Homilies - January 2011
- January 30, 2011
- by Fr. Joseph
Zeph 2:3 3:12-13
- 1 Cor 1:26-31
In any dramatic production, whether on stage, screen, radio, or in literature, the most satisfying outcome is the downfall of the proud villain. In “The Return of the Jedi,” the last in the Star Wars series, the most dramatic moment comes, not when the death star, the ultimate threat, is destroyed, but when the emperor, proud, overbearing, self-confident, is hurled to his destruction. On a more positive note, nothing is more heartwarming than to see the proud one converted from his pride, to accept and embrace those he had disdained. We think of Scrooge, self-satisfied with his many shekels, overbearing. What a joy to us to see him finding happiness in exchanging his greed (certainly a kind of pride) for the joy of giving and making others happy.
It is not often that all three Sunday readings strike the same note, as they do today. Today all three are about humility. Zephaniah sees the “humble of the earth” as those seeking the Lord and he speaks of the people “humble and lowly” as a blessed remnant. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the undistinguished character of their assembly, not powerful or noble, rather people lowly and despised, those who count for nothing. And in the gospel Jesus proclaims blessed those who are poor in spirit–a pretty good synonym for “humble.”
The Scriptures are replete with references to the words “humble” (noun and verb), humility, humiliation. Any of them can have a good or bad (i.e., unfavorable) sense. One may be “humbled” if he is overcome by his enemies; it is used also of one who is given over to defeat by the Lord or who is punished by the Lord, though sometimes this being humbled by the Lord leads to repentance and so to restoration. Very often there is word of a person (or the whole people) humbling himself–i.e., acknowledging sin and repenting and so being forgiven and averting the Lord’s anger (God does not despise a broken, humbled heart). Very often, esp. in the wisdom literature, humility and exaltation are set opposite each other: the Lord is stern in dealing with the arrogant, but shows kindness to the humble; “For he brings down the pride of the haughty, but the man of humble mien he saves.” “Humble people you save; haughty eyes you bring low.” “The Lord is on high, but cares for the lowly and knows the proud from afar.” A beautiful passage in Micah explains succinctly what God wants: “You have been told what is good what the Lord requires of you: only to do right, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The mysterious Servant of the Lord is the epitome of humility: “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth.”
Moving to the NT, we find the matchless example of Mary’s Magnificat: “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold from now on all ages will call me blessed. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.”
We have Jesus telling us that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted
Above all, we have Jesus giving Himself as a model precisely as humble: “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” We know, of course that St. Benedict devoted a whole chapter of his rule to humility and many other parts as well. He echoes Paul in Philippians in saying “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”
Why is humility so important? We find this sort exhortation in the psalms, the prophets, the wisdom books, the words of Mary, of Jesus, St. Paul, St. Peter, etc. Perhaps the first reason is that it corresponds to truth. We might call this the ontological reason. We are, literally, nothing. God made each of us from nothing and it is only His power (called “concurrence” in this case) that holds us in existence. I like the story about the scientists who came to God to tell He isn’t needed anymore, that He can retire; we can do anything, they said, we can even make a man. So God said, “Show me.” So they started out by stooping down and saying, “First, we take some mud …,” at which God said, “Oh, no! Use your own mud!” That stops them dead: only GOD can create something from nothing, even if it is just mud. And only God can hold in existence that which is in itself nothing.
We might speak of the Trinitarian reason: the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, left the bosom of the Father in order to become human. By the Incarnation the truly divine Word of God came among us a mere human being; the supreme God accepted the limitations of our existence, suffering the hungers, disappointments, rejections, that we ourselves undergo–except in His case much injustice was involved, especially so in His condemnation to death as a common criminal. This is condescension with a vengeance!
We might speak of the Christological reason, the kenosis that Paul cites in Philippians: Jesus, while truly God emptied Himself: though in the form of God did not consider divinity something to be grasped at, but humbled Himself, and took the form of a slave. This is something for us to imitate: St. Paul begins this hymn with the exhortation, “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps the best reason for humility, if not the most exalted, is our sins. Some people seem to think that sin is out of style. There is no doubt that we are less morbid about sin, and it’s evident that auricular confession is less practiced now, but most of us know sin is still very much among us. As proof of this, we begin each Mass with a penance rite. However, this can be very perfunctory and occupy only a few seconds and seldom leads us to think deeply on the malice of sin. For one thing, we find it hard to think of ourselves as being malicious. Yet we know that each of us is guilty of sin; perhaps we are conscious of grave sin, though possibly long ago. But if we recall that Christ’s leaving the safety and comfort of His heavenly existence to enter a cold, unwelcoming world as a human being like us, that the occasion for His emptying Himself of the prerogatives of His divine nature, the kenosis that Philippians speaks of, of Him taking the form of a slave, to suffer and die the most cruel death of the cross was because of MY sin, to expiate the wickedness I have been guilty of; and if we further reflect that even after knowing all this, I have been guilty of sin, it should certainly be an occasion for humility.
Humility should of course lead us to true contrition, and in contrition find a further reason for humility: that God forgives us freely, welcomes us back with a loving embrace. If that does not makes us feel humble, we deserve to perish in our pride.
Love of God and gratitude to God, especially for all He has done to forgive, to expiate our sins, leads naturally to humility; it also helps us to realize how essential, how central humility is to us; we understand why God welcomes the lowly but rejects the proud–makes us want to be among the humble, the lowly.
Fr. Joseph Jensen
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- January 16, 2011
- by Fr. Boniface
- Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
“I did not know him”
When we hear the word theophany or manifestation of God, we probably think of something in the line of God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai, or Jesus’ transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, or perhaps St. Paul’s experience on his way to Damascus. But God more often works in less conspicuous ways leading us by quiet and hidden ways to an “Aha” moment in which we understand more fully, see more clearly and deepen our relationship with God. That is the whole point of these epiphanies, isn’t it, to bind us more closely to God. What began as an ordinary day for St. John the Baptist, as very ordinary people approached him, turned out to be a manifestation of God to John and for all peoples.
Last Sunday we celebrated the solemnity of Christ’s baptism. According to the Gospel of St. Mathew, when Jesus came up out of the waters, not only was the Spirit seen resting upon him, but a voice was also heard proclaiming “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). In St. John’s Gospel which we read today, there is no external voice, and the “seeing” is with the eyes of the spirit. The Holy Spirit opened the eyes of John the Baptist’s heart and guided him to his “Aha!” moment so that he might be able to understand his experience of Jesus.
Starved to hear God’s word, crowds thronged to hear John preach and to be baptized by him. In the line waiting for baptism, stood his cousin, Jesus, six months younger than the Forerunner. Jesus’ mother had visited Elizabeth when she was pregnant with John and stayed with his family until John’s birth. Surely Elizabeth was not indifferent to the birth of Jesus, and it was unlikely that the two families had never met again, or that the children did not become acquainted with each other.1 And yet twice in this Gospel, John states “I did not know him.”
“I did not know him.”
There are different ways of knowing. I’m sure that we’ve all had the experience where we thought we knew a person well, until some single word or some incident revealed the depths of that person to us. The Gospels tell us about John’s hesitations about Jesus. The prophetic and apocalyptic tradition which formed John did not completely coincide with Jesus’ behavior. There were the common opinions that no one would know from where the Messiah would come, that he would live in an unknown place, perhaps even heaven until his spectacular manifestation.2
Now, before him stood John’s cousin born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, a poor carpenter. It was upon him that the Spirit came down and remained. The voice that John had heard in the silence of the desert was now surprisingly fulfilled in the person of Jesus. The interior voice, the voice of God, had called John to be a prophet and formed him in the silence and loneliness of the desert. That same voice had come to him in his prayers and vigils and called him to be the Forerunner and gave the Baptizer the sign by which he would be able to identify the Anointed One: “I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel…I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (John: 1:33).
The voice of God, heard by the ears of John’s heart only, told him how to understand what was taking place before him: He is the one who will baptize with the Spirit, through whom the Spirit will enter the world and bring life. Since this can only be the work of God, this must mean that Jesus is the Son of God. And so, the Baptizer joins the Christians of all ages who “Speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11).
“I did not know him.”
John, like us, had to travel along the same road of faith on which we travel. It is a progression with its own twists and turns, not a once and for all illumination that brings us fully face to face with God in one moment. That is left for eternity. In this life we still travel by faith. We recall how John in prison, sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Mt 11:3) Jesus’ ministry did not quite square with the apocalyptic vision of John. Jesus pointed to his miracles showing John, that indeed he was fulfilling the ancient prophecies: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Mt 11:5). And John, steeped in the prophetic oracles knew that his life’s work had not been in vain. Yet again he came to understand. The ancient prophecies had indeed been fulfilled in Jesus his cousin. He, John, had not been deceived.
But John concludes in today’s Gospel :”I did not know him… Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God “(John1:33-34). In the chapters that follow today’s reading, John’s witness turns into action. He points to Jesus as the Lamb of God, who will atone for our sins and reunite us with God. Two of his disciples followed Christ and became Jesus’ disciples. After the resurrection and descent of the Holy Spirit these two, joined by others, would give their testimony of what they had witnessed and so John’s witness and Jesus’ ministry will continue till the end of time.
Christian communities of all time, including our own, are called to continue this witness and ministry to the world. The dynamic of our life with God insists that our faith in Christ be shared with the world. Faith and that joy and peace which comes to us through Christ are meant to be at the service of the world and bring others to that happiness which can only be found in Christ. Our experience and fait h in Christ is manifested and shared by the way we live, think and act. We too, grow in our knowledge and experience of Christ so that we can say with John on looking back over our lives: “I did not know him.” At the same time, having come to Christ and discovering for ourselves the joy and peace he brings we can also say with the Forerunner to the world: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God..”
Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, v. 4 Ordinary Time, Year A (Collegeville, Minn, The Liturgical Press, 1992) 25
Days of the Lord, 25.
- January 6, 2011
- by Fr. Simon
Arise, shine out, for your light has come.
The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Though night still covers the earth
And darkness the peoples,
Above you the Lord now rises
And above you his glory appears.
Says Isaiah in our first reading.
Isaiah is writing at the end of his prophecy, of a new age when darkness and captivity will be things of the past and the Lord will arise over all peoples; nations and kings will be drawn to God’s dawning brightness, his promised land now redeemed from slavery. What a wonderful vision this must have been for those wretched Israelites after 70 years of oppression, servitude and dispossession. If only we could take the same to Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else where we are probably causing more trouble than it is worth, even with the bests of intentions.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson flicked a switch in City Hall, Manhattan, and immediately activated 23,000 light bulbs in the new skyscraper of Mr. Frank W. Woolworth in New York. Thus was this revolutionary building inaugurated. Now managers, staff members and cleaners could work around the clock. Such was the significance of light in an increasingly material and pragmatic world; such was the propaganda value of light in a new age of rapidly advancing technology.
Woolworth’s building, costing even then over $13,500,000, must have seemed like a beacon of the future in a dark world of mass immigration, unfair labor laws or none at all, and streets full of crime. Immigrants may not have been directed solely by Mr. Woolworth’s star as such but certainly the world which he represented and flashed out was what they would have seen as a revolutionary new land of opportunity, a land of light after the darkness and poverty of much of pre-first world war Europe, shortly to get even worse.
This is simply to highlight – metaphorically – the main significance of this feast, the Epiphany, “the shining out”, a significance which, as we know, is the final end of Christmas. True, you can’t have Christmas without a baby but the impoverished circumstances of his birth are of less moment than the reason why the baby is there in the first place: to be a light to the nations, to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, to be Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. The Gospel we have just heard is all about the Magi finding their way to Bethlehem, like immigrants finding their way to New York, except that the Magi would have expected to travel first class, to have had an armed escort and to have been met by a guide upon arrival at their destination. Only, in this case, a star sufficed, a beacon of light, because it was light that they had unwittingly come to see and follow.
It is a universal of travelers that they seek a guiding light, even if in daytime that light may simply be the correct information, the mental illumination off a ‘Satnav’ or a ‘Googlemap’. Without it we are lost. We can suppose that the Magi travelled by day without luminary devices for stars only show at night, though this may have been a particularly bright star, like a satellite. Yet the star was in effect only a traffic signal. It may have continued to shine after their arrival but it served no further purpose to them. It did not bring them honor and glory, whereas Mr. Woolworth’s 23,000 light bulbs must have brought to him – and to Mr. Edison, of course – a huge amount of pride and constant public attention: the very idea, the genius, the beacon value to the nations seeking the new promised land, and those already settled seeking the ladder of material prosperity. No one zooming up in the new revolutionary fast elevators would be expecting to meet the Holy family at the top. Many being Irish, Italians and Poles would be quite sure where they were to be found, and that only at Christmas and in the sales season.
Our Gospel tells us that “the sight of the star filled (the Magi) with delight”. Doubtless, so too did the sight of his lantern building fill Mr. Frank Winfield Woolworth with delight and all the millions who would have flocked to see this wonderful manifestation of material glory. But probably to them the fascination of their star, the beacon building, lingered whereas for the Magi their star was but a ‘Satnav’, a cosmological aid to an end, to find the child spoken of from all ages, the one who is to come, the Messiah. No such privilege was in store for the Woolworth clients, at least not in their new Broadway emporium. As far as the Magi were concerned, they no longer needed the light; it was St. John in his gospel prologue who made the intimate connection of Jesus, the Word made flesh, with the light that would shine in the darkness and which the world would neither accept nor be able to overcome.
Whatever the Magi found, they must have been satisfied; the light of truth and holiness must have shone out so brightly no longer from the star but from this unique child that they fell on their knees and did him homage. They fell on their knees in the straw and in the smell of the cattle stall at Bethlehem and did homage to a working-class baby whose parents could not afford a decent place for his birth. In their admiration, they did not then excuse themselves and go out to buy extravagant gifts to meet the occasion, not that there would have been any hope of finding such things in Bethlehem. No, they had come prepared: they had actually travelled hundreds of miles bearing very special gifts not simply of worldly extravagance but symbols of kingship, priesthood and even of burial for this baby of whom they knew nothing but to whom they had been directed in faith by a star. What sense could the baby have made of these symbols, yet they knew that their gifts would be understood “as the child grew in wisdom and strength” – as Luke tells us. Heaven only knows where Joseph would have stored them for the time being, especially when they went down to Egypt. At least, he would have been capable of making a suitable store cabinet.
So the other meaning of this feast is the feast of gifts, but what sort of gifts? Pope St. Leo the Great writes, “As they opened their treasures and offered the Lord symbolic gifts, so let us bring forth gifts worthy of God from our hearts.” He, of course, ‘is the giver of every good gift’ (Letter of St. James) but he still expects us to labor and produce fruit. The kingdom of Heaven does not come for people who are half asleep”. And St. Augustine writes in similar vein, “Today, Christ received gifts; put your hands into your packs, bring out from there something that will be acceptable to Christ”. That is how two of the greatest Fathers of our early western Church saw this feast.
Now it is unlikely that Mr. Woolworth was expecting his public to bring him gifts on seeing his wonderful lighthouse. Much more likely is it that he would have been expecting them to bring a lot of money to his ultimate five-and-dime store. But he would hardly have classified these to the equivalent of the I.R.S. under the heading of donations.
No, this is indeed the feast of gifts. We too are drawn to the light by our faith and there we too see light in faith, the light which shines from the child. Not some external light but the light as from the one of whom we asked in the Christmas carol, “be born in us today”. We have the light; it is an interior light and it is stronger than any tower of light bulbs. Next Sunday we will be celebrating the feast of the Lord’s baptism when we too are invited to renew our faith and to set out with him on the path of light towards all his people. Into this sequence is woven also liturgically the marriage feast of Cana when the young Christ changes water into wine, so making all things new in readiness for ‘his hour’ and our hour. The light is indeed ours to keep but it is not to be hidden under a tub, in our own private dwelling, our computer room, our bedroom or our back yard. It is not just there to be switched on when we want notice, either from God or from neighbor. As Jesus would later go on to say: “Let your light so shine before men that they will see your works and give the praise to your Father in Heaven”. That’s what gives the Father praise, our works done in and through his divine Son.
This feast does not just stop at the crib, at the adoration, at the gifts, at the Christmas cards. It is directed to Jesus’ ultimate command, the baptism of all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In this light, St. Paul, in our second reading, tells us of how this prophecy of universal baptism is already being fulfilled when he says, “The mystery that has now been revealed means that the pagans now share the same inheritance, that they are parts of the same body, and that the same promise has been made to them, in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.
The pagans are coming to Christ because his members are shining out in all parts of the then known world. Never has that mission to the unbelievers been more necessary than today, never have there been so many people numerically who bear the name of Christ, however willing or unwilling. In the light of this our universal mission of light bearers to the world I conclude with those wonderful words of St. Theresa of Avila which I only know in the version of a Catholic evangelical pop song because no Carmelite I ever have consulted can seem to find them for me:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No feet, no hands on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he sees, the feet with which he walks.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Priot Simon McGurk
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