29 January 2022

Homily - 30 January 2022 - The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

A few days ago, one of my acquaintances on Twitter posted a poll in which he asked a thought-provoking question: “In your opinion, which of these is the world most lacking at present: goodness, truth, or beauty?” Of the 585 votes he received, 52.5% of them said the world today is most lacking truth. Of the possible choices, truth had my vote, but I was surprised it received so many.

There is an intriguing connection between goodness, truth, and beauty. As the Catechism teaches us, “The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself.”[1] Because of their interconnectedness, goodness, truth, and beauty cannot really be separated, even though we typically think of them as distinct realities.

Goodness, truth, and beauty are what the philosophers and theologians call the Transcendentals because “they not only ”transcend” or exist independently from material things, but when we pay attention and try to detect them in the physical world, our heart and mind can be drawn upwards to God.”[2]

Indeed, God himself is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and something in this world is only true, beautiful, or good to the extent it shares in the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. Beauty, after all, does not truly lie in the eye of the beholder, but in God.

Here we recall what the Lord Jesus said of himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “No one is good but God alone” (John 14:6; Mark 10:18). We also remember when the Apostles saw him transfigured, that “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light;” his beauty was so great that the Apostles “fell prostrate and were very much afraid” (Matthew 17:2, 6). Even as goodness, truth, and beauty can cause some trepidation within us, they remain always attractive to us; we always desire more goodness, more truth, and more beauty because we do not yet possess them in full; we do not yet possess God.

While these three Transcendentals are each found within God, he has only explicitly associated himself with Truth: “I am the truth,” he says, and “if you remain in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John8:31-32). This is why Saint Augustine said, “True happiness is to rejoice in the truth, for to rejoice in the truth is to rejoice in you, O God, who are the Truth, for you, my God, my true Light, to whom I look for salvation. This is the happiness of desire. All desire this, the only state of happiness. All desire to rejoice in the truth.”[3]

Why do I bring this up today? What does it have to do with the Sacred Scriptures we have just heard? Admittedly not much, but we might say the Nazarenes sought “to hurl [Jesus] down headlong” off the brow of the hill because they did not accept the truth of who he is (Luke 4:29). They refused to conform themselves to the Truth – to Christ Jesus himself – because they were lacking in the virtues of faith, hope, and love (cf. I Corinthians 13:13).

This past week, Pope Francis met with the judges of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, the appellate court in Rome that handles petitions for declarations of nullity of marriage, more commonly – and incorrectly – called “annulments.” This address caught my attention because one of the roles I have in the diocesan curia is handling petitions for the declaration of marriage nullity.

When he spoke to the rotal judges, the Holy Father emphasized the importance of living in accord with the truth. He said,

Overcoming a distorted view of marriage cases, as if they were concerned with merely subjective interests, it must be rediscovered that all the participants in the case are required to contribute towards the same objective, that of shining a light on the truth of a real union between a man and a woman, arriving at the conclusion regarding the existence or otherwise of a true marriage between them.[4]

What does he mean here?

Very often when a party to a failed marriage seeks a declaration of nullity of marriage – that is, a declaration of the Church that, for whatever reason, a real marriage was never actually entered into by the two parties even though it looked like a marriage – there is an assumption that an affirmative judgment will be given simply because someone has asked for one. Then, when a negative decision is given - meaning a true marriage actually was entered into between the parties and that, consequently, they are not free to enter into a new marriage in accord with Jesus’ teachings on the permanence of marriage – they become upset with the judges or with the Church and seek to live life on their own terms instead of living in accord with the truth (cf. Matthew 19:9).

This is a danger for each of us, not only when it comes to living the truth about marriage, but of every aspect of human life. For example, today there is an especially grave danger for many to chose not to live in accord with the truth of their own bodies. For others, there is the temptation not to live in accord with the truth of their convictions; they condemn one political party for doing what their favored party did last year. Many parents face the temptation of not living in accord with the truth of what it means to be a mother or a father. For all of us there is the temptation not to live in accord with the truth of what it means to be a Christian, of what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus.

Why is it that we fail to live in accord with the truth? The simple and very real answer is sin. Sin darkness our intellects; sin makes us stupid and leads us to choose a false good, something we perceive to be good or beautiful or true but which really is not.

The human heart is a unique reality; it can never be empty. It will always desire and seek after truth, goodness and beauty. Every person in every age and place, whether they believed in God or not, has always strived for, and chosen what they thought was true, good and beautiful.[5]

Making a daily examination of conscience and a regular confession of sins is of vital importance to each of us because doing so sheds light on our sins and illumines our intellect to help us chose what is really good, true, and beautiful; it helps to choose what is aligned with God and so to live in the truth by being authentic disciples of the Master.

Instead of seeking to hurl Jesus out of our lives when we do not agree with him, let us beg him to not only help us discover the truth of life and of our existence – to discover himself – but also to live in accord with the truth in every aspect of our lives. At the beginning of this Mass, we prayed to God “that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.”[6] By our desire for happiness, for joy in truth, may he bring it fulfillment in us, for there can be no love without truth. Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2500.

[2] Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead, “The Transcendentals,” Catholic Sun, 22 September 2019. Accessed 29 January 2022. Available at https://www.catholicsun.org/2019/09/22/gods-footprints-in-our-world/.

[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, X.23.

[4] Pope Francis, Address to the Officials of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota for the Inauguration of the Judicial Year, 27 January 2022.

[5] Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead, “The Transcendentals.”

[6] Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Roman Missal.

02 January 2022

Homily - The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord - 2 January 2022

The Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters,

There are certain figures we expect to find in a Nativity set. Some of the obvious figures include Mary and Joseph and the Baby Joseph, an ox and an ass, shepherds and sheep, and of course the Magi. For the Germans, their Nativity sets almost always include a dog with the shepherds, an inclusion dear to my heart. Sadly, none of my own Nativity sets are of German origin, and so do not include a dog, but they do each include the key figures. There is, however, one figure my Nativity sets do not have that I often expect to find in a Nativity set. The missing figure is one we almost always find in Nativity sets inside churches: a camel. You have surely noticed that our own Nativity set here at St. Augustine’s has a camel.

Adoration of the Magi by Giotto
It is no secret that the account of the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child given to us by Saint Matthew does not mention camels. If this is the case, why is it that larger Nativity sets include these desert creatures? It may be because they are mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah, as we heard a few moments ago: “Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).

Since we know the Magi brought with them “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” it seems reasonable to connect this passage from Isaiah with that concerning the Magi (Matthew 2:11). And since they came from the east, it seems practical for them to have travelled with camels. But is there something more behind the inclusion of the camel?

As I pondered the presence of the camel, I decided to consult a medieval Bestiary. The closest comparison we have to a Bestiary in our day would be a zoological textbook. Bestiaries, though, were something more than zoological texts, for they include in them what moral lessons might be learned from particular animals. In consulting the Bestiary I have, a reproduction of the thirteenth century English text known as MS Bodley 764, I stumbled on something rather profound.

In this Bestiary, the anonymous author says the name “camel” has its origin in the Greek word cami, meaning “low” or “short.”[1] They have this name “because the animal lies down to be loaded.”[2] Because of this gesture of bending low to take on a burden, we are told that the camel “signifies the humility of Christ, who bears all our sins.”[3] Christ Jesus “was willing to assume the part of the camel, in taking on Himself the burdens of our weakness which he did out of humility.”[4]

In this we see that “God’s criteria differ from human criteria. God does not manifest himself in the power of this world but in the humility of his love, the love that asks our freedom to be welcomed in order to transform us and to enable us to reach the One who is Love.”[5] We see this humility of the only begotten Son of God displayed unmistakably in his Incarnation, when he not only took on our weakness, but even our own flesh when he was born of the Virgin Mary, not in a royal palace, but in a stable and set, not on a throne, but in a feeding trough.

The moral lesson we are to learn from the camel, then, is that of humility, a lesson which the Magi certainly learned. When they arrived before the Child of Bethlehem, they did not simply genuflect before him; rather, “they prostrated themselves,” they threw themselves down, “and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11).

This was most fitting, as the word “humility” comes the Latin humilis, meaning “on the ground;” they cast themselves on the ground before “the newborn king of the Jews” because they knew his kingship was not limited to the Kingdom of Judea, but to the entire earth and indeed to the entire cosmos (Matthew 2:2). “Their humble courage was what enabled them to bend down before the child of poor people and to recognize in him the promised King, the one they had set out, on both their outward and their inward journey, to seek and to know.[6]

When you and I are neither resistant nor afraid to cast ourselves down before the Lord, if we, like the Magi, prostrate ourselves before him, it does not pertain to us to offer him some kingly gift. Rather, it simply pertains to us to humbly offer him the treasure that is our hearts. Thinking perhaps too little of ourselves, we may be tempted to think such a gift is not worthy of so great a King, but what other gift does a Child ever want but the gift of love, of presence, of a heart?

When Jesus assumed the part of the camel, he received the burden of our sins. When the Magi assumed the part of the camel, they received the burden of being heralds of the newborn king, of proclaiming his Gospel when “they departed for their country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). When we assume the part of the camel, when we bend low, we not only receive the burden of announcing the Gospel, but also of taking up the Cross as it comes to us, of becoming his disciples (cf. Luke 9:23).

Today, brothers and sisters, let us imitate the devotion of the Magi. Let us bow down before the Holy Infant, not seeking to be great lords and ladies, but merely desiring to be his servants. Let us imitate the humble courage of the Magi who, “upon their return home … would certainly have told others of this amazing encounter with the Messiah, thus initiating the spread of the Gospel among the nations.”[7] Let us, with them, tell others of our own encounters with the Lord and proclaim the praises. Amen.

[1] Richard Barber, Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1999), 95.

[2] Christian Heck and Rémy Cordonnier, The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012), 198.

[3] Richard Barber, Bestiary, 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 6 January 2011.

[6] Ibid., 6 January 2012.

[7] Pope Francis, Admirabile Signum, 9.