25 August 2022

Homily - 28 August 2022 - The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today King David reminds us that God has made a home for the poor (cf. Psalm 68:11). Looking around the world today - and since the time David composed these lines - the cynic, seeing so many poor and homeless among us, might well ask where this home is. But this very question fails to understand the ways of the Lord, which are very much unlike our own (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

We should first consider who it is who is poor, that is, of whom did David speak when he spoke of the poor? They are the widows and the orphans, the forsaken and the imprisoned, those who recognize their dependence on others (cf. Psalm 68:6-7). Yet we know the Lord’s mercy is not reserved only for these four particular groups because in the Book of Sirach we are instructed to “humble [ourselves] the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God” (Sirach 3:17-18). The humble, then, can also be counted among the poor, among the poor in spirit because “the kingdom of heaven is [theirs]” (Matthew 5:3).

To be poor isn't, in and of itself, sufficient to enter into the home made by the Lord. It is the humble who find favor with God and it is quite possible to be poor and yet arrogant, just as it is possible to be rich and yet humble. Certainly each of us can be humble, each of us can recognize our dependence on the Lord, each of us can find favor with God; if this is so, each of us can also receive a home from the Lord. How, then, do we become humble?  How do we receive this home?

Saint Francis of Assisi can serve as our guide and a ready model to follow because he spent so much time in prayer before the Crucifix of San Damiano seeking the Lord's direction for his life. Il Poverello composed this simple prayer: "Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command."[1] In these simple and yet profound words, Saint Francis reveals the humility of his heart. He recognizes that he is a sinner who does not have all of the answers and who is need of conversion; in short, he acknowledged he is dependent on the Lord.

It was his experience before the Cross that allowed Saint Francis to recognize that, as he said, "…what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more," a maxim he never tired of repeating to all who would listen.[2] Are we willing to hear his words? Are we willing to acknowledge that we, too, are only what we are before God and nothing more? Are we willing to acknowledge that we are dependent entirely on him?

We spend so much of our lives telling ourselves that we are more important, more talented, more gifted than we really are. In the end, we run the risk of believing our delusions of grandeur and of thinking the world simply cannot go on without us. In stark contrast to this, Saint Francis shows us the way of authentic humility, the way of looking at ourselves without deceit. In one of his admonitions, he boldly proclaimed:

Be conscious, O man, of the wondrous state in which the Lord God has placed you and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body, and to His likeness according to the spirit. And [yet] all the creatures under heaven, each according to its nature, serve, know, and obey their Creator better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you together with them have crucified Him and crucify Him even now by delighting in vices and sins.[3]

We cringe at these words because we do not want to acknowledge "that nothing belongs to us except our vices and sins.”[4] Standing before God, beholding his glory, gazing upon his holiness, and seeing the loveliness of his face, how can we not see our own sinfulness and the fact that we are not always very lovely? 

All of this Saint Francis saw in the image of Crucified Love, but he also saw something more: he saw the depths of the Lord's mercy for all who embrace a life of penance and embark on the journey of conversion. Of these disciples, Saint Francis said, "we have nothing else to do except to follow the will of the Lord and to please him."[5] The way of humility is found in the following of this path that Saint Francis trod so very well, "to follow the teaching and the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ."[6]

Now that we have seen the way to become humble, to become poor, we can ask what home the Lord has made for the poor. Some light can be shed on this question by looking to the example of the Lord, who said of himself: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20). Given his lack of concern for a home of his own, it would seem odd for him "who was a poor man and a transient and lived on alms" to be overly concerned about homes for others.[7] What, then, does the Psalmist mean?  Where – or, better, what – is this home for the poor?

King David hints at our answer when he sings, “The father of orphans and the defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:6). In the mind of David, God’s dwelling is his Temple in Jerusalem, for in another Psalm, he sang, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:1-2). Yet the Temple in Jerusalem can only be an image, a foreshadowing, of the true dwelling place of God because the Son of Man declared with great solemnity, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Saint John explains these words of the Lord when he says, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). So, then, the home for the poor made by the Lord is not the Temple, but is Christ himself. How can this be? How do the poor enter this home, and what do they find therein?

The son of David, King Solomon, hints at the entry into this hidden home when he sings of a dove who makes its home in the clefts of a rock: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cave, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14). As the dove makes its home in the openings of the cliffs, so we are called to make our home in the openings in the Lord’s body. What do I mean? 

When the Risen Lord showed himself to the Apostle Thomas, he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving but believe” (John 20:27). The Savior was not simply inviting Thomas to curiously examine the holes of the nails, to verify their existence in some scientific, disinterested way, but to enter into them, to make his home in them and to find in them the peace that only the Lord can give (cf. John 14:27). 

Reflecting on this encounter between the Master and his Apostle, Saint Anthony of Padua, offered four reasons why the Lord revealed his wounds to the Apostles:

First, to show that he had truly risen, and to take away from us all doubtfulness. Second, so that the dove (the Church or the faithful soul) might build her nest in his wounds, as in the clefts of the rock, and hide from the eyes of the hawk that schemes to catch her. Third, to print the signs of his Passion as seals upon our hearts. Fourth, to ask us to share in sufferings, and never again to crucify him with the nails of sin.[8]

Like that dove, Saint Francis so greatly desired to make his home in the Lord's wounds, in the poignant and constant reminders of the depths of his love for us, that two years before he died he asked two favors from the Lord:

…the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.[9]

So it was that he received the grace of the Stigmata; so fully had he entered into the wounds of his Lord and made in them his home that he became the image of Christ, both in his body and in his spirit.

Each of us is called by the Lord to imitate Saint Francis in this way; we, too, are invited not simply to inspect the wounds of the Savior, but to plunge ourselves into them.  Jesus says to us, “Come, feel my wounds, for my mercy is tangible. Come, see the wound in my side from where my love flowed out for you, for my mercy is visible. Come, take shelter within my wounds and let my love and mercy wash over you and surround you and give you peace.” We can have confidence that the home made by the Lord for the poor is found in His wounds because King David also sang to God, “Blessed the man who finds refuge in you, in their hearts are pilgrim roads” (Psalm 84:6).

Dear friends, as we seek to enter into the mystery of the Lord’s love for us with great humility, following after Saint Francis, let us strive to heed these words of The Poverello: “Therefore, hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.”[10] In this way, may we live in humility and so find favor with God in the home he has prepared for us. Amen.

[1] Saint Francis of Assisi, The Prayer Before the Crucifix. In Francis and Clare: The Complete Writings. Regis J. Armstrong, et al, eds. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1982), 103-104.

[2] Saint Francis of Assisi, Admonitions, XIX.1-2. In ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., V.1-3. In ibid., 29.

[4] Saint Francis of Assisi, The Earlier Rule, XVII.7. In ibid., 123.

[5] Ibid., XXII,9. In ibid., 127.

[6] Ibid., I.1 In ibid., 109.

[7] Ibid., IX.5. In ibid., 117.

[8] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon for the First Sunday After Easter, 8.

[9] Saint Francis of Assisi, in The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 190-191.

[10] Saint Francis of Assisi, A Letter to the Entire Order, 29. In Francis and Clare, 58.

21 August 2022

Homily - 21 August 2022 - The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

 The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The prophet Isaiah mentions a list of places with which most of us unfamiliar: “Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Jovan” (Isaiah 66:19). A few of us might recognize some of these names, but none us really has any idea where these places are. They must be significant, though, otherwise Isaiah would not have specifically mentioned them. So, where are they?

Tarshish is a mysterious place, in that we do not really know where it was. What we do know is that was across the Mediterranean Sea from Israel and Lebanon, either to the north, west, or south. Some scholars think it was the precursor of the city of Carthage in North Africa; others think it was in modern day Spain; others think it was southern Turkey; and still others think it was in Sardinia. In the Scriptures, Tarshish was known for its metal. Lud was east of Egypt in what is now Libya and was famous for its myrrh. Put and Mosoch are in modern Turkey, as is Tubal. Jovan was in Greece.

The principal purpose in listing these different places, so it seems to me, is simply – and importantly – to proclaim the diversity of the peoples to whom God reveals himself. Through Isaiah the Lord says that the peoples in the distant coastlands, although they “have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory … shall proclaim my glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19).

To put it differently, these different peoples, from various cultures and ethnicities, will know the Lord. This is why “they shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all nations as an offering to the Lord” (Isaiah 66:20). They will not bring them to the Lord as human sacrifices, but so that the people from the nations might offer themselves to God in recognition of his love for them just as we offer ourselves each time the gifts of bread and wine are offered to the Lord.

I focus on this today because of an incident that occurred here in Ashland just a couple of days ago at the high school. A young man of mixed ethnicity, who just moved to the area, was made to feel very unwelcome and self-conscious when he felt everyone looking at him and laughing him. I spent an hour or so with him that morning as we and his family attempted to sort things out. The inexcusable situation angered me and broke my heart. No one should every have to suffer such an affront to human dignity.

In our own day, when we set out to proclaim the Gospel and share the love of Jesus with others, we generally only speak to those who are like us. The Apostles, on the other hand, spoke of the merciful love of Jesus to anyone who would listen; indeed, we learn in the Acts of the Apostles that they preached to

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya and Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:9-11).

They were not so much interested in differences, but in bringing every person into unity in Christ Jesus through Baptism into his Body, which is the Church (cf. I Corinthians 12:13). This unity of faith superseded any physical differences that might otherwise remain. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the Church.

The Apostles, those great pillars of the faith knew well that, different as we all may be, we all share in one fundamental aspect of humanity, namely, that “If you [O Lord] take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:24). For this reason, the Church has always taught that

the equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights based on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.[1]

Racism – in any form – has no place in the Christian heart, nor does it have a place in any form of human society, whether Christian or not. What happened in our community last week shows that we have a very long way to go in recognizing the fundamental dignity of every person; we have a long way to go in allowing the message of the Gospel to purify our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

We do not often ponder the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of our salvation. We should frequently call upon the Holy Spirit, using the words of the great Pentecost Sequence:

Where you are not, we have naught, nothing good in deed or thought nothing free from taint of ill. Heal our wounds, our strength renew; on our dryness pour your dew; wash the stains of guilt away: Bend the stubborn heart and will; melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray.

Our nation, which still claims to be mostly composed of Christians, is in great need of a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a new Pentecost, a new season of hearts set afire with the love of God.

We often witness today – as in times past - a great absence of genuine Christian love in the hearts of so many people who claim the name of Christian. These are those whom Saint Augustine calls Christ’s “hidden enemies,” those “who live unjust and irreligious lives are Christ’s enemies, even if they are signed with his name and are called Christians.”[2] We may feel powerless to bring about any change in our community or in the hearts of others, but such a feeling is incompatible with the Gospel. Indeed, we are commanded to “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed” (Hebrews 12:12-13).

Here I am reminded of a line written by my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. He said:

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens… All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to spout in.”[3]

What happened to that young man can – and should – lead each of us to be more intentional in loving and caring for the stranger – the neighbor - in our midst. Anything less is unbefitting of a follower of Christ Jesus.

In 1910, the editors of the British newspaper The Guardian asked various authors for an essay answering the question, “What’s wrong with the world.” G.K. Chesterton, the prolific Catholic, wrote to the editors saying simply, “Dear Sirs, I am.” How many of us are willing to say, “I am what’s wrong with the world?” If we are not willing to acknowledge, we must implore the Holy Spirit to enlighten the darkness of our hearts in order to be more fully converted to Christ.

Only if we first recognize our own sinfulness, only if we confess our sinfulness to the Lord, only if we receive the grace of his forgiveness can we become bearers of his merciful love to every person we meet. As more and more hearts are converted to the Lord, the darkness of sin is brought into the light and flees away. It starts with you. It starts with me. Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. May the Lord not say to us, “Depart from me, all you evildoers” (Luke 13:27). Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1935; Gaudium et spes, 29 § 2.

[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 308A.6.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 64, to Christopher Tolkien, 30 April 1944. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 76.