Sunday, January 27, 2008

Light in the Darkness

(3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 26 & 27 January, 2008, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Isaiah 8:23-9:3 and Matthew 4:12-23)

Our gospel this weekend tells the story of new beginnings: the start of Jesus’ public ministry, the calling of the first Apostles, Peter and Andrew, James and John. In many ways it is also a very personal story for me, but we’ll come back to that.

St. Matthew tells us that it all began “in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:13). Where on earth are Zubulun and Naphtali? Those are two names we almost never hear in our Sunday readings, yet this weekend we hear them mentioned several times, in the first reading from Isaiah the prophet and in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Zebulun and Naphtali, to go back to the Old Testament, were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Remember that the twelve tribes were named after the twelve sons of Jacob; when they established themselves in the Promised Land, Zebulun and Naphtali settled into the region of the north, near the Sea of Galilee.

The north of Palestine was a region rich in natural resources and abundant in opportunities; they enjoyed a tremendous fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee, as we hear in all the gospels. But because that region was so close to the bordering nations, it was also the most vulnerable and exposed. Time and again in the nation’s history the land of Zebulun and Naphtali had been invaded and devastated by the enemies of Israel.

In the 8th century B.C., the nation of Assyria had come in and wiped them out, carrying many of the people into exile, and worse, repopulating the land with their own. The unity of culture and faith of the tribes to the north had been broken and dissipated. It was for that reason that Isaiah the prophet and St. Matthew both referred to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and “a land overshadowed by death” (Matthew 4:15-16). It was a place of brokenness; a place of sorrow; a place of darkness.

And it is precisely in that place where Jesus Christ, the Messiah, begins to restore the twelve tribes of Israel, to heal the nation and to renew the face of the earth! I would suggest this weekend that this gospel passage teaches us three vital and important things about God.

Firstly, God comes to us in the darkness. When we are broken, afraid, confused and filled with sorrow, when the world around us turns dark and we feel most powerless, God comes to us. He brings us the light that we could never manufacture on our own, the light who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

Secondly, when He comes into our lives He immediately calls us out of darkness and into relationship with Himself, the Light. The first words He speaks in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali this weekend, the opening address in His public ministry, echoes the familiar command:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
—Matthew 4:17

Christ calls us to leave behind everything that keeps us from drawing closer to God; to turn away from sin and from every form of selfishness and to embrace the gospel message of grace, forgiveness and new life in the kingdom of heaven. We are called to live lives of repentance and to be united to the Light that is Christ.

Finally, once the Light comes into our darkness, once He has called us out of darkness and into His own wonderful light (see Colossians 1:13), it is then that He sends us out as apostles of light to bring the good news of the gospel to those who remain in darkness.

As we hear in the Gospel of Matthew, He calls Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow Him and become “Fishers of Men.” They will bring His gospel from the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali to the far reaches of the world, giving their very lives for the message of hope, forgiveness, and new life in Christ. By all means it is a powerful story for us to reflect on this weekend.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this homily, it is also a very personal story. For several years of my life I lived in darkness; not geographically in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but spiritually in the dark because I was not practicing my faith in Jesus Christ. I was not putting God in the center of my life. Instead, I put myself in the center and did whatever I wanted to do. Because of that I was spiritually in darkness.

There were questions in my life that I did not have any answers for:

Why am I here?

Why did God make me and what am I supposed to do with my life?

At that time I was working in the dark…literally! I was working third shift at Stop & Shop, and one night a commercial came on the radio at about three o’clock in the morning (Truth be told, it was the hard rock station, because that is what we listened to at three o’clock in the morning on the graveyard shift. If you go to the supermarket near you at three o’clock in the morning, that’s what you’ll listen to, like it or not!).

The commercial went something like this:

Do you feel called to serve other people?

Do you have gifts for spreading the gospel message?

Maybe you are being called to the Catholic priesthood.

I remember standing there, listening to that commercial in the middle of the night, and thinking: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Do they have any idea who listens to this station at three o’clock in the morning? People like me! They would have a better chance getting me to become a Catholic priest!”

I had no idea that God was trying—right then—to do that very thing. It was only over the course of the next few years that I began to realize that Jesus Christ had come to me in the darkness and began to call me into the light with Him. He began to call me into a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him than I could have ever imagined.

Everything in my life began to change: my relationship with my parents, with friends, with people I worked with. Everything was different. I found myself not only at Sunday Mass, but even at daily Mass now, with my parents, strengthened in the word of God and in the sacraments of the Church.

And then He began to send me out to share that same message of hope and the same joy that I had found in Christ. He sent me into the seminary to prepare for a life of ministry, a life of service. He sent me to Rome to finish my studies and formation for the priesthood. He sent me to Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich to proclaim the gospel message of forgiveness, mercy and eternal life. And praised be Jesus Christ, in July of 2007 He sent me here to St. Mary’s in Cranston to announce that same message of hope. I am a Roman Catholic priest, and I love what God has called me to do and the life that I have been given by Him!

That is my story.

What I ask this weekend is: What is your story?

Where do you feel the darkness in your own life? Where are the places that you are broken, anxious or fearful and feel alone or in the dark?

God comes to us in the darkness, and calls us into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Himself. How is He calling you out of darkness and into His light?

And most importantly of all, how is He calling all of us, this week, to be sent out and to share that message of hope and the Light that is Jesus Christ with those who remain even now in the dark? How are we called to bring the Light of Christ to a world that desperately needs it?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Behold, the Lamb of God!"

(2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 19 & 20 January, 2008, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read John 1:29-34)

When people talk about you, what do they say? That’s a dangerous question, isn’t it? When the people who know you best say something about you, what do they say?

I ask that question because this weekend we are given one of those rare gospel passages in which Jesus doesn’t utter a single word about Himself or anyone else. We are completely dependent upon St. John the Baptist to speak to us about Jesus. And what he has to say is significant.

The Baptist spots Christ at the River Jordan, and immediately upon recognizing Him declares:

Behold, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world.
—John 1:29

It sounds familiar enough to us, but what it meant for the people of Jesus’ time was nothing short of remarkable. The lamb was central to the religious life of the people of Israel. When they were rescued from the land of Egypt, only those who had sprinkled their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and had eaten the lamb as their Passover meal were saved. The sacrifice of the lamb would become a sign of their salvation, a perpetual remembrance of their freedom, and a sign of their new life from God.

Once they became established in the Promised Land and built the Temple in Jerusalem, every day—right up to the time of Christ—the priests would offer the sacrifice of a lamb in atonement for the sins of the people. Remember, John the Baptist’s father was a priest of the temple. John would have understood all this.

When he cries out: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he is announcing that the Messiah has arrived and the time has come for the salvation of all, for forgiveness, once and for all. It’s a powerful statement: The time has come for them to be forgiven, and for all sin to be taken away!

But what kind of impact does such a statement have for us? What does it mean for us that Jesus has come to “take away the sins of the world”? In our culture, and in the world we live in, many say that there is a loss of the sense of sin. To even suggest that there is such a thing as “living in sin” or to consider that we ourselves might be in a “state of sin” at any given time is almost unheard of.

Pope John Paul the Great, in one of his earlier documents called Reconciliation and Penance, writes about this loss of the sense of sin. He talks about the weakening of the moral conscience—our ability to recognize within our hearts right from wrong—and says:

It happens not infrequently in history that the moral conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded . . . Too many signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time . . . It is inevitable therefore that in this situation there is an obscuring also of the sense of sin.
—Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, # 18

The Holy Father connects this loss of the sense of sin to several different factors in our contemporary culture, and you don’t need to be an expert in theology or culture to recognize them.

The first one he mentions is what is commonly called secularism. John Paul II defines it as “a movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally without God.” We place all of our focus on this world only; all our eggs are in this one basket. We look to our own accomplishments, our own careers, and even good endeavors like work and family, yet totally without reference to God. That is secularism.

Quoting what he had said earlier in his first Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II talks about how man can build a world without God; it is certainly possible. But that world, he says, will end by turning against him.

Isn’t that what we see on a global scale, with nations destroying each other in the absence of any real search for the will of God? Don’t we see this even on a more personal level, when we try to create our own little space or world without God in it? That world, in the end, will turn against us. Secularism, then, is the first factor which leads to a loss of the sense of sin.

The second factor that has caused a loss of the sense of sin in our culture is what could be termed “pop psychology.” It is not really psychology at all, but a mistaken understanding of the human person which “leads to a refusal to admit any shortcoming.” In other words, we simply explain our sin away and excuse ourselves as a product of our environment.

The problems in my life are because of my upbringing.

It is my parents’ fault.

My boss is no good.

It’s all because of my kids.

Everyone else is to blame for my situation; everyone but me.

To fall back on that kind of mentality is to loose all sense of responsibility for my own actions and to loose the sense and meaning of personal sin.

The third factor that John Paul II mentions is moral relativism. Relativism is to say that something certainly could not be a sin all the time. Times change, and people change. So what used to be a sin a long time ago, now that everyone is doing it, must no longer be a sin.

Perhaps an example would be helpful. It used to be a serious sin, years ago, to miss Mass on Sunday. But now we all know lots of people who miss Mass all the time. Therefore, it must not be a sin anymore…right? Wrong! Not going to Mass on Sunday is a grave sin. It was years ago, and it still is today. In fact, 20 years from now, to miss Mass will still be a grave sin, because we are called to come here to worship God.

God calls us together each week to be strengthened in our faith and in the Sacraments of the Church, and to live differently than the rest of the world around us. We are created to worship God, and to give Him the praise that is due. Failure or refusal to do that, as we are guided by the teachings of the Church handed down to us by Christ, without any legitimate excuse, is sin. Defining it as anything else, and pointing to our culture and a changing social climate as the answer, is relativism.

Finally, John Paul II points to a practical atheism as a source of the loss of the meaning or sense of sin so prevalent in our times. Few of us would ever say, “God does not exist.” But we live our lives sometimes as if He did not exist. That is practical atheism.

We live as if we will never stand before God in judgment.

We live as if we will never answer to God for the sins that we have committed.

We live as if it were not at all possible that God could deny us access to the Kingdom of Heaven because of the actions, choices, or decisions we have made here on this earth.

To live in that way is practical atheism, and it causes a loss of the sense of sin.

But why are these things so serious? Why bother spending the time trying to understand them? Because when we lose the sense of sin in our lives, we also lose the mercy and forgiveness of God right along with it.

God says to us, whenever we have sinned: “I want to forgive you; I want you to know my mercy and to know my love. I sent my Son to suffer and die on the cross so that you could be forgiven. I want you back.”

To deny the sense of sin in our lives is essentially to say, “God, no thank you. I don’t want your forgiveness. I don’t need your mercy. I’m fine just the way I am!”

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen would often say that sin is not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is the denial of sin. He once received a phone call from a woman whose brother was dying in the hospital. She described her brother not simply as a bad man, but as an evil man. He was a very rough character. Over 20 priests had been in to see him on his deathbed, and he had thrown them all out! As a last resort, his sister asked Fulton Sheen for help.

Realizing that he would fare no better than the other priests, Sheen stayed only 15 seconds on his first visit, and said nothing. The next day he came back and stayed for 20 seconds. Again he said nothing. After 40 days he was finally staying for up to 15 minutes a visit, and it was then that he finally broke the silence:

“William,” he said, “you are going to die tonight.”

“I know,” was the man’s reply.

“I am sure you want to make your peace with God,” Sheen said to him.

“No, I do not. Get out.”

Realizing that he wasn’t going to get through, Fulton Sheen agreed to leave, but before he did he went over to the man and said to him,

“Just one thing. Promise me that before you die tonight, you will say, ‘Jesus, have mercy’.”

He said, “I will not. Now get out.”

Later that night, one of the nurses called Fulton Sheen to tell him that the man had died, and she said that he had died well.

“Why would you say that,” he asked.

She said, “Because from the moment you left the room, he began to say, ‘Jesus, have mercy,’ and didn’t stop until the moment he died.”

We can deny the sin in our lives only so much, but eventually, we must bring it before God. Now, or later, we must acknowledge that we are in need of the forgiveness of God, and when we can do that, then we will be able to recognize fully that God is so filled with mercy, so ready to embrace us, so overwhelmingly in love with us.

And the ones who are able to recognize that are the ones most qualified and capable of proclaiming it to the world we live in, a world that desperately needs to hear the message about God’s mercy.

Who will be the one to tell them? Will you be the one in your world this week to tell others that God is merciful? Will you be the one to stand up with St. John the Baptist and point to Jesus Christ, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism of the Lord

(Feast of the Baptism of the Lord; I did not preach this weekend, so I would like to post this homily from the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord that was given back in 2005, at my first assignment at Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich; See Matthew 3:13-17)

Imagine Tiger Woods asking you for some help improving his golf swing, or Donald Trump asking you for financial advice. That must have been how John the Baptist felt when Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized.

Think about it. People from all over Judea were coming to John to repent of their sins. Suddenly the Son of God steps into the water. John’s reaction is one we can all understand. He tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Nonetheless, Jesus insists; but why? Why does the Son of God—who is without sin—need to be baptized?

We could look to the Christian Sacrament of Baptism, which teaches us how the one being baptized receives new life in the Holy Spirit…But Christ is already one with the Holy Spirit; in fact, He can never be separated from the Holy Spirit. There can be only one reason why Jesus is baptized and why He receives the Holy Spirit. It’s the same reason He took on human nature to begin with.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says He receives the Holy Spirit in His human nature, not for His own advantage, but for ours. He says Christ “receives it to renew our nature in its entirety and to make it whole again, for in becoming man he took our entire nature to himself.”

And so, it is for our sake that Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John. It is for us that He comes to identify Himself with sinners whom He will eventually die for. It is for us that the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the form of a dove, as the heavens are opened and the Father declares:

This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.
—Matthew 3:17

When Christ takes our human nature and cleanses it in the waters of the Jordan, he begins the Father’s will to renew all of humanity, and in a certain sense he prepares each of us for our own baptism. Each one of us, in baptism, is cleansed of original sin, and the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and the Father claims us as His own. In a certain sense, He says to each of us:

"This is my beloved son,"
or "This is my beloved daughter," "in whom I am well pleased."

But this renewal and new life that begins at baptism is not something that happens without our cooperation. We need to be open to the gift of life which God gives us in Jesus, and willing to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit all throughout our lives. It is an ongoing process.

You might remember that in the late 1970s, in El Salvador, there was constant terror and turmoil as a corrupt military dictatorship frequently sent out death squads to punish anyone who opposed it. At that time Archbishop Oscar Romero was appointed to lead the archdiocese, and as far as the government was concerned, he was the perfect man for the job: He was a shy, timid man who kept his mouth shut.

Within a few short weeks of his appointment, though, everything changed. A very close friend of his, a Jesuit priest named Fr. Rutilio, was shot and killed by one of the death squads. It is said that when his body was brought before Oscar Romero, the archbishop wept uncontrollably, and remained that way all night as he prayed by the coffin of his friend.

The following Sunday, Romero cancelled every Mass in the archdiocese except for the one which he would say, a memorial service in the cathedral. More than 100,000 people attended the Mass, and one eyewitness described Romero as sweating, pale and nervous.

He said, “It was as if the archbishop was reluctant to go through the door of history that God was opening up for him.” But after a few minutes, the same witness said, “Suddenly, I felt as if the Holy Spirit had descended upon him.”

The archbishop then demanded an investigation into the killing. El Salvador’s military government was furious. And for the next three years, until he too was killed by the death squads, Romero broadcasted weekly homilies throughout the country, assuring the people that the Church was with them in their suffering.

Now baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit may not lead us to sacrifice our lives in the same way Archbishop Romero did, but we, too, are called to an openness to the Holy Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, and to be moved outside of ourselves.

Because we will never be truly happy in this life until we learn how to give of ourselves. We are only fulfilled when we learn how to give ourselves away, and it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to do that. The Holy Spirit moves us and guides our lives—if we will let Him—so that we can begin to live more completely, more joyfully, that call we received at our own baptism.

So often people are waiting for some person or event that will change their lives and help them to find true meaning and purpose. But what if that event has already happened on the day of our baptism? What if that person we are waiting for is Jesus Christ, Whose very own we became at our baptism?

This weekend we ask for the grace to recognize that we have received new life from Christ in the sacrament of baptism. We have gone down into the waters with Him; we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and heard the voice of the Father saying, "This is my beloved son," or "this is my beloved daughter," "in whom I am well pleased."

Let us be open to this gift today, open to the direction the Holy Spirit is leading us in, and learn how to give ourselves more completely to Christ, who has given Himself completely to us.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mary, the Beautiful Mother of God

(Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God; This homily was given on 1 January, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Numbers 6:22-27 & Luke 2:16-21)

Do you think that Mary was beautiful? I mean, would she stand out in a crowd? If she lived in our time, would she be approached by modeling agents, or asked to do commercials for Oil of Olay? Whenever Mary is depicted in Christian art she is always beautiful. Think about Michelangelo’s Pieta. Even in modern times, in movies like The Passion of the Christ or The Nativity Story, the face of Mary is always beautiful.

But whatever Mary looked like, her Son most likely had similar features. It is very likely that the face of Jesus looked a lot like the face of Mary; Jesus may have had Mary’s eyes, or her nose. She gave birth to a Son, and gave to Him everything concerning His human nature, everything that each of our own mothers has given to us. She gave God a face.

But because her child was also God, she is rightly called the Mother of God. We honor her this morning under that title, Mary, Mother of God. This young woman from the small town of Nazareth gave birth to the Son of God! God, who is invisible, pure spirit, “whom no human being has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16), as Scripture describes Him, is suddenly made visible in Christ Jesus, God made flesh. He is given a body, given a face, and the invisible God is made visible through Mary.

In the gospel this morning the shepherds come to adore Him and they behold the glory of God in the face of a little baby in a manger. That beautiful blessing that God mentions to Moses in the first reading, “May the Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25), in a literal way that blessing is bestowed upon these humble shepherds. They went to that manger that night, and beheld the face of God!

The blessing given to those shepherds (and also to every one of us), and the face of God Himself, come to this world through Mary. But what Mary does for Christ she also wants to do in our lives, as well. She who brought Christ physically into this world continues to bring about life in the Church through her role as Mother.

This is significant for us, because we are the ones striving to become what Mary has already become, seeking to enter our true home in heaven, where Mary has already arrived. By her prayers and example, she helps us on our way. She, whose face is radiant as She beholds the face of God, helps us to become radiant as well.

Because, in a particular way, we are the face of Christ for those who are searching for God. The invisible God is made visible now through us, for we are the body of Christ on earth.

Do the people around us—those we encounter on a daily basis—see the face of God as beautiful?

Will they recognize, by our words and actions, that God is beautiful and that He is truly present in this world?

As we enter into a whole New Year in 2008, may we become that blessing which God desires to bestow on the world we live in. May we live lives that proclaim that blessing, announcing to all:

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!