Tuesday, November 27, 2018

My Imaginary Friend

Figuring out who Jesus is and thereby who we are
John 18:33B-37 Pilate said to Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?" Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not here." So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

If someone were to ask you, “Who is Jesus Christ?” how would you answer them? Before you reply, I would suggest to you that whatever answer you come up with will have profound personal and practical implications. Indeed, your answer to that question will play no small part in your own salvation. You may recall in Matthew 16 at Caesarea Philippi how Jesus asked his apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” And Peter’s faith-filled response changed his future forever. Because Peter answered that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus dubbed him “Peter,” “Petros,” the rock foundation of the Church. How we answer the question about the identity of Jesus always sort of boomerangs back to shape our own identity.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic book called Mere Christianity, the Oxford professor argued there are only three possible answers to that question about Jesus’ identity. Put simply, Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Lewis explained: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus, that is] I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say.” Lewis continued: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman, or something worse.”

By the way, I believe one reason people prefer to see Jesus as a great moral teacher is that puts Jesus safely inside a box and keeps him at arm’s length; he doesn’t get too close. Think about it: if Jesus is just a great moral teacher, we can listen attentively to his lectures, say how smart he is, and then leave at the end of class, and go back to life as before. But if he is the Lord, however, then we must serve and worship him like Peter did, and our life will never be the same.

In the gospel today, Jesus has a high-stakes interview with Pontius Pilate, over the question of his identity. At stake is not only Jesus’ pending crucifixion, but also Pilate’s eternal salvation. Two fates hang in the balance. Pilate asks first: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Remember that Pilate was a career politician, and his question was politically motivated because he wanted to know the ramifications of crucifying Jesus. Would it be politically expedient?  In effect Pilate was wondering, “Are you a lunatic, a liar or the Lord?” But notice how Our Lord replies with another question (as he often does), asking: “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” The key words are “on your own.” In other words, don’t make this political or theoretical, but make it personal and practical. Jesus is asking Pilate like he asked Peter and the other apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” Our Lord tried to elicit an act of faith, like he did with everyone he encountered. Why? Because who Jesus is also concerns who Pilate is. And that perennial politician didn’t like being put on the spot, and asked each personal questions.

May I share with you who Jesus is for me? I don’t want this homily to be a theology lecture, that you can listen to and walk away unchanged.  But rather a personal testimony, that you have to take seriously. Jesus is my closest personal friend. Sometimes we see small children talk to an “imaginary friend” who is with them all the time, and we adults smile and humor them. Well, you will have to smile and humor me, too, because I have an imaginary friend named Jesus, who by the way, is more real to me than this whole cosmos was to Albert Einstein. Like small children do, I tell Jesus how I feel, if I am sad because someone died, or angry because of how people drive, or tired after a long day, or really excited because the deacon will preach at Mass and I get a break. I ask him to forgive me when I commit sins, and fall short as a Christian. I ask him to bless my family, my friends, and my parishioners who have problems. I ask him to give me wisdom to deal with hard pastoral problems and with hard-headed people. And that continuous conversation never ceases, even when I fall asleep, and maybe that’s when Jesus can finally say something himself because I finally shut up. In other words, Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior, but notice that necessarily means I am his disciple and servant. Who he is makes me who I am.

On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King - after having walked with Jesus, after having seen his miracles, after having heard his wisdom - the Church urges us to ask ourselves, “Who is Jesus Christ to me?” Is Jesus just a great moral teacher, like Mahatma Gandhi, or Buddha, or Aristotle? Is he merely someone we hear on Sunday, but keep at arm’s length the rest of the week? Is he your personal Lord and Savior, to whom you owe not only your salvation, but also Someone who can demand your discipleship? Or, is he an intimate and imaginary Friend, who others may not see, but who, as St. Augustine said, “is nearer to me than my inmost being” (Confessions, 3.6.11)? Is he Someone whose love is more important to you than life itself?

And be very careful how you answer that question about Jesus identity. Why? Because your own identity (like Peter’s and Pilate’s) hangs in the balance. Who Jesus is always makes us who we are.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Smarter than Science

Learning to see more with the eyes of faith
Luke 20:27-40 Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

Faith always allows you to see more than what meets the eye, not less. Some modern people argue that people of faith are uneducated and backward, while those who see the world through science and technology are smarter and advanced. To be sure, mankind owes a deep debt of thanks to science for amazing advances. No doubt about it. But the eyes of science only see the literal level of life, while the eyes of faith gaze on the symbolical, the spiritual, and even the sacramental level of reality. A man who looks lovingly into the eyes of his beloved sees the whole universe, but an optometrist only sees cornea and iris.

When people of faith look at the night sky, they see more than cold, dead space, and billions and billions of solitary stars. Rather, they see the symbolic heavens and even the abode of God. C. S. Lewis tried to relate this vision of faith in his science-fiction book called Out of the Silent Planet. The protagonist named Ransom travels to another planet and his experience of outer space is the exact opposite of what modern science would suggest. He reflects: “The very name ‘Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for his empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.” In other words, to the eyes of faith the universe is not empty, it is full. It is not cold and lifeless, it is pulsating with life all around. After Dante travels through the seven heavens and finally stands before the throne of God, he declares in his final verse of The Divine Comedy staring into God’s face: “The Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” Italy’s greatest poet did not see less through the eyes of faith, he saw more. He saw above and beyond the literal level (where science stands) and rose to the level of love (where faith finds itself), full of the symbolical, the spiritual and the sacramental.

Jesus tries to teach the Sadducees to see beyond the literal level, too, but they are stuck on the scientific level. They present a scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers – something required by Levitical law – and then they ask: “At the resurrection of whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” Have you ever wondered what happens to people who remarry when they get to heaven?  You’re not alone.  Jesus’ answer not only gives them a glimpse of heaven, but also reveals how limited their own understanding is. They think too literally. He explains: “The children of this age (on earth) marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age (heaven) and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. They can no longer die, they are like the angels; and they are the children of God.” In other words, marriage is for earth, but not for heaven. But that doesn’t mean heaven will be less, but rather more: we will enjoy more love and more life there than here. People of faith, therefore, are not moved by the love of a man or a woman, but like Dante said, they are moved by “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” Jesus was inviting the Sadducees to see the world as a lover and not as an optometrist; so they could see more reality, not less.

I think every time we experience one of the seven sacraments, we are training our eyes to see more than what meets the eye, not less. When we witness water poured over a baby’s head, they eyes of faith see a newborn child of God, not just a crying baby. When a bishop smears Sacred Chrism on a teenager’s forehead, the eyes of faith see a newly commissioned solider in Christ’s army. When we hear the words of consecration at Mass, they eyes of faith behold not bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of our Savior. When a couple consummates their marriage, the eyes of faith do not see “four bare legs in a bed” but a foretaste of the marriage of Christ and his Church. When we see a dying person anointed with oil, the eyes of faith see the hope of healing and the hope of heaven. To see with faith is to leap beyond the literal level to the spiritual and sacramental, to see more not less of what meets the eyes.

In a couple of weeks, we will hear the story of three Magi or Wise Men who followed a star to find the newborn King of the Jews, the Son of God. When they looked up at the night sky, they did not see cold, dead space. Rather, they saw “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” People of faith may not be smarter than scientists, but they may be wiser.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thanks to Thin Air

Directing our thanksgiving to the Triune God
Luke 17:11-19 As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" And when he saw them, he said, "Go show yourselves to the priests." As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" Then he said to him, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."

On Thanksgiving day every year we Americans feel a deep sense of gratitude for all our blessings. And we should – we have much to be grateful for. But do we know whom we are saying “thank you” to? Are we aware of the Author of all our blessings? If we wrote a thank you note today, would it begin with the words, “To Whom It May Concern”? We have a sneaking suspicion that maybe our blessings just fell out of the clear blue sky without any Benefactor behind them, like the great Wizard of Oz turned out to be a man behind the curtain. We say “thank you” to thin air.

A recent survey was taken of Twitter users of all the tweets since January 1, 2018 that began with the words, “I am thankful for…” Here is the top ten list. First, “I am thankful for you.” That makes me feel good. Second, “I am thankful for life.” Third, “I am thankful for People.” Fourth, “I am thankful for family.” Fifth, “I am thankful for Everything.” He wanted to make sure he covered it all. Sixth, “I am thankful for love.” How romantic. Seventh, “I am thankful for friends.” Eighth, “I am thankful for everyone.” Ninth, “I am thankful for today.” And tenth, “I am thankful for God.” I was so happy to hear God got on the list, but just barely. But notice we are not sure who to say thank you to. We even include God on the list but fail to see that he is the Author of the whole list. In other words, out thanksgiving does not have a target; our gratitude is not directed to God. It’s as if we’re saying thank you to thin air, to whom it may concern.

Today’s gospel relates the familiar story of the miraculous cure of the ten lepers. Even though it is blindingly clear Jesus it the Benefactor of their cure, only one returns to give thanks to him. And to add insult to injury, Jesus observes: “Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Presumably, the other nine were Jews and should have known the Author of all blessings is God and returned post haste to worship Jesus. But the nine were like modern American twitter users: they no doubt felt deep gratitude, but they did not know whom to send their thank you note to. They were saying thank you to thin air, their notes were written “to whom it may concern.” The episode of the cleansing of the ten lepers is like our modern Thanksgiving celebrations: giving thanks without a target, feeling gratitude but not to God.

My friends, this Thanksgiving day, let me invite you to give gratitude to God for all your blessings. In other words, don’t just move God to the top of your Twitter list of things to be grateful for, but realize that there would be no list without God’s benevolent love for us. Here are a few tips to thank god for our blessings all year long, so it’s a little easier on Thanksgiving. Always say “Grace before Meals” – every morsel of food on your plate comes from “God’s bounty through Christ our Lord.” Do you pray before you eat? When you wake up in the morning, say a “Glory Be,” even before you rush to the bathroom. God opens your eyes every morning more than the alarm does. At night before you lay your head on the pillow say a Hail Mary and thank God for the day that is ending. His providence was present in every second of the day. Today as you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner point your prayers of gratitude to God, he is the Author of all. Do not say thank you to thin air.

Let me conclude with this humorous anecdote from Stephen Hawkins book The Universe in a Nutshell. The late theoretical physician wrote: “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said, ‘What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.’ The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, ‘And what is the tortoise standing on?’ ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever,’ said the old lady. ‘But it’s turtles all the way down’ (The Universe, 2).

So, this Thanksgiving day, when you bow your heads to pray, you can give thanks for your blessings to a tower of turtles or to the Triune God. Sadly, some Americans may be saying thank you to thin air.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Flushing and Faith

Remembering the early experiences in our faith journey
Revelation 2:1-5 I heard the Lord saying to me: "To the angel of the Church in Ephesus, write this: "'The one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks in the midst of the seven gold lampstands says this: "I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves Apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent."'"

One of the catchiest titles for a book has to be Robert Fulgham’s book called All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. He argues eloquently that remembering simple life lessons from childhood would help us be happier adults, and make the world a better place to live. He lists sixteen things he learned in kindergarten, but let me mention just five of them.

First he suggests, “share everything.” Kindergartners are taught by well-meaning adults that is it not good to be greedy and hoard things for ourselves. Indeed, God has given this whole cosmos to all humanity to share in common but we quickly forget that life lessons when we grow up. Instead of sharing we become scrooges. Second, Fulghum says, “Don’t hit people.” And I would expand this to forbidding hitting people with our words as well as with our fists. Words can leave deep wounds because the pen is mightier than the sword. Third, he says simply, “Flush.” In fact, a friend told me recently do not just flush the toilet after you are finished but you can even flush before you are done, a so-called “courtesy flush.” Flushing makes the world a better place.

Fourth, Fulghum advises, “Take a nap every afternoon.” That reminds me of my favorite pastoral practice for a priest: “A holy pastor wakes up at 4 o’clock. Twice a day.” And fifth, he adds: “Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” This one is closely connected to the earlier one about “don’t hit people.” When we hit people with our words, we must also seek healing with our words, like saying, “I’m sorry.” All these kindergarten life lessons need to be practiced by big grown-ups as well as by tiny toddlers.

Today we start the readings from the Book of Revelation. In John’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he gives advice very similar to Robert Fulghum. He writes: “You have lost the love you had at first.” In other words, some of the life lessons in the ways of grace and goodness you learned when you were still children in the faith have been forgotten. Our early experiences of the Lord and his love stamp our relationship with him with an indelible mark, and we should never forget them. We should return frequently to that fountain of early grace and find refreshment for our journey in life, just like life lessons in kindergarten can serve as a sure compass for adulthood.

May I share with you some of my own early experiences of faith and maybe that will spark some of your own recollections. I will always remember kneeling in the front pew in a church in Hillsboro, TX on the day of my first Holy Communion. As an eight year old boy, I tasted how good the Lord is for the first time, and I never want to take that taste for granted. I feel I would die if I could not receive Communion. Another fond memory I have is my grandmother telling me I should never chew the Host, the Communion Wafer. I should just let it sit on my tongue and let it dissolve. She warned me that if I chewed it, blood would come out because it is the Body of Christ. She scared me to death, and even as a priest I try not to chew the Sacred Host.

Another recollection I have is in elementary school at daily Masses at St. Theresa. A huge crucifix hung over the altar, suspended by cables from the ceiling. During the priests homily, I would stare at the cross wondering if one day the cables might break and the cross come crashing down on the priests head. So, don’t worry if your mind wanders during this homily – I’ve been there, done that. Another memory I have is always sitting in the same pew in church Sunday after Sunday. I could walk into church blindfolded and still find my seat. These may seem like small memories, but I believe they are sacred memories, and my early experiences with Jesus guide me still.

My friends, let us not easily forget the life lessons we learned in school or in church, whether they were about flushing or about faith. Those lessons will make us not only happier people, they will also make us holier people.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Images of Mercy

Learning how God’s first and highest attribute is mercy
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18 Brothers and sisters: Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.  For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin.

Well, folks, I have published my third book of homilies. Now, I know what you are probably thinking: “Oh, Lord, have mercy, not another book of homilies!” If you thought that, you would have guessed the title of the new book, which is, Oh, Lord, Have Mercy. May God have mercy on anyone who tries to read it! I have to thank Cindy McNally, who came up with the title of the book. So, if you don’t like the book, then blame her. The book actually has a co-author, namely, Pope Francis himself. That is, each homily ends with a quotation by Pope Francis that touches the same theme as the homily itself. Additionally, each homily wraps up with a reflection question, to help you, the reader, delve deeper into the same theme and apply it to your own life. Some people say that it can be hard to understand the Pope Francis; heck, for that matter, some people say it can be hard to understand Fr. John! So, hopefully this priest helps you under that pope a little better, or maybe that pope will help you understand this priest a little better.

But the title of the book is apropos for another reason: it cuts to the heart of Pope Francis’ central message, which is mercy. The Holy Father emphasizes mercy so much because he believes it is the highest attribute of God. In a sense, mercy is even higher than love. Why? Well, when you love someone who is completely undeserving of your love, your love has evolved into mercy. That, by the way, is exactly how God loves us, his underserving and rebellious children. And the pope does not just preach mercy with his lips, he practices mercy with his life, especially toward the poor, the needy, and the marginalized, those who need mercy the most. I am convinced the pope’s personal mission is to unveil the Face of the God of mercy.

Let me point out a couple of features on the cover of the book that reinforce this theme of mercy using riveting images. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.  The marble statued figure in middle of the cover is the first pope, St. Peter, as he stands towering over pilgrims who visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the sweltering heat of a Roman summer, tourists hurry to huddle in the shady coolness beneath that statue, and St. Peter provides a little mercy on sweaty pilgrims. But the real source of mercy comes from his keys that Jesus entrusted to Simon Peter and his successors in Matthew 16. The Petrine keys unlock the doors of mercy, both on earth and even in heaven just like Jesus said they would. The pope has the power to unleash God’s mercy like no one else on earth, and therefore, Pope Francis is a worthy 265th successor of St. Peter. That is why St. Peter and his keys are on the cover of the book: they are impressive images of mercy.

If you look closely at the cover of the book, you discover a kind of subtle, soft watermark, a background image, which is none other than the famous painting by the Dutch, Baroque artist, Rembrandt, a painting called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It is unquestionably Rembrandt’s crowning achievement, completed in 1667, two years before his death. One of our parishioners graciously let me borrow his depiction to display in church today. The original, however, is 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide and resides in St. Petersburg, Russia.

If you know the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, you can easily guess who the main figures are in the painting. The prodigal, younger son in tattered clothing is kneeling with his head buried in his father’s chest. The father warmly embraces his repentant son with two hands of love and mercy resting tenderly on his back. To the right of the painting stands the self-righteous older brother looking down his nose at his no-good little brother. But perhaps the most captivating artistic detail is the difference in the father’s two hands. One hand is strong and masculine, but the other hand is clearly delicate and feminine, both attributes of God. In the father’s remarkable hands, therefore, Rembrandt has placed both the mercy of a mother and the wisdom of a father, just like Jesus put into Peter’s hand the keys to open the doors of mercy for the world. Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son stands as an image of mercy par excellence.

In case you are wondering why I wrote this book, it is the same reason I wrote my first two books, namely, to support Catholic schools. Oh, Lord, Have Mercy was published with the help of several generous benefactors, and so 100% of the proceeds from book sales goes to Trinity Junior High. The money does not go to the “Fr. John Retirement Fund.”  I am not making any money off this book. So, if you would like to make a donation above the cost of the book, it would be warmly welcome. The book is available in both hardback and paperback, but also as e-books.

In 1983, Fr. Henri Nouwen, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, and a widely respected writer, traveled to St. Petersburg to see the original Rembrandt painting. He was so mesmerized by its enchanting colors and message of mercy it completely changed his life. He sat in the presence of the painting for three hours. Later he wrote a book about his spiritual journey inspired by this painting called, The Return of the Prodigal Son. He saw himself kneeling in the place of the prodigal son and wrote: “I have a new vocation now…I have to kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God” (The Return, 17). Those lines also accurately summarize the pontificate of Pope Francis: to listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God, whose heart always beats to the rhythm of mercy. I hope that my book will help you to hear that heartbeat of mercy, too.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Culture War

Overturning cultures with prayer, the cross, love and mercy
Philemon 7-20 Beloved: I have experienced much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the holy ones have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.

Christianity is counter-cultural and revolutionary. It seeks to upend and overturn our typical, common assumptions about what is prim and proper, what is right and wrong. Now, it does not achieve that end by force of arms, like America did in the Revolutionary War, or the French did by storming the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and evicting the monarchy. Rather, we rely on the power of prayer, the cross of Christ, and the weapons of love and mercy. Christianity works subtly and imperceptibly like a little leaven raises a batch of dough or like a rising tide lifts all boats.

Let me give you two quick, personal examples of how Christianity upends cultures. India is still ruled in many respects by the ancient caste system. You have the untouchables, the lower caste, the higher caste, and the Brahmins or the priests. My family is obviously Catholic but we are also very poor. It would be unthinkable for the son of a poor man (in the lower caste) to leapfrog the higher, richer caste, to become a Brahmin/priest. But what is impossible in India because of the culture of the caste system is very possible in Christianity because of the culture of prayer, the cross, love and mercy.

Or take the cultural phenomenon of dating and marriage. In India typically parents pick your future spouse, or what’s commonly called “arranged marriages.” It is said Mahatma Gandhi did not see his bride until the day of his wedding. That reminds me of the Alan Jackson song about getting drunk and married. He sang: “The next thing I remember I was hearing wedding bells / Standing by a woman in a long white lacy veil / I raised the veil she smiled at me without her left front tooth / I said where the heck am I and just who the heck are you? / She said I was your waitress and our last name’s now the same / ‘Cause I’m married to you baby and I don’t even know your name.” So, maybe there is something to be said for parents picking your spouse.

But Christianity teaches marriage is not only for love, but for preparation for marriage to Christ. Human love leads to divine love; earthly marriage leads to heavenly marriage. That is why priests and nuns are celibate and completely committed to Christ: they remind us where every marriage is destined. And Christianity confronts and changes every culture it encounters not with weapons of mass destruction, but with only the arms of prayer, the cross, love and mercy.

Today, we hear the very brief but beautiful letter of St. Paul to Philemon. It is so short that most people forget it is even in the Bible, but we see all the counter-cultural forces of Christianity coming to bear on the phenomenon of slavery in the first century. St. Paul writes to Philemon about a run-away slave named Onesimus. Notices how Paul takes great pains to convince Philemon of the truth of Christianity and the evil of slavery. He writes: “I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” Paul appealed to love, mercy, prayer and the cross of Christ as the reasons why Philemon should treat Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. Just like Christianity wins converts in India (like my family) not by political or military revolutions, but by the revolution of love, so Philemon should treat Onesimus not by first century Roman practice of slavery but by the Christian culture of love.

Where does the culture of Christianity still need to invade your life and plant its flag of prayer, the cross, love and mercy? Do you treat money by Christian standards or by worldly standards? Martin Luther said we undergo three conversions: the conversion of the head, the conversion of the heart, and the conversion of the pocketbook. The last is the hardest to give over to Christ. Pope Francis is trying mightily to tear down the power structures intrenched in the Church bureaucracy so that power is seen solely as service and not as superiority. That’s the Christian sense of power, not the worldly sense. And there is so much cultural confusion about sex, its meaning, its purpose, its use and abuse; sex is treated as a commodity in our culture. We can turn to our culture to teach us the truth about sex or we can turn to Christ and his Church.

Since its inception, Christianity has been waging culture wars, not with guns and swords, but with prayer, the cross, love and mercy. Do you know who will win that war in the end? I think I do. Everyone else will have to wait and see.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Who and Whose

Remembering we are made in the image and likeness of God
Luke 17:11-19 As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, he traveled through Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him. They stood at a distance from him and raised their voice, saying, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" And when he saw them, he said, "Go show yourselves to the priests." As they were going they were cleansed. And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" Then he said to him, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."

I have a priest-friend, Fr. Warren Harvey, who has a penchant for saying: “Never forget who you are, and whose you are.” Not only is that a very catchy saying, it is also a very profoundly true saying, and the two elements – who and whose – are closely connected to each other, and shed light on each other. Who we are are human persons endowed with intelligence and freedom, while whose we are indicates we are children of God, created in God’s image and likeness. We are not only the final product of the long, slow process of evolution, where we climbed out of the muck and mire of the primeval matter to stand erect and rule the world and reach out to the stars. But we are also given all our greatness by the hand of God, who fashioned the first man and woman out of the dust of the earth, but also bestowed his own breath – in Hebrew ruah – his spirit, in us. As a result, we achieve nothing without him, we belong utterly to him as a baby belongs utterly to the mother while in her womb. We must strive every day to recall not only who we are, but also whose we are. Both components are critical for us to find peace and joy.

The French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, suggested that the fault of the first sin, and indeed every subsequent sin ever committed, has this failure to remember who we are and whose we are at its core. He wrote in densely philosophical language, “Thus the radical contingence of the finite being (that’s me and you) brings it into absolute dependence on necessary Being (that’s God), to Whom all must be principally referred as to its Source…” He continues, and here’s the take-home message: “If we forget this the original transgression [of Adam and Eve] is re-enacted in ourselves, or rather it is just because its effects continue that we forget it so easily” (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 129). That is an extremely elaborate way of saying the same thing Fr. Harvey said: “Never forget who you are and whose you are.” In a sense, that forgetfulness was at the root of Adam and Eve’s sin, and that same amnesia belies all of our sins. We forget whose we are; and that even our every breath comes from the divine lungs, like a first responder giving a dying man CPR.

In the gospel today, ten lepers are cleansed by Jesus. But only one of them returns to give thanks and to glorify God. It seems remarkable that the other nine should so soon forget the source of their blessing, namely, Jesus, the Son of God. But then again maybe it should not surprise us that so many forget who they are and whose they are. Could that proportion of one to nine be the approximate number of those who choose to remember the Source of all blessings, and those who foolishly forget? And notice it is a “sin of omission” – they failed to do something, they did not remember. The other nine did not kill anyone, they did not rob a bank, they did not lie or cheat. They simply forgot who they were and whose they were. That forgetfulness lies at the root of all human sin and frailty.

I believe that modern-day atheism is a collective and coerced amnesia that is being inflicted on our society. Slowly but very systematically, God is being removed from the public square and from the public dialogue, and being relegated to the closet and to an after-thought. Now, when we pray in public, what do we do? We observe a moment of silence, we stare into a void, where no one is listening and no one is answering. Radical atheists like Richard Dawkins argues in his book The God Delusion that religion is to blame for humanity’s greatest miseries: wars, oppression, racism, genocide. I know that some of this movement is well-intentioned and there is some truth to the arguments of the atheists. But the bottom line is that we are forgetting who we are precisely because we are ignoring whose we are.

If we are not the children of God, whose children will we be? Like the ugly duckling in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, we will go around asking aimlessly, “Are you my mother? Are you my mother? Are you my mother?” That is, until we find our way home to God, and realize we are made in his image and likeness, and far more splendid than even a beautiful, white swan.

Praised be Jesus Christ!