The Humble Pursuit of Truth

In Romans today, St. Paul tells us that whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Conversely, if we allow the Spirit to dwell in us, then we will have life. This Spirit is none other than the Holy Spirit. This raises an important question: how do we allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within us? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the Spirit of God dwells in us through our love. (Commentary on Romans, C. 8, L. 2, n. 626) Even though we received the Holy Spirit in Baptism and again in Confirmation, we drive the Holy Spirit out of ourselves when we sin. Venial sin damages and mortal sin destroys the relationship of love we have with God. The book of Wisdom tells us that God does not abide iniquity, sin, which logically means that our personal sin drives out the Spirit of God. (Wisdom 1:3, cf. Romans, C. 8, L. 2, n. 626)

Driving sin out of our lives is extremely challenging. It is a life-long endeavor, but it is not something we do alone. God assists us regularly with his grace, and He walks with us through this life. He has also left us with the holy Scriptures. Readings the Scriptures and meditating upon them can allow us to grow closer to God and can allow the fertile ground in our hearts to be readied for the Spirit of God to dwell. Christ teaches us in today’s Gospel that he reveals all these things to little ones. Why does he reveal them to little ones and not to mature adults? I can think of a number of answers to this question; however, the strongest answer, I think, is that children have not lost their sense of wonder about the world, nor have they lost their sense of openness to others. A child is not afraid to look up at the clouds and the stars and to see all sorts of shapes and plants and animals. A child, to the horror of many parents, is not afraid to go talk to someone they don’t know. A child trusts his or her parents, and, generally, anybody multiple feet taller than him or her. A child wants to learn everything and is always seeking out truth in adventures, in friends, and in stories. A child also recognizes that sometimes he or she is wrong. In other words: a child has humility. Zechariah, in today’s first reading, tells us that the Messiah will be humble as well: he will not ride into Jerusalem on a horse, but on a donkey.

These three traits of children, of wonder, openness or docility, and humility, are essential to growing in love. No matter how hard we try to hold on to these virtues, we struggle to maintain them as we age. When was the last time you just looked up at the clouds or stared at the stars? When was the last time you admitted—to yourself—that you might not be the most knowledgeable person about any given thing? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be taught? When was the last time you admitted you were wrong?

Not counting the question about looking at the sky, none of these are “fun” things to do. As hard as the questions themselves are to stomach, it gets worse when I recognize that the answer is, to every single one of them, “it has been longer than it should have been.” We live in a society that proclaims that truth is whatever we make it. This relativism, which started in the realm of morality, has infected every area of our society. If we don’t like a truth, if it makes us feel uncomfortable, society teaches us that it is OK to decide that it is not true for us. Society tells us that this is good. Society tells us that we should be comfortable and that we should never have to experience the trauma of being wrong.

Society is wrong.

There is truth, and it is universal. If something is true, that will not change. If you jump up, you will come down. This is a truth. Just as gravity doesn’t change based on our feelings and what we want it to do, neither do the observable properties of the universe, such as the behavior of air molecules, non-living RNA and water droplets, etc. A newly conceived child is a human being made in the image and likeness of God and therefore has a right to life no matter how we feel about the circumstances in which that child was conceived. No matter what our feelings are about something, no matter what our favorite political leaders tell us, truth does not change, because truth is grounded in God, and God does not change. This has been the teaching of the Church throughout all of time, and has been reiterated over and over again, for example, in the Second Vatican Council Document Dignitatis humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person), then again in  St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth), and again by the saint in Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason). Fides et ratio specifically discusses how, as Catholics, we are not only able to, but must use our reason in conjunction with our faith, because our reason is a gift from God. The Catholic Church, despite what some people may say, has always believe that science is a good thing. Through science we learn about creation. When we learn about creation, we learn about its creator, that is, God.

After informing myself on matters like this, I know more about creation than before. I have learned more about the truth. As Catholics, we must take one further step after learning the truth: We must allow the truth to inform our actions. As a result of my study and research this week, I am wearing my mask more. This is neither a mistake, nor is it a fluke. It is intentional. This is not due to government mandating that I wear a mask; however, Christians are, in most cases, bound to follow civil authority. 1 I am wearing my mask more, because I have come to the knowledge that it is the right thing to do. After informing myself with information from sources that make it their business to know these things, doctors and physicists and chemists, I see that the evidence is fairly clear that they help. I didn’t think wearing a mask was important, but I was wrong. Masks are effective, especially when combined with social distancing, at preventing others from catching disease from me. While the research shows that a mask does not protect me, it does protect those around me, that is: the mask protects my neighbor. Is it perfect? No. But it is significantly and scientifically proven to be better than nothing.

I don’t do this (wearing a mask) because I want to: Honestly, I don’t. But what I want and what I feel… it doesn’t matter. God demands that I love my neighbor as myself, always. This is truth, and like the truth, this demand will never change. If I don’t love my neighbor, I cannot love God, because it means my love is messed up. If my love is messed up and I can’t love God, then I am not allowing the Holy Spirit to live in me. God asks us, on a regular basis, to do things we don’t want to do for the good of ourselves and the good of others. This is, in fact, the essence of Christian love: to sacrifice for the sake of my neighbor. This is something every married couple knows: “I don’t always get my way, because I love my spouse.” As a priest, I see the situation a little differently. Daily, priests pray about sacrifice and remember what Jesus did to save us. The crucifixion is simply a part of priestly spirituality. Jesus was tortured, beaten, and crucified for us. It wasn’t fun or enjoyable. I can’t imagine that he really wanted to do it (at least, on the part of his human nature). Most importantly, Jesus did not need to die for himself. He suffered and died purely because he loves us, his neighbor, so that he could eradicate and conquer the most primordial contagion known to plague humanity: sin.

Brothers and sisters, let us always seek the truth with openness and humility, like children do. Let us allow the truth to inform our actions so that we can truly love our neighbor, and in doing so, open our hearts to the life-giving Spirit of God.

Today’s Readings:
July 5, 2020
14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

True Food and True Drink

The Church has taught, and Catholics have believed, since the very beginning that the Eucharist is something different. At Mass, ordinary bread and wine and changed into something beyond our imagination: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Church had established this teaching well before Justin Martyr wrote, around 150 A.D., that only those who believe that the bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood are permitted to partake of the Eucharist. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, around the year 180 A.D., fought heresies, such as some forms of Gnosticism which denied the God became man, on the grounds that this would deny that the Eucharist was Christ’s body and blood. In response, St. Irenaeus asks them: who other than God could do such a thing? Through the centuries and millennia, the Church has never wavered in this teaching. Similarly, through the centuries and millennia, many struggle to believe this teaching. Jesus Christ himself had to confront this unbelief:

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.”
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.

John 6:52-55

It has not changed. Last year, a Pew Research survey said that among Catholics who go to Mass every week only 63% believe in the Real Presence. If you include all of the people who don’t go to Mass, that number drops to 28%. Shockingly, 22% of people who identified themselves as Catholic expressly reject the teaching if the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Many have fallen prey to the idea that the Eucharist is some sort of symbol; however, in John’s Gospel we read that God himself refutes this understanding. What’s more is that in the Greek text it is abundantly clear that Jesus is not speaking about taking a meal with him or, in some symbolic way, consuming his Flesh and Blood. He is demanding not just that we eat his flesh, but that we gnaw and munch and chew on it, as an animal chews on its food. 1 The Eucharist is different than all of the other sacraments, in that it is not simply the power of Christ that becomes present and operates within us. Christ himself becomes present and operates within us. The only way this happens is if the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Christ. A symbol would not work this way. Flannery O’Connor, in reference to the Eucharist said, “Well, it it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”2 She was absolutely right. If the Eucharist were a symbol, the Protestants would be right, and the only prudent thing to do would be to leave and to cut our losses now.

The Eucharist is one of those teachings that seem simple, but, in reality, defies all our understanding. Like the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which we celebrated last week, this teaching must be taken on faith. In the verses leading up to today’s passage from John, Jesus speaks of faith. Jesus tells us that belief in Him is essential to eternal life. If we believe in Jesus Christ, that means we must trust him, and if we trust him, then we must trust what he says. We must trust Jesus when he tells us that bread and wine become his Body and Blood. We must trust him when he tells us that we must eat it and gnaw it and munch it to have eternal life.

In the context of right now, I’m sure some might be thinking, “wait a second, if I have to literally eat Jesus, what is the point of this Spiritual Communion everyone keeps going on about?” This is an excellent question. Between a Sacramental Communion and a Spiritual Communion, much is the same. For both, we must prepare ourselves, especially through prayer. We should be in a state of grace, i.e., we should not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin. To receive Sacramental Communion, we must also fast from all food and drink—except water and medicine—for one hour, but this would also be praiseworthy for a Spiritual Communion. For both, we should participate to the extent that we are able in the Mass, uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Christ and asking God for his grace to fill our hearts. We should, as Jesus taught his followers in the parts leading up to today’s Gospel, strive to believe in Jesus and ask him to give us the Bread of Life, that is, himself.

The key difference between the two is in the reception itself. In a Sacramental Communion, we are assured that we are receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. We are fulfilling his Gospel command to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood. We receive actual graces due to God being present within us, and to the extent that we have prepared ourselves we are open to many more spiritual benefits. With a Spiritual Communion, the situation is a little different. Primarily, we are not physically receiving our Lord and fulfilling what he says in the Gospel. That does not make Spiritual Communion something unworthy, it simply means that it is different. We still receive many spiritual graces from Spiritual Communion, and God still inflames our hearts with love for him. We cannot allow ourselves to think, however, that Spiritual Communion is a fitting or good “replacement” for Sacramental Communion, because Sacramental Communion is essential for eternal life.

As we celebrate the Mass and approach the Eucharist, the True Presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, let us strive to spiritually prepare ourselves so that in this Sacrament Most Holy, we may experience a taste of the Living Bread from Heaven, the Food of Angels, and the Sacrament of our Salvation.

Today’s Readings:
June 14, 2020
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), Year A
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a; Psalm 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Lauda Sion (sequence); John 6:51-58

Sharing the Trinitarian Life

Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” So, I’ve got to ask: is Moses talking about the Israelites fleeing from Egypt, or us, right now? Because, it could be both. Someone recently said to me, “We just need some Jesus!” And it’s so true. We can look around the world today and see stubborn, stiff-necked people who refuse to listen to each other. We see wickedness and sin. It is very easy to think, “where has God gone? Is he even living with us right now? Has he abandoned us while we suffer through a plague and racism and rioting all at once?” Right now, some are reading the Book of Revelation, looking at the world around them, and asking, “is this the end times?”

The answer is, of course, yes. Don’t hear me the wrong way: I am not saying that the world is ending tomorrow, although I also can’t guarantee that it won’t. The truth is this: we have been in the end times since the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is good news, though, because it means that the Kingdom of God is present in the world right now. It means that God is with us, and he has not abandoned us. In fact, he will never abandon us, because 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. God was not willing to let the sin of Adam and Eve, the sins of Israel, and our own sins remain. He came to this world and saved us. He extended an offer of kinship to us: through our baptism we entered not just into the Church of God, not just the family of God, but also the Body of Christ himself. We have been initiated into the life of the Most Holy Trinity, but what in the world does that mean? What is the Trinity, and what does it mean to participate in the life of the Trinity?

We can spend the rest of our lives trying to answer this question. Theologians have. Ultimately, we must recognize that sharing in the life of God is a mystery we will never fully comprehend. Even in Heaven, we will never fully comprehend God, because he is so much more infinite in glory and magnificence than our souls, even they are infinite too, can handle. In engineering school, we talked about “levels of infinity.” (According to the internet, we have some 19th century German mathematician named Georg Cantor to thank for this revelation.) This is an area where science can help us understand our faith: some things are more infinite than others. It is, therefore, highly reasonable to say that even though our souls are infinite, they cannot fully comprehend the much more infinite glory and majesty and beauty of God. Perhaps the most profound of these mysteries we could spend eternity ponder is that of the Trinity: the fact that our One God is Three Divine Persons who share One Substance.

Even though we will never fully comprehend the Trinity, we can grasp at it, as a baby grasps toward the light or anything else they don’t understand. St. Paul does this marvelously at the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In this Trinitarian greeting, which we often use at the beginning of Mass, Paul shines a light on some characteristics of the Trinity. Love is associated with the Father; grace, with the Son; fellowship, with the Holy Spirit. How are these things associated with the persons of the Trinity? St. Thomas tells us that the person causes each of these things within us.1  By loving us, God the Father has caused us to love. Having been sent out of love by the Father into the world to save us, the Son is the source of grace, which is a way of saying that Jesus Christ, by becoming human and conquering sin, made it possible for the Divine Life to reside inside each of us. Having been sent by the Father, through the Son, the Holy Spirit communicates these gifts to each of us and causes our fellowship and communion as brothers and sisters in Christ.

When talking about things so lofty, it is not good to try and fully explain it, so I will not. Instead, let us ponder for a few moments the Trinity, and ask God to share his Divine Life with us. Let us ask him to lift the veil just a little bit, so that we can begin to comprehend the glory of God, the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in our lives today.

Today’s Readings:
June 7, 2020
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

Podcast link: https://mattsiegman.com/podcast/sharing-the-trinitarian-life/

The Time for Pentecost was Fulfilled

Pentecost, painted in 1732 by Jean II Restout

Last week, I promised to elaborate a bit on a point I made in my homily: that the apostles and disciples of Jesus would be transformed by the Ascension, election of Matthias, and the Pentecost. Today, we come to the culmination of these events: the Pentecost.

At the Ascension, Jesus took his seat at the right hand of the Father. When Christ ascended to his throne in Heaven, God fulfilled the promise he had made to King David a thousand years earlier: that a David’s descendant would sit on the royal throne forever. (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-13) The earthly portion of this kingdom was entrusted to Christ’s regents, the Apostles, who were commissioned to rule in his stead.

The election of Matthias helps us understand what is happening. King David appointed ministers to rule over each of the tribes of Israel. Over time, ten of those tribes were lost to war and conquest. Those tribes had been dispersed over the world. God had promised Israel that the tribes would be reunited into one nation and brought into their homeland. By appointing twelve apostles, Christ was bringing this promise to the forefront of people’s minds. The one nation was the Kingdom of God, which Christ showed us was not a political kingdom, but a kingdom mystically united by the Holy Spirit, a kingdom which transcends earth. The homeland of this people was, similarly, not on this earth, but in Heaven. The extraordinary Letter to Diognetus, written between 130AD and 200 AD, explains how Christians live in this mystical nation and heavenly homeland. The author writes “there is something extraordinary about [the Christians’] lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. […] They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them.”1

Jesus, a descendent and son of David, had appointed ministers over the twelve tribes. With the loss of Judas, their number was no longer complete. With the election of Matthias as the “new” 12th apostle, the apostles were again complete and ready to assume headship over the Kingdom which Jesus had left for them.

Everything is now prepared for Pentecost. Christ has assumed his throne, taking headship over the Body of Christ. The mystical Kingdom of God had been established both in Heaven and on Earth. One element remained: the coming of the Holy Spirit of God.2 In Acts of the Apostles, we are told that this occurred when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled. (Acts 2:1) Pentecost was—well, still is—a major Jewish feast day, where the giving of the Torah—the Law—on Mount Sinai is remembered. It is time for the fulfillment of this feast, Luke tells us. The prophet Jeremiah told us that God would make a new covenant in which he would write his law upon our hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33) Jesus told us that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17) How was a covenant ratified in the Old Testament? A sacrifice was made, cut in half, and the parties to the covenant walked between the two. The sacrifice was then burnt in offering to God.

Let us put this all together. On Good Friday, Jesus offered himself as sacrifice for us. In doing this, he destroyed sin. On Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead, destroying death and showing us that we are called to life everlasting. On the Ascension, Jesus left Earth and entered Heaven. While he is mystically still united with us as his Church, we are also separated. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God rushes upon the Body of Christ gathered and tongues of fire came to rest on all of those gathered. At Pentecost, the day on which the Jewish people celebrate God giving us his law, Jeremiah’s prophesy was finally fulfilled. God said, “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33) The Holy Spirit came upon Church and set their hearts on fire. What did he write on their hearts to set them ablaze? Love.3 Immediately after God wrote this gift, this new law, of love for God into their hearts, the Body of Christ proclaimed the Gospel to all present. The power of their proclamation transcended all barriers, even of language. The people were astounded and amazed. Thousands received baptism and became followers of Christ on that day.

Pentecost is one of the most important feast days of the Church. This is the day that the sacrifice Christ began on Good Friday finally comes to completion. This is the day that God bestowed the Holy Spirit upon his adopted children and in doing so united us to his only begotten Son. This is the day the Holy Spirit wrote the love of God into our hearts. This love, brought to us by the Holy Spirit, is the breath of life in the Body of Christ. This love, this breath of life, this loving breath of creation, animates the Church and the Kingdom of God to this day.

Today, the Kingdom of God is here. Let us repent and believe in the Gospel, so that the fire of love God has set in our hearts will not be smothered but allowed to grow.

The Lord is Risen. Alleluia.

Today’s Readings:
Pentecost
May 31, 2020
Readings at the vigil: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 33:10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Exodus 19:3-8A, 16-20B; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56 or Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 107:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; Joel 3:1-5; Psalm 104:1-2, 24 & 35, 27-28, 29-30; Romans 8:22-27; John 7:37-39
Readings on the day: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; Veni Sancte Spiritus (Sequence); John 20:19-23

The Glorious Ascension into Heaven

From our human perspective, the Ascension might not seem very important. For many years, I remember thinking something like, “What’s the big deal? Jesus is leaving and going to be in Heaven. Would’ve been nice if he’d stuck around.” But the Church seems to think it is important, which usually means that it is. With 2000 years of experience in such matters, I’m willing to extend to her the benefit of the doubt. The Church says that today, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. Why is this such a big deal, and how does it impact my life?

St. Paul answers the first question for us. In his letter to the Ephesians, which is one of the few letters where he isn’t writing to correct some error within a community, St. Paul tells us that [I]n accord with the exercise of his great might, // which he worked in Christ, // [the Father raised] him from the dead // and seat[ed] him at his right hand in the heavens. This is a very straightforward reference to the Ascension. After his glorious victory over sin, evil, and death, Jesus Christ entered into Heaven and took his rightful place at seat of power at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Just to make sure we understand to breadth and depth of the power which the Father gives to the Son as a result of the great Sacrifice he made on behalf of humanity, St. Paul continues, that this seat is far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, // and every name that is named // not only in this age but also in the one to come. Not just Jews, but all the other peoples of the time would recognize in this statement that St. Paul is declaring Jesus Christ to rule over all the creatures of Heaven and Earth, i.e. angelic beings, human beings, animals, and inanimate objects alike, and for all eternity. When time ends, Jesus Christ remains on the throne of power, and St. Paul wants to make sure we know that.

St. Paul’s then tells us that he put all things beneath his feet // and gave him as head over all things to the church, // which is his body, // the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us that God the Son is head over all things to the church, which is his body. This statement is important, because it tells us both why the Ascension is a big deal, and what it means for us. At the Ascension, Jesus Christ is given power over all things, but that is not all. The Church is grafted onto him: the same Church which we all entered at our baptism, the same Church we gather as today, right here, right now. The Church, mystically unified with Jesus Christ, is already in Heaven while still here on Earth. When we assemble as a Church, or as an ἐκκλησία (ekklésia) if you want to sound fancy and say things in Greek, to worship Jesus Christ, we worship him not just here on Earth, but also in Heaven. At the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass in particular, Heaven and Earth meet; eternity and time meet. We enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem, offer God our prayers and intentions in union with the offering of his beloved Son, and enter into a true Communion with one another all the Saints who have gone before us. The Ascension is when the Head of the Body of Christ, the Church, entered the Heavenly Jerusalem and brought us all with him.

As it turns out, younger me was very, very wrong. The Ascension is vitally important. Jesus knew this. After his Resurrection, he gave the final instruction to his apostles. He taught them about the kingdom of God. He instructed them that they would bear witness, starting in Jerusalem, moving further and further out as time went on. He promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them. His parting words, given in today’s Gospel, summarize the mission that Jesus gave the disciples—the disciples who would become the Church after the transformative events of the Ascension, the election of Matthias, and the Pentecost, but more on that next week. Jesus left us with these words: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. // Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, // baptizing them in the name of the Father, // and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, // teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. // And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20) This mission is given to all of us as members of the Church and Body of Jesus Christ. We are to make disciples—followers—of Jesus Christ. We are to bring them to baptism, so that they too can become part of the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. We are to teach them to observe Jesus’s commandments: to love God above all things, to love our neighbor, and to follow Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. This mission seems daunting, but it is possible, because Jesus promises to always be with us and never to abandon us. Christ assumes this power at his Ascension, when he mounted his throne with shouts of joy and trumpet blasts.

As Christ ascended to Heaven and the apostles began to comprehend what had just happened, St. Luke tells us in Acts that they were staring at the sky when suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. // They said, “Men of Galilee, // why are you standing there looking at the sky? // This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven // will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Aside from being a bit comical—let’s be honest, it’s a little funny—these messengers remind the apostles that now it is time to get to work. Our work right now is to worship God in this sacred place and at this sacred time. When we leave this assembly of believers and, following the example of the apostles, go out to the ends of the earth—or perhaps just our neighborhoods—we have our orders from Jesus Christ, to whom [a]ll power in heaven and on earth has been given. After we refresh ourselves at this Heavenly banquet, let us [g]o, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Christ has] commanded [us]. And behold, [Christ is] with [us] always, until the end of the age.

Today’s Readings:
May 24, 2020
Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

On Fear

Things are starting to return to some new form of normal. This is a good thing. At the same time, these stirrings of our world, as we leave our homes and apartments and, blinking, step into the sun to see that there is more to do than we could do for months, have become a great cause of fear for many people. All week long, it seems that the words between people have become sharper and more punctuated by emotion, specifically by fear. So, let’s talk about it. Ignore our problems and our struggles with one another will not make them go away, nor will the increasingly emotional and heated exchanges help matters. I mean, there are stories in the news about people threatening each other with guns over mask wearing.

Fear happens when we perceive a future evil that is difficult or impossible to overcome. Right now, the cause of this fear is fairly obvious. There is an unusual and new disease running amuck in our world. We do not really know what is going to happen as a result. (Thomas would call this type of fear “stupor”.)1The first fleeting moments of this emotion are not within our control. It is a function of our human nature; however, once we perceive this fear, we have to make a choice: what are we going to do with this fear? Are we going to allow it to control us, or are we going to allow it to inform us?

There are two ways we can allow our fear to control us. We can ignore it and push it deep down and put forth a “macho man” type bravado, or we can succumb to timidity and shrink continually from any possible encounter with the object of our fear. Neither of these responses to fear is appropriate. We are called to the virtues of prudence and of fortitude, which require us to use reason with our action. The “macho” response to disease ignore the counsel of fear which reminds us of our mortality, that our bodies are a gift from God. We are expected to care for our bodies and not to sacrifice or harm them needlessly. God is Lord over life and death, not us. We are not to needlessly endanger ourselves. The timid response is wrong because it allows an evil to be in control of our lives. Remember: fear is a result of an unperceived evil. We must not allow evil to control us.

The other response to fear is to acknowledge that fear and then submit it to our reason. When we submit our emotions to our reason, we can combine the information we have gathered from our emotions with the other information we have learned and formulate an appropriate response. We can look at whether this evil we perceive is a great threat to us, or if it is simply an unusual threat against us. We can look at the likelihood that this evil will have a greater or lesser effect on us. We can look at the potential damage that this evil might inflict upon us. After we probe this emotion and look at the evil that lies behind it, we can formulate the actions we will take to overcome this threat. Perhaps that action is to stay at home until the medical professionals have a better handle on treatments and prevention. Perhaps that action is to go to work so that we can put food on the table or so that we can help those in need. Perhaps I realize that I need to wear a mask when I go out on the chance that I might become an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. Perhaps I do not need to wear a mask, because I have already had the disease and am no longer capable of transmitting it. The action required of each of us is going to be different, because we all have different circumstances in our lives. The key here is that it is not unreasonable for there to be differing responses, and that it is OK for someone to come to a different conclusion than me for their safety during a pandemic.

There is one more component of this fear we have not yet looked at: the moral component. Can fear be a sin? Yes. Fear becomes a sin when we allow it to lead us away from God. Allowing ourselves to become a “macho” or timid slave to our fear, for example, is sinful. Not taking our fear and honestly submitting it to reason is sinful. Perhaps these aren’t mortal sins, but they are sinful.

How then can we resolve fear in our lives? Even if we submit our emotion to reason, that does not, necessarily, cause the fear to go away. This is where the Gospel comes into the picture. Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) Why not? God has prepared a place for us in Heaven. If we remember our eternal destiny—eternal bliss with God—then the troubles of this world begin to fade. We still must be prudent and work toward our salvation in this world, but we can do so with confidence that God is waiting for us. If we do not know the way to do this, the answer is simple: go to Jesus. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6)When we offer ourselves to him in prayer, he will show us exactly what we need to do. Jesus promises this to us. Jesus has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) When we remember that destiny, we can draw strength and courage from the Lord and place our trust in Him.

Fear is normal, but we must be attentive to our response to fear. Like everything in our life, we must always refer it to our God who loves us, and remember that “Christ is the way that leads us, the truth that strengthens us, and the life that restores us to life in him.”2Christ will lead us out of this crisis, if we let him.

This text was not given as a homily, but was prepared with the readings of the Sixth Sunday of Easter in mind. (Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12)

The Lord God, Merciful and Compassionate

Truly, Jesus is Risen! Alleluia!

Today we celebrate the Octave Day of Easter. While this is the eighth solar day since Easter Sunday (Romans always included the current day, in case you’re wondering), the Church has considered this simply one long day. We also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today. This insight, of God’s steadfast mercy, can assist us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Resurrection in our lives, because the Resurrection—and God Himself—has the concept of mercy at its core. For Easter to truly make sense, we need to know why God did what he did. To know why God did what he did, we need to know more about God, namely: who is this God that we worship? To really answer that question, we need to go even further back in time. We need to understand what makes our understanding of God different than the pagan understanding of the gods. To do that, we need to go back to the time of the Exodus, when God revealed himself to the Israelite people. We must go back to this time, because it is when God Himself tells us what differentiates him from the false gods of the pagans.

In the time of the Exodus, there were many, many religions. With these religions, there were many, many false gods. If you look at the patterns amongst all the ancient religions, two deities tend to be the most important. Baal and his consort Asherah, perhaps under other names, tend to be the most worshipped deities in the ancient religions. Baal was the god of power and Asherah was the goddess of fertility. These were the two traits most desired by ancient peoples, because these two traits seemed to lead to earthly prosperity. You needed power to hold on to what you and your people had, and you needed fertility to grow your people.

The Israelites, however, had an entirely different conception of God. Power and fertility were not the defining traits of God: mercy was. If we read the Old Testament with our eyes open to this reality, we see that God constantly reinforced this understanding. This is, perhaps, most obvious in Exodus 34:6-7. In this passage, God passes before Moses and announces himself, saying “The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation!” (NABRE) Don’t get fixated on the last sentence there. The English translation here makes God seem very dark. God is declaring that while he forgives our sins, the effects of sin last well beyond the person and the event of an individual sin—but that’s another homily. Instead, let’s look at the first words God speaks of himself. If we go back to the Hebrew (יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן) (Adonai, Adonai, El raḥūm weḥannūn) and Greek (Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων), a slightly more literal translation would be “LORD, LORD, God merciful and gracious.” God considers himself to be, above all, a merciful God. To us, this is obvious, but we live in a world where the Israelite understanding of God, which is also our Christian understanding of God, is dominant. In those days, where most of the world followed deities of power and fertility, most people would have considered this God of Mercy, to be weak and powerless. This is, perhaps, one reason that the Bible tells us the Israelite peoples had such trouble staying faithful to God. Through time, though, we have seen that mercy does conquer all, and the culmination of mercy was when Jesus conquered death on the Cross for us.

How, though? How does mercy prevail over all else? How is mercy more powerful than power and more fertile than fertility? Think about what happens when God shows us his mercy, about what happens when we show mercy. To show mercy implies that something evil has been done. Evil is nothingness. It cannot create; it can only destroy. Evil is predatory upon the good. But when mercy is shown in the face of evil, we deny the evil its goal. We prevent the destruction which was intended by the evil and we turn it into something creative, even if it is solely creative within us. When God shows mercy, it is even more powerful, because in those cases God can take an evil which has been done and re-create something good. God created all of the universe out of nothing, and when he re-creates something destroyed by evil, we call it mercy. Even now we see examples of this. We can easily see the pain and destruction wrought by the evil effects of the coronavirus, but if we honestly look around us, we see that God is creating in the wake of this destruction: the solidarity of people who join together to support their brothers and sisters, the awakening of ingenuity and creativity of science and industry, the emphasis on the common good and recognition that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.

God’s triumph of mercy despite suffering is a cause for joy. St. Peter writes, “rejoice, when you share in some measure the sufferings of Christ; so joy will be yours, and triumph, when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13 Knox) God’s mercy is not obvious, and it is strange, but through His mercy, death and sin are conquered. God’s mercy blesses us, so that despite the blindness of our senses, we who have not seen can believe. God’s “great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us].” (1 Peter 1:3-4 NABRE) God’s consistent response to evil is mercy. His greeting to the disciples today is, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” (John 20:21) God sent his Jesus Christ on a mission of Divine Mercy to humanity. Today, Christ sends us on that same mission. As we celebrate God’s mercy upon us today, let us strive to imitate his mercy in our lives. Let us strive to see his mercy coursing through all the world. Most of all, let us surrender ourselves to the love of the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and compassionate, saying, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Today’s Readings:
April 19, 2020
Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

We Will Never Be the Same

Resurrection Mosaic in a chapel at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary

Jesus is Risen. Alleluia!

Even in this time of fear, anxiety, and doubt—especially now—we must celebrate this day. This day is our feast of victory. This is the day when God’s light erupted back into the world. This is the day we remember that God has claimed us for himself. If we remember that kinship, then we must also remember, as John told us in his first letter, “[t]hat God is light, and no darkness can find any place in him; if we claim fellowship with him, when all the while we live and move in darkness, it is a lie; our whole life is an untruth. God dwells in light; if we too live and move in light, there is fellowship between us, and the blood of his Son Jesus Christ washes us clean from all sin. Sin is with us; if we deny that, we are cheating ourselves; it means that truth does not dwell in us. No, it is when we confess our sins that he forgives us our sins, ever true to his word, ever dealing right with us, and all our wrong-doing is purged away.” (1 John 1:5-9 Knox)

This imagery of light and dark is extremely timely, because with it comes the recognition that God is life-giving light and sin is death-dealing darkness. Unlike nearly any other challenge that we—and by “we” I mean the entirety of humanity—have faced in the last 100 years, we aren’t exactly sure what to do next. We do not really know what to do, and we are, frankly, quite helpless. In our current situation, there is a darkness to the future to which we are not accustomed. Even two months ago, this darkness was not there. But in this new-found darkness, we can now see something that has been there all along, something that has always been there, something that we were, perhaps, too distracted by the things of this world to notice before. Amidst all the darkness, there is a light. This “light shines in the darkness, a darkness which [is] not able to master it.” (John 1:5 Knox)

This light is Jesus Christ, and today that light shines more brightly than ever, as we celebrate the Resurrection. Today is a day of rejoicing, because today we celebrate the success of Christ’s conquest of sin and death, where he conquered their effects in eternity. Today we celebrate the fact that Jesus showed us that death is not an end but a beginning. He took on the most frightening aspect of our humanity, death, and showed it impotent against him. Jesus, the Divine Word Become Flesh, is master over life itself, and he is too full of life for death to overcome him. He has extended to us an invitation to share in his life, his life which is too strong for death. This is our Easter faith: that by uniting ourselves with the life of Christ, we are no longer subject to the tyranny of death.

This light through the darkness shows us the path to uniting ourselves with Christ. It illuminates our sins and our faults, not to shame us, but so that we might recognize and overcome them. This light has shown us that we humans are not the masters of nature that we may have thought. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal Household, made this point on Good Friday, “The pandemic of the Coronavirus has abruptly roused us from the greatest danger individuals and humanity have always been susceptible to: the delusion of omnipotence.” 1 Painful as this recognition may be, the light has shone through the darkness and shown us the pride of modern humanity. By recognizing the true Lord of creation and returning to him, we can be assured that no matter what happens, we are on stable ground.

The light does not show us only the bad. It has also shown us something quite incredible: our human need to be in solidarity with one another. In this time of pandemic, where we are forced to be separate, we have not remained content to be isolated. People are constantly reaching out to check on their neighbors. Communication through phone and video chat is exploding. Through this pandemic, we have recognized something critical: we are all in this together. The light has shown us that our solidarity must go even deeper, because the true pandemic we face is much more insidious that a few nasty bits of RNA and protein. A virus, a non-living and material thing, can cause death to our bodies. We daily confront a much deadlier enemy: sin. Sin can cause death to our souls. This death is far worse, because it lasts for all eternity unless we repent and turn back to Christ. This primordial plague of sin is what Christ came to cure. Sin is the disease which grows from the leaven of malice and wickedness that St. Paul warns us about. (See 1 Corinthians 5:8) Our solidarity with our brothers and sisters cannot stop with fighting the Coronavirus: it must continue as we fight to eradicate the deadliest plague, the plague of sin. God’s strange mercy has brought darkness so that the light might shine more clearly. (cf. Psalm 49:21; Psalm 136)

God’s strange mercy has shone a light on the world which we cannot ignore. We must now invite the Lord to shine that same light into the depths of our hearts. We must allow him to break our hearts of stone and to give us new hearts and to fill us with his Spirit (see Ezekiel 36:26-27). We must allow him to put within our hearts the leaven “of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8) This requires admitting that we are not always right, and that God’s ways are not our ways. But that is exactly what we celebrate: that God’s ways are not our ways. Our ways led to Adam and Eve turning away from God, hiding themselves, and separating all of humanity from God. Our ways led to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, to the pains of exile in Babylon, and to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God. God’s ways, though, showed that from the very beginning he worked to bring humanity back to himself, and that humanity could never hide from the one who loves them so much. God’s ways brought his wandering children out of Egypt, now unified as a nation. God’s ways brought Israel home from exile, purified and united in their faith. God’s ways conquered death and showed us that death is much too weak to contain him. God’s ways not only showed us that sin and death are ultimately powerless, but that each of us is called to eternal life.

Today, we celebrate that God’s ways are not our ways. We celebrate his light coming into the world and showing us the way to truth. Let us praise God for his great gift to us. Let us thank him for strange mercy that we do not fully understand. Let us ask him every day to bring us closer to him, so that we may follow him, and imitate him, and shake free the shackles of sin.

On Easter Sunday, the Apostles would never take their Lord’s Presence for granted again. They would never deny God’s power again. The Apostles recognized that life would never be the same again. Let us allow the light of Christ into our lives, so that we, too, will never be the same.

Today’s Readings:
April 12, 2020
Easter Sunday, Year A
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; Victimae Paschali Laudes (Sequence); John 20:1-9

Prepare for the Glory of God

This is the holiest week of the year.

This is the week we call to mind, through the living memory of the Church, and make present again the most sacred events ever to occur in the universe.

This is the week Jesus Christ our Savior instituted the Sacrament—the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist—by which He would forever remain present in his people.

This is the week Jesus Christ our King entered his royal city, was crowned as Lord of the Universe, and mounted his throne.

This is the week Jesus Christ our God entered his holy city and from his holy and glorious throne defeated the forces of sin and death and hell.

This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the tyranny of sin that had for too long reigned over humanity and ushered in a new age for all humanity.

This is the week we embark on this solemn journey with our Lord. We may have some fears, because despite the spiritual and heavenly reality of the situation, we can be all too distracted by the material reality. It is not easy to follow our Messiah as he is welcomed, betrayed, and crucified in Jerusalem.

If there is nothing spiritual, if there is no Father in Heaven, if there is nothing beyond the material world, then we are all fools. If there were nothing beyond the material, the existentialist philosophers would be right: the only meaning is what we make, and it dies with us. We know, however, that those depressing philosophers are wrong, because deep inside each and every one of us, we recognize that there is more to all of this than simple material things. If there weren’t anything more, then money, power, and fame would keep us content for all of our days. They don’t. We long for more. Our hearts know the truth: we were made to be loved by the God who created us. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God, because we are made to be filled by love, and the only one capable of filling our hearts is God, the limitless lover. This spiritual truth and reality is far more important than any merely material reality. Truth in a merely material reality is limited to the merely material. Spiritual truths are not so confined.

We all know what is coming this week: Jesus is about to die for us.

The material reality this week shows us the Jesus was tortured and died for us.

The spiritual reality this week shows us that God willingly breaks his heart open and pours out every drop for love—he empties himself totally—in order to repay the covenantal debt that is owed to him by humanity’s failure, our failure, to eradicate sin from our lives.

This is the week Jesus Christ shatters the power of sin and death over humanity.

This is the week Jesus Christ destroys the veil separating Heaven and Earth, opening the gate of Heaven to all who are willing to follow him and enter.

This is the week we welcome Jesus Christ, our God and King and Savior, into our hearts. As we embark on this most solemn and most holy journey, let us make those final preparations so we might greet our King well as he comes to us. Isaiah tells us to set our faces like flint in this task, for we know that in doing so we shall not be put to shame. The master has need of a place to celebrate these mysteries with us. Let us ask his Holy Spirit to assist us in preparing our hearts to be such places as the appointed time draws near.

Brothers and sisters: prepare for the coming and the glorification our God.

Entrata in Gerusalemme, part of the Armadio degli argenti, by Fra Angelico.

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Today’s Readings:
April 5, 2020
Passion Sunday, Year A
(For the Procession) Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66