Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"My sin is too great to merit pardon"

St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Our Lady

In today's Office of Readings we find this little treasure from St. Bernard:

Surely the man who said: My sin is too great to merit pardon, was wrong. He was speaking as though he were not a member of Christ and had no share in his merits, so that he could claim them as his own, as a member of the body can claim what belongs to the head. As for me, what can I appropriate that I lack from the heart of the Lord who abounds in mercy? They pierced his hands and feet and opened his side with a spear. Through the openings of these wounds I may drink honey from the rock and oil from the hardest stone: that is, I may taste and see that the Lord is sweet.

It is a brilliant and helpful insight that since we are the Body of Christ, we can claim much (though of course not all) of what belongs to the Head, that is, Jesus. On my own, my love and obedience are terribly flawed and imperfect. But as a member of the Body of Christ, I can claim Jesus' perfect love and perfect obedience as my own. The language of "merit" and "worth" is controversial to some people but is found somewhat frequently in the saints. On my own I cannot merit the eternal life that God has promised, only by claiming the merits of Jesus as my own can I be made worthy.

What this does in the end is takes the pressure of me to try and "earn" God, but calls me to the grace of humility to just accept the salvation that God offers.


Going to God's House

David and the Ark

The readings from yesterday use a lot of images that direct our attention to whether or not we are in God's house, or whether God is in our house, or something else. In the first reading, David had been afraid to have the Ark of the Covenant in his own city because of the fearful events that had been associated with it, so he had sent it to the house of Obed-edom, and he had left it there for three months. But wait, now God was blessing Obed-edom and his house because of the Ark was there. We can't have that! So David brings the Ark back to Jerusalem, and he's so excited, and he just can't hide it, that he dances during the procession.

Leaving aside the abuses of power that allowed David to put the Ark in someone else's when it was scary, but then bring it back to his house when it was cool, David eventually realized that to have God in your house was good. And the idea of having God in his house was so joyful to him that he danced with abandon. David was slow to understand, but he eventually realized that he wanted, he needed, God in his house.

Then, when we turn to the Gospel, we find Jesus speaks to those specifically in the house. When Jesus' mother and brothers come looking for him, Mark situates them outside the house. But Jesus is situated in the house, and he addresses his words to those in the house. When he says "Here are my mother and my brothers," he is addressing those who are in the house with him.

Now, the house in this Gospel is actually Jesus' home in Capernaum, where he took up residence during his public ministry. So the people he is addressing are actually in a better position than David and his household. David got to bring the Ark of God into his house, but Jesus' followers got to go into the very house of God. Getting to go to the house of God like Jesus's listeners is way better than having God come to your house like David.

But now we have something even better. Because God wants to keep getting closer to us, he gave us the Eucharist, where instead of just visiting each other's houses like friends, he can come and dwell within our bodies and souls as only God can do. So when faced with this reality, that God has given us an opportunity to be close to him that David never had, and even Jesus' contemporaries never had, we have to apply the words of today's psalm to ourselves: "Oh gates lift high your heads, grow higher ancient portals. Let him enter, the King of Glory." Because our hearts are often like ancient doors: a little bit rusted, a little bit slow to open, we have to constantly work to make them more open so that Jesus can enter in.

So what part of your heart, of your life, do you not want to let Jesus into today? The breviary translation of this psalm refers to "The Lord, the valiant in war," while this translation refers to "The Lord, mighty in battle." I think it's usually a war or a battle to let the Lord into those places in our hearts that are most resistive to his presence, because if I let him in there, then I have to change, and it's easier to stay the way I am.

So through the Eucharist, let Jesus enter into the house of your hearts, let him enter and occupy the deepest, darkest corner, the corner you don't want to show him. Let him enter, and then he can more truly call us his brothers and sisters.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Behold the Lamb of God

Behold the Lamb of God! This statement that we heard in Sunday's gospel from John the Baptist, which we have the danger of taking for granted, is actually the answer to a question that has sat unanswered in Jewish history for over a thousand years. It is also the beginning of all we know about the Sacraments. We'll talk about the Sacraments in a minute, but first let's look at the question that John is answering. To do so, we have to dive into Jewish context to understand what's going on here. To find this unanswered question, we have to go all the way back to the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac.

Then, when God stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, Abraham finds a ram caught by his horns. He doesn't find a sheep, but a ram. So Isaac's question still stands: "Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" And eventually the Jewish people build the temple and sacrifice thousands of lambs, but still, the lamb that Abraham said God himself would provide hasn't been found yet.So recall the Abraham and Isaac story. God asks Abraham to take his son up the mountain to sacrifice him. On the way up the mountain, Isaac is unaware what is going on and asks his dad "Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" Abraham says "God himself will provide the lamb," which is a partial answer, but doesn't explain everything. It's like when you say to your kids, "I'll tell you when you're older." It's an answer, and an appropriate one for the circumstances, but it's not a whole answer.

Finally, when Jesus is baptized, God reveals to John the Baptist that this is the Lamb that God has promised, and so John is able to say, "Behold the Lamb of God." The lamb provided by God is finally here, and Isaac's question from over a thousand years ago finally has an answer.

This title "Lamb of God" is a monumental title for us, and it was also a loaded term for the people who heard John the Baptist speaking. When John spoke of Jesus as the Lamb, it conjured up images for his audience of Isaac like we talked about, but also it would have made them think of all the lambs that were sacrificed at the temple, for forgiveness of the people's sins. So when we hear "Behold the Lamb of God" we should think of all these things too. We should know that this is the forgiveness of our sins. But we don't only hear these words in the Gospel today, we hear them at every Mass just before we receive communion. The priest stands behind the altar, shows us the Host, Christ's Body, and says "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." This is the same Lamb of God that John pointed to and said "Behold the Lamb of God."

But our world doesn't want to acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb of God. In our politically correct, it comes across as exclusive and divisive to say that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one sacrifice that forgives sins. The world doesn't even want to acknowledge that he existed, and if they do, then at best he was a moral teacher with a crazy idea that we should all be nice to each other. People like this idea of Jesus because if he is just a teacher with an idea, then he and his ideas can be rejected like all other ideas.

But we know better. We know that Jesus is THE Lamb of God, he is THE Way, THE Truth, THE Life. He is not one way among many, he is the only way. So when we hear John the Baptist's words "Behold the Lamb of God" we should immediately reaffirm for ourselves that this Lamb, this Jesus, is my everything, because he has given everything for me. His will for me is more important for me than my will for me, because he knows me better than I know myself. And what is his will for me? Obviously that's really individual so I can't address it in a lot of detail in a homily, but the one thing I do want to address about God's will is the Church, and how the Catholic Church is indeed God's will for all of us.

Now what am I talking about here? Sometimes we fall into the danger of thinking the Church is entirely a human creation, and if it's just something that we created, then it's something we can change whenever it needs it. But the reality is a bit more complicated, and far more beautiful. The reality is that before Jesus left this earth, he established this Church in the 12 apostles and sent them out to convert all the nations. His Spirit remained with the apostles when they went out, and we heard that at the end of the first reading when it said, "I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." Those words were a prophesy about Jesus. Jesus is to be a light to the ends of the earth, yet we know he never left that narrow piece of land between Galilee and Jerusalem. His Church is this light.

So if this Church is established by Christ and not by humans, then we have to recognize that there are certain aspects that we don't have the authority to change. Things like the seven sacraments and what they are: we can't change them even if we want to. So the Sacrament of Confession is where we go to receive forgiveness. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is where we meet the Jesus, the Lamb of God, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Sometimes people say that if we would just call the Eucharist a symbol and not insist that it is really Jesus, then we'd get along better with the other Christian denominations.

It is not up to us to change the meaning or reality of these things we have been given. What we are called to do is to humbly accept them, because it is in these Sacraments that we meet God. It is in these Sacraments that God wants to meet us. So today, examine your relationship with these Sacraments. Ask yourself "Do I receive the Eucharist worthily? None of us are ever truly worthy to receive the Eucharist, not on our own, but Jesus comes to us anyway because he loves us. Jesus makes us worthy in Confession. So, "Do I go to Confession regularly?" This is the ordinary means that God has given us to receive forgiveness. If you haven't been to Confession in a while, please go back. It doesn't matter how long it's been, Jesus would love to see you there.

Eucharist and Confession are where we meet the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and we are happy to be called to this supper of the Lamb.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Marriage and Epiphany

The newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Heller
Over the weekend I was blessed to celebrate the marriage of some very dear friends of mine. Also over the weekend much of the Church celebrated the great feast of the Epiphany, where the Christ child was revealed to the nations as the Magi from the East discovered him and adored him. Many of the liturgical texts for this feast also reference the wedding at Cana and Jesus' baptism by John, two major points when Jesus' unique role was revealed to the world. An epiphany, at the most basic level, is a revelation of something new. The proximity of my friends' marriage to the Epiphany led me to think and pray about how marriage reveals Jesus to us.

Through the Incarnation, Jesus becoming man, God wed himself to humanity in a new and unique way. God becoming man was this act that can never be undone, and permanently changed humanity for the better because now humanity is wed to God and has the chance for eternal life with him.

This beautiful marriage between God and humanity is reflected in the marriage between man and woman. Marriage was God's plan from the beginning, and marriage was the one blessing that survived man's original sin. Part of the nuptial blessing summarizes beautifully the symbolism and enduring nature of marriage:

O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage
by so great a mystery
that in the wedding covenant you foreshadowed
the Sacrament of Christ and his Church;
O God, by whom woman is joined to man
and the companionship they had in the beginning
is endowed with the one blessing
not forfeited by original sin
nor washed away by the flood.

Mr. and Mrs. Rowland, married on June 15th, my first marriage
The way married couples commit to each other shows us the love of God. To see two people commit to each other for the rest of their lives, no matter the cost, no matter the risk, reveals to me what God committed to when he we himself to humanity. At my first wedding homily this summer, I told the couple that the face of God is made visible in their marriage. That's still something that I ponder routinely. So thank you, all married couples, your love and commitment is another Epiphany to me of God's love for the world.