Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Night Mass of Christmas (OF) - The Light in the Darkness

Silence has fallen upon the earth, the silence that comes with the long night. Only those things that inhabit the night, that prowl about in the darkness, are awake and moving. Around the world, men and women are huddled in their beds, sleeping away in the darkness, waiting for the morning. Even the great emperor, the Caesar who seems to have control of everything, sleep quietly in his palace in Rome. But not all is quiet, not all is dark.  In a small corner of a small province of the great Roman Empire, a child is born. It is that child whom we celebrate tonight. But who is this child? Why is this child so important that we celebrate his birth 2,014 years later? What is it that this child will do as a man? And what does this child mean to us here right now?
Isaiah gives us a hint about this in the first reading when he declares, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone." It is this theme of light and darkness which pervades our mass tonight, this first mass of Christmas Day, celebrated from antiquity at night, usually at midnight. It is most appropriate to offer the celebration at night due to the birth of this child, that birth which has been traditionally held to have occurred in the night, in the darkness of the world. For it is that child who will transform the darkness into something far more marvelous.
The same child, when he becomes a man fully grown, will declare himself as the light of the world. In fact, in the massive Christmas Day, which will be celebrated tomorrow, The church proclaimed the beginning of the Gospel of St. John, the beloved apostle. St. John in that same gospel declares, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was the light of men; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." What do we mean when we say that this child is the light? A parable may help us to understand this term and how it is that Christ the child born to us is the Light of the world.  This parable actually comes to us from a pagan Greek philosopher named Plato who lived about 500 years before the birth of Christ, but it finds great significance in a Christian context.
Imagine that the race of men are restrained in a cave deep below the earth, restrained such that they are incapable of any motion. Suppose that, on the cave wall in front of them, are projected images of things faintly lit by a fire, or, to make it more modern, by a film projector. If one had grown to maturity in this state - never moving, never being free to see anything other than that projected on the cave wall - it is no surprise that this one presumes that the images are all real, and that there is nothing else to be done but to accept them. But, if one can be freed of his shackles, see the cave walls and the limited images along with their projector, and discovers that there is something far more real, more than all that he had known, would he not desire to remain in the real world rather than return to the cramped spaces and threadbare images? Would we not rebuke one who stayed in the cave after being freed as foolish or weak or trapped in an illusion?
Jesus Christ, the child born to us this night, has done something far more marvelous than simply freeing us from the paralysis of the cave, from the darkness and false reality under which we were subjected.  This child who is declared to be the Light of the World has revealed Himself to us.  It is in answering the question “Who is this child?” that we discover how bright the Light is.  For this child, of flesh and bone like each one of us, is different in one major aspect from every other human child ever born, being born, or will be born.  This child, this tiny little infant with such a weak voice, with no strength to even turn Himself over let alone to stand and walk - this child is God.
Yes, you heard me right.  That tiny little infant is the Infinite Son of God.  That weak little voice, crying out for help, for His mother, is the same Voice which declared in the beginning “Let there be light”; the same Voice which spoke to Moses in the burning bush; the same Voice which conversed with the prophets.  This supremely feeble child with no strength in His arms or legs is the same Power by which all things are ordered and established towards their ultimate end.  Jesus Christ, the child born among us tonight, is the God who exists beyond our time.
Ours is not to understand how this happens. The ways of God at times are so far above our understanding that we will never be able to comprehend completely fully truly what he is doing. Ours is to understand that it did happen. Without losing his divinity, without taking any of it, Jesus Christ who is God, the Son of God the Father, who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, without losing any of His divinity nor without missing anything that is human, receives the same flesh and blood as each one of us here tonight. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, the Enfleshment of God. Nine months after the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary, He is born among us.
Indeed, this is a joyous night. We celebrate God coming among us, the fulfillment of the name Emmanuel, the long-desired of the nations coming to us. We indeed rejoice with the angels in echoing their triumphant chorus of praise, that Gloria which the Church recites in joy at all the great feasts, but echoes most when we celebrate this night.  Who, in contemplating this event, is not enrapt in joy?  Who does not lovingly gaze upon that humble manger to be reminded of this most joyous of news, that God shares a human life with us? The only thing that could be better than this would be to be with God all our days. But that, brothers and sisters, is the exact reason why He is born to us on this sacred night.
Going back to the parable of the cave, Jesus Christ came to share the divine light, the light of truth, the light of salvation, the light of divine love for each and every one of us.  Christ comes to reveal to us that this world is not all that it appears to be, that there is something more, something further up and further in, as C.S. Lewis alludes to in his Chronicles of Narnia series.  We sometimes sense this, that there is more than meets the eye, but we often brush it aside and settle comfortably into what our mere senses tell us.  Indeed, it seems that our age is incapable of looking at anything except what is directly in front of it, and even then does not seem the forest for the trees.
But Christ our Light shines through the darkness of our ignorance, the darkness brought on by our sins and by the work of the devil, the perpetual agent of malice against God.  He reveals to us the facade of simple reality and shows us something more is there, or rather someone who is more is there.  For Christ the light reveals to us the light which is God himself, God in three persons, the sacred Trinity. It is in Christ the man that this will be fully revealed, but we have a glimpse of this now in the ministry of Christ the child.
Let us rejoice on the sacred night. Let us rejoice at the coming of our savior, at the birth of our king and our Lord. Let us exalt with the angels in heaven glorifying him. Let our cry truly be glory to God in the highest; But what are crying not been nearly words.  For if we are to truly keep this sacred night, if we are truly to receive Christ as a child, then we must listen to Christ the man. We must listen to what Christ tells us if He is truly God among us if He is truly Emmanuel. We cannot merely adore Him as a child, but we must accept the full man, who He is and what He says to us. And what He says most of all is said not in words, but it actions, and it is said upon the cross.  For the mystery of Christmas is nothing without the mystery of the Passion and of the Resurrection. Christmas means nothing without looking towards Easter. Because Christ was born not merely to live, not merely to teach, not merely to be an example. Christ was born so that he would die the death on the cross, the death by which we would be freed of our sins and begin to enter into that blessed life God desires for us.
Let us not enter back into the cave, then, by returning to our sins, by ignoring Christ and reducing Him to a mere child.  The celebration of Christmas is worthless if we are not desiring to imitate the one in whose birth we rejoice.  Christians, do not reject the name of Christ! Do not reject what Christ has done for you by His birth in Bethlehem and by His re-birth at Calvary! We can certainly return to the dull images and easy comfort of the cave, but we will not be truly alive, truly animated to become what God has desired us to be from the very beginning of creation: the holy people of God on fire with love for Him and for all that He has done and all He has created, most especially our brothers and sisters.
If you have been slack in your Christian life, not attending Mass, not reading the Scriptures, avoiding the reception of the sacraments by which we are conformed to Christ, return to the practice of your faith.  There is no salvation or redemption in anything or anyone else.  Your things cannot save you, your lukewarmness cannot save you, no other religion can save you: It is only Christ and the one Church which He has founded, which He has maintained to this day.  Return to the Church, come back to the merciful and forgiving Father, and be restored to God.  If you are currently practicing your faith, be better.  We can always be more prayerful, more obedient in our duties, more virtuous, more faithful than we are presently.  There is no stopping in our faith: either you are moving forwards or sliding backwards.  Be strengthened by the example of Christ, of His holy mother, and by the saints who have gone before us, so as to achieve the goal of faith: your salvation, your entrance even in a remote way in this life into the glories and the joys that await in Heaven.

Let us rejoice on this night, let us rejoice in this child, but let our rejoicing not be in vain.  Christ is born to us so as to offer us salvation and sanctification, and He has already done the brunt of the work for us in His earthly life.  Ours is to decide: shall we be illuminated by the Light that has come into the world or shall we remain in the darkness of sin, of ignorance, of error, and risk losing that in which our hearts have truly desired?  May each of you have a blessed and merry Christmas, and may the glory of the Christ Child shine upon each one of you in the darkness of this night.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent (EF) - Excita! (Part II)

  Last week, we looked at the common portion of the collects for the Sundays which form the bookends of the liturgical year. We looked especially at the Church's use of the word "Excita!" To stir us anew to conversion and progress in the spiritual life, in preparation for the end of days.  This Sunday, the first of Advent and the inauguration of the new liturgical year, utilizes the same word in its collect. What inspires the Church to repeat this word so soon, and also to use it at the beginning of the year?
  A further examination of the collect will help us to understand this week's usage. The collect begins: "Stir up your power, O Lord, and come." While last week was addressed more to our needs and our conversion, this week sees the collect addressed to God Almighty and beseeching Him to come. In praying this, the Church opens up to us the mystery of Advent and its importance for us. For the heart of Advent is concerned with the coming of God into the lives and history of humanity.
  Certainly, we are praying for God to come and save us, to free us from our sins. In this, we are joining the ancient Jews in their prayer for deliverance, in their prayer for redemption. How long did they suffer in Egypt under the cruel slavery of Pharoah! How long were they thrown about under the various emperors and princes of the eras, becoming a plaything in those exalted men's hands! How long were they even exiled from that which had been sworn over to them, the Promised Land! They sought for the day when God would deliver them from all their enemies and reign over them forever in the kingdom of gladness and joy. Yet how little did they expect God to become personally present to them, to truly come to them as a neighbor comes to a neighbor.
  We, indeed, are the result of those prayers, of those expectations, though these prayers and expectations have not yet been realized completely. Christ our Savior has already come in history, has come to redeem His people, the people He has chosen to be His own. Truly has the Psalm been fulfilled which says, "All who expect you, O Lord, shall not be confounded" (Ps 24.3; see the Gradual).  All those who have waited and are waiting for the Lord to come do not wait in vain, for the Bridegroom is coming, whose birth we will celebrate so soon.
  Yet we are not merely commemorating the expectation of the nations to arrive. We are also a people in waiting. We, however, are awaiting not the fulfillment of the prophecies, but for the fulfillment of God's design. This is what is hinted at in our Gospel for this Sunday. The birth of Christ into the world was only the beginning of the final fulfillment, and Our Lord gives us warning of His final coming, just as we heard last week. When Christ comes this final time, He will not appear in humility and poverty, but in power and majesty, enthroned in glory as the Just Judge come to reckon to each his own. How dreadful shall that day be for those who have not followed the Lamb, but their own foolish designs.
  This is the second way that the Church calls upon God to stir Himself up as if from slumber. For the Church, the Bride of the Heavenly Bridegroom, desires to unite herself to the One she loves, to at last enter into the wedding feast prepared for all eternity. Truly, we should live in fear of that day if we are not progressing in sanctity and repentance, yet for the Christian, the end should be awaited in eager hope. We are not meant to live forever in this sin-filled world, but we are meant to be with God, in the intimate union for which we have been created.
  But this talk of intimate union draws out a third and final way by which the Church calls upon her Lord through this collect. Yes, God has come within the pages of history. Yes, God will come at the last day, on the last page, to close the book of life. But there is a hidden way by which Christ comes to His Church, a way that is only illuminated to us by the saints. This is the way of Christ dwelling within the soul, of the soul becoming Christ-like, as St. Paul tells us has happened to him.
  Christ is present to us insofar as we conform ourselves to His example and His teaching, insofar as we emulate His earthly life. This is the secret of the saints: all of them, though each in their own way, strove not only to imitate Christ, but to become Christ. Read any life of any saint, and you will see them growing further apart from sin and the world and the flesh, and you will also see they draw nearer to Christ: through prayer, through penance, through growth in virtue, and especially through growth in charity. We can have Christ in our lives here and now, the more we turn away from all that is hateful to Him and desire more and more to fill our lives with the good gifts and graces He gives us.

  Let us, indeed, beseech God to come to us. Let us pray that He will fulfill His promise to become a son for us, a child among us. Let us pray that He will come at last as the glorious and triumphant King at the end of days. But let us pray more fervently that He will come into our hearts, into our churches, to dwell among us as the only object of our love, as the only means whereby we live and move and have our being. Take heed to the words of St. Paul in our epistle today, that we will "put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ: and make not provision for the flesh." Let us pray that God will be stirred up so that we may be stirred more completely to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him, so that we may more completely rejoice at those words: "The Bridegroom comes; go out to meet Him."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Last Sunday after Pentecost (EF) - Excita!

Detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel
There are many correlations between this Sunday’s Mass, the last one of the time after Pentecost and thus signifying the end of the liturgical year, and next Sunday’s Mass, the first of Advent and the beginning of the year.  I highlight only one of these correlations as found within the collects which begin the Masses.  The first word of each prayer in Latin is Excita.  Of course, the English mind immediately thinks of the word excite, and truly one is correct in coming to this conclusion.  Yet what does it mean to excite?
The Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary (an essential reference for those studying the venerable language) offers a few ways to understand this word Excita.  It defines Excita the verb as to raise up, to arouse, awaken, incite, or enliven.  We see, then, that this word signifies the action of stirring up or even waking up one from some state of inactivity.  This begs the question: Why does the Church use this word not only on this day but also for next Sunday’s Mass?

We will look at the use of Excita for next week’s Mass next week (a little incentive to keep you coming!) but for this week, we can link Excita to the image Our Lord presents in the Gospel of the angel’s trumpet.  In the midst of describing in a mysterious manner the last days of the universe, Christ tells us that the Son of Man “shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice” after He has returned (Mt 24:31).  It is this passage that is central to interpreting the Church’s use of this word in our prayer and what effect it should have upon us.
This month of November is normally dedicated to the consideration of the Last Things since the Sunday Masses place us this impending mystery before us.  While this theme is certainly appropriate for the end of the liturgical year, it is also the fundamental inspiration for why the Church operates in this world.  Eagerly awaiting the coming of her Savior, of her beloved Bridegroom, the Church strives to call souls to that same hope and same love before the angel’s trumpet is heard, before that same Bridegroom comes to carry out His most terrifying task as the Judge of the living and the dead.
But this task of calling does not end once souls have entered into the bosom of Holy Mother Church.  Far from it!  For now comes the task of leading souls away from sin, from Satan and all his works and pomps, so that these souls may begin to live and breath that same faith, hope, and love with which Christ infused the Church.  We must always remember that our entrance into the Church, our incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ, does not come with a guarantee or a punched ticket; it comes only with a promise: “Abide in me, and I will abide in you” (Jn 15:5).
How often it happens in our lives that we are thrilled with entering into some new activity or receiving some new toy or gadget, yet that thrill vanish after a short time and the activity becomes routine or boring, the toy becomes old and no longer carries the same curiosity.  This is most especially true in our ecclesiastical life, and even more so for those of us who have discovered or returned to the Church: we are excited and filled with awe at her teachings and her rites, her Gospel and her history, and we seem to want more, more, more!  Yet we sink into a pattern of familiarity, of routineness, a pattern that seems to make all of this just seem like anything else.  Our minds become dull with the loss of that newness, our hearts grow weary because what we expected has not come to be, our souls seem to become fixed in their ways or (even worse) to start retreating from the progress we had made back to the old comfortable sins, the easy way of living.  Like the natural world all around us, we seem to shrivel up and grow dry and cold.
It is to this that the Church, as a most loving and caring mother, knowing what is best for us, concludes the year.  She cries out to us: “Wake up! Rise up! Awake from your slumber!” She shocks us like a foghorn to the ear, like a bolt of lightning surging through our bodies.  The Church, in her perennial wisdom, knows that we human creatures too easily slack off and grow weary of the fight, grow tired of waiting, and so she revives us by her prayer.  “Stir up your people, we beseech you, O Lord!” she cries in our Collect.  Stir up your people, that they may rise from their sleep and remain true to your word.
Let us, then, be roused from our complicity.  Let us be awakened from the slumber of sin and the ease of error.  Let us arise and be “strengthened with all might according to the power of [God’s] glory, in all patience and longsuffering with joy” as St. Paul encourages us in our Epistle this day (Col 1:11).  If we have failed in sin, let us beseech God’s mercy.  If we have grown slack in our spiritual lives, let us pray Him that His grace may envelop us and His Holy Spirit stir us up to activity.  If we feel weak and unprepared, let us pray along with St. Paul that we “may be filled with the knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” so that we may “fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9-10).
Let us not join the nations who will mourn and bewail the coming of the Just Judge when His sign appears and His angels blast their might trumpets, but let us lead lives worthy of preparing to face the Judge confident in His mercy and His grace as leading us into glory.  Let us not fear the trials and tribulations which will come, either the daily struggle which forms us into saints or the heroic struggle which signals that the last and terrible day is at hand.  Let us endure all these things so that, being excited by Holy Mother Church, we may be made worthy to be partakers of the saints in the eternal light (cf. Col 1:12).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Christ the King (EF)

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.  Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ commands. This ancient anthem is most appropriate for this feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King.  It reveals to us how it is that Christ is our true king and helps us to understand how this applies to we who are His loyal subjects.  For all earthly kings have conquered, reigned, and commanded, but only Christ has done these things in a perfect and salvific way.  Let us see how, then, He has brought about these actions.
Christ the King has conquered all the enemies of humanity: sin, death, Satan, ignorance, and error.  But He does not accomplish this victory with an army; He does not conquer with myriads of angels or men behind Him storming the battlefield.  No, indeed, Christ has won this conquest upon the Cross.  Our entrance antiphon points us to this when it declares: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honor (Apoc. 5:12).  Christ the sacrificial Victim, Christ become the Passover Lamb, is the same Christ who is King.  Betrayed by His people, scourged for our iniquities, marched towards the dreaded hill, and nailed to the Cross, Christ shows the way of God in conquest is not through power but through humility and obedience.  Saint Paul rejoices in this conquest as he writes to the Colossians: Christ making peace through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:20) so as to bring about the long-sought-after redemption of man from Satan’s tyranny.
Truly, Christ works in opposition to Satan.  Whereas Satan worked through subterfuge and deceit, Christ who is the Truth shines for all to see Him.  Whereas Satan attacks and attacks again and again, Christ the Lamb is wounded again and again so that we might be healed.  And whereas Satan seeks to make himself the highest and the greatest, Christ, who has been King from the very beginning, humbles Himself and becomes a slave.  This is how Christ conquers the dreaded enemies: with humility, with obedience to the Heavenly Father’s will, with love.
Having conquered the enemies, Christ now reigns triumphant from His throne.  But again, His throne is not the normal earthly seat festooned with jewels and trinkets.  The throne of Christ while this sinful world exists is the Cross.  His crown is formed of thorns piercing His sacred Head.  He appears naked before the world: no royal purple enclosing Him except the purple of His precious Blood, no gold shining from before His Heart except the gold of a holy and perfect life, no courtiers to attend to His need except His sorrowing Mother who can do nothing to abate the pain.
The reign of Christ is not one of a lord above his people, but of God suffering with His people.  C.S. Lewis, in the Chronicles of Narnia, has the King of Archenland describe how a king must reign.
For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land. (The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 15 “Rabadash the Ridiculous”)
Indeed, Christ reigns far more humbly than even Lewis himself imagined.  He certainly reigns in the glorious moments of life, the celebratory, the wonderful.  Yet He also reigns in the most sorrowful, most desperate, most miserable moments.  He reigns over the wealthy and the poor, the strong and the weak, the wicked and the good.  He reigns over all that has happened, all that is happening, and all that will happen.
Christ reigns over all because He has conquered all.  Everything belongs to Him, and nothing can be brought forward which we could truly declare to be free from the reign of Christ.  How can this be so, when Christ declares that My kingdom is not of this world?  This is because God, in all things, cooperates with man and does not rule by tyranny.  Just as He has left the Church as the instrument of salvation in the world and placed authority within men to rule and guide her, so too does Christ give power to man to govern and order his world so as to conform it to God, who is Himself ordered unto perfection.  God, St. Paul tells us, hath delivered us from the power of darkness and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love (Col 1:13).  This divine kingdom, this divine reign of Christ, is not in competition to the worldly powers, as perhaps Pontius Pilate thought, but is meant to be the true image of how man is to reign, in preparation for the consummation of the world.
Having conquered as a king, now currently reigning over us as king, Christ then commands us as our King.  The Latin word imperium signifies the ability to wield authority or having the ability to command another.  Is there anyone who has earned this right to authority over Christ?  Certainly not, after his triumphant conquest upon the throne of the Cross.  Christ has demonstrated to us through His Passion and Crucifixion that the heavenly Father has given Him the imperium over the entire world and over the totality of humanity.  When Christ speaks, He speaks on behalf of the Father.  When Christ commands, He commands on behalf of the Father.
But the imperium of Christ should not be seen as a subjection or a slavery to God.  Rather, it should be seen as an elevation, an entrance into the true freedom desired by the Trinity.  Christ does not command like some earthly emperor, but commands as a father commands a son, as a brother commands another brother.  He encourages and beckons mankind upwards towards divine intimacy, towards divine union.  Every word that He gives in the Gospels is meant to point us towards the reason why Christ came: to bring about the redemption of humanity and to unite us with God.  Pope Benedict XVI offered a good reflection on this idea when he said in his pre-papal days: “The Feast of Christ the King is not, therefore, the feast of those who are under a yoke but of those who are grateful to find themselves in the hands of him who writes straight on crooked lines.” (Co-Workers of the Truth, November 30)
Yet, how few there are who listen!  How fewer are they who hear and obey!  How many instead, join the mockings of the chief priests and Pharisees when they exclaim: Let Christ the king of Israel come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe (Mk 15:32).  This modern mockery of the concurrent reign of Christ is what prompted Pope Pius XI to establish this feast in 1925.  As the kingdoms fell and modern man believed himself to be the best judge of his own needs, Pius instituted this feast in the hope that “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony” (Quas primas, 1925).
This well-founded hope is still true today.  Our nation lies under the crippling effects of moral decay and political infighting, with little hope in either of our political parties or even in the electorate.  The western world is paralyzed by moral incompetency, formal atheism, and little resolve to fight the dangers that stand both on the edges (through militant Islam) and within the borders.  The Church, too, is not immune to this danger, as the past half-century has shown.  Priests and bishops and even cardinals have abandoned the kingdom of God and sought after the praise of men.  Yet Christ still commands, Christ still wields the imperium over the Church now just as He has done throughout the centuries and will continue to do so up to and including the last day.
How then are we to honor Christ as the King of all?  The Church, in her clemency, grants an plenary indulgence today to those who publicly recite the Act of Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Even if we cannot recite this publicly, we can make this act privately, beginning the rejuvenation of the world through our participation in the reign of Christ.  We can renew our efforts to follow the commands and the example of Christ the King, reminding ourselves when we gaze upon the Cross that God is in control: not ourselves, not our political leaders, not even our bishops and pope, but Christ the King is at the heart of all operations, and the more we cooperate with His will for us, the more shall we be rewarded in His kingdom.
We must also proclaim Christ’s kingship to the world, even perhaps back to the Church in which so many have forgotten His reign.  Our lives must echo those of the saints who gave themselves to Christ, not only the martyrs but all the saints.  It is wonderful that this feast of Christ the King occurs before the month of November, which begins with the feast of All Saints and ends with the coming of Advent.  November is a time for reflection upon the last things, and this feast helps place those reflections in context.  If we do not have Christ as our King, then what shall happen to us on the last day?
Finally, we must remember another crown which God has awarded.  There can be no king without a queen.  So too does this happen in the heavenly court: Christ the King reigns with the Queen of heaven and earth beside Him.  Let us turn to the Virgin Mary our Queen, that she may reveal to us how to venerate and serve her King.  As we conclude the month of the Rosary, let us offer those beads to her so that she may form of them a magnificent crown with which to crown the King by our works and our prayers.  Pray to her that we may become more loyal subjects of the King in this life, so as to merit the reward of the King in eternal life.  May Christ conquer, may Christ reign, may Christ command upon us all that we need to venerate Him as King and to share in His Kingship in the glory of heaven.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

27th Sunday per annum (OF) - Fruitfulness

What do we do with a bad plant in our garden, with a plant that is no longer living? We throw it out and begin again. Even if it is something that we have worked hard on, something that we have put a lot of effort into, we still throw it away when it is no longer viable. It is only the good flowers and the good plants that we keep in our gardens, those which produce wonderful blooms or great fruit. It was the same way with ancient Israel, and it is the same way with the Church today. Only that which is fruitful will remain, while that which is not fruitful is disposed of.
This is the message at the heart of our readings today. God has established his vineyard, and God maintains his vineyard so that it will bear fruit. Our first reading point us toward the first vineyard that God planted, that of ancient Israel. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and planted them in the promised land. He sheltered them, cared for them, provided for their every need. He established them in the land which he had promised to their forefathers. He made a covenant with them, promising that he would be faithful as long as they were faithful.
Yet Israel did fail, and in fact failed often. Time and time again the Israelites would abandon the Lord their God and worship false gods, abandoning the precepts that God had given to them. As a result, God often sent prophets, the servants of the Landowner as we hear in the Gospel, to lead the people back to their God, back to the promise that they had made. But often, even that was not enough.
What then did God do when the people did not return to him? God abandoned them, and left them to their own devices, as they wished it to be. What then was the result of this? The Israelites were often conquered, overtaken by foreigners, and enslaved or even exiled. They suffered miserably as a result of their own folly, of their abandonment of God. Only then did the Israelites return to God; only then did they return, beseeching God for his mercy and to restore them to the relationship they once had with Him.
But finally, there came a time when Israel had to make the ultimate choice. For as we heard in the Gospel parable, there came to them not a servant of the Landowner, but the son - the beloved son of the Landowner, who is in reality the beloved Son of the Heavenly Father. God came among His people, and His people rejected Him. What is the punishment deserving of the people who is finally abandoned their God? The Pharisees and the gospel provide that answer when they respond to Christ saying, "He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times." And that is what Christ did: he began a new vineyard, the vineyard that is the Church. And this is the Vine onto which we the branches have been grafted through our baptism and through our reception of the sacraments.
Christ has firmly planted his vine so that none may overthrow it. But that does not mean that we cannot go bad. On the contrary, we too may become like the ancient Israelites and even though we participate in the church, and her visible rites and appear to be Christians, we may still imitate our forefathers in abandoning our God, and not worshiping Him and Him alone as our true God, imitating the ancients in producing wild grapes, sour grapes which are inedible and worthless. Admission into the church does not automatically equate into salvation. We are called by God to go out and produce fruit, the fruit of the faithful life, the fruit of a life oriented towards God, oriented towards Christ.
How then do we produce this fruit? We do it first by believing everything that the Church teaches us. Since the Church has been founded by Christ, by God himself, to be the trustworthy authority here on earth, the motherly voice that we can listen to for guidance and instruction, we must hear what she teaches us, no matter how difficult it may be for us to hear it. We must believe what she teaches as being true and right. Just as ancient Israel had the authority of Moses and the prophets, so too do we have the authority of the pope and the bishops.
But belief is useless unless it is put into action. What we believe as Catholics must be put into practice. If the Church teaches that something is sinful, then we must avoid it. If the Church teaches that something is good, then we must promote it and work to implement it in our lives. If we have failed to live up to the Church's teaching, then we admit our errors and seek pardon from God and from His Church. Each of us must live our lives as God knows is best for us, as the Creator who fashioned each one of us from before the dawn of time.
Above all, look to the example of the saints to show you how to be fruitful in your own life. The saints each had their own calling from God and their own challenges in their day, but each remained faithful to God and to His Church in their lifetime. Consider St. Francis of Assisi and his radical poverty and intense love of Christ, or St. Joseph, the humble carpenter who become the foster father of Christ. The greatest example and help we can have is from the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God and the Queen of All Saints. Seek her intercession and follow her example of fidelity and fruitfulness in your own lives.
Let us take the advice of St. Paul to the Philippians: not to be anxious, but trusting in God who will provide to us true peace of heart, the peace beyond understanding which safeguards us against doubt and fear. Let us "Keep on doing what [we] have learned and received and heard and seen" in Christ, in His Church, and in His saints so that our lives may bear the fruit which we meant to produce.  Let us not produce wild grapes but the fruit of holiness, the fruit that lasts unto eternal life.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Intentional Discipleship II - Sep 27-28

This is the second of two homilies preached at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Benedict, MD, at the request of the pastor on the topic of intentional discipleship.  To see the first homily, click here.

Last week, we looked at the basis for intentional discipleship.  We discovered that it is founded upon a person, upon the greatest Person to ever live on this good earth.  We saw that our reason for being in this building is founded upon the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God become man.  In this we realized that our religion is not founded merely upon His actions and words, but also in our reaction to those same actions and words, to how our lives are impacted by them.  Now that we see what is the reason for being disciples, and furthermore for becoming intentional disciples, let us find out what it takes to do so.
It is Saint Paul who offers us a wonderful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.  In directing the church at Philippi towards holiness, St Paul offers this reflection on what it means to be a member of the Church, to be conformed to Christ.  He gives three ways to live the Christian life, to be intentional disciples.  The first is unity.  We as Christians are called together into the one Body of Christ, into the one flock which is the Holy Catholic Church.  If we are one Body, then there must not be division within that Body, just as we cannot tolerate a division within our own bodies.  A group of cells that grows corrupt and poisons the human body is called a tumor, and is oftentimes fatal for the body and for the tumor.  It is the same within the Body of Christ: when Christians plot against the Lord and His chosen leaders (see Ps 2), they form a tumor within that mystical Body.  This is not the way of Christ, this is not the example of the saints.
Saint Paul encourages the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.”  Why does ask this to be done so as to complete his joy?  Because it is the joy of every true pastor to see the flock united in one just as God desires it.  The Spirit of God does not sow dissension and disunity, but the seed of unity and cooperation.  The laity and the clergy are called to cooperate for the good of themselves and the good of the other.  The laity are called towards obedience to the Word of God and their pastors, supporting them in their labor in the fruitful fields of humanity, while the clergy are called to preach the full Word and distribute the life-giving sacraments to the laity.  There is no room for either of us, laity or clergy, to foment discord out of our own selfish interests or to promote ourselves.  We are all meant to be united in Christ, thinking upon the one thing necessary: what it takes to receive our eternal salvation.  Let us begin to work to do so.
Continuing in his encouragement, St Paul exhorts the Philippians to “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.”  This is the mark of true charity: a concern that looks towards the needs of others and not merely to ourselves.  Why must we be always so focused upon our own needs and wants when there are so many who are in need of much worse?  Why do we seem leery of showing that charity towards others in our lives?  Did Christ desire only a few to know Him and all that He taught and worked or did He not bring about wondrous works before the eyes of the public?
Charity must begin at home, they always say.  And in this they are correct, for charity must begin among ourselves.  We are called to support one another, to pray for one another, to reconcile with one another.  This charity operates in accord with that unity which we looked at earlier, but the charity which Christ commands and which St Paul describes cannot end with our fellow parishioners.  We are called to be concerned for our fellow Christians around the world who are our brethren in the faith.  We are called also to love all who are our neighbor as ourselves, desiring the good for them, the ultimate good which is a fruitful relationship with Christ and with God.
In the early centuries of the Church’s life, the pagans marvelled at the way the Christians lived, how much they cared for all around them, not just their fellow Christians.  This was the way by which Christianity was spread throughout the world, by our demonstration of what Christ commanded, by our imitation of Christ’s love witnessed upon the Cross.  If we do not have love, then we cannot share it.  Where is your charity?  Where is your love?  How much have you cared for the Church, for your parish, for your pastor?  How much have you loved God and shown Him that love?  Indeed, until we begin to love God, we cannot begin to love our neighbor to the extent to which we have been called.
Concluding his remarks, St Paul offers up the third means to living as intentional disciples: “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”  What attitude is that?  It is humility, as we see from the magnificent description of Christ which follows:

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

Jesus Christ, being God, being a member of the divine Trinity, did not let that separate Him from His people, from us.  In obedience to the Father, He became like one of us, He who is above everything and far greater than everything.  He humbled Himself by willing to become like us in everything except sin: becoming a babe in the womb, becoming a child dependent on His parents, becoming a man dependent upon His own work to live.  All of this He did even to the point of the cruel death He suffered upon the Cross for the salvation of the world.
That is the example of humility we are to follow.  Not accounting ourselves to be anything great and important, but emptying ourselves of vanity and self-deceit so as to be obedient to our heavenly Father.  Not desiring the higher places and greater honors, but submitting ourselves to the lowest places and being nothing in the eyes of others so that the honor and the glory go to God.  Recognizing that we are indeed nothing next to God, yet knowing that God became one of us so that we might in turn become God-like ourselves; so that, just as Christ was exalted to the right hand of the Father and His name echoes triumphant even in the bowels of Hell, we too may be exalted in the halls of eternal life.
But how will all this come about?  How can we achieve this unity?  How can we grow in charity, towards God and towards others?  How can we become humble and Christ-like?  This is where the rubber meets the road for intentional discipleship.  It must echo in every facet of our lives.  Look into the lives of the saints and see how they lived, and you will see this echoed in every one of them.  They never lived the Christian life in halves or quarters or any other sort of division, separating what they believed from how they lived.  And it must be the same for us.  Our lives must echo with unity, charity, and humility if we are going to receive the reward that God desires for us.
But how?  As with all things in the Christian life, we must be a people of prayer, a people in conversation with God, which is the true heart of prayer.  How can we do anything if God is not there to help us?  How can we succeed without God?  We must pray, and in fact we must pray every day for God’s help and for His grace in order to accomplish what He wills for us.  It is primarily through prayer that we will succeed.  Without drawing nearer to God, most especially in the most central prayer that we have - the Holy Mass, without that we cannot gain our reward.
Yet prayer is useless if it is not tied to action, to works.  Just as Christ was obedient in every moment of His earthly life, striving to accomplish the will of the Father, so must each moment of our life be more united to the same divine will.  We cannot be saints on Sunday alone, piously praying and participating, and doing nothing else the rest of the week.  We cannot do that in any other facet of our lives, so why would it be the same as far as our religious life?  If we only cooked for one day, we would starve.  If we only showered for one day, we would be filthy and smelly.  If we only slept for one day, we would make ourselves crazy.  And it is the same in our relationship with God.
Flowing from our prayer must be an ever-increasing desire to obey what God has laid down for us.  This will certainly be different for each of us, since we each have a unique vocation from God, but there are certainly a few general principles to live by.  First, avoid sin.  How can we do that?  By knowing what is sinful, and working to remove the occasions of sins and temptation from our lives.  Second, do good.  We do this in the same way as avoiding sin, by learning what is good and increasing it in our lives.  Third, trust in God.  Without hope in God’s grace and God’s mercy to help us be intentional disciples, we cannot succeed.  He is there for us, just as Christ is near to all who call upon Him.  When in doubt, pray and ask for help, for guidance, for relief.  Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.
Fourth and finally, trust the Church.  Christ has not left us by ourselves to discern all this, but has given us an authority that we can trust to guide us in these matters.  This is probably the hardest for us, because we would rather trust ourselves rather than another.  But Christ did not trust Himself; He did everything in union with the will of His Father, and we must act in a similar way.  Listen to your pastor, your bishop, the Pope: these are the voices by which God speaks to us still.  Consult your pastor for guidance or need.  Read a catechism and learn what the Church proclaims.  Seek the aid of the Church where you can find it.
This is the heart of intentional discipleship - to become what we were meant to be from the beginning: the children of God, the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, the brethren of Christ the Lord.  Let us not lose sight of this goal, but let us fly towards it.  Let us begin to be like the reformed son and do our yes even if we have said No before.  Let us live not for this world, but for everlasting life.  Let us not be held back, but instead race ahead so as to win.  Let us reach and grasp for the prize, so that we will not be sorrowful for having lost it.  And let us help one another to do the same and be the same, becoming the disciples we should be, so that we will become the saints that God wants us to be.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Intentional Discipleship I - Sep. 20-21

This homily was given as the first of two homilies for St. Francis de Sales Church in Benedict, MD.  The pastor has asked me to give these homilies concerning intentional discipleship.

I have been asked to preach and discuss about intentional discipleship while your pastor is away.  That’s not what I am going to do directly.  I want all of you for this weekend to focus on one question, on this one question: Why am I here?  I do not mean the great philosophical question about our existence and all that.  I am asking each of you to consider why you are here, why you are present in this church at this hour.  What leads to your decision to come here to worship?  Could you not be spending that time in a more useful pursuit rather than sitting here listening to me speak?
I’m sure quite a few of you have thought that at some point in your life, questioning why you need to grace the church with your presence.  Perhaps you have seen the results of that inquiry in your family and friends who are not now present here.  Perhaps you’ve come close to doing the same.  Yet something keeps you coming back, something poking at your heart or some small voice perhaps echoing inside telling you that you need to go, you need to be there.  And so you continue to come, you continue to be present, yet you probably feel ...
Is this how we are supposed to be in church?  Is this what this hour or our life is meant to be like?  Or is there meant to be more?  Are we called to be spectators, observing what is happening and not doing much more; or perhaps are we called to something more?  The prophet Isaiah declares “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call him while he is near” (55:6), and in this message we can see our response.  Our lives are meant to be a pursuit after something: even better, our lives are meant to be a pursuit of some-ONE, an important distinction.  We are made for the Lord.
This is why we are meant to be here in this building.  This is why we are called to gather together, to gather as one.  We are meant to be discovering who this Lord is, and what it is that He desires from us.  We have been made for God, as Saint Augustine famously said in his autobiography, and our hearts are restless until we rest in Him.  Admit it: how little does this world satisfy?  And I mean truly, deeply, completely, without any emptiness, satisfy you?  It cannot!  It is incapable of doing so!  Everything that exists around us is not meant to be the be-all and end-all of our lives.  If you were to sit down and consider everything you hold as satisfying and truly consider the meaning of satisfaction, you would see that there is nothing that this world can offer which can satisfy that definition.
Things in general, and specifically money, cannot do it: we are always desirous of more, even when we have enough.  Honor or prestige are fleeting and can change from minute to minute: how respected was Ray Rice before the video emerged, or any major figure, be it sports or politics or entertainment.  And speaking of all those things, none of them can truly satisfy:  every sports game ends, leaving us desiring more action; every political fight either breaks us or makes us addicts, movies and television all have an end, a point when the credits roll and no more is to be seen.  None of these things can satisfy us, none of these things is enough.  Then where are we to quench this thirst, this desire for something in which our hearts can rest?
Our hearts are meant to rest in a person, in the greatest Person to ever live: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the God-man.  This is the heart of the Christian religion, of the Catholic experience as passed down to us from Christ Himself: to approach this man who is more than He seems; whose wisdom is far beyond anything we have heard; who has power over everything, even death.  Our cry should be the cry of the people as recalled in the Gospel of Luke when they behold Jesus raise a young man from the dead:  “God has visited His people!” (7:16)  Indeed, God has visited His people, and continues to visit them every time the Holy Mass is celebrated.
Our hearts will continue to be restless until we meet Christ, until we encounter Him and engage in the relationship He has desired to have with each one of us from all eternity.  This is the fundamental message of the Church:  “Come and see!” (John 1:39)  Come and see the one who proclaims the Kingdom of God, that reign in which there is no pain, no sorrow, no loss, but there is found peace.  Come and see the one who brings about that kingdom by acting in obedience to His heavenly Father, even unto the death of the Cross (cf. Phil 2:5-8), that death which heals the world of sin.  Come and see the one who is truly King, victorious over sin and death by rising from the dead.  Come and see the King who is still with us, who is still present to us, and who desires to be with you.
But this cannot be done without our action.  Christ beckons to each and every one of us, calling to us, drawing near to us, wishing to fill us with His life-giving Spirit.  Yet we can turn Him away, either through indifference or through distraction.  We can ignore Him and remain as we are now,  but it will come at a cost.  In the parable of the workers found in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says that the landowner came to gather men to work at various hours of the day, even at the last hour before dusk.  The landowner, upon the completion of the work, gives each worker the same reward.  Yet what about those who did not answer the call of the landowner?  What happened to them?  They were not rewarded, but were left out, without any reward, without any consolation.
This parable strikes at the heart of what I have been trying to tell you.  No matter your age, no matter how little you may know Christ, no matter how little you may relate to Him, it is not too late.  Jesus beckons to you to come to find the work that is the heart of our relationship with Him.  I do not shy away from saying that it will be work: consult the lives of the saints to see how hard it was for each of them to work so as to come to know Jesus better, love Him completely, and serve Him in everything.  God does not want to lose you, but you have only this life in which to find Him.  After this life, we will either enter into the joys of our reward, even the little that we have done, or we will sink into the oblivion of hatred and despair which plague those souls who chose on their own to abandon God, to ignore Christ, to despise the Holy Spirit.  What we do in this life indeed echoes for eternity, and it is completely in our control.
Our religion is not for bystanders or spectators or loungers; our religion, our faith is for soldiers who hear and answer the call, for pilgrims who rise up and wander towards that which should be truly sought, for lovers who discover one in whom their love can find rest.  Do not be settled in your faith, because faith does not beget complicity.  Saint Paul told the Galatians that “whilst we have time, let us work good to all men” (6:10), and he told the Philippians to “conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27).  Let us hear and respond, let us seek for the rest which our hearts have been yearning for, let us find the one who loves us and desires us to love Him before it is too late.  Indeed, let us discover the meaning of our faith, the purpose of our worship, and the goal of our religion: to know Christ Jesus and to know God and to live our lives conformed to what they desire for each of us.  Let us not wait for heaven, but let us reach for heaven, for only by reaching will we be able to grasp.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Charity - 12th Sunday post Pentecost (EF)

This homily was given at Old St. John Church in Silver Spring, MD.


The Good Samaritan


Charity is one of the many virtues that our Lord preached upon in His life, and the Gospel for our Mass today is, as it were, the pinnacle of that preaching.  For in expounding the parable of the Good Samaritan to the lawyer, Christ present not only the ultimate definition of human charity, but also gives witness to the divine charity which stands as the model for human charity.  Indeed, this parable is a summary of the history of salvation and the triumph of Christ in restoring man to God.  Let us then go out to the deep and plumb the depths of these sacred words.
The parable opens with a certain man descending from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The man is seen to represent all of humanity in the parable.  Jerusalem, whose name signifies the city of peace, represents the tranquility of Eden at the beginning of creation.  The real-life description of the descent from lofty Jerusalem to lowly Jericho represents the descent of man from the garden into the world.  But this downfall was not done by man alone, for on the road the man encounters robbers.  Who else can these robbers be but the devil and his demons who strove and continue to strive against God in deforming man?  The demon robbers stripe man of his original glory and wound him with the wound of concupiscence and leave man half-dead, forced to deal with the reality of death and sin.
Along comes the priest, who stands for the Law imposed upon Israel on Mount Sinai.  What does the Law do for man?  In the end nothing, for the Law is not meant to be the summation of life.  Saint Paul points this out to us in the epistle of our Mass when he says that he has been made the minister of the new testament, the testament written not in letters as was the Law, but infused by the spirit of grace of God.  The Apostle shows us that the letter of the Law kills, or more appropriately, does not bring life, while the spirit of grace brings life to man.  But Christ desires especially to demonstrate to the lawyer to whom He declares this parable how the Law alone is not capable of bringing life to man.  And so the priest passes along.
Along then comes the Levite, representing the prophets who came after the imposition of the Law.  These are the ones who pointed out the sins of Israel and her people, calling them back to God through right living and right worship.  Yet again, though, the prophets are not the be-all and end-all.  The beginning of our Gospel today highlights this when Christ tells His disciples that the prophets themselves desired to see the day of Christ but did not see it in their own time.  All of the prophets point towards the coming of the one who will truly bring the promise of God to fulfillment.  And so the Levite passes along.
The last one to come to the wounded and half-dead man is the Samaritan.  We must first recognize the significance of this title to the Jews of the time of Christ.  A Samaritan was one who followed only the teachings of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.  They were seen as impostors in the eyes of the Jews, as those not open to the fullness of truth, as perhaps Catholics have labelled Protestants in years past.  So we must realize the jarring reality of hearing good things said about a Samaritan before first century Jews, and how this would have really opened the eyes of the people to what our Lord desired to tell them.
It is quite obvious by now that the Good Samaritan represents Christ our Lord and His work whilst dwelling here on earth.  Hear what the Samaritan does: He comes near to the wounded man, just as Christ comes near to us by becoming incarnate.  He has compassion on the half-dead man, just as God has compassion on his half-dead people.  He covers the wounds so that they may heal, just as Christ is covered in the punishment due to humanity so that we may be healed.  He pours upon the wounds sweet-smelling oil and reviving wine to aid in healing, just as Christ gives us the oil of absolution and vivification through Holy Communion.
Having done what he can to help the wounded man, the Samaritan places him on his beast and brings him to the inn.  Likewise, Christ picks up humanity, wounded in sin, makes us members of His Body so as to carry us, and brings us into the comfort of Holy Mother Church, where humanity can find its rest and relief from the burden of sin and error.  The Samaritan entrusts the wounded to the innkeeper, giving him pay and promising more to come when he returns.  Christ entrusts souls to His Apostles and their successors and coworkers along with promising them that, when He returns in glory, He shall repay them whatever they have given of themselves.
How magnificent is the charity of God!  How wondrous is this great work done by God in preparing the way to reconcile the world to Himself!  Indeed, how great should be our thanksgiving to God for this tremendous gift which He has given freely of Himself.  All of this God has done to restore us to that glory which we first possessed at our creation and to prepare ourselves for that final and overawing glory which awaits the faithful at the end of the age.  This is what Saint Paul marvels at with the conclusion of today’s Epistle.  If even the old Law could bring glory, though it did not bring life, how much more will the new and eternal spirit of grace bring glory to man?
Yet we cannot merely marvel at the works of God, we cannot just appreciate what has been done for us.  We must follow in that example in our own lives.  Why did Christ give us this parable?  Because the lawyer had asked a question: Master, what must I do to possess eternal life?  The lawyer was confident that merely being a right-minded Jew was enough.  But the heavenly Master seeks to open his heart and ours by showing the summation of the Law and how it will be perfected in Christ.  It is the same with us.  We cannot presume to enter into Heaven because we are Catholics, or even faithful Catholics: we must imitate the divine charity in our lives.
Our lives must exhibit the two great commandments and draw others to desire to know the great Lawgiver and Redeemer who has inspired us to live in such a way.  Certainly, we must love God completely because it is right and just to do so.  We must seek to honor Him through prayer and worship, we must seek to draw nearer to Him, to plunge into the depths of divine intimacy as have done all the saints before us.  But we must also recognize and serve our neighbors as ourselves: as fellow human beings who share the same wounds and need to be healed of those wounds through the mercy and grace of God as found in His Church.

Let us then turn in confidence to God in all our needs so that we may receive His gifts and return them to Him in turn.  Let us cry out the words of our Introit: God come to my assistance! Lord, make haste to help me! Let us trust that our Good Samaritan is near to us, carrying us with Him through thick and thin, through all dangers and perils, in the safety of His Church.  Let us seek to live our lives driven by these two great commandments of total love of God and of neighbor so as to spread the kingdom of Heaven among us.  And let us seek from God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary the gifts and graces to respond to our own call to imitate the Good Samaritan in bringing healing to this broken world, and the promise of future glory in the never-ending world to come.