Friday, June 16, 2017

Changing Diapers

Experiencing the spousal love of Jesus in the sacraments
Matthew 5:27-32 Jesus said to his disciples: "You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you,  everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. "It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

           Sometimes people ask me why I decided to become a priest. Of course, there are the usual suspects that inspire a priestly vocation: helping others spiritually, feeling called by Jesus, and eating free in Mexican restaurants. But if I reflect a little more deeply on the mystery of my vocation, I find it was really the love of my parents that was the taproot of my call. How paradoxical that the love of my parents made me want to be a priest; you’d think seeing the love of two people would make a man want to enjoy the same love himself, and get married  Not necessarily.

            I really didn’t understand how my parents love inspired my priestly vocation until I read a book by Pope St. John Paul II called, Man and Woman He Created Them. There, the pope-saint wrote: “If we reflect deeply on this dimension, we have to conclude that all the sacraments of the Church find their prototype in some way in marriage as the primordial sacrament” (Man and Woman, 511). All that flowery philosophical language just means that marriage is the model of every sacrament because marriage reflects most fully how Jesus love us, that is, as a holy Husband and a sacred Spouse. So, when I become a priest – when I receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – my vocation is also to share the spousal love of Jesus for the Church, just like my parents showed the spousal love of Jesus to each other. And I thought I wanted to become a priest just so I wouldn’t have to change dirty diapers.

            In the gospel today, Jesus speaks clearly and categorically about marriage, and the impossibility of divorce; marriage is going to be a lot harder than just changing diapers. Jesus, the holy Husband says: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Why is Jesus so unequivocal and unbending about marriage? Doesn’t he see there can be situations that make marriage impossible to endure and that a divorce sometimes becomes necessary? Yes, Jesus knows all these things better than we do, because Jesus knows “what is in man” (John 2:24). He knows us because he made us. Nevertheless, Jesus has bestowed both a beautiful blessing and a back-breaking burden on every marriage: to be a sign and sacrament of his own spousal love. In other words, husbands and wife must love each other like Jesus loves, and sometimes that means changing diapers, and other times it means being nailed to a cross, which is exactly how a divorce feels. That’s why John Paul said marriage enjoys the exalted title of the “primordial sacrament.”

             In May, 2000, I completed my canon law degree and began working in the marriage tribunal, which deals mostly with annulment cases. It’s a very heart-wrenching ministry because you deal with heart-breaking cases, where couples didn’t hit the heights of being a primordial sacrament. I sometimes joke that working in the tribunal is like making lemonade: “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” But annulments do more than just make the most of a bad situation. Tribunal ministry is ultimately about healing and wholeness. Divorce is devastating, and a human heart feels like Humpty Dumpty, who all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put back together again. But Jesus is the King of kings ,and he is the Healer of Hearts. And through the annulment process, I’ve been blessed to see people who love like Jesus again; often they can love even better after the annulment than before, like a bone is stronger after a break than before. When their marriage is blessed by the Church, a couple feels Jesus’ spousal love again in the primordial sacrament.

          Why do people get married? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Why do people get ordained as a priest? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Sometimes you have to change poopy diapers, and sometimes you have to write poopy annulments. But always the love of Jesus is a lot better than making lemonade.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Holy Hijabs

Keeping our faces covered until the coming of Christ 
2 Corinthians 3:15—4:1, 3-6
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

           Do you know what a “hijab” is? It’s a head-covering worn by many Muslim women in public. I know it is sometimes viewed as a sign of subjugation of women by men, and that does definitely happen, and should be denounced. But there is a deeper metaphorical meaning of a hijab: it is to veil, or to protect, the holy and the sacred from the unholy or the profane. In other words, just as God and heaven are veiled – hidden – from the view of earth, so too are women veiled from the gaze of men. But notice, this is not because women are inferior to men but exactly the opposite, it’s because women are superior to men, like heaven is superior to earth.

            The Western world has an equivalent of a hijab as well: when a bride enters the church on her wedding day, she sometimes veils her face. Not only that, but some grooms are not permitted even to see the bride before the wedding. Now, are all these crazy customs to demonstrate the inferiority of the bride to the groom (and to everyone else), or to highlight her superiority? Well, just as the father of the bride, who has to pay for the wedding if the veil means his daughter is superior or inferior. 
Furthermore, we use veils in the Catholic Church to highlight holiness. Some churches cover the tabernacle with a veil, some cover the chalice and paten with a veil, some nuns wear a veil, even the Communion rail is a veil to distinguish the sanctuary (the heavenly and sacred) from the rest of the church (the worldly and the secular). All these veils denote a metaphorical but also metaphysical “line in the sand” to shield the sacred from the sinful, to protect women from men, to hide heaven from earth, to distinguish and delineate what is superior from what is inferior. That is, hijabs can be holy.

           In the first reading today, St. Paul devotes a few verses to talk about veils, too. The Apostles writes: “To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil covers the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” In other words, with the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, the great veil between heaven and earth has been swept aside, and we get to sneak a peek into heaven when we see Jesus. Nevertheless, our vision is still veiled and clouded, heaven is still hidden from plain sight, and “we walk by faith not by sight,” as St. Paul will clarify two chapters later in 2 Corinthians 5:7.

            So we have to ask the question: when will the veil be completely removed, when we will get to see the Bride lift the veil, and see the Bride and Groom kiss? Well, that’s exactly what the last book of the Bible tells us. The Book of Revelation, or in Greek “Apocalypsis” literally means “unveiling of a bride.” In other words, the end of time and the end of history not only marks the coming of Christ, but also the unveiling of the Bride of Christ on her wedding day. Christ will return as the divine Groom, and the Church will be revealed as the Bride, holy and humble, and the glorious Groom will lift her veil and kiss her eternally.

          The Book of Revelation closes with the importuning and impatient Bride begging the Lord to return in glory. We read: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’” (Rev. 22:17). Brides can’t wait for their wedding day. But until that day arrives, while we walk by faith and not by sight, the Bride of Christ, the Church, should walk with veiled face, humbly wearing a holy hijab. And by the way, that goes for men as well as for women.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Ministry of Death

Allowing death to teach us how to live
2 Corinthians 3:4-11 
Brothers and sisters: Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the children of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

          One of the occupational hazards of being a priest is having to do funerals. If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t had morning Masses, it’s because I’ll have had seven funerals in two weeks. Two weeks ago, I had the funeral for the very sad passing of Stacy Forsgren, a young lady who left behind three young children. Last Monday was the funeral for Arthur Rideout, Sr., a man always ready with a compliment. He said I was very good-looking, so I really liked him. On Thursday, we had the funeral for Charlene Dean, a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. On Monday (two days ago) was the funeral for Mary Ann Huck, who was 97 years old and had pretty much seen everything in life. Yesterday was Bill Etzkorn’s funeral, who always gave me “a Coke and a smile” when I took him Holy Communion on First Fridays. And next Monday will be the funeral for Blanche Tinder, another wonderful and faithful I.C. parishioner. I once heard it said that you know you’re getting old when you know more people in heaven than you do on earth. Well, I’ve gotten a lot older in the past two weeks. Whoever said that “funerals come in threes” never worked at I.C. Church. Another friend texted me and said, “Fr. John, you’re burying half the people in Fort Smith!” Funerals are a priest’s occupational hazard.

            But I’ve found that this occupational hazard can also be an occupational blessing. How so? Well, funerals don’t just make you think about death more, they can also surprisingly make you think about life more. Two life lessons have really hit me forcefully through all these funerals. First, I’ve learned that life can be short, like the life of Stacy Forsgren, so make the most of it; no one is guaranteed a long life. Don’t become so busy or caught up in the rat race that you don’t take time to stop and smell the roses. Visit your elderly parents, tell your spouse you truly love them by going on a “date night,” go fishing with your grandchildren, play cards with your family like Bill Etzkorn loved to do. Simply stop and be alive.

            Secondly, death reminds us that this life is not all there is, but we may look forward to the next life, hopefully in heaven, after we are purified and perfected in purgatory. I’ve had to counsel several terminally ill people who obviously have to think about death a lot. Sometimes the pain and suffering makes them wish for death, and they feel guilty for wanting to die. I suggest that they shouldn’t long for death so much as they should long for the after-life, and death is the doorway. It’s  subtle difference to desire the after-life rather than death, but it’s a significant one, and it can be spiritually rewarding.  In other words, death can be an occupational blessing by making us appreciate this life, and also by making us look forward to the next life.

             St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter: “If the ministry of death was so glorious…how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?” Clearly, that’s a mysterious thing to say, but maybe it means that priests who do a lot of the “ministry of death” (like funerals) shouldn’t forget that they likewise conduct a considerable amount of the “ministry of the Spirit,” who gives life both in this world and in the next. In other words, and very ironically, death itself become a great life lesson.

             Of course, the Knights of Columbus would not be surprised by any of this. Their motto is “tempus fugit, memento mori,” which means “time flies, remember death.” If you’re the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, it’s impossible to forget it.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Assassins of God

Seeing the traces of the Trinity throughout creation
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 
Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

          Have you ever noticed how many things come in “three’s”? Here are just a few examples. There’s the “triple crown” of horse racing: the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. The three-point shot in basketball has revolutionized the game, sometimes called a “trifecta” (a derivation of “perfecta”). Who can forget the great threesome of comedy, Larry, Moe and Curly, better known as “The Three Stooges”? Some of you look old enough to remember the famous “Rat Pack” of super actors, who were headed by the threesome of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Even Sunday sermons should have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. The actor-comedian, George Burns, once quipped: “The secret to a good sermon is that it should have a good beginning, a good ending, and they should be as close together as possible.”
But the highest threesome in nature is a human family. You have to have a father, a mother, and at least one child to constitute a family, and I say that with all due respect to those who cannot have children. Scott Hahn, the Presbyterian preacher-turned-Catholic theologian, says that in marriage a husband and wife become one flesh when they consummate their marriage, and that “one” is so real that nine months later you have to give it a name. In other words, not only is a child born, but a family is born when there are three persons.

         Why am I mentioning all these triples and threesomes? Well, I believe they are all “vestigia Dei” or in English, “traces of God” in the world. They are signs of God’s presence – that God is three in one (a Trinity) – all around us, if we only looked at the world with the eyes of faith. This is precisely what St. Patrick did in 5th century Ireland. He plucked a three-leaf clover and explained to the Irish people that just as you have three petals but only one clover, so, too, God is three Persons but only one God. That little three leaf clover was a “vestigia Dei,” almost like an ancient Triple Crown or the Rat Pack.

          Today’s Scripture readings provide more explicit testimony to the Holy Trinity. In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” You may have noticed that’s how the priest sometimes greets people at the beginning of Mass – that’s my favorite greeting. But there are other subtle signs of the Holy Trinity in the sacraments, more of these “vestigia Dei.” There are three readings of Scripture in the Mass: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel (when we stand). When you came into church, you dipped your fingers in holy water and made the Sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When a bishop blesses people at the end of Mass, he makes three crosses, not one like a poor priest does (if I did that, I would be firing blanks). These too are “vestigia Dei,” and it takes the eyes of faith to see them; otherwise, these Catholic gestures simply seem like superstitions or sorcery.  Do these signs in the sacraments make you think of God, or make you think Catholics are goofy?

           Let me give you two reasons why you should look hard for these vestigia Dei, especially for traces of the Trinity. First, because our search for God is more like a romantic adventure than a rational search, more like falling in love than writing a doctoral dissertation. All lovers first leave traces of their affection, instead of coming right out and sharing their heart. For example, they give a second glance in a crowded room; back in the old days a girl would “inadvertently drop” her handkerchief (today she would drop her cell phone); the boy would stutteringly state his over-rehearsed pick up line; the girl would feign no interest and play hard to get. In other words, the whole alluring and agonizing process of human courtship is scattered with “vestigia” of love, like bread crumbs leading one heart to another. Seek God, therefore, as a lover, not as a logician, and you’ll see the “vestigia amoris” (the traces of love) he has deliberately left for you: traces of the Trinity scattered throughout the world.
          Secondly, the last three centuries have seen a concentrated effort to erase and eradicate these “vestigia Dei” from human experience. I’ve recently been reading a book called The Drama of Atheistic Humanism by Henri de Lubac, where he says atheism is ironically the modern religion and wants to replace all other religions. He writes: “The phenomenon that has dominated the history of the mind during the last few centuries seems both more profound and more arbitrary…Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom” (The Drama, 24-25). In other words, philosophers like Fruerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Comte want to convince us that these “vestigia Dei” are only our imagination, our minds playing tricks on us, and we’ll be happier and rise to the heights of greatness, only if we ignore them. Indeed, they want to go so far as to make us believe that God is not our best-Friend but rather our arch-Enemy. Therefore God should be killed. And that’s why Nietzsche brags, “We are the assassins of God” (The Drama, 50). And what is the assassin’s creed, how do they plan to kill God? They attempted to erase the “vestigia Dei” out of the world, so we would never find God.

         But there is one place God has left his trace that the atheists have overlooked, namely, in the human soul. St. Augustine taught that the Trinity is hidden in the three chief powers of the soul: the memory, the intellect and the will, and these too are “vestigia Dei.” The Doctor of Grace wrote: “But in these three, when the mind knows itself and loves itself, a trinity remains: the mind, love and knowledge” (On the Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 7).  You see, Fruerbach and Marx, Nietzsche and Comte tried to declare “God is dead,” but they did not count on the vestigia Dei God had left for them in their own hearts, and to kill God there they would have to kill themselves. Maybe that’s why in 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown from which he would never recover. Jesus will say to them as he said to the Sadducees: “God is a God of the living, not of the dead. You are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:27).

Praised be Jesus Christ!

A King’s Secret

Giving God the glory for our accomplishments
Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20 
Tobit called his son Tobiah and said to him, "Son, see to it that you give what is due to the man who made the journey with you; give him a bonus too." So he called Raphael and said, "Take as your wages half of all that you have brought back, and go in peace." Raphael called the two men aside privately and said to them: "Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory. Before all the living, acknowledge the many good things he has done for you, by blessing and extolling his name in song. Honor and proclaim God's deeds, and do not be slack in praising him. A king's secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known. Praise them with due honor.

          I believe the older we get, the more inclined we are to give God the credit for our accomplishments. Some of you know that a lot better than I do. When we’re young, we think our success is due to our smarts, our strength, or our savvy. But later, we learn that all we did was God’s gift and made possible only by God’s grace. And therefore, it’s only right we should give him the glory.

           A case in point is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. When he was merely 54 years old, Pope John Paul II named him the head of the Vatican department called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger’s role was to safeguard the authentic faith from possible threats or heresies. Some people who came into his cross-hairs nicknamed him “God’s Rottweiler,” because he had to correct them. These people portrayed him as arrogant and antagonistic, even though that was not the case. In his recent book, however, called Last Testament, Pope Benedict shows his true character as a very humble man. When asked how he learned so many languages, he replied: “It looks as if I know as many languages as God, but this is not the case.” And he explains that he learned some smattering of English by listening to “vinyl records.” Maybe someone can tell me after Mass what those are. I don’t think Pope Benedict ever took personal credit for his many talents and towering achievements, but as he has gotten older, he’s made that more explicit.
           In the first reading today, Tobit wants to give the Archangel Raphael credit for all the blessings he brought to their family. And I love Raphael’s reply. He says: “Thank God! Give him the praise and glory.” The heavenly messenger goes on to explain: “A king’s secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known.” You see, all angels have “old souls” - they’re older than Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years old - and so they are keenly aware how God’s grace is the chief cause of their accomplishments. But the phrase I like is “a king’s secret it is prudent to keep.” I think that means we all are tempted to think of our ourselves as “kings and queens” and want others to praise us praise for our hard work and victories. But Raphael says, “Be humble, keep secret what you think you’ve done.” That’s exactly what Pope Benedict did in his last book, literally his Last Testament.  He didn’t want to be praised for speaking so many languages – which he actually does! – that’s how he kept the “king’s secret.”

          My friends, how old are you? Have you reached the age where you see how God’s grace has been the real agent of all your achievements? Or, even if you’re still young, do you have a “old soul” (like the angels) and see that everything is ultimately God’s gift? I cringe whenever I see an athlete gloat over his or her victory, as if they had done it all alone. On the other hand, I’m edified by those who give credit to their teammates, their coaches, and even the crowd for their wins. How do you react when someone compliments you for something you’ve done well? A friend of mine simply says, “Praise God,” like the Archangel Raphael did. On the other hand, how do you feel when people tease you, or point out your flaws, or criticize you, or call you “God’s Rottweiler”? To be sure those comments sting our egos and hurt our pride. But I would suggest to you that we should be very glad when that happens. Why? Well, because that’s the best way to know that you’ve kept “the king’s secret” safe.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Burning Boulder

Being embraced by the arms of the Holy Spirit

John 7:37-39 
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me." He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

           Two of the great Scriptural symbols of the Holy Spirit are “water” and “fire.” These two elements of water and fire speak especially loudly in a funeral Mass. Recently, I explained to some altar servers before a funeral: “I’ll need the holy water at the beginning, and the incense (fire) at the end. Now, to help you remember that, just think how we begin and end our Christian life. We begin with baptism in water and end in the fires of purgatory.” The altar servers eyes became round as saucers, and I quickly added, “I’m just kidding! I’m sure you’ll go straight to heaven.” Those poor kids are traumatized for life, but some traumas are good for the soul, if they’re caused by the Holy Spirit.

            I’ll never forget when I saw how fire and water can work together like a one-two punch; they are a formidable force. About 20 years ago I went to Honduras on a mission trip. One of our projects was to install a septic tank for the local hospital. Don’t ask what they used before the septic tank. Since they didn’t have any power equipment, the dug with shovels and hoes and picks a huge hole about 20 feet deep, 20 feet wide and 20 feet long. But in the middle of the hole was a huge rock about 8 feet in diameter. There was no way to haul it out of the hole and their tools were ineffective against the rock. You’ll be amazed at their solution. They started by digging around the base of the boulder and brought in wood from nearby trees and shrubs. They arranged the wood around the base of the rock and started a blazing fire. After the fire had heated the rock almost to the point where it was glowing red with heat, they brought buckets of cold sea water and splashed it on the burning boulder. Can you guess what happened to the rock? The clash of heat and cold cracked the seemingly impregnable rock into a hundred small pieces, which the people carried out with ease. And that’s how fire and water of the Holy Spirit work throughout our lives: cracking our hard hearts and hard heads, so God’s love can break through.

             In the gospel reading, Jesus describes the first of the these two symbols of the Holy Spirit, namely, the water. Our Lord declares: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” And in case you didn’t catch the cause of the water, John makes Jesus’ meaning plain, adding: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” In other words, one of the primary symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “water.” In fact, every time you hear a reference to the spiritual meaning of water in the Old or New Testament it’s almost always a reference to the Holy Spirit. Read the Bible with that in mind, and you’ll get a lot of surplus value in the Scriptures.

             Secondly, have you ever noticed the magnificent stained-glass window above the north entry of the church? You’ve probably noticed it while the deacons were preaching some Sunday. (Just kidding.) Look closely at what hovers above the heads of Mother Mary and the eleven apostles. They are flames of fire. The Acts of the Apostles recounts what occurred on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were set on fire with the Spirit, ready to live and even die for Jesus. Like the fire and water burst the boulder in Honduras, so the fire and water of the Spirit bursts the fear in the apostles’ hearts and filled them with faith.

            Let me give you some modern examples of how the Holy Spirit – as holy water and sacred fire – crack open impregnable boulders to build up the kingdom. You can catch the work of the Spirit in every sacrament: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, confessions, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. At one point in each sacrament the minister will extend his hands over “the matter” of the sacraments – over the water or over bread and wine or over the sinner. That moment is called the “epiclesis” which is Greek and means “invocation” or “calling down from on high.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit descends on the elements, like fire and water, and breaks them open so God’s grace and burst forth into the world. At every epiclesis, remember how the Honduras burst that boulder.

             Another example is with people who have hard heads or hard hearts. Do you know anyone who’s especially stubborn or so set in their ways that it seems they’ll never change? I hate to mention this but sometimes it’s former Catholics who become the most virulent anti-Catholics. Do you have anyone in your family who has left the church and can’t stand to talk about Catholicism? After all, Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, was a former Catholic monk. But no one is beyond God’s grace and returning to the Church. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who has passed away recently, said he prays every day that the singer Madonna will change her life and become a cloistered Carmelite nun. Invoke the Holy Spirit on those you think may never change, and remember how the Hondurans burst that boulder.

           And lastly, I am convinced that the hardest head of all is the one that looks back in the mirror every morning when you brush your teeth or comb your hair. Why? Well, because are often blind to the boulders of our own sins. Psalm 19:12 states: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” In other words, there’s a “hidden hardness” inside of us that’s invisible to our eyes. That’s why it takes our whole life for the fire and water of the Holy Spirit to burst that boulder inside of us, like fire and water did in Honduras.

              Let me conclude with the words of Pope Francis, who said: “Christian identity, as the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little ones, makes us desire, as prodigal children…yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father who awaits us in glory” (Evengelii gaudium, 144). That’s basically what I was telling those altar servers: our lives are lived between these two great “embraces” – the water of baptism and the fires of purgatory. Water and Fire are like the two arms of the Holy Spirit, who hugs us tightly until he burst the boulder of our pride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Strange Bedfellows

Accepting the allies that help us in times of trouble

Acts of the Apostles 25:13B-21
King Agrippa and Bernice arrived in Caesarea on a visit to Festus. Since they spent several days there, Festus referred Paul's case to the king, saying, "There is a man here left in custody by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and demanded his condemnation. I answered them that it was not Roman practice to hand over an accused person before he has faced his accusers and had the opportunity to defend himself against their charge. So when they came together here, I made no delay; the next day I took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought in. His accusers stood around him, but did not charge him with any of the crimes I suspected. Instead they had some issues with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul claimed was alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate this controversy, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these charges. And when Paul appealed that he be held in custody for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar."

          There’s a curious but also classic phrase that I like a lot; it’s the phrase, “strange bedfellows.” I apologize for the slightly suggestive sense, but it originates in Shakespeare’s play “Tempest.” You know, if you quote Shakespeare or the Scriptures, everything is okay. The Bible or the Bard said it! We read in Tempest Act 2, Scene 2, “Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gabardine; there is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” A more modern rendering might be: “misery loves company.” When times are tough – when, “Alas, the storm comes again” – we are open to help from all quarters, and are not so picky about who is friend and who is foe.

           I’ll never forget a line uttered by Gandhi, the great leader of Indian independence. As he was rising in prominence an English clergyman came to offer his help to Gandhi. Bapu (Gandhi’s affectionate nickname) said to him: “When you are fighting in a just cause, people seem to pop up, like you, right out of the pavement. Even when it is dangerous.” And it would be dangerous indeed, right up to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. But Gandhi was succored by strange bedfellows from all over the world, even from the British who had colonized India.

            In the first reading today, St. Paul also encounters an unlikely ally – a strange bedfellow – in King Agrippa. In Acts chapters 25 and 26, Paul makes his case before Agrippa and almost converts this Jewish monarch to Christianity. This the third time Paul recounts the extraordinary events on the road to Damascus in Acts.  After listening to Paul’s conversion story, Agrippa says to Paul, “You would soon persuade me to play the Christian.” And in private Agrippa adds: “This man (meaning Paul) is doing nothing at all that deserves death or imprisonment.” In other words, God sent a sympathetic if not strange bedfellow to Paul in his hour of need, when “Alas, the storm is come again!” Just like Gandhi said, people were popping up right out of the pavement to help Paul.
Today, try to be a little more open to strange bedfellows who may help you when, “Alas the storm is come again!” Sometimes we turn away from people simply because we see the color of their skin, or they speak with an accent (even priests), or because of where they live (the wrong side of the tracks), or maybe even their ethnic origin (they’re German or Irish or Italian), or maybe because someone is an undocumented alien here in the United States. We can write such people off without much thought.

          My parents have a Hispanic man who helps them do yard-work and some minor maintenance around the house. When they try to pay him, he turns them down. They have to force him to accept some money. His name is Agrippa, but do you know what my parents prefer to call him? They have dubbed him, “King Agrippa,” and they love him like family. It doesn’t matter to my parents if he’s hispanic or speaks broken English or has legal status or anything else external. They see his heart, and his heart is huge. That’s what St. Paul saw in the original King Agrippa, and that’s what he loved about him.

         My friends, don’t wait for the storm to come again to make you see who might be a strange bedfellow for you. Look below the surface and see the huge heart that beats beneath in every person, and love them. After all, the Bible and the Bard said so.

Praised be Jesus Christ!