Homilies - November 2013

Select a homily to read:
Thirty-First Sunday of the Year: November 5, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Funeral of John Tydings: November 21, 2013 by Abbot James
Christ the King: November 24, 2013 by Fr. Gabriel

Thirty-First Sunday of the Year

  • November 5, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

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November is the month when we put on the mind of the church in special remembrance of those who have died, marked with the sign of the cross of Jesus, and those others whose faith is known to God alone. On this first Sunday and oblate Sunday we honor that by our procession to the cemetery after Mass for a blessing of the graves. When we pray for the dead, it is to aid them to hasten to attainment of that promised beatific vision of the all holy trinity of God, of Jesus and Mary in their glorified humanity. Then they will join the company of all the saints and angels in their unending praise of God. Those praises were beautifully expressed in the sung responsory to the psalm: “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God.” For us still here on our earthly pilgrimage we see those heavenly realities only in the darkness of faith.

In Jesus lifetime on earth many people wanted to see him for all kinds of reasons. Herod wanted to see him perform a miracle like walking on the water of the swimming pool. Some Greeks told Philip: We want to see Jesus. People wanted to touch him, or be touched by him, in order to be healed of illnesses. Some came to see him with ill will, looking for words or actions they could use to accuse him in order to silence him or get rid of him.

People will do extraordinary things to get a glimpse of celebrities. While attending an audience of Pope Pius XII many, many years ago I saw some in the crowd, especially women religious, likely Italian, climb the lamp posts in the Sala, the audience hall, in order to see the Pope as he was carried in on the gestatorial chair. Holding on with one hand they waved the other shouting: Viva il Papa, Viva il Papa.

In today’s gospel we hear about the chief tax collector of Jericho, Zacchaeus, wanting to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree in order to do it. One wonders if his curiosity was just that typical of most of those in crowds who gather to see persons of importance? Zacchaeus must have heard stories about this man Jesus from Nazareth, who works miracles and teaches about the law with notable authority. He was not likely shouting ‘Hosannas’ with the crowd as Jesus walked into town with his entourage. I imagine he was a quiet onlooker, not wanting to attract too much attention to his undignified self up there in the tree. What a surprise when Jesus spotted him and asked him to come down and show him hospitality.

Some onlookers were judgmental about the whole incident. They questioned among themselves how Jesus could blatantly ignore the Jewish laws about not entering a sinner’s house. In his joy Zacchaeus for his part promised an extraordinary gesture of generosity with his wealth. The text implies with that his encounter with Jesus caused a change of heart and practice, for it says Zacchaeus promised ‘I shall give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” It sounds as if he was not as generous as that until Jesus called him to come down, words that can be understood more than just literally.

Jesus’ free association with tax-collectors, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and others on the fringes of society or religion, are exemplary of that mercy, compassion, and patience of God that was at work in him. We heard that benevolent mind of God toward his creation beautifully described in the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. The author wrote that God created everything from nothing, pronounced it good and that God holds it in existence because he loves it.

This benign aspect of Israel’s God can be found in some passage in probably every book of the Old Testament. Time and time again God threatens punishment for rebellions and idolatries, but then relents, sometimes after an advocate of the people, like Moses, pleads with him. He made a covenant with this particular people, and he cannot be unfaithful even though they are unfaithful. I am God, not man. I see, think, and act differently from the way you do.

On the other hand the O. T. has many passages depicting God as a stern father, the lawgiver who commands our obedience and threatens severe sanctions for disobedience, and often carries them out. Examples abound: the fiery serpents for grumbling during the desert trek, the three punishment options given to David for the census, King Saul deposed for his disobedience, the military defeats and the exiles, and so many others, either concerning individuals or the whole people of Israel.

For a healthy personal relationship with the Lord we have to hold these two aspects of God in a balance of their tensions. If we focus too much just on the characteristic of God as merciful and forgiving, it can lead to presumption of God’s mercy. Then we easily give up trying to overcome repeated moral failures, bad habits like telling lies, taking others property, excesses in appetites, laziness, gossiping, lusting, acting haughtily, and undue preoccupation with health, appearance and possessions. We just go to confession asking forgiveness for the same things thinking we will never overcome them. Don’t you believe in the freeing and transforming power of Jesus love for you personally?

If we focus primarily on a God who is demanding of obedience, who we always suspect is looking for faults so that he can punish us, we will live in fear of his wrath, perform our religious obligations in servile fear. Only true love can cast out that kind of fear. We are taught to say in the Act of Contrition: I am heartily sorry for my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and pains of hell, BUT MOST OF ALL because I have offended you my God who are all good and deserving of all my love. Love, not fear, is the proper motive for obeying God’s commandments. They too are God’s gift to guide us in right conduct and ways of peaceful living together in a world full of many voices, false teachers, and ambiguities.

In the opening prayer we asked God to grant us the grace of hastening without stumbling to attain to the promises he has made. Hastening implies making an effort, not just lazing along. Without stumbling implies we can see and will avoid the obstacles that will prevent us from attaining the goal. What is the goal but life on high with Jesus? So let us return to the altar gladly and with thanksgiving, to offer the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. He is the host who invites us to dine with him on the sacrament of the eucharist, his body and blood. When he offers himself in obedient love for the Father, we are inspired to strive to do the same by our surrender to God’s will in all that comes to us in this life. We have good reason to begin to practice that praise of God that we hope one day will we will never cease to do in the company of the angels and saints. To the merciful Father, Son and Holy Spirit be honor, glory, praise and obedience now and forever. AMEN

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Funeral of John Tydings

  • November 21, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Your eminences Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl, Donna, Mike, and Lynnly, and all of you other relatives and friends of John Tydings who have gathered here this morning: Most of us have surely read the article about John that appeared in the Washington Post two days ago, an article that highlighted some of the ways in which he helped transform this entire metropolitan region. Some of you may also remember an article about him that appeared almost exactly sixteen years ago, when he was concluding a three-month sabbatical that had allowed him not only to ponder changes in the way he worked but also to make two religious retreats in order to look more deeply into that part of his life. It is this latter aspect of John’s life that should actually be emphasized this morning, because in the final analysis this is what mattered most to him. As one of his friends said at the time of John’s retirement from the Greater Washington Board of Trade in 2001, “He is just a great man, with a human kindness and a human touch that touched all people. When you think of John, you’re thinking of an icon.”

It was surely significant that his friend used that word “icon,” with all of its spiritual or religious connotations. I’ve seen this side of him ever since we first met in the fall of 1980, when he asked if I and another monk of my monastery, St. Anselm’s Abbey, would meet regularly with him and his family throughout the fall, winter, and spring in order to prepare all of them for membership in the Catholic Church. This took place in a joyful ceremony at St. John the Baptist Church in Silver Spring in late June, 1981, after which I received some wonderful thank-you notes from the entire family. His daughter Lynnly’s card ended with the words: “I am glad that we all became more than friends. Let’s keep in touch, okay!” Little did I know at the time how true that would become, and how John and Donna, Mike and Lynnly would adopt me as a kind of honorary member of their family.

Throughout all of the following years, I have followed their growth in the faith, which includes in a very special way the conviction that we have been created for more than this life alone. It therefore did not surprise me at all, when I was on the verge of asking the family what readings they would like for this funeral Mass, that Lynnly sent me a message saying that her father had already chosen the readings he wanted for his funeral. Here, in other words, was a man who did not shrink from the thought of death, did not use all sorts of contemporary euphemisms for those earthy, one-syllabic words of Germanic origin: “die” and “death.” John knew well how to live the virtue of hope, so evident in the words he chose from Jeremiah in our first reading: “I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the Lord—plans for your welfare and not your woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” The very same point was made in our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to Titus, which ended with the Apostle assuring us that God saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit so that we might “become heirs in hope of eternal life.” This is also what we will be hearing in a few minutes in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, with the words: “For your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.”

If the readings from Jeremiah and the letter to Titus focus especially on the virtue of hope, what John chose for today’s Gospel reading deals with the virtue that is even more central in Jesus’ teaching, love. There, in his Last Supper discourse, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet and then explains the significance of that act in these words: “If I, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” John Tydings certainly took these words to heart. He was the senior vice-president of HEROES, a wonderful foundation dedicated to helping the families of law-enforcement officers and fire fighters who died in the line of duty. He was also very active in the Order of Malta, traveling to Lourdes with sick persons on pilgrimage to that holy site and, once there, helping them get around by pushing their wheelchairs to the church and grotto and assisting in other ways. So, too, he twice went to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, literally using hammer and nails to help repair damaged homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. In short, this was a man who took seriously those words of Jesus in the Gospel: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” All of us may at times feel overwhelmed by so many needs that surround us, not only in this metropolitan area but in other parts of our country and world. The terrible temptation is to do nothing because one cannot do it all. The only true response, of course, is to do what one can. For that reason, the man who called John an icon was correct, for in seeing the way he served others, we can definitely be inspired to be more loving and caring ourselves.

Although we are called to show such love toward all persons—after all, Jesus tells us to love even our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us—there is nevertheless a rightful hierarchy in our love. It would be psychologically impossible for any of us to be as concerned for a starving person halfway around the world whom we have never met as for those with whom we live and work on a daily basis. As St. Paul writes in another of his letters, we should first of all learn to perform our religious duties to our own family, for, in Paul’s words, “Whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith” (1 Tim 5:8). Here, too, John was an icon for us: faithfully married to his beloved wife Donna for fifty years, fully dedicated to the spiritual, moral, and physical well-being of their two children, Mike and Lynnly (and rightly proud of how they in turn became loving parents of their own children), and so devoted to his grandchildren that on the same page on which he listed the readings for his funeral John also specified that the grandkids should do the readings and proclaim the petitions of the Prayer of the Faithful. In a time when family life is so threatened by various currents in our society, when some children have to grow up not even knowing who their father is, John is again a model and icon for all of us.

None of this, of course, is to say that he—like any of us—was without faults. A funeral Mass rightly includes prayers that the Lord forgive whatever sins and failings the deceased person committed in the course of his or her life. Indeed, such prayer is among the most precious things we can do here this morning. About a year ago I was at a meeting in Rome, and even though I have fond memories of various famous sites that I saw, one of the greatest and most memorable privileges was that of praying at the tomb of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. In one part of his Confessions, Augustine recounts the final days of his mother on earth. As she lay very ill in the Italian city of Ostia, her other son said that he hoped she would not die so far from home but rather in her native North Africa, at which Monica turned to Augustine and said: “What silly talk! Lay this body anywhere, and take no trouble over it. One thing only do I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” After his mother’s death, Augustine did more than fulfill her wish that he and his brother remember her at the altar, for he concludes the ninth book of his Confessions with these beautiful words: “Inspire others, my Lord, my God,… that as many [of your servants] as read this may remember Monica, your servant, at your altar, along with Patricius, her husband…. Let them remember with loving devotion these two who were my parents in this transitory light, but also were my brethren under you, our Father, within our mother the Catholic Church,… So may the last request [my mother] made of me be granted to her more abundantly by the prayers of many … than by my prayers alone.”

The many of us gathered here now have the opportunity of doing for John what Augustine once asked for Monica. We will do this throughout this service and, I trust, throughout the coming days and weeks, but first of all in a special way in the Prayer of the Faithful, to which we now turn. So let us all stand as I invite Amelia Grace and Reece to come to the lectern and read the petitions.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Christ the King

  • November 24, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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The woman is in her early seventies, well-dressed and immaculately groomed. She wears a good tweed suit, and has short silver hair. She is modest, polite, has perfect manners; she is “a lady.” She is someone we might notice at the back of our abbey church on a Sunday morning. The wrinkles in her face come from a lifetime of smiles, and we wonder whether she was a teacher, maybe of pre-school. Children would love her, and we too feel comfortable in her presence. We feel we might learn something important, something wise. So we listen as she is interviewed. She is answering the question, “what is your most meaningful memory?”

“I did this little dance, well it was just a few steps, not a full progression like you would do for a recital. I was wearing a new dress with red shoes, and white lace anklets. The dress was pink, with puffy sleeves and had embroidery down the front. When my mother gave me that dress, I jumped for joy! My best friend had a dress exactly like it, so we felt like twins. It was my birthday, and my older brother took me to a café where he was meeting his friends. There was a nice song playing, so I went through my little steps and did a final twirl. My brother’s friends laughed and clapped and whistled. They called out, “Come over here; we’ll give you some ice cream; you will be on stage one day.” I laughed and blushed, and of course I never did go onstage. But I remember that little dance. I remember the strawberry ice cream, the pink dress, and my brother stroking my hair.”

The interviewer says, “Your brother sounds very special.” The lady smiles and says, “Oh yes, I took care of him until the end. Just yesterday I visited his grave, and said, ‘Soon, soon, I will come to join you, and see, here I am.’”

This scene is from a Japanese movie, “After Life,” which follows a group of the newly dead, young and old, good and bad. They are in a retreat center before entering the afterlife. They have one week to choose a memory from their earthly life, and work on the details. The staff helps them film it, and when they have seen the film, they carry that one important memory into the afterlife.

What memory would you choose if God gives you this opportunity when you die?

I have spent some time with this question. By focusing on life in this world, it has helped me think more constructively about the loss of it, which frightens and horrifies us, even if we have some vague hope for the next life. The movie has a different religious background from ours. It seems to be Buddhist. It doesn’t mention God or judgment or heaven or salvation. But there are two things about the movie, which I think are solidly Christian. First, there is a strong connection, or bridge, between this world and the next—they aren’t separate, isolated entities. And, second, there really is a gentle glow of blessing and opportunity in what we fear as only permanent loss.

The woman could easily have spoken bitterly. “Once I was a little girl with all of life ahead of me. Now I am old, and about to die. Once I wore pink; now I wear grey. Once I was loved; now I am alone. It is unfair to lose everything that is precious and beautiful.”

In that version, we see one possible attitude towards life and death. It is self-centered and resentful. It is filled with regret. This was the attitude chosen by the prodigal son’s older brother, and by the unrepentant thief in today’s gospel. It is understandable, and most of us indulge it occasionally until we learn something better. But if you get stuck in it, it is a dead end. It leads nowhere. It leads to oblivion and misery, the ultimate fear, which we call hell.

By contrast, there is the possibility that the end of life brings you home, like the prodigal son, to all that is good. The destination has music and finery and welcome and joy. And the journey that gets you there is fully validated. Even your mistakes and foolishness have their role in getting you where you want to be. There is nothing to regret if sin helps bring you back to the father. Both the prodigal son and the good thief learn this.

The good thief has his character defects. But he shows us how to reach out even when we are pinned down. He shows us how to avoid the “stinking thinking” indulged in by the other thief. The good thief shows us humility (“we deserve this punishment”). He shows us that on life’s carousel it is never too late to reach for the gold ring (“when you come into your kingdom, if there is a kingdom, remember me”).

Our meditation could end there with the choice of living hopefully versus giving into despair, of accepting what you cannot change versus resenting the inevitable, of being thankful versus wishing for what you cannot have.

What enables a Christian to choose the right option—hope, acceptance, gratitude—is the man on the middle cross. He shares our experience even to the point of dying with us. The story suggests that the death of Jesus is not just a historical event. He will die for us and with us and beside us, whenever it becomes our time to die. He will be there to offer words glowing with encouragement and possibility--if we have the hearts and ears to hear.

The Japanese woman’s story has elements that are frivolous. We may smile condescendingly at her pink dress, her jumping for joy, the ice cream, the little pirouette. We may consider them childish, silly, sentimental. But her delight in the birthday treat is only the raw material, the building blocks. From it she constructs a life of devotion and service (“I took care of him to the end”). That is why, even at the end, she looks ahead, as the good thief does. She tells her brother, “Soon, very soon, I will come to you.” These are words we may someday say to our older brother, the man on the middle cross. He answers, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It is a promise that makes death less frightening and more of a gift.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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