Sunday, February 26, 2006

"Jesus, why do your disciples not fast?"

(8th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 26 February, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 2:18-22, CCC #1438, 2043)

“Jesus, why do your disciples not fast?”
This is a very good question Jesus is asked in Mark’s Gospel. Fasting—abstaining from food or some legitimate pleasure for a spiritual benefit—was a practice well established in the Jewish tradition. The Pharisees followed it; so did the disciples of John the Baptist. And Jesus’ own disciples would also continue that same spiritual discipline. As Christ says in the Gospel:

As long as they have the bridegroom with them [the disciples] cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
—Mark 2:21-20

The bridegroom being “taken away from them” is a reference Jesus makes to His own death and subsequent resurrection. Now until that happens, of course, the disciples will not fast; they will rejoice and celebrate in the presence of Christ. But after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after His ascension into heaven, the time for fasting will come.

For centuries now the Church has continued to follow the spiritual practice of fasting. Jesus Himself modeled this for us in the Gospels; for forty days and forty nights He fasted in the desert. All of the saints fasted in one way or another. Many of you know much better than I do about the days when abstinence from meat on all Fridays throughout the year, and fasting on all the days of Lent, was a routine part of the Catholic mindset. And let’s be honest, maybe it was too routine.

The Second Vatican Council sought to purify our practice of fasting and abstinence, to help us better understand the reasons we deny ourselves to begin with. As you know, the canonical requirements of abstaining from meat every Friday and fasting on all the days of Lent were dispensed with, and we were encouraged, instead, to embrace fasting and self denial voluntarily. Many people still do that.

The American bishops at the time encouraged the faithful to fast: “as a gesture of solidarity with the passion of Christ, as an act of fidelity to the Christian past, and to help ‘preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world.’”

—“Why Catholics Fast,”
by Eamon Duffy in First Things, March 2005

But unfortunately today, I think most of us would admit, about the only thing many people fast from is fasting itself! What has happened to this spiritual discipline that has been an integral part of our heritage as Catholics since the time of Christ? Could we not ask the same question that Jesus is asked in the Gospel: “Jesus, why do your disciples not fast?”

With Lent only just a few short days away, I would like to offer briefly three of the more practical and valuable reasons why fasting and self denial are essential and indispensable aspects of our spiritual lives as Christians.

Firstly, as the saints and spiritual writers have always pointed out, denial of self and fasting creates a void in our lives, and God is then able to fill that void with Himself.

When we choose not to eat the food that we enjoy or listen to the music we like, then we experience a literal hunger or a silence within. This points us to the reality that—in the deepest part of ourselves—we hunger and thirst for the living God. Fasting opens us up to this deeper encounter with God, who alone can fill our every need.

The second reason why the disciples of Jesus fast is because denying ourselves legitimate pleasures, choosing to abstain from the things that are a good for us, ultimately gives us strength to deny those pleasures that are not good, the ones that are sinful.

It is when I am able to deny myself that huge piece of chocolate cake that I simply cannot wait to get my hands on that I then have the strength to not say that unkind word to that person who is really getting on my nerves.

I have the ability to deny that opportunity to gossip, to reject that impure thought or that image that pops up on the computer screen because I have already been strengthened in denying myself the good pleasures that I could have had all along. Fasting and self-denial strengthen our will and help us to follow Christ more faithfully, and even more joyfully, in the everyday decisions and difficulties of life.

The final and most important reason for the spiritual discipline of fasting and self-denial is that it brings us into a more intimate union with the person and the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the one whose ultimate sacrifice and self-denial won for us eternal life.

St. Paul prays, in his letter to the Philippians:

That I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
—Philippians 3:10-11

This is a form of self-denial that I believe most people practice everyday, whether they know it or not. We all have our crosses. Every single one of us has to face difficulties and struggles in the spiritual life and in our faith.

It may be many small crosses, those minor annoyances that stretch out our patience and really test our faith. Perhaps it is a much larger cross: the death of a loved one, difficulties in marriage or in the family, it might be an addiction, or an illness that seemed to come from nowhere.

All of us experience the cross. But it is our choice to take up that cross and follow Christ. One of the most challenging commands of Jesus is found in the Gospel when He says to the disciples:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
—Matthew 16:24 (Mark 8:34, Luke 14:27)

Christ is not trying to be exclusive or elite here; He is simply stating the fact that we cannot follow Him if we are unwilling to walk the path He walked; that path was very often one of self-denial and suffering.

The great Irish missionary, Amy Carmichael, in her poem, “Hast thou no scar?” sums up this point completely. In that poem, the speaker is Christ and He asks:

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear Thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has nor wound nor scar?

—Amy Carmichael, Toward Jerusalem

Lent is only a few short days away, and Christ is calling each of us into a deeper relationship with Him, asking us to draw closer to Him than ever in this season of grace. Today we simply pray:

Lord Jesus, help us to practice fasting and self-denial, to open up a void in our lives that only You can fill. Give us strength in denying the legitimate pleasures of life that we may be able to say "no" to the things that harm us. And give us the courage to deny ourselves this Lent, to take up our cross and follow You.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Priorities of Christ

(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 19 February, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 2:1-12)

If you have been in a video store at all lately, then you know that there is no shortage of movies being made on exorcism and the supernatural— movies like Constantine and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While most of these movies are more science fiction than reality, as Catholics we really do believe in exorcisms, although they are very rare.

Most every diocese, in fact, has a special priest appointed to perform exorcisms, if need be. But as you might imagine, getting a priest to take on that ministry is not always easy.

Fr. Gabriel Amorth, chief exorcist of Rome, in his book An Exorcist Tells His Story, relates how one bishop complained to him because none of his priests would agree to take on the assignment; they were all afraid of what might happen to them if they did!

Fr. Gabriel told that bishop that his priests shouldn’t be afraid of doing exorcisms, because there are two things a priest does on a regular basis that enrage the devil more than exorcism: preaching the Gospel and hearing confessions. Why is that?

Fr. Gabriel went on to describe how preaching the Gospel and explaining the word of God increase the life of faith. Faith is the very thing that helps us grow closer to Christ, helps us to avoid the things that would lead us away from God.

Confession and absolution have the power to restore our relationship with God completely, even if that relationship has been broken by serious sin. No matter what we have done or how long we have been estranged from God or the Church, the sacrament of reconciliation washes our sins away and we begin a whole new start with Christ.

The proclamation of the word of God and the forgiveness of sins: two very powerful gifts that unite us to God and keep us united to Him. And so it’s no wonder that those are the very things that Jesus places a priority on in the Gospel this morning.

It’s a remarkable scene that Mark describes for us. Jesus returns to Capernaum and we are told that so many people flocked to that place:

That there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them.
—Mark 2:2

Think of all the things Christ could have done in that place. He could have performed miracles, proving to them who He was; but instead “he preached the word to them.” And they flocked to that place because He was telling them of God’s plan for salvation. They were hanging on his every word.

All throughout the Gospels, preaching the word of God is a top priority of Jesus. Again and again, in towns and villages, and everywhere He goes, Christ announces the message of God’s mercy and grace through His preaching of the word. Listening to that message and responding to that word in our lives is still a priority in the Church today.

The second priority of Christ in the Gospel this morning is the forgiveness of sins. St. Mark relates that dramatic episode of the paralyzed man being lowered down from the rooftop. His friends were desperate to bring Him to Jesus. The whole house waited in anticipation. And Jesus did the last thing they were expecting:

He said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
—Mark 2:5

It seems rather obvious to us that the priority should be his physical healing, but once again Jesus reveals His own priorities when it comes to our spiritual lives: the forgiveness of sins.

The forgiveness of sins is the reason why Christ comes to earth to begin with. The forgiveness of sins is why Christ dies on the cross, and it’s the one thing that God will never refuse to those who come to Him seeking that forgiveness.

Not everyone who asks for physical healing receives it. Not all of our prayers are answered in the way we expect, not all of our desires are granted in our journey of faith. But every time we seek God for the forgiveness of sins—in particular when we come to Him in the very sacrament that He instituted for this purpose, the sacrament of reconciliation—we are forgiven. We start anew with Christ.

This morning we simply reflect on the priorities of Christ: proclaiming the word of God and forgiving our sins. How is God’s life-giving word renewing us and helping us to grow in our faith, and where are those places in our lives that we are in need of the forgiveness of Christ. They were priorities for Jesus; may they also be priorities for every one of us.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Touched By Christ

(6th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 12 February, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 1:40-45, Catechism of the Catholic Church #1127-1129)

There are few things Christ could have done in the Gospel this morning that would have shocked the people of His time more than reaching out and touching a leper. All throughout the Gospels, the words and actions of Christ are powerful, sometimes shocking, and even provocative.

But more than that, they are what we call salvific; His words and actions have the power to save, to heal, to transform. The earthly life and ministry of Jesus is itself an anticipation of the work He will accomplish on the cross. The cross is the place of power, that event where Christ will come to heal the sin and suffering not only the people of His own time but also people of all time.

This power to heal is not something that Christ relinquishes after He ascends into heaven and returns to the Father; Christ continues to reach out and touch us even now. I mentioned last week that He does this in the sacraments of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that
“in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us” (CCC, #1504).

But the sacraments can become so familiar to us as Catholics, so common to our experience, that we risk taking them for granted. What is really taking place in this touch of Christ that we encounter in the sacraments?

Essentially, there are two aspects of the sacramental life that are made evident in our Gospel this morning. The first is the very power of Christ, who is able to bring about healing and manifest His grace simply by the act of reaching out to us.

The leper approaches Jesus and says, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Christ is moved with pity for him, and He stretches out his hand, touches him, and says, “I do will it. Be made clean.” We are told that
“The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”

In sacramental theology, the term used is ex opere operato; it means that the sacraments are effected simply by the power of Christ, regardless of the worthiness or the holiness of the one administering the sacrament (the priest) or the one receiving the it.

When a child is baptized, it is Christ who cleanses that child of original sin. When the Eucharist is confected, Christ transforms the bread and wine into His body and blood. It does not depend upon us.

The great Catholic author Graham Greene, in his classic novel, The Power and the Glory, gives us a challenging example of ex opere operato. The main character is a priest who is “on the run.” He is in Mexico during that period in history when Catholicism has been outlawed, so his life is in danger at every turn.

Now, all throughout the book he is struggling with his past. He is battling alcoholism—he refers to himself often as “the whiskey priest”—and he has fathered a child; he’s struggling with the shame that comes along with that. He’s in a terrible spiritual state.

But as he continues to run from the authorities, he encounters the common people who are literally dying for the sacraments. He goes through a village and they prevail upon him to celebrate Mass for them; in another place they get him to perform baptisms. And all the while he’s in a state of mortal sin.

The book poses some very complex moral issues, but nonetheless it gives a rather dramatic example of ex opere operato, the power of Christ in the sacraments beyond the worthiness, or often unworthiness, of His people.

But there is another essential aspect of the sacramental life, and that is our response. It is possible for the sacraments of baptism or the Eucharist to be rendered ineffective, not because of any lack or shortcoming in God, but simply because we have not responded or we have responded poorly.

The leper in the Gospel this morning is told very clearly by Christ not to publicize what has happened to him. “See that you tell no one anything,” Jesus says to him. The command is very clear. He publicizes the matter anyway, and as a result Jesus can no longer minister in that town. He is forced to change His mission in that place.

Sometimes we place obstacles before the sacraments, which render them ineffective. What kind of obstacles? Our sins, our lack of preparation in receiving so great a gift, perhaps our complacency or even lack of faith in what God is able to accomplish in us through the sacraments of the Church.

It has been said that the sacrament of baptism, un-inhibited, will eventually lead to complete personal sanctity; in other words, if there are no obstacles to hold it back, our baptism will allow us to become saints. One of the greatest things we can do to grow in the spiritual life is to acknowledge those obstacles, those difficulties we encounter which may be keeping us from growing in our faith, and give them to God.

God is more powerful than any obstacle in our way. He is able to overcome whatever is keeping us from living a joyful and faithful life in Christ. The miracle of grace and the miracle of the Gospel is that, time and time again, He does exactly that!

This week, may we become more and more aware of the power of Christ who touches us personally in the sacramental life, and may we respond more completely to that touch by allowing Him to accomplish all that He desires in us.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Once Upon a Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time . . .

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 5 February, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 1:29-39)

Do you believe in fairy tales? You know, those stories like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast. Why do those stories have such longevity? Why are they still able to sell movies years after they are written, or fill the Broadway Shows season after season?

There is something about those stories that allows us to see that anything is possible. And every so often we read or hear about a story that sounds like something right out of a fairy tale, a real-life Cinderella Story. But did you ever think that something like that could happen to your mother-in-law?

In our Gospel this morning, St. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever, possibly on the point of death. The disciples tell this to Jesus; He immediately moves to her bedside, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. “Then,” St. Mark says, “the fever left her and she waited on them” (Mark 1:31).

It sounds like something right out of Walt Disney, but it is more powerful than that because it’s not a fairy tale at all; it’s real. This happened; the Son of God literally walked into this woman’s house, took her by the hand, lifted her up and restored her to health!

And that was just the beginning. St. Mark tells us that before the day was through: They brought to him all whom were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door (Mark 1:32-33).

And Jesus healed them. It is quite a remarkable scene, but it was never meant to be just a story. The miracle that Jesus performs in the Gospel this morning is one that touches each of our lives; it’s a reality that we all experience as members of His Church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us” (CCC, #1504).

Jesus knows each one of us personally, and He knows what we need; He made us, and He understands that we are made of body and soul, that we are spiritual, but that we also have physical needs.

His desire is to continue to reach out to us—body and soul—to take us by the hand and lift us up whenever we are in need. He does that in the sacraments that He has given to the Church.

In baptism, water is poured over our heads, physically, and our souls are cleansed of original sin; in the waters of baptism Christ touches us and we are given new life in the Holy Spirit.

Those of us who have been confirmed were marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, physically; the bishop made that sign with holy oil and said: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and we were given—at that moment—an invisible grace to fulfill more completely our baptismal call to holiness.

In the Eucharist that we celebrate here this morning, Christ is made physically present, His body and blood are made present here on this altar so that we can be fed with the Bread of Life. Christ desires here at this Mass to take us by the hand and lift us up. What a remarkable gift!

But we live in strange times. People today want the grace and the healing that Christ offers, but they do not necessarily want the sacraments through which that grace and healing are given. They want Christ and a personal relationship with Him, but they do not always want to draw close to His body, the Church.

That is never what Christ intended. Never does Christ separate our spiritual life—our spiritual relationship with Him—from our physical life and our relationships within the Body of Christ. The same One who reaches out and physically touches His people in the Scriptures, bringing them healing and strength, still reaches out to us in the sacraments of the Church. Our heart’s desire should be to receive that touch, and to embrace the One who is constantly reaching out to us.

In this Eucharist this morning, we are invited into the Cinderella Story that is more powerful than any fairy tale, because it is a story that is real; it has the power to change and transform our very lives. Might we enter more completely into that story, as Christ reaches out to us today, takes us by the hand, and lifts us up to Himself. Strengthened and nourished in the Eucharist, might we grow in our relationship with Christ, but also in all our relationships with the members of His Body, the Church.