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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Life is a Story – As seen in a touching video

Last Known Picture of Charles Pope Oct 2006When my father lay dying, I remember that one of the losses I began to grieve was that he was the keeper of so many family stories. He was the one who could look at an old family photograph, identify all the people, and tell you something about each one. As I saw him lying there, no longer able to talk much, I thought of all the memories stored up in his mind, all the stories, all the people he once knew and had spoken of so vividly.

And it was not just the family stories he held; he was also a great historian and a great wellspring of the classics. He had read all of the “Great Books,” all of Shakespeare, all of Sacred Scripture, and so many other worthy writings. And he had memorized many lengthy quotes from each.

Such an encyclopedic mind! He was full of vivid thoughts and vivid memories. He was the keeper of our family story. And though I knew he would take it with him in his soul, I grieved that his magnificent mind was now closing to me. I regret that I did not more carefully retain all he told me over the years.

Thankfully, he wrote a family history that stays with us. All his many photos and family films, that we worked to preserve, stay with us. We, his sons, are moving much of this to the digital realm, but it took Dad’s living presence to really bring these things home.

The video below put me in this reflective mood. It depicts an old man who lies dying in a hospital bed. In various flashbacks we see his life, told almost as if from God’s perspective. We see his story, his good moments and his tragedies—and then he passes.

I remember a Bible verse my father jotted down on the frontispiece of a book he was reading at the time of his own father’s death:

But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower that flourishes in the field. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him again (Psalm 103:16).

Reading that as a young teenager, I realized for the first time that the Bible was very beautiful. And I was startled to think that the house in which I was sitting would one day “never see me again.” All the stories, all the memories would be gone with the proverbial winds.

The photo at the upper right is the last one I ever took of my father. He standing in front of our family home. I took the picture as he was leaving it for the last time. He moved into a retirement community for a brief time, but was not much longer for this world. There he is, standing in front of the place that would “never see him again.”

Yes, there is something very precious about our memories, our stories. They are meant to be shared, handed down. But there is something irreplaceable, something that dies with each person: a personal glimpse of history, a personal story, something that can never be fully shared with anyone but the Lord.

Only the Lord really knows our story, and he knows it better than we ourselves do:

O LORD, you search me and you know me.
You yourself know my resting and my rising;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down;
you know all my ways through and through.Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it, O LORD, through and through …For it was you who formed my inmost being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you who wonderfully made me;My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being fashioned in secret and molded in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw me yet unformed; and all my days were recorded in your book, before one of them came into being …at the end I am still at your side … (Ps 139:varia)

An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus.” For in the end, He is the keeper of every story: my father’s, mine, and yours. And whatever is lost in death will be restored a hundredfold, with understanding besides, in the great parousia. Not a story, not a word will be lost. We shall recover it all and tell the old, old stories once again.

Enjoy this poignant and moving video of a man’s life, told almost as if from the standpoint of God, the God who knows. Though the man seems to die alone, someone is remembering his story. Maybe it’s God who is doing the remembering.

 

Did You Help the Saints of Old to Become Holy?

There is a remarkable statement at the end of the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. It speaks to the unity of the mystical Body of Christ and to the treasury of merit, which extends both backward and forward in time. Hebrews 11 is devoted to reciting the glory of many Old Testament saints. That litany concludes with the following verses:

These were all commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. Since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).

It is astonishing to think that we who live now might have had anything to do with the sanctity and heroism of the saints who came before us, but the text says that without us they would not have been perfected.

How can this be? Simply put, it is because we are all members of the Body of Christ, and Christ transcends time. What we do today touches both the past and the future, for to Christ all things are present in the “eternal now.”

Therefore, consider well that whenever you offer your sufferings or prayers or good works, you are contributing to the treasury of merit from which people of all time may draw. Whatever we do to contribute to this treasury of merit has always been known to the Lord and is always present to Him.

Of this treasury, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

The ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.

This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God.

In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body [CCC 1476-1477].

Is it possible that I, even if in a tiny way, contributed to the holiness of my patron, St. Charles Borromeo, or of my heroine, St. Catherine of Sienna? Yes, albeit in a small way. My contribution to the treasury of merit is but a drop in the ocean compared to what Christ has provided and the saints have deposited. Yet without us and our contributions they would not be perfect. We all contribute, by the grace of Jesus, to one another’s sanctification.

Ponder, then, the sweeping effect of your contributions to the treasury of merit! Whenever you offer your sufferings to the Lord, whenever you pray, whenever you perform good works, you make available to Christians of every age an additional store of grace on which they have drawn or may draw. All of this is solely by the grace of God, and because of that grace it is a reality.

St. Paul also speaks to this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you (Col 1:24-25).

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically lacking in the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice of Christ. It is only imperfect (or incomplete) from our perspective in time, in which each of us, as a member of the Body of Christ, “waits” to bear our sliver of the passion and cross. The Lord, however, isn’t waiting for anything. What we have done, are doing now, or will do in the future has always been present to Him. While our contributions extend forward in our chronological time, they also go backward and are part of the perfect and full treasure of merit on which the members of the Body of Christ have always drawn.

It is awe-inspiring to ponder how we all affect one another over time!

All this said, we ought also to be aware that if we can contribute to one another’s growth in holiness, we can also detract from it and harm others through our sins. It matters whether or not we pray, whether or not we offer our sufferings to the Lord, whether or not we strive for holiness.

We are one Body in Christ. Consider well your role in helping others to be holy. Did your contributions to the treasury of merit help the saints of old to become saints? Even if in a small way and only by the grace of God, the answer is yes, for apart from us they should not be made perfect.

In the video below, one woman’s laughter is infectious, affecting everyone around her. Let’s pray the same for holiness.

Our Deepest Fear

At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,  we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.

 

Why Are College Students So Depressed?

I enjoy listening to the “Fireside Chats” of Dennis Prager. They’re relaxed, informative, and full of practical wisdom. Recently (in episode 112) he chose to ponder why the rate of depression among college students is the highest ever recorded. Prager provided the following insight:

… just about everything that can give you joy and meaning—and they are related—is gone.

In large part I think he’s right, at least when you look at college kids as a group. He lists four things that give joy and meaning to life, and he notes that they are mostly lacking in the lives of college students today. I would like to take each of the four and add my own thoughts.

They don’t date. I remember that as early as the 7thgrade, and certainly in high school, I noticed how attractive girls were. It was a thrilling discovery. I remember the combined excitement and fear in trying to get to know some of them. Prager rightly points out that a big part of human life throughout history has been the excitement of the opposite sex. Being loved or being in love adds joy and meaning to life. It is beautifully captured in a famous song from West Side Story, in which a smitten Maria sings of the joy of being loved: I Feel Pretty.”

The guys who were part of the group of close friends I had would often challenge me to “ask her out” when I would talk about being attracted to a particular girl. In high school, one of the most important events was the prom. In those days, you had to have a date; you couldn’t just go as part of a group. The pressure built all year long. This exciting high-stakes opportunity meant that even guys and girls who hadn’t started to date yet began to give it a try. Yes, there were some rejections, but we guys knew that this just came with the territory.

Dating itself involved a lot of awkward moments, but there was also the thrill of beginning a process that might one day end in marriage. (Young people got married a lot earlier in the 1960s and 1970s, usually when in their early twenties.) Even if marriage wasn’t the final result, guys and girls learned a lot about one another and human relationships through dating. It was a combination of excitement, fear, and romance all wrapped up in a mystery. Although unchastity was a risk, there were also more safeguards in those days. A young man was expected to present himself at a young lady’s house and meet her parents before taking her out on a date, and he was expected to return her home by a decent hour. Dances and other youth-oriented functions were more heavily chaperoned. Double dating was also common. When we went to parties, we were expected to have a date. Sometimes a friend would set you up with a date. All of these rituals were fun, but they also performed the serious function of getting young people ready for marriage. Even if there were no immediate prospects, the point was that you had begun looking for “the one.” This added a lot of meaning and excitement to life.

I have been surprised to see over the years how dating and courting have diminished. Many attractive young women tell me they are seldom asked to go out. Social events are just group events where “the gang” shows up; you might interact with members of the opposite sex, but there is little motivation to “ask her for a date” Marriage today is often delayed into the early thirties. Endless schooling, paying down college debt, and the desire to establish a career are contributors to this, but, frankly, there is little encouragement or social pressure to be about the thrilling and important work of finding a spouse, getting married, and having a family. This used to be what life was all about. Young men acquired a trade or career so that they could have a family. Now the career seems more an end in itself for both men and women.

Human beings are wired for family. The individualism, isolation, and idiosyncrasy of the “virtual world” is no substitute for real relationships that both challenge us and help to complete and enrich us.

They don’t have religionPrior to the social revolution of the late 1960s, nearly everyone went to church. I’m not so sure we were all that pious or devoted, but “decent people” went to church, and so we went even if only from cultural inertia. Nevertheless, even if devotion was sometimes lacking, religious teaching and sensibilities did wear off on us. We got the sense that our lives were caught up in a bigger plan, the plan of God that stretched back in time. Biblical stories explained life and told of a Lord who loved us despite our sinfulness.

First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation were milestones. There were various processions, public Rosaries, and the celebration of patron saints. Many who attended Catholic school were even more deeply rooted in the life of the Church. All of this was meant to help us to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next. Life was full of meaning; the choices we made mattered. God was watching but also providing.

I can’t imagine growing up and living without a deeply rooted faith, without the doctrine and tradition that provides stability in a changing world. Very few young adults attend Mass regularly or even have a clear faith. Some surveys have indicated that fewer than 15% of adults under thirty regularly attend any sort of church services or consider faith an important part of their lives. Yet faith, even when adhered to in a perfunctory manner, was an important source of happiness and stability in the past. In fact, historically and anthropologically, religion has been the primary vehicle for instilling meaning and purpose. As Prager points out, getting rid of it is a big deal.

They don’t have a community. Virtual friends are not the same as real friends. I remember how important it was to have close friends and communal ties during my youth and I still value that today. When I was growing up there were many opportunities for communal activity. There was scouting, after-school clubs, and sports teams. I ran track in high school and sang in our church choir. I also belonged to a square dance club and the Key Club (a service organization). I worked at the local drug store and had other jobs from high school through college. All of these different activities established life-long friendships and connections; they were enriching in many ways.

While these sorts of things are not unknown today, I sense that young people partake less in them. The emergence of personal computers, smart phones, and the Internet, has reduced the social activities of most of our youth. In those days we didn’t have video games or movies at our fingertips. We had to go out and interact with other people to have fun.

Many people today spend hours absorbed in a virtual and rather self-defined universe of ideas, activities, and entertainment. Screen time doesn’t provide the same sort of community we experienced as youngsters. You can’t just click away from real people in real interactions the way you can on a computer. There are difficulties and tedium with direct human interaction, but it is ultimately more enriching and expanding than living in a self-selected, virtual world. Living in a solipsistic world robs one of the experiencing the simple joys of friendship and real human interaction; it also does little to expand one’s sense of meaning.

They don’t have a country to believe inI grew up at the end of one era and the beginning of another. Before the social revolution of the late 1960s, suburban America was a bastion of patriotism. There was an almost religious devotion to the American flag; if perchance a flag grew tattered, it was burned out of respect. I remember decorating my bike each year and riding in the Fourth of July parade. In school we studied American History with an angle that emphasized our unique greatness. We viewed the idea of dying for our country as something brave and noble.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

I still can’t sing this without tears coming to my eyes.

Yes, we loved our country and believed in its basic tenets. We were not perfect, but we had a way of rectifying our worse faults when they were held before us.

Through the 1970s, this fervent love of country gave way to the political controversies of the Vietnam War and social revolution. There are far fewer today who are stirred by love for this country. Patriotism (to be distinguished from excessive nationalism) is connected to the 4thCommandment (Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you)and helps give meaning and joy to life. To love our country is to love our families and our neighbors. Patriotism connects us to something bigger than ourselves; it is enriching and ennobling.

Yes, all these things (and others) added meaning, purpose, and joy to life. Yet these are greatly diminished, even missing, from the lives of many of our young people. Add to this the depressing negativity that is the daily fare on most college campuses. Students are told what a terrible country we live in, how evil our past was, and that an existential climate disaster is looming for which we are to blame. Many are also encouraged to feel that they are victims of some societal construct or some particular group, to be on the lookout for grievances, and to demand to be kept “safe” from opposing views. Fearmongering and ad hominem attacks have replaced the debate of ideas. If someone does not agree with my views, that person is wrong—maybe even dangerous—and must be silenced. Fear begets anger, and anger begets depression. College campuses are tense and depressing places for too many students.

These are just some of my thoughts, building on Prager’s observations. Essays such as this one invite additions and rebuttals and I welcome your comments.

Here is Dennis Prager’s original video:

Perspectives on the Presentation—A Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

The liturgical focus of the Feast of the Presentation, which we celebrate today, is light. Christ is our light, and the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! In the Gospel, Simeon holds the infant Jesus and calls Him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Thus, this feast has long featured the carrying of candles by the faithful in procession and the blessing of candles. For this reason, the feast was often called Candlemas.

Today’s feast celebrates the “purification” of Our Lady. As a Jewish woman, she presented herself forty days after giving birth to be blessed and welcomed back to the community. I have written more on the history of that practice here: The Churching of Women.

In this reflection, we will attend to four teachings or perspectives gleaned from the readings. We are taught that our relationship with Jesus is cleansing, consoling, compelling, and communing.

Cleansing– The Gospel opens with this description: When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

It might strike us as oddor even irritating that a woman would need to be purified after giving birth, but ancient Jewish practice exhibited great reverence for the rituals of both birth and death. On account of the deep mysteries of life represented by these events, as well as the fluids (e.g., blood, amniotic fluid) that accompanied them, a purification or blessing was deemed necessary for return to the community. (Read more at the link above.)

Remember that this is nota moral purification, for nothing immoral had been done. Rather, it was a ceremonial purification wherein one was cleansed or made fit again to enter into the public worship and liturgical actions of Israel. Consider, for example, that even in our culture a person who has been outside working and comes back sweaty and in soiled clothes is expected to bathe and put on clean clothing before going to Mass; this does not mean that there is anything sinful in good, honest, necessary work. The Jews extended this idea much further than we do today and there were detailed (frankly, often bewildering) rules about what made one unclean and how/when one should be purified. Very early on, the Church simplified and/or largely abrogated these ideas about certain foods being unclean and what made a person unclean (see Acts 15).

While we may wonder (or even scoff) at these older notions, all of us need purification and cleansing. We are sinners, and we live in a world tainted by sin. The Lord must purify us all; unless this happens, we will never be able to endure the great holiness, glory, and purity of God.

Jesus our savior alone can cleanse and purify us to make us able to endure the glory of God. The first reading describes our need for purification and points to Jesus as the one who purifies us:

But who can endure the day of [the Lord’s] coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire, or like the fuller’s lye. He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD. Then the sacrifice of Judah and Jerusalem will please the LORD, as in the days of old, as in years gone by(Mal 3:2-4).

Yes, only the Lord Himself can purify us to endure His glory. Thank you, Jesus, our light and our savior, for the sanctifying grace without which we could never hope to endure and rejoice in the glory that awaits. Thank you, Jesus for your grace and mercy, by which we are able to stand before our Father and praise Him for all eternity. Thank you, Jesus, our purifier, our savior, and our Lord.

Consoling Well aware of the burden of sin, ancient Israel longed for a savior. The pious knew well that sin brought strife, pain, and grief. Among the pious who longed for the Messiah were Simeon and Anna, who frequented the Temple looking and longing.

Of Simeon we are told:

[He] was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

Of Anna, who is described as among those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem, we are told:

[She was] a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.

Simeon and Anna are two of the pious of Israel longing and looking for the Messiah who would save the people and bring consolation and peace.

What does it mean to have true consolation and peace? It is to be reconciled to the Father, Abba; to once again see Him and be able to walk with Him in the Garden in the cool of the morning. True consolation and peace are found only when the gates of Heaven are opened, and we look once again upon the glorious and serene face of our Father who loves us.

This is a gift that can come only by the ministry of Jesus, for no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son reveals Him. Jesus is our peace and our consolation by leading us back to His Father in and through His Sacred Heart and by His Holy Passion.

Holding the baby Jesus, Simeon is holding the Gift of the Father, a tremendous gift of peace and consolation come to him in a kind of prevenient way. So, Simeon can say,

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.

Such a consolation it was to hold the infant Jesus and know that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to save us! Simeon could now go forth in peace from this world for He had beheld the light of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Compelling– In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus is no inconsequential figure. He is the one on whom all human history, collective and personal, hinges. The “hinge” is our choice either for or against Jesus.

Simeon says to Mary,

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Jesus compels a choice.We are free to choose for or against Him, but we mustchoose. Upon this choice depends our rise or fall.

Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters(Matt 12:30).

St. Paul writes (in Acts), In the past God overlooked ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead(Acts 17:30). And in Corinthians he writes, We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God(2 Cor 5:20).

Where will you spend eternity? That depends on your stance toward Jesus. Will you choose Him? You are free to choose, but you are not free not to choose! On this choice your very life will rise or fall.

Communing Jesus did not merely save us from on high. He became flesh and lived among us.

In today’s Gospel we read,

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Consider the intimacy of Jesus dwelling among us then and tabernacled among us now in the Blessed Sacrament and in the temple of our heart through His Spirit. Our Lord seeks communion with us and is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Heb 2:11).

On this Feast of the Presentation, allow the Lord into the temple of your heart. Give Him access to your soul by receiving Him in Holy Communion and seeking His presence tabernacled in our churches. Today, Jesus is presented not only in the ancient temple but to you. Reach out to hold on to Him. Like Simeon, receive Him in your heart. Like Anna, run and tell others to come.

Jesus, our light and our salvation, is here.He brings with Him cleansing, consoling, and communing. He also compelsa choice. Choose Him now; run to Him. He is here, and He is calling!

A Dramatic Moment in Biblical History that Almost Everyone Missed

Presentation in the Temple – L. Carracci (1605)

I want to anticipate Sunday’s feast of the  Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Let’s consider an event that was glorious in its significance and fulfilment, yet was missed by nearly everyone.

Joseph and Mary had brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him there. As they ascended the glorious steps to the Temple Mount, they were fulfilling a requirement of the Law.

You are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons’’ (Ex 13:12-15).

Although they were fulfilling an obligation, something much more dramatic was taking place. To understand what, we must look back to 587 B.C.

The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem and the unthinkable had happened: the Holy City of Jerusalem had been destroyed and along with it the Temple of God. Inside the Temple had been housed the precious Ark of the Covenant.

Recall what the Ark of Covenant was in the Old Testament. It was a gold-covered box of acacia wood, inside which were the two tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron, and a vial of the manna. Even more important, in this ark dwelt the very Presence of God in Israel; here He was present as nowhere else. This is certainly our belief today regarding the tabernacle in Catholic churches: though present everywhere, God has a true, substantial, and real presence in the Eucharist reserved there.

The Lost Ark – Incredibly, the Ark of the Covenant was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Some thought that Jeremiah had hidden it in the mountains. Others, that the priests had hastily secreted it in the maze of caves beneath the Temple Mount. Still others argued that it was taken to Ethiopia. But the Ark was gone.

Empty Temple – When the Temple was rebuilt some eighty years later, the Holy of Holies was restored, but the Ark was still missing. The high priest still performed the yearly ritual and entered the Holy of Holies, but the room was empty. Some argued that there was a spiritual presence in the Temple, but in fact the Ark and the certain presence of God were missing after 587 B.C. Something—someone—was missing. The very Holy of Holies was an empty room. The Ark and the presence of God it carried were missing. The Ark, the mercy seat, was gone. Would it ever be found? Would it ever be returned to the Temple? Would the Holy Presence of God ever find its way to the Temple again?

The ascent to Jerusalem is a steep one. Mountains surround Jerusalem and it sits at a higher altitude than the area around it. As the ancient Jews made the climb, they sang the psalms of ascent (120-134). As Joseph and Mary ascended, they too sang the words that instilled joy:

I Lift up mine eye to the mountains from whence cometh my help (Ps 121). I rejoiced when they said to me let us go up to the House of the Lord (Ps 122). To you O Lord I have lifted my eyes (Ps 123). Like Mount Zion are those who trust in the Lord (Ps 125). Out of the depths I call unto you O Lord (Ps 130). Let us enter God’s dwelling, let us worship at the Lord’s footstool. Arise O Lord and enter your dwelling place, You and the Ark of your strength (132). Come and bless the Lord. You who stand in the House of the Lord Lift your hands to the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. The Lord bless you from Zion (134).

Singing these songs, Mary carried Jesus. The climb was even more difficult when carrying a newborn, but the burden was sweet. Then came the final ascent up the stairs to the Temple Mount. They probably entered on the southern side through the Huldah gates. They went up the steep stairs, through the tunnel in the walls, and emerged on the bright Temple platform.

God had returned to His Temple. He and the Ark who carried Him were now found: Mary, the Ark, carrying Jesus in her arms. Jesus, very God Himself, true God from true God. Yes, God and the Ark had been found; God was once again present among His people on the Temple Mount. Scripture says,

And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? (Mal 3:1-2)

What a dramatic moment, yet remarkably understated by God! If I had directed the moment I would have called for blaring trumpets, claps of thunder, and a multitude of angels. Everyone would have fallen to his knees in recognition of the great fulfillment and the great return of God to His Temple.

Despite the significance of this moment, only an elderly man and woman (Simeon and Anna) recognized it. They alone understood that they were in the presence of greatness and marveled in it.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophetess, Anna … Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2).

Yes, this was the moment that had been anticipated for centuries. The Ark of God (Mary) had been found and God (Jesus) had returned to His temple, but only Simeon and Anna noticed, understood, and celebrated.

What about us? At every Mass, Jesus, God Himself, is present. Do you notice? Do you really see Him or do you see only the priest and the human elements of the Mass? Are you Simeon? Anna? Mary? Joseph? Or are you like the many on the Temple Mount who missed the dramatic moment of God with us?

 

Why Is It that We Can Endure Great Pain But Only A Little Pleasure?

"The Garden of Eden" by Thomas Cole
“The Garden of Eden” by Thomas Cole

One of the great mysteries of our life in this world is that we can endure more pain than pleasure. Indeed, we can endure only a little pleasure at a time. In fact, too much pleasure actually brings pain: sickness, hangovers, obesity, addiction, laziness, and even boredom. Yet we seem to be able to endure a lot of pain. Some of our pain, whether physical or emotional, can be very intense and go on for years.

Why is it that we can endure more pain than pleasure?

Physiologists and anthropologists might focus their answer on the fact that we are wired for survival and being able to endure pain helps us more than being able to enjoy pleasure. Fair enough. But I would like to offer an additional answer from a spiritual point of view.

The spiritual answer is that pain is for now while pleasure is for the hereafter. In this world, this exile, this valley of tears, we are being tested; we are meant to fill up our quotient of pain. And while we do enjoy some pleasures here, they are only a foretaste of what will be fully ours only in Heaven. In this world the foretaste seems limited to bite-sized morsels. Otherwise (as noted) we are overwhelmed by pleasure, distracted by it, and even sickened and enslaved by it. Until pain has had its proper effect within us, we are not disciplined or pure enough to properly enjoy large amounts of pleasure.

Pain is thus our first assignment here in this world, this paradise lost. Pain both purifies and teaches.

We should recall that God offered us the paradise of Eden with the proviso that we trust Him to teach us what is best. But we insisted on the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves and the right to decide what was right and wrong. We wanted a better deal than Eden. Here we are now in that “better deal.” Adam and Eve chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even knowing that God had said it would usher in suffering and death. And we have all ratified their choice on countless occasions.

God, respecting our freedom, did not undo our choice. Rather, He said, in effect, “Fine, I will meet you at the cross of suffering and death, and allow that very suffering and death to be the way back to me.” And thus the way back to paradise, and to an even higher and heavenly glory, is through the cross.

This is why our tolerance for pain is greater now than is our capacity for pleasure. God has equipped us in this way because pain is for now; pleasure is for later.

Frankly, we need a high tolerance for pain, because it is a needed remedy for a very serious malady. Our condition is grave and requires strong medicine. The cross and its pain is the strong medicine needed. And thus our tolerance for pain must be certainly be greater than our capacity for pleasure.

Pain, despite its unpleasant qualities, has many salutary effects. It teaches us limits and helps conquer our pride. It purifies us. It reminds us that this world is passing and cannot ultimately be our answer. It intensifies our longing for Heaven and the shalom of God. If we endure pain with faith, it draws us to seek help and to trust God more. Pain endured with faith is like being under the surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel inflicts pain but only to cut away what is harmful. It is a strong but healing medicine.

For now, our assignment is clear. Pain has the upper hand and is the strong medicine we need. When in pain, seek relief from God. But if he says no, remember that God promises that His grace will be sufficient for us (see 2 Cor 12:9), and that pain has a healing place for now. It is indeed a gift in a strange package.

Yes, it is a mysterious truth that we have a higher tolerance for pain than for pleasure. But given our current location in paradise lost, it makes sense. One day when suffering, pain, and death have had their full effect, we will enter into the Heaven of God, where pain will be no more and where our capacity for pleasure will blossom like a rose. Having been purified by our pain, our capacity for pleasure will now be full and there will be joys unspeakable and glories untold.

Here is pathos set to music. It is William Byrd’s treatment of a text from Isaiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC