Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sacraments of Dying

Looking forward to death under the aegis of Christ 
John 12:24-26 Jesus said to his disciples: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me."

           What is your attitude toward death? Most of us would rather not think about it, and when we bother to, we either laugh or cry. I recently came across these comical comments about death that show its humorous side. Bill Cosby said: “I want to die before my wife, and the reason is this: if it’s true that when you die your soul goes up to judgment, I don’t want my wife up there ahead of me to tell them things.” James Duffecy quipped: “A dead atheist is someone who’s all dressed up with no place to go.” Garrison Keillor joked: “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.” I sometimes joke with people about death by saying, “No one is getting out of here alive!”

           August 10 (today) is the feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, and he also had a humorous approach to death. He was one of the seven deacons serving in Rome under Pope Sixtus II. In 258 the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered a cruel and complete persecution of the Church which included the pope and his deacons. St. Lawrence was martyred by being grilled alive over a fire. It is reported that he joked with his executioner saying, “I’m well cooked on this side, you can turn me over.” St. Lawrence saw the humorous side of death, but where did his ability to laugh at death come from, not from a joke but from Jesus, in knowing that he was dying in the Lord, in knowing that he was dying for the Lord, and that he would soon be with the Lord for eternity. This is what the Christian faith does: it completely changes our whole life – including our death – because we see life as under the aegis of Christ. That is, faith helps us realize we truly live in his kingdom (even while we’re on earth), under his rule and his protection. In Christ’s kingdom, nothing happens without his permission, not even death, and that’s why St. Lawrence could laugh in the face of death.

            Believe it or not, the Church actually teaches us to pray for a happy death. Did you know that? What a strange thing to pray for: what could possibly be “happy” about death? Isn’t death the worst thing in the world? To be sure it is terrible; it is heart-breaking to lose a loved one; it is “the consequence of sin” as St. Paul teaches in Romans 5:12. But if we gaze at death through the lens of faith, its frightening fa├žade begins to fade and this great foe can even be seen as a gentle friend. It can go from a moment of eternal loss to a moment of eternal love, like Jesus’ death on the Cross.

           Have you heard of the “sacraments of the dying”? Just like there are three “sacraments of initiation” – baptism, confirmation and Communion – so there are three “sacraments of the dying”: confession, Communion and Anointing of the Sick. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life..[T]he Church for the last time speaks Christ's words of pardon and absolution over the dying Christian (confession), seals him for the last time with a strengthening anointing (Anointing of the Sick), and gives him Christ in viaticum as nourishment for the journey (Communion)” (Catechism, 1020). You know, sometimes people don’t tell a seriously sick person they are going to die; they whisper around the deathbed. They think they are being merciful, but I believe that is misguided. Why? That fails to see death through the eyes of faith, not as a foe but as a friend, as someone who obeys the orders of Christ the King. Don’t let death sort of sneak up on you, but rather face it head on, prepare for it, indeed, pray for a happy death!

            My friends, the best way to approach death is not as a comedian but as a Christian, and it will thereby lose its menacing and morbid make-up. It says in Revelation 14:15, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord, for their good deeds go with them.” A blessed and happy death is one we should all look forward to, one like St. Lawrence enjoyed.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Mother of Phenomenology

Being faithful to daily duties and persistent prayers
Matthew 15: 21-28 At that time Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us." He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But the woman came and did him homage, saying, "Lord, help me." He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed from that hour.

           Let me tell you the story of an extraordinary woman named Edith Stein. She is a shining example of being tested and tried by family and friends, by the Church and the state, and finally being killed for her faith, but never flinching. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t she? Edith was born in Poland on October 12, 1891 to devout Jewish parents, but she had become an atheist by the time she was a teenager. During World War I, she worked in an infectious disease hospital and developed a deep compassion for the sick and dying. That’s why when she studied philosophy at the University of Freiburg and her doctoral dissertation was titled, “On the Problem of Empathy.” Her thesis director was Edmund Husserl, who founded a whole new kind of philosophy called “phenomenology.” But because Edith was a woman, Husserl did not promote her to an academic chair, but advanced Martin Heidegger instead. Obviously, Husserl needed to study the phenomena of “sexism” a little more carefully. But Edith remained friends with both Husserl and Heidegger.

            In 1922 at the age of 31, Edith read the life of the Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, and she converted to Catholicism. She wanted to be a Carmelite nun right away, but her friends dissuaded her – I feel her pain! Instead she began a career in teaching philosophy at Catholic institutions. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany and oppressed both Jews and Catholics, Edith wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI asking him to denounce the regime, he had been conspicuously quiet. She didn’t mince words when she wrote: “As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God for the past eleven years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans.” She continued: “For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany that mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews… But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.”  Wow, what a woman.  Eventually, in 1937 the pope publicly decried the evils of Nazism.

            In 1933, Edith entered the Carmelite order and took the name of Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Even though she took refuge in a convent in the Netherlands, the Nazis finally found the Jewish refugees – including Carmelite nuns – and deported them to Auschwitz, where Sr. Teresa Benedicta was killed in a mass gas chamber on August 7, 1942. Even her death and canonization as a saint were controversial. Did Edith die for being a Jew or did she die for being a Christian? Whatever others thought, Edith wrote this to her prioress about her feelings: she asked permission to “allow her to offer herself to the heart of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement for true peace.” Obviously, her faith fueled both her life and death. On October 11, 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized Edith as a saint. I admire Edith because she was tenacious in testing; every time she was knocked down, she got back up.  What a woman.

           In the gospel today we see another woman who is tested and still remains tenacious. She is a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus three times to cure her daughter and three times Jesus ignores her or rejects her outright. But she refuses to give up, and finally wins over our Lord’s love. What a strange episode, how unlike our Lord, and the only meaning I can make of it is Jesus was teaching her to be tenacious in testing; don’t give up fighting the good fight like Edith Stein, even to the death. God will eventually vindicate you.

           My friends, learn the lesson of tenacious testing from Edith Stein today. What do you do when things do not go your way, when your plans are frustrated, when your hopes and dreams are dashed, when your marriage fails, or illness assaults, or you’re persecuted for being a woman, or a Christian or a Carmelite nun (I mean, who persecutes poor Carmelite nuns??)? Instead of grumbling or groaning, rather than shaking a defiant fist against heaven, simply keep doing what you should be: your daily duties, your persistent prayers, be cheerful, courageous and courteous, like the Canaanite woman and the Carmelite nun. In the end God will vindicate you, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

           By the way, Edmund Husserl is commonly referred to as the “father of phenomenology.” He might be surprised to learn that his assistant, whom he refused to promote to professor because she was a woman, is today seen as the “mother of phenomenology.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hounds of the Lord

Praying for our precious religious orders
Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14 Some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal." He summoned the crowd and said to them, "Hear and understand. It is not what enters one's mouth that defiles the man; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one." Then his disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He said in reply, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."

           Sometimes people ask me an unusual question, but if you grew up Catholic, you’ll know exactly what they mean. They ask me: “Are you an order priest?” They are asking if I am a diocesan priest or if I belong to a religious order, like the Dominicans or the Franciscans or the Jesuits. I try to explain this fundamental difference between diocesan priests and order priests by comparing it to the military. A military has a standing army, with ranks of private and captain and general, but a military also has special forces like Navy Seals and Army Rangers and Marino Commandoes. Diocesan priests are like the standing army with ranks like deacon, priest and bishop, and the religious orders are like the special forces because they live in small groups called communities and have a special mission called a “charism.”  Men and women who join religious orders have an awesome vocation, and I am in awe of them.

           That always reminds me of that old joke about religious orders. What are the three things that even God does not know about the Church? (1) How many congregations of religious women there are, more than even God can count. (2) How much money the Franciscans have stashed away (they’re supposed to be poor). And (3) What the Jesuits really think, and what they will do next (they’re known for being very stable and predictable). Of course, that joke is only told by Dominicans.

            Every year on August 8 the Church celebrates the feast of the founder of one of those great “special forces” called the Dominicans because it was founded by St. Dominic. St. Dominic, on December 22, 1216, received the approval of Pope Honorious III, to start a religious order to preach the gospel particularly against heresies. At that time the Albigensians were running rampant in Southern France and convincing Catholics that the world was inherently evil. But Catholics believe what it says in Genesis 1:10: that God created the cosmos “and saw that it was good.” For 800 years, therefore, the Dominicans have preached the gospel against those who attack Catholicism. Dominicans will have two letters after their name – O. P. – which means “Order of Preachers.” Perhaps the greatest single Dominican to ever live was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teachings in the Summa Theologica and other writings still shape the studies of seminarians who are preparing to become priests. I had a Dominican professor in the seminary who taught us Mariology – the study of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and warned us not to commit “Mariolotry,” that is, not to worship Mary. That’s what Dominicans do: they keep us Catholic. That’s their special charism, their “special sauce.”

            Today, I want you to pray for the Dominicans, but also for all religious orders. Why? Well, I am convinced that they have a singular and unrepeatable role in the life of the Church and in the life of Christians. The Second Vatican Council taught that these religious orders practice the highest virtues and aspire to the greatest levels of sanctity called “perfectae caritatis,” or perfect charity, or perfect love. They want to identify themselves as closely to Christ as possible by exercising the “evangelical (gospel) counsels” of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” Religious orders may have touched your life: you may have been taught by the Sisters of Mercy, or the Benedictines; you might have attended a Jesuit university like Boston College, or perhaps you worked in a soup kitchen with Franciscans, or helped the poorest of the poor with the Missionaries of Charity started by St. Teresa of Calcutta, or asked for the powerful prayers of cloistered Carmelite nuns. These are the special forces of the Catholic Church, and their special sauce adds great flavor to our faith. We simply could not be victorious in our struggle against Satan without their help.

            One of the nicknames the Dominicans have, and one they wear with particular pride, is “Hounds of the Lord.” Where does that name originate? You divide the name “Dominicans” into two Latin words, “Domini” and “canes,” which mean “Hounds of the Lord.” And like a good watchdog, the Dominicansm, the Hounds of the Lord, keep the House of the Lord safe from intruders.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Curb Your Hanger

Feeding others before feedings ourselves
Matthew 14:13-21 When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, "This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves." He said to them, "There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves." But they said to him, "Five loaves and two fish are all we have here." Then he said, "Bring them here to me," and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over–twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.

           Most Americans have never experienced real hunger. If someone is hungry, it’s not due to a real lack of food, but more likely to ignorance of where to find it. Deacon Greg tells me there are nine free meals served in Fort Smith every day. Maybe you’ve experienced being “hangry,” when hunger makes you angry (the word “hangry” is a portmanteau of hungry and angry). Catholics voluntarily experience a little hunger while fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I always tell people this rule of thumb about fasting: “If it didn’t hurt a little, you didn’t do it right.” Nevertheless, all these hunger pains are a far cry from the dire need of those who truly cry out with hunger.

            The depths of real hunger came home to me in a particularly poignant scene in the recent movie, “The Lion.” It’s about a very poor family in India who survive by the two small boys going out to look for valuables in the trash which they then sell for food. But even more compelling is the scene where they sit down to a meager meal with their mother, who forgoes the food herself so there would be enough for her two boys. She overcame her “hanger” with love, and in a sense, her food was her fondness for her sons. We don’t feel so hangry when we sacrifice food for the sake of love.
In the gospel today, we hear the very familiar story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds the “vast crowd” Matthew says, whom he later describes as “5,000 men, not counting women and children.” But equally enlightening as the miracle itself was what Jesus does not do. None of the gospels record Jesus eating himself. That is, Jesus, like the mother in the movie “The Lion,” was nourished by another kind of food, namely, fondness for his children, his disciples. Jesus’ joy came from feeding others. Jesus overcame feeling “hangry” by feeding others first.

            We will probably not experience severe hunger in our lives, but we may frequently feel the pangs of being “hangry,” where our hunger pains may cause us to become irritable and unfriendly toward others. Here are a few simple suggestions on how you can curb your hanger, that is, by thinking of feeding others before ourselves. When I was studying in Rome, I learned that you should always pout wine into other people’s glasses before you refill your own glass. Feed others first. Here in America children are taught not to take the last cookie, or the final French Fry, but to leave that for someone else. Feed others first. Personally, I leave the last bite of my dessert for Elijah (sometimes it’s not a very big bite!). Feed others first. By practicing these small habits, we learn that there is another kind of food, a more nourishing, spiritual food, called “love,” that fills not our stomachs but our hearts. Indeed, love is the most satisfying food of all.

            The best way to curb your hunger - as well as to curb your hanger - is not with diet supplements or protein shakes, but by feeding others first. Even more so, when you feed others first, you will feel the joy of Jesus, which is love.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Learning we cannot love those we do not know
Matthew 17:1-9 b Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them;  his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid." And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
           Do you know what an “avatar” is? Most Americans will recognize it as the title to a science-fiction movie. But perhaps you’ll also be familiar with the computer-generated avatars that we use every day. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines avatars like this: “an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user in a virtual space (as in a computer game or an online shopping site) and that interacts with other objects in the space.” A friend sends me text messages with little figures – a sort of “avatar” – that have her eyes and glasses and hairstyle, and other facial features. Have you seen those? I’m sorry to say this, but the avatar is a little more flattering-looking than the real person; but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Avatars are supposed to “enhance” us, make us appear better than we really are.

            In 2007, Brad Paisley, the country music star, released a hit song called “Online.” He sang about a middle aged, overweight man, who still lived in his parents’ basement. But a marvelous transformation occurs whenever he sits down at his computer and goes “online.” He sings: “Cause online I’m out in Hollywood / I’m 6’5 and I look dang good / I drive a Maserati / I’m a black belt in Karate / And I love a good glass of wine.” The refrain of the song says it all: “I’m so much cooler on line; I’m so much cooler online.” That’s the real allure of avatars: they make us look “cooler,” they hide our imperfections, they make us appear younger and richer and funnier. But all the while, the real “us” remains hidden in the basement of our parents’ home, and really in the basement of our hearts. No one knows the real me, they only know my avatar.

            When I prepare couples for marriage I give them this advice: “The worst thing that can happen to you on your wedding day is that you marry a stranger.  You may fall in love with an image – an avatar – that is merely a mask, and you don’t know the real person. Everyone wants to look like the “perfect 10” but we’re not. On the other hand, the best thing that can happen to you on your wedding day is that you look at each other and say: ‘Look, honey, I know you’re not the knight in shining armor, but I want to marry you anyway.’ How wonderful it would be for someone to know the real me – warts and weaknesses and weird habits and all – and still want to spend their life with me! Real love is always based on real knowledge of another person, and that’s only possible when we stop hiding behind our avatars.

            Today we celebrate the great Feast of the Transfiguration, which Pope St. John Paul II added as the fourth luminous mystery of the rosary. In a sense, you could say the Transfiguration is about Jesus sort of dropping his avatar for a brief moment so the apostles could see his glorious divinity. Now, let me add that Jesus’ human nature is not really an avatar because Jesus really IS a human being “tempted like us in all things but never sinned” as Hebrew 4:15 insists. But today Jesus wants the apostles to see his divine nature, his glory, his Godhead. Why? Well, because Jesus doesn’t want them to fall in love with a stranger, but rather, for them to know the real Jesus: God and yet man, eternal but also temporal, all-powerful and all-knowing but also “growing in wisdom, age and grace” (Luke 2:52). Jesus invited them into the depths of his heart – into his basement, you might say – so they could see the depths of the mystery of Christ.

              Romano Guardini, a particularly insightful theologian, wrote: “The greatest of all graces is to love the Lord with a heart fully conscious of what it is about; to love not only ‘our dear Savior’ in the impersonal sense which the phrase so often has, but Christ himself, corporeally and spiritually, as one loves an irreplaceable person to whom one is bound through thick and thin” (The Lord, 222). In other words, don’t just love Jesus’ avatar, the Jesus of pious paintings, but love the real Jesus. That’s what the Transfiguration teaches: true love is possible only where there is true knowledge of the person we say we love.

            My friends, what are the avatars that you hide behind? That is, what are the masks and mirages, disguises and deceptions that make others thing you’re “so much cooler” than you really am? Has the rise of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. – made it harder for us to love other people? It’s funny how easy it is to text someone, but sometimes I find awkward talking to face to face. Does that happen to you? We need the lesson of the Transfiguration and invite people into our basement, into our hearts, and see the real us; or else, they only love the avatar. Sometimes priests can hide behind the Roman collar, and it’s almost like an avatar of authority but also sadly of alienation. Many years ago, a priest friend of mine committed suicide, which stunned everyone who knew him. Even though everyone loved him, he left behind a note that said, “I didn’t think anyone loved me.” He needed the grace of the Transfiguration, and allow people to see him in his basement, in his heart of hearts, to see the person behind the priesthood. During World War II many Germans changed their names to sound more American: they hid behind a false name like an avatar. We use avatars so people think we’re “so much cooler” than we really are.

             Most of us are not 6’5, live in Hollywood, drive Maserati’s, hold a black belt in Karate, we may not even look “dang good.” But God made each of us precious and irreplaceable because he made us in his image and likeness; that’s what’s really hiding in our basement! And if someone doesn’t love you for that, maybe their love is not worth having.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Hometown Zero

Growing in the virtue of humility
Matthew 13:54-58 Jesus came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, "Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter's son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house." And he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.

           Few things are as edifying as someone who is self-effacing. What does that mean? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines self-effacing as “not trying to get attention or praise for oneself or one’s abilities.” Or, to put it in one word, “humble.” And the best place to grow in being self-effacing and humble is at home. No one can humble us better or faster than those who know us best: our older brother or sister, our parents or our children, our neighbors. The rest of the world may see us as a “knight in shining armor,” but at home we’re the “arrant knave” as Hamlet said (Hamlet, I, v). Sometimes we’re not the hometown hero; rather we’re the hometown zero.

           Today’s feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests (like me), is a perfect case in point. He struggled in the seminary and barely learned enough Latin to say Mass. Four times he ran away from his parish to become a monk but came back because his people needed him – hmmmm. In 1818, he was appointed pastor of a small town in France called “Ars,” consisting of 230 people. Jealous priests of his diocese circulated a petition saying John Vianney was not fit to be a priest. John Vianney asked to see the petition and signed it himself because he completed agreed he was not fit to be a priest. Next to the definition of “self-effacing” in the dictionary should be a picture of St. John Vianney. In the minds of his brother priests, John Vianney was not a hometown hero but a hometown zero. But such heroic humility was precisely why St. John Vianney is venerated today, and why he’s the model for parish priests. People are attracted to humble priests like moths to a flame.
In the gospel today, Jesus also receives a cool reception when he returns to his hometown. We read: “They took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own town.” In other words, Jesus was not a hometown hero welcomed in the streets of Nazareth with a ticker-tape parade; he was ridiculed as a hometown zero. Do you remember another time Jesus was humbled at home? When the boy Messiah was 12 years old, he stayed behind in the Jerusalem Temple teaching the priests and Pharisees. But his mother and foster-father scolded him for it, and he returned home and was obedient to them. Not exactly the knight in shining armor; more like the arrant knave. But when he humbled himself, what happened? Luke records after that incident: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52). Jesus, like St. John Vianney, learned humility at home, and that was the heart of his holiness.

           My friends, we know it’s “hard to be humble” because Mac Davis popularized that notion in song. “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble...” We want people to praise us and tell us how wonderful we are. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for three months on a good compliment.” We only want to be humble if people will pat us on the back for our humility, which of course, is not humility at all.
Instead, may I suggest you try to be more self-effacing? That is, try not to talk about yourself and your accomplishments, but focus rather on others and what they do well, and compliment them. Find the good in others and praise them first. A few years ago while in another parish, we were searching for someone to promote the school. One candidate’s cover letter used the word “I” 25 times. He would be very good in promotion, but only in promoting himself. We didn’t hire him. Paradoxically, it is when we think least of ourselves that others will think the most of us.

            If a petition were being circulated saying that you are doing a poor job and should be fired, would you sign it? Probably not, and that’s precisely why we haven’t found the heart of holiness, which is humility. It’s only when we think of ourselves as a hometown zero, that we will finally become the hometown hero.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

For A Day

Learning to embrace the best of the old and new
Matthew 13:47-53 Jesus said to the disciples: "The Kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." "Do you understand all these things?" They answered, "Yes." And he replied, "Then every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old." When Jesus finished these parables, he went away from there.

           One of the things I love about my parents is their flexibility and their adaptability as immigrants. They worked very hard to teach their three children both to hang on to old Indian traditions but also to embrace new American customs. For instance, they taught us to use a knife and fork to eat instead of our hands, like we do in India. But do you know food actually tastes better if you use your hands to eat? It’s like the difference between drinking a soft drink from a can (where you can taste some of the aluminum) versus from a bottle (where the taste is clear). So, when no one is watching, I eat with my hands.

           Another example is marriage. In India, marriages are usually “arranged” by the parents, but that would be scandalous to American sensibilities. So, my parents admirably adapted to the new culture. They love that my brother married a beautiful Indian woman, and my sister married a handsome American man. But of course, I married the best Bride of all, the Church, in becoming a priest. My parents were successful immigrants. Why? Well, because they taught their children the value of both the old and the new. Sometimes you must hang tenaciously to the old, and sometimes you must warmly welcome the new.

           In the gospel today, Jesus teaches his disciples to have this same immigrant insight, how to hang on to the old and the new. Jesus says: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household (head of a family) who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” In other words, Jesus urges his apostles to have my parents “immigrant insight,” which is really gospel discernment, in order to discern carefully what is old and needs to be saved and what is new and needs to be learned.

             If you study the 2,000 year history of the Church, you’ll discover there have been 21 “ecumenical councils” where all the bishops of the world sat down with the pope and decided matters of faith and morals. It’s fascinating to see the drama unfold in each council: the characters and the conflicts and the controversies. One council even happened in our own lifetime, the Second Vatican Council, in the early 1960’s. But do you know what the pope and bishops were really trying to do in every council? They did what my parents did as heads of a household: decide how to embrace both the old and the new. What do you keep of church teachings and what do you change? That’s not at all an easy decision or discernment.

             Folks, which way do you tend to lean: are you “old-fashioned” or do you prefer the “new-fangled”? Are you a “progressive” or tend to be a “traditional”? Do you like the “good old days” or do you think things have “never been better”? Would you rather write a hand-written letter or do you like to send text messages? Do you like the latest styles and fashions, or do you stick to stubbornly to the styles of “yester-year”? I heard someone ask recently do you know what the word “fad” means? It means “for a day.” Well, we all struggle with this dilemma because the march of history forces us to choose one or the other. May I suggest to you the immigrant insight of my parents, and Jesus’ gospel discernment? Don’t be exclusively one or the other, bur wisely and lovingly sometimes cling to the old, and sometimes welcome the new. Then, you, too, will be a “scribe instructed in the Kingdom of heaven.”

             You know, my dad is actually more old fashioned and hates to change, while my mother loves to try new things like texting an facebook. But that’s exactly what makes them such a good team, because sometimes the “old is gold” and at other times the “latest is the greatest.” And when you learn to love the best of the old and the best of the new, you will have actually embraced what is eternal.

 Praised be Jesus Christ!