Monday, February 23, 2015

For Your Love

The gospel today recounts the difference between the sheep and the goats, between those who are blessed and accursed by the Father, between those who cared for the "least brothers" of Jesus and those who didn't. The obvious thrust of Jesus's message here is to love everyone, without exception, no matter how difficult they are, because that's what Jesus did. Our Lord and Savior loved everyone he encountered, and if we want to claim the title of disciple we must do likewise. Everyone likes the idea of love. In a wonderful example of '90's country music, Chris LeDoux describes the lengths to which he will to go to earn your love:
But fundamentally, the world doesn't understand how Jesus loved, so it's rightfully up to us Christians to clarify exactly how Jesus loved. He is the exemplar of love so we want to love like he loved. We need to clarify how Jesus loved, because the world wants to misunderstand how he loved. The world is decidedly unchristian. It conflates the ideas of love, tolerance, acceptance, and approval regarding whatever sin is currently in vogue and makes them one big nasty mess of good feelings. Then, they tell you that this is how Jesus loved, so you Christians have to love like that. But the world has rejected Jesus. It culminated on Good Friday and continues down to the present day, so the world doesn't get to tell us how Jesus loved.

So I gave this image in my homily this morning*: On one side we have judgment, on the other side we have tolerance/acceptance/approval**, and in the middle is love. We don't judge people, that's not love, nor do we approve of every behavior people present, because that's not love either. When Jesus encountered the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11), it is important to notice what he did, and what he didn't do. First and foremost, he loved her. That's something the Pharisees failed to do in their zeal for the law. Jesus didn't judge her, but what our world fails to notice is that he didn't approve of her behavior either. He didn't say, "Go and find your own path to God" or, "Go, God loves when you do what seems right to yourself." He said, "Go and sin no more."

So on one side we have judging, on the other side we have approving, and in the middle is love. Judging and approving are falling off opposite sides of the narrow path of love. Judging gives into that part of me that wants to set myself above others, and wants to set myself in the position of God and "judge souls" when it isn't my place to. On the other hand, blanket approving comes from that insecure part of myself, which is desperate to be accepted and too afraid of conflict to see things with God's vision of the world, or at least as much vision as he's granted to us. Love, however, takes honesty and courage: honesty to admit that I am in no position to judge, being an unworthy sinner myself, and courage to risk the conflict that may come from expressing disapproval. Love seeks the best for the other. Love is good for the other. Judging or approving seeks to feed weaknesses in my own character.

*Well, not the whole image. It's been expanded here thanks to the benefits of more caffeine and it not being 7 am.
**Tol-cept-al? Sounds like a bad drug.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Faith that Saves

Always on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, and we should see a parallel with ourselves. Lent should be a time when we go into the desert with Jesus, where we learn to purify ourselves of the unholy things of this world so that we can focus more intently on God himself. Jesus went into the desert to be tested, in order to strengthen himself for the mission ahead. Our Lent should strengthen us for the battles of this world. We Christians who are on this earth, who aren't in Purgatory or Heaven, we call ourselves the Church Militant, because the Christian life is indeed a battle.

So in other years, the Gospel might tell us about the individual temptations of the bread, testing God, and worshiping Satan, but this year we have Mark's version, which is the  most basic summary: Jesus was driven into the desert, and he was tempted by Satan. Mark usually isn't one for lengthy explanations, he pushes the story forward at a fast pace. Mark was in Rome when he was writing his Gospel, and he wrote for the Church in Rome, which was being persecuted, so Mark didn't waste time unnecessarily. His friends and fellow Christians were being persecuted and martyred, so as he wrote he needed to get to the meat of the story quickly.

But then what happens after the temptation in the desert? Jesus gets right to work, but not until John the Baptist has been handed over. Now, in the second half of this Gospel passage, there are several words we need to see in the original Greek to understand the full implication, and the first one is here. So we want to look at four specific themes in this gospel: John being arrested, the time of fulfillment, the kingdom of God, and believing in the Gospel.

Our translation we just heard says "After John had been arrested." Ok, fine, but a better translation of what Mark wrote would be after John was "handed over." Mark wanted his persecuted readers to see a continuity, from John the Baptist who was handed over and killed, to Jesus who was handed over and killed, to themselves, who were being handed and over and killed regularly. Mark wanted people to understand that being persecuted was not a sign of rejection by God, but rather a sign that you were following exactly in Jesus' footsteps.

So if we have this reading at the beginning of Lent from a man who wants to prepare his reader for persecution, then we have to consider how strong our faith is, whether or not it would stand up to intense persecution, and whether or not our Lenten disciplines are helping to create in us the faith of the martyrs.

Persecution was not unique to Mark's time in ancient Rome. Recently, as I'm sure you know, in Egypt 21 Christians were kidnapped by ISIS and had their heads sawed off for their faith in Jesus. In our own country, it's becoming increasingly illegal to live your faith in your private life. Stories have surfaced of those who run bakeries and florists, who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds being forced to use their business to support the idea, or subject to legal consequences for discrimination. Intolerance of religious freedom, we like to think that's far from us here in Wyoming, but Senate File 0115 (An analysis of the bill here), working its way through our Legislature in Cheyenne, will create the same unjust laws to Wyoming. My friends, persecution is coming our way. The age of soft, easy Christianity is over. Between the religious zealots on one side and insane definitions of tolerance on the other, there is getting to be very little room for the Christian in this world.

So, is your Lenten penance actually drawing you closer to Christ? In our own country Christians are fighting for their livelihoods, and throughout the world Christians are fighting for their lives. If it came to it, could you engage the fight, or would you knuckle under? Lent is the time for us to make sure we have a faith ready to fight with the Church militant. But I guarantee you, giving up the chocolate you only eat once a week isn't going to do it. These times call for more than that. These times call for a radical dependence on God, and whatever your Lenten discipline is, it should be just hard enough that you have to turn to God to do it. Because when persecutions come, if you are in the habit of relying on your own strength, you will fail. But if you let your whole life be supported by God, you'll have the strength to endure any trial.

This is chronos, NOT kairos
And the strength of God is always available to us. What did Jesus go preaching after John had been handed over? He said, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand." Now the word for time here is not the ordinary word for time - chronos - like, "Oh, it's half past three, it's the time for fulfillment," but the word here is kairos, God's time. It points out to us that the random events of Jesus's life and the random events of our life are not random.Everything has been prepared for. You have not been born into the best of times or the worst of times by chance, but you were born into exactly the right time for you, and this is the best time for you to learn God's strength and God's love for you.

But where do we find this strength and this love? Our English word "kingdom" suggests a physical place, like the kingdom of God is here but not there, but the Greek word basilean, suggests a rule or a power not bound by place, so it's kind of like the reign of God. God's reign is at hand, God's all encompassing power is at hand. It's not something you have to go out searching for. It's available to you here and now, but learning to rely on this all-encompassing power is a lifelong task.

And relying on this power, letting this power of God become active and real in your life, that's called faith. So Jesus's last command in our gospel today is "Repent, and believe in the gospel." The word here for believe, or to have faith in, pisteo, like the other words we've looked at, is deeper than just "believe." The faith that Jesus is calling us to here is deeper than an acknowledging a truth with our mind or heart, but it is a kind of faith that actually saves you. It's a saving faith. Jesus is calling us to repent of anything that is not of him, and find in him a strength that can actually save us from our sins and from this world.

So as Christians are being handed over to various worldly powers simply for their belief in Christ, we have to remember that we were born into this point in history for a reason. We have to remember that there is a power available in Jesus, power to endure through all of these trials. This power is not bound to a time or place, but is always available to you, as long as you reach out in faith. This faith can save you from all the troubles of the world, and ultimately from death. Lent is a time to begin, or begin again, learning this dependence on God and letting his strength guide your whole life.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Marian Consecration

Ok, be warned. This may not make much sense. Matters of the soul seldom do. For years now, I've passively avoided Marian consecrations or anything of the like that smelled too much like surrendering my own will and letting Jesus take over through Mary. This doesn't make sense from the outside because here I am, a priest who is trying to surrender everything to God daily, afraid to surrender to God in this way. We all do this. We all say, without realizing it, "I'll surrender this much and no more. I can't actually surrender everything to God." One way of conceiving of the lifelong growth in holiness or the spiritual battle is to gradually discover unsurrendered things in our life and surrender them. The soul is a fickle thing, so I don't beat myself up too much when I discover an area of my life which so far I have failed to surrender, but rather I thank God for showing me this area at just the right moment.

Today, a post over at The Catholic Gentleman caused me to rapidly reconsider this untrusting, falsely self-sufficient position I had up to now held to. I had of course heard of Marian consecrations before. Seminarians holier than me would do them annually at the seminary, and I would always politely excuse myself with a cheap "No thank you, I just don't think I'm called to that." But today, when the article starts with "Want to drop a V6 engine into your Volkswagen Bug prayer life? Would you like to battle sin and Satan and sabotage like the mighty saints of yore?", I had to keep reading. And something clicked. Perhaps because through priesthood I've learned to surrender myself more and more to God's beautiful Will, then this idea of manly power by consecrating myself to Mary just finally made sense.

So I read this blog post that basically said if you want to do this awesome thing, start today and you'll finish on the feast of the Annunciation, and I just said YES. Whatever held me back before seems gone now. I could indeed be listening to my own ADD-prone ego, but there's a peace that this consecration, which wasn't on my radar 12 hours ago, is just right. To add to the rightness, I have had 33 Days to Morning Glory, one of the books recommended by the Catholic Gentleman, on my shelf for quite some time. I don't even remember where or when I got it, but I think it was waiting for me, being toted from dorm room to dorm room to rectory, in preparation for this moment. So yeah, I'm beginning my Marian Consecration. 33 days of preparation for the Consecration on March 25th. Your prayers, please. Our God is a God of unpredictable goodness.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Doing Great Work

What's the difference between working for God, and doing God's work?

During Lent, the Church pulls out the best Collects (the "Opening Prayer," or the prayer the priest says near the beginning of Mass that means we can finally sit down and listen to the readings). Today's is no different. Today's Collect is:
Prompt our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord,
and further them with your constant help,
that all we do may always begin from you
and by you be brought to completion.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Prompt our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them with your constant help... At the beginning of Lent, as we look ahead to (maybe not look forward to) 40 days of trying to make ourselves holier and closer to God, this is a good prayer we could take for ourselves. God has to be the source of all of our actions, including our Lenten disciplines. I shouldn't ask myself what I'm going to do for Lent, but I should ask God what needs to change about my life, what should decrease, what should increase. If I ask myself, my own ego, content with all of my sin, will simply inform me that I'm fine, relax, and don't change.

...that all we do may always begin from you and by you be brought to completion. We are fickle, silly human beings, and it is not beyond us to try to undertake even Lenten disciplines apart from God. This would be working for God, rather than doing God's work. It would be doing what I think God wants from me without simply asking God what he wants from me. But the work we do, I'm thinking both Lenten disciplines and the life long work of becoming saints, must begin from God, be brought to completion by him, and be sustained by him the whole way through. If our various works don't need God's grace to make them happen, then those works are too lowly for us and aren't worth our time or effort. God has called us to greatness, in and through him. Aspire to do great things this Lent, things that are only possible with God's help.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ashes to Ashes

My blog feeder app is exploding today. It seems the thing to do on Ash Wednesday is to blog about Ash Wednesday. So, always striving to emulate those holy bloggers whose writings I read, I thought I'd better do the same. Two thoughts for today:

One, I've heard too many Ash Wednesday homilies about "Isn't it funny/strange/ironic* that on the day we wear this public sign of our penance, we read Jesus telling us not to?" No, it's not funny/strange/ironic, it's reading the Scriptures shallowly. What Jesus is condemning in terms of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in today's gospel is the prideful attitude of the hypocrites: "Look at me, I pray because I'm holy, I fast because I'm holy, I give alms because I'm holy." There was no element of penance in their actions. On the other hand we receive ashes not because we are holy, but because we are sinners, and we are proclaiming to God and the world that very fact. Public proclamation of our true sinfulness is way different than public proclamation of our pretend righteousness. But  if we are to take some value from Jesus's instructions to pray, fast, and give alms in secret, I wonder if we should be always asking each other what we are giving up for Lent. Granted, sometimes the question stems from a good place, like a search for guidance in what my own Lenten discipline should be. But often it's just an opening line so I can tell you about what I'm doing for Lent. Jesus kind of really said not to do that. Another clergy blogger got me thinking along these lines.

Two, in the two Masses I'm offering today I'm using the older form for the imposition of ashes. Rather than saying, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel," I'm saying, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (valid and still in the Missal). While both address the reality of sin, the former does so a little more indirectly by calling us away from it. The latter recalls the dust out of which we were made in the beginning and to which we are daily moving towards, due to our sins. I like the older form. The latter directly quotes the end of Genesis 3:19, where God is laying out the consequences for our sin. "You are dirt, and to dirt you shall return." So this older form for the imposition of ashes takes our attention all the way back to the Garden of Eden and the original sin that caused us to need a Lent at all.

*Ironic: An overused and abused word. No, Alanis Morrissette, the crashing plane or delayed death row pardon isn't ironic, it's just sad.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Day Off Shenanigans

Since the office was closed today for President's Day (a silly holiday in my opinion, but I won't look a gift horse in the mouth), I had a chance to play with a toy that a friend found for me online. After today's efforts, Father Peter is now prepared to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, with Paul the altar boy dutifully ready to serve at the Altar. It seems that the Catholic Extension Society discovered this toy from 1941 and made it available again.

With incredible attention to detail, the tabernacle has a ciborium in it, and the ciborium has a veil. Underneath the chalice veil, you'll find a chalice, purificator, paten, and pall. The burse has a properly folded corporal within. Fr. Peter is dressed in cassock, alb, stole, maniple, and chasuble. Best free day in a long time!!!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Trading Places

To help us understand today's Gospel, I want to tell you about St. Maximilian Kolbe. St. Maximilian lived in Poland during World War II. He was a Franciscan Friar, so during the war, once Germany invaded Poland, he and a few other Franciscan brothers stayed put at their monastery. They used their monastery to hide and care for Jews, and in about 16 months they protected almost 2,000 Jews. Then in February of 1941, the monastery was shut down by the Nazis, and Fr. Maximilian was sent to Auschwitz. At the camp, he continued to function as a priest, and so he was beaten and lashed regularly. After just a few months at Auschwitz, three prisoners were found to have escaped, so the camp commander decided that 10 people should be starved to death to deter further escapes. When one man, Franciszek, was chosen, he cried out about his wife and children, so St. Maximilian volunteered to be starved to death in his place. Out of love, he willingly took on the suffering of a stranger so that the stranger might go free. In the bunker where Maximilian and the other prisoners were being starved, Maximilian led the other prisoners in prayer. After two weeks he was the only one left, so the guards gave him a lethal injection to finish the process. St. Maximilian traded places with a condemned man, he made himself condemned, so that the condemned might go free.

Our first reading, in giving the rules for the disease of leprosy, explains the Old Testament rules for those who were basically condemned. Leprosy was a frightening disease in biblical times because it had no known cure, so when you were found to have leprosy you were cut off from society completely. Leprosy is formally known as Hansen's Disease today and refers to one specific disease, but in the time of the Old and New Testaments, leprosy referred to a wide number of incurable skin and nervous system diseases. So in the desert wanderings, those with leprosy had to live apart from the camp, and even once Israel was settled in the Promised Land, lepers had to live apart from others. They could never approach other people, they were cut off from family and home forever, and whenever they went anywhere they had to announce their presence so others could avoid them. They had to live completely apart from everything they knew and loved. But worst of all, it rendered them ritually unclean so that they couldn't participate in temple worship. Like those poor souls in the concentration camps, life was emptied of meaning, and they were just men waiting for death.

So the leper in today's Gospel takes a huge risk in approaching Jesus, but what did he have to lose? He was living a life with absolutely no hope. But then he heard of Jesus, someone who could apparently heal any sickness just by speaking or touching that person, and so he knew he had to try. If his position in society could get any worse, if he could be ridiculed and hated any more than he already was, approaching a rabbi asking to be healed was surely the way to do it, so the risk was still huge. But he had to try. If there was any chance of restoring his old life, he had to try.

So he comes to Jesus, and what does he ask? Does he ask to be healed? No, he asks to be made clean. Ritual cleanliness and physical healing go hand in hand in this case, but this man's first concern is his ritual cleanliness. First and foremost he wants to participate in the religion of his people. So Jesus heals him. Now, we  know that Jesus can heal by just speaking to people, he healed the paralyzed man just by telling him to get up and walk, Jesus can even heal at a distance like with the centurion's servant. But here Jesus does the unthinkable and actually touches him, and tells him to be made clean. Jesus renders himself ritually impure so that this man might be made clean again.

And then what happens? This is where the story gets really good. This is where it really hits home for us. This man goes off, presumably he offers the proper sacrifice so he can take part in the worship of the temple again, but he can't help but tell others what happened to him. And then the roles are reversed between Jesus and the former leper. Now, the leper can enter the towns and villages as he wants, but the Gospel tells us that "it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places..." Jesus healed this man of his sickness, but then he took the punishment for the sickness on himself, without actually taking on the sickness. Like St. Maximilian would do 1,900 years later, Jesus traded places with the condemned so that the condemned could be free.

And yet, trading places with the isolated leper is only symbolic of what he would soon do on the Cross. Since Adam, sin had been our lot in life, and because of sin, death. But Jesus stepped forward and offered to die in our place. He took on the punishment of death, that punishment that was rightfully ours because of our sins, and he himself died so that we could go free and live. My friends, recognize that before Jesus, our natural end in life, like Franciszek in the concentration camp, was death with no hope of escape. Before Jesus, heaven was closed to us. But Jesus stepped forward and willingly traded places with us. Like Maximilian did for Franciszek, Jesus did for us, in fact, Jesus was the one who motivated Maximilian to sacrifice himself.

So we are preparing to undertake and celebrate again the disciplines of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation, but the season of Lent is so important to our lives as Christians that our preparations shouldn't begin just on Ash Wednesday. We should be preparing now to go into the desert with Jesus, and this is a good Gospel to hear on our last Sunday before Lent begins. Let this Gospel motivate you this Lent. Go into Lent with the understanding that you were bought at a price at Calvary. Your freedom, your eternal life, was won at a cost, and to Jesus, you were totally worth it.

So this Lent, strive to respond to his gifts with your own gifts. No Lent should ever be ordinary, but every Lent should be a new encounter with the Savior who offers you eternal life. When we get to Easter, as part of the Easter Exultet we'll sing to God "O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!"  We have been saved by a God who loves us, let's strive to respond in love this coming Lent.

[There have been recurring outbreaks of leprosy throughout human history. In the mid 1800's leprosy was rampant in the Hawaiian islands and so again, lepers were isolated. St. Damien volunteered to minister to them until he himself died of the disease. I had the opportunity to visit the colony where he worked last October and I wrote about it here.]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Another Wednesday, Another Audience

At the Pope's Wednesday Audience this week, he continued his catechesis on the family. After focusing on fathers last week, this week he turned his attention to children. His address focused on the blessing that children are to a family, the way they bring life and multiply love in a home. So I wanted to take a moment to praise the beautiful, tragic, joyful chaos of family life. The most joyful homes I know, aside from my parents' home which raised four happy and mostly-balanced children and always takes the cake for joyful, are homes that are full of children. As a priest, I am blessed to know many families at many stages of growth. I know a family who just welcomed their eighth child into the world, only two of whom are old enough to have received First Communion. I know a family of five kids, two of whom are married and starting families of their own. When everyone is home to mom and dad's, you are overwhelmed by love. I know the family of six where the oldest boys are almost old enough to start helping with chores on the farm. And I know couples who have realized they will never have children of their own, and I've watched them slowly learn to let Jesus fill that gaping void in their lives and in their homes.

What do the Bishops need to discuss? Lego fatalities.
With the blessings of modern technology, sometimes parents share their struggles and household crises with me as they happen. I think the most successful parents are the ones who can discipline their kids when necessary and then laugh about it (when it's a laughing matter) in private. I was recently privileged to receive live text message updates as broken a single Lego caused the demise of the Millennium Falcon Lego ship, which then led to the war between the Rebellion (the brothers?) and the Galactic Empire (the sisters?) being reignited. I'm really guessing here at elements I don't understand. In any case, I'd asked the parents to participate in a survey about the current Synodal discussions about the family and I learned that the bishops of the world have totally missed the effect that Lego fatalities can have on home life.

The aftermath of the war
And I have no doubt that any parents reading this have their own memorable tails of comedy and woe. Parents are truly saints. Children are indeed a blessing, all parents recognize that, but to care for such a blessing indeed requires you to be a saint. The older I get, the more I appreciate my own parents and everything they went through for me.

As I think about the upcoming Synod and the Pope's call to go to the peripheries, I can't help but think that we should all look to the center to figure out what they're doing right. If the peripheries refer to those who are in difficult or irregular marriage and family situations, then the center would represent those happy, successful families who have it figured out. Not that any family is ever "successful" in the sense of having attained a goal or crossing a finish line. But some families have things more right than others. And you learn a skill best by trying to emulate those who have mastered it, not simply by avoiding the errors you see in yourself. So look to the parents who can hold together a house of eight kids, look to the parents who can weep with joy at their child's wedding, look to those who can discipline their kids for fighting and still laugh at a Lego catastrophe, and figure out what they're doing right. To learn about love, look to the large families.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Life-Changing Encounter

So I love the first reading from the book of Job, because it starts by saying "Is not man's life on earth a drudgery," and then Job continues to go through how awful his life is, then it ends with "I shall not see happiness again." And what do we say in response this tale of woe and misery, which is the word of the Lord? We say "Thanks be to God." How weird are we? This reading might get us down if we don't know the whole story, but luckily, most of us know the full of story of Job, how he lost everything but through his trials learned to trust God completely. Since most of us know the full story, how Job was a blameless man who through his terrible sufferings learned a new kind of humility, we can read this small piece of the story, when Job was at his lowest, and say "Thanks be to God."

It's always important to approach Scripture passages with an understanding of the full story, otherwise we run a risk of misinterpreting the things we read or taking them out of context. The Gospel provides another example where we need to make sure to widen our view and grasp what is happening on a deeper level. Today we see Jesus heal Peter's mother-in-law, and then she proceeds to serve them.

Side note: The interesting thing is not that Peter was apparently married and now priests are celibate. That is the result of the Holy Spirit working in the Church through the centuries, and the fact that Peter was married is no argument that celibacy today is a bad thing. That's not the interesting thing here.

No, what's interesting is that Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law and seems to get a servant out of the deal. If you want to misinterpret the meaning of the story, then you see only the bare facts: Jesus heals this woman of her fever, she gets up and waits on them, good deal for Jesus. That would be a misinterpretation, so we have to dig deeper to see exactly what this woman is experiencing.

So what exactly was Peter's mother-in-law experiencing? She didn't just experience a healing. No one in the Gospels just experienced a healing. They were healed, yes, but they experienced the Savior of the World, the Word through whom all things were made. They didn't just experience a healing. And once they have met Jesus, once Peter's mother-in-law has experienced Jesus, she can't help but respond to this meeting. Meeting Jesus elicits a reaction. When Peter's mother-in-law met Jesus, she couldn't help but respond in service.

Whenever you meet someone you love, you want to do something good for them. So when we really experience Jesus, once Jesus has touched our lives, it has to elicit a reaction of service. In our Gospel today, when it says that the mother-in-law waited on them, the Greek word for waiting on them is diakonia, which is where we get the word for deacon. Deacon literally means servant. On Friday, I got to see one of my best friends, Andrew, be ordained a deacon in Cheyenne, and then on Saturday I go to see him preach for the first time in Gillette. At that homily, he told the people, "God healed my heart, through the Sacraments, especially Confession and Eucharist, and so I responded in a radical way." God touched his heart, at some point in his life he experienced Jesus and he couldn't help but respond the only that fit for him.

So when we meet Jesus and are healed by him, it has to draw us to serve him in whatever way he calls. For Peter's mother-in-law, it was by serving at table. For my friend Andrew, it is as a deacon and then as a priest for our diocese.

So the bottom line is that we have to meet Jesus. How do we do that? I want to suggest two preeminent ways, two ways of meeting Jesus that will change your life: The Sacraments and in the poor. If you faithfully participate in the Sacramental life of the Church and you serve the poor, you will meet Jesus in a way that will change your life. And I'm not suggesting an either/or approach, the Christian life demands both, so let's briefly examine these paths.

When we gather here as the Body of Christ, we don't gather here because we're bored and wanting to be entertained. That's what Netflix is for. We don't gather here to celebrate ourselves. Frankly, if I want to celebrate myself and how wonderful I am, I have a mirror for that. That's all very mundane, but God calls us here for a higher purpose. We gather here to meet God. Not just to feel his presence in some vague, ethereal way, but to actually meet him, hidden in the bread and the wine.

So if we're going to meet God himself, and not to celebrate ourselves or be entertained, everybody here should act the part. First off, the behavior and demeanor of the priest should point you towards God, and so I humbly beg for your prayers. The music should point us to God, the artwork should point us to God. The way each of us acts here at Church should communicate to those around us that we're here to worship God and not to be entertained. And don't mishear me, this is not a call to sit down, shut up, and pay attention, this is an invitation to examine why you are here, and to make sure that everything about your life is oriented towards God.

And we need to serve the poor, in all of their distressing disguises. Every so often, Jesus himself wants to wait on a street corner with a cardboard sign, or sleep on a park bench, or stop by our parish office to be helped by the money that you put into the collection basket. And he's usually dirty and smelly, and he's somebody we'd rather not deal with. And then we have a choice, we can serve his needs like Peter's mother-in-law, or we can judge him and say that he doesn't measure up to the Jesus I've created in my head and say that he is not worthy of my help.

So we meet Jesus in the Sacraments and in the poor. But why? Why bother with this at all? In the Gospel today, what happens after this healing encounter? Jesus goes off to pray early in the morning, and Peter and those who are with him pursue him until they find him. Having had this healing encounter, they can't help but pursue Jesus. Just like you and I would always seek out the ones we love no matter where they are, these disciples seek out Jesus. Their hearts have been awakened, something has stirred in their hearts that they know only Jesus can fill. Jesus creates a new kind of happiness and a new kind of joy in our lives that nothing else can fill. The disciples knew it, that's why after meeting Jesus and experiencing his healing, they couldn't help but follow him wherever he went.

So if you've never actually met Jesus and experienced his healing in your life, start here. Examine why you come to Mass and pay close attention to the prayers and the movements of the liturgy, and be alert for the times that Jesus presents himself in the poor. Truly meet Jesus, and let him awaken in your heart a desire for a new joy that only he can fill.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Work of Dad

Pope Francis has been focusing on families in his Wednesday Audiences recently, and for the last two weeks he has been focusing on the role of the father. So, an interesting note and a reflection on yesterday's (Feb 4) address, in which he reflected on the positive role of fathers in the lives of children and families.

First the interesting note: His whole address focused on the positive role of fathers as loving, firm, and indispensable role models for their children. At one point he said "One time, I heard a father, in a meeting with married couples, say: 'I, sometimes, must hit my child a little, but never in the face, to not degrade him.' How beautiful! He knows the sense of dignity! He must punish but does it justly and moves forward." Ummm... yeah. I have not dug into the original Italian of the address, maybe he was referring to spanking, but that does not read nicely in English. Comparison: when Pope Francis spoke about the redemption of all creation, the media reported that "Pope Francis declares all dogs go to heaven." So will this one get translated as "Pope Francis approves of child abuse"? No! Because this awkward story, which I'm sure made the Vatican spokesman cringe yet again, doesn't fit the media's view of Francis, so I predict it'll be ignored.

And a reflection: Aside from the awkward "I hit my children but not in the face" thing, it was a beautiful reflection that made me reflect on my own dad. Dads have one of the toughest jobs in the world because since Eden the devil has put them at a fundamental disadvantage. The devil introduced discord between our Heavenly Father and us, his children. He basically said, "Your Father doesn't really love you or care for you, you can't really trust your Father in Heaven, you need to ignore him and take care of yourself." And he's been whispering that in our ear ever since, basically making a mess of things. And dads, the bravest men out there, wade right into the middle of that ancient, cosmic mess and say, "No, I'm going to show you the truth, I'm going to image for you how your Father loves you by how I love you." Dads show us the love of the Father by the way they love us! Whatever the moment calls for, providing for our physical needs, a gentle hug in our pain, correcting us in our errors, or protecting us from the world's dangers, we see how our Father loves us from how our dad loves us.

My parents and me
Long before I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, I knew I wanted to be like my dad. I got a little teary-eyed reading the Pope's address (I'm kinda sappy sometimes) because I saw my own dad in a lot of what Pope Francis said. My dad was strong, he was successful, he was happy and well liked, and he was good at everything he did. As a kid, dad was perfect. As a teenager of course, I thought dad was a bit out of touch (turns out I was the one who had lost my mind, not him) but I always knew he loved me. As an adult(ish) now, I can see how my dad's character is not perfect, but that makes his virtue shine through all the brighter. Despite his weaknesses or flaws, he is still the man that I want to be, because he has loved his wife and family for over 35 years and he continues to love them, work for them, and pray for them.

I've heard it said that we should pray for our priests because they have the most important job in the world and the greatest enemy working against them, and that is very true. The same could be said of our dads in many respects. Our dads are tasked with showing us by their very lives the love of the Father and they have an ancient enemy to contend with. Let us pray for our dads.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Masculine Liturgies

A lot of digital ink has been spilled over Cardinal Burke's interview with the New Emangelization Project. He spoke very little on what he perceives as the feminization of the Church, but he spent a great deal of time outlining how the Church has failed to address the needs of men. If you haven't read the article, then for the sake of all that is holy, read the article before forming an ignorant opinion.

This man gave challenging homilies
So here's my two cents, not exactly about the interview but rather about the whole broad topic. First, bad liturgy is neither masculine nor feminine. It's just bad. Stop doing it. Whether you are clergy or laity, if you contribute to irreverent liturgies that focus on man rather than God, that worship the community rather than the Creator, just stop.
Now, my real two cents, because that last one was an unexpected aside. Women will always participate in Church. Women are smarter than men, they know they need God in their lives, so women will always participate in the life of the Church. I don't say this patronizingly, but sincerely. Men on the other hand, are by and large not as bright. Men are more inclined to think they can go it alone, without God. Numbers in the pews seem to reflect this. And I think we all know families where mom takes the kids to church while dad stays home. Of course, anecdotal evidence doesn't carry the argument, but it points in a direction.

My point is this: Women are smart enough to always come to Church unless you do something egregious to drive them away. Men need to be "sold" on Church, or "lured in" if you will. This happens largely through music and preaching. For all of our high and lofty theology about the one Sacrifice of Christ made present again on the altar, for Christ being really and substantially present in the appearance of bread and wine, people's perception of Mass largely comes down to music and preaching. If the music and preaching are good, then people tend to walk away saying it was a good Mass, if those two elements are poor, people tend to have a negative experience of the Mass. So, if people's perception of the Mass is largely based on those two elements, those are two key areas where we need to make sure we are reaching men. Fluffy homilies, homilies that only comfort, or overly emotive homilies don't reach men. Men need to be challenged. Same thing applies to music: if it only exalts the community instead of drawing the attention of the community towards God, men aren't interested. As a man I totally understand the mindset, though perhaps it'd be expressed a little differently: "At church I'm only told that I'm a good person and that I'm the pinnacle of everything. I can tell myself that just fine at home, so why not sleep in on Sunday morning?"

Women have been carrying the Church for centuries, I don't think they'll stop showing up anytime soon. Men are a different matter. Men need to be convinced of the importance of Church, of a community, a brotherhood of faith. Challenging homilies and elevated music are easy ways to do that.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Supernatural Battle

So our gospel today is from near the beginning of Mark's gospel, and we're going to hear from Mark a lot throughout this year, so I want to make sure we understand Mark and what he was about in his gospel. Mark was writing for the new Christians in Rome, and the Christians in Rome were being persecuted and martyred. So Mark wants to write the story of Jesus to strengthen them in their trials. This is only verse 21 of the gospel and already Jesus is confronting demons. With the persecutions in Rome at the time, Mark had no time for the nice nativity stories we love from other gospels, he gets right down to business with Jesus's ministry.

And this is what Mark wanted those Romans to understand, and it's what he wants us to understand also: Our real fight isn't against the bad people of this world, our real fight is with the Devil himself. We fight and we struggle against the powers of this world, just like Jesus did, but we are actually engaged in a supernatural battle. Just the same as Jesus, our real battle is against the devil and his minions who are actively at work in the world. That's why, already on just page two of Mark's gospel, we see Jesus fighting with this unclean spirit that has taken ahold of this man.

Now, in order to look at this passage and understand where the message is for us, we have to get a couple things right in our heads first. The biggest one is this: Demons, evil spirits, they exist. Sometimes we wonder, "Does the Catholic Church still believe in all that stuff." Yes, we do. They are real just as real as you and me, they want to drag you into hell, and yet they are no match for even the name of Jesus. I state this so strongly because we are inclined to make a couple of dangerous errors. First, sometimes we think that evil is just the lack of good, the same way cold is just the lack of heat. No, evil is personified in the devil and other Angels who turned away from their lofty calling. Jesus made this clear.

The other great error we sometimes see comes from our modern perspective. Armed as we are with great advances in medicine and psychological sciences, we are tempted to look at somebody like this man in the gospel today and say that he suffered from a psychological condition of some kind, and the people of his day, in their ignorance, diagnosed it as demonic possession. But one of the Devil's greatest deceptions is convincing you he doesn't exist. There's a lot of truth to that. If we ever read these bible stories and don't take seriously or literally the evil that Jesus is confronting, then the devil has won a huge victory. So we have to understand that this was real demonic possession, and never downplay the seriousness of this.

So once we recognize the seriousness of this story, then we're prepared to take a closer look at it. When the demon says, "I know who you are," the demon isn't just taunting Jesus, he's trying to battle with him. Because in the spiritual realm, to know the name of something is to have lower over it, that's why in your exorcist movies you always see the priest demand to know the demon's name. So this demon is so filled with pride that he thinks he can control the Son of God by knowing his name. But of course he is gravely mistaken, no matter what he thinks, he has no power over Jesus Christ.

Jesus has two commands for this demon, and he wastes no time in giving them. The first thing he tells the demon is, "Quiet." Even right there there's a lesson for us. We don't dialogue with evil. We rid ourselves of it, we push it far away, we don't dialogue with it. But the other reason for this command is that Jesus' name is powerful, and although the demon wouldn't have been able to use it to control Jesus, Jesus was not going to allow this demon to abuse the most holy name of Jesus. This demon would not be allowed to abuse the most holy name of Jesus. For you and I, the name of Jesus is still powerful. Invoking the name of Jesus in a reverent and confident way whenever we're in any danger, especially spiritual but also physical danger, will instantly dispel darkness and evil spirits. Things like holy waters, rosaries, crucifixes, they are powerful. Demons can't stand them. They don't belong to a superstitious dark age, they belong to you here and now to aid you in the cosmic battle that is being waged for your soul. But even more powerful are the sacraments, especially the Mass and Confession. Use them frequently. There is no better way to dispel evil spirits than a good confession. I recommend going to confession at least once a month.

But then, what's the second thing Jesus commands of this demon? He says, "Come out of him." Just like this demon wasn't going to be allowed to abuse the name of Jesus, just the same way this demon wasn't going to be allowed to possess this man any longer. Two of Jesus' primary actions in the gospels are healing the sick and driving out demons. They rightfully belong together, because exorcism is fundamentally a ministry of healing. Exorcism heals a person of a far worse affliction than any physical illness.

So let's summarize: Demons are real, and they are diametrically opposed to you reaching heaven, they are fighting against you day and night. But you have more powerful forces fighting for you, you have God and all his angels fighting for you. And today's gospel shows us that those demons can't even stand up to the name of Jesus. So you have the name of Jesus to aid you in this fight, and you have these powerful tools that the Church has given us. Use them. Sacramentals like holy water and crucifixes, they should be present in your house. But even more importantly, the sacraments of Eucharist and Confession should be present in your life. Through these things God has given us, we will keep the devil far from us, and we will prepare ourselves to share eternal life in Heaven.