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.

16 November 2018

Islamic State Ongoing Updates - November 2018

6 November 2018
5 November 2018

06 November 2018

Homily - 4 November 2018 - The Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

This month of November has long been given to the remembrance of the dead, and not simply to their memory, but to the offering of prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. As we feel the temperatures fall and plummet, as the leaves turn fallow and fall to the ground, as the grass brown and the darkness lengthens, we see the slow death of nature and it is only fitting that we consider now our own death.

Saint John of the Cross reminds us that “at the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”[1] This Jesus makes very clear today with his response to the question of the scribe: “You shall the love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-32). Truly, love is the measure of all things.

When, at long last, the dust from which we were made “returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it,” we will indeed be judged on our love (Ecclesiastes 12:7). We will not be judged so much by what we have done or what we have failed to do, although these things will, of course, matter; what matters most is the depth of our love because love “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33). To put it plainly, we will be judged according to our imitation of Christ Jesus.

When we stand before the throne of God and render to him an account of our life, “perfect love will make possible entrance into heaven, imperfect love will require purification, and a total lack of love will mean eternal separation from God.”[2] The angels and saints will escort those who have loved with the perfect love of Christ into the glories of heaven; those who have loved, although imperfectly, will begin their purgation to be purged and cleansed of the effects of their sins; and those who have not loved will enter the gates of hell because they have rejected love itself.

Given this criterion of judgment, we might well ask what it means to love. It has been said that, “in the end, in fact, love alone enables us to live, and love is always also suffering: it matures in suffering and provides the strength to suffer for good without taking oneself into account at the actual moment.”[3] The Apostle Saint John reminds us that “in this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). Indeed, in Jesus Christ, “no longer is [love] 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.”[4]

How very easy – almost too easy - it is for us to praise Jesus with the scribe and say to him: 
Well said, teacher.  You are right in saying ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’  And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mark 12:32-33). 
This man gives the correct answer and in so doing justifies himself; he knows he is to love God and his neighbor, but he does not do so fully; he will not let himself be vulnerable to love. If he did make himself vulnerable to love, he would have recognized Jesus not as a “teacher,” but as the “high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26).

Jesus knows the scribe’s lack of love - just as he knows our own - and so he says to him and to us, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). A high compliment, maybe, but if it was, why, then, did “no one [dare] to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34)? The scribe felt a gentle rebuke in Jesus’ words, because “to say ‘you are not far from’ suggests that the scribe was still at some distance from the reign of God.”[5]

Inasmuch as we fail to love, we are far from the kingdom of God because love is the measure to the Kingdom of God. How readily do we humble ourselves to accept the love of God that we do not deserve? How readily do we return his love? How readily do we show to others the love that Jesus lavishes upon us? 
Sad to say, not all of us understand these spiritual values as well as we should, nor do we give them a proper place in our lives. Many of us, in fact, strongly attracted by sin, may look upon these values as of little moment, even something of a nuisance, or we ignore them altogether.[6] 
Now, then, we return to our initial thought from Saint John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” 

We know that we have not always loved perfectly as the Lord commands us. We grow jealous, we lie, steal, and cheat; we grow angry and irritated at one another; we judge and condemn those who are one with us in Christ. In short, we fail to keep the supreme command of love and we fall into sin. And when we come to the end of our earthly life and suffer death, we will stand before him who is Love itself.

We can be sure of this, that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”[7]

We know, too, as we read in Sacred Scripture, that “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (II Maccabees 12:46). This is why we visit the graves of our loved ones in November and why we continue to pray for them, confident in the power of intercessory prayer. The Church has always commended “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” because, as Saint John Chrysostom asks, “If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?  Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”[8]

Said Saint Ambrose so many centuries ago: “We have loved [them] in life. Let us not forget [them] in death.” Let us, then, continue our love for our beloved dead – and for all the dead. Let us continue to offering our sufferings out of love for them, asking the Lord to make them “perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28) and welcome them swiftly into his Kingdom of “refreshment, light, and peace” (Roman Canon). Then, together with them around the throne of God, we will cry out with the angels and all the saints: “I love you, Lord, my strength” (Psalm 18:2)! Amen.

[1] Saint John of the Cross, Dichos, no. 64.
[2] United States Catechism for Adults, 153.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of Aosta, 25 July 2005.
[4] Ibid., Deus caritas est, 6.
[5] Pseudo-Jerome, Commentary on Mark.
[6] Pope Saint John XXIII, Homily at the Canonization of Saint Martin de Porres.
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030.
[8] Ibid., 1032. Saint John Chrysostom, Homily in I Corinthians 41:5.