Sunday, February 26, 2017

8th Sunday per annum

Who did we trust as children? Where did we look when we were in need? We trusted and looked to our parents, our family. Everything we needed we received from them. If we were hungry, they fed us. If we were cold, they clothed us. They helped provide our education so that we could become capable adults who could do the same when we had our families. But what would happen if we got too big for our britches? What if we forgot our parents when we moved out and never spoke to them again? We would appear ungrateful for all that they had done for us, and would be seen as disrespectful towards our parents, and rightly so.
But how do we appear in the eyes of the world when we forget God? Some might be indifferent, but many would say that we are freeing ourselves from the crutch of religion. They will praise us for casting off this oppressive yoke so that we can be free to do whatever we want. Yet the religion that these ne’er-do-wells despise is not the religion that we practice. They hold freedom to be their salvation and religion as the oppressor, whereas it is almost the opposite. Everything that God demands of us leads towards our true freedom, because God is our Father.
The modern Western world grows darker each day because we have forgotten the God who has given us absolutely everything. Our very existence is due to Him, not to mention the created universe, the planet upon which we live, the air and water and earth which are so vital to our continued existence, and all the plants, animals, and materials that we use not only to survive but to thrive in this world. And we have collectively forgotten that fact. Why? Because our hearts cannot have two masters, as Jesus points out in our Gospel today.
Our era is the most prosperous era ever seen on the face of the earth. Our nation is one of the wealthiest in the world. Even our poor, in general, are far better off than the poor around the world. Yet what are some of the results of this wealth? Increased divorce rates, increased suicide rates especially among teens, decreased birth rates, tremendous disparity between the rich and the poor, a nation increasingly split between two political parties touting two different worldviews. And why do we see all of this? Because we make mammon our master, because we do not seek first the kingdom of God.
This is the classic wheel of fortune, something which is not unique to America alone, but is the fate of all great nations. It is exemplified for us most clearly in the history of ancient Israel. God established the Israelites by His power to be an independent nation. They started out small and weak, almost helpless on their own to occupy a town, let alone form a nation that could stand up to their neighbors. But God was with them, giving them strength and power to overcome anyone and be His people, so long as they were faithful to His promise. Israel would grow and become a great nation, powerful and equal to those around her. But Israel would soon forget her God, would forget the One who had brought her that strength and power, and would abandon God to glory in her power and wealth or even to worship the false gods, the idols of her neighbors.
In due time, God let Israel act as if she had abandoned God. An enemy would come and threaten them, Israel would march out arrogantly to battle, and would suffer many losses as a result of her abandonment of God. Israel might even be conquered for a time, such that she lost all her wealth and power and was reduced almost to nothing. Only then, when a faithful remnant remained, would God call them back to Himself, to worship Him as the one true God, the God of promise, and He would restore them. And so the cycle began all over again, from the ascent of Israel by the hand of God to the fall of Israel through her arrogance and forgetfulness of God. So too it shall be with every nation on this earth, and with the Church. If we do not trust Him, if we do not hold Him to be the source of all holiness and goodness, God will let us fall to our sins, to our wickedness, until we trust in Him once more.
Brethren, our ancestors came to this land not only filled with the promise of what this nation could offer, but with confidence that God would help them at every point. They not only worked hard at their trades, whether in the fields or in the factories, whether labor or capital, but they also prayed hard, they trusted greatly, they never forgot God because He promised He would never forget them. Yet how little faith do we find on the earth today! What would our grandfathers and great-grandfathers think of our age, when so many place their trust and confidence not in the omnipotent, eternal God, the God of our salvation, but in wealth or power or technology? Why would God want to help us when we continue to believe that we can do it all on our own, like a 5-year-old trying to dress themselves or a 12-year-old thinking that he can run away and be better off without his supposedly oppressive parents?
As we begin Lent this week, it is most appropriate that we hear Jesus exhort us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The Church gives us this season of penance and reflection to ask ourselves whether we are truly seeking the kingdom of God, whether we are striving to live out this righteousness through everything that Jesus has been teaching us in the Sermon on the Mount over the past weeks, or whether we are paying lip service to the Lord before we return to our true master, whatever it may be. Brethren, do not waste this opportune season: make this a meaningful Lent. We have seven weeks between now and Easter to pray, to fast, to give alms, to give far more time and effort than we have done in the past to reconsider our relationship with the Lord, to pursue once more His righteousness, so as to receive His salvation. Do not let this slip by, but make this the time whereby you can begin to make your own the words of today’s Psalm: “Rest in God alone, my soul.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

6th Sunday per annum

Most of us probably feel good about ourselves. We're not murderers, we're not extreme racists, we're not the greediest of CEOs. We are ordinary citizens with ordinary lives in ordinary jobs. We can't be that bad can we? As long as I don't intrude on to others, I'm not a menace to society. Yet Jesus does not aim for the minimal amount of goodness; he aims for perfection.
As he continues to preach the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord begins to talk about the law of Moses. He begins to extend the meaning of that law not nearly to the words of the law, but to the spirit of the law, the intent of God in the law. Jesus announces from the beginning of this passage that he is not setting up something new, something completely foreign to all that they had known. He comes, as he said, "not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.“ Everything that Jesus is doing here is based on the law and the prophets, all of which flow from and point to himself. But now that he has arrived, he reveals to us the full meaning of the law.
The law of God is not merely the literal words of the law. If that were the case, but all that we would need to be was one of the Pharisees, who sought to observe those little words as perfectly as possible. However, Jesus calls his disciples to a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees. How is that possible? It is only possible if it means more than what is written on the stone tablets of the Commandments, more than can be found in the prophets.
Our Lord begins to explain what he means by pointing to the most important and the most commonly observed Commandments. He begins to show us the great depths of the law and how they apply not merely to action but also just thought, not just the outside but the inside as well. Many of these things seem easy to do: how many of us actually kill? How many of us actually commit adultery? How many of us actually swear? But Jesus begins to reveal the fullness of truth, the fullness of the law.
Most likely, none of us have committed murder in the physical sense. But, most likely, all of us have committed murder in the way we have treated others. Through gossip, rumors, lies, we murder the character of others. Most likely not a few of us have physically committed adultery. But most likely all of us have committed adultery in the way we are treated others. By our use of the media, by the way we gaze at others, by the way we fantasize about others, we violate our vows of marriage or the state of chastity to which all of us are called. He even goes so far as to overturn something allowed by Moses: the right of divorce. Jesus will say later on in the Gospel that Moses allowed this because of the hardness of our hearts, yet the true state of marriage as instituted by God does not permit divorce for any random reason.
In all of this, our Lord is wishing to elevate us beyond a legal perspective of goodness or holiness, to a more divine perspective. God desires not a purely legal observance of the law, but a total observance. This can be seen not just in the teachings of Jesus but in the example of his life, in which he shows us His complete obedience to the Father in everything that he does, even the cross. It is not an obedience that merely seeks to get by, to do the bare minimum, but the obedience of a child wishing to please their father.
This is the wisdom that Saint Paul speaks of in our second reading. It is not the human wisdom that seeks only pleasure, but the divine wisdom that desires love. It is this divine wisdom that is revealed by Jesus for our good, for our sanctification. His desire in all of this is to lead us away from the fires, away from falling into Gehenna, His image for Hell. He desires not merely that we avoid hell, but that we seek to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, by not only obeying but also teaching these commandments to others so that they may obey, so that they may enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Sirach in our first reading talks about two paths: fire and water. Shall we choose the path that leads to the waters of eternal life, or shall we choose the path that leads to the fires of hell? Brethren, we still have a long way to go before we are completely good. Perhaps we are not Hitler or Stalin or any of the great despots, but we still have a long way to go to become what we were created to be. As the season of Lent approaches in a few weeks, let us renew our desire to obey the law; not just the law on the stone tablets, but the law written into our hearts and revealed to us by Jesus. Let us abandon our sins and take up the word of Christ that offers us salvation. Even if we have failed, let us run to the confessional to receive his mercy and to start anew on this path of salvation. Let us pray that we may completely obey the law as Jesus did so that we may indeed be worthy of entering into the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

5th Sunday per annum (OF)

If Christianity became illegal tomorrow, is there enough evidence in your public life to accuse you of this crime? Could you be arrested based on your daily life? If the police came knocking, would they have reasonable suspicion to arrest you? It may sound extreme, but it gets at the point of today’s Gospel. As Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount, what some scholars call the greatest sermon ever preached, He offers two images of salt and light. How simple these images are, yet how full they are of meaning.
Jesus first calls us to be salt. You may not know this, but salt is the original flavoring. Salt has been an essential aspect of cooking for millennia. In fact, people at times in the ancient world were paid not just in money but also in salt, from which we get the word salary. Salt served not only as a flavoring, but also as the only means to preserve meats and other foods before mechanized refrigeration. The only other thing that was as important in the ancient world as salt was light.
Perhaps it may be hard to imagine, but imagine a world in which the brightest light you could have once the sun set was from fire. Light is essential when there is so much darkness. We have ready access to light at the flip of a switch, but there are still many people throughout the world who have only a torch or a fireplace to serve as the only light at night. In the time of Christ, the availability of salt and light could very well demonstrate your wealth to your neighbors.
Why is it that Jesus chooses to highlight these two items? Because this is what He wants the Church to be in the world. The Church is meant to demonstrate the wealth of God’s grace to all, just as salt and light demonstrated wealth in Christ’s day. However, the Church’s riches are not meant to be kept to herself; these riches of grace and mercy are meant to be shared with the world. This is done because of the effects of sin upon the world: the world becomes tasteless and dull, as if it has no flavor, and the world grows dark, in need of light to illumine the landscape. This is the duty of the Church.
Brethren, we are meant to be the salt and the light that this world so desperately desires and needs. Traditionally, two things were given to the newly baptized child by the priest: salt as the first blessed food to be eaten, and light in the form of the candle bearing the light of Christ. We are meant to give this world the flavor of Christ, to preserve it from sin so that it may be palatable to us once more. We are meant to shine in the darkness of the world, so that others may see the light and be drawn away from the darkness. But how do we do this?
Many see this task as quite difficult. What can we do in the face of so many influences around us? How can we change anything, let alone draw people to Christ? We will want to adopt business techniques or political moves to do this. We may look into what has been most successful throughout history. But Saint Paul tells us what will be most successful for each one of us in our second reading. It is not necessarily the ways of the world, but the demonstration of the spirit and power of God.
In Saint Paul’s day, the Greeks were known for the art of rhetoric, how to speak eloquently and elaborately. They almost reduced it to a science, this ability to persuade, to argue, to move the crowd to your position. Contests were held to see who was the best rhetorician. But Saint Paul, a Jew with limited Greek, came to Corinth and preached not with sublimity or words of wisdom; he preached the truth that he knew and believed, the truth that burned inside his heart and mind. By his fidelity to the reality of Christ, Saint Paul converted many to the faith, showing that the true power in this world is not human wisdom but the power of God.
We are not all perhaps as eloquent or as learned as many of the people around us; we may know plenty of people who could be better witnesses than ourselves. But God does not call the qualified; He qualifies those whom He calls. And each of us is called to be salt and light. We do this by imitating Saint Paul, who knew nothing but Christ and Him crucified. We then live out that knowledge, knowing that we can do all things through Christ, through the power of God. To become salt and light does not mean doing grand things, but doing everything in light of Christ.
How many of us pray before every meal, even when we go out to eat? How many of us spread prayer throughout our day? How many of us have the Bible at hand to read, or the works of the saints? How many of us read through the Catechism or another explainer of our beliefs and practices? Instead of focusing on the teams playing in the Super Bowl tonight, we could focus on learning all the apostles and what they did. Instead of fawning over the Wildcats or Cardinals, we could memorize the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes so that we can begin to live them better. It doesn’t take much, only the reminder that we are here not for this world, but to draw ourselves and others towards the next.
Brethren, let us not lose our flavor or grow dim, but let us be the salt and light of Christ. Let our good works shine before others so that our heavenly Father is glorified. Let us do whatever we are capable of doing so as to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every corner of our lives. Do not give in to the pressures of the minority who hate us or the quiet indifference of the majority who don’t care. Even if you only change one person, you have been what Jesus called you to be. Let us be the salt and the light for our little corner of the world, so that God our Father may be glorified and that we may open the way to eternal life for ourselves and those around us.