Pass the Salt and Turn on the Lights – A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel today the Lord describes metaphorically what a Christian is and what He expects of us. Note five things about what God says:

I. The Definitiveness of His Proclamation The text says, You are the Salt of the earth. … You are the light of the World. … But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing. … No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.

The Lord is definitive in two ways. First,He says, “You.” He is not talking just to people long ago or to the person next to you. He is not merely talking to your pastor or the Saints. He is talking to you. Youare salt. Youare light. You. It’s too easy to say, “Look at what the Lord is saying to those people long ago near the lakeside.” It’s not long ago; it’s now. It’s you.

The second way that the Lord is definitive isin saying that bothimages depend on us; if we are not salt and light then no one else will be and we will have utterly voided our worth.

The metaphor of salt: You are either salt or you are nothing; in fact, you are good for nothing. As Christians, we have signed up to be specialists. This means is that if we go off and do something else instead, we arenothing and are good for nothing. It’s an all-or-nothing scenario. Jesus says that if you have decided to be His disciple you are either going to do that or else be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker, but the Lord has plenty of those (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian; everything else is mere commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you are nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian you are good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor or social worker, but only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one,” you are nothing. If you supply your children with every good thing, but do not act as a Christian witness to them and bring them to Christ, you are good for nothing. Any parent can provide his children with material things, but only a Christian can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you are nothing.

The metaphor of light: The Lord says that you are thelight of the world, not merely alight. What this means is that if we do not shine, the world is darker; no one can take our place. If we don’t shine by living our faith and proclaiming it, the world is in darkness. Buddha can’t help. Mohamed can’t pull it off. Science and humanism can’t substitute. Either we are light or there is none. Some may call this arrogant, but I just call it Scripture. The Lord said it, not us. We are either light or else the world is dark. And if the world is getting darker, whose fault is that? We need not go far. Too many Christians fulfill Isaiah 56:10, which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. You may be an exception, but too many Christians are not.

Therefore, notice the definitive pronouncement the Lord makes here. We Christians are either with the Lord or we’re nothing. We’re either light or the world is in darkness.

II. The Dynamics of Salt– When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, what are some of the lessons we can learn? Consider these four things:

Salt seasons.Christians are called to add spice to life, to bring beauty, joy, and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the Commandments is a source of joy, as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and bring forth order, self-discipline, and holiness. Hope, too, ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that the Commandments are possible and bring joy, but to demonstrate it in our lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive, and free from sin in Christ. Yet, sadly, we Christians are known more for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy; they do not really add flavor. They are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and frozen chosen. In our best moments, look what spicy things the faith has contributed: Art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, and holidays (a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Our tradition and Scriptural teaching of justice, mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person has blessed the world. Do you bring spice to the lives of others? Do you bring hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you(1 Peter 3:15). That means that people notice hope in you! Do they? How?

Salt preserves. Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or preserve meat. The salt killed bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. As Christians, we are called to prevent further decay in this sin-soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and overindulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, and the proclamation of the truth, are like salt that preserves this world from decay. We must be salt. If we are not, nothing else is. Youare the salt.

Salt heals. In the ancient world, salt was used on wounds. It helped to stop bleeding, killed bacteria, and prevented further infection. So, too, the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching, and our living of it, we are called to bring healing to this world, which is wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless other errors. The Word of God and His plan is a healing medicine for what ails this world.

Salt burns. Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often brings out loud protest. The truth stings, too. The truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But despite the protests of the world, the sting is a healing one. It is driving out the disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel does not mean we have done anything wrong. In fact, protests often show that we are doing exactly what we must.

III. The Destination of Salt The Lord says that you are the salt of the earth. He did not say that you are the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowards in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends, but don’t ask them to preach to their spouse, their co-worker, or even their children; that’s too scary. And don’t even thinkabout asking them to knock on doors, or to go to the local mall and witness, or to stand in front of an abortion clinic.

Salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker in order to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit, but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says “The Mass is ended go in peace,” he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it!

It’s long past time for the salt (you and me) to go forth. Consider these observations about life in our country today:

    • In the last fifty years there has been an increase of more than a 500% in violent crime.
    • There are more than half a million abortions each year.
    • Since 1970, the divorce rate has quadrupled. The overall number of divorces may have declined recently, but it is due more to people not getting married in the first place.
    • More than 40% of children today do not live with both their biological parents. Since the 1970s, the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has tripled.
    • As the family has broken down, here is what has been happening to our young:
      • a quadrupling in juvenile arrests,
      • a 400% increase in births outside of wedlock,
      • one million teenage pregnancies annually,
      • three million teenagers treated annually for sexually transmitted diseases,
      • a 200% increase in the rate of teenage suicide,
      • a drop in average SAT scores,
      • two-thirds of high school students have experimented with illegal drugs.
    • In the schools, one cannot pray or mention religion, yet condoms are freely available and all sorts of aberrant and alternative lifestyles and philosophies are openly promoted.
    • Parental consent is required for a child to go on a field trip or to get an aspirin, but in many states abortion referrals can be made without parental consent.
    • Our neighborhoods are devastated by poverty, injustice, crime, and despair.

All of this has happened on our watch. It’s time for the salt to work. The world needs the salt to get out of the shaker and do its work of seasoning, purifying, and preserving.

The Designation of Pure lightYou are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.You don’t light light; it is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen. There are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light so that we could hide it under a basket out of fear. He wants the Church, you and me, to shine. The Lord wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hidden.

The Details of Light Jesus goes on to say, Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. Let’s consider four things about this light:

The CAUSE of the light – Notice that little word: “Let.” We are to yield to Christ, to allow Him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old gospel song that says, “When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, it’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.”

The COST of the light– The light is to shine, but there is no shining without burning. Shining costs us something. It may be Christ’s light, but it shines through us. This means sacrifice. It means letting Him use you. It means not always sleeping when you want to. It means not just sitting at home and saying, “Ain’t it awful.” It means getting out and getting involved. It means getting “out there” and risking a few things. It means being visible, targeted, and identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf.John 3:19-21), it means being called harsh, out-of-touch, and hateful. There is no shining without burning.

The CONCRETENESS of the light –Letting our light shine is no mere abstraction. Jesus speaks of deeds. Shining involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. It shines when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments, and are people of their word. Our light shines when we tell the truth instead of lying, live chastely instead of fornicating, are courteous and respectful instead of rude. It shines when we respect life, drive safely, and shun reckless and risky behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor, and work for justice. It shines when we refuse to purchase pornographic, violent, or other degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, seek reconciliation instead of revenge, and pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. It shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when our light begins to shine.

The CONSEQUENCE of the light– God is glorified when our light shines. We do not act or get involved merely to vent our own anger or to fight for our own sake. We are light to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. When we do get involved, too often we seek merely to win the argument rather than to glorify God. Often we act in order to garner praise rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions, for it is possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. The desired result is God’s glory not our glory.

OK, now pass the salt and turn on the light!

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.

Crisis At Christmas – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

j-and-m-and-jToday’s Gospel gives us some background for the Christmas feast that we need to take to heart. It speaks to us of a crisis at Christmas.

We tend to sentimentalize the Christmas story as we think of the baby Jesus in the manger. It is not absolutely wrong to be sentimental, but we must also be prayerfully sober about how difficult that first Christmas was, and about the heroic virtue required of Mary and Joseph in order to cooperate with God in making it come to pass.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: distress, direction, and decision.

  1. DISTRESS This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

The marriage is off. When we read that Mary was found to be with child before she and Joseph were together, we need to understand how devastating and dangerous this situation was. Pregnancy in this circumstance  brought forth a real crisis for both families involved in Joseph and Mary’s marriage plans. Quite simply, it put all plans for the continuation of the marriage permanently off.

Why is this? We read that Joseph was a “righteous man.” To our ears this like saying that he was a “good man.” Most of the Fathers of the Church interpreted “righteous” here to refer to Joseph’s gracious character and virtue where he steps back from a sacred situation. And we surely suppose all this of him. More recent biblical scholarship includes the idea that it meant Joseph was also an “observer of the Law.” He would thus do what the Law prescribed. This explains his decision to divorce Mary because of her apparent lack of virginity prior to their coming together in the  marriage. Here is an example of the Mosaic Law in reference to such a matter:

But if the tokens of virginity were not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has wrought folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you (Deut 22:20-21).

While this seems quite extreme to us, we can also recognize how far we have gone in the other direction in modern times, making light of promiscuity. I doubt that anyone would argue that we should stone such a woman today, and rightly so, but this was the landscape in Joseph’s time.

What about stoning? It would seem that Jews of the first century had varying interpretations about whether stoning was required or whether it was simply permitted (cf John 8). As a virtuous and patient man, Joseph looks for and senses some freedom in not “exposing” Mary to the full effects of the Law (stoning). But it does not seem he can find a way that he can take her into his home. Thus, as a “righteous man” (i.e., follower of the Law) he decides that divorce is required even if stoning is not.

This leads us to two important reflections, one about Mary and one about Joseph.

Mary – We can see into what a difficult and dangerous position her yes (her fiat) to the angel placed her. She risked her very life by being found with child outside the normal marital act with her husband. We know that it is by the Holy Spirit she conceives, but her family and Joseph and his family do not yet, or at least cannot verify it. And even if Mary explained exactly how she conceived, do you think you would accept such a story? Mary’s fiat placed her in real danger. It is a great testimony to her faith and trust in God that she said yes to His plans.

Joseph – We can also see the kind of pressure he would be under to do what the Law and custom required. There is no mention of Joseph’s feelings at this point, but we can assume that when Mary was found to be with child prior to their being together in marriage, the social pressure on him to be legally freed from Mary were strong, regardless of his feeling or plans.

  1. DIRECTION Such was his intention [to divorce] when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Be not afraid. The principal exhortation of the angel was that Joseph “not be afraid” to take Mary as his wife. This exhortation is powerful because fear was a very big factor. Joseph had much to fear in taking Mary. Some of the Fathers of the Church believed that what the angel meant was that Joseph should not fear God’s wrath, since he would not actually be taking an adulterer or fornicator into his home. Others think that the angel meant that Joseph should not fear taking God’s chosen instrument (Mary) as his wife.

One can also imagine some other fears that needed to be allayed by the angel. For example, Joseph could easily be rejected by his family for taking Mary in. The community could likewise shun him, and as a businessman, Joseph needed a good reputation to be able to ply his trade. All of these threats loom if Joseph “brings evil” into his house rather than purging the (apparent) evil from the midst of his house. But the angel directs him not to fear; this will take courageous faith.

The angel’s explanation is unusual to say the least. What does it mean to conceive by the Holy Spirit? It’s not exactly a common occurrence! Would his family buy such an explanation? What about the others in the small town of Nazareth? Yes, people were more spiritual in those days, but it all seems so unusual!

Further, Joseph hears all this in a dream. We all know what dreams can be like. They can seem so real at the time, but when we are fully awake we wonder if what we experienced was real at all. Joseph has to trust that what he was told is real, and that he should not be afraid because God has given him direction. As is often the case with things spiritual, we have to carefully discern and walk by faith, not by fleshly sight and certitude. Joseph has a decision to make.

  1. DECISION When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.

We can see the strong faith of Joseph and the kind of trust he had to put in God. He had been told not to be afraid, to rebuke fear. Manfully, Joseph does this. He makes the decision to obey God whatever the cost. We are given no information about how his family and others in the town reacted. However, the fact that the Holy family later settles back in Nazareth indicates that God did come through on His promise that Joseph need not be afraid.

Heroes of Faith! Recognize the crisis of that first Christmas and the powerful faith of Joseph and Mary. Their reputations were on the line, if not their very lives. They had great sacrifices to make in the wondrous incarnation of our Lord. Quite simply, Mary and Joseph are great heroes of the faith. For neither of them was their “yes” easy. It is often hard to obey God rather than men. Praise God that they made their decision and obeyed.

Mary and Joseph’s difficulties were not yet over. There was a badly timed census, which required a journey to Bethlehem in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy. Imagine walking 70 miles through mountainous terrain in such a condition! There may or may not have been a donkey, but I doubt that riding a donkey in the ninth month of pregnancy is all that comfortable either. And then there was no room in the inn; Jesus had to be born in a smelly stable. Shortly thereafter they had to flee through the desert to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Jesus.

Jesus is found in a real Christmas, not a “Hallmark” one. The crisis of the first Christmas prefigures the passion. This where Jesus is found: in the crisis of the first Christmas. You may wish for the perfect Christmas, but there is no perfect Christmas. Jesus will find you where you are, in real life, in the imperfect Christmas, where loved ones have passed away and there is grief, where a job has been lost and there is anxiety, where health is poor and there is stress, where families are experiencing strife. That’s where Jesus will be found, in your real Christmas. A Christmas of joy, yes, but also of imperfections, even crises. He is there waiting for you to find Him, in the real Christmas of your life.

This is an old African-American spiritual that reflects on the fact that true discipleship isn’t always easy. Joseph and Mary surely experience and exemplify what these words express.

I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed my name

Jesus tol’ me I would have to live humble
If He changed mah name

Jesus tol’ me that the world would be ‘gainst me
If He changed mah name

But I tol’ Jesus it would be all right
If He changed mah name

The Perfect Gift: A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want, but today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.

The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him! Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one,designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.

Essentially it does not matter if it is John or his disciples that are puzzled. It is we readers who really have this question. It is us that must accept the Messiah, Jesus as he is, not as we would wish him to be.

Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as we are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.

Puzzlement When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

This is a strange question given what St. John had already done!With delight, John had pointed out Christ as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God(John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?

If John or his disciples seem puzzled, Consider that John’s comments in last week’s gospel had spoken of a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors, and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last Sunday’s Gospel:

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Mat 3:10-12).

John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut down and cast into the fire. Some might have wondered, based on that, Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree? Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Although He had some confrontations with religious leaders, His main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.

Hence the question of some: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?

Other Old Testament texts had spoken of a wrathful coming of the Messiah. Here are a few:

        • Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. … Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it! … I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger(Is 13:6-10).
        • Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him(Nahum 1:6).
        • But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)

John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. Hence the  puzzlement is thus understandable from him or his disciples; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures scorn and ridicule from those in power.

The “perfect gift” for John or his followers would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream(Amos 5:24).

Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But at this point is it the perfect gift? Is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?

Purification Jesus gives an answer to John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of His wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of His healing and mercy.

The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while the comments John the Baptist last week were not wrong,  these wrathful and vindicating texts of the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than his first.

Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

In this answer, Jesus stitches together many quotes and prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example, consider the following:

        • In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel(Isaiah 29:18-19).
        • The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn(Is 61:1-3).
        • The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall(Is 26:19).
        • Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy(Is 35:5-6).

There is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.

To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle.When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.

To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified.Rejoicing in any other gifts than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world, is very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.

Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus. He is the Perfect Gift.

Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. That is the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift.Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Perfection – And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies. It is not a sudden, swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus, which all of us without exception desperately need.

In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:

Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

And thus St. John the Baptist is the best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:

Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Do you see what grace and mercy can do? Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.

One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and until you receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to endure the perfect justice of God. So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of His Son, who by His grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.

If you are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus. He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.

Do you want to give the perfect gift to others?Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift; their conversion and salvation is.

Find the perfect gift this Christmas; find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas; give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas; give Him the give of your very self—the perfect gift.

A Prophet Who Prepares. A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

The Second Sunday of Advent usually features the Ministry of St. John the Baptist. He was the Prophet who fulfilled the Office of Elijah of whom it was said: See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:4-6).

Therefore St. John is a prophet who prepared the people of his time for the coming of Jesus, by summoning them to repentance and opening them to the Kingdom of God in its fullness.

But of course the coming of Jesus for which St. John prepared them has been fulfilled. And thus, for us who ponder John’s office, we need to realize that the coming of Christ for which we must be ready is his Second Coming.

Who is “John the Baptist” for us? Surely it is the Church, which Christ founded to prepare a people for him and draw us from darkness to light. But of course we experience the Church, not as an abstraction, but more locally in our Bishop, priests and deacons. Further we experience the Church in our parents and catechists. Through them all, the Church fulfills her mission to be a Prophet who prepares us.

And further, if you are prepared to accept it, YOU are also called to be a prophet who prepares others for the coming of Christ as judge. You do not work independent of the Church (at least you better not!). Rather the Church works through you.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of our prophetic office in the following way:

[the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God. (CCC, 1270)

So, we have an obligation to evangelize and to be prophets in this world who prepare others for judgement day. We are called to go before the Judge who is to follow and prepare the hearts of people we know.

But how can we do this effectively? What are the some of the essential ingredients of being a prophet who prepares? The ministry of St. John the Baptist in today’s Gospel provides four principles for prophets who prepare.  Let’s look at the elements that are displayed

I. Poise . Poise here refers to balance. The text says, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Note the content of John’s preaching is twofold. He first says, “Repent!” And then adds, “For the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Here is a balance to get right. The preacher and the prophet must speak frankly of sin and call people to repentance. But the prophet must also speak of the grace available to conquer that sin and the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven is now open and available. Hence John the Baptist is willing and able to declare the reality of sin and the necessity of repenting from it. But he is also able to declare the availability of the Kingdom wherein one is able to find the grace to overcome sin.

Too many preachers, catechists and even parents lack this balance. In the past, some argue, that sermons were all fire and brimstone. Today it is too often, the steady diet “God is love” with little reference to the need to repent. This is one explanation of why our Churches have emptied in the past 40 years.

This is because the good news only has relevance and significance if the bad news is first understood. If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. To illustrate, suppose you are looking at a newspaper and see a headline that announces a cure for a deadly disease has been found. But what if you have never heard of this disease and don’t even know you have it? It is not likely you will read the article, it will be only of passing interest. But, now suppose you know of this disease, and that you have it, and you know others who have it. Suddenly this headline jumps out, is very relevant, causes joy and is an article to read very carefully by you! Because you know very personally the bad news of the disease, the good news of the cure now means everything to you.

It is the same with the Kingdom. We have to know the bad news of sin in a very personal and profound way if the Good News of Salvation is going to be appreciated. But in the Church we have lately soft-pedaled the bad news. Thus the Good News is irrelevant to people and the medicine of the cure is pointless. Why pray, receive sacraments or read scripture if everything is really fine? Why bother coming to Church for all that stuff? Hence our Churches have emptied, in part, due to a lack of the proper balance of repent and the Kingdom of God is at hand.

If we are going to be powerful and effective prophet we are going to have to be able to speak frankly to others about the reality of sin and balance it with the joyful announcement of the Kingdom with its grace and mercy now being available. Prophecy must be proper by having the right balance.

Notice the St. John the Baptist wasn’t messing around and sugar-coating things. He was explicit, we need to repent or else. He spoke of a coming day of wrath and judgement for those who did not do so. He spoke of the axe being laid to the root of the tree. He spoke of fiery judgment, and unquenchable fire. And to the self-righteous he was not afraid to equate their pride with that of the ancient serpent, calling them vipers.

Too many are afraid to speak like this today, and therefore lack the balance necessary for a true preparing prophet. St. John joyfully announced the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah, but he spoke of repentance as the door of access. Do we have this balance, or do we preach mercy without repentance?

II. Product –  The text says, At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

Here is the desired product of powerful prophecy: repentance unto salvation for all who believe. Prophets want to save people by drawing them to God’s grace, this is goal, the salvation of souls! Preparing prophets do not seek merely to scare people, they seek to prepare people.

To repent, to come to a new mind and heart by God’s grace, is to be prepared. This is the central work of the prophet who prepares and thus works to save others: repentance is unto salvation.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this aspect of prophecy and preaching. He is aware that he grieved some of them due to a strong rebuke he gave the community (cf 1 Cor 5) but he is glad that it produced a godly sorrow which in turn produced repentance and holiness. He also distinguishes between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation [at sin], what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done…..By all this we are encouraged. (2 Cor 7:8-13)

An old priest once told me, “Never think you have preached well unless the line to the confessional is long.” Good preaching, among other things produces repentance unto salvation. It may cause some to be mad or sad, but if it is proper prophecy, it will produce a godly sorrow and the madness and sadness gives way to gladness. Here is the expected product of proper preaching: repentance unto salvation.

III. Purity – The text says: When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

John the Baptist had no fear of people’s opinion and would not compromise the message based on his audience. All the credentials of the temple leaders did not impress him. Neither did the status of the Jews as the chosen people cause him to soften his message. John had no fear of human opinion, no need for the good favor of others, especially the rich and powerful.

Because of this his preaching had purity. He did not compromise the message out of fear or the need to flatter others. He spoke boldly, plainly and with love and desire for the ultimate salvation of all. If that called for strong medicine he was willing to do it.

The ancient martyrs went to their death proclaiming Christ but many of us moderns are afraid even of someone raising their eyebrows at us. Fear is a great enemy of powerful prophecy for by it many remain silent when they should speak. The fear of what other people may think causes many to compromise the truth and even sin against it. This sort of fear has to go if our prophecy is going to have the purity necessary to reach the goal.

IV. Person –  The text says, I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John’s audience and disciples were fascinated by him, and drawn by his charisma. But as they want to know more about him, John talks instead about Jesus. That’s the message, “Jesus, not me.” If we are going to be powerful prophets the message has got to be about Jesus, not about me and what I think. We are not out to win an argument and boost our own egos. We are not out to become famous. We are about Jesus Christ and his gospel, his message, his truth. John said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). A prophet speaks for the Lord, not himself. A prophet announces God’s agenda not his own. A prophet is about Jesus.

Here then are four Principles of Powerful Prophecy: Poise, Product, Purity, Person.

You are now a preparing prophet whom the Lord seeks. Someone was John the Baptist for you. Someone brought you to Christ. Thank God for that individual or those individuals. But you too are to be John the Baptist for others. Learn from John, apply his principles and make disciples for Jesus Christ.

Standing in Need of Prayer – A Homily for the 30th Sunday of the Year

There’s an old saying that goes, “Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, there’s none in me.” One is snared in sin by the very act of claiming to have no sin! In fact, it’s the biggest sin of all: pride.

In the Sunday Gospel, the Lord illustrates this through the parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. One man commits the sin of pride and leaves unjustified. The other, though a great sinner, receives the gift of justification through his humility. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches us.

Prideful Premise Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. When it comes to parables, it’s easy to gloss over the introductory statement, which often tells us what prompted Jesus to tell the parable. Many people simply see this parable as being about arrogance, but there is more to it than that.

Jesus is addressing the parable to those who are convinced of their own righteousness. They are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. They think that they can have their own righteousness and that it will be enough to save them.

However, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. I do not care how many spiritual pushups you do, how many good works you perform, or how many commandments you keep; it will never be enough for you to earn Heaven. On your own you are not holy enough to enter Heaven or to save yourself. Scripture says, One cannot redeem himself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; he would never have enough (Psalm 49:8-9).

Only Christ and His righteousness can ever close the gap, can ever get you to Heaven. Even if we do have good works, they are not our gift to God—they are His gift to us. We cannot boast of them because they are His. Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

The Pharisee in this parable has a prideful premise: he is convinced of his own righteousness. Notice that he uses the word “I” four times in his brief prayer.

        • I thank you
        • I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous
        • I fast
        • I pay tithes

It is also interesting that the Lord indicates that the Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” Some think that this merely means that he did not say the prayer out loud. Others suspect that there is a double meaning, if you will. In effect, the Lord is saying that the Pharisee’s prayer is so self-centered, so devoid of any true appreciation of God, that it is actually spoken only to himself. He is congratulating himself more than he is praying to God, and his “thank you” is purely perfunctory; it is more for his own prideful self-adulation. He is speaking to himself, all right. He is so prideful that even God can’t even hear him!

We see here a prideful premise on the part of the Pharisee, who sees his righteousness as his own, as something that he has achieved. He is badly mistaken.

Problematic Perspective … and despised everyone else. He looks on others with contempt, perceiving them as beneath him. Notice that the Pharisee is glad to report that he is not like the rest of humanity.

Not only is his remark foolish, it is also impertinent. One will not get to Heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. No indeed, being better than a tax collector, prostitute, drug dealer, or dishonest businessman is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Now, somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” It is dangerous (and a waste of time) to compare oneself with others because it misses the point entirely.

The point is that we are to compare ourselves to Jesus and be conformed to Him by the work of His grace. Any honest comparison of ourselves to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for grace and mercy, because it is the only way we stand a chance.

It is so silly—laughable, really—to compare ourselves to others. What a pointless pursuit! What a fool’s errand! What a waste of time! God is very holy, and we need to leave behind the problematic perspective of looking down on others and trying to be just a little better than some other poor (fellow) sinner.

There’s a lot of talk today about being “basically a nice person,” but being nice isn’t how we get to Heaven. We get to Heaven by being like Jesus. The goal in life isn’t to be nice; the goal is to be made holy. We need to set aside all the tepid and merely humanistic notions of righteousness and come to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort. Looking to be average, or a little better than others, is a problematic perspective. It has to go; it must be replaced by the Jesus standard.

Let’s put it in terms of something we all can understand: money. Let’s say that you and I are on our way to Heaven; you have $50, while I have $500. Now I might laugh at you and feel superior to you. I might ridicule you and say, “I have ten times as much as you do!” But then we get to Heaven and find out the cost to enter is $70 trillion. Oops. Looks like we’re both going to need a lot of mercy and grace to get in the door. In the end, we are both in the same boat; we’re woefully short. All my boasting was a waste of time and quite silly, to boot. We have a task so enormous and unattainable that we simply have to let God grant it and accomplish it for us.

Prescribed Practice But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Given everything we have reflected on, we can only bow our head and cry from the heart, “Lord, have mercy!” Deep humility coupled with lively hope is the only answer.

Being humble isn’t something we can do on our own. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. In our flesh, we are just too proud and egotistical. God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind. Notice that the tax collector in today’s parable did three things; we should do them as well:

Realize your distancehe stood off at a distance. The tax collector realizes that he is a long way from the goal. He knows how holy God is and how distant he himself is. Let’s be clear: the image of a tax collector is shocking. Such men did not get their posts by being “nice guys.” They were often ruthless thugs who didn’t hesitate to use fear and extortion. But his recognition of his distance is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.

Recognize your disabilityhe would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says, No one can see on God and live (Ex 33:20). We are not ready to look on the face of God in all its glory. That is evidenced by the fact that we are still here on earth. Scripture also says, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). This tax collector recognizes his disability, his inability to look on the face of God, for his heart is not yet pure enough. In humility, he looks down. His recognition of his disability is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting him the humility by which he stands a chance.

Request your deliverancehe beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice that the tax collector’s humility is steeped in hope. He cannot save himself, but God can. He cannot have a saving righteousness of his own, but Jesus does. This tax collector summons those twins called grace and mercy. In this man’s humility, a grace given him by God, he stands a chance. For by this humility, he invokes Jesus Christ, who alone can make him righteous and save him. Scripture says, The humble, contrite heart the Lord will not spurn (Ps 51:17). Jesus says, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Beware of pride, our worst enemy. Beg for the gift of humility, for only with it do we even stand a chance.

I have it on the best of authority that as he left the temple, the tax collector sang this spiritual: “It’s Me, Oh Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer.” In the video below it is sung by a German choir, which explains their unusual pronunciation of the word “prayer.” I can’t complain, though; I don’t pronounce Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit) very well either!

The Practices of Prayer – A Homily for the 29th Sunday of the Year

The readings today speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. In particular the first reading from Exodus pictures prayer powerfully:

In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17:-8-13)

We can notice here six practices related to prayer, six fundamental teachings on prayer:

I. The Problem for Prayer. In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one thing about problems is that they help to keep us praying. Israel is at war and their enemies are strong. It was time to pray.

In the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass, a widow is troubled about something and it keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us problems to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.

Problems aren’t the only reason we pray but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary that problems would cause us to pray. But if we’re honest, we’ll probably admit that problems have a way of summoning prayer from us.

II. The Priority of Prayer. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his prayer place. Prayer ought to precede any major work or decision.

Too often we rush into life without praying. Each day should begin with prayer. Important decisions are a time for prayer. Prayer needs to precede, it has a priority over and before action.

Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action wherein they ask God to clean up the messes they have made by bad decisions. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we don’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.

And prayer isn’t just about praying for this or that specific thing. Prayer involves an on-going relationship with God in which we gradually begin to receive a new mind and heart, where our priorities and vision are clarified and purified. This new mind and heart we get from prayer and study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.

III. The Power of Prayer. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the best of the battle. But when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish Israel began to lose.

The fact is, prayer changes things. We may never fully know here how our prayer helped to change world history but I am sure that one of the joys of heaven will be to see what a real difference our prayers, even the distracted and poor ones, made. We’ll tell stories in heaven of prayer’s power and appreciate what difference it made for us and what a difference we made for others. For now, much of this is hid from our eyes. But, one day, by and by, we will see with a glorious vision what prayer did.

I suppose too that one of the pangs of purgatory might be to see how our failure to pray also had negative effects and how only God’s mercy could over-rule our laziness and failure to pray.

Moses is struggling to pray here in this story. So do we. But remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads. Pray!

IV. The Partnership of Prayer. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.

Moses, because of his fatigue, knows he needs to get Aaron and Hur to assist him in praying. As a team they pray together and, once again, Israel is strengthened and begins to win through.

Prayer is not supposed to be a merely “lone-ranger” experience. It is true that personal prayer is important but so is communal and group prayer. The Lord says, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). Likewise he says, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven(Matt 18:19).

Hence, we are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Since prayer is so essential and we are individually weak, we ought not have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and make up for our weakness.

Do you have some spiritual friends who help you not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up….where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12)

Do not pray or journey alone. Find some good spiritual friends to accompany you on your journey and to pray along with you.

V. The Persistence of Prayer. so that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.

The text says that, with Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through to sunset. They prayed right until the end and so must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait. But pray on anyway. We may at times get frustrated by the delay, pray on anyway. We may get fatigued or even lose heart, but pray on anyway.

Like Moses, get some friends to help you, but pray on anyway. Pray, pray, pray.

Be like the woman in today’s Gospel who just kept coming to that old judge until he rendered justice for her. Pray until the sunset of your life. I have brought people into the Church long after their spouse or mother who prayed for them has died. Just keep praying till sunset.

VI. The Product of Prayer. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This is the product and the power of persistent prayer. This is what prayer does.

We have already discussed above that we may not fully see prayer’s power and product on this side of the veil. But one day we will on glory’s side. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy. But how about the enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies and God still answers prayers. Pray and wait for the product of prayer.

So there it is, six practices and teachings on prayer.

This song says, “I Can Go To God in Prayer”

This song says, Somebody prayed for me. Had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me. I’m so glad they prayed for me!

How to Give God Perfect Thanks – A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

One of the great human inadequacies is our inability to give proper and adequate thanks to God. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we don’t even realize the vast majority of what He does for us; it is hidden from our eyes.

A further problem is that in our fallen condition we seem to be wired to magnify our problems and minimize or discount the enormous blessings of each moment. God sustains every fiber of our being and every atom of creation. God’s blessings are countless and yet we get angry if our iPhone malfunctions or if a few of His myriad blessings are withdrawn.

An old gospel song says it well:

 I’ve got so much to thank God for; So many wonderful blessings and so many open doors. A brand new mercy along with each new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. For waking me up this morning, For starting me on my way, For letting me see the sunshine, of a brand new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. So many times You´ve met my needs, So many times You rescued me. That’s why I praise You.

For every mountain You brought me over, For every trial you’ve seen me through, For every blessing, For this I give You praise.

 Fundamental Question – The question at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel is best expressed in the Book of Psalms: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The same psalm goes on to answer the question in this way: The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12).

The Mass is signified – Indeed, how can I possibly thank the Lord for all the good He has done for me? Notice that the psalm points to the Eucharist in saying, The cup of salvation I will take up …. As you know, the word Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We cannot thank God our Father adequately, but Jesus can. In every Mass, we join our meager thanksgiving to His perfect one. At every Mass, Jesus takes up the cup of salvation through the priest and shows it to us. This is the perfect and superabundant thanks to the Father that only Jesus can offer. In every Mass, Jesus joins us to His perfect sacrifice of thanks. That is how we give thanks in a way commensurate with the manifold blessings we have received.

Hidden Mass – The Gospel for this day makes the point that the Mass is the perfect offering of thanks to the Father in a remarkable and almost hidden way. But for Catholics, it is right there for us to see if we have eyes to see it. The Gospel contains all the essential elements of Holy Mass. It is about giving thanks and reminds us once again that it is the Mass that is the perfect thanksgiving, the perfect “Eucharist.”

Let’s look and see how it is a Mass:

1.  Gathering – Ten lepers (symbolizing us) have gathered and Jesus comes near as He passes on His way. We do this in every Mass: we gather and the Lord draws near. In the person of the priest, who is the sacrament, the sign of His presence, Jesus walks the aisle of our church just as He walked those ancient roads.

2.  Kyrie – The lepers cry out for mercy, just as we do at every Mass. Lord, have mercy! Jesus, Master, have pity on us!

3.  Liturgy of the Word – Jesus quotes Scripture and then applies it to their lives, just as He does for us at every Mass. (In saying, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus is referencing Leviticus 13, which gives detailed instructions on how the priests of old were to diagnose leprosy or its having been cured.) Yes, this is what we do at every Mass: we listen to the Lord Jesus, through the priest or deacon, proclaiming God’s Word and then applying it to our lives.

4.  Liturgy of the Eucharist – The Gospel relates that one of them fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This is what we do during the Eucharistic prayer: we kneel and thank Jesus, and along with Him, give thanks to the Father. As we have noted, the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek and means “thanksgiving.” Here is the perfect thanks rendered to the Father. Those who claim that they can stay home and give adequate thanks to God should be rebuked for being prideful. Only Jesus can give perfect thanks to the Father, and we can only give adequate thanks by following Jesus’ command to “Do this in memory of me.” We have to be at Mass.

5.  Ite, missa est – Finally, Jesus sends the thankful leper on his way, saying, Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. We, too, are sent forth by Jesus at the end of every Mass, when He speaks through the priest or deacon: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

So, there it is. Within this Gospel, which very clearly instructs us to give thanks to God, is the very structure of the Mass. If you want to give proper thanks to God, the right place to do it is at Mass. Only at Mass is perfect and proper thanks given to God.

It was all prefigured in the psalm long ago: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12). Yes, it is the very cup of salvation, the chalice containing Christ’s blood, that is held up at every Mass. It is the perfect sacrifice of thanks. It is the prescribed sacrifice of praise. It is the proper sacrifice of praise.