Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

September 13, 2015

1. Sometime ago, and I love to recall it, a theological colleague wrote a magazine article to which he gave a mile-long title. It reads: “The Incredible Christian Capacity for Missing the Christian Point”. What in the world did the author mean by this title? Take St. Peter in the Gospel this evening. Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the Scribes, and to be killed and on the third day to be raised. What did Peter do upon hearing what Jesus had to say? He took Jesus aside and began to chastise him, saying: “God forbid, Master! No such thing will ever happen to you.” No matter what good intentions Peter might have had, nevertheless, he missed the whole point of Jesus’ remark. He just did not realize that the cross (and of course the resurrection), first for Jesus and then for ourselves, is always at the very center of our Catholic faith. No wonder Jesus had to turn to Peter and say to him – “Get behind me!” – he even calls him Satan – “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” St. Mark records this event immediately following Peter’s marvelous profession of faith! But we must not be too harsh in our judgement on Peter; he was just the first of many down through the centuries, including ourselves of course, who often prove quite adept at missing the Christian point.

2. From our earliest days we have lived under the sign of the cross. On the day of our baptism, the priest said to us – calling us by name – “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross.” When we first began to study the Catechism, when we first began to understand Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we learned to pray – “We worship you, O Lord; we venerate your cross; we praise your resurrection; through your cross, you have brought joy to the world”.

3. How often we ourselves miss the Christian point. There’s always the temptation to think that we are the ones who have to work out our salvation on our own. We think that in our efforts to gain heaven, we are like basketball players in the game itself, while the Lord Jesus, our model and our coach, stands on the sidelines urging us on. This is not the picture. This really would mean that Jesus never really had to die for us. The truth is – it is the Lord Jesus, through his cross and resurrection which he shares with us, who accomplishes the essential work of getting us to heaven. In every human person’s striving for holiness, the main actor is always the Lord Jesus. (Let me suggest, dear reader, a little test as to how we understand our Catholic-Christian lives. Think of the theater marquee which announces what movies are playing inside the theater. Our lives with the Lord are better dramas and more important dramas than any that we will see in a movie. How should the marquee read? – “My Life with God”, starring me. Also playing God. Or more properly, should it read? – “God’s Life with Me”, starring God. Also playing – me. I come in sometime during the second act carrying a tray.) In our Gospel reading today, after speaking with Peter, Jesus speaks to all his disciples and of course to us here and now in these words: “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take us his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” The best way to understand these words is to think of them in connection with our baptism. St. Paul asks us – “Are you not aware that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?” In other words, baptism is the sacrament of the Lord’s dying and rising, and therefore the sacrament of our dying and rising in the Lord. Baptism sets the pattern for the Christian life. It is a two-fold pattern that reflects the dying and rising of Christ the Lord. What does this mean? It means that in baptism we die with Christ, that is, we die to sin and to what is not of God. But in baptism we live the new life the Lord has won for us on the cross – the life of grace, the life of our divine adoption, the life proper to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it is a life of love of God and neighbor in what we call eternal life. Most people who do not know the Lord Jesus may describe their existence in this way: first we live and then at some moment we die, and such a death means nothingness for there is no other life. But we who follow Jesus say to ourselves and to the whole world if the world wants to listen: first we die in Baptism and then we live and the life we begin to live is everlasting life, first in faith, ultimately in glory. This might help us understand Jesus’ words about dying to ourselves which is difficult and therefore a cross for us. It means, of course, saying “no” to sin and selfishness in order to say “yes” to love of God and love of neighbor. When St. Ignatius of Loyola was seeking the first members of what he would call the Society of Jesus, he had his eyes on the brilliant and affluent Francis Xavier, and he would repeat to Francis the words – “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life?”

4. We must not complicate our Christian faith. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us – “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, with a person”, that is with the very person of the risen Christ. It’s good for us to realize that our Catholic faith is best understood in two phrases – the love of God and the cross of Jesus – but here too we don’t want to miss the Christian point. We have often heard the expression “the cost of discipleship”, a good expression but subject to misunderstanding. My friend, whom I quoted at the opening of this homily. reverses the expression “the cost of discipleship” and calls it “the discipleship of cost”. It’s not a question of becoming the Lord’s disciple and then perhaps but not necessarily to endure suffering and pain. It’s not discipleship that might generate suffering and death; rather it’s suffering and death that generate discipleship. It’s not as though discipleship is first and then there might come suffering and death, but what the Lord seems to be calling for is this – as we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death. The cross is not a terrible end to a God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. Is not the Lord saying to us when he calls us – Come and die with him. But the good news is that if we share in his dying, we will also share in his rising.

5. It is important that we do not miss the Christian point in today’s Gospel. The Lord says – “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”. This is the paradox of the Gospel. This is also the law of life. Self-seeking which is inauthentic life leads to death. Self-giving which is true life is the secret for eternal life. Listen to what the Lord Jesus says to his followers and to us in the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

September 6, 2015

To grasp the meaning of the homily it would be good to check the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time which are as follows:

First Reading: Isaiah 35: 4-7a Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Second Reading: James 2: 1-5 Gospel: Mark 7: 31-37

1. The name Jesus in Hebrew means “God saves”. This is the name given to the Lord by the Angel Gabriel at the time of the Annunciation. It expresses both his identity and his mission. The word Christ in Hebrew, so often used in the Old Testament Scriptures, means the Messiah, the long-expected One, the anointed One. It is translated into Greek as Christos. Christ became the name proper to Jesus because he is the anointed One, the long-expected Messiah, who came among us to carry out the divine mission for which he had been anointed by his heavenly Father. Thus we refer to Our Lord and Savior as Jesus Christ.

2. With this in mind, what is our first reading all about? The Prophet Isaiah is addressing God’s Old Testament people in the dark days of the Babylonian Captivity. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had conquered ancient Israel, destroyed Jerusalem and taken many captives into exile. The prophet is speaking to these many captives whose hearts were so frightened. He says to them: “Be strong, fear not! Your God will come with vindication. He will come to save you.” And then he adds – “The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the tongue of the mute will sing.” These are what are called the “messianic signs”, signs whereby God‘s Old Testament people could know with certainty that Jesus is their saving Lord, and he is at hand to bring them freedom. Listen for a moment to these words from the 11th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – “The imprisoned John the Baptist had heard of the works of Jesus, so John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question – ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’” Jesus could have responded in a variety of ways but what did he say? “Go and tell John what you hear and see – the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the Good News preached to them.” These words were as clear as a bell to John’s disciples. Yes, they said to themselves, this Jesus is the Christ, the anointed One, so long expected. How did they come to this conclusion? They saw with their own eyes the signs promised by the Prophet Isaiah.

3. So much for our first reading! Our Gospel reading today is a wonderful example from our everlasting God through the words and deeds of the Son. How fortunate is the deaf man! Jesus brings him the gift of hearing by touching his ears and saying “Be opened!” Do the messianic signs end with Jesus or are they still operating with ourselves? As we ask this question, it is important to recall the great truth of our faith that all the power, all the divine strength resident in the humanity of Jesus, thanks to his Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit, have truly passed over into the sacraments of the Church. Think back at your own Baptism. The celebrant made mention of the significance of your baptismal garment with which you were clothed in Christ. Then he gave you a candle, a symbol of the light which is Christ and then said to you while touching your mouth and ears – “The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak; may he soon touch your ears to hear his words and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”

4. “Opening one’s ears and proclaiming one’s faith!” This is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, but not apart from our freedom. St. Augustine reminds us – “God made us without our cooperation, but God will not save us without our cooperation.” This suggests a great challenge to all of us in the Church, but in a special way it is a challenge to the lay members in the Church. The bishops and priests through the Sacrament of Holy Orders have specific, divine-given tasks in the Church. But there is another priesthood in the Church from the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. This is the priesthood of all the faithful. Think back once again to when you received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The celebrant of the sacraments called each one of us by name and said to us – “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, has given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you participate in his ministry and live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.” What is this prayer saying to us? Christ is the anointed One. Christ is Priest, Teacher and Guide-Ruler, Priest, Prophet and King; he shares his three-fold office with us the Church, his body, and he continues down through history through the Church to be Priest, Prophet and King. We too have become anointed ones; we too have become other Christs; we too share in his three-fold office – priest, prophet and king. This means then that when we pray, when we celebrate Sunday Eucharist, when we live the sacrificial demands of the Gospel, we share in the work of Christ the Priest. When we teach our children the Catechism, when we continually inform ourselves about the adult consequences of our faith, when we represent and speak up for our faith in the public square, we advance the work of Christ the Teacher, Christ the Prophet. But what does it mean to advance the work of Christ the King? We advance the work of Christ the King when we bring the truth of the Gospel to society and culture through family life, through the arts and technology, through education and economics, through labor and management, through medicine and politics. This primarily is the work of lay members of the Church, which is to order the temporal things of the world according to the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council puts it this way: “The laity, by their very calling, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” Lay members of the Church live in the world, that is, in all the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life from which the web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God to work for the sanctification of the world from within. In this way, they can make Christ known to others, especially by their lives of faith, hope and love. The social expressions of faith, hope and love are not optional extras for anyone who follows Christ.

5. Recent Popes have been expressing the challenge at hand. We have been hearing a lot about the “new evangelization”. That’s what our homily is all about. Accordingly, the new evangelization needs adults who are mature in their faith, who have encountered Jesus in the Christ, who has become the fundamental reference point of their faith, who know the Lord because they love the Lord and they love the Lord because they have known the Lord, people capable of solid and creditable reasons for their Gospel lifestyles. Religious illiteracy is useless today when it is being confronted by men and women who are experts in all the arts and sciences that exist today, but who know nothing about the Gospel. All of this is not a small challenge for pastors and parishioners to work on throughout the days ahead. (Benedict XVI)