Friday, February 15, 2019

The Lectionary

Opening our ears and loosening our tongues
Mark 7:31-37 Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”) And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
The big red book we read the scriptures from at every Mass is called the “Lectionary.” As you know, at every Mass we typically have a first reading from the Old Testament and a gospel reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. In the seminary they taught us that these two scriptures were chosen deliberately because of a deep connection and correlation between them. It’s amazing to think the whole Lectionary is laid out with readings for the whole year where the Old Testament and the New Testament display a noticeable interdependence or interpenetration. St. Augustine famously said: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New.” Or, think of it like this: the Old Testament is like watching the movie “Casablanca” in black and white, while the New Testament is the colorized version, or better, the three-dimensional version. When you attend daily Mass, try to catch that connection; it will exceedingly enrich your experience of the Eucharist.
The connection between the first reading from Genesis and the gospel of Mark today is so apparent, it is virtually shouting at us. They both concern hearing and speaking. In Genesis the serpent tricks the innocent and unsuspecting Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But how does he do it? He manipulates his speech and her hearing. The serpent uses his God-given gift of speech to twist the truth, not exactly lying, but definitely deceiving the woman into doubting God’s love and desire for her happiness. On her part, Eve hears what she wants to hear (don’t we all do that?) and basically dismisses God’s commandment not to eat of the tree. In a spiritual sense, she closes her ears to God’s voice and to God’s wisdom. The Old Testament presents the black and white version of the loss of speech and hearing.
The New Testament, therefore, presents a strikingly similar story of speech and hearing, but in this case, the healing of those capacities, a sort of colorized version. Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. We read: “He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (that is, ‘Be opened!’).” By the way, last night I baptized a beautiful baby named Luke. At the end of the ceremony the priest touches the ears and the lips of the baby and prays his hearing and speech will be filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Usually the baby ends up sucking my thumb, which is really weird.
But notice how in Genesis Satan works his dark magic impairing man and woman’s capacity to hear and to speak. But in Mark Jesus heals and frees that capacity to hear and speak. And what is the result? We read a little later: “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.” That’s what I hope and pray that little baby Luke will do: grow up to proclaim uncontrollably all the great things God has done for him. Can you see the close interpenetrating connection between the Old and the New Testaments? It is like that at every Mass, if the congregation hears the readings with open ears and the preachers proclaims the Good News with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, who injected that connection there in the first place.
Our scriptures also invite us to apply the lesson of speaking and hearing in our daily lives as Christians. Here are a couple of practical tips on how to open your ears and loosen your tongue. First, when you listen to others speak, don’t only focus on their words, but also pay attention to the feelings they convey through those words. This focus is especially useful in counseling. Quite often people use facts to express their feelings and they hope their hearer can catch that distinction. I heard a U.S. senator say recently that “people have a right to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” That’s true. But the trouble is people often use facts to express their feelings, and people end up arguing over the facts when all along it was the deeper feelings the speaker was trying to share. This hearing of feelings is critical for good communication between spouses. Listen for the feelings underlying the facts, and your ears will be more open.
A second lesson the scriptures offer us is how to loosen our tongues, especially a man’s tongue. All men suffer from a speech impediment and have trouble talking. How often men become tight lipped in conversations with women, and women react like Jesus: they groan and look up to heaven and shout, “Ephphratha! Be Opened! Say something!” I think the dilemma lies in most men’s tendency to be uncomfortable sharing their feelings, and to remain at the level of facts. If more men, myself included, could reach into our hearts and tap our feelings about problems and politics, we might feel more freedom to speak. Sifting through both facts and feelings can help improve communication both on the side of hearing and speaking.
Let me read again the last line of today’s gospel. It summarizes everything I’ve said: “They were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak’.” May Jesus perform that same miracle for each of us.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Passion Fruit

Seeing how our disordered desires cause our sins
Mark 7:14-23 Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”  When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Arguably one of the most frequently painted scenes in the bible is the Garden of Eden, and specifically capturing the moment of the first moral mistake called “original sin.” One of my favorite depictions was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens housed in The Hague, Netherlands. It shows a beautiful but naked Eve reaching up to pluck the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with her right hand, while simultaneously handing an equally eager to eat Adam the same fruit with her left hand. But what captures my attention is the presence of all kinds of animals in the painting. We see dinosaurs and peacocks, dogs and cats, leopards and horses, lions and tigers, all enjoying that primordial peace and perfection. But the moment of the original sin plunges that peaceful paradise into confusion and conflict. In other words, sins are never a private affair, but always carry a cosmic consequence. Sins do not just hurt the sinner, but the whole wide world.
Now, every artist who picks up a paintbrush to bring that prehistoric scene to life must wrestle with the question: what kind of fruit did Adam and Eve actually eat? Most people assume the forbidden fruit was an apple, but the bible does not say that anywhere. By the way, that’s why men are said to have an “Adam’s apple” in their neck, the protruding thyroid cartilage surrounding the larynx. Apparently, the apple got stuck in Adam’s throat as he tried to swallow it. Other interpreters say the original sin may have been more sexual in nature. Scott Hahn once joked, “it may not have been the apple in the tree but the pair on the ground.” In this sense, “pair” can spelled “pear” or “pair.” Rabbinic scholars argue the forbidden fruit could have been a fig, or grapes, or mushrooms or pomegranates. What was the forbidden fruit that was so delicious that our first parents would forfeit paradise to taste it?
In the gospel, though, Jesus teaches that we are asking the wrong question regarding the forbidden fruit. That is, the problem of the original sin (and all subsequent sins) lies not with the fruit we eat, but with the disobedient dispositions in the human heart. Our hearts are ruled by disordered passions, and so the real dilemma is not apples or pears but passion fruit – the passions out of control in our hearts. Jesus says: “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.” In other words, all artistic renderings of the Garden of Eden and that original cosmic collapse cannot capture the state of the heart and the passion fruit Adam and Eve had already consumed. Their disordered desires caused their first sin, just like our disordered desires cause all our sins. The source of sin is not the apple in the tree, nor the pear on the ground, but the passion fruit in the heart.
My friends, I believe turning our attention to the disordered desires in our hearts can help us make significant strides in the Christian journey. At the risk of oversimplification, I am convinced this lies at the root of all marriage problems. Husbands and wives are quick to catch the faults and failures of their spouse, but rarely look into their own hearts to see the disordered passions lurking in them. Indeed we follow the example of our first parents Adam and Eve, in blaming others for our own moral mistakes. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and we do the same. But no one sees the passion fruit in their own heart.
Perhaps this is why diet plans and programs do not always deliver the weight loss they promise. The problem is not the cheesecake or the alcohol, but the passion fruit in our hearts. Diets will finally fail if we do not master the disordered passion in our hearts, the desire for indulgence and overeating.
Could this by why our great government is mired in gridlock? The problem is not with the Democrats, and the failure is not with the Republicans. The difficulty is the passion fruit in everyone’s heart: the disordered desire of pride and the lust for power. Until we stop blaming each other and finally confess our own faults, very little will get done, whether in Washington or wherever.
What was the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate? It was the same forbidden fruit that we all eat, a kind of passion fruit. Until we stop eating of that fruit, we will never overcome sin.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

In the Beginning

Paying attention to the 
two creations
Genesis1:1-19 In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed–the first day. Then God said, "Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other." And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed–the second day.
I love that we are beginning the book of Genesis and reflecting on the creation account. There is so much depth of meaning in the first two chapters of Genesis 1 and 2, it’s impossible to take it all in. If you don’t believe me, just read Pope St. John Paul II’s enormous exposition of these two chapters in his book Man and Woman He Created Them, which is well worth your time and trouble.
Let me just point out one delightful detail. Genesis opens with the evocative words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss.” Can you think of any other biblical book that also opens with the exact same words? It’s my favorite book, the Gospel of John. It begins similarly, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be.” It continues: “What came to be through him was life and this life was the light of the human race, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Do you remember in Genesis what God created first of all? We read in Genesis 1:3, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’.” In other words, there is a close correlation between the old creation, wrought by the hands of God the Father in Genesis, and the new creation at the hands of God the Son in John. Both the Father and the Son are preoccupied in overcoming “the formless wasteland,” or in Hebrew the “tohu wa-bohu.” That is, Genesis and John present two beginnings in the bible: the first which overcomes the darkness of non-existence in the heart of the universe (bringing all into being), and the second which overcomes the darkness of sin in the hearts of men and women (bringing people to perfection).
In the gospel of Mark we see Jesus curing all who come to him with their diseases and demons, that is, those overwhelmed by their own personal darkness. And what does Jesus do? Well, like Father like Son, and we might also say, like Genesis like John, that is, he cures and heals, he sanctifies and enlightens. Jesus says in effect, “Let there be light” in the darkness of people’s broken lives and “the darkness does not overcome it.” The Son learned from the Father how to zero in on whatever is “formless wasteland,” the tohu wa-bohu and heal it and make it whole.
But notice Jesus’ preoccupation is always with the darkness of sin in the human heart, the second creation. How many times he surprisingly says, “Your sins are forgiven you,” when the poor person in front of our Lord only wanted to be healed of leprosy, or blindness, or to walk, or to rise from the dead. But that focus on the physical was his Father’s work, to overcome the formless wasteland of the material universe. The Son’s job, on the other hand, is to overcome the formless wasteland in the spiritual universe, the wasteland of sin, through the light of the sacraments.
My friends, pay attention to the these two great beginnings in your own life, both the beginning of Genesis and your physical wellness. But do not ignore the beginning of John and the your spiritual welfare. There is such a great emphasis today on physical health and well-being. People got into shape to run the Fort Smith marathon last Sunday. We all make New Year’s resolutions to diet and exercise. Every time we visit the doctor or dentist they remind us we must take better care of our bodies, the physical creation of Genesis 1.
But we too easily forget the second creation of John 1. When was the last time we went to sacramental confession? Even if we go to sacramental confession frequently, that does not absolve us of the need to seek forgiveness directly from the people we hurt with our sinful words and actions every day: spouses, parents, children, coworkers, and even perfect strangers whom we judge in our hearts. That sin is a source of spiritual darkness, the formless wasteland that hides in the human heart.
Just the first three words of the book of Genesis – “in the beginning” – is packed with profound meaning. Imagine what the rest of the chapter, the rest of the book, and the rest of the bible might mean!

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Pendulum Swing

Seeing the swing of the pendulum in many circumstances
    Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24 Brothers and sisters: You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, "I am terrified and trembling." No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
I would like to put forward a political theory that will taste unpalatable to the practicioners of both parties, to Democrats and Republicans alike. I am convinced the real genius of American politics is the existence of the two party system, not a one party system. Why is two better than one? Well, no one party has the corner on truth, justice, public welfare, the common good, morality, or prudence. In some matters the Democrats hit the mark, on other issues, however, the Republicans are spot on. That’s why after 4 or 8 years, we get rid of the incumbent and welcome the challenger. We needed a Republican like Abraham Lincoln to lead us safely through the Civil War. On the other hand, we depended on a Democrat like Franklin Roosevelt to guide us through the Great Depression. American politics is like a great pendulum that swings back and forth between Republican and Democrat. The American people benefit because we get the best of both worlds. The swing of the pendulum from one side to the other produces truth, justice and the American way.
Something similar happens in the Catholic Church’s contentious annulment process, where we discover a pendulum of justice in marriage cases. My job on the marriage tribunal is called “the defender of the bond.” My job is to raise all the reasons why the couple should not receive the annulment. My role is also sometimes called “the devil’s advocate.” Why do we even have such a position like defender of the bond? Isn’t that just slowing down the whole process? Well, the truth of the validity or invalidity of a marriage can only rise to the surface in the back and forth of the argumentation, the pros and cons, the yays and the nays, with the pendulum swinging between an affirmative and negative decision. The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught, “in medio stat virtus” – virtue stands in the middle. But we can only find the middle if we see the pendulum swing to both sides.
The Letter to the Hebrews creates a clear contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament. It insists that the law of Moses was inferior to the law of Christ. We read: “You have not approached that which could be touched, and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness…Indeed so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, ‘I am terrified and trembling’.” That was the old covenant ratified on Mt. Sinai, filled with fear. Hebrews continues, though, “No, you have approached Mt. Zion, and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…and Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant.” In other words, the covenant in Christ’s blood is vastly superior to the covenant sealed in the blood of cattle, sheep and goats (the old sacrifices), a covenant of peace.
But does that mean we can stop reading the Old Testament because it is so old-fashioned and obsolete, and no longer applies to us? Not at all. Indeed, I would suggest to you that the whole bible is like a spiritual pendulum that swings between the Old Testament and the New Testament, like American presidents swing between Democrats and Republicans. That’s why we read from books in the Old Testament as well as from books in the New Testament at Mass. Our spiritual eyes should see a huge pendulum swinging like a thurible billowing out the incense, the smoke and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that inspired the writers of the both Testaments will inspire us as we read and reflect on both, not just one.
This paradigm of the pendulum has some practical implications for every day Christian living, too. Some spouses struggle to see each other’s point of view. Sometimes they think their opinion is so right that they have a corner on the truth. But frequently the female perspective is valuable but so is the male viewpoint, and it’s the swing of the pendulum between both that hits the target. But if one spouse stubbornly insists that I’m always right and you’re a moron, then the pendulum stops swinging. And they will probably come to see me in the marriage tribunal for an annulment. We can apply this paradigm of the pendulum to interactions with coworkers with whom we disagree. The secret is in the swinging of the pendulum. Some Catholics may like Pope Benedict (who was conservative), while others prefer Pope Francis (who seems liberal). But the secret is the swinging of the pendulum. Some may like Fr. Stephen because he is young, but others like Fr. John because he is…wise. But the secret is in the swinging of the pendulum.
May the Holy Spirit, who inspires the swinging of the pendulum in so many circumstances, inspire all of us to seek the truth together!

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Small Mistakes

Learning the conduct and commandments of Trinity Junior High
Hebrews 12:4-7 Brothers and sisters: In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children: My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as "discipline"; God treats you as his sons. For what Ason" is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

St. Thomas Aquinas began one of his most insightful books called On Being and Essence (De ente et essentia), with this memorable line. He wrote: “Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.” That means, as you all know, “a small mistake in the beginning becomes a big one in the end.” You have probably noticed this doing algebra equations. If you miss a simple addition or subtraction at the start, the final answer is all wrong. Some teens think getting a tattoo is a smart or sexy thing to do. But when they get old and their skin starts to sag, that pretty red rose may look more like a weeping willow.

Have you heard of what is happening to the governor of Virginia? I say this with great respect because we do not know all the details. Apparently, while he was in medical school, his yearbook page showed one man dressed up in the white pointy hood of a KKK klansman, and another man with a “blackface,” making him look African American. Perhaps at the time back in medical school the governor thought that was funny or cool, but today, people are deeply offended, and his own democratic colleagues are calling for his resignation. St. Thomas was spot on when he said a small mistake in the beginning becomes a big one in the end.

But I would suggest to you that not all small mistakes have to blossom into big ones. In fact, small mistakes can be opportunities of growth, goodness and even grace. We can learn from our mistakes and become bigger people thanks to them. The Letter to the Hebrews today teaches us to welcome correction, discipline, and even punishment so that small mistakes stay small. We read: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” In other words, when we are disciplined for our mistakes, we can learn from them, grow from them, and ultimately we will be happier even because of them. With all due respect to St. Thomas, a small mistake in the beginning does not have to be a big one in the end.

Today, I want to talk about two mistakes teens frequently make today – some even here at Trinity – that could come back to haunt them later in life. Those two mistakes are vaping and inappropriate and offensive social media posts. These infractions may seem small and even like a joke to you today, but that’s what the Virginia governor thought back in medical school when he posted a blackface picture in his yearbook. Instead, we want to help you learn and even grow from these mistakes through discipline and correction, if you can take the punishment in the spirit of the Letter to the Hebrews.

First of all, our school policy is very clear about tobacco, alcohol, vaping and drugs. Let me read it to you: “The possession, use or distribution of tobacco, e-cigarettes, vaping paraphernalia, illegal drugs, or alcoholic beverages is not permitted in the school, on the school grounds, or at any school function.” If you have any of these items they will be confiscated and you will be punished. How will you be punished? The policy goes on to explain: “If any student brings to school or has in his/her possession any drug or alcohol during school hours or at any school functions, regardless of time or place, he/she is liable to expulsion. He/she will be suspended immediately and parents will be notified.” In other words, this is the discipline that Hebrews is talking about: it is painful in the short-term, but it produces peace and joy in the long-term. Small mistakes do not have to produce bigger mistakes; they can actually produce bigger people.

The second misbehavior is posts on social media that are both inappropriate and vulgar, and sometimes even translate into cyber-bullying or terroristic threatening. Again, the school policy on this could not be more clear. It states: “Students may not use social media sites to publish disparaging or harassing remarks about TJH community members, athletic or academic contest rivals, etc. Additionally, all on-line interactions must conform to the Student Code of Conduct.” Basically, the Student Code of Conduct is like Trinity’s own version of the Ten Commandments. But all of this conduct and these commandments can all be simplified to one statement: “do what Jesus would do.” Now, what will be the punishment for abusing social media? The punishment ranges from a reprimand all the way to expulsion, depending on the gravity or seriousness of the misbehavior.

Let me make two observations about how to think about social media, and clear-up a little confusion. First, we all cherish our own “right to privacy” in our own home. No one can tell me what I can do in my own house. True as that may be, the moment we share something on social media we step out of the privacy of our own home into the public square. What you say publically, especially on social media, reflects on you, your school, your family and your faith. No one enjoys the “right to privacy” when they are using social media.

Secondly, the First Amendment protects our freedom of speech; we have a right to our own opinions, and we have a right to express them. But that freedom is not absolute or limitless. Your freedom to swing your arm ends at my nose. When your fist hits my nose, you have exceeded and surpassed the rightful limits of your freedom. So, too, with social media: your freedom of speech to post something ends when it becomes offensive, vulgar or unbecoming a Trinity student; when it hits another person’s nose. And you will be punished when you do that, like the Letter to the Hebrews teaches.

Boys and girls, a small mistake in the beginning becomes a big one in the end. But not always. If you are disciplined, corrected and punished for that mistake, you have an opportunity to learn from it, to grow from it, and to be a bigger and happier person thanks to it. A small mistake in the beginning can be a big blessing.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Breast Cakes

Appreciating the virginity and martyrdom of St. Agatha
Luke 9:23-26 Jesus said to all, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

I have a growing conviction that only by seeing the good can we be good. Furthermore, the more good we see the better we can be. What do I mean by “seeing more good”? Well, there are three levels of goodness, and not everyone sees or appreciates all three levels. The lowest level is physical goodness, like when someone is breath-takingly beautiful, like Farrah Fawcett. Everyone see that is good, especially men. Beauty is good stuff. The second level of goodness is the moral level, knowing and choosing right from wrong. This moral goodness is embodied in people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. This second level requires more effort to see the good and therefore to be good. The third level is the spiritually good, the good of faith, the love of God.

I am afraid this third and highest level of the good is slipping through our fingers like sand slips silently through an hour glass. We are becoming an increasingly atheistic culture and we do not really believe in the spiritually good. Because many modern Americans can only see the first two levels of the good - the physically good and the morally good - we limit how good we can be, and I would add, we limit how happy we can be. Goodness and happiness are two interchangeable terms, like two sides of the same coin. He or she who is the most good is likewise the person who is most happy.

Every year on February 5, we celebrate the feast of St. Agatha. By the way, the name “Agatha” comes from Greek and literally means “good.” I would suggest to you that this early Christian woman embodies all three levels of goodness and thereby she obtained the supreme happiness. As a young girl growing up in Sicily in the third century, she was strikingly beautiful, a lot more than Farrah Fawcett. She attracted the attention of a Roman prefect named Quintianus, who wanted to force her to marry him. But Agatha had already made a vow of virginity as a Christian and refused because she was already married to Christ. Quintianus tried to break her resolve by throwing her into a brothel so she would compromise her moral goodness. But she remained steadfast.

Finally, he had her thrown in prison and tortured. One of his more gruesome tortures was having her breasts cut off. Incidentally, Agatha is the patron saint of people with breast cancer, who often lose their own breasts. And a funny custom in many places is the making of small round cakes with a cherry on top to look like breasts and having them blessed by a priest. Man, only Catholics do stuff like that. But can you see the three levels of goodness at work in the life of St. Agatha: the physical goodness (her beauty), the moral goodness (her virtue and purity), and the spiritual goodness (her unwavering faith and love of God)? Because Agatha enjoyed all the levels of goodness, she likewise enjoyed the highest levels of happiness.

My friends, may I give you a little homework assignment today? In honor of St. Agatha, try to see something good in everyone you meet today. Not everyone may be at your level of goodness, but we all chase something that looks good so we can be happy. Try to find something good in a co-worker you don’t like or you think is lazy. Try to find something good in your spouse, with whom you argue and fight. I know it’s a lot easier to find their faults and failings, but try to discover something good instead. Try to find something good in the opposing political party you never vote for. And after you see the good in them – and there is always something good if you look hard enough – take the next brave step and tell them the good you see in them.

Recently a family invited me over for supper. As the dinner conversation continued it became clear to me the parents were worried about their grown daughter who was not going to Mass. They were hoping I would say something to convince her to go to Mass again. There was an agenda for the dinner. But I refrained from criticizing the young lady. Rather, I noticed that she had really good taste in decorating her room. She still had her Christmas tree up and beautifully decorated. I said, “Wow, you have really nice taste in d├ęcor, and I hope you will continue to develop that talent.” Her face lit up and she beamed, saying, “Thank you!” The following Sunday, unbeknownst to her parents, she came to Mass, sitting toward the back.

First, we must see the good. Second, the more good we can see, the more good we can be. And third, the more good we are, the happier we are. Just ask St. Agatha, and her little breast cakes.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Purify the Perfect

Seeing the exalted role of Mary and all women
Luke 2:22-40  When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Let me just say at the outset that this homily will be a little controversial. And for those to whom it does not seem controversial it will just sound confusing. So, buckle up and hang on to something, or lean on a shoulder a take a nap.

Today’s feast is called the “Presentation of the Lord in the Temple,” or also known as Candlemas. Devout Catholics would bring candles to be blessed today that they later light during a storm for protection. It is also apropos that we use candles to bless throats the following day, February 3, on the Feast of St. Blaise. But the more traditional name for this feast was the “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Today’s gospel begins: “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” I want to say a word about that purification of Mary; and it is not at all what it sounds like.

The Holy Family was fulfilling a rule that Moses had instituted back in Leviticus 12, that said a woman was “ritually unclean” after giving birth to a male children for 40 days. By the way, February 2 is exactly 40 days after December 25, so we’re right on schedule. As an offering for that “purification” a couple offered two turtledoves or two pigeons, which is exactly what Mary and Joseph did. During this time of uncleanness or impurity, a woman could not enter the Temple; in a sense, she was ex-communicated from Jewish society.

Several years ago, I read a book by Louis Bouyer, a brilliant French theologian, that completely revolutionized by understanding of “purification.” Bouyer insisted that we not only purify items that are dirty, soiled or unholy, but we also purify objects, people and articles that are very holy, and used in sacred liturgies. Think about the purification that occurs at Mass. Priests and Eucharistic ministers carry a white cloth to “purify” the sacred vessels after use at Mass. Do they purify them because they are really dirty and germy? No. The priest purifies the sacred chalice after Communion not because it’s filthy but because it contained the Blood of Christ, something profoundly holy.

Similarly, women were “purified” for 40 days not because they had bled, and who likes the sight of blood, it’s so ooie and gooie and gross! But rather because a woman’s blood is something sacred, her womb is the cradle of life. In other words, a woman was “purified” after childbirth like a chalice is purified after Communion: both have contained sacred blood. I realize that women may have felt like second-class citizens in Jewish society in the Old Testament, but they should have felt like angels. That is the original and authentic meaning of “purification.”

The second point builds on the first point, namely, women naturally enjoy a higher rank, respect and role in society than men. Now, I realize human history has rarely highlighted this, and on the contrary, shows men as at the top of society. But I believe that tragic reversal is because of our human sinfulness and selfishness, but it was not like that in the beginning. Perhaps one way to express how women rank higher than men is to compare us to ants or bees. Who is the head of those little societies? It is the female; the queen ant or the queen bee, and all others are workers. But modern American culture has put such a high premium on working that those who cannot work or choose not to work are looked down upon as a burden to society. But why does work define what is best and most noble in a society?

It’s funny what happens when I go to a family’s home for supper. After dinner I offer to help clear the table and load the dishes in the dishwasher. What does the family quick say? They insist: “Oh, no, Father John, please have a seat and just relax, we’ll do the work.” When I go to mow the grounds at Trinity Junior High, several men came to help me, saying: “You take care of the important priest stuff, and we’ll do the work of mowing the grounds.” Should I be offended by their gestures and words? Are they saying: “Fr. John you are so physically weak and intellectually impaired that you cannot do this work”? Of course not. The role of a priest is higher than that of a worker.

And I would suggest to you that our wonderful women stand in the same company, or at least they should. The reason women were not included in the work force was not because of weakness or incompetence, but because of their exalted role in society. I really admire women who choose to be stay-at-home moms. I know not all moms can do that; my mom had to work and I deeply admire her, too. But those women who choose not to work are like Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus (not working), while Martha was busy with household work, like a worker bee. And Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better part.

We purify a woman like we purify a chalice: both are unspeakably holy. We don’t let a women work like we don’t let a priest work: not because they are lower than a worker, but because they rank higher.

Praised be Jesus Christ!