January 31, 2011 - Memorial of Saint John Bosco, priest

Modern people can be snobs about time. We consider a phone made 2 years ago outdated. A computer from last century is completely useless. We also consider people in olden days to have been stupid. There is a cultural presumption that anyone who lived more than a few hundred years ago had the intelligence of a small child. We hear stories like our Gospel today, and there is a part of us, even us believers, that wants to dismiss the story, that wants to explain the story away. How many people, when they hear the story of a man possessed by thousands of demons, want to do an amateur mental health evaluation on a man who lived 2000 years ago?

If we assume for a moment that the world 2000 years ago was very different from ours, that it was full of all sorts of magic and demons, perhaps even a dragon or two flying around, if we assume, in short, that the ancients who described the world around them were not inclined to make up  and then believe nonsensical stories, what should we expect? Jesus, the Son of God, went around in great power and cast out many demons. He gave his disciples power to cast out demons. He gave his Church baptism and Holy Water to protect us from the power of demons. He made it so that demons, who used to be very common, are now not so common, at least in the Christian parts of the world.

To believe anything else is to believe that much of Jesus’ work and the work of the early Church was useless and silly. In reality, it was just very well accomplished. It is important to see the world in this way, not only so that we might have a bit more respect for the intellect of our ancestors, but also so that we might be on guard against these demons. Only small children believe that closing their eyes makes them invisible; we must go into this battle with our eyes wide open. We have been given powerful weapons in Holy Water, in the Cross, in the Sign of the Cross, but in arrogant ignorance people play with the weapons of our enemies as if they were toys: Ouija boards, horoscopes, yoga, psychics, witchcraft, and many other things. They laugh at them and play with them, not understanding that evil is still out there trying to make a comeback.  

January 30, 2011 - Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings today emphasize a central paradox in Christianity between strength and weakness. On the one hand, we want to see God glorified in every way and with excellence. We want beautiful music sung by a skilled musician, not cheesy hymns sung off-key. We want beautiful art that raises our minds to heaven, not crayon drawings and felt banners. This desire is not specific to Mass alone. We love to see Catholics and other Christians in the world who are the best athletes and the best actors. When we see a film about a Saint we want it to be interesting, well-made, not boring. In short, we might sometimes admire the effort but we would rather admire the skill. There seems little point to having Christian music and Christian books and Christian art if they are not first good music, good books, and good art.

On the other hand, throughout the New Testament we see a glorification of weakness. Not physical weakness alone but weaknesses of every kind: intellectual weakness, political weakness, poverty. The readings today praise the meek, but we would rather see someone who is confident. Not arrogant or prideful in a silly way, but genuinely sure of themself. We prefer confidence in our personal interactions, in our stars, and in our political leaders. The readings today praise the poor, but people familiar with actual poverty know that to be poor, really poor, means, in general, to have less education, worse manners, and worse hygiene.

We might see in this paradoxical praise of weakness, particularly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the sort of disdain for elitism that has infected some of our culture. The early Christians were evidently a rather ragtag group. Did they look out at people who were better off than them and (with nothing more than jealousy) criticize the benefits of a good education, good manners, good grammar, etc.? No! Our religion is not founded on class warfare or the jealousy of outcasts.

The American Idol tryouts have begun again and this provides a good example. Some people sing very poorly, completely off-key, so badly that everyone watching knows that they have not gotten through. When the judges reject them, they complain and curse; they are certain that the judges are being completely unfair. Some philosophers say that Christians are like a group of these terrible singers who get together and discuss how mean the judges are. These philosophers have made this accusation against Christianity: that our morality is nothing more than the whining of the weak, that we invented heaven and hell so that we could take revenge in our minds on those people we could not touch in this world.

Is this true? Do we get together here on Sundays so that we can feel better about that mean world out there? Do we have readings like those today, “Blessed are the meek”, as a sort of affirmation exercise to defeat our feelings of inadequacy? The Bible is not full of nice things that sound good. The Bible is full of truth.

Let us look at the first beatitude and see the truth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the traditional wording, which is nice, but, since we want to understand the truth, we should consider a more literal translation: “Happy are the poor in spirit, for their ruler is God.” The person who is poor in spirit is not merely poor but also is not trying to become rich. The person who is poor in spirit does not have any debt, any chains holding them down. The person who is poor in spirit does not have any savings, no safety net. The market goes up; the market goes down; they do not care. This person depends entirely on God. Only in the most extreme hermits and religious orders in the Church can we find someone completely poor in spirit. The rest of us have to care about money to some extent. To some extent, but there are a lot of people in this world who are ruled by money, by possessions, by the desire to acquire. Jesus is telling us that if we want to be happy, we should put money in its place and be ruled by God.

“Happy are those who mourn, they will be comforted.” Jesus is telling us that we are happier when we are comforted by God than if we never needed his comfort. “Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” A meek person is someone who does not stand up for themselves when they are treated unfairly. If everyone was meek all the time, evil would just steamroll us. We have to defend our families, our country. But there is room in society for someone to be always meek, to never stand up for themself, to wait for God to give them what is theirs, and this person is a very happy person. We all can be meek sometimes and this will make us happy.

Christian weakness always presupposes God’s strength. There is nothing good about weakness in itself. What we celebrate is how our weakness makes room for God. Paul is not glad that the first Christians were dirty, poor, unintelligent, and socially low. He is admiring how God, when first forming the Church, picked out a lot of dirty, poor, unintelligent, and socially low people. God is like a kid picking teams for basketball who picks all the worst players just to prove that he will win no matter what.

God has given many natural talents throughout the world. He will use his Michaelangelos and his Palestrinas and his Karol Wojtylas. If a person can do something well, they are obligated to use their talent for the glorification of God, while remembering that the talent is not their own but a gift from God. We have a great need of skilled Christian artists and musicians and authors and politicians, and no one should fail to develop their talents, burying them in the ground. But happier than any of these is the person, completely dependent on God, working great miracles while seeming to have no natural talents. It would be truly sad to meet someone who was talented in every aspect of life, who had no weakness, no place for God.

And so, what are your talents? Use them to glorify God. What are your weaknesses? Let God use them to glorify himself. No matter what, God will be glorified. 

January 29, 2011 - Saturday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Our first reading from Hebrews explains to us what faith means by giving examples from the life of Abraham. The last example is when Abraham took his son Isaac on the mountain to sacrifice him because God told him to. This is a story that people usually misunderstand. Most people who hear this story think that Abraham expected to walk down the mountain without his son. This is not true. Abraham had been promised grandchildren through Isaac.  Therefore, he knew that Isaac would not be killed or, if he were killed, “he reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.”

This fact changes our entire understanding of the episode. Abraham was relying on the promise of God. Abraham’s faith was that he always expected the promise to be fulfilled, no matter what. He knew that God could carry out his promise. He knew that God would not lie. Therefore nothing stopped him from taking Isaac up on the mountain. Nothing stopped him from tying up his son. Nothing stopped him from raising the knife. And if an angel had not stopped him, nothing else would have prevented him from killing his own son, because he knew that, somehow, Isaac would live to have children.

The disciples in the boat in today’s Gospel are in a different situation. Jesus did not make any promise to them about not dying in a storm, yet he still accuses them of not having faith. But since faith is believing that God will fulfill his promises, how have the disciples failed? When they were afraid they turned to Jesus. Their failure was in their fear. We have a new promise from God: Jesus. Jesus is the promise. St. John tells us that perfect love casts out all fear. He also says that this is love: not that we love God but that he loves us and sent his only son.

God sent Jesus, therefore we have no reason to be afraid. Fear is an emotion foreign to a true Christian. There will be difficulties in our life; there will be suffering, but what could we possibly be afraid of? Poverty? Blessed are the poor. Weakness? God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Suffering? We make up in our bodies what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. Death? Jesus conquered death. When fear remains in you, in me, in all of us, we must hold fast to God’s promise to us: Jesus.

January 28, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Church

Jesus again uses the image of a seed growing to express to us what our faith is like. When we use similes, we always end up with an image that is insufficient in some way. We say that this is like that, but we know that there are many ways in which this and that are different, but not when Jesus uses similes. When he describes our faith as being like the growing process of plants, we know that he invented the growing process of plants. It would not be going too far to say that when God created the world, he created plants in just such a way that they would serve as a perfect image later on. Thus Jesus is not straining similes to make a point; he is pointing out signs and symbols which he has himself placed throughout the universe. Whenever Jesus point to a part of creation he is saying that he hid the entire Gospel in that creature when he created it.

Therefore, when we consider a beautiful image that Jesus sets before us in Scripture, we know that we will never understand it completely, all the way to the end. There is always something more to learn. A doctor of biology or a horticulturalist will know ways in which the analogy of Jesus extends beyond the average person’s knowledge. However, simply because these parables have more meaning than anyone could find, studying only one of them forever, we cannot give up trying to understand them at all.

To point to one example, which Jesus uses today, that of the seed:
The seed is the Word of God.  We are the soil.  We must be soft and welcoming to the Word of God so that the seed does not lie on the surface and get stolen away by birds, but we must be equally hard and unwelcoming to the seeds of the Enemy: the weeds of temptation. We must let the Word of God put down roots, breaking through any hard rocks that get in the way. We must welcome the rain of grace that falls down on us so that the seed will grow. One day, the seed will sprout into a great plant and bear fruit. Then, when the holy angels come, harvesting the world, they will collect all the progress we have made in this world, keep only the tiniest part of it, and burn the rest. 

January 27, 2011 - Thursday of the Third Week in Ordinary Time

Our first reading from Hebrews reminds us of our duty to our fellow Christians: “We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works.” It is possible when trying to make progress in the spiritual life to confuse Christianity for one of those Eastern religions where a devoted person slowly achieves mastery and becomes very powerful, trying to become a Saint by mastering Christian spirituality. A Christian becomes a master only when they forget about themself.

When Hebrews tells us that “we should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another” a certain kind of selfishness is condemned, where a person thinks only of their own relationship with God and the progress they are making or failing to make. There may be a place for this kind of self-concern in the beginning stages of the Christian life, when the new Christian is actively converting bad habits of life.  But just as an adolescent becomes an adult when they take responsibility for another, growing up in the faith means being less self-centered and more focused on others.

Eventually a serious Christian will reach a point where they have removed all attachment to sin and are ready to move on to the purpose of the Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor. This will not include the end of every sin or even the end of every tendency to sin. Though the Devil will always lie and call sin good, the attachment is broken when the lies are seen clearly and sins are committed with a sort of freedom which has all the potential for sanctity or for evil. It is a mistake when, upon reaching this point, the threshold of maturity, the Christian continues trying to root out every sin. This will never happen.  We will be sinners until the day we rise.

The mature Christian instead ought to turn to those around them and love. They ought to forget themself and pay attention to others. This is the first way that a Christian becomes a shocking creature to the world.  The world is not surprised by a person trying to make themself better. The world is astounded by someone who begins to truly encourage others. After all, we are lamps and Jesus did not light us in order to put us under a basket. After a lamp is lit, the lamp is forgotten and becomes useful.

January 26, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Timothy and Saint Titus, bishops

This Gospel is always an interesting one for a preacher.  Jesus tells a parable and then he gives his own homily explaining the parable. I could simply repeat everything that Jesus says, but I will not improve on his homily in any way. I would simply draw attention to his final point: if you want to know whether you are making progress in the spiritual life, see whether you are producing any good fruit.  What are fruit? Conversions of others, virtues in your own life, happiness of those who live with you, miracles of all sorts.  If you are not producing fruit, change something.

Jesus begins his homily telling why he only explains the parables in private after preaching them publicly: “that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.” This answer should surprise us, especially if we thought that Jesus wanted to convert people. Of course Jesus is a greater preacher than Paul and he can work any miracle that could ever be worked. Yet although, as today, we see crowds around Jesus, he did not make many converts during the three years before the Cross. Jesus tells us here that this was not accidental.

I say that this should surprise us, but it should not lead us to question Jesus. He knew what he was doing. Perhaps, had he converted any more people, he could not have died on the Cross.  As it was the Pharisees and Sadducees had to plot with all their cleverness and cunning to kill Jesus in spite of the crowd who supported him. Anyway, we can try to imagine the reasons why, but what we know for sure are the facts: Jesus could have preached in a clear way that would have converted the world, but he did not.

He instead left this to the apostles. To Peter and Paul and the rest.  Today we remember Timothy and Titus, two of the first bishops in the Church. As the apostles were completing their work, they left behind bishops to continue converting the unbelievers and caring for the believers. The apostles laid their hands on these men and they became bishops. When the bishops were completing their work, they laid hands on other men and made them bishops.  So it goes down to today and to our own bishops who are the successors of the apostles.

January 24, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales, bishop and doctor of the Church

When Jesus and the Pharisees have their conversations, it is amazing, almost fun, to see how Jesus can give an answer that silences them. They are the know-it-alls who get taken down at their own game. Sometimes though, as in today’s Gospel, it is necessary to better understand Jesus’ answer in order to truly appreciate his wisdom.

At first it seems like Jesus does not understand their accusation.  The Pharisees claim that Satan is being sneaky the way that Satan is sneaky. We can imagine a false prophet who can cast out demons with an evil power. It would convince people to follow him, like a cunning general who retreats in one place so as to lead his enemy into a trap. Jesus is not contradicting this possibility.

We must be aware that not everyone who heals people or tells the future or even seems to cast out demons is from God. Until the end of this world, when Satan’s power is destroyed, there will always be two sources of supernatural power in this world. To the extent that any supernatural power in this world is real, we must judge the source, whether it is from God or the evil one.

Jesus, however, was no magician.  He did not go around working a few tricks for money or out of pride. How many miracles are written down for us, and yet St. John tells us there could never be enough books in all the world to record everything that Jesus did. To accuse Jesus of using a few magic tricks to win power in the end for Satan is ridiculous. If the Pharisees did not know that their accusation was ludicrous, then they are guilty of greatly underestimating the work of Jesus. The Bible does not give us an exact number of people whom Jesus healed during the three years before the Cross, but any number measured in less than tens of thousands would not be faithful to the descriptions we have.

I sometimes wonder, what if I were a Pharisee when Jesus came? Would I have thought about him as the Pharisees did, as we do about cult leaders today? Jesus gives us a convincing defense: he simply did too much. How many prostitutes and tax collectors turned their backs on sin? Too many for Satan to be pleased. How much suffering was removed from the world? Too much for it to have been Satan’s work.

January 23, 2011 - Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sometimes when people read this Gospel, they come to the conclusion that Jesus just walked up to four fishermen whom he had never met before and told them to follow him. It is clear, however, when looking at the all the Gospels that this is not accurate. Andrew was one of John the Baptist’s disciples. When John pointed the way to Jesus, Andrew met him for the first time. Then he went and got his brother Simon Peter. The Gospel according to John tells us that this introduction and the wedding at Cana and the conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well all happened before today’s Gospel.  Indeed, Jesus’ disciples had even been baptizing people, more people than John the Baptist and his disciples.

The reason it is important to understand the real timeline is so that we understand the situation of Andrew and Simon and James and John when Jesus calls them from their fishing boats.  If the Gospels were in movie form, the first film would be all about the many events that happened up to this point.  The reading today is like the beginning of the sequel, where the old gang gets back together.  Things are different now though.  There were miracles before, like changing water into wine, but now Jesus is about to feed 5000 families with a couple of loaves of bread and some fish. There were healings before, but now Jesus is “curing every disease and illness among the people.” There was teaching before, but now Jesus “went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.”

So what happened?  At the end of the first “film”, the end of the first part of Jesus’ ministry, he is baptized by John and then goes to wander in the desert for forty days. We can almost see Jesus walking off into the sunset while his disciples stand on the bank of the Jordan wondering, “Where is he going? Is he coming back?” If any tried to follow him, they were waved off.  This journey in the desert was for him to make alone. Most likely they were unable to do or say anything after seeing the Holy Spirit land on him and hearing the voice of the Father say “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” They knew that they were following a holy man, a prophet like in the old stories. Perhaps it was only then that they realized whom they had been following. They realized what John the Baptist meant when he said that he was not worthy to unfasten Jesus’ sandal, so they went back to their homes, to their families, to their fishing boats. They went back to what they knew, to something they were capable of.

If there were no sequel, if Jesus had been simply a prophet, this would have been the end of the story.  Simon and Andrew would have told their children about their strange experiences.  They would remember, until the day they died, this man whom they had followed. They certainly would not have gone throughout the world, preaching the kingdom, and eventually dying for Jesus the Messiah.

Now we have arrived where we began with today’s Gospel.  Jesus says to Simon and Andrew and James and John, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Here is a command and a promise.  “Come after me.” You followed me before; come follow me again. Despite your sins, despite your lack of faith, come follow me. Your fears do not matter. You are not worthy to come follow me, but, nevertheless, come follow me.

This promise from Jesus, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men” ought to have been enough by itself to sustain the apostles through every trial. The one who made the promise is trustworthy. Jesus is not only a prophet about whom stories would be told. Everything will change now.  If they come follow Jesus, he will make them fishers of men. He will make them fishers of men. Their weakness, their sinfulness, their doubts are beside the point.  He does not say, “Come after me and I will expect you to be fishers of men” or “Come after me and I will give you some tips on how to become fishers of men.” The apostles were the artwork of Christ. He made them what they became.

There are some of you now who are following Jesus partially. I do not speak to you as if you did not know Jesus at all. He has a part in your life, but is he the center, is he the most important person in your life? Many people are living as if Jesus were a mildly interesting figure. The Gospel does not allow this to us. The Gospels are calling us to be religious extremists, to be radicals, to not count the cost, to go out into the deep. The way of Jesus is a narrow way. There is no room to be selfish and a Christian. There is no room to be greedy and a Christian. There is no room for all the baggage you are carrying.

There comes a point where Jesus calls us and we have to just follow him. This may not be at the beginning. At first we can spend some time with Christ, and he will let us draw close to him with all our misconceptions and faults, but the day will come when he asks for more. The day will come when he asks us for everything, and this will mean that we have to give up our plans if they are not his plans. If we submit, if we leave our own ideas behind like Simon and Andrew left their nets, like James and John left their father, then we can be a Christian.

Jesus is saying to each one of us, “Come follow me and I will make you….” Make us what? That is our vocation. Will he make you a fisher of men? Will he make you a servant of the poor? Will he make you a wise parent? I can only guarantee that whatever he will make you is far, far better than anything you can ever make yourself into. Go. Follow him. Be not afraid.

January 22, 2011 - Saturday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

We are told that “When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.’” The original words in Greek here can mean relatives, but it literally means “his own”.  Jesus’ own people, his mother and brothers.

Now we know that Jesus did not have any brothers, strictly speaking.  The word brothers refers either to his step-brothers from a previous marriage of Joseph or to his cousins who were sometimes called brothers in that culture.  We also know that Mary, Jesus’ mother, did not really think that he was out of his mind. She knows that he is God. While she did not understand everything that he did, she did trust him completely. I think that when Jesus’ brothers decided to go, she simply went along because she would never turn down an opportunity to see Jesus.

But what about these brothers?  Anyone with a sibling who causes trouble can understand their minds.  They are concerned for Jesus, that he will hurt himself or get himself killed.  They are also concerned for the family’s reputation.  They are going to go find him and “seize him” as the Gospel says, take hold of him, get him under control.

When they arrive they find something very different than what they were evidently expecting. They do not find crowds of people laughing at Jesus. They do not find a small contingent of equally crazy people following him around. They find crowds of sane people listening. They hear his teaching: rather than the crazed rambling they expected. It is beautiful to listen to. They find that one of their brothers, James, has become an apostle of Jesus.  

When we look at the world around us, we too might be convinced that God is crazy.  There is too much violence and too much suffering.  The wicked go unpunished.  We might have a temptation to go to God and take hold of him and tell him how he ought to be running the universe. Then we look around and see the whole world, a delicate balance of physical laws and living creatures and free people and realize that we must trust God, simply.  We can have faith in him; we do not need to be afraid.  

January 21, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Agnes, virgin and martyr

“I will put my laws in their minds and I will write them upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his fellow citizen and kin, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from least to greatest. For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sins no more.”

These words from Jeremiah are, according to our first reading today, fulfilled in Christ.  It seems strange that in the middle of a long teaching about the Lord, there would be this quote about not teaching.  It is clear that the fulfillment of the prophecy does not involve everyone having sudden and complete knowledge of the faith.  If it were so, all homilies, all catechesis, and every bit of theology would be useless.

In this prophecy, rather than finding a reason to discard all Christian teaching, we see the point of Christian teaching.  We know that the Holy Spirit is the only real teacher.  When someone is filled with the Holy Spirit, they learn about God in a way that puts the most beautiful teaching to shame.  However, the teaching is a necessary component in this work of the Holy Spirit.

We who have been commissioned by the Church to teach the faith must remember that if we only filled a mind with facts we would be utter failures.  We must fill the soul with the Holy Spirit.  The means to this might be an exhortation or an explanation or even rote memorization, but these are not the ends.  We speak of the beautiful things of our faith because they lead the soul to fall in love with God.  We read books about Saints or theology because we must prepare the way for the Lord.

The Holy Spirit comes as a consuming fire but also very gently.  If God pushed us too hard we would break. When the Holy Spirit comes to a mind that is filled with the things of God he can do his work.  When he comes to a mind filled with the things of this world, he is completely misunderstood.  It is in this way that study is immensely important but also ludicrously inadequate. All teaching, even by the greatest Saints, is merely a preparation for the Holy Spirit who will come when we are ready and teach us without words.  

January 20, 2011 - Thursday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

“Jesus is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.” In other words, we have a friend in Jesus; we have someone on our side. We have a high priest who is constantly interceding for us before the Father in heaven, and our high priest is the Son of God himself. Sometimes, though, it seems like we are on our own down here. It does not matter whether we have been disappointed because God did not have us win the lottery or because someone died even though we prayed for their life. Either way, we have come to realize that we do not hold a sort of magic power over God. Sometimes we ask something in Jesus’ name, even something good and unselfish, and it is refused.

The reason for the refusal is easier to understand than to accept. Our relationship with God is not that he is a servant to do our will, but that he is our Father. We are like small children who depend on him completely, but he will only give us what is actually good rather than what merely seems good in the moment. A mature faith does not see our Father as a genie in a magic lamp. A mature faith has trust in the Father to provide the very thing we need, when we need it.

The Gospel today provides an example of how people were blinded to their true good by self-concern. Jesus has to teach from a boat off-shore so that the crowds do not crush him. Among these people there are surely many whose stories would touch our hearts, yet Jesus is not a sort of good-luck charm. We know that these people did not understand him. Where were they at the Cross?

Every one of us has a story. We all have disappointed expectations and tragedy in our lives. We could ask why God has not made our life easier, better, richer, or, worse, we could try to explain his will as if we could understand it. But there is something better out there for each of us: faith. We can simply trust that God does love us, that Jesus is eternally interceding for us. This does not make our life easier or more comprehensible. It does, however, free us from all fear. It does give us confidence in the plan of God for the world.

January 19, 2011 - Wednesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

There is such a contrast today between Jesus, whose life “cannot be destroyed”, who would rather “save life than destroy it”, and the Pharisees who are taking counsel with the Herodians to put him to death.  The Herodians were the servants of King Herod, a man whose life consisted of parties and submitting to the Roman conquerors.  He and the Herodians are the natural enemies of the Pharisees who are trying to be faithful to the Jewish Law. The only characteristic that these two opposing groups have in common is extraordinary selfishness.

It is so strange to read that their first tactic was to “watch Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath”, like a store security guard watch potential shoplifters, as if Jesus might try to sneak in a healing without being noticed. These Pharisees have hardened their hearts. They refuse to be open to the teaching of Jesus. When he asks them a difficult question, they do not even try and answer.

If we want to understand their position, we could look to the answer given by another at a similar time: “there are six days for healing, come then.” Why did Jesus heal on the Sabbath when he could have simply healed on the next day? Jesus is teaching us not only that healing is permitted on the Sabbath, but that healing is the very thing to do on the Sabbath.  The Sabbath should be spent doing good rather than evil, saving life rather than destroying it.  

We who are followers of Jesus Christ ought to take this teaching to heart.  Our Sabbath must not consist of resting and relaxing ourselves.  Sunday is not a day for more selfish indulgence.  We should follow Jesus and do good on Sunday, not evil.  Sunday ought to be a day where we live life to its fullest, live life as we would if we needed nothing.  In a perfect Christian culture, we would spend six days working when we needed and resting when we could, but on the first day of the week we would make provision for the poor and the sick and the lonely, we would go to Mass and pray, we would celebrate with family in a simple way, we would, in short, be completely unselfish. We do not live in this perfect culture, but what is preventing us from beginning? 

January 18, 2011 - Tuesday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time

Jesus tells us that the “Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”   We are all sons and daughters of humans.  In this case the example of David and the Apostles means that religious laws are important, but some can be broken for good reasons.  If God had not told us “Thou shall not kill”, murder would still be wrong, but if he had not told us to rest on the Sabbath or which bread was special, there would be no reason not to work on the Sabbath or eat the bread.  So, since these laws are not intrinsically necessary, it seems that each person, using their conscience needs to decide when to follow them and when to break them. 

There is a problem with this interpretation.  There is no reason to suggest that the disciples of Jesus were particularly hungry.  Were they just so rural that they had no idea that picking heads of grain on the Sabbath would be frowned upon?  This seems unlikely.  Did Jesus tell them that it was okay?  Did he command them to do it?  He is the Son of Man.  Has he come to change a law?  But he says that he will not change any laws.

The real difference is Jesus.  His presence changes how to understand the Law.  David and his companions did not follow the letter of the Law because they were starving.  The disciples do not follow the Law because the point of the Law was fulfilled in their midst.  As Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  God did not create us so that someone would be resting once a week.  God created the once-a-week rest for us. 

Work is a punishment that came after Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden.  The Sabbath is a little Eden at the end of the week, but Jesus is our Eden.  The Pharisees could only remember paradise because the punishment of work was taken away for one day.  We can experience paradise in Our Lord.  Jesus was not just a teacher with some good ideas.  He is God.  We are not supposed to hear his teaching as more work for us to do.  We are supposed to take up our Cross and follow him, and come rest in his arms.  These are not two sides to Christianity that must be balanced.  They are one and the same. 

January 17, 2011 - Memorial of Saint Anthony, abbot

I can imagine someone with new wine, looking for a place to put it.  I cannot imagine someone with a new piece of cloth looking for a cloak to patch with it.  The easy solution to the problem would be to wait for the wine to get old or find an old piece of cloth.  Jesus does not take the easy solution. 

Jesus has something new: the truth, the fullness of truth.  It is new to us, although it is older than the universe.  It is always new because it is eternal.  Jesus not only has something new, he is something new.  He is the new wine.  He is the new cloth.  He cannot change himself to fit the world.  He must change the world to fit him.

There is a sense in which we are old, worn out.  There is no better sign of youth than joy.  A young person without joy seems old.  An old person with joy seems young again.  We are old because we lack joy.  Jesus comes and he cannot just be more of the same.  His joy is perfect.  It is a bit much for us old grouches. 

Now we can see a metaphor that Jesus might have used in the 21st century: nobody hates new things like old people.  As much as the oldest grouch in the world hates the idea of Twitter, someone without joy hates the idea of a Savior.  If we want to imagine how the Pharisees felt about Jesus, we should watch Andy Rooney talk about Facebook. 

When Jesus came, and he is new, he insisted that his disciples rejoice while he was with them.  No fasting for his disciples, at least not yet.  Not until there could be a joyful fast.  Indeed, this is the mark of a Christian: a joyful fast, joyful suffering, joyful life.  A martyr is not someone who died for Christ; all sorts of people have died for all sorts of stupid things.  A martyr is someone who died joyfully. 

Whether you are 8 or 80, if you are going to be a Christian, you must be young, you must be filled with joy.  Not a fake joy, not an imaginary joy, but a real joy given to us as the first fruit of the Holy Spirit, as the first commandment of God’s will for us in Christ: “Rejoice always.”

January 16, 2011 - Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

We have just been singing, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”  The psalmist is speaking to God.  When we speak to God, it is never to inform him; it is always to remind ourselves.  So when we sing, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will” we are reminding ourselves of what our relationship with God is. 

“Here I am Lord.”  God knows where we are.  We need the reminder.  Here we are on earth, in the exact situation that our current time and place finds us.  We could imagine a thousand people, each in their own unique situation, calling out, “Here I am Lord.”  A person in the depths of grief can say, “Here I am Lord.”  A person on top of Mount Everest can shout, “Here I am Lord.”  A person made weak by illness can whisper, “Here I am Lord.”  A person caught in addiction with no visible way out can call out, “Here I am Lord.”

God knows where we are.  Not just our location but every fact about us, even what we ourselves do not know.  This phrase, “Here I am Lord” is a reminder that no matter where we are, we can call out to God.  There is no one in the world, no matter their situation, no matter their struggles, no matter their triumphs, who cannot stop and say, “Here I am Lord.” 

We should attain the habit of this prayer.  Ten times a day we should stop and turn to the Lord and say, “Here I am Lord.”  This part of the prayer is all about the present.  The past does not matter: how I got here, whose fault or success it was, is beside the point.  I am here, and here is not too far away to speak to the Lord, so “Here I am Lord.”  

The past matters only inasmuch as it has created the situation we are in.  What we have done and what we have suffered has put us here today.  Here.  Exactly where each one of us is.  Our here and now includes certain responsibilities, certain commitments, certain disabilities, certain liabilities.  God knows that.  He knows exactly where we are.  We are the ones who might lie to ourselves.  So we stop and say, “Here I am Lord.”  Yet this was only half of the prayer that we sang.  “Here I am Lord,” but now what?  “I come to do your will.”  This is to say that, no matter where we are, we can choose to do what is right. 

A young woman is pregnant.  Unmarried.  How did this happen?  Does it really matter?  For some things it does.  Who is the father?  Will he take responsibility?  But, for the fact of the pregnancy itself, the past does not matter.  Whether she has made mistakes, whether she is a victim, or if she is our Blessed Mother, pregnant with our Lord, the truth is the same.  Each can stand in their situation and say, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”

Abortion is a lie.  Some people think that the morality of abortion depends on how the woman got pregnant.  If a woman is pregnant, and it is unfair, then she can have an abortion.  But abortion cannot change reality.  This is the lie.  Abortion supporters claim it can.  If a mother kills her child she is still the mother of that child.  Abortion cannot make a mother not a mother.

This example is only one of many.  We all are, to some extent, unhappy with our here and now.  No one is living in paradise.  So many lies reach out and claim that they can deal with our situation.  In this culture of death, many of these solutions (Abortion, Suicide, Euthanasia, Terrorism) involve death, but death cannot be a solution.

We stand right here, each of us, in our own place.  We see signposts in every direction.  Those that point to death sometimes seem like easy roads out.  They never lead to a good place.  The waters are rising and death seems like the escape we need, but it only leads deeper.  The sign post that points to God’s will is the only way to high ground.

Sometimes God’s will seems to be an impassible route.  Sometimes God’s will seems like a highway for other people, but I cannot take it.  There is always an on-ramp to God’s will.  No matter where we are.  We always have complete freedom to begin to do God’s will. 

The only toll, the only charge, is that we have to give up our will.  If we today give up every one of our plans for life, if we today give up every expectation, every anticipation, every ambition, every entitlement, every sense of our fair share, it is possible to do God’s will, to be completely happy.  How many people are prevented from following God because of a daydream!  How many times must we remind ourselves?  God loves us.  He knows what is best for us.  Therefore, his plan is specially designed to get us what is best for us.  What more do you want?

Just as Israel had to give up the idea of being the only nation favored by God, just as Paul had to give up a promising career as a Pharisee to become an apostle (and what is an apostle but a wandering beggar?  It seems impressive now, because of where God’s will took him.  At the time it was about as low as a person could go.), just as John the Baptist had to give up the following he could have had as he pointed the way to Jesus, so too must we all give up whatever is tying us down here. 

And when we give it up, and travel down the way of God’s will, and arrive at heaven, if we should, by some chance turn and look at that precious dream that lies cast aside on the road, we will laugh at ourselves for ever thinking it of any value at all in comparison to God’s love and what he has prepared for us.

January 15, 2011 - Saturday of the First Week In Ordinary Time

Today the readings are in a particular way proclaiming the good news of Christianity.  This is news that we must hear.  We are not on our own.  Our religion is not just Judaism with some updated rules.  We have received grace in place of grace. We are told that "the word of God is living and effective."  We worship the Word of God who is the Son of God.  Some people believe that the Bible is full of difficult rules.  So it is.  Some people believe that the message of Christianity is that we must be perfect.  So we must.  Yet these truths cannot be separated from the fact that the Word of God is not only the printed word, the words which we have just heard, but also a person, a Savior.  And our Savior is not "unable to sympathize with our weaknesses."  Our Savior loves us.  We cannot be good enough, but he is.  "So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help."

What does this all mean?  It means that when we begin trying to live the good life, we make some progress.  We find that we can stop sinning, sometimes.  Then we hit a wall.  We are confused why some sins will not go away.  We are confused why some weaknesses remain despite our desire to be rid of them.  We pray that God will take away this thorn in the flesh, whatever our weakness is.  But he will not.  He will not help us to become creatures who can get along without him.  This would be very bad for us.  We would end as pure as angels and as proud as devils.  God will, however, give us our daily bread.  The help we need, the power we need, this day.  For his power is made perfect in weakness.

When Jesus called Levi who is Matthew, he might have followed out of curiosity that day.  He might have followed for awhile on his own strength.  But we know that he followed Jesus through the Cross and to his own martyrdom.  This was not done on his own strength. 

We are weak.  There is help out there: not mere suggestions or encouragement, not a one-time fix that will make us independent, but a fire that will burn within us so long as it is constantly fed by the Word of God: in reading, in hearing, in Mass, in prayer, in Confession, in the Eucharist. In short, in every priceless possession given to the Church by Our Lord.