The Cross Wins, It Always Wins. A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today is, to the world and to those who are perishing, utter madness, utter foolishness. For Christ, in effect, declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom declares to us that the way to life is power, prestige, possessions and popularity, Jesus says, die to all that and you’ll find true life.

The word “paradox” refers to something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. And the true gospel, (not the watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

To those who would scoff at this way of the Cross there is only one thing to say, “The Cross wins, it Always wins.

Let’s examine the Lord’s Paradoxical Plan to save us and bring us to new life using three keywords: Everyone, everything and Everlasting.

I. Everyone: As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says,  Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

What is odd is the apparent “over-reaction” that Jesus has to the simple fact of some Greeks wishing to speak to him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses the stunning fact that his “hour” has now come. Yes, now the time for his glorification, that is, his suffering, death and resurrection, to take place. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this from the simple fact that certain Greeks, i.e. certain Gentiles wish to speak to him.

Even more remarkable, is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus in fact goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, there is no evidence that he eagerly goes to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

But first let us examine why this simple request throws the whole switch on for Holy Week to unfold. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah wherein He would gather the nations unto himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  1. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord….All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord. (Is 66:18, 23)
  2. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save, not only the Jewish People, but all people and to draw them into right worship, and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere his intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

And so it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance for him (and us).

But why not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for the death and the resurrection of Jesus to be accomplished. It will be his atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the Blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and wit one another, only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the Blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us or make us one, either with the Father or each other. There is no true unity apart from Christ and he secures it by his blood and the power of his cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find true and lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

So the door has opened from the Gentiles side, But Jesus knows the way through door goes by way the Cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after his resurrection he will say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.... (Matt 28:19) for now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The Price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with each other, and the Father, is the death and Resurrection of Jesus. And thank the Lord, Jesus paid that price. An old songs says Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!

II. Everything – Jesus goes on to say Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and unity, with the Father and which each other, it is also true that he sets forth and prescribes a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, Amen, Amen I say to YOU….and again he says, Whoever serves me must follow me.

Thus the pattern of his dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. And if we seek unity and peace and to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying fro it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? Well we have to die to:

  1. Our ego
  2. Our desire for revenge
  3. Our hurts from the past
  4. Our desire to control everything
  5. Our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  6. Our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  7. Our hatreds
  8. Our unrealistic expectations
  9. Our stubbornness
  10. Our inflexibility
  11. Our impatience
  12. Our unreasonable demands
  13. Our greed
  14. Our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just occur, Peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We too must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the Cross wins. It always wins.

III. Everlasting-  – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says: Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern he sets forth above of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. And if we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life and live only for ourselves, and for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. For indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours is a cruel and laughable fate, for we die and lose all. Yes, total losers.

But if we allow the Lord to help us die to the this world’s agenda, to its pathetic charms, then, and only then do we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ.Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us and do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. And in order to have it bestowed on us, and we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world in order to live in him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world, to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we can ever imagine.

Note too, Jesus calls this new life, “eternal life.” But eternal life means far more than to live forever. Rather “eternal,” while not excluding the notion of endless length,  more deeply means “to become fully alive.”

And for those who know Christ, this process has already begun. At age 50, my bodily life has suffered setbacks. But spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at 20, and wait till I’m 80! Our bodies may be declining, but our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive, if we love and trust Christ. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, more alive!

But all of this comes from dying to this world, little by little and thus having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our Peace and our new life? Everything! For we shall only attain to it by dying to this world. And while our final physical death will seal the deal, there are all the ten thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final component of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected him, the loss will be total.

An old song says, Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing Of Calvary!

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. But you decide. Choose either the “wisdom of this world” or the folly of Christ. As for me, call me a fool, but make sure you add I was a fool for Christ. I do not mind. The cross wins, it always wins.

This song says:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Now I’ve given Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!


Where the Tree Falls, There It Will Lie – A Meditation on the Finality of Judgment

March 16 blogSome engage in the wishful thinking that humans can suddenly and dramatically become converted and wholly different. To be sure, there are what are sometimes called “sudden conversions” of individuals. But what this usually means is that the person’s disposition against God and/or the faith is transformed into an openness to the truth and grace of God. It does not usually mean (barring a miracle) that the person is instantly possessed of all virtue and is suddenly free of all sinful inclinations. In order for fundamental change to take deep and lasting root in a person, he or she must work hard at it and must cooperate with God’s grace.

People change and grow slowly, incrementally, often in fits and starts. What we call our character is formed gradually over time. Thoughts and decisions produce deeds; deeds produce habits; habits produce character; and character ushers in our destiny. It is the steady march and repetition of virtue (or vice) that produces our character. True and lasting conversion takes time. It takes repeated good decisions to yield the fruit of a good character.

There are seldom any shortcuts. Expecting there to be a shortcut to good character would be like expecting a person with a newfound interest in classical piano, merely on account of this new interest, to be able to play Mozart Sonatas or Chopin Etudes immediately; it just doesn’t work that way. Rather, he must begin with scales and arpeggios, practice every day, master simple pieces, and then gradually progress to the full vision of classical piano.

The moral life is this way, too. A virtue is defined as a good habit. But habits are not acquired by doing something once. Habits, by definition, are repeated actions. Repeated (good) actions are the basis for virtue. Even if grace comes from God and can spur and enable virtue, virtue does not fall out of the sky. Grace builds on and cooperates with our nature, which is to grow and change slowly by habitual, repeated actions in response to grace. Over time, accumulated good actions become the good habits we call virtues and help to form the more lasting aspect of us that we call our character.

Sadly, the opposite is also true. Vices also build strongholds in our life and our character. Repeated sinful acts engender vice, which has a negative effect on our character. Character is rightly defined as the collection of moral qualities that define a person. And while qualities may change over time, it is wishful thinking to presume they can change quickly, dramatically, or substantially. Our character is largely the summation of our repeated decisions.

Among the more dangerous versions of this wishful thinking (that people can easily and fundamentally change in a moment) is the notion that upon death, those who have stubbornly indulged in sin and/or values opposed to God and His Kingdom will suddenly have a change of heart at the judgment seat of Christ. It is fancifully imagined that they will suddenly want what (until now) they had resisted, disliked, or outright rejected. The human heart seldom, if ever, changes on a dime. This is true even when we suddenly discover that we were wrong about something. We human beings are not even swayed by clear facts if we don’t want to accept certain truths. Instead, we will often grow angry and defensive rather than make a wholehearted change. And in those cases in which we do change our view, it is usually done slowly and in fits and starts, especially when it comes to deep-seated views such as those related to politics or religion.

Imagine a person who has, throughout his life, opposed or resisted essential aspects of the Kingdom of God such as forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, chastity, generosity, and the worship that is due to God. Values such as these are not simply hoops to jump through on the way to a magical kingdom or a personal resort of one’s own design. These are actual parameters of the Kingdom of God and the perfection of that Kingdom we call Heaven.

And herein lies the crucial point: by our repeated choices in life, we are either deepening our desire for God and His Kingdom or eroding it. Our character is either being configured to God and what He is offering through virtue, or disfigured and disinclined to what God is offering through vice.

It is foolish to think that a person who scoffed at chastity and God’s teaching on sexuality will suddenly esteem them when he dies, or that one who did not want to forgive his enemy will suddenly wish to do so. It is unlikely that one who spurned going to Mass and worshiping God in the Holy Liturgy will suddenly want to enter the great liturgy of Heaven, which is described consistently as featuring hymns (Rev 4:8-11; 5:8-14; 7:9-12), candles (Rev 4:5), priests in robes and miters (Rev 4:4), delight in the proclaimed words of a book (Rev 5:1-5), praise of the Lamb on the altar (Rev 5:8ff), incense (Rev 8:3ff), and so forth. How likely is it that one will go from considering these things boring, pointless, unnecessary, and not worthy of attendance, to suddenly considering them glorious and heavenly? How attractive will one find the worship and praise of a heavenly multitude of saints in Heaven if he was never attracted to worship with God’s people on Earth?

God will not force us to want what He offers or to obey His vision for us as portrayed in His Law. Heaven is the fulfillment of all that He offers; it is not our personally designed paradise.

The greatest tragedy of all is that the souls in Hell would be even less happy in Heaven, where the things that they rejected in this life are esteemed and are fully and perfectly present, where many whom they did not care for in this life are honored and in the highest places.

It is wishful thinking, therefore, to think that many who are disinclined to God or are outright hostile to Him and/or what He teaches and offers will experience a sudden conversion as they are escorted to judgment. Scripture says, Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3). In other words, when we die, our character will be forever fixed. It is like a piece of pottery which, having been molded into any number of shapes while on the potter’s wheel, has its shape forever fixed when it is placed in the fire of the kiln. It is like the rich man in the parable of Lazarus who, though lamenting his awful state, shows no desire for Heaven and does not ask to be brought there. Rather, he asks to have Lazarus bring water to him in Hell.

Yes, it is a dangerously wishful thinking and presumption to think that an unrepentant sinner will suddenly want to repent, or that one averse to significant aspects of God’s Kingdom will suddenly wish to seek entrance or will suddenly rejoice in what moments before he found irrelevant or even odious. Instances of such sudden “changing of stripes” are exceedingly rare.

In this life there are certainly wonderful moments of conversion. But they must be followed by perseverance and reparative grace to undue the many lingering effects of years of bad choices. In the case of authentic deathbed conversions, purgatory seems a strong necessity.

A proper antidote to this wishful thinking is to have a sober urgency to summon sinners away from those things that deepen their aversion to the Kingdom. Repeated and unrepented sin hardens the heart and darkens the intellect. A sober reverence for this truth is both necessary and salutary. Wishful thinking is not only unhelpful, it is harmful; it detracts from the urgency that motivates us to work for the salvation of souls, beginning with our own.

Judgment day is but the final recognition and solidification of what has been a long series of decisions. Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.

Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie (Eccles 11:3).

What are “Lost Sabbaths” and Why Do They Matter Today?

In this past  Sunday’s readings (Fourth Sunday of Lent B)there came an instruction to God’s people that they would be exiled seventy years. And why? the text supplies a reason:

Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” (2 Chron 36:16).

Of all the things we might think of as a serious matter, so serious as to merit exile, “lost sabbaths” would not occur to most of us in this present age. Other matters such as violence, murder, sexual sin, greed, injustice and so forth would occur first to us. So, how are we to understand these “lost sabbaths” and why was their loss so serious as to require seventy years of exile?

Linguistically the phrase rendered in our lectionary as “lost sabbaths” is, in Hebrew: ratsah and shabbathRatsah can mean “lost,” but its first meaning is “pleasing” or acceptable.”  A Sabbath that is pleasing of course is a sabbath that conforms with what God commands: You shall do no work (Exodus 20:8-11) and you shall keep sacred assembly (Lev 23:3). This is a sabbath that pleases God. Any contrary behavior amounts to a “lost sabbath.”

Pastorally a lost sabbath impacts the individuals who fail in its requirements as well as communities that no longer enforce such mandates. In this case the text of Chronicles and the prophet Jeremiah whom it cites warns the whole land of Judah of the dire consequences of lost sabbaths and indicates that the wounds that follow from this failure will take seventy years to repair.  What happens to nations in which large numbers no longer keep the Third Commandment? What happens is that many no longer receive common instruction on the Word of God and what is expected of us. When large numbers stay way from communal instruction, as we have today, the citizens of a nation or land stop sharing  a common reference (i.e. the Scriptures) or worldview. A shared vision is lost. And where there is no vision, the people perish (Prov 29:28). How do they perish? With no shared vision we descend rapidly into a suffocating subjectivism and a tyranny of relativism. Basic and shared understandings of reality are supplanted by highly personalized and ultimately divisive ideologies. This sows division and debates about even basic matters such as “what is a woman?”  What is right and what is wrong? What is the purpose and ultimate meaning of life? The list quickly becomes endless.

Hence, when large numbers of the community no longer assemble to receive common instruction and to affirm it with their “Amen,” unity quickly disintegrates and is replaced by rancor, and endless debate, by power struggles and heavy pressure not to depart from the narrative of the powerful that replaces the biblical narrative. Such a nation is beset by divisions, fractures and an inability to articulate shared values and goals. As such it grows weak and vulnerable. It is easily overtaken, not only by other more unified nations, but also by demons and by its own inner weakness and self-consuming cancers. These cancers gnaw away and metastasize, spreading into every once unitive organizations (e.g. schools and sports) and ultimately sets its aim on destroying even families, the most basic unit of any civilization, nation or Church. With no shared vision, everything is politicized, everything is a powder keg. It is like a wheel with spokes but no hub to join them. The wheel quickly disintegrates as it  rolls  to its own destruction.

No long ago this nation saw the vast majority of its citizens in Church every Sunday morning. And while we had sectarian differences we were all reading from and being instructed by the same book, the Bible. There was still a hub, a shared biblical worldview that united us, whatever the diverse spokes that radiated outward. In the 1950s through the early 1970s as many as 85% of Americans attend Church nearly every Sunday. Today, that number is less than 20%. These “lost Sabbaths” amount to a loss of instruction in God’s word, and thereby a loss in unity. At the heart of every culture is a shared cultus (a faith or devotion. We can see it right in the word: CULTure. Without a share “cultus” there can be no culture. There are some who like to deny the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country. But in this, they deny history and reality. Clearly God and his holy writ were fundamental in spurring the Declaration of Independence and biblical justice is foundational to our laws and vision. The references to God by the founding Fathers of this nation are enormous in number and they simply take the  biblical vision as granted and its moral claims indisputable.

But in the decades following the 1960s Church attendance dropped precipitously and “lost sabbaths” are having their effect, as already noted above.

Some speak today of diversity as a nearly absolute and detached virtue and use this notion to dismiss a shared biblical vision. But diversity is only a strength if we share a unifying core. With that core there is e pluribus unum, but without it there is only a caustic brew that consumes everything of value in this dissolving bath of competing ideologies and persnickety wokeness.

Lost sabbaths bring a terrible curse of division upon us. The ancient Jews shared this curse and, it was so deep that it would take seventy years to heal the wounds. It doesn’t take long to realize that today with our own divisions so painful and deep. Our land is so deeply divided that we seem to be incapable of recovering unity. Only a widespread return to regular and communal instruction in the Faith and God’s Word can heal the wounds of lost sabbaths. We are coming close to the seventy years of lost Sabbaths mentioned in Sunday’s first reading. If seventy years of exile was to be their lot, what will come to us upon whom the end of the ages has come (cf 1 Cor 10:11)?

But God’s offer still stands:

If my people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and I will heal their land. (2 Chron 7:14)

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

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

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

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

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

Are there good chapters? Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Forget the Old Evangelization

The term “New Evangelization” was originally used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to refer to the unique situation of the West, wherein we were not preaching the Gospel to a people who had not heard it, but were instead “re-presenting” the Gospel to a culture that had once embraced the Gospel and later rejected it. In essence, the term means “re-evangelization.”

In his “Latin Letters,” C.S. Lewis quipped that while the ancient Europe encountered by the Apostles and the early Church was a virgin awaiting her groom, Jesus Christ, modern Europe is an angry divorcée.

Reaching this quite different audience, of course, would require adjusting the way in which the message was delivered. “New Evangelization” was the phrase used to signify this.

However, many have taken up the phrase in a less restrictive sense and use it in the marketing sense of “new and improved!” This has opened the terminology to abuse and misunderstanding such that it comes to mean that we must mimic secular marketing principles and “mega-church” tactics. To some, it also means that we must alter the message of the Gospel by emphasizing what is popular and pleasant, while minimizing what is challenging and countercultural.

“Welcoming” has become the watchword for many in world of the misconstrued “New Evangelization.” Being welcoming is most often used to mean being nice, pleasant, unchallenging, and completely inoffensive. The only problem with this is that Jesus, as we shall see, wouldn’t qualify for membership on such an evangelization committee.

As a kind of admonition and corrective to much of this, Eric Sammons wrote a few years ago, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did. Consider this passage:

We have a simplistic notion of what it means to love our neighbors. We think of it strictly as being nice to them. Yet … Jesus rarely ever appears “nice” as we moderns would define it. On the contrary he is usually abrupt, sparing with compliments, and willing to confront others directly about their failings. He appears not to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice about “how to win friends and influence people.” Yet he has a deeper love for every individual than we will ever imagine (pp. 51-52).

It would seem that Jesus never got the memo when it comes to many modern notions of evangelization. To be sure, many found in Jesus remarkable love and healing, but it was not the sort of saccharine and soft love (understood as mere kindness) that so many think of today. It was a strong, vigorous love. It was providing true healing rather than mere emotional relief.

Healing often requires difficult surgeries. Healing can hurt. It can disclose deep drives that require strong rebuke and aggressive therapies. Many people are looking for relief, but not healing. Jesus was in the healing business and was more than willing to assert that the cross was the necessary remedy for what ails us. A lot of this does not sit well with the welcoming, pleasant paradigm of evangelization.

In his book, Mr. Sammons goes on to remind us of the true goal of evangelization:

[We think that] if we are nice enough, everyone will want to be our friends. But that was not goal of Jesus Christ. His goal was to covert sinners, to rescue souls from damnation and bring them to their eternal reward in heaven (p. 52).

True spiritual health and final salvation are the goals. Hospitality and making people feel good and welcome have a place initially, but it’s a little bit like the dentist’s office. A nice waiting room, pleasant hygienists, soothing music, and a smiling dentist are all good, but once the pleasantries are accomplished, we have to talk about dental health and get down to the business of teeth cleaning, and checking for cavities and gum disease. If a dentist sees problems and says nothing because niceness is his goal, he is not being nice or compassionate at all. Indeed, by his silence, he is guilty of serious malpractice and unworthy of his title, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

It is the same with an evangelizer. An evangelizer is unworthy of the title if he leaves the call to repentance and conversion unspoken. Pleasantries and a welcoming environment have their initial place but if that is all there is, then there is no true evangelization taking place and it is outright malpractice on the part of the evangelizer, parish, or Church.

True love for others desires what is best for them, not merely what is apparently good or pleasant in the moment. The fundamental kerygma (Gospel proclamation) is summarized as follows: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These were the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry of evangelization. I seriously doubt that most parishes would even consider such a proclamation as central to their evangelization program.

In modern settings (and probably in Jesus’ day), “Repent” is not exactly a “welcoming” word, but it is a loving word nonetheless. “Repent” suggests (actually, it outright says) that there are problems and that changes are needed. Yes, there are some problems that need attention and some drives that must be called sinful whether or not it is politically correct or popular to do so. The transformative Word and grace from God can heal and perfect us, but we must come to believe the Gospel. To believe the Gospel is to accept the wisdom of the cross, which is absurdity to the world.

Thus, “Repent and believe the Gospel” challenges; it doesn’t always feel welcoming. Eric Sammons further notes,

Too many Catholics will avoid tough topics in the desire to remain “welcoming.” But this is exactly where we most fail in evangelization. In order to make disciples, we must be willing to push into uncomfortable areas … Only by doing so will we bring another to confront the truth. (p. 57).

Only the truth will set us free. Care and prudence will assist us in knowing how and when to shift from welcoming to making disciples, but we cannot forever remain in welcoming mode and call it true evangelization. The true Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; each of us, including the people we evangelize, is a little bit of both.

Be careful, then. The term “New Evangelization” is not always rightly understood.

I recommend Eric Sammons’ book as an important help in understanding that the “New Evangelization” cannot exclude the “Old Evangelization” established by Jesus and the Apostles, which must remain our truest model. It is not that there are no insightful aspects of the “New Evangelization” Just be careful not to embrace the new so much that the old is repudiated. Jesus’ approach was quite different from many versions of the “New Evangelization.” It would be an ironic twist if Jesus and His methods were not welcome in your warm, embracing, and welcoming parish.

At work here is the supreme evangelizer, even though He breaks almost every modern rule:

Cleansed and Protected by the Commandment. A Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

The first reading today contains the Ten Commandments and thereby communicates a brief but sweeping summary of the Christian and Biblical moral vision. Now, there is a tendency to reduce the Christian moral vision merely to a set of rules. And it is a sad fact that the Catholic Church is often identified by many more for her rules than anything else.

TO be fair, EVERY group and activity has rules. If you join a bowling league there are rules, if you drive on the highway there are rules, if you go work or even to the store there are rules. If you speak a language there are rules. Rules are a necessary reality whenever two or more people interact.

But to see the Christian Moral vision, or the Ten Commandments  simply as a set a rules is to wholly miss the point. For the Commandments seek not so much to have us obey as to have us be open to what God can do for us. They seek not so much to compel us as to conform us unto the image of the transformed and glorious humanity that Christ died to give us.

The Commandments do not so much prescribe, as describe the what the transformed human person is like. And their imperative form is not merely to order us about, but rather is to convey the power that comes from God’s Word. For the same God who commands: “Let there be light” and thus there is light,  also says, “Be holy” and thus conveys to us the power to actually become holy, if we will accept his transformative work. He thus commands to create in us the very holiness he announces.

If we would but see the Commandments as promises, as power, as proleptic (i.e. announcing ahead of time what we will become fully the case later), we would be far let resentful and far more joyful in what the Lord offers. Lets consider aspects of these Commandments today that may help us come to a more helpful understanding of the Christian and Biblical moral vision. For they describe the life Jesus died to give us, a wholly transformed and increasingly glorified life, as we see sins put to death and every kind of virtue come alive.

I. I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. In the first Command, is the promise that we experience increasing love God above all things, above all people and above life in this world itself.

We were made to know God and to have our life centered on him. This is what properly orders and orients us. Whenever we prize any thing or person above God, our lives become miserable and disordered very quickly. If we live for money, power, sex, possessions, popularity, or anything less than God, we are unhappy and our life goes out of order very quickly.

In the first commandment God promises us an increasingly well ordered heart that loves him and his heavenly kingdom above any earthly things. He promises us freedom from the shackles and slavery of this world which seek to claim us, divide our hearts and disorder our life from our true goal.

In this command the Lord seeks to heal our duplicitous and adulterous hearts and to order us to the “one thing necessary,” which is to know and love God above all things. What a blessing, what promise to have our petulant, divided and wounded hearts made whole and directed to God.

So much serenity comes from being focused on the ONE, who is God. And God can do this for us.

II. You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain – In this command the Lord  promises a heart with which to love him. For to revere the Name of God is to have deep love for God, a deep experience of wonder and awe. It is to have also experienced God’s tender and abiding love for us. And with this gift to love God, comes a heart that is sensitive and open to every gift the Lord wants to give.

When we love God we keep his ways not because we have to but because we eagerly want to. To fear his name is revere and love God, to have deep gratitude and to be docile and open to his every word. We love God’s name because we love him.

God can give us this gift to love him in a deep and  abiding way. He promises it in this commandment.

III. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. In this Commandment the Lord promises us a joyful sense of resting in him and of allowing him to minister to us.

Too many see Church as a duty, but to those who are transformed by God and alive in his love, Holy Mass is the greatest privilege of their life. What a joy to go and be with God and among God’s people, and to hear the joyful shout, and to praise the God we love. What a privilege to be taught by God and fed with his Body and Blood, to be strengthened for every good work.

And as the Lord begins to transform our hearts, we begin to look forward to the greatest day of the week, Sunday. We joyfully anticipate going to be with our Lord and hearing his voice and having deep communion with him and all the saints and angels.

Yes, God can give us a heart for worship, a desire for praise, a hunger for his Word, and for the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. No more is Mass a tedious ritual, it is a transformative reality. Again, God promises this and he can do it for us.

IV. Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you. Here too is a promise of God to give us a deep love for our parents, elders, lawful authority and an openness to the wisdom of the elders who have long preceded us. He promises to cool our pride and the rebellion that close us off from the blessings of obedience and reverence for the wisdom of the elders.

One of the chief problems of the modern age is our disrespect for elders. Even parents and elders who are not perfect (and none are) have important things to teach me. I learned probably as much from my parents struggles as from their strengths.

But without reverence and respect there can be no teaching, no handing on of previous wisdom and knowledge. We live in times that are largely cut off from the past and we are dismissive of previous generations.

Because of our pride there comes forth a hermeneutic of discontinuity, of disconnectedness from the past. We do a lot of stupid things and lack wisdom that was common in the past. In this command the Lord promises us a heart that is docile, i.e. open to instruction, a heart that reveres and listens to the wisdom of elders, lawful authority and past generations.

The Lord wants to unlock for us the collected wisdom of thousands of years of experience wherein he taught our ancestors and guided them over and through many trials, difficulties, victories and joys.  In this command the Lord describes and promises to quell the rebellion and pride that lock us down and turn us in ourselves.

V. You shall not kill. – In this Command the Lord promises to quell the anger, hate, resentfulness and revengeful spirit that eat at us and unleash terrible destruction.

The Lord describes a transformed person who has authority over his anger and is able to love even his enemies, who is able to forgive and keep serenity even under trial.

The Lord describes a person who loves and respects life, a person who works to build up life in others rather than tear down.

He describes a person who reverences the sacredness of every human life and sees in it hand and the love of God.

God describes here one who is joyful at life, ecstatic over eternal life and eager to share life and love with others, both here and in the life to come. What a gift simply to love others. And God can do this for us.

VI. You shall not commit adultery. – Here the Lord promises to quell the often unruly passions of lust. He declares that the transformed human person has authority over his or her sexuality. The Lord also offers us a joyful reverence for the sacredness of human life in its origins and for marriage.

Too many people today are enslaved to sexuality through terrible addictions to pornography. Many have difficulty with fornication, masturbation, adultery. Homosexual acting out is also a terrible problem today. And the consequences of all the sexual bondage of our times is high: STDs, AIDS, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fatherhood), high divorce rates, cohabitation, and the huge toll all this takes on children who are raised in all this confusion, and lack of proper family foundations.

God wants to set us free. He wants to cool our lusts, give us authority over our sexuality and bring us to sexual maturity.

The transformed human person God describes here reverences the gift of sexuality and knows is purpose and place. God can give us pure hearts, and minds and promises it in this commandment.

VII. You shall not steal. – In this commandment the Lord wants to instill in us a gratitude for what we have, and to quell our greed, and cool our fear. For some steal out of fear that they do not have enough, others on account of greed, still others because they are not satisfied with what they already have.

God also, in this Commandment wants to give us a love for the poor and desire to share our excess with them. For if I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor. And to unreasonably withhold my excess from the poor is a form of theft.

The transformed human person God describes, is generous, grateful, and increasingly free of the fear that makes him hoard. Here too, God promises a new and generous heart and he who commands it is he who will accomplish it.

VIII. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. – God here describes and promises a great love for the truth and a reverence for the reputation of others. In a way there is nothing more precious in human terms than our reputation for by it all other doors are opened.

The transformed human person loves others and is eager to point to their gifts when others would detract or calumniate. He is not interested in sharing or hearing unnecessary information about others and says only the good things that people really need to hear.

The transformed person also speaks the truth in love. He or she has a well trained tongue and speaks only to glorify God. His conversation is always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6). God who commands this is the same God who can will do this for us.

IX & X . You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him. Here the Lord whats to quell within us the fires of Greed. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. And when greed takes off we are miserable, never having enough, always wanting and needing more.

The Lord wants to set us free from the aching desire to possess what another has.

He wants to give us a heart that is increasingly set upon and satisfied with the good things waiting for us in heaven. Yes, the Lord describes the transformed human person as once again freed from enslaving passions.

God who commands this is also the God who can do this.

See how different this understanding is from understanding the Christian and Biblical moral vision as rules? They are not rules, they are releases. They are not hoops to jump through, they are hopes that inspire. How do you see the Commandments?

In the Gospel today Jesus cleanses the temple and says they have turned it into a marketplace. But you are the Temple of God, and the danger for us is that we sell ourselves short by accepting mediocrity. We sell our souls to the world, the flesh and the devil, and take, in exchange, their false and empty promises.

The Lord enters the temple of our souls and seeks to drive out every huckster who seeks to buy us out. Jesus has already paid the price of our redemption. And our totally transformed life, the life described in the Commandments and the moral vision of the Scriptures is the life that Christ died to give us. Do not settle for anything less. 99 1/2 won’t do, Got to make a Hundred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on to write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

A Study of Fear in the Story of Chicken Little

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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