The Enduring Love of the Father – A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The readings from today’s Mass speak to us of our desperate condition and how God’s abiding love has not only set us free but also lifted us higher. God was not content to restore us to some earthly garden, paradise though it was. No, He so loved the world that He sent His Son, who opened Heaven itself for us and has given us a new, transformed, and eternal life.

Let’s look at some of the themes and ponder how God  demonstrates His ardent love for us and persistently works to lift us higher. If there is any problem it is from us, not God.

I. ProblemsIn those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’’s temple.

And thus we see our repeated infidelity, worldliness, and impurity. It is not as though we have had just a few bad moments; we have been persistent and consistent in our sinfulness. The cup of human wickedness never seems drained. This is what God has been dealing with in the long and often sad tale of human history.

Are there good chapters? Sure.

But any honest look at human history will also reveal that there is something deeply flawed in human nature. We are living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Thrice fallen! This is our condition and this is what God is dealing with.

But God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

II. ProphetsEarly and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

God’s first recourse is to call us through the prophets and through His Word. Like any loving Father, He does not seek merely to punish, but to instruct. Perhaps we will hear and mend our ways.

Have we? Is the presence of God’s Word among us a saving remedy? Again, the answer is mixed, but in general, poor.

To some extent Jesus’ call to love has led to greater healing in this world. The light of faith, which once informed the Western world, gave birth to hospitals, greater love for the poor, greater respect for the dignity of the human person, the university system, and the scientific method. The barbarians of ancient Europe were given faith, and many found unity in the bosom of the Church, in more stable governments, and in respect for just law.

But it also remains true that too much of human history, even in the Christian era, is marked by violence, war, lack of forgiveness, injustice, unchastity, and a lack of commitment to the truth of the Gospel.

Yet God continues to send His prophets in and through the Church. Can the world really say that John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have not been prophets? How about Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, and countless others?

In all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

III. PunishmentsTheir enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.

Punishment is not God’s way of venting anger; He is not seeking vengeance.

The purpose of punishment is to allow us to experience the effects of our sins in smaller ways so that something worse does not befall us. And thus the ancient Babylonians afflicted Israel, and God punished and purified His people.

God may well permit great suffering to come upon us, not to vent His anger but rather to summon us to repentance, lest something worse befall us, namely the eternal fires of Hell.

But, truth be told, we humans are a difficult case. Any look at the decline of the West would make one think we’d have come to our senses by now. Our families are ruined, our birthrates have plummeted, our educational system is in steep decline, our economies are out of control, we have debts we cannot pay, and we seem incapable of chastity or of making commitments and keeping them. Yet still we stubbornly persist in our path away from God and the gospel of truth and freedom.

Will we recover our senses or will we vanish like empires before us? That remains to be seen. But the Church will persist, and though punished and pruned, she will endure.

For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

IV. PurposeAll this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.

Sin causes damage and that damage must be repaired. We must come to understand that sin is not just the breaking of abstract rules; it causes real harm.

The Christian term “reparation” refers to the repair that must be made for the damage that sin causes. The verse used here in today’s reading talks about healing the breach caused by sin.

Thus while God never withholds His love, He must journey well out onto the wayward paths we have taken in order to lead us back. This a work of God’s, not just a wave of the hand, not just a legal declaration.

We have done more than disobey a legal precept; we have strayed far away and a journey of reparation must be made. The Lord Himself will shepherd us back!

For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

V. Persevering – (from the Gospel)  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

And thus is fulfilled the great and passionate love God has for us. For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

His own Son comes to find us in our wayward places and leads us back.

For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

VI. Promotion – (from the Epistle)  God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—for by grace you have been saved—raised us up with him.

And thus is our redeemed state even greater than our original justice. We have been raised up with Christ. Grace has brought us higher than we ever were before.

Now no mere earthly garden is granted, but Heaven itself.

For in all our ruinous state, God does not remove His love and remains an ardent lover of us.

VII. Peril  – (from the Gospel) – Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,  but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light,  so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,  so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Many who love to quote John 3:16 (God so loved the world …) stop before the lines above. Yet they are critically important to the passage since they remind us of the necessity for us to welcome the saving love of God.

God has done everything to help us and to summon us to Him. But He does not force the deal. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20). He does not barge in; we must open.

But some do not open! Why? Because they prefer the darkness to the Light. To them, the Light is harsh and convicting. It exposes their deeds for what they are: wicked, sinful, unjust, and wrong. Pride and obstinacy keeps many from answering God’s call. They reject the saving love He offers and the many ways he Has reached out to them.

Here, then, is the peril of human choice. God offers, but some reject Him, preferring sin and darkness. God permits this rejection because He wants our love offered freely. Love cannot be forced, it must be given freely. That there is a peril is on our side, not God’s. God wants to save us and lift us higher. The peril is that many prefer wickedness, darkness, and earthly pleasures. They would prefer to “reign” (they will not) in Hell rather than serve in Heaven. The peril comes from us, form our obtuse hearts. It is not from God.

For those of us who do open, God’s love is ready to lift us higher. He offers us eternal life, the fullness of a life that grows richer from year to year until it opens to one so full and beautiful that eye has not seen nor has ear heard of the glories waiting for us (cf 1 Cor 2:9). Praise God! Rejoice!

What’s at Stake? Not Much, it Would Seem, in Many Parishes.

In the West we are living through times where the Church seems largely irrelevant to most people. And we, the leaders and members of the Church have largely made it that. We have reduced the Gospel to a cheerful call that all are welcome and recast our parishes as cruise liners rather than lifeboats or battleships.

Largely gone are the urgent words of Jesus that we should repent of our sins and believe in the Gospel. Jesus warned of endless hellfire, of wailing and grinding of teeth and every sorrow if we did not accept his invitation or departed from him. “If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) Most can hardly imagine Jesus speaking like this, and yet it is an exact quote, as are countless other quotes and parables such as “depart from Me, I know you not.” The true impact of so many of the parables is lost on many, and yet they warn that there are sheep and goats, those on the right, those on the left. There are wheat and tares, wise virgins and foolish ones, those who accept the invitation to the wedding feast and those who don’t.

And yet, few today have any practical belief in the dogma of Hell and have largely dismissed it as a remote possibility for themselves or anyone they know. As the Church, this is our doing, starting with those who preach and teach but it does not exclude individuals among the faithful who have been more than willing to surround themselves with teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear (see 2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Without understanding the real possibility that our sinful and disordered appetites and wills may well reject God’s offer of salvation not much else makes sense or impels effort on our part to enter the dramatic battle necessary for salvation. If all is well, who needs Sacraments, prayer, or to adhere to the truth of God’s Words? Who needs to cling to a Catholic family or parish that provides them with all that is most essential to save their souls and the souls of their family members? Who needs saving? Who needs sacraments like confession or the Holy Eucharist? Who needs to be taught the faith? Who needs to muster for a battle when there is no real threat?  What’s so wrong with living together outside of marriage. If there is a God, he won’t care about such things. All that matters is if you’re nice and tolerant.

So what is at is a stake? Nothing, it would appear. No drama in the valley of decision (see Joel 3:14). Nothing to see here, just move on. No wonder people do move on, or drive by our parishes on Sunday mornings. We have preached ourselves into irrelevance by jettisoning the Scriptures for a mish mash of niceness that sounds more like Barney the Purple Dinosaur. We are deeply afraid of offending anyone and our message has devolved to vague abstractions and generalities that are little more than suggestions that we learn to be kind and nice and that all must feel welcome. It’s hardly a summons to a battle for souls, starting with our own. Hardly a call to engage an implacable foe with the weapons of righteousness, holiness, and courage. In such a climate of nearly universal salvation, reinforced by our silence in the face grave moral evils, why should anyone bother to come, or care at all.

In a recent book, Why They Follow, Matthew Warner has some important reflections to help understand the emptying pews. Let’s consider some quotes. He begins with the modern sense that most people are basically in good shape and will most likely attain heaven:

 It’s very difficult to break through and communicate with somebody who just doesn’t seem to care. The modern attitude seems to be that everything in [most] humans is basically in order and that all is well. If that’s true, Jesus becomes merely a great spiritual teacher, and no longer a savior, and our churches, become just nice groups of people to do things with rather than lifeboats. (Page 26).

Yes, who needs a savior if heaven is already in the bag? So Jesus and his message get reduced to kind advice that can improve your life and foster greater kindness. Parishes are reduced to meeting halls where nice people do nice things together. It is a cruise ship not a battleship out fighting for souls. Has it occurred that most of what we offer in this vision can also be supplied by a bowling league or bridge club?  What do we offer that is special or necessary? He continues:

CS Lewis wisely pointed out that “Christianity if false, is of no importance, and if true, it is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Unfortunately, in many churches, it feels a bit moderately important and they no longer act as if there’s something big at stake. (Page 27)

And there it is, most don’t think there is anything big at stake if they go or don’t go to Mass. Long gone are the days for most that missing Mass was a serious sin, that sacraments were an essential medicine, that knowing the faith and living it was essential to keep you out of hell. There was, not so long ago, a sense that the stakes were high. It mattered if you went to Mass or not, if you prayed or not, if you got married and stay married or not, if you were chaste, generous, and obedient, or not. Heaven or hell were in the balance, and saying yes to God and repenting when we fell was absolutely essential. Few today of the of the 83% of Catholics who no longer attend Mass think there is anything at stake. And only a slightly higher number of the 17% who do go grasp how much is at stake.

He goes on to write:

People today passionately follow leaders who have communicated that something they care about is at stake: “If the other party wins, America will be set back 100 years!” “If you give us $20 a month, a whole village will get clean water for a year!” “Buy now, before tickets sell out!“ (Page 27)

So there is urgency and action is essential since so much is at stake. It is rare that any Catholic hears or says similar things about holding the faith and remaining faithful until death. When was the last time most Catholics heard a priest warn them of the probability of hell if they remain unrepentant or defiant about certain sinful acts? When was the last time Catholic parents warned their children of the tragedy that the loss of heaven could be if they defy the very virtues that are celebrated in heaven?  Our author continues:

People have to be summoned to something great, beyond their wildest imaginations;  something wonderful that compels them to engage, to act, to commit, to rearrange their lives, to sacrifice to become saints. (Page 36)

So, warning about Hell is not enough. We must also preach and teach of heaven, inspire a longing for it and a passion so compelling that everything we do is ordered to it. Jesus said, Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all things will be added unto you. (Mat 7:33). Heaven is so glorious and wonderful it cannot even be described. It is joys unspeakable and glories untold. It is What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9) St. Paul said, This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14-15).

When was the last time you heard a sermon on heaven? When was the Last time you even thought of heaven? Do you really think this limited world can fully satisfy us? No, we were made to be in heaven with God forever. Don’t blow it by foolishly rejecting what God is offering. Every and any sacrifice is more than worth it to attain the glory that waits.

But, since most people are not inspired by the prize and have largely diverted their attention to worldly trinkets, there is little to lose in their minds. Hence, little is at stake, either because it can’t be easily lost, or because its no big prize in the first place. Previous generations longed for an end to worldly woes and for the glory of heaven. They sang of it: When I die, Hallelujah by and By, I’ll fly away…. Soon I will be done with he troubles of this world, goin’ home to love with God…. Oh by and by, when the morning comes and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by! But for us, our world of comfort dulls our senses and longings for a world where joys will never end. What’s on T.V. tonight is our real passion.

He continues:

Every group needs a big Why – the big vision. It is something worth sacrificing everything else for.… The question is what big things are you leading your people to do? …. In other words, how much does it matter if you succeed?… Be bold. Create tension. Give them a clear choice that compels them into meaningful action…. Jesus asked for everything… Because living the Christian life, at some point always becomes inconvenient, impractical, hard to understand, strange, and messy. And if you want your flock to make it through those times, rather than drift away, they need a very big reason to stick around. It’s got to be worth it.  (Pages 28, 33, 35)

It is sad but true that, in most of our parishes we have steadily removed any sense that what we do in the Liturgy, our prayer, our teaching and obedience to the truth really matters. Largely the message is that it doesn’t matter that much since most will be saved even if they skip all that. Further it doesn’t really seem to matter if a spouse a sibling or children go to Mass or live chastely and morally. All that seems to matter is that we be vaguely nice and pleasant, and even if not, God will surely understand. 

There are big things at stake. Does what you’re doing at your church feel that way?

In the next installment, lets look at the Kerygma, (the preaching of the early Church) that emphasized that the Gospel is absolutely essential for salvation, without we perish.

A Study of Fear in the Story of Chicken Little

Fear is a complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is both appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.

There are also things we fear that we should not, and things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.

A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful. We ought not to love it at all, but we do; this causes us to fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.

An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. Loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it more than we should. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them too much. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. Too often, though, we use people, love things, and forget about God.

There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than we fear God and seek to please people more than to please God. When we fall prey to this, we are willing to do sinful things in order to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.

Fear is a necessary passion for us, but too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. Our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.

A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.

Because a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a well-known children’s story.

The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most are familiar with them, but some have never read (or have forgotten) the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).

Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do not fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not to fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.

Please take the time to read this story completely. It may seem tedious to us modern folks with limited attention spans, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please share it with your children as well.

Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head.
It scared her so much she trembled all over.
She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out.
“Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!”
So she ran in great fright to tell the king.

Along the way she met Henny Penny.
“Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked.

“Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!”
“How do you know?” asked Henny Penny.
“Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears,
and part of it fell on my head!”
“This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”

So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried. “How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.

Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside.
“Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?”
“We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”

And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey.
“How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”

So they all ran with all their might, until they met the fox, Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?”
“Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy.
“I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”

So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.

Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. Here lies a doorway for the devil. He incites us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, loss of money, poor health, the loss of worldly trinkets, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do not fear Judgment Day and the possibility of Hell.

The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse COVID-19 everywhere! You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be very afraid! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.

I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people never think about or fear: where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous (and obvious in this case) things like a fox!

Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things. Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!

Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. If we fear Him, we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.

Bishop Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture, but no insurance company can insure you against the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.

The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80% of the media’s fearmongering.) But Judgment Day surely is looming. Foxy Loxy (Satan) is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling prey to his deceptions?


Were Your Ashes Real Ashes or Just Ritual Ones?

So, Ash Wednesday has come and gone. But what impact did the message and sacramental of ashes have on you? Was it just a ritual, a kind of act of Catholic belonging, or did you fruitfully receive the Ashes and the messages contained in the Mass of Ash Wednesday?

I’m amazed by how many people pack into the church to get ashes. Sadly, some don’t seem to want Holy Communion nearly as much. In fact, in some of the parishes where I served in the past, a significant number walked out the door immediately after receiving ashes, not even staying long enough for Communion. Of course most people who come to Mass on Ash Wednesday are faithful and have their priorities straight, but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems at one level to be so unappealing  (having dirty ashes smudged on your face), and a message that seems harsh to modern ears: “You are going to die and you need to repent and believe to be ready.” 

Indeed, the sign of ashes is quite challenging if we understand what it really means. I wonder if everyone really embraces all the implications of Ash Wednesday: 

Ashes signify humility Job said, “You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).

Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense. Rather, having encountered God, he realizes that God is God, and that he, Job, is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God, who is being itself, who is all in all. Yes, Job is a son in the presence of a father; he is not God’s equal that he might question Him or put Him on trial.

Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance, but humility as well. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility in quoting Gen 3:19 as the ashes are placed on the individual: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

Ashes are a reminder of death and a call to wisdom – After Adam sinned, God told him, By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19).

As he imposes the ashes, the priest usually recites some form of this passage. Memorable though it is, consider an even blunter form: “You are going to die.”

This is a salient and sobering reminder that we often get worked up and anxious about passing things, while at the same time being unmindful of the certain and most important thing, for which we must be ready. We tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Sadly, like the man in one of the Lord’s parables, we can amass worldly things and forget the final things. To him the Lord said, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:21-22).

Thus, to consider our final end is wise; to fail to do so is foolishness defined.

Ashes are a sacramental that points to the Sacrament – The Old Testament declared, You shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin … For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there (Numbers 19:9, 17).

This text shows ashes obtained from a burned sin offering and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament, this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13) but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin.

In the same way, ashes on Ash Wednesday (mixed with holy water) cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament.

To receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and then not go to confession during Lent is really to miss the point. If one really desires to repent and be cleansed from and free of sin, then from the sacramental of ashes one goes to the Sacrament of Confession. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pointless.

Ashes are a sign of a true changeWhen the news [of Nineveh’s possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust (Jonah 3:6).

Repentance is symbolized in this passage as well, but the symbol alone is not enough; actual repentance is required. The king does not just “get ashes”; he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer, and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:7-9).

Hence another option for the priest to say as he places the ashes is, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.

Ashes are a summons to faith and a new mind – Jesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes (Matt 11:21).

Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith in what He said. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan), which more literally means “to come to a new mind” or “to come to a new way of thinking.”

The fact is, there are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our ongoing challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by His grace, working through Scripture and Church teaching.

It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. We are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Hence another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he imposes the ashes.

So, how real are your ashes? Do you intend the things described above as you go forth? Or is it just a ritual, something you do because it’s “sorta neat”? Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of the ashes.

Compare and Contrast: The Super Bowl and the Mass, Football and Faith

I write to you in the midst of a semi-“religious” event: the Super Bowl. People have donned their sacred attire and are shouting praises. I enjoy football, but see it a lot less than most since I’m a priest and tend to be busy on Sundays! Yet I remain quite fascinated at how passionate and dedicated many Americans are to their team and to the game.

Would that more Catholics had the same dedication to the Mass and the Church that true football fans have to the game. (Fan is short for fanatic.) Would, too, that all priests and religious had the same sacrificial dedication that football players have.

Consider for a moment the players. They spend years coming up through a system of high school, college, and professional levels. Priest and religious do as well. Football players give their all to the game; their whole life is centered on it. Exhausting, year-round practice, weightlifting, and punishing games. They risk injury and suffer many pains, all for the game. Do priests and religious show the same dedication? Are they willing to make the same kind of sacrifices for Jesus? Will they risk injury and attack? I pray we will and do, but I wonder. True, we are not paid millions, but we don’t do it for the money. Are we as dedicated and sacrificial?

And what of the faithful? So many Catholics are dedicated to the game of football. They even come to Church wearing the jersey of their team, often sporting someone else’s name on their back! Let’s compare and contrast some of the aspects of football and see if the same thrill and dedication are exhibited for our Lord, the Mass, and the Church.

Disclaimer – I write a lot of this “tongue in cheek.” I am not brooding over this, just observing. I am also using a technique known as hyperbole. Hyperbole uses exaggeration to make a point. For example the phrase, “There must have been a million people there” is an exaggeration that is not literally true but does convey the idea that a lot of people were present. Please take these comparisons in the light-hearted manner in which they are intended.

That said, the point remains a serious one: we often exhibit unusual priorities when it comes to worldly vs. spiritual matters. We do well to look at ourselves with humor in order to ask God for greater passion for what matters most. Football is about a bag full of air going up and down a field. Faith is about our eternal destiny.

Consider the following Super Bowl behaviors and contrast them to Mass and the faith:

  • Super Bowl – Many fans prepare for the game for weeks. They follow the playoffs, review stats, and listen to commentaries and predictions. They make sure they are “up on” the game.” At a bare minimum, they know who is playing, and usually a great deal more. They often plan parties and invite others to join them. They discuss with fellow fans their wishes and the likely outcome of the game. They often boast of their team and loudly proclaim their intent to watch the game and see their team emerge victorious! They anticipate the game and look forward to it joyfully.
  • Mass – Little preparation is evident on the part of most who go to Mass. Generally, they do not review the readings or spiritually prepare by frequent confession. Fasting has disappeared from the Catholic landscape. In fact, ¾ of Catholics don’t go to Mass at all. And even of those who do, many don’t anticipate it joyfully. Many even dread going; they try to “fit it in” at the most convenient time and hope for the shortest possible Mass. This is true even on the great feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Holy Week. Most Catholics do not talk to others about going to Mass or invite them to join them.
  • Super Bowl – Many fans wear special clothes for the occasion, even at regular-season football games. They wear jerseys, hats with insignias, and other “sacred” apparel. Some even paint their faces and bodies.
  • Mass – Sacred apparel for Mass is all but gone. There isn’t much special attire and little care is given to display one’s faith through clothing or other marks of faith. Sunday clothes were once special. Women wore hats and veils; men wore suits and ties and would never dream of wearing a hat into Church. But all that is gone. “Come as you are” seems to be the only rule.
  • Super Bowl – People who go to football games often spend hundreds of dollars for tickets. Those who are fortunate enough to go to the Super Bowl spend thousands, gladly. Those who stay home often spend a lot of time and money on parties.
  • Mass – Most Catholics give on average 5-7 dollars per week in the collection plate. Many are resentful when the priest speaks of money.
  • Super Bowl – Most fans arrive early for the game, and do so eagerly. At regular-season games, many have tailgate parties. Fans at home joyfully anticipate the kick off and spend time in preparatory rites such as parties and beer. Even ordinary games find the fans watching pre-game shows and gathering well before the kickoff.
  • Mass – Many Catholics time their arrival for just before the Mass begins. Many—as high as 50%—arrive late. Arriving early to pray or to greet fellow worshippers is generally not something that is planned for.
  • Super Bowl – People LOVE the game. They are enthusiastic; they shout, cheer, and are focused and interested in each play. They are passionate, alive, and celebratory. They also care a great deal, exhibiting joy at good plays, and sorrow at bad ones. They are alive, exhilarated, and expressive.  They care passionately about what is happening on the field.
  • Mass – Many look bored at Mass. In many ways, the expressions on people’s faces remind one more of a funeral than of a resurrected Lord. Rather than a sea of joyful faces, it looks like everyone just sucked a lemon: bored believers, distracted disciples, frozen chosen. One finds exceptions in many Black parishes, at charismatic Masses, and in some Latino parishes. But overall, little joy or even interest is evident. It is true that many would not think of loud cheers as appropriate in Church, but even a little joy and interest would be a vast improvement.
  • Super Bowl – Many fans sing team songs. Here in Washington we sing, “Hail to the Redskins, Hail victory! Braves on the warpath! Fight for ol’ D.C.!”
  • Mass – Most Catholics don’t sing.
  • Super Bowl – Even a normal football game lasts four hours including the pre- and post-game shows. Toward the end of each half, the game is often intentionally slowed down; incomplete passes stop the clock, etc. Fans gladly accept this slowdown and are even happy and excited if the game goes into overtime.
  • Mass – Frustration and even anger are evident in many of the faithful  if Mass begins to extend beyond 45 minutes. Some people even begin to walk out. Many leave right after Communion even if the Mass is “on time.”
  • Super Bowl – Fans understand and accept the place of rules and expect them to be followed. Often they are angry when they are broken or when penalties are not called. They respect the role of the referee and the line judges and, even if they are unhappy, accept the finality of their judgments. They seem to understand that a recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the game.
  • Mass – Some Catholics resent rules and routinely break them or support those who do. They also resent Church authorities who might “throw a flag” or assess a penalty of any sort. Often they do not respect bishops or the authority of the Church. Many refuse to accept that recognized and final authority is necessary for the existence of the Church. Many Catholics resent pointed sermons at Mass in which the priest speaks clearly on moral topics. Praise God, many Catholics are faithful and respect Church authority. Sadly, though, others do not.
  • Super Bowl – Many who go to a football game endure rather uncomfortable conditions for the privilege: hard seats, freezing cold, pouring rain. Often the game is hard to see and the sound system is full of echoes. Still the stadium is full and few fans complain.
  • Mass – Many complain readily at any inconvenience or discomfort. It’s too hot; it’s too cold; the Mass times aren’t perfectly to my liking. Why aren’t the pews cushioned? (They’re harder to keep clean, that’s why.) Why wasn’t the walk to my usual door shoveled clear of snow? When will the sound system be better? Why do they ask me to move to the front in an empty Church?

OK, that’s enough. Remember, I use hyperbole here and intend this in a lighthearted manner. We humans are funny, and what we get excited about is often humorous. The truth is, people love their football. But this one point is serious: would that we who believe were as passionate as football fans. We need to work at this on two levels.

Clergy and Church leaders need to work very hard to ensure that the liturgy of the Church is all that it should be. High-quality, sacred music, good preaching, and devout and pious celebration are essential. Perfunctory, hurried liturgy with little attention to detail does not inspire.

The faithful, too, must realize more essentially what the Mass really is and then ask God to anoint them with a powerful and pious awareness of the presence and ministry of Jesus Christ. They must ask for a joy and zeal that will be manifest on their faces, in their deeds, and in their dedication.

Here’s one of the better Superbowl commercials from this year:

Dubious about Dialogue – A Reflection on a much used term that has lost its Biblical meaning.

Dubious about Dialogue – A Reflection on a much used term that has lost its Biblical meaning.

There is much emphasis today on the concept of “dialogue.” Most English speakers simply equate the word with “discussion” and English-speaking Catholics hear a lot about how the Church should be in “dialogue” with the world.

Of itself “dialogue,” understood merely as having a discussion or conversation, is surely a good thing. Discussions and conversations set the framework for understanding, for evangelization and the conveying of the truth. In this sense dialogue is good and understandable as something which keeps the door open, so to speak.

But there are some of us (your current author included) who are troubled by the use of this word in the rather unqualified sense. Even in English, “dialogue” has a rather vague and indeterminate quality regarding content and time. Does dialogue really capture the central mission the Lord gave the Church which is to go to all the nations, teach them everything Jesus commanded and make disciples of them? I don’t think it does.

Dialogue implies a rather back and forth quality, whereas teaching implies that one party has truth to convey that the other party needs to hear. Teaching also has a goal of getting the other to come to understanding and compliance with the truth, science, technology, or discipline that is announced. Hence it makes sense that Jesus did not say to the Church to go forth and dialogue, but to go forth and teach, to summon all to repentance, to a new mind, and to come to believe the good news set forth by Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is a summons more than a dialogue, a teaching more than a discussion, a call more than a conversation.

The problem with the term “dialogue” gets more complex when we go to the Greek New Testament. There the use of the term dialogue is in some senses good, and in others, anything but flattering. Let’s take a look and see how the word dialogue can at times indicate both the best and the worst of what we as a church really hope to accomplish.

The Greek root words that underlie our English word “dialogue” are dia ‘through’ + legein ‘speak.’ In the scriptures there are several different forms of the word that occur. Two of the forms indicate an unflattering notion of the word, and a third form while used positively is far more vigorous that we mean by dialogue today. Let’s look at Each form that occurs int eh Greek New Testament.

διαλαλέω (dialaleo) –  Which Stongs dictionary defines as “I converse together, talk of.” It is used only twice. Once in Luke 1:65 where the people in the vicinity were all talking and puzzling over the fact that Zechariah had received his speech back at the birth of John the Baptist. And in Luke 6:11 where the religious officials were talking and scheming together about how to kill Jesus after he healed the man with the withered hand.

Already we are clued in that the word as used in these texts does not bespeak a conversation that is clear on the facts or even holy.

II διαλογίζομαι (dialogizomai) – which Strong’s Dictionary defines as “to go back-and-forth when evaluating, but in a way that typically leads to a confused conclusion”. The term implies one confused mind interacting with other confused minds, each further reinforcing the original confusion.

Yikes, even worse. It would take too much time to discuss all 16 occurrences of the word but among the uses of it are when the disciples were discussing and trying to understand Jesus’ rebuke of their lack of faith during a storm at sea and how it related to the multiplication of the loaves. They debated among themselves as to what he meant (Mat 16:7). On another occasion the word is used of the debate and discussion among the Pharisees when Jesus asked them if the Baptism of John from heaven or from men. They disputed, connived and could not agree (Mat 21:25). The word is used in Mark 2:7 when the scribes “dispute” in their hearts about whether Jesus could forgive sins, etc.

So this form of the word indicates a “dialogue” that is inauthentic, scheming, and confused. More subtly it indicates a kind of reasoning that seeks to avoid a conclusion by steering a conversation or line of reasoning toward uncertainty; a conversation that is not really interested in truly disclosing or sharing the truth.

I am sadly convinced that many people who use the term dialogue today are actually engaged more is this sort of discussion. It permits a certain credibility to the participants, since they are nobly involved in a “dialogue” but it does not “call the question” or have as a goal making the Gospel reasonable and therefore demanding of respect.

III  διαλέγομαι (dialégomai) from diá, (through, from one side across to the other +  légō, “speaking to a conclusion”). Dia intensifies lego so it is properly, “getting a conclusion across” by exchanging thoughts, words or reasons. And this form of the word is used positively, but as we shall see far more vigorously that it would seem most people mean by the word dialogue today.

It occurs 13 times in the NT, usually of believers exercising “dialectical reasoning.” This is the process of giving and receiving information with someone in order to convey a deeper understanding of the Lord and His word, and will. As such it is more than a mere on-going conversation, but one that is goal-directed, even boldly so. Consider some examples from among the 13 times it is used:

1 – It is said of St. Paul in Acts 17:2, 17 and 18:4) when he entered synagogues on the Sabbath and reasoned (dialexato, dielegeto) with them from the Scriptures. To give the sense of the “tone” of these dialogues consider the following line from Acts 19 – Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly (eparresiazeto) there for three months, arguing persuasively (dialegomenos kai peithon) about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)

And thus we see that the “dialogue” referenced here is no mere conversation, but a bold setting forth of the Christian vision with the goal to change minds and convert hearts.

I am just not that convinced that this is what most people mean today when they call us to dialogue.

2 – The term is used in Acts 20:7-12 (humorously) of Paul’s preaching at Troas in which preaches a long one and a young man named Eutychus sitting in an open window ledge goes asleep and falls out the windows three stories to his death. Paul runs to raise him from the dead and goes back to finish the Mass! (all in a day’s work!) Dialogue here too does not seem to mean mere conversation but the exhortation we call preaching.

3 – It is used in Acts 24:25 to describe Paul’s testimony before Felix: As Paul talked (dialegomenou) about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid And here too we see “dialogue” referring not a simple conversation but to an exhortation so clear that it incites fear in a Roman official. Again, I must say I don’t think this is what most people who call for the Church to engage in “dialogue” have in mind.

Indeed, in none of the 13 occurances of dialegomai can I find any sense of mere conversation, or a “getting to know you – sharing information” sense. Dialogue in the New Testament Scriptures is a word that indicates an often bold exhortation and/or defense of the faith. It is goal-oriented, not merely relational, and has in mind to draw one to repentance and to Christ.

So what are we to make of the frequent calls to dialogue today? If, by it we mean a bold and confident proclamation of the faith, so as to present it as reasonable and worthy of obedience, then dialogue is a good thing!

But as stated above in several places, I do not think this is what most who call for dialogue today have in mind. Rather they have in mind more of a mere exchange of ideas, a reaching of mutual understanding and respect.

These are not bad things in themselves, especially as a prelude to teaching. But they often seem today to be presented as ends in themselves; as a final goal.

The Church was not sent by Christ to all the nations to “dialogue” (Matt 28:20) in the modern sense of that word. Rather she was commissioned to teach (in the more ancient and bold sense that the Greek New Testament means by dialegomai). There is a place for respectful listening, but to present it alone, and apart from the fuller mission teaching is misleading and conveys a less than evangelical stance.

I do not call for a banishment of the word dialogue, only a more proper understanding of it in the biblical sense as a clear articulation of the reasonableness of our faith whereby we are contending for souls and even boldly refuting errors. If that is dialogue, bring it on!

Dumb or Designed?

When I look at creation with all of it’s intricate interactions and symbiotic coordination, I think it would take more “faith” for me to reject God’s existence than to conclude he obviously does exist.

It is not as though a few things just happen to work together, it is tens of thousands of things all working in just the right combination so that things are, just as they are. The whole universe shouts, “I was designed and I am magnificently governed! Even just to consider our own bodies and the thousands of things and processes in perfect combination that cause us to exist, be sustained and enable us to  engage is magnificent and manifold activities.  The statistical possibility that all this intricate unity just happened by accident, or by blind chance is simply not tenable to me. God exists and his fingerprints are everywhere.

In today’s Office of Readings (Thursday of the First Week of the Year), we read from St. Athanasius in his Discourse Against the Pagans. In it he observes the following:

For if the movement of the universe were irrational, and the world rolled on in random fashion, one would be justified in disbelieving what we say. But if the world is founded on reason, wisdom and science, and is filled with orderly beauty, then it must owe its origin and order to none other than the Word of God(Contra P Nn. 40-42: PG 25, 79-83)

Indeed the Father created all things through his Word (Jesus). The Greek for “word” is Logos. For God spoke, “Let there be light, and there was light.” Gen 1:3). And the Word he spoke was Jesus, the Logos, the Word. Of Jesus in this regard Scripture says, Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made (Jn 1:3). And again, All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17). In speaking through his Logos, the Father imprinted on all creation a “Logike” or logic. It is this logic that is at the heart of the scientific method which must presume that things are not randomly or dumbly here. Rather things have a nature, a coherent logic and order that can be discovered and counted on to be stably so.

Thus, Athanasius adds,

By his eternal Word the Father created all things and implanted a nature in his creatures. He did not want to see them tossed about at the mercy of their own natures, and so be reduced to nothingness.  But in his goodness he governs and sustains the whole of nature by his Word (who is himself also God), so that under the guidance, providence and ordering of that Word, the whole of nature might remain stable and coherent in his light….The almighty and most holy Word of the Father pervades the whole of reality, everywhere unfolding his power and shining on all things visible and invisible. (Ibid)

As such, the Creator is known by his works. St. Paul says

For what may be known about God is plain to them [the unbelieving Gentiles], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20).

We are still beset today by such unbelief and it too is without excuse, and is even more blameworthy, since we know so much more about the awesome intricacy of creation and how astonishing are the layers of its order at both the macro-level and the micro-level. The glory of one cell and all its parts so intricately working together looks up to a universe of billions of galaxies in an intricate dance of balance. Even its chaos brings forth new glories and forges elements and minerals.

Yes, the whole universe proclaims God’s existence:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. Without speech or language, without a sound to be heard, their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens He has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom emerging from his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course, it rises at one end of the skies and runs its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. (Psalm 19:1-6)

I don’t know how it is logically or reasonably possible to deny God’s existence when considering all this. Granted, one may not be able to conclude exactly to the God who reveals himself in Scripture with some attributes beyond reason. But any honest look at creation reveals a maker who is awesome in power, is intelligent,  provident, possessed of order and a manifest purpose to bring for beauty and life of immense variety.  Even from the cauldron of chaos (such as volcanos and storms) he brings forth needed minerals, gases for the atmosphere, and even a magnetic field to deflect cosmic radiation. From storms come the rains, ozone, and a distribution of heat from the equator to help warm the planet.

Order, order everywhere. And even some of what seems chaotic, is still part of a larger order. Creation shouts God’s existence and proclaims “I was designed!”

How David Killed Goliath: An Amazing Demonstration of the Sling Shot

When we read the story of David and Goliath, many of us have rather vague notions of how he used a slingshot to kill Goliath. When I was a kid I had a crude slingshot, a toy really, that didn’t do justice to the actual weapon, which can be very lethal!

The video below show an expert use of a sling shot and goes a long to showing how David might have so easily taken down Goliath by expert use of a slingshot.