The Church is the Body of Christ

Last weekend, our second reading was an extensive selection from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 12:12-30) St. Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate to the Corinthians that while a body has many parts, it is all still one body. Growing up, (If we’re being honest, even sometimes when I was still in seminary!) readings like this one would make me roll my eyes and grumble, “ugggg, more Paul and his paragraph long sentences! What is he even talking about anyway?!”

There are always many layers to Sacred Scripture, but this section is almost certainly intended by St. Paul to teach the Corinthians about the Church. In seminary, we have an entire course to study the Church herself. We try to answer questions like, “What is the Church?” It’s harder than you’d think! One of the most ancient answers to “What is the Church?” comes from this weekend’s second reading: “you are Christ’s body.” (1 Cor 12:27) St. Paul then discusses the various roles and gifts people might have in within what he calls the Church.

When we recognize what St. Paul is doing in this passage, it can help us see how profound this reading is. It isn’t a teaching about biology or even about normal human relationships. St. Paul is telling us that the Church is the Body of Christ. We find this image of the Church in the earliest Church Fathers all the way through the most modern theology books.

This reading from tells us that the baptized are all united as one body, as the body of Christ. What we do impacts the whole body, the whole Church. This is one reason why confession exists. My sin doesn’t cause problems for just me. Because I am a member of the Body of Christ, my sin hurts everybody else in the Church. When I bring that sin to confession, not only am I healed, but the wound my sin has inflicted on the Church is healed too. It’s not all bad news, though. Being united as one body also helps us to understand why intercessory prayer and good works are so important, even if I don’t necessarily need them for my own soul. I can offer the graces from my prayers and good works to lift up the entire Body of Christ. Our unity as one Body of Christ also helps us to understand why divisions in the Church are so painful. When we fight amongst our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are harming ourselves just as much as we are harming the other.

The early Christians called the Church the Mystical Body of Christ, which many of us might think refers to the Eucharist. There is certainly a link between the two. The Greek text of the Gospels uses the same word (soma) in the Last Supper accounts as in these letters from St. Paul. We probably shouldn’t read too much into that, but we can’t ignore it either. There is a real and tangible connection between the Eucharist and the Church. The Eucharist is the sacrament which renews the covenant God made with us at our baptism. When we entered that covenant, we agreed to set aside Satan, evil, and the things of this world and to pursue God, virtue, and the things of Heaven. God promised that he would remain our Father and that we would be his children, united through the Son. The Eucharist is a visible reminder of this covenant we made with God, a tangible way to perceive our commitment to unity as one Church and Body of Christ.

The Lord sent his Spirit upon us so that we might receive salvation through the Son. The Son saved us by making us a part of his Body. Each of us has a different part to play in the Body of Christ. Let us strive to always build our brothers and sisters up, so that the Church, the Body of Christ may be a strong, visible sign of the unity we have with God and the salvation that Christ won for us.

st peters basilica facade against unrecognizable citizen silhouettes at night
Photo by Olga Lioncat on Pexels.com

The Epiphanies of the Lord

On the Feast of Epiphany, we celebrate more than the arrival of the magi from the East. This feast, which has been around since at east as far back as the fourth century, in addition to the visit of the magi, includes the Baptism of the Lord, and the wedding at Cana. Each of these events reveals something about Jesus. Before we get to those, let’s talk about what the name “epiphany” tells us about the celebration.

The name of the celebration, Epiphany, has its roots in Greek and means manifestation or appearance. In the Bible, the word is used when referring to he manifestation of God’s power over an oppressing army (2 Macc 15:27), his coming to earth to destroy death and restore life through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10), and several other places. Wikipedia tells me that in classical Greek usage, the word meant “appearance of dawn, of an enemy in war, but especially of a manifestation of a deity to a worshiper.” (This last one is a special kind of epiphany called a theophany.)

When we put all of this context around the word epiphany, it takes a slightly different character than what we might have in our heads: We are not celebrating a nice postcard image of a cute baby who got crazy expensive gifts from eastern proto-Christians. We are celebrating the God who created the universal taking on human flesh in order to manifest his divinity amongst humanity. We are celebrating the God whom Moses calls the “war man,” (Ex 15:3) telling us that God has the knowledge, power, and will to defeat his enemy, that is, to defeat evil and sin. We are celebrating the God shines his light on the whole of humanity, brings hope to the hopeless, and justice to those who have been mistreated. On Epiphany, we celebrate that God appeared, like the dawn, as a man named Jesus, that he came to make war on Satan and his evil minions, that he will cast the oppressive bonds of sin off his children, that he will destroy death, and that he will restore the promise of eternal life to all of us.

So… the Feast of Epiphany is important. In fact, it used to out-rank Christmas.

On this feast day, we celebrate three particular manifestations of God. It was four, but pretty early on the Nativity was split into its own feast. The first manifestation of God that we celebrate on Epiphany is the coming of the magi from the East. The magicians, also sometimes called wise men, watched the stars for signs. The appearance of a new star meant that a new king had been born, one with power over the heavens. These men set out on a long and treacherous journey to find this new king who had been foretold in a prophecy known well outside Israel, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17) Upon finally reaching Bethlehem, they presented expensive gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The symbolism of these gifts is unmistakable: gold reveals Jesus is king; frankincense reveals that he will offer prayer and sacrifice to the Father; and myrrh reveals that Jesus will die, something nobody would ever expect from God until he does it 30-some years later.

This article is getting a bit long and nerdy, so I’ll try and move it along a little bit.

The Baptism of Jesus, which now has its own feast day, reveals two things. First, Jesus is the Son of the Father, he is God, and the Father is well-pleased with him. Second, Jesus’s mission begins with repentance. Those who wish to follow him must repent of their sinful ways and turn toward him. This means leaving sin behind, just as the Israeli people left Egypt behind when they fled in the Exodus. The Children of Abraham passed through the Red Sea to leave a life of slavery and sin behind, and we, also children of Abraham because of our faith, leave sin behind through our own baptism.

The Wedding at Cana reveals many things about Jesus. We see at this wedding Jesus’s first public miracle. I think that the other critically important thing we see in the wedding at Cana is that Jesus is at a wedding, celebrating. Marriage and family is important to God. If we look at the history of salvation and God’s actions, he works through families to save the world: Noah’s family, Abraham’s family, Moses’s family, David’s family, Joseph’s family, and countless others. God loves the family, and through the family God will save the world. This is a reminder and a call to all of us to protect our families, to build them up, and to stand strong against the evil assaults that this world throws against our families.

There is so much more we can say about this incredible feast of Epiphany, but I’ll have to save it for another time.

The Light Shines in the Darkness

Merry Christmas!

This year, I would like to share with you some texts that are ripe for meditation on the birth of Christ. On Christmas morning, I took a video of the sunrise for your viewing pleasure, and I’ve put a bit of music in the background to keep it exciting.

Texts for Christmas meditation

  • Magnificat and antiphon from Christmas Evening Prayer I
  • Prologue from the Gospel of John (Christmas Day Gospel)
  • Christmas Proclamation
  • Luke 2:1-20 (Knox Translation)
  • Selection from Pope St. Leo’s Christmas Sermon (Office of Readings on Christmas Day)

A Story to be Shared

As we approach the culmination of Advent and, on Saturday, celebrate the birth of our Savior, my thoughts turn to a story by Henry Van Dyke, the Story of the Other Wise Man. Artaban prepared to leave with the three other wise men, but missed them by just a few hours. He never managed to catch up, to them. While following the star he encountered people in need. He had sold all of his possessions to go on this journey and purchased three majestic gems: a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl to give the king.

Artaban, when he finally reached Israel, became a wanderer throughout Israel and Egypt, always searching for the king he could not find. He consulted scholars, disciples, and sought him ought, but he could not find the king for whom he searched. He sold the sapphire and the ruby he had brought to give to the new-born king, who he did not know, to assist those in need, asking himself, “Should he risk the great reward of his divine faith for the sake of a single deed of human love?” (p. 16)

Finally, after 33 years of searching, “Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem […] and something whispered in his heart that, at last, he might succeed.” (p. 29) Yet, in the final encounter of Artaban’s life, he surrendered the pearl, his final treasure, to save a poor, helpless soul in desperate need. He never made it to meet his king, who was being crucified that day, in fact, at that same moment. The other wise man’s final lament tragically proclaims, “Not so, my Lord! For when saw I thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw I thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? When saw I thee sick or in prison, and came unto thee? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King.” (p. 33) In Artaban’s dying moments, a sweet voice proclaims to him, “Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.” (p. 34)

This story speaks to me during this time of year for so many reasons. How many of us fear that we’ve only just missed to best moments? That if only we had been born a decade earlier, if only we had not fallen into a particular sin while young, if only I hadn’t made that one decision 30 years ago, that if only things were different I would be able to meet Jesus Christ face to face, that following him would be easier? How many of us, on the search to find Jesus Christ, look around us to see the world and the people around us, offering the poor souls we encounter the gifts we have? How often do we not recognize the face of Christ in these same people? How often do we seek to retain that joy of Christmas, only to find out that our journey to meet our King is going to be a life-long journey?

This story proposes so many questions to our hearts, uncomfortable and challenging questions. When we are wandering through the world, seeking an answer for the infinite longing of our hearts, we are like the great crowds in the Bible who sought Jesus: “many wanted to see Jesus, to be healed by him, to meet him.” (Luigi Giussani, Why the Church?, p. 20) Having taken on human form, Jesus could not have tended to all of his flock himself. “Unable to visit all the towns and villages, he began to send his closest followers to the places he could not reach.” (Giussani, p. 20)

We never know the power of our own witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. We do not know the impact it will have on the hearts of our family, our friends, and even ourselves. If Artaban had not met the disciples of Jesus, he would not have learned that “Those who seek [the King] will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.” (Van Dyke, p. 27) If the apostles and disciples of Jesus had not gone to the ends of the earth, and if the story of Jesus, the story of God’s infinite self-giving love for all humanity, had not been told from generation to generation, none of us would have know. Our faith is a story to be shared, because in each unique story of coming to know Jesus Christ we see another side of his glory. We see another side of his love. We see another side of his mercy.

Contemplating the Christ child this Christmas, let us ponder the question: what is the love story God wants to write in my heart?

The Grace of a Rocky Advent

I look forward to Advent every year. It is one of my favorite liturgical seasons. I’ve written before on the stillness and peace that this time of year brings with it.

This year, that stillness has been harder than ever to find. From what I understand, we have just as much (if not more!) COVID running around the planet as before, but society is simply done with it. Everybody is out shopping, decorating, and doing all those other things that people do to get ready for Christmas. Hopefully, all these people are doing some sort of spiritual practice to prepare for our annual celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ so that they’re ready inside as well as out.

Perhaps it is because the last year and a half have been unnaturally slow, but this Advent feels more frantic and disconnected than usual. Perhaps it’s the weather, which waffles between beautiful and somewhat chilly. Perhaps it’s all the usual things happening this year that didn’t last. Perhaps it’s the virus hanging over my head. Perhaps it’s all the fights and arguments and division sown in the last year which has leached into our faith. Perhaps it’s just that I’m older or just tired. But I’ve struggled this year to connect with Advent.

My natural response in times like this is to ask, “what do I need to be doing differently?” The problem is, I’ve already done that. I’ve made some good changes. They’ve helped. But I still feel off. So what’s the issue?

It’s hard to say where it is, but when we’ve run out of answers, the only place we can reasonably turn is to God. We must put our faith in him, trusting that he can save us from sin and death. We must put our hope in him, believing that he will choose to save us. We must love him, valuing him more than any other prize. Finally, we must trust that God will give us the grace we need. As long as we continue to turn to our heavenly Father, with all of our weaknesses and struggles and frustrations, we can trust that he will give us grace sufficient to overcome any obstacle. Even an Advent that feels a little disconnected.

Because let’s face it: no matter how rough Advent might seem to be, this season is meant to orient us toward Jesus Christ. Perhaps this year, he’s simply orienting me to trust him a little bit more and me a little bit less.

St. Joseph Shows the Way to Live

As the year of St. Joseph draws to a close today, I thought I’d share a brief reflection that’s stayed with me for most of the year.

Painting by Adam Elsheimer of the Flight to Egypt
The Flight to Egypt, 1609, by Adam Elsheimer

When [the Magi] had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew 2:13-15

Scripture records no words spoken by St. Joseph, only his actions. Even when he encounters angelic beings in his dreams, St. Joseph has no verbal response. We see no complaint on his part. All we witness is that once God’s will is made known to St. Joseph, he follows the will of God fully and without hesitation. When Mary was found to be with child and God instructed Joseph, through an angel, that Joseph was to take Mary into his home and care for the child, St. Joseph dropped his plans and brought her into his home. When God asked St. Joseph to leave behind everything and flee into Egypt, St. Joseph did not hesitate to follow the will of God.

What extraordinary faith this man must have had! Abram was sent on a journey like this, to a land that was not his own, with no guaranteed return, simply with the knowledge that God has called him to the journey; thus, he must follow. Abram, who became Abraham when he entered into the covenant with God, became the first patriarch of the Children of Israel. St. Joseph, following God as Abram did, was able to see the culmination of this covenant God had made with Abraham. Amongst Abraham’s numerous descendants, St. Joseph witnessed the birth of the Jesus, the Christ and Messiah, the Savior of the world, through whom Abraham and his descendants—unified not by race, but by common worship of the one, true God—were redeemed.

St. Joseph, a just and righteous man, lived a virtuous life. He followed God, and he put aside everything to be of service to his wife Mary and his foster son, Jesus. He spent his remaining years providing for them, teaching them, and protecting them. He is a model for all of us, but, in particular, for us men. We men seem to have a special kind of pride, ambition, and greed built into us. We desire to conquer things, to make our mark on the history of the world. St. Joseph is the antidote to these temptations to worldly fame. In his humility, he gave up his own ambitions—whatever they might have been—and even his livelihood, when necessary. Why did he do this? He did these things to serve the wife and child given to his care. This is, perhaps, the essence of fatherhood: to die to self and pour out your life in service for those who have been given to you.

Not every man is called to be a biological father, but every man is, in some way, called to fatherhood. When we accept the cross of dying to self so that we might pour out our lives in service of those in our care, we will realize the truth of Christ’s words: “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

Let us pray together:

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.

Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.

From: Patris corde

Giving Leads Unexpectedly

In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others.

That last sentence has been sticking with me and worked its way into my homily last weekend. This idea, that life is a gift and is good because of what it enables me to give to others is beautiful and at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. Our Lord called us to follow him and to make disciples—followers—of all nations. To follow Christ, we must imitate the way he lived. Christ gave himself to us as a gift. Good and loving in his very nature, He did not live to receive but to give.

When we seek to become closer to Christ and to follow him, we begin our journey by imitating him, by seeking to give ourselves back to God by giving ourselves to those around us. At the core of our human nature, we recognize that we need other people to complete us. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that we human beings are hard wired to give ourselves to those around us. When this giving is guided by our God who loves us, this gift of self allows us to become the beautiful saintly people God created us to be, the holy ones who will spend eternity in blissful love united with the only One in existence who can satisfy our desires.

When I reflect on my own life in the context of these ideas, I recognize that those moments where I give most completely of myself are the moments when I am most at peace with myself. Every time I have given something up, God has supplied what I need. When I was first starting to take my faith in God personally and seriously, I was not able to make many time or talent commitments due to work and, well, the fact that I didn’t really want to, but I talked myself into tithing 10% right off the bat. It stung a bit, honestly, but I never wanted for anything. I began to understand that God is never outdone in generosity, and over time became more willing to show up for things at Church, to give my time to events, to get to know my fellow parishioners. I was always busy doing something for the people around me; somehow, I always had enough time to recharge and to spend time with my friends and family too. Eventually, I realize that just giving in these ways wasn’t enough. God was asking me to dedicate my entire life to giving myself away to Him and to His people.

Reading this, you may be thinking, “Wait. Is Fr. Matt really saying that practicing stewardship led him to the priesthood?” The answer? Yes. If I hadn’t learned through the practice of stewardship that giving unselfishly of everything I could, even when it stings a little, brings about peace and contentment, then I would never have ended up where I am today. I would never have had my heart broken by the pain of a penitent I’ve never met, but who is suffering terribly from sin. I would never have experienced the absolute joy of welcoming a new child into the Church. I would never have dragged myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to go to comfort a heartbroken family who can’t bear to let the coroner take their son away. I would never have learned to love God and his children like I do now.

When I started giving back to God, I never would have expected where He would lead me.

Advent Reflections Podcast

I’ve started posting daily reflections on my podcast for Advent. They’re primarily based on the Mass readings for that day and are all very short. I hope you enjoy them!

Advent Reflections 2021 — Christmas Day Advent Reflections 2021

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!
  1. Advent Reflections 2021 — Christmas Day
  2. Advent Reflections 2021 — Vigil of Christmas
  3. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Emmanuel
  4. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Rex Gentium
  5. Advent Reflections 2021 — O Oriens

Familiar Newness

Around this time of year, amidst the normal things that go on every day at the office, we’re getting ready for the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas. Even when we get started months ahead of time, there is much we must do to be ready! At this point, we’ve already prepared and printed the Christmas Card, scheduled the Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (believe it or not, you are allowed to go on Christmas Day!), plan for extra confession times in Advent, and half a dozen other things that are somewhere in the back of my head.

When I start thinking about the seasons of the year, I inevitably end up thinking about the seasons in our Liturgy. When the season changes, lots of things in the church change: the vestment colors, the decorations, and even the music. For example, during Advent and Lent, the use of instruments for music at Mass is supposed to be more subdued and primarily to assist the singers; however, during Christmas and Easter seasons, all these limits are gone so we might have an extremely joyful celebration of the mysteries of salvation. Just like our civil calendar, the cycle of liturgical seasons repeats yearly.

This yearly rhythm is something I’ve come to look forward to. The familiar cycles of the liturgy are a comfort, especially when sometimes we must plan things months away. The consistency of our liturgical cycle through the years reminds me of the consistency of the Church. I don’t remember where I read this, but I recall reading some thoughts on this yearly cycle of our church from a monk who lives at a Benedictine monastery. No matter what happened in the day, the consistent rhythm of life from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year gave him a sense of the eternity of the place. Long before he came there, there was a monk doing the same thing he was, and long after he meets our Lord, a monk will continue doing it. Similarly, long before any of us were born, Catholics celebrated these feasts and seasons, and long after we meet our Lord, Catholics will continue to celebrate these feasts and observe these liturgical seasons.

To some this might be a bit of a frightening thought: that eternity can be found in our normal practices of loving and serving God, but I find it inspiring. We touch the eternal and receive Him Who Is at Mass, and anything that helps my feeble mind grasp at that is a grace. The beauty of this cycle is that there is one person throughout that moves it forward, day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year: Jesus Christ. When we live our lives with him and work every day to walk in his ways, he moves us forward, and because we grow with Christ every moment, we encounter the familiar rhythm of our year as if everything has been made new again.

Misericordes oculos

There is nothing on this earth that can fully prepare a man for becoming a priest. There is nothing else that is quite like it. Even while I was a deacon, I didn’t expect such a clear distinction between my life before priestly ordination and after. My expectations were very wrong: My experience of life changed at priestly ordination as I began to experience my vocation. The priest stands in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ as head of the Body of Christ) during Sacraments. He is the instrument chosen by God to speak Christ’s words and transform bread and wine into his Most Precious Body and Blood, the instrument chosen by God to stand in the breach as both judge and dispenser of merciful forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, the instrument chosen by God to prepare people for their last moments on this earth as they go to their eternal reward. We are there for God’s people in their moments of greatest joy and their moments of deepest, soul-wrenching sadness. Though this is often painful, it is a great privilege for us priests to walk with God’s people in these moments. In these moments, we are permitted to see God’s love for his people in a way that nobody else does.

Because of our unique view of God’s love for his people and the life-changing experience of being the instrument of God’s sacraments and the ministers of his grace, there is a deep fraternity amongst us priests. We call each other “brother” because through our ordinations we have become brothers in a way that transcends material reality. One way this common brotherhood is visible is what happens when one of us passes to our eternal reward. We make every effort to go to the funeral of our brother who has died, even if that brother died 70 years ago in a Korean prison camp.

I wasn’t sure what to expect during the week when we held the liturgies for Fr. Kapaun and his funeral. In addition to the Rosary, Vigil, and Funeral Mass, the priests had a private gathering for Vespers for Fr. Kapaun. Each one of these events brought me to the brink of tears multiple times. This man who has inspired so many is one of us. And he’s finally home. Even now, it’s hard to contain the tears that well up. I’m so proud of my brother for saving so many lives. I’m overjoyed that so many people have recognized his impact on their lives and that so many continue to be inspired by him. I’m sad that I never met him in person and that his family suffered so much. I feel a sense of wholeness now that our brother is back home, finally laid to rest and accounted for.

Many moments during the week struck me right to the heart. I would like to share two with you.
The first moment was Monday night at the Vespers service. Fr. Eric Weldon, in his homily, pointed out that Fr. Kapaun would have not been able to say Mass on the last Christmas and Easter of his earthly life. I can’t imagine the pain in his heart on those two days. I remember the strangeness and pain I experienced during the first Easter of my priesthood, when COVID regulations forced us to say Easter without parishioners in attendance. It was terrible, and yet, at least I still got to say Mass. How must his heart have ached! It is an important reminder to me that the Mass is a gift, and any time we get to celebrate Mass together, it is a privilege.

The second moment was during the committal service at the Cathedral following the funeral and procession. After we laid Fr. Kapaun’s mortal remains into his tomb in the cathedral, one of the brother priests started singing the Salve Regina, as is tradition when we lay one of our brothers to rest. The sound of our unaccompanied voices echoed loudly through the cathedral, and I don’t even have words to describe it, but it was a perfect and fitting culmination to everything we had all experienced over three days. We brought our brother home, prayed for him, laid him to rest, commended him to God, and pleaded that Mary look at Fr. Kapaun with her misericordes oculos, her eyes of mercy, and show him the way to the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Chaplain Kapaun, pray for us.

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