Sunday, August 27, 2006

Plan A: "We will serve the Lord"

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 27 August, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Joshua 24:1-18)

The greatest episode in the entire Old Testament, the event that defined the nation of Israel as a people, is that journey from slavery in Egypt to new life and freedom in the Promised Land. Remember it was Moses who led the people out of Egypt, and through the Red Sea. For forty years he led them through the dessert. But Moses was not the one who would eventually bring them into the Promised Land. That task was given to a young man named Joshua.

The Book of Joshua—which we heard from in our first reading—describes how Israel had to fight to take possession of the Promised Land, and how they had to fight to keep it. Our first reading this morning occurs after they have already taken possession of the Land. All of the surrounding nations have been conquered: the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the list goes on (Joshua 3:10, 24:12).

But Joshua, now at the end of his life, recognizes that there is still one more battle left to fight, one great challenge that could possibly destroy everything they had accomplished. That challenge, of course, is the faith and the fidelity of the people themselves.

Would they forget the God who freed them from slavery in Egypt, the One who conquered their enemies and established them in the Promised Land? Would they turn away from Him to serve other gods instead? That was the danger. And so Joshua gathers all the tribes of Israel at Shechem and says,

“If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
—Joshua 24:15

It was a powerful call for fidelity, and we know that the people responded to that call. Echoing the exact same words as Joshua, they cry out, “We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God” (Joshua 24:18).

An awful lot has changed in the thousands of years since those events took place, but the world we live in is not so very different from the world of Joshua and the people of Israel. We, too, are called to live out our faith and to remain faithful to the Lord in the midst of a land filled with many gods. I would like to point out a few of the more obvious ones that are more than prevalent in the culture we live in.

The first obvious god of our culture is materialism or consumerism. Our society is practically driven by the desire to buy, to consume, to accumulate stuff.

The other day I went to a furniture store because I needed a small chair for a desk that my parents own. That’s all I was there for. But I found myself walking through all the little showrooms, checking out all the other living room sets and end tables, all the nice bookshelves and mahogany desks. There was a lot of nice stuff there. I began to think of reasons why I might need to buy some of these items, and where I might be able to use them. Suddenly it occurred to me: I don’t even have a house! I live in a room in the rectory! Why on earth was I even looking at these things?

I think we are all susceptible to the false gods of consumerism and materialism, the need to have the newest stuff, the latest fashions, always something more or better than what we already have. It’s all right to want nice things and to own nice things, but when our things start to own us, when we become possessed by our desire to possess, then we need to ask ourselves whether or not we have begun to bow to the false god of consumerism.

Another one of the false gods of our time is what could be called a misused or misunderstood concept of freedom. In his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II talks about our culture’s tendency to exalt freedom itself almost to the point of idolatry (Veritatis Splendor, #54).

Instead of being free to follow God’s will for our lives—free to do the right thing, free to live the right way—we often want, instead, to be free from God’s will, free from any of the restrictions that keep us from being who we want to be, doing what we want to do.

Nowhere is this more present than in the areas of human sexuality and what some have come to refer to as “reproductive rights.” This past Thursday, the FDA approved the drug called “Plan B”, for availability without a prescription. If you are not familiar with this drug, then maybe the following description will be helpful. It’s from the website of the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

The FDA describes Plan B as ‘a contraceptive drug’ and equates its side effects to those of ordinary birth control pills. While Plan B can prevent fertilization, the manufacturer admits it may also prevent a newly-conceived embryo from implanting and surviving in the womb. This is properly understood as causing an early abortion.

Advocates of “Plan B” are hailing it as a great day in the development of “reproductive freedom.” They are saying it is “a victory for women’s health and for the American people” (Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Patty Murray, statement August 24, 2006).

But as Americans and as Catholics, we have to ask ourselves: How many more unborn children have to be sacrificed to the false gods of “freedom” and “choice” before our nation finally comes to appreciate the tremendous value of the gift of every human life?

God doesn’t have a “Plan B.” He only has a “Plan A,” and that is a plan of love and life, and a plan for the respect of the dignity of every human being. We need to learn that plan, and follow it, before it’s too late.

Consumerism, materialism, a misunderstood freedom, the gods of ambition, power; these are just a few of the false gods that are so prevalent in our culture today. There are countless others that vie for our attention and our convictions as we struggle to live out our Catholic faith and follow Jesus Christ in this world.

Now, more than ever, we are in need of men and women like Joshua, who will stand up and say, “We will not follow these gods that are contrary to our faith and oppose the very God who created us.” We need men and women who will stand up with Joshua and say, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

And may those around us recognize our conviction, and see that we really do stand for something far greater than ourselves, and may that inspire them to echo the words of the people of Israel: “We also will serve the Lord, for He [also] is our God” (Joshua 24:18).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Assumption of Mary, Soul and Body

(Solemnity of the Assumption-Year B;This homily was given 14 & 15 August, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Revelation 11:19-12:10 and Luke 1:39-56)

Have you ever noticed how many times, in the course of an average Mass, we change the position of our bodies? When we begin we stand for the opening prayer. We sit for the readings, stand for the Gospel, sit back down, kneel before Christ in the Eucharist, stand . . .

The reason we do so is because we come to Mass to worship God, and that is not just a spiritual practice. We do not worship God in prayer only. We are not just spiritual people; we are physical, as well. We are made up of body and soul, and when we respond to God we do so with our souls and our bodies.

That reality has everything to do with the feast we celebrate today: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, body and soul, into heaven. We do not believe that Mary is in heaven spiritually. She is not present in heaven in the exact same way as St. Peter and St. Paul, or St. Francis of Assisi. All of those canonized saints are believed to be in heaven, but their bodies are still here on earth. They will one-day experience—along with us—the resurrection of the body. With Mary, it is different.

At the end of her earthly life, Mary was assumed, body and soul, into heaven. There is no grave in Palestine, or anywhere else for that matter, with Mary’s name on it. She is eternally in heaven, body and soul, forever worshiping her God and ours.

If we think about that for a moment, it really is the only “end” for Mary that makes sense. She who so completely gave herself to the Divine plan, so totally said, “yes” to God that she literally made Him present, physically, in this world. God, who is infinite and eternal, who exists invisible and outside of time and space, suddenly becomes physically present on this earth through the body of Mary. It is only fitting that Mary’s body, therefore—not just her soul but her body, as well—should be brought up into heaven at the end of her earthly life.

As we celebrate the feast of Our Lady, assumed into heaven, we ask God for the same grace to make Him present in this world, like Mary. We ask for that same cooperation with the Divine plan that makes Christ physically present to those around us.

The world we live in, so torn apart by violence, war, division, cynicism, a lack of faith, nonetheless still longs desperately for the touch of Christ and to see the face of God. Will you and I be the ones to bring the presence of God to those who are seeking the body of Christ?

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, has a beautiful way of expressing her incarnational spirituality. She writes:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

Who are the people in your life and mine who are in need of that blessing? Who are the ones in need of a kind word of encouragement, or someone to listen to them in their deepest need?

Might we be the voice of Christ in their lives, or that listening ear trying to understand. Might we respond to God, and to those around us, body and soul, so that we may one day be raised up again, body and soul, into heaven with Mary our Mother, and her Son, forever.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jesus, The Performance-Enhancing God

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 12 & 13 August, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read 1 Kings 19:4-8 and John 6:41-51)

Whether you follow professional cycling or not, I am sure many of you are aware of the controversy that has surrounded that sport recently. American cyclist Floyd Landis appeared to have won the most elite of all races, the Tour de France . . . only to have that victory called into question after being tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

Unfortunately, cycling is not the only sport to suffer from that same controversy. The use of steroids in Major League Baseball, track and field, and other sports has caused many to call into question the credibility of some of the most famous athletes.

The sad reality is that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is not only unfair; it’s entirely unnecessary. There are natural means of preparing our bodies to function well and compete well, no matter what sport we play.

As you may already know, I myself am a runner; that is my sport of choice (the Runner’s Club still meets here on Saturday mornings at 6:30 am, if you are thinking about joining up!).

An essential part of any kind of training—for running or anything else—is diet: what we eat and what we drink, not performance enhancing drugs but regular, basic food and water.

One of the great tragedies of any marathon or major race is the sight of those who have not eaten well or drank enough water before the race. They often melt down and collapse on the side of the road, exhausted, dehydrated, unable to finish the race.

That is something like what we find in the first reading this morning. In the 1st Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah collapses on the side of the road, sits under the broom tree, and prays to God for death! It’s not a very encouraging picture, to say the least.

Now, it is important for us to look at this scene in its proper context. Elijah is without a doubt one of the greatest spiritual athletes in the entire Old Testament. Remember, Elijah is the one who went head to head with the King of Israel, Ahab, and his wretched wife, Queen Jezebel, on many different occasions. Time and again he risked his very life by calling them to task for their lack of fidelity (1 Kings 17-21). Elijah went up against the 450 prophets of Baal, challenging them in that famous contest of faith on Mount Carmel, and defeated them (1 Kings 18:16-40).

But even the greatest of all athletes, including the spiritual ones, have limits. This morning Elijah discovers his limits, and he can no longer go on. But when he comes to the end of himself—the end of all his strength, the end of his own resources, the end of his own power—it is then that God enters in and breathes new life into the prophet Elijah.

The angel of the Lord touches him, and orders him: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” (1 Kings 19:7). Elijah is given a hearth cake (whatever that is!) and a jug of water. After eating and drinking, we are told that, “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8).

Forty days and forty nights! Now that’s much, much longer than any marathon. And that’s the very point of the story: God is able to give us the strength we need to get through any of the difficulties we face in life. When we come to the end of our own strength, our own resources, our own power, it is then that God enters in and gives us supernatural help to get us back into the race. He gives us divine food that restores us and brings us new life.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says:

I am the bread of life . . . this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die . . . whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
—John 6:48-51

The Eucharist is that supernatural help, the bread from heaven, that God gives to us in our deepest need. We do not need to take performance-enhancing drugs to help us in the contest of life. We follow Jesus Christ, the performance-enhancing God! He gives us Himself—body and blood, soul and divinity—in the Holy Eucharist.

For centuries the Church has always taught us that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11). Pope John Paul II says that “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, # 1).

One of the sad realities of our times is that many are choosing not to partake of that bread, and not to drink the cup of the blood of Christ. A Gallup Poll taken last April showed that Rhode Island was fourth from the bottom out of all 50 states in church attendance, at 28%. Given that we are the most Catholic state in the country, that is a pretty sad figure.

If the Eucharist is the source of Christian life, then where are those who do not come to Mass receiving their strength? If the Eucharist is the high point of the Christian life, then the majority of Christians in our state are settling for something a whole lot less than the summit and goal that God has offered.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of all is that so many people today find themselves exhausted, unfulfilled and longing for a better life than the one they’ve got. Like the prophet Elijah, they sit on the side of the road, all but ready to give up. The one thing they lack, the one thing they long for most of all, is the very thing God gives to us this morning: Himself.

This morning we are touched not by an angel; we are not given a hearth cake and a jug of water. We are touched by Christ, and given His body and His blood, to strengthen us on our way home to Him.

Might we grow to appreciate more completely in our lives this precious gift that God offers us in the Holy Eucharist. And might we make it our mission and passion in life to invite others back here to this banquet, where God alone can fill them and give them new hope.