Sunday, November 27, 2016

Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Advent
Nov. 27, 2016
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Grant your faithful the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom” (Collect).

The 1st Sunday of Advent always draws our attention to the 2d coming of Christ, continuing the focus of the 33d Sunday of OT and the feast of Christ the King.  Advent’s attention will gradually shift to preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth in time 2,000 years ago; yet we know that birth is an unrepeatable historical event.  And we know that this same Jesus Christ has promised to return, to come again, to complete the work of our salvation that he began with his incarnation.

Today’s Collect is loaded with meaning.  As usual, we need time and attention to unpack that meaning, to understand what we’re praying, to enter our prayer more deeply.

The Collect—like all the collects of the Roman Missal—is a humble petition addressed to the Divine Majesty.  This is brought out much more forcefully in the new translation we’ve been using for 5 years:  “grant, we pray….”  We don’t demand of God but plead with him.  We sinners aren’t in a position to demand, no matter how faith-filled we may be, no matter how confident we may be in the Father’s amazing grace.

Our prayer this morning is for “resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.”  As you know, Christ isn’t Jesus of Nazareth’s last name but a title:  the Greek translation of Messiah, “anointed one.”  Those who were anointed were designated for some special purpose by God, mainly kings and priests in the OT, and in the later OT period, the one expected to liberate God’s people from all their oppressors, the Son of David.  We affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is that Anointed One of God.

We pray for “resolve.”  That word implies a strong will, perseverance, determination.  For, assuredly, there are many things to distract us from attending to our Christian discipleship, from thinking about Christ’s coming and the 4 last things, from considering our ultimate destiny.  Our sins may discourage us from thinking about all that or from wanting to meet Christ—meeting him on the Last Day or perhaps meeting him on this day, Nov. 27.  So we need resolve—as a gift from God—to get ready for death, judgment, and eternity (either heaven or hell).

But we’re praying for more than a steely determination; more than a British stiff upper lip, as we prepare for Jesus.  We pray that we might “run forth to meet your Christ.”  Picture a child running to meet Mom or Dad coming home from work, or a spouse charging into the arms of a returning soldier.  What emotions are there?  We hope, we pray, that we might look for, desire, be eager for Christ’s return in such a way.

To welcome Christ like that, we need to have “righteous deeds.”  How many parables warn us not to come to him empty-handed!—e.g., the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30; cf. Luke 19:12-27), the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13), the parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), to which our prayer alludes explicitly.  St. Paul exhorts us to “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12), to rid ourselves of vices of the flesh and the spirit (13:13) that are just as rife and just as culturally acceptable today as in the 1st century, and just as much works of darkness and not of light, and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14), who is the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness (cf. John 1:5).  If we have clothed ourselves in Christ, put on his protective armor against the weapons of the Enemy of our souls, by doing what Jesus did, speaking as Jesus did—deeds and words of light—then we will, as the psalm response (Ps 122) says, “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord,” to our heavenly home.  Do you remember the announcement of John Paul the Great’s death on April 2, 2005, how the cardinal told the world simply, “Dearest brothers and sisters, at 9:37 p.m., our beloved Father John Paul II returned to the house of the Father”?  This is what JP II was created for, and what we also are created for; the house of the Father is the destination of the earthly pilgrimage that we’re all on.

When we’ve filled our lives with righteous deeds—when we have our lamps filled with oil, lit and burning brightly, like the wise virgins of our Lord’s parable in Matt 25, or like the house owner in today’s mini-parable who should keep vigil against burglars (Matt 24:43)—then we’ll be ready to greet Christ at his coming, will run forth to meet him like children who’ve missed their parent for days or weeks away—even if Christ comes “at an hour you do not expect” (24:44); for we have no guarantee we’ll be warned of the coming of the end:  “of that day and hour no one knows … but the Father alone” (24:36), Jesus says in the verse that immediately precedes the gospel passage we read this evening/morning.

The “resolve” we pray for touches on these “righteous deeds.”  How can a follower of Christ live righteously in this world without resolve?  Following Christ, we all know, requires constant vigilance, resistance to evil, no compromising of principles, repentance of our failings, renewal of our baptismal (and vocational) commitment.  “I heartily resolve to sin no more,” we say in the traditional Act of Contrition most of us learned many years ago.  It’s a resolve we need to renew every day.

Of course, a resolve to avoid sin and “the near occasions of sin”—or, in the words many of our young people now use, “whatever leads me to sin”—is only a beginning, rather like a student resolving to do the bare minimum of schoolwork to avoid an F.  As Jesus’ followers, we need to resolve to imitate him in doing good, in practicing virtue—the “righteous deeds” for which we’ve prayed in the Collect.

The Collect goes on to refer to those “gathered at his right hand.”  In Mark’s version of Jesus’ words about the Last Day, Jesus says that the angels will “gather his elect” from the far reaches of the world (Mark 13:27).  (One objective of the new translation of the Missal was to capture more of the biblical allusions in the prayers, and you have an example of that in this prayer.)

These elect, these faithful, are “gathered at [Christ’s] right hand.”  That’s an allusion to the parable of the coming of the Son of Man and the last judgment in Matt 25, at which the sheep of his flock will be placed at his right hand and rewarded for their righteous deeds of mercy:  feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming strangers—and the goats placed at his left hand will be condemned to hell for their lack of merciful deeds.

The final line of the Collect begs that “they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.”  Interesting lack of presumption there!  We don’t automatically count ourselves among the faithful, among the elect; we don’t say “we may be worthy.”  It’s a humble prayer for everyone, and we can only hope (and pray) that our kind and merciful Savior will include us—but we don’t presume to say so out loud.

What we pray for is more than mere presence in the kingdom, like being a spectator in the galleries of Congress.  We ask to be worthy of “possessing” the kingdom.  What a difference from just being there.  God has made us his children, and he has promised us an inheritance alongside his Son, places of honor in the heavenly kingdom.

May God’s abundant grace empower us to live righteously so as to look forward eagerly (without anxiety) for Christ’s coming, so as to be joined with our Savior in the glory of his kingdom, forever and ever!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Homily for Solemnity of Christ the King

Homily for the Solemnity of
Christ the King
Nov. 20, 1983
2 Sam 5:1-3
Col 1: 12-20
Luke 23: 35-43
Don Bosco Tech, Paterson, N.J.

The deacons preached at Holy Cross this weekend.  Here's an "oldie" for you.

“Blessed is he who inherits the kingdom of David our father” (Alleluia verse).

Today we celebrate Christ as our king.  He is not just David’s heir, not just King of the Jews as Pilate mocked him.  But “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 12:17).

What does it mean to be a monarch? Is it pomp without substance, as when the Queen opens Parliament?  Is it public acclaim such as the British displayed 2 summers ago when Charles and Diana wed?  Is it unrestrained power such as the king of Saudi Arabia is reputed to hold?

These are some of the trappings and the essence of monarchy as the world sees it.  These aren’t what we celebrate when we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he is our king.

What does it mean, then, for Christ to be a king?  The readings give us some insight.  The first reading described David’s anointing as king over all Israel, and the Alleluia verse praised Jesus as David’s son and heir.

Who is this David?  In the Jewish mind, he is the ideal king, the one whom the Messiah – that is, the Christ – will be like.  He unites the people.  He shepherds the nation.  In a real sense, he is the redeemer of Israel.
King David (Our Lady of the Valley, Orange, N.J.)
David unites Israel.  “All the tribes of Israel came to David” (2 Sam 5:1).  Up to this point, David has ruled over only the tribe of Judah.  The northern tribes have given their allegiance to Saul’s house.  This division and strife has proven unsatisfactory.  So the elders, in effect, stage a coup and offer David the kingship of the northern tribes too, recognizing his and Judah’s kinship with them: “we are your bone and flesh.”

They also recognize that David, the former shepherd boy of Bethlehem, was a leader in all of Israel when Saul was king.  “It was you that led out and brought in Israel” (5:2), that is, led the Israelites in raids and battles against the Philistines and brought them home victorious.  The women used to sing, probably with some exaggeration, that “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:7).  The elders are choosing a proven military leader to shepherd the people, to protect them from their enemies.  They recognize that God has chosen him for this special mission.

The king is to be Israel’s redeemer.  To redeem is not only to ransom or to buy back but to liberate.  The king is to free Israel from oppression, from danger.  He is to be the avenger of the injustice inflicted upon them.  All of this David will do by conquering Israel’s threatening neighbors, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites.  He will arrange alliances with the Arameans and the Phoenicians.  Under David, Israel will become secure and comfortable.

Jesus, like David, was picked out by YHWH and anointed – anointed not by the prophet Samuel, like David, nor by a group of elders, but by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus’ anointing by the Holy Spirit, like David’s anointing, made him a messiah, a Christ, one who has been anointed.  The Spirit came upon him at the River Jordan, and YHWH’s voice from heaven proclaimed, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
The Baptism of Jesus
(St. Ursula's Church, Mt. Vernon, N.Y. ?)
Jesus has been anointed as the messiah of YHWH’s people in order to do as David did, but more excellently.  Jesus unites the people.  He shepherds the nation; he is the redeemer of Israel.  These are his claim to kingship.

Jesus unites all of us into God’s people.  “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together….  Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:17,19-20).  Jesus unites all of mankind, especially sinners who can say, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Luke 23:42).

Jesus shepherds the nation.  All of us who are in Christ (who are anointed with the Holy Spirit), all of us are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people….  Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10), in the words of St. Peter.  Like David, Jesus is our shepherd because he leads us out and brings us in: out into battle against evil, sin, death; back into eternal life.  Jesus is our leader: “he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead” (Col 1:18), who has overcome for us both sin and death and makes a covenant of faith with us.

Jesus is the redeemer of Israel:  the new Israel washed clean of sin in the blood of his cross, delivered from the dominion of darkness and into the inheritance of the saints in light (cf. Col 1:12-13).  “In him we have redemption, that is, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:14), the conquest of our enemy.  We are secure and have inner peace because he is protecting us from the ultimate danger – which is not nuclear holocaust but eternal death.  He assures us who bow before his throne that we will be with him in paradise.

Jesus Christ is our king.  He still unites us, shepherds us, redeems us.  He calls us into his one body, which is the Church. He reconciles us to his Father and to one another by forgiving our sins and leading us to forgive.  He gives us his sacraments.  He nourishes us with his Word and with the teaching of the Church.  He has given his Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts.  He has destined us to share in his heavenly kingdom forever and ever.

Scouting Out Camp Drake

Scouting Out Camp Drake

On the Nov. 11-13 weekend I joined Troop 9, based at our parish, for a camping trip to Prairielands Council's Camp Drake in Vermillion County (east of Champaign County), about 10 miles south of I-74, not far from the village of Oakwood.  Just that little distance southward, it was surprising to me to find actual hills (altho we're certainly not talking about Harriman State Park hills).

It was a cold weekend--the temperature dropped below zero both nites, and we woke up with substantial frost on our tents, our chairs left by the fire pit, and elsewhere.  Here are pix of supper after our arrival on Friday nite and of Scouts and dads around the campfire.

Fortunately, Saturday was perfectly clear, relatively windless, and cool but not cold--ideal camping weather.  We had 20 Scouts with us and 10 adults, at least on Friday nite; the number fluctuated a bit on Saturday with some early departures, late arrivals, and day-trippers. 

In addition, the 2d-year Webelos joined us at an adjacent campsite (and stayed Saturday nite).

The activity for Saturday was shooting at the camp's riflery and shotgun ranges--following extensive safety instruction at both the preceding regular troop meeting and on arrival at the range, and accompanied by very close supervision by our trained instructors.  The boys shot .22 rifles, and some also did shotguns (aiming at paper targets in the former case, and clay pigeons in the latter).  The adults, including your humble blogger, had those opportunities as well as a "shot" (pun intended) at 3 different pistols and 2 military rifles.

Several Scouts made progress on qualifications for the riflery merit badge.

After lunch I went for a 2-hour hike rather than return to the gun ranges.  The camp's main trail follows the Salt Fork of the Vermillion River for a couple of miles before looping back toward the center of the camp.  I walked about 2/3 of the trail.
(My Sony photography is still marred by a scratch on the lens.)

A somewhat rickety wooden suspension bridge gives hikers access to the west bank of the river.  I went halfway over and took some shots up and down the river, and also one of this fellow resting on the bridge rail:
Fall foliage is long past its peak at Camp Drake.  The trail was completely covered in brown, crackly leaves, which made silent walking impossible.  Toward the end of my hike, the noise alerted a couple of deer to my presence, and they bounded off before I could sight them with my camera.
There were 2 deer somewhere out there, about 100 feet from the trail.
So the tree line looked a lot like this:

And this is what all those tens of thousands of acres of Midwest cornfields look like now:

Back in camp, one of the Scouts and his dad did some Dutch oven cooking for the suppers of the adults and one of the 2 Scout patrols.

We also had a lot of hamburgers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Homily for 33d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
33d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov. 13, 1977
Mal 4: 1-2a
St. Andrew’s, Upper Arlington, Ohio

On the Nov. 12-13 weekend, I was ministering to Boy Scouts and preached to them with a barebones outline—which I also used at a later parish Mass.  From the archive comes this homily preached when I was a deacon.

Early in the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, the troubled prince of Denmark is conversing with two friends when a ghost suddenly appears.  The spirit beckons Hamlet follow it, and Hamlet feels some connection between the specter and his recently deceased father.  Despite their fearful warnings, the prince leaves his friends and pursues the apparition. All of which leads one of Hamlet’s companions to mutter a now famous line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I, iv. 90).

The prophet Malachi lets his hearers and us know that something is also rotten in the state of Israel.  “Behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts…” (4:1).

source unknown
Malachi is the last of the OT prophets; he preached about 450 years before Christ.  In today’s verse and a half, he uses a style called technically “apocalyptic,” as in the NT book of the Apocalypse. 

The apocalyptic style is a characteristic of times of crisis.  When everything seemed to be going wrong, when the bad guys seemed to be winning, when the saints seemed most oppressed, Jewish and early Christian writers resorted to a kind of ancient science fiction to describe colorfully all the terrible evils of the day.  But not just the evils.  The key point is that the Lord of hosts is still in charge!  He is going to act amid earth-shaking terrors that destroy the present world:  “burning like an oven, leaving neither root nor branch”—do you see where we get our popular imagery for the end of the world and the last judgment?  The Lord is going to save those who fear his name, inaugurating a new age in which his chosen ones are top dogs: “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its rays” (4:2a).

If Malachi had been an Irishman instead of a Jew, he might have prophesied thus:

            God’s plan made a hopeful beginning
            But man spoiled his chance by sinning.
                        We trust that the story
                        Will end in God’s glory,
            But at present the other side’s winning.

Well, what was so lousy about Malachi’s times?  From the 3 main chapters of his book, we learn that Jerusalem is plagued by divorce and dangerous remarriages between Jews and pagans, by a corrupt priesthood that is ignorant, lax, and greedy, and by social oppression such as dishonest business tactics and the enslavement of the poor.  To those who engage in such sinful activities, Malachi promises in the Lord’s name swift justice in the day of the Lord, a day like a burning oven that destroys chaff and purifies gold. The heat will also bring swift justice to the poor and oppressed; it will be like the sun: warm, bright, life-giving, healing, and purifying.          

Do Malachi’s words carry meaning today?  If poverty and social oppression, public corruption, and unfaithful family situations still abound, yes, Malachi speaks to us today.  The unfaithful, the corrupt, and the oppressors he warns: Clean up you act!  Cherish your family.  Work honestly and hard.  Pay a fair wage.  Help your brother:  liberate him from discrimination, unemployment, decaying cities, a polluted environment, and abortion.

The poor and the oppressed, Malachi encourages.  He advises them that the Lord does care, and he will save them.  He doesn’t tell them to stand around waiting for the Lord.  If I may allude to the other 2 readings of this afternoon, from St. Paul and St. Luke, God’s poor and oppressed are to work, to make hard choices, to be patient amid confusion (for there are no instant answers, no simple solutions), and to give testimony to their faith in the lord even tho they are oppressed on account of his name.

Paschal candle, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC
So, the other side’s winning, and something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.  Yet I trust in God’s glory winning out, for the “other side” is sin, and the rot is the corruption of death.  But we have a risen Savior who has conquered both sin and death.  He is symbolized by the paschal candle always in our sanctuary.[1]  He is our Sun of righteousness, and he heals us.

[1] “Sanctuary” in a broad sense, i.e., the church building, such as near the baptismal font.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Homily for 32d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
32d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov. 6, 2016
2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever” (2 Macc 7: 9).

A Greek kingdom based in Antioch of Syria—now the city of Antakya, Turkey—ruled the Jewish people from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., when his generals divided his empire among themselves, until the Jews revolted against their Greek masters in the mid-160s B.C.  The reason for their rebellion was a vicious religious persecution initiated under the Greek King Antiochus IV, the villain in the story in our 1st reading this morning/evening.  That persecution and the Jewish fight for freedom under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers are the topics of the 1st and 2d books of Maccabees in the OT, and it’s the Jewish triumph that’s celebrated annually with the feast of Hanukkah in December.

The 1st reading consists of just 8 verses out an entire chapter—41 verses—describing the gruesome martyrdom of 7 brothers and their mother on account of their refusal to violate the Torah, the Law of Moses.  As you heard from the words of 2 of the brothers, they stood firm because they believed in the resurrection of the dead, in everlasting reward or punishment beyond this life according to how one has lived in this life, reward or punishment to be experienced in our whole person, body and soul.
Martyrdom of the 7 Brothers
(source unknown)
So we see that by the 2d century B.C. many Jews had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead as God’s ultimate plan for humanity.  In our Lord’s time that belief was widespread but not universal.  The Pharisees embraced the teaching, while the Sadducees, who accepted as sacred Scripture only the Torah (the 1st 5 books of the OT), did not.  Hence the controversy in today’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ quotation to them precisely from Exodus, the 2d book of the OT.

Every Sunday and feast when we renew our profession of faith, we say, “I look forward to the resurrection of dead and the life of the world to come,” as a fundamental truth of our Christian faith.

It’s true that human reason by itself—without divine revelation—may come to the conclusion that there must be some kind of afterlife, some kind of immortality, for human beings.  If God is just—which most religions believe he is—and if an awful lot of injustice is never set right in this world—victims restored to their health or prosperity or happiness, and the evil punished—then divine justice requires that the balance be set right in eternity.

In itself, that philosophical position doesn’t require belief in bodily resurrection.  The Greeks, e.g., believed that a person’s true self was the soul, the spirit; bodily death was a liberation.  You may recall that when St. Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus to the wise men of Athens, they laughed at him (Act 17:22-34).

But our biblical faith reveals to us that when God created humanity “in his own image,” he created us as embodied persons.  Our selves, who we are, must include our whole being, both body and soul.  A disembodied soul isn’t a whole person and so can’t be considered a redeemed person.  When we profess that Jesus has redeemed us, we profess that he has redeemed us entirely and fully restored God’s image in us.  Not that God has a body—not until God the Son took on a human body at the moment of his incarnation, his “enfleshment.”  That human flesh has been raised from the tomb, so that now it does provide for humanity an image of God in the flesh, an image of what we shall be when, as we look forward to, we shall be raised from our graves on the Last Day, when Jesus the King of the world returns in his glory to judge the living and the dead, to restore the balance of justice for every human being.
The Triumph of Christianity
(Gustave Dore')
If our bodies are destined for resurrection and for the fullness of life with Christ; if our bodies are part of our being images of God—then we treat our bodies with utmost respect.  That’s why we bring the bodies of the dead into church for funeral rites, why we honor them with incense, why we bless the graves into which we’ll inter them.  The Holy See has just reminded us of this in a document published on Oct. 25, called Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“On Rising with Christ”), which is reported in this week’s Catholic Post.

Presenting that document to the public, Cardinal Gerhard Müller reminded us:  “Caring for the bodies of the deceased, the Church confirms its faith in the resurrection and separates itself from attitudes and rites that see in death the definitive obliteration of the person, a stage in the process of reincarnation, or the fusion of one’s soul with the universe.”  The Vatican instruction says that the deceased should be buried in a marked grave or the cremains put into a mausoleum or columbarium marked with the person’s name.  One reporter put out this summary of one part of the instruction:  “Loved ones belong in a cemetery, not on a coffee table . . . . nor should human remains be turned into jewelry.  People—even dead people—are not pendants.  The instruction denies burial rites for those who ‘requested cremation and the scattering of ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith’ (8).”[1]

Cardinal Müller explained, “A human cadaver is not trash,” and an anonymous burial or scattering someone’s ashes “is not compatible with Christian faith.  The name, the person, the concrete identity of the person” is important because God created each individual and calls each individual by name to himself.

At the same time, the cardinal also commented, labeling a grave or tomb or urn in a public place is an expression of belief in the communion of saints, the unending unity in Christ of all the baptized, both living and dead (which is another component of our Creed, as you know).

Let me add that this latest Church document instructs us about what should ordinarily be done with the mortal remains of our loved ones and fellow believers.  It doesn’t discuss exceptional cases like war, natural disasters, burials at sea, or bodies completely obliterated by some kind of horror like Hiroshima or the Twin Towers.  After the 10 o’clock Mass, I was asked about giving one’s body for medical research.  The instruction doesn’t address that question, but it has long been considered a legitimate, charitable action.  A Salesian sister whom I knew did just that about 10 years ago.  I think the presumption there is that the remains will be respectfully taken care of; e.g., after its medical study, sister’s body was returned to the FMAs for burial in their cemetery.

The instruction reminds us:  From the earliest times, Christians have desired that the faithful departed become the objects of the Christian community’s prayers and remembrance. Their tombs have become places of prayer, remembrance, and reflection.” (n. 5)  The Church prefers burial or entombment of the faithful (n. 4); cremation is permitted, provided that the ashes are treated with the same respect as is due the body (n. 5); and that our treatment of the remains of the dead reflects our belief in our ultimate destiny, which is to rise with Christ and live forever with him, as he lives bodily and, we Catholics believe, his Virgin Mother also lives, having been taken up bodily into heaven already in anticipation of the general resurrection to which the rest of us look forward with eager hope, for then our redemption by our Lord Jesus will be complete—provided only that, like the 7 brothers and their mother in 2 Maccabees, we have done our best to be faithful to the God who has called us by name to be his own.

[1] John M. Grondelski, “Vatican Issues a Timely Reminder on Cremation,” National Catholic Register, Oct. 29, 2016 online: