Sunday, June 27, 2010

Homily for 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
13th Sunday of Ordinary Time

June 27, 2010
Luke 9: 51-62
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.

“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62).

Following the theology of the day, St. John Bosco grabbed that verse as evidence of the danger inherent in walking away from a religious vocation once one had set out upon that vocational path.*

The entire passage is really about discipleship, about following Jesus attentively and wholeheartedly. Having just predicted his own passion and death—our gospel last Sunday (Luke 9:22)—and predicted it a 2d time (9:44), and foreshadowed it in his conversation with Moses and Elijah during his transfiguration (9:30-31)—all this is in Luke’s 9th chapter, like our passage today—Jesus “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” because “the days for [his] being taken up were fulfilled” (9:51). These are the days for the accomplishment of his Father’s plan, for him to do the work of our redemption.

As you’ll recall, last Sunday’s gospel also included the teaching that the disciple must take up her cross daily and follow Jesus, walk with Jesus on a road of self-loss, self-denial, self-emptying (9:23-24). The various examples in today’s gospel reading reinforce that teaching.

If we would follow Jesus, we don’t give way to anger, and we don’t wield authority with a heavy hand, much less a heartless one. Jesus doesn’t snuff a smoldering wick nor snap a bruised reed (Matt 12:20); he doesn’t call down fire and brimstone on an unwelcoming village nor permit his followers to do so. He’s gentle with the erring and the reluctant, giving them time to open up to his mercy. In fact, Luke will later record how many of the Samaritans accepted Jesus’ teaching when Philip the Deacon brought it to them, and the same John who now wants to toast them will be one, instead, to call down on them the grace of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:4-25).

As Jesus and the apostles proceed toward Jerusalem—as Jesus proceeds toward the fulfillment of his mission—3 people offer to join him on his journey. As he’d told the 12 earlier, his journey involves carrying a cross, and those who would join him must carry it as well. To these 3 he gives particular warnings; specifically, examples of what they must leave behind when they come with him.

The 1st says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go” (9:57). Jesus advises him that being a disciple means leaving behind comfort; it means never being quite settled; it means always being restless. “The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (9:58) in this world. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in” our Creator—and there are limits to how much that’s possible in this life. We’ll never be fully at home in this world; “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). The journey we set out upon with Jesus is indeed toward Jerusalem—the heavenly Jerusalem (like Bunyan’s pilgrim)—and we’ll have ample hardships on the way.

Christ calling disciples (Tissot)

The 2d would-be disciple says, when Jesus invites him to follow, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father” (9:59). Filial obligations are certainly important, and perhaps none more so than accompanying one’s father (or mother) to death and burial. Yet Jesus responds, apparently harshly, “Let the dead bury their dead. You, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9:60). Following Jesus, being an apostle, announcing the kingdom—this is one’s highest priority, one’s highest duty. Even family responsibilities are 2d to that. Most of us have known preachers of the kingdom who became missionaries, so dedicated—especially in the years before air travel was common—that they’d leave home and not see their families for years, if ever. That’s total dedication to following Jesus!

The 3d would-be disciple, like the 1st one also is a volunteer. He says, “I’ll follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (9:61). He seems to be imitating Elisha in our 1st reading (1 Kings 19:20), doesn’t he? But Jesus doesn’t answer like Elijah. Instead, he tells this volunteer that there’s no looking back. Following Jesus is that urgent. Following Jesus supersedes any earthly relationship, even a familial one. We might think of Thomas More, whose memorial we kept last week, sadly, very reluctantly, leaving behind his dear wife and four children for the sake of God’s kingdom rather than Henry’s.

Choosing Jesus as our Master, choosing Jesus as the one who will guide us to eternal life, to the heavenly Jerusalem, may mean forgoing some of the comforts of life, not to mention any pretense of luxury. It’s a commitment with its own obligations and a new set of relationships that surpass those of a citizen of this world. And it’s a total commitment. We can’t be a part-time disciples of Jesus.

* “Importance of Following a Vocation,” in the introduction to the Constitutions, 1875. Eng. ed. of 1957, p. 7.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Homily for 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the 12th Sunday
of Ordinary Time
June 20, 2010
Zech 12: 10-11; 13: 1
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“On that day there shall be open to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness” (Zech 13: 1).

Our 1st reading this morning comes form the prophet Zechariah, one of the so-called “minor prophets”—to distinguish him and others like Amos, Hosea, and Micah from the “big boys”—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Zechariah’s ministry came late in the 6th century B.C. after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon, and occupied only a tiny territory around Jerusalem. They were just an insignificant part of the Persian Empire. In that context of political humiliation, Zechariah foretold a great military victory for the Lord’s people and for the dynasty of King David, initiating a messianic age.

That prophecy leads up to the rather strange passage that was our 1st reading, involving some sort of a victim: grace shall be poured out upon the house of David and the inhabitant of Jerusalem, but this outpouring of grace, of divine favor, is related somehow to one “whom they have pierced” and to mourning “as for an only son” and “a firstborn.”

We’re not sure what that meant to Zechariah and the Jews at the end of the 6th century B.C. But we do know what it meant to St. John the Evangelist and the earliest Christians. John links the prophecy to the crucifixion of Jesus, to the coup de grace delivered by one of Jesus’ Roman executioners: “When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, …one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. This happened so that the scripture passage might be fulfilled: ‘They will look upon him whom they have pierced’” (John 19:33-34,36-37). John sees the mysterious messianic words of Zechariah fulfilled in what happened to Jesus the Messiah.
Depiction of the soldier thrusting his lance into Jesus' side: altarpiece at the shrine of Shrine of Atotonilco near San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico (from the blog "Dick and Jane Travel": )

And not only in Jesus’ side being speared open by the soldier; but also in what that caused: “blood and water flowed out.” Physiologically speaking, that’s not literal water but some sort of clear bodily fluid, possibly blood serum.

That outflowing of blood and water from the pierced side of Jesus—from his heart, we often say—is, according to St. John, the source of God’s grace for all those who “shall look on him” (cf. John 3:14-15). “Whoever believes in [Jesus], ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him’” (John 7:38); i.e., the water that symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit shall flow from Jesus into the hearts of all who believe in him.

That outflowing of blood and water is for St. John a sacramental image. From the pierced side of Jesus, i.e., from the death of Jesus on the cross and his passage to eternal life, we receive the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism, those sacraments that incorporate us into the mystery of his death and resurrection—“clothing [us] with Christ,” to use the metaphor of St. Paul this morning (Gal 3:27).

In Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit thru the pouring of water and the invocation of the Holy Trinity. The Eucharist is made by an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine and the repetition of the words of Jesus.

The sacraments are the fountains that purify us from sin and uncleanness. “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and petition” is fulfilled in the sacraments that bestow on believers God’s grace of forgiveness and redemption.

How good God is, to offer us such grace! How wonderful that we can come to this grace every Sunday and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus and reinforce or renew our “belonging to Christ” (cf. Gal 3:29); every Sunday look on him who was pierced for our sins (cf. Is 53:5), the “only son” of God, God’s “firstborn” from eternity and the “firstborn” of the Virgin Mary at the appointed time of salvation (cf. Luke 2:6-7; Gal 4:4). Zechariah speaks of “mourning” and “grieving” for this “only son” and “firstborn.” If we grieve, it should be only for our sins, which brought Jesus to the cross. But we don’t mourn or grieve for Jesus; for “on the third day [he was] raised” (cf. Luke 9:22) to eternal life—that life which is ours, too, when we follow him and accept the grace he offers us (9:23-24).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Prayer of St. Ephraim

A Prayer of St. Ephraim
(whose feast occurs today)

Lord and Master of my life,
keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement,
lust of power and idle chatter.
Instead, grant to me,
Your servant,
the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.
O Lord and King,
grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother;
for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.
St. Ephraim, a deacon, lived in Syria in the 4th century. He wrote Scripture commentaries, theological works, and many hymns, and he's ranked as a doctor of the Church.
Thank you to Deacon Greg, from whose blog I've "stolen" the image and the prayer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bro. John Zito, SDB (1922-2010)

Bro. John Zito, SDB (1922-2010)

Bro. John Zito, SDB, returned to his Maker on June 8, 2010, from St. Philip the Apostle Residence, the Salesian retirement home in Tampa. He was 88.

Bro. John, born on April 29, 1922, in Niagara Falls, was the son of immigrants from Sicily, Joseph and Catherine Zito. He was baptized in the family’s parish church of St. Joseph on May 7 of that year and was also confirmed there 12 years later.

When John decided to become a Salesian brother, he was following in the steps of an aunt and a sister, who had become Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters). He went to the Salesian seminary at Newton, N.J., in August 1938 and entered the novitiate there in 1942. He made his first profession of vows on Sept. 8, 1943.

As a young brother he was trained as a printer and practiced that trade for 13 years at Don Bosco Seminary in Newton (1943-1948), Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa (1948-1951), and Don Bosco Tech in Paterson, N.J. (1951-1956).
Few Salesians of my generation, if any, ever dreamed that Bro. John might have been a basketball coach. This undated photo seems to come from Don Bosco Tech in Paterson in the early 1950s.

In 1956 he was called back to Newton to assist in the training of the novices for three years. Then he moved to the provincial house in New Rochelle, where he teamed up with Bro. Michael Frazette in running the St. Dominic Savio Classroom Club, a national organization that at its peak enrolled some 70,000 students (1959-1972). This apostolate, he said, “attractively presented Dominic Savio to many youngsters as a role model and friend.”

Bro. John worked in the province vocation office for another 15 years (1972-1987) from Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen, N.Y., and the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point, N.Y., and then in youth ministry at the Salesian retreat center in Goshen (1987-1991). This shot from 1974 shows Bro. John surrounded by young people at a vocation fair in Philadelphia.

From 1991 to 1999 he was treasurer of the house of formation in South Orange, N.J., and in 1999 he returned to the provincial house to help in the development office and then the mission office.

In 2007 Bro. John retired to the St. Philip the Apostle Residence in Tampa, where he maintained an apostleship of prayer, counsel, and cheering for the Notre Dame football team.

Former provincial Fr. James Heuser said of Bro. John: “For me, John lived a life clearly centered on God, a Salesian who made himself a brother to many, and who encouraged others to live in joyful trust. ‘Smile, God loves you!’ was his favorite motto ... a conviction which he lived.”

Bro. John was loved far and wide for his cheerful spirit, capacity for friendship, and witness of prayer. He lived out what the Salesian rule of life asks in Constitution 17: “Because he is a herald of the Good News [the Salesian] is always cheerful. He radiates this joy and is able to educate to a Christian and festive way of life: ‘Let us serve the Lord in holy joy.’”

The secret of persevering in religious life, Bro. John said, was frequent confession and Holy Communion, devotion to our Lady, and praying a Salve Regina every day.

He provided an outstanding example of piety, fidelity, and hard work to his younger confreres. Bro. Thomas Dion, SDB, the province’s treasurer, said, “Bro. John was a true Salesian brother—a faithful witness of Christ for the young.”

Fr. John Puntino, SDB, Bro. Zito’s superior for part of the time that he served in the house of formation in South Orange, said: “Bro. John excelled as member of the formation team during the mid-1990s. He gave excellent witness in his personal life of consecration; he cared with great energy and prudence for the material needs of the community; he remained active in apostolic works with Salesian Cooperators; he created a warm and welcoming community atmosphere.”
Maybe we didn't know about his coaching skills (see photo above), but we all knew that Bro. John played a hot harmonica at many a Salesian feast day or end-of-retreat entertainment.

Bro. John’s funeral will be doubly celebrated in Tampa and at the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw. He will be buried at the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Homily for Trinity Sunday

Homily for Trinity SundayMay 30, 2010
Prov 8: 22-31
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“I was beside him as his craftsman…and I found delight in the human race” (Prov 8: 30-31).

Wisdom is speaking, Wisdom personified, speaking as God’s collaborator in the creation of the universe.

According to our Christian understanding of God, Divine Wisdom is indeed personified in the 2d Person of the Holy Trinity, in the Son. The greatest church in Christendom in the Middle Ages was Hagia Sophia, “Holy Wisdom,” the cathedral of Constantinople, consecrated to Christ the Wisdom of God. A museum today, it’s still an architectural and artistic marvel.

The Scripture reading tells us that Wisdom—God the Son in our Christian interpretation—joins the Father in creating an orderly universe, a “wise” universe. It’s interesting that Divine Wisdom calls herself—in Proverbs Wisdom is feminine, but that shouldn’t stop us from linking her with the Son of God, for Christ encompasses all of humanity—Wisdom calls herself a “craftsman.” Altho the Hebrew vocabulary of Proverbs and the Greek vocabulary of the gospels are different, a “craftsman” is what Jesus became as a human being, a craftsman, the legal son of a craftsman—or, as we usually put it in English, a carpenter, the son of a carpenter. The Wisdom of God shaped the universe, and the human race within that universe; the Wisdom of God also crafted our redemption after we tried by our sins to ruin what God had created. The Son of God re-created the universe, made us, as St. Paul says, “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).

You’re no doubt more used to connecting wisdom with the Holy Spirit than with God the Son. Long ago, when preparing for Confirmation, we learned that wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And when we pray for wisdom, more likely we turn to the Holy Spirit than to Jesus.

I’m no theologian. If great theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas couldn’t adequately explain the Trinity, I certainly can’t. But we can at least say that the Holy Spirit is the connector, the bonder, the unifier. The Spirit comes from the Father and the Son to us to join us to them. “The love of God has been poured into our hearts thru the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). So the Divine Wisdom and Divine Love flow from the Father and the Son to us thru the Spirit.

What is wisdom? Nothing to do with being a “wise guy,” of course. At Christmas we refer often to the “wise men.” Who were they? Men who sought Christ! So, in broad terms, we may say that wisdom consists in seeking God, or seeking all that God is: truth, goodness, virtue. As the Bible says, “Fear of the Lord”—meaning reverence—“is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 110:10; cf. Prov 1:7; 9:10; Job 28:28). This kind of wisdom, the kind that looks for goodness and truth, is the Lord’s “delight day by day,” as our 1st reading proclaims (Prov 8:30).

The reading ends with this line: “I found delight in the human race.” It wasn’t enuf that Wisdom created the universe. No—Wisdom wants to be with the best part of creation, with people. As Christians we believe, in fact, that Divine Wisdom became one of us: “The Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

God’s Son “delights in the human race” so much that he became human, conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of Mary, lived us among us for more than 30 years, formed very close bonds of friendship with chosen men and women.

And why did God, in his wisdom, do that? Out of love, out of a desire to have humanity as his companions and friends forever: “I found delight in the human race.” Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, which is God as family, to use human terms we can understand. God wants his family to be expanded. So he adopts us as his children—chosen and beloved like the apostles—by making us like his Son Jesus. Jesus pours out his Holy Spirit upon us, bonding us intimately to himself. We become “sons in the Son,” to use an old phrase, God’s children because Christ has laid hold of us and grappled us to himself, so much does he love us and want us as his own.