The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Wis 2:12,17-20  +  Jas 3:16—4:3  +  Mk 9:30-37
September 23, 2018

… He said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in My Name, receives Me….”

A priest serving in a rural area was asked how many families were in his parish.  He jokingly responded, “About seven.”  His point was that most of his parishioners were from large, extended families, whose roots stretched back to the founding of the parish.  Sacred Scripture is similar.

There are eight “families” of books in the Bible, and each of the 73 books of Scripture belongs to one of those eight families.  To use an analogy, consider Great-uncle Ebenezer.  He and his first wife begat four children.  Then after her death, Great-uncle married again, and by his second wife begat four more children.

So in the Bible, the Old Testament is made up of four “families” of books:  the books of the Law, of history, of wisdom, and of the prophets.  These books are the fruit of the covenant between the Lord and Israel.  Likewise, in the New Testament there are four “families” of books:  the accounts of the Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, the apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation.  These books are the fruit of the covenant between Christ and the Church.

This background helps us appreciate the context of today’s Second Reading.  For four weeks now, the Second Reading at Sunday Mass has come from James, and this will continue through next Sunday.  James is one of the 21 books of the New Testament in the family of apostolic letters or “epistles”.  But you can further divide that family of 21 books according to which apostles wrote them.  Two-thirds of the letters were written by Saint Paul, while out of the remaining seven, only one was written by St. James.

The Letter of St. James is arguably the most practical of all the New Testament letters.  James takes a no-nonsense attitude towards following Jesus.  The focus of St. James in his letter is not some lofty—though important—matter such as how three divine Persons eternally live as one God.  Instead, St. James deals with down-to-earth questions of fallen human nature.

Listen to how plain spoken St. James is today when he asks, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  …  You covet but do not possess.  …  You do not possess because you do not ask.  You ask[,] but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, [in order] to spend it on your passions.”  That’s what you call matter of fact!

St. James focuses first upon diagnosis:  exposing the spiritual wound and underlying disease to view.  But then he directs our attention to the cure:  the divine Physician, Jesus Christ.  We receive the grace of His saving remedy through the sacraments, but we need to conform our lives to the life of Jesus Christ so as to fittingly receive this gift, at least to the extent of having no more than venial sins.

That is, if someone were to receive the sacraments while continuing to live a life like that which St. James is preaching against, Christ’s grace would not abide in him or her.  St. Paul speaks more directly to this point, explaining a further consequence:  “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” [1 Cor 11:27].  If we considered the Gospel’s demands to be mere ideals, and denied that serious sin—whether a single mortal sin or a mortally sinful state of life—prevents one from receiving the sacraments, we would act against the apostolic teachings of the Church.

Our Gospel passage today helps us see what this process of spiritual conformity asks from us.  We need to conform ourselves to the image of the Cross, because this image consists of being “the last of all and the servant of all.”  This image consists of receiving a child in Christ’s Name, so to receive Christ Himself, so to receive the One who sent Christ.  To receive this One—God the Father—is to allow God the Father to strengthen His likeness within us by means of His daily bread.

Saturday of the 24th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Saturday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Corinthians 15:35-37,42-49  +  Luke 8:4-15
September 22, 2018

“This is the meaning of the parable.”

The parable Jesus preaches to us today is well-known.  Its meaning is clear because Jesus Himself explains the parable:  something He rarely does.  Given this explanation, we might apply the parable to ourselves as an examination of conscience.  While Jesus describes the different elements of the parable as relating to different groups of persons, one can reflect on these elements as relating to oneself at different times in one’s life.

“The seed is the Word of God”, that is, God the Son, as St. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel account.  Our lives as disciples are all about allowing this seed to sink into our souls:  allowing God the Son entrance into our hearts and minds, so that He might bear good fruit within us.

When are we “on the path”?  When are we so shallow in giving our attention to Jesus that the devil snatches Him from our lives?  When are we “on rocky ground”?  When do we allow temptation to have the upper hand over Christ?  When are we “among thorns”, allowing our worldly concerns to choke off both God the Son and the graces He wills to bring into our lives?  During the offering of the Holy Eucharist, ask the Word made Flesh to help you till the field of your life so that it might be “rich soil”.

St. Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist

St. Matthew, Apostle & Evangelist
Ephesians 4:1-7,11-13  +  Matthew 9:9-13
September 21, 2018

“I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Among the four evangelists, only Matthew and John were apostles.  Mark and Luke did not, as far as we know, ever meet Jesus during His earthly life.  Nonetheless, Mark and Luke were disciples of Peter and Paul, respectively, and from those two Mark and Luke received the apostolic witness to the Good News.

On this feast of St. Matthew, we also ought to keep in mind that while all four accounts of the Gospel are apostolic in origin, each presents a unique portrait of the Messiah.  If a man has four very close friends during his life, then after his death each of those four would likely write a different biography of their common friend.  Each account of his life would reflect the biographer’s interactions with him.

Today’s Gospel passage presents Matthew’s own account of how Jesus called him to serve.  Matthew is strikingly honest about his sinfulness.  In light of his own need for mercy, Matthew presents Jesus’s own vocation through the words that the Lord speaks at the end of today’s Gospel passage:  “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  God the Father called His divine Son to carry out this mission, and that Son extends here to Matthew a share in that mission.

The First Reading might seem fitting today because of St. Paul describing various roles within the Body of Christ, such as apostle and evangelist, both of which Matthew was.  However, consider the beginning of this passage, where Paul describes the Christian’s need for humility and patience, so as to bear “with one another through love”.  These words echo Matthew’s description of how Jesus called himself.

Sts. Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, & Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, et soc., Martyrs

Sts. Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, & Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, et soc., Martyrs
1 Corinthians 15:1-11  +  Luke 7:36-50
September 20, 2018

“So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.”

In today’s Gospel passage we witness a conflict among the “sinful woman”, Simon the Pharisee, and Jesus.  In this passage, the Lord uses the sinner’s situation to try to bring the Pharisee to Him.  For your own spiritual life, to draw from this Gospel passage, you have to put yourself in the sandals of this sinful woman.

Until we look seriously at our sins, at their effects on our souls, and at their consequences (for ourselves and for others, both in this world and in the next), our experience of prayer will be diminished, and so therefore will the benefits of our prayer.  Too often in our prayer we’re like Simon the Pharisee instead of being like the sinful woman.  The Pharisee says to himself, “If [Jesus] were a prophet, He would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”  By contrast, the sinful woman says nothing, but she acts with great love.  The Pharisee speaks to himself with doubt about whether Jesus is even a prophet.  But the woman acts with love towards Jesus, because she knows through faith that He is the Messiah who wants to wash away her sins.

If we wanted to sum up today’s Gospel passage, we could ponder just those two sentences that Jesus proclaims to Simon:  “her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  In those words, Jesus teaches us two lessons.  First, the virtue of humility is the beginning of a fruitful prayer life.  Second, through that fruitful prayer the Christian finds the start of the contentment and peace of mind that remain elusive until we remain in God.

Wednesday of the 24th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Wednesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13  +  Luke 7:31-35
September 19, 2018

“But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Our society today is knowledge-rich but wisdom-poor.  Contrast knowledge and wisdom.

Knowledge today, as it’s commonly considered, is thought to be facts and figures.  Computers can put human persons to shame when it comes to sorting, categorizing and presenting information.  While we might dispute whether facts and figures are the essence of knowledge or merely some of its components, we often educate our children according to knowledge-based systems.

What would it mean instead to educate children, and to re-form adults, according to a pattern of wisdom instead?  Jesus in today’s Gospel passage hints that “wisdom is vindicated by all her children”.  These curious words suggest that wisdom “educates” not according to a knowledge-based system, but according to a person-based system.  Jesus teaches us that wisdom bears children; it doesn’t spit out data.  Wisdom can only be understood according to a personalistic view of human life, the Gospel, and the eternal life to which Jesus wants to lead us.  It’s wise for us to follow Him.

Tuesday of the 24th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Tuesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Corinthians 12:12-14,27-31  +  Luke 7:11-17
September 18, 2018

Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.

This week, our First Readings at daily Mass present profound spiritual truths.  Yesterday in the First Reading, St. Paul preached about the importance of the Eucharist, and explained how it came from Jesus Himself on the night before He died.  The night before Jesus offered His Body on the Cross, He offered His Body through the Sacrament of the Eucharist to His apostles.

In today’s passage, we hear Saint Paul preaching again about the Body of Christ.  But He’s preaching about the Body of Christ in a little different way.  Today, when He preaches about the Body of Christ, He’s talking about us.  He’s talking about the Church:  “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”

When you were baptized, you became a member of Christ’s Body.  Your Original Sin was washed away, and the virtues of faith, hope and love were put into you, and through those virtues, you were made strong enough to be part of the Body of Christ.  You don’t have to be strong enough to be the entire Body of Christ, but God has called you to be just one part of His Body.

It’s God who does the calling, so you have to listen to His voice in your prayer, and ask what part He wants you to play within the Church.

When He answers, you’ll realize that God has called you to something very important.  That’s why you’ll continue to need those divine virtues of faith, hope and love that you first received on the day of your baptism.  These are the virtues that Saint Paul goes on tomorrow at Mass to preach about.  These are the virtues that make us strong enough to follow Christ, to be like Him, to be one part of His Body, the Church.

HOMILY – The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9  +  James 2:14-18  +  Mark 8:27-35
September 16, 2018

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it….”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  If you’re an adult, I’m sure you were asked that many times when you were little.  If you are a child, I’m sure it hasn’t been all that long since someone asked you what you want to be when you grow up.  Children are encouraged to dream about many things, and one of them is what they want to be when they grow up.  Children dream about being an astronaut, or a movie star, or a cowboy, or a firefighter, or an even more fanciful role like a superhero.

It’s important for children to exercise their imaginations.  It’s good for children to imagine themselves as adults.  Nonetheless, there’s a very dangerous trap lurking inside this seemingly innocent question:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

To consider that question in the light of today’s Gospel passage, consider this thought experiment.  Imagine that Mr. Peabody in his WABAC machine transports you back through time to the first decade of the first century A.D.  You arrive in the town of Nazareth, and come across a little boy named Yeshua, who as you approach is listening to his mother, Miryam.  You suddenly realize that this boy is the child Jesus.

Unfortunately, Mr. Peabody tells you that you only have five minutes before you’re taken back to the 21st century.  You may ask this boy Jesus one and only one question.  So you reflect for a moment, and then you ask the boy Jesus this question:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Now, what do you imagine that boy’s answer will be?

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The answer to that imaginary question can be gleaned from what Jesus demands from us in today’s Gospel passage.  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  For you to be a Christian, you must do these three things:  deny your self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.  Today, consider just the first of these.

What does it mean for you to deny your self?  It doesn’t mean that you cut up your driver’s license and go around in public wearing a wig and a false nose.  Your self is more than your name, date of birth and Social Security Number.  But what, then, is your self?  Before you can follow Christ, you have to know what your self is before you can deny it.

What is your self?  Reflect on just three answers to this question.  There might be others, also, but these three are key.  When Jesus demands that you deny your self, these show us three key ways in which you must deny your self.  We might call these three:  the “selfish self”, the “animal self”, and the “desired self”.  Of course, each person is a single self, so these three “selfs” described here are really just aspects or dimensions of one’s entire self.  But for the sake of argument, consider each of these three as a separate self.

The first self is the fallen, sinful self.  This is not the self God created you to be.  Instead, this is the self that concupiscence helps you become as a child of Adam and Eve.  This is the “selfish self”:  the self who sins.

So then, how can you deny this first self?  If you’re a cradle Catholic, you’ve known the answer to this question since at least Second Grade.  This form of self-denial is most basic to the Catholic spiritual life.  It’s the denial of sin and temptation.  It’s saying a strong “No!” to sin and temptation.  Hopefully each of you declares that “No!” as soon as you experience the movement of temptation:  as soon as you recognize that you’re within the proximity of the occasion of sin.  You practice this form of self-denial by not saying “Yes” to temptation, and not committing sin.

Of course, each of us here is a sinner.  That’s why Jesus, on the evening following His Resurrection from the dead, instituted the Sacrament of Confession.  Part of the beauty of the Sacrament of Confession is that God allows us, after we’ve sinned and incurred guilt, to practice self-denial:  that is, to say “No!” to the sins we’ve already committed, placing them in the confessional at the foot of Jesus’ Cross.

The second self that you must deny if you want to follow Jesus is the “animal self”.  This is the self that reflects the truth that human beings are, in fact, animals.  We are rational animals, but animals nonetheless.  Although God raised us above the other animals of the earth in that we can speak, and create works of art and literature, and split the atom, each of us at the same time remains an animal, with basic needs such as to eat, to drink, and to sleep.

It’s helpful to remember that this was also true of Jesus and Mary during the days that they walked the earth.  That first self—the sinful self—in no way, shape or form was part of Jesus’ life or Mary’s life.  But hunger and thirst and sleep and the other animal needs that we have are part of human nature as God created human nature “in the beginning”:  before Adam and Eve brought sin into the word.  So even Jesus and Mary experienced this second sense of self:  the animal self with all its basic desires.

So then, how can you deny this second self?  Unfortunately, unless you grew up before the Second Vatican Council, you’re not very likely to have heard a lot about this second type of self-denial.  If you did, you must have been blessed with very fine priests or nuns or parents (or all of the above!).  The second form of self-denial that each Christian must practice is denial of basic needs like food, drink and sleep.  The Gospel accounts tell us that the Son of God Himself practiced these types of self-denial:  fasting from food and drink, and spending entire nights in prayer with God the Father.  If Jesus practiced these, how can you not do the same?

Unfortunately, many Catholics today have never been told that the Church obligates every Catholic to practice penance every Friday of the year, not just the Fridays of Lent.  It’s true that the Church only specifies what form this penance must take during Lent:  on Fridays of Lent, Catholics must abstain from meat as their penance.  On the other Fridays of the year, Catholics are free to decide the form of their penance; nonetheless, they are obligated to carry out some form of penance.

The third self that you have to deny if you want to follow Jesus might be called the “aspiring self”.  It’s just natural that to be human means to look to the future.  It’s part of human nature to plan, to dream, and to imagine where one wants to be a year from now, ten years from now, and so on.  A great deal of our present goes into dreaming about, planning and preparing for our future.

However, the future is unpredictable in ways we cannot even predict.  Just ask the citizen of the Carolinas whose lives have been turned upside down (or ended!) by Hurricane Florence (and for whom we need to remember to pray).  The old saying tells us that “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray”.

The truth is that the future is unpredictable for several reasons.  First, life on earth is chaotic by its nature.  Second, sin and its consequences constantly throw monkey wrenches into the gears of human hopes.  But third, and most importantly, God’s grace is Providential.  God often bestows His graces upon us by surprising, unpredictable and unexpected means.  We cannot plan for God’s grace, because we cannot control God or His grace.  But we can always exercise the virtue of hope.

So in life on this earth, we sometimes have to deny our “aspiring self”.  It’s certainly not wrong to aspire, dream and plan.  Oftentimes the most responsible thing we can do is plan for the future as best we can.  But on the other hand, we also need to remember that God sometimes offers us something better than our best.  We don’t know when that might happen, so we have to be alert every day to the possibility, and be ready to deny our plans for the sake of God’s Providence.

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That leads us back to the first century, where we asked the child Jesus, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  There’s really only one possible answer.  It’s the same answer to your own questions about prayer, about chaotic weekly schedules, about rearing children, and about relationships with spouses and parents.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jesus?”  Jesus replies, “I want to befaithful to my Father’s Will.”

Jesus had to teach this lesson to His saintly foster-father, Joseph, and even to His sinless mother, Mary.  So we shouldn’t be surprised if we have to learn this lesson over and over throughout our lives.  You remember how, when the child Jesus was lost in the eyes of His mother and foster-father, they frantically searched for Him.  Finally, they found Him in the Temple, and when they begged Him for an explanation, He simply asked, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”

The Temple in Jerusalem, magnificently built of stone, adorned with gold and other precious metals, was destroyed by the Romans in the year A.D. 70.  But as magnificent as that temple built by human hands was, it was only a shadow of the Father’s Providential heart and will.  God the Father’s heart and will is the true temple that Jesus was speaking of when He rhetorically asked Mary and Joseph, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Most of us, when we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up, give an answer based on doing rather than being.  “What do I want to be when I grow up?  I want to be someone who fights fires, orbits the earth, acts in movies, and leaps tall buildings in a single bound.”  We don’t know how simply to be, much less to be still and be with God.  We only know how to do like Martha, instead of being like her sister, sitting quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening to His words, and drawing from Him the strength to be faithful to God the Father.

Monday of the 24th Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
1 Corinthians 11:17-26,33  +  Luke 7:1-10
September 17, 2018

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

With few exceptions, the translation of the Mass introduced in 2011 has been hailed by bishops, scholars and folk in the pews for its advances over the hurried translation made soon after Vatican II.  One of the key improvements in the translation is its greater fidelity to Sacred Scripture.  Today’s Gospel passage offers an example.

The centurion sends the message:  “Lord… I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.  … but say the word and let my servant be healed.”  This very clearly is the origin for the invocation that each Catholic makes to Jesus shortly before Holy Communion.  Such clarity impels us today to reflect deeply on the context of these words, so that our invocation before Holy Communion is more meaningful each time we offer it.

Here, consider just one point of context.  While we might focus on the humility of the centurion, reflect by contrast on the power of the Lord.  The Lord’s power is such that physical proximity to the sick person is not necessary.  The Lord needs only to “say the word”.  This power evokes awe in the communicant because while in today’s Gospel passage Jesus did choose to heal from a distance, at Holy Mass Jesus deigns to enter into our very person, both body and soul.  This intimate indwelling is a mystery for which we cannot possibly finish giving thanks.

The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]

The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [B]
Isaiah 50:5-9  +  James 2:14-18  +  Mark 8:27-35
September 16, 2018

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it….”

Today’s Gospel passage has three sections.  Consider what each reveals about the larger question of the direction of one’s life.  The first section starts off with Jesus asking the disciples who others say that He is.  They tell Him, but the answers that they give are all wrong.  But then He asks who they say that He is.  Peter replies for all of them:  “You are the Christ.”

Yet Jesus then does something surprising:  “He warn[s] them not to tell anyone about Him.”  It’s almost as if there’s something wrong with the disciples’ answer to the question.  It was the correct answer, but there’s something wrong with their answer.  It’s puzzling.

In the next section of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus no longer asks questions.  He gives answers.  Jesus begins to teach these same disciples.  What He teaches them is just as puzzling as His warning against them telling anyone about Him.  Actually, these two puzzles are connected.

So what puzzling news did Jesus deliver?  “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected… and be killed, and rise after three days.”  This is too much for Peter.  Remember that a few moments before, Peter had been the disciple to speak for the others in declaring, “You are the Christ.”  But now, hearing Jesus predict His own murder by “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes”?  This is too much.  Peter takes Jesus “aside and beg[ins] to rebuke Him.”  As often happens in the Gospel accounts, Jesus is at the center of conflict.  But here, Jesus is in conflict with the very man He had chosen to lead His Church after His Ascension.

Jesus’ conflict with Peter is about who Jesus truly is meant to be:  who God the Father placed Jesus into this world to be.  A few moments earlier, Peter had spoken the right words when he insisted that Jesus is the Christ.  But in rebuking Jesus for declaring that Jesus must suffer greatly, be rejected by their leaders, and die at their hands, Peter shows that his words had been hollow.  Peter did not know what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ.

This conflict is so serious that Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him “Satan”, a title that literally means “adversary”.  “Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  This conflict is about as fundamental as you can get.

This conflict between Jesus and Peter is so fundamental that in the final section of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus summons every person present—“the crowd with His disciples”—to teach them what we might call the Magna Carta of discipleship.  Jesus’ teaching in these final two sentences of today’s Gospel passage ought to be carved above the entrance of every church throughout the world.  What Jesus teaches here ought to be spoken out loud by every Christian, every day of his or her life, upon waking and upon retiring:  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Three times here, Jesus uses the word “whoever”.  He’s not talking about an elite group like cloistered monks, or nuns on a par with Saint Theresa of Calcutta.  “Whoever” includes you, if you wish to follow Jesus.  “Whoever” includes you, if you wish to save your life.  If you wish to live as a Christian, to die as a Christian, to be a Christian, then Jesus is speaking these words to you:  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Our Lady of Sorrows

Our Lady of Sorrows
1 Corinthians 10:14-22  +  John 19:25-27
September 15, 2018

“Woman, behold, your son.”

All our joys, all our sorrows, all our glory is only found in Christ:  that is to say, because we are members of Christ’s Body.  It is not true that you have your cross, and I have mine.  We all bear together—as individual members of Christ’s Body—the Cross of Jesus.  We all share in carrying His Cross.

Humanly speaking, sorrows tend to divide people more than joy or glory.  Loneliness and isolation are keenly felt by those who suffer.  Only in Christian faith can we find meaning even in the midst of suffering, because only God—who created everything out of nothing—can create good out of evil.

By approaching the Cross, we find Our Mother of Sorrows standing at its foot.  When we approach the Cross to take it up each day, she is there.  She remains there—at the heart of our Christian faith—to show us with a mother’s love that suffering cannot tear us from each other.

Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray the “Our Father”.  Jesus was not only teaching us that we have a Father in Heaven, because as a consequence of that truth, it’s also true that we are all brothers and sisters.  So then, it’s also true that Mary is the Mother of all of us.  We ask Our Lady of Sorrows, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, to pray for us in all things.  Through her intercession, she helps us know that no matter what we face in life, her Son is there with us, showing us how to walk the only Way that leads to Heaven.