Homilies - May 2012

Select a homily to read:
Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 6, 2012 by Fr. Hilary
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2012 by Fr. Christopher
Sunday of Pentecost: May 27, 2012 by Abbot James

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Let us recall the first words of our Opening Prayer: “Almighty ever-living God, constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us...” How can God “constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us?”

For me, that’s what participation in the mass is all about! However, the more I thought about it, the more confused I became. I was a little encouraged by the first reading: Paul arrives in Jerusalem with a very bad reputation. The leaders stand up for him and he begins three or more journeys of evangelization to Asia Minor and Greece. By sure date his writings to those he evangelized are the first witnesses to the Paschal Mystery.

Nowhere in the New Testament is the phrase “Paschal mystery” used. Especially in St. Paul we can trace an evolution in his thinking, as in his letters he gives pastoral advice in response to developments in the communities he has founded or visited.

We can see elements of the Paschal Mystery in the second reading from First Letter of John. God’s commandment is this, “We should believe in the name of [God’s] son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as [God] commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.”1

This notion of co-inhering is expressed in today’s Gospel in another way. The context is the Last Supper discourse. The story and its reality: Jesus is the vine, the Father the vine grower. We are the branches of the vine, bearing fruit through the power of the vine sap coursing in the branches. Each branch is pruned, that it may bear more fruit. If it doesn’t it’s gone. To drive home the obvious point, Jesus says, and says to us: “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in that one, will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”2

Let us return to the question: How can God “constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us?” Answer: by our life of faith, not only in this holy season but in every mass, in every faithful act of ours. To use the metaphor, the faithful branch of the vine keeps the life-giving sap running all the time, by a life of charity. Faithful Christians share the Eucharist, the life-giving participation in the death and resurrection, the dying and rising of the Lord, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. Through faithful living and dying, Christians accomplish the paschal mystery within them.

Fr. Hilary Hayden
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1 1 John 3:23-24
2 John 15:5

Sixth Sunday of Easter

  • May 13, 2012
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Christopher
  • Acts 10:25-26,
    34-35, 44-48
    1 John 4:7-10
    John 15:9-17
  • Daily Readings

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There are multiple kinds of love that we can experience in this life: puppy love, romantic love, platonic love, brotherly and sisterly love, uxorial love, paternal love, and on Mothers’ Day we are especially mindful of maternal love. Many stories and memories will be conjured up today, of the sacrifices mothers made for their children’s growth, safety and wellbeing. The source of all love, of course, is divine love, Trinitarian love. God who is love could not contain that love within the Trinitarian unity. It burst forth into a creation, every part of which God pronounced very good. God even made creatures in his own image and likeness. The whole of creation is meant to mirror and give glory to all the perfections in the creator: unity, beauty, truth, goodness, holiness, power and majesty.

We heard St. John tell us plainly that God is love. Unless you know loving and being loved experientially, you cannot know God, he says. Jesus tells that that love involves keeping the commandments. Keeping or guarding the divine instructions is more than acknowledging God as a lawgiver and we as being law-bound to him. It is about mutual responsibilities in a covenant relationship. To those who live it faithfully Jesus promises to give joy along with intimate knowledge of the Father’s plan for their lasting wellbeing and the consummation of his creation.

The covenant relationship becomes even more intimate when Jesus speaks of God adopting us, making us brothers and sisters to him, who is the beloved Son. Although Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, surely his love is greater than that. He laid down his life for us while we were his enemies caught up in our rebellious sinfulness.

When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he responded, quoting from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength;” and he added, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This invitation, revealed as God’s desire, has for millennia been remembered and striven for, an old commandment.

John in his first letter writes: “Dearly Beloved, it is no new commandment that I write to you, but an old one which you had from the start.” Then he has a second thought, “the commandment I write to you is new.” What makes it new is the incarnation of the Son of God who is the new link between God’s love for us and our love for God. Obviously it all begins with God, who is absolute love. The divine love flows to us now through Jesus. Jesus said, as the father has loved me, so I love you. As I love you so you must love one another. How did the Father show his love for his Son? At Jesus’ baptism and at his transfiguration the voice from heaven attested: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleasing, hear him.”

We know that God “so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life”. One may ask what kind of paternal love is this that a father would send his only Son on a mission to suffer such humiliation and excruciating pain? Certainly the Son showed his love for the Father by his obedience; for, “He emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men…. It was thus that he humbled himself obediently accepting even death, death on a cross”. Still we see that God showed his love for his Son by his rising from the dead, returning as a dutiful son, and clothing the human nature he had assumed with divine glory.

Jesus’ self-emptying, suffering and death could add nothing to his own holiness and perfect union of will with the One who Sent Him. So it had another purpose. He did it for us, to obtain the forgiveness of our sin, to set us free from slavery to Satan’s dominion, and to reveal to us God’s plan for a new creation where his chosen ones would share in his glorified life.

We have the evidence that the Father loves the Son and that his Son, Jesus, loves us. Now the question is how do we love one another in a similar way? In his sermon on the mount Jesus reinterprets another Old Testament version of the second part of the greatest commandment. It reads, “love your countryman but hate your enemy”. Jesus says, Not so. You must love your enemies. “Bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you.” Turn the other cheek and so on. He asks more than the Golden Rule, more than we are capable of by ourselves.

But I do not need to spell out what we must do to love one another. Just read the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus will tell you what constitutes beatitude, how to deal with anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and rash judgments, the proper intentions and ways of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, where to find true treasures, and finally on what rock to build your house so that it can withstand the assaults of fallen human existence.

Fr. Michael commented at Friday’s mass, that in the end we cannot really be ordered or commanded to love. Love cannot be bought. It cannot even be earned. It is a free gift of one’s self for the real good of another without regard to reward for oneself. In the vocation prayer at the end of Mass, we say that God calls all who believe in him to grow in that perfect love which casts out all fear. We can only do it by following the example of Jesus, his Son. Let us continue to strive for that goal so that we may bear the fruits of his Spirit: love, joy peace, patience endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity. (Galatians 5) In this way we will fulfill our mission to live an example of the Gospel that will give glory to God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, who live and reign forever and ever. AMEN

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Sunday of Pentecost

I’ll begin this homily with a kind of mathematical question: Our first reading from the second chapter of the Acts of Apostles begins with the words, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.” So, I ask, how many persons did the writer, St. Luke, intend to include in this word “all”? Most people probably think just of the Twelve, that group of the closest followers of Jesus, to whose number Matthias had just been added to make up for the loss of Judas Iscariot. However, there were surely more than Twelve there “in one place together.” At the very least, we’d have to include those other persons whom Luke mentions in chapter one as staying in the upper room in those days, namely, “some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). However, we shouldn’t stop there either, because still later in that first chapter we read that during those days “Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers,” and Luke adds: “there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place” (Acts 1:15). Since this is the number of persons given just before the pronoun “all” in today’s reading, we must conclude that well more than a hundred followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit on that first Christian Pentecost.

Does this mean, then, that the traditional Pentecost icons of the Eastern Church, a photocopy of one which you have before you, is inaccurate since it seems to show only those whom we often call “the Twelve Apostles”? Not at all. For one thing, simply from an artistic or aesthetic point of view it would have unduly cluttered the icon to try to squeeze more than a hundred figures into it. More significantly, however, is the fact that the twelve figures seated in this icon were never intended to represent simply “the Twelve” whom we regularly hear about in the Gospels. Four of them are holding books—most obviously in this small photocopy the one second from the top on the left, who is holding a red codex—and these represent the four Evangelists, of whom Mark and Luke were certainly not part of the original Twelve.

Icon

Still more tellingly, the topmost figure on the right represents St. Paul. It is totally anachronistic to include him at the first Christian Pentecost, for at that time he was still a Pharisee who, in the coming decade, would be strenuously hunting out Christians and bringing them back to Jerusalem in chains. But if it is historically false to include Paul in that scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit, it is theologically absolutely correct, for if there is anyone who was truly Spirit-filled, it was surely the Apostle to the Gentiles, the one who wrote to the Romans that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16) and to the Corinthians that they themselves were his letter, “written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3:3). All of this is the iconographer’s way of showing that at this first Christian Pentecost there was fulfilled what God had spoken of old through the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. Even upon the servants and the handmaids I will pour out my spirit in those days” (Joel 3:1-2).

You also see at the top of the icon the segment of a circle, the circle going beyond the edge of the panel so as to symbolize the transcendence of heaven. From that heavenly circle there descend rays or tongues of fire onto each of the seated figures, that is, onto all those who in the early Church went forth in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the Good News. But what of the recipients of their preaching? This brings us to the strange figure at the bottom of the icon. In the most ancient manuscripts, this dark space was filled with a crowd of persons, the multitude of hearers “from every nation under heaven” mentioned in our reading, but this made the scene in those earliest icons too busy and cluttered. For this reason, the iconographers soon replaced the crowd with this one symbolic figure, who in some icons bears the inscription Cosmos, literally “the whole world,” even as we hear in the Book of Wisdom: “The Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world” (Wis. 1:7). However, I dare say none of us could figure out all the symbolism of that mysterious figure without the help of experts in the history of iconography. Here’s an explanation from a seventeenth-century Russian author:

Why at the descent of the Holy Spirit is there shown a man [standing] in a dark place, bowed down with years, dressed in a red garment with a royal crown on his head, and in his hands a white cloth containing twelve written scrolls? The man [stands] in a dark place because the whole world had formerly been without faith. He is bowed down with years, for he was made old by the sin of Adam. His red garment signifies the devil’s blood-sacrifices. The royal crown signifies sin, which ruled in the world. The white cloth in his hands with the twelve scrolls means the twelve Apostles, who brought light to the whole world with their teaching.”1

We can now begin to sense the magnificent teaching of this Pentecost icon. There is just one final point I would like to make about how it and a multitude of similar ones so well illustrate the scriptural account of the descent of the Holy Spirit. Note how the seated figures are all quite different from one another: their heads are turned in various directions, their gestures are different, their clothing is varied in color. Each is distinct, and this brings out in a graphic way what St. Paul says in today’s second reading about there being “different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; different forms of service but the same Lord; different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone, [for] to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Cor. 12:4-7). This is actually a very consoling truth. No one of us can do everything, but each one of us has certain gifts, certain strengths, and we are called to use them in appropriate ways for building up the kingdom of God. Anyone’s individual contribution may not mean all that much by itself, but together we—and all the members of the Church—can do great good if only we are responsive to the workings of the Spirit who has been given to each of us, first at our baptism but also at every celebration of the Eucharist. As we pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers, “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ.” May our reception of the Eucharist today deepen this unity that we already enjoy and lead us to want to bring others to it as well.

Abbot James
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1 Quoted in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, rev. ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 208.