Radical Claims

Advent 4A 2022 Homily

About two weeks ago the US Congress passed a law that codifies the modern understanding of marriage as being between any two people that want to declare themselves married. In the Congress there are about 140 publicly declared Catholic Congressman. Of those 140, only about 40 voted against this bill. So, something less than one-third of Catholics in that group were willing to defend their faith when it might cause them to be called radicals. The Catholic teaching on marriage is that it is the lifelong partnership between a man and a woman faithful to each other and open to life until death do them part. It is the sad reality these days that the Catholic definition of marriage is considered radical. Apparently it is too radical for two thirds of the Catholic Congressmen to defend.

Our faith is radical. If we are going to be truly Catholic Catholics, then we need to embrace the radical nature of what we claim. Today’s gospel includes one of the most radical claims that we make as Christians: that the eternal creator God humbled himself to come into his own creation and share our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, born in the manger in Bethlehem and then raised in the remote village of Nazareth. No other religion claims that God became fully human and dwelt among us.

We have the period of Advent to prepare us to receive this radical truth that God loves us so much that he became like us, so that we could love him unafraid. Who is afraid of a little baby?

There is another period of preparation on the church calendar, and we call that period Lent. Lent is a time to prepare us for the other radical claim that we make as Christians: that God, who became man for us so that we could love him, allowed himself to be sacrificed on the Cross for our sins so that we could have a chance to return to the state of life for which we were made. We were made for love. We were made by love itself. We were made for communion with love. We were made for heaven. And, through the Cross, we have a chance to go to that place for which we were made. So the joy of Christmas cannot be fully understood apart from the deeper joy of Good Friday and the Easter resurrection.

As Catholic Christians, we claim that God became man out of love for us, and then took on himself all of our sins and died for us because he loves us. As truly Catholic Catholics, we are challenged to embrace these radical claims of our faith. And we are challenged to fight against the constant efforts of the forces of evil to dilute our faith, to soften it and make it more conventional. Our God, because he loved us, came down to dwell among us. But he remains God, completely other. And we remain his creation, made by him and made for him. As radical Christians, we need to embrace that reality. He loves us, but he is not like us. He is greater than us, and we should follow and obey him.

In today’s epistle, St. Paul describes himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. How many of those 140 Catholic Congressmen described themselves as slaves, especially slaves of Jesus Christ? Maybe 40. St. Paul is the great Apostle to the Gentiles, explaining that it is not necessary to become a good Jew in order to become a good Christian. That was a radical claim when he made it in the first decades after the death of Christ. But he persisted in holding on to that truth, and it was confirmed in the first ecumenical Council of the church in Jerusalem just a few years after the death of Jesus.

Our challenge as Advent wraps up and the Christmas season truly begins is to embrace the radicalism of our faith. The English word “radical” has for its root the Latin word for root. We need to strip away what has grown up around the root and return to that pure faith of the apostles. That pure faith starts with faith that God became man in the Incarnation and was born at Christmas. That pure faith continues with the claim that the God-man accepted death on the Cross to save us from sin and eternal death.

If we are willing to own and to defend these two root or radical claims of our faith, then we should have no problem with the secondary, or derivative, claims like the true definition of marriage. And in just a few minutes, we are going to make another radical claim of our faith: the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Polling suggests that about the same percentage of Catholics believe in the Real Presence as Congressmen defend the sanctity of Holy Matrimony. We must all commit ourselves to being faithful radicals, willing to endure confrontation and even persecution in defense of the truth of our faith.

Preparation for Justice

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God. In a couple of weeks, the readings will focus on the coming of God in the flesh to dwell among us in the Nativity of our Lord. But the readings today focus on preparing for when that same person comes in glory and justice at the end of time.

So I would like us today to focus on two key words: one is justice and the other is preparation.

We know that our Lord will come in justice on the day of judgment. And that can be an intimidating thought. We know in our moments of brutal honesty that we do not deserve eternal life in heaven, and that we only get it because of God’s love and his mercy. But do we appreciate how true justice cannot be separated from the same love that is at the heart of mercy? All the other virtues derive from the virtue of love. That means that there cannot be real justice without love. So let us focus on the love that is part of the day of judgment so that we can appreciate the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of the justice that will be dispensed on that day.

God made us in his image, and he made us for communion with him. It is his heart’s desire that he be our hearts’ desire. What he desires more than anything is for us to desire him more than anything. And because of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a lot of the time we do not desire God more than anything.

How God responded to that original sin reveals how much he loves us. He let Adam and Eve go. They had made their choice, and he let them go where their choice led. Most of us have made a choice that we soon regretted, and we regretted it deeply. I am sure that Adam and Eve quickly and deeply regretted their decision to follow Satan instead of following their creator.

God our Creator gave us in his image the freedom to choose. Adam and Eve chose poorly, but God respected that choice in his justice. He respects our choices today. That is the measure of his love for us; he loves us so much, he will let us walk away from him.

Most of us are here today in church because we don’t want to walk away from God, in fact, we want to return to God. We hear his voice, and we are responding. Because of our fallen nature, we don’t often respond the way we wish we would respond. Because our thinking is unclear, and because our choosing is somewhat corrupted, we make bad decisions. I know I do. But God loves us through those bad decisions. He loved Adam and Eve through their bad decision.

Now there are always consequences to decisions. And Adam and Eve were no different. The consequences of their decision were that they could no longer remain in the garden of Eden. But as they were leaving, they heard the promise that God would find a way to call them back. God promised to call them back into the relationship that He made them for. And he makes that promise to us. His justice is grounded in his love. He is coming in justice at the end of time, but he is coming in love to call his children home. The day of judgment for all who love Jesus will be a homecoming. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and many of us were in family homes surrounded by our relatives. So imagine the perfect Thanksgiving celebration, with all of the joys of family and none of the fights of family. For those who claim the name of Jesus, that’s what the day of judgment is going to be: a day of love and celebration and blessing.

Let us now consider our second word: preparation. Those of us who claim Christ as our king are in a special situation. We are in the world, but the kingdom of Christ to which we belong is ultimately beyond the world. Father Romano Guardini was a famous German priest in the 20th century, and in one of his meditations before Mass he wrote this:

Essentially a soldier, the Christian is always on the lookout. He has sharper ears, and he hears an undertone that others miss. He is never submerged in life, but keeps his head and shoulders clear of it, and his eyes free to look upward.

Romano Guardini

I think this is a great description of how we are supposed to live in this world without being “of” this world. We must always be preparing for life in the next world. And we have to be willing to behave this way even when we feel so alone. The power of the crowd cannot be overstated. Guys will do things in a crowd they would never do on their own. The Christian life means always doing the right thing even when everybody else is not only doing the wrong thing but trying to get you to do it with them. The Christian life is not for wimps.

And it’s understandable when we run out of strength. We are never alone; God is always inviting us and the devil is always tempting us. So it’s a lot of work to be as Father Guardini describes and to keep our ears sharp and our eyes bright. Father Guardini explains the consequences:

When this awareness and watchfulness disappear, Christian life loses its edge; it becomes dull and ponderous.

Without a posture of preparation, Christian life loses its edge. Without its edge, Christian life loses its heart. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans exhorts them this way: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.” Whenever you’re doing something that requires concentration and you lose your edge, you frequently fall asleep. As Christians preparing for eternal life, we have to keep our edge.

Jesus in the gospel today reminds his disciples that there was no two-minute warning before the flood in the days of Noah. He says: “They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the son of man.”

We must commit to preparation because God’s love and God’s justice are linked. He loves us enough to keep inviting us to turn back and live his life in the world today. But he wants us to make our choice independently. Everybody rushes to get on the train when they know it’s the last train leaving the station that day. We will not be told things like that. So we must remain committed to a posture of preparation every day so that when the last day comes, he will recognize us as his sons and daughters. He will look on us with love on that day of justice, and we will look on him with love because we were prepared for his coming.

The Eucharistic Prayer

In our discussion on the Eucharistic Prayers, which can be found here, we put on the screen a great side-by-side comparison of the four Eucharistic Prayers that are most commonly heard at Mass. That link is here.

We also made reference to a paragraph in the General Instructions for the Roman Missal. The GIRM is online at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website, and here is a useful link.

The particular paragraph referenced is #365, which says:

  1. The choice between the Eucharistic Prayers found in the Order of Mass is suitably guided by the following norms:

a) Eucharistic Prayer I, or the Roman Canon, which may always be used, is especially suited for use on days to which a proper text for the Communicantes (In communion with those whose memory we venerate) is assigned or in Masses endowed with a proper form of the Hanc igitur (Therefore, Lord, we pray) and also in the celebrations of the Apostles and of the Saints mentioned in the Prayer itself; likewise it is especially suited for use on Sundays, unless for pastoral reasons Eucharistic Prayer III is preferred.

b) Eucharistic Prayer II, on account of its particular features, is more appropriately used on weekdays or in special circumstances. Although it is provided with its own Preface, it may also be used with other Prefaces, especially those that sum up the mystery of salvation, for example, the Common Prefaces. When Mass is celebrated for a particular deceased person, the special formula given may be used at the proper point, namely, before the part Remember also our brothers and sisters.

c) Eucharistic Prayer III may be said with any Preface. Its use should be preferred on Sundays and festive days. If, however, this Eucharistic Prayer is used in Masses for the Dead, the special formula for a deceased person may be used, to be included at the proper place, namely after the words: in your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.

d) Eucharistic Prayer IV has an invariable Preface and gives a fuller summary of salvation history. It may be used when a Mass has no Preface of its own and on Sundays in Ordinary Time. On account of its structure, no special formula for a deceased person may be inserted into this prayer.

Lay hold of eternal life

Let’s unpack today’s readings by starting with St. Paul’s letter to Timothy.

Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.

1 Tm 6:12

Timothy was called to sacred ministry as a bishop following St. Paul, but this short instruction applies to all of us as well.

St. Paul tells Timothy to lay hold of eternal life. What he means by the term “lay hold of” is “get a really good grip on this.” Get a really good grip on this, because this thing which you now hold in your hands is the key to getting to that place you most deeply desire.

When you fall out of a boat and they throw you a rope, you lay a hold of that rope because that’s the way you’re going to be pulled back into the boat. St. Paul is encouraging all of us to lay a hold of eternal life with the same grip that we would use to hang on to a safety rope.

St. Timothy was called to sacred orders. That was his noble confession made in the presence of many witnesses. Each of us at our baptism was called to eternal life, and our godparents – or we ourselves if we were baptized as adults – professed our faith in the presence of many witnesses. Our call as baptized people is no less important than Timothy’s call as a presbyter and a bishop. Baptism is that safety rope that pulls us toward eternal life. So we should lay a hold of that eternal life to which we were called at our baptism.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we see how much effort is required to lay a hold of eternal life while we are so busy living this mortal life. Poor Lazarus has nothing, and so in many ways he is less distracted than the rich man by the delights of this world. The rich man had fine clothes and clean sheets, and he ate well. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with good clothes, clean sheets, and a full tummy. There’s nothing wrong with these things. Our Lord desires us to have good things.

At the end of our lives, however, our Lord desires us to have the truly good thing, which is eternal life with him in Heaven. And the story of the rich man is that, while we are living out our earthly days, we can get distracted in the pursuit of and the possession of good clothes, and clean sheets, and delicious food. There is nothing wrong with good clothes, clean sheets, and a full tummy, but there can be something wrong if they are what we pursue rather than pursuing God. We cannot lay a hold of eternal life if what is always in our hands and on our minds during our lifetime are the goods of this world. This is the warning that Jesus is offering in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

One of the most powerful emotions in our lives is regret. Regret and shame are emotions the Devil uses to get us to give up. But God can use them, too. God uses regret and shame to get us to try again. We see in this parable the rich man regrets his choices. And the conversation between the rich man and Abraham is a stern reminder that sometimes by the time we regret something it’s too late to change it. Abraham realizes that it’s too late for him, but he asks God to send a messenger to his brothers in hopes that it is not too late for them.

Laying a hold of the eternal life is hard work. It’s the discipline in the life of a disciple. Living and working in the world of Mammon, which is the world of the pursuit and glorification of money and glamour and power; living and working in that world while laying a hold of the eternal life is very hard to do. All of us can do little things to protect ourselves from some of the worst temptations of this world, but it is the world in which we live, and so we have to deal with it.

The good news for us as Catholic Christians that was not available to the rich man in the parable today is the sacramental life. When we make those choices that bring us deep regret, there is something we can do. We can go to confession. Confession uses that deep regret to stir up our resolve to stand in line and then sit or kneel with the priest and say to God before that priest whatever it is that caused the deep regret.

If we are truly sorry — if our regret is deep and sincere — then we will receive absolution. The sin that caused the deep regret will be erased by God and not counted against us. Unlike the rich man in the parable, the great chasm of spiritual death is bridgeable. We can cross over it in the sacrament of reconciliation. On one side of the chasm we are like the rich man in the parable: we are spiritually dead and separated from God. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we have crossed over from death and are back laying a hold of eternal life, reunited with God.

All of us are sinners. None of us will earn heaven by our own merits. It is only by the grace of God that any of us will be saved. Reborn in baptism, we are called to lay a hold of eternal life. Through the consequences of our own choices, it is highly likely that each of us will do something we deeply regret. Because he loves us so much as his adopted children, God has given us the sacrament of reconciliation to bring us back from that place of regret to the place of his love and his life.

So, let us not be afraid. Let us lay hold of eternal life. And if we slip, let us run to the confessional and lay hold of it again.

26th Sunday Year C

Faith in Mission Starts Today

This year in our Faith and Mission adult faith formation program we are going to spend the bulk of our time together exploring the mystery of the Mass. Last year, we talked a great deal about the answer to the question: to whom are we sent? This year, we will talk a great deal about the answer to the question: from what are we sent?

This program hopefully will connect with the Eucharistic revival announced by Pope Francis earlier this year. It is critical that Catholics understand the Mass they are obliged to attend every Sunday. The Eucharistic liturgy is the source and summit of our faith, according to the documents of the second Vatican Council. But how well do we know and understand this source and this summit of our faith?

Our hope for this program is that you will grow in knowledge and understanding of the liturgy, so that your faith may be deepened as your knowledge is increased. With more knowledge and more faith, you will be better equipped to go forth at the end of Mass.

We will look at the Mass from many vantage points: what the priest does, what the people do, how it has evolved over the centuries, how it is an act of sacrifice and also a communal memorial celebration, and how to understand what the church calls active participation. Our primary sources will be the Roman Missal, the Bible, and the Catechism, with over a dozen other scholarly books to provide context.

Each Sunday, we will post the PDF of the slides and a recording of the talk, and those will appear in the link above in he header. The title of the page is Mystery of the Mass.

Fancy Dinners

Last Sunday, we read how Jesus was asked if only a few people would be saved, and Fr. Neil used that Scripture to remind us that hell is real, and it is a real possibility for everyone. This week we move forward a chapter in the gospel of Luke, and we get a parable on what you might call “dining room etiquette.” Last week, we got reminded that there is a Heaven and a Hell. This week, we get a little bit of instruction from our Lord on how to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life.

From the parable and from the other readings today, we are presented with two approaches to life with others and to following God’s commandments. In the parable from today’s gospel, Jesus gives a lot of practical advice on what to do when you’re invited to a fancy dinner. It’s all very prudent. Rather than going and sitting in the best seat, go sit in the lowest seat and thereby increase your odds of being promoted. It sounds like a very good and humble approach to human status.

Continue reading “Fancy Dinners”

Lord Teach Us to Pray

In the gospel that we read today from Luke, we are given the scene where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them the Our Father. This is one of the first prayers we learn as Christians. And we recite it daily and even many times in the course of the day.

The Lord’s Prayer is directed to the Father: Our Father. Praying to the Father should be familiar to all of us who participate in the Mass, for every opening prayer we hear at Mass, indeed most of the prayers in the Missal, is directed to the father, it is prayed through the son, and it is offered in the Holy Spirit. The model of prayer given to us by Jesus is the model the Church uses in its liturgies, and it is a model for us in our private prayer: we should be willing to direct our prayers to our Heavenly Father.

Continue reading “Lord Teach Us to Pray”