Sunday, November 27, 2016

First Sunday of Advent (OF): Preparedness

We begin a new liturgical year today with this Mass of the First Sunday of Advent. We open this year of grace as we open every new year: excited about the possibilities and hopeful for a new start. Yet the start of the church’s year does not hearken to past; it hearkens to the future. The poet T. S. Eliot once quipped that “in my beginning is my end,” and indeed the end must always be in sight for anything started in this world, especially we poor mortals. As we previewed last week in the feast of Christ the King, everything in this world has an expiration date, including the universe itself. Nothing in this world of decay lasts forever, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise.
We usually think of Advent as a consideration for the coming of Jesus Christ in history, commemorating the great expectation of the nations that the Savior would come and set them free. Yet Advent does not merely concern this past coming: it offers for our meditation and prayer the two other ways that Christ comes into this world and invades our lives. Today’s readings show us the first of these comings, or should we say the second coming. Each of these readings flows with anticipation for the final return of Jesus Christ in glory and majesty on that last and terrifying day, when all shall be put to right and the world shall be made anew in His glory.
Isaiah looks with joy at the results of that last judgment, when all shall joyfully ascend the mountain of the Lord to the house where they shall dwell in peace and security for all eternity. It is the same joyful hope found in the psalm, where Jerusalem is the symbol for that eternal city that shall never be lost or overtaken. It is the hope that remained in the hearts of the faithful Jews in the long centuries before the coming of Jesus, and it is the same hope that must remain in our hearts as we endure our own long centuries until Jesus comes once more, not to a humble stable in the farthest corner of the world, but in the full splendor of His kingship to rule for the ages.
Our other readings remind us of the consequences of this hope. Both of them urge us to stay awake and be watchful, since we know neither the hour nor the day when this hope shall be answered. Both warn us against the sins that emerge from losing that hope: the sins of the flesh, for when we lose hope in eternal life, we seek to make a heaven out of earth instead of waiting for God to do that in His own time. Our Lord in fact offers an appropriate image of expectation: be on your guard, as if a thief were coming to rob your house.
This image of being on guard for a thief provides another reason for our new position at Mass. I stated a few weeks ago that we would return to the traditional position of praying together - priest and people - turned towards the Lord. Advent is a most appropriate time for restarting this liturgical orientation because of what Jesus tells us in this Gospel: be on your guard, be ready. We Christians are called to be on the watch for the Lord to come, like guards in the tower waiting for the king to return so that the castle door may be opened for him. Yet we cannot do this if we are turned inward rather than outward. The thief does not come from within the house but outside; the king will not return from inside the castle but from outside. So too will Christ come not from within us, but He ultimately returns from a place outside of the universe, breaching the gap when His hour has come.
It is certainly true that God is with us. We who have been confirmed are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We who receive the Eucharist can really lay claim to Jesus dwelling within us. Yet the immanent God, the God within, is also the transcendent God, the God beyond the cosmos. In fact, while we talk about God being with us, even perhaps dwelling within us, God is also dwelling outside of any aspect of the cosmos. We are not pantheists who believe that the universe is a God or that God is bound to the material world. God in Himself is transcendent, unencompassed by anything, even Heaven. It is by His will that He becomes immanent, that He pours Himself out for us, sharing Himself as only He can do.
If God is transcendent, if He dwells in highest heaven, then our worship should reflect this understanding just as it reflects the truth that God is with us. This is why Catholics for millennia have adopted this position of a common outer direction for prayer, not facing a wall nor the priest ignoring the people but looking outward for the transcendent God to come once again and be with us. I said earlier that Advent reflects two different comings of the Lord: the first I mentioned was His final coming in majesty, but the second is the coming of the Lord daily upon the altar. We are reminded in this season that Jesus not only came to the stable in Bethlehem and will come on the last day, but that He frequently comes to us, humbling Himself to come from the highest heaven and be encompassed in bread and wine. The transcendent made immanent, heaven revealed on earth, the Savior who has come and will come now come once more to be our food for the journey.
If we are going to be faithful to Christ, we must be on the watch. Saint Peter warns us in one of his letters to be watchful for the devil, who prowls like a roaring lion seeking to devour anything. But Jesus tells us to be watchful for Him to come, to be ready for that hour, whether it is the hour of our death or the hour of the last death, the death of this universe. To be watchful means to be ready for whatever may come or for whatever is expected. If we are not watchful, then we forget that we are not citizens of this passing world. We become like those who ignored Noah as he prepared the ark: eating, drinking, feasting with abandon, disregarding hope in Christ. And like those fools in the days of Noah, we too will be swept away when that last day comes and we have not been watchful, for we will receive not the reward of alertness but punishment for our disregard, for our hopelessness, for our abandonment of the coming Lord.
Let us not be caught offguard by the coming of the Lord, but let us be watchful for that hour. Let us prepare our lives for Him by living as He commanded us, following Him as our King and Lord. Let us turn and watch for Him to come now on the altar and soon on the last day. Let us use this season of Advent to make ready to celebrate that first coming in Bethlehem which we will commemorate on Christmas Day, that we may rejoice in His first coming to set us free from sin and death and to make ready His final coming. “Let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as Saint Paul tells us, “and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh,” but let us prepare ourselves for the endless delights that await the watchful in eternal life.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day (OF)

While our republic prides itself on the separation of church and state, it is curious that this holiday remains in the federal calendar. With American society growing less religious, it is a marvel that this day is still celebrated by our government. Since George Washington’s 1789 proclamation that there should be a day so that this nation could “acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor”, to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation asking for this last Thursday be set aside so that Americans would rememberthe gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy”, this day has been marked not with the usual civil ambivalence about religion but is filled with reminders that there is indeed a higher power than the government or the people, a power to which is due thanks and praise.
Indeed, the act of thanksgiving presupposes that there is someone to thank. We don’t normally thank ourselves for something, we thank others. But whom do we thank for everything? Whom do we thank for the universe, for our very lives, let alone the wondrous bounties that we have received, the numerous opportunities we have, or the freedoms and rights that we possess? While it may be a very weak proof, I believe that this need to give thanks offers us a proof that there must be some being whom we can give the ultimate thanks, the being where the thanks stops here. Who, of course, is God.
While our nation gives today as a day for thanksgiving to the Almighty, we Catholics are able to do more than that. In fact, we are called to give thanks always, as Saint Paul tells us (1 Thes 5:17). A specific day for thanksgiving is not really enough for us. How can it be? When God has not only fashioned the universe, but also been the means of our redemption through His son, can one day truly be enough? When Jesus Christ gave His entire being to be poured out on the Cross, can there really be too much thanksgiving? But how can we do this? How can we offer to God the thanksgiving due Him? We can do it through the Eucharist.
As the ancient Greeks began to convert to the Catholic faith, they tried to understand what they received at Mass. What is this bread that becomes flesh? How can we describe it? The Greeks chose the word eucharistia, which means thanksgiving. But why would they choose that word? Because in the Eucharist is summed up everything for which we are thankful. Everything we need, everything we want, everything we should desire, can all be summed up in that little piece of bread transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
Every time we are at Mass, every time we receive the Eucharist, we are meant to be thankful for all that God has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. Every time we approach the altar, we lift our voices in praise and thanks for the tremendous good God has done for us, in our creation, in our redemption, in our salvation. Every time we turn to Him to re-offer that sacrifice by which Heaven is opened and we are set free, the best thing we can do is give Him thanks, to do as the psalm tells us: “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”
Let us indeed give thanks today, first by partaking of the heavenly feast in the Eucharist, then in our humble family feasts later today. Let us give thanks for everything as has been our national tradition on this day. But let us turn to the Lord more readily each time we approach the Mass to give Him thanks for all His gifts and His mercy. Let our lives reflect this thanks by living as He commanded, thankful that He has shown us the way to salvation. Even after we have sinned, let us thank God for His mercy by which we are reconciled to Him and restored to the way of salvation. Let us truly be a thankful people by being a Eucharistic people, a people filled with thanks now and in the life to come.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King (OF)

In challenging times, the Church offers a message of comfort to her members. When the world is poised against her, when all are vying to tear her apart from the outside, the Church offers those who remain with her the message of the Gospel today: You shall be with the Lord in paradise. Persevere and win the crown of victory. But in comfortable times, the Church is called to do the opposite: she is called to be a challenge not only to her members, but to the entire world.
The Church must balance the message of the Gospel with the times, for the situation requires the message that the situation requires, not necessarily the message that is desired. How comfortable indeed our times have become! Adults needing safe spaces to shield them from reality and safety pins being worn like badges of honor. Technology overwhelming our personal spaces to the point of making it quite impossible to engage in silence and meditation. Protests and riots over the past few weeks because their candidate was not elected, protests that would be called anti-democratic in other countries. How comfortable we have become indeed.
But our feast today offers us a challenge, a challenge perhaps particular to we who live in these United States, but a challenge all the same. For in celebrating this feast, we are reminded who is ultimately in charge, who is the real ruler, who has the message of truth: Jesus Christ the King of the universe. Truth, we ought to remember, is not wrong because the majority disbelieve it, nor is it right because the majority believe it: it is true because it stems from reality. In our times of excessive comfort even within the Church, the truth becomes a slap in the face that ought to awaken us to the cold hard facts of life.
The truth that we are given in today’s feast is this: Jesus Christ is not only the focus of our religion, but He is the point of unity between God and man, the one by whom we are restored to the Father. Saint Paul outlines this splendidly in our second reading, when he points out how this Jesus of Nazareth is far more than a man: He is the image of the invisible God and also the same God by whom all things were created. This Jesus of Nazareth has become king by birthright, being both God and man, and by the election of the Church, in which He is the head.
So far, that sounds pretty good. Even though we Americans prefer democracy, who doesn’t love a king? But the challenge of this truth is in this kingship of Christ. Kings do not have to pander to us to gain our vote. A king traditionally had two duties intertwined in his office: the duty to God and the duty to his people. The king was mindful that he had received his position by the grace of God and by the assent of the people, and the king must serve both. He must obey the law of God and enact laws for the well-being of men, irrespective of their desires. It is the same for Christ our King.
The challenge presented by this feast day is the challenge of understanding our place in the great hierarchy. We are all under the dominion of Christ our King, whether we accept it or not. The challenge that we face as Catholics is whether we will give assent to His kingship or not. Just as David was made king of Israel by the will of God and the request of the people, as our first reading shows, so too is Christ made the King of the universe by the will of the Father and the assent of the Church. By that assent, each Christian acknowledges that Jesus has full authority over us and that we will obey out of thanks for His redemption and to gain Him not merely as our King, but as our brother.
Jesus Christ is the King of the universe, having dominion and authority over every facet of the cosmos, yet His kingdom must begin within our lives if it will truly extend to all things which He created. The challenge of this feast is to submit ourselves to our King not as slaves, but as those who have been freed of sin by the blood of His cross, through that reconciliation He has made on the glorious altar at Calvary. Though He reigns over everything, Jesus will not force us to be the free citizens of His kingdom; only those who accept Him as Lord and King will begin to receive the inheritance of the holy ones in light.
But how do we accept this challenge and become the true members of the kingdom of Christ? We do this by making Christ the complete center of our lives, by orienting our hearts and minds more to the one who has full rights to them more so than even we ourselves possess. We abandon sin which makes us the slaves of Satan, and we turn to the sacred liturgy, the sacraments, and the devout life so as to be transformed into the citizens of the heavenly and eternal kingdom. We plead with Jesus as did the good thief at Calvary when he said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Last week, I announced my intention to begin celebrating the Mass with all of us turned together towards the Lord, praying in a common direction. I gave the first reason for this restoration as a means of orienting us towards the eternal realities. Today’s feast provides us with another reason to return to this quite traditional position. If Jesus Christ is King, if He is meant to be the center of our lives, this truth must be lived out not merely in a philosophical or internal way. We humans need the physical as well as the mental: we use signs and symbols to reflect the truths and beliefs we hold. If Jesus Christ is King, then the sacred liturgy should reflect this reality in the fullest sense.
We are not meant to gather together to worship the priest, to gaze at his actions and marvel at him. The holiest priests are those who make themselves almost invisible before Christ, who is the High Priest truly offering the Mass through the priest. The priest is meant to represent Christ the Head of the body, the Head that looks to the Father in a gaze of adoration and love, to that same Father who gave us His Son so that we may indeed be worthy of His inheritance. Our orientation is heavenly because Christ gazes that way, returning everything to the Father, including us.
Let us acclaim Jesus Christ as our king not merely in word but in action. Let us turn to the King and honor Him as is fitting for the one who endured so much for us. Let us break free of the comforts of this world and accept the challenge of the Gospel so as to gain the inheritance won for us. Let us indeed rejoice in this house of the Lord by making the Lord the focus of our liturgy, of our prayers, and of our lives. Let us seek to reflect more clearly within us He who is the image of the invisible God, He who offers us His kingdom that shall not end.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Orientation - 33rd Sunday per annum (OF)

Brethren, we have made it through another presidential election. Our nation prepares for a new president and a new Congress to take office in a few months, whether we agree with them or not. Our first task, as Catholic citizens, is to pray for a good transition and for open minds and hearts among the new administration, so that our Church may flourish and God’s will may be done. We cannot give in to complacency and despair nor should we gloat. There is still a lot of work to be done to proclaim the joyful truth of the Gospel, and the election results must not intrude too greatly upon that work. But there is a second task that we must take up after such a bitter, divisive, emotionally-riddled election; a task which is not necessary merely because of this election, but which is necessary at all times because of our primary calling as Christians, as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our readings today carry within them a very apocalyptic tone, far more so than any of the most dire predictions being put forward by the media types right now. These readings do not speak of arrests or policy reversals or hatred; they speak of destruction, death, and judgment. They remind us that this world will not endure forever, but that it indeed carries an expiration date. These readings remind us that we need to be oriented towards the true goal of every Christian: not political victory but eternal life. We must be focused upon the end of days.
Orientation carries with it an interesting meaning. Its root word in Latin means the East, which was the easiest direction for ancient people to know due to the rising sun. Whenever we speak of orientation, we usually mean the general direction in which something is travelling or pointing. If we are lost, we speak of reorienting ourselves so as to regain our true direction. Perhaps reorientation is appropriate to how we should be reflecting on these post-election days.
Brothers and sisters, we need to reorient our lives totally and completely to the Lord. We Americans love to play politics and elevate it to a quasi-religion, yet it causes us to lose our true center in God, in Jesus Christ. I do not discourage your political participation, for we are called to live our faith in church and in the public square, but we must keep Christ at the center of our lives, not politics or sports or anything else in this fleeting world. Just as Saint Paul discourages those Thessalonians from being overly concerned with the business of others, so too should we be discouraged from too great a concern on the temporal, the fleeting, the earthly. We must turn to the Lord, the Lord who will be coming very soon.
But how can we regain this spiritual orientation? How can we begin to turn to the Lord? We can begin to do this through returning to a practice that has accommodated the Church in her worship and her prayer from the very beginning. We can begin to reorient ourselves by making Christ the center of our worship. How can this be done? I propose to do this not merely in an interior sense, but in an exterior sense. My proposal is this: beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, we shall celebrate the liturgy here united together and physically turned towards the Lord.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have been united together in praying the Mass in a single direction. In fact, the direction usually taken in prayer was to the East, toward the symbol of the rising sun, reminding us of the sun of justice which we heard Malachi foretell in the first reading. The rising sun reminds us of the Lord who has risen from death and will return in the same way as He departed, east of Jerusalem. This idea of unity in posture among the sacred minister and the congregation is not restricted to the Christian religion alone: Muslims will turn to face Mecca while many pious Jews seek during prayer to orient their hearts if not their bodies towards Jerusalem and the east.
I wish us to undertake this united position of worship for a few reasons, the first of which I offer today. We Christians have become increasingly oriented towards the now, something which I believe this election highlights in an extreme way. We too often focus on the here and now, on what we can do here instead of remembering that we are called to be pilgrims on the journey to the eternal Promised Land. We often are like the ancient Israelites wandering through the desert who desire the comforts of Egypt rather than the far more glorious splendors that await the end of the journey. We have lost our true orientation.
But Jesus reminds us of this in our Gospel today when He first foretells the destruction of the physical Temple in Jerusalem, then the great calamities that shall occur at the end of days. The Lord desires to orient us not towards the current reality, which can change in a minute, but towards the eternal realities that shall endure forever. This month is normally dedicated towards a consideration of the last things as they are called: death, judgment, heaven and hell. But we Christians should have these things foremost in our minds: to be prepared for death, to fear being judged against Christ, to hope for heaven and to pray and work to avoid hell.
Our worship should reflect this eternal orientation by having us turn towards the Lord of history, by being watchful for the One who promises that He shall return from the same direction as when He first arrived in this world. Our worship should reinforce the true Christian orientation not towards the petty squabbles of politicians but to the Lord of all time and space, the Lord who shall endure forever, unlike all the nations of the earth. Our worship should have us truly living in the blessed hope of the coming of our Savior, when He shall return to judge the living and the dead and grant to all the faithful eternal life.
I ask for your patience as we begin this change, but I also ask for openness. We should not be afraid of our traditions, even those that we have forgotten, but we should seek the best from the old along with the new. Let us pray that we may be oriented towards Christ more and more each day, not only here in church but in the sum of our lives. Let our hearts become oriented to the true Savior of the nations, the only one who rules the earth with full justice, as we shall celebrate next week. Let us be the pilgrim people of God, journeying not for the fleeting pleasures of this world, but marching eastward, marching towards the Lord, towards the full glory and splendor that awaits the faithful in eternal life.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All Saints (OF)

As the leaves begin to change color and die off, as the birds begin to fly south, as the temperatures begin to drop, holy Mother Church begins to turn our mind towards our own end. These last few weeks of the liturgical year remind us that this life indeed has an end; in fact, this whole world has an end. Nothing is truly permanent in this life, but all is fleeting and empty of ultimate value in the face of the finish line. As much as our modern society tries to cheat it, death still comes for every one of us.
For the Christian, however, death does not indicate the final point of personal existence nor does it signify the futility of our labors, our joys, our sorrows, our lives. Death is our reminder that we shall each go before the Judge of heaven and earth when we have passed from this mortal coil and receive the eternal recompense for our earthly conduct. One of the visions of Saint John which he recorded in his Book of Revelation is Jesus standing as the Just Judge over all on the last day, the dies irae as the traditional funeral sequence reminds us. But before that day of wrath comes, Saint John has another vision, which we hear in today’s readings: the 144 thousand and the great multitude before the throne and the Lamb.
It is this group which has already assembled in part whom we celebrate today, for the feast of All Saints is the celebration of all the souls who have begun to receive the eternal reward of union with God in Heaven. Blessed John Henry Newman tells us that “This great multitude, which no man could number, is gathered into this one day's commemoration, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the Children of the Holy Church Universal, who have rested from their labours.” Every soul in heaven, from the Blessed Virgin Mary all the way to the soul who squeaked out enough contrition for their sins, every soul that dwells in that eternal light is celebrated this day. Why is it that we celebrate these souls today? We celebrate them for the victory they have achieved, for the aid they provide, and for the reminder they offer.
We first celebrate them for their victory. Each of these souls has gained heaven first by the infinite grace of God, given to them through the sacraments and through their daily struggles. Many of them have gained this prize through the shedding of blood; others through the great evangelical labors and counsels such as poverty, chastity, and obedience; others through the quiet small faithfulness of ordinary life. But all of them, whether martyrs, confessors, virgins, or otherwise, have worked for their eternal rest, but they are restless when it comes to we who remain, who still have our own journey.
The saints are not so arrogant that, once they leave this world, they abandon us and focus solely on God. On the contrary, their love of God increases exponentially each day so that they love us even more than we love one another. If they are truly united to God, who desires our individual salvation, why would they not desire it for us as well? Thus do the saints seek to intercede for us before the heavenly altar, passing along our petitions and prayers to the wondrous Giver of every good and perfect gift which we need and should desire. Just as family sticks together and helps one another, so too does our family in Heaven, our brothers and sisters united together in Christ, aid us in all that we need.
But why do we need aid? Why do we call it victory? We need aid, and we hail it as victory because our earthly life is a contest between sin and salvation. Heaven is not free nor is it cheap; God has indeed opened the gates thanks to the merits of Christ our Redeemer, but He can still close those gates upon us. The saints stand as a reminder first that this victory is possible; that we can indeed gain Heaven by the grace of God and the merits of our labors. Yet they also remind us that, no matter what we are called to do in this life, we must struggle and we must fight in order to gain that prize of faith. It is not easy, but salvation is not so impossible that even we who live in the world can achieve it.
There are so many varieties of saints to discover, to learn from, and to emulate in our own way. The martyrs: the first witnesses of Christian holiness, who strove valiantly against the enemies of our faith. The confessors: those who went before the world and proclaimed the Gospel by their words and their actions so as to draw others to Christ. The virgins: the brides of Christ who unite themselves to their heavenly Spouse in hope of a more fruitful maternity than we could imagine. The married: seeking holiness through the union of man and woman, a holiness which is meant to bear fruit. The old: those who have struggled and fought for many years to achieve victory. The young: those whom God calls to Himself to receive that victory in Himself.
The Church has surrounded herself with the saints from the very beginning. The Roman Canon, the oldest of the eucharistic prayers in our missal, is lined with the great saints of Rome and the Empire, the apostles, martyrs, and virgin martyrs who overcame strife and discord in order to be crowned with Christ in victory. But the list of saints continues to grow each day, both those publicly proclaimed to be saints by the Church and the hidden list, the list known only to God until the last day, when all shall be revealed and all shall be rewarded as is right and just.
Let us rejoice that God has already blessed the saints with the reward of Himself. Let us pray to all the saints that they may intercede for us before the throne of the Lamb by whose blood we are redeemed. But let us also begin to live so as to become saints ourselves. God demands no less than that. Let us live the Beatitudes of our Gospel, so as to emulate our Lord, the model and source of all holiness. Let us not despair that it is hard, but let us strive to achieve that reward for ourselves so that we may be worthy of the prize of eternal life.