Sunday, December 31, 2017

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

I have a question for you all today.  What is the most dominant image used in the Scriptures to describe the relationship God wants with us?  Servant/master?  Soldier/general? No, almost exclusively, the image is that of a family.  Familial terms are used to describe what God wants when it comes to us.  This is a departure from other religions, where the gods really didn't like humanity and at best considered some of their favored as pets...rarely taking one to be a child.  The God of the Scriptures? The God who is a family (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) creates us to be family with Him and each other for eternity.

When Jesus reveals the first person of the Trinity, He reveals Him as Father. He reveals Himself as Son. He refers to the Church as His bride. We are referred to as adopted sons and daughters of God our Father, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  These are not hallmark sentiments, but a reality that God makes clear.  The family matters.  How much so?

In the first two readings we hear of the person of Abraham.  God promises to make of him a people for Himself.  From this unlikely source ( a childless couple), He will raise up a single family of Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac.  That family would grow into a clan and then a nation.  It all starts with God intervention in one family.  When the second person of the Trinity comes into the world, He is placed by the Father's will into a family.  The Father gives the responsibility of raising the Messiah to Mary and Joseph. Why?  Although Jesus is indeed fully God, he is also fully human.  That means his human brain and body needed to develop and grow as well.  This precious task is entrusted to Mary and Joseph.  I am willing to bet if we were able to see the internal workings of this holy family, we wold not see Joseph saying to either Mary or Jesus, "It's your job to make me happy!" This would not have been out of line for the times in which the holy family arose.  Neither to I think we would have Mary tell Joseph or Jesus, "It is your job to make me happy!" Nor can I imagine Jesus saying to his parents, "It is you job to make me happy!".  What binds the person of the holy family is the same thing that binds the persons of the Trinity:self-giving love.

It is that self-giving love that binds our families as well. The stronger this love, the stronger the family.  The stronger the family, the stronger every institution to which that family belongs becomes. It is for this reason that the Church refers to the family as the domestic church. It is in these incubators of faith that the husband and wife and their children grow in love, grow in faith, and grow in the image and likeness of God.  What I am to a parish, you parents are within your family.  The healthier our families, the healthier our parish.

Mind you, we are not the only people that get how key the family is.  I am currently reading the "Lion of Munster". Munster is a city in Germany and lion in question is a man, a bishop, named Clemens Von Galen.  He was the bishop of Munster as Hitler rose to power and through WWII. Bp. Von Galen had to do battle with the 3rd Reich who insisted in putting NAZI propaganda in the Catholic classroom.  He had to contend with the family-destroying Hitler Youth, who were part of the effort to take for the state the responsibility parents had in raising their children; even turning those children against their parents should their parents speak ill of the Reich. In fact, every totalitarian dictatorship or wanna-be dictatorship tries to appropriate for themselves the duties of the parents.  Our secular society is no exception.

Our secular society attacks the family a regular basis.  It has so redefined marriage and family life so as to render it irrelevant and sterile.  It did this by divorcing the marital act (human sexuality) from the marital bond and turned it into a recreational activity.  It threw in copious amounts of artificial birth control and pornography so as weaken the bonds all the more. Marriage and family life became the enemy to human happiness. Children, if one must have them at all, were props to make the parent look good. It permeates our entertainment and even advertisements (including children's programming) with an special dose of venom for dads, who are often portrayed as clueless, self-absorbed, and childish..if they are even present at all.  This is not hyperbole!  Witness what is happening in Japan, which is already in a demographic free-fall and which is worsening as the young men have become enamored with porn instead of relationships.  It also is devastating Italy, France, Germany, Russia....and on and on.  The devil is working overtime to destroy the family.

Mom and dad, you are the sentinel at the door. I could not imagine Mary and Joseph allowing something into their home that would hurt the child Jesus. Your job is not easy.  It gets harder when you divorce yourself from the sacramental life of the Church.  We need God's grace to live up to the great responsibility which we are given.  To sacramentally  starve ourselves endangers the essential mission of the family.  Study after study paints a rather grim portrait of what happens when the parents are disengaged from the practice of the faith..particularly the dads. If the dad is disengaged from the faith, regardless of the devotion or lack thereof of the mom, the likelihood of the child embracing and living the faith is under 25%.  If he is engaged, again regardless of the devotion of the mom, it rises to 65%...if both parents are engaged, it goes to 85%.  How you parent matter!

This is why I am becoming very insistent  that if a family has their children in any of our education programs or school, that regular practice of the faith, especially being at Sunday Mass, is a must. You will notice not so much a shift in policy as much as a upholding and enforcement of policy that for a child to be in our school as a registered parishioner means I see them and the family...including dad...on the weekends.  If I as a pastor allow 'Catholic in name only', I cannot complain when parents shoot for 'Catholic in name only.'  Like a good father, I have to shoot for what is best.  The parents need to be here because of the task they have before God.  I can ill afford to be okay with them not being given the tools to do their task.  In fact, in the New Year, our parish is starting a program called 'New Wine' which is aimed at strengthening marriages.  Strengthen the marriage, strengthen the family.  If our parish is to flourish as it should, then it is on our interest to bolster marriage and family life and to actively against what would despoil  the family and marriage.

Why?  Because the point of this feast is not merely to look at the Holy Family as if it were a masterpiece in a museum, but to see in the Holy Family what we ourselves as followers of Christ are to become.  We refer to the union of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as a HOLY family...not a good family...not a nice family...but a holy family.  Hence the goal for our families is not be a good family, a nice family, a sports family, a rich family, a successful family.  No, the goal is to have holy families.  That takes God.  As we move into 2018...let that be the goal for your family: to becomes holy family!       

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

There is no Beige Season

Earlier today, I happened upon a thought of Bishop Robert Barron disparaging what he called the 'beige church.' It has stuck with me through the day.

Beige is a neutral color. For many, such as myself, it is a boring and non-descript hue.  It is the color of winter where I live.  It is a color without statement...inoffensive, bland, non-threatening.  The Church uses many different colors to inform us of a liturgical reality. They are meant to incite some spiritual response.  The inform us of a liturgical season.  In my parish, we talk of Mass settings specific to seasons, which I lump into the Green Season, the Purple Seasons, and the White Seasons.  There are no beige seasons.  There are no seasons of the Church that are meant to lull into a inoffensive state of niceness.

Yet, a fair statement might be made that so many in leadership, both lay and cleric, strive for a beige church. The beige church is one of comfort.  It is easy.  It demands little spiritually.  It gives nothing spiritually. It wraps itself in a bland corporate visage.  It preaches as if the goal is to soothe into a hushed silence or comatose spiritual state of existence.  It plays like a new age ditty, repeatedly hitting the three same chords over and over again until the listener has either gone mad  or fallen asleep.  It is uninspiring and easy to leave.

Its churches are not churches any longer, but worship spaces.  They are paeans to mediocrity and even ugliness. They lack either the soaring heights of the gothic, the swirling arches of the baroque, or even the stark majesty of the Cistercian. The beige church lacks either the regal simplicity of chant or the bombast of organ, it lacks the color of procession, the urgency of preaching, and the scent of holiness.  All replaced for the tidy look of a bank lobby, the easily dismissible mundanity of beige walls, singsong Muzak droning in the background, and condescending banal messages masquerading as homilies.  Neither the thundering theophany nor the still quiet voice find a home here. The senses are anesthetized into a spiritual coma content on the sound of its own breathing.

Given the rich heritage of artistry and theology we have been given, to reduce the Church to a beige entity is to bleed her dry.  Those that bled her dry were not beige themselves.  No, they ran crimson with malice, emerald with envy, and soaked with scarlet in their lust.  The colorful spectrum that disperse the light that had the ability to overshadow these garish hues had to be painted over by a nice coat of beige.

I have yet to ever see a beige battle standard.  Battle standards often stand out for their brilliant and bold shades meant to hearken its followers to courage and its enemies to fear. The thunderous message of Christ Crucified and Resurrected should spur us to the field of battle; our anthems blaring like the hosts of heaven. Even our silences should roar like the thunder of a coming storm.

There should be no room in our parish life, in our personal lives, nor our spiritual lives for the blandness and inoffensiveness of beige.  God's grace does not leave in such a colorless place. The Blood of Christ runs a brilliant red, not beige.  The Church is to actively soar to the heights, not sleep like a winter field.  Its rhetoric is there to compel conversion, comfort the afflicted, and spur the troops to victory. Like bold colors, it offends the sensibilities of the comfortable. It stirs up and shatters the darkness boldly and without apology.

Give me this church and we turn the tide.  This church, and not the church of beige, captures the attention of a warrior's heart and valor. Give me the Church that stands boldly against oppressors even in the face of certain death. Give me the Church that can have the soft stir of a symphony and its booming movements as well. Give me a Church that assaults my senses instead of numbing them.  Give me a Church that possesses all of what Christ gave all His strength and boldness.

We can send the beige church to a liturgical ash heap and dismiss it as an experiment in niceness and mediocrity that failed miserably.  We better do so quickly while there are some left.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part IV

Of the secular stories associated with the Christmas Season, Charles Dicken’s, “A Christmas Carol” is one of the more popular. The central figure is a hardened heart miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  As the story unfolds, we see a man who allowed the sorrow he faced in his life to close his heart to those around him and to accumulate for the sake of accumulation.  Neither he nor anyone else received joy from his life.  His hardened heart was an act of revenge against the God and the world.  Over the course of the story, as he sees the consequences his hardness of heart wreaks on others and himself, he has a conversion experience in which the coldness of his heart is tinged with empathy.

Life can harden us to the needs of others.  Another powerful weapon in the devil’s arsenal is the weapon of selfishness.  Selfishness closes our hearts to the needs of others.  It so puts the focus on the individual that they become callous to the harm their actions cause others or the harm their neglect causes others.  Selfishness isolates us from God.  It is a wholesale rejection of God, in fact.

The poison of selfishness

Selfishness is a poison that infects every organ of the person.  It comes in the form of greed that builds a inordinate sense of what is needed in our lives.  It is a product of a fear that tells us we will have to suffer want if we do not hoard for ourselves.  The poison deepens from greed to gluttony where wanting the world is not enough, possessing it even to creating want in others becomes necessary.  If we cannot be successful in gluttony, the poison finds another way to infect us: jealousy and envy.  Selfishness provokes us to resent the good of others; to resent their belongings, their relationships, their health, and their talents. 

Passively, selfishness leads to resentment.  The person of Ebenezer Scrooge is a modern day example of the ugliness such a passive selfishness looks like.  The main sin is that of neglect.  You’ll notice that such a person always has an excuse for their neglect.   Actively, selfishness leads the person to actions meant to rebalance the perceived imbalance: theft, gossip, fraud,  and such.  These sins are done in the name of evening the score.  A greedy and gluttonous heart knows no end to their fury.  There is never enough.  Two aberrations of this sin, abusing the widow and orphan and withholding the wages of the worker, are seen as so heinous in the Scriptures that they are considered sins that cry out for vengeance to God.

This poison will infect our decision making ability.  It will justify every act as correct. I won’t help that person, for example, because they make foolish decisions, or they hurt me, or they are lesser than me, or …or…or …or….  Selfishness knows no end to the excuses and justifications for neglect and abuse.

The Consequences of Selfishness

Ebenezer Scrooge has the benefit of being able to see the consequences of his selfishness.  He sees the effect it has on the Crachitts, to Belle, the effect it has on his community, and inevitably on himself.  It is a dark picture.  Should we be so lucky to see the effects of our selfishness!  We shouldn’t need to be visited by four ghosts for such a revelation.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we have the Last Judgement Sequence, in which the difference between the righteous and the damned falls upon whether they were selfish or not.  Those on the right saw the plight of those around them and helped.   That selflessness of heart (empathy) is a reflection of Christ Himself.  The damned are damned because of their coldness of heart.  They saw the same need and did nothing.  Selfishness has its eternal cost.

Our willingness and ability to put ourselves second or even last is a hallmark of the Christian life.  This is why the Church and the Gospel put such a premium on detachment from the world and attachment to the life of God’s love.  If the devil uses selfishness as weapon, God gives us the armor and weapons to fight it!

Fighting Selfishness

Our main armor against selfishness is the virtues of love and temperance.  Temperance is the virtue by which we learn to temper the excess of greed and gluttony.  Temperance gives us the ability to be disciplined in our use of the things of this world.  Love gives us the ability to see the needs of others and act positively.  Love tempers the excesses of enabling or condoning bad behavior.  Love looks to the needs of the other and selflessly intercedes for the other. 

The weapons?  It starts with thanksgiving.  The more we cultivate a sense of thanksgiving, the more we see the blessing and movement of God in our lives.  Thanksgiving beats back the want of greed and gluttony by showing us our wants are not as we think. Thanksgiving leads to a sense of stewardship, the next weapon in the arsenal that God gives us.

Stewardship forces us to look at the correct use of every aspect of our lives.  How do I use what God gives me?  Do I hoard it and not?  Do I use what is given to build up only myself or those around me as well?  Stewardship gives a sense of whether we are properly using what we have.  In multiple parables, Jesus makes us aware that we are answerable for what we do with what we are given.  Stewardship leads to another powerful weapon: generosity/magnanimity.

In generosity or magnanimity we strive to mimic God in our willingness to be gracious and selfless with who we are and what we possess.  Magnanimity provokes off the couch and to visiting the sick, the lonely, or those who could better use such time.  Generosity and magnanimity provoke us beyond excuses to ignore and to find reasons to be involved.  A generous, thankful, magnanimous, and loving heart has no room for entitlement, greed, envy, jealousy, or gluttony!  It has no room for selfishness.

Perhaps the greatest preparation we can do in this season of preparation of Advent is to repent of such selfishness and open our hearts in empathy and love in imitation of Christ.  Why wait for visits from ghosts, like Scrooge, when the much easier and freeing action of repentance is always as close as the confessional?

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part III

Among the more powerful weapons the devil uses to incite us to sin is the weapon of wrath.  Wrath is an anger that seeks vengeance.  Anger, in and of itself, is an emotion that tells us we have been hurt.  What we chose to do to resolve anger is what either leads us closer to or further from God.

Vengeance is mine says the Lord

Vengeance in our common usage usually means inflicting harm as a mean of returning the harm that has been done to us.  We even hear sayings from Scripture, such as above.  We hear stories such has Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.  Are these acts of vengeance such as we understand it?  If Scripture tells us to model our lives after God, why are we also told to hold back our hands in vengeance?  Why is it proper to God?

Vengeance, from the divine perspective, is an operation of justice.  It is allowing the consequences for choices to bear out.  God gives us what we choose.  If we choose to rebel against Him, there is a consequence.  This is one of the reasons the heresy of universalism doesn’t work: If actions have no eternal consequence, then there cannot be any true right or wrong.  There is a string in this heresy that sees purgatory as a place where all the sin of man is dealt with; that somehow sin can be forgiven of those who show no repentance. 

The devil, though, has no repentance in him.  He believes himself in the right.  He believes that the creation of humanity is a slight against him.  It is why he hates.  It is why he rebels against God.  It is why he wars against us.  He teaches us to use the tools he uses.  He is driven by fear, so he instills fear in us.  In his fear, he tries to exact vengeance against God.  His primary way is to turn human beings against God as well.  His predilection toward vengeance is a central part of his arsenal.

Satan’s vengeance is not the same thing as God’s.  God is just and allows us to choose our path and gives us the consequence to that path.  He doesn’t cease to love us.  His love, though, has the same property as light: a person who is acclimated to the light will find freedom in that light; a person who chooses darkness will find that same light painful and abhorrent.   God is love, as St. John reminds us repeatedly, and the same love that binds those in heaven is the same love that burns those in hell.  Those acclimated to divine love in this life will revel in joy with it for eternity; those who rejected it and preferred darkness will find it abhorrent for eternity.  Satan doesn’t cease to hate us; he is our enemy even when we do what he wants.  That is why evil can never be sated.  That is why vices, bad habits, addictions, and such are bottomless pits.  

God is kind and merciful

Because God is love, He will choose to show mercy.  He desires, as we see throughout the Scriptures, to extend mercy.  He wants to forgive us.  He makes that clear by what we celebrate at Christmas: He sends the second Person of the Trinity into this world as one of us without losing who He is as the second Person of the Trinity.  We call this the Incarnation.  Because God wants to restore the lost relationship with us, He sends His Son among us to seal that relationship again.  That new covenant will be sealed by the ultimate act of mercy.  The Incarnate God, the babe of Bethlehem (which means House of Bread), will become the man crucified on the Cross as a sacrifice to restore us to God, a sacrifice we partake in especially in the reception of the Bread of Life during the Eucharist.  

Hence, those who follow Christ must also be agents of mercy.  That mercy is not contingent upon the offending party being deserving of mercy.  St. Paul reminds us that Christ died while we were still sinners, not after humanity had done something to merit God’s mercy.

 Fighting vengeance

The principle tools we use to fend off these diabolical temptations are mercy and forgiveness.  Once again, we exercise these weapons not because those who have harmed us are deserving of such magnanimous behavior, but because it is what is needed. 

Undoubtedly, people will ask what they are to do with those who feel no sorrow for what they have done.  It is a fair question.  What are we to do?

There is an old saying that carrying grudge is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.  Remember that the devil wants you to destroy your relationship with God.  He will have you harbor hurt, ill will, and nurture a desire for vengeance that will be overwhelming.  We know from various studies that this anger can have detrimental effects to a person emotionally, physically, and spiritually. There is no positive attribute to withholding mercy and forgiveness.   Showing mercy and forgiveness can be the ultimate act of self-preservation.  Showing mercy and forgiveness only serves to heal us. 

Vengeance begets vengeance.  If I withhold mercy from you and you return the favor, this downward spiral will continue until one party refuses to make the contribution of vengeance. WE are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect; hence, the call to show mercy to the undeserving is part of the call.

Partaking in mercy

The surest way to see the necessity of mercy is to seek it for ourselves.  Sin leads to a spiritual sociopathy.  It teaches us to not show sorrow.  Hence to learn mercy, we need to seek mercy.  We have to have the humility to know of our own sin.  Knowing this and seeking the mercy of God for our sins will dispose us to be agents of the same mercy we desire.  If I do not see the necessity of the operation of mercy in my life, it will be difficult for me to see it as necessary in the lives of others.

Finally, developing a sense of meekness (patience and forbearance) and humility will be the armor we need to fend off these diabolical attacks.  If we know we are in need of God’s patience and mercy, we will extend that to others.  This is one of the reasons Confession is so very important to the development of the Catholic life.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord: Homily for 2nd Sunday of Advent

In the Scriptures, whenever a message is given, there is a call for immediate action. When a messenger is sent, the response is to be given then. The Gospel today begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah,  that 'my messenger' will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  So important is this messenger that St. Mark begins his gospel with the messenger who would cry out,  "Prepare the way of the Lord." St. Mark begins with the ministry of St. John the Baptist. John gives a powerful sign in his baptism of repentance.  The question is this: is the baptism of John the baptism we celebrate?


John's baptism is half the equation.  You will notice we are told people came to be baptized and they were confessing their sin.  There is another place such a thing is done; it is done with the animal sacrifices (aka peace/sin offerings) done in the temple.  The person brining the sacrifice would tell the priest the sin for which the sacrifice was being offered.  We know from St. Luke's gospel that John the Baptist 's father, Zechariah, was a priest. John belonged to a priestly family. Hence that John is doing what he is doing mimics that sacrifice.  It points to a shift away from the old way to something new.  John, though, points out that what he is doing is insufficient; that one was coming who would baptize in the Holy Spirit. John has half the equation...Jesus would fulfill it.

While the confessing of sin and its attendant sorrow was necessary, prior to Christ, it wasn't enough to restore the relationship lost between God and humanity. When humanity chose sin over God, a rift happened. With that rift came a loss...what was lost was the divine life in us known as sanctifying grace.  It would take more tyan confessing of sin to restore that.  That would take an act of God who could also act on our part.  The preparing the way of the Lord is that confession of sin so as to prepare ourselves for the gift God brings...the gift of sanctifying grace.

In baptism, near the beginning of the rite, we acknowledge the absence of sanctifying grace by a prayer of exorcism. We believe that this absence,  also known as original sin, must be acknowledged as assuredly the sins of those plunging into the wayers of the Jordan had to acknowledged.  We ask that having done this, by God's grace and will, our soul will be flooded with this sanctifying grace...that this mark of the baptism of the Holy Spirit leaves its mark in our souls. When an adult is baptized, we believe all of his or her sin is forgiven upon baptism. We complete that baptism with confirmation,  that final baptismal sealing with chrism of the life of the Spirit.

This grace of which St. John speaks in the Gospel is given us after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I ask students the following: is it possible that after baptism a person would be able to stay in that state of sanctifying grace for the rest of their lives? Yes. Is it probable? No. Why, because we must do battle with a thing called concupiscence. Concupiscence is that desire to choose sin. Concupiscence must be fought. An rather odd detail is given to us about John the Baptist: he wears camel's hair and a leather belt and he eats wild honey and locusts.  Why on earth tell us that? Do we reall need to know John's fashion sense and diet plan? Well...yeah. the  significance is that he wears uncomfortable clothing and eats like a wild man shows a man completely detached from the comfort, pleasure, wealth, and power of the world. He has conquered the inclination to sin.  Preparing the way of the Lord is more than confessing sin, which is necessary.  It also includes a turning toward holiness.

Advent reminds us to prepare the way of the Lord in the same manner: turn from sin, turn to holiness, and allow the sanctifying grace of God to flood our souls. How well have we done battle with concupiscence? Have we fallen. Some sin is so grevious so as to sever the relationship with God and cast out that sanctifying grace. We cannot enter heaven without it. Sin that drives out sanctifying grace is known as mortal sin. Mortal sin has three components: serious matter (think 10 commandments,  for example), full knowledge  that it is wrong, and full use of free will. It's wrong, I know it's wrong, and I choose to do so anyway.  It is as if I say to say," this lie...this porn...this gossip...this wanting to sleep in on Sunday is more important to me than my relationship with you."  If we are to truly prepare the way of the Lord in our souls, the path to our soul must be decluttered of these sins.

We do this, again, through another sacrament:confession. Like baptism, before the sanctifying grace of God's love can be installed, we must confess that which blocks it.  This time, it is not original sin that must be purged, but mortal sin. Like baptism,  the confession of sin, though necessary, is incomplete without a willingness to turn to holiness and resolve to boldly battle concupiscence.  God, for His part, shiws His mercy and once again restores that sacramental grace in us. So important is this that when Jesus first sees His apostles the day if the Resurrection,  according to the Gospel of John, He gives them the duty to forgive sins in His name. Sanctifying grace can be given to finish what the confession of sin starts.

Do not let this Advent pass without your seeking that restoration of sanctifying grace. Even if it has been a awhile, seek out the grace necessary to prepare the way of the Lord way of the Lord. Let us not allow fear nor the delusion of pride blockade the path to our soul.  Heed the words of St. John the Baptist and prepare by tge confession of sin so that God may restore in us what is lost by sin. Be not afraid.  Trust in the Lord that He desires to forgiv and restore.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part 2

The Darkness of Fear

                By fear, I should be clear, what we are and are not talking about.  We speak, for example of the gift of the Holy Spirit called ‘Fear of the Lord.’  In this context, we are talking about having a proper respect for God; that we have a realization that God is God and we are not.  It is a humble recognizing of God’s dominion over us.  By extension, we talk about such fear in regards to respecting truth.  For example, a fear of handling rattle snakes is good if one understands the danger they pose and that there is a right way to deal with them.  However, some fears fit more into the realm of terror or wariness of the unknown.  It is this definition that is appropriate to talking about how the devil uses fear to manipulate us and coerce us into sin.

Something innate in humanity is a fear of darkness.  Darkness makes us vulnerable to unseen forces and obstacles, be it the coffee table or a predator.  It is hard to make sound decisions when our senses are obstructed. 

                There is a reason why we refer to the devil as the Prince of Darkness.  He is the father of fear.  His modus operandi is fear.  He feared the creation of humanity as a diminishment of his own creation.  His fear led to resentment.  His resentment led to rebellion.  His fear created pride, a response to his fear: “I must be better than man, for if I am not, I must be inferior.”  The Devil is like many other entities; what motivates him is how he motivates others.

                In the Garden of Eden, the Devil first appeals to fear to manipulate Adam and Eve.  “Did God really tell you not to eat of the trees of the garden?”  He gets them to doubt that God does not love them and is withholding the knowledge of good and evil because He doesn’t want them to be gods.  Notice after the fall that the first  thing we see Adam and Eve feel is fear; they hide themselves from God.  To act in fear gives a sense of shame.  They admit to their fear.  That fear creates a rift between God and them.  The resulting sin leaves a two-fold hole in them: they lose the grace that united them to God (sanctifying grace) and  now must struggle against the disposition to sin (concupiscence) until they are called from this life.

                Fear still remains a lethal weapon of the devil.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  Fear can keep our mouth silent when we should speak.  Fear can lead us to sin as a matter of perceived self-preservation.  Sin can keep us from pursuing God’s will, especially if that will leads to priesthood or religious life.  Fear is a fuel for selfishness, which is essentially the heart of all sin. 

The Path of Fear

                Fear is potent when it comes to what we call sins of omission.  When we fail to act in such a way as to address the needs of others, it leads to injustice.  Fear can paralyze us into thinking that if I give to you, I will do without.  If I give to God, it will result in my destruction.  If I stop and help a person in need, whether they deserve it or not, then it will adversely affect me.  I might get taken advantage of.  I might get played.  I might get conned. 

                I am not saying some fears are without merit.  Giving of the self does demand that we have the willingness to risk being taking advantage of.  Forgiving a person who hurt us does leave us vulnerable to be hurt again.  However, refusing to take these risks to show mercy and forgiveness, because we fear, only results in poisoning of the soul who carries it.  It embitters the soul.  Fear is a poison that grows stronger the longer it is allowed to persist in the soul.  It isolates the individual because it cuts off the ability to build healthy and truthful relationships.

                Life is difficult and fraught with events and people that might well tempt us to fear.  God knows this.  What is His answer?  Simply put, we are told 365 times in the Sacred Scriptures to not be afraid.  As with all things dealing with God, He does not tell us something and then not give us what is necessary to carry out His requests.

The Cure to Fear

                In Exodus 14, the people of Israel find themselves hemmed in by the Red Sea and the full power of Pharaoh’s Chariots.  It would be natural to be deeply in fear.  They cry out in that fear to God and Moses.  God responds through Moses, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance The Lord will accomplish for you this day! (Exodus 14:13) In this verse, the Lord asks for three things.  First: Do not be afraid.  Second: Stand firm. Third: See the deliverance.

                Do not be afraid.  This would seem a tall order for the Children of Israel, no?  In the face of what seems certain death, God tells them to not be afraid.  He is asking them to trust his providence for them.  Adam and Eve fell because they failed to trust in God’s providence for them.    A failure to trust God’s providence is to doubt the love of God itself.  The first tool to combatting fear is to trust in God’s providence for us and that no matter what transpires, God is there with us to help us through.  When we cut the devil at the knees by believing in God’s love for us, it is easier to progress in faith.

                Stand Firm.  God asks for the people of Israel to be brave.  They are to stand their ground, physically, mentally, and spiritually.  They are to not cower.  This is a call to the spiritual gift and cardinal virtue of Fortitude.  Fortitude is what drives men and women living in lands where persecution takes place to practice their faith anyway.  Fortitude is what spurs us to take the chance to risk speaking and acting when we should.  It gives us the ability to rise above fear and act with forgiveness and compassion; risking that we might well be burned again.  When we stand firm in fortitude, we withstand the call to weakness the devil tempts us to.

                See the Deliverance.   This is a call to faith.  It is the resolve Jesus asks of Peter in Luke5:10 when Peter becomes aware of his own sinfulness in the presence of Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish. “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.”  No victory is ever won by running away. Peter would indeed catch men as Jesus said.  The people of Israel would see the Egyptians defeated.  Even the martyrs did not see defeat; for they have witnessed the faith for which they gave their lives grow beyond their wildest expectation.  Faith in God flows from love of God.  St. John tells us, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18).

                The armaments and armor we are given to fend off fear and repent of our fall to fear are faith, trust, fortitude and love.  These God gives us to win against the devil.  We must use them.      

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part 1

We are coming up on the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King.  This weekend should remind us that we belong, as those baptized in to the Body Of Christ, the Church, to an entity much larger than one person, one parish, one diocese, or even as the Church Militant.  We belong to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  Within that Body, we serve God and each other.   Within this kingdom, we seek to expand the Kingdom and to protect the Kingdom from what would seek to despoil it.   Every Kingdom has an army.  We, the Church Militant, are that army here on earth.  While in this life, we engage in warfare.  Our enemy is not our fellow human beings, but the devil.  As St. Peter reminds us in his 1st Epistle, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8)

Not the Stuff of Myths and Fairy Tales

                It has been said many times that the greatest trick of the devil is to convince people he doesn’t exist.  It is hard to fight an enemy that you do not think exists.   Certainly, in our culture, the devil and the demonic has become a sideshow for horror movies, TV shows fascinated with the paranormal, and otherwise dismissed as the stuff of myths and legends.  The devil is reduced to a red-faced, horned, pitchfork- carrying, and smiling trickster.  Some pooh-pooh the idea of the devil and demonic as mere early man’s misunderstanding of mental illness.   Some find the necessity to do away with the concept of the devil as they also wish to do away with the concept of God.  Indeed, modern morality, given its desire for no objective truth, pans the idea of a devil because to have such an idea would take morality out of the mere subjective (opinion) and bring it into the objective.

                It doesn’t take much effort to know our society is in the midst of major battle over morals.  The lines are drawn over most anything to do with human sexuality.  The lines are drawn on many life issues (abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, suicide, and other end of life issues). The lines are drawn in every field of life from faith to economics to politics to education.  The battles take place on out airwaves and an internet.  The battles rage in the halls of power, both religious and secular, and in boardrooms across the country.  The battles wage in our homes, our families, our churches, and within our own individual hearts.  The battle is often a scorched- earth winner- takes- all endgame.

                To effectively fight these battles, personal and corporate, we have to know who we are up against and how to do battle.  If we consign our foe to a theological ash -heap, we leave open our flank.  Our foe will have no problem mercilessly overrunning us.   I can assure you, with devastating realness, that the devil and demonic do very much exist and are not to be toyed with or dismissed.  I have come into contact with these things over the course of 20 years of priesthood and there are things I have seen I wish I could unsee.   

Our Forefathers Understood

                In the Gospels, we see Jesus often doing battle with the Devil and his minions.  Some of the more effete of scholars try to dismiss these encounters as myths and other forms of analogy.  They do so for the very same reason anyone dismisses the Scriptures: it is hard to make your own God and religion when one already exists.    Jesus, however, did not do battle with a myth.  He wasn’t tempted by a mythical theological construct in the desert.  He didn’t cast demonic analogies from the possessed.  He didn’t defeat a fanciful figment of the imagination on the Cross.  He did battle with an entity who desperately wanted Him to fail. 

                His apostles knew what they were up against.  For them, as we see in the Epistles of the New Testament, the devil was a very real and deadly enemy.  They understood the root of the battle.  St. Paul talks about the concept of spiritual warfare extensively.  St. Paul understood the brutish nature of the devil and his desire to take down those who were of God.  In Ephesians 6:10-20, St. Paul talks about the armaments and armor to be used by a follower of Christ in defeating the devil.  Again, St. Paul is not prescribing battle against a myth or an allegorical figment of imagination.  St. Paul knew the battle was real.

                Throughout the centuries of Catholicism, we have long understood that the devil and his influence are not myths to be dismissed.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when reflecting on the petitions of the Our Father, remarks in section 2851, “..Evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil is the one who ‘throws himself across’ God’s plan and His work of salvation accomplished in Christ.”  To the Church the devil is not a myth, but is very much real. It is why the last two popes have been insistent in the training of exorcists to be stationed in every diocese in the world.  This should signal the Church understands it does not battle a mythological construct, but battles a very dangerous foe.

                The Church does recognize that through Christ we have the upper hand in this battle.  AS is written in the Catechism, section 395, “The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature - to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”

                We can defeat the devil through God’s grace.  We can regain ground lost to him.  Through the grace of the Sacraments, in particular Confession, we can beat back the foe. 

                To do this, though, requires some understanding of how we are attacked and how we fend off these attacks or regain ground lost to previous attacks.  What are his weapons?  I posit the three most potent weapons are fear, wrath, and selfishness.  Knowing the weapon being used against you gives you the ability to use properly the weapons and armor given us through the sacramental life of the Church.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Be watchful! Be Aware! Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

When I was a kid, our home was generally clean.  When guests were coming, there was a whole new level of clean, though.  I will just call it 'mom' clean.  Mom clean wasn't just about making sure that what could be seen was washed, vacuumed, mopped, dusted, and arranged, it was what would not be normally seen as well: contents of dresser drawers, under beds, in the pantry and kitchen cupboards...all of it had to be clean.  Just in case, you know, the guests happened to be a busload of OCD drill sergeants.
This time a year is a time of preparation, isn't it? People scurry about shopping, decorating, wrapping presents, and whole host of other things for Christmas.  The secular world even refers to this time of year as the Christmas Season.  Everything climaxes in Christmas day.  For us  in the Church, the opposite is true.  We are not in the Christmas season. The Christmas season doesn't begin with the consumer frenzy that is black Friday (or mid-September), it begins on Christmas.  Today we begin the Season of Advent; a time when where we prepare for the dual coming of Christ.  We prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ, the coming of the Incarnate God into our time and space, to be sure.  That is not why we light candles or have an advent wreath.  The wreath and its candles point to preparation of another coming of Christ: when He comes again at the end of time.  How so?

If you have a guest coming at night, don't you turn on the lights by the door you want your guest to enter?  To do so shows you are expecting your guest and and are ready for your guests arrival. The candles are lit in anticipation of a coming guest.  Certainly the Gospel asks us to be watchful and aware.  But is lighting a candle, an exterior sign, enough.

When Jesus bids us to be watchful, He is looking for 'mom' clean...not cleaning what can be seen, but that which can not normally be seen. The watchfulness He seeks goes to the core of our souls. Are our souls prepared and ready for the coming of Christ on a daily basis? You see, upon our baptism, the light of sanctifying grace flooded our souls and gave us a relationship with God not possible prior to baptism.  This flood of grace is signified by a candle; our baptismal candle.  That light, lit from the Paschal Candle, signifies the flame of Christ's life meant to be constantly at work within us, bearing fruit and transforming us into what it is God would have us be.  When that candle is given, it is given with an instruction: keep this flame of faith alive.  Your soul is like the candles of the advent wreath..something to burn brightly awaiting the coming of Christ again.

Our attentiveness to this flame matters.  Hence, Christ bids us to be watchful and aware.  We do not want to be caught with that flame extinguished.  What would extinguish that flame?  What would cause us to be found unaware and off-guard?

In a word: sin.  Some sins can dim the flame and endanger it being eventually extinguished.  We refer to those as venial sins.  Some sins extinguish that flame altogether.  Some sins snuff out the flame.  With that light gone, we push out, by our own hand, that sanctifying grace given us at baptism. The flame must be relit.  How, though?  If it is by God's saving gift through sacramental grace that first gives us this light, so it must be God's saving gift through sacramental grace that relights this light.  We do not re-baptize a person.  No, the candle is relit through the sacrament of Reconciliation. It our owning up to how we blew out the flame of Christ's life, showing sorrow for what we did in blowing out the flame, asking God for His loving grace to relight the flame, and an amendment to not engage in behavior that endangers the flame..God once again relights our flame and returns the lost sanctifying grace to our souls.  We again are prepared.

Now, undoubtedly, there are some among you who will claim that confession is not necessary for the forgiveness of sin or the restoration of sanctifying grace.  Some will say they can do this independently with a 'me and Jesus' moment.  I tell you what:  I will give you any legitimate  translation of the Bible you want and if you can find that, I will let you believe it.  I will save you the problem though: it's not there.  In fact, you ill find the opposite many times over.  While Jesus does tell us to pray to God in all circumstances, including in the quiet of our heart, the forgiveness of sins is always mediated.  This is true in both the old and new testaments.  After the final sin/peace offering is done on the Cross and vindicated by the Resurrection, in the Gospel of John, at that first meeting with the apostles after the resurrection, He tells them, "Whose sin you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained."  Why do this?  Because all sin is forgiven through Christ in the way He has chosen it to be done.

Do not forget God created us and hardwired us.  God knows we need to hear the words coming out of our mouth to take ownership of our choices.  Therapists and counselors know this.  Nothing can be done to help a person until they have communicated what is wrong.  Anyone who works with or lives with addicts knows that help cannot be given until the addict admits their addiction. We need to vocalize our sin.  God knows this.  There is also another necessity" the need to hear 'you're forgiven.'  If you want to crush somebody, have them apologize to you and say nothing in return.  It stymies the process. It leaves the wound open.  God knows this as well.  Hence this exchange happens within the guarded sacrament of confession. is exchange tells God we want that flame relit and we are committed to keeping that flame lit.

I will be honest.  I know that there is confusion about this.  The way most parishes treat confession would make you think that we don't think that it is all that important.  Maybe 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, an occasional penance service, and we're done.   The ubiquitous 'or by appointment' is left up there as an offer rarely used.  Good look nailing down your priest on that one.  I am aware that I cannot get into this pulpit and say one thing and offer another.  Confession times are before every weekday Mass now.  Confession times are before all Holy Day Masses.  Were it not for the 20 minute commute between parish masses on Sundays, there would be confession times then too.  On 1st Fridays, I am in the confessional all morning to give our grade school students the opportunity to develop the good and holy habit that is regular confession.  I do not force them to do so.  I cannot do that.  But as with them, so with all my parishioners, I cannot make you go, but I can remove your excuses.  I will stand before God and try to defend starving my flock from such a grace.

I know some have been away from this sacrament for months, years, and even decades.  Fear of messing up or what will the priest think of them are strong enough to keep people permanently away.  Most priests I know will happily walk you through how to go to confession and will be so happy you are there to have that flame reignited, that there won't be time for disdain.

Christ tells us to be watchful and aware today.  Of all of the preparations we make this time of year, do not neglect the preparation of your soul.  Do not let this Advent come and go with that flame of the life of Christ extinguished! Christ tells us we know neither hour nor the day; the time is always at hand...right now. We will hear those words of John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Let us prepare by making sure that flame given us baptism is alive and well...lit like the candle of the advent wreath awaiting our Master's return.  Don't focus so much on preparing what can be seen that we neglect that which cannot.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

In Whose Army Are You?

In the Scriptures, the most dominate image of the relationship between God and us is that of family.  We use familial terms such as groom/bride, son/daughter/father/mother, and brother and sister to describe the relationships that are supposed to exist between God and us and among ourselves.  However, when the Scriptures  speak of the relationship between good and evil, between God and the devil, and between us and the devil, war/battle imagery is almost exclusively used.

The Scriptures understand that the battle lines are drawn and the fighting has been fierce.  In his pride, the devil truly believes he will win this battle.  He has waged war on billions of battlefields: each and every human heart.  His weapons are deadly.  He trains his soldiers well how to use his armaments.  He uses pride, fear, greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, and indifference to arm his foot soldiers.  His soldiers cannot hurt God so they attack that which God loves: us.  The devil has managed to wage war successfully, tearing apart every civilization, every human enterprise, even to do significant damage among God's holy people.  He has us battle one another.  He has us inflict the brutality of sin on each other as frenzied soldiers in the heat of battle.  The devil and his minions mean us not merely harm but an eternal destruction as well.  As the father of lies, he has deluded himself with the ultimate lie: that he will win.

God wins.  The created cannot defeat the creator.  Jesus Christ, by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection has defeated the devil.  The devil cannot win. His war on humanity only deepens.  However, Christ does not send his followers unarmed into the battle that life is.

In Ephesians 6:10-20, St. Paul uses this image of war to explain the defenses and weapons Christ gives us to do battle every day.  He reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood (each other) but against the powers of darkness.  We are given the armor that is righteousness, the Gospel, faith, and salvation.  We are given the Word of God as a weapon to combat the devil.  These God offers us.

How do we use them?  That is the thing that lacks many times.

In the military, no professional fighting force is given weaponry and sent out on the field the nanosecond they sign up.  No, basic training takes place.  A regimen of education and discipline takes place.  The new soldier is taught how to use his weapons effectively, what to do when hit, and the basics of warfare.  To simply hand weapons to a new soldier, pat them on the head, and send them into battle is to basically create cannon fodder. No general who wants to win would be so foolish.  No king who wants to win would be so haphazard.

When God gives these weapons and armor, He also has a plan on how to teach us to use them.  Without instruction, both the armor and weapons are relatively useless. How are the armor and weapons given us?  We Catholics believe that the armor and weapons are given us from the moment of baptism forward.  It is God's transforming grace that deposit these gifts within us. The seeds are all there.  Like any armor and weapon, we do need to know how to use them.  The purpose of education in the Catholic Church is merely to teach us the same classes that can be taught in the secular world, but to teach us how to use these weapons and armor given us by God's gracious action  in the sacraments.  For we believe than in the proper reception of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit is deposited within us to breath into us the grace of God.  When we are sloppy about the training, we create not soldiers for Christ, but cannon fodder for the devil.  This is why a woeful education apparatus is leaving so many of our brothers in arms easy to pick off in battle.  This is why pablum from the pulpit is akin to poisoning the troops.

Christ gives us the armaments of humility to conquer pride, faith, hope, and love to conquer fear, generosity to combat greed, industry to combat sloth, justice to combat lust, temperance to combat gluttony, forgiveness and patience to combat wrath, thankfulness to combat envy, and mercy to combat indifference.  Furthermore, because all of these are bound in the Holy Spirit, we also are given the boldness of courage and fortitude to use these arms effectively.  The use of these weapons and armor does require a deep discipline and cognition of what we are doing.

That said, there are going to be times, especially in that period where we are unsure about how to use our armor and weapons effectively, where we will be injured (usually by our own hand) and the wounds created will need to be addressed.  The medicinal value of Reconciliation is at the heart of the healing.  The medicinal value of Anointing of the Sick  also can be used in some circumstances, when life has inflicted a bodily blow.  God will not leave us on the field of battle to die.  His Church acts as not merely a means of preparing for battle, but as a field hospital for the wounded.  It is horrifying that any priest would limit or close these field hospitals by limiting access to Confession or eliminating them altogether.

At the end of the day, though, we must choose a side.  We cannot fight for both sides.  We cannot fight on God's side when it suits us and the devil's side when it suits us.  We will side with the side that we think will win.  We can share in the delusion the devil has and believe he wins and so drop our armor and weapons and pick up his.  We can believe that God wins and pick up our armor, our weapons, and engage in the battle.  There is no middle ground.  In fact, trying to stake out a claim in the middle ground between 2 armies is probably the deadliest place to be.

Jesus, Himself, says that "you are either with me or against me." He compels a choice.  Whose side you are on determines whose camp you stay in for eternity.  The battle wages on whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  Too  much ground has been lost because we dropped our guard, our armor, and our weapons.  We can either surrender in defeat or rally the troops and retake the field.  We will have to decide whose side we are whose army do we belong.