13 February 2024

Homily - 14 February 2024 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Much like Saint Valentine’s Day, we might say Ash Wednesday is a day about love. It might seem strange to say so, given that February 14th has largely become associated with romantic notions of love, and that on Ash Wednesday Mother Church calls us to “take up battle with spiritual evils.”[1] The only way to truly battle against spiritual evils is to do so with the love of God, by growing deeper in his love and spreading his love more authentically. Today, then, is an opportunity for us to consider the nature of love, which is, perhaps, why Saint Paul exhorts us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (II Corinthians 6:1). There is much to unpack in these few words, much that concerns love.

If we are to heed the Apostle’s warning, we must first know what he means by grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life.”[2] To put it perhaps more simply,

God’s grace denotes his gift of love, the love made known most dramatically in the sending of his Son (cf. John 3:16) and in the gift of the Spirit in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5). Grace thus signifies that God holds nothing back in reaching out to us in love.[3]

Yet despite this gift of grace we all too often fail to reach out in love to God.

Saint Valentine, a priest in the city of Rome, realized the tremendous gift we received in Christ and he devoted his life to helping others realize the same; he sought to help them live in grace. When Roman soldiers were forbidden to enter into marriage, he witnessed their marriages anyway, because he wanted to be sure husbands and wives received the grace needed from God to keep the promises of their marriages and so reflect God’s love for the Church. When he refused to stop witnessing the marriages of soldiers, he was beheaded, so it is that the color of Saint Valentine’s Day is red; it calls to mind the blood of this martyr, shed in and for the love of God and neighbor.

Detail, Saint Valentine blesses a couple, 15th cent. woodcut

Valentine heard Saint Paul’s admonition and did not receive the grace of God in vain; he lived in the love of God and helped others to encounter his love. Valentine allowed the grace of God to bear fruit in his life; he fought against spiritual evils and, in the end, saved his life for eternity.

Saint Augustine of Hippo at first resisted God’s gift of grace and so received it in vain, yet one day he yielded to God’s grace. His interior longing for God prevailed and he exposed his heart to grace saying that famously moving prayer: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[4]

Each of us also received this grace of God’s love, a share in the divine life, in the waters of Baptism, but it is a grace to which we must respond again and again if we do not wish to lose it; it is a love we sometimes resist, but must instead surrender to. This is why the Lord says to us through his prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:12-13). In other words, let your repentance be internal and sincere, and not merely external and showy.

By giving his life for the sake of others, Saint Valentine imitated the Lord Jesus and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his martyrdom. By devoting his life to his portion of the Lord’s flock, Saint Augustine imitated the Lord and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his teachings. In a similar way, husbands and wives are to live for each other, not for themselves, and so imitate the selflessness of the love of Christ. “What does it mean,” then, “to receive the grace of God in vain except to be unwilling to perform good works with the help of his grace?”[5] Indeed, we see Saint “Paul’s exhortation not to receive God’s grace in vain is an appeal to deeper conversion, that is, to avoid becoming partners with evil and to continue to purify [ourselves] in mind and body.”[6] This is what today is all about.

We have come before the Lord because we know we have not always kept ourselves pure in mind and body and have not always lived in his love. We have received the grace of God in vain. We have failed to love both God and neighbor and we have not always allowed the Lord to reflect his love through us. We have heard the Lord’s call to “proclaim a fast” and to “call an assembly,” and so we cry out to him, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (Joel 2:15; cf. Psalm 51:3).

The ancient symbol of Saint Augustine is a heart on fire and pierced with arrows. The heart symbolizes his restless longing for God; the fire his burning love for God and neighbor; and the arrows the many times he was pierced by God’s grace, pierced by God’s love. The restlessness of his heart and his encounters with God’s grace taught him, as he said, that “nothing cleanses the heart but the undivided and single-minded striving after eternal life…”[7]

In these coming days of Lent, let each of us follow his example and strive after eternal life with undivided hearts. With Saint Augustine, let us not shield our hearts from the Lord, but hold them up to him. Let us expose our hearts to be pierced by his grace and set afire with the love of God and neighbor. If we do, the Father will reward us and give us back the joy of salvation, the joy of love, the satisfaction of a life lived in imitation of the Lord (Matthew 6:4; Psalm 51:14). Amen.



[1] Collect of the Mass for Ash Wednesday.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996.

[3] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 191.

[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1. Henry Chadwick, trans., Oxford World’s Classics: Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.

[5] Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 126.5. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 251.

[6] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians, 148.

[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the Mount, 2.3.11. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 128.

03 February 2024

Homily - 4 February 2024 - The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dear brothers and sisters,

We in our society are frequently given the lie that life is meant to be happy most – if not all – of the time. It is a stark refusal to accept the reality of our fallen human condition, wounded as we are by sin and subject to its consequences. If the words of Job unsettle us this morning it is only because we implicitly reject the proverbial wisdom of Bilbo Baggins who said adventures, like life, “are not all pony rides in May sunshine.”[1]

Much of life is indeed a drudgery, filled as it is with much laborious and tiresome slogging to get from one day to the next (cf. Job 7:1). This, at least, has been the experience for the overwhelming mass of humanity, even in the present day.

Though we use it infrequently (if at all), the word drudgery is an apt description for life in this valley of tears. The word probably has its origin in the Middle English word dreogan, meaning “to work, suffer, endure.” If you have not yet known this experience of life, count yourself among those especially blessed and know the experience will come at some point. Jesus, after all, calls us to imitate him, cautioning us that “if anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

We know a sickness that confines one to bed is among the more drudgerous aspects of life. Yet it is precisely into these moments of suffering requiring endurance that Jesus wishes to enter into. We see this aspect of his compassionate mercy when he entered the home of Saint Peter and healed his mother-in-law who “lay sick with a fever” (Mark 1:30). Did she ask with Job, “When shall I arise” (cf. Job 7:4)? She must surely have been “filled with restlessness until the dawn,” until the “Light of the World” entered her home (Job 7:4; John 8:12).

Detail, Healing of Peter's Mother-in-law. Evangeliary of Abbess Hitba von Meschede,

There is much about this encounter we do not know, but we can perhaps catch a glimpse of the character of Jesus through the meditations of an anonymous early Franciscan who wanted us to understand better the humanity of the Divine Physician so as to draw ever closer to his sacred heart pierced out of love for us. This is what he said:

Our humble Lord touched her with His sacred hand and cured her, so that she immediately arose and ministered unto Him and His disciples. But what she ministered, is not written. You may imagine that, in the house of a poor man like Simon, certain frugal foods, such as could be quickly got ready, were set before the guests. Consider that the Lord Jesus helped in the preparations, and this because it was in the house of his chief disciple, and you may imagine Him doing humble little services, like setting the table, and helping in washing the dishes, tidying up the room, and so forth. For the Master of humility, He who had not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, was in the habit of doing such lowly actions. Thus you may contemplate Him sitting familiarly at table, under this humble roof, and cheerfully partaking of the frugal fare set before Him, being pleased at the seal of poverty set up all in that house.[2]

Jesus longs to enter into the drudgery of our existence. He longs to enter into the houses of our souls to heal us and lift us up. He longs to minister to us and to partake in every aspect of our lives. He wishes to serve us even as we serve him.

By his Cross and Resurrection the drudgery of life is taken away; though much suffering still remains for us, uniting it with the Cross of the Lord brings not only comfort but joy because suffering becomes valuable. J.R.R. Tolkien was right to say “the Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”[3] We see this in a particularly illuminating way in the lives of the saints, especially of the martyrs.

We remembered one of these martyrs yesterday, Saint Blaise. We know him best as the patron against ailments of the throat, whose intercession we invoke in times of sickness. He seems to have been the son of a wealthy physician. He became the Bishop of Armenia and when the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian broke out, Saint Blaise fled to a cave where he lived with the animals. They gathered around him because he healed their wounds. When hunters discovered Blaise, they took him to the governor Agricolas, but the man of God refused to renounce his Christian faith. Because of his fidelity to Jesus, Blaise was beheaded around the year a.d. 316, after first having had his flesh torn apart by metal wool combs.

Before his death, Blaise is said to have miraculously healed a boy who was choking on a fishbone, thereby saving his life. This event gave rise to his patronage of the sick, and especially of the throat. But about the candles used during his blessing, an admittedly curious aspect of Catholic life?

As the hunters took Blaise to the governor they came upon a poor woman whose pig had been carried off by a wolf. Recognizing the Saint’s holiness, she begged him to get the pig back. Blaise commanded the wolf to return the pig unharmed, and it did. In return for his kindness, the woman gave Blaise some food and some candles. In good Catholic fashion, the episode of the healing of the boy was combined with that of the wolf to give us the blessing of Saint Blaise with the candles.

But why would this holy man of God allow himself to be torn apart by wool combs? Why would he willingly undergo such great pain when all he had to do to avoid the torture was renounce his faith? He did so because he knew the person of Jesus Christ. He allowed Jesus to enter into the house of his life, to feed him and to dine with him, to tidy up the mess of sin for him. Saint Blaise came to know that Jesus loved him to the end and so Blaise loved Jesus to the end (cf. John 13:1). Because he united himself so closely with the Passion of the Lord the drudgery of life was taken away from him; he could say in all sincerity, “Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3).

Do not give up, my friends, when you feel the laborious and tiresome slogging of daily life beset you. Instead, open the home of your life to the Lord Jesus. Welcome him in and do not be ashamed of the mess you have made. Let him heal you of your sin, help you tidy up, and put things in place. Rest with him, learn from him, and experience his love for you still visible in his wounds. If you look for him, you will find him; if you allow him to love you, you will know “he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds;” if you unite yourself to him, the drudgery of life will be changed to joy (Psalm 147:3). Amen.



[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 31.

[2] Meditations on the Life of Christ. Attr. Saint Bonaventure. M. Emmanuel, O.S.B., trans. (St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Co., 1934), 132.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 389.

06 January 2024

Homily - The Solemnity of the Epiphany

 The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 

Dear brothers and sisters,

 

     The Magi from the East are not unlike the shepherds who adored the newborn King only a few days ago. The shepherds, we are told, were “keeping watch over their flocks by night,” as were the Magi, not over flocks, but over the heavens, which is why they could say, “We have seen his star at its rising” (Luke 2:8; Matthew 2:2). Both groups, shepherds and Magi, waited for something - or, rather, someone – who would radically change their lives.

 

The Magi looked intentionally for the star, and therefore saw it at its rising, and, having seen it, they followed it because they were weary, restless, uncertain, and ill at ease. They sought meaning, purpose, and direction for their lives. Within their hearts, there was an intimation of the insight of Saint Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[1]

 

     The shepherds learned of the birth of Christ through the angels; the Magi through the star shining in the heavens. The shepherds set out “with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16); The Magi, too, set out with haste to worship the newborn King of the Jews; they left everything behind and went in search of him who was the fulfillment of the deepest desires of their hearts, though they knew him not. Looking at the courageous faith of these Magi, the question rightly comes to us: What must I leave behind in order to go in search of Christ?

 

Their journey was no easy venture. Coming from the East, they arrived at the goal of their pilgrimage, Bethlehem, through Jerusalem. 

 

Like the Magi, all believers – and young people in particular – have been called to set out on the journey of life in search of truth, justice and love. We must seek this star, we must follow it. The ultimate goal of the journey can be found only through an encounter with Christ, an encounter which cannot take place without faith.[2]

 

If we set out like the shepherds and the Magi, if we set out with haste, we, too, will realize the answer to our deepest yearning is not a thing, but a person: “The happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist. Only he gives the fullness of life to humanity!”[3]

 

     The Magi further told Herod, we “have come to do him homage” (Matthew 2:2). In Greek, they used a form of the word proskynesis, which is better translated as “we have come to adore him.” This is why, when they entered the house of the Holy Family, “they prostrated themselves;” they lowered themselves to the ground before the Holy Infant (Matthew 2:11).

 

We imitate these Magi each time we enter the church. We, too, fall down in worship whenever we genuflect before the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist. We, too, have entered the Lord’s house and have fallen down before him, but when we bend our knee, is it merely an external action, or is it also an external sign of an internal sentiment or adoration? For the Magi, it was both, and so it should be with us.

 

This act of adoration is no simple gesture, but one packed with meaning. To adore

 

refers to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it.[4]

 

It is only by adoring this King that will we find true freedom. We must learn to recognize the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and so, with the Magi, adore him with all that we are.

     When they fell down before him, the Magi “opened their treasures” to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11). We, too, want to open our treasures to him, but what treasure do we have to give so noble, so beautiful, so holy a Child? Most of us have no gold, or frankincense, or myrrh to offer. Or have we? Blessed Aelfric of Eynsham offered this insight:

 

To the born King we bring gold, if we are shining in his sight with the brightness of heavenly wisdom. Incense we bring him, if we set fire to our thoughts on the altar of our heart with the eagerness of holy prayers, so that through heavenly desire we may give forth something of a sweet smell. Myrrh we offer him if we quell the lusts of the flesh by self-restraint.[5]

 

When combined together, these three gifts are an expression of the treasure of our hearts, the treasure of our lives. Let us, then, open our hearts to him, and he will in turn open the treasure of his heart to us!

 

      The Latin word for this adoration is adoratio, meaning mouth to mouth contact. It is

 

a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a new meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.[6]

 

This is what Herod failed to see; this is what so many others today fail to see, as well.

 

     Both Herod and the Magi said they wanted to adore the Child Jesus. The Magi wanted to do so externally to express the interior sentiment of their hearts. Herod wanted to perform an external show; he refused to submit to the Newborn King and open his heart; he refused to be conquered by Love. The Magi, on the other hand, opened their hearts to him and allowed their encounter with Christ to transform their entire lives. This is why they “departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). They simply could not return the way they had come because everything now was changed.

 

This is what happens to us when we prostrate ourselves before the Lord and open our hearts to the Child of Bethlehem, when we sincerely adore the Lord of heaven and earth and submit our lives to him: we are conquered by his love, we are changed, and we become one with him, one with Love.

 

Here at this Holy Mass, we can adore the Lord with the Magi, for “present on the altar is the One whom the Magi saw lying in the manger: Christ, the living Bread who came down from heaven to give life to the world, the true Lamb who gives his own life for the salvation of the mankind.”[7] Present on the altar is the One whom Father Damien called “the one companion who will never leave me.” This is why he went on to say, “Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.”

 

Today, then, let us seek to offer him the gift of gold, our lives shining with wisdom. Let us seek to offer him the gift of frankincense, our hearts set afire with love of him. And let us seek to offer him the gift of myrrh, the quelling our passions in his service. Let us seek to open the treasure of our hearts to him and yield to the power of his love; let us adore him, not as Herod did, but as the Magi did, with hearts filled with faith and a yearning for salvation. Let us adore him and be conquered by love! Amen.



[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.1.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Address at the Welcoming Ceremony at the Cologne Airport, 18 August 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., Homily, 21 August 2005.

[5] Aelfric of Eynsham, Sermon for the Epiphany of the Lord. In Benjamin Thorpe, trans., Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church (1844).

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 21 August 2005.

[7] Ibid., Address at the Welcoming Ceremony at the Cologne Airport, 18 August 2005.

Homily - 1 January 2024 - Mary knows how to join joys and sorrows

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God


Dear brothers and sisters,

 

     As today we commemorate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, we ought to remember that Our Lady was, mostly, a mother like any other. “At the beginning of a new year, we are invited, as it were, to attend her school, the school of the faithful disciple in the Lord, in order to learn from her to accept in faith and prayer the salvation God desires to pour out upon those who trust in his merciful love.”[1]

 

As all mothers do, the Mother of God experienced great joy at the Birth of her Son. And, as all mothers do, she worried about his future. Mary knew, as every mother knows, that

 

Every child born into the world – every tiny, innocent, adorable little baby – however loved, however cared for, will grow up to face some kind of sorrow, and the inevitability of death. Of course no one wants to think about such things, especially when they look at a newborn baby; but pretending otherwise, not wanting to think otherwise, doesn’t make it any less true.[2]

 

Mary must have contemplated her Son’s future, especially after hearing the words of Simeon, which we heard yesterday: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:35). What did Simeon mean?

 

     During these days of Christmas, we do all that we can to keep everything joyful and cheery and thinking about Mary’s sorrow, even with her joy, does not seem something we should be doing.

 

Our images of Christmas joy, both secular and sacred, are all childlike wonder and picture-perfect families gathered round the tree. And this is nice, of course, for those who have children or happy families, but for those who don’t – those who have lost children or parents or others dear to them, those who face loneliness or exclusion, those who want but don’t have children, family, or home – it can be intensely painful. Not everyone can choose not to think about grief at Christmas; many people will find it intrudes upon them, whether they wish it or not.[3]

 

The medievals, who often approached the world with greater honesty than we do, recognized this, and even knew it to be true of the Virgin Mother of God.

 

     We see this understanding in many medieval carols, in which, of course, we also find great mirth and gladness. The Franciscan friar, John of Grimestone, recorded many of these carols for us in the fourteenth century. One of these carols contains what are presented as deeply moving thoughts Mary sings in a lullaby to the Christ Child:

 

Lullay, lullay, little boy, king of all things!

When I think of thy sad state, I hardly wish to sing;

But I may lament for sorrow, if love be in my heart,

For such pains as thou shalt suffer were never none so sharp.

Lullay, lullay, little child, no wonder that thou cry;

Thy body will grow pale and white, and then it shall grow dry.[4]

 

Here already Mary is contemplating the death of her Son for us upon the Cross; she knows that her Son was born that man no more may die. She has a deep sorrow for him in her heart because, as she says, she always has a deep love for him in her heart; love and sorrow often go together, even at Christmas.

 

     Our Lady ends her mournful lullaby with this profound insight: “Lullay, lullay, little child, softly sleep and fast; / in sorrow endeth every love but thine, at the last.” Mary knows that while every other love will end, the love of her Holy Infant will endure; his love will never end. This is why she willingly her endured seven sorrows out of love for him and remained with him to the end (cf. Luke 2:35).

 

     Years later, from his Cross, “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son’ (John 19:26)! That beloved disciple stood in for each of us, for we are all his beloved disciples if we remain near to him and to the Mother of God. What is more, in that moment, Jesus entrusted us to his mother. Mary, the Mother of God and our mother, will look after us, her children, with the same maternal love and care with which she looked after Jesus, if we remain near to her.

 

     As we enter into this new solar year with both concern and hope, let us entrust ourselves anew to the maternal care of our Mother who knows how to join sorrows with joys. May she show us the Face of her Son, teach us to listen to him, and ask her Son to bless us with his peace. Amen.



[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 1 January 2006.

[2] Eleanor Parker, “‘Lullay, little child, rest thee a throwe,’” A Clerk of Oxford, 28 December 2014. Available at https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2014/12/lullay-little-child-rest-thee-throwe.html.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.