The Church Marches on the Netherworld

We have nothing to fear, but the gates of the netherworld do.

Homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

We Must Set the Earth on Fire!

Today we hear Jesus say, “I have come to set the earth on fire!” How can we respond to this calling?

Homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Liturgical Year C, given at 9AM on August 18, 2019

Full homily: https://mattsiegman.com/2019/08/we-must-set-the-earth-on-fire/

We Must Set the Earth on Fire!

Audio recording of this homily, from 9AM on August 18, 2019

Today we hear Jesus say, “I have come to set the earth on fire!” and “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is not subtle language. This is not the “I’m fine, You’re fine, We’re all OK, let’s just be nice to each other” language that so many attribute to Jesus. The fact that we find these lines in St. Luke’s Gospel makes them even more jarring: Luke is often considered the most merciful and joyful of the Gospel writers. So how can we understand these jarring lines of the Gospel? What is Jesus demanding of us when he wants the world set afire? Does he really want divided families?

After Jesus speaks of fire, he immediately refers to a baptism. This is most certainly a reference to the Pentecost, where thousands were added to the Church and tongues of fire appeared above their heads. This is the fire Jesus wishes were here: the fire of the Spirit, living within each of us. We were baptized with much more than just water. No, we were baptized with the divine fire of love and life proceeding forth from the Holy Spirit into our hearts. This divine fire comes forth from God; it lives within us; and, it transforms us. Until we are baptized with this fire of the Spirit, Jesus is in anguish. Other translations say that he is constrained. Jesus needs us to burn with his fire to complete his mission of salvation from sin and death.

In the book of Revelation, the Holy Spirit says to the church in Laodicea (wherever that is…), “because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Brothers and sister, we cannot be lukewarm in our faith and in our lives. We must be fire. Not only must we be fire, but we must set the world on fire with God’s love. To become that fire, we must, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” Simply put: We cannot deny the teachings of the church to those around us. We cannot live our lives contrary to those same teachings. We have to be honest with ourselves about this. So many of us, myself included, tell ourselves little lies, like “this is just a tiny sin, it’s OK,” or, “I don’t like this Church teaching, so I’m going to pretend not to know it,” or, “I think the Church is wrong, so I don’t have to follow this.” These thoughts are the work of Satan, the father of lies. He wants to turn us against God, against our own well being, against everything it means to be a child of God, and against that fire inside of us that we were entrusted with at our baptisms. He wants us to fail at “running the race that lies before us” we are called to run.

An image of Jesus depicting his Sacred Heart, the Crown of Thorns, and the marks of the Crucifixion
Notice how Jesus’s Sacred Heart is on fire with love for us, despite his suffering.

This race is not an easy one. In it, we must be exemplars of the faith to those around us. We must be willing to suffer, as the prophet Jeremiah did in today’s first reading. God had instructed Jeremiah to tell the king of Jerusalem to surrender the city, which was under seige by the Babylonians. The prophecy did not go over well, so he was thrown into a cistern. A cistern, if you’ve never seen one, is deep and pretty much impossible to climb out of. This was, basically, a death sentence for Jeremiah. He knew that going in, and was willing to risk his life to proclaim God’s message. In the United States of America, we may not have to risk our lives for God, but we may be asked to risk other things. If God asks us to stand up for him, it could cost us a career, money, friends, or sometimes even family. The devil is the one who sows this pain and division. The evil one is the reason families turn against one another, father against son, daughter against mother. He is behind the sin that lives in the world today, and sadly, too many people have helped him establish structure where sin can continue to grow and flourish.

When Christ says he came to establish division, it is not because he wants to break up families. It is not because he has only invited some of us to join him in Heaven. The divisions exist because Christ has called us to join his fight against the forces of evil and darkness. We can’t stay on the sidelines in this fight: we must pick a side. Do we fight for everything that is good and right and virtuous, for God himself? Or do we fight for the evil one, the father of lies, who desires our downfall?

One outstanding example of a Christian who stared evil in the face and said, “no,” was St. Maximilian Kolbe. During World War II, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. After a prisoner escaped that horrible place, the Nazis chose ten people at random to execute. One man began to weep, and begged to be spared. St. Maximilian Kolbe saw this, and walked up to the commander—which should have gotten him shot on sight—and said, “I will take his place.” The commander replied, “who are you?” St. Maximilian Kolbe replied, “a Catholic priest.” The ten men were locked in a room to starve to death. St. Maximilian Kolbe led them in prayer and song. St. Maximilian Kolbe was the last to die. In fact, it took him so long, the Nazis ended up giving him a lethal injection. This man stared evil in the face and won. Before all this happened, St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote that, “the value of any [community] depends only and absolutely on our life of prayer, on our interior life, on our personal closeness to the Immaculate [i.e., Mary] and, through her, to the Heart of Jesus.”

Our prayer life must bring us always closer to Jesus, and the surest route is through Mary. It is what allowed St. Maximilian Kolbe and all the saints to stand up to evil. Read the story of any saint—of Fr. Emil Kapaun, of St. Augustine, of St. Francis of Assisi, of St. Thomas Aquinas, of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, of St. Catherine of Siena, or any of those Saints we hear in the first Eucharistic Prayer—and you will find that they all begin with prayer.

“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.”

Today’s Readings:
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
August 18, 2019
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

Reflection for the Visitation of Mary

This year, the Visitation sits right in the middle of two great feasts: the Ascension and the Pentecost. At first, this seemed like an interesting coincidence, but not much more. After all, what does Mary visiting Elizabeth have to do with the Ascension, when Jesus raises himself into Heaven? What could it possibly have to do with the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes? After some reflection, however, I realized that there is no more fitting place for the Visitation to end up in the calendar.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) The first thing to look at is the symbolism in this sentence. Jesus was lifted up. He is no longer confined to the Earth. He is above the Earth. Furthermore, he was lifted up of his own power. The last time he had had been lifted up was on the Cross. He had been nailed to the Cross, and hung there, still attached to the Earth. At the Ascension, he triumphs over the Cross definitively, being lifted up. The cloud which took him from the sight of the apostles was, undoubtedly, no ordinary cloud. Think of all the other times we see clouds in the Bible. The cloud on Mt. Sinai, the Cloud of Presence that led the Jewish people through the desert, the Cloud of Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Cloud of the Father who proclaims that he is pleased with Jesus. Clouds stand for the Heavenly Kingdom in the Bible. Jesus didn’t fade out of sight and become a wispy cloud, he disappeared because he fully entered into the Heavenly Kingdom.

At the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rushes upon all those present. The Holy Spirit was breathed into us by the Father through the Son. The Holy Spirit acts throughout the world, and especially through the church of Jesus Christ—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded at the Pentecost. Baptism and Confirmation conform us to God in a new way, and allow the Holy Spirit to act more fully within us. These two sacraments open the doors of our souls to all of the graces and gifts that the Holy Spirit wishes to give us. These Sacraments are truly necessary for our spiritual well-being. St. Paul tells us that, “[t]o each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Cor 12:7) These gifts, these graces, are for our benefit, namely so that we may reach Heaven.

So what does Mary’s visit to Elizabeth have to do with either of these?

Between the Ascension and the Pentecost, we are often tempted to think that the apostles were dormant, that they did nothing. But that is not true. When a woman is the early stages of pregnancy, nothing appears to be happening within her; however, there is a new life growing! Between the Ascension and the Pentecost, this is what was occurring with the apostles. They were processing and coming to understand all the good that Jesus had worked, and everything that was going on inside of their hearts. Even more importantly, Peter and the apostles recognized that Judas must be replaced and elected Matthias. This recognition was crucial in many ways to the growth of the embryonic church. They recognized that they were chosen not simply as individuals, but as officials. The apostles had recognized that this work must continue to go on after them. Once they had realized their status as officials (think of something like an elected administrator in the Kingdom of God) and their need for a plan of succession, they were ready for the Holy Spirit to come.

The Visitation reminds us that Jesus grew inside of Mary, in the same way that each of us do. He developed in a particular way, and certain things had to happen in a certain way for him to be born. Celebrating it in between the Ascension and the Pentecost reminds us that Jesus’s Church, similarly, had to grow in a particular way, and certain things had to happen in a certain way for the Church to come alive. Finally, we must take notice that just as Mary was present through Jesus’s birth, she was also present when his Church came truly alive at Pentecost.

Today, let us remember that Mary will always accompany us to her Son, just as she accompanied her Son into the world. Let us ask her to prepare our hearts to fully receive Jesus and his Holy Spirit.

Today’s Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18A; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4BCD, 5-6; Luke 1:39-56

Reflection for the First Wednesday of Lent

I must admit, every time that I read from the book of Jonah, I chuckle a little bit. When the king of Ninevah hears the message of Jonah, he proclaims a fast and days of penance for not just the people, but also the animals of Ninevah. The cattle and the sheep, along with every man and woman, had to fast, be covered in ashes, and put on sack cloth. Can you imagine that scene? It’s kind of ridiculous!

But once I stop chuckling and step back, I realize that there is serious business going on in the book of Jonah. Even more so when you consider the words of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the people that they will not receive a sign except the sign of Jonah. What is the sign of Jonah?

Let’s go back a little bit further in the book of Jonah. Jonah initially said no to God. He did not want to preach to Ninevah. Jonah was a Jew, and he did not want the Ninevites to be saved. He thought, as some people still think, that there is only so much salvation to go around. He did everything he could to avoid Ninevah, and he ended up getting swallowed by a whale. Now, I’ve never been swallowed by a whale, but I don’t think that’s an experience that a person survives. In fact, the prayer that Jonah prays in the belly of whale refers to him being in Sheol—the land of the dead. After three days, however, Jonah was spewed onto dry land, and he was brought back to life to complete the mission on which God had sent him.

Many people see this as the sign of Jonah. Jonah died and rose three days later, as Christ did. But this was not the sign of Jonah. But Jesus tells us that the sign of Jonah will be given to the people, so what was it and how was it fulfilled?

The sign of Jonah was the immediate repentance and conversion of heart of the Ninevites. We see this prophesy fulfilled in the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic Church. Especially at Pentecost, the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They repented of their sinful ways and committed themselves and their lives to following God. This sign continues even today, as the Church grows. Every time a new person is baptized, or repents and comes back to God, the sign of Jonah is realized. The sign of Jonah can be seen in the lasting presence of the Church in the world.

Through the Sacraments of the Church, we are given new life—as Jonah was given on the beach—in Baptism; God is made present to us through the Eucharist, our sins are forgiven in Confession, and in Confirmation we are strengthened for our mission. What is our mission? The same as Jonah’s mission: to go out to the world and preach the Good News of Salvation.

Today’s Readings: Jonah 3:1-10; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Lk 11:29-32

Reflection for the Sixth Friday of Ordinary Time / Year I

The optional memorial celebrating the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order may be celebrated today.

Today’s Readings: Gn 11:1-9; Ps 33:10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Mk 8:34-9:1

We must not presume on our salvation. By building the Tower of Babel, the people of the Shinar valley were presuming to be greater than God. In the English translation, we do not see some of the subtleties in this story. The people say that they will build this tower to “make a name for themselves.” The Hebrew word for “name” is the same as the name Shem. Shem was one of Noah’s sons, and was a righteous man. He was the father of the Semitic peoples, and his descendants were their rightful leaders. Jew and Christians—as late as the 16th century—have understood the old testament priest Melchizedek to actually be Shem.

By “making a name for themselves” the people of the Shinar valley were intending to throw off the leadership of Shem and to take control of their own destiny. They presumed that they knew better than Shem’s line, and ultimately that they knew better than God. By confusing their language, God was doing the people a favor, because he shattered this presumption. They could no longer even communicate from one another. They would, thus, be able to accept the guidance of others.

We see a similar theme in today’s Gospel. “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” We cannot presume to be in God’s favor simply because of our worldly successes. In fact, these often lead us to act against God and his plan for our happiness. Instead, we must lay down our very lives in service of God: we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus.

When we do this, we take up our true mantle as citizens of the Kingdom of God, which is present on this earth. Jesus promised that the Kingdom would come into power before all of his disciples perished, and it did. The Catholic Church, established by Jesus Christ, led by the apostles, and handed down through the ages by their successors, is the Kingdom of God. Christ gave his apostles extraordinary powers to forgive sin and distribute grace in his name. When we participate in God’s Church, when we fully become citizens of the kingdom, then we can call ourselves friends of God.

So let us take up our crosses, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus, so that we may all be friends of God, and participate in the eternal joy of his Kingdom.

Reflection for the Fifth Saturday of Ordinary Time / Year I

Today’s Mass Readings: Gn 3:9-24; Ps 90:2, 3-4abc, 5-6, 12-13; Mk 8:1-10

I noticed two things while reflecting on today’s readings. The first is about the family of humanity, and the second about clothes.

God tells Adam and Eve that there will be enmity between Eve’s offspring and the snake from now on. Later, we find that Eve is to become the mother of all the living. The battle between evil and Eve’s offspring, therefore, includes all of us. In the Gospel, Jesus performs a mass feeding miracle. But this miracle happens outside of Israel. This is significant. Jesus is going out to the nations, and allowing them to share in the same meal as the Jews. By doing this, Jesus—the offspring of Eve—is beginning the process of reuniting all of Eve’s offspring into one Eucharistic family in the Church.

Later in the Genesis reading, we read that “for the man and his wife the Lord God made leather garments, with which he clothed them.” God himself made clothes for Adam and Eve. I’m reminded of a line in the Gospels where we are told not to overly concern ourselves with the future, for not even kings are clothed as beautifully as the flowers of the field. The passage is reminding us that God will provide for our needs. In Genesis, however, God is directly providing for the physical needs of Adam and Eve. God Himself is performing one of the corporal works of mercy—to clothe the naked! This is fascinating, and it also reminds me how important it is to do these things. It is almost built in to us to do the corporal works of mercy. We simply know that we should try and help the poor, the hungry, the naked, the dying. It is built in to us. Perhaps the reason that these things are built into us is because they are built in to God. We are built in the image of God. If God does these things, it should not surprise us that we desire to do them also.