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

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)

Jesus is Risen: We’ll Never be the Same!

Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia!

After the Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, the apostles were never the same. Let’s follow their lead!

Homily for Easter Sunday, 2020.

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

Jesus wept

Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. If there were any doubt, this shows us that from the very beginning, God puts himself into solidarity with us.

Also, here the homily from Pope Francis that I mention: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200327_omelia-epidemia.html

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept (Jésus pleura) by James Tissot

“And Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Death is not something in God’s original plan for mankind. Death is a consequence of sin, that original sin we hear about in Genesis. We don’t have time to get into all of that, but it is critical that we always remember that suffering and death are consequences of humanity’s turn away from God and towards itself. Even at the beginning, though, God had a plan to redeem us. In Genesis 3:15, we encounter what is called the Proto-Evangelium—the first good news—God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” If there were any doubt that God has put himself into solidarity with us, He sent his Son to become one of us, and this divine Son—God Incarnate—wept at the earthly death of his friend. Death makes God weep. Even though Jesus knew he would soon raise Lazarus, even though Jesus knew that death on this earth was not an end, but a beginning, even though he knew all of this: Jesus wept. He became “perturbed,” the Gospel says, that is, he became stern-faced and resolute, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. He showed his absolute lordship over life and death. Jesus shows today that while we may perish on this earth, death is no match for Him.

Here’s the problem, though: if Jesus, i.e., God,  has absolute sovereignty over life and over death, if he hates sin and suffering and death even more than we do because he understands it more fully, if even a temporary death makes him weep, then why does he permit such things to happen? Jesus brings us the answer today. In John 11:4, we heard Jesus say, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Later—without having been informed by anyone—He informs the apostles in verse 14 that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To rephrase it slightly, God allows Lazarus to die so that many may come to faith because of the mighty that would be wrought by the hands of Jesus.

This all makes me think of the reflection Pope Francis gave on Friday during the extraordinary moment of prayer and Urbi et Orbi blessing. If you did not see it or have not read it, it is excellent. I would that you go to the Vatican’s website, read it, and reflect on it. The Holy Father, reflecting on the calming of the storm in Mark’s Gospel said, ‘we see how [the apostles] call on [Jesus]: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.’1

But how does Jesus care for us when we feel more like Lazarus: dead? Whether we want to admit it or not, something inside each of us has been killed—and many people have been killed—by this pestilence, this viral plague. The pope continues later, this plague ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.’ This plague, then, has been a call from God for us to wake up and remember our glory as human beings: that God emptied himself and became one of us to save us, to save us even from death itself, to save us from not only physical death, but also from a far more deadly and insidious spiritual death. The pope, showing us how God is calling us to glorify him, later continued, ‘[t]he Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.’

This is no easy task on our part. It requires faith and trust in God. We must believe and be confident in the knowledge that God has and will continue to save us from sin, suffering, and death. This challenge of faith is what Ezekiel confronts in our first reading today. To set the scene: the Israelites are exiled from their lands into Babylon. They are cut off from their temple and their temple worship of the Most High God. The entire book of Ezekiel is built around the message that God will NEVER abandon his beloved children. If you look at the first chapter of Ezekiel, it is, admittedly, a little trippy, but Ezekiel is struggling to communicate a vision of God that has at its core one truth: the throne of God moves. God goes anywhere and everywhere that He desires to go. That hasn’t changed in the last 2,618 years, and it never will. As we stay at home, separated from our parishes, unable to fully participate in worship, we face the same tragic question as the captives in Babylon all those years ago: How can I offer fitting worship to God? How can I truly celebrate the Lord’s day? How can I do these things separated from my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Ezekiel today tells the Israelites that God will open their graces and rise them up from them. God will continue to lift us up from our sorrow and breathe new life into us even now, during this time of challenging separation. And God does not stop there. He promises to bring Israel home. God never told Israel that their temple was not the most fitting place to offer him worship. It was the most fitting place to glorify him prior to the fulfillment of the old covenant and the establishment of the new covenant during the Easter Event. The most fitting place to offer God worship now is when we are assembled as a community to participate in the Easter Event which is made present during Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God has never taught us otherwise. But as the Israelites learned all those years ago, and as we are being forced to remember now: God will not allow himself to be sequestered or confined to that hour we spend at Church on Sunday. God lives within our hearts at every moment of every day. He desires to be with us and involved in every aspect of our lives. Through this plague, perhaps God is calling us to glorify him by putting our Easter faith back at the center of our lives. The psalmist today cries, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!’ and ‘With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.’

Let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, so we glorify him every moment of our lives.

Today’s Readings:
March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

God’s Light is stronger than plague

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The Church asks us to rejoice. But in the midst of suffering through a Coronavirus plague and the upending of our lives over the span of barely a week, how can we do that?

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A. (Guadete Sunday)