Friday, April 28, 2017

Stay Hungry

Always order the Lamb of God who takes away sins

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, "This month shall stand at the head of your calendar; you shall reckon it the first month of the year. Tell the whole community of Israel: On the tenth of this month every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb, one apiece for each household. If a family is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join the nearest household in procuring one and shall share in the lamb in proportion to the number of persons who partake of it. The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish. You may take it from either the sheep or the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, and then, with the whole assembly of Israel present, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight. They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

          My father does not say much, but when he does speak, I’ve learned to really pay attention because I usually learn something new every time. Once he said: “Whenever you’re in a restaurant, and lamb is on the menu, always order it.” Perplexed, I asked, “Why, dad?” He answered, “Well, if the chef knows how to prepare lamb, then it is one of the tastiest meats you’ll ever enjoy.” So, whenever I’m in a restaurant and lamb is on the menu, I order it. To paraphrase “the world’s most interesting man” (remember his commercials?), I now say, “I don’t always eat in a restaurant, but when I do, I prefer the lamb. Stay hungry, my friends.” In fact, as a priest, you could say that spiritually-speaking lamb is always “on the menu” here at church. Why? Before Communion, the priest holds the Host high and declares: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” There is no five-star restaurant in the world that serves a more succulent lamb than a Catholic church, because we serve the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. To eat and enjoy that Lamb, we should always “stay hungry, my friends.” Lamb is always on the menu here at church, the best Lamb in the world.

          In the first reading today, God the Father gives Moses the same advice that my father gave me, namely, always eat the lamb. The people of Israel are in exile and slavery in Egypt, and God lays out their exit strategy, how they’ll escape from Egypt. He ordered Moses: “Every one of your families must procure for itself a lamb…then, with the whole assembly of Israel, it shall be slaughtered during the evening twilight.” God went on: “They shall take some of its blood and apply it to the doorposts and the lintel of every house in which they partake of the lamb. That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” In other words, always order the lamb, not just because of its savory flavor, but because it will save you from slavery. For fourteen hundred years the people of Israel kept ordering lamb on the menu until the time of Christ.

          And then, there was even better lamb on the menu – and a better chef than Moses - namely, Jesus himself.  St. Paul explains to the Corinthians: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.” Eating this Lamb (the Body of Christ) was also an “exit strategy,” not so much an exit out of slavery in Egypt, but rather an exit out of slavery in sin (a much more bleak bondage). Ever since, for two thousand years now, Christians have always ordered the Lamb on the menu.

          The world’s most interesting man said, “Stay thirsty, my friends,” and he’s right. But we should also “stay hungry, my friends.” Hungry for what?  What should we eat when we’re hungry? I suggest that you follow the advice of God the Father and my own father: “Always order the Lamb.” That is, always come to Mass, and partake in the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Only that meal will satisfy your deepest hunger.  You know, whenever I receive the Precious Blood from the chalice, I always think of that line from Exodus 12:7, “Take some of [the lamb’s] blood and apply it to the two doorposts and the lintel of every house.” The Blood of the Lamb I taste at Mass is applied to my lips, like the doorposts of the house of my soul. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, why can’t the lips be the doorway? And when the angel of death sees the Blood of the Lamb on doorpost of my house, he passes over me and I am saved.

          I love to go out to eat at restaurants, but I hate to order off the menu. I usually just look for the picture that looks the most appetizing and order that. That’s not the ideal way to order in a restaurant. Instead, take my father’s advice and “order the lamb” if that happens to be on the menu. That’s also the best way to order when you go to church: “always order the lamb” if it’s on the menu. If the chef knows how to prepare it well, that is the tastiest meat you’ll ever eat.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Healthy Choices

Making small but significant decisions to follow Jesus
Matthew 26:14-25 One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over. And while they were eating, he said, "Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me." Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, "Surely it is not I, Lord?" He said in reply, "He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me. The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born." Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, "Surely it is not I, Rabbi?" He answered, "You have said so."

          A friend of mine explained recently the secret to successful dieting. She said that losing weight is not about making one, big decision not to eat an entire pizza, but rather about a million small decisions every day to make healthy choices. After school you’re hungry – or “hangry” because your hunger makes you angry – and so you eat a cheeseburger on your way home from school every day. Or, before you go to bed you watch your favorite T.V. show and eat a half gallon of ice cream. Or, and this is my favorite, people will order a double cheeseburger, large fries and a milk shake but say, “Oh, and a diet Coke because I’m on a diet.” Sometimes, Mike Charlton will bring us breakfast sandwiches for our morning meetings. But I’ve noticed that Dr. Hollenbeck does not eat the top half of the bread of her sandwich. So, I ask her if I can have it! That’s why Dr. Hollenbeck has a doctorate and I don’t. She’s smart, and she knows that successful dieting (or any other kind of success) depends on a million small decisions, not one big decision.

          In today’s gospel, we hear about the success of Judas, or rather his lack of success as an apostle, really about his failure. That is, he chooses to betray Jesus at the Last Supper. We would be completely off-base, however, if we thought Judas’ betrayal of our Lord was just one big decision out of the blue. When in reality, he had been “betraying” Jesus with a million small decision for years. What do I mean? On Monday, we heard from John chapter 12 that Judas “was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions” (John 12:6). In John 6, Jesus teaches his apostles they must eat his body and drink his blood, but that Judas did not believe that (cf. John 6:70-71). In other words, Judas didn’t just wake up one morning and make one, big decision to betray his best friend; he had been betraying him daily in millions of small ways. Judas failed to be a successful apostle because he did not know the secret to a successful diet, which is the secret to all success, namely, the value of millions of small but significant decisions.

          Boys and girls, today I want you to think about the choices you make. And don’t only focus on the big decisions: like where you will go to high school, or what career you will choose, or who you will marry (hope you’re not thinking about that yet!). Instead, think about the millions of small, seemingly insignificant choices you make, like telling the truth (even though you might think, “who cares??”), or stealing a pencil (even though some say, “no one will miss it!”), or talking about others (thinking, “they deserve it anyway!”), or not doing your homework (figuring, “I’ll just Ace the test!”), or being friends with the lonely (rather than saying, “I want to hang with the cool kids!”). All these small choices will make you successful at Trinity and successful in life.

          And by the way, don’t get too discouraged if you make a mistake – like fail a test, or try alcohol, or blow off band practice, etc. – not that I’m saying do any of these things! But we all make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them and avoid them going forward. One mistake will not ruin you. Judas did not fail as an apostle because of one, big mistake, but because of a million small mistakes he never learned from. Do you know a man named Sam Fiori? He’s one of the most successful businessmen in Fort Smith. I asked him one day, “Sam, how have you become so successful?” He said, “I always tried to learn from my mistakes. I try not to make the same mistake twice.” Sam knows well that success in business, like success in dieting (or any other kind of success), depends on a million small, but healthy choices.

          Boys and girls, at the end of our life, we will all step on to the scales, not to weigh our bodily weight, but rather to weigh our spiritual weight. And the same thing will make you smile as you look at the results of both scales: not having made one big decision, but rather having made a million small, healthy and holy decisions. That is the secret to success in this life, and in the next.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Great White Fleet

Speaking softly in imitation of Jesus
Isaiah 42:1-7 Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, Upon whom I have put my Spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, Until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

          President Theodore Roosevelt popularized the phrase, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” That phrase described his foreign policy, where he backed diplomacy with military might. In fact, as a show of power (the big stick), he ordered the U.S. Navy to circumnavigate the globe, so everyone could see how big “the big stick” really was. The armada of ships was called the “Great White Fleet” because the hulls of the ships were painted stark white. Roosevelt first used the phrase while he was still governor of New York, stating in a letter: “I have always been fond of the West African proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far’.” In reality, however, there is no record of that phrase being used in West Africa, and I even asked Fr. Pius, who is from West Africa, if he’s ever used that phrase.  And he hasn’t. Although, on second thought, Fr. Pius does speak very softly…I better check under his bed for a big stick.

          I have personally experienced how speaking softly works better than yelling. At Mass sometimes babies cry, and a priest’s natural tendency is to raise his voice over the baby’s crying. But have you noticed what happens? The baby only cries louder.  However, I’ve learned that if I lower my voice instead as I pray, the baby tends to get quieter. And if that doesn’t work, I will excommunicate the baby. Speak softly and carry a big stick. They told us in the seminary that the most common confession is, “I yelled at my kids.” Have you ever confessed that? We all wish we could speak more softly.

          In the first reading today, Isaiah prophesies that this phrase will characterize the future Christ. Isaiah writes: “He shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.” Indeed, as we heard yesterday during the Passion reading, often Jesus said nothing in response to Pilate and the Pharisees queries. And when one of his followers used a sword to cut off someone’s ear, Jesus reprimanded him saying, “Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels?”  That angelic armada would have made Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet look like toy boats in a child’s bathtub. But Jesus believed that speaking softly makes you more successful in fulfilling the Father’s will.

          May I suggest three ways you, too, can employ the foreign policy of speaking softly instead of using the big stick? Remember three words that start with the letter “p,” namely, prayer, penance and patience. First, prayer. Pray for those you feel like yelling at. I simply say one “Hail Mary” when someone gets under my skin, and that prayer helps me to speak more softly to people. So, if you see me stop and pray before talking to you, now you know why. Second, penance. Back in the old days, Catholics were taught to “offer it up.” That is, we were encouraged to offer our pains and problems to God on behalf of others. Penance is a powerful kind of prayer, and you should offer that for those you would like to yell at. After all, they probably need those graces more than you do. And third, patience. We often get mad and shout when people don’t do what we want right away. Hence the common confession, “I yelled at my kids.” But when you speak softly, you plant seeds of goodness in people’s hearts and it takes time to those seeds to sprout and bear fruit. Be patient: people are changing, but just not as fast as you would like.

          Put into practice the three “p’s” of prayer, penance and patience and you, too, will speak more softly. And you’ll rarely have to use the big stick, or have to excommunicate any babies.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Little Book

Answering the ultimate question of who Jesus is
Matthew 21:1-11 When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me.” The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, "Who is this?" And the crowds replied, "This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee."

          If I were to ask you the question, “Who is Jesus?” how would you answer it? I suppose there would be as many answers as there are people in this church today, and as many answers as there are people in the world today. Let me give you some examples. An evangelical Protestant would say, “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior!” Good answer. A Catholic would reply, “I don’t know, ask Fr. John!” Bad answer. A first-century Christian would have just said one word, “ichthus,” which is Greek and means “fish.” But it’s an acronym where each letter stand for a different word: the “I” is for “Jesus” (iesous), the “ch” is for “Christ” (Christos), the “th” is for “God” (theou), the “hu” is for “son” (huios), and the “s” is for “Savior” (soter). Put it all together and you get “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” “Icthus” is a one-word compendium of the whole Christian faith, and that’s why they call Catholics “fish-eaters,” not because we eat fish on Fridays.

          The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, tried to answer who Jesus was by removing the parts of the Bible that he believed were not historically accurate, and he therefore created the so-called “Jefferson Bible.” You may squirm or scoff at Jefferson’s spirituality, but he, too, was attempting to answer the same question, “Who is Jesus?” At the beginning of his book called Catholicism, Bishop Robert Barron explains why this question matters, saying: “One of the most important things to understand about Christianity is that it is not primarily a philosophy or a system of ethics or a religious ideology. It is a relationship to the unsettling person of Jesus Christ, to the God-man. Someone stands at the center of the Christian concern” (emphasis in original, Catholicism, 10). In other words, “Who is Jesus?” is not just any old question; it is ultimately the only question.

          In the gospel reading during the blessing of palms, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, and this became the burning question of the day. Matthew wrote, “And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds replied, ‘This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee’.” Jesus rides to the culmination of his career: his crucifixion on the Cross, and it was imperative that people answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” You’ll remember that earlier in Matthew 16, Jesus had asked his apostles the same question, “Who do people say that I am?” And only St. Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  If Peter had spoken Greek, he would have just said, “icthus.”  It is imperative and it is inescapable, it is “the center of the Christian concern,” namely, the simple question, “Who is Jesus?”

          My friends, in trying to answer this ago-old and aching question, we have to read the Bible and the Catechism. But there is something else we can do. We can examine our own lives and see how Jesus has touched and transformed us. Have you seen those “broken heart pendants,” where one person wears half the heart and the other person carries the other half? But it’s broken in such a special way that only these two halves will fit together. That means that all the contours and crevices and cliffs of your heart (and your history) perfectly match those same characteristics of Christ’s heart (and his history with you). Studying your own life will be a personal and perfect clue to answer the perennial question, “Who is Jesus?”

          Ponder these questions today: How did you know Jesus as a child? When did you first meet him? How did you fall in love with him? What miracles has he worked in your life? What crosses has he asked you to carry? What secrets has he shared with you? What lessons has he taught you? What gifts has he given you? By what paths has he led you? If you can answer these questions, you are beginning to see the contours of your heart (and your history), and they give you a glimpse of the interior of Jesus’ own heart. In other words, besides the Bible and the Catechism, your own life is “a little book” that Jesus has co-authored with you, where you can find the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”

          One day, you will stand at the gates of Paradise, and St. Peter will ask you this precise question. It was the question he had to answer, too, and he got right when Jesus asked him at Caesaria Philippi, “Who do people say that I am?” And you better not answer, “I don’t know; ask Fr. John.”

          Praised be Jesus

What Death Does

Praying for a good death to bring conciliation

John 11:45-56 So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, "What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish." He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to kill him.

          All parents desire desperately that their children would not fight or argue but rather live together in peace. Funny, that’s exactly what children want most of their parents: that mom and dad not argue or fight but live together in love. But sadly, it’s all too true that “no one fights like family,” and the deepest divisions are among those who have been the closest, those who “have nursed at the same breast.” Sometimes, the only times siblings get together is when a parent dies. At least for the funeral they put aside their petty differences, and pray for the dead. The more funeral Masses I celebrate, the more I see this almost healing effect of death: a parent’s death brings his or her children together, even if only for the funeral.

          Do you remember the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II? The whole world gathered at the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to pay their final respects, even dignitaries of countries and kingdoms at war, and the line stretched all the way down that grand avenue leading from the Tiber River to the Vatican called “Via della Conciliazione” which means, “The Road of Conciliation.” The Holy Father of the whole world for a fleeting few days saw all his children in one place and not fighting. Death does that. There’s a lovely stained glass window at St. Boniface Church here in Fort Smith (and also at St. Edward in Little Rock) that depicts the death of St. Joseph. A Scripture quotation below it reads: “Blessed are those who die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). One of those “blessings” of death is the healing of filial feuds that afflict all families. In the Catholic tradition, we are taught to pray for “a good death,” like that of St. Joseph.

          In the gospel today, the high priest Caiaphas prophesies how Jesus’ death will also be a good death, indeed, like no other death. He chides his brothers in the Sanhedrin, saying, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.”  St. John goes on to explain further what Caiaphas meant, adding, “He prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” In other words, like John Paul II, God also wants to see the whole world – his children – live in peace, and God knows that somehow only death does that. Quite by accident, Caiaphas gave voice to the heart of God, who wants the world to walk down the “via della conciliazione” to behold his Son’s death that the world may be one, unfeuding family.

          My friends, no one likes to think about death, especially our own death, but we have to. I tell people, “Look, no one is getting out of here alive!” And lots of voices tell us how to think about death. Shakespeare’s Hamlet opined, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and the thought of death paralyzed him into inaction. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, urged, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but rather he said: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The American poet, William Cullen Bryant, wrote more gently, “By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave, / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams” (Bryant, “Thanatopsis”). And in the movie “Star Trek,” Admiral James T. Kirk tells a rookie captain who failed a training test, “How we think about death is at least as important as how we think about life.”

          But we Christians should see death not as a purely personal event, but also as a prophetic event, that is, our death should resemble the death of Jesus. Therefore pray that your death will be a moment of peace for your family (and for the family of the world), where filial feuds are set aside, and siblings walk down the “via della conciliazione” as they pay their final respects to you. “Blessed are those who die in the Lord.” Why? Well, because when we die “in the Lord” (in God’s grace) our death, too, will have a “healing effect” and help the world live in peace. That’s what death does.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Strike a Pose

Taking the next step in drawing closer to Christ

John 10:31-42 The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?" The Jews answered him, "We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God." Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, 'You are gods"'? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and Scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? Then they tried again to arrest him; but he escaped from their power. He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained. Many came to him and said, "John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true." And many there began to believe in him.

          Throughout our life we strike a different pose in our relationship with Jesus Christ. We travel a long journey with Jesus from where we start with him and where we finish. When we are small children, we cannot get enough of Jesus, “curiosity kills the cat.” Small children love to serve at Mass, they sing at Mass, they say the prayers at Mass. When we become teenagers, we’re too smart for Jesus, just like we’re too smart for our parents. Mark Twain once quipped, “When I was 17 I couldn’t believe how stupid my father was. When I turned 21 I couldn’t believe how much he had learned in 4 years.” Faith seems foolish. When we are young adults we don’t have time for Jesus because we’re too busy with our work, our wife and our weekend. As adults, we see Jesus either as a friend or as a foe. He’s a friend when life “goes super” and he’s a foe when life “goes south.” Richard Dawkins, the loud and proud atheist, once said: “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s greatest evils, comparable to the small-pox virus but harder to eradicate” (“Is Science a Religion?” The Humanist, January, 1997). The final pose we strike is toward the end of life when we call Fr. John to come to the hospital to anoint us because we’re knocking on death’s door. After retirement, many people start going to daily Mass.  We have time for Jesus.

          Throughout the gospel people strike different poses to Jesus, these poses are especially pronounced in the gospel of John. Today’s gospel pericope shows adults who see Jesus as either friend or foe. The gospel begins by saying, “The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.” Those Jews felt like Richard Dawkins and saw Jesus like “the small-pox virus” and in need of eradication. The gospel, however, concludes with the line, “Many [Jews] came to him and said, ‘John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.’ And many there began to believe in him.” Their faith life was “going super,” and faith was fun. But that faith would soon be tested and tried on Good Friday. I saw a bumpersticker once that asked the provocative question: “Do you feel far from God?  Well, who moved?” You can almost plot, like points on a graph, where people are on their journey to Jesus; how we’re moving closer or farther from him.

          Every day I try to remind our church staff that our job at this parish, from priest to PRE teacher, from secretary to sacristan, is to “bring people closer to Christ.” The key word there is “closer,” meaning just get people to take the next step on the journey to Jesus, not necessarily get them to the end of the journey, the last step. For instance, my job in preaching at Mass is just to get people to want to come back next Sunday to Mass, not to make them Mother Teresa. Just come back next Sunday and hear a little more. It may help parents to remember this as well and be more patient with your children. The pose your child strikes today – whether he thinks Jesus is a rockstar or not – will change, evolve, wax and wane over time, so just help them take the next step, not the last step. This may even help you be more patient with your own spiritual life, understanding that the fluctuations in our own faith life, and not to become too discouraged, but persevere. Just take the next step, not the last step.

          If you ever want to read a magnificent poem about these “poses” we strike, read Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.” It begins with these lines, “I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him, down the arches of the years…” Like a teenager, Thompson didn’t have time for Jesus. And the poem ends with Jesus speaking to him: “All which I took from thee I did but take, not for thy harms, But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms. All which they child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home. Rise, clasp my hand and come!” Someday we will stop striking poses in our journey with Jesus, and no longer draw closer to Christ, because we become one with him, we’ve taken the last step.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Pangs of Parenting

Seeing how God fulfills all his promises of progeny
Genesis 17:3-9 When Abram prostrated himself, God spoke to him: "My covenant with you is this: you are to become the father of a host of nations. No longer shall you be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I am making you the father of a host of nations. I will render you exceedingly fertile; I will make nations of you; kings shall stem from you. I will maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an everlasting pact, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land in which you are now staying, the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession; and I will be their God."

          The older I get, the more I see the scope of the sacrifice of celibacy. And I don’t mean only in the lack of a partner but also in not having progeny, children and grandchildren.  Please don’t misunderstand: I am not complaining, but just contemplating. Yesterday, one of the office staff at church brought her new-born baby to the office, a beautiful little girl named “Mariel.” I wondered if I’d be more excited to have a boy or a girl. Would I feel like Luca Brasi who said to Don Corleone, “I am honored that you have invited me to your daughter’s wedding. And I hope that their first child will be a masculine child.” And what about the joy of being a grandparent? That’s a whole other level of love. Proverbs 17:6 says, “Children’s children” – meaning grandchildren – “are the crown of the elderly.” When my parents had their ninth grandbaby, my father’s only comment was, “Keep ‘em coming!” And I always feel a hint of irony whenever anyone calls me “Father.” Yes, my parishioners are my spiritual progeny, but who will I leave my millions to when I die?? The sacrifice of celibacy reaches farther than I had figured.

          In the first reading today, Abraham is not called to be celibate, he’s called to be exactly the opposite as a father of many nations, but he, too, would slowly see the full scope of sacrifice as a father. He only has one legitimate son, Isaac, and so he worried about his progeny and therefore has an illegitimate son, Ishmael. Later, God would even ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, which he was willing to do. Indeed, Abraham would only see with the eyes of faith the fulfillment of God’s promise, as Jesus said in the gospel, “Abraham…rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” God eventually fulfills all his promises in Jesus. But it was not easy for Abraham to fulfill the demands of fatherhood. In other words, it is not only celibate priests who feel the struggle of fatherhood, but so too all natural fathers and mothers in one way or another.

          Today, I want to pray for all those who carry the cross in trying to be good fathers and mothers but fall under its weight; those who feel the pangs of parenting. I’d like to pray for all those married couples who cannot conceive a child and choose to adopt. May they be as blessed as St. Joseph the foster father of Jesus. I’d like to pray for all the parents who have children born with severe disabilities, especially those babies who did not survive long after birth. May they know their children are angels in heaven. I’d like to pray for all those mothers and fathers who’ve had an abortion, that their broken hearts be healed, and their guilt assuaged. I’d like to pray for all those parents who’ve gotten divorced and feel they have failed their children, may God the Father and Mother Mary make up for what they lack. I’d like to pray for all parents who’ve suffered the untimely death of their child, like my brother and sister-in-law, and have had to bury their children.  May the Lord’s Resurrection give them hope and peace.  I’d like to pray for all those parents who watch helplessly as their children leave the Church. May the angels and saints watch over those children and one day bring them home. Slowly, we all see the full scope of the sacrifice of being fathers and mothers.

          Finally, I’d like to pray for all the priests and monks and nuns who’ve chosen celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. May we, too, like Abraham, look with the eyes of faith and see how God fulfills all his promises in Jesus, even his promise of progeny, and that we, too, will “rejoice and be glad.”

          Praised be Jesus Chri

Monday, April 3, 2017

Miracle of Mercy

Casting prayers instead of stones at others
John 8:1-11 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.

          This gospel passage always makes me think of two things. First, it reminds me of that joke about this scene. One day Jesus was in a crowd when the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. They asked him what should be her punishment and he answered them, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Suddenly, Jesus heard a small stone go flying by his head. He turned around and said, “Mother, I’m trying to make a point.” I hope there is at least one person here who has not heard that joke before. The punch-line of the joke underscores Jesus precise point, namely, only the sinless may pass judgment, but they judge with mercy.

          The second thing that this gospel conjures up in my mind is a comment by my Scripture professor in seminary. He said, “If I get to heaven, the first question I’ll ask Jesus is what he wrote on that ground that day with his finger.” A lot of ink has been spilled on this Scripture over the ages, but no one knows conclusively what Christ wrote. My preferred interpretation is that each bystander that day saw his or her own sins written in the dirt: a little miracle of mercy. That’s what caused the reaction of everyone leaving, “beginning with the elders.” Maybe some of them even saw sins that could be punishable by stoning. When we see our own sins, we’re a little slower to condemn and a little faster to forgive.

          My friends, today, try to think of someone who has hurt you and you feel the need to condemn, like the Pharisees wanted to condemn the woman caught in adultery. And if you need a little help, I suggest you go see the movie, “The Shack,” where a little girl is abducted and the father wants the perpetrator brought to justice. The father says, “I want him to hurt like he made me hurt.” Have you ever felt like that toward someone? Then, ask Jesus to do a little miracle of mercy for you, by asking him to write on the ground so you can see you own sins. And instead of throwing a stone at that person, throw a prayer at them instead. Pray for those who have hurt you.

          The only two people in the crowd that day who could have condemned the woman caught in adultery were Jesus and Mary. They had every right, under Mosaic law, to stone that woman, but they didn’t. You and I probably shouldn’t condemn others either.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Too Much Heaven

Balancing the best of both worlds, heaven and earth
John 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33B-45 The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus, saying, "Master, the one you love is ill." When Jesus heard this he said, "This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples,  "Let us go back to Judea." He became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Sir, come and see." And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him." But some of them said, "Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?"

          Is it possible to think too much about heaven? There’s an old saying that warns: “Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good.” That is, don’t have your head so high in the clouds of heaven that you don’t see where you’re walking on earth, because you might trip and fall on your face. I find myself guilty of this more and more lately, thinking about heaven. Ever since my nephew, Noah, died, I’ve wondered where he is and what he’s doing. Is he out of the fires of Purgatory and now running down the golden streets of Paradise? I’ve done a lot of funerals since arriving in Fort Smith, and the latest one was Friday, for dear Janie Mask. After each funeral I tell Isabelle, our sacristan, “Well, we’ve sent someone else home to heaven. Heck, I’ve even written a book about heaven called, Oh, for Heaven’s Sake. Maybe I think too much about heaven.

          One day a cleric found himself wondering whether there were any golf courses in heaven. He even began to ask the question in his prayers. Then suddenly, in answer to his prayers, he received a direct answer from on high. “Yes,” said the heavenly Messenger. “There are many excellent golf courses in heaven. The greens are always in first class condition, the weather is always perfect and you always get to play with the very nicest people.” “Oh, thank you,” replied the cleric, “That’s really marvelous news!” “Yes, isn’t it,” answered the Messenger. “And we’ve got you down for a foursome next Saturday.”  Don’t think about heaven too much or you might end up there sooner than you suppose.

          Most of us, however, have the opposite problem: we’re so earthly-minded that we’re no heavenly good. We spend our time, talent and treasure on trying to create heaven here that we all but forget the here-after. We’ll give God one hour a week at Mass to hear about the business of heaven, but we dedicate the remainder of the week for the business of earth. But the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, taught that “in medio stat virtus,” or “virtue stands in the middle of two extremes.” In other words, don’t think too much about either heaven or earth, but rather, bring them both into a beautiful balance, the best of both worlds.

          In the gospel of John we see that Jesus is the perfect balance of both heaven and earth – he thinks about both all the time – and this is highlighted in the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. As I read the story of Lazarus, two gestures by Jesus jumped off the page and sort of slapped me in the face. I bet you noticed them, too. The first gesture was Jesus’ reaction upon hearing Lazarus was sick and on the verge of death. John records: “So when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” What?? Instead of rushing back to Bethany to save Lazarus, Jesus stays put, and let’s him die, explaining this is “for the glory of God.” Clearly, Jesus is “so heavenly-minded that he’s no earthly good.” The second gesture is very famous and encapsulated in the shortest sentence in the Scriptures, John 11:35 (which is so short that even a Catholic could memorize it!), containing just two words, “Jesus wept.” Jesus is moved to tears by the sadness of the Lazarus death (even though he’s about to raise him to life). Jesus was not insensitive to the pain and anguish of loss and death. In other words, Jesus was earthly-minded, too, he was human, he suffered and wept. You see, Jesus entered into the depths of the human drama without losing a drop of his divinity: Jesus remembered heaven without forgetting earth.

          My friends, this is the balance that every Christian must strike just like our Master did, that is, we must master being heavenly-minded without losing our love for earth. We have to have one foot in heaven and the other foot on earth. Let me suggest how we can do this in terms of time, talent and treasure. First, your time. Do you bring some heavenly good into your earthly time? For instance, when you’re on vacation, do you forget your Christian vocation to attend Mass? Heck, there’s even a Catholic church in Las Vegas, and you can even drop your poker chips into the collection plate! Yes, we all need to take a vacation, but not at the expense of our Christian vocation.  I love receiving pictures from parishioners from churches they attend while on vacation, with the caption, “See, we made it to Mass!”  Inject a little eternity into your time.  Balance both.

          Secondly, your talent. God has created every person with some special gifts, talents and abilities. Don’t use your abilities only for earthly success, but also for heavenly success, that is, for holiness. Recently, several priests participated in the Quiz Bowl competition at Trinity. A lady noticed Fr. Stephen Gadberry, a newly ordained priest, seated next to me and asked, “Who was that priest next to you? He was handsome! I wouldn’t mind going to confession to him!” I said, “Thanks a lot.” Being beautiful or handsome is also a gift from God; why not use it for a holy purpose like being a priest, instead of getting on the cover of GQ Magazine? Did you know that the actor Tom Cruise was in the seminary to become a priest? Confession lines would stretch all the way down Garrison Avenue of he were the pastor.  Talk about the best of both worlds.

          And thirdly, which is always the hardest, your treasure. I read an article lately that no other country in the world is as generous in giving to charity as the United States. And this stands in sharp contrast to China, a Communist country.  It said: “Beijing, has become the ‘Billionaire Capitol of the World,’ with 100 billionaires, five more than New York City.” But how does the Communist country help the poor? The article continued: “Charitable giving in China is lagging far behind the U.S. In 2014 giving as a percentage of China’s GDP was only .1 percent, compared to two percent in the U.S.” (Why giving is harder than earning: philanthropy in China,” China Research Center, January 3, 2017). As a Christian nation we gladly give our earthly treasure in exchange for heavenly riches, thereby balancing both worlds.

          Let me conclude with a quotation by C. S. Lewis, who wrote: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought the most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this” (Mere Christianity, 134).  Maybe I don’t think too much about heaven.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!


Seeing how all creation, including ourselves, points to Christ
John 5:31-47 Jesus said to the Jews: "If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true. But there is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true. You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth. I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. But I have testimony greater than John's. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his form, and you do not have his word remaining in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures, because you think you have eternal life through them; even they testify on my behalf. But you do not want to come to me to have life.

          I am a dog person, even though I do not have a dog. The most fascinating dog to me, though, is “the pointer,” or as we call them in the South, a “bird dog.” The pointer has been bred to flush out game for a hunter, or simply to point in the direction of hidden prey. Suddenly, the dog will freeze motionless, and its entire body will point – including its nose, torso, front leg, and even its tail sticking straight out – all toward the prey to help the hunter to see it before the prey sees the hunter. Actually, I find the dog more interesting than the bird. Every fiber of its being is created to point to something else.

          The French Jesuit priest, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, suggested that the whole universe is like the pointer because it all points to Jesus. Every fiber of creation, including bird dogs, ultimately points to Jesus. Fr. Ron Rolheiser, a popular priest and speaker, explained in detail what Chardin meant, saying, “All reality, be it spiritual, physical, moral, mathematical, mystical, or hormonal is made and shaped according to the one, same pattern and everything (be it the universe itself hurtling through space, the blind attraction of atoms for each other, the relentless hunt for blood by a mosquito, the automatic impulse to put everything into his mouth by a baby, the erotic charge inside the body of an adolescent, the fierce protectiveness of a young mother, the obsession to create inside an artist, or the genuflection in prayer or altruism of a saint) is ultimately part of one and the same thing, the unfolding of creation as made in the image of Christ and as revealing the invisible God” (Blog, “The Cosmic Christ” Nov. 25, 2001). In other words, the whole universe is like a huge bird dog and it’s pointing to one Prey, namely, Jesus. Our “prey” is the One to whom we should “pray.”

          In the gospel of John chapter 5, Jesus explains how everything points to him, and he gives several examples. He says, “There is another who testifies on my behalf” namely John the Baptist. Later he says, “But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works the Father game me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf.” Furthermore, he adds, “Moreover, the Father who sent me has testified on my behalf.” Finally, he mentions, “You search the Scriptures…even they testify on my behalf.” Jesus is saying to the Jews, “Look around you and you will see that everything is like a bird dog, pointing at its prey with every fiber of its being, and that prey is me. I pray you find the prey all these pointers are showing you!” But they missed it.

          My friends, I want you to ask yourself today a deep question, and I don’t want you to settle for shallow answers. Ask yourself: why do I do the things I do? Why do I like to drink martinis or chai lattes? Why did we go to Disney World for Spring Break? Why do I love my children? Why do I move every year to be closer to my grandchildren? Why did I marry this man?  Why did I marry this woman? Why do I cheer for the Razorbacks? Why do I vote Republican? Why do I vote Democrat? Why do I love to each chocolate? Why do I play video games? Why did I get up to come to Mass this morning? Why do I do anything? May I suggest to you that every urge and every impulse and every excitement you feel really points beyond itself to Jesus? Just like in the gospel, John the Baptist and the Father and the Scriptures, so, too, all creation, and even every one of your choices, points, like a bird dog, to Jesus. Pope St. John Paul II, in his very first encyclical, began with these stunning words, he wrote: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor hominis, 1).  Every fiber of the universe points to Christ.

          Of course, most of us won’t figure this out until after we die and meet Jesus face to face. On that day, we’ll say, “Oh, you are the One my whole life was pointing to, and I missed it!” How cool would it be to figure that out before we die?

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Late Night Texter

Seeing confession as a sign of true friendship with Jesus
          Boys and girls, this morning we want to give you an opportunity to go to confession. Actually, you don’t have a choice, you have to go to confession. That’s the beauty of Catholic schools: we can force you to be holy. But I want to give you a reason you should want to go to confession, and that is because confession is a sign of real friendship. Real and true friends sort of “confess” things to each other.

          One of my favorite Scripture passages is John 15:15. I like it because it’s very easy to remember, who can’t remember John 15:15?? But I also like it because it teaches what is the heart and soul of real friendship. Jesus is at the Last Supper with his apostles, those who were his closest and most intimate friends. And he says, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Did you catch that last part? Jesus said, “I have told you everything.” In other words, Jesus holds nothing back from his best friends; he reveals his deepest secrets, his highest hopes, his darkest fears. He tells them everything because they are his “friends.”

          Boys and girls, this is how you know someone is a true friends rather than just an acquaintance: you have shared your deepest, darkest secrets with them. You have stayed up late at night texting them and telling them everything. Have you ever done that? That late night texting buddy is your best friend because you share your secrets with them. That’s basically what Catholic confession is all about: sharing your secrets with your best friend, Jesus. And here’s the best part, Jesus will share his secrets with you. His secrets of mercy and joy and peace. Jesus wants us to be his “late night texting buddy.”

          Boys and girls, we have eight wonderful priests here this morning to hear your confessions. They are also Jesus’ close friends, and they know his secrets because, they, too, go to confession. Only those who go to confession really know Jesus’ secrets. Those of you who are not Catholic are also welcome to go to talk with the priest, but please tell him you are not Catholic. I also want you to say the Act of Contrition during your confession with the priest, and you can take the “cheat sheet” with you. Remember the easy Scripture passage, John 15:15, where Jesus said, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”

          Good luck, guys.

Nation Building

Creating the perfect country within ourselves

Isaiah 65:17-21 Thus says the LORD: Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create; For I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people. No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying; No longer shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime; He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years, and he who fails of a hundred shall be thought accursed. They shall live in the houses they build, and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.

          If you had the power to create the perfect country, what would that country look like? What a fascinating fiction: to start from scratch and create a country! Some may say we have already done that 200 years ago when the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. We’re living in the best country in the world! And indeed, America is amazing in so many aspects. Others may disagree, however, saying, “No, we need all Republicans in Congress as well as the President, so we can repeal Obamacare and reform the tax code! That would be the ideal country.” Others would argue: “No way, Jose, we need all Democrats in Congress and a Democratic President, so we can expand Obamacare and have a more diverse and welcoming nation. That would be the best nation!” I don’t know about you, but I sure get tired of all the political rhetoric and wrangling. It makes me want to run off and become a Carmelite monk! But don’t you think most of the wars in the world have been fought over precisely which kind of country is the best: democracy is better than communism, totalitarianism, etc.  Which country is really the best?

          In the year 1516, St. Thomas More, who served as the Lord Chancellor of England, wrote a book about the ideal country called Utopia. Being Lord Chancellor, which is like a one-man Supreme Court, St. Thomas had a “30,000 foot view” of how a country should work and how it often fails to work. Additionally, he was a scholar, a statesman and a saint, so he could really wrestle with creating a prefect country. In More’s book, he imagined an “island country” where people shared things in common (no private property, sorry Republicans), everyone worked six hours a day, priests could get married (yay!), criminals were punished by wearing chains of gold, only children wore jewelry, so hoarding wealth was disdained (greed is kids’ stuff). But St. Thomas gave the country the suggestive name of “Utopia” which comes from Greek, and means “Nowhere.” In other words, More did not believe the perfect country could exist on earth; we can only try to make the country we live in a little better, which is what he did in England.

          In the first reading today, Isaiah says God will engage in engineering a perfect country, too. God wants to do some “nation building”! Isaiah writes: “Thus says the Lord, Lo, I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth…No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there or the sound of crying. No longer shall there be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime…They shall live in the houses they build, and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.” Isaiah’s description sounds similar to that of St. Thomas More: a land that provides plenty, a people who live in peace, no one is poor, and no one is sad. Sounds pretty good, bring it on! But Jesus will add later in the Gospels, like St. Thomas More did in Utopia, that we must work for that Kingdom on earth, but remember that it will only exist fully in heaven. The nation building that God starts on earth will only be finished by him in heaven.

          My friends, most of us do not have the time or the talent to create our own country or even write a book about it. But one thing we can do is organize and orchestrate the operations of the little country called “John Antony.” In other words, each human person is also like a “little nation” whose internal workings need to be ordered well so that it can grow and prosper, just like the United States has (on the macro level). Indeed, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, argued exactly that in his classic book, Republic. (Now, don’t get excited, he was not a Republican!) He said that the “philosopher-king” should rule the state, just like our minds should govern our passions. The country is the “macro nation” while the individual person is the “micro nation,” and both are in need of “nation building.”

          Folks, we don’t need to wage wars against other countries to establish Utopia on earth, even though I’m sure we’ll keep trying. Instead, we need to wage war within ourselves, binding our criminal passions with gold chains, working hard and not being lazy, giving graciously to the poor and not being greedy, overcoming lust and envy and pride. The first and the best place to start “nation building” in inside yourself. You are the nation that needs to be rebuilt. Indeed, that’s precisely where God’s grace is at work right now, engineering a “new heavens and a new earth.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

God-Zylla’s Smile

Overcoming our anonymous atheism with love of neighbor

Mark 12:28-34 One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus replied, "The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,  with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

          When I was a young seminarian (with bright eyes and a bushy tail), I struggled with a theological question. I pondered the problem: should you love God first or should you love your neighbor first? Now, I know you should love God more than your neighbor (that wasn’t the question), but do you love God first, before you love your neighbor? So, I asked Fr. Robert Zylla (whom we seminarians admired deeply and whom we affectionately called “God-Zylla”) which of these two came first: God or neighbor? And he smiled (he always smiled) and answered my question with a question, asking: “What does it say in the Bible, what did Jesus say?” Luckily, I remembered today’s gospel where Jesus answers the scribe who asked our Lord the exact same question. To him Jesus had said: “The first is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Then Jesus goes on to add: “The second is this: You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Simple enough right?! But Fr. Zylla’s smile always made me wonder if he knew more than he was saying. His smile seemed to say the answer was not so simple.

          Now that I’m an old priest (with dim eyes and the tail often between my legs), I begin to understand what was behind God-Zylla’s smile. Yes, we must love God first, to be sure. But what if we have lost God? What if our scientific and technological minds believe God is a fable for na├»ve children and not for mature, sophisticated adults? What if we suspiciously think WE are God? Should we love that “God” first before we love our neighbor? And I think the answer is a resounding “No.” Why? Well, in order to love the true God – whom we’ve now lost – we have to begin by loving our neighbor. It says in 1 John 4:20: “For whoever does not love their brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Love your neighbor first. St. Thomas Aquinas taught this in his Summa Theologica: “That which is first in the order of intention is last in the order of execution” (ST, I-IIae, Art. 1). That is, if you want to love the God whom you’ve lost (your intention), then begin by loving the neighbor in front of you (your execution). Sometimes you cannot love God until you love your neighbor first. I think that’s what was hiding behind God-Zylla’s smile: the answer is not so simple.

          My friends, I’m afraid this will sound like a very harsh judgment, but I believe our modern American culture has lost God; you and I don’t really believe in the Transcendent. I fear our culture tends to create “anonymous atheists” – people who say there is a God but don’t really believe it, and don’t really live like it. And I’m not only referring to those “professed atheists” or those who want to take the Ten Commandments out of courtrooms and classrooms. But I also believe we who are “professed Christians” have created our own “gods” (the Bible calls them “idols”) – the unholy trinity of money, sex and power – and subtly substituted them for the Holy Trinity. When we check into the hospital we say we’re “Catholic,” when we skip Sunday Mass to lie on the beach, we do not act very “Catholic.”  That’s what I mean by an “anonymous atheist.”  You’re acting like an atheist but you don’t know it.

          When you have lost the true God – and you may not even realize you have lost him – begin by loving your neighbor first, whom you have not lost. This is why Pope Francis insists on loving the poor and marginalized in society: the poor whom we see will help us to find again the true God whom we cannot see. That’s why we do our annual Honduras mission trip: not only to open our eyes to the plight of the poor, but also to open our eyes to the presence of God. How many men have “found religion” only after they have “found a beautiful girl” to marry? Now, that’s really loving your neighbor! Loving our neighbor must sometimes come first, before we can love the true God. Loving our neighbor helps us stop loving the false gods.

          Now, when people ask me seemingly simple questions, like which is the first commandment, I reply with a question: “What does it say in the Bible? What did Jesus say?” And then I smile.

          Praised be Jesus Christ!

Just Not That Into You

Learning the lessons of the Incarnation

Luke 1:26-38 The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you." But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”

          On March 25th every year the Church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, which I believe ranks right up there with Christmas. Why? Today, we commemorate – just like at Christmas – when “the Word of God became flesh,” or in the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, “verbum caro factum est.” Everything sounds so holy and heavenly in Latin, and I love Latin because it makes me sound so holy and heavenly (the most important thing). In other words, God humbled himself to take on a human body, a miracle called the “Incarnation,” literally “enfleshment” or “becoming flesh.” And this miracle of the Incarnation has forever changed both history and humanity; it changed everything. The Eternal One has stepped into the river of time; the Unchanging One had donned the vestments of vicissitude, he must now endure change and chance.

          Now, a quick trivia question: why do we celebrate the Annunciation on March 25th and not another day of the year? Well, how long is it between March 25th and December 25th? That’s exactly nine months. Now, what human process usually takes about nine months to complete? Heck, even a celibate priest knows that answer: it’s pregnancy! We commemorate Jesus’ conception on March 25, and his birthday on December 25th. This feast explains why abortion is to odious to Christians: Jesus becomes a human being (becomes flesh) on March 25 – not on December 25 – and to kill Jesus in the womb would have been a “deicide” (killing God) no less than the Crucifixion. So, all pro-life people should really celebrate the Annunciation every year: this is a quintessentially pro-life feast! Let me just draw out two implications of the Incarnation, two lessons we can learn.

          First, “being a body” means that God can now suffer, something that was impossible for him in heaven. Hebrews says: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.” That is, instead of sacrificing the bodies of bulls and goats, Jesus would be the sacrifice in his own Body. Jesus’ suffering would make him sympathetic to all human suffering. You know, ever since my nephew Noah passed away, funerals have become much harder for me. I can feel now, very deeply, the family’s own loss; I know their pain because I, too, have suffered a similar pain. I can sympathize with them, and not merely empathize (which is what I did before).  Several people have actually called me for counseling now because they know I have suffered this loss. Suffering makes me feel close to a perfect stranger. That’s one reason “the Word became flesh,” to suffer with us, to know our pain, to be close to us, so we might not see Jesus as a stranger.

          A second implication of the Incarnation is that Jesus simply wants to be with us, and love what we love. He desires to dwell with us: he wants to laugh with us, cry with us, sing with us, dance with us, and if this doesn’t sound too scandalous, he might even have a martini with us (but only one). There’s a common phrase that people use while dating these days. They say, “He’s just not that into you.” Have you heard that phrase? It means your boyfriend is bored with you, and he wants to break up, “he’s not into you.” Well, Jesus is exactly the opposite: “he’s really into you.” He is deeply interested in everything about you, nothing about you bores him, and he can demonstrate his love and interest because he has a body, “verbum caro factum est.” The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, described friendship as “one single soul in two bodies.” Jesus loves what we love – whether it’s March madness, or Mine Craft, or the Minions Movie, or a million other things – so that we might love what he loves – our neighbor and our God. One soul in two bodies.

          You know, every time we go to Mass, we celebrate another little Incarnation. This time, however, God does not become a Body, he becomes Bread. That’s why we ring the bells at the Consecration: it’s like the bells we hear at Christmas time. Why did God become flesh and dwell among us? Because Jesus is “so into you.”

          Praised be Jesus Christ!