Homilies - February 2011

Select a homily to read:
Eighth Sunday of the Year: February 27, 2011 by Fr. Christopher
Sixth Sunday of the Year: February 13, 2011 by Fr. James
Fifth Sunday of the Year: February 5, 2011 by Fr. Hilary

Eighth Sunday of the Year

  • February 27, 2011
  • by Fr. Christopher

  • Isaiah 49:14-15
  • 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
  • Matthew 6:24-34

I wonder if the Indian mystic Meher Baba was familiar with today’s gospel when in the 1960’s he made popular this advice to his devotees: “Do your best, don’t worry, be happy. I will help you. ” In an abbreviated version, “Don’t worry, be happy,” it became a hit song by Bobby McFerrin in the nineteen eighties.

Jesus seems to be giving the same advice in today’s gospel. Don’t worry about tomorrow, God as a provident father will see to it that you have the basic necessities of life, food, shelter, and clothing. When I have a comfortable, safe place to lay my head at night and meals on the table each day, how do I tell someone who has lost his job and cannot find work, or say to families that have been put out of their homes, “Don’t worry; be happy”? Given the impact of the world’s political, ecological and economic crises on families, communities, and whole nations that advice sounds Pollyanna-ish, like putting one’s head in the sand, hoping problems will go away by themselves.

With high unemployment rates, with people losing their homes by foreclosures, with blatant greed at the highest corporate level, with the decline in sexual mores in society, with the revelations of years of covered-up abuses by representatives of the church, with the heartless trafficking of women and illegal immigrants, with…need I go on, you name it .… who can honestly live the words, “Don’t worry. Be happy”? Isn’t that a denial of the hard reality of the suffering caused by greed, injustices, indifference, lusts, and abuse of power in a broken world?

When we look back in history we find not much has changed fundamentally, only the external circumstances. Was the prospect of the future any different at the time of Pope Gregory the Great when the political world of the Roman empire had fallen apart, when the Holy City was sacked again and again by Goths and Vandals leaving the city in shambles, when floods and natural disasters were compounding the human misery? No wonder the Pope thought the end of the world must be near. Was it any different in the time of the thirty years’ war of the 17th century when St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac worked tirelessly to ease the devastating suffering it caused, especially to the poor? Was the dismal state of the world ever any different since the fall of Adam and Eve?

Jesus himself warned us there would be wars and rumors of wars until he comes again to shake out this old creation and make a new one. While we wait none of us can really say that the trajectories of world events do not impinge threateningly on our lives and our future well-being: Any one of the present-day threats to world peace and the common good is enough to keep you awake at night. Every ‘today’ indeed has enough troubles of its own. Even St. Paul expressed worry about the soundness of the faith and the unity in the churches he established or promoted.

In spite of all the doomsday headlines and the daily anxieties, Jesus tells us to seek his kingdom first, then all that is needed will be given us. We know that everything here in this present world is in flux, always changing, while we go about searching for an elusive security blanket, a Rock of Gibraltar. In the responsory to the first reading we sang with the psalmist that God alone is our rock, our stronghold, our refuge, and safety. What could offer us more hope for inner peace than knowing God like a loving mother who will never forget her child and like a forgiving father who is always ready to embrace his wayward adopted sons and daughters?

St. Paul wrote to the Romans that God makes all things work together for the good of those who have been called according to his decree. (Rom 8:28). Julian of Norwich wrote with conviction that in the end all will be well, very well. So maybe cockeyed optimism about the future can be based on faith in a God who so loved the world that he sent his beloved Son to be our Savior. Jesus is the true anchor that keeps us from shipwreck in the storms of life. He is the true rock from which flows life-giving water to slake our thirst. His sacrifice has a timeless power to forgive the sins for all generations. He is absolutely trustworthy and dependable because he is the same, today, yesterday, and forever.

St. Paul concludes chapter 8 of Romans with these bold encouraging words:

“Who [what] will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? … For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

In the meantime while we wait, let us believe that our personal struggle for the amendment of vices and preservation of charity, that our efforts to promote greater justice and peace in the world, and that our submission to God’s will whatever it costs, all these good works will hasten the time of the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ. He is our peace and reconciliation. Our belief in his life, death and resurrection for our sake are the reasons we are a people of hope. As the Holy Father says we view the chaotic world differently from those who have no hope.

We turn now to the altar to offer him as our acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God our Father, who with his Son and Holy Spirit deserves our praise, worship, obedience and complete trust, now and forever. AMEN.

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Sixth Sunday of the Year

  • February 13, 2011
  • by Fr. James
  • Sirach 15:15-20
  • 1 Corinthians 2:6-10
  • Matthew 5:17-37

“Immense is the wisdom of the Lord,” proclaims the Old Testament author of the Book of Sirach in our first reading. Then, in our second reading, St. Paul continues this theme when he says to the Corinthians, “We speak of God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” Elsewhere, Paul speaks of Jesus himself as the wisdom of God, an identification taken up by spiritual writers, poets, musicians, and artists down the centuries. Indeed, among the many icons of the Eastern Church, some of the most striking depict Jesus Christ under the title “The Wisdom of God.” In these, Jesus is regularly shown with his right hand in a gesture of benediction while his left hand holds a book of the Gospels open to one or another passage, such as his invitation to all those “who labor and are heavy laden.”

If one considered only such statements and artistic portrayals of wisdom, one might well come away feeling inspired and uplifted, but one would also end up with a very one-sided understanding of what Scripture, and St. Paul in particular, have to say about wisdom. In verses from First Corinthians preceding what we heard today, Paul emphasizes the complete contrast between worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom, the latter appearing to be sheer foolishness to many humans. Just how foolish Christian belief seemed to many in the early history of the Church is indicated by an image that was carved on a plaster wall on the Palatine Hill in Rome, probably dating from the early third century and showing a man named Alexamenos worshipping a crucified person who has the head of a donkey or ass. Art historians are not unanimous about how to interpret this image, but that it was actually intended to ridicule Christian beliefs is supported by the fact that Tertullian, in his treatise To the Nations that was written around that time, reports that Christians were often accused of worshipping a deity with the head of an ass. This is an especially offensive indication of what Paul meant by what he called “the wisdom of this age” and by “the message of the cross” being “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).

Nor was it only the Church’s proclamation of the cross that many found—and still find—hard to accept. Jesus himself constantly spoke in ways that challenged human standards of judgment. Think only, for example, of the parable of the Good Samaritan, where it is a person from a hated and despised group who is held up as a model to be imitated, or the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, where once more it is an outsider, someone disdained for collaborating with the Roman occupation forces, who leaves the temple forgiven and restored to God’s gracious favor. These are just particular instances illustrating that constant refrain of the Gospels, that the last will be first and the first last, a truth that makes it practically impossible for any of us to judge the heart of another person or to know for sure how he or she stands in the sight of God.

There are some striking examples of this in our own day. Here’s a short account that was written by man who is employed at a plant up in New England. He writes:

One of my workmates is a mechanic. I’ve known him for more than a decade. We pull one another’s leg a lot. He bums tobacco from me … and he’s a bit of a character, especially when he’s had a few beers. But it was only recently that I learned … that he and his wife have taken in an incredible number of foster children over the years. When I asked him about it, he told me quite simply of the multiple joys and sorrows this has brought him. His obvious love for these children whom nobody wanted, his generosity and willingness to accept heartbreak, was so far beyond anything I was capable of that I could only admire it from a distance. The guy is not particularly pious or intellectual. He simply gives, without fanfare and without expecting anything in return.

In this connection, there’s also an interesting story that has come out of Medjugorje. I realize that there is still a lot of controversy over whether or not the apparitions there are genuine, and the Church has understandably been taking a very long time to render any official judgment. Still, there is no doubt but that some persons there have had visions, and on one occasion one of the visionaries asked Mary who was the holiest person in their village. To their surprise, it turned out to be an old Muslim woman to whom no one had paid much attention. This is so much in accord with the kind of surprise that Jesus regularly gives us in his parables that it might well support the authenticity of those apparitions.

Such persons as that mechanic in New England or the obscure Muslim woman in Medjugorje are what a number of writers in recent decades have been calling “hidden” or “masked” saints. A man who teaches at King’s College, London, put it well when he wrote some years ago that people like these “are the truly small,… Their freedom is that they are hidden from themselves as well as from others. Life has beaten pretension out of them by its inscrutable ascetical trial, and they simply stand empty before God.”

All this tells us at least two very important truths about our faith: First, we must never dare think that we have someone else all figured out and can confidently judge just where he or she stands in God’s eyes. Jesus’ words about tax-collectors and sinners entering the kingdom ahead of the conventionally righteous are just as true today as when he first uttered them. Second, we ought never conclude that this so-called “hidden” or “masked sanctity” is not very demanding. The fact that it might not be evident to others does not at all mean that it comes without a cost. When that mechanic was asked about all the foster children that he and his wife had taken in, he readily admitted that they had often brought sorrow and heartbreak into their lives. I myself know a couple in my home town who adopted two boys from an orphanage when it turned out that they were unable to have children of their own. For several years things went along very well for all four of them, but as the boys entered their teen years they became very involved with drugs; one of them died of an overdose and the other ran away from home. This was truly heartbreaking for the couple, and yet I’m sure that what they had tried to do for those children was inspired by their desire to live in accord with God’s wisdom rather than the “wisdom of this age.” Living out the Gospel is not without risks and can never guarantee a successful outcome according to normal, human standards. We do not, however, live simply for this life, but rather in expectation of what Paul, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, tells us at the end of today’s reading: “‘What eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him’—this God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10).

Confident that this Spirit has been given us, first at baptism and later as a gift renewed at this and every Eucharist, let us resolve once more to live as fully as possible according to Jesus’ teaching and example, venturing to do even great things for the benefit of all the various communities to which we belong, and concerned only to do what we ought without any regard for whether or not our efforts win the approval of others. After all, as Sirach tells us in our first reading, it is no human being but rather God alone who “sees all he has made … [and] understands [our] every deed.”

Fr. James Wiseman
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Jerry Ryan, “Masked Mysticism: Everyday Suffering, Everyday Sanctity,” Commonweal, Dec. 17, 2010, p. 14.
Ibid.
Hunter Brown, “The Hidden Contemplatives: Thomas Merton and the Laity,” Canadian Catholic Review 3 (1985): 301.

 

Fifth Sunday of the Year

  • February 5, 2011
  • by Fr. Hilary
  • Isaiah 58:7-10
  • 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
  • Matthew 5:13-16

Today’s Gospel passage is from St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” in chapter 5, which begins with the words,

“When he saw the crowds he went up the mountainside After he had sat down his disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them” (verse 1).

Our passage follows the opening verses of the Sermon, on the Beatitudes. More directly than in the Beatitudes, Jesus gives three metaphors expressing the character and quality of discipleship. First. “You are the salt of the earth.” In my dialect, if we say “she is the salt of the earth,” we mean, “that is a very fine person;” would you agree?

That’s not what Jesus means in this context. The chemical that is salt cannot “go bad,” like milk, but can be contaminated with materials that weaken its power, make it “lose its savor.” Salt, we know, is “both a spice and a preservative. So is a good teacher”1 Then he says, “You are the light of the world,” and adds a brief instant parable:, “A city on a mountain cannot be hidden” Like that city, such a city, the work of the disciples will become highly visible.

Jesus then gives another illustration, about a lamp. Commentators tell us to imagine a typical dark, one room house of the time. A lamp makes everything visible. (Do you remember, from our experience of the power outage, last week, the darkness of a room without electricity?)

Jesus concludes, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly father” (verse 16).We have then these three qualities, aspects of discipleship, “that serve to define the identity of those who follow Jesus faithfully. 2

What are those good deeds that act as a shining light before others? In a way our first reading from Isaiah provides a magnificent commentary on the Gospel. That may seem “backwards,” but so it is. Chapter 58 presents advice to the community that had returned to Judea after being freed from the Babylonian captivity. Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel presents the scene of the last judgment, in which the “Son of man” addresses the “sheep” who are saved:

Come; you have my father blessing . . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me.

In Saint Luke’s Gospel: we hear of Jesus, at a early point in his ministry, speaking in the synagogue at Nazareth. He begins his discourse with a quotation from Isaiah., chapter 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, therefore he has anointed me, He has sent me to bring good news to the poor . . . (Luke 4:18)

The quotation also mentions help and deliverance for captives, the blind, prisoners.

This announcement in Isaiah, chapter 61 is. similar to the portion from Isaiah, chapter 58 which we heard this morning in our first reading. What is the situation? A humbled people have returned from defeat and captivity in Babylon. to Judea. The prophet calls them to a deeper ideal than was evident in the style that led to their captivity. Not only must they rebuild the temple, try to retrieve its former glory, but also, to quote that first reading,

Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.

In an era of reconstruction, these calls were a serious part of their ideal. This ideal became a part of Jewish tradition. I recall reading a description by St Edith Stein of her childhood in the nineteen twenties, a description of her Jewish household were there was great concern for the poor.

What of ourselves?. . .The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II begins with a statement that “:the Church is called to be the community which sheds on all peoples the radiance of the light of Christ.” In 1993 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a statement entitled, “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish.” Allow me to quote a brief paragraph:

The central message is simple: our faith is profoundly social. We cannot be called truly “Catholic” unless we hear and heed the Church’s call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace. We cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus unless we take up his mission of “bringing good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and new sight to the blind” (cf Luke 4:18)3

What of ourselves? I would say the statement has meaning for all Catholics, perhaps especially for religious: May it be so!

“The just one is a light in darkness for the upright.”

Fr. Hilary Hayden
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NOTES
1. Benedict T. Viviano, O. P., comment in The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary, (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990) 640.
2. Daniel J. Harrington, S. J., The Gospel of Matthew (The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 1991) 83
3. Verna A. Holyhead, SGS, Building on Rock: Welcoming the Word in Year A (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2007) 106.