Saturday, November 18, 2017

Homily for 19 Nov 2017

19 Nov 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

It was the wedding day—again.  The bride walked shyly, but steadily and slowly up the aisle; one small step in front of the other.  She was dressed in her favorite white gown, flowing and graceful.  Atop her head was a small tiara, with a single dazzling pearl set in it.  Her face was aglow, and the music was just phenomenal. 

There at the altar stood her groom, waiting for her to come to him.  And they embraced and kissed.  They spoke simple, loving words of commitment to each other.  And they walked away from that wedding day, not as two people, but as one.  It was a lovely scene, a perfect day.  Of course, it didn’t really happen that way at all....

Actually, she was just another person in line.  She shuffled her feet like everybody else, and when she got up to the altar, the priest held up the host and said, “The Body of Christ.”  And she said, “Amen.”  And, like everybody else, she just went back to her pew and sat down.  She was just going to communion.  Or, was she...?

Last weekend we talked about how rituals are natural, human things.  We talked about the handshake and flirting.  We talked a little about our cemetery services and how people act and talk in a particular way in a cemetery, and how it “just happens” that way.  We mentioned rites of passage: graduation, baby showers, the rituals we natural do when someone dies. 

Rituals are very human things.  But then God takes those human rituals, and he makes them channels of his grace.  But, you know, it takes imagination to believe all that.  From the outside, most everything we do here at Mass is pretty routine, it’s expected.  We sit, we stand, we kneel when we’re supposed.  If I say, “The Lord be with you,” you say, “And with your spirit.”  And if we offer our prayers “Through Christ our Lord,” an “Amen” just pops out of our mouth—whether or not it’s supposed to happen.

From the outside, our rituals—even though they’re rooted in our human nature—can appear to be rather mechanical, unthinking, dry, routine.  And they certainly can be...if we stop believing there’s more to it.  Imagination is essential.  The ability to see or envision something beyond what’s here is essential.  It’s what turns the routine of going to communion into a weekly event!: into the celebration of a wedding, where bride and groom become one in the intimacy of communion.

But imagination isn’t about making things up.  It isn’t about living in a “fake” world, or stepping out of reality.  Imagination is about living in “the world of possibilities.”  And that world is based on what we already know.  But it isn’t only about what we already know; it takes what we know (and what we think we know) as a jumping off point into something else.  Imagination asks the questions: “What if?” and “What else?” and “What about?”

Psychologists think that our imagination begins to develop when we’re about three years old.  That’s when we have the capacity to take what we know and add new meanings to it; to take something concrete and attach an image to it in our mind.  And that’s probably why three-year olds are known for asking question after question after question.  All their questions are about feeding the imagination: “What if?” “What else?” “What about?”  “How’s this work?”  “What’s that?”  Three-year olds take the world as they know, and they run with it!

Now, today we hear the Parable of the Talents.  And we’ve heard it a hundred times before.  We know what it means.  It means: Take the gifts God has given and use them, make them grow.  We know that.  We’ve heard it before.  But it takes imagination to hear the parable with fresh ears...every time we hear it.  It takes imagination to realize that...hey, this parable might be about...imagination.

The first two servants took their talents and, right away, asked: “I wonder what I can do with this?  What if I did this?  Or how about if I did that?”  Right off the bat, they were using their imagination.  When they looked at their talents, they didn’t just see money—they saw possibilities. 

But that third servant, not so much.  He didn’t have any imagination, not even enough to put the money in the bank.  He knew too much to really think outside the box.  Remember what he said: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.”  That little servant was too smart for his own good.  He looked at his talent, and he saw...nothing, really.  He had no imagination, and so he couldn’t enjoy the things of God. 

So we might think we know what this Parable of the Talents means.  After all, we heard it a hundred times before.  But...it could mean other things, too.  Jesus might be saying to us: “Use your imagination.  Take what I’ve given you and see what you can do with it; live in the world of possibilities.  Don’t get trapped by what you think you know; use your imagination.” 

And maybe that’s why Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  It isn’t because children are sinless; maybe it’s because they have an imagination.  And if we’re going to be in touch with God, if we’re going to live a deeper, truer reality, we have to use our imagination.  We have to ask those questions: “What if?”  “What else?”  “What about?”  “How’s this work?”  “What’s that?”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes what we do here at Mass as being like children’s play.  The rituals, the buildings, the artwork, the music, the garments we wear...all of it is like a bunch of children playing; using our imaginations, getting in touch with the deeper reality we call the “kingdom of God.”

Imagine—picture in your mind—a triumphal arch; something from ancient times, a triple arch where the victor, having come back from the battle, enters through the center arch to meet the people.  It’s a glorious scene.  Well, we have that right here.  Each of our churches has three arches up front, and who comes through the center arch?  Christ the Lord, the Victor over sin and death.  He comes to meet us, and we come to meet him.  It’s a triumphal scene, right here at the Mass.

Imagine—picture in your mind—the heavenly realm where God the Father dwells, and—even as much as God dwells within us here on earth—the heavenly realm is still not quite where we are.  There’s a thin veil that separates us from where the angels and saints dwell, but the veil is there.  And that veil is here.  The veil is the difference, the separation, between the sanctuary and the nave, the body of the church.  When churches used to have communion rails, it was easier to see the veil; it was easier to imagine, to envision, the deeper reality that, yes, we’re still not in heaven yet.  But that’s where we’re going.  We don’t just sit facing anywhere in church, we gather with our eyes focused on...heaven.  Of course, it takes imagination to see that; it takes a little bit of child’s play to picture that.

Imagine—picture in your mind—this difference between heaven and earth.  There’s an opening between the two, a beautiful doorway, a gateway we call Jesus.  Jesus stands in the midst of this wall, a wall made up of all the angels and saints who gaze on the beauty of God on the other side of the wall.  Jesus stands there in the doorway.  Sometimes he’s facing toward God the Father, praying to him for us.  He is on our side, our friend, the one who gives voice to what’s in our hearts.  But then sometimes he’s facing us, speaking to us the words of God the Father.

Jesus, a revolving door between us and God the Father, a swinging gateway between earth and the heavenly realm.  Well, we have that here, too.  That’s what the priest does; that’s who the priest is.  Sometimes the priest speaks to the people on behalf of God.  And sometimes the priest speaks to God on behalf of the people.  The priest is like Christ, the revolving door. 

It’s why, during our prayers at Mass, I’m not looking at you.  I’m standing with you, looking together with you toward God.  Our entire Eucharistic Prayer—even the part where it says, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Take this and eat of it’—our entire Eucharistic Prayer is a prayer to God the Father.  And when I’m speaking to you on behalf of God, obviously I look at you.  Christ, the revolving gateway, is here at Mass in the person of the priest.  In the old days (before the 1970s), the priest literally turned back and forth—sometimes facing God (the altar) along with the people, sometimes facing the people extending God’s blessings and words to them.

It’s children’s play, what we do here.  And children’s play is serious business.  You know, it doesn’t take much to make a fort in the dining room.  You take the chairs and make a wall around the table—make sure there’s room for a doorway—and then you put a few sheets or blankets over the whole thing.  And, voila!, you have a fort—an honest to goodness fort, and it’s real.  It’s serious business to guard that fort, because...it’s a fort.

On one level, we know it’s just a dining room table with a blanket over it.  But on a deeper level, we know it’s much more; it’s a fort.

On one level, we know what we have here at Mass is a bunch of routine things we do.  We sit, we stand, we kneel.  We say prayers we’ve said a thousand times before: “Our Father, who art in heaven...Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my room...The Mass is ended, Thanks be to God.”  We eat little wafers and take a sip from the cup.  It’s all very routine.  On one level we know what we’re doing here.

We just don’t want to be like that servant who took his talent, and thought he knew so much, and had so little imagination that he didn’t do anything with gift, other than bury it in the ground.  That’s when ritual becomes dead; when we have no imagination at all; when we’re unable to see and to imagine as children do.

On one level, we know what we’re doing here at Mass. But on a deeper level, it’s much more; it’s the heavenly wedding feast, a celebration, a cosmic event between Jesus Christ the Lord, King of the Universe and his faithful people, who go through thick and thin to remain valiantly and courageously dedicated to him.  It’s much more than a routine, this is serious business; this is children’s play.  

God has given a tremendous gift—the gift of the Mass, with all its routines, its rituals.  And he says, “Here, see what you can make of it.  Now, don’t change it into something that’s more familiar; it’s familiar, it’s natural and human enough.  Take it as it is, and consider the possibilities.”  The natural, human rituals of the Mass are a jumping off point to another realm, another world.  But it takes imagination and a little faith to enter that world. 

And if you haven’t used your imagination in a while, now’s as good a time as any.  In a few minutes we’ll be celebrating the Eucharist, asking Almighty God to send down his Holy Spirit to transform some little wafers and some wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who walked on earth 2,000 years ago.  We’ve seen it happen a thousand times before.  But each time it’s a chance for our imagination to kick in.

It was the wedding day—again.  The bride walked shyly, but steadily and slowly up the aisle; one small step in front of the other.  She was dressed in her favorite white gown, flowing and graceful.  Atop her head was a small tiara, with a single dazzling pearl set in it.  Her face was aglow, and the music was just phenomenal. 

There at the altar stood her groom, waiting for her to come to him.  And they embraced and kissed.  They spoke simple, loving words of commitment to each other.  And they walked away from that wedding day, not as two people, but as one.  It was a lovely scene, a perfect day.  Of course, it didn’t really happen that way at all....

Actually, she was just another person in line.  She shuffled her feet like everybody else, and when she got up to the altar, the priest held up the host and said, “The Body of Christ.”  And she said, “Amen.”  And, like everybody else, she just went back to her pew and sat down.  She was just going to communion.  Or, was she...?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Homily for 17 Nov 2017

17 Nov 2017

Our readings today really affirm the goodness of this life.  Wisdom says, “From the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.”  In the psalm we heard, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”  And in the gospel…well, it’s a little harder to hear the affirmation, but it’s there.

We see it in the persons of Noah and Lot, and in their approach to this life on earth.  Jesus says that people “were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building.” 

Well, Noah and Lot were doing these earthly activities as well.  The difference is that they saw the goodness of this life not as an end in itself, but as a way that God reveals himself to humanity.  So our Scripture today really affirms the goodness of this life.  And this life is good because it’s a major way God shares himself with us.  “From the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.”

If we look at a piece of handcrafted furniture, or a wood carving, or anything handmade—homemade soup, music, a painting, a quilt, a cross-stitch—there’s something of its maker left behind in it.  Or look at children; there’s something of the parents that comes through the children.  There’s something of God the Creator that comes through creation. 

And so, it’s good to enjoy the good things of this life, and to thank God for it all.  That approach to life makes us see God who is the Maker, who is the Goodness behind the goodness.  It makes us see that, really, heaven has come to us—now, today and every day.

God has come to us, and made himself known to us through creation.  I wonder what other goodness he has to show us…beyond this life.  Whatever it is, it’ll be…magnificent.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Homily for 16 Nov 2017

16 Nov 2017
(School Mass)

The Kingdom of God is a place where good things happen.  It’s a place where people are friends, where they love each other, and enjoy being with each other.  In the Kingdom of God nobody is sick and, if somebody happens to be sick, they get healed and everything is okay. 

It’s a place where there’s great music, and our eyes are wide open, and we can see all the colors of life.  The Kingdom of God is a cozy place, just like when you feel all cozy next to your dog or your cat.  It’s a friendly place; it’s a place where you’re loved for just being who you are.  It’s a place where people smile and laugh and have fun.

Now, you might be thinking: “Well, that sounds a little bit like my life.”  And that’s right!  Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God is among you.”  Wherever all these good things happen, there’s the Kingdom of God.

Of course, sometimes bad things happen, too.  You fall off your bike and get hurt.  Or somebody says something mean to you; or you say something mean to somebody else.  Or sometimes someone we love gets sick.  Bad things happen in life, too. 

But that’s like when a storm comes.  It gets all windy and rainy, and there’s lighting and thunder, and it can be a little scary.  But after all that…the sun comes out.  God makes good things happen, even when life goes badly sometimes.

The Kingdom of God is a place where good things happen.  How lucky we are to know that the Kingdom of God is “among us,” right here, now, today.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Homily for 15 Nov 2017

15 Nov 2017

“One of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, and gave glory to God.”  We know that Jesus healed all ten lepers.  But could it really be that only one “realized” it?  You’d think if you’d been cleansed of such a horrible disease, you’d know it. 

But, then again, we might consider, say, our sins and failings, and how we sometimes let them define us.  Or we might think of all those (negative) things that others have told us about ourselves, and how we’ve come to believe them.  Maybe after a lifetime of having a false image of ourselves, it’s hard to “realize” that really Jesus loves us.

So, it’s conceivable that after a lifetime of have leprosy, one could find it unbelievable that the disease is gone.  But what seems to make the difference is our faith.  When Jesus says in so many ways that he loves us—unconditionally, it takes simple faith to believe that.  Or when we sin, and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” it takes simple faith to accept that forgiveness, and to move on without guilt.

That one leper had just enough faith to realize he’d been healed.  And that simple faith changed his world.  If we don’t already have it, may God give us such simple faith in the goodness and love of our God.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Homily for 14 Nov 2017

14 Nov 2017

So much of Christian living is understated.  We try to love God and love our neighbors as we should.  But it’s not anything we do to get attention.  We don’t act with charity in order to be noticed; we do it because it’s just the right thing to do.  As we say at every Mass, “It is right and just.”

And we get that mindset from God himself, in whose image we’re made.  God does more for us than we can ever imagine.  And, yet, he doesn’t seek the limelight.  He doesn’t demand attention.  And whether or not he gets it, God keeps on doing what is “right and just.”

Of course, it’s still nice to hear a “thank you” every now and then.  And it’s good to say “thank you” too.  As we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that we’re here primarily to offer thanks to God.  And, in return, he helps us to keep our eyes and hearts more open, to see and enjoy all the good things he does for us.

Thanks be to God, our Almighty… and quietly generous, loving God.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Homily for 12 Nov 2017

12 Nov 2017
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

This past week we had prayer services at all five of our cemeteries.  And the Scripture reading for these services was our Second Reading from today: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be unaware...”  And then at the service we offered prayers, we spoke aloud the names of deceased loved ones, we prayed a Litany of Saints, said the Our Father, and then some closing prayers.

There’s something of a ritual that we follow in these annual cemetery services.  There’s a “format” to it.  But the ritual isn’t only what’s in the book.  Actually, the ritual starts before the ritual.  Here’s what I mean: About ten minutes before the service begins, people start to gather.  They’re relaxed, but they’re also talking and acting as we would expect in a cemetery. 

People sharing with others where their loved ones are buried.  Maybe there’s talk about someone who just passed away, or they’re reminiscing about someone who died a long time ago.  And it’s all very expected and normal.  All of that is part of our natural, human ritual we through when we go to the cemetery.  And then we pray together the more formalized ritual (as I described before), and then people pick up where they left off: talking about those who have died, maybe talking about family connections, and so on. 

So there’s a ritual within a ritual.  All these interactions with one another—the sharing and the talking—are natural, human rituals.  They just sort of “happen;” nobody has to coordinate that. 

But even the prayer service itself is natural: we want to hear the guidance and comfort of Scripture, we want to say the names of the faithful departed out loud, we want to pray for them and to ask the Saints and Angels for their prayers too.  There’s nothing especially “forced” in the ritual of a cemetery prayer service.  And that’s because it’s all part of our human nature; being ritualistic is just “part of our DNA.”

And I mention this because over the next few weeks, the homilies will focus on the ritual we go through every Sunday: the ritual of “going to church.”  And it’s important to talk about because, on some level, it’s a conversation we each have within ourselves: “Why am I going to church?  What am I supposed to be doing here?  Does it really matter?  How can I make it more meaningful?”  And so on.

Christianity involves ritual.  And so it’s good to be “at home” with ritual.  But before we get in the rituals of our faith, we first have to talk about the very idea of “ritual.”  We want to be comfortable with that concept, because it’s such a big part of our lives.

But, you know, Jesus doesn’t say too much about ritual.  The most memorable examples in the gospel are when he’s criticizing people for caring more about the details of the formalized ritual rather than God’s law of charity and love.  We see this in the story of the Good Samaritan.  The priest was too concerned with staying ritually clean instead of caring for the man who’d been beaten and left for dead. 

We see it also when Jesus is critical of those who are more concerned with ritual cleanliness than with spiritual and moral cleanliness.  But even in those instances, Jesus isn’t disapproving of the formalized rituals; he’s upset with how some people approach them.  So he doesn’t say too much about ritual itself.  But that depends on how we understand “ritual.”

I imagine that when we hear the word “ritual,” we think of a ceremony, or a structure or format, as something which is out of the ordinary.  And it certainly can be that.  But the idea of “ritual” is also more than that.

For example, when two meet people and shake hands, believe it or not, they’re doing a ritual.  We might call it a “custom” or a “tradition,” or even a “ceremony”—like when two heads of state meet.  Shaking hands is a ritual.  And we know it because it feels weird when you walk up to somebody and they don’t shake your hand (or acknowledge you in some way).  That acknowledgement is a very brief, but important, human ritual. 

As I understand it, originally it was a way to show others you didn’t have a knife or a gun; it was a sign that you could be trusted.  Interestingly, however, that’s still the effect of a handshake: it creates a bond, and it’s a gesture of trust and goodwill.  Shaking hands is an important human ritual.  It’s not a formal ritual, but it is generally an expected thing to do.

There’s another basic human ritual that goes on quite a bit in high school and college; the ritual of flirting.  You know, if somebody’s interested in somebody else, we already know what’s going to happen.  Suddenly, body image becomes immensely important; hair, make-up, clothing, posture, physical appearance.  Body language and tone of voice becomes part of the ritual.  The ritual of flirtation is basic to human nature.    

And, really, the examples of natural, human ritual are endless.  There’s the opening and closing of the Olympic games; lots of pomp and circumstance and ceremony to show the magnitude of what’s taking place.  But it’s not done because somebody wrote it in a book and said, “Make it big.”  The ritual is there primarily because our human nature says, “This is big!  So the ceremonies need to be big, too!” 

Or, at the parish picnic, there’s the ritual called “Booyah.”  Again, it doesn’t happen because somebody said, “You have to make booyah.”  It happens because it’s part of who we are: parish picnic equals booyah; booyah equals parish picnic.  It’s part of our customs in this area.

Then there are rites of passage.  For instance, when a newborn arrives, and they’re brought here to church, you know they’re going to be the center of attention.  Everybody comes to look at the little baby; it’s a natural, human ritual.  We expect it to happen.  Or when a student graduates there’s the graduation ceremony.  Now, they could just get the diploma in the mail and be done with it.  But it’s a bigger deal than that; it’s a major life change!  And it’s a natural, human thing to acknowledge that change; and so we have the ritual called “graduation.”

And then there are the rituals that come with end-of-life.  You know, it’s not written in a book anywhere how we’re supposed to act or feel when someone dies.  We humans go through natural rituals.  We go through a grieving process.  Others offer support and sympathy; it just happens—nobody has to tell us to do that.  And when we gather at the funeral home or church, it’s pretty much expected that there’s going to be some significant space between the people and the casket.  I see it at every funeral; I expect to see in.  Nobody tells the people to keep a distance from the casket; it just happens—people don’t get overly close.  Somehow, it’s in our human DNA.

I mention all these examples because they stress the idea that “ritual” is—fundamentally—a natural, human thing.  We are ritualistic creatures. 

Rituals symbolize life transitions (think of the ritual of the birthday cake).  Rituals can signify a people’s identity (just think of the National Anthem at sporting games, and how disturbing that ritual can be seen as a hit against our identity).  Rituals influence people and motivate us.  Rituals make something happen, and they express the values of a culture.  Our life is practically one ritual after another, because rituals are very human things.

But what Christ did is he took these very human, everyday events, customs, traditions, practices, and so on, and he made them into channels of his grace.  He made rituals holy.  And so, a handshake isn’t just a greeting; it’s also a gesture of goodwill and a “Sign of Peace.”  The sharing of bread and wine isn’t just a meal among friends; it’s also a sharing of life with one another.  Gathering together isn’t just a meeting of people; it’s a gathering of the community of faith before God. 

Jesus isn’t at all opposed to ritual.  Even though he say too much about in Scripture, we know he’s okay with ritual…because he uses it all the time.  And we see it throughout the gospels. 

In today’s gospel, we have a wedding—the anticipation of the coming of the Groom.  That’s the setting Christ chose as the backdrop for showing us about the grace of fidelity.  And then we can also think of the Wedding at Cana, a ritual where he first revealed his glory to his disciples.

Jesus uses the ritual of ordinary conversation—the story of the Road to Emmaus—as the setting for his grace to work.  He uses death and funeral rituals to share his grace; we see this in the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and in the story of the widow of Nain who was part of a funeral procession for her son.

Jesus uses the rituals of everyday life as channels of his grace.  We see this in so many of the parables: using the ritual of harvest, planting the mustard seed and the grain of wheat at the proper time, and harvesting when it’s time.  He uses the labor, the ritual, of separating the wheat from the weeds to make a point. 

Even at his birth Jesus is using human ritual as a channel of his grace.  He came as a little infant—maybe because he knew the simple of heart would come to “see this wonderful thing;” just like any newborn.  And he used the ritual of the Dedication in the Temple to reveal himself further to Mary and Joseph.

Of course, he used the Jewish ritual of Passover to institute the Eucharist.  And he even used the Roman ritual of crucifixion as a way to reveal and “pour out” his grace.  Rituals are very human things, and God makes great use of them.  He uses our familiar human rituals, and turns them into channels of his grace.  And so, all the daily rituals we do as Christians—from birthday parties, to getting our weekly groceries, to going to Mass—have the potential to be both human and divine.

Jesus isn’t opposed to ritual; he uses it all the time.  But he is opposed to using ritual as an end in itself.  He wants us to live more deeply.  He wants us to experience the extraordinary through the ordinary, through the familiar.  And so, our weekly ritual of going out the door and going to church isn’t really about “going to church.”  It’s about something much more profound. 

It’s a very natural, human thing to go to church; to participate in the ritual we call the Mass.  The challenge we face today is to believe that.  Even though it can be formalized, everything we do here is still rooted in our human nature.  And it’s meant to make us more deeply human, by being a channel of God’s grace, and an experience that shapes us to be Christians.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Homily for 10 Nov 2017

10 Nov 2017

The weather is getting colder; there was a little bit of snow yesterday.  Those are pretty indications that winter is coming.  And so we’re getting ourselves ready for it: making sure the snow blower is in good order, replacing the rakes with snow shovels, getting out the salt, making sure there’s enough hot chocolate in the house.

And that’s like the “dishonest steward” in the gospel.  He saw that he was on the verge of getting fired, and so he started to prepare for it right away.  He acted with prudence.

And there are any number ways we can apply this parable to our own lives.  The approach of winter is one situation where we can act with prudence.  Maybe there are financial difficulties where we’ll need a strategy to get through it.  In the wider Church, of course, we’re experiencing a significant downturn; we can’t keep going on as we have; now is the time for Catholics to act with prudence.

We should always hope in God, of course.  God will always see us through whatever’s coming our way.  But, at the same time, it’s a joint effort.  God’s doing his part, and we have to do ours.  God gives us wisdom, prudence, knowledge, and so on.  But it’s up to us to actually use them.  When it comes to life’s challenges, God is doing his part; with prudence, we have to do our part.