Sunday, March 27, 2016

Homily for Easter Sunday

Homily for
Easter Sunday
March 27, 2016
Acts 10: 34, 37-43
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“We are witnesses [that] … this man God raised on the third day.  Everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins thru his name” (Acts 10: 39, 40, 43).

Why are you here this morning?  Are you looking for the Easter bunny?  hunting for eggs?  Are you celebrating spring’s arrival, celebrating the lilies and daffodils and forsythia and magnolias?

You’re in the wrong place!  You want Stop ’n’ Shop or the mall or a park.

We’re here because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the 3d day after his crucifixion.  We’re here because he commissioned his apostles to go thruout the whole world to continue his mission of extending God’s pardon, God’s mercy, to sinners “thru his name.”

The 1st reading this morning comes from the Acts of the Apostles, which is the 1st book in the NT after the 4 gospels (and one of the easiest books in the Bible to read—hint!).  We read from Acts thruout the Easter season, hearing the Church’s 1st preaching of the resurrection of Jesus and the “forgiveness of sins thru his name.”

One sample of that preaching is our 1st reading, and it’s from a very significant chapter of Acts.  St. Peter is addressing a Roman centurion named Cornelius and his household, addressing Gentiles—pagans! Romans! the hated occupiers of Judea—offering even to them the salvation won for us by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Until this point, the apostles and all the 1st followers of Jesus have been Jews, and they believe that Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures (the OT) for the benefit only of the Jews.  Too bad about everyone else!

Cornelius the Centurion
Chapel of the Centurion at Fort Monroe, Va.
But God sent Peter a vision, a revelation, commanding him to broaden his outlook, to go also to the pagans with the Gospel of Jesus (10:9-16).

So Peter does that, starting by reminding Cornelius and the others of what they must already have known, of all Jesus’ good deeds all over Judea and Galilee and in Jerusalem.  Everyone had either seen and heard Jesus, or at least had heard of what he was preaching and the healings he was performing.  And surely everyone knew—especially an officer in the Roman army like Cornelius—that the Jewish and Roman authorities had executed him.

What not everyone knew, and certainly not many believed, was that 3 days after that execution, Jesus rose from the dead and—as we heard in the gospel reading (John 20:1-9)—his tomb was empty when his followers went to complete his burial rites, which they couldn’t complete on Friday evening because of the Sabbath.  Few knew that “God granted that he be visible … to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-41).  The Jewish leaders had put out a story that the disciples had stolen his body—a story spread by the very guards who explained that they were sleeping while it happened (Matt 28:11-15).

But the disciples themselves were slow to believe he was truly alive.  After all, who’d ever heard such a fantastic story before?  Next Sunday we’ll hear the gospel of “doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-29).  The apostles and other disciples believed because, as Peter says, they really had seen and spoken with Jesus, had eaten with him, had touched his very flesh and its wounds.

By the time Peter preached the resurrection to Cornelius, he and the other apostles had already experienced harassment, arrest, and flogging on account of their preaching.  2 chapters later, King Herod will execute the apostle James and try to execute Peter too—who will make a miraculous escape from jail.  The apostles are men so thoroughly convinced that Jesus is alive that they no longer fear persecution or death.  They are thoroughly convinced that Jesus has truly been “anointed with the Holy Spirit and power” by God (Act 10:38) and has been “appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42), as we profess every Sunday in our creed—or today in our baptismal promises.

Peter gives witness to the resurrection of Jesus and to what that means:  “everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins thru his name,” and on the day of judgment Jesus will award eternal life to those he has forgiven, and allow those who have rejected his pardon to go their own way—which is not the way to eternal life.

The Church continues the mission of the apostles, the mission to testify to the resurrection and to God’s mercy—mercy offered to everyone, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, rich and poor—offered but never imposed.

That’s why we’re here this morning:  to rejoice that Jesus is risen, to rejoice that he forgives our sins, to rejoice that his Holy Spirit empowers us to live a new life—no more “malice and wickedness” but, instead, “sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8).

All of us who are followers of Jesus now are his witnesses—by living holy lives, by practicing kindness toward one another and patience with one another, and by our joy, the joy that comes from believing that Jesus is alive and from being in a relationship with him.

“Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining.  Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!  Alleluia!” (Sequence)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Homily for Good Friday

Homily for Good Friday

March 25, 2016
John 18-19
Christian Brothers, St. Joseph’s Home, New Rochelle

Who are you?  If you had been in Jerusalem in April 30 A.D., what part would you have played?
The Crucifixion, by Andrea Mantegna, 1457
Judas betrayed Jesus to his enemies.  He did it for what he loved most in life: money.  St. John portrays Judas as a materialist, one of those people who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  He sold out his friend because he thought it was to his own advantage.

Peter, on the other hand, was not a calculator.  He was quick and emotional, impetuous rather than reflective.  He said or did the 1st thing that came into his head:  defending Jesus out of earnest love in Jesus’ presence; denying Jesus out of fear in Jesus’ absence.  Peter was good-hearted but weak.

Annas and Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders were concerned about their people, concerned lest the Romans impose a still harsher rule.  They were concerned for the purity of the faith.  But their religious and national zeal led them to an “ends justifies the means” policy.  They decided that Jesus was a threat to the whole nation and they had to get rid of him at any cost.  Their motto may have been “Do whatever it takes.”  To them Jesus’ innocence was irrelevant.  So they corrupted their worthy goals of religious and national freedom.

“Another disciple,” an anonymous one, followed Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard.  This man ran a certain risk to be near Jesus.  Whatever he did was so quiet and self-effacing that we don’t even know his name, only that it was important for him to “follow Jesus closely” and to help others, like Peter.  If this was the beloved disciple, as is often supposed, this was his 1st step being close enuf to Jesus to the end to lend him moral support.

Pilate was a man of the world, an ambitious man, a politician.   He saw clearly enuf what was right but was unwilling to risk doing it.  He was personally opposed to killing an innocent man but unwilling to impose his belief on others, tho the decision and the responsibility were clearly his.

St. John is vague about the crowd that gathers before Pilate’s court.  Were they just the priests and scribes who had long opposed to Jesus?  Or were they some of the general population of Jerusalem?  Or were some of them pilgrims who’d come to the city for the feast?  Whatever their identity, we get the impression that they were a mindless rabble, a mob; they were carried along by the opinion of the moment, by a few catchy slogans.  Did they really know Jesus?  Did they know what they were shouting about?

The soldiers who executed Jesus couldn’t have cared less about him or the 2 criminals.  Executions and such unpleasant business were just part of their job.  They were only following orders.  Would it have made any difference to them if they had realized that Jesus was an innocent man falsely accused and falsely condemned?

Three or four woman and one man, all disciples, stood by Jesus to the end, silent and powerless, but reliable and faithful.  They didn’t care what people thought.  Their presence was Jesus’ only support in his dying hours.

Finally, two more disciples appeared, Joseph and Nicodemus.  Both men had already struggled with their fear of being identified as Jesus’ friends, for they were prominent men and could have lost reputation, influence, or more.  But they came forward with a certain boldness to do a last service for Jesus, no longer caring about popular opinion.  They were practical disciples who saw something needed to be done in Jesus’ name, and they did it.

Some of these varied characters are similar, some very different.  We see in them courage and cowardice, ignorance and loyalty, avarice and service, generosity and corruption.  Those qualities, motives, and attitudes determine how closely we follow Jesus, whether we stand with him, whether we do what’s right or even care what’s right.  The vital question is not what part we might have played in Jerusalem in April of 30 A.D., but what part we play now.

Homily for Holy Thursday

Homily for
Holy Thursday
March 24, 2016
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“He is the true and eternal Priest, who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim” (Preface).
The Last Supper (Tintoretto)
We’ve heard many times that today we celebrate the institution of 3 mysteries:  the Eucharist, the Christian priesthood, and the commandment of love.  The Preface of the Mass touches on all 3.

Christ “is the true and eternal Priest.”  Under the Old Law, Aaron and his male descendants were priests and offered sacrifices of various kinds every day on behalf of the people.  Those sacrifices were limited in that they were for the benefit only of the Jews—whether they were thanksgivings, atonement, worship, or intercessory sacrifices.  They were limited in time, needing to be repeated over and over, daily and seasonally.  Jesus Christ, who was not descended from Aaron, not in the legal sense anyway—he may have had Aaronic blood thru Mary, whose kin included Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah (cf. Luke 2:5)—is called the true priest, however.  He is the true priest because, as our reading of Ps 110 says, God his Father designated him as priest of the New Law (v. 4); because he offers a sacrifice that avails for the entire human race and not just for one part of it; because his priestly worship is so perfect, whether it be considered as adoration or thanksgiving or atonement or intercession that it need not be, and cannot be, repeated.

Jesus is the eternal Priest because his priestly service doesn’t end with death.  What began with his earthly ministry continues forever where he reigns in the heavenly court, ever atoning for the sins of mankind, ever interceding with his Father for the graces we need, ever bringing our prayerful thanks and praise to the Father on our behalf, ever uniting humanity to the Blessed Trinity.

Truly Christ is the only priest of the New Law—the true and eternal one.  He does call and privilege men to share in his priesthood, to make his “everlasting sacrifice” always present among us, “to make this offering as his memorial” (Preface).  We celebrate that priestly institution today, simultaneous with the institution of the Eucharist.  But it is always Christ’s priesthood that men exercise, and nothing apart from him.  It is always Christ who consecrates, who pardons, who anoints with the Holy Spirit, who speaks the divine Word thru his time-bound ministers.

He “was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim.”  The 1st reading, from the Exodus story of Passover, shows Christ foreshadowed in the lambs sacrificed so that the Hebrews might be spared, the lambs whose blood marked the Hebrew households for salvation.  But Christ, unlike the lambs, freely offered himself for this role, freely offered the sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross.  Indeed, his sacrifice began well before Calvary, began with the Son’s humbling himself by “taking on the condition of a slave” (Phil 2:7), taking on our human flesh in his incarnation and living among us for more than 30 years.

The blood of the paschal lambs on the door posts and lintels of the Hebrews’ homes marked them to be spared by the angel of death.  The blood of Christ the paschal Lamb, flowing from the wounds of his passion, marks believers for salvation from the more terrible angel of death who would claim not only our bodies but our souls as well.  “As we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean” (Preface), purged of our sins, restored to a healthy relationship with Jesus’ Father.

A window of the provincial house chapel

(formerly in the novitiate at Newton, N.J.)
In Christ’s sacraments “we are washed clean” because they flow from his sacrificed blood:  from his side “blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).  He washes not our feet but our whole selves, and “whoever has bathed” in him “is clean all over” (John 13:10).  In this washing and in this sacrifice of his body and blood, Christ has “instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice.”  The self-sacrifice of Christ, his “loving of his own to the end” (John 13:1)—which may be translated in either a temporal sense, “till the end of his earthly life,” or in a sense of degree, “to the utmost, as much as can be imagined—Christ has also instituted the pattern of love, of service that his priests are to follow—not only those men consecrated as ministers of the altar, but also all who share in his priesthood more broadly, his priestly people, who share in this sacrifice, who join Jesus in worshiping his Father.

We give thanks tonite for the true and eternal priesthood of Jesus, who makes the saving sacrifice of his own body and blood present to us in the Eucharistic mystery; who continues to save mankind by washing away our sins and incorporating us into his own divine life.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Pastoral Assignments for 2016-2017: Round 1

Pastoral Assignments for 2016-2017: Round 1
Province reaches into bottom of barrel, pulls out blogger

This afternoon Vice Provincial Fr. Tim Zak published a letter to the province announcing the first assignments for the pastoral year that will begin on July 1.  The list includes 3 new directors, 2 directors appointed for 2d terms of office, and 1 director named for a 3d term.  Directors serve a 3-year term.  The effective date for all the appointments is July 1.

Fr. Mike Mendl in a Scout cap
Heading the list of the new directors--I guess because he's senior in age--is your humble blogger (he thought that his age had put him safely past any danger of such an appointment).  He's been appointed director of the little SDB community in Champaign, Ill.; there will be just 2 other confreres, which limits the damage he can do!  We keep hearing how stretched the province is for personnel--so here you go!

One of the 2 other confreres is the pastor of Holy Cross Church, and the other is part of the campus ministry team at the University of Illinois. Four Salesian sisters are also on the campus ministry team, so there's a pretty strong Salesian presence in Champaign, all good people to be with.

Fr. Mike has spent 25 of the last 30 years in New Rochelle, primarily doing editorial and communications work, and a little teaching and Boy Scout ministry.  Since 2004 he's also been vice director of the provincial house community.  He'll replace Fr. Joe Santa Bibiana as director in Champaign; Fr. Santa just celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination and got nice coverage in the local and diocesan newspapers.

The 2d new director is Fr. James "Jay" Horan, named to head up another small SDB community, that of East Boston.  Three SDBs there direct the Salesian Boys & Girls Club and assist in weekend parish ministry.  Fr. John Nazzaro will step aside after 9 years as director in Eastie.
Fr. Jay Horan meeting with students

Fr. Jay has many years of teaching and campus ministry experience in the province's high schools, and has been almost a "lifer" as vice director.  He's been at the B&G Club in Eastie for the current year.

Fr. Mike Pace is the 3d new director, taking the responsibility for the province's formation house in Orange, N.J.  For the Toronto native, this will be his 1st assignment outside Canada (except for his participation in the 27th General Chapter as the province's delegate and his experience leading pilgrimages to Italy).  He's currently pastor of St. Benedict's Church in Etobicoke, a Toronto suburb, and vice director of the SDB community, and has also served in Salesian settings in Montreal.  He's been on the provincial council since last July.

Fr. Mike Pace (by Fr. Puntino)
The Orange community is no little one, with 7 SDB staff members this year (including 3 serving Our Lady of the Valley Church) and 12 young SDBs in formation.  The community also includes 4 priests serving in detached assignments (nursing homes and parishes in N.J. and Pennsylvania).

Fr. Pace will replace Fr. Dominic Tran.

It appears that all 3 of our new directors are getting the vice ripped out of them--certainly out of their job descriptions!

Fr. Tom Provenzano, pastor of St. John Bosco Church in Chicago, has been named to a 2d term as director of the SDB community serving the parish.

Fr. John Serio, president of Salesian HS in New Rochelle, has been named to a 2d term as director fo the local SDB community (which is distinct from that of the provincial house).

Fr. Jim Heuser, president of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., has appointed to a 3d term as director of the SDB community there.  The school is just undertaking a major building project.

Homily for Palm Sunday

Homily for
Palm Sunday
March 20, 2016
Is 50: 4-7
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them” (Is 50: 4).

The 1st reading for Palm Sunday’s Eucharistic liturgy is always the same; only the passion account changes from year to year.  This 1st reading is one of the so-called Servant Songs from the 2d part of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  There are 4 of those songs, and we’ll hear the other 3 on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday of this week, plus today’s song repeated—and lengthened by 2 verses—on Wednesday.

Obviously the Church considers these 4 great poems to be significant during this particular week, this week we call “holy.”  Obviously the Church links the Servant Songs to Jesus the Messiah, particularly to his passion and his work of redemption.  As you know, that’s a link going back to the earliest days of the apostles’ reflections on their experience, if not to Jesus himself, who asked the 2 disciples on the way to Emmaus, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer, and so enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26).  As we read the preaching of the apostles in Acts, and the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), we find the connection stressed over and over.

Jesus Crowned with Thorns
medieval fresco in lower church
St. Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The song that we heard a few minutes ago begins with a reference to the Servant of YHWH’s preaching and reminds us of how Jesus announced his mission in the synagog at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), quoting a different passage from Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (61:1-2).

But today’s song quickly turns somber, speaking of the Servant’s faithfulness in the face of torture, and of his total confidence in God’s faithfulness.

Reading that passage, we think 1st of all, like the early Church, of Jesus’ faithfulness and his trust in his Father, right up to the commendation of his spirit to his Father (Luke 23:46).  But I couldn’t help thinking also of the faithfulness of the Body of Christ, his Church, under persecution, under beatings and disgrace before men (cf. Is 50:6-7).  Christians in China defy the local government that attacks their church buildings.  Christians in Latin America are assassinated for defending the rights of the poor.  Christians in our country risk fines and imprisonment and loss of their livelihood for asserting conscience (as they did also in the ’60s).  Christians in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere face every day the danger of physical assault, the burning of their churches, the confiscation of their goods, oppressive taxation, arrest, beheading or a bullet to the head—or risk perilous exile rather than deny Jesus.  Even now, Salesian Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil has been missing since March 4 when he was taken away by the terrorists who butchered 16 people at the Missionaries of Charity home in Aden.  Our fellow Christians say things like, “They may destroy our churches and seize our homes and our goods, but they can’t take away our faith in Jesus.”

“I have not turned back; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame” (Is 50:5,7), indeed.  The Suffering Servant still suffers, is still faithful to the Lord God.

Our persecuted fellow believers don’t despair of God’s help.  But they are mightily discouraged by the seeming indifference of the Christian West, or the formerly Christian West that pays loads of lip service to human rights—to “reproductive rights” and gay rights and the right to vote, but not so much to religious rights.  They plead for us to hear their cries, see their suffering, feel their pain—and do something to rescue them, to allow them to continue to live in their ancestral homes and practice their ancestral faith.

Sisters, I know that, like Pope Francis, you’re mindful of our beleaguered and persecuted sisters and brothers.  Continue to pray for them and, when possible, advocate for them, the 21st century’s suffering servants of YHWH.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Homily for Solemnity of St. Joseph

Homily for the Solemnity
of St. Joseph
March 19, 2016
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“Grant, Almighty God, that by St. Joseph’s intercession your Church may constantly watch over the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation whose beginnings you entrusted to his faithful care” (Collect).

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church
Auriesville, N.Y.
St. Joseph didn’t have a direct role in “the mysteries of human salvation,” he had an essential indirect role as the protector and guardian of Jesus, and as the one who linked Jesus to the house of David, to whom God promised an everlasting dynasty (2 Sam 7:16).

The “beginnings” of “the mysteries of salvation” were entrusted to Joseph’s “faithful care.”  One commentator notes that “beginnings” here translates primordia, a word that “suggests hidden principles of growth, like seeds.”[1]  Jesus’ identity and mission were indeed hidden and developed slowly—hidden in Mary’s womb, hidden from Herod’s plot, hidden in the humble village of Nazareth—all under Joseph’s “faithful care,” until the seed of that identity and mission was ripe for the harvest in Jesus’ ministry.  The mysteries of our salvation unfolded ever so slowly, matured gradually, as Joseph (with Mary) taught Jesus his Jewish faith and heritage, fostered in him a life of prayer and charity, trained him in human virtues and life skills.  Not least, of course, was Joseph’s “faithful care” in taking Mary into his home as the angel had directed him (Matt 1:24), his promptness in fleeing with his family into Egypt (Matt 2:14), and on their return his prudence in settling in Nazareth, beyond the reach of Herod’s tyrannical son Archelaus (2:22-23).

Joseph saw the “beginnings” of “the mysteries of human salvation.”  He didn’t live to see Jesus’ public ministry or the culmination of the mysteries in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.  He didn’t see the fulfillment of what the angel promised him, that Jesus would save the world (Matt 1:21).  He died having helped nurture the seed of all that but not seeing its fruit; without fully understanding the role he played in “the unfolding of the mysteries.”  He “watched over” God’s Son without knowing what the Son would do in his maturity.  Joseph faithfully, obediently, and quietly played his own part and left all else to God.

So Joseph models the Church, for which our Collect asks him to intercede.  The Church now has the role, in God’s Providence, of “watching over the unfolding of the mysteries of human salvation.”  These “mysteries” are both the unfathomable plan of God (cf. Eph 3:8) for each of us and all of us—how God’s grace will touch and guide our lives—and the more particular “mysteries” entrusted to the Church’s “faithful care”:  the sacraments and the rest of the sacred liturgy by which Christ acts in the Church to effect our salvation.

The “beginnings” of “the mysteries of our salvation” were entrusted to St. Joseph in the person of Jesus.  The mysteries continue to “unfold” in the living body of Jesus, his Church, mysteriously and wondrously extending Jesus’ person over the ages thru our Baptism, thru the Eucharist, thru the preaching of the Word, thru the testimony of holy, grace-filled lives.  All this mysterious unfolding we entrust to St. Joseph’s continued guidance and protection, to his “faithful care,” knowing that he bears the same love for all of God’s children that he lavished upon God’s Only-begotten Son.

        [1] Anthony Esolen, The Beauty of the Word:  A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal (NY: Magnificat, 2012), p. 367.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Discernment Weekend for Potential Lay Missioners

Discernment Weekend for Potential Lay Missioners

Over the March 11-13 weekend, 6 Salesian Lay Missioner candidates from as many U.S. states (Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, and Ohio) visited Salesian Missions and the provincial house in New Rochelle as part of the process of discerning whether they might become SLMs later this year. Their weekend included presentations on Don Bosco and the Salesians, how to discern, the Salesian oratory criteria, and the Salesian Lay Missioner program itself. A panel of returned SLMs discussed mission with them. They visited 4 Salesian works in New Rochelle (the mission office, the provincial house, Salesian HS, and the "oratory" at Blessed Sacrament Parish) and took part in prayer and meals at each site.

A second discernment weekend for additional SLM candidates is planned in May. Those who are accepted into the SLM program will undertake three weeks of orientation in late July and August and be commissioned at the end of a retreat.

Pictured above are 5 of the candidates; the 6th had to leave on Sunday morning before your humble blogger/photographer returned from a weekend with Boy Scouts. At the left in the photo is Adam Rudin, director of the SLM program, and at the right Fr. Mark Hyde, SDB, director of Salesian Missions.

Homily for 5th Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
5th Sunday of Lent
March 20, 1983
Is 43: 16-21
John 8: 1-11
Don Bosco Tech, Paterson, N.J.

On Sunday, March 13, I was camping with Troop 40 and preached to them without a written text.  Here's a homily on the day's texts from the files.

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Remember not the former things.…  Behold, I am doing a new thing’” (Is 43: 18-19).

Exile.  Refugee. These are terrible words, words that identify someone who has experienced and continues to experience misfortune and persecution.

In recent years we’ve seen the misery of exiles and refugees from Haiti, Cuba, Central America, Southeast Asia, Poland, and Russia.  On TV and radio we’ve heard countless times about Palestinians living in displacement camps since 1948.  These people can live only on hope—hope of returning home someday or hope of making a new life in a new home.

God’s people experienced a long exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., following a catastrophic war and the destruction of their homeland and the holy city.  As the years of that exile counted up toward 50, a prophet came to them, proclaiming hope, deliverance, salvation.  We don’t know his name.  We call him Second Isaiah, and it is he whom we heard this morning.  “Thus says the Lord:  ‘Remember not the former things….  Behold, I am doing a new things….  I will make a way on the wilderness and rivers in the desert’” (Is 43:18-19).

The former things that the Jews are to forget and no longer to consider are not just the burning of the Temple, the leveling of Jerusalem, and living in a long exile.  They are going to forget their first great deliverance, the deliverance in which the Lord made a way thru the sea and extinguished an army of chariot and horse (cf. Is 43:16-17), the deliverance from Egypt that created Israel and established God as their Savior.  They can forget this, for behold, God is doing a new thing, working a new deliverance.  It’s about to spring forth.  He will make a new way, a new exodus from the bondage of Babylonian exile, thru the wilderness of the Syrian Desert, and this new deliverance will outshine the old one on glory and wonder.

Second Isaiah prophesized correctly the fall of Babylon, the end of exile, and the return of the Jews to their homeland.  There was a new deliverance and a new exodus.  If that deliverance doesn’t appear to us to have been as spectacular as the one effected by the plagues in Egypt and the division of the Red Sea, I’m sure it was spectacular enuf to the exiles who were able to go home.

God’s people, the Christian Church to whom we belong, are in exile.  We are reminded today of a more wonderful deliverance from bondage.  As St. Paul says, “Christ Jesus has made [us] his own” (Phil 3:12).  He has done that by freeing us from the exile of our sins, as he forgave the adulteress (John 8:1-11):  no conditions, just an offer of salvation and a new start:  “I don’t condemn you.  Go, and don’t sin again” (John 8:11).

During Lent we’re on a journey from sinfulness to forgiveness.  Jesus is our way.  Jesus is our deliverance from sin.  It’s sin that has made is exiles from our Father’s home, refugees bound by our selfishness and cruelty, like the younger son in last Sunday’s parable (Luke 15:11-31).

Easter, the resurrection of Christ, promises us that Christ’s forgiveness is a real salvation, salvation he wants to pour upon us like water in the wilderness or rivers in the desert (Is 43:20), deliverance made new and wonderful every year, even every day.

The Lord has done great things for us (cf. Ps 136).  Let’s be filled with joy, like prisoners set free, like exiles going home.  Behold, he does a new thing day by day, forgiving us and loving us with the power of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Phil 3:10).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Homily for 4th Sunday of Lent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2016
Luke 15: 11-32
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15: 1-2).

In Luke’s 15th chapter Jesus tells 3 parables, addressed specifically to the Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining about his friendly association with tax collectors and other notorious sinners—whatever that designation means, precisely.  Those parables are the lost sheep, the lost drachma, and the one we just heard, the lost son.  (3 years ago I added “the lost Swiss Army knife,” which I’d just found serendipitously while setting up my kit for a Scout Mass.)

We usually call the parable of the lost son that of the “prodigal son.”  Prodigal means “recklessly extravagant,” “characterized by wasteful expenditure.”[1]  The latter meaning describes the younger son, certainly, who “squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (15:13)—eating tons of pizza, drinking gallons of Bud, and playing video games, no doubt, altho the elder son suggests worse (15:30), perhaps having seen YouTube or perhaps engaging in rash judgment.  But the 1st meaning, “recklessly extravagant,” may well apply to the father, who is certainly prodigal with his forgiveness.  Which is just the point that Jesus is making to his interlocutors:  “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who have no need of repentance,” he says to them as he concludes the parable of the lost sheep (15:7); he says something similar after telling of the woman who had lost one of her 10 drachmas (15:10).

James Tissot
Most of us, when we hear the parable of the lost son, don’t associate ourselves with the father, so foolish in giving his younger son what he wants instead of smacking him—which is what Middle Eastern culture would expect; so undignified in running in public to greet and embrace his disgraceful, embarrassing son; so undignified again in going out to beg the elder son to come inside.  Middle Eastern patriarchs just do not do what this father did.  Mostly, tho, we don’t identify with him because we aren’t quite so ready to forgive transgressions against our dignity and our family reputation.

So do we identify with the younger son, the wastrel, the ingrate who in effect says, “Dad, I wish you were dead and can’t wait for my inheritance”? who “comes to his senses” (15:17) or becomes remorseful only when he’s slopping unclean pigs and starving because what he feeds them is unfit for his own food?  He seems to have what in the old catechism we called “imperfect contrition”; he’s not sorry because he offended his gracious and loving father but because he’s in such a sorry state himself.  When we admit our sins, perhaps it’s because we’re truly sorry for having offended a Father who is so good to us and has committed himself to our eternal welfare; perhaps it’s because we’re afraid of his wrath.  But either way, we’re happy to be forgiven and are grateful for that.  We’re happy that the Father welcomes us back into the family.

But when we remember that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes, who are complaining about his friendliness—and mercy—toward people whom the Pharisees and scribes detest for their moral and ritual failings, we need to look toward the elder son as the key figure in the parable.  He represents the Pharisees and scribes, who never disobey any of the rules of the Torah but don’t find a lot of joy in their faith, don’t seem to have a close relationship with the Father—and who’ve done nothing to try to call those tax collectors and sinners back to God, just as the elder son didn’t do his familial duty when the younger son demanded his share of the family estate, sold it off—alienated the land the family had owned for generations—and abandoned his home and family.  Unpardonable behavior on the younger’s part, and in the Middle East the elder son would have been expected to mediate between his father and his brother, patch things up, save the family estate and the family honor.  But he doesn’t.  He’s really not a likeable fellow.  He even speaks disrespectfully to his father, who loves him and seeks him just as much as he did the younger son.

Are we so different from that elder son?  Do we think ISIS targets should be targeted without regard for civilians as “collateral damage”?  Do we think every convicted killer should be fried, and quickly?  Do we think gays should be sent to Siberia?  Do we think that all those illegal immigrants—you know, all those Irish hiding in Manhattan and Brooklyn after overstaying their visas—should be rounded up and shipped home?  Oh, yeah, and the Mexicans and Central Americans too, including the ones their parents brought here at age 2 or 7.  Do we think everyone on welfare should just get a job and the unemployed shouldn’t be so lazy?  Are there family members from whom we’ve been alienated a long time because of something they did or said, or didn’t do; or we thought they did or said or didn’t do, but we really didn’t verify that?  Whose behavior do I really resent?  Whom do I look down on because they’re morally inferior to me?

We’re probably not quite that harsh.  More likely, we find in ourselves some elements that make us resemble the elder brother, and some the younger brother.  Jesus is certainly calling us to be more compassionate, more understanding, more patient with the faults, even the grievous faults, of others; to be forgiving and encouraging of those who want to come back—into our lives, the Church’s life, God’s family.  That’s the only way we can get into the celebration that the Father is throwing, the celebration of eternal life.

      [1] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed.