Sunday, February 18, 2018

Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 18, 2018
Gen 9: 8-15
1 Pet 3: 18-22
Our Lady of Lourdes, Bethesda, Md.

“See, I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you…” (Gen 9: 8).

The word covenant is used 5 times in the 8 verses of our 1st reading.  It’s the 1st covenant mentioned in the Bible between God and his elect, his chosen ones—in this case, Noah and his descendants, i.e., the entire human race.

According to the story, God has been so angered by the sinful behavior of his human creatures that he’s wiped them out, and all living creatures as well—because there’s a fundamental unity in creation, and homo sapiens can’t be neatly separated from the animal or plant kingdoms.  God has excepted only 1 upright man, Noah, and his immediate family and a pair of each species of animal (Gen 6:19)—or, in a 2d version of the story, 7 pairs of clean animals and 1 pair of the unclean (7:2).  (The account of the great flood that we have in our Bible today is an editorial melding of 2 earlier sources, and the melding isn’t always smooth.)

Landscape with Noah's Thank Offering
(Joseph Anton Koch)
Having survived thru a gracious act of God, Noah and his family respond by offering a sacrifice.  God is pleased, and he responds with this covenant promise, that never again will he react so angrily as to destroy the earth with water as he has just done (8:20-22).  And he provides a sign of his pledge, a peace sign, as it were, of this covenant that he freely initiates:  he places his bow in the heavens.  The Hebrew word used here for the rainbow is the same word that means a bow that’s a weapon of war.  So God hangs up his weapon, puts it to rest.  That word usage makes God’s covenant sign all the more powerful now as a symbol of his patience with us and his willingness to bear with our evil—our evil hearts, our evil desires, our evil words, our evil deeds:  “the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start,” the Lord declares even as he smells the sweetness of the holocaust that Noah offers (8:21).       

The Lord knows who we are and how we are—so few of us righteous like Noah.  And he begins to devise what we might call Plan B.  He’ll call Abraham and make another, more specific covenant with him, then Moses and yet another, very specific covenant, all leading eventually to the last, eternal covenant effected thru the sacrifice of Jesus.

That’s the covenant that St. Peter alludes to, without using the word.  “Beloved:  Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (3:18).  And we enter this covenant relationship by the power of God’s Spirit.  As Jesus Christ “was brought to life in the Spirit” (3:18), so are we.  And, in view of the Noah story, isn’t it really ironic that the sign of Jesus’ covenant is water!  The water of the great flood, Peter says, “prefigured Baptism, which saves you now,” washing us clean not of physical dirt but of the moral or spiritual filth of our sins, cleansing our consciences and uniting us to our Lord Jesus (3:21).

In this season of Lent, we’re invited to renew our covenant relationship with God the Father by reconnecting with Jesus:  by repentance of our sins (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus proclaims [Mark 1:15]); by celebrating the sacrament of Reconciliation, which concretizes our repentance and brings the Spirit into our hearts and our lives afresh and renews the grace of Baptism; by recommitting our lives to the truth that Jesus teaches and the way of living that he demonstrates.

We prayed a little earlier that our Lenten observances will help us conduct ourselves in Jesus’ way, in a way that “pursues … the riches hidden in Christ” (Collect)—the riches of our Father’s love, the riches of virtue, the riches of the seeds of eternal life.

May the Holy Spirit of Jesus draw you and me ever closer to Jesus himself, and thru him to the Father who created us, loves us, and wants us to spend eternity with him.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Homily for Thursday, Week 5 of Ordinary Time

Homily for Thursday
Week 5 of Ordinary Time
Feb. 8, 2018
1 Kings 11: 4-13
Nativity, Washington, D.C.

“When Solomon was old his wives turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the Lord, his God, as the heart of his father David had been” (1 Kgs 11: 4).

In the 1st chapters of 1 Kings, parts of which have been given to us at Mass in recent days, Solomon appears as a devout and wise king with whom God is very pleased.  Today we see something else; he’s grown old and foolish, led astray by his many foreign wives.

King Solomon's Court
(Ingobertus, ca. 880 A.D.)
We’re also reminded that God made a great promise to David, that his dynasty would last forever.  The passage today speaks of David’s heart belonging entirely to the Lord and of David’s following the Lord unreservedly (11:4,6).  Not that David was perfect, as we know.  But in spite of his weaknesses, he remained faithful to the Lord.  And God says today that he’ll be faithful to his promise.  But the realm of David’s dynasty will be constricted in punishment for Solomon’s infidelity.  At least, that’s the interpretation of the sacred writer who composed Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings as he looks back at the history of God’s people some centuries later, trying to understand what’s happened.

Very often we don’t know what God’s doing or why as we observe world events, Church events, or our personal lives.  It’s only by reflecting on them that we may see his hand at work, guiding people’s right choices, sending prophetic warnings, working to straighten out people’s bad or sinful choices.  Such reflection is, in fact, what we read that Mary did concerning the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Christ (Luke 2:19,51).

From what we read about Solomon in particular in today’s reading, we may draw 2 lessons.

1st, the company we keep influences our attitudes and our behavior for better or for worse.  The Scripture says that Solomon’s pagan wives led him into the sin of idolatry.  Don Bosco constantly warned young people to avoid “bad companions” and to seek good, wholesome friendships.  He made that his own practice when he was young, brought it out in his biography of St. Dominic Savio, included it in his handbook for the guidance of the young The Companion of Youth, and repeated it over and over when speaking to his boys.  It remains a practical lesson for young people today as we observe repeatedly about gangs, drugs, thievery, poor study habits, etc., as well as about the benefits of youth ministry, Scouting, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other such programs.

2d, Solomon was so good and wise for so long, but in his old age became foolish and sinful.  Maybe he’d “lost it,” gone senile—that’s not for us to judge.  But you and I can never, never sit back on our virtuous laurels—if we think we have some—and presume the gates of heaven are already open to us, and a heavenly mansion already has our name emblazoned on its door.  “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”  Jesus doesn’t crown us with the laurels of victory until the very end, until our final perseverance in his grace.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Homily for 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 7, 1988
Job 7: 1-4, 6-7
Mark 1: 29-39
St. Theresa, Bronx

“Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of a hireling?  My days …come to an end without hope” (Job 7: 1, 6).

Job is an intriguing book.  It’s about being human, about struggling to live a good life, about one’s relationship with God, about suffering.

Job is a God-fearing man.  He loses suddenly almost everything dear to him: children, wealth, health.  All that remains to him is his wife, and she nags him.  His friends pass judgment on him:  If all this has happened to you, God must be punishing you for some horrible sin.  So Job laments and demands justice of God.

Job rebuked by his wife and his friends
(source unknown)
Job’s story is our story.  At one time or another all of us feel like him:  “assigned months of misery, and troubled nights…” (7:3). This seems to be our human condition.  Job is portrayed as an upright man, but he’s beaten down by undeserved suffering.  If righteousness, personal integrity, cannot assure us of a reasonably happy life, what are we to do?  Is there no way out for us, no salvation?

Yes, sisters and brothers, there is a way of the suffering, pain, and despair that make up so much of our lives.  There is salvation from all those afflictions that fall upon us when we think we deserve better from life.  There is even salvation from afflictions that we do not deserve, for we are wise enuf to admit before God and one another our sinfulness.

Our way out and our salvation is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Paul was speaking of his own conduct when he wrote to the Corinthians:

I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak.  I have become all things to all, to save at least some.  All this I do for the sake of the good news (1 Cor 9:19,22-23).

But he could just as well have been speaking of Christ,

who did not count equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness: … he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him … and every tongue (shall) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord… (Phil 2:6-11). 

Jesus became one of us, the servant of all whom “everyone was looking for,” whom they “tracked down” like a fugitive (Mark 1:36-37).  He became weak like us, suffering the afflictions of our human condition—hunger, weariness, human hardheadedness, false friends, even death—a disgraceful death, falsely accused and abandoned.  Who was more righteous than he?  Who deserved suffering less than he?

Jesus didn’t stop preaching the good news, stop doing good in word and deed, in order to escape unjust punishment.  He was fully faithful to God his Father. His suffering was the path to new life, and God his Father raised him to new life and made him the source of eternal life for all of us weak and sinful folks.

In Mark’s Gospel last Sunday and today we’ve seen Jesus healing people.  When he exorcises the possessed, the demons try to proclaim him as “God’s Holy One” (Mark 1:24). Why does Jesus silence them?  Because his identity as God’s Holy One doesn’t depend upon his power to work wonders.  It would be misleading—devilish—to have people think so.  Jesus’ miracles are signs of the divine power to restore life, to heal sin, to make men and women whole.  But Jesus knows that he must himself suffer.  He must become weak, must be one of us, must be all things to everyone, even unto death.  In Mark’s Gospel, the only person who can loudly and publicly identify Jesus is the centurion at the foot of the cross:  “Truly this was God’s Son” (15:39).  For Jesus to be seen for who he is, he must be crucified.  Only one who has been in Job’s shoes, so to say: one who has been lonely: one who has suffered “the agony of defeat”—only such a person can know “the thrill of victory.”  Only such a person can heal the broken, forgive the sinner, bring life out of the grave.

This is the good news that Jesus came to proclaim.  We are not just “dust in the wind,” as a #1 song had it about 10 years ago.  We are not just “slaves longing for the shade, creatures living without hope,” as Job put it this morning (7:2,6).  No, we are God’s dear children, marked in Baptism for eternal life.  Jesus is God’s witness to that.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Homily for Feast of the Presentation

Homily for the Feast
of the Presentation of the Lord
Feb. 2, 2018
Luke 2: 22-32
Don Bosco Cristo Rey HS, Takoma Park, Md.

Of the several themes that stand out in today's liturgy, I'll consider two.

1st, there's an emphasis on fulfilling the Law.  Mary and Joseph are, and Jesus will be, faithful Jews, observing the Torah and the pious practices of their people.

In part, to say that they fulfill the Law is to say that they're faithful to God:  "If we love him, we'll keep his commandments," St. John says (14:21; cf. 2 John 6).

In part, their fulfilling the Law is completing it.  This is more of a Matthean theme than a Lucan one.  But the Holy Family's actions are bringing the Old Law to its climax:  "and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek" (Mal 3:1).
Presentation of the Lord
(from a 15th-c. Book of Hours)
2d, the holy couple offer the ritual sacrifice required to redeem their son from the Lord:  "Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord" (Luke 2:23).  30 years later, their son will offer himself as a sacrifice to redeem the whole of humanity and make every man and woman truly consecrated to the Lord.  The child redeemed in the Temple becomes the redeemer man who opens up the temple where God is enthroned above.

In this Eucharist we're mystically within that temple, taking part in the Redeemer's sacrifice, assisting him as it were in consecrating mankind to the Lord.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Solemnity of St. John Bosco

Solemnity of St. John Bosco

(Salesian Central Archives)
Yesterday, January 31, was the solemnity (in the Salesian Family) of St. John Bosco, founder of the Society of St. Francis de Sales (Salesian Society), Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters), Association of Salesian Cooperators, Association of Mary Help of Christians (ADMA), and of the entire Salesian Family, which now numbers 31 member groups.

The entire Catholic Church celebrates "Don Bosco," however: father and master of youth, patron saint of editors and publishers, of apprentices, of magicians, and of various other persons and affairs--including, at least unofficially, of umbrella-makers, because of the torrential rain that afflicted the celebrations in Turin following his canonization in 1934.
(Salesian Central Archives)
Several publications and other communicators noted his feast:

Magician Angelo Stagnaro wrote in the National Catholic Register that "Don Bosco was deeply imbued with God's love and inspired by His mysteries." See 
http://www.ncregister.com/blog/astagnaro/the-magic-and-spirituality-of-st.-john-bosco
(Nino Musio)
The saint of the day of Our Sunday Visitor's Sarah Reinhard was Don Bosco, of course:

St. John Bosco, called Don Bosco during his life, is the patron of young people and students for a reason: Educating and guiding young people to the truths of the Catholic faith were his passion and the work of his life.

To learn more about Don Bosco, check out the Salesians' account (complete with audio narration!).

The blog Church Militant posted a short video that may have been intended mainly for youngsters but (with the caveat noted below) is informative for all: https://www.churchmilitant.com/video/episode/st.-john-bosco-jan.-31

Concerning that video, I'll make 2 corrections. (1) The assassination attempts on DB, according to his own testimony (Memoirs of the Oratory) came not from industrialists upset with his attention to young workers but from Turin's Waldensians upset with his writings defending the Catholic faith against their preaching and ministries. (2) His well-known dream of the 2 columns is not about 2 Popes and the Church but about the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary, the 2 columns to which the Church safely anchors in her battle against evil and error.
(Nino Musio)
Serio Mattarella, President of Italy, dedicated a long communique to the figure of Don Bosco:"Today is the 130th anniversary of the death of John Bosco, founding priest of the Salesians and of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, an educator that Italian society has had the opportunity to appreciate for its attention to the young, for his passion, for his commitment in helping countless young people in conditions of degrading poverty and marginalization.

"Humble origins were, in the life of Don Bosco, a root from which he drew permanent guidance. His intelligence, his social skills, his great organizational skills, inspired by evangelical testimony, were directed to the creation of works that have reached a large number of youths, of working children, even very young, offering them precious spaces of welcome , education, formation, solidarity, individual and community growth. He knew how to make the social issue his own and build more spaces for citizenship and belonging.

"In many parts of Italy and of the world, the mark of Don Bosco, and of the congregations promoted by him, is still alive. Many Italians owe the Salesians some of their own culture, of their own formation as citizens. The continuity of Don Bosco's works represents a contribution to social cohesion and progress, values ​​that enrich a country, and help the whole community to face the challenges of the times."



Letter of the Rector Major to Italian President Sergio Mattarella

(ANS – Rome – February 5) - In response to the statement issued by President Sergio Mattarella of Italy on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of the death of St John Bosco, Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime, Don Bosco’s tenth successor, sent a letter expressing the renewed commitment to keep alive the teaching of the Saint of Youth and to collaborate in building the spirit of “brotherhood, solidarity, and cohesion.”

Rome, February 2, 2018
Prot. No. 18/0069

The Right Honorable
Prof. Sergio Mattarella
President of the Republic
Palazzo del Quirinale
Rome

Dear and most illustrious Mr. President of the Republic,

From the media we have learned with joy of the statement you made on the occasion of the liturgical feast of St. John Bosco, January 31, 130 years since his death.

Your words have accurately and affectionately portrayed the figure of our Father and holy Founder. His social commitment and evangelizing passion, primarily addressing the poor and abandoned young people, of whom you, too, have spoken, are alive today in our Congregation and in the different groups of the Salesian Family.

In communion with institutions and the Church, our constant work is to promote spaces and times of humanization, progress, social cohesion, and of encounters with the message of the Gospel. Historically, Don Bosco carried out his mission at a time, both rich and contradictory together, which led to the unification of Italy. With his motto “good Christians and honest Citizens,” we believe Don Bosco has helped to foster that unique feeling of social passion that unifies the Italian people that you represent, and likewise, to make it known in the many countries where the works of his charism have reached.

We fervently hope and work constantly in order not to fail in the task left to us, providing our help to realize that common spirit, European and worldwide, of brotherhood, solidarity, and cohesion, aimed at the progress of each person and consequently of all society.

Cordially in Don Bosco,
Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Homily for Feast of Conversion of St. Paul

Homily for the Feast
of the Conversion of St. Paul
Jan. 25, 2018
Acts 22: 3-16
Nativity, Washington, D.C.

Sometimes we speak of Paul being knocked off his high horse as he approached Damascus to arrest the Christians there.  If you look at the text, you'll see there's no mention of a horse, and he may well have been hiking.
The Conversion of St. Paul (Caravaggio)
That's not an important detail, of course.  There are 3 lessons that might draw from the story, however.

1.  Paul, convinced of his own righteousness and virtue--an ideal Jew, a well-trained Pharisee, as he mentions in his speech--must come to see his error, must be converted.  All of us need to examine ourselves daily and place ourselves before God, asking what is his will, what is his plan for us.  The call to conversion is a constant in Christian life.

2.  Paul is told that in Damascus what Jesus has appointed for him to do will be revealed to him.  Christ has a plan or purpose for each of us, and we must always be seeking to know it, no matter where we are already on our life's journey.  His purpose isn't ordinarily revealed in a vision, of course.  We look for God's plan in our prayer, reading the Scriptures, spiritual direction, wise counsel of a non-spiritual sort, and examination of our own hearts and inclinations.  The world around us--our family, our parish, our jobs, our social lives, the political and social culture, world events--all this is how God reveals to us his purposes.

3.  What Paul was doing to Christians, he was doing to Christ himself.  That lesson is obvious and doesn't need a commentary here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Homily for 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 28, 2018
Mark 1: 21-28
Nativity, Washington, D.C.

“What is this?  A new teaching with authority” (Mark 1: 27).

Christ exorcising the demon from the man in the synagog at Capernaum
(11th-century fresco)
The demon who confronts Jesus in the synagog knows who he is.  It’s obvious that the devil believes in God.  Knowledge and faith do not in themselves make us holy, or the demons would all be saints.  Knowledge and faith do not in themselves have the power to save us.

Mark 3:31-35 records an episode in which Jesus’ mother and family come to him while he’s teaching.  Mark had mentioned earlier (3:21) that they think he’s lost his mind, and they’re coming to bring him home.  When he’s told they’re outside, he asks who are his mother and brother and sister.  He answers, “Whoever does my Father’s will.”  So even being a blood relative of Jesus is not sufficient for salvation. 

What does have the power to save us?  Recognizing the authority of Jesus and the authority he represents; one must submit to the will of God.  Obviously, the demons refuse to do that.  They choose—it’s their own decision—to reject God, to take damnation rather than submit their own will, their own pride, their own preferences to anyone else.

If the people in this Galilean synagog were so impressed by the teaching of Jesus, we may ask, why didn’t all of them become his followers?  We know, in fact, that many people who followed him initially in Galilee left him after he introduced his teaching on the Bread of Life, the giving of his own flesh and blood for us to eat for eternal life.  Many said, “This saying is too hard” (John 6:60), and they left him.  St. Peter spoke for the 12, however, responding to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (6:68-69).  Accepting the teaching authority of Jesus, Peter and other disciples stayed with him.

But those who found his teachings too demanding didn’t stay.  Even if they admired some of his teachings, they weren’t willing to accept everything.  If it wasn’t the Eucharist they found too challenging, it was the call to be converted, to change their moral behavior, to change their internal attitudes, to put our heavenly Father first in their lives, ahead of their own comfort, convenience, addiction to pleasure or power or wealth.  As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (What’s Wrong with the World, pt. 1, ch. 5)

The Gospel puts to us the question of Jesus’ authority.  Do we recognize it?  Do we accept it?

Perhaps we wonder where to look for his authority.  Obviously, he isn’t going to walk into Nativity Church as he stood and taught in the synagog at Capernaum.  But we have his authoritative teaching before us every time we listen to the Scriptures being read, or open them up at home—which we ought to do daily.  By the Scriptures, I mean not only the Gospels, which are our starting place as followers of Jesus, but the entire New Testament as well, and the Old Testament too.  We also find Christ’s authoritative teaching in what his Church teaches us, in the sacred liturgy, in the catechism, in the words of the Holy Father, in the words of our bishops, e.g., what they tell us about racism or capital punishment or the dignity of immigrants or sexual morality.  These teachings, too, we must take in, respect, absorb, and submit to even when they may be challenging or difficult.

For assuredly we don’t want to be like the demon whom Jesus cast out in the synagog, knowing who Jesus is but too proud to allow him into our lives, too stubborn to let him save us.