02 December 2018

Homily - The First Sunday of Advent - 2 December 2018

The First Sunday of Advent (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

With the celebration of Vespers yesterday evening, we entered into my favorite season of the year, one too often overlooked. It is not my favorite time of the year because of the cold and snow (some of my favorite memories of this season come from a land of sun and sand). Nor is it my favorite time of year because of the hectic frenzy, jealousy, and anxiety we allow ourselves to be worked up into. Rather, this season is my favorite time of year because it stands diametrically opposed to the busyness that the secularism thrusts upon us this time each year. This is my favorite time of year because “there’s an imaginative fertility and a reaching ambition” in the season of Advent “which offers something much richer than just a cheery countdown to Christmas.”[1]

This season of Advent has become quite overshadowed and even eclipsed altogether by so many premature celebrations of Christmas. One of the causes of this problem is that “everybody wants … Christmas without Advent just like we want dessert without eating our vegetables.[2] This happens because we do not have a proper understanding of what the Season of Advent is all about. Just as we lose something of great importance by not eating our vegetables, so, too, do we lose something of great importance by diminishing Advent or by skipping it altogether.

Even as Advent began in the quiet of the evening, all around us supposed celebrations of Christmas have already begun. I say supposed because, if you pay attention, they are not at all celebrations of the Birth of Christ, but rather celebrations of commercialism, materialism, or winter, or some combination of the three. Have you tried looking for Christmas cards this year? Unless you go to a specifically religious store, good luck finding cards that speak of the Bethlehem event. Most cards might mention the name “Christmas,” but there is nothing else concerning Christmas about them. In all of this, we should not forget what saint Augustine preached in one of his Christmas sermons: “What we don’t want to do,” he said, “is surround this celebration of Our Lord’s birth of a Virgin with all sorts of silliness.” Today, even as we claim to celebrate Christmas right now, we have largely abandoned it.

We desperately need to rediscover the quite beauty of Advent if our hearts are not to “become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” (Luke 21:34). Because so many of our Christmas celebrations – such as they are these days – have crept earlier and earlier such the actual Christmas season is largely ignored, we have forgotten what Advent is about.

The Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar tell us that "Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. For these two reasons, Advent is a period of devout and expectant delight."[3]

Advent, then, looks forward by first looking backward. What do I mean?

Mother Church has assigned for us throughout the season of Advent Scriptural readings that

urge us to ready ourselves for the coming of an event which has already happened, thousands of years ago; and they direct us to look not just towards the immediate future, as we count down four weeks forwards into our own lives, but towards the eventual future, the Apocalypse, the end of all time.[4]

We see this in the dual direction in the readings we heard just a few moments ago.

The first reading directed out attention to the past event of the Birth of Christ, to that great day the Lord fulfilled the promise he made to the house of Israel and Judah (cf. Jeremiah 33:14). Humanity had fallen out of friendship with God through the Original Sin, but the Lord himself promised to reconcile mankind to himself (cf. Psalm 25:15). This he accomplished through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ so that we might no longer live estranged from him. This is the Good News of the Gospel, that through his Paschal Mystery the Lord Jesus, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, took on human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was born among us; that he healed the sick, cast our demons, forgave sins, and raised the dead; that he suffered on the Cross for us and by his Death and Resurrection has destroyed death and defeated the Enemy; that he established his Church so that his ministry of healing and forgiveness might continue even among us today here in Ashland. But if we do not recognize the evil of sin and of the separation it causes from God, this is news is not so good to us and certainly nothing to celebrate. This is, I dare to say, where we are as a society; we have forgotten sin and so have forgotten our need for redemption and salvation.

How often do we wander away from him? How often, even today, do we place ourselves outside of his friendship through our sin? How often do we reject his grace and live as if he does not exist? The contemplation of this tragic reality of our fallen human condition led Saint Augustine to say to God,

Turned out of paradise by you and wandering to a far-off country, I cannot return by my own strength unless you come to meet me in my wandering, for my return has been waiting on your mercy throughout the whole stretch of earthly time.[5]

Is this not true of each of us, as well? We need the Lord to come to us, to meet us in our wandering, to grant us his mercy, and show the us way to the Father’s house. He first came to meet us when he was born at Bethlehem; he comes to meet us each day in the Holy Eucharist and in the Scriptures; and he will come once more to meet us as our Judge. This is the focus of Advent: it looks backward in order to look forward.

In the Gospel, Jesus directed our attention to the future event of the Last Day, to that day when every eye “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). On that day of judgment, everyone who allowed the Lord to meet them in their wandering and who accepted the grace of his mercy will be welcomed into the joys of heaven. But on that day of judgment, everyone who refused the Lord’s invitation to receive his merciful love and continued in their sinful wandering will have their rejection of the Lord honored eternally. When that day comes, which will it be for you and me? This is the great question of Advent. This sacred time is given us by the Church to call us to a deeper reflection on the sincerity of our discipleship of the Lord Jesus.

If we allow it to penetrate our hearts with its quiet peace, if we allow the Lord to teach us his way by opening our hearts to him in silence, this Season of Advent will strengthen our faith, hope, and love with a steadily growing and joyful eagerness to meet the Lord when he comes. If we reject the hectic frenzy, jealousy, and anxiety of these secularized days to instead welcome the patience of Advent into our hearts, this great season will prepare us to “stand erect and raise [our] heads” in the humble confidence that out “redemption is close at hand” (Luke 21:28). Then, inspired by a sincere trust in the Lord and waiting upon his kindness, everything else will fall into place because we will have discovered and embraced what is most important.

Above all, Advent is a time of watching and waiting, and, as a society, waiting is not something we like to do, but it is something we must do. Now is the time to wait on the Lord’s mercy. Saint Augustine is right to remind us that

[God] will teach his ways not to those who want to run on ahead, as if they could rule themselves better than he can, but to those who do not strut about with their heads in the air or dig in their heels, when his easy yoke and light burden are set upon them.[6]

Let us, then, not allow the celebration of Christmas to eclipse Advent; let us not resist or struggle against its grace, but simply and quietly settle into it. Let us allow the wisdom of the Church and of her Lord to take root in our hearts by prayerfully reading the Scriptures assigned to the Mass each day of Advent. If we honor Advent in this way, these days will indeed acquire the imaginative fertility of God that will transform them into something more than just a cheery countdown to Christmas. Let us, then, beg the Lord to give us docile hearts in these days of Advent so that, having used them well, we will “run forth to meet [the] Christ with righteous deeds at his coming” and be found “worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”[7] Amen.

[1] Eleanor Parker, “‘If in a day of Doom one deathless stands,’A Clerk of Oxford, 1 December 2018. 2018.
[2] Dwight Longenecker, “The Christmas Curmudgeon,” 1 December 2018.
[3] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, 39
[4] Eleanor Parker, “‘Swa leaf on treowum,’A Clerk of Oxford, 28 November 2016.
[5] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms, 25.5.
[6] Ibid., 25.9.
[7] Collect of the First Sunday of Advent, Roman Missal.

26 November 2018

Homily - 25 November 2018 - The Solemnity of Christ the King

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

On this great solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, Mother Church sets before us the image of Christ Jesus as he truly is. We see him “robed in majesty,” the one to whom is given “dominion, glory, and kingship” because he is “the faithful witness” who will be seen “coming amid the clouds” and before whom “all the peoples of the earth will lament” (Psalm 93:1; Daniel 7:7; Revelation 1:5, 7). We are presented with the image of a true king, of one with real authority and power; as such, it is an image that does not mesh well with the way most of us today imagine Jesus to be, but that is because we do not know him as we should.

Too often we think of Jesus simply as a nice man who hangs around with simple people and who never says anything that might be perceived as offensive or unkind. We think of Jesus in this way because we have not read even one of the four Gospels from beginning to end, or even half of one of the four Gospels; no one who has read one of the Gospels would dare to call Jesus a simple, nice, unoffensive man. We know more about our favorite celebrity than we know about the only Savior of mankind and we do not bat an eye at this, to our great detriment and shame.

The image of Christ as the “ruler of the kings of the earth” surprises us because we have largely lost the understanding of kings “as they were conceived in the medieval imagination” (Revelation 1:5).[1] Whereas we – basing our notions on a falsified and distorted telling of history – view all kings as tyrants, the medieval imagination held to the idyllic notion of a king as one “who manages all aspects of his reign, including civil government, infrastructure, and the church in harmony with the created natural order.”[2] This was, at least, what a king was supposed to be, the unifier of his people, even if, in reality, kings did not always live up to this ideal.

The very word “king” is itself telling. It comes from the old German kuning, a word related to kin and family, and means a leader of a people. Through its etymology, “the Anglo-Saxon "cyning" from cyn or kin, and -ing meaning "son of" evokes images of long-gone tribes choosing as leader a favoured son who is mystically representative of their common identity.”[3] The Latin word for king, rex, is likewise telling: “Rex has its roots in the common ancestor of most European languages, associated with stretching, thus keeping straight (di-rect, cor-rect) and then governing.”[4] A true king, then, is a leader who comes from among a people to guide and govern them along the straight path.

In the American consciousness, we think of kings not as those who guide their people along the right path, but as those who use their sovereign power to satisfy their own desires at the expense of their people. Consequently, we at least notionally dismiss kings out of hand because, by definition, because having a king means that I may not be able to do everything I want to do whenever or however I want. This is why we are hesitant to speak of Jesus as a true king, as one who, because of his Incarnation at Bethlehem, comes from among us to guide us and govern us along the narrow way that leads to the Father’s house.

If Jesus is king, we think, he must be something like the kings we know, but the kings we know are often greatly flawed. We think of King Henry VIII of England, who tore his kingdom apart to conceive, an heir or of King Geoffrey from A Game of Thrones, a king who knows nothing of justice or of mercy. We often forget about kings like King Saint Louis IX of France, who told his son, “the first thing I advise is that you fix your whole heart upon God, and love Him with all your strength, for without this no one can be saved or be of any worth.”[5] King Louis was not perfect, but he strove to conform his life to that of the King of kings. We might, perhaps, think of King Arthur, who was able to uphold justice but could not find a way to temper it with mercy. We might say that the failure of earthly kings lies in their inability – or refusal – to rule with both justice and mercy. In Jesus Christ, however, we find both justice and mercy perfectly exercised, which is why “all the peoples of the earth will lament him” (Revelation 1:7).

Here it might well be asked, if Christ the King is the faithful witness who loves us,” why will we lament before him when at last he comes (Revelation 1:5)? We will lament because

The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.[6]

The pain that we will experience is the pain of love; standing before him, we will see the immensity of his love and realize in how many ways we failed to respond to his love. We will lament him because we have failed to love him as we ought, because we failed to allow him to straighten and direct our lives and walk on his path, and because we will, at that moment, experience his judgment and his justice.

In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy… The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).[7]

Truly, for those who have striven to allow the Christ the King to rule over the lives, there is no reason to fear his just and honest judgment, painful as it may be, because “the king’s grace is greater than [we] know.”[8] Amen.

[1] Cory Grewell, “The Elegiac Fantasy of Past Christendom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur.” In The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, ed. SΓΈrina Higgins (Berkeley, California: Apocryphile Press, 2017), 221.
[2] Ibid., 225.
[4] Ibid.
[5] King Saint Louis IX, Letter to Phillip III, 3.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 159.

25 November 2018

Homily - 22 November 2018 - Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day

Dear brothers and sisters,

We Americans like our holidays, and we have distinctly American ways of observing them. Like most other peoples, our holiday celebrations often center around food, but, of course, we give our own flair even to this. As but one example, most non-Americans are baffled by our near religious custom of the cook-out on Memorial Day; they do not understand what it has to do with remembering our fallen dead. To be fair, most of us cannot explain the connection, either, and this shows something of a certain American disconnect in the observance of our holidays.

Nearly all of our American holidays are civic affairs: Independence Day, President’s Day, Labor Day, etc. Today, though, Thanksgiving Day, is different; it is our most religious holiday. Now, I know that some may object, asking, “What about Christmas and Easter, Father?” This is a fair objection, but, strictly speaking, these are not so much American holidays as much as they are universal holidays.

It is a curious thing that this most religious of American holidays has now become – against all reason and logic – almost devoid of religion, as if it were possible to give some form of generic thanks to the universe. Simply consider this statement written to me yesterday: “I like the point that Thanksgiving isn't a religious holiday (other than a possible prayer before the meal).” It is a comment that demonstrates both a historical ignorance and a complete lack of understanding of what it means to be grateful.

As Americans, we lost the religiousness of Sunday when, some decades ago, we abandoned the divinely revealed purpose of the Lord’s Day in favor of sports, shopping, and profits. How many Americans purposefully arrange their Sundays around these events and fit prayer in only as an afterthought instead of making the worship of God the center of Sunday? We likewise largely gave up the focus on the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus as the centrality of Easter in favor of new outfits to impress others and we tossed aside the poverty of the Child Jesus at Christmas in favor of a growing materialistic greed. To anyone then paying attention, these were distressing signs of a declining culture. Today, a recovery seems all but impossible.

Up until a few years ago, it seemed the simple purity of Thanksgiving Day had been preserved and kept safe from the heavy-footed encroachment of a cruel secularism. Eight years ago, the owner of a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania said, “Thanksgiving is fairly quiet in the consumer-driven market of ghouls, glitz, and over-the-top commercialism.”[1] Today, it is clear that the same can no longer be said. How quickly we have abandoned even gratitude itself! Is this not why Jesus asks today, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine” (Luke 17:17)? Still, we are not without hope.

When Mr. Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Thanksgiving on October 3, 1863, he did so in the midst of the Civil War.  He knew, the traumatic destruction of life and property wrought by the war, but he also saw the bounty of the harvest and the prosperity of the nation, which led him to say, in part,

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. … They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.[2]

Historically, then, it is quite false to say this quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving is not a religious occasion; it has, as its foundation, a communal act of gratitude to God which is, by its very nature, religious.

Nor is it possible to give thanks simply to one another on this day on which we gather around our tables to share a feast. We may have purchased the food prepared, but we did not create it, this nation, or even ourselves. There is no one on earth whom we can thank for these gifts, because no one on earth has given them; nor is it possible to give thanks to no one; such an act would be senseless and devoid of meaning. The fundamental act of gratitude must above all be ascribed to God, the Creator of all that exists, “who fosters people’s growth from their mother’s womb” (Sirach 50:22).

While a great many Americans fail to grasp the essential quality of Thanksgiving Day, we ought not only give thanks for God’s many mercies toward us, but we ought also do penance as President Lincoln urged us to do. Our country remains greatly divided and a profound healing is needed in our land, both between fellow citizens and between citizens and the Lord. Such a healing can come about through acts of gratitude, through acts which recognize that I deserve nothing, but that everything is a gift from God.

Before we gather around our family tables, we have gathered at the altar of the Lord where the

Mass invites us to discern what, in ourselves, is obedient to the Spirit of God and what, in ourselves, is attuned to the spirit of evil. In the Mass, we want to belong only to Christ and we take up with gratitude – with thanksgiving – the cry of the psalmist: ‘How shall I repay the Lord for his goodness to me’ (Ps 116:12)?[3]

For whatever within us is attuned to the Spirit of God, let us give humble thanks; for whatever within us is not attuned to God, let us give thanks for the gift of his mercy that can heal this discord within us and bring us into “fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (I Corinthians 1:9). Amen.

[1]Thanksgiving – The Last Pure andSimple Holiday in America,” The Artist’s Inn & Gallery, 18 November 2010.
[2] Abraham Lincoln, Proclamation of Thanksgiving, 3 October 1863.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 13 September 2008.