31 January 2017

I look at Jesus and he looks at me

The Holy Face of Manoppello

I go forward, looking at Jesus. I walk ahead, keeping my gaze fixed on Jesus, and what do I find? That he has his gaze fixed on me! And that makes me feel this great astonishment. This is the astonishment of the encounter with Jesus.
- Pope Francis

21 January 2017

Homily - 22 January 2017 - On Saint Agnes of Rome

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

I could not help but notice today a great ball of light moving across the sky. It was, naturally, the sun, whom we do not see often enough in these winter months. As I looked towards it with wonder and appreciation, I thought of one of the verses we heard only a few moments ago: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1). This may not be an altogether incorrect interpretation of this verse, but it is surely not the interpretation the prophet had in mind.

Rather, “according to Isaiah, the people who sinned sat in the shadow of death. For these a light arose, not by the merits of their virtues, but by the grace of God.”[1] This great light that arose is, of course, Jesus Christ, who is called “the sun of justice” and who calls himself “the bright morning star” and “the light of the world” (Malachi 3:20; Revelation 22:16; John 8:12).

While recognizing Jesus as the one true light, the Church has long looked to Mary as another great light who, like the moon, reflects the light of her Son. Indeed, the very name of Mary means “Star of the Sea.” Why?

            If we reflect for a moment on the nature of human life, we quickly realize that

Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. John 1:14).[2]

The Blessed Virgin Mary may be the brightest and clearest of these secondary lights, but the light of the lives of the other saints also illumines the way before us, the way that leads to Jesus Christ. It is he who shines the light of his face upon the darkness of our sins. It is he who calls to repent of our sins and reform our lives. And it is who desires that we so imitate him that we might also be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). This is why he tells us, “Let your light so shine before me, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

One such light arose for us more than seventeen hundred years ago, our heavenly patroness, Saint Agnes of Rome. While we do not know the precise year in which she gave up her life for the One who gave his life for her (though it was about the year 305), she was brought to trial on January 21st and martyred on January 28th.

A girl of great beauty, Saint Agnes was both a Roman citizen and a Christian who lived during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. By the age of twelve, she had already consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ and refused numerous offers of marriage because of her loving commitment to Jesus.

Brought before a judge, she was interrogated then threatened with death by burning… Refusing to serve the gods in the temple of Vesta, as ordered by the prefect, she was exposed naked in a brothel as a final insult to her triumphant and enticing virginity… Her radiant purity deterred all but the son of the prefect, who, attempting to have his way with her, was struck blind but had his sight restored by her forgiveness. .. Finally exasperated by her resistance, the governor or prefect ordered her to be beheaded, and she was accordingly killed in this way, in the Stadium of Domitian, known as the Circus Agonalis (now the Piazza Navona, dominated by the church of Sant’Agnese in Agonia).[3]

Normally, “childhood is computed in years, but in her immense wisdom she was old; she was a child in body but already aged in spirit. Her face was beautiful, her faith more beautiful.”[4]

If we remember for a moment the ancient Roman adage of nomen est omen, that the name is a sign, we can see that

the name Agnes comes from agna, because Agnes was as meek and humble as a lamb. Or her name comes from the Greek word agnos, pious, because she was pious and compassionate; or from agnoscendo, knowing, because she knew the way of truth [which] is opposed to vanity and falseness and doubting, all of which she avoided by the virtue of truth that was hers.[5]

In all of these features of her life, we can look to the light of Saint Agnes and see the way to heavenly glory.

The faithful and courageous witness of Saint Agnes is especially striking if we remember that she shed her blood for Jesus when she was only twelve. Typically, as Saint Ambrose says, young girls of that age “are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the prick of a needle as though they were wounds.” Saint Agnes, though, “was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners”[6] because, as she said to the man who attempted to force himself upon her:

The one I love is far nobler than you, of more eminent descent. His mother is a virgin, his father knows no woman, he is served by angels; the sun and moon wonder at his beauty; his wealth never lacks or lessens; his perfume brings the dead to life, his touch strengthens the feeble, his love is chastity itself, his touch holiness, union with him, virginity.[7]

Is our faith strong enough to say something similar?

If you and I, dear brothers and sisters, look to Saint Agnes and entrust ourselves to her intercession, she can help us to become like lights shining in the darkness of this world. More than living a merely good life, she can teach us how to live a life of heroic virtue.

The example of Saint Agnes is particularly poignant today. How many people value others only because of physical beauty? How many people fail to recognize their own dignity and misuse and abuse their bodies for momentary pleasure? In the midst of the darkness of this hedonism, the light of Saint Agnes’ chastity and fidelity shines brightly before us and upon us. Let us, then, look to her, who, “disdaining the advantages of noble birth, merited heavenly honors; caring nothing for what human society desires, she won the society of the eternal king; accepting a precious death for professing Christ, she at the same time was conformed to his likeness.”[8]

May she show us how to be meek and humble, to be pious and compassionate, and to oppose vanity, falsehood, and doubt. By imitating her, may we be found faithful lambs of the Good Shepherd and counted among his flock. Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, On Paradise, 5.29. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. X: Isaiah 1-39. Steven A. McKinion, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), 70.
[2] Benedict XVI, Spe salvi¸ 49.
[3] Paul Burns, ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition: January (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 146.
[4] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, Vol. 1. William Granger Ryan, trans. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 102.
[5] Ibid., 101.
[6] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Three Books Concerning Virgins, II.7.
[7] Saint Agnes of Rome, in Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, 102.
[8] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Preface of Saint Agnes. In Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, 104.

Homily for the Funeral Mass of Richard Deters - 21 January 2017

Funeral for Richard Deters

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we gather today to mourn the loss of Richard and to pray for the repose of his soul, Saint Paul says to us, as he said to Saint Timothy, “remember Jesus Christ” (II Timothy 2:8). These words remind us, perhaps starkly, that today is not about us – nor is it fundamentally about Richard – but about Jesus Christ and his love for us. Living as we do in an age which is all about remembering people and experiences, these words of the Apostle ought to at least catch us a bit off guard.

Regrettably, when most people think about Jesus, they first think of him as a nice man who went about doing good and being kind to those he met; they tend to think of him simply as a good teacher (cf. Luke 18:18). While this image of Jesus is not altogether incorrect, it is also quite incomplete. Whenever we think of Jesus Christ, we should remember – more than anything else – that he is the enfleshment of divine love “who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Saint Paul calls us, then, to remember the love which God manifests for us in Christ. Because he first loved us, “the Son of God appeared … to destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8). He became flesh within the womb of the Virgin Mary, was born at Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger (cf. Luke 1:31; 2:7). He taught in the synagogues and in public, calling everyone to repentance (cf. Mark 1:14). He forgave sins, healed the sick, cast out demons, and restored the dead to life. For all of this, he was condemned and willingly accepted death, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This is why Saint Peter tells us:

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (I Peter 2:23-25).

His death on the Cross was not the end, for “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and … appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” and then “to more than five hundred brethren at one time” (I Corinthians 15:4-6). “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

If we keep the admonition of Saint Paul to “remember Jesus Christ,” we remember all of this. This is why Saint Augustine encourages us, saying, “Let us believe in Christ crucified; but in him as the one who rose again on the third day.”[1] Because of his hope in the Resurrection of the dead, Saint Paul bore “with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory” (II Timothy 2:10).

When Saint Paul tells the young Bishop Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ,” he does not intend that Timothy merely think back upon the life of Jesus, as we might do when looking through photographs. Rather, he instructs his young son in the faith to fix his attention upon Jesus; Paul calls Timothy to “an activation of faith in the mystery.”[2] We, too, are called to an activation of faith in the mystery of Crucified and Risen Love. It is a mystery, we might say, of two parts, the mystery of death and the mystery of life.

The mystery of death is all around us, even as we try daily to ignore it, to disguise it, or even to run from it. In the end, none of us can escape it, but this does not mean that we should live without hope. How, then, should the Christian respond to death?

We might say that this mystery revolves around the fact that “Christ reigns from the Cross and, with his arms open wide, he embraces all people of the world and draws them into unity,” into the unity of his merciful love.[3] This is why, gathered here at the altar of the Lord where the mystery of the Lord’s Cross is renewed in the mystery of the Eucharist, we have come to ask the Lord Jesus to find Richard, who was tried in the furnace of this life, “worthy of himself” (cf. Wisdom 3:6; 5). We implore the Crucified and Risen Lord to stretch out his hand to Richard and draw him into his pierced side that he might make his abode within his Sacred Heart and “abide with him in love” (Wisdom 3:9).

We respond with faith in God, with a gaze of firm hope founded on the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, death opens to life, to eternal life, which is not an infinite duplicate of the present time, but something completely new. Faith tells us that the true immortality for which we hope is not an idea, a concept, but a relationship of full communion with the living God: it is resting in his hands, in his love, and becoming in him one with all the brothers and sisters that he has created and redeemed, with all Creation. Our hope, then, lies in the love of God that shines resplendent from the Cross of Christ who lets Jesus’ words to the good thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) resound in our heart. This is life in its fullness: life in God; a life of which we now have only a glimpse as one sees blue sky through fog.[4]

So it is that the mystery of death and of life are bound together in Christ. The Christian who has remained faithful to Christ need not fear death; rather, because our hope is “full of immortality,” the Christian can instead raise his eyes to Christ to see in them a look of tender love because he has already died and risen with him in the saving waters of Baptism (Wisdom 3:4; cf. Romans 6:3; I Peter 3:21).

Still, the question of suffering remains. What purpose has it in this life and why does it so accompany death? It has been said that

there are two ways a Christian … can promote the gospel and the kingdom: by work and by suffering. And who is to say that work is more effective than suffering, if suffering is one’s call and is borne in union with Christ? It is part of the mystery that Jesus redeemed the world ultimately not by preaching, teaching, and healing, but by suffering unto death.[5]

The Lord Jesus extends his hand to each us each day, inviting us to take it and be swept up into the mystery of his love. If we take his hand and offer our sufferings lovingly in union with his, he can use them to effect the mystery of his Cross. What is more, through these sufferings, through our union with his Cross, we “shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble” because Jesus is no longer in the tomb, “but he has been raised” (Wisdom 3:7; Luke 24:6).

With this confidence, then, we commend our brother Richard into the strong and loving hand of the Lord Jesus, trusting in the promise that “if we have died with him, we shall also live with him” (II Timothy 2:11). As we remember Jesus, may he remember Richard. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 234.3. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol. IX: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Peter Gorday, et al, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), 243.
[2] George T. Montague, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: First and Second Timothy, Titus. Peter S. Williamson and Mary Healy, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 161.
[3] Benedict XVI, Homily, 20 November 2011.
[4] Ibid., Homily, 3 November 2012.
[5] George T. Montague, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 163.

20 January 2017

A Prayer for the Nation

O God,
who arrange all things according to a wonderful design,
graciously receive the prayers
we pour out to you for our country,
that, through the wisdom of its leaders and the integrity of its citizens,
harmony and justice may be assured
and lasting prosperity come with peace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
- Roman Missal 

18 January 2017

Thinking on the beauty of sorrow

To be able to attend to the dying, to hear their confessions, to comfort or encourage them, and to bestow the Apostolic pardon upon them is a beautiful grace given to priests. Sadly, though, many families are now waiting until a dying person has already become unconscious before they call for the priest. Please, do not wait (in nearly twelve years of priesthood, I've not yet given Viaticum to the dying [both because families wait too long to call and because of hospital chaplains]).

This is on my mind today because I found this morning two photographs of my mother with my childhood pastor, Father John Beveridge, when she was in a nursing home suffering from a cancer of the brain. Although I do not remember seeing them before, I must have seen them before because they were with other photographs I do remember:

There is, naturally, no time stamp on either of these photographs and neither has a date written on the back, so I do not know exactly when they were taken, but she was only in the nursing home for a little less than two years.

These two photographs have brought both joy and sadness to my heart on this twenty-ninth anniversary of her death. I miss her dearly still after all these years (which is only right) and will, thankfully, be able to make a quick return to Quincy this afternoon to visit her grave.

The combination of joy and sorrow present in my heart this morning, keeps my mind returning to a brilliant article I read only a few days ago by Michael David Elam, "The AinulindalĂ« and J.R.R. Tolkien's Beautiful Sorrow in Christian Tradition" (VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review [28], 2011).

Elam is right to say that "J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that a kind of beauty can arise which springs predominantly from sorrow" (61). Anyone who has read Tolkien's works with even a little attention cannot help but notice this and, more often than not, be puzzled by this suggestion.

Following the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Elam notes that "one is moved to sorrow when goodness is absent; and if goodness is absent, the only proper response is sorrow. If one responds with sorrow at the lack of goodness, one does what is proper, and in doing so the act has beauty" (68).

At the conclusion of his essay, Elam summarizes Tolkien's vision of a beautiful sorrow:
Hope seeks what it lacks, and suffers in its want, and sorrow accepts that there is meaning in pain. Despite being overshadowed by evil, sorrow recognizes the divine and hopes for its goodness. And what is hoped for can be received. So it is fitting that sorrow should hope for comfort because comfort is offered to those who, fittingly, endure evil, and to do what is fitting is good. And to do what is good is beautiful (76).
A great many people today are afraid of grief and sorrow because they do not recognize its beauty. Having something of a melancholic disposition, I have often found the experience of sorrow to be something of a comfort because it reminds me both that I love and that am I loved. What can be more beautiful than knowing this? 

Today, the knowledge of my love for my mother and the knowledge of her love for me is very close to me. This knowledge of love fills my heart with joy even as her physical absence fills me with sorrow. Each year, this day - and many others - is filled with something of an intermingling of a joy and grief, which is beautiful because it is good.

08 January 2017

Homily - 8 January 2016 - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters,       

These learned men from the East are much like 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” (Luke 2:8). The Magi were likewise keeping watch, not over flocks, but over the heavens, which is why they could say, “We have seen his star at its rising,” the Magi told King Herod (Matthew 2:2). Both groups, shepherds and magi, waited something for – or, rather, for someone – who would radically change their lives.

Why should the Magi have spent so much of their time and energy looking for some sign in the heavens? They must have been intentionally looking for the star to see it at its rising and then to follow it. These Magi were perhaps not very different from you and me. They were weary, restless, uncertain and ill at ease. They sought meaning, purpose and direction for their lives. There was, I suspect, within their hearts an intimation of the profound 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 announcement given them by the angels; the Magi through the announcement of 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, having seen the sign they awaited, also set out with some 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, like the Magi – with haste – we, too, will realize that 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]

Codex Aureus of Echternach, 11th cent.
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 before the Holy Infant (Matthew 2:11).

Do we not imitate these Magi each time we enter the church? Do we not also fall down in worship whenever we genuflect before the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist? Yes, we, too, have entered the Lord’s house and have fallen down before him. When we fall down before him, when we bend our knee to him, is it merely an external action, or is it also an external sign of an internal sentiment? For the Magi, it was both. So should it 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, then, learn to recognize the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar and so adore him with the Magi.

Detail, Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, 14th cent.
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 have we 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?
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 heart, the treasure of our lives. Let us open it 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 Herod failed to see.

Both Herod and the Magi said they wanted to adore the Child Jesus. The Magi wanted to do so internally in their hearts and externally with their posture to express the sentiment of their hearts. Herod, on the other hand, wanted to perform merely an external show. He refused to submit himself to the Newborn King and, hence, Herod refused open his heart and be conquered by Love. The Magi, on the other hand, opened their hearts to him and allowed their encounter with Christ to transform their lives. This is why they “departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). They could not have returned 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 Child of Bethlehem, when we 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 with 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] Today, then, let us seek to offer him the gift of gold, of our lives shining with wisdom. Let us seek to offer him the gift of frankincense, of our hearts set afire with love of him. And let us seek to offer him the gift of myrrh, of quelling our passions in his service. Let us seek to open the treasure of our hearts to him. Let us yield to the power of his love and adore him, not as Herod did, but as the Magi, with hearts filled with faith and a desire for salvation.  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., Address at the Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.
[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, 21 August 2005.
[7] Ibid., Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.

What do gold, frankincense, and myrrh symbolize for us?

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.
- Aelfric of Eynsham
With a tip of the capello to A Clerk of Oxford

07 January 2017

Homily for the Wedding of Cheryl Zurliene and Evan Keil

The Wedding of Cheryl Zurliene and Evan Keil

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

About the year 723, Saint Boniface famously – and daringly – climbed Mount Gudenberg where there was “a certain oak of extraordinary size.”[1] His pagan contemporaries gathered around this Oak of Geismar to offer, among others, children as sacrifices to the pagan deities. In his Life of St. Boniface, Saint Willibald describes for us what Saint Boniface did when he reached the summit:

Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly, the oak's vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God … the oak burst asunder into four parts, each part having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle, the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began, on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord.[2]

Today, his action would probably be labeled one of intolerance, of cultural insensitivity, and of religious superiority. And while there might be something behind each of these accusations, the holy Bishop would not likely have understood them. He struck down that tree for the simple reason that it kept those ancient Germanic peoples from encountering Jesus and Saint Boniface knew that every obstacle to the love of Christ must come down.

If this seems a strange way to begin a homily for a wedding, I readily admit it is. However, I ask you to bear with me for just a moment longer and all will, I hope, make sense. After he struck down the great Thunder Oak, Saint Boniface pointed to a young fir tree growing nearby and said to the pagan worshipers of the now-destroyed tree:

This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are ever green. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.[3]

Some accounts say those new Christians began bringing fir trees into their homes and decorated them with candles. Thus began the custom of what we now call the Christmas tree.

Much as the life of the fir tree stands as a sign of God’s love for his creation, so, too, should the shared life of a husband and wife stand as a sign of the love the Lord Jesus has for his Bride, the Church. So it is that now I ask you, dear brothers and sisters, to allow me to speak directly to the bride and groom around whom we have gathered today. You, of course, are most welcome to listen in.

Evan and Cheryl, the great J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an intriguingly straightforward letter about marriage and the relationship between men and women to his son Christopher in March of 1941. The famed author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings warned of the danger of “the romantic chivalric tradition,” which carried with it three errors.

The first of these errors is that the chivalric tradition idealized the relationship between a man and a woman outside of marriage, and even contrary to it. The second of these errors is that the chivalric tradition was not centered on God, but instead on Love and the Lady, both of whom the medieval romances tended to deify. The third of these errors is that the chivalric tradition portrayed the Lady always as “a kind of guiding star.” This, said Professor Tolkien, “is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril.” In the end, Tolkien went on to call a husband and wife “companions in shipwreck not guiding stars.”[4]

J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien
At first glance, we might be tempted to think these words somewhat gloomy. Perhaps they are, until we realize that Tolkien wrote them in the twenty-fifth of fifty-five years of marriage to his beloved Edith. When he penned these words to his son, he did so with the full knowledge of all that marriage entails, of all its joys and difficulties. Here, then, we come to the distinctive mark of Christian marriage.

The Lord Jesus took the natural institution of marriage and raised it to the dignity of a sacrament. In Christ, marriage becomes a vocation, a calling from the Lord that receives “a noble purpose,” a way of life leading to the sanctification of the spouses (Tobit 8:7). Husband and wife become for each other a “help and support” as together they “pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance” from their sins (Tobit 8:6, 5). Strengthened by the Lord’s grace and by imitating his love, the couple united by the Lord learn to “anticipate one another in showing honor” and, as Tolkien knew well, begin “to forget their [own] desires, needs and temptations” and look instead to the desires, needs and temptations of their spouse (Romans 12:10).[5] It is in this way that they keep the command of the Lord Jesus to “love one another as I love you” (John 15:12).

Evan and Cheryl, this will be your great task from this day forward, to mirror to each other - and to the world - the love of Jesus Christ. Though this mission is a daunting one, I urge you not to be afraid of it. Rather, take it up with joy, confident that the Lord will strengthen your commitment to one another and will hear your every prayer, for he himself has brought you to this day.

Permit me, if you will, to say that you have both come here today as two single trees. You desire to be joined today in holy matrimony because you recognize in each other not only the one your heart desires, but also – and more importantly – one who can help you grow in holiness, one who can help you attain perfection in Christ. Because of your mutual desire to help each other grow in holiness, you need not be afraid when one of you takes, as it were, like Saint Boniface, a gentle axe to the other to clear away whatever is not of Christ, whatever does not reflect his love, and whatever keeps you from entering fully into his love. And when that gentle axe comes swinging away at you, do not resist it but allow it to prune away all that keeps you from growing each day in holiness.

Through the bond of marriage, the two of you will become today like a great fir tree standing in the midst of a troubled world as a sign of peace. Through the tender love you bear for each other, you will stand also as a sign of the joy of the gift of endless life. United in peace and love, you will grow tall pointing upward ever more clearly, indicating the way to the heaven, not only for yourselves, but for everyone. Seek, then, to “put forth [your] branches and bear [the] fruit” of loving gifts and rites of kindness to all who gather around you (Ezekiel 17:23).

If you let the tree of your communal life imitate the tree of the Lord’s Cross by laying down your lives for each other, all who see your married love will see in it a reflection of Christ’s love for us and, like those early pagans, will be moved to believe and bless the Lord (cf. John 15:13). If you love and honor each other in this way, you will indeed “go and bear fruit that will remain” (John 15:16). If you help each other to become saints, the light of your married life will shine more brightly than the greatest Christmas tree. You will be not only companions in shipwreck, but you will become guiding stars for all who seek the salvation of God. Amen.

[1] Saint Willibald, Life of St. Boniface, 6. In C.H. Talbot, trans., The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Leoba and Lebuin together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St. Boniface (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954).
[2] Ibid.
[3] In Steve Weidenkopf, “St.Boniface and the Christmas Tree,” Catholic Answers. 5 June 2014.
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941. In Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 48-49.
[5] Ibid., 49.