25 April 2018

Homily - 25 April 2018 - The Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The image of Jesus as “the good shepherd” who “lays down [his] life for the sheep” is a powerful one and beloved by many (John 10:11). And even though we rarely encounter shepherds today, we know what they look like. A shepherd stands in the midst of the flock holding his distinctive emblem, the crook. Each of us has likely seen an image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, complete with a shepherd’s crook, but such images are lacking throughout the history of Christian art. They are, in fact, something of a recent novelty.

We do, of course, find a few images of the Good Shepherd in the catacombs, in early churches, and in medieval manuscripts, but in these he carries no crook. In the catacombs, he is depicted as carrying a sheep on his shoulders (cf. Isaiah 40:1), but this depiction of the Good Shepherd soon gave way to depictions of him sitting in the midst of the flock and holding not a crook, but the cross surmounted on a pole. It is almost as if the ancient artists sought to tells us that the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd is, in fact, his Cross (cf. Psalm 23:4); they show the Good Shepherd carrying the instrument by which he laid down his life for his sheep.

In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess that, after his death and before his Resurrection, Jesus “descended into hell,” though here we do not mean the state of eternal separation from God, but to those who died before the gates of heaven were opened to us. Concerning this visitation, Saint Peter said, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God” (I Peter 4:6). The medieval called this the “Harrowing of Hell” and frequently depicted Jesus brandishing his cross before the gates of hell to pry them open, and as using his cross to pin demons to the ground. The medievals also showed Jesus using his cross planted firmly on the ground as a support as he helped those he freed escape from the mouth of hell. What is more, they also showed Jesus holding his cross out to those he freed, who, while taking hold of Jesus’ hand, also took hold of the cross. Jesus uses his Cross in the same way a shepherd uses his crook; truly, he is the Good Shepherd who rescues, defends, guides, and lays down his life for his sheep. This is why we make so much use of the Sign of the Cross.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis reflected on the Sign of the Cross. He said to parents, “Teach children how to make the sign of the Cross. If they learn it as children they will do it well later, as grown-ups.”[1] The Holy Father wants parents – and all of us – to so focus on the Sign of the Cross because of its central role in our faith. The Holy Father described the importance of the Cross, calling it

…the badge that shows who we are: our words, thoughts, gaze, works are under the sign of the Cross, that is, under the sign of Jesus’ love to the very end… We become Christians in the measure to which the Cross is imprinted on us as a “paschal” mark (cf. Revelation 14:1; 22:4), making visible, also outwardly, the Christian way of confronting life. Making the sign of the Cross when we wake, before meals, in facing danger, to protect against evil, in the evening before we sleep, means telling ourselves and others whom we belong to, whom we want to be. This is why it is so important to teach children how to make the sign of the Cross properly. And as we do upon entering a church, we can also do so at home, by keeping a bit of holy water in a suitable little vase — some families do so: this way, each time we come in or go out, by making the sign of the Cross with that water we remember that we are baptized. Do not forget, I repeat: teach the children how to make the sign of the Cross.

The sign of the Cross is, on the one hand, a most simple gesture and, on the other, a most profound statement of faith. Too often do we enter the church, dip our fingers in holy water, and make some hurried gesture as if swatting away flies, not recognizing the great power that is in the sign we should make.

When we enter the doors of the church, we pass, as it were, from earth to heaven. We make the sign of the Cross to place ourselves at the service of the Lord Jesus Christ and to remind us of his grace and mercy. Indeed,

by signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, [we] hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on. We accept it as a signpost that we must follow… The Cross shows us the road of life – the imitation of Christ.[2]

It is on the Cross that we see the fullest sign of Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father, and for this reason the Cross shows us how to conform our will to the Father’s and how to serve his majesty in sincerity of heart; it shows us how to be true sheep of the Good Shepherd.

The faithful have been signing themselves with the Cross for almost two thousand years. Indeed, the first mention we have in writing of the Sign of the Cross comes from Tertullian, who died in 220. “At every step,” he said, “when going in and out, when putting on clothes and shoes, when washing ourselves, when kindling the lights, when going to sleep, sitting down, and in every action we place the sign of the cross on our foreheads.”[3] We would do well to do the same, and to do so with attentive reverence and love, fully conscious of the sign we make, without being ashamed of doing so in public.

When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it concentrates and sanctifies us. It does so because it is the sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption… It is the holiest of all signs.[4]

On the day of our baptism, the priest or deacon, together with our parents and godparents, traced the sign of the Cross on our foreheads. As the minister did so, he said, “I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his Cross.”[5] The sign of the Cross is, then, a sign of ownership; it is the sign that marks us out as belonging to Christ and to no other. The Bishop, likewise, traced the sign of the Cross on our forehead with the sacred Chrism when he sealed us with the seven-fold gift of the Holy Spirit. We, too, make the sign of the Cross on our foreheads – and on our lips and over our heart - at every Mass when we prepare to hear the words of the Gospel so that we might keep the Lord Jesus in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart. We make the Sign of the Cross when we begin to pray and when we finish praying. In all of these ways, we seek to place the Sign of the Cross over everything we do. Let us, then, always make the Sign of the Cross with reverence and love so it may seep deep into our souls and make us more and more like the Good Shepherd. Through the sign of his Cross, may he know us as marked and belonging to him, and may we know him in whose death and resurrection we have been redeemed. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Wednesday General Audience, 18 April 2018.
[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2000), 177-178.
[3] Tertullian, in Klemens Richter, The Meaning of the Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today’s Questions, trans. Linda M. Maloney, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 132.
[4] Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, trans. Grace Branham (St. Louis, Missouri: Pio Decimo Press, 1956), 13f in Adolf Adam, trans. Robert C. Schultz, The Eucharistic Celebration: The Source and Summit of Faith (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 21.
[5] Rite of Baptism for Children, 41.

15 April 2018

Homily - 15 April 2018 - The Third Sunday of Easter (B)

The Third Sunday of Easter (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, we hear the Apostle Saint Peter proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ to the people of Jerusalem. “The author of life you put to death,” he said, “but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15). In the discovery of the Lord’s burial clothes - but not of his body - and in the various encounters with the Risen Lord and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, something changed in Saint Peter. No longer was he a man who cared more for his safety than for his loyalty to his Master, nor was he any longer afraid of the crowds but instead proclaimed the truth of the Christian faith to them. Why? He changed because he finally gave his heart over to Jesus. I might say he gave his entire heart over to Jesus, but then I would be arguing with Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Saint Augustine noticed that when Jesus asked for something to eat, the Apostles gave him not a whole fish, but only “a piece of baked fish” (Luke 24:42). Being intrigued by these two details, the piece of cooked fish, he wanted to know why. He concluded that

They offered him what they had: a portion of grilled fish [various translations translate the manner of cooking differently]. Grilled fish means martyrdom, faith proved by fire. Why is it only a portion? Paul says, “If I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3). Imagine a complete body of martyrs. Some suffer because of love, while others suffer out of pride. Remove the pride portion, offer the love portion. That is the food for Christ. Give Christ his portion. Christ loves the martyrs who suffered out of love.[1]

When the Lord first predicted his Passion and Death, Saint Peter gave the portion of his pride to the Lord when he told him, “No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). The giving of his pride earned him a stern rebuke from the Lord: “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23)! In the end, however, Saint Peter gave the portion of his love to the Lord when he gave his life for the sake of his name. What portion have we given to the Lord?

Saint Anthony of Padua had a slightly different, though not unrelated, reading of the detail of the cooked fish. Recognizing that each of us is called to be as another Christ because we have been joined to him in Baptism, the Doctor of the Gospels said:

The “broiled fish” is the Redeemer who suffered, who was caught in the waters of the human race by the hook of death, and “broiled” at the time of his Passion; and he, too, is the honeycomb for us in today’s Resurrection. The honeycomb is in the wax, as the divinity is in the humanity. In this eating is signified that he takes them, in his body, to eternal rest, who, when they suffer trials for God’s sake, do not depart from the joy of eternal sweetness. Those who are “broiled” here, will there be satisfied with sweetness.[2]

The Lord Jesus takes in those who know him; he takes in those who keep his commandments and his word (cf. I John 2:3-5).

If we wish to “look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection,” we cannot be afraid to be “broiled” here; we cannot be afraid of “faith proved by fire.”[3] If we wish the Lord to let the light of his face shine on us and put gladness into our hearts for eternity, then, like Saint Peter, we must give the Lord the full portion of our love (cf. Psalm 4:7 and 8). What is more, we must not be afraid of raising our voices and proclaiming, “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19).

The proclamation of the fullness of the Gospel today is repugnant to many members of our society. Many resist – or even oppose - his teachings on marriage, the dignity of all human life, care for the poor, and even the reality of the Sacraments. Because this is becoming increasingly so, we shy away from proclaiming the truth revealed by Jesus Christ and entrusted to his Church. Because of our pride, because of our concern for how others think of us, we do not proclaim the Resurrection of the Lord and do not give him the portion he desires.

Every Sunday and holy day, we recite together the Creed, the Profession of Faith. Just a few weeks ago at Easter, we renewed our baptismal promises by answering, “I do,” to the questions posed to us about our belief, questions taken directly from the Creed, from the faith of the Church, which comes down to us through Saint Peter and the Apostles. In doing so, we confessed before God and man that we believe in the Crucified and Risen Savior and in the means of salvation offered in the Church he established on the rock of Saint Peter. But what does it mean to believe?

Our word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe.” “Some suggest credo is made up of two smaller words: cor is the word for ‘heart,’ as in ‘coronary’ or ‘cordially,’ and do means ‘I give’ and is the origin of donate.”[4] To believe, then, is to make a gift of the heart to Jesus, to give him the portion he desires, to give him the gift of our love proved even by fire. In his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Lord Jesus made a gift of his heart to us, even allowing his side to be opened so we might enter into his heart (cf. John 19:34). Let us in return make a gift of our hearts to him so that our credo, our “I believe,” may not be spoken in vain. Let us go forth with the joy that comes from being loved by God to announce the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus to everyone we meet so we might all sing together the joy of Easter: Alleluia!

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 229J.3
[2] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon on the Resurrection of the Lord, 4. In Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Vol. IV: Sermons for Festivals and Indexes, Paul Spilsbury, trans. (Padua: Edizioni Messagero Padova, 2010), 193.
[3] Collect for the Third Sunday of Easter.
[4] Christopher Carstens, A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2017), 46.

05 April 2018

Coming Soon: A Documentary on Friendship in the Life and Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien

Reese Parquette is a young filmmaker in Springfield. His documentary, Mercy: Discovering God's Loverecently aired at EWTN.

At Reese's request, I recently sat down with Joseph Pearce, author of - among other titles - Tolkien: Man and Myth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), to talk about friendship in the life and writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

It was a very enjoyable conversation and those who were present to watch us talk commented on how natural it all seemed. Joseph and I had not met previously, but a devotion to The Professor has a way of establishing a friendship between strangers rather easily. When the final edits are completed, the conversation will become a documentary titled, An Unexpected Friendship.

Though it was not planned so at first, this will actually become the first of a two-part documentary on friendship in the life and writings of Tolkien. The second part will be filmed in a few weeks on location in Oxford.

Reese's plan is to follow me around Oxford as I visit and talk about the sites important in the Professor's life in and around the famous medieval university city, culminating with a pilgrimage to his grave at Wolvercote Cemetery. It is a project about which I am rather excited, and for which Reese and I could use your assistance.

We are currently looking for donors willing to help fund the costs of our travel and of production of the documentary (with a total goal of $3,000). Any help you can provide - however large or small - will be greatly appreciated.

We are still working on the title for part two, though we might borrow a phrase Tolkien used to describe husbands and wives, "companions in shipwreck."

The 405 kindly offered to interview Reese and I concerning this project and has published an article about it titled, "J.R.R. Tolkien & 'something of the truth of human existence' - Meet filmmaker Reese Parquette & Fr. Daren Zehnle of An Unexpected Friendship".