Homilies - November 2012
Select a homily to read:
All Souls: November 1, 2012 by Abbot James
Thirty First Sunday of the Year: November 4, 2012 by Fr. Gabriel
The Solemnity of Christ the King: November 25, 2012 by Fr. Christopher
- November 1, 2012
- Year B
- by Abbot James
Every May 11 we celebrate the feast of a group of men known as the holy abbots of Cluny: Odo, Maieul, Odilo, Hugh, and Peter the Venerable, but I dare say they are mostly just names to us, without any sense of what might have characterized the life of any one of them in particular. St. Odilo, however, is very relevant to what we are commemorating today, All Souls, for he is important in Church history for two things above all. First, although his Cluniac predecessors were constantly called to reform other monasteries, these monasteries preserved their independence once the reform was complete. In many cases nothing further was needed, but many other reformed communities soon slipped back into their old ways. Odilo sought to prevent this by having a reformed monastery be subject permanently to Cluny. In this sense, he could be said to have given the church its first religious order properly so-called. Secondly, Odilo also left the Church a legacy of another kind, for it was he who started the practice of commemorating the deceased monks of his order on the day after All Saints, and from this narrowly Cluniac practice the celebration of All Souls Day gradually spread to the whole Church. This annual commemoration comes from our instinctive desire to do whatever we can to aid those who have died but are in need of further purification before attaining full communion with God in heavenly bliss, a desire coupled with our belief in the saving efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection in every celebration of the Eucharist.
But even as we pray today—and in a special way throughout the month of November—for our beloved dead, All Souls Day inevitably calls upon us to reflect on the fact that one day we, too, will be numbered among these “holy souls”—in other words, it calls us to reflect upon our own impending death, however near or distant it may be, and upon how we ought to prepare for it. In this respect, there is much to be learned from the example of certain persons who have faced their own deaths with open eyes and much courage. I’d like to single out two such persons, ones who have figured in the course I am currently teaching in our school. One of these is Archbishop Oscar Romero, not (or at least not yet) numbered among the canonized saints but already commonly called St. Oscar among the peoples of Latin America. Here was a man well aware that the stance he had taken against a repressive government could well cost him his life, especially because of the powerful homilies that he had broadcast throughout El Salvador every Sunday, but in an interview he gave just two weeks before his assassination, he had this to say:
I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection…. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility. As a shepherd, I am obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love—for all Salvadorans, even for those who may be going to kill me. If the threats are carried out, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and for the resurrection of El Salvador…. If they succeed in killing me, I pardon and bless those who do it. Would, indeed, that they might be convinced that they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish.1
Although Oscar Romero knew that he might well be killed, he could not be certain about it. Another saintly person of recent times knew very well that, without a stupendous miracle, she would die relatively young. Sr. Thea Bowman was a Franciscan sister whom I once had the privilege of meeting. Her joy and vivacity that day were remarkable and truly memorable, but some years later she learned that she had breast cancer and that the disease had spread so widely that there was no hope for a medical cure. Like most people, she was at first despondent over the diagnosis, but before long she drew on the example of so many persons she had known growing up in a fervent African-American community in Mississippi. Just like Oscar Romero, she has left us some precious interviews given in the months before her death. In one of these, to the interviewer’s question of what she saw ahead of her, she replied:
Live for a while and then death. It’s as simple as that. When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t know what to pray for…. Then I found peace in praying for what my folks call “God’s perfect will.” As it evolved, my prayer has become, “Lord, let me live until I die.” By that I mean I want to live, love, and serve fully until death comes. If that prayer is answered, if I am able to live until I die, how long really doesn’t matter…. I grew up with people who believed you could serve the Lord from a sickbed or a deathbed…. As long as I have my mental facility, I want to keep on loving. I want to keep on serving. That’s what I hope to be about.
My illness has helped me to realize how fragile our hold on life is. I always thought I was going to live to be an old woman…. But I no longer think that. My time isn’t long. Now I just want to find ways to make the most of the time I have left.2
All of us surely admire the sentiments expressed by those two exemplary Catholics, but I am also sure that there are plenty of other persons who will never be as well known as Oscar Romero and Thea Bowman but who have approached—or are approaching—death with similar faith, love, and acceptance of what Thea called “God’s perfect will.” As we continue with our celebration of the Eucharist this morning, let us pray that it may strengthen those sentiments in ourselves as well.
Abbot James Wiseman
(Back to top)
1 Oscar Romero, quoted in Modern Spiritual Masters, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 74-75.
2 Thea Bowman, quoted ibid., 140-41.
- November 4, 2012
- Year B
- by Fr. Gabriel
On this first Sunday in the month of Holy Souls I bring you three thoughts, three beads for your prayer rope: the scribe, the cemetery, the segment on public radio. I will spend the most time on the third bead, but it really needs the first two to make any sense. Each bead is equally important, even if the third one makes the best story.
The scribe. He is not far from the kingdom of God, a position we hope to share with him. He asks the question, “What’s really important?” Jesus answers. The scribe welcomes the answer as if it were his own. Not perfunctorily, not intellectually, but at a deep level, in an embrace by the heart. What’s important? Loving God and loving neighbor? I will put all my efforts into those tasks.
The cemetery. It is our custom to formally process to the monastic cemetery on this day and bless the graves. This is strangely enjoyable: the autumn colors, the long walk up the drive, the winding path through the woods; the well-tended graves, the wreaths on the headstones, the reading of the names; the prayers, the vestments, the singing. There is an ecclesiastical indulgence for such a visit to pray for the souls of those who lie there. This is precious, even when done at arms’ length--which is the case unless we desperately long for the presence of someone buried there.
The segment on public radio. Every few years a feature comes on while I am driving that nearly makes me run off the road. Two years ago it was a segment on Willie McGee, executed unjustly in Mississippi sixty years ago for the crime of loving the wrong person. Recently, as I drove home from a Saturday vigil mass, I heard an interview with a German photographer named Walter Schels. Because he was afraid of death (as most of us, deep down, are), he developed a project, Life before Death, in which he would photograph dying persons. The participants gave him permission to do so, and then to follow up with a similar photograph, shortly after death but before the undertaker arrived. Most of the volunteers were in the final stages of cancer, and in hospice care. There is a gallery of some of the photos online. He exhibited them with small verbal stories of what the dying person had to say. The pictures were eerily beautiful. The first picture often showed the gauntness of suffering. In the second, their eyes were closed, but I cannot say they exactly looked “asleep.” Rather, there was an awe, a majesty about the stillness and the emptiness.
It was the words they spoke that were really resonant. I thought of the biblical line in Hebrews 11 about innocent Abel, whose life ended prematurely, “though dead, he still speaks.”
Similarly, these dying people spoke to me. Klara, 83, said, “I just bought a new refrigerator. If only I had known!”
Peter: “I never had any vices, and I’m only 64.”
Henry, 52: “My friends brought beer and had a little party, watched the football game with me. At the door some said, ‘get well soon, buddy.’ Don’t they get it? They didn’t want to hear about the distress I feel.”
The most anguished was Gerda, 68. “My whole life was work, work, work, and now I am being cheated of my retirement. Can’t death wait?” “But, mama,” the daughter says, “we will be reunited in heaven someday.” “Don’t talk to me about heaven. Where is God now?”
The open-ended quality of that haunting cry is very powerful. It echoes Jesus’ words from Psalm 22 on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The expression of despair should not be papered over with our pious answers, the survivors’ need to console themselves when a friend stands at the abyss. But there are several of the photographer’s subjects who seem to transcend the terrible dilemma of death being near. They do so by answering, uniquely and personally, the scribe’s question, “What is important? What is essential?”
William, 57, had been a loner most of his rather ordinary life. “The diagnosis came as a real shock. I’m not that old, and I’d only thought about life. I guess I was unreflective. But I came to terms with it fairly easily. I savor each thing, each day. The birthday cake they gave me here, each cloud in the sky, each flower in the vase. Suddenly everything matters.” We can wonder if William’s intensity is sustainable in ordinary life. But we can also envy, admire, and try to imitate his contentment.
Rose, 47, was the youngest of those photographed. “It’s ridiculous really. Only now that I am dying do I really want to live. Before I had been unhappy so much of the time. But now I am at peace with everyone. I don’t even blame myself. If there were to be a miracle, and I could get well, I would be a hospice volunteer, because I have been treated so well here.” Death gave Rose the chance to be brutally honest with herself, and that can bring liberation, the opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage, the possibility for peace not previously attained.
Finally, there is the one I choose to place last, the one spoke to me most deeply: Rita, 62. “When I found out the cancer was terminal, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I phoned my ex-husband. We had not spoken for twenty years. The divorce was very bitter; I withheld our child’s custody from him. When I called, he came right over. I don’t know why I waited so long to forgive and forget. I’m still fond of him, really. For weeks before this, all I wanted was to die, but now I’d love to be able to participate in life one last time.” Poignantly, she cannot.
This homily has no resolution except the reminder of the three beads: the scribe, the cemetery, the segment on public radio. The scribe asking, “what’s really important?” The cemetery saying, “Earthly life ends here.” And the various tentative voices from the photo exhibition. “I just bought that new refrigerator.” “They say, get well soon; don’t they get it?” “Where is God now?” “Suddenly everything matters.” “I am at peace with everyone, even myself.” “If there were to be a miracle, I would be a hospice volunteer.” “I don’t know why I waited so long to forgive and forget.” What will you say?
Fr. Gabriel Myers
(Back to top)
- November 25, 2012
- Year B
- by Fr. Christopher
On this last Sunday of the liturgical year I would like to make an adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s famous last lines in Four Quartets’ Little Gidding that seems appropriate to what we are celebrating today. ‘What we call the end is often the beginning; for to make the beginning is to make the end. We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know JESUS for the first time.’
The scriptures for the last Sunday of the year and the beginning of Advent next week announce the same message about Jesus coming in glory to judge the world. As we end this one and will begin again another yearly liturgical cycle, we know we will never attain to the heights or plunge the depths of the mystery of the Son of God, made man. With each cycle we do not return to exactly where we were the year before. We spiral up or down by new levels of experience and new understandings of the ways of the world, the ways of God. Things have also changed by the choices we have made in the past year as to our goals and the ways of attaining them.
The Word who is God, who was with God in the beginning and at the creation, emptied himself to take on our humanity. In that assumed human nature he revealed by his words and deeds the divine plan for the redemption of the fallen world. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that those who believe in him might have eternal life (see Jn 3:16). Father Alban used to say, “If you can believe that the Son of God really became a man, all the rest is easy.” The Son of God came in total obedience to the mission on which the Father sent him. As a man like us except for sin, he underwent suffering and death to help take away our fear of them. By completing his mission with his resurrection he obtained for everyone the possibility of forgiveness for sin, reconciliation with God, and a share in eternal life. He therefore deserves to be worshiped, served and honored as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
His mission is completed but ours is not. It is to bring all things into obedience to Jesus, ourselves first of all, then those we can help to know him as their Lord and Savior. For as it says in the letter to the Hebrews, “At present we do not see all things subject [to him], but we do see Jesus crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death , [having been] made for a little while lower than the angels.” He does not exercise his sovereign authority and rights by force. We have the freedom to accept his saving power or not. Not many earthly kings and sovereigns strive to obtain the obedience of their subjects by love rather than by fear. In chapter 64 of his Rule, St. Benedict urges that the one chosen as the spiritual father and guide of the monks, the abbot, “strive to be loved rather than feared.” From time to time we celebrate the lives of godly kings and queens who have made the list of the saints. They are the exception to the more far from noble example of royal persons. When Jesus heard the disciples arguing about which of them would be regarded as the greatest, he reminded them, “earthly kings lord it over their people … [and like to be] called their benefactors; yet, it cannot be that way with you.” (Lk 22, 25ff)
Israel’s descendants certainly had their disappointments with their kings. It was when Samuel was nearing the end of his judgeship and was going to appoint his unworthy sons in his place that the Israelites first asked for a king. Why did they want a king? They wanted a king in order to be like the nations around them. They said they needed a king to rule them, to judge between them, to lead them in warfare and to fight their battles (1 Sam 8ff). With God’s reluctant approval, Samuel anointed Saul, son of Kish, to be their first king. After him came David, a man after God’s own heart. God promised David that his throne would stand firm forever occupied by one of his descendants. King David’s example of faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the standard for evaluating the reigns of his successors. In the long line of his heirs, only a couple, like King Hezekiah and King Josiah, came close to meeting that standard. The rest were remembered with blame for their idolatry and the abominable human sacrifices in imitation of their neighbors.
Finally in the fullness of time a Son of David came along who met and surpassed all of King David’s achievements. Jesus, son of Mary, son of David, fought our battles against our real enemies and won. He defeated Satan and his minions by accepting all the humiliation, the scorn, the mockery, the pains of scourging and nails that brought on his death. What seemed to be the end was the beginning of a glorified life. He rose from the dead and took our human nature into heaven with his wounds of love. Even so not everything is subject to him yet. He has other enemies to conquer, among them ourselves in the mode of our rebellious, arrogant, independent self-centeredness. He appeals to us with assurances of mercy and with love. He thirsts for union with us the way we should thirst for union with him.
If he is a king and yet his kingdom is not of this world, of the temporal order, then where does he exercise his sovereignty? “The kingdom of God is within you.” Obviously, it must be in the spiritual realms of what we call mind and heart. The proper object of the mind is the truth, while that of the heart is love and union. Jesus told Pilate that he “came into the world to testify to the truth. Anyone committed to the truth hears my voice.” (Jn 18, 17). He told Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
On another occasion he said to those who believed in him, “if you live according to my teaching, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8, 31-32). Living according to his teachings is not about just obeying the letter of the law. That is slavish. We can live in accord with the law of the spirit because the risen Jesus sent his Spirit to be our advocate and guide us into all truth. When we live according to the Spirit’s guidance, we are actually putting on the mind of Christ, and in that we are acknowledging Jesus’ kingship over us.
Jesus made it clear that the greatest commandment is the law of love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He has planted in us aching hearts longing for union with another, with all others. We are made in God’s image, we are made for love. We learn it best by our intimate relationship with him. To serve him is to reign with him. He wants to make us all together a royal nation of priests to serve our God. As we continue with the Mass, uniting ourselves to both his sufferings and his victory, celebrating his glorious reign in heaven with the saints, let us work with him to that further goal which Paul described to the Corinthians: (1 Corin. 15), “When the end comes Christ must reign until all things are under his feet, even death. Then he will subject himself to the One who gave him that rule, so that God may be all in all.”
Fr. Christopher Wyvill
(Back to top)