Monday, March 31, 2014
The letter of St. James is an important and passionate call to faith. This faith is to be coupled by works, mastery over the tongue and passions, connected to prayer and forgiveness and grown in wisdom. Thoughts on this letter can be found here.
There is a lot going on in our readings today with great spiritual and theological importance.
To begin, I would like to share a little bit about one of my best friends—Fr. Albert Wugaa from the Diocese of Navrongo-Bolgatanga, Ghana. I have had the privilege of going to seminary with him for four years and have visited him twice in Ghana, including on our recent trip. You know how Fr. Rich and I banter back and forth—Fr. Albert and I are no different. I call him “Sinner” and he calls me “Madman”! Please don't tell him I said anything nice about him in public!
Fr. Albert has an amazing life story. He was uneducated until age twelve and grew up in the natural religion of his family and community. He was eventually converted to the Lord through being educated at Catholic school. What did he do as a child? He was a shepherd—a great responsibility in his family as the flocks were a source of food and revenue. And he was only a boy! I think of what I was doing as a child—I was causing havoc at home and playing Nintendo at my friend’s house.
It has been cool speaking to Fr. Albert about how being a shepherd formed him as a man and now a priest. He learned early that his job was to feed, water and protect the animals and this required more of him than a 9-5 job.
I mention this because our first two reading feature shepherds. Samuel was called to anoint the next king of Israel. He approached the sons of Jesse and had in his mind who would be the king—the oldest. Yet God shows Samuel an important fact, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” Not one of seven older sons was chosen to be king, but rather David. And he was a shepherd. He was charged to nourish and protect the sheep. Later he reported that he killed lions and bears for the sake of his flock—and he didn’t have a deer rifle to do it but a sling.
David became the greatest king of the Old Testament.
Then we prayed Psalm 23—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We rejoice—on this Laetare Sunday—in our Shepherd who ensures that we are nourished, guided and protected not only physically but spiritually.
Then came this beautiful passage from John 9 in which Jesus heals a man born blind. What is interesting to note is that this passage comes one chapter before Jesus fulfills the prophecies and metaphors about shepherds in declaring, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10. And what is Jesus doing in John 9? Seeking after one of the lost sheep of his flock.
The man born blind was isolated from the world in his inability to see. Not only did this cause a physical isolation, but a spiritual. Note the question Jesus’ disciples asked about this man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This was a valid question according to the Old way of attributing any calamity, disease or evil to personal or national sin. Yet Jesus rebukes this understanding: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” Jesus heals this man physically and in so doing feeds him, nourishes him and protects him spiritually.
And the blind man comes to believe in the Good Shepherd. Like the Samaritan woman at the well we heard about last week, his growing-faith can be seen from the way he addresses Jesus. First, he knows his name—“Jesus.” He states to the doubters that he must not be a sinner, because no sinner could heal physical blindness. He calls him a prophet. Finally, when speaking to Jesus directly, he states his faith: “I do believe, Lord.”
Today we rejoice in the Good Shepherd. The same one who healed the man born blind wants to heal us. He wants us to be fed both spiritually and physically. He protects us from all danger material and spiritual, especially from sin and death. And he searches us out at every moment.
Are we faithful shepherds in our own lives? Each of us has people under our care whether an employee, spouse, child or friend. As we seek to feed, guide and protect these people in a human sense, do we also do so in their spiritual lives? Do we show employees the goodness of God? Do we protect our children from temptation, evil and sin? Do we bring others to Jesus? To the Sacraments?
We have great reason to rejoice today. God faithfully shepherds His flock. Do we faithfully shepherd ours?
Friday, March 28, 2014
This brief 25 verse letter contains a touching story of three men: Paul, Philemon and Onesimus. It is an insightful appeal on behalf of Onesimus (Philemon's slave) who ran away and met Paul. In so doing, Onesimus was converted to Jesus Christ and Paul sends him back to Philemon as a brother. Some more thoughts on the letter to Philemon can be found here.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Does anyone know the importance of Psalm 95 in the Church’s liturgical prayer? [No answer.] Fr. Rich? [Laughs, then says,] “We use it at Mass.” Well that’s true, but it is an important part of daily prayer.
Psalm 95 is used as the Invitatory prayer which begins the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the prayer I pray when I first wake up in the morning. To begin it we mark our forehead, mouth and heart with the sign of the cross (as we do before the Gospel at Mass) and say, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” It is worth reading this Psalm now:
Come, let us sing to the Lord
and shout with joy to the Rock who saves us.
Let us approach him with praise and thanksgiving
and sing joyful songs to the Lord.
The Lord is God, the mighty God,
the great king over all the gods.
He holds in his hands the depths of the earth
and the highest mountains as well.
He made the sea; it belongs to him,
The dry land, too, for it was formed by his hands.
Come, then, let us bow down and worship,
bending the knee before the Lord, our maker.
For he is our God and we are his people,
the flock he shepherds.
Today, listen to the voice of the Lord:
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did
in the wilderness,
when at Meriba and Massah
they challenged me and provoked me,
Although they had seen all of my works.
Forty years I endured that generation.
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray
and they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my anger,
“They shall not enter into my rest.”
So why does the Church ask bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful to begin the Liturgy of the Hours every day with Psalm 95? Why not Psalm 23 or another? I think it is because this Psalm can set the tone for a day. It begins by praising God and reminds us first thing in the morning that it is God we serve. And shouldn’t this be the first thought of our day? Additionally, this Psalm directly confronts sin and it helps to remember our battle against sin throughout the day and especially at its beginning.
Pray with Psalm 95. Try praying it first thing in the morning to begin by praising God and asking for His help to avoid sin throughout the day.
I just finished a fascinating read: Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance by E.W. Bullinger. Attached is a list of the numbers which Bullinger explains. I found it not only interesting but insightful, but be sure to read my notes at the end!
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Our society is hypocritically against rules, especially in Catholic moral teachings. People cry out, “Stay out of my bedroom!” or, “It’s a woman’s right to choose [abortion]!” or, “Who are you to define marriage?!”
At the same time, everyone recognizes that rules are good, and probably would never think otherwise. Think about one of our passions: sports. In basketball the rim is always ten feet off the ground. It’s never twelve feet or eight and a half feet. In hockey, you can’t pick up the puck, skate down the rink and throw it in the goal. Sports are always governed by rules in order to set up the boundaries for a game.
Other examples can be cited readily. Traffic laws keep us safe. School and playground rules keep our children out of harm’s way. Basic principles of etiquette are maintained in hospitals, grocery stores and nearly everywhere we can go.
In his book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, Matthew Kelly asks us to consider the Ten Commandments—the most basic set of rules we Christians and Jews have. He first asked what our world would be like if everyone made a simple commitment to follow the Ten Commandments regardless of religion or culture. Wouldn’t our world be a much better place? He also encourages watching the news with the Ten Commandments to see how many of them are broken.
When it comes to the basic rules of the Jewish faith, Jesus specifies that he did not come to take them away: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Yet he did make an important distinction—rules are there for us to live well, not for us to live for the rules.
This became a problem in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes were all about following the rules. Yet they often did so without love or without understanding what the precepts were for.
We may fall into the same trap. How many of us think we are only as good as the last time we sinned? Or that we must not do x, y or z and then we’ll be perfect? That would be like a basketball player constantly thinking, “I can’t double-dribble! I can’t double-dribble! I can’t double-dribble!” No good athlete thinks this way.
Rather, we must focus on living well. We must strive to love well. We will fall because we are all sinners. And when we do, we must be like a good athlete and shake it off (aka, ask for forgiveness, go to confession) and focus again on excellence.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law. We ought to live it out in our lives, not slavishly checking off a list of don’ts, but by focusing on living well for God and others.
Why is Lent so close to Easter?: Daily Mass Homily--Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 (Solemnity of the Annunciation)
I have to admit, I have a liturgical-calendar pet peeve. We celebrate Advent in December, then Christmas and the Christmas season for a few days, and many years after only a few weeks we move right into Lent. Following the Easter season there is a long period of Ordinary Time. Sometimes it’s like Jesus was just born and he is already on the cross! The reality is, we are confined in a 365 day calendar and it isn’t always the smoothest fitting in all the feasts in the way we may like.
Yet there is something cool about Christmas and Easter being so close in our calendar. Jesus was born to die. I remember a line from Harry Potter in which Snape told Dumbledore, “You have raised a pig to only be slaughtered.” Now obviously Jesus is not a pig (he is a Lamb, though!) he did come to die for our sins.
This same tension is here today. We are in the midst of the Lenten season—a season where we journey to the cross—yet today we celebrate the Annunciation of our Lord—the moment he was conceived in his mother’s womb. We must always hold these two mysteries—the incarnation and the passion—together.
And we must not forget that Mary’s yes made it possible for Jesus to come to die.
Another awesome reality is the fulfilled prophecy from Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us!’” Within a flip of the page and a couple of minutes we hear the fulfillment in Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. Yet the time between the prophecy and its fulfillment were seven or eight hundred years apart. Think about that—seven or eight hundred years! Not only was our country not formed that long ago, but it was centuries away from its establishment.
As we take a break from our Lenten penance to rejoice in the incarnation, may we strive to remember the connection between Jesus’ birth and death. And like Mary, may we always say yes to God.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
I want to share a few thoughts on the Gospel passage of the woman at the well.
Whenever we read or hear from the book of John, we should approach the text remembering two facts. First, John’s purpose of writing is to inspire belief in Jesus Christ. Granted, this is not unique to John, as this is the basic purpose for Matthew, Mark and Luke too. But John does so in a very deliberate manner. For example, he uses the word belief, believe or other variants ninety-eight times. Matthew, Mark and Luke use this word thirty-five together. In the word choices John makes it is clear he has a focus about belief.
Additionally, John (and other sacred authors) never writes anything willy-nilly. Names, places, times, numbers and settings are recorded purposefully and contain important meaning.
For instance, we are not told that Jesus met a person at a well. Rather, John specifies it was a Samaritan woman. Jesus, then, does not meet a random individual, but a specific person. And in simply talking with this woman Jesus breaks down barriers.
It was illegal for Jews to approach another woman in public, especially if it was another man’s spouse. The disciples’ shock was in part due to this understanding. And this wasn’t any woman, but a Samaritan woman. We learn in this passage—“Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.” The Samaritans and Jews hated each other—they were hostile enemies. Jesus breaks down boundaries in gender, society and politics by simply talking with this woman at the well.
Through their interaction, Jesus slowly inspires belief. He meets her where she was at and begins a conversation in a human way. “Give me a drink.” After inquiring why he would ask for this as a Jew, Jesus responds, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” He begins to bring the discussion to a spiritual level, but she doesn’t understand this immediately. She notes, “…you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep…” and then later asks for this living water so she doesn’t have to come to the well anymore. She remains at the human level.
We then come to an odd point in the conversation. Jesus asks her to call her husband, to which she responds that she has none. Jesus answers, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Here Jesus is not simply talking about a man but a nation. The Samaritans descended from the tribes of Israel (the northern tribes). They were defeated by five different nations, intermarried with them and left the covenant of God (the Husband) to worship pagan gods. Over time the Samaritans—once part of God’s family—even went to war and slaughtered their former family members. This is why the Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
Through this statement the woman’s understanding grows and she recognizes he is at least a prophet.
The Samaritan woman came to believe. We can see this in the ways she addresses Jesus. She first calls him a Jew, possibly in a derogatory manner: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” She then addresses Jesus as sir—a term of respect. Next, a prophet. In her last statement she circles around the truth: “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus affirms, “I am he.” She returns to her town, sharing her experience with Jesus. The whole town is converted and now Jesus is recognized as savior: “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
What does this passage mean for us? It means that Jesus will break every barrier to find us. He will meet us where we are no matter our race, gender, social status or church-going rate. As the ultimate gentlemen he will lead us to greater relationship with him through a dialogue, letting us set the pace as we grow in faith.
And then he expects us to share our experience with him to others. Imagine if the Samaritan woman kept her experience to herself. A whole town would have missed the opportunity to have faith in Jesus! This woman was not educated, didn’t have all the answers or provide a systematic presentation of theology or Christology. She simply shared her experience with others about Jesus. We must do the same.
As we continue our journey of Lent towards the cross and resurrection, may we let Jesus find us. May we be open to his gentle encouragement to go deeper—from the human to the spiritual. And may we share our experience of him with others.
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Note--While the Feast of St. Benedict was not on the Roman Calendar today, it was celebrated by the Benedictines. I had the privilege of saying Mass for the Sisters of St. Scholastica on their feast.
It is a blessing being with you today to celebrate Mass and share in the feast of St. Benedict—our patron.
Periodically it is wise to make an examination in our lives to first thank God for the many gifts He has given us and then to discern the ways He calls us to grow. Important days of the year—like a feast day in your community—is a good time to make such an examination.
To begin, remember St. Benedict’s basic maxim—ora et labora—work and prayer. Each of you lives this rule out every day. You pray as a community, gather for the Eucharist, have time for personal prayer and go about your daily duties at the monastery, at the college and in our community. How, then, is God calling you to grow? How is He inviting you, even beckoning you, to deeper intimacy with Him? In what ways does He desire your work to be purified?
Second, St. Paul reminds us that our work is not simply to combat earthly foes—poverty, injustice, hunger and the like. No, we are in a battle against principalities and the father of lies. While we ought not give Satan more credit than he is due, one of his greatest works is that our modern world no longer believes he even exists. Especially during Lent, we each partake in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This is not only for our own purification, or even to wage war against the world, but to wage war against evil itself. In what ways is God calling you to grow as a soldier in Christ against the evil one?
Finally, St. Peter asks the Lord what he (and the other disciples) would receive since they left everything. As a young priest it is inspiring to know of you and your community. Each of you has left everything—mother, father, children, house, independence—for Jesus. Many of you have lived in the religious vocation for decades and I am grateful for that yes to Jesus. Yet even in that yes, even in that leaving everything, is there more you can give? What are you attached to that you can give back to God? Your talents? Titles? Time? Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, gave everything and humbled himself to become a man. He died for us. In what ways am I called to give even more to God this Lent?As we continue our Lenten journey, we strive to live more faithfully according to the Rule of St. Benedict. We do so in order to battle earthly and spiritual foes. We do so in order to follow our savior in giving everything up to the Father.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
I have three thoughts this morning about our readings. First, and probably the most obvious, is Jesus’ call for us to serve the Lazarus in our own lives. Everyone at Mass this morning has a warm place to live. We have plenty of food, clean drinking water and probably more material possessions than we actually need. How are you reaching out to those in need?
The second is a point we may miss. At the end of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus’ prophesies a failure to believe in the resurrection: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Remember, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees—experts in the Old Testament. Jesus is basically saying, “If you don’t see me in God’s Word, you won’t believe that I will rise from the dead.” Jesus did, and they did not believe.
Finally, a tree comes in both Jeremiah and the Psalm: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” “He is like a tree planted near running water, That yields its fruit in due season, and whose leaves never fade.” What a powerful image with which to pray. Like a tree, we must be deeply rooted in our spiritual lives to remain steadfast through the good and bad we experience.
All of these come together at another tree—the cross. Here Jesus, like Lazarus, is rejected and hung in poverty. He gives his life even to those who don’t believe. He shows us that we must be rooted, like a tree, next to the Tree of Life.
May we always be close to the cross, close to the poor and believe.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Today is an important feast—a solemnity—for a very important man: St. Joseph. He is a model for all of us in many ways.
Joseph was a man of humility. He was a simple carpenter who worked hard to support his wife Mary and adopted son Jesus. While he had a crucial role in the Holy Family, not one word of his is recorded in Scripture—a sign of his silent and humble presence.
He was also a man of deep faith. Imagine Joseph’s reaction when he heard that Mary had conceived and it wasn’t his child! According to the Law, Mary was to be killed for this, yet Joseph decided to divorce her quietly, trusting in her holiness. And when the angel did come to him to announce the Immaculate Conception, Joseph believed and followed the angel’s command without question.
Joseph was also the link between Jesus and the promises made through the Old Testament—that the Messiah would be born in David’s line. The Jewish people recorded genealogies through the male side, and Joseph’s marriage to Mary helped fulfill this prophecy about Jesus.
St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers, carpenters, fathers and those seeking a happy death. Greatest of all, he is the patron saint of the universal Church. To celebrate, we take a break from our Lenten season to rejoice in this great saint.
As he provided for and protected the Holy Family he continues to provide and protect our family of Christians today.St. Joseph, pray for us!
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
For the homily today I want to focus on dung.
But before so doing, I’ll tell you why this scatological topic comes to mind. In our first reading, Isaiah states, “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”
Martin Luther famously said that we are nothing but piles of dung in the eyes of God. For us to be justified in His sight, God covers us—as dung—with a pure layer of snow, almost as if He tricks Himself into thinking we are good. Perhaps Luther had this passage from Isaiah in mind.
We Catholics would disagree with Luther’s anthropology in at least two ways. First, while each of us have dung-like qualities (our sins), we don’t believe humans to be completely wretched. While we fell in the beginning and continue to fall each day, we are still created in God’s image and likeness and thus are good—not wretched. Perhaps a better metaphor for us is that our souls are like farms—indeed there are unsightly piles, but there is also life.
Second, we Catholics believe God actually transforms us—He doesn’t just hide our sins underneath His own purity. Isaiah hints at this important reality: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”
Even dung, if not wasted, can be used for good. Consider the fact that manure comes from those piles and what was once disgusting can be a catalyst for life. God can take our sins, transform them (and us) and use them to produce fruit in our own lives and even in others’ lives. For instance, my struggle to overcome a particular sin today may eventually help another battling a similar cross.
Lent is a time to be transformed. We look at the junk in our own lives and through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and (above all) God’s grace we pray for the grace to be purified from sin. In addressing the dung in our own lives, may God bear abundant fruit in ourselves and others.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
Peter, James and John had a taste of Jesus’ divinity on Mount Tabor. For a moment, Jesus’ glory as God shined through his humanity. Peter rightly declared, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
If you think about it, we may often say the same in our own lives in different words—“I wish this moment would last forever.” This could come from seeing a newborn son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, soaking in a sunset, experiencing a team victory, falling in love, spending time with a friend or watching a buck in the crosshairs. Whenever we have such moments—those goose-bump moments—God is often nearby.
Like Peter, we may desire such God-moments to last forever. Peter went on to say to Jesus, “If you wish, I will make three tents here…” Yet after the powerful God-moment of the transfiguration, Jesus led Peter, James and John back down the mountain.
Do you know what happens next in the Gospel according to Matthew? They get back to work! Jesus, with these three apostles, immediately met a man who had a son who suffered from epilepsy (attributed to the work of a demon). Jesus cured him. Jesus came down the mountain to alleviate grief and suffering.
This was very instructive for Peter, James and John and for us as well. God gives us special moments for two reasons. First, they are meant to call us closer to Him. But they also spur us on to do good: to alleviate suffering, accompany the sick, feed the hungry and be present to the lonely.
I am often called crazy, but I run long distances. And at mile seventeen, eighteen or nineteen in a marathon there is nothing better than a glass of water or Gatorade. During water stops I often wish I could stay there, build a tent and die! Yet the point of a water stop isn’t actually to stop—it is to be nourished to continue the race to its completion.
We are each living in a God-moment now—we are at Mass. Sometimes we feel this at an emotional level—Mass may feel especially insightful or inspiring and we may perceive God’s presence in a special way. Yet sometimes we feel nothing at Mass—it may be routine or even feel boring. You may be thinking, “I wish the priest would stop talking and get on with it!” But at an objective level, Mass is always a God-moment as we hear His Word and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood.
Mass, like other God-moments is meant to feed, nourish and strengthen us at a personal level. But it can’t remain only personal—we, like Peter, James and John, must come down the mountain to carry out God’s work in our families, with the poor and those most in need of God’s presence. And, please God, may our work help many more experience God-moments in their own lives.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
I would like to share a couple of thoughts about one line in our Gospel—“…ask and it will be given to you.” The temptation may be to think God is like a Genie. “I want to win the Powerball” and poof, it happens. But this isn’t what Jesus is referring to.
We may ask God for all sorts of good things—protection and health for our family, discerning God’s will for particular situations or strength to combat sin. Yet do we ever consider how we ask God?
St. Teresa of Avila challenged her sisters to remember exactly to Whom they were speaking to in prayer. She asked them to think about how they would approach a king. Naturally they would be dressed up, polite, respectful and reverent. So, too, should they be in prayer.
We have a great example of fervent prayer in Esther. She needed to speak to her husband—the king—about a plot to destroy the Jews. Yet it was illegal for anyone to approach the king unless they had been summoned. She hadn’t and was going to break the law (which had the consequence of death) to attempt to spare her people. To ask God for strength, “She lay prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids, from morning until evening…” and fasted for three days. She knew Whom she was talking to, and brought her petition before God with humility and fervor.
On another note, did you know there is one prayer which is guaranteed to work? What I mean here is that while God always answers prayer (though sometimes the answer is “No,” or “Not yet”), one prayer will always be answered in the affirmative: “Your will be done.”
Lent is a period to grow in fervor in our prayer. We must always remember to Whom we are speaking, giving the honor and respect that is God’s due. And our best bet in prayer—no matter what we ask for pray “Your will be done.” The answer here will always be “Yes” and always be the best.