Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.

I. PowerJesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”

Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).

No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.

If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.

Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.

If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.

If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.

Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!

This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.

III. Perfection – [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).

If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.

We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.

One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.

IV. Peace – [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.

For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.

So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?

Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.

Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.

This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:

 

The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.

Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.

It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.

I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.

Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.

Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?

Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).

In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.

Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.

This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.

II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.

The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.

The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,

      • We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
      • As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).

In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.

Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.

III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.

Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.

Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.

Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.

Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.

The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.

This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.

Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.

 

How Does Idealism and Perfectionism Negatively Affect Marriage?

The Church choses in this week leading up to Valentines Day to focus on and honor marriage. I hope to produce a series of articles this week on that topic. We begin with some problematic features of culture  that make marriage difficult. 

Those who seek to strengthen Holy Matrimony and stem the tide of failed marriages propose many remedies, among them better catechesis, improved marriage preparation, and greater emphasis on the sacrament in sermons. All of these are fine ideas and necessary steps, but let’s also ponder a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today: idealism or unrealistic expectations.

Although we live in cynical times, many people still hold a highly idealistic view of marriage: that it should be romantic, joyful, loving, and happy all the time. It is an ideal rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vincit! (Love conquers all!) Surely, we will live happily ever after the way every story says!

Here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Yes, many are wandering about thinking, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” to borrow from a U2 song.

There is no such thing as an ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have been married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world that is governed by a fallen angel, have entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify. Like baptism, it offers graces that unfold gradually. The graces unfold to the degree that, and at the speed with which, the couple cooperates with God’s work.

It takes a lifetime of joy and challenge, tenderness and tension, difficulty and growth, in order for a husband and wife to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. Some of God’s gifts come in strange packages. Struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (see Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tension; without tension there is no change.

This may not describe the ideal, happily-ever-after marriage, but it describes the real one: full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, stress, and disappointment.

The real problem does not necessarily come from our ideals about marriage, which are good to strive for, but from the fact that we conceive of these ideals within a hedonistic culture.

Hedonism is the “doctrine” that the chief goals of earthly life are happiness and pleasure. (The Greek word hedone means “pleasure.”) In the hedonistic view, any diminishment of pleasure or happiness is the worst thing imaginable, a complete disaster. Many insist on a kind of God-given right to be happy and pleased. Even some devout Christians fall prey to these exaggerated notions and excuse some selfish and sinful behaviors by saying, “God wants me to be happy doesn’t He?” When the Church (or an individual) suggests that someone should do what is difficult, they react, not with puzzlement, but with downright indignation, as if to say, “How dare you get between anyone and what makes him or her happy!”

Our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is seen through the lens of hedonistic extremism. If the ideal marriage is not found, many feel a need—a perfect right—to end it in search of greener pastures.

This is just more evidence of our instant gratification culture that is used to “Rush shipping,” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now.” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments come quickly.

There is a saying that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly unrealistic notions of the picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality.

Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se; we must become more sober about our conception of these ideals through the lens of hedonism and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard, but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage—as some do rather quickly today—is not the solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage leads to another and perhaps yet another.

In the past, even the relatively recent past, people tended to stick things out, to work through some differences while agreeing to live with others. We would do well to regain something of this appreciation that earthly life is a mixed bag, that there are going to be challenges. Marriage is no different. Though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentment and disappointment if we don’t balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.

Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high rate of divorce, but an overlooked root is the expectation of an ideal marriage. Yes, many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (We would do well to remember that in a world full of adults behaving like this, it is the children who really get a raw deal.) This is a deeper and less discussed cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.

The Whole Law, Standing on One Foot – A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

Pharisees Question Jesus, by J. Tissot (1886-94)

Hillel the Elder, sometimes referred to as Rabbi Hillel, was a Jewish religious leader who lived shortly before Jesus’ time. There is a famous story told of him in which he was challenged by a potential convert to teach him the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” In other words, can you distill the essence and present it succinctly?

That same theme may be behind the question that is raised today by the scholar of law, who asks, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”

In answering while “standing on foot,” Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד.
Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād.

Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is Lord alone!

The fuller text Jesus cites is from Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today (Deut 6:4-6).

Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

Do not miss the point that the discussion of the greatest “law” centers on the word “love.” Most of us miss this connection between the law and love.

Particularly in Western culture, we tend to put love and law just about as far apart from each other as any two things can be. For us, the law is about police officers and courtrooms, about forcing people to do things under threat of some penalty. Love, on the other hand, is about doing things willingly, because we want to rather than because we have to.

Note too, this is no mere sentimental love. It involves the heart but also the mind and will. In the verses that follow the Shema we read:

And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as reminders on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:7-9)

In other words, these teachings and precepts of the Lord are to be taken seriously and insisted upon. Parents are to drill them into their children. There is to be no forgetful moment when it comes to the Lord’s teachings. We are to observe them sleeping, walking, standing still; all the time! Love is like this. It thinks constantly of the beloved and what will please!

St Augustine is sometimes misquoted as saying “Love God and then do what you will.” This is inaccurate. A better translation says, “Love God and, what you will, do.” In other words, when we love our will is conformed to the beloved. We love what they love and who they love.

Consider that a man who really loves his wife does not need a law to tell him that he may not physically or verbally abuse her but rather must support, protect, and encourage her. Nevertheless, though he may not need the existence of the law in writing, he is in fact following the law of love when he observes these and other norms. There is a language of love, a law of love, an outworking of love’s works and fruits. In the end, love does what love is, and love is supportive, enthusiastic, even extravagant in keeping its own norms and laws. Love does what love is.

Thus, when asked about the law the Lord just says that we should love. Yes, love God passionately, with your whole heart, soul, and strength. As you do this, you will love what and whom He loves, for this is the natural fruit of love. The more one loves God, the more one begins to love His laws, His vision, what He values. Yes, all the commandments flow from loving God. Real love has its roots; it has its laws, methods, and modes.

Here, then, is the whole law, standing on one foot: love God. Let His love permeate you completely and every other commandment will implicitly flow from this love.

When we love God, we stop asking unloving questions like these:

Do I have to pray? For how long?
Do I have to go to confession? How often?
Do I have to go to Mass? How often? Where can I find the shortest and most convenient one?
Do I have to read God’s Word?
Do I have to make God’s teachings the priority of my life, overruling all else?
Do I need to honor and care for my parents?
Do I need to respect lawful authority and contribute to the common good?
Do I need to respect life from conception to natural death?
Do I need to work to cherish and safeguard the lives of others?
Do I need to live chastely, reverencing the gift of sexuality that is at the heart of human life and family?

Love does not ask whether we must respect each other enough to speak the truth in love, to be men and women of our word. It does not wonder whether it is acceptable to steal from others or to fail to give them what is justly due. It does not wonder whether we should be generous to the poor rather than greedy, or whether to be appreciative and satisfied rather than covetous.

No, love does not ask questions like these, for it already knows the answer; it lives the answer.

Love is the law, standing on one foot, and all the rest is commentary.

God is merciful and does supply the commentary: in His Scriptures and in the vast Tradition of the Church. Praise God for it all.

The saints say, “If God wants it then I want it. If God doesn’t want it then I don’t want it.” Is that the way most of us talk? Is that the way most of us talk? Many of us are heard to say, “How come I can’t have it? It’s not so bad; everyone else has it.” That doesn’t really sound like lovers talking does it? Somehow the saints knew the law of God and could say it standing on one foot. How about us?

All the commentary is nice, and surely needed, but don’t miss the point: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

Love is the law, and the law is to love.

The Love of the Law and the Law of Love – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s readings teach a proper understanding of God’s Law and its relationship to our hearts. The readings go a long way toward addressing the false dichotomy that many set up between love and the Law, as though the two were opposed; they are not. If we love God, we want what He wants and love what He loves. The Law describes well what God wants and loves. Indeed, the Law is letting love have its way.

God is Love and His Law (no matter how averse we are to “rules”) is ultimately an expression of His love. In all the readings today, God asks—even commands—that we let love have its way. Let’s look at four teachings on the relationship of Law to God, who is love.

I. The PROTECTION of the Law – Note that the text from today’s first reading frames the Law and the obedient hearing of it in terms of a promise of God, seeing the Law as a doorway to the loving blessings and promises of God. The text says, Moses said to the people: “Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”

So, the Law comes with a promise. It is the basis of life and the doorway to the further blessings of the land. Many today see God’s Law as prison walls, as a limitation on our freedom to “do as we please.” The walls are not prison walls; they are defending ones.

Every ancient city had walls, not to imprison its citizens but to protect them from the enemy. Within the walls there was security and the promise of protection. Outside the walls lurked danger; there was no promise of safety there.

It is like this with God’s Laws. For those who keep them, they are a great source of protection; they also contain the promise of ultimate victory. Outside these protective walls there is every danger and there is no promise of victory.

In his famous book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote,

Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground …. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the center of the island; and their song had ceased [1].

God didn’t give the Law to take away our fun, but that we might find life and happiness. The devil is a liar; he tells us that we’ll be happier if we sin, that God is limiting our freedom by hemming us in with His Law. Sin does not make us free. Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Indeed, how much suffering and pain would vanish if we all just kept the commandments? Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, by insisting on journeying outside the walls of God’s loving and protecting commandments.

Moses reminds us that our decision for or against the Law brings either blessing or curse:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut 30:15-20).

II. The PRECISION of the Law – Regarding the Law of God, Moses says, In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.

We might liken Law to a set of directions to a destination. If you give me directions to get to your house, I am probably not going to get there if I only follow half of them. The compliance must be complete to bring me to the right place. Similarly, we are directed the follow the Law of God wholly. Scripture says,

  • Instruct me O Lord, in the way of your statutes, that I may exactly observe them (Ps 119:33).
  • I intend in my heart to fulfill your statutes always to the letter. I have no love for half-hearted men, my love is for your law (Ps 119:112-113).
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Here we must see God as a healer who is exacting and precise not for His sake but for ours. Imagine a man with two broken legs who goes to the doctor. The doctor says, “We’re going to aim for 50% here. I’ll set one leg but leave the other one broken. Don’t worry about the broken leg; that’s why God gave you two!” We would surely hold such a doctor in contempt. God, who is our healer, points to full health, not partial or crippled health.

When Jesus says, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48), He is indicating the kind of healing He offers. St. Paul adds, [God who] began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

Thus, the precision of the Law is taught to indicate the healing power of God’s Law with grace.

III. The PRIORITY of the Law – In today’s gospel, Jesus rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees, saying, “[You] teach as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Now, as then, many people set aside the priority of God’s Law in favor of human thinking. Politics has become a pernicious influence in this regard. Many Catholics of both parties are more passionate about their political views than about God’s teachings as revealed through Scripture and Church teaching. If there is a conflict between what God teaches and the political party’s view, guess which gives way and which gets unquestioning allegiance?

Be it questions of abortion, immigration, or same-sex “marriage,” all too easily Catholics will turn a deaf ear to what God teaches. They never rebuke their own political party when correction is needed, and even cheer as their political leaders champion positions contrary to God’s Law. Too many Catholics place political priorities, popularity, human traditions, and human agendas over God’s Law.

The Lord Jesus goes on to say, Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, [You] make void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do (Mk 7:13).

Be very careful. The pernicious effects of partisan political thinking, worldviews, and mere cultural preferences have caused too many Catholics to cease to be the leaven, the prophetic voice they are supposed to be in this world. All political parties, most worldviews, and many cultural trends need purification. A Catholic must be a Catholic before he is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Libertarian; before he is a fan of a celebrity; before he raves about the latest trends. None of these things typically stand blameless before God, and the unquestioning, unqualified, and silent allegiance from Catholics and other Christians toward such worldly things is a huge problem. We are too easily compromised and have often elevated human teachings and movements above God’s Law.

To all of this, the Lord gives rebuke and reminds us that His Law must the standard by which everything else is judged. A Christian should see everything by the light of God’s Law, exposing error and evil, approving goodness and truth wherever they are found. Nothing has priority over what God teaches.

In the end it is a question of what and whom we love more: God and His Law or this world and its ways of sin and compromise.

IV. The PLACE of the Law – The Lord goes on to indicate that our fundamental problem can be that the Law of God is not in our heart. He warns that the heart, as the locus of human decision and action, must be the place of His Law for us. The Lord says, Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.

Hence, we need to have God’s Law in our heart. It is not enough to have a cursory and intellectual awareness of His Law; it must drop the foot or so from our intellect to our heart.

What is the human heart? While there are ambiguities in the biblical text distinguishing mind and heart, this much is clear: the heart is the deepest part of the human person, the place where we are alone with our thoughts and deliberations. The heart is the place where we discern, ponder, and ultimately decide. The heart is “where we live.” It is in this deepest part of us that the Law of God must find a home.

Jesus makes it clear that it is from the heart of the individual that come the behaviors that determine our character and our destiny. It is here that the Law of God must find a home. It will only find a deep home in the heart through prayer and meditation; through the careful, persistent, and thoughtful reading of God’s revealed truth, coupled with gratitude and love of God.

It is no mistake that the summary of God’s Law is simply, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as your very self.” It is only love that unlocks the door of our heart. In loving God, we begin to love what and whom He loves. To love God is to love His Law. Scripture says,

  • My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times (Ps 119:20).
  • Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors (Ps 119:24 24).
  • The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (Ps 119:72).
  • For I love your commands more than gold, however fine (Ps 119:127).
  • I open my mouth and sigh, longing for your commands (Ps 119:131).

Yes, in the end, the Law comes from love, the God of love, who is Love. Thus, it is love that unlocks the Law. It is love that makes us realize that the Law is a gift of God’s love. He gives us His law to protect us, to guide us, and to heal us. Therefore, He asks us to make His Law our wholehearted priority.

On the Paradoxical Connection Between Love, Law and Joy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to place love in opposition with law, and law in opposition with joy. Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.

I. Announcement of the Principle – Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Note how the Lord joins the three concepts of love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil; more routinely it is viewed as an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, pharisaical) Church on decent people.

Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. How do we both experience and show God’s love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping His commandments. He sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. 

Again, this is quite contrary to modern notions. According to the modern world, a “loving” God has few or no rules. He merely affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking. If someone is confronted by a moral truth that displeases them, their retort may be as simplistic as “God is love.” It implies that God does mind what we do since he is loving and merciful. It also confuses love with mere kindness. Kindness is an aspect of Love, but so is rebuke and correction. No loving parents will simply affirm bad behavior in their children. They will correct them, and, if necessary punish them because they love them. 

Jesus too is  surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages us, he includes the outcast, and so forth, but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, saying that the law brings joy. They are not opposed. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus was not just the “affirmer in chief” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. He, and his apostles who spoke for him, also speaks against anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other matters.

II. Application of the Principle – The two greatest Commandments that summarize the whole law are to Love God and to love our neighbor. Hence,  to further connect the Law and the Love of God,  we should consider that when we love the Lord, and his love remains in us, that we will love what he loves and who he loves. Hence, with the Lord’s love in us we will love justice, chastity, forgiveness, generosity, and so forth. We will also come to love others more deeply, even those that trouble us. So there comes to us a deep love of the Commandments when we truly love God. We can say, “God has been good to me and I love him. If God wants it, I want it too. If God doesn’t want it neither do I.”  Hence, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”

As for the love of neighbor, here too, the Commandments are essential. They foster a common moral vision that helps us to live together, protect the vulnerable (especially children) and live within accepted boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors and God’s commandments set proper limits and delineate expectations and rights for communal living. Accepting and living the Commandments brings blessings and averts a lot of trouble. We do not keep the Commandments merely for our own sake, but for our families, community, Church and nation. So, keeping the Commandments is a way of loving our neighbor.

Though some see the Commandments as prison walls, they are not. They are defending walls that keep the wolf and devourer, the devil, away.  This too is a way of showing love for our neighbor. What ever we can do to limit the devil’s influence is a blessing not only for us but for others.

III. The Animation of the PrincipleIn the today’s Gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, but also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy: I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Of this, I am a witness. When I entered the Seminary nearly forty years ago I was poorly catechized (having been largely reared in the 1970s). I don’t think I could even have listed most of the the Ten Commandments. But as I entered I was amazed at the rich legacy of teaching, truth and wisdom that came from the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church I was studying. God’s truth and law made sense, it was practical, good, true and beautiful. I was animated, thrilled in my soul to learn of it and somewhat angry at how much was denied me in the crazy 1970s. In my life now, I rejoice to study God’s law and truth, to preach it and teach it to others. In it are contained saving truths, and truths that explain the purpose of our life. So many today live without real meaning, and they focus on passing things and fads. But God’s Law is tested and true. It has endured because it makes sense and works. I am mindful of the words of Baruch: Happy are we O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us! (Bar 4:4)

Indeed, O Lord, how I love your law! It is the joy and center of my life. It gives me understanding and purpose. It teaches me your wisdom and summons me to be the man you created me to be. Yes, Lord, it is my immense joy and privilege to proclaim your Law in the great assembly and joyfully announce your wisdom and your decrees. Keep me faithful Lord unto death. 

The Law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right,
bringing joy to the heart;
the commandments of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the judgments of the LORD are true,
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

By them indeed Your servant is warned;
in keeping them is great reward.

Psalm 19: 6-11

The Enduring Love of God – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The readings from Sunday Mass speak to us of our desperate condition and how God’s abiding love has not only set us free but has lifted us higher as well. 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 are any problems, they are not from God; they are from us.

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.

Here we see our repeated infidelity, worldliness, and impurity. It is not as though we have had just a few bad moments; we have been consistently, persistently sinful. 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? Certainly, but any honest look at human history will 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 what God is dealing with. Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

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 attempt 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, we have responded poorly.

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 rise to, love for the poor, respect for human dignity, hospitals, the university system, and the scientific method. The barbarians of ancient Europe were given faith, and many of them found unity in the bosom of the Church, in more stable governments, and in respect for just law.

Unfortunately, too much of human history, even in the Christian era, has been 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 St. John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have not been prophets? How about Saint Teresa of Calcutta, St. Padre Pio, Venerable Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, and countless others?

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

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 does not seek 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. 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.

We humans are a difficult case. With the decline of the West one would 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 we stubbornly persist in our path away from God and His gospel of truth and freedom.

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

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

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 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 caused by sin. The verse in today’s reading talks about healing the breach caused by sin.

While God never withholds His love, He must journey out onto the wayward paths we have taken in order to lead us back. This is a work of God’s, not just a wave of His 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!

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

V. Persevering – (from the Sunday 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.

Thus is fulfilled the great and passionate love God has for us. His own Son comes and finds us in all our wayward places and leads us back.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.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.

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.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

VII. Peril – (from the Gospel reading) – 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 getting to the lines above. Yet they are critically important to the overall passage because they remind us that we must 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 ourselves to Him.

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, and unjust. Pride and obstinacy keep 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 free will. God offers, but some reject Him, preferring sin and darkness. God permits this rejection because He wants our love to be offered freely. Love cannot be forced; it must be given freely. 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 ourselves to Him, God’s love is ready to lift us higher. He offers us eternal life, the fullness of a life that grows richer every 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!

I know that this song isn’t religious, but transpose it to a higher key, the way the Song of Songs does the Bible. Consider these lyrics as referring to the Lord and how His love satisfies all of our desires and lifts us higher:

Your love, is liftin’ me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forevermore.

Now once I was downhearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came and he soon departed
And you know he never showed his face again
That’s why your love is liftin’ me, higher, and higher …

I’m so glad I finally found you
Yes, that one in a million
And with your loving arms around me
I can stand up and face the world.

 

Two Kinds of Love to Celebrate on St Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine’s Day is a day that celebrates romantic love. This sort of love, to be sure, is noble and to be encouraged. The Church has sometimes been accused of being suspicious of romantic love. It is true that certain heretical groups such as the Cathari and the Jansenist’s have frowned on sexual love in marriage. But they were considered heretics for their views. A true Catholic view celebrates romantic love  (eros in Greek).  As a Catholic Pastor I like others want to encourage romantic love and ultimately marriage. And within marriage to encourage on-going romantic love. I tell my younger parishioners, get married (first!) have lots of babies and raise them Catholic! You may recall the old Rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”

A Great Love – Romantic love is good and it brings blessings! But romantic love (eros) has a place a purpose and in God’s plan. Fundamentally eros is meant to draw a man and a woman to each other and ultimately to marriage. And within marriage their romantic love is to be fruitful and multiplying. Yet too many today just play around with and dabble in eros. They vent its power through premarital sex and do not  follow it’s intended course which is to draw to people together in deep desire and love. Eros is about drawing and man and woman into deep interpersonal union it is not merely about bringing two bodies together.  Too many rush to eros’ physical urge and disclose the deepest mysteries about themselves inappropriately. The great dance of courtship and marriage is thus short-circuited and eros looses both it’s dignity and its goal. Marriage rates have plummeted and so have birthrates.

Pope Benedict had this to say on eros:

That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks….The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness…..Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet [in] the contemporary [scene] eros, is reduced to pure “sex”….Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: … no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. [But] true, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves….Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important….eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose….[And in Scripture Marriage] becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. (Deus Caritas est 3-11 selected)

So romantic love (eros) has a dignity but it also has a purpose. It’s purpose is to draw man and woman toward marriage, family and ultimately toward God. The deep desire that man and woman have for each other is a sign of the ultimate desire of the human heart for deep union with God.

An even greater love – But there is a second love to be celebrated on St. Valentines Day and that is Agape love.  Agape love is the love whereby we love God above ourselves, above all things and above all people. There is perhaps no greater example of this sort of love than that of the martyrs. They were willing to forsake everything for Christ. They excepted the supreme price of this love, the gift of their very own life. Every martyr can truly say, “Lord, I love you more than my self, my life, my things and more than any other person in my life.  The world hates me for this and will kill me for it, but I willing pay the price that this love demands.”

St. Valentine was a martyr. Christian tradition recognizes two saints from the early Church as “Valentine.” The first is the Roman priest Valentine. He was decapitated in 268 AD  for the crime of trying to convert a member of Emperor Claudius the Goth’s household. He also a renowned healer. The second Valentine is Bishop Valentine who was also a renowned healer and was also turned it for converting people to Christianity. He was imprisoned and the attempt was made to force him to sacrifice to pagan gods. When he refused an attempt was made to club him to death. When that failed he was beheaded in 273 AD.

The red of St. Valentine’s Day signals not only the warm blood of romance, but also the red hot blood of martyrs. Eros is surely noble and necessary. It is rightly celebrated. But no great love (agape) exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Thus today the red blood of martyrs too is celebrated and proclaimed.

A blessed St. Valentine’s Day to one and all.