Sunday, September 18, 2011

The gift of time, Sermon of September 18th

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 20:1-16a

And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner saying, “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”

As we hear the Savior’s parable in today’s Gospel, we might have a tendency to sympathize with the complaints of those workers who labored for whole day and yet received only the same payment as those who came in the final hour. Something within us says, “Well, if that’s the case, why work for the whole day? It would be better to just wait till the last minute and make a deathbed conversion!”
This is obviously not the way that we are supposed to think! The Lord is challenging us with this parable. He is trying to help us to see things from a different perspective.

When we consider this parable we generally tend to interpret it according to a much more personal model: We think of the various hours of the day as symbolizing the various ages of human life.
According to this interpretation, the laborers who came at dawn would be the cradle-Catholics while those who came at the end of the day would be the sinners who have a great death-bed conversion.
If we think of the parable in this way, then the message of our Lord is to tell us that there is only one task which we simply must accomplish in this life. Beyond all else, the one objective of our life on earth must be to die in the state of grace. If we die in the state of grace, our life is a great and even an heroic success. If we die in mortal sin, then our life has been a terrible terrible failure.

And yet, we also know that the best way to die in the state of grace, is to live in the state of grace! In any case, a Christian life is far more fulfilling and joyful than a materialistic life which searches only after worldly gains and vain delights.
The simple truth is that laboring in the Lord’s vineyard is its own reward. It is far better to spend our life in union with Christ, than to be separated from him. Far better to live out our days in the grace of Jesus, than to stand idle in the marketplace!

However, there is another meaning to this parable: The hours of the day and the various laborers represent the ages of the history of salvation. When Jesus spoke this parable, the original message had much more to do with this interpretation of the ages of salvation history.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is really all about the relationship between the Jews (who had been called first) and the Gentiles (who were called last). The workers who came at dawn and through till noon represent Adam and Abel, Abraham and Moses, Elijah and all the prophets. Those who came at 3 o’clock in the afternoon are, perhaps, John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Apostles. Finally, those who come at 5 o’clock, at the very end of the history of salvation, in the final hours, these are the Gentile Christians who have been converted through the preaching of the Apostles.
The eleventh hour is the time of the Church, it is the time which we are now in! All of us, we are those laborers who come at the very end of the day.

Now this is the meaning of the parable: If we follow Christ, we will receive the same reward which was promised to Adam, to Abraham, to Moses and to the prophets. Indeed, if we are faithful, we will be included in the same Church which was founded upon the Apostles – we will even share in the glory which has been given to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
How encouraging the parable is for us when we read it in this perspective!

And this is Christ’s point: We are to recognize how generous and gracious God is in giving us the gift of time. Time is a most precious gift! Time gives us the opportunity either to convert from sin and to follow God or, if we have already begun our spiritual journey, to strive forward in grace and to merit greater glory in heaven.
What a gift time truly is! And yet, how often do we squander this gift! Far too often we say that we are just “passing the time”, or we “kill time”. What ingratitude!

St. Alphonsus Liguori makes use of a helpful analogy. He has us imagine that we are in a bank and that the owner of the bank has opened the vault which is filled with money. The bank-owner tells us that we can have however much money we are able to count in one hour.
Now, what would we do? Would we simply sit back, idle, “killing time”? No! Of course not! We would rush into the vault and start counting the money as quickly as possible. Why, we would have so much zeal and energy!
And, it tell you truly, we wouldn’t waste our time on the little bills (the ones and the fives); no, we would rush for the hundreds and the other big bills! J

If only we would make the same good use of the time which God has given us earth. Here we are, with so much time – time to make acts of charity and to store up a greater treasure in heaven. These acts of charity, whether great or small, will be of great value if only we do them all with great love!
Why then do we waste our time holding on to grudges and anger? What good does it do? Nothing!

How generous God has been! He has given us time!
Remember, the history of the world did not have to continue to today. The Savior could have come to judge the world one hundred years ago, and then none of us would have even been conceived, none of us would have existed.
You and I, we did not have to exist; but God, in his love and generous mercy, willed that there should be time in history for all of us to come into existence.
This time given us on earth is the great gift of the opportunity to come to eternity with Christ, in life everlasting.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Priests need to preach against contraception, Sermon on the Feast of St. John the Baptist

The following is the summary of my daily Mass homily from this past Monday

August 29th, Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist was the great Forerunner of our Lord – he preceded the Savior in his conception and birth, in his ministry and death. Today we celebrate the feast of the martyrdom of the greatest of the prophets, he who was the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It is quite interesting to note, however, that St. John the Baptist did not die explicitly for his confession of the Christ – rather, he suffered and was killed on account of his defense of the sanctity of marriage. When King Herod married his deceased brother’s wife, Herodias, St. John pointed out that this was an unlawful marriage. And, while Herod always maintained a certain curiosity about John (proving that his own conscience was telling him that the Baptist was right), Herodias hated John vehemently.
And so, John the Baptist was arrested and imprisoned on account of the rage of Herodias – ultimately, he suffered martyrdom by beheading at the insistence of this vile woman and her daughter.

John did not die explicitly for his proclamation of the coming of the Messiah, but he was martyred for his witness to the truth about marriage and family – and, in this respect, he is a prophet of the grace which would come through the sacrament of Christian Marriage which Christ Jesus would institute.
John the Baptist died as a martyr for the dignity and sanctity of marriage and family life. In this respect, John is a great example for parish priests.
Consider the many parallels between the Baptist and the priest: Like the priest, John was celibate and, as a celibate, he was able to speak clearly and convincingly about married life. Like the priest, John was removed from society (both by his manner of dress and by the fact that he lived a desert life which was separated from the daily concerns of the consumer culture) and, precisely because he was in the world but not of the world, John was able to call men and women to a radical holiness.
There are, of course, many more parallels besides.

John died as a martyr, that is a “witness”, to the sanctity of marriage and family life. So too, the parish priest is dedicated in a particular way to helping the faithful to fulfill their vocations, especially the vocation to marriage (since most of the faithful in his parish will be called to the married state).
God gives us priests in order to help us become saints – that is what priests are for, to help us get to heaven. But we can only become saints through living out our own vocation well: A monk cannot be a saint by living like a married man, and a wife cannot become a saint by living like a cloistered nun. The job of the priest is to help each individual in his parish to live out the vocation to which God has called him. And, for the majority of the parishioners, this means learning to live holiness in the context of family life: Either as the husband or wife, or even as the child.
The only way that a priest is going to help people become saints is for him to hold up and defend the dignity and the sanctity of marriage and family life as a true means of growing in holiness.

We need to pray that our priests would follow the example of St. John the Baptist and be fearless in proclaiming all that God has to offer us in marriage and in the family. We need to pray that the good Jesus would strengthen our priests so that they might be clear and bold in teaching the truth about the family – both from the pulpit and (especially) in the confessional.
St. John Vianney once said, “There are no priests, only priests for whom there is not enough prayer.” Yes, let us pray for our priests, and pray the good Lord to send us more priests – that, through the intercession of St. John the Baptist, we might be granted true shepherds who will help our parishes to thrive and to grow in holiness through living out the vocation of marriage and family life according to the divine law.

But we need to be more specific. There are two areas which we really need priests to speak about with greater clarity and boldness – and always, always, always with charity!
First, there is the Church’s teaching on contraception. Contraception is destroying our marriages, ruining our families, corrupting the faithful, and (quite frankly) bringing great and terrible sorrows upon us all. We can scarcely imagine just how great an evil contraception is in our society and (sadly) in our Church.
And yet, many will say that contraception is “the Church’s worst kept secret.” I call it a “secret” insofar as nobody is talking about it – priests don’t preach on it, priests don’t ask about it in the confessional, parents neglect their duty and obligation to teach the truth to their children; almost nobody at all is speaking about contraception. And so, it is a “secret”.
However, I say it is the “worst kept secret” because, even though nobody ever talks about it or gives the Church’s official teaching – everybody knows it! Everybody (or nearly everybody) knows that the Church is against contraception – it seems that we’ve all just agreed to wink and smile and ignore our Mother.

Contraception cannot remain the “worst kept secret” any longer. The wreckage which contraception has caused in families and marriages has to stop. And so, pray. Pray, pray, pray! Pray the good Jesus to convert our priests and to give them the strength to follow St. John the Baptist in proclaiming the truth no matter what the cost.
Pray also that the Lord would send us more good and holy priests who will preach the truth with love and free our Church from this terrible scourge.

And finally, if only very briefly, we must mention the family Rosary. How can we every make it as a Christian family without the Rosary? And yet, how rare it is to hear priests preach about the Rosary or tell our mothers and fathers of the importance of gathering as a family every day to pray the Rosary together. How many graces are lost!
Pray the good Lord that he would strengthen and inspire his priests to preach the family Rosary with greater zeal, confidence, and love. Imagine all the good things our Jesus wants to pour out upon our families, if only we would pray!

St. John the Baptist was willing to lay down his life in defense of marriage and the family. Let us pray the Almighty Father to send his Church priests after the Heart of his own Son – priests who will bring about a renewal in marriage and family life, no matter what the cost; priests who will lay down their lives for the sheep.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Only the Church shall overcome the gates of hell

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 21st, 2011
Matthew 16:13-20

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

Now I don’t normally mention movies in a homily, but something from a popular movie from a few years ago strikes me as quite applicable to our Gospel today. I am thinking of the family movie called “The Sandlot”, it is one with which I am sure most of you are familiar.
The movie “The Sandlot” is about a group of young boys who play pick-up games of baseball throughout the summer in the local sandlot. One of the boys, who is called “Smalls” is new to town, but he is welcomed into this little band of brothers and learns all about baseball, friendship, and loyalty.
There is a certain point in the movie where the boys run out of baseballs and this new kid “Smalls” says that he will go to his house and get an extra ball. He brings this baseball back and promptly hits his first homerun, the ball sailing over the fence into a sort-of junk yard which is watched over by a guard-dog.
It is only at this point that the boys realize that this was no ordinary baseball. The ball had been signed by Babe Ruth! “Smalls” did understand the significance of this fact, he didn’t even know who Babe Ruth was – he says, “Who is SHE?!” It is only when the other boys impress upon him the true value of the ball, the fact that it is so rare and precious, that he really comes to understand that they have to get that ball back. And so the movie progresses into a delightful and funny tale about trying to outsmart that old guard-dog.

What strikes me about this little story is that the boy didn’t recognize the value of that ball because he didn’t realize just how rare it was. He didn’t know how precious the ball was, so he ended up losing it through negligence.
Perhaps we can see here a little analogy for the way that we often think of the Church. Do we recognize just how unique and precious a gift the Church is to the world and to all of us individually?

Christ today states that he will found his Church upon Simon, and he names him “Peter” which means “Rock”. Then our Savior tells him, “Upon this rock – that is, upon you, Simon Peter – I will build my Church.” Here our Lord gives his people the promise of the Church which will be solidly established upon Peter and his successors, the Popes.
But what is the next line? “And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

“The gates of the netherworld shall never prevail against the Church.” Perhaps we miss Christ’s point: The gates of the netherworld WILL prevail against every other entity. The gates of the hell will overcome every society, every nation, every ideology and philosophy; but they shall not prevail against the Church.
When Jesus tells us that the Church will withstand the gates of hell and will persevere until the end of time, he is saying that the Church alone will stand the trials of this life and pass over into life eternal.
It is not that the Church is one entity, one being, one religion among the many others against which the gates of hell will not prevail. No! The Church alone – and none other, excepting insofar as it is within the Church – the Church alone will overcome the gates of the netherworld.

And now we begin to recognize something of the great value of the gift Christ gave us when he founded the Church. This is a most precious and rare gift, it is one of a kind and there is no other church in which we may find salvation.
But what is more, consider the love with which Christ said these words to Peter! When our Savior says that the gates of hell shall never prevail against his Church it is as though he is telling us, “The powers of hell and the prince of demons will overcome this world and all who hope in the world, but I do not want you to be overcome, I do not what you to fall. Come, then, I shall establish my Church upon Peter as my solid Rock – I will make him to be strong in me, so that you may be saved. I promise you, I swear by it, the Church will never fall and she will never be overcome. Come, then, and find rest for yourselves.

And yet, the Church is still human as well. Certainly, there are mistakes and even the priests and bishops (indeed, even the Pope) can sometimes upset us. However, we have to trust in Christ’s words – the Church will never be overcome by the gates of hell, she will never fall and she will never be led astray. 
This is why it is so sad that people will sometimes leave the Church because they are upset about something in the moment. It is sad because it is a type of despair, it is as though they are saying that hell has prevailed against the Church. But Christ promised us that this would never happen!

Christ our Savior looks upon the world and he sees that all are on the verge of falling, so many have gone astray. He looks upon his Bride, the Church, and he sees that many of her members are imperfect and weak. But he always looks upon us with love and with a desire to draw us back.
This is why he gave us the Church in the first place – not because we are already perfect and well established, but because we are weak and ready to fall (indeed, we have all fallen many times). And so our Savior established the Church as a refuge and resting place, she is the solid foundation and fortress wherein we shall find protection unto life everlasting.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Jewish heart of Christian prayer, Sermon of August 14th

The Jewish heart of the Mass

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 14th, 2011
Romans 11:13-15,29-32

For if their [i.e. the Jews’] rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

The three readings of today’s Mass bring to the fore this relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles. In the first reading from Isaiah, the Lord tells us my house will be a house of prayer for all peoples. He asserts that all nations and all peoples (that is, the Gentiles) will be incorporated into the covenant which God has formed with the Jews. Again, in the Gospel, our Savior heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman – and we have to recall that the Canaanites were not Jews, but were pagan Gentiles. Here the good Jesus first says that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but then he grants the prayer of this Gentile woman. The Lord is helping us to learn that the Gentiles will be united to the Jews and become one chosen people with them.

The Letter of St. Paul to the Romans is certainly one of the most theologically complex portions of the Scriptures, and this is seen especially in his discussion of the relation between the Jews and the Gentiles. The Apostle tells us that the Gentiles will not be saved without the Jews – that the Jewish people have, for a time, stumbled; but that they will not fall and be left behind. No, rather, the Jews (as a people) will turn again to the Lord, and this will bring about the final redemption of the whole world.
In a very real sense, Gentile Christians are “spiritual Semites” or “spiritual Hebrews”, as Pope Pius XI stated. We are “spiritual Semites” in the sense that we have been incorporated into the covenant which God established with Abraham and which he made new in Christ Jesus.
Remember, the Savior did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill it. And so, the Old Covenant is not so much thrown out, as it is made New!
The Christian faith comes from Judaism and is the fulfillment of that Covenant which God had made with his Chosen People.

So, this is the cosmic dimension of the relation between the Jews and the Gentiles; but what does it mean for us on a more personal level? We can say that Christianity ought to have a Jewish heart. In particular, I would like to point out that all true Christian Prayer has a Jewish heart.
Now, you might be thinking to yourselves – “How can my prayer have a Jewish heart? I don’t speak any Hebrew? What is Jewish about my prayer?”
To that I would respond that we might not even just how Jewish our prayer already is.

The Rosary, it seems to me, is the best example of a common Christian prayer that has a Jewish heart. Many don’t realize it, but the Rosary is a deeply Jewish prayer.
Consider that there are three sets of mysteries and that each set is made up of five decades. That means that, in the core of the Rosary, there are one-hundred fifty “Hail Mary” prayers said. And why do we have this number, one-hundred fifty? It is a commemoration of the one-hundred and fifty Psalms which the Jews would pray every week.
The Psalms were the heart of Jewish prayer, they were at the heart of Jesus’ own prayer – and the Rosary is one very important way that we recall the Jewish roots of our prayer.

What is more, the mysteries of the Rosary are extremely “Jewish” insofar as they remind us of the simple historical fact that Christ was a Jew. Consider the “presentation of Jesus in the Temple” or the “finding of Jesus in the Temple” – these mysteries remind us that our Savior was born a first century Jew.
If we all prayed the Rosary every day – something we most certainly should be doing, especially this month which is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary – if we all prayed the Rosary every day, we would be much more mindful of the Jewish heart of our prayer.

Now, today, there are certain forms of “Eastern Mysticism” which have become popular even among Catholics – I refer especially to things like “centering prayer” and “yoga”. What should we say about these things?
This is what I will say: These “eastern” forms of prayer are not Christian, they’re not even Jewish. What is more, they are not Christian, precisely because they are not Jewish!
Enough of all this fascination with “eastern” prayer or with “nature worship” – we simply must return to our Jewish roots, and this means especially the Rosary and meditation on the Scriptures.

We also should point out that our public prayer in the Liturgy, should have a Jewish heart. The Mass has a deeply Jewish heart.
When people today, and even some Catholics, try to make the Mass more about “community” than about worship; they are denying the Jewish roots of the Mass. The Jews understood worship to be primarily a matter of offering sacrifice, and the traditional Catholic approach to the Mass emphasizes this point. The Mass is a sacrifice; first and foremost, the Mass is a sacrifice of worship, the sacrifice of the Cross.
A first century Jew would be scandalized by the way many Catholics approach the Mass today – as though it is a casual meal. Not at all! Let it not be so! We are losing the Jewish roots of the Mass.

Let’s look at a couple of particulars: Almost everything we do at the Mass comes from the Jewish worship. Consider the whole structure of the Church – there is the nave (the part of the church building where the people sit) and there is the sanctuary (where the altar is, where the Mass is offered). This corresponds to the structure of the ancient Jewish Temple. There was the place of the people and there was the Holy of Holies which was set apart by a wall and a veil. There was a clear distinction between the place where the people gathered and the place where the altar was – and yet, both priest and people were united in one common prayer.
Now, I know this might be a bit controversial, but it must be said: It was a mistake to remove the altar rails from the churches.  Taking out the altar rail was one step in utterly destroying the Jewish roots of the Liturgy, because it denies the connection between the Jewish “Holy of Holies” and the Catholic sanctuary.

Again, there was a time when people wanted to make the altar in the church look more like a table – removing the beautiful stone altars and replacing them with altars that looked more like wooden dinner tables. This was a mistake, it was a denial of the Jewish roots of the Mass. There wasn’t a wooden table in the Jewish Temple, there was a stone altar! It is a place of offering sacrifice, and a sacrifice requires an altar.
Now you might say, “But, Father, the Mass is a supper and a meal!” And I say, “It is no mere supper, it is the ‘Wedding Feast of the Lamb’ – happily, the new translation will correct this common error.” The Mass isn’t a casual meal or a common supper; it is a feast, a wedding feast! This is the difference between a lunch and a feast: A feast if filled with all sorts of solemnity, everyone has their proper roles and all respect the traditions. The Mass is a feast and a sacrifice, and the only way we are going to understand the Jewish heart of the Mass is if we regain the sense of the sacred and the sense of solemnity which was so honored in our tradition.

Remember, Jesus was not born as the son of a Roman Emperor, and he was not born as a 21st Century American; no, he was born a first century Jew. It is far time for us to recall this fact, to return to the Jewish heart of worship – then we will come to understand that all of history rests with the Jews.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross - The woman who defeated Hitler

Though it is only a weekday sermon, I have posted my homily for St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She has long been for me a dear spiritual friend and guide. [see the Vatican press release about this great saint]

August 9th, Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

[Moses said to the children of Israel:] It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed. (Deuteronomy 31:8)

The portion of the Lord is his people. (Response for today’s responsorial)

[Jesus said:] What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? (Matthew 18:12)

Edith Stein, who lived from 1891-1942, was a woman of Jewish descent who first became an atheist and then a great philosopher. Together with Heidegger, she was the greatest student of Edmund Husserl – the founder of the philosophical school called “phenomenology”. Edith Stein was quickly recognized for her talent and insights, and her philosophical writings were influential on the thought of Bl. John Paul II – in fact, it was our great hope that he would make her a Doctor of the Church, but alas it looks like we will have to wait and see.
Again, Edith Stein was a German of Jewish descent and, when she eventually converted to Catholicism, she saw this very much in line with her heritage as an Israelite. John Paul II said of her, “She was a true daughter of Abraham, and a daughter of the Church.” Indeed, on a personal note, I can say that Edith Stein had a particularly strong influence on my own understanding of the relation of the Jews to the Church – perhaps some day the world will come to understand what our Savior meant when he said, Salvation is from the Jews.

Not only did Edith Stein become Catholic, but she entered the order of the Discalced Carmelites and took the religious name, “Teresa Benedicta of the Cross”. Her spiritual writings are particularly inspiring.
During the persecution under Hitler, Teresa Benedicta was arrested and taken to Auschwitz where she died in the gas chambers in the year 1942.
Thus, she remained united to her people, the Jews, and through her death gave witness to the love of Christ.

As we think of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, we are particularly mindful of the special role which the Jews have in the history of salvation. How can we not be moved when we hear the words of Moses in the first reading from Deuteronomy: It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you. So do not fear or be dismayed.
Indeed, even in the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust, the good Lord did not fail or forsake his chosen people. St. Teresa Benedicta knew this well, for the Cross is the only means of union with the Messiah of the Jews.
Likewise, when we consider the parable of the lost sheep and hear how the Lord will leave the ninety-nine to go in search of the one, do we not think of the Jews and the Gentiles. Indeed, we Gentiles who have entered the household of the faith are far more numerous than the Jews – we are those ninety-nine. But Jesus will surely go out in search of the one sheep which has gone astray and, when he brings the Jewish people into his flock, then will be accomplished the redemption of the whole world.
All of history rests on the Jews – they are the chosen people of God, and he will never forsake them.

Finally, just a word about the circumstances of St. Teresa Benedicta’s death. She was in the convent and she knew that her life was in grave danger – for Hitler had a particular hatred for Catholics as well as for Jews, and she was both. And I should mention that, although most of her family remained Jewish, Edith’s sister Rosa did convert to Catholicism and also entered the Carmelite Order as a nun.
At the time of her death, Teresa was writing her autobiography, and she probably knew that this would be the last book she would write. As we read the autobiography, it ends very abruptly, almost mid-sentence. There is just a “…”, and that is it.
Teresa Benedicta had been working on her book in the morning, but then the bell rang for the mid-day prayers. So, she put down her pen and went to the chapel to join the sisters in the recitation of the Breviary.
It was while they were gathered in prayer that the Nazis came to the door of the convent and forced their way in. They took both Teresa and her sister. And, when Rosa (Edith’s sister) was fearful, our Saint said: “Come, we are going for our people.”
“Come, we are going for our people.” These were the last words that St. Teresa Benedicta would utter in the convent. Do we not hear Christ himself, speaking through her? Is this not the very Spirit of the Messiah who speaks? He who offered himself up to death for the sake of us all – we who had become “his people”, when he deigned to take on our human nature.

The arrest occurred on August 2nd, and little more is known of St. Teresa. She was taken to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers, probably on August 9th. She simply disappeared, completely hidden and obscured by the inhumanity, the brutality, the sin of the Holocaust.

But, I say, do not feel pity for St. Teresa Benedicta! No, do not weep for her! She was not defeated, she is the victor. Again, I say, if you must shed a tear, weep before this most wondrous example of love! Be moved to tears, not of sorrow but of joy – for this little Jewish woman, this great Carmelite Saint has today defeated Hitler!
You know that, don’t you? Edith Stein is the victor. Together with St. Maximilian Kolbe, she is the conqueror who triumphed over the Nazis, who triumphed over the world, through Christ who strengthened her.
This was not the day of her death – no, I tell you, it was the day of her birth! For through her great victory, she was born this day into the glory of life everlasting.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A sermon on Christian meditation from Father Ryan Erlenbush. August 7th

Elijah, praying alone on Mount Horeb

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 7th, 2011
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Matthew 14:22-33

At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter. […] There was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Jesus went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

Beginning to sink, Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Today’s readings, especially the first reading and the Gospel, teach us the fundamentals of prayer. We see the two essential movements of prayer: First, there is mediation and contemplation – which is shown in Elijah and, most perfectly, in our Savior; it is the example of going up the mountain alone to prayer – and, second, there is supplication or petition – this we see (albeit in an imperfect way) in St. Peter, when he cries out “Lord, save me!”.
These are the two movements: Meditation, which is that mental prayer where we quiet ourselves and enter into loving union with God; and petition, the prayer where we ask the good God to give us all the graces we need for today, for tomorrow, and at the moment of our death.

First, there is mental prayer, that meditation which leads to contemplation. St. John Chrysostom tells us that two things are necessary for true mental prayer – a quiet place, and time. Notice the example of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament. First, he heard the wind which crushed the rocks, but God wasn’t in the wind. Then there was the earthquake and finally also the fire, but God was not in these either. Rather, God came to Elijah in the tine whisper – this is the gentle and often very subtle movement of the Holy Spirit.
If the Holy Spirit is so gentle and often speaks to us through a little whisper, then it is obvious that we will have to listen attentively in order to hear him. We need to quiet ourselves in order to hear his voice and to follow his inspirations.
Today’s world is so busy and loud, we need a quiet place to pray. Of course, the church is a very special place for prayer, but also in our homes we need to take time to step away from the daily duties of life, to retreat to a quiet room, to shut the door, to quiet ourselves and to seek God.

We must point out that every family has not only the right but also the obligation to set aside time for daily meditation or mental prayer. Husbands and wives have a duty to provide each other with time for prayer – and parents with young children should be teaching them how to pray as well.
Of course the family should pray together – we mention especially the family Rosary. If your family is not in the practice of saying the Rosary together every day, the month of August (which is the month dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary) is a great time to start. Perhaps five decades seems like too much at first … fine, we can start with one decade, or at least three Hail Mary’s. Then, we can build from this starting place. Little by little we will grow as a family.
Still, in addition to that common family prayer, the couple must allow each other – and their children as well, once they are old enough – the time for quiet personal prayer and meditation in a separate room apart from the business of the family life.

Now the next question is about time. How much time should we give over to prayer every day? The saints recommend at least fifteen minutes, though twenty would be better. Yes, twenty minutes of quiet reflective meditation every day is so important for us! How can we expect to fulfill all the duties of our daily lives if we are not praying?
Moreover, when we think about how many minutes we should pray, we ought to remember that prayer is all about developing a relationship with the Lord. Could we have a loving intimate relationship with any human being if we only spoke for two or three minutes a day? What if the only time we spoke to our husband was to ask for things, never to simply speak words of Love? Likewise, what if a man only spoke to his wife in a distracted and disinterested manner, perhaps for a few minutes a day or not even every day? This would never work among human being! Why should we think that such little prayer would work with God?
We will say this: If fifteen minutes of prayer every day seems too long, I reply in the spirit of St. Josemaria Escriva – the prayer is not too long, but your love is too short!
Still, we must not be discouraged. If all we can do in the beginning is five minutes, that is fine, it is a place to start. We begin wherever we are and we try to build from there. Sometimes I think that if we only got a little bit better at prayer every day, we would be saints in no time!

And what is this meditation supposed to be about? What are we supposed to do for those twenty minutes every day? We can consider the Rosary – the Rosary will teach us much about the nature of mental prayer and meditation.
When we meditate, we are to consider the mysteries especially of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection, as well as the other mysteries of our Faith – the Trinity, creation, the final judgment. We think upon these mysteries and we consider the great love that Almighty God has shown us through these events.
Christian meditation is all about love, thinking upon God’s love for us and how he has shown us this love in Christ Jesus – and, filled with the divine love, making small acts of love for God in return. To say, “Jesus, how you have loved me! You love me so much that you have died for me! In turn, let me love you!”

Notice how different Christian meditation is from Eastern forms of prayer. Eastern meditation is all about emptying ourselves, dissolving into the “power” of the Universe, clearing our minds to become nothing. Eastern prayer is self-annihilation, but Christian mediation is focused primarily on being filled! Christian prayer is about being filled with God’s love. Far from clearing our minds and entering into nothingness, Christian meditation is focused on thinking about Jesus, about the mysteries of the Faith, about the love of God; and then making acts of love in return. Finally, Christian meditation culminates in the simple loving gaze of the creature upon his Creator.
How far we are from Eastern prayer, and from such practices as “centering prayer” or “yoga”. Centering prayer and yoga are focused on emptying the self, on clearing the mind so as to think of nothing – this is the opposite of Christian mediation. If we are practicing centering prayer or yoga, we need to cut that out immediately – it has nothing at all to do with the Gospel!
Remember, “Mother Earth” does not love you. I hope you know that “Mother Earth” does not love you – she cannot love you because she is not a person. God, the Most Holy Trinity, is three Persons who love you intensely, who want to be united with you, to dwell in you, to elevate you and glorify you by a share in their own life.

And then, finally and very briefly, we come to the very necessary second movement of prayer: Supplication, the prayer of petition. When we see just how much Jesus loves us, we are then filled with a confidence to ask of him all the graces we need to fulfill our vocation in life.
St. Peter, when he was walking on the water, became troubled and fearful seeing the storm and the waves – we too will have many storms to weather, but like St. Peter will be saved if only we cry to the good Jesus, Lord, save me! This is the prayer of petition – asking for the graces needed in the moment and, especially, for the grace to be united to God at the moment of death.
More than anything else, every day we must ask God to bring us to heaven when we die. We must ask God for the grace of final perseverance, which is the grace to turn to him in the last moment of life and to give ourselves completely over to his love.

Be sure of this, if we do not pray and ask to go to Heaven, we won’t. If we do not beg the Lord for the grace to be faithful to the end, we will certainly be damned. All the saints in Heaven are there for this one reason, they prayed and asked for the grace of salvation. Conversely, all the damned in Hell are there for this one reason, they did not pray and they did not ask for the grace of perseverance.
Do you see? Prayer is everything! Our good God loves us so much and he has so many good things that he wants to give us, if only we would pray, if only we would ask for his benefits. Indeed, if we are filled with the love of God and if we persevere in asking the good Lord to bring us to union with himself, we can be sure that he will give us the great glory of life everlasting.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The multiplication of loaves: It wasn't sharing, because we can't feed ourselves. Sermon of July 31st

This homily was given at my Catholic high school reunion Mass (to my fellow alumni)

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 31st, 2011
Matthew 14:13-21

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.

I’m sure that we have all heard it said that this event of the multiplications of the loaves is not really a miracle; or, rather, that the true miracle was that Jesus got the people to share. The idea would be that Jesus’ example of sharing (or the example of the child) would have inspired others to share as well, such that all ate and were satisfied.
Now, we could show that this idea of “sharing” is not at all faithful to the plain meaning of the Biblical text, how it is simply ridiculous to think that 5,000 men (not counting women and children) could be fed on the “sack lunches” of a few, and how Jesus himself latter expressly states that he fed five thousand with only five loaves – we could do all of this, and it would be good, but instead it will be better to consider what the deeper meaning of the miraculous event really was, and how this meaning would change if the miracle were only about sharing.

The multiplication of the loaves, a true historical event, also contains a mystical meaning which touches on the present day. When Christ fed the five thousand, he tells us that he will always provide for his faithful people. No matter how difficult life gets (either individually, or for the Church as a whole), the Savior will be with us to guide and strengthen us. Even when we seem to be in a deserted place and on the verge of exhaustion, the Lord will support his Church with the true bread of Faith and the Sacraments.
Now, let’s think about what it would mean for us today, if Jesus didn’t really feed the five thousand through miraculously multiplying the loaves.

First, the Apostles say to our Savior, “We can’t feed them, let’s tell them to go and get food from the towns and villages!” This would mean that our Lord would send the faithful away, as though he would say, “I can’t feed you, I can’t sustain you, I can’t console you; go to the towns, that is, go into the world and seek whatever comforts you can find there!
Jesus would never say this! No, rather, the good Lord tells us, “There is no true joy in the world, there is no consolation there for you; only I can save you, only I can strengthen you. Come to me and find peace and refreshment! For I alone am your God!”

And so, we might examine our own lives: Where do we seek our comfort and our joy? Where do we find meaning for our lives? Is my joy more in Christ or more in my job, in my success, in riches, and in all the vain pleasures of this life?
Do I seek my fill on the bread of the world, or do I receive the true bread from Christ Jesus? There is no consolation in the world, riches are here today and gone tomorrow; all things pass away, only God remains.

Secondly, we might consider what it would have meant if the people simply shared amongst themselves, as if Jesus had not multiplied the loaves miraculously. I ask you, Who was feeding whom? If the people simply shared their own bread amongst themselves, Who was feeding whom?
Would anyone have been fed by Jesus? No! This would mean that our Savior was nothing more than a moral example that led the crowd to take care of themselves. Why, this would mean that, for us today, the good Lord would be nothing more than a memory from the past, a good example who inspires us, but not a Savior who actually redeems us!
Christ did not say, “Well, let them feed themselves; there’s nothing I can do.” Rather, he said, “Bring me the five loaves, I will feed the crowd.” It was Jesus who fed the people 2000 years ago; and it is Jesus who feeds the Church today.

But, far too often, we try to simply “share” our little morsels amongst ourselves, rather than to receive the true bread from Christ and through his Church. We “share” and feed ourselves whenever we look to popular opinion rather than to the teaching of Christ and his Church.
To where do I look when I want to know how to raise a family? Do I look to the Gospel, or do I only share in the vain falsehoods of the world.
Or, even more, when I form my beliefs about the Church – Do I look to the Church herself and let her teach me who she is and what she believes, or do I rather “share” in all the false notions and errant opinions of the media.
No! We cannot feed ourselves! Only Jesus is the Savior, we cannot simply “share”, but we need him to give us the true bread, the true Faith.

And now, there is one last detail which we ought to point out: Christ does not give the bread directly to the people, but rather he gives it to the Apostles and tells them to distribute it. This also has a mystical meaning – for the bread is a figure also for the Eucharist.
The Lord is teaching us that the Eucharist is not something which he gives directly and immediately to individuals, but it is a sacrament which he has entrusted to his Church. The Eucharist is the great treasure of the Church and is meant only for those who are united to the Church.

Now, I know that this can seem to be a bit controversial – but, it is good to recognize why the Church teaches that only Catholics who are practicing their faith are to receive communion. It’s not about being exclusive or rejecting others, but we have to admit that Christ gave the Eucharist to the disciples rather than to the crowds in general. Just so, the Eucharist is not to be shared among all people generally, nor even among all Christians, but only among those who are united to the successors of the Apostles, those who are practicing Catholics.
If we are not Catholic or if we are no longer practicing our Catholic faith, we simply cannot receive Holy Communion – it would be a falsehood to receive the sacrament of unity when we are not truly united.

My friends, it has been 10 years since we graduated from high school – it is time to make a little examination of conscience. Where have we gone and where are we now? Are we finding our joy and consolation in the Lord, or have we begun to seek after all the shallow pleasures of the world? Does our own self-worth rely on our relationship with our Savior, or are we more concerned about our job, our house, our social standing?
Now is probably a good time to get back to confession. We have reached a mile-marker, and all of us could probably use confession more often anyway. It is time to return in earnest to our life of faith.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The pearl of great price: The Eucharist, the child, the poor. Sermon of July 24th

St. Anthony of Egypt sold all he had, entered the desert,
and endured every trial with joy - he had found the pearl of great price!

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 24th, 2011
Matthew 13:44-52

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

When we hear the parables of the treasure and of the pearl, and learn how we are to be ready to sacrifice all things for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, we may recall the memory of St. Anthony of the Desert – the Father of Monasticism, who lived at the turn of the 4th century.
St. Anthony was only a young man, about 18 years old, when his parents both died and he was left an orphan. Wondering what the good Lord desired of him, he felt inspired to go to the church. Upon entering, Anthony heard the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel being proclaimed: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.

The young St. Anthony was deeply moved by these words and felt inspired to give generously to the poor. You see, his family had been very wealthy, so he sold a good portion of his inheritance and gave it to the poor.
However, he did not give everything away – perhaps he was thinking, “Lord, if you are really serious, if you want me to give over everything; you are ‘gonna have to say it directly!”
[those, of course, are my own words … I doubt St. Anthony would have put it quite that way!] J

Shortly thereafter, Anthony again entered the Church and heard the words of St. Luke’s Gospel: Take nothing for your journey; neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats.
Deeply moved by the Holy Spirit, St. Anthony immediately went forth, sold what little inheritance was left to him, and gave the money to the poor. Then, this heroic soldier of Christ, left the world and entered the desert as a hermit. There he would remain for nearly 100 years!
Many people came to St. Anthony to seek his counsel, and he ultimately founded the first monasteries in the history of the Church. Was it easy? Of course it wasn’t easy! He lived in the desert of Egypt! It was very hard, he suffered much, he was bothered by all sorts of crazy people coming and pestering him. And, on top of all that, he suffered terribly from the attacks of demons!
But St. Anthony persevered through all of this because he was filled with a profound spirit of joy. He had found that treasure, he had taken possession of the pearl – having left all things, he obtained the Kingdom.

Now, most of us are not called to seek the pearl and the treasure out in the desert. Surely, some here are called in this way – there are likely some among our young men and women who are called to leave all and follow God through the vocation to the religious life or to the priesthood. But most of us will search for the treasure in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. Where then shall we find the Kingdom in midst of the world?
I want to point out three places where we find the treasure, where we gain that pearl – and these are three occasions which are common and ordinary.

First, we find the treasure in the Sunday Mass. If the Eucharist isn’t the pearl of great price, I don’t know what is! It is at the Mass that we gain the riches of everlasting life. Here, in our Sunday worship, we store up treasures in heaven.
How valuable the Mass is! There is nothing more important in our week than Sunday Mass
In fact, Sunday Mass (or Mass on Saturday evening) is so valuable … why, it’s even more important than hunting and fishing season! J
The Eucharist is so important, that we wouldn’t ever want to miss it or skip out on the Mass in order to fish or hunt. If we truly understood the value of the Mass and the Gift that we receive, we would never skip Mass – not for travel, not for vacation, not for games.
Remember, this isn’t just about an obligation (though, it is an obligation); we are talking about the treasure and about the pearl – we have found the Kingdom, be filled with joy and give all things in order to attend Sunday Mass every week without exception.

Second, we find the pear of great price in all the good things that God has in store for marriage and family life. If the child isn’t the pear, I don’t know what is! The gift of the child, how could we ever reject the child?!
And yet, far too often, many people (and even many Catholics) refuse to accept the gift of children. Using artificial means of regulating fertility is like finding the treasure and abandoning it. If we knew the gift of the child, we would never use birth control. A nation which uses contraception is a nation which has rejected the child.
God wants us to trust in him! Will it be hard? Of course it will be hard! Remember, Anthony was in the desert for 100 years; it wasn’t easy, but he was joyful. So too, we also must be joyful – consider the gift of the child and the grace of God who will always provide for us, if only we trust in him.
The way to space out children and to be responsible in parenting is to use Natural Family Planning, not contraception. Natural Family Planning is the great means for parents to find the treasure of the Kingdom and to receive God’s plan for their family with joy.

Third, we find the treasure in being generous to the poor. The poor are that treasure hidden in society, neglected and ignored by so many. If we cannot see that the poor are that pearl, then we have missed Christ who is present to us through them.
The US Dollar is losing strength every day – I hear that it is worth less even than the Canadian Dollar. You may as well give your money to the poor before it is worth nothing at all! J
Mercy covers a multitude of sins, and those who are generous to the poor are the true friends of God.

Finally, if we really believe that these three – the Mass, the child, and the poor – truly are the pearl and the treasure, then we ought to be filled with joy! Here is our means of attaining to the Kingdom of God, which is worth more than any passing treasures of earth; let us sacrifice all our self-love, all our selfishness, all our distrust. You will lose nothing, but you gain everything! And, consumed with the joy of God’s Kingdom, we should be bold in speaking of these things with others.
If we believe that the Eucharist is the great Gift that it is, we will try to bring fallen-away Catholic back to Mass. If we know that the child is a pearl given us by the Lord, we will not be afraid to proclaim the truth about marriage and family, and to encourage others to use Natural Family Planning [and parents and grandparents have a special obligation to explain this to their children]. Finally, if we know that the downtrodden are that true treasure, we will not be ashamed to defend the poor and to be a witness of God’s preferential love for them.
Be joyful! Though these pearls and treasures may only be obtained through much sacrifice, if only you preserver in God’s love, you shall soon attain to life everlasting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The yeast leavens the whole batch, Sermon of July 17th

After the worst persecution of the Church,
Rome herself became Catholic under Constantine the Great

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
July 17th, 2011
Matthew 13:24-43

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.

In today’s Gospel, Christ gives us three parables by which he encourages to persevere in the face of evil. In each of these three parables – the weeds and wheat, the mustard seed, and the yeast which leavens that batch of dough – our Savior gives us some indication of answer to the great and mysterious question: “Why is there evil in the world?”

I would like to focus on the parable of the little bit of yeast which is mixed with the three measures of wheat flour to leaven the whole batch. We must understand something about the imagery which the Lord uses – the visual is of a woman mixing in the yeast and then kneading and beating down the dough. It is precisely this act of violence, this continuous beating down which makes the whole batch to rise.
The point of the parable is this: As the violent force of the woman beating down the dough causes the yeast to leaven the whole batch, so too the evil in the world actually contributes to the increase and spread of goodness. It is not merely that good and evil co-exist until the end of time, but the evil is used by God to promote the good.
This is borne out in the life of the Church: The more the Church is persecuted, rejected and ridiculed, the more the Church will grow and the more the faith will spread.

I do not mean this only as a theological or spiritual truth, it is also an historical reality. Even without faith, simply looking at history, we can see Christ’s parable being fulfilled.
Consider, for example, the early Church. In the first days, the Church was terribly persecuted by the Roman Empire. This persecution was intense – but the more the Romans attacked the Church the more the faith spread.
This persecution reached its climax under the emperor Diocletion at the end of the 3rd century: under his reign the Churched suffered the most cruel and organized attack which she had ever faced.
But after this greatest of all persecutions came the emperor Constantine, who not only converted to Christianity himself, but made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Behold the wonder of it all: After the worst persecution which the Church had ever seen, Rome awoke to find itself Christian!

Similarly, consider that Rome fell to the pagan barbarians of northern Europe. Now, every time in history when one people conquers another, the victors impose their religion upon the vanquished. But what happed when the pagan barbarians sacked Rome? They converted to Christianity!
This is a real miracle of history: Conquering Rome, the barbarians were conquered by Christianity! Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Behold, the parable of the yeast and the dough working itself in history.

Yet, the Lord Jesus has something more to say: This parable isn’t simply about how the true Faith and the Catholic Church will conquer and convert all peoples and nations. The Savior is not only the Lord of history, he is also the Lord of your heart and of mine.
The parable of the yeast and the dough also is meant to encourage us personally in our journey.

Do you feel stretched too thin? Are you suffering? Is the life of faith sometimes a struggle and difficult? Perhaps we sometimes feel like we can’t go on much further.
It is precisely in these times of difficulty – so the Lord tells us – precisely when we are beaten down and struggling, that is when the grace of Christ is most effective in us.
We say: “Lord, please take away my struggles and my temptations.” But he tells us: “The dough must be kneaded and suffer violence, only then with the yeast leaven the whole batch!”

So do not be discouraged when things are tough. Do not become despondent when you suffer temptations or when you seem to take two steps back for every one forward. Trust rather in the grace of Christ!
Think of it: Once the yeast is in the dough, you can’t get it out! The grace of Christ Jesus is in you, if only you are faithful he will enliven you, he will win you over.

The good Lord conquered the Roman Empire, can he not conquer your soul? He defeated and overcame nations and peoples, shall he not win you to himself?
Of course he will! What have you to be discouraged about? Christ died for you, will he not give you everything else besides?
We must only keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ our Savior. Humbled by our weaknesses, but confident in his love, we shall persevere through all things.
And, though your faith may seem like only a little mustard seed, if only you look to Jesus and persevere in his love, that little seed of your faith shall grow into the great tree of glory in life everlasting.