Saturday, June 23, 2018

Homily for 24 June 2018

24 June 2018
Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

Today’s feast is one of the few that overrides a usual Sunday.  And that’s because the birth of John the Baptist (and his ministry) plays such a crucial role in God’s plan.  Without John the Baptist, who would’ve said to the people, “Behold, the Lamb of God”?  Who would’ve directed people to Jesus? 

Even today, the birth of John the Baptist points us forward.  He was born six months before Jesus, and so here at the end of June, we’re directed toward Christmas already.  Everything about John directs us to Jesus: his birth, his life, his preaching.  Jesus couldn’t very well just show up one day and say, “Well, here I am!”  He needed someone to “prepare the way” so people could recognize him.  And that person was John the Baptist.

Now, if John were sent into today’s world, he would have an uphill challenge.  The “religious sense” among people is pretty low (at least, in the western world).  People aren’t necessarily looking for a savior or a messiah.  They’re not looking to the heavens for an answer to their problems; they’re not even sure the heavens exist. 

But, of course, there are still plenty of people who do believe; people who are waiting for Jesus, looking for him.  And there are plenty who are looking for Jesus, but don’t know it—kind of like the ancient Greeks who had a temple in honor of an “unknown god.”  Well, we know who he is, and we know his name, too.  Only today, instead of John the Baptist pointing him out, there’s the Church who says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” 

Of course, we hear that phrase at every Mass: “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”  And we hear that in reference to the Eucharist.  But we could say it refers to all the sacraments, too: “Behold, the Lamb of God;” there he is, sharing his grace with those who want it.  Holy Oil, water, the Laying on of Hands, wedding vows, confessions...”Behold, the Lamb of God.”    

Then there’s all the people who make up the Church: the clergy, consecrated brothers and sisters, men, women, children, married, single, the Saints.  How many of them can we point to and see, “There’s the Lamb of God; there’s Jesus.  There’s somebody showing concern for the stranger; there’s another person teaching the kids how to live well and have faith in God; and there’s somebody else getting out the whip, telling injustice and unkindness to take a hike.” 

The sacraments, the people...the Church points to them and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold Jesus at work.”  She also points to all the wisdom and teachings that’ve come down to us through the ages (even the knowledge that comes from science).  She points to the truth of things and says, “Behold, there’s Jesus; there’s God.”  She points to humility, to those virtues of faith, hope, and love; she points to peace among people of goodwill and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold Jesus.”

Sacraments, people, the virtues, knowledge, truth, goodness...Jesus is there in all of it.  And he’s other places, too, like: our conscience, in the beauty and mystery of creation, and especially in the human heart.  The Church points to all these (and more) and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.  Behold Jesus our life, our salvation, our hope and joy.”

But, you know, when John the Baptist did that, people didn’t immediately realize, “Oh, there’s Jesus; he’s the Son of God!”  When John pointed him out, all people saw was another human being.  During Mass, when the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” all we see is a chalice and a little round wafer.  Or when the Church points out a teaching, all we might see is just another law we have to follow.  These things don’t immediately strike us being anything extraordinary.

But that’s where that phrase comes in: “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  Behold.  There’s more there than meets the eye.  It takes practice to notice Jesus hidden behind those things.  Again, when John pointed Jesus out to others, all they saw was another human being.  They didn’t realize he was God in the flesh.  Even the Apostles took a while to realize that—and Jesus had to die and rise from the dead for them to fully understand it.

It takes practice to recognize Jesus—even when he’s pointed out to us, because Jesus is most often hidden.  It’s kind of like those “Where’s Waldo” books (if you remember those).  You know he’s somewhere on that page, and you’re not going to give up until you find him!  We know Jesus is there, but he’s not always obvious.  It takes practice to see him.  And, you know, this does make it difficult to have a more “personal relationship” with him. 

We so often hear about having that “personal relationship” with Jesus.  And, really, that’s what John the Baptist encourages us to have.  He said, “Behold the Lamb,” and then he sent his disciples to Jesus himself to get to know him and follow him.  So a “personal relationship” with the Lord is part of what we’re about.  But it can also be discouraging to realize “I don’t have that,” or “I have no idea what that means.”  And to top it off, the one I’m supposed to have a “personal relationship” always seems to be hiding!

Well, to start, the idea of this “personal relationship” is that it’s simply one person sharing life with another person—it’s between two living persons.  But one of those persons (Jesus) lives within the other person (among other places, too).  And so, in sharing with Jesus, it feels like sharing with...yourself.  And when Jesus shares with you, it feels like it comes from...within (the soul, the mind).   The Jesus we’re trying to be “personal” with is hidden, but he’s hidden within us (among other places, too). 

And this is why Jesus says, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray in secret.”  Jesus is hidden, but he’s very close.  I remember when I first started praying, it felt weird.  And, frankly, I felt kind of silly—there was nobody else there, just me.  There I was, talking to...nothing.  But I was determined to see what would happen.  So I kept it up for (I don’t remember) a week or so; just a few minutes each day. 

And what happened is that in trying to speak with Jesus, I ended up becoming very honest with myself.  And then I realized that it wasn’t Jesus who was hiding from me, it was me who was hiding from Jesus.  And that’s when the sharing of life began.  That’s when that “personal relationship” started.  It’s also when the Mass became meaningful, when the Church’s teaching took on a different flavor, when life became more of a gift than a trial, when my religious imagination took off.  It started when I stopped hiding from Jesus.

Now, that doesn’t mean everything’s been perfect since.  I still find myself hiding from Jesus, reminding myself not to do that.  I still have to practice to see Jesus with the eyes of faith—to see him in the sacraments, in other people, in the Church, in creation, in the world.  I still have to practice my “beholding the Lamb of God.”  And I’ll have to—we’ll each have to—practice until someday we’ll behold the Lamb of God fully in heaven.

It takes practice to recognize Jesus, even when he’s pointed out to us.  But he is there.  “Behold, the Lamb of God” especially within yourself.  He’s there...hiding, waiting for you to not hide from him.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Homily for 15 June 2018

15 June 2018

God is the Creator, but he’s also the re-Creator.  He creates.  But what he creates isn’t like a big wind-up toy, where God turns the crank and then lets it go.  Instead, he creates…and then keeps reshaping and reforming what he’s creating.  Creation is a continual process.  This is what Scripture reminds us of today.

The prophets of old led to Elijah, and Elijah was soon to be replaced with Elisha and new prophets.  Even something as sacred as the Ten Commandments God tinkered with when Jesus gave a new interpretation of those laws.  Creation is a continual process.  We see it out in the fields, in the barn, in the family, and within ourselves.

For instance, when it comes to prayer, the types of prayer that worked for me five years ago just don’t “work” anymore.  I’ve grown in faith, and so the prayers change, too.  But that’s how it is with any relationship.  The way each of us relates to God changes—not because God changes, but because we do, and because our life stories change and are re-created.

God is the Creator, but he’s also the re-Creator.  And so, when life changes and new challenges come, God might just be tinkering with his creation…making it stronger, making it into his kingdom. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Homily for 14 June 2018

14 June 2018

God has done many good things—that’s the gist of the psalm today: God has done many good things.  He’s “visited the land and watered it,” and has “crowned the year with his bounty;”  “the untilled meadows overflow with it.”  God has done many good things; these things and much more—magnificent things.

But, at the same time, it’s easy to overlook them because we’ve grown accustomed to them.  It’s easy to forget.  You know, one of the joys of childhood is that every day is a new adventure, every plant, every insect, every stone laying along the railroad tracks is something to be marveled at.  Not too much is taken for granted.

Here at the start of our day, it’s good to be like children: with eyes wide open, ready to take in all that God has prepared for us.  God has done many good things.  Let’s be sure to “stop and smell the roses” and give thanks.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Homily for 10 June 2018

10 June 2018
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

In the 1st Century B.C., the city of Rome was called for the first time the “Eternal City.”  The poet Albius Tibullus gave it that name—and for good reason.  The Romans were strong warriors who defeated any enemy that came their way.  And the Roman Empire extended throughout the known world.  After Rome was given that name, the “Eternal City,” people really began to believe that if the city fell, the rest of the world would, too.

Of course, as we know, it wasn’t eternal.  The Roman civilization gradually deteriorated from the inside out, and in the year 410, the Eternal City was sack by the Visigoths.  And that’s a story which is repeated throughout history.  Civilizations rise and fall, and new ones take their place.  The same can be said of the Church, which is a society with its own brand of civilization.

Just go to the internet and look up “church ruins,” and you’ll find all sorts of pictures and stories of areas in the world where the Church was, and is no longer; or areas where the Church has changed so much that one type of Christian society has been replaced by another over time.  Civilizations rise and fall and change.  It’s just a fact of life.

But Christianity is different.  I mean, it changes through time, like anything else.  But it’s supposed to actually be “eternal,” like Heaven, like God.  We might even think the same thing about, say, the United States.  We can’t conceive of there not being a United States.  And yet, neither of these—Christianity or the country—is a “for sure” thing.  That’s what history teaches us: we can’t take anything for granted—not even such enduring things as the Church and the country.

And I mention this because for the past several months Bishop Ricken has been asking the priests, and pastoral and parish leaders, to consider the question (and I’m paraphrasing here): If your parish were no longer there...would anyone notice?  Would the wider population be affected at all if your parish were no longer there?

And it’s an excellent question because it lays it right out there that not even the Church (on earth) is eternal.  It, like any other society, rises and falls.  And so, if the Church were to simply disintegrate in our little corner of the world, would anyone notice?  Is the civilization we call “Catholic living” really that important to the wider population?  Well, from all the data, it would seem the answer is generally “no.” 

Now, that’s not necessarily a reason to get depressed.  But it is a reason to seriously reconsider what we’re doing, and what we’re not doing.  Our strength isn’t in thinking that the Church will just always be there.  Instead, our strength is in acknowledging our frailty. 

That’s why we go to Confession, isn’t it?  We go in the little room, and we admit our weakness to God.  And he says, “Don’t worry about it—I forgive you.  And here’s some of my grace to help you.”  Right?  Our strength is in admitting our weakness, our frailty.  God goes on forever, the Church in Heaven goes on forever.  But the neighborhood Church?  Who says that goes on forever?  That’s not a sure thing.  And our strength lies in acknowledging that.

And that’s why Bishop has put that question out there to the priests and parish leaders: IF your parish were no longer there, would anyone notice?  What would be the loss to the surrounding population?  And if the answer is, “Well, there wouldn’t be any loss,” then it’s a good sign we need to change what we’re doing.

In Saint Paul’s letter today to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:15), he really highlights what our relationship is to the surrounding population, whether they’re other Christian denominations, non-believers, migrant workers, or what have you.  He writes, “Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.”

And that’s a pretty dense sentence, so let me break it apart.  Saint Paul says, “Everything indeed is for you,” meaning all the grace and goodness God has given me, the individual, is for “my good,” but it’s given to be shared, to be spread.  For instance, God forgives me—freely.  So I, in turn, forgive my neighbor.  That’s a way the grace of God (and the relevance of the faith) is spread.  Or maybe God has given me a positive outlook on life.  So I, in turn, share that optimism with those who need it.  (Whether or not they accept is their business, but we share it anyway).  That’s a way grace is spread out.

Or if I go to a football game, or a soccer game, or a track meet, I’m going to share my enthusiasm for life—while wearing my St. Clare t-shirt (of course, we need to get St. Clare t-shirts to make that happen).  But that’s a way others can connect the Church and faith with life outside these walls—that God can be present and enjoying a game between his sons and daughters.  “Everything indeed is for you,” says St. Paul, meaning all the grace and goodness God has given me, the individual, is for “my good,” but for everybody else’s, too.   

St. Paul goes on: “ that the grace bestowed in abundance....”  Now, that’s not God’s grace bestowed on us—that’s God’s grace bestowed out on the world by us: an “abundance” of grace, an “abundance” of goodwill and peace, an “abundance” of neighborly encouragement, an “abundance” of looking out for the lost and the forgotten—even those right in front of us.

“...So that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people (out there)...may cause the thanksgiving to overflow....”  Going out and sharing God’s grace with people in the area isn’t about meeting a consumer need; it’s about meeting a human need—the need to know that “I am worth something to somebody,” and the need to give back—even if that giving is a simple “thank you.”    

But this thanksgiving is directed not to “me” or even “us” as a Church but, as St. Paul says, “for the glory of God.”  It’s been pointed out by many leaders in the global Church that the Church is not a social services organization.  We don’t exist to provide a service.  We exist to reconnect God with his lost sheep.  We exist to undo the events of the Garden of Eden, and to remind people where the purpose and meaning of their lives come from, and where basic human hope and love come from.  Really, we exist to help people be the sons and daughters of God that they are.

We have a wonderful message to share with others outside these walls.  But we can’t think that “somebody else will just take care of it,” or that “the Church will always be around to do that.”  We can’t take that for granted.

If our parish (or any parish) were no longer to exist, would the wider population notice? Would it make a difference at all in others’ lives? Hopefully, the answer would be “yes”—hopefully they'd miss our presence. But it’s not a sure thing. But we increase our chances of making a difference--and being relevant--every time we step out and the share the grace God has blessed us with.

That’s where our hope lies: the grace of God and responding to the simple call to share that abundance of grace with those around us.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Homily for 8 June 2018

8 Jun 2018
Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

In Catholic churches, the most important piece of art in the sanctuary is a crucifix.  And ours is very prominent here by the altar.  But what’s behind that crucifix is what we celebrate today: the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; it’s what led him to the Cross; it’s the indomitable Spirit of divine Love poured out.  The bleeding Heart of Jesus and the open wound of Jesus’ side on the Cross are the same. 

Some people jokingly say that their wedding day was their funeral.  But for Jesus, his funeral—his crucifixion—was his wedding day.  It was the day that he gave himself, definitively, to the Church, his Bride.  And behind that act of spiritual and bodily love for us is the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

But his love is not given in a spirit of sentimentality, as we so often take “love” to be today.  Instead, the sacredness of his love is that it’s not about him; it’s about his devotion to us.  It’s freely given and sacrificial; completely selfless and given for the good of those who are open to receive it.  This kind of love is at the root of marriage, the family, committed friendships, and so on.  And this relational, sacrificial love is central to the Sacred Heart.

The image of husband and wife, where God is the husband and Israel is the wife, is a thread that runs throughout the Old Testament prophets.  And, so, too, is the image of a parent’s love for a child.  The prophet Hosea speaks of God who “fostered [Ephraim] like one who raises an infant to his cheeks.”  It’s a touching image, one that has that familiar sentimental and emotional aspect to it.  But beneath that image is a more primordial, unconditionally devoted love of a parent for a child.  We adore God.  But it’s important to remember that God adores us first.  That divine adoration is his Sacred Heart poured out for us.

But Hosea notes also that, although God “stooped to feed [his] child, they did not know that I was their healer.”  And that’s the overarching story of Scripture; it’s the story of the whole of salvation history.  God loves us and creates us.  For a time, humanity returns his love.  But then we go on this roller coaster relationship of fidelity and infidelity.  We are faithful and unfaithful; faithful and unfaithful. 

But then, in salvation history, the Sacred Heart of Jesus pours out one last show of divine love for his people.  And we have the crucifixion, the wedding day when Christ the Bridegroom poured out his love for his Bride the Church.  The day when his Sacred Heart moved him to give his whole body, his whole being in love to the Bride, to his people.  And he says to us: “Return to me.” 

That’s the message of the prophets, the message of Christ’s teachings, the message of our Scripture and the Tradition as a whole: return to God.  Entrust ourselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to that love which knows no limits, which is eternally forgiving, which is kind, gracious, and merciful.

This is the prayer of St. Paul when he writes to the Ephesians.  He kneels before the Father interceding for us so that we might “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, . . . [and] be filled with all the fullness of God.”  In effect, St. Paul’s prayer is that we be able to pray our psalm from today: “God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid.  My strength and my courage is the Lord, and he has been my savior.”

And he shows himself our Savior on the Cross.  There, his Sacred Heart is poured out in sacrificial love: the Bridegroom gives himself to the Bride.  And he says to her—he says to us: Come to me.  Follow me, whose Heart is aflame with love for you.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Homily for 1 June 2018

1 June 2018

“All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours,” says Jesus.  And the two key ideas there are: prayer and belief.

What is prayer but being one with God—in thought, in desire, and so on.  So, really, what we ask for in “prayer” is simply what God wants for us.  After all, a person who’s one with God says in so many words, “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come…and it will be enough.”

So “all that we ask for in prayer” is already something God desires for us.  But then Jesus says, “believe that you will receive it”—believe.

If we’re lost, for example, well, we know God wants us to be not lost.  So ask him for guidance—with full confidence that he will make it happen—and all will be well.  Or if we’re anxious about a situation, well, we know God wants us to be at peace.  So ask him for peace, for confidence—believing that he will make it happen—and all will be well.

God answers prayers.  And our personal belief that he does is what makes us see that it’s true: God answers prayers.