17 February 2021

Homily - Ash Wednesday - 17 February 2021

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Each year on this day as we enter into the penitential season of Lent, we hear Jesus say to us, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting…” (Matthew 6:16). Then, just a few moments later, we usually receive ashes directly on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. This custom has always struck me as directly contradictory to the command of the Savior that we “not appear to others to be fasting” (Matthew 6:18).

We have all heard homilies attempting to reconcile our practice with Jesus’ words, but all of these attempts have failed. The main reason given for our practice is so that we might be a sign of contradiction to the world by bearing the ashes on our foreheads, and this is true as far as it goes, but it still stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ words.

The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday began in Germany “in the tenth century; it spread to Italy and finally to Rome in the twelfth century. It was only in the thirteenth century that the papal liturgy used ashes with the pope himself submitting to the rite.”[1] The use of ashes as a sign of repentance from sin goes back, of course, much further than 1,100 years ago. It is a common practice we find throughout the Old Testament. For example, in the First Book of Maccabees we read, “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments” (I Maccabees 3:47). This year we have the opportunity to imitate those who went before us so very long ago.

We are accustomed to the priest blessing the ashes and they saying to each individual one of two admonitions – either, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” - before tracing the ashes upon our foreheads in the sign of the Cross. This year, however, will be different. The Holy See, in response to the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, has directed that the priest is to say one of the admonitions to everyone at the same time and then to impose ashes not on the forehead, but on top of the head without saying anything.[2]

As you come forward to receive ashes, I would ask that you bow your head as a sign of repentance. This will also help me be reach the top of the heads of some of you who are taller than me.

This will look and feel differently for you and for me, but we can use this change to our usual practice to better focus on what Lent is all about: an interior change of heart through an acknowledgement of our sins and repentance from them so that the Lord may give us back the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 51:14). Amen.



[1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, Vol. 2: Lent (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 13.

[2] Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, “Note on Ash Wednesday Distribution of Ashes in Time of Pandemic,” 12 January 2021.

14 February 2021

Homily - 14 February 2021 - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Beginning this Ash Wednesday, there will be a slight correction to the English translation of the Holy Mass, one that you may or may not really notice. I call it a slight correction because it consists in the deletion of one word, but a word that occurs again and again in our current translation. This alteration to our translation comes at the direction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, under the authority of the Holy Father Pope Francis.

The adjustment will be made to the final line of the Collect, the prayer at the beginning of the Mass which collects all of our individual prayers together and presents them as one to the Father. The change will be made because our current English translation of the Latin text of the Mass is – frankly – incorrect. In fact, our current English translation adds a word that simply is not found in the Latin. That word is the word “one.”

Presently, we conclude the Collect with the doxology: “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. Amen.” Starting this Wednesday, the doxology will end, “…God for ever and ever. Amen.” This change will be made to prayers not only within the Mass, but wherever else these words are found.

Now, some of you might be wondering why this change was not made a few years ago when the translation of the Holy Mass was revised. It was suggested at the time, but for one reason or another the Holy See advised against it.

Others of you might be wondering what the fuss is about. There is an ancient maxim in the Church which says, lex orandi, lex credenda, that is, “the law of praying is the law of believing.”

These words are not merely convenient modes of advancing the liturgical action, placed by the Church in the liturgy to give form to our immediate intentions of worship. They do of course achieve that purpose, but their meaning extends far beyond their immediate use. These words are taken from and express the faith of the Church; when they are prayed, they become formative, instructive, and foundational for our life of faith. The words we hear and speak when we pray in the liturgy also have the effect of forming our belief, enabling us to understand better the faith that Christ gives us through the Church. Recited again and again, these words obtain both place and meaning in the mind and the heart of the believer.[1]

This is an important reminder that “the Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it.”[2] The words we use in our prayer are important – especially in our public prayer – because “the Church believes as she prays.”[3]

With the insertion of the word “one,” the impression may have been given that the words “God for ever and ever” referred generally to the Holy Trinity. However, the phrase actually refers back to Jesus Christ who is “God for ever and ever.” This change in our translation brings into focus “the importance of affirming this Christological truth amid the religious pluralism of today’s world,” that more than being a good teacher Jesus is God (cf. Luke 7:16).[4] It is this same Jesus, this same God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, to whom we turn in time of trouble and who fills us with the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 32:7).

Some might question why the Church is worrying about this now when there are so many other issues which need to be addressed. While this is true as far as it goes, “praying correctly – professing accurately our belief about Christ and the Trinity – in no way distracts from these important tasks. Rather, as our relationship with God becomes stronger, we are better able to address the world.”[5]

Turning to the Gospel chosen for today’s Mass, we see this truth about Jesus wondrously displayed. The leper approached Jesus in great humility, symbolized by his kneeling down before him, and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:41). The leper does not tell Jesus what to do; he does not even really make a request of Jesus. Rather, he simply declares what Jesus can do; he acknowledges that Jesus has the power to make him clean not because he is a moral authority, but because he knows Jesus is God (cf. Mark 1:40-41). So great is his faith that he simply trusts in Jesus’ compassion and goodness!

Without a doubt, Jesus could have healed the leper with just a word of command, but he did something more: he reached out and touched him (cf. Mark 1:41).

That gesture and those words of Christ contain the whole history of salvation, they embody God’s will to heal us, to purify us from the illness that disfigures us and ruins our relationships. In that contact between Jesus’ hand and the leper, every barrier between God and human impurity, between the Sacred and its opposite, was pulled down. This was not of course in order to deny evil and its negative power, but to demonstrate that God’s love is stronger than all illness, even in its most contagious and horrible form. Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, he made himself “a leper” so that we might be cleansed.[6]

Will we imitate that leper and in the infirmity of our sin say to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean?” To do so we must humbly acknowledge our sinfulness to him, to him who is not just a prophet but God. May we never lose sight that while Christ Jesus is fully human, he is also fully God. Amen.



[1] Gregory J. Polan, O.S.B., “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Communion of Faith in the Life of the Church,” 1-2.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Committee on Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Note on a change to the translation of Collect prayers, 4 February 2021.

[5] Christopher Carstens, in Joseph O’Brien, “Here’s the Key Reason Why the Mass is Being Changed This Ash Wednesday,” National Catholic Register, 13 February 2021.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 12 February 2012.

09 January 2021

Homily - The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord -

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Following the horrific event that transpired in our nation’s Capitol this past Wednesday afternoon, a good number of people are asking how it could have happened. And, depending on an individual person’s political leanings, blame has been hurled in many different directions. But the assigning of blame does not actually answer the question, “How could this have happened?” This demonstrates that when they ask such a question, they are not actually looking for the true answer to the question; rather, they are simply seeking political points, as if that somehow helped the situation.

The fundamental answer to the question, “How could this have happened?,” is simple and cuts to the core of our fallen human reality. It is an answer that almost no one wants to talk about, even most religious leaders. The ultimate answer is, quite simply, human sin. We like to think that if we just teach the right thing in the right way, or if we create a new policy, or if we follow the proper procedures, then evil deeds will simply disappear. We think all of this, but we never really address the fundamental issue behind evil deeds; we never address the fundamental issue of sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (1849). Regardless of the motivation behind those who committed such atrocious acts, it has to be said that was done was evil, that what was done was sinful. Without question, the destruction and violence in the Capital showed no real use of reason or right conscience; it was clearly a failure of genuine love for God and for neighbor; and it certainly wounded human solidarity.

By entering the waters of the River Jordan to receive the baptism of John, Jesus “allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ (John ).”[1] Though he himself had no sins, Jesus accepted the baptism of John to show his solidarity with us.

We have received a baptism greater than that of John the Baptist, for we have been baptized into the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. The baptism of John was an outward display of repentance, but it could not forgive sins; the Baptism of Jesus is not only an outward display of repentance, but it also carries it with the forgiveness of sins committed until that moment.

Through Baptism the Christian is sacramentally assimilated to Jesus, who in his own baptism anticipates his death and resurrection. The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance, go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and “walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).”[2]

What we saw this past week was hardly Christians walking in newness of life.

If you will allow me to say so, what we saw in our nation’s Capitol

is evidence of a people not formed by the Gospel to think about the common good. And the fractured, divisive, escalating tribalism and hatred between red and blue is evidence of a people not formed in their hearts by the Prince of Peace. So is the fracturing of the family, the sin of racism, the ubiquity of pornography, the marginalization of the poor, and the death of the unborn.

 

Put more simply, if few of us really know God, is it any wonder we treat each other so hellishly?[3]


All of this demonstrates that our nation is thoroughly marked by sin. This sinfulness is not found one side or the other; rather, it is found all around. And we cannot forget that one sin does not – and cannot - justify another.


This weekend brings to a close the liturgical season of Christmas as enter again into the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time is the liturgical season that is not focused on one particular aspect of the life of Christ, as Christmas and Easter are. Rather, Ordinary Time is given to us to reflect on the entire mystery of the life of Christ.


If seems to me that we can use these coming weeks before Lent to make a good examination of conscience, to ask the Lord to help us see into the depths of our hearts. It can be a time for us to question how much sinfulness still resides in our hearts. It can be a time to consider how closely my heart resembles the Heart of Christ. How often do we commit offenses against reason, truth, and right conscience, which is to say, how often do we attempt to justify our thoughts and actions when we know they do not conform to those of the Savior? How often do we fail to love God and neighbor genuinely? How much more attached to temporal goods are we than to spiritual goods? How often do we wound human solidarity by insisting on dividing into camps?


We must beg the Lord to root out these evils from our hearts so that we can truly walk in newness of life and in fidelity to the Baptism we have received. This is the only to heal our nation of its many ills. It cannot start with others; rather, it must start with me and it must start with you. May the Holy Spirit assist us in striving to conform ourselves to Christ Jesus so that the Father will be well-pleased in us, his sons and daughters (cf. Mark 1:11). Amen.



[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 536.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 536.

[3] J.D. Flynn, “Proclaiming Christ in fractured America: What are the Church’s priorities right now, and what do we believe?”, The Pillar, 7 January 2021. Accessed 9 January 2021. Available at https://www.pillarcatholic.com/p/proclaiming-christ-in-fractured-america?fbclid=IwAR3Hnlj68nwiks3u4lePqFpNwCMGnUsWbWLd1JzOM1eTnIfoaklySpDUpaA

02 January 2021

Homilies - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 2021

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord 

Dear brothers and sisters,

For some years now, I have noticed – and repeatedly cautioned against – a fast encroaching secularization of the celebration of Christmas. What is supposed to be a celebration of the Birth of the Son of God has become – if we are honest – a little more than a bland celebration of winter and of fantasy. A quick look at “Christmas” decorations sees more penguins and snowmen than images of the Holy Infant.

As a very recent example of what I mean, consider a wooden sign I saw in a store this past December 15th. The sign is effectively divided into two sections. The top portion contains the words, “Star of wonder / Star of night.” Those of us who have not yet completely given in to the secularization of the Nativity of the Lord will recognize these words as the opening line of the refrain of that great carol, “We Three Kings”: 

O, Star of Wonder, Star of Night,

Star with Royal Beauty bright,

Westward leading, Still proceeding,

Guide us to Thy perfect Light. 

Whoever designed the sign I saw was apparently completely ignorant of the origin of those words – Star of Wonder, Star of Night – and of the basic elements of what we might call the Christmas story. Beneath them was a painting of the Magi from the East following the star to the Christ Child, but rather a painting of Santa Claus, with his arms full of presents. The sign left me deeply sorrowful because it demonstrated in a clear fashion how far away from the true meaning of Christmas we, as a society, have drifted.


How is it that we have largely turned what is supposed to be the celebration of Love-made-flesh into a commercialistic and individualistic celebration that centers around presents? The answer is simple: we have largely stopped looking for the Savior; rather than looking for the one who is our King, as those Magi did, we, like Herod, look only for ourselves.

Most of us are very much unaware of the stars overhead and which constellations are visible at which times of the year. Even of the few constellations and planets we might recognize at sight, we are often unaware of their movements and only occasionally take notice of them. We suddenly notice one day, for example, that the Orion has ascended without noticing Betelgeuse or Rigel rise before him, yet somehow the Magi noticed this heavenly wonder at the first moment of its rising. What can this mean?

Of their motivation for scouring the heavens we can only surmise, yet we are not without direction. Have we not all, at one time or another, looked to the stars for the answer or explanation to some great question of life? When King David looked to the stars he was moved to sing: 

When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you set in place –

What is man that you are mindful of him,

and a son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god,

Crowned him with glory and honor (Psalm 8:4-6). 

Seeing the beauty of the cosmos, David was led to contemplate his own smallness in the vast expanse of creation. In this, he recognizes God’s love: small as he is, he is not forgotten. And in this, he prophesies the coming of the Son of God who, though great, made himself small for us.

The Magi were, as Saint Pope John Paul II called them, “passionate seekers after the truth.”[1] Could it not be that they watched the heavens not simply for the announcements of royal births, but for the very meaning and purpose of life itself? With this great question, common to every man, woman, and child, the Magi watched the heavens, looking for something so intently and earnestly that at the moment the star began to ascend, they saw it and immediately followed it.

In the light of this cosmic herald, the Magi recognized a sign of the glory of the One of whom it was sung: “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more” (cf. Isaiah 60:2; Psalm 72:7). Through this star, they somehow knew that “the Lord, the Mighty One, has come,” and so they set out at once to find him, to find the fulfillment of every longing and desire of their hearts.[2]

With their faces bowed before that holy Child, the Magi somehow recognized a great truth, namely: “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] This is what our society – and many of us, as well – have sadly forgotten.

If you and I are to follow that “star of wonder” to find the only satisfaction of our deepest longings, we must take our eyes off ourselves. Unlike Herod, who looked only to this present life, we must follow the example of the Magi, who looked for deeper and higher realities. Even if only subconsciously, the Magi were focused on finding Christ, on finding Truth; consciously, Herod was not because he was focused on preventing change.

When the Magi returned to the East, they “departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). Why is that detail important? They returned by another way because they could not return the same way they had come; in their encounter with the Christ Child, they were inwardly changed and nothing would be the same for them again. Is this the case with us? Have we allowed ourselves to bow so low before the Child of Bethlehem, to be so enraptured by Love-made-flesh, to be so overcome by the Way, the Truth, and Life, that everything changed for us, as well? May we never be afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to fall down in worship before the Son of God and Son of Mary and to be conquered by the beauty of so great a gift. Amen.



[1] Saint Pope John Paul II, Message for World Youth Day 2005, 7.

[2] Cf. Roman Missal, The Epiphany of the Lord, Entrance Antiphon.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Celebration Welcoming the Young People, 18 August 2005.