemed to have been bouncing off the ceiling.

Worldly things seem to dominate your life. You get overwhelmed by all the natural disasters. The idea of a whole family of youngsters being grievously mistreated by their parents makes you resentful of God. You become very critical of Church leaders, especially clergy and even the Pope. You make excuses to skip Mass. The everyday hassles are really getting to you. A lot of people leave the faith when going through this.

But if you make the conscious decision to hang in there instead of tossing in the towel, you force yourself to at least read your prayers, go to confession and keep faithful at Mass, you get through it.

That leads to the next step:

  1. Absorption. The decision to ‘hang in there’ pays off. Your prayers are being answered. Prayer is a joy instead of a burden. You are becoming more mature in your faith. There’s a fresh awareness of the presence of Christ in all aspects of your life, especially in your relationships with others. You become less critical and resentful. You develop a deeper appreciation of the words of Jesus when he says, “For when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) You find yourself needing to be in the company of other faithful Catholics. You become well-grounded in Christ and you get a deeper appreciation of the concept that ours is a communal faith—that we need to operate in community if we are to function truly as disciples of Jesus. The saints in heaven become more real to you and their companionship is something that sustains you. You become content.
  2. Penetration: All hell breaks loose…literally. Things start to go wrong in your life—really wrong. You get hammered and tempted in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Your kids do stupid things. Your parents do stupid things. The priest does stupid things. You do stupid things. Jobs are lost. A spouse gets ill. You get ill. Your marriage is in trouble. A loved one dies. Crises abound. It’s as if you are the target of an attack, and it’s probably true. The devil does not want you to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. And in the midst of all this, God penetrates to the very core of your being. All pretense is stripped away, and you become aware that God is present in even the darkest, most hidden, the most vulgar and shameful places of your life. It’s a time when a lot of folks fall away. But if you withstand this onslaught and don’t fall away, you become truly seasoned in your faith— and your relationship with Jesus has become mature.
  3. Transformation. You become one with Christ, and He with you and you develop an even deeper understanding of the importance of community. You have an intuitive appreciation of what Jesus means in the 17th chapter of St. John’s Gospel when He prays: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”( Jn.17:11)

You see the sins and blemishes of others more clearly but they become less important. Because in the midst of these folks, you really encounter Christ and, together with them, you have a much deeper awareness that you are in Christ and Christ is in you, both individually and in the “you all” of the community. It’s really sweet.

In closing, I would remind you that this is not a clean set of steps that will follow one immediately after the other. There’s a lot of zigzagging and back and forth and you get to repeat them more than once. But it is helpful to see that conversion is a process; discipleship is a process, the process of having a mature relationship with Jesus. I’ll repeat Sr. Rose Page’s “8 Stages of Conversion.”

  1. Awareness— you start paying attention.
  2. Investigation— you start checking things out.
  3. Commitment—it’s a time of conversion—and you make a newly found commitment to Christ. You have a relationship with Him.
  4. Conscious integration— you get your act together.
  5. Fidelity— you hang in there during a time of real dryness.
  6. Absorption—it’s a time of sanctification and satisfaction and joy in your walk of faith
  7. Penetration— all hell breaks loose and you are driven to your knees—and you become aware of God’s presence in the darkest places of your life—those places you want to keep hidden.
  8. Transformation— you become one with Christ, and He with you—and you discover the true joy of Godly living and love.

January 14, 2018 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Jan 152018
 

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you, ” Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am, ” he said. “You called me.” But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

 

For those of us who were raised on Bible stories, the OT lesson about the calling of young Samuel was and still is a favorite. As children we listened with rapt attention as we heard of God actually talking to this boy. Part of the psychological development of youngsters is that they take things so literally.  When we are little we know that Santa actually will come down the chimney, the Easter Bunny does bring those special eggs and so on. We go, “Wow. I would really like to have God speak to me, like he did to Samuel.”

As we get older, more mature in the faith if you will, we come back to this passage of God speaking to Samuel and need to look at it from a more reflective perspective.

When I’m preaching from a specific portion of scripture, I like to break it down into two parts: The “there and then” message and then offer a “here and now” application.

Let’s set the stage as we take a moment and actually look at the central character’s name: Samuel. We break down the Hebrew and we find two parts. For the first part, “Samu” the Hebrew is a little ambiguous, but I like the translation “heard from.”  The last syllable, “El,” refers to “Elohim,” one of two words along with “Yahweh” which indicates the presence of God. So the name Samu-el means “heard from God.”

Throughout the Old Testament names that end in “ah” are referring to Yahweh. So Jonah, Hannah, Methuselah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and so on refer to people who have a special connection with Yahweh, referring to the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, the so-called “Great ‘I am’.”

Names that end in “El” refer to the understanding of God as “Elohim.” So Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Nathaniel along with Samuel and others, all refer to those who have a special relationship with the one called “Elohim.”

There’s quite a bit of rather elaborate and sophisticated scholarship about all this, but for our purposes, the names Yahweh and Elohim refer to the one God who is our common creator and sovereign.

In our passage today, we read about the one who “heard from God.” We know the story. The first chapter of Samuel tells of his parents, Elkanah and Hannah (note the “ah” endings to their names? They had a special connection with Yahweh.) Anyway, they were old and had no children together. Elkanah’s younger and prettier second wife, Penniah who had children with Elkanah, was especially venomous toward Hannah.

One day Elkanah decided to make a pilgrimage to a holy place called “Shiloh” where Eli was serving as priest. Elkanah decided to take Hannah his barren wife with him and leave Penniah at home.

Once there, Hannah begged God to give her a son. She vowed that if her request was granted, she would return her son “to the Lord” to serve him “all the days of his (Samuel’s) life.” (I Sam. 1:11) God heard her plea and granted her heart’s desire. A child was born and was named “Samuel” somewhat in anticipation of God speaking to him a bit later in life. True to her word, she dedicated him to the Lord’s service. (I Sam.1:19-2:11) Eli took the child and prepared him for the Temple priesthood. And while at Shiloh, God spoke to Samuel on quite a number of occasions.

There are several layers to this story. First we read of the kindness of God in granting an old woman’s request for a child. Second, we read that although Samuel was dedicated to the Temple priesthood, he also became a prophet. Remember these are two roles. On the one hand, a priest communicates to God for the people. The priest is the one who makes the sacrifices and offers the petitions on behalf of God’s people.

On the other hand, a prophet communicates to the people for God. A prophet is one who says “thus says the Lord” to the people. Usually it’s followed by some dire warning that behavior had better change or there would be significant consequences.

Another layer to this story is that the boy Samuel’s initial prophetic task was to confront Eli about the wretched behavior of his boys. In those days, the Temple priesthood was hereditary, so Eli’s sons were functioning as priests, but they were sexually abusing some of the women and extorting some of the worshippers and God was not pleased. The boys were eventually killed in battle and when Eli heard the news, he fell down and broke his neck and died. (I Sam. 4:1-18) It was pretty grim stuff.

Eventually, Samuel became the greatest of the so called “judges” who ruled over Israel. Each year he made a circuit of the cities to “judge” the inhabitants. He also built an altar to the Lord in Ramah, his home town, to reinforce his priestly function (I Sam.7:15-17). In later years his sons became judges, but not unlike Eli’s son, they were a rapacious and unworthy lot, taking bribes and perverting justice. (I Sam. 8:3)

Eventually the people decided to do away with the whole system of judges and have a king instead like most of the surrounding countries. At the Lord’s direction, Samuel anointed Saul the first king of Israel. (I Sam. 10:1).

During the reign of King Saul, Samuel continued to exercise both priestly and prophetic functions, speaking to God for the people and speaking to the people for God.

In his prophetic role in particular, Samuel was directed by God to chastise Saul, especially for his failings as king to keep the commandments of the Lord. Eventually, God had enough, and directed Samuel to find and anoint David to be Saul’s replacement. This eventually happened, but it was not fully accomplished until a rather long and violent struggle between the forces of each man. This is a shorthand version of the “there and then” message.

So we move to a “here and now” application. The standard interpretation of today’s text usually focuses on what’s thought to be a simple story about how God calls us and we are often either unable, or more frequently unwilling to recognize it.

Although there is this element in the story, it ignores the fact that God’s call did not come to Samuel back then, nor to us today, in general circumstances. This is not a story of religious awakening. It is not simply another experience on the road to spiritual maturity.

Rather Samuel is specifically called by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger and social upheaval. We are told in the text that at that time the “word of the Lord” was rare and the sons of Eli were corrupt, the Philistines were threatening Israel’s survival and Eli in particular was ducking his responsibilities as priest. Somebody needed to tell him about his dissolute, crooked sons and God has selected the boy Samuel to be that person. It was neither an easy nor enviable task.

Today, we often celebrate so called “mountain top experiences” of God as ends unto themselves. We can dwell on something mysterious and perhaps both frightening and sweet as the penultimate religious experience. But more often than not God wants us to do something with these experiences because we too are living in politically dangerous times of social upheaval and corruption. If we receive God’s word in a special way, he generally is calling us to do something specific and we frequently want to back away.

Who wants to deliver difficult, confrontive, prophetic and demanding news to someone else? But I think that we would all agree that the process of discerning the call of God includes our response to it. A duty is not faced as a duty until it is responded to as a duty.

An example for all of us is God’s call and our response to this call, specifically to confront and prayerfully challenge all those who would abort babies.

I’ll lay it out for you. Groups such as Planned Parenthood, RCRC (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), NOW (the National Organization for Women) and the Democratic Party like to claim that the fetus or conceptus is an unviable tissue mass and not a baby. It is simply extra tissue in the mother’s body that can be disposed whenever desired. However, any medical textbook on fetal development clearly shows that the little one she is carrying is a distinct person from the mother:

The baby has unique DNA, different from the mother’s, at the moment of conception.

The baby has a heartbeat 18 days after conception, which is usually before the woman even knows she’s pregnant.

The baby often has a different blood type than the mother.

The baby has measurable brain activity less than 45 days after conception, well before most abortions in America.

The baby has a soul from the time of conception.

So what’s to be done? Pray, especially for the conversion of pregnant mothers who are considering an abortion. Pray for a change of heart of abortion providers, bear witness gently and peacefully to this great evil. Support legislation that protects unborn babies. Pray some more.

I look at the figure of Hannah. She knew at some level that the baby she so longed for was not that different than any other baby. But she did affirm that the life in her womb was precious to God and she acted on that by dedicating that child to God. We can say that all babies in their mothers’ wombs are precious in the sight of God.

This is the prophetic word to all of us. God is clear. Each little one is a child, not a choice. And I’m conveying this once again to all of you because of God’s direct challenge to me. I’m just doing what I am called to do.

It would be wonderful if these little ones in their mothers’ wombs could grow up hearing Bible stories too, like so many of us did.

 

 

 

 

 

January 7, 2018 Epiphany

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Jan 072018
 

Today is the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. At this Feast the Church rejoices at the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and Savior of the World. Traditionally there are 3 lessons from the Gospels that the Church ponders on the Epiphany: the baptism of Jesus, the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee and, today’s lesson, the coming of the Magi. The “Catechism” tells us that: In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David…the greatest of all kings. (CCC#528)

To remind ourselves, not everyone was happy at the birth of “the greatest of all Kings.” Perhaps the most threatened was Herod, the so-called “Great.” Whatever else might be going on at the Epiphany, St. Matthew is relating a story of political dynamite. He is quite clear in saying that with the visit of the Magi, Jesus is the new king of the Jews and old Herod is the false one, the usurper, the imposter. When Herod heard about this new born king he must have come close to having a stroke. This was not good news for him. So let’s take a closer look at him.

Herod was of mixed heritage, half Jewish and half of what we today would call Jordanian. By cunning and guile he had made himself useful to the Romans at time of revolt in Palestine and as a reward he was appointed governor in 47 B.C. and seven years later the Romans bestowed the title “king of Israel” upon him.

Later on, someone gave him the title of “Great” perhaps for the way he kept himself in power. He did keep the peace for the 40-some years that he ruled Israel. He built cities and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem.

Herod could be extremely generous. In a difficult economic period he canceled all taxes and when famine swept the region in 25 B.C. he melted down his own gold platters and other pieces to buy food for his starving people.

But he had some very serious character flaws. He suffered no challenges to his authority, real or imagined. He had his own wife, her mother, and three of his sons assassinated because he suspected they were plotting against him. Augustus Caesar once said that “it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

Near his death, Herod ordered that a group of Jerusalem’s most distinguished citizens be arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges with the provision that they all be executed upon his demise. He wanted to make sure that the city would grieve when he died.

This gives us some insight into Herod’s reaction when the Magi came to ask him about the birth of the new king. As you know it led to the slaughter of all those little boys in Bethlehem. For him it was an issue of job security.

In a much smaller way it reminds me of an old ad that was on TV some time back. Several people are riding in an elevator and a rather powerful, middle-aged woman is engaged in a conversation with a rather nebbish looking, much younger man. He comes up with some sound business insight and she is so impressed that she tells him that there’s a new opening for Vice President of the Northeast region and he might be a good fit. They get off the elevator.

In the back row of the elevator there’s a guy in a suit who looks like the proverbial deer in the headlights and his friend turns to him and asks: “Ted, aren’t you the Vice President for the Northeast region?”

We all can identify with this. Volumes have been written about sibling rivalry, when an older child feels that he or she has been usurped by a younger sibling. There’s a phrase in the work world about being “put out to pasture.” Union people abhor so called “scabs” who replace them during a strike. There are so many more examples. Often these are issues of justice. Other times it is part of the dynamic of life. Most of it’s complicated and not easily resolved. Then there is envy and jealousy, envy is the sin of desiring something that belongs to someone else and jealousy is resenting the real or supposed threat of someone taking something that belongs to you. We easily can see how wars start and people do violence to each other. Resentment reigns all too often. It’s part of the consequence of the Fall from the Garden of Eden.  That’s why we have such a deep need for a savior king to free us from all this. And that’s why he commands us to forgive those who harm us and to love our enemies.

Easier said than done, as we all know.

It is about living the faith, in both word and deed. This witness is attractive and welcoming to others even if, at times, it is silent. Pope Francis has stated that Christ and His Gospel are the enemies of no one. Rather, the Christian message responds to the deepest desires of the human heart. He said that “Precisely for this reason, the Gospel cannot be imposed, but must be proposed, because only if accepted freely and embraced with love can it be effective.” The most effective way of proclaiming the Gospel is by living it. The witness of a respectful, prayerful, humble, good humored and loving life, freed from the powers of this world; in other words, the witness of holiness even if offered in silence can reveal the strength of a believer’s convictions. Especially in tough times when we have been wronged, we must pray for the grace of holiness, the grace of a holy and effective witness. The pursuit of justice is part of the Gospel, but it must never lead to a desire for vengeance.

Pope Francis also reminds us that one of our tasks is to lighten up; we too need to remember and affirm that there is joy in the Gospel, even in the bleakest hour.

I share with you once again the wonderful words of G.K. Chesterton.  He proclaimed that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” To demonstrate what this lightness is like, Pope Francis said that he prays daily to the saint of good humor, St. Thomas More, English martyr and someone to whom I am particularly devoted. This is a prayer that St. Thomas wrote and prayed while he was being persecuted by King Henry VIII back in the 16th century. It is one of my favorite prayers:

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it. Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place. Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.” Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor. Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke, to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.

And so I ask, St. Thomas Moore (pray for us.)

 

 

December 24, 2017 4th Sunday of Advent

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Dec 242017
 

 

Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent it is not Jesus that the Church places before us in the Gospel lesson, but his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation is familiar to us, perhaps too familiar. We must not trust in our familiarity and rush through it, for this is not just another familiar reading from Scripture. It is the Gospel—the truly Good News—announcing the salvation of the world and specifically to us here gathered. It is the announcement of the Messiah, the Savior of the world, our Savior. This is truly Good News.  It says that neither this world of ours, so full of evil and despair, suffering and danger, nor our own lives which are so often fraught with shame and embarrassment, selfishness and resentment and fear, anger and anxiety, lust and apathy and all the nefarious quests for power and domination; neither the world nor ourselves shall be abandoned and unredeemed. Soon a light will shine on a stable in Bethlehem, a light that heralds the rising Sun and the beginning of a new day.

A young girl is in labor. She is destined to be the mother of the Most High, the mother of God’s own Son, who comes to bring this Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom of justice and peace, of mercy and love, a kingdom that will carry the day over the kingdoms of this world and maintain its rule forever.

Yes, God Himself will come and have the final word, wiping away all the tears and fulfilling all the prayers, all the longing, all the hope.

This is no mere pipe dream. It became reality because this young girl, Mary, in spite of her questions, uncertainty, doubt and most certainly some fear, this young girl gathered all her courage and said, “Yes.”

She elaborated: “Behold I am the handmade of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” And so she became the dawn preceding the sunrise of salvation.

This was the “there and then” message that we so lovingly and heartily embrace every Christmastide. But there is a “here and now” application upon which we must reflect. For Mary’s response is the model for our response; it is the example of true faithfulness.

There are some of us who, when pressed with this, will think, “I have never had the experience of an angel being sent to me. It may be true enough that what happened to Mary was extraordinary and unique, but it has never happened to me and I doubt very much if it ever will.”

But I must tell you that it does happen to us. Perhaps not in so dramatic fashion. God does speak to us in a myriad of ways and remember all angels are messengers from God. When an Angel speaks, God speaks. He very well may send us an angel without wings. A messenger we may not see but who will speak to us in the depth of our hearts.

In his little book of meditations entitled Accepting the Mystery, Cardinal Walter Kasper reflected, As I see and understand her, Mary was a person who quieted herself and listened, a person who listened with and within her heart as God spoke to her about what God wanted from her and about what her life’s task would be; we, on the other hand, are too often focused on the outside world, distracted by many things that seem important or interesting and fascinating. Because we are like this, we miss or crowd out the voices that speak to us from the depths and in silence. And so we have to ask ourselves: Are we really aware of what is happening to us in our own depths, of what God is saying to us, of what God wants?

As we prepare to come before the manger and behold him who will be named Jesus, let us not forget that each of us has a name, a personal name, which indicates that I am unique. Although I may share this name with many others, my name still distinguishes me from everyone else. This name is not simply what you and I are called by family and friends, but this is the name by which God calls you and me. God knows you. God has called you from before time and will never forget you. That you are here on this earth is not the result of blind coincidence or the product of an undirected evolution. On the contrary, from the time of your conception you are here to be loved, and to be honored and greeted and welcomed into this world. “The Lord is with you.” Grace does reign and holds sway in your life. “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

When we receive and embrace this insight, then we are open to something more. Yes, God wants me to exist and he does love me. But God also wants something from me. God wants something from you. You have a task and mission in this world. It’s not the same as Mary’s mission of being God’s mother. But we, each and every one of us, has the task and mission of receiving God in our hearts, not as a gift for ourselves and not as our private property, but as a gift, a present for others. As we share our gifts, a light goes out from us, a light that makes the darkness of the world just a little brighter.

Certainly questions and doubts rise immediately. How can this happen? And the answer to this is the same as the answer that Mary received: the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the Spirit of Counsel and Strength, of wisdom and courage. But God’s Spirit does not take hold of us without our permission. The Spirit awaits our answer, our readiness, our “Yes.”

The story that begins with the Angel Gabriel confronting Mary continues on. It’s continuity through the centuries in the lives of God’s people, so very similar to you and me, and yet each one so distinct, sets the stage for God to act in this life of each one here. We have before us Holy women and men who have said “yes,” and consequently the world receives light.

Today, it is our task to become small morning stars, announcing the sun of justice and love, it is our own witness to Jesus Christ our Savior. “O Come Let Us Adore Him…”

 

December 20, 2017 St. Dominic de Silos

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Dec 212017
 

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

Once again from the Gospel lesson we read the beautiful story of the Annunciation, that Mary would be Theotokos, the Greek word for “The One Who Bears God.” This is also the Feast of St. Dominic of Silo. He’s not to be confused with the other St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, but there’s a sweet, poignant story that connects both Dominics and a bit to the Annunciation.

Our saint today, Dominic of Silos, was born in Spain to a peasant family around the year 1000. As a young boy he spent countless hours in the fields, welcoming the solitude. He eventually became a Benedictine priest and served in numerous leadership positions. Following a dispute with the king over some property, Dominic and two other monks were exiled. They established a new monastery in what at first seemed an unpromising location. But under Dominic’s leadership it became one of the most famous houses in Spain and many healings were reported there.

About 100 years after Dominic’s death, a young woman made a pilgrimage to his tomb. There Dominic of Silos appeared to her and assured her that she would bear a son. The woman was Joan of Aza, and the son she bore grew up to be the “other” Dominic, the one who founded the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers.

For many years thereafter, the staff used by St. Dominic of Silos was brought to the royal palace whenever a queen of Spain was in labor. That practice ended in 1931.

But these stories of a mother’s miraculous pregnancy gladden our hearts, especially this time of the year. Few things are said with stronger feeling than “Unto us a child is born—unto us a son is given.” The only thing that could rival that are the words “Unto us a child is born—unto us a daughter is given.”

St. Dominic is patron saint of prisoners, shepherds and of course pregnant women. St. Dominic de Silos (pray for us.)

(c. 1000-1073)

 

 

December 17, 2017 3rd Sunday of Advent

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Dec 172017
 

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.

This is the season of hustle and bustle, joy and anticipation. We’re preparing for Christmas and there are so many things to do. But we are aware that we live in unsettling times: times full of bloody conflicts, malicious terrorist attacks, insecurity and fear of what may come next. Fires and earthquakes and floods and thawing tundra and other signs of global warming abound. Refugees emulate Mary and Joseph as they frantically search for a safe place to stay. There is prejudice and hatred, disdain and contempt and apathy.

And as you know, this is also the season of personal darkness and depression for many. Old memories may niggle and haunt. Injustices and slights from the past rise to the surface. Old sins, confessed and forgiven, still lurk. Many are hoping just to make it through. For me, both the joy and the vexing linger. But it’s quite familiar. What it does primarily is to help me to be empathetic and offer a word of hope to people who come to confess and unburden themselves.

To fortify myself, I’ve been reading and reflecting on some seasonal meditations by Cardinal Walter Kasper. These meditations are compiled in a little book entitled Accepting the Mystery: Scriptural Reflections for Advent and Christmas. In one meditation entitled “Judgment and Grace,” Cardinal Kasper writes: The Message of Judgment is itself a message of grace. He goes on:

Whoever does not take the word of judgment seriously and thinks that it can safely be ignored also does not take grace seriously. Such a person… trivializes Christianity…

God does not want all the terrible wrong and blatant injustices, the murders, the destruction, the desecration. God’s anger and wrath are enkindled against [the perpetrators.] In the end what God wants is that the murderer not triumph over his victim, that no one get away with lies and deceit, that injustice not win the day, that it is not only the rights of the strong that count, [but also those of the weak, the victim, the oppressed, the most vulnerable] and that evil not have a future. What God works for is that in the end all are truly equal, that all masks fall away and the truth comes to light. God’s desire is that truth instead of lies, that justice instead of power, and that love instead of hate triumph in the end…

And so must we not say that it is truly grace that God turns out to be the judge and has the last word? Therefore the message of judgment is also a message of grace; the message of judgment is also a message of hope. (pp4-5)

We see this in today’s OT lesson. It is a message of hope. Specifically Isaiah speaks of the return from Exile, what is known as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The people of Jerusalem and other parts of Judah have lived for more than 5 decades as slaves in Babylon, which roughly would be in present day Iraq. The neighboring empire of Persia—present day Iran—under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, eventually conquered the Babylonians and set the people of Judah free.

As an aside, and to show the length of the memories of these people, when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran back in the late 1970’s, Israel provided a safe place of refuge for the Shah because he was a direct descendent of Cyrus the Great who had liberated the Jews 2500 years earlier. It was paying a debt and it’s part of the reason Iranians hate Israel so much.

Back to the announcement of hope from Isaiah: There was a great swelling of hearts as the promised Good News of the ‘vindication’ of God was announced.  The people of Judah could go home.  But when they arrived back in Jerusalem they found it in ruins. The temple was destroyed, stones from the city wall were strewn about as rubble, their economy was non-existent, but they were home.

Unfortunately, as happens all too frequently, their joy was soon replaced by bickering. Their leaders started pointing fingers and laying blame. A group of laity called the Zadokites who were probably the forerunners of the Sadducees believed things should be done one way and the Levites, a group of clergy, thought things should be done another.

The populace chose up sides; it was a time of hard feelings.  What had once been joy and hope had turned into bitter conflict.  Although they were “home” they had no homes, there were no buildings in which to stay, they had no money, and now their leaders were at each other’s throats. The folks needed a word of hope.

G.K. Chesterton wrote this about hope:  “As long as matters are really hopeful, as long as our lives are running smoothly, hope is a mere flattery or platitude.  It is only when life as we know it has been shattered that hope begins to be a strength. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”

He’s saying that if we are living in a happy, secure time hope can be trivial. It is only when we are broken and bereft that hope has true power.

Life had been shattered for the Jews; they were home from slavery and now they needed some leadership and a word of hope. The leadership came from Ezra, a scribe who reinstated the order of Mosaic Law, and Nehemiah, an organizational genius who coordinated the building of the city of Jerusalem.

In today’s lesson it is the prophet Isaiah who offers the “Word” of hope from God.

We hear Isaiah proclaim: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all nations.”

This promise from God through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, gives hope to all the world today. But back then the promise was more specific.  This new day will not be like the days of slavery, when you had to be obedient to your slave master, when you had to live in slave quarters, and you slaved away for somebody else’s benefit and, perhaps most importantly, the hope is that your children will not be sold into slavery.

It is reminiscent of Isaiah’s earlier prophecy: “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent, its food shall be dust.  They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain, says the Lord.” (Is. 11:6)

And Jerusalem knew peace for 200 years.

Theologian Paul Hansen says that “[Christian hope] is an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.”

The author of the book of Hebrews tells us: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful…” (Heb.10:23) And again from Titus 3:6-7: “The Holy Spirit…poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope…”

And perhaps the most important “Word” of Hope is from Jesus himself, when centuries later, he stood and read aloud these words we heard today from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me, he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…a day of vindication by our God.”  Jesus then declared to those assembled in the synagogue: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” O come Emanuel.

Judgment is grace, grace is judgment; we trust that God will graciously set all things aright and love will triumph. It may seem a long way off sometimes, but that is our promise, that is our hope.

In closing, I want to share this prayer from St. Francis De Sales:

“O God, let us not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear, rather may we look to them with full hope that as they arise, you deliver us out of them.”

“God, you are our keeper and you have kept us hitherto.  Help us to hold fast to your dear hand that you would lead us safely through all things and when we cannot stand, Lord bear us in your arms.”

“Help us not look forward with fear and dread to what may happen tomorrow”

“We trust in you God who will either shield us from suffering or will give us strength to bear it.” Amen. St Francis de Sales and all the saints (pray for us.)

 

December 3, 2017 1st Sunday of Advent

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Dec 032017
 

To remind you on this First Sunday of Advent: this is the season of twofold anticipation. We anticipate the first coming of Christ as the Babe in Bethlehem and we also anticipate Him to come again in full glory with the Angels of light. Advent is a season of watchfulness, a time to remind us not to be caught off guard or unprepared.

This is the theme of this morning’s gospel lesson. We read:

“Watch …—you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming—whether in the evening—or at midnight—or at cockcrow—or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all—Watch!”

The Church reinforces this. From the Catechism we read that: … the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil, which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (CCC #672).

Several decades after the Ascension and Jesus had not returned, things got confusing. Many of the first generation of the faithful had “fallen asleep,” a euphemism for dying. An explanation was needed. The Apostle Paul addresses this in the 4th chapter of I Thessalonians, beginning at verse 13.

We would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so—through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord— that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command— and with the archangel’s call— and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first— then we who are alive—who are left— shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Yet even with words like this, there’s a bit of a disconnect with the returning of Christ in Glory. The Church gives no blueprint as to what it will be like. As I pondered this, I turned to an illustration from the book When Christ Comes by Protestant Pastor Max Lucado. It is rather compelling. He writes:

…the light begins to tumble a river of color: spiking crystals of every hue ever seen and millions more never seen. Riding on the flow is an endless fleet of angels. They pass through the curtain one myriad at a time, until they occupy every square inch of the sky. North: South: East: West. Thousands of silvery wings rise and fall in unison, and over the sound of trumpets, you can hear the Cherubim and Seraphim chanting: “Holy. Holy. Holy…”

Between each word is a pause. With each word a profound reverence. You hear your own voice join the chorus. You don’t know why you say the word, but you know you must. [Holy. Holy. Holy.]

Suddenly …all is quiet. The angels turn, you turn, the entire world turns: and there he is. Jesus…the angels bow their heads… And before you is a figure so consuming that you know instantly: you know. Nothing else matters. Forget stock market and school reports, sales meetings, football games, [cancer or Caribbean cruises]. All that mattered, matters no more, for Christ has come…

I’m curious: What’s your response to all this?

Is it apathy? You don’t think it’s relevant and you kind of shrug your shoulders as I’m standing up here talking about it. But if you do think about Christ’s return, what do you think?

Is it denial? Do you think this is fanciful and probably not going to happen, at least not like this? Do you think the return of Christ is more metaphor than concrete event? After all, it hasn’t happened in 2000 years, so it must be some kind of ‘myth.’ The early church needed something to hang on to during the persecution from the Romans and the Jewish authorities. This story was a good way to be able to say to one another: “Just wait. God will get them for what they’ve been doing to us.” But it isn’t really going to happen—and certainly not this way—or so you think.

Is it discomfort? You’ve been told that YOUR sins will be revealed. Yep, all of them. You’ve been told that your dirty little secrets will be made known. God’s exhaustive records will be opened and names will be read. Then there’s all that stuff about the ‘mark of the beast’ and ‘Armageddon,’ and ‘antichrist.’ It’s pretty confusing and the confusion adds greatly to the discomfort. But it is motivation to get to confession.

Is it disappointment? Who would feel disappointment at Christ’s coming? How about a woman who is 8 months pregnant? She wants to hold her new born babe. Or how about a young couple who are engaged? They’ve wanted to be married for such a long time. Think of the young soldier in Afghanistan who has never seen his baby girl. He’d really like to hug and kiss and smile at her.

Is it obsession? Sell everything and join the survivalists in the hills out of Grants Pass.

Is it regret? You’ve just had a row with your spouse and you haven’t had a chance to make up. Or you’ve just unburdened your heart and confessed the sin of theft and have not had a chance to make restitution. Or you just haven’t gotten around to making your confession.

Does the thought of Christ’s actual return throw you into a panic? “It’s too late. It’s too late!” You say in prayer, “Omygod, omygod, omygod, O Lord what am I going to do?”

Is it relief? I hope that is my strongest feeling. I want to feel the words of that old African American Spiritual: “No more sorrow, no more sadness, no more troubles I’ll see. There will be peace in the valley for me.” All cancer is dead. Every heart will be mended, whether from myocardial infarction or a wayward child. Salvation has borne fruit. And Glory will be something we all will behold.

So how do we prepare for the return of Jesus in whatever form or manner?  Obviously by living faithfully. We must receive the sacraments of the church, specifically and especially Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist and we must regularly take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We are to say our prayers and read scripture. It helps greatly to enhance our devotion to our Blessed Mother.

We are to act justly and to reach out selflessly with hands and hearts of compassion.

Remember, God wants the totality of our beings: our lives, our souls and bodies, and especially our hearts. He has this deep abiding, burning love for us. I would remind you that we are called to respond in a mature manner, what I like to call a combination of natural and spiritual maturity.

Natural maturity, using a psychological term,  is to be “self-actualized.” We are to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, have appropriate boundaries in dealing with others,  to be responsible, dependable people. And above all to be compassionate and loving.

Spiritual, maturity ironically takes us in the other direction. We are baptized into Christ. We are in Him and He is in us. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. The more mature we become in Christ, the more we are aware that we are completely and unequivocally dependent on Him. Every beat of our hearts, every cell that divides in our bodies, and every breath we take is possible only by God’s Grace. We ask: “Have I fully surrendered to Christ?”

And do we think ‘we’ instead of just ‘me.’ Remember the Catholic Church is based on Community. Our sanctity is lived out in relationships.

Advent is a solemn time, a time for reflection and a time to consider our sins. It is also a time of hope, a time of anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us through Christ.

In closing, I came across this cute story: “A test was given in Emma’s 4th grade class.  One of the questions was: “Upon what do hibernating animals subsist during the winter?” Emma thought for a few minutes and then wrote: “All winter long hibernating animals subsist on the hope of a coming spring.”

We Catholics, along with other Christians, subsist on the hope of Christ’s return in glory, no matter what form it may take, and hope does spring eternal.

Oftentimes the simplest answer is the best one.