Homilies - May 2010

Select a homily to read:
Solemnity of St. Augustine of Canterbury: May 27, 2010 by Fr. James
The Solemnity of Pentecost: May 23, 2010 by Fr. Simon
The Ascension of the Lord: May 16, 2010 by Fr. James
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 9, 2010 by Fr. Boniface

Solemnity of St. Augustine of Canterbury

  • May 27, 2010
  • by Fr. James
  • 1 Peter 2:2-5
  • Mark 10:46-52

When reading the life of one or another saint, especially lives written some time ago, one often gets the impression that the saint had no flaws whatever but was totally dedicated to God and altogether fearless from childhood on. That lack of realism tends to make people suspicious about hagiography, but it’s not a danger with regard to today’s saint. When Augustine and a number of his fellow monks were deputed by Pope Gregory the Great to travel north to Britain in order to convert the Angles and Saxons, they had not gotten very far on their journey when they began to have second thoughts about the whole enterprise. We know this from the work of St. Bede, who tells us that while traveling north, the group “was seized with a sudden fear and began to think of returning home instead of proceeding to a barbarous, fierce, and unbelieving nation, to whose very language they were strangers.” They unanimously agreed that the safest course would be to turn back, so they sent their leader, Augustine, back to Rome to ask Gregory that that they “not be compelled to undertake so dangerous, toilsome, and uncertain a journey.”

We are fortunate to have the letter that Gregory wrote in reply. It begins in this way: “Since it would be better not to begin a good work than to think of desisting from what has once been begun, it behooves you, my dear sons, to fulfill this good work which, by the help of our Lord, you have undertaken. Therefore, do not let the toil of the journey or the tongues of evil-speaking men deter you, but with all possible earnestness and zeal perform that which, by God’s direction, you have undertaken, being assured that much labor is followed by an eternal reward.”

Gregory’s refusal to give in to their request led the group to proceed with their journey, and before too many more months had passed they had actually received an open welcome from Ethelbert, the king of Kent, who was himself eventually baptized along with many thousands of his people. Augustine himself lived for several more years as the first archbishop of Canterbury, never in serious danger of harm or death from the Saxons. When he died a peaceful death in the year 604, his tomb bore the following epitaph: “Here rests his lordship Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, who, having been sent here by the blessed Gregory, bishop of the city of Rome, and having been with God’s assistance supported by miracles, brought King Ethelbert and his nation from the worship of idols to the faith of Christ. Having ended the days of his office in peace, he died the 26th of May in the reign of the same king.”

One thing we can certainly learn—and take to heart—from what Bede tells us is that even a great saint like Augustine, the principal patron of our own English Benedictine Congregation, was not flawless. Indeed, at a crucial moment in his life he was rather cowardly, but happily he received encouragement from one who was a still greater saint, and through that encouragement he went on to do great service for God and the Church. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can surely see something of ourselves in Augustine, for there are times when we, too, have not shown the fortitude and confidence in God that one would expect of a genuine follower of Christ. Fortunate for us if, on such occasions, we have had a Gregory to counsel and support us. There is perhaps no better example of what the doctrine of the communion of saints means in a practical way than this, that in one way or another we regularly need one another for support, encouragement, and what today is often called tough love. St. Benedict himself tells us in his Rule that it is indeed permissible to ask one’s superior to rescind a charge if it really seems too difficult, but Benedict wisely adds that if the superior does not yield, then one must proceed, trusting in God to bring the good work to completion. After all, we ourselves may not have the clearest insight into what we are really capable of doing. As we now continue our celebration of the Eucharist, let us pray that by the example and intercession of St. Augustine we may never shrink from attempting to do something great and beautiful for God and for all God’s people.

Fr. James Wiseman
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The Solemnity of Pentecost

  • May 23, 2010
  • by Fr. Simon

The Excitement of the Spirit

Have you ever wanted to be a real Pentecostal, one of those highly elated Christians who confess to having been born or born again in the Spirit by full immersion, and even slain in the Spirit? Did you want to feel free and uninhibited like them so that your could wave your hands around in praise of the Lord, enthralled in the company of a great throng of highly enthused Christians poised to rush out and convert every moving being on the street, especially the Roman Catholics?. I have.

Although I am not sorry I was baptized as an infant, it would have been fun to have been re-done in some way, re-ignited, re-wired, re-configured. Yet, of course I was, we all were. We were confirmed, probably as adolescents, and then sent forth with renewed spirit to face the adult world. But did it all seem like that then or was it like a process, something which everyone in your class or your parish group did?

Well, if it didn’t happen that way, so be it. Neither were you born perfect; you may not have been born with human gifts to shake the world, to make you a candidate for the presidency, to reach to the top and have three yachts, 5 mansions and 2 airplanes. Lucky for you! What happens and how it all happens can be as random as our creation. Just as random are God’s unique acts of love which you have enjoyed even since your birth, and with superabundance since your re-birth.

And so here we are today. We didn’t need to be here. Millions more people are not here than are here. God called us to celebrate with special devotion today because once he called his closest disciples to celebrate the dramatic experience of his descent in Spirit upon an amorphous, multi-racial, perplexed and partly hostile crowd in Jerusalem. That was what we call the birthday of the church, the birthday of the body of Christ, not just in the flesh this time but in the Spirit too. Today, as I have reminded you in previous years, is again the birthday of the church for is it not our tradition to celebrate birthdays every year?

Today we have heard the scriptures about that great event and we know that it is happening in us too as it did to those disciples at the beginning, for they were not more privileged and chosen than we are today. We all share the same Spirit to the same degree. We face a different crowd. Our crowd might still be described as amorphous and certainly multi-racial, but perplexed – yes – and here in the U.S. and throughout much of the northern hemisphere it might be better described as indifferent rather than hostile. But whatever the description, they need the Spirit as much as those earlier inhabitants of Jerusalem and peoples from Mesopotamia, Pontus, Phrygia, Pamphylia, not forgetting those parts of Libya around Cyrene, and so on. For the Spirit was not given to the apostles for their enjoyment, it was given to be spread to the utmost bounds of the earth.

Whilst it is true that the Spirit comes to individuals, and surely comes to us in this way at special times, yet the true mode of the Spirit is to work through the whole body because the Spirit’s work is to unite and to generate love, and love is of its nature something to be shared.

In today’s gospel we have a more discreet Pentecost, more akin to the breath of God hovering over the primeval chaos. Jesus comes into the upper room where the disciples are cowering in fear of the Jews. He breathes on them and imparts to them that same power which, in the beginning, renewed the face of the earth. He gives them power with unexpected authority, authority such as he would have had were he to remain but that is not the Father’s will. Just as he was able to give or withhold healing during his ministry on earth, so will his members be. Just as he was able to withhold the forgiveness of sins so will they be, and indeed we have several instances of this right away in the Acts of the Apostles, Simon the magician, Ananias and Sapphira, the seven sons of Sceva and Bar-Jesus, the magician on Cyprus, to name a few. The gifts of the Spirit are both free and not cheap. This gifting of the Spirit by Jesus was personal to the apostles and anyone else in that upper room, which may have included Mary and the holy women. The dramatic event of Pentecost was the going forth of the Spirit of Jesus through all the earth.

But is it just some kind of sweeping and communal spirit or does it apply to you and me personally? Well, St. Paul tries to answer that in his letter to the Romans which we just heard. He speaks of the divine Spirit speaking to our spirit and giving us power to cry out to our heavenly Father, “Abba, Father”, just as Jesus did so many times when he said, “Father, Abba, the hour has come”, “Father, abba, I have kept those you have given me true to your name”, “Father, Abba, forgive them,” etc. We could go on. That was the divine Spirit speaking in Jesus. Now the Spirit speaks in us giving us too that power to cry out, to plead with our heavenly Father to hear us on behalf of all mankind, for we are their priests and their prophets. Paul tells us that by the Spirit we are made children of God and if children, then heirs. But this necessitates a little suffering, he reminds us, a suffering which will lead us to be glorified with him. And is not that where we long to be, with Him in glory?

It’s all terribly exciting isn’t it? It’s so exciting that our Pentecostal brethren want to go around converting Roman Catholics to its sheer excitement. Do we need them or can we ourselves capture it directly from God, on line as it were.

Prior Simon McGurk
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The Ascension of the Lord

  • May 16, 2010
  • by Fr. James
  • Acts 1:1-11
  • Ephesians 1:17-23
  • Luke 24:46-53

Whenever we think about today’s feast of the Ascension, I dare say we normally think of Jesus as in some sense departing, even though we believe that he continues to be present to us in a new way through his Holy Spirit. What I’d like to focus on, for a change, is not his departing but his coming—even, in a sense, his “coming again.” After all, we just heard a phrase from the end of our first reading, where it is said that “this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” We regularly profess our belief in his return in acclamations during the Eucharistic Prayer, such as when we sing, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” or “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.” In addition, this “coming again” is an article of faith found in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. In just a few minutes we will recite the latter creed, professing our belief that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

However often we profess this, I dare say that it isn’t something that we think about a great deal, and if we do reflect on it, I suspect that it raises as many questions as it answers. What, really, are we to make of Jesus’ “coming again in glory”? Does it mean that at some future time people could read or hear news reports announcing that Jesus of Nazareth had returned to earth and could be seen at such and such a location? Some early Christians probably did expect something just like that, but it surely makes a lot more sense to understand this article of our faith in a different way. To do so, let me turn to the Greek word that is regularly used in the New Testament to express this mystery, the word parousia. The very same word has been taken over into English, so for now I will not even translate it with some other term.

Parousia is a word used of Jesus and of his messianic advent about twenty times in the Gospels and Epistles. For example, near the end of Matthew’s Gospel the disciples at one point ask Jesus, “What will be the sign of your parousia and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). Or again, in the First Letter to the Thessalonians St. Paul prays that his readers may “be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the parousia of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones” (l Thess 3:13). This Greek word has often been translated as “second coming,” but that is actually not correct and is even quite misleading. The word parousia means literally “presence” or “arrival.” Among other things, in ancient Greece it was used to refer to the ceremonial visit of a ruler to a particular city or country. Used of Jesus, it does not mean the repetition of some event that already occurred when, as we say, the Word became flesh and lived among us in ancient Palestine. Rather, parousia refers to the fulfillment of all human history when, as Paul writes elsewhere, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). There is no possible way for us to predict just what this will look like, but in the most basic sense it means that God will then call home to himself all those who allow themselves to be so called.

This is a yearning that in some way all of us must have, for that fellowship with the Father in Christ is our true vocation and homeland. The early Christians had this yearning to a preeminent degree, as seen in the fact that the very last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, concludes with the word Maranatha, which could be translated as “Come, Lord Jesus!” This same yearning to be in close proximity with the Lord is also found in some of the most inspiring literature written just after the time of the New Testament, as in that famous letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans in which he urged them not to do anything to have his sentence of death commuted, since martyrdom in the Colosseum would allow him to be fully with the Lord as soon as possible. True, it is there a matter of Ignatius going to Jesus rather than Jesus coming to him, but the yearning is just as intense as what we find in the New Testament.

This yearning should mark our lives as well, but not simply in some individualistic sense. Years before he became pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote a fine article about the Ascension in which he said that the exaltation of Jesus that we celebrate in this feast actually makes itself felt in history by the witness of the faithful who spread the Good News and who do so precisely so that others may also have the possibility of this deep fellowship and communion with the Lord. In other words, we ought never want to be saved without simultaneously wanting the same blessing for everyone else. This is at least one reason why the seventeenth-century French school of spirituality, represented by figures like St. John Eudes and Jean-Jacques Olier, could actually speak of the feast of the Ascension as “our feast” and not simply as a feast of the Lord.

There is also a sense in which the parousia is not only something future, to which we look forward in hope. Some of our best theologians have taught that in fact every celebration of the Eucharist is a parousia, a coming of the Lord. That’s worth reflecting on carefully. Even as we hope one day to be fully united with the Lord in heavenly bliss, that union already begins here and now, above all in the greatest of all the sacraments when we receive the very being of the Lord Jesus, his life-giving body and blood, in the Eucharist. A couple years ago we had read during meals here at the abbey a book giving the personal accounts of various people who had converted to the Catholic faith. What struck me about the chapters in that book is that time and time again the converts said that what most drew them to the Church was the Eucharist. Here, for example, is what one woman said:

Without the sacraments there is no sense in which God is in real and particular contact with [us]…. The difficulty I was finding with a Christian tradition that consisted only of music, testimony, and Scripture was that I longed to know the certainty of encounter with Christ, [one] not dependent on the human activity of music or emotion alone. The encounter I longed for was explained in the Catholic view of the grace of the Eucharist, where Christ meets us personally as we receive [his] body and blood … in the bread and wine…. Once I understood what was on offer, I longed to know the intimacy of the sacramental encounter with Christ which could take me into the heart of his love and into the heart of his loving family, the Church…. The Eucharist continues to be the most precious thing, where I can continually meet with my Lord Jesus … [and where] I am empowered to reach out to others … as brothers and sisters of Christ and brothers and sisters of mine.

What that woman wrote should not sound surprising. If we take seriously what Jesus proclaims in the Fourth Gospel—where he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:54)—then we cannot ignore the truth that such eternal life begins already here and now. After all, Jesus says that such a person “has eternal life,” not “will have eternal life.”

As we continue with our celebration on this great feast of the Ascension—our feast as well as that of our Lord—let us then be mindful of what it is we are doing each and every time we gather for the Eucharist, so that what has truly begun here and now may one day reach its completion, when even “the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Fr. James Wiseman
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Joseph Ratzinger, in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968-70), s.v. “Ascension.”
See, e.g., Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 203.
Patricia Gibbons, “Blood and Fire: From the Salvation Army to the Catholic Church,” in The Path to Rome: Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church, ed. Dwight Longenecker (Leominster, U.K.: Gracewing, 1999), 234-40, passim.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

  • May 9, 2010
  • by Fr. Boniface
  • Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
  • Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
  • John 14:23-29

“I Saw the New Jerusalem Coming Down Out of Heaven”

A number of years ago I spent a ten day vacation in Bermuda. Friends of mine had been there before me on their honeymoon and I had seen their slides as well as the usual postcards and pictures. Living on that beautiful, sunlit island was another matter. How can I describe the brilliant sky, the transparent blue green water in which you could see the colorful fish swimming, the fantastic rock formation formed by wind and sea, the lagoons surrounded by palm trees and the kindness and gentleness of the natives. You have to go there and see for yourself.

Again, quite a few years ago now, I came to Washington from Philadelphia to see the King Tut exhibit. I waited eight hours in line. While waiting there in that long line, I wondered whether I would be disappointed when I finally got to see the exhibit. After all, I had seen pictures and reproductions of the objects found among the pharaoh’s grave goods. When I actually stepped into the exhibit, I was unprepared for what I saw: the exquisite gold and gem studded jewelry, the wonderfully carved images so subtly executed that a simple suggestion of a line betrayed the whole movement of the body, and finally the mask of the king himself which made you aware that you were in the presence of royalty. Words cannot adequately express my reaction. You had to be there.

Again, many years ago now, I had a dream in which I heard the most beautiful music. I cannot even begin to describe it. Even the memory of it haunts me and fills me with longing. I wish you had been there with me to hear that music with me. I long to hear it again.

If this difficulty of bringing into words is true of an island, of objects made by human beings, or even of a dream, imagine what it must be like to describe an encounter with God. Created words cannot even come close. All we can do is but stammer. We can only use signs and symbols to convey some sense of what was seen when an edge of the veil has been lifted by God. And even these stammer. This has been the fate of the mystics and seers through every age. These images only point to and are not meant to be taken literally. They must remain in the realm of mystery. So it is with the vision of “the holy city” in our second reading.

John’s vision took him by surprise while on the island of Patmos: “[An angel] took me in spirit to a great, high mountain” (Rev 21:10). This is reminiscent of St. Paul’s experience, who wrote: “I know someone in Christ, who was caught up to the third heaven…into Paradise and heard words which cannot be uttered, words which no man may speak” (2 Cor 12:2-4).

John saw “the holy city Jerusalem” coming down out of heaven filled with the glory of God. It gleamed with the splendor of God and now John begins to speak of jewels, jasper and crystal, light, walls and gates, names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles, in order to express the beautiful perfection of the city. He speaks of the continuous day of eternity spent in God’s presence which drive away darkness forever and in which there will be no mourning or tears but everlasting peace and joy. In that city we will have found the fulfillment of our destiny.

Every city had its temples, and Jerusalem was known for its single temple, the dwelling place of God on earth, the cultic center of Jewish life. By the time St. John wrote his book of revelations Jerusalem together with its temple lay in ruins. In the new and heavenly Jerusalem of John’s vision there is no temple, and indeed no need for a temple for “its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” God is everywhere present dwelling among and within the inhabitants of the city. The inhabitants themselves are the temples in which God abides.

`The holy city seen in John’s vision is an image of the church. In the verse preceding today’s second reading, we read: “Come I will show you the woman who is the bride of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9). This reading asks us to consider the relationship between the community of the faithful in the here and now and the fullness of the kingdom yet to come. The relationship is one of “already and not yet.” The church, in spite of the defections, scandals, divisions and persecutions that we experience in the here and now, is the beginning of the final victory of God over evil, the beginning of the people who will live with God for all eternity. Although this is God’s work, we are called by our baptism to journey towards this goal for the sake of the church and for ourselves and to be the channels of God’s grace to help bring this about. But it is important always to keep this final goal and image before us as our final destination.

“Already and not yet.” It is in our gospel that Jesus tells us how this will begin and proceed in the now and finally come to be in its fullness: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn 14:22). Love is central. It characterizes God, is made manifest in Christ Jesus and should characterize Jesus’ disciples. This is not a sentimental love, but a love that bears fruit in our daily lives. We imitate Jesus: perhaps volunteering to help a sick neighbor, working for justice and the removal of oppression, accepting the outcast and becoming a people of peace, loving in a broken world. Loving the Lord and keeping his word are the same thing.

Abiding in Jesus’ word and living by his teaching brings us not only into a deep relationship with him but also the Father. That indwelling of God which characterizes the heavenly Jerusalem begins in the here and now. No one could ever have imagined such intimacy with the Father and the Son/ Long ago, the prophet Zecheriah spoke in God’s name: “Lo, I will come and dwell in your midst,” and we are blessed to live in a fulfillment beyond the prophet’s wildest dreams God and Jesus make their home in the believer as they keep Jesus’ words, not out of obligation owed to a superior power but in receiving Jesus’ word as the loving word of the Father. Throughout the ages, many holy people, living totally in self offering to God and neighbor, have reported a sense of the abiding presence of God. “ Love separates the saints from the world” (St. Augustine).
The strongest witness in favor of God’s victory in his church is the visible presence of God’s love and abiding presence in certain people. — known publicly perhaps like a Mother Teresa, or as hidden as our next door neighbor. There is an inner fire that lights up their words and brings peace, a peace which is not of this world, to all those around them. They already live in the new Jerusalem. We are called to be of their number, and may Christ bring us all together to that heavenly Jerusalem.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year. Volume 3: Easter Triduum/Easter Season (Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 1993) 195, 196.
Daniel Pilarczyk, Live Letters: Reflections on the Second Readings of the Sunday Lectionary (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1989 165
David L. Tiede, New Proclamation, Year C: Easter Throughout Christ the King (Minneapolis, Minn, Fortress Press, 2007) 54.
Days of the Lord, 198