Love and Lament Alike – A Brief Reflection for All Who Care About the Church

As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.

At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.

While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.

Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).

Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.

For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.

Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.

How baffling you are, Oh Church,
and yet how I love you!
How you have made me suffer,
and yet how much I owe you!
I would like to see you destroyed,
and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal
and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is.
I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity,
more compromised, more false,
and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.
How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,
and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,
because I am you, though not completely.
And besides, where would I go?

Would I establish another?
I would not be able to establish it without the same faults,
for they are the same faults I carry in me.
And if I did establish another,
it would be my Church,
not the Church of Christ.

(from The God Who Comes, by Carlo Carretto)

Yes, where else would I go?

 

You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world considers great and honorable is rather different from what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover its paradoxical vision.

I. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices people vying for seats of honor. In response, He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.

What the Lord is really reminding us is that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is most common at wedding receptions, where seats are assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is rude, pompous, and presumptuous. The polite and expected behavior is to report to the entrance table, receive your table assignment, and graciously take your seat there.

Of course, the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. God has a place for us, but it is He who assigns each person his place.

Recall that when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest, Jesus responded, I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).

Another time, when James and John approached Jesus for seats at His right and left (places of honor), Jesus responded, to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).

So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.

Many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s Kingdom. That right belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich or powerful as others. Some wish they were taller, thinner, smarter, or more attractive. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.

Be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean that it is so. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God, so being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, and good looks are all things that tend to root us in this world; they are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like someone else’s, a family like someone else’s, or a talent like someone else’s may not be what is best for us.

God gives each of us the talents and blessings as well as the burdens and challenges He knows are best for us. Don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find out His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one in mind for you.

II. THE PARADOX of HONORS – Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect, He was struck by how people perceive honor and how they vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress others and be thought of as important.

Remember that this is God’s banquet. The qualifications for the seats of honor there are very different from those necessary for worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like brawn, beauty, and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, and a big entourage. When a limo pulls up, just watch all eyes turn. The popular, the powerful, the glitterati, and the game changers emerge to flashing cameras and thunderous applause. These are the things that we notice; this is what draws our eyes.

What about God? As God looks around the banquet hall of His Kingdom, who catches His eye? The Lord provides the answer in many places in Scripture:

        • Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43).
        • Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26).
        • Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar (Ps 138:6).
        • But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27).
        • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
        • Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last (Luke 13:30).
        • He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52).

So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches His eye? Is it those at the “head table”? It is those on the red carpet? No. If we apply God’s words, we see that those who draw God’s attention are not even at the table; they are the ones waiting on tables, the ones serving, the ones back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes. It is the lowly, the humble, the servants of all, who catch God’s eye.

This is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom. It is not about being powerful in a worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car, or bank account. Our popularity does not impress Him. It is our service, humility, and love for others that catches His eye. The seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, are for those who serve.

III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – The prescription is clear. Jesus instructs us, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”

If we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then we had better become a servant. Jesus says that we should take the lowest place, that we should serve before we sit. It is serving others that makes a person great. The greatest thing about us is not our big paycheck or our fancy house; it is that we serve.

We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents, and abilities to build up the people of God and extend His Kingdom. Even things we do for which we are paid can be service, provided that serving is our primary motivation.

Jesus then adds, When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. This is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.

Jesus is giving us more than a moral directive (be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in His Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the afflicted, because they give us the ability to serve. In the end, our greatest honor is serving others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.

A final dimension is learning that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Because serving is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, clean our houses and workplaces, do our “dirty work,” serve in our hospitals, and care for and serve us in countless other ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips when that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.

For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10:43).

Yes, you have to serve before you sit in any place of honor at God’s banquet.

The song in the video below says, “Sit down, servant. I can’t sit down … My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down.” The video depicts quite a varied cultural expression: a Thai choir singing an African-American spiritual!

 

How Civilizations Rise and Fall in Eight Stages

In last week’s post we examined the stages or persecution. Given the serious damage and debasement we see in our culture, we do well to ponder a more sociological examination of how cultures and civilizations go through cycles. Over time, many civilizations and cultures have risen and then fallen. We who live in painful times like these do well to recall these truths. Cultures and civilizations come and go; only the Church (though often in need of reform) and true biblical culture remain. An old song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Yes, all else passes; the Church is like an ark in the passing waters of this world and in the floodwaters of times like these.

For those of us who love our country and our culture, the pain is real. By God’s grace, many fair flowers have come from Western culture as it grew over the past millennium. Whatever its imperfections (and there were many), great beauty, civilization, and progress emerged at the crossroads of faith and human giftedness. But now it appears that we are at the end of an era. We are in a tailspin we don’t we seem to be able to pull ourselves out of. Greed, aversion to sacrifice, secularism, divorce, promiscuity, and the destruction of the most basic unit of civilization (the family), do not make for a healthy culture. There seems to be no basis for true reform and the deepening darkness suggests that we are moving into the last stages of a disease. This is painful but not unprecedented.

Sociologists and anthropologists have described the stages of the rise and fall of the world’s great civilizations. Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler of the University of Edinburg noted eight stages that articulate well what history discloses. I first encountered these in in Ted Flynn’s book The Great Transformation. They provide a great deal of perspective to what we are currently experiencing.

Let’s look at each of the eight stages. The names of the stages are from Tyler’s book and are presented in bold red text. My brief reflections follow in plain text.

  1. From bondage to spiritual growth – Great civilizations are formed in the crucible. The Ancient Jews were in bondage for 400 years in Egypt. The Christian faith and the Church came out of 300 years of persecution. Western Christendom emerged from the chaotic conflicts during the decline of the Roman Empire and the movements of often fierce “barbarian” tribes. American culture was formed by the injustices that grew in colonial times. Sufferings and injustices cause—even force—spiritual growth. Suffering brings wisdom and demands a spiritual discipline that seeks justice and solutions.
  2. From spiritual growth to great courage – Having been steeled in the crucible of suffering, courage and the ability to endure great sacrifice come forth. Anointed leaders emerge and people are summoned to courage and sacrifice (including loss of life) in order to create a better, more just world for succeeding generations. People who have little or nothing, also have little or nothing to lose and are often more willing to live for something more important than themselves and their own pleasure. A battle is begun, a battle requiring courage, discipline, and other virtues.
  3. From courage to liberty – As a result of the courageous fight, the foe is vanquished and liberty and greater justice emerges. At this point a civilization comes forth, rooted in its greatest ideals. Many who led the battle are still alive, and the legacy of those who are not is still fresh. Heroism and the virtues that brought about liberty are still esteemed. The ideals that were struggled for during the years in the crucible are still largely agreed upon.
  4. From liberty to abundance – Liberty ushers in greater prosperity, because a civilization is still functioning with the virtues of sacrifice and hard work. But then comes the first danger: abundance. Things that are in too great an abundance tend to weigh us down and take on a life of their own. At the same time, the struggles that engender wisdom and steel the soul to proper discipline and priorities move to the background. Jesus said that man’s life does not consist in his possessions. But just try to tell that to people in a culture that starts to experience abundance. Such a culture is living on the fumes of earlier sacrifices; its people become less and less willing to make such sacrifices. Ideals diminish in importance and abundance weighs down the souls of the citizens. The sacrifices, discipline, and virtues responsible for the thriving of the civilization are increasingly remote from the collective conscience; the enjoyment of their fruits becomes the focus.
  5. From abundance to complacency – To be complacent means to be self-satisfied and increasingly unaware of serious trends that undermine health and the ability to thrive. Everything looks fine, so it must be fine. Yet foundations, resources, infrastructures, and necessary virtues are all crumbling. As virtues, disciplines, and ideals become ever more remote, those who raise alarms are labeled by the complacent as “killjoys” and considered extreme, harsh, or judgmental.
  6. From complacency to apathy – The word apathy comes from the Greek and refers to a lack of interest in, or passion for, the things that once animated and inspired. Due to the complacency of the previous stage, the growing lack of attention to disturbing trends advances to outright dismissal. Many seldom think or care about the sacrifices of previous generations and lose a sense that they must work for and contribute to the common good. “Civilization” suffers the serious blow of being replaced by personalization and privatization in growing degrees. Working and sacrificing for others becomes more remote. Growing numbers becoming increasingly willing to live on the carcass of previous sacrifices. They park on someone else’s dime, but will not fill the parking meter themselves. Hard work and self-discipline continue to erode.
  7. From apathy to dependence – Increasing numbers of people lack the virtues and zeal necessary to work and contribute. The suffering and the sacrifices that built the culture are now a distant memory. As discipline and work increasingly seem “too hard,” dependence grows. The collective culture now tips in the direction of dependence. Suffering of any sort seems intolerable. But virtue is not seen as the solution. Having lived on the sacrifices of others for years, the civilization now insists that “others” must solve their woes. This ushers in growing demands for governmental, collective solutions. This in turns deepens dependence, as solutions move from personal virtue and local, family-based sacrifices to centralized ones.
  8. From dependence back to bondage – As dependence increases, so does centralized power. Dependent people tend to become increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Seeking a savior, they look to strong central leadership. But centralized power corrupts, and tends to usher in increasing intrusion by centralized power. Injustice and intrusion multiplies. But those in bondage know of no other solutions. Family and personal virtue (essential ingredients for any civilization) are now effectively replaced by an increasingly dark and despotic centralized control, hungry for more and more power. In this way, the civilization is gradually ended, because people in bondage no longer have the virtues necessary to fight.

Another possibility is that a more powerful nation or group is able to enter, by invasion or replacement, and destroy the final vestiges of a decadent civilization and replace it with their own culture.

Either way, it’s back to crucible, until suffering and conflict bring about enough of the wisdom, virtue, and courage necessary to begin a new civilization that will rise from the ashes.

Thus are the stages of civilizations. Sic transit gloria mundi. The Church has witnessed a lot of this in just the brief two millennia of her time. In addition to civilizations, nations have come and gone quite frequently over the years. Few nations have lasted longer than 200 years. Civilizations are harder to define with exact years, but at the beginning of the New Covenant, Rome was already in decline. In the Church’s future would be other large nations and empires in the West: the “Holy” Roman Empire, various colonial powers, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French.  It was once said that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. As the West began a long decline, Napoleon made his move. Later, Hitler strove to build a German empire. Then came the USSR. And prior to all this, in the Old Testament period, there had been the Kingdom of David, to be succeeded by Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.

The only true ark of safety is the Church, who received her promise of indefectibility from the Lord (Matt 16:18). But the Church, too, is always in need of reform and will have much to suffer. Yet she alone will survive this changing world, because she is the Bride of Christ and also His Body.

These are hard days, but perspective can help. It is hard to deny that we are living at the end of an era. It is painful because something we love is dying. But from death comes forth new life. Only the Lord knows the next stage and long this interregnum will be. Look to Him. Go ahead and vote, but put not your trust in princes (Ps 146:3). God will preserve His people, as He did in the Old Covenant. He will preserve those of us who are now joined to Him in the New Covenant. Find your place in the ark, ever ancient and yet new.

Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

In the readings this Sunday, the Lord describes a danger: our tendency to make light of judgment and not be sober that one day we must account for our actions. In the first reading (from Isaiah), the Lord sets forth His desire to save us, but we must understand that our will, our assent, is essential to our salvation. In the second reading (from the Letter to the Hebrews), God sets forth a plan whereby, having accepting Jesus, we can make a daily walk with Him in a kind of delivering discipline. Let’s take a detailed look at the readings, hear their urgent warnings, and soberly lay hold of the solutions offered.

I. The Danger that is Described“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:22-30).

There is a similar text in Matthew’s Gospel, in which the Lord says, Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-14).

The Gospel is a call to sobriety and away from an unbiblical way of thinking (that is antithetical to the long testimony of sacred tradition). Many people today assume a kind of universalism that presumes that most, if not the vast majority, will go to Heaven. However, as we have reviewed many times on this blog before, that is not what Scripture says. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

While no percentages given, no exact numbers, we ought not to interpret the text such that Jesus’ words “many” and “few” come to mean nothing or even their opposites. Jesus is teaching us a sober truth: given the tendency of the human heart toward hardness, stubbornness, and obtuseness, many are on a path that rejects His offer of a saving relationship, His offer of the Kingdom and its values.

Although many today consider the teaching on judgment and the existence of eternal Hell untenable, this is largely due to the tendency to refashion God and the faith according to modern preferences rather than to cling to what is true and has been revealed.

In doing so, they reduce God to an affirmer, an enricher, a facilitator, or merely one who takes care of us. (These are all accurate descriptions, but they only partially describe Him.) Absent from these representations is the true essence of God as absolutely holy, just, pure, and undefiled; and as the one who must ultimately purify His faithful, with their consent, to reflect His utter purity and glory. Those who attempt to “refashion” God into something or someone more palatable are the ones to whom He says, “I do not know where you are from.”

Those who set aside Hell also attempt to refashion human freedom, which God has given us as our dignity so that we can freely love Him and what He values in a covenantal relationship, rather than serving Him as slaves. I have written more on this topic here: Hell Has to Be.

For now, let it be said that the reality of Hell is taught clearly and consistently in Scripture. It is taught to us in love as an urgent warning about the seriousness of our choices, which build to a final decision. No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of judgment and Hell more than He did.

Some today also object to any “fear-based” argument related to the faith. This is not a reasonable posture to adopt when dealing with human beings, because each of us responds to different types of appeals. While an appeal to fear may not be rooted in the highest goals, it remains an important approach rooted in well-ordered self-love.

Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and Hell. In fact, one could argue that this was His primary approach and that one would struggle to find many texts in which Jesus appealed more to perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone. In dozens of passages and parables, Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are several examples:

        • Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt 7:13-14).
        • The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:41-42).
        • Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (Mk 13:35-37)
        • And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man (Luke 21:34-36).
        • But about that day or hour no one knows …. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. … Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:36-39; 42-44).
        • The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:51).
        • Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matt 25:10-13).
        • Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat …” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 24:41-42, 46).
        • Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell (Matt 5:28-29).
        • Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
        • And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched (Mk 9:45-46).
        • Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:12-14).
        • Then said Jesus again to them, “I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come. … I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:21, 24).
        • So by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast out devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:20-23).
        • He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
        • He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day (John 12:48).
        • Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev 22:14-16).

The goal in all these appeals, fear-based or not, is not to make us scared per se, but to encourage us to be sober, to develop a sense of urgency in following the call of God, and to summon others to saving faith. “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”

The text says that salvation is not attained by everyone, that some are not “strong enough,” that many are on a road that does not lead to glory. We are urged to be awake, sober, and urgent in securing salvation for everyone we meet.

Many today think of Hell as a place only for the extremely wicked (e.g., serial murderers, genocidal maniacs), but Scripture teaches that there are many other paths that lead away from Heaven (and toward Hell): lack of forgiveness, preoccupation with cares of the world, and sexual sins such as fornication, homosexual acts, and adultery. Wealth also creates difficulties that make it hard to enter the kingdom. Some people cannot and will not endure persecution, trials, or setbacks related to the faith and instead choose to deny Christ before others.

The fact of the matter is, many people just aren’t all that interested in Heaven; they reject many of its values such as forgiveness, chastity, and generosity. They aren’t strong in their desire. They aren’t “strong enough” to make the journey.

II. The Divine Desire The first reading (from Isaiah) assures us that God wants to save us all. If there is resistance to Heaven and being in relationship with God forever, it comes us, not God. I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. … that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD (Is 66:18-21).

Other texts in Scripture also speak of God’s desire to save us all and of His extending the offer of saving love to all:

        • “As surely as I live,” says the LORD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
        • God our Savior … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. … And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim 2:3-7).
        • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:9-10).
        • Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7).

God is not our adversary in salvation; He is our only way. He wants to save us, but He respects our choice.

III. The Discipline that Delivers – If, then, we are stubborn and stiff-necked (and we are), and yet God still wants to save us, how is this to be accomplished? The first step, of course, is to accept the Lord’s offer of His Son Jesus, who alone can save us. We do this through faith and baptism as well as through the daily renewal of our yes, by God’s grace.

The second reading (from Hebrews) also spells out for us a way in which God, by His grace, works to draw us deeper into His saving love and path:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7).

In this passage is a kind of “five-point plan” for remaining in God’s saving love:

(1)  Respect God’s RegimenMy son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord … The Greek word translated here as disdain is ὀλιγώρει (oligorei), which means more literally to care too little for something or to fail to accord it proper respect. The word translated as discipline is παιδείας (paideias), which refers to the training and education of children so as to bring them to proper maturity. Hence, the text is telling us that God’s discipline for us is not punitive per se but is developmental and necessary for us; we ought not to make light of our need for this sort of training and discipline. While we may like to think of ourselves as “mature” in the face of God and His wisdom, we are really little children in great need of growing up into the fullness of Christ.

(2)  Reconsider When Reproved… or lose heart when reproved by him. Here, too, analysis of the Greek text is helpful. The word translated here as reproved is ἐλεγχόμενος (elenchomenos), which more fully means to be convinced with compelling evidence that one is wrong or to be compelled to make a correction in one’s thinking. Although we may bristle or feel discouraged when corrected, we ought to remember that God is all-wise, and we must remain open to being convicted by the truth He brings to us. The truth may at first challenge us, but it ultimately sets us free.

(3)  Remember His Regard… for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. … God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? God does not discipline us for His own sake, to show power or to demonstrate who is in charge. He disciplines us because He loves us and wants to save us. He is our Father, not our taskmaster. We are His children. We ought to remember the regard, the love, He has for us and be mindful that He does not punish for the sake of His ego, but for the sake of us, His sons and daughters.

(4)  Remain Resolved Endure your trials as “discipline.” Our flesh wants to rebel and our fragile ego bristles easily, but we must endure; we must be resolved; we must persevere and remain on the path God sets out for us.

(5)  Receive the RewardAt the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

This Sunday we have a sober teaching from the Lord, who describes a danger about which we must be sober. And while the readings also describe His divine desire to save us, there is also a need for a discipline that delivers us.

We ought to be sober about what the Lord teaches. There are too many people today who are not sober about the fact that many are going to be lost. Because of this, they often do not attend to their own souls let alone the souls of others.

If your children or grandchildren are away from the Church, not praying, not receiving the sacraments, awash in sinful habits, locked in serious and unrepented mortal sin, do not take this lightly. The Lord warns and warns and warns. Do not brush it off or take refuge in false, unbiblical notions that presume nearly universal salvation.

The Lord demands from us a sober and biblical zeal for souls, rooted in the comprehension that we humans tend to stray and that we mysteriously do not seem to want what God offers. Being sober helps us to be urgent, and urgency makes us evangelical enough to go to those we love and say to them, “Sinner don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

Stages of Persecution

With the recent article in The Atlantic linking the Rosary to extremist gun culture we see a gross misunderstanding in the nature of spiritual warfare and its true target, Satan. The rosary is a weapon, but a spiritual one. While it is possible that the author simply misunderstands our allegorical references to warfare, I rather doubt he is that dumb. Rather, I suspect that this is an attempt to stereotype, and vilify Catholics, especially traditional ones. These are tactics used to lay a groundwork for the marginalization and persecution of the faithful and the criminalization of their views. 

With this incident, we do well to review the stages of persecution.  The term “stages” is particularly important in the U.S. because it is rare for a previously respected segment of the population to become reviled overnight. The typical process is that the descent progresses in stages that grow in intensity. In this way, the Catholic Church, once an esteemed institution in America (along with other Christian denominations), has become increasingly marginalized and now even hated by many. It may help us to consider the five stages of persecution because it seems that things are going to get more difficult for the Church in the years ahead.

I. Stereotyping the targeted group – To stereotype means to apply an overly simplistic belief about a group of people to each individual person in that class.

As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, Christians were often caricatured as Bible-thumpers, simpletons, haters of science, and hypocrites; they were frequently labeled self-righteous, old-fashioned, and backwards.

Catholics in particular were also accused of having neurotic feelings of guilt and a hatred of or aversion to sexuality. We were denounced as a sexist institution and called authoritarian, stuck in the past, and hung up on restrictive rules.

According to the stereotype, Catholics and Bible-believing Christians are a sad, angry, boring, backward, repressed lot. To many who accept the stereotype, we are a laughable—even tragic—group caught in a superstitious past, incapable of throwing off the “shackles” of faith.

As with any large group, individual Christians and Catholics may manifest some negative traits, but indiscriminately presuming the characteristics of a few to be common to all is unjust.

To be sure, not everyone engages in this stereotyping, and even among those who do the degree varies, but the climate created by its presence sets the foundation for the next stage of persecution.

II. Vilifying the targeted group for alleged crimes or misconduct

As the stereotyping grew in intensity, Catholics and Christians who did not go along with the cultural revolution were described as closed-minded, harmful to human dignity and freedom, intolerant, hateful, bigoted, unfair, homophobic, and/or reactionary—basically, bad people.

The history of the Church is also described myopically as little more than a litany of bad and repressive behavior: going on crusades, conducting inquisitions, and hating Galileo and all science. Never mind that there might be a little more to our history: founding universities and hospitals, patronizing the arts, and preaching a gospel that brought order and civilization to the divided and barbaric times that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Our critics won’t hear any of that, or if they do will give the credit to anyone or anything except the Church and our faith.

All of this has the effect of creating a self-righteous indignation toward believers and of making anti-Catholic and anti-Christian attitudes a permissible bigotry.

III. Marginalizing the targeted group’s role in society

Having established the (false) premise that the Church and the faith are bad—even harmful to human dignity and freedom—the next stage is to relegate the role of the Church in society to the periphery.

To many in our secularized culture, religion is seen as something that must go. Perhaps we will be allowed to sing our hymns and preach our sermons within the four walls of our churches, but the faith must be banished from the public square.

It has become increasingly unacceptable and intolerable that anyone should mention God, pray in public, or in any way bring the Christian faith to bear on matters of public policy. Nativity sets must go; out with Christmas trees. There have even been some public schools that forbade the use of the colors red and green during the “Holiday Season”!

Do not even think about mentioning Jesus or thanking Him in your graduation speech; you may be forbidden to do so under penalty of law. You may talk about Madonna the singer but not the Madonna.

In contrast, the Gay-Straight Alliance club at the local high school is welcome to pass out rainbow-colored condoms to the students. Muslims strangely get a pass but not Christians. No Bibles or Christian-themed pamphlets had better see the light of day anywhere in the school building—separation of Church and State, you know.

IV. Criminalizing the targeted group or its works

Recent attempts to compel us to violate our teachings and consciences are noted above, but there have been many other times we have had to go to court to fight for our right to practice our faith openly. An increasing amount of litigation is being directed against the Church and other Christians for daring to live out our faith.

Some jurisdictions have sought to compel Catholic hospitals and pro-life clinics to provide information about and/or referrals to abortion clinics or to supply “emergency contraception” (i.e., the abortifacient known as the morning-after pill). In 2009, the State of Connecticut sought to regulate the structure, organization, and administration of Catholic parishes. A number of Christian students in various states have suffered legal injunctions when it was discovered that they planned to mention God and/or Jesus in their graduation addresses. (More details can be found here.)

A good number of those involved in these clashes feel quite righteous and justified in their efforts to remove the practice of the faith from the public square.

Many of these attempts to criminalize the faith have been successfully rebuffed in the courts, but the number and frequency of the lawsuits and the time and cost involved in fighting them impose a huge burden. It is clear that attempts to criminalize Christian behavior pose a growing threat to religious liberty.

V. Persecuting the targeted group outright

If current trends continue, Christians, especially religious leaders, may face fines and/or incarceration.

In Canada and in parts of Europe, Catholic clergy have been arrested and charged with “hate crimes” for preaching Catholic doctrine on homosexual activity.

In our country there are greater protections for free speech, but there has been a steady erosion of religious freedom; some have had to spend long periods in court defending basic religious liberty. The trajectory points to suffering, lawsuits, fines, and ultimately prison.

Unlikely, you say? Alarmist? Well, stages one through four seem to be firmly in place. One may wish to “whistle past the graveyard,” but it looks to me as if we’re headed for stage five.

Maybe a heavy post could use the accompaniment of a lighthearted video. This animated retelling of Acts 16 is so bad it’s good!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Stages of Persecution

The Battle is Engaged…Choose Sides! A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year

The readings today speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks vividly of it, and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murder and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

And so, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle he wins at the Cross and Resurrection, but it is a battle whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

We also do well to look at the second reading, which describes what ought to be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.

But we begin this reflection on the readings by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep, and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth!).

I. Passion to Purify –  Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is a powerful and transformative reality. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged. Fire does gives warmth, and it makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. But nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us,  by the fiery power of his love, of his grace, and of his Word. He has a passion to set things right.

But purification is seldom easy or painless, and hence, there is the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle,  fire must be cast on the earth, not only to purify, but also to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important, because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. And faith does surely supply these. But it is also true that faith demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. And many, if not most enrichment and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands and causes change. And change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which he will judge and purify this earth, and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

And this is no mere campfire around which we seeing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze which must set the whole world on fire!

So, how do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist had promised of the Lord: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11) And indeed, the Lord sent forth his Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) so as to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.

The battle is engaged! Choose sides. And if you think you can remain neutral or stand on some “middle ground,” I’ve got news for you about which side you are really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the Ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace, and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire or you are not. But the choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire on the earth.

II. Painful path. The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though himself sinless, Jesus takes upon himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in his own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one,  he does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind enemy lines, he goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary, and  leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

And by his wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood he shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path he trod, and he speaks of his anguish in doing it. But having won the victory, he now turns to us and invites us to follow him, through the cross the glory.

But the choice to follow is ours, and in this sense the cosmic battle continues as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.

III. Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The words shock but they speak a truth which sets aside worldly notions of comprise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, true holiness and true victory over Satan, there must be distinction, not equivocation, there must be clarity, not compromise. Fire and water do not mix. One hears the conflict when they come together of hissing, popping, searing and steaming. One must win, the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

The Lord said (back in Matthew 10:34) that he came not for peace but for the sword. And thus there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased or gangrenous, cancerous growth cut away from that which is  normal flesh. Coexistence is not ultimately possible, the diseased flesh has to go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer or gangrene, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer or gangrene, the battle must be engaged.

And thus the Lord, in this great and cosmic battle cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or a non-critical coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but scripture is clear, there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on his left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the wide road to damnation and the narrow road to salvation, and those on each of them.

And these distinctions, these divisions extend into our very families, unto our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. And there are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)

Of all this we must be sober and work for our salvation, and the salvation of all. For while there may no be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all when the distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.

And thus the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3).  Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. And even if family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged, the fire is cast, sword of the Spirit and God’s words is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats and judgement begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

If this be the case, How do we choose sides, practically speaking. And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle. For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from today’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Note four prescriptions in this letter for a solider in the Army of the Lord:

A. Lay Hold of the The PROOF of faith – The Text begins Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard and experienced. In the previous Chapter of Hebrew (11), we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. And individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that he can move mountains and deliver his people, that He can do anything but fail.

And thus we are to hear their testimony and be summoned courageously to the Battle and to choose the Lord’s side, knowing that the Lord has already won the Victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes is an innumerable list of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and summon us to faith and steadfast courage.  Yes there is the Cross, but Resurrection always follows!

These witnesses say, Choose the Lord, he has already won the victory. Live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, let the Sacraments strengthen you, rest in prayer, and walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the Army of the Lord.

Jesus is the Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory, he is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.

B. Live The PRIORITY of faith – The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith..

We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch TV, they do not stop to make small talk or take stupid detours or go in the opposite direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So too with our faith, it has priority. Nothing should be allowed to hinder us.

Runners also know where the finish line is and what the goal is. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-hardheartedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them of weigh them down.

And so it must be for us. We must have our eyes on Jesus. He and the glory he offers are our goal. every step must be toward him. All that weighs us down or hinders us must be set aside. Increasingly our life s to center on one thing, one goal. As St. Paul says,

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14)

The Rose window at the upper right (from my parish Church) depicts the Medieval world’s Christocentric vision of all things centered on Christ. Every petal of the window is precious: family, spouse, children, work, career, vocation, but all centered on Christ, flowing from him and pointing back to him. How different this Medieval notion is from the modern anthropocentric and egocentric world, with man at the center, the ego on throne and God relegated to the edges.

Let Christ be your center. An old song says, “Jesus you’re the center of my joy.”

C. Learn the PERSPECTIVE of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments and suffering in life. But do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! And thus the text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.

There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged hang-dog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Whatever the cost, as Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

So keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged, but just rebuke him, and tell him you’re encouraged because whatever you are going-through, it’s producing.

D. Last unto the end through the PERSEVERANCE of Faith – the Text says,  Consider how [Jesus]  endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

It is not enough to answer an altar call or get Baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:10-13)

And thus, in a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey, and make it with Jesus.

Scripture says,  Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. ( 1 Cor 15:1-2)

OK, a tough Sunday. Not exactly the prosperity gospel, or a “Consumer Christianity” focused on enrichment without sacrifice, and crowns without crosses. But this is the real Christianity and the only faith that can save. Jesus describes the cosmic battle, and moves forward manfully to vanquish our ancient foe. But then he turns and says follow me: hear the Proof of faith, make it your Priority, see by its Perspective and Persevere unto the end.

At the end of the day there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. Since you know the outcome by faith, why not pick the winning team?

The Battle is Engaged, Choose sides!

 

Two Teachings of the Lord that Correct Flawed Notions of Judgement

When it comes to our personal and final judgment, after we die, there are many caricatures and distortions that are possible. One is of Jesus as a stern and grouchy judge who is looking for reasons to keep us out of heaven. This is the “sinners in the hand of an angry God” distortion. Or perhaps the Lord is weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds in a kind of impersonal, numerical manner. This is the Pelagian distortion where salvation depends on our earning it. 

But at the other end of the spectrum and far too common today is the universalist distortion which presumes that almost everyone is saved with little or no reference to one’s preferred spiritual or moral life. It is an overreaction to the stern and litigious “God” of the first two distortions because it trivializes and reduces the Lord to a kind of harmless hippie, tokin’ on a number and saying, “Who am I to judge?” and, “All are welcome.” 

The truth, of course, is in what the Lord actually teaches, not in such distortions. God wants to save us (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4). But the real question is what do we want? Sadly, as the Lord laments, many prefer the wide road to destruction, rather than the narrow road to heaven (cf Mat. 7:13). 

There are two scriptures (among others) that illustrate this well. 

The first Scripture is in John’s Gospel in the third Chapter. The passage begins by reaffirming God’s desire to save us: 

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned… (John 3:16-18a)  

But, even here there comes a warning rooted in our response: 

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  (John 3:18b) 

And then comes an analysis by the Lord as to why some refuse, and in what judgment consists of: 

And this is the judgment: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” (John 3:19-21) 

Notice then, the judgment, the verdict, consists in whether or not one loves or hates the light. The Greek root word used here is ἀγαπάω (agapao), a word that indicates a strong love, a preferential love above other things. The Lord further teaches that those who love and prefer the darkness also hate the light. The Greek root word here is  μισέω (miseo) – which means, to detest, denounce; to love someone or something less than someone (something) else, i.e. to renounce one choice in favor of another. So, there is a love of the darkness and a hatred of the light due to the prideful aversion of not seeing their sins and errors exposed for what they really are: sinful, wrong and harmful.  

Why then are some excluded from heaven? Is it NOT because a mean and hateful God seeks to keep them out. No, it is that they prefer the darkness. They are accustomed to darkness and prefer it. And thus, the Lord teaches that the judgment that excludes the unrepentant is due to the Lord recognizing their preference and consigning them to the outer dark they prefer (Mat 22:13).  In reality, they cannot stand the bright light of heaven where the truth of God radiates, vividly and intensely, leaving no shadow. Indeed, the Lamb of the Light is the city of God (Rev 21:23)! The saddest truth of the damned is that they would be more miserable in heaven. For those who hate the truth see the truth as hateful and irksome, and those who prefer the darkness experience the light as harsh. We see this frequently today when secular people denounce their opponents of faith as hateful and phobic and want to exclude them from their world. 

The second Scripture is from this last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 12:32-48; 19th Week, Cycle C) wherein the Lord paints a picture of two reactions to his coming. He begins by teaching the principle: 

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Lk 12:33). 

If our treasure is what we value most, is the world, then our heart is with the world. If our treasure is God and the things of heaven, then our heart is there. As most of us know, this is the great human drama. A very honest question that even Church-going Catholics must ask is, “Do I love God more than this world?” The honest answer for most is that we struggle to love God most of all. And, any look to the world around us today is that many, if not most, are obsessed with the things and priorities of the world and have marginalized God; some have marginalized Him completely. Their treasure and preoccupation is here, and so also is their heart. Far fewer are those who long for God and have their life directed to him and the things of heaven. And this is why we must constantly ask the Lord to fix and redirect our hearts. 

Next, the Lord paints two responses, two groups, if you will, at our summons to death, and to the judgment seat. 

Group One is described: 

like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.  

Group Two sees the Lord as 

A thief who is coming, and they do not want their house be broken into.

Why does Group Two see the Lord as a thief? Because their treasure, and therefore their heart is this world and the things of this world. And when the Lord comes they will see him as a thief coming to take away all they think is theirs, but is not. They are not happy to see Him, they wail and grind their teeth, seeing hm as one who is putting an end to their frivolities. They do not want what he offers, (the Kingdom of Heaven), for they prefer the darkness of this world: its priorities, personalities, power and possessions. 

But Group One the Lord describes as like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. He also describes them as having girded their loins, and lighted their lamps. To gird the loins is the ancient equivalent of “rolling up our sleeves.” It is to be ready for and doing the work that God has given us by setting our house in order, growing in holiness and eagerly anticipating being with the Lord in heaven. To “light our lamp” is to read the Word of God and be deeply immersed in God’s wisdom, his vision and priorities. It is to be imbued with the Kingdom values and to be longing for God’s justice and the Glory of heaven. This group has their treasure in heaven and, so also, their hearts. They look forward to the Lord’s coming with eager expectation and joyfully and actively prepare to meet him with longing in their hearts, repenting of their sins and setting their house in order. Hence, when the Lord comes they see him as Savior and Lord who will bring to completion in them whatever is undone (Phil 1:6) and lead them to the glory of heaven which they so desire. They do not see him as a thief, like Group One. 

Thus, judgment consists in the Lord recognizing and ratifying that some joyfully come to the light, others are repulsed by it. So, ultimately, the judgment is on us. If someone prefers darkness, he gets the darkness he wants. If someone loves the light and comes to it by God’s grace, he enters the Kingdom of truth and Light he desires. God respects our freedom to choose, and at the judgment seat of Christ our preference and decision are recognized and ratified by the Lord Jesus. “Here is the judgement in question,” says the Lord, “that the Light has come into the world but some prefer the darkness.” In the end you get what you want.  

So, one Lord, Savior and Judge comes to us (or we go to him) but the two groups experience him differently based on the disposition of their own hearts rooted in what they value and where their treasure is. God is not angry, though some are repulsed by him and regard him as a thief. 

Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: “God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.” But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us (e.g. John 5:22), but his judgment is rooted in and recognizes what we ourselves have chosen and manifest by the way we live our lives. These two pictures of judgement make that point rather clearly.

This song from Camelot “playfully” ridicules goodness and prefers a wicked world:

Recipe for Readiness —A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “recipe for readiness.” He gives it to us so that we can lay hold of His offer that we not be afraid. He is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

Christians today are often uncertain about what is necessary in order to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the Day of Judgment, considering it all but certain that most of humanity will be saved.

Jesus does not adopt this position. In fact, He teaches the opposite. He consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. Jesus does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or even most will be saved. Rather, He counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the Day of Judgment. Jesus tells us to do at least five things in order to be ready and therefore not afraid.

If we do not make these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns that He will come when we least expect and take away all that we (wrongly) call our own. Jesus says, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34). The apostolic tradition says this of the unprepared: disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not to fear (for the Father wants to grant us His Kingdom), He also warns that being free of fear is contingent upon embracing and following the plan that He sets forth for our life.

Let’s look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific things to do that will help to ready us for the time when the Lord calls us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no single passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture, but these are some very practical and specific things to reflect upon and do.

I.  Reassess your wealth. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

In this passage, the Lord is giving us three teachings on wealth. He says that we ought to do these things:

        • Forgo Fear. In the end, it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly; we grab up the things of this world because we are afraid of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and to know that He will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom; why wouldn’t He give us everything else? He may not give us everything we want, but He will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear, we will be surprised at how easy it is to be generous with what we have rather than hoarding it.
        • Forward your Fortune. When we are generous to the needy and poor, we store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. Treasure is not stored in Heaven by sending it up there in a rocket ship or a hot-air balloon. It is accomplished by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. I discussed this more fully in my homily last week (You Can’t Take It with You, but You Can Send It on Ahead). While it may not be appropriate to sell everything and go sleep on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and possessions, for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
        • Fix your focus. Our focus is misplaced because most of us have our treasure here in this world. Once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. This redirects our focus and puts our heart where our treasure really is and ought to be: in Heaven with God. Simplify! Be less rooted in this world; come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things awaiting you in Heaven.

Reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart.

II. Ready yourself to work. The Lord says Gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has work for us to do and wants us to get to it.

Surely, the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like growing in holiness, pursuing justice, and raising children in godly fear. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness.

The Lord has particular work for each of us based on our gifts. Some people are good teachers; others work well with senior citizens; some are entrepreneurs who can provide employment for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick; others are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffer and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others do so in weakness; but all are called to serve, to work.

Work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing your work.

III. Read the Word. The Lord says, light your lamps.

On one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (e.g., the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13).

But in another sense, a lamp is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

The Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. That makes sense, of course. Too many in this increasingly secular world are hostile to the faith. How can we think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day? How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. Remain watchful. The Lord says, And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we might do when waiting for a bus: we just sit there and look down the street. There is another kind that is more active. Consider a waiter: he waits and watches actively; he observes and delivers what is needed immediately and notes what will be needed soon so that he will be prepared when the time comes.

There is also the eager sort of waiting that is much like that of a child on Christmas Eve. The child does not wait in dread for Santa Claus but in hopeful expectation.

Watchful and eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind. It is like that active waiting we do when we have invited a guest to our home. We joyfully prepare and place all in order.

To set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness (by God’s grace) and to remove all the clutter of worldliness from our life. Regular confession, daily repentance, simplifying our life,  and freeing ourself from worldly attachments declutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, you may experience Him as you would a thief. The Lord is not really a thief, for everything belongs to Him, but if we have not renounced our worldliness and greed and have not rid ourself of attachments to this world, then the Lord will come and take back what is His. He will seem like a thief only because we (wrongly) think things belong to us.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

V. Reflect on your reward. The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready!

It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, in which the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. He says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). Today, food can be bought on the spur of the moment and eaten immediately, but in the ancient world one of life’s most pleasant things was a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of good friends and family.

The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger things about people in the modern world, even some believers, is that they talk so little of Heaven. And while it is not a place any of us have ever been (so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like), we should reflect often on the joy that awaits us there.

Part of being ready to go home to the Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something, we prepare for it eagerly; we are motivated and we make sacrifices. We will more naturally do whatever is necessary.

These are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause He may be comin’ soon!