Homilies - January 2008

Select a homily to read:
Second Sunday of the Year: January 20, 2008 by Fr. Tyrell Alles
Baptism of the Lord: January 13, 2008 by Fr. Dominic Lenk
Solemnity of the Epiphany: January 6, 2008 by Fr. Simon

Fifteenth Sunday

  • January 20, 2008
  • by Fr. Tyrell Alles

  • Isaiah 49:3-51
  • Corinthians 1:1-3
  • John 1:29-34

Today’s Liturgy of the Word began with the proclamation of one of Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” oracles. From apostolic times, Christians have recognized the features of Christ in those of the mysterious servant of the Lord.

The Servant of the Lord, Jesus, makes his first remote appearance in John’s narrative, but says or does nothing. Instead, John the Baptist pays spontaneous tribute to Jesus. In a series of profound testimonials, he identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one, the Son of God, and the vehicle of the Spirit. By this testimony, John fulfills his mission as the one who prepares the way of the Lord.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The former way of reconciliation with God was through the ritual of the sacrificed lamb. These rites, so important to the history, faith, and culture of the People of God have now been transcended. The sacrifice of animals, the meticulous observance of rites and rituals according to rules and regulations have not been abolished. God now gives the fullness of pardon to Israel and to the whole world through Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The symbol of the “Lamb of God” first refers to the apocalyptic lamb. In Jewish apocalyptic, in the context of Final Judgment, the figure of a conquering lamb will destroy evil in the world. John the Baptist may have referred to Jesus as the apocalyptic Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, destroy evil in the world.

Second, the Lamb of God may refer to the suffering servant of Yahweh in Deutero-Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of the suffering servant as one God will give as a light to the nations, that his salvation may reach the end of the earth.

Third, the Lamb of God may refer to the paschal lamb. Passover symbolism is popular in John’s Gospel, especially in relation to the death of Jesus. The paschal lamb’s blood was smeared on the door post as a sign of deliverance and the lamb’s blood was offered in sacrifice for deliverance. Christians began to compare Jesus to the paschal lamb and they did not hesitate to use sacrificial language,“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). In accordance with biblical thought, only God takes away or forgives sin. Jesus as the Lamb is the one through whom God will take away the sin of the world.

Further, John the Baptist testifies that the Spirit came upon Jesus like a dove. The Baptist must have been thinking in Jewish terms. In the creation account, we read of the creative Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The Rabbis used to say that the Spirit of God moved and fluttered like a dove over the ancient chaos, breathing order and beauty into it. The descent of the Spirit like a dove could be compared to Noah’s dove, a harbinger of the new creation. Just as God breathed his spirit into mankind at the dawn of creation, Jesus will breathe the Holy Spirit on his disciples bringing about a new creation (John 20:22). Therefore, John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but the one that comes after me, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A number of biblical texts used the image of water to speak of the day when God would send his Spirit to enliven the people of Israel. According to the prophet Joel, God said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh …” (Joel 2:28-29). According to the prophet Ezekiel, God said, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). By baptizing with the Holy Spirit, Jesus carries out the divine cleansing God himself had promised to perform. Therefore, Jesus is the Messiah, who fulfills the eschatological hopes rooted in the Scriptures. He is the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one, the Son of God, and the vehicle of the Spirit.

At every Eucharistic celebration, Jesus comes to us as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We celebrate his passion, death, and resurrection which take away the sin of the world. He bears the Spirit of God which he gives to us as God’s gift.

The Spirit makes us Children of God. As Children of God, we are invited to share in this banquet. Aware of our sinfulness we say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Unworthy though we may be, as Children of God, by our lives let us proclaim this message of salvation, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Spirit-giver, and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Fr. Tyrell Alles
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The Baptism of the Lord

  • January 13, 2008
  • by Fr. Dominic Lenk

  • Isaiah 42:1-4. 6-7
  • Acts 10:34-38
  • Matthew 3:13-17

For the past three weeks we have been celebrating the mystery of the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ, our God Incarnate. And today, as we bring our celebration of Christmas to a close before entering into the green of Ordinary Time, we hear these words from Jesus directed to John the Baptist when Our Lord presented himself to be baptized, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Some would say that Jesus submitted to John’s baptism out of humility even though he did not need this baptism of repentance. They would be partly right, for our Lord did indeed act out of humility when he appeared at the Jordan River. And it is true that Jesus did not need this baptism of repentance. However, what this act shows us is Jesus’ willingness, or better yet, this act shows us Jesus’ desire to fully enter into the human experience, the human condition. And this is something which some, if not many, humans have had difficulty accepting through the centuries.

There are those of us who tend to over-emphasize the transcendent nature of Jesus at the expense of his immanence, his closeness to us. I will grant you that there are those who over-emphasize the humanity — the immanence — of Jesus at the expense of his transcendence — his divinity — but that’s another homily for another day.

For those who’ve read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, you will recall an ongoing conversation which the main character of the story, William of Baskerville, holds with another monk. The basis for their conversation rests on the question, “Did Jesus laugh?”
This monk (whose name escapes me at the present) insists that Jesus did not laugh because it is not mentioned in any of the Gospels. Plus, it would be unseemly for Jesus to laugh since he is God. William of Baskerville, however, remarks that Jesus must have laughed because some of the Gospel stories are so humorous.
What human wouldn’t laugh at some of the episodes of Jesus’ life and ministry as told to us in the Gospels. You can easily imagine Jesus laughing when after performing a miracle the disciples miss the point of it one more time. Anyway, the Gospels tell us that Jesus wept. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus and over the City of Jerusalem before entering into his Passion. And so if he wept, it makes sense that he would also laugh.

Being able to laugh or cry is a true human emotion, and for our Lord to be able to do either means that he had to fully embrace what it meant to be human. And so it is indeed fitting that Jesus says to John the Baptist, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

For these past three weeks as we have recalled the mystery of the Incarnation, we may have reflected on what it meant for our God to be raised by two ordinary human beings. Jesus gave of himself to them aware of his destiny. Mary and Joseph gave of themselves to him — caring for Him, teaching him — perhaps unaware of his destiny of giving his life on the cross for our salvation.
Yet what all three shared was their openness to the will of God the Father. Mary’s fiat given to the archangel Gabriel as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, “Let it be done to me as you say.” Joseph’s quiet obedience as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Having heard the angel’s message in a dream, he does not hesitate to do what he has been asked to do. Our Lord’s own words in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “not my will, but your will be done.” These are the words that we will say in a little while before receiving communion when we pray, “Our Father, . . . thy will be done.”
A little over a week ago we celebrated the feast of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native born U.S. saint. In reflecting on the celebration of that feast, I came across a quote from her writings that is fitting for us this day. She wrote, “What was the first rule of our dear Savior’s life? You know it was to do his Father’s will. Well, then, the first purpose of our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will. We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”

I am sure that Mother Seton would agree that it is not just grace that carries us through every obstacle and difficulty. It is also our Lord’s example of entering into the human condition and living it to the full. When counseling teenagers, I tell them to imagine what Jesus must have been like when he was their age. I invite them to think about how he would respond to the challenges that they are facing today.
It is true that some resist the idea, but for others you can see in their faces that they begin to understand how they should try to respond because they finally realize that Jesus was a teenager at one time in his life and not just a baby who skipped adolescence and became an adult — as the gospel stories seem to suggest.

Perhaps our faith would be richer if we had a Gospel that told us about Jesus the teenager. A Gospel that told us about his growing pains. A Gospel which answered such questions as “Did Jesus ever break curfew?” or “Who did he hang out with on Saturday nights in Nazareth?”.

Then again, we really don’t need that type of Gospel since what we know of Jesus through the Gospels that we do have gives us a fairly clear picture of someone who was truly human. Though it is not recorded that he laughed, it is recorded that Jesus wept. It is also recorded that he enjoyed eating (as evidenced by the many stories that revolved around meals). We have read that he expressed anger, impatience, and compassion. All of which are qualities or attributes that we share as humans. And since he was able to express these human qualities, we see the truth of the words by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was like us in all things but sin.
It was by his humanity that Jesus showed us how to live our lives so that we could become one with God. As one of the early Church Fathers said, “The Divine became human, so that the human could become divine.” Perhaps another way to express this truth would be to say, “Jesus became one with us, to give us an example of living in this life, so that we could become one with him in the next life.”

Fr. Dominic Lenk
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Solemnity of the Epiphany

  • January 13, 2008
  • by Fr. Simon
  • Isaiah 60:1–6
  • Eph. 3:2–3a, 5–6
  • Matthew 2:1–12

“The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1) Those are the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard from the Hebrew teachers who had emigrated to our distant lands. We didn’t really understand their significance until one day, when we had started out on a journey to the west, we saw an unusual star. Our guides were very experienced astrologers and even they were overcome by the brightness of one particular star which seemed to be in an unusual place. Yet it seemed to be roughly in the direction in which we had elected to travel. They asked us should we follow the normal stars or follow that particular bright star. After some prayer and debate we decided to chance it and follow the bright star. Perhaps we were in fact those people who, up to now, had “lived in darkness”.

We are sages but we are also merchants. I mean, you have to live even to be a sage. Melchior here was carrying gold bullion and I, Balthazar, was carrying gum, tragacanth and various incenses. We knew each other and had often traveled together for safety. Caspar we did not know but met at his tent near Babylon, as we were seeking night shelter. He was a merchant of spices and scents, including myrrh and seemed eager to travel with us. Again, it was safety in numbers, I suppose. Mind you we weren’t alone: we had all our wives, servants, chattels, bodyguards and many animals with us. When we stopped somewhere we consumed a lot of food! Heading up from the Assyrian desert we were pretty exhausted and anxious to off-load some of our cargo in the markets at Damascus. There local Jewish people had also seen the star and told that they thought it was an omen of something very significant. This confirmed what we too had begun to think as we recalled those words of the Hebrews back home, quoting their prophets, something about “a star advancing from Jacob and a staff rising from Israel” (Numbers 24:17). It was all a bit vague but seemed to mean a lot to them. Our astrologers too assured us that they had never seen this star before; it must bode something new and the most likely, according to tradition, a kingly birth. We traveled on down via the small town of Philadelphia and crossed the Jordan opposite Jericho where we put up for the night. There many people as much as told us that this star could mean the birth of the true king of Israel instead of that awful Herod dynasty which the Romans had imposed.

As you can imagine, entering Jerusalem with our entourage we made no small impression and people were besieging us for our goods. and money, of course. News got pretty quickly to King Herod, not only of our arrival but also of this rumor about a new-born king of Israel. Herod, knowing that we were in town and that we were of no small political significance in our own countries, asked to see us. None of us liked him much: he was smarmy, effusive and half-drunk. At first, we could not understand why he wanted to see the child we were heading to see. The star which, till now, we had seen from the east was clearly sitting over a fixed point, now to our south. The king asked his sages where the future Messiah king was to be born and he quoted the prophet . as saying: “But you Bethlehem-Ephratha, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel”. (Micah 5:1). Well, that seemed pretty clear even to us, though we had no idea where Bethlehem was. You take the 270 towards Hebron, someone said, and it’s about a league and a half down that road. So Herod gave us leave to find out and we promised rather weakly to report back on our return.
We off-loaded much of our cargo at the markets in Jerusalem with some of our wives and servants to broker the sale. Meanwhile we prepared to set off with only that which we considered absolutely necessary if we were indeed to meet a king, even a baby king. We took a consignment of gold, a large box of frankincense and a flask of myrrh. On our arrival at Bethlehem things were not as we expected. The star stood above but it was not clear over which building so we asked around. Many people seemed quite indifferent as if just another poor baby had been landed on the town and the sooner its parents went back north the better. Others were greatly excited, especially a shepherd family we met. But it wasn’t easy because we must have looked ridiculously dressed for this poor place. Anyway, to our astonishment, we found the child lying in a manger in an ox’s stall with Mary his mother and Joseph and two older people whom I took to be her parents and who offered us a scone and something to drink. Seeing the place and the poverty, we instinctively shrank back; it was wrong of us really but you can’t be too careful, can you. Almost as we were saying, “no”, all three of us just sank to our knees before this adorable child, which he was, and offered him our quite incongruous gifts. Gold because we knew he was the king, frankincense because he was God, and Caspar offered him myrrh in recognition of his future death. This seemed to us incredibly gloomy until, when we were on our way back, Caspar began to explain, mentioning among other things that he was an undertaker. The baby was gorgeous and smiled at the gold, trying to grab it with his tiny fingers. “Obviously going to be a banker”, we chuckled. The box of frankincense seemed to bemuse him but seeing the myrrh he grimaced, turned to his mother and cried. His grandfather suggested that we take these precious things and put them in safekeeping for a later day, which we did.

All the time Joseph seemed to be packing things up, as if they were heading back home. But I heard him say something about Egypt. We stayed only a few minutes; somehow it seemed the right thing to do. They were very kind but we must have looked out of place. We knew deep down that we did not wish to see Herod again. Our fears were confirmed by a dream that night warning us not to return to Jerusalem so, next day, we rejoined the 270 and headed south for Hebron and thence to the road which runs via Masada, knowing that this road would lead us around the bottom of the Dead Sea and back home via the southern route. All the time our fears for the child increased. What did Herod have in mind? Did he honestly see this baby as some kind of rival? Where was Joseph packing up for? Only when we had passed the Dead Sea and were half-way across the Negeb desert did we get news of the horror which had overtaken Bethlehem in the pursuit of this divine child. Not since the Pharaoh had slaughtered all those Israelite children all those centuries ago in Egypt, as our Jewish friends back home never ceased to remind us, had such a horror overtaken the Jewish people. And Joseph was now heading for Egypt; let’s hope it has changed.

Melchior and I didn’t go back to Jerusalem for some 20 years; commercially it wasn’t worth it, and we never saw Caspar again. But years later we heard of Jesus as a young man teaching and healing as it said the Messiah would. Then to our horror came a story of him being crucified. It seemed unimaginable that the Messiah, the Son of God, could be crucified. What could he have done? What could we have done, gone back to see it all? Who needed to be a spectator? We had seen it all at his birth. We knew that we had seen the Son of God but our Jewish friends had not yet explained that part of the prophecy of Isaiah where it says that the Messiah must suffer.
It was only when we returned home that we were able to contemplate the scriptures which our Hebrew brethren had taught us and which had caused us to set out in the first place. Only then did we realize the meaning of the word ‘faith’. Only then did we see that even we had been spoken of by the prophets and the psalmists centuries before our time. We began to read of how “Kings” – well, that was a bit exaggerated for us but we won’t object – “from distant lands would come and pay him tribute, bringing him gifts”, and of how “they would come with camels in throngs” and even “dromedaries” (Is. 60, 6) – actually, only Melchior could afford a dromedary: Caspar and I were on sort of Mark 1 camels – “would come bringing gold and incense”. The point was, as we later realized, that suddenly we represented the whole of the rest of the world, that untouchable pagan world which our Hebrew friends had so spoke of.

Some Greek-speaking believers around Jerusalem, who had seen the star too, called this an “epiphany”, a shining out. But to them at that time, it was only an exceptionally bright star which had shone out. To us it was the sign of royal birth, of a child of God, the very Son of God, for the star itself ceased to shine out from the time we saw the child. Now we realized that not only we but the whole world, both Jews and Gentiles, had indeed been walking in darkness, as Isaiah had said, and now, unknown to anyone around we were taking the true light of Christ to a whole new world. To the world we went hoping that from us whole nations would go and worship as we did. Only, they wouldn’t need to go all the way to Jerusalem or be guided by a star because now the light had shone out in our hearts to all nations.

Well, that’s their story and however allegorical some of it may be – and some would say all of it – they are sticking to it! It carries an essential truth for us: that the light does now shine out but it is a light which is essentially portable and, in a non-medical sense, ‘infectious’. The light shines out from our rebirth in Christ and others literally ‘catch’ it from us. How often do we sit and meditate just upon that glow within us before we begin to evangelize, before we consider imparting it to others. Do we see it or are we just speaking out to salve our consciences, or even doing nothing with it, “putting it under a tub”, as Jesus said? It was no accident also that the magi brought gifts, from which comes our custom of Christmas presents. A lovely custom, especially if you got what you wanted. But what do these presents mean if they do not betoken the heart. We monks heard St. Leo this morning in his sermon at matins saying: “As they (the Magi) opened their treasures and offered the Lord symbolic gifts, so let us bring forth gifts worthy of our hearts. He of course is the giver of every good gift but he still expects us to labor and produce fruit. The kingdom of heaven does not come to those who are half asleep but for those who are watchful and try to keep his commandments” And in that lovely Christmas carol, “In the bleak mid-winter” by Christina Rosette we have those final lines: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I have I give him – give my heart.”

Giving your heart does not mean rushing around doing good works for other people, or sending large checks to worthy causes, and then just carrying on as normal. Giving your heart means spending time with the Lord, as Mary did with Jesus, as all mothers know they have to do, time they could “so much better” spend on cleaning the house, cooking, checking their e-mails, saving lost causes or even campaigning for the best future president. But it is not about that. It is about spending time with God, about seeing his shining in you, discovering through his light that we have more than just an anatomical heart in our bodies. To us, in this Henry Ford “Time is Money” world, time is everything. To God our time is worth all the gold, the frankincense and myrrh in the world. Nor is it all about being purely Christ centered for Christ himself has centered himself upon us and through his light, his epiphany, he wants us to discover who we truly are. To conclude with the words of one of our Eucharistic prefaces, “In your light we see light”

Prior Simon McGurk
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