From Trials to Transfiguration – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

What is it that gives hope, peace, and serene joy to the Christian life? Briefly, it is the vision of glory, a glimpse into the Promised Land of Heaven, which the Lord can and does give to His people. Today’s Gospel shows forth a kind of process through which the Lord lays the foundations of hope, peace, and joy.

The Paradoxical Prelude – The text says, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. Note that in order to get them to a place where they can see glory, the Lord must first lead them “up a high mountain.”

It’s easy to pass over this fact: they had to climb that mountain. Anyone who has been to the site of Tabor can appreciate just how difficult a climb it is, almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It takes the better part of a day and the climb might well have been more dangerous back then. Once at the top, one feels as if one is looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon). So Tabor is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. It was a difficult, exhausting climb for Peter, James, and John and it tested their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!”; “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!”; “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb should remind us of our life here on this earth. We’ve often had to climb, to endure; we’ve had our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree, or raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb, of effort, of struggle? Most of us know that although the climb is difficult, there is glory at the top. We have to endure, to push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Herein lies the paradox: peace, joy, and hope are often the products of struggles, climbs, and difficulties. These things are often the prelude to seeing and experiencing glory. Scripture says,

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3-4).

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:6).

Yes, there is a paradoxical prelude to glory and it can only come through God’s wisdom—human beings just don’t think this way. An old hymn says,

“Trials dark on every hand. And we cannot understand, all the ways that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But he guides us with his eye and we follow till we die and we’ll understand it better by and by.”

The Practice Portrayed – The text lays out various aspects of how Peter, James, and John come to experience a joyful peace in the presence of the Lord’s glory. The text says, And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” There are three things Peter, James, and John do that enable them to come to this joyful peace:

Note how they Savor the moment. Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, to pitch tents and stay put. Some preachers give him a hard time for this, but I see it as a good thing, even if a bit excessive. The point is to savor glory, to store good memories and experiences deep in our soul, to cultivate a deep gratitude for the wonderful things the Lord has done for us, to savor deeply our experiences of glory.

The Prescription Proclaimed – The text then says, Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

The prescription couldn’t be simpler and yet how poorly we often follow it. Listen to Jesus! In other words, carefully ponder every word of His teaching and begin to base your life on what He says.

How much pain, anxiety, and strife come into this world and our lives simply because we do not listen to the Lord and obey His teachings! Our stubbornness, our lack of forgiveness, our unchastity, our greed, our lack of concern for the poor, our idolatry, our lack of spirituality, and the fact that we are often just plain mean, bring enormous suffering to us and to others.

If we would but give our life to the Lord and ask Him to conform us to His word, so much suffering would vanish. We would have so much more peace and would experience greater joy and hope.

Listen to Jesus and by His grace conform your life to what you hear Him say. There is no greater source for joy, peace, and hope.

The Persevering Purpose – The text says, As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

There is fairly universal agreement that the purpose of this mountaintop experience of glory was to prepare the apostles for the difficult days ahead. Thus, while Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, He wanted them to keep it, to remember it. Having seen and savored glory, having “seen what the end shall be,” having been bathed in beams of Heaven, they need to keep the memory alive and remember who Jesus is as the Passion begins. If they do this, they will be able to endure the folly and suffering of the cross.

Did they successfully persevere in keeping the memory alive? Only John made it to the foot of the cross, but one out of three isn’t so bad. Having experienced peace and joy, and having seen the Lord’s glory, John made it to the cross, enduring its shame and remembering the glory he had seen.

What about you? Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you experienced His love and glory deeply enough that, when difficulties come, you don’t allow them to overwhelm you? Have you come to experience and possess a peace and joy that the world did not give and hence cannot take away? Have you allowed the Lord to lay a foundation of hope in your life? Have you let Him take you up the mountain and show you glory? Have you seen the promised land and have you seen what the end shall be? This is what this Gospel describes and promises.

There is an old hymn by Charles Tindley that says,

“Beams of Heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life’s grief and danger / I shall be free someday.”

Notice what it is that gets us through: beams of Heaven!

Yes, it was those same beams of Heaven that Peter, James, and John saw on the mountaintop. Those beams, having been experienced and remembered, shine on every darkness and show the way. Those beams of Heaven give us hope and turn our midnight into day. Let the Lord show you His glory. Savor every moment and never forget what the Lord has done for you. The light of His Glory will light every way.

The hymn goes on to say,

“Burdens now may crush me down / Disappointments all around / Troubles speak in mournful sigh / Sorrow through a tear stained eye / There is a world where pleasure reigns / No mourning soul shall roam its plains / And to that land of peace and glory / I want to go some day.”

Losing our Leprosy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel this Sunday, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). In Scripture, leprosy describes more than just a physical affliction; it is a metaphor for sin as well. Obviously leprosy itself is not sin, but its effects are similar. Like leprosy, sin disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (lepers had to live apart from the community) and it brings death if left unchecked.

The following passage can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off (Psalm 38).

Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order so that we can further appreciate both the physical disease and by analogy how sin gradually devastates us. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark.

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, how it disfigures, deteriorates, and distances the leper. At that time, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate (there are many skin conditions that can resemble leprosy in its early stages). If the skin cleared up or at least did not deteriorate, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.

1.  Admit the Reality – The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” The man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself and pleads for cleansing.

Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask for it? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. We often excuse our faults by blaming others or perhaps we point to some other sinner who is apparently “worse” than we are and think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as he is.”

All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.

2.  Accept the Relationship – Notice two things:

First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect, he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).

It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin, we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.

3.  Apply the Remedy – Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained to recognize leprosy and distinguish it from ailments with similar symptoms. Priests were trained to observe and then make the final determination. A confirmed leper was banished from the community. Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was expelled on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community as to whether the person should be readmitted.

Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest.

To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance.

Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.

4.  Announce the Result – When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are aspects of this Gospel that are perplexing: Jesus warns the healed leper not to tell a soul other than the priest.

This (and other passages in which the Lord issues similar commands for silence) is puzzling. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot hold for us who have this standing order: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).

Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

The heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”

Yes, tell someone what the Lord has done. If your healing is real, you can’t keep quiet about it.

When Troubles Rise – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of the Year


In life we face many difficulties; they challenge us and our faith. Deep struggle can lead us to question God, His love, or even His existence. The readings today speak to us of these sorts of difficulties and prophetically interpret them for us. Let’s take a look at these readings in three stages.

I.  The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job clearly articulates the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another. Job said, Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? … I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me … then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days … come to an end without hope … I shall not see happiness again.

Job is weary and worried, angry and anxious, depressed and discouraged. We’ve all been there, and although we pray it won’t happen, life sometimes cycles back to difficulties even if times are good now.

Notice Job’s disillusionment. He says, I shall not see happiness again. Suffering has a way of drawing us into the illusion that things will never be good again, that we will never again be happy or content. Yet Scripture says that troubles don’t last forever, that weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Psalm 30:5). This is true even for those of us who are soon to die; death opens to a new and lasting joy provided we are faithful.

Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, that it will never be good again. This is not the case; he will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.

We, too, can get lost in illusion when suffering sets in. A thousand questions, usually starting with “why,” beset us. And while the mystery of suffering cannot be fully explained, we ought to remember that God permits some trouble in our life so that certain purposes can be accomplished (if we are faithful). God permits trouble to

DIRECT us – Sometimes God must light a fire under us to get us moving. Problems often point us in a new direction and motivate us to change. Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the innermost being. When our way gets too easy, we tend to stray from God.

INSPECT us – Our problems have a way of helping to show what we’re really made of. Through trials and tests in my life, I’ve discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony, and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. (1 Peter 1:6).

CORRECT us – Some lessons can only be learned through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (e.g., health, money, a relationship) by losing it. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72). Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep your word (Psalm 119:67).

PROTECT us – A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents us from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as getting stuck in traffic, thereby avoiding a terrible accident up ahead. It might be something more serious like losing our health, but along with that losing our ability to sin so seriously. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers (who had sold him into slavery), You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

PERFECT us – When responded to properly, problems are character builders. God is far more interested in our character than our comfort. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us, they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character. (Romans 5:3). You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it (1 Peter 1:7).

So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on him. There’s no doubt that he is in trouble, but trouble doesn’t last forever. God is permitting it for a reason and for a season, but seasons change.

In the depths of despair, such encouragement may not seem emotionally satisfying, but the first step in improving our mental outlook is to root our thoughts appropriately in what God teaches.

II.  The Destination of Distressed Disciples – Simply put, when troubles come, run to the Lord in prayer. In today’s Gospel we are told, Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her … When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.

Note the instinct of the people to turn to the Lord “immediately.” A few old songs come to mind:

  • I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.
  • What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
  • King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long to hear some sinner pray.

Indeed, while God may have reasons for permitting us to experience difficulties, it does not mean that He does not want us to ask for grace, strength, and healing. The Book of James says, simply, Ye have not because ye ask not (James 4:2).

In seeking the Lord, we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.

  • Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).
  • I tell you, though [the grouchy neighbor] will not get up and give [his neighbor] bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs (Luke 11:8).
  • The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).

Here, too, the words of a song come to mind: “If I hold my peace my Jesus will be coming for me one day, King Jesus is a-listenin’ when you pray.” Thus, in times of distress and difficulty, the instinct of a true disciple is to hasten to the Lord in prayer, to seek comfort, consolation, healing, and peace.

III.  The Doctrine of Divine Decision – We have reviewed two truths that are in some tension: that God sometimes permits trouble for a reason and for a season, and that we ought to run to the Lord in prayer when trouble comes, seeking help and relief. One teaching has us seek immediate relief from God. The other reminds us that weeping may endure for a while, but it is always for a reason, a reason deemed by God to be both necessary and productive.

In the end, the “Doctrine of Divine Decision” says that we should accept with trust that God knows what is best. We run to Him for relief and permit Him to say either “now” or “later” in response to our prayers.

In the Gospel today, we see both these teachings illustrated First, many came to Him for healing and He healed them all. But then we read this:

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Therefore, note that although some have remained back in the town seeking immediate healing, Jesus chooses to move on, for He is not here simply to be a medical miracle worker but rather (as He says) to preach the Kingdom and ultimately to die for our real problem: our sin. It may be difficult for us to hear Jesus say no to this town and move on. In fact, Peter indicated some frustration at Jesus’ having left the town to pray and then ultimately moving on. Nevertheless, for those back in Capernaum, Jesus said to some of them, “now,” and to others, “wait.” This is His decision and He knows what is best.

Consider this: either way we are blessed. Either we experience healing now and then have a testimony to give, or our faith is strengthened because we receive the Good News that that everything is going to be all right. Scripture says,

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

In other words, even the difficult things in life, by God’s grace, work unto good; they bring some benefit. God permits the struggle for now because he knows of the benefit. Scripture also says,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).

Thus our sufferings have a purpose: to strengthen and purify us.

The Doctrine of Divine Decision leaves things up to God. Whether now or later, everything is going to be all right if we trust in God. If there is a delay, it’s because He has His reasons, and even if these reasons are mysterious and irksome for us, the decision is God’s.

Here, then, are some directions for disciples when dealing with difficulties. Briefly put, reject disillusionment, run to Jesus, and respect His decision.

The words of this song say,

You don’t have to worry
And don’t you be afraid
Joy comes in the morning
Troubles they don’t last always
For there’s a friend in Jesus
Who will wipe your tears away
And if your heart is broken
Just lift your hands and say
I know that I can make it
I know that I can stand
No matter what may come my way
My life is in your hands

A Portrait of Jesus the Preacher – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel Jesus models four aspects of powerful and effective preaching.

In using the word “preaching” we ought to be careful not to limit it to what takes place in a church. All Catholic parents should learn from Jesus’ example here for they have the church of their home in which to preach; they have the pulpit of the dining room table, the living room couch, and even the family car. We all must learn from Jesus’ model of powerful preaching and teaching. Note, then, four basic qualities of Jesus as preacher and teacher:

I. PERSONAL – The text says, Then they came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.

(The picture at the upper right is one of me and fellow parishioners standing in the ruins of the synagogue mentioned in this passage. It is quite moving to stand atop the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus preached both this sermon and the Bread of Life discourse. Some of the ruins are from later than Jesus’ era, but the foundations are clearly from that time. It’s amazing.)

Note that the text says that Jesus spoke “with authority.” The Greek word translated here as “authority” is ἐξουσίαν (exousia), whose root meaning is “to (speak) out of one’s being or substance.” In other words, one speaks of what one knows by experience. Jesus is not simply quoting what others have said nor is He merely quoting slogans or common sayings.

In this, Jesus is distinguished from the scribes, who were famous for quoting only one another and other reputable, safe sources. Quoting other sources is fine, but if it merely stops there, how is listening to a preacher any better than staying home and reading a book?

Too many Christians, including Catholic preachers, are content to live and preach by inference rather than experience. Too many are content to repeat what others have said rather than to speak out of what they know, have seen, and have experienced.

To preach with authority means to be able to proclaim the Word of God with personal knowledge and experience. It means to be able to say this: “What the Lord and the Church have always proclaimed, I know personally, for I have tested and experienced the Word of God in the laboratory of my own life and found it to be true. And now I speak to you not merely of what others have said but what I know and experience to be true. Out of the substance of my own being I announce this truth to you.”

This is what it means to preach personally and with authority. Jesus did not simply quote what others said; He said what He personally knew.

What of you and me? Are you able to speak with authority? Well, do you know what the Lord is doing in your life? Have you personally experienced the truth of what the Scriptures and the Church have always announced? Or are you just quoting slogans, passages, and what others have said? Of course the Scriptures and the authoritative teachings of the Church are the essential foundation of what we know, but do you personally know it to be true? How? Do you speak to your children of what you know or do you merely say, “The Church says … “? Certainly you should say what the Church says, but teaching with authority means knowing and having experienced the truth of what the Church says. It means being able to attest to it personally. This is the basis of preaching and teaching with authority.

II. PROVOCATIVE – To say that something is “provocative” is to say that it elicits a response. When Jesus preached His words did not leave His listeners unmoved. His preaching called forth a response, whether it made people mad, sad, or glad.

The text pointed out that many were glad, but there was one man who was mad. The text describes his reaction: In the synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Every experienced, authentic preacher knows that if he preaches effectively, a response will be forthcoming from his listeners. While it is natural to want a positive response, every preacher must be willing to accept that his word may incite anger or ridicule. The Church announces good news but she is also a sign of contradiction to a sinful world. Thus every preacher faithful to the Gospel must expect some degree of negativity and even persecution, ridicule, and anger.

Jesus’ Word angers a demon-possessed man in the congregation and he confronts Jesus, blaming Him with being hateful and causing hurt, saying that Jesus wants to destroy him. (Similarly, many today react with anger and call the Church hateful, bigoted, intolerant, and hurtful—even claiming that she destroys lives.) As we shall see, Jesus does not back down.

The problem in the synagogue is not the Word that Jesus proclaims; it is the man’s inner condition. When the authentic Gospel is proclaimed, the wrath that sometimes follows does not bespeak a problem with God’s Word but with the listener’s inner condition. Note that the man is demon-possessed. That is, his heart and mind are under the influence of Satan and the sin he inspires. The greatest obstacle to our being able to appreciate and understand the Word of God is our sin; the greatest help is a docile and humble spirit, granted by the grace of God.

A powerful preacher, priest or parent, preaches in order to provoke a response, whether one of joy and consolation or of repentance and godly sorrow. While no authentic preacher intends to incite a hostile response, he must be willing to accept such a reaction. When someone is accustomed to the darkness, he finds the light harsh, and calls it such. Anyone who preaches the Gospel authentically will both comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; he will both console and confront (where necessary); he will reassure but also awaken the need for healing. He will speak the truth in love.

Good preaching provokes a response and one who hears the Gospel preached with authority cannot come away unchanged.

III. PRODUCING – Powerful and effective preaching brings results. As Jesus preaches, a man is set free. The text says, Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.

The aim or point of the Word of God is not merely to inform but to transform. It’s not enough for the Word of God to be attractive, informative, or entertaining. Its full purpose is to, in power, drive out demons and bring God’s grace. Good preaching works to drive out the demons of ignorance, sorrow, rebellion, and sin. It works to give godly sorrow, joy, hope, confidence, knowledge, courage, and conviction. Good preaching changes people’s lives.

IV. PERSEVERING – Note that Jesus did not immediately back down in the face of opposition. He persevered with the opposing man and, by His Word, drove out the demons that were afflicting him. We see the man go through three stages:

  1. He is mad, for he confronts Jesus.
  2. He is sad, for he struggles and convulses as Jesus works to free him by His Word.
  3. He is glad, for he is set free and is able to rejoice with the others.

Every preacher, every parent, and every prophet must persevere, not giving up easily; it is often the case that people must go through these stages.

In my own life there was a time when, afflicted by the demons of ignorance and youthful rebellion, I would cross my arms and listen angrily to the priest. I was mad. I would often scoff at the “silly priest” who was trying to tell me what to do. After some years of hearing the preaching of the Church, however, I gradually understood that I had to change. Change does not come easily, though, and thus came the stage of sad; it was a time of struggle, learning new virtues, and forsaking old vices. Now I can truthfully say that I am glad, for the Lord has brought me a mighty long way. His preached Word is powerful. When effectively preached, it has the power to transform. I have experienced transformation personally.

I am glad that the Church persevered, that my parents persevered, that good priests and religious persevered in preaching to me and teaching me. I am glad that my parishioners continue to persevere in witnessing to me and preaching by their lives.

Here is reenactment of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (on a different occasion).

 

Working for the Kingdom – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings of “Ordinary Time” focus on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception, as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and His Kingdom joyfully, energetically, and wholeheartedly. We can group these disciplines into three broad areas; discipleship is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant – The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we hear only the end of the story, but as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

Refusal The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it …” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:1-3). Jonah defiantly runs from God; he refuses the mission.

Running – Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running! Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2500 miles to get away from God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God.

Resistance – As Jonah runs away from God, great storms arise at sea. The storms of defiance rage, but Jonah sleeps—and the storms affect not only him but those who sail with him as well. Yes, our moral decisions do affect others around us despite our egocentric notion that what we do is no one else’s business. Thus, for some of us, there can be great storms that come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in your life may be related to a situation in which God said, “This way,” but you defied him and said, “No, that way”? Maybe we all need to wake up and say, “What does this storm mean?”

Return – Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place (Joppa) where he sailed away from God. In effect, God says, “Let’s try this all over again.” So Jonah makes ready and goes to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

The point is that disciples (we) must learn to be undefiant. God wants to “save us some mileage.” Obedience to His will is always easier than disobedience.

Consider, too, how undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message and notice how this saves them from destruction.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say that it’s easy, just that it’s easier. Sin may be more pleasurable and easier in the moment, but it brings a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just read a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. The vast majority of this world’s suffering is directly attributable to the rebellious sinfulness of humanity.

The first discipline of discipleship is undefiance. With this discipline we remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom and are thereby spared many difficulties.

II.  Unfettered – To be unfettered means to be unchained, unshackled, free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what being unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29ff).

This passage does not mean that we have no recourse at all to these things and people but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains. Nothing here, not even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence or the sole source of meaning for us. God and God alone is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is the battle, the central struggle we face. Our attachment to this world hinders us from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind:

Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22 ff).

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:24).

The world has a thousand hooks in us. We are chained and fettered; our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The battle to be free and unfettered is a process. God can give us this freedom but it requires time and obedience from us. Little by little, God breaks the shackles of this world; all its treasures come to seem as of little value to us. Slowly we come to what St. Paul said:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III.  Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among His first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship. Fishermen are:

Patient – Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days, for a catch. Disciples need patience, as do evangelizers.

Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the types of fish and their behaviors, learning to observe the water and navigate, learning the right time of day and the right season to fish. They need to know the right bait and the proper use of the net. All of these traits are good for disciples and are especially helpful in evangelization, which is “job one” for the disciple. Through growing in practical knowledge we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.

Purposeful – When fishermen are out fishing they are entirely focused on their endeavor. That’s all they do; everything is centered on the main task. They are single-minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single-minded.

Pursuing – Note that they simply go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope that people will come to them—that is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is this: go.

Partnered – Fishermen work in teams. Jesus sends the disciples out, two by two.

Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch one day, they’re back out the next. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

In today’s readings there are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own and that of the Church. Ultimately, a free heart is a joyful heart. It is a heart that is not easily tired because it is not divided by serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here is a song that speaks of patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s Kingdom. It is a song that can only come from a heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring; from a heart that says, “I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!”

A Picture of a Prophet – A Homily for the Second Sunday of the Year

The first reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of the call of Samuel. In examining it, we can see what it is that makes a great prophet. Put more theologically, we can see the ways in which God’s graces form a great prophet.

Samuel was surely one of the most significant prophets of the Old Testament and lived at a critical time, as Israel shifted from the time of the judges to the time of the monarchy. Ultimately, it was he who would see Israel through the difficult time of Saul’s reign and prepare and anoint them for David’s kingship to follow.

What, then, are some of the ways in which God prepares Samuel and every prophet (this means you) for mission? Consider these five.

1.  The CLOSENESS of a great Prophet – In the first reading, we find the young Samuel sleeping in the temple of the Lord. In those days, the temple was not yet in Jerusalem nor was it a permanent building; it was a tent structure in Hebron. Samuel, as one in training for temple duties, is sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant, which carried the presence of God. Thus we see that a great prophet begins and remains so by staying close to the Lord.

We must do the same if we wish to be great prophets to our family and friends. How will parents give prophetic witness to their children if they are distant from the Lord? How will a priest preach with authority and power if he does not stay close to the Lord?

How do we draw close to the Lord? Daily prayer, devout reading of Scripture, frequent confession, weekly reception of Holy Communion, and a spirit of wonder and awe. Ask for these virtues. Stay close to the Lord. Great prophets stay close to the Lord.

2.  The CONSTERNATION of a great Prophet – The first reading depicts Samuel as struggling with some confusion as to what he is hearing and from whom. God is calling, but Samuel doesn’t get it. He struggles to figure out what is happening to him. A look at the call of the great prophets reveals that most of them struggled with their call. Moses felt old, inarticulate, and inadequate. Jeremiah felt too young; Isaiah, too sinful. Amos would have been content to remain a dresser of sycamores. Most of the prophets felt overwhelmed and experienced consternation.

Samuel eventually figures it out who it is that is calling him and begins his journey. He had to listen for a while to do that, however.

How about you? Many of us too would want to run if God made it clear that He had something for us to do. In a way, that is a proper response, for pride is a bad trait. To be troubled, to experience a bit of consternation and anxiety, helps us to remain humble and to keep leaning on the Lord.

What is the Lord asking of you? Perhaps, like Samuel, you struggle to understand at first. Stay close to God and things will eventually become clear.

The great prophets struggled, but that is the point. They struggled with God for an answer and for a vision.

3.  The CONNECTEDNESS of a great Prophet – Notice that Samuel does not discern on his own. He seeks counsel from a wiser man. Although Eli is not a perfect teacher, God does make use of him to help Samuel.

We, too, ought to seek good, strong spiritual influences, friends and clergy, to help us to discern. Scripture says, Seek counsel from every wise man (Tobit 4:18). It is a bad idea to try to discern alone. We should cultivate relationships with wise and spiritual men and women in our journey.

The great prophets were connected to spiritual leaders and teachers. They read and consulted other prophets. God does not just call us to a vertical, private relationship with Him. He also calls us to a horizontal relationship with others. Seek wise counsel—great prophets do.

4.  The CORE of a great Prophet – Samuel is advised by Eli to say to God, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. A great prophet listens to God, but God does not always say easy things. He often challenges, but great prophets listen very carefully to Him. They do not try to bury His word; they do not forget what He says. They take what they hear seriously and do not compromise God’s Word.

What about us? It is easy to avoid listening to God or to compromise what we have heard, but great prophets listen carefully to Him by doing these things: reading and studying His word, observing how He speaks through creation and in the events of each day, studying the teachings of the Church, and listening to the small, still voice within carefully and prayerfully.

Do you want to be a great prophet? Then listen.

5.  The CAPABILITY of a great Prophet – We see in Samuel’s life how was gradually transformed into a great prophet of God who never compromised God’s word. The text says, Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect. Because Samuel was close to the Lord, faced his own consternation, was connected to the wise, and had that core virtue of listening, he became a great prophet. The Hebrew text is more literal in saying that God did not let a word of Samuel’s fall to the ground.

Being a great prophet is a work of God. We who would and should be great prophets ourselves ought to heed the way in which God works to make great prophets. Learn from Samuel. Study all the prophets and you will see what God can do.

While most of us wish that our words had greater effect, it is less clear that we want to undertake the process necessary to get there. Ask for the gift. Ask for the gift to stay close to God, to struggle and accept some of the consternation that comes with being a prophet. Seek to be connected to wise counsel. Learn the core value of listening. In this way will God bring about in you a conversion such that none of your words will ever fall to the ground.

The Journey of Faith – A Homily for Epiphany

There are so many wonderful details in the Epiphany story: the call of the Gentiles, their enthusiastic response, the significance of the star they seek, the gifts they bring, the dramatic interaction with Herod, and their ultimate rejection of Herod in favor of Christ.

In this meditation, I would like to follow these Magi in their journey of faith to become “Wise Men.” As magi, they followed the faint stars, distant points of light; as wise men, they follow Jesus, who is the ever-glorious Light from Light, true God from true God.

We can observe how they journey in stages from the light of a star to the bright and glorious Light of Jesus Christ. And, of course, to authentically encounter the Lord is to experience conversion. All the elements of this story ultimately serve to cause them to “return to their country by another route.” Let’s look at the stages of their journey from being mere magi to becoming, by God’s grace, wise men.

Stage 1: The CALL that COMPLETES – The text says, When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”

Notice the identity of these individuals: they are labeled magi (μάγοι (magoi) in Greek) and are from the East.

Exactly what “magi” are is not clear. Perhaps they are learned men; perhaps they are ancient astronomers. We often think of them as kings, though the text of this passage does not call them that. It also seems likely that Herod would have been far more anxious had they been actual potentates from an Eastern kingdom. We often think of them as kings because Psalm 72 (read in today’s Mass) speaks of kings coming from the East bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. However, for the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but rather “magi.”

Yet here is their key identity: they are Gentiles who have been called. Up until this point in the Christmas story, only Jews had found their way to Bethlehem. This detail cannot be overlooked, for it is clear that the Gospel is going out to all the world. This call completes the Church, which needs both Jews and Gentiles.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul rejoices in this fact, saying, the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:6). Because most of us are not Jewish by ancestry we ought to rejoice, for the call of these Magi prefigures our call.

Notice that God calls them through something in the natural world: a star. God uses something in creation to call out to them.

We do well to wonder what is the “star” that God uses to call each of us? Perhaps it is Scripture, but more typically God uses someone in our life in order to reach us: a parent, a family member, a friend, a priest, a religious sister, or a devoted lay person. Who are the stars in your life through whom God called you?

God can also use inanimate creation, as he did for these Magi. Perhaps it was a magnificent church, or a beautiful painting, or an inspirational song that reached you. Through something or someone, God calls each of us; He puts a star in our sky. These Wise Men, these Magi, followed the call of God and began their journey to Jesus.

Stage 2: The CONSTANCY that CONQUERS – Upon arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi find a rather confusing and perhaps discouraging situation. The reigning king, Herod, knows nothing of the birth of this new King. The Magi likely assumed that the newborn King would be related to the current king, so Herod’s surprise may have confused them. And Herod seems more than surprised; he seems threatened and agitated.

Even more puzzling, Herod calls in religious leaders to get further information about this new King. They open the sacred writings and the Magi hear of a promised King. Ah, so the birth of this King has religious significance! How interesting!

But these religious leaders seem unenthusiastic about the newborn King, and after providing the location of His birth, make no effort to follow the Magi. There is no rejoicing, no summoning of the people to tell them that a longed-for King has finally been born, not even further inquiry!

So the wicked (Herod and his court) are wakeful while the saints are sleepy. How odd this must have seemed to the Magi! Perhaps they even thought about abandoning their search. After all, the actual king knew nothing of this new King’s birth, and those people who did know about it seemed rather uninterested.

Ah, but praise the Lord, they persevered in their search; they did not give up!

Thanks be to God, too, that many today have found their way to Christ despite the fact that parents, clergy, and others who should have led them to Jesus were either asleep, ignorant, or just plain lazy. I am often amazed at some of the conversion stories I have heard: people who found their way to Christ and His Church despite some pretty daunting obstacles (e.g., poor religious upbringing, scandalous clergy, and poor role models). God sometimes allows our faith and call to be tested, but Those who persevere to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

To persevere is to open the door to wisdom, which often must be sought in spite of obstacles. This constancy is often what it takes to overcome the darkness and discouragements of the world.

Stage 3: The CONDESCENSION that CONFESSES – The text says, After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.

With what little information they have, the Magi set out and continue to follow the call of God through the star.

Note that they enter a “house.” We often think of the Magi as coming that same Christmas night to the cave or stable, but it seems not; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are now in a house. Apparently they have been able to find decent lodging. Has it been days or weeks since Jesus’ birth? Regardless, it is likely not Christmas Day itself.

Notice, too, that they “prostrate” themselves before Jesus. The Greek word used is προσεκύνησαν (prosekunēsan), which means “to fall down in worship” or “to give adoration.” This word is used twelve times in the New Testament and each time it is clear that religious worship is the reason for the prostration.

This is no minor act of homage or sign of respect to an earthly king; this is religious worship. It is a confession of faith. The Magi manifest faith! The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. And these Magi are well on their way from being mere magi to being wise men!

But is their faith a real faith or just a perfunctory observance? It is not enough to answer an altar call or to get baptized. Faith is never alone; it is a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. So let’s look for the effects of a real and saving faith.

Stage 4: The COST that COMES – There is a cost to discipleship. The Magi are moved to give three symbolic gifts that show some of what true faith includes. They are costly gifts.

Gold symbolizes all of our possessions. In laying this gift before Jesus, they and we are saying, “I acknowledge that everything I have is yours. I put all my resources and wealth under your authority and will use them only according to your will.” A conversion that has not reached the wallet is not complete.

Frankincense is a resin used in incense and symbolizes the gift of worship. In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship (e.g., Psalm 141). In laying down this gift, we promise to pray and worship God all the days of our life, to be in His holy house each Sunday, to render Him the praise and worship He is due, to listen to His word and consent to be fed the Eucharist by Him, to worship Him worthily by frequent confession, and to praise Him at all times.

Myrrh is a strange gift for an infant; it is usually understood as a burial ointment. Surely this prefigures Jesus’ death, but it also symbolizes our own. In laying this gift before Jesus we are saying, “My life is yours. I want to die so that you may live your life in me. May you increase and may I decrease. Use me and my life as you will.”

Yes, these three gifts are highly symbolic.

The Magi manifest more than a little homage to Jesus. They are showing forth the fruits of saving faith. And if we can give these gifts, so are we.

In their holy reverence for God is wisdom in its initial stage!

Stage 5: The CONVERSION that is CLEAR – The text says, And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.

Here, then, is essential evidence for faith: conversion. It is not enough to get “happy” in Church; we have to obey. These Wise Men are walking differently now. They are not going home by the same way they came. They’ve changed direction; they’ve turned around (conversio). They are now willing to walk the straight and narrow path that leads to life rather than the wide road that leads to damnation. They are going to obey Christ. They are going to exhibit what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26). They have not just engaged in perfunctory worship; they are showing signs of a true and saving faith. They are not just calling out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” They are doing what He tells them (cf Luke 6:46).

No longer mere magi, they are now wise men!

So there it is. Through careful stages, the Lord has brought the Gentiles (this means you and me) to conversion. He called these Magi to wisdom. They remained constant, confessed Him to be Lord, accepted the cost of discipleship, and manifested conversion. Have you? Have I?

Walk in the ways of these Wise Men! Wise men still seek Him; even wiser ones listen to and obey Him. Are we willing to go back to our country by another route? Is ongoing conversion part of our journey home to Heaven? Epiphany means “manifestation.” How is our faith made manifest in our deeds and conversion?

I have it on the best of authority that as the (now) Wise Men went home by another route, they were singing this gospel song:

It’s a highway to heaven!
None can walk up there
but the pure in heart.
I am walking up the King’s highway.
If you’re not walking,
start while I’m talking.
There’ll be a blessing
you’ll be possessing,
walking up the King’s highway.

Sweet, Beautiful, Soul-Saving Joy – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

This Sunday is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, based on the Introit for the day: Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete (Phil 4:4) (Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice). Today, this theme is developed most fully in the 2nd reading, which is from 1 Thessalonians. It also begins with the salutation and imperative, “Rejoice always.”

Let’s take a closer look at that reading and what is meant by the admonition to “rejoice.”

The text begins, Rejoice always. The Greek word translated as “rejoice” is χαίρετε (chairete). However, more is intended than merely rousing ourselves to some sort of the emotional state of joy or happiness. Note that the root word charis (within chariete) refers to grace. Hence chairete means to delight joyfully in and by God’s grace, to experience God’s favor (grace), to be conscious of and glad for His grace.

Because it is a work of grace, this sort of joy is more fully understood as serene, confident, and stable, a joy not rooted merely in the passing moods of our fallen human state.

The text continues further to identify three basic ways that our joy can become both stable and deeply rooted in our personality and psyche. In effect, the text does not merely instruct us to rejoice always, but tells us how this can be done. Let’s look at these three ways.

I. PERSEVERANCE IN PRAISE – The text says, Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Hence we see the first three foundations for rejoicing always. Let’s take them a little out of order.

Grateful (In all circumstances give thanks) Thanksgiving is an important discipline that trains our mind to focus on reality. We tend to be negative, perhaps due to our fallen nature, but the reality is that every day trillions of things go right while only a few go wrong. Now you may think that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not. Consider all the things that have to go right with every cell in your body. Add to that all the many things on this earth—indeed in the whole universe—that must be perfectly balanced in order for you and me to even be here at all, alive and flourishing. Trillions is not an exaggeration.

However, if we are not careful, we focus on the handful of things that go wrong each day. Mind you, some of them may feel serious at times (although usually they are not). Nevertheless, even the truly serious mishaps cannot negate the reality of the trillions of things that have gone right.

Giving thanks disciplines our mind to focus on our countless blessings. Some of the mishaps of a day can even be blessings in disguise.

Hence we are told to give thanks in all circumstances. Daily thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the astonishing number of blessings. What you feed grows, so if the negative is fed, it will grow; but if the positive is fed, it will grow and become an important basis of stable joy in our life. Yes, give thanks in all circumstances.

Prayerful (Pray without ceasing) – Prayer is also a discipline of the mind. Paul does not mean to say that we should stay in a chapel all day long. He means that we should lay hold of the normal Christian life, which is to be living in conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. To the degree that we are consciously aware of God’s presence and in a dialogue of love with Him all day, our joy is deeper and becomes more stable. Thus we are able, by this ongoing sense of His presence, to “rejoice always.”

Spirit-filled (Do not quench the Spirit) – That such gifts (ongoing prayer and thanksgiving) are “God’s will for us,” means that God wants to give us these gifts. Hence, we should not quench the Spirit, which bids us to seek these things. Rather, we should heed His promptings and seek these gifts, even pester God for them. Too often we quench the Spirit by not taking seriously the promises He offers us in Christ Jesus. We are not convinced that the Spirit can give us a whole new life and can deepen our prayer and gratitude, so we don’t even ask. We also quench the Spirit by cluttering our lives with endless distractions, never sitting still long enough to listen to the small, still voice of God. If we fan into flame the gifts of God’s love, God the Holy Spirit will kindle a fire in us that will never die away. As the gifts of His love (including deeper prayer and constant thankfulness) take hold, our joy deepens and we can “rejoice always.”

II. PERSPECTIVE THROUGH PROPHECY – The text says, Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.

First, the phrase “prophetic utterances” refers to Scripture itself. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. It describes the world as it truly is and sets forth a clear vision. It is an antidote to the muddled and murky suppositions of worldly thinking that at best grope in the darkness and at worst are deceitful and erroneous. We ought not to despise God’s Word in any way, but rather should accept it wholeheartedly. To the degree that we do so, we are assured of the ultimate victory of God, His truth, and His Kingdom. Our own victory is also set forth in the paschal mystery of God’s Word, wherein every cross, faithfully carried, produces for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (cf 2 Cor 4:17). This vision, this prophetic interpretation of reality, produces in us a serene joy that allows us to “rejoice always.”

“Prophetic utterances” also refers to the teachings of the Church, the words of the Fathers of the Church, and the teachings of the saints down through the ages. There is a great deposit of faith that has been carefully collected and lovingly handed down from apostolic times. The dogmas and doctrines of the faith are like the precious fragments gathered up by the apostles at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. For the Lord had told them that nothing was to go to waste. We, too, ought to seek out every instruction prophetically uttered by Mother Church, allowing nothing to fall to the ground.

The Fathers as well as the saints have left us wondrous testimony that we should neither despise nor ignore. They, along with the Church, utter wisdom and announce victory to every believer. In the laboratory of their own lives, they have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. Added to this number are many trustworthy people in our own time who teach us the Word of God. They include parents, priests, religious, and holy men and women who have inspired us. To the degree that we will let the Church and the saints teach us, along with trustworthy souls of our own time, to the degree that we do not despise these prophetic utterances, the foundation of our joy becomes surer and we can rejoice always.

III. PROGRESS TOWARD PERFECTION – The text says, Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.

The greatest source of sorrow in our life, the biggest killer of joy, is our sin. To the degree that we indulge it, our joy is sapped, but to the extent that we allow the Lord to deliver us from sin and make us more and more holy, our joy becomes deeper and more lasting. The words “holy” and “whole” are not far removed from each other. As we become more whole, more perfected, freer from sin, more holy and blameless, our joy deepens and we can increasingly “rejoice always.” God will do this for us if we are willing and if we ask Him.

Thus we see that the mandate, the exhortation, to “rejoice always” is far more than a command to whip ourselves up to an emotional high. Rather, it is a call to stable and serene joy rooted in prayerful gratitude, to a mind transformed by God’s truth and a growing holiness. Allow the promise of the Lord to be fulfilled in you. For He has said,

Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (Jn 15:9-11).

This song says, “Joy, Joy, God’s great joy! Joy, Joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful soul-saving joy. Oh Joy! Joy in my soul!”