Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympian Virtue and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

(Solemnity of the Assumption-Year A; This homily was given on 15 August, 2008 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Luke 1:39-56)

The Summer Olympics are well underway in Beijing, and for the next week and a half we will see and hear about men and women who are in the best physical shape of their lives. They have trained their bodies for speed, strength and endurance beyond what most of us will ever experience.

And yet every time the Olympics come around we also catch a glimpse of something more. We learn about the personal lives of many of the athletes, and often see heroic virtue and selflessness both on and off the playing field, both in and outside of the arena. We find that they are not just bodies, but persons like us—body and soul—and that many of them are remarkable in their own right, not simply as athletes.

In today's feast we honor a woman who brought glory to God in her body and magnified Him with her soul. We celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—body and soul—into heaven. In St. Luke’s Gospel today, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, who:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
—Luke 1: 42

She announces that Mary is blessed because her body carries the Son of God, and she will physically bring Him forth into this world. And Mary’s response is a fitting one for that bodily blessing. She says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
—Luke 1: 46-47

In both body and soul, Mary is beautiful and she is blessed. She brings great glory to God because of what she did in giving birth to Christ, but also because of who she is, the Mother of Christ, the Mother of God. Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr. Rainero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, expressed it this way:

You, Mary, will cease to be “blessed among women”
when Jesus ceases to be “the fruit of your womb.”

—Fr. Cantalamessa in “Mary, Mirror of the Church”

For this reason—the great dignity given to Mary all throughout her life—we believe that she was not consigned to the earth when her time here was complete. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII defined as dogma what the Church had already held and professed for centuries, that:

The Immaculate Virgin was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory upon completion of her earthly life.

—Pope Pius XII, Dogma of the Assumption

But why is this so important for us as Christians? Why do we celebrate this feast today with such solemnity and joy? There are two reasons why the Church celebrates this glorious event of Mary’s Assumption.

Firstly, because Mary is a member of the Church, indeed its most noble member, and she has finished the journey that the whole Church is striving toward. In short, Mary made it. The very thing that we struggle and strive for, our final end for which Christ gave everything on the cross, Mary has reached. She is forever in heaven with God. She becomes, for us—along with Christ her son—a pattern and example of the way of perfection.

Secondly, this feast is important because Mary is, for all of us, a sign of hope and comfort as we make our own way to that final end. Do you struggle with adversity in your daily life? So did Mary. Do you suffer, and at times ask God for help and consolation? So did Mary. Of all who have suffered, she is the one who can identify the most with St. Paul’s exhortation in the letter to the Romans:

Provided we suffer with [Christ], we will also be glorified with Him.
—Romans 8:17

Certainly no one else can help us more in our personal struggles, and in our desire to grow in union with Christ, than Mary. Therefore we turn to Mary—this day and everyday—as our model on the way to heaven, and as a sign of comfort and hope as we continue to follow Christ in this world.

And so, in these remaining days as we watch the athletes competing for glory and honor in Beijing, let us think of the woman who gained glory and honor in heaven. And as the Olympics reveal the achievements of both body and soul, let us remember this Woman who—body and soul—intercedes for us on our way to God.

Mary, Assumed into Heaven, pray for us.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Self-Sacrificing Love

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 3 August, 2008 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Matthew 14:13-21)

One of the daily challenges all priests face is the balancing of personal life with a life of service and pastoral care for others. All of us have personal goals and commitments. We all strive to answer the call to holiness and rightly devout time and attention to our own spiritual renewal and even well needed recreation. Yet we also must be willing to put our own pursuits and endeavors aside when it comes to caring for the flock entrusted to us.

The family gathered around the bedside of their loved one in a hospital does not need to hear what a bad day we are having; it matters little to them if we spilled our cup of coffee that morning or had an abominable time searching for a parking place. It would not impress them at all to know where we spent our last vacation. They want to see their loved one anointed and to receive the assurance that their faith, even in this dreadful experience, really matters. They want to know that God is near.

Daily we are called to forget ourselves and make those around us a priority. This denial of self is central in the call to discipleship enunciated by Christ Himself in the Gospel:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
—Mark 8:34

In our readings for this weekend, Christ provides the greatest example of what it means to place our own personal interests aside and open our hearts to those around us.

The scene begins by the lakeside, and Christ has just been told of the death of St. John the Baptist. He could not be anything but devastated. Remember, John was His cousin. More than just a familial bond, however, they also shared intimately in the same mission and message of salvation. The bond they shared—one ultimately forged in blood—goes back to the womb. At the Visitation, when the pregnant Blessed Virgin Mary enters the courtyard of her cousin Elizabeth, the unborn Baptist rejoices because Christ is near.

Now, as Jesus hears the news of John’s violent death, Matthew tells us “he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13). He needed to be alone. But the crowd has something else in mind. They anticipate his next move and arrive there just as He disembarks. Jesus’ reaction is telling. He doesn’t become exasperated or frustrated. Instead, St. Matthew tells us, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14).

Christ is able to set aside His own personal grief and sorrow and to see the needs of those around Him. Perhaps it is even because of His own loss that His insight into their need is all the more keen.

They had come to Him hungry—physically and spiritually—and He fed them. In that deserted place Christ multiplies the loaves and the fish in a miraculous expression of love that is but a foretaste of what He will do in the Eucharist.

How fitting, that in a moment of sorrow and loss Christ forgets Himself and provides for the deepest needs of those around Him. This is exactly what He does in the total gift of self on the cross, a gift that we celebrate each time we gather together around the Eucharistic table.

It is on the cross that Christ completely denies Himself, choosing to make that total offering for our redemption. Whenever we celebrate that living sacrifice at the altar of God, we experience anew the great outpouring of grace and forgiveness from Christ. His body, broken on the cross, and His blood, poured out for us on Calvary, is re-presented to the Father and we ourselves receive the body and blood of Christ anew. At the heart of the Eucharist is the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ.

Several days ago I was able to visit the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels. In the side chapel, which is dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, there is an impressive altar which is held up by two large, sculpted pelicans. One of them is piercing its side with its beak, while the other stretches its head up toward the altar.

There is an ancient legend that the pelican, in order to feed its young, would pierce its breast and then feed them with its own flesh. This became a profound symbol in the Church for the Eucharist, and is used by many of the saints, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is Christ who is willing to be pierced and wounded so that we can be forgiven and fed. It is from His own wounded and broken body that we receive the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation. It is a mystery we celebrate at every Mass, and one we are called to imitate in our daily lives.

Where is Christ calling us to enter more deeply into His self-sacrificing love?

How are we called to forget ourselves or deny ourselves as we become more attuned to the needs of those around us?

Might we find, in Christ’s sacrifice, in our own daily sacrifices, and perhaps even in our own suffering, a wellspring of care and concern for the needs of others.