Tuesday of the 26th Week [I] - 27 SEP 2011

Tuesday of the 26th Week [I]
September 27, 2011          

“He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” [Luke 9:51]

Today’s Gospel passage doesn’t make this fact entirely clear, but St. Luke the Evangelist placed this text at a strategic point in his telling of the Gospel.  Unlike any of his disciples (except perhaps His Mother), Jesus had in mind His Passion and Death long before they occurred.  This length of time between the start of His public ministry and His death on Calvary shows a poignancy in every event during those three years.

Perhaps in his human nature, Jesus was tempted to hope that the agony of His suffering and death might come quickly, rather than seeing so often during those three years the men who would condemn Him once He made His identity known.  But Jesus never hoped for a quick end.  Jesu8s never retreated to his small, quiet hometown.  Rather, He made a commitment to all the works and words of His Father that He needed to make known to God’s People.  “He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem was the city where all His adversaries dwelt.  Jerusalem was the place where the Temple shone as the heart of the Jewish religion.  Jesus made His journey to Jerusalem to fulfill in His self-sacrifice on Calvary everything that the Temple seemed to stand for, so that each disciple of Jesus could become a living temple within which the self-sacrifice of Christ might be offered; within which the Holy Spirit might dwell; within which God the Father nurtures His care for His beloved.

Monday of the 26th Week [I] - 26 SEP 2011

Monday of the 26th Week [I]
September 26, 2011

“For the one who is least among all of you
is the one who is the greatest.” [Luke 9:48]

The child whom Jesus draws close to him is a symbol:  a symbol of a spiritual virtue that He wants all of us to cultivate.  We know from our own experiences—both of being children, and of trying to tend to children—that children can just as easily be holy terrors as they can be holy icons of simplicity of heart.  If you ever get into an argument with an atheist about the existence of Original Sin, just ask him to supervise a room full of two year-olds for an hour.  So innocence may not be the virtue Jesus is pointing us towards here.

What, then, is Jesus pointing to as he draws this little child close to Him?  Perhaps Jesus is pointing to the child’s dependence.  After all, no matter how strong a child’s self-will, the child remains profoundly dependent on others.  The child’s self-will may mask this dependence from the child’s own awareness, but the parent becomes only more aware, in the wake of a child’s petulance, of the parent’s need to tend to the child’s true needs.

But here comes part of the paradox of being an adult Christian.  An adult Christian must live in the world, even as he or she lives for Heaven.  As the old saying goes, Christians must be in the world, but not of the world.  But to be “successful” in the world requires an entirely different “skill-set” than the skill-set that’s required to be successful in the spiritual life.  Jesus not only points out this difference Himself:  He commends both skill-sets to us for our acquisition.  He tells us that each of us, His followers, must be cunning as foxes and serpents, even while remaining innocent as doves.  To navigate the waters of this world, we must understand the ways of the world, and be able to anticipate what the world is going to throw our way.

But that does not mean that we conform our selves to the ways of the world.  We conform our selves only to the Cross of Jesus.

The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 25 SEP 2011

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Ezekiel 18:25-28  ─  Philippians 2:1-11  ─  Matthew 21:28-32
September 25, 2011

Christ Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  [Philippians 2:5-6]

Sacrifice is the heart of the Christian life.  The capacity for self-sacrifice is the measure of authenticity in the Christian life.  This capacity is something that can ebb and flow throughout the course of a Christian’s life.  Because of Original Sin, this capacity is greatly diminished.  Unfortunately, the Sacrament of Baptism does not restore this capacity to its original state, as it was in the beginning.

This past week when I was grocery shopping, I saw a car with one of those license plate frames that has a little saying on the top and bottom of the frame.  This one said:  “Insanity is hereditary:  you get it from your children.”  (All the kids in the pews are looking at their parents and wondering why they’re smiling so big.  Don’t worry, boys and girls, someday you’ll understand.)  We might say that the capacity to drive others insane is the capacity we’re born with. The capacity for self-sacrifice, on the other hand, has to be acquired.

The capacity for self-sacrifice is the measure of authenticity in the Christian life.  By contrast, the world around us encourages us to do what?  The world that surrounds us encourages us to do either what is contrary or in contrast to the path Christ asks us to walk.  We often choose to follow not the Way of Christ, but to follow the contrary way of the world:  that is, instead of choosing self-sacrifice, we choose self-glorification and self-gratification.  Or in contrast to Christ’s path of self-sacrifice, we fudge a little bit:  we make sacrifices, but not of our selves.  We sacrifice what is of little meaning to us.  We sacrifice things to which we have no attachment.  We’re like the child on Ash Wednesday who proudly announces that he’s giving up spinach and broccoli for Lent.

During the month of October at St. Mark’s Parish, we’re going to focus on the meaning of Christian vocations in the Church.  This focus will take several different forms.  The first and most important form will be prayer, consisting of Masses, Holy Hours, and rosaries.  The Masses and Holy Hours will take place here at the parish, of course.  The rosaries will be prayed both here at the parish, and also (hopefully) in your homes.  More information about all these opportunities for prayer will be found in the bulletin over the next several weeks.

Right now I want to mention another opportunity during October for our high school students.  A week from Wednesday, on October 5th, two guests will speak here at St. Mark’s.  One of the recently ordained priests of our diocese will speak to our young men of high school age, and one of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will speak to the young ladies of high school age.  The two presentations will be made at the same time, from 7─8 p.m., which is the usual time for high school religious formation this year.  As always, food and fellowship will take place beforehand, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

But all of our efforts during October will be of no avail if we don’t help our young men and women free themselves to answer whichever call God asks of them.  In other words, putting knowledge about vocations into our young people’s minds is not enough.  A vocation is also a matter of the will.  Christian formation in any subject requires a shaping not only of the mind, but of the mind and the will.  Any school that only gives knowledge about math, English, music, etc. is very possibly wasting its time.  If a school doesn’t also give its students a love for those subjects, then the knowledge will likely evaporate, or the students will keep it from sinking deep into their minds to begin with.

The same is true in a parish program of religious formation.  The same is true with the vocation that God has for each young person.  It’s not enough for the young person to learn about what God wants.  The young person also has to want what is learned.  The young person has to want whatever God wants for him or her.  But for a young person to be able to want whatever God wants, a change has to happen inside the young person.

To point a young person’s free will away from one’s own desires, and instead to point it forward toward the desire for God requires… purification.  A young person’s own fallen, human will has to be purified like the biblical gold that’s tried in fire,[1] so that what emerges in the capacity for self-sacrifice.  This is the capacity that’s incarnate in the Son of God.  This is the capacity described poetically by Saint Paul in our Second Reading, where he paints a portrait of self-sacrifice in the Flesh, in the person of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Every Christian vocation—whether religious life, marriage, or priesthood—can be lived in a counterfeit form, which is to say, only for one’s self.  But to accept and live one of these vocations freely takes the capacity for self-sacrifice:  which is the capability of living in Christ Jesus, and for Christ Jesus, rather than for one’s own self. 

To grow in this capacity requires purification.  Because while it’s true that each human being is conceived and born with free will—any parents of a two-year-old can tell you that—this free will is initially pointed in the wrong direction.  Again, any parent of a two-year-old can tell you that the favorite word of a two-year-old is “No!”  The child’s next favorite word is “Mine!”  Unfortunately, self-will doesn’t disappear on a child’s third birthday.  Human beings don’t spontaneously become more selfless as they grow older.  They usually learn social skills that help them mask their selfishness.  The sacrifice of selfishness is something that comes much more difficultly.

To accept a vocation in Christ is to recognize that my life is not “mine”, but “His”.  To live a vocation in Christ is to say “Yes!” to God’s Will for me, not “No!”  God our Father calls us to spend our earthly lives not like the first son in Jesus’ parable:  saying “No” to the father’s will, and only later doing it.  Nor does God will for us to be like the second, who’s all talk and no follow-through.  To call God our Father means to be a child who always says “Yes” to Him, and who always puts the words that we mouth inside church into action during the week when we’re outside the church and in the world.

To bring my human will into harmony with His divine Will requires purification.  St. Francis de Sales speaks in his Introduction to the Devout Life about the hard work that purification demands.  He says:

In a single instant St. Paul was cleansed with a complete purgation,(a) and so too were St. Catherine of Genoa,(b) St. Mary Magdalen… and certain others.  However[,] such purgation is as miraculous and extraordinary in the order of grace[,] as resurrection from the dead is in the order of nature[,] and therefore we should not look for it.  The usual purgation and healing, whether of body or of soul, takes place only little by little[,] and by passing from one advance to another with difficulty and patience. …. The soul that rises from sin to devotion has been compared to the dawning day,(c) which at its approach does not drive out the darkness [immediately] but only little by little. ….

In this enterprise we must have courage and patience….  What a pity it is to see souls[, on the one hand,] who [realize that they are] still subject to many imperfections after striving to be devout for a while[,] and then begin to be dissatisfied, disturbed, and discouraged[,] and almost let their hearts give in to [the] temptation to give up everything and go back to their old way of life.  On the other hand, are not those souls also in extreme danger who by an opposite temptation think themselves cleansed of every imperfection on the very first day of their purgation, regard themselves as perfect before they have scarcely begun, and try to fly without wings? ….

The work of purging the soul neither can nor should end except with our life [on earth] itself.  We must not be disturbed at our imperfections, since for us perfection consists in fighting against them.  How can we fight against them unless we see them, or overcome them unless we face them?  Our victory does not consist in being unconscious of them[,] but in not consenting to them, and not to consent to them is to be displeased with them.  To practice humility it is absolutely necessary for us at times to suffer wounds in this spiritual warfare, but we are never vanquished unless we lose our life or our courage.  Imperfections and venial sins cannot deprive us of spiritual life; it is lost only by mortal sin.  Therefore it only remains for us not to lose courage.  Save me, O Lord, from cowardice and discouragement, David says.(d)  Fortunately for us, in this war we are always victorious[,] provided that we are willing to fight.[2]

[1] cf. 1 Peter 1:7.
[2] St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, “The First Part”, #5, §§ 2-4.  Footnotes from the text:  (a) cf. Acts 9:1-9.  (b) St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), widow, mystic, author of treatises On Purgatory and On the Pure Love of God.  Cf. Butler, III, 557-60; F. von Hügel, The Mystical Element in Religion (2 vols.; London: 1908), I, 371-466.  (c) Proverbs 4:18.  (d) Cf. Psalm 54:9.

Monday of the 25th Week - 19 SEP 2011

Monday of the 25th Week [I]
September 19, 2011

“...and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have
will be taken away.” [Luke 8:18]

These words of Jesus sound almost like a threat.  Clearly these words stand in contrast to the preceding phrase, that to anyone who has, more will be given.  As this entire sentence is spoken, our first inclination is likely to hope that the first phrase applies to us:  that more will be given us.  On the contrary, we may hope that the latter phrase applies to anyone except us:  that even what he seems to have will be taken away.
God the Holy Spirit leads Christians into the fullness of Truth.[1]  A single verse of Sacred Scripture can have several senses, contrasting with but not contradicting each other.  Jesus is speaking of you as a Christian when He declares that even what [you seem] to have will be taken away.  What is Jesus referring to?  Jesus is making a promise to those who truly want to advance in their spiritual lives.

Even what [you seem] to have refers to everything in your life that is a vanity, a contrived good that in fact has no more substance that mist, or your shadow.  The one who lives in this world and also for this world often seems to have much.  Yet all of these “things” are in fact not truly his; he does not truly have them.  In the end, or sooner, if he is blessed by God, they will be taken away.  Jesus promises this to His followers.
But such possessions are not only material, though materials “goods” seem the most obvious example of what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus’ words about what [you seem] to have also refers to immaterial possessions:  things that we cling to interiorly.  Grudges, desires, resentments, attachments:  in reality, we do not actually possess any of these; in fact, they possess us.  Spiritual poverty [if not material poverty] is a strong means to purification.  Purification—by which such immaterial realities can be taken away—is a strong means to dwelling in God.  And dwelling in God is nothing less than eternal life.

[1] John 16:13.

The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 18 SEP 2011

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 55:6-9  ─  Philippians 1:20c-24,27a  ─  Matthew 20:1-16a
September 18, 2011

The Lord is near to all who call upon Him.  [Psalm 145:18]

God always accepts an impure heart.  But He never stops asking for a more pure heart.  Today’s parable illustrates this truth.  This parable is similar to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  You remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son:  at first, the prodigal son seems to be the focus of that parable (after all, it’s named for him).  But the truth of that parable becomes clear only when we look at all three persons in that parable together:  that is, the prodigal son, the prodigal father, and the miserly son.  The prodigal son is prodigal—that is, lavish—in spending his father’s money.  The prodigal father is prodigal in lavishing mercy and forgiveness on his wayward son.  The miserly son, however, refuses to share in his father’s prodigality:  that is, the miserly son refuses to show even the least bit of mercy or forgiveness to his brother.  And in one sense, this is the primary focus of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, since Jesus originally spoke that parable to the scribes and Pharisees, who were just like the miserly son in not showing mercy or forgiveness to those in need.[1]

Today’s parable, however, is not addressed to scribes and Pharisees, or to any other of Jesus’ typical adversaries.  Rather, Jesus speaks this parable to his own disciples.  Still… as this Parable of the Vineyard Workers unfolds, you get the sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t happy with His disciples.  Or perhaps He was just cautioning them against pride.  Regardless, when Jesus’ disciples heard the beginning of the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, they likely identified themselves with the first workers:  that is, those who were faithful from the start, who in their own words, “bore the day’s burden and the heat.”  They are like the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who stayed close to his father, and did the work he was told to do.

But as the Parable of the Vineyard Workers continues, these faithful workers start to appear in a less flattering light.  They respond to the late-comers in much the same way that the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son responds to his younger brother:  that is, with resentful and jealous self-interest.  They complain to the one in charge that his lavish generosity is unfair.  And in doing this, they show just how unlike their master they are.  Although they took pride in the work that their master had given them, their hearts were not like their master’s heart.  To use the old saying, they fixed their focus on the work of the master, instead of on the master of the work.

Are you like the prodigal son’s older brother?  Are you one of the vineyard workers who bore the day’s burden and the heat, their hearts hardened by burning self-righteousness?  The irony of both parables is that the one who at first is imitating the master turns out to be least like him.  The first turns into the last / due to human pride.  The spiritual challenge is how to be the best of both:  how to labor with the work ethic of those who bore the day’s burden, without becoming hard-hearted; how to accept graciously the lavish generosity of the master, without presuming on his mercy, and settling for giving one’s least effort.

To diagnose the spiritual disease that the resentful workers suffer from, look for the moment when they got off track.  Those workers began by doing the work they had agreed to do for the master.  The master paid them the wage that he had agreed to pay.  But… when the workers take their eyes off their master, and begin to focus instead on their fellow workers, they get off track.  They take their eyes off their master—like Peter walking on water—and begin to sink.  They mind the business of others instead of minding their own—like Peter swearing that God should forbid Jesus’ death on a cross—and they distance themselves from the master’s will.  The moment they get off track / is when they take their focus off the master of the work.

So… do we need to ignore the Johnny-come-lately’s?  Do we need to ignore those who seem not to imitate God (especially those who don’t imitate God as closely as we do)?  That is not an option for a Christian.  Sometimes we do try to convince ourselves that it’s enough to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  But Jesus shows us and tells us that that’s not enough.  We must also love our neighbor as our self.  These two commandments sum up the Ten.

Too often in our lives, instead of loving our neighbor, we compete against them, even if only in our own minds.  We set our selves against them when we take our eyes off the Master, and fail to think about our neighbor (that is to say, love our neighbor) as our Master does.

God always accepts an impure heart.  He accepts our hearts if we love Him, while scorning our neighbor.  But God never stops asking for a more pure heart.  Until you submit your heart and mind to purification, Isaiah's prophecy is spoken to you:  As high as the heavens are above the earth, / so high are my ways above your ways / and my thoughts above your thoughts.  Until you submit your heart and mind to purification, the Lord will not be near you; in turn, you will not be able to hear His voice whenever you call upon Him.

[1] The Parable of the Prodigal Son is found in Luke 15:11-32.  The chapter, which contains three parables, begins with these three verses:  “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  So to them he addressed this parable” [Luke 15:1-3].

Monday of the 24th Week [I] - 12 SEP 2011

Monday of the 24th Week [I]
September 12, 2011

“Lord, … I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” [Luke 7:7]

You recognize these words, I’m sure, from our preparation at Mass for Holy Communion.  The words we currently say at this point in the Mass are not a direct quotation from its biblical source.  However, in about two and a half months (beginning with the First Sunday of Advent), the words of priest and laity before Holy Communion will more closely reflect the Word of God.  The priest will hold the Blessed Sacrament before the laity and say:  “Behold the Lamb of God, / behold him who takes away the sins of the world. / Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  And to the priest’s words, the laity will reply:  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Humility is the foundation of the spiritual life.  Nonetheless, as necessary as humility is in the Christian life—both in general, and specifically in regard to worthy reception of Holy Communion—it’s important also to recognize God’s response to a heart filled with genuine humility.  This is precisely where the Lord our God wants to dwell:  in a small, humble place.  At the end of Summer may not seem a fitting time to reflect on the mysteries of Christmas, but on Mondays the Church reflects on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.  The third Joyful Mystery especially illustrates this truth, that the Lord our God wants to dwell in a small, humble place; and that He wants your soul to be such a place.

In a few weeks—on the first of October—the Church will celebrate the feast day of St. Thérèse the Little Flower.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, although her feast this year will fall on a Saturday, a morning Mass will be celebrated that day as part of our parish’s focus on vocations during October.  A vocation can only flower in the seedbed of humility.  If St. Thérèse were to have a motto, it might be the centurion’s words:  “Lord, … I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.”  Yet those human words, as foundational as they are to our lives as disciples, are as nothing compared to the Word who is our Master:  that is, the Word of God who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….”  In the Holy Eucharist, the divine Word takes an even humbler form:  the form of bread and wine, so humble / so that / we small humans / may consume God.  God’s humility is the means of our sharing in the divine life.

The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 11 SEP 2011

The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
September 11, 2011

On the tenth anniversary of terrorists attacking our nation, the bishops of the United States speak to the Catholics of our country:

“Today’s readings offer an uncomfortable, but clear challenge to us on this anniversary of the… terrorist attacks:  [that is,] the challenge of forgiveness.  [Hearing these readings, we might think that these Scripture readings were chosen just for this anniversary date.  But these are the same readings that Catholics in every country of the world hear every three years on this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time.]

“The first reading from the Book of Sirach reminds us to… turn over to the Lord our anger and desire for vengeance[.] …  We are not to be vengeful; we are to forgive.  [Sirach tells us what happens to the vengeful:]  The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail[.]   [Those who want to be close to God, must be like Him, and] forgive:  Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.

“It is important to remember, however, that forgiving another does not mean absolving them of responsibility.  To forgive another is to confirm that they have done wrong[,] and [that they] are in need of forgiveness.  Mercy does not cancel out justice[.  It does not cancel out] the need for conversion[.    The] Christian in the world… [longs] for justice, but we entrust final justice… always to God.  As long as we believe in the power and mercy of God, we [must] hope for this[, or we are acting contrary to the way in which God Himself acts].

“Note that the reason given for why we should forgive, both in Sirach and in the [Responsorial] Psalm, is that none of us [is] free of sin and guilt.  We are all sinners, we have all done wrong.  Yet, God [has offered forgiveness to every one of us], and so we must [offer forgiveness to] others.  The [Responsorial] Psalm proclaims that God has not dealt with us as our sins merit, nor requited us as our deeds deserve.  God treats us with forgiveness, love and compassion, and we must do the same.  As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

“Again in the Gospel, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we hear the story of the master (representing God) who forgives the servant of his debt (the servant [representing] us).  … God forgives us not because we deserve it, but because God is merciful.  Yet, when that servant does not extend the same forgiveness to others, he gets himself into trouble, for he has not acted toward others the way the master acted toward him.  We are called to forgive those who sin against us.  This message is made clear by Peter’s question to Jesus, Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?  Jesus answers, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

“We have probably heard this instruction many times and we can sometimes take it for granted.  It may be easy to apply to everyday situations:  [we will say, “]I will forgive you for leaving your dishes in the sink, being late to pick me up, forgetting my birthday,[“] etc.  But in fact, these everyday situations are ultimately about developing an attitude of forgiveness that can define our lives.  Without that kind of attitude, what will we do about the really difficult situations in life:

“…the close friend who says something hurtful behind your back;
…the spouse who cheats; …
…the murderer on death row;
[…the child who betrays the values that his parents instilled in him;]
…the terrorists who plotted and carried out the attacks on September 11, 2001?

“Our inclination may be simply to say that some things are too terrible to forgive[:  some things go beyond the limits of forgiveness].  Certainly, it is only human that we must often go through a period of anger, bitterness, and mourning.  [And p]erhaps, we will never forget some wrongs.

“But there is [divine] wisdom in Jesus’ words about forgiveness.  Our human experience tells us that when we hold on to anger and hatred, it eats away at us.  It can begin to change us and make us into persons we never wanted to be.  In some ways, forgiveness frees the one who forgives from carrying that burden.  We can let it go and entrust the other [person] to God[,] who is better able to deal with [him than we are].  The teaching on forgiveness is about being like God, who is merciful.  It is about recognizing something of ourselves in those who commit the greatest evils, for no one is free of sin.  

“Jesus is not urging us simply to be passive in the face of evil.  We must still work to protect the innocent and to hold those who perpetrate crimes against humanity accountable.  But at the same time we are called to forgive even while asking, in love, how we can move forward in truth and love.  Forgiveness requires that we address the situation in a… loving way, instead of with… hatred.

[I also read from the pulpit the Holy Father Pope Benedict's Letter to Archbishop Dolan, president of the USCCB, dated September 11, 2011.  It can be found at the web page below.]

Wednesday of the 23rd Week [I] - 7 SEP 2011

Wednesday of the 23rd Week [I]
September 7, 2011

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” [Colossians 3:3]

You may not be familiar with Facebook, and you may frankly not care much about Facebook (and perhaps rightly so), but you probably know how popular it is.  Christians know that popularity is a poor measure of anything that’s truly important.  Nonetheless, when it comes to reaching out to others, and carrying out what Blessed John Paul II first called the “New Evangelization”, what is popular at least indicates where shepherds and disciples ought to go to evangelize, even if it means consequently leading those catechized away from the popular arena.

When I was serving as the pastor of the Newman Center at Wichita State a few years ago, one of the college students explained that I “had” to set up a Facebook account.  After several discussions, I realized that I really did need to get into Facebook, so that I could communicate with students.  I bring this up first simply to mention that one of the verses from today’s First Reading—For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God—is one of my “favorite quotes” on my Facebook page.

Of course, there is some irony in posting this verse on Facebook.  After all, Facebook ensures that your life is not hidden:  that, on the contrary, your entire life is put on display.  Yet Saint Paul himself, if he were alive today, would surely have a Facebook page.  Why?  Not to promote himself, but to promote Christ:  in order to evangelize, just as he did in the Greek Areopagus.

What, then, does St. Paul mean when he says, For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God?  The way to answer this question might be found in another question:  “from whom?”  That is:  “From whom is your life hidden?”  If you were a hermit, your life would be hidden from everyone on earth, even your monastic community.  If you were a cloistered nun, your life would be hidden from all the world except your community.  Yet most Christians are called by God to live in the world.

Perhaps St. Paul is speaking to these Christians who live in the world, in order to teach them not to be of the world.  But perhaps St. Paul means something further.  To that follow-up question, “From whom?”—“From whom is my life hidden?”—perhaps the answer is “Me.”  Perhaps St. Paul is teaching us that my life is hidden from me by God, and that to live the meaning of my life—“to find myself”, as pop psychology would put it—I have to live the life that Blessed John Henry Newman described in the first verse of his poem “Lead, Kindly Light”:

"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

To live the meaning of my life I have to live each day with Christ in God.

The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time [A] - 4 SEP 2011

The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Ezekiel 33:7-9  ─  Romans 13:8-10  ─  Matthew 18:15-20
September 4, 2011

“…the one who loves another / has fulfilled the law.”  [Romans 13:8]

“In a hole / in the ground / there lived a hobbit.”  That’s the opening line of a book I’m in the midst of reading.  It was written by the Catholic writer J. R. R. Tolkien.  It was published in 1937, and it’s never since been out of print.  I’ve never read this book before, but I have read the three books that are its sequel:  collectively called The Lord of the Rings.  You may have heard of three movies that were based on these books.  Currently, a two-part movie based on The Hobbit is in production.

The author of these books was a deeply Catholic man.  Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”[1]  The Hobbit is similar to its sequel, in how its hero undertakes the quest that he’s challenged with.  The goal of this quest seems very plainly material:  gold and other forms of fabulous wealth.  But in spite of the more apparent goal of his quest, the hero also undertakes an inner quest.  He travels deeply into his soul, and a battle takes place there just as surely as he is forced to battle trolls and a dragon.  But through his inner battle, the hero finds (and is given) the strength to overcome fear, evil, and the shadow of death.

I don’t want to go too far into the story of The Hobbit as an example.  But I’d encourage you, if you or your children like to read, to read The Hobbit.  In fact, this work was originally written for and marketed as a children’s book.  Most junior high students don’t have any trouble reading it, and many grade school children enjoy it, also, and grow in their Catholic Faith through it.

Here’s one point about this work, as a bridge to today’s Scripture readings.  If you’ve read the three books of The Lord of the Rings, or seen the movies, you know how much teamwork is key to the action.  In fact, the first volume of the trilogy is titled The Fellowship of the Ring.  In this case, the word “fellowship” means “team”, or “band of brothers”.  This fellowship is made up of nine men (or to be more precise:  four hobbits, one dwarf, one elf, two men and one wizard).  These nine band together to undertake a dangerous mission.  But by the end of the first movie, two of the nine have perished, and the remaining seven are split by their enemies into three smaller groups, and are forced to separate.

On the other hand, The Hobbit focuses more on a single individual:  that is, the hero for whom the book is named.  In the beginning, he does travel and fight with a team, but at a key point he’s separated from the others, and is forced to battle by himself.

Not only does he battle by himself:  he battles his own self.  This is where the story speaks directly to the Christian spiritual life.  This is where the story illustrates the Gospel of our lives as Christians.  Saint Paul, in writing to the Christians in Rome, describes very succinctly one half of each and every Christian’s spiritual life:  “…the one who loves another / has fulfilled the law.”

Now, to someone who has grown up as a Christian, these words may sound commonplace.  Unfortunately, although they may sound commonplace in a country that calls itself “Christian”, it’s not commonplace to see St. Paul’s words being lived in the flesh.  Or as the English writer G. K. Chesterton said, Christianity “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[2]  Chesterton wrote this in a book titled What’s Wrong with the World.  He wrote the book after he and other English writers were each challenged by the London Times to write an essay answering the question “What’s Wrong with the World?”  When Chesterton originally received this invitation, he didn’t have time to write a full essay, so his response to the Times editors consisted of only nine words.  To the newspaper’s question, “What’s wrong with the world?”, Chesterton replied:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton.

There in a nutshell is the first step of the Christian life:  humility.  Until we recognize that (a) God designed each of us to live for others, instead of for ourselves; and that (b) something inside us keep us from living this design in the flesh, our lives are a mess.  God’s design is to form teams with others, whether that’s with our family growing up, or a sports team in school, or a team of partners at work.  As Christians, we will never contribute in a lasting way to any team until we’ve facing the problem of self-interest inside our soul.

It is not easy to love another.  In spite of the world around us—with its television shows and movies, magazines and advertisements—telling us that love is easy, and free, and without strings or regrets, Jesus reveals the truth about living as a Christian:  to work with others, we have to love them, and to love them, we have to deny our self.

Of course, there are different forms of love in the spiritual life.  We love our parents, siblings, classmates, neighbors, co-workers and our enemies all in different ways.  That’s natural.  We can love each of them authentically, even though the form of each of those loves looks different than the others.

But out of all the forms of love that we can experience, and offer to others, there are two that are so holy that they are consecrated by God.  They are sacraments.  The Church calls these two “sacraments of vocation”[3]:  they give specific shape and form to the Christian life.  These two, of course, are the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Here at St. Mark’s Parish during the month of October, we’re going to promote vocations.  This focus will not only be on vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but also to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  Holy Orders, religious life, and marriage all demand that an individual sacrifice his life for the sake of the team:  whether that team be the Church in a particular diocese, or a religious order, or a marriage of husband and wife.  You can’t be an effective team member unless you are not living for your own sake.

Wednesday, September 21st, our high school students will begin their sessions of catechesis.  Our seniors and juniors will take part in sessions about apologetics, which you might say is the talent of talking to the members of the opposing team, and convincing them to join your team.  You’ll hear more about our seniors’ and juniors’ program next Sunday.

Our sophomores and freshmen will take part in sessions about Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Some people reject Pope John Paul’s teaching because they’re thinking of it as a caricature:  they think it’s as narrow in its focus as the teaching of the world is regarding love:  simply in the opposite direction.  Of course, that’s not true.

To put it in one phrase, Blessed John Paul II’s teaching about The Theology of the Body is about “self-gift”.  The need to give one’s self to an “other” is important in every vocation, especially Holy Matrimony, which the culture around us is trying to re-define.  But even more than that, the need of a Christian to learn and live Jesus’ life of “self-gift” doesn’t become necessary on the day of a Christian’s wedding or ordination or profession.  It just as important for teenagers to live that life of “self-gift” now.

As our parish promotes vocations during October, the month of the Most Holy Rosary, we’re going to entrust our efforts to Our Blessed Mother.  We will ask her, by her example and prayers, to help the youth and adults of our parish to live now and always those words of St. Paul:  “…the one who loves another / has fulfilled the law.”

[1] The quote is taken from Letter 142 to Robert Murray SJ: “My Dear Rob, It was wonderful to get a long letter from you this morning…. I am sorry if casual words of mine have made you labour to criticize my work. But, to tell you the truth, though praise (or what is not quite the same thing, and better, expressions of pleasure) is pleasant, I have been cheered, specially by what you have said this time and before, because you are more perceptive, especially in some directions, than any one else, and have revealed to me more clearly some things about my work. I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,’ to cults, or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” (Letters #142, p. 172)
[2] G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, Part One, Chapter V, §3.
[3] Technically, the Church calls them “sacraments at the service of communion”.

The parish I serve

<b>The parish I serve</b>
St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Colwich, Kansas (Diocese of Wichita)