17 November 2019

Homily - 17 November 2019 - On a culture of instant gratification and Christmas


The Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Have you noticed something odd or out of place these past many days? I certainly have, and I am sure you have, too. Already before the Solemnity of All Saints, garlands and ornaments were hung in stores; holiday lights began illuminating the autumn darkness; and Christmas trees were seen through living room windows.

As I say, all of these are out of place for this time of the year. Many people will disagree with me, but this is because too many Christians have, first, forgotten the liturgical year and, second, forgotten that Christians are supposed to be distinct from the world. If we were supposed to live according to the standards of the world, Jesus’ warning that “You will be hated by all because of my name” would be meaningless, and we know that nothing Jesus said or did was meaningless (Luke 21:17).

With the liturgical year and its calendar, time itself takes a new and profound meaning. No longer is the passing of time the slow march towards death, but it becomes the way in which “the Church celebrates the whole mystery of Christ, from the Incarnation to Pentecost Day and the days of waiting for the Advent of the Lord.”[1] For those who follow the liturgical year, it is a source of many blessings, for

Just as the Lord has punctuated the sky with stars, and the fields with flowers, and the years with seasons, so has he punctuated the seasons themselves with feast days, that by this distinction made from the daily services, the holy solemnities may lead slothful characters, at least after a time, willingly back to prayer, and idle minds may by these annual feasts make themselves ready for the Lord.[2]

“In fact, throughout the course of the year the Church unfolds the entire mystery of Christ and observes the birthdays of the Saints.”[3]

Liturgical Christmas Time, the authentic Christmas season, “runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6;” this year, in the United States of America, it will last until January 12th.[4] The authentic Christmas season has nothing to do with the commercialization of a great and holy feast that has everything to do with the immense and almost unimaginable love God has for sinful humanity.

For whatever reason, more and more Americans are anticipating holidays and holy days earlier and earlier. As but one example, in some places, Trick-or-Treating was held more a week before Halloween. As I said a moment ago, Christmas decorations are already erupting seemingly everywhere, and we have not even arrived at Thanksgiving. All of this saddens me. The culture of instant gratification has forgotten how to wait in patience and so has lost much of the joy these special days once brought.

About this time every year, several people share an article on various social media with a headline to the effect of, “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you.”[5] The bold claim of the headline is based on the words of Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown, who said, “Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extends the excitement.”[6] My experience, at least, contradicts his words; lots of people decorate earlier and earlier each year, yet they do not seem any happier going about town; quite the opposite seems to be true. Even if his claim is true, we have to ask ourselves what Christmas is about; is it about some fuzzy feeling linked to receiving gifts, or is it instead about the manifestation of God’s love for us on the day when the sun of justice arose with its healing rays (cf. Malachi 3:20)?

At the risk of sounding like an old man – I am only 41, which, for some, myself included, seems old – the secular observance of Christmas is not today what it was twenty years ago. When I was in high school and college, I had the great pleasure of getting paid to play for seven years: I was first hired by Kay-Bee Toys as a Parental Video Game Advisor, a seasonal position that led to my being hired as a regular sales associate. Then, it was rare to see Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving or to hear Christmas music (which then actually sang about the Birth of the Savior instead of mere sleighs and snow); indeed, if you put up decorations before Thanksgiving, people thought you were being ridiculous; not is almost expected. Shopping about for gifts was a mostly enjoyable experience, with greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” being heard many times each day. Helping shoppers find a gift for someone was usually fun. Back then, "Black Friday" was called "Green Friday," before customers started shoving each other, because half of our annual sales were made on that one day.

In more recent years, however, things are vastly different. Last year, for example, I kept track of the number of times a cashier wished me either Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas; the total, sadly, came to zero. What have we allowed to happen?

Some will say, “Father, society has changed today; that’s simply the way it is and we cannot change it.” To those who might say this, I remind you that we are part of society and that some seventy percent of the American people still claim to be Christians.[7] It’s high time we lived like Christians. Saint Augustine once rightly said, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good, and the times will be good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”[8]

I do not raise this issue today to be a Grinch (the cartoon is better than the movie) or a Scrooge (The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best version of the classic work by Charles Dickens). Rather, I raise it to up us recover the joy of the holy days that are yet to come and to help us “to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.”[9] I do not want to exhaust ourselves with premature celebrations; I want us instead to enter fully into the liturgical year so that its beauty, peace, and joy can be ours.

If our mindset is to anticipate Christmas rather than to celebrate the actual day with its following season, we will miss the beauty and the hope the season of Advent offers, and Christmas Day will lack something of the sacred joy that should permeate it. If we anticipate our holidays and holy days so much so far in advance, by the time they actually arrive we will already be worn down and ready to move on to the next anticipation, only for the cycle to keep perpetuating.

This coming Sunday, the liturgical year enters its final week with the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In two weeks, the liturgical year will begin anew as we enter into the season of Advent with its “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.”[10] It is against this backdrop that we heard the warning of the Prophet Malachi: “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” (Malachi 3:19).

Let each one of us, then, humble ourselves and submit to the liturgical calendar, seeking to enter into each aspect of the mystery of the life of Christ Jesus. Let us reject the busy commercialization of what are meant to be holy and reflective days. Let us strive to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of the Messiah through the season of Advent, so that we might “not act in a disorderly way,” but might instead imitate the great Saints of the Church who strove to unite themselves to Christ in every aspect of their lives (II Thessalonians 3:11; cf. II Thessalonians 3:7). Amen.


[1] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, 17.
[2] Saint Paulinus of Nola, in James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 259.
[3] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 1.
[4] Ibid., 32.
[5] “Putting Christmas decorations up in September is good for you,” Hully Daily Mail, 16 September 2019. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.hulldailymail.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/putting-christmas-decorations-up-september-3323337.
[6] In ibid.
[7] Cf. Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study. Accessed 16 November 2019. Available at https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
[8] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the New Testament, 30.8.
[9] Roman Missal, Collect for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[10] Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year, 39.

11 November 2019

Homily - What is the purpose of marriage?


The Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

There are some today who take offense at Jesus when he says, with the authority of God, that “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35). In an age in which so many spouses seemingly forget the promises they made on the day of their wedding – namely “to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live” – we have a tendency to say that marriage is forever.[1] But this is not true; marriage lasts “all the days of my life,” “until death do us part.”[2] With death, marriage comes to an end. Why?

In somewhat veiled terms, the Lord Jesus gives us the answer to this important question. It is because those who will be raised from the dead on the Last Day “can no longer die, for they are like angels” that they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:36). Saint Bede the Venerable explains this answer further when he says, “Since matrimony is for the sake of children, and children for the sake of posterity, and posterity for the sake of death, where, therefore, there is no death there are no marriages.”[3]

On the one hand, this might at first glance appear a negative assessment of marriage; on the other hand, however, it gets right to the heart of the purpose of marriage:

By the Sacrament of Matrimony Christian spouses signify and participate in the mystery of unity and fruitful love between Christ and the Church; therefore, both in embracing conjugal life and in accepting and educating children, they help one another to become holy and have their own place and particular gift among the People of God.[4]

In other words, the purpose of marriage is for a husband to help his wife become a Saint and for a wife to help her husband become a Saint. When this is forgotten, the marriage begins to fail.

Marriage, of course, is founded upon love, but authentic love is not always understood today. More than anything else, love is a choice and an act for the good of the beloved. The emotion of love comes and goes; sometimes we feel loved and sometimes we do not, but our emotions are not always reliable. This is why the highest form of love is not an emotion but, rather, an act of the will, a choice for the good of the other, even – and especially - at my own expense.

Understanding love is somewhat complicated by our language; we only have one word for love, and so we say I love you and this dog and this book and this pizza; we use the same word without distinction and lose something in the process. The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews, however, knew three Greek words for love, each with its own particular meaning. The ancient world, however, knew several different words for love. The Greeks, for example, knew of three.

The first form of love was called eros and was a “possessive or covetous love,” even a “worldly” love.[5] The second form of love was called philia and was the “love of friendship.”[6] The third and highest form of love – a love without self-interest – was called agape.

Likewise, the Hebrews knew two words for love. “First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching” and in this way is very much like the Greek eros.[7]

This comes to be replaced by the word ahabĂ , which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which … becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.[8]

This love is like that of agape and is very much like the love of Christ Jesus for his Bride, the Church.

It is generally the love of eros, a self-seeking love, which first brings a couple together. If this love of eros does not develop into the love of philia, into a love of friendship, the relationship will fall apart under the weight of narcissism. And if the love of philia does not then develop into the love of agape, into a selfless love, the relationship will remain one of mutual convenience, but it will not become the love intended by the Lord for Christian marriage.

There is a temptation today to over-romanticize marriage, to think it will somehow automatically bring about a life of bliss with no difficulties. The reality, however, as any honest couple will tell you, is not quite so picture perfect. Marriage is difficult. It requires compromise, patience, and gentleness; and when these are embraced, marriage is also beautiful, perhaps because of its difficulties. Like the Christian life in general, marriage is simple, but it is not easy. It is simple because, at its core, it involves only one thing, namely, that every day each spouse desires the good of the other above his or her own and labors to obtain that good for the beloved; each spouse must strive to build the other up in Christ for the glory of God. In this, marriage is far from easy.

The great J.R.R. Tolkien, a devoted Catholic and the author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, reflected on the reality of marriage in a letter he wrote to his son Michael in 1941. Then, after twenty-five of his fifty-five years of marriage to his beloved wife Edith, the elder Tolkien wrote these words:

Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification… No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that – even those brought up ‘in the Church’.[9]

The professor here speaks of a danger for the groom in marriage, but lest some think marriage brings no danger for the bride, we might note the temptation of the wife to always imagine herself to be right. Marriage, for her, too, requires deliberate conscious exercise of the will, that is, self-denial.

To put it in simpler terms, in the bonds of marriage, a husband is bound to care more about his wife than he cares about himself. Likewise, in the bonds of marriage, a wife is bound to care more about her husband than she cares about herself. Without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial, neither can do this. I do not want anyone to be unaware of this. But if husband and wife live with deliberate conscious exercise of the will, with self-denial, they can, with the grace the Sacrament of Marriage provides, put each other first and grow together in the love of Christ.

Among the words of profound spiritual counsel left us by Saint Marianne Cope, one of my favorite saints, are these: “Creep down into the heart of Jesus.” The reason she tells us to do so is simple: “He alone can comfort you in your supreme hour of sorrow.” These might seem strange words for a homily about marriage, but the truth of her words cannot be ignored, nor can the reality of marriage as a form of the cross, in that marriage requires a daily renunciation of oneself in favor of the spouse to become a reflection of Christ’s love.

A husband and wife should creep down together into the heart of Jesus each day of their married life. They should look around within his heart and poke around, exploring each day what it means to love fully and to love “to the end” (John 13:1). As they help each other creep down further into the heart of Jesus to conform their hearts ever more closely to his own, they will help each other to become saints, the first and primary purpose of marriage. Then they will be able to emerge from his Sacred Heart to love as he loves, teaching each other – and all who see them – how to do the same. If they live and love in this way, they can show to a darkened world the bright light of love so that, together with them, all may find their home in the heart of Jesus. Amen.


[1] Order of Celebrating Matrimony, 60.
[2] Ibid., 61.
[3] In Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 20.42.
[4] Order of Celebrating Matrimony, 8.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 7.
[6] Ibid., 3.
[7] Ibid., 6.
[8] Ibid.
[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 51.

07 November 2019

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