Sunday, February 25, 2007

What Defines You?

(1st Sunday of Lent-Year C; This homily was given on 25 February, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Deuteronomy 26:4-10 and Luke 4:1-13)

How do you define yourself? What is it that defines you as a person? Is it your work, what you do for a living? Is it how you relate to the people in your family as a husband or wife, mother or father, a son or daughter?

And do you ever let the past define who you are? Sometimes we allow the events of the past, mistakes, what we could have or should have done, and the sins we’ve committed, to define who we are in the present. Many people struggle with that. “My life today would be so different, if only…”

A friend of mine has a beautiful expression that addresses that very concern. He says, “We are infinitely greater—as persons created in the image of God—than the worse sin we have ever committed.”

Think about that for a moment. What are the things you are most sorry for in your life? We are infinitely greater than those things, since we are persons in the image and likeness of God. That needs to be the starting point for the way we define ourselves, the way we understand who we are. We are not defined by what we do, or the people we relate to, or the mistakes and sins of the past. It is how we respond to God in the midst of all those things that defines us. It is how we relate to God in all the circumstances of our lives.

We see that reality this weekend in our first reading, from the Book of Deuteronomy. That beautiful passage is one of the earliest “definitions” of the people of Israel. It is, in many ways, their “Confession of Faith.” Just as we stand up every Sunday, and recite our Creed, the statement of belief that tells us who we are:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty….We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… the Holy Spirit… one holy, catholic and apostolic Church . . .

Even so, this passage from Deuteronomy is an announcement of how the people of Israel come to understand who they are. Moses charges them to proclaim together, before the Lord their God:

My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien.
—Deuteronomy 26:5

God found the people of Israel when they were still nomads, wandering through the desert. That was their beginning. That “Confession of Faith” goes on to describe how they became a nation “great, strong and numerous” in Egypt, but they were maltreated and oppressed in that place. They cried out to God, and He heard them; He saw their affliction. They proclaim:

He brought us out of Egypt with His strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
—Deuteronomy 26:8-9

God brought them through the desert and into the Promised Land. That is how they defined themselves as a people. Notice that they did not say, “We are the nation that worshipped the Golden Calf” or “We are the ones who struggled with God and tested Him in the desert for forty years.” Those things were true, but they ultimately came to understand who they were by the way they responded to God through all of those experiences, and by the way He responded to them, even when they failed.

We are just beginning our own journey through the desert, as we enter into these forty days of Lent. This is always a time when God seeks to revive our faith, and draw us ever more deeply into the spiritual life through repentance and a renewal of our baptism. We respond to this call to holiness through the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. God brings us back to the basics of the spiritual life, so that we can discover anew, as the people of Israel did, who we are in Him.

But one thing is certain: if we seek to deepen our spiritual lives this Lent, and desire to discover more completely who we are in God, we can expect resistance. The last thing the devil wants is for us as individuals and as a Church to be spiritually renewed. He will do anything possible to prevent that from happening.

In the gospel this morning, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. He goes there in order to prepare Himself for the public ministry that He is about to undertake. We are told that He fasted and prayed in that place for forty days. Jesus went back to the basics in order to take on the mission that the Father had prepared for Him. And what he receives for His efforts is a full frontal attack from the evil one.

The devil comes to Him in His weakest moment, after he had been fasting for forty days, and the first thing He goes for is Jesus’ identity. He says to Him: “If you are the Son of God…” If? The strange part of that encounter lies in the fact that Jesus simply is the Son of God. He is not applying for the position! And because He knows who He is, Christ is able to submit to and surrender to God and not the devil. He is able to reject those temptations and continue the saving mission for which He was sent.

As we begin this season of Lent, the Holy Spirit leads us into the desert with Christ, and we, too, will experience trials, temptations and challenges in our spiritual lives. We can expect to encounter resistance when we pray and seek to grow in our relationship with God. We can expect to encounter resistance when we fast and make sacrifices for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We can expect to encounter resistance when we make every effort to reach out to others in charity, desiring to give more of ourselves in order to meet the needs of others. We can expect resistance. Jesus Christ experienced resistance.

But as we reflect on the people of Israel in light of that first reading, we can see that it was through just such resistance that they came to understand most completely who they were. As we continue to journey with Christ through the desert, what will define us throughout this penitential season? May we discover, once again this Lent, through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and through all of the circumstances of life, who we truly are in Christ.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

St. Therese, Lent and the Hidden Life

(Ash Wednesday-Year C;This homily was given 21 February, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 6:1-18)

One of the most popular and sought after saints in the Church today is the young Carmelite nun named St. Therese of Lisieux (also known as “The Little Flower”). She is often depicted holding a bouquet of roses and a wooden cross, but she is probably best known for her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. That book, published after her death, has touched millions of lives in the 100 or so years since its publication. It has been translated into almost every language.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, a distinction given to only three other women in the history of the Church (St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila were named Doctors by Pope Paul VI in 1970). She has had a profound impact on the life of the Church, although she was only in the cloister as a nun for 9 years. After entering the Carmelite order at the age of 15, she died of tuberculosis when she was only 24.

There is an interesting story about the final days of her life, when she was on her deathbed. Some of the sisters were nearby in the kitchen, talking, and they did not know that Therese could hear them. One of them said:

“Sister Therese of the Child Jesus will die soon, and I really wonder what our mother will be able to say about her after her death. She will certainly be at a loss, for this little sister, lovable as she is, has certainly done nothing worth the trouble to recount.”

They knew that Therese was a very lovable and special person, but they had no idea just how completely holy she was, how deeply rooted she was in Christ. They knew nothing of the sacrifices she was offering up daily for all of them, and for the entire world. These things would come out in time, especially after the publication of The Story of a Soul. Then the entire world would know of the profound hidden life of St. Therese of Lisieux. She truly lived what St. Paul, in the New Testament, described as a life “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

Today we begin the holy season of Lent, a time that Christ invites us to enter more deeply into the spiritual life, and to take on more concretely the practices of repentance and renewal. We are called, in a very intentional way, to do what we have already been doing in our life of faith: turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.

Jesus challenges us to do that in St. Matthew’s Gospel through the traditional observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are to embrace these practices in a powerful and profound way, but also in a quiet and even secret way. Jesus exhorts us today: Give alms. Give generously to those in need. Give freely from what you have …but give in secret. He says:

Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
—Matthew 6:3-4

Christ challenges us to pray more, and more intently, during this season of Lent…but in secret:

But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
—Matthew 6:6

He tells us to fast, to make sacrifices, to offer ourselves—body and soul—to our heavenly Father …but not to make a show of it:

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
—Matthew 6:17-18

The point Christ makes is that our outward spiritual practices will mean nothing if we do not experience an internal conversion of heart. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, we are called to live intensely our hidden life, with Christ, in God.

And while the people around us will not see our practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, our Lenten journey and closeness to Christ should be as plain to them as the crosses we receive on our foreheads this Ash Wednesday. They should be able to read the story of our souls—by the way we live and the way we love—and know that we belong to Jesus Christ.

Quite simply, we must ask ourselves today: Who are the people that God will touch, and bless, and guide these next forty days of Lent, through our hidden life with Him?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Man After God's Own Heart

(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 17 & 18 February, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See 1 Samuel 26:2-23, 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 and Luke 6:27-38)

One of the more compelling—and perhaps more complicated—persons in the Old Testament is a man we find in the first reading this morning: King David. One of the first times we are introduced to David in the Scriptures is in that well-known encounter with the giant Philistine named Goliath. David takes down Goliath with just a sling and a stone, and he goes on to quickly win the hearts of the people. He becomes the most beloved king in the history of Israel.

But again, although he is a compelling man, a charismatic leader, he is also somewhat complicated. We know David is far from perfect. As well known as the story is of David and Goliath, so also is the infamous story of David and Bathsheba. To cover up the sin of adultery, David commits the sin of murder by sending Uriah the Hitite, Bathsheba’s husband, to the front lines in battle.

Yet even after that colossal failure David is able to come back again, full circle, and return wholeheartedly to the Lord. In his tremendous sorrow and deep contrition he writes one of the most beautiful hymns of repentance and renewal ever recorded in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 51). He is, in many respects, a towering figure in the Old Testament.

But it is in the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, that St. Paul reminds us of the greatest accolade David ever received. St. Paul quotes the beautiful words of God Himself, who said “I have found David, Son of Jesse, to be a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22). Can you imagine how we would feel if God were to say those words about us, if He were to say that we were men or women after His own heart?

Our first reading this weekend, from the First Book of Samuel, gives us a glimpse of why God might have said that. It is the story of King Saul, Israel’s first king, who has gathered 3,000 men to hunt down David in the desert of Ziph. He is seeking to destroy David not because he is an enemy of the state, or a threat to the people of Israel, but because David is a threat to Saul’s own pride! The people had quickly taken to David, they loved him; and Saul feared that David would soon take the throne so he seeks to take David’s life.

But in our reading the tables have turned. God has delivered Saul into the hands of David, to do with him as he chooses. David now has his chance to even the score. Yet, remarkably, he doesn’t do it! Just as surprising is the language David uses when he addresses King Saul. Holding the spear that could have easily ended Saul’s life, he says to him:

Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.
—1 Samuel 26:23

Notice that he does not say, “I would not harm you, the one who came out to harm me,” or “I would not harm you, my enemy,” or “You who are filled with jealousy and pride.” No. He says to Saul “I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” That is whom David sees: the one chosen and anointed by God to lead the people of Israel. David looked at King Saul and saw what God saw. David loved King Saul the way God loved him. That is what is at the very heart of our very challenging gospel this weekend. Jesus challenges all of us to look at the people in our lives the way David looked at Saul. He addresses us in that Sermon on the Plain and says:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you . . .Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
—Luke 6:27-28,36

Do those words sound difficult to you? Think of the people in your life that you have had conflicts with. Think of those who have said or done things to you that were harmful or perhaps even hateful. Christ is saying so much more than “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). We certainly hear that “Golden Rule” in this Sermon on the Plain. But what Jesus is saying to us is that we are to look at these people in our lives and see them as God sees them.

That is not something that is difficult. It is nearly impossible, without the grace and help of God. What God is asking of us is that we love like He loves, and forgive as He forgives. Who among us could do that? We would have to have a heart like God’s. He would literally have to give us a heart like His. What we need is a heart transplant. St. Paul, in our second reading, tells us that we’ve got one!

He speaks of the first Adam and the earthly image that each of us are created in. But he goes on to talk about the last Adam, Jesus Christ, and the heavenly image that we are all called to share. God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ and taken on a human heart: a heart that could be broken, and rejected, and scorned, and hated. With that heart, God’s only response, in Christ, is to love: He loves those who persecute Him, prays for those who oppose Him, forgives those who come out against Him. Jesus Christ follows His own counsel and command to the letter as He is being crucified, and prays,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The reason why Christ endures such agony and loves so deeply is so that, in taking on our human nature and our human heart, He might bring us to share in His divine nature. He comes to give us all a heart like God, a heart filled with love and compassion. It is only by the grace and mercy of God that we can truly love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us.

This week, might this gospel challenge us to seek the supernatural help and strength we need to see the world the way God sees it, and to love the way God loves. And when the people in our lives look at us—even in the midst of our own imperfections and failures—might they also see what God and St. Paul saw in King David: that we, too, are men and women after God’s own heart.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Inconsolable Secret

(6th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 11 February, 2007 at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; See Luke 6:17-26)

In this morning’s gospel we hear some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings on the Christian life: the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes have been described as shocking, even disturbing: How is it possible that those who are poor, hungry and weeping can be blessed? It is a teaching that is not immediately appealing to us.

There are two different accounts in the gospels where Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Christ gives His well-known Sermon on the Mount; He goes up on a high mountain and presents to the people eight Beatitudes or blessings.

In the gospel we listened to this morning, from St. Luke, it is different. Jesus gives not the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon on the Plain. St. Luke tells us He “Stood on a stretch of level ground.” In a striking way He “levels” with the people gathered there, and instead of eight Beatitudes, he relates only four Beatitudes (blessings):

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.

Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.

—Luke 6:20-23

But then, in direct contrast to those blessings, Jesus announces four woes:

Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.

—Luke 6:24-26

Again, it is a very challenging and perhaps even disturbing teaching. Is Christ saying there is something wrong with being wealthy? Is there something wrong with having riches or possessions? Is there something wrong with those who laugh in this world? Didn’t Christ Himself laugh when He was among His disciples and those whom He loved? Of course He did. There is nothing wrong with those things. The problem comes when we take those very things and use them in place of the things we should want and desire most of all: the things of heaven and the things of God.

The key to understanding that danger, and to understanding the blessings and the woes in this morning’s gospel, can be found in the first statement of woe that Jesus mentions:

Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
—Luke 6:24

The word Jesus uses for “have received” is the very same word used to describe someone who has been given payment in full on a loan. It means they have received all they have coming; there is nothing left. It is like having a bank account that not a single dime more can be added to, or like having a brand new computer that is fast and efficient, but can never again be upgraded or replaced. These are simply full, and that’s it.

Jesus is not saying woe to them because they have wealth, laughter, and abundance. No, He is saying woe to them because that is all they have! They have no room left for anything else:

They have left no room left for the Kingdom of God.
No room left for Christ.
No room left for eternal life.
They have already received what they wanted.

The Blessed are different.

Jesus says blessed are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be theirs. They still have room left for the Kingdom and for Christ. Yes, they are hungry now, but they will be satisfied. Now they weep, but they will laugh because they have faith in a life that goes beyond this one. They realize that this life is not all there is!

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, says very much the same thing. He says,

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ
we are the most pitiable people of all.
—1 Corinthians 15:19

Even a full Christian life here on earth, with all of its benefits and blessings in this life, is as nothing compared to what awaits us. We are called to a life of eternity with God. Nothing else can ever take the place of that.

One of the best-known sermons of the late C. S. Lewis was one given at Oxford back in 1942. It is called “The Weight of Glory.” In that sermon, he describes what he refers to as the inconsolable secret in each one of us. He says we each carry within us this secret that is so personal and so deep that we are almost embarrassed by it and afraid to speak about it openly. It is the secret desire we have—even when we are content and filled with life’s blessings, or when we find ourselves completely in want—the desire still for something more. He says we long for a “far-away country” where we will finally be fulfilled. It is a place so deep within us that God alone can reach it.

Ultimately, what C.S. Lewis is referring to is the reality that we are made not for this life only, but for eternal life in God. As we look at our own lives in light of the teachings of Christ in the Beatitudes, are we able to recognize that inconsolable secret within us? Are we able to share it with the One Person who has the ability and the desire to satisfy that longing and yearning for eternity?

If so, then in the words of Jesus, blessed are we. Blessed are we indeed, for the Kingdom of God is ours.