On the Fear of Death

This is the second in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

For us faithful, the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. Even if some final purification awaits us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; our exile in this valley of tears is ended.

Is calling the day we die the greatest day of our life too strong a statement? I have seen some fellow Christians wince at it. In this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, we rarely speak of Heaven—or Hell for that matter. I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life.

At the funeral of a relative several years ago, I was approached by a friend of the family. She was an unbeliever, a self-described secular humanist, and she made the following comment to me: “Perhaps there is Heaven for the faithful who believe that there is life after death, and perhaps for them the day they die is the greatest day of their life, but I do not observe that Christians live as if they believe this. It seems to me that they are as anxious as anyone else about dying and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”

It was a very interesting observation, one that I found mildly embarrassing. I quickly thought of some legitimate explanations and proposed them to her, but the embarrassment remained. We Christians sometimes fail to give witness to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark—and I’ve heard it before—most of us don’t manifest a very ardent longing for Heaven.

There are, of course, some legitimate and understandable reasons that we do not rush towards death:

  1. There is a natural fear of dying. It is part of our physical makeup and, it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient being on this planet, man or animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to both hunger and sexual desire, we might die not only as individuals but as a species. It also drives us to look to the future, as we work to ensure the survival, even thriving, of our children and those who will come after us. It is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear because it has necessary and useful aspects.
  2. We would like to finish certain important things before we die. It makes sense, for example, that parents would like to see their children well into adulthood. Parents rightly view their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence, we cling to our life here not just for our own sake but because others depend upon us.
  3. The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love and appreciate what we have here, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise this world that we wish only to leave it manifests a strange sort of ingratitude. It also shows a lack of understanding that life here prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this misery. Without hearing words, I felt the Lord’s silent rebuke: “Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can’t learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of eternal life.” Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely in terms of relief or escape from this life, rather than as the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don’t embrace life by trying to escape from it. A healthy Christian attitude is to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn and strive for a life that we do not yet fully comprehend: a life that eye has not seen nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
  4. We seek to set our life in order before facing judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare to meet God.
  5. We fear the experience of dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we have a natural fear of the unknown. Further, most of us realize that the dying process likely involves some degree of pain. Instinctively and understandably, we draw back from such things.

Even Jesus, in His human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before Him—so much so that He sweat blood and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father’s will, and our benefit rather than His own. Still, in His humanity, He did recoil at the suffering soon to befall Him.

Despite this hesitancy to meet death, the day we die is indeed the greatest day of our life. While we ought to regard the day of our judgment with sober reverence, we should go with joyful hope to the Lord, who loves us and for whom we have longed. That day of judgment, awesome though it is, will for the future saint disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.

We don’t hear much longing for our last day on this earth or for God and Heaven. Instead, we hear fretting about how we’re getting older. We’re anxious about our health, even the natural effects of aging. And there are such grim looks as death approaches! Where is the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers referred to life in this world as an exile and expressed a longing for God and Heaven, but few of today’s prayers or sermons speak this way.

Here are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that we may draw back from dying:

  1. Our life in this world is comfortable. While comfort is not the same as happiness, it is very appealing. It is also deceiving, seductive, and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think that this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws our focus away from the God of comforts to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can’t ever seem to get enough of it; we seem to spend our whole life working toward gaining more and more comforts. We become preoccupied by achieving rather than working toward our truest happiness, which is to be with God in Heaven.
  2. We are worldly. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here, worldliness means focusing on making the world more comfortable while allowing notions of God and Heaven to recede into the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: Improve my health; fix my finances; grant me that promotion. While it is not wrong to pray about such things, the cumulative effect, combined with our silence on more spiritual and eternal things, gives the impression that we are saying to God, “Make this world a better place and I’ll just be happy to stay here forever.” What a total loss! This world is not the point. It is not the goal; Heaven is. Being with God forever is the goal.
  3. Being with God seems abstract and less desirable than our life in this world. With this magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, longing for Heaven and being with God recedes into the background of our thoughts. Few speak of Heaven or even long for it inwardly. They’d rather have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the enhanced sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine) that is regrettably the case. They almost never hear about Heaven, either (except in some cheesy funeral moments that miss the target altogether and make Heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most people’s radar except as a vague abstraction for some far-off time—certainly not now.

This perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leads to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that the day we die is the greatest day of our life, or that I’m glad to be getting older because I’m getting closer to the time when I can go home to God, or that I can’t wait to meet Him, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder whether I need therapy.

No, I don’t need therapy—at least not for this. I’m simply verbalizing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our heart’s greatest longing; we cling to passing things. I would argue (as did my family friend) that we seem little different from those who have no hope. We no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, “I’m closer to home. Soon and very soon I am going to see the King. Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. I’m going home to be with God!”

There are legitimate, understandable reasons for being averse to dying, but how about even a glimmer of excitement from the faithful as we see that our journey is coming to an end? St. Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians regarding death: We do not want you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going to be with God or not? On the whole, it would seem that we do not.

The video below features a rendition of the hymn “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.” Here is a brief passage from the lyrics:

The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise most blest. Alleluia!

The Mystery of Life and Death

This is the first in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

You are going to die and you don’t get to say when or how. I say this at every funeral, both to those present and to myself. This solemn reminder is hard to process. It is one thing to assent to this obvious truth intellectually, but it is another thing to internalize it in our depths and really know what it means.

What is death? Some speak of heartbeats that stop or brain waves that cease, but that is not what death is. The cessation of vital indicators is the effect of death, not death itself.

Part of the mystery of death is that it is presupposed by another equally deep and mysterious question: What is life? Some say that life is organized energy, but this answer also misses the mark. It describes what life does, not what it is.

The force we call life is mysterious. We see its effects. We know when it is present and when it is gone, but we do not know exactly what it is. Just because we have a word for something doesn’t mean we understand it. Similarly, death is mysterious. I have been at the bedside of parishioners and my own loved ones at the moment of death and I cannot adequately articulate how strangely baffling it is. There is labored breathing; sometimes there are nervous twitches. Occasionally some words are spoken. Then, suddenly, there is a great stillness. The mysterious force that we call life has departed; the soul, the animating principle of living things, is gone.

I remember looking at my sister, my father, and my mother as each lay in the casket. They were there and yet they were not. When I looked at my mother, she seemed alive; I fully expected her to look at me and tell me to comb my hair or that she loved me—but she was not there. Her body had lost that mysterious spark and force we call life. Her soul had departed.

Looking at my father’s still body in the hospital room where he died was overwhelming. He had been a giant in my life. He still looms large in my memory; his voice rings in my soul. But there he was lying still in that hospital bed—and yet he was not there. Something deeply mysterious had happened. The hidden, mysterious life force of his soul was gone even though there seemed to have been no change in the appearance of his body.

Sadly, I have had to have several of my pets put down over the years. In those cases, too, the mystery of life and death is evident. An animal is alive one moment and then suddenly grows still. Even with plants and trees, I have seen them healthy and green only to be astonished when they die. What happened? The life is gone; a mysterious, organizing principle and force has departed—but what it is we do not know. We do not see death, only its effects.

I am overwhelmed in the face of death, at the mystery of it and the mystery of what has departed: life, a force that cannot be seen or measured, that does not tip the scales of scientists or involve our senses but that is nonetheless very real.

Especially in its inception, life is mysterious. Consider an acorn. In appearance, it is not so different from a small stone. Yet if you were to put both in the soil, the stone would sit there forever and do nothing; the acorn, though has a mysterious spark, a life force in or around it that springs forth to become a mighty oak. What is that spark? Where is it? An acorn has it but a stone does not. Why? Only God really knows.

It was my father who first taught me of the mystery of life. When I was a child, he told me that one of the deepest experiences of his life had occurred when he was about my age:

It had suddenly occurred to him, coming into his mind like a bolt out of the blue, that he existed. He cried out, “I exist!” and then grew silent in astonishment.

He said that ever since that moment he had never ceased to be amazed and awed at the mysterious fact of his existence. Indeed, it is an awesome mystery. Why do I exist? Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all?

As my Father grew silent in amazement, so must I. I have already said too much. The word mystery comes from the Greek muein, meaning to shut the mouth or close the eyes. As we begin a meditation on the Four Last Things, (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), ponder with awe and reverential silence the great mystery of life and death.

Tomorrow I will discuss some of the more practical aspects of death.

The End is the Beginning and the Guide to All of Life’s Decisions

I will be away for ten days leading a group on a “Footsteps of St. Paul” pilgrimage in Greece. We will visit Athens, Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Philippi, and Patmos, among other locations. More than sixty of us are going, many from my own parish, some from other parishes within the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and still others from elsewhere in the country. I ask for your prayers during our journey.

I have scheduled a series of posts to run during my absence, related to the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In November, when we see the leaves fall and winter approach, we are mindful of the passing quality of this world and of the inevitability of these last things: we will die, face judgment, and spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell.

In a way, the last things are actually the first—in terms of importance. Consider that it is the destination that guides one on a trip. Each decision about which road to take or which turn to make is based on the journey’s end. Without a goal, we are lost; we wander aimlessly. Sadly, this is the way many live their lives: going here and there but without a real purpose or destination in mind. They are like leaves blown about by the wind, going wherever their passions or popular culture take them. Those of us who strive to live by faith must base all life’s decisions on our goal: Heaven. Does this course of action move me toward the goal or away from it? Does it help me or hinder me? I want to die loving God and my neighbor so that I can attain the beautiful glory of being with God and the saints forever.

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 (Philippians 3:13-14). This is the secret to a meaningful, productive, and holy life: knowing the one goal and subordinating all else in order to achieve it. It is so simple, yet it is so easy to get lost in the many distractions that complicate our life.

Meditation on the four last things helps us to refocus on the fact that our life is heading somewhere. We all will die, face judgment, and ultimately be forever in Heaven or Hell.

As for me, I am currently heading for Greece, but I pray, Lord, that this trip will draw me closer to the goal of knowing, loving, and serving you in this life so as to be happy forever in Heaven with you. Amen.

In Times Like These We Need St. Charles Borromeo!

In my attendance at missions, meetings, and functions, it has become clear to me that many people are hungering for clergy—especially bishops—who will uphold the faith more boldly and defend the flock against heresy and error. Too many clergy, they say, either remain silent or are vague in addressing sin; instead, when they see the wolf approaching, they neither warn the flock nor chase him away. Some seem to welcome the wolf and introduce him to the sheep! I hear many heartbreaking stories, which both pain and anger me. As I go before the Lord, I add the concerns of God’s people to my own. I also take great comfort in turning to my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. His life provides both perspective and a model of what to do and how to be in times like these.

St. Charles Borromeo was born in 1538, a time when the Church was in the midst of perhaps her greatest crisis. Martin Luther had begun his revolt in 1522 with the publication of his 95 Theses. In the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, some 12 million Europeans (a huge number for those days) left the Church; more would follow in successive waves.

The once-strong medieval Church was breaking up. Indeed, the whole medieval synthesis of Christendom was in turmoil, hopelessly intertwined with politics and intrigue both within the Church and outside.

This of course sounds quite familiar to us. The Church today is deeply divided, seemingly on the verge of another great schism. The recent reemergence of a clergy sexual abuse scandal and the justifiable anger over that has now been followed by the tumultuous Amazonian Synod, which was filled with confusing and shocking images and has suggested radical changes that, if executed, may even split the Church. In December, a German Synod will begin that also promises to place a severe strain on unity—and most of this terrible disunity comes from the clergy, not God’s faithful.

The problems in St. Charles Borromeo’s day were similar. The clergy were in tremendous need of reform. It was an era of absentee bishops and clergy. Wealthy European families collected parishes, monasteries, and other benefices more as elements in their portfolio than out of any spiritual love or interest. It was common that benefices were given to the sons in these families. Although ordained as priests, they seldom served as such, instead farming out the pastoral duties of their many parishes (and even dioceses) to other priests (often poorly trained ones). Knowledge of Latin, Scripture, and indeed the Lord Himself, was noticeably absent in many of these “clergy for hire.” Preaching was poor, the moral life of the clergy was degraded, and the faithful had little leadership. In this climate it is no wonder that Luther and other so-called reformers were so easily able to attract large numbers of the laity, who were not only poorly served but poorly catechized.

Recognizing the criticality of the revolts (by Luther and others) and her own need for internal reform, the Church summoned the Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563. St. Charles Borromeo play a crucial role during the Council and in its aftermath.

Perhaps his chief work (as the Papal Secretary of State under the direction of Pope Pius IV) was to reconvene the Council of Trent, which had been suspended due to war. After many months of negotiation and political intrigue, the Council reconvened in 1561. Charles Borromeo not only coordinated the activities of the Council sessions but also engaged in many delicate negotiations as the Pope’s personal representative. He had to work carefully to overcome the differences between certain delegates. The Council of Trent finally concluded in December of 1563, just prior to the death of Pope Pius IV.

The importance of the Council of Trent cannot be overstated. Its decrees rejuvenated the huge and complex medieval Church and would serve as a guiding light for the next four centuries. Then, as now, the decrees of a council were not always welcomed, understood, or well applied. The work of Charles Borromeo was just beginning.

St. Charles lost no time in applying the decrees of the Council wherever his authority extended.

Cardinal Borromeo’s next step was to have a catechism written and published. He appointed three Dominican theologians to work under his supervision, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent was completed within a year. He then ordered it translated into the vernacular in order that it be taught to the faithful by all pastors. Charles also set to work founding seminaries and colleges for the clergy, who were woefully undertrained.

St. Charles was also involved in implementing liturgical norms, even taking a hand at reforming the music by encouraging the development of sacred polyphony. It needed a guiding hand to ensure that the music did not become too florid, eclipsing the sacred. In this matter he worked closely with Palestrina.

Having used his position of influence in Rome to help implement the Council, St. Charles Borromeo then petitioned Pope Pius V that he might implement it in his own life, for although the Pope had named him Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he had been an absentee bishop, remaining in Rome as papal Secretary of State. Such absenteeism was common at the time; in fact, it was rare in the larger cosmopolitan dioceses that the bishop would be present at all. These larger dioceses were usually benefices for rich families whose sons merely collected the income and did not actually serve in any pastoral capacity. Dioceses were usually administered by underlings.

It does not take much to understand why abuses flourished under this system. With no resident bishop, no true shepherd in place, errors went unaddressed and corruption abounded.

After some months of negotiation with the new pope, Pius V (who was resistant to the idea), St. Charles was finally permitted to take up residence in his diocese of Milan. He went with great eagerness to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. He called several local councils of the Church there and set up seminaries for the training of clergy. Charles insisted that priests be present in, and minister to, their own parishes. He also established the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine (CCD) for the training of children in the faith, enrolling some 40,000 children in the first few years. He set about visiting every parish in his archdiocese, even the small ones in the remote alpine regions.

Not everyone appreciated the reforms Charles sought to institute. Some of the greatest resistance came from his own clergy and monks, one of whom pulled out a gun and shot him at Vespers (luckily, the bullet only grazed him)! Despite the resistance, St. Charles began many successful reforms in the Church at Milan. These reforms centered on the liturgy; the life, training, and discipline of the clergy; and the training of the laity in the ways of faith.

As I observe our difficult state today, I turn to St. Charles Borromeo, who lived in similar times. His example inspires my own desire to teach the faith with zeal and to bring the faithful a word of instruction. I do not have the power of a bishop, but I try to the best of my ability to give clear instruction, drawing the faithful more fully to the Lord. I also try to reach as many others as I can through my writing.

Above all, I ask St. Charles’ intercession to inspire in me and all clergy a great and joyful zeal for the Lord and the faith. I pray he will also inspire bishops to imitate his example. St. Charles Borromeo offered his life sacrificially and endured many trials to preach the faith and to visit the faithful. He courageously ministered to the sick during a plague and worked tirelessly to promote liturgical excellence.

All of these vigorous efforts took a toll on his health and St. Charles Borromeo died at the age of 46, in the early hours of November 4, 1584. He had been on his way to visit a parish in the Alps and was stricken with a high fever.

I ask you, Lord Jesus, to inspire bishops and priests through the example of St. Charles Borromeo. Remove whatever fear or sloth keeps so many of us sinfully silent and strangely uninvolved while the culture and the Church collapse around us. May bishops attend carefully to the formation of priests and give them good example through clear teaching and heroic witness to the truth of the Faith. May priests and deacons, too, have a tender care for their people and a zeal to drive away, through preaching and teaching, the wolves of error, dissent, deceit, and half-truth. May we all celebrate the sacraments with devotion, respect for norms, and sacrificial love for our people.

St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us. We need a lot of help right now! As you well know, we clergy can be a stubborn lot; frightened, too, and anxious about things we should not be (e.g., position and rank). Intercede for us. Ask a miracle of God that, as individuals and as a group, we can become more courageous, more zealous for God’s Kingdom, and more willing to endure suffering and even martyrdom to announce God’s truth and bring the sacraments to His faithful. Yes, St. Charles, pray for us! We need your prayer and example more than ever. Amen.

I have written more about St. Charles Borromeo here.

To Make a Long Story Short—A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today features the endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man who climbs a tree because he is too short to see Jesus. By climbing this tree (of the cross), he encounters Jesus and is changed.

The danger with familiar stories is that because they are familiar, it is easy to miss their remarkable qualities. Let’s look at today’s Gospel with fresh eyes, searching for the symbolic in the ordinary details.

Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus is physically short, so short that he cannot see the Lord. Do you think that this detail is provided merely to describe his physical stature? I don’t. As a preacher, I’m counting on the fact that there is more here than meets the eye.

I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness brought by sin. Consider some of the following texts from Scripture, which draw parallels between sin and blindness:

      • My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see (Ps 40:12).
      • I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17).
      • They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18).
      • Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13).
      • Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5).
      • Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).

Yes, sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence cannot see Jesus. How has he sinned? Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho, and tax collectors were wicked, unjust men. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. Tax collector roughed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted the collectors to charge in excess of the tax due as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, exploited the poor, and rubbed elbows with the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated—and for good reason.

Zacchaeus is not just any tax collector; he is the chief tax collector. He’s a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Have you got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low; he doesn’t measure up morally. He’s a financial giant but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is well short of a full moral deck. His inability to see the Lord is not just a physical problem; it is a moral one.

Now I’m not picking on Zacchaeus. Truth be told, we are all Zacchaeus. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m not that bad.” Maybe not, but you’re not that good, either. We’re all a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus than like Jesus. The fact that we’re still here is evidence that we’re not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord. We’re not righteous enough to look upon His unveiled face. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we?

Saving Sycamore – Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus, and so must we. The only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of a sycamore to climb it; we must cling to the wood of the rugged cross.

Only by the wood of the cross and the power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is a Latin chant that goes like this: Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). By climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteousness that comes from the cross.

Sanctifying Savior – Jesus stops by that tree; we always meet Jesus at the cross. There at that tree, that cross, He invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not surprising that Jesus essentially invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned, it was a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. Remember, however, that it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:

      • Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).
      • And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
      • As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them (Luke 24:28-30).

Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a holy communion, a relationship, a liturgy that will begin to transform him. Zacchaeus and we are one and the same. We, too, have begun to see the Lord through the power of the cross to cast out our blindness, and the Lord draws us to sacred communion with Him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.

Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship, but it is only the start. Zacchaeus promises to return the money he has extorted four-fold and to give half his money to the poor. There’s a Christian hymn entitled “I Surrender All.” Zacchaeus hasn’t quite reached that point, but neither have most of us.

Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. For now, he needs to stay near the cross so that he can see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.

This is the start for Zacchaeus and for all of us. The best is yet to come. You might say that the Gospel ends here—to make a long story short.

Our Tendency to Make Poor Decisions, as Seen in a Commercial

The commercial in the video below pokes fun at the horror movie genre, saying, “If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do.” As I watched, it occurred to me that this is a pattern we also follow too easily.

The Christian version might go something like this: “When you’re a fallen creature living in a fallen world governed by a fallen angel, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do.”

Of course, the insurance company behind this clever ad wants you to stop making bad decisions by purchasing their product.

The Church wants us to stop making bad decisions, too, but the recommended solution is different. We have to be sober about our fallen human nature and recognize that our hearts are wounded. Our desires can be inordinate and unruly, and our minds are easily darkened. Living in the “horror movie” of this fallen world, we are inclined to make poor decisions. Because of this we need to seek the balm of prayer, the salve of God’s Word, and the medicine of the Sacred Liturgy and the sacraments. We must also strive to keep holy and helpful fellowship.

Don’t make poor decisions. Be sober about your tendency to do so—and take your medicine!

Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do—A Homily for the Feast of All Saints

All Saints

Today is the Feast of All Saints. Some saints of the Church have a particular day on the calendar associated with them and are commonly recognized by name. Many more, though not as familiar to us, are still known by God and have been caught up with Him to glory. Today is their day, the day of the countless multitude who have made it home to glory by God’s grace and by their “Amen” to the gracious call of God. Let’s consider these saints under three headings, based on today’s readings.

Their Privileged Place: The first reading today, from Revelation, speaks to us of saints: from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”…They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Note how liturgical the description is.In fact, the most common way that Heaven is described is in liturgical imagery. The liturgy is a kind of dress rehearsal for Heaven. To those who claim that Mass “boring,” this description can be challenging.

Indeed, many people today have rather egocentric notions of Heaven.Heaven is a place where Iwill be happy, where Iwill see myfamily, where Iwill take leisure. Iwill have mymansion; Iwill no longer get sick; Ican play all the golf I want. Heaven is a “better place,” but this better place is generally understood in personal terms; it’s a kind of designer Heaven. But Heaven is what it is, not what we want or conceive it to be.

At the heart of the real Heaven is being with God,looking upon His glorious face and thereby having all our inexpressible longings satisfied. In Heaven, the saints behold the glorious face of God and rejoice. It is their joy to praise Him and to rejoice in His truth, goodness, and beauty.

Note, too, the sense of communion of the saints with both God and one another.The biblical portraits are of a multitude, a vast crowd. The biblical way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not to envision physical crowding but rather deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a bunch of people standing around chatting.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another(Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another, we will have profound communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love, and sense of how we all complete one another and are one in Christ.

Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christand of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.

St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with Godand one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His body. This is all the members in Christ experiencing deep, mystical communion with Him and one another, all swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s(1 Cor 3:23).

TheirPrize of Perfection: The second reading, from the First Letter of John, says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

We cannot even imagine the glory of the saints in Heaven. Our Heavenly Father once told St. Catherine that if she were ever to see a saint in his or her transformed heavenly glory, she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God Himself.

This is our future, if we are faithful. We will reflect the glory of God and be transformed by the look of love and glory. Just one look, and oh, the glory we will reflect, God’s very own glory!

I gotta make a hundred; ninety-nine and a half won’t do. When God is through with you and me, oh, the glory!

The Picture to Ponder: The Gospel today (the Matthean beatitudes) sets forth a portrait of sanctity. The beatitudes are the description of the transformed human person; they describe what happens to us as Jesus begins to live His life in us through the Holy Spirit.

This picture is not one that merely waits for Heaven; it is one that is true of us even now as we grow into the likeness of Christ.

I have written more on the beatitudes hereand here. For the purpose of today’s feast, we need to acknowledge that a beatitude isnot something we do but rather something we receive. A beatitude declares an objective reality as the result of a divine act.

The present indicative mood of the beatitudes should be taken seriously. They should not be interpreted as imperatives of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start being meek and thenGod will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed.

Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and submit to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding, we see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of a human being whom Jesus Christ is transforming into a saint! And this transformation is a growing, stable, deep, and serene beatitude and holiness.

Therefore, today’s feast of all saints does not merely point to the completed saints in Heaven, but to us who would be saints, not just someday in the future but beginning now and in increasing degree.

At the end there will be saints and ain’ts. Which do you choose? As for me, ninety-nine and a half won’t do. I gotta make a hundred.

A Word of Encouragement in One of Jesus’ Stranger Sayings

It’s one of the stranger dialogues that occurs in the Gospel. We read it last week in daily Mass and it is difficult not to rejoice in Jesus’ aplomb.

Some Pharisees, likely disingenuous in their motives, approach Jesus and warn Him to leave immediately: Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you. Jesus, more likely speaking to them than to Herod, says the following:

Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose’ (Lk 13:32).

Surely Jesus has more in mind than the next three days on the calendar! He’s obviously referring to the Paschal mystery: His passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus is saying, in effect, that anyone who would threaten to kill Him is only undermining his own power while facilitating the fulfillment of Jesus’ purpose.

Nailed to a cross, Jesus will be casting out demons and bringing healing. The next day He will descend to Sheol to awaken the dead, summon them to righteousness, and bring healing in life. On the third day He will arise, fully accomplishing His purpose and casting off death like a garment.

There is no way that Herod or the Pharisees or Satan himself can win, for in “winning,” they lose.

This is also the case for all who align themselves with the darkness rather than the light. No matter how deep the darkness, the dawn inevitably comes, scattering the darkness; the darkness cannot prevail. Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5).

In this strange and provocative saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke is an important perspective: evil, no matter how powerful it may seem, cannot stand; it will ultimately self-destruct and be overcome by the light. No matter how awful Good Friday seemed to those first disciples, Jesus was casting out demons and bring healing in that very act of suffering. His apparent disappearance into death and His descent into the place of the dead was only for the purposes of turning out the Devil’s trophy room, bringing life into the place of the dead and healing to the deep wounds caused by sin.

While Resurrection Sunday is an obvious triumph, even Good Friday and Holy Saturday were already manifesting Jesus’ great victory.

In this saying of Jesus and in the facts of the Paschal Mystery, two things are taught to us about evil: that we should never glamorize it and that we should not utterly fear it.

As for glamorizing evil, we certainly do a lot of that, particularly through movies and television. Whether it’s “The Untouchables,” “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Ocean’s 8,” or other films that glamorize wrongdoing as a way to achieve wealth, power, and/or glory, we eagerly consume this fare. This is illusion; evil is not glamorous. It may have its day, but the Word of the Lord remains forever. One of the Psalms says,

I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; he was gone. I searched; he was nowhere to be found (Psalm 37:35-36).

Neither should we inordinately fear evil’s passing power. Yes, we should soberly confront it and resist its demands, but we should not tremble in fear.

No, evil cannot stand. To glorify evil or to fear it inordinately is to miss the lesson of both Scripture and history: evil does not last.

What does last is God’s holy Word and His Church. Despite repeated attempts to persecute, diminish, and destroy the Church, she has outlived every one of her opponents. Her history extends back even more than 2000 years into the heritage of God’s people, the Jews. God rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt and gave His Word on Mount Sinai. In spite of every attempt to ridicule, reduce, and redefine God’s Word, His promise to Abraham, His Word from Sinai, or His Word from The Sermon the Mount, all these persist through to this day.

This is what lasts: God’s Word and the Church He founded. This is verifiable by the study of history. Empires have come and gone, wicked philosophies risen to popularity and diminished, scoffers and persecutors have arrived and departed, all in the age of the Church. Yet we are still here, and they have all gone. To those who claim power now, who laugh at us and say that we’re through: when you are gone, the Church will still be here.

I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; he was gone. I searched; he was nowhere to be found (Psalm 37:35-36).

Evil, error, pride, and perversion, do not last; but God does and so does His Word and the Church to which He has entrusted it.

Thus, Jesus, when threatened by the Pharisees and indirectly by Herod, simply says,

Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose (Lk 13:32).

In other words, neither you nor Herod can thwart my plans. In killing me you merely assist me in accomplishing my plan; I will break the back of your power. When you persecute my disciples or shed the blood of my Church members, you are sowing seeds for the Church. Whatever “victory” you claim is hollow; it is really my victory.

Yes, go tell that fox that I accomplish my purpose. By these words the Lord decodes history for us. There’s no need to obsess over this temporary loss or that apparent defeat. The world and the devil may gloat over an apparent victory. In the end, the Lord holds the cards; and the house—His House—always wins.

It is true; read history. Do not admire evil or fear its apparent ascendance. Jesus has won, and His victory is shown time and time again. Don’t let the Devil fool you. Do not be deceived. Evil cannot stand. The devil is a liar.

Indeed, in the name and power of Jesus, Go and tell that fox [the devil], ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose’ (Lk 13:32).