For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for January 2013
Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God
Spiritual Resolutions for 2013
Purpose: a) To help Catholics better understand their obligation to attend Mass on Holy Days of Obligation, b) To encourage authentic love and devotion to Our Lady, and c) To help counter the decrease of Marian devotion in the Church over the past fifty years.
January 1, 2013 – Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God
Readings: Nm 6:22-27, Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8, Gal 4:4-7, Lk 2:16-21
Most pastors are painfully aware of the notoriously low Mass attendance on January 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Presumably, many are sleeping in, or recovering from the merry-making of the night before. But this can’t be the only excuse, because Mass attendance on other Holy Days of Obligation, throughout the Church’s liturgical year, also tends to be very weak. The reasons for this are manifold, but I would like to focus in on one reason in particular.
A majority of these Holy Days of Obligation are Marian solemnities. I firmly believe that the low attendance at these Masses in honor of Our Lady is directly connected to the waning of Marian piety that the Church has seen in the past fifty years. To understand the historical and theological roots of this problem, I highly suggest reading Cardinal Ratzinger’s essay “Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole.” For our purposes here, however, instead of analyzing the roots of the problem, we need to address it, and find solutions.
Simply addressing the problem from the pulpit cannot be the sole remedy; a proper solution will take years of prayer, pastoral work, and catechesis. Hopefully, talking about the issue from the pulpit on January 1 (and other Marian solemnities) might help bring a greater understanding of the importance of Marian devotion and Mass attendance on Our Lady’s solemnities to the minds of those in attendance at Mass. (Of course, the irony is that the Catholics you really need to speak to are not there at Mass. Maybe those you do reach will be able to share the message with their family, friends, and co-workers who missed Mass on New Year’s Day.)
Catholics have an obligation under the pain of mortal sin to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Yet, many people—including Catholics—in our contemporary culture resent the idea that they might be “obliged” to do anything. It runs contrary to their post-modern understanding of the nature of freedom. Yet, we believe that the Church has a right to require Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. However, I have found it more efficacious to explain the obligation in the terms of love rather than duty. I suggest proposing this “thought-experiment” to your congregation.
Imagine that your wealthy brother was throwing a special party in honor of your mother. He invited the entire family, and was going all out for her by providing a large banquet with music. You were invited and you knew about the feast in advance. But, you could not attend—you were busy with something else, or possibly you just forgot about the celebration. How do you think that would make your brother feel, who went through all this trouble to have this party? Even more importantly, how would it make your mother feel, who loved you dearly, and wanted you to be a part of her joy on this special day?
This is not intended to be a guilt trip, but instead to help Catholics understand the importance of Mass attendance from a different perspective. Our obligation to attend Sunday Mass and Holy Days is rooted more in Our Lord’s desire to have us at his banquet (cf. Matt 22:1-14), and on this day, it is a banquet in honor of Our Heavenly Mother.
More importantly, our desire to attend Mass on Our Lady’s solemnities should derive not so much from a sense of obligation, or a fear of sin, but out of love for Mary. Love sees no obligation, but only desires to please the beloved. We should not honor our earthly mothers simply out of justice or obligation, but out of the love and respect we have for her. And we should understand how she feels when her children ignore or neglect her, particularly by not coming to Mass on her solemnities.
It should be a joy to attend Mass on January 1, as well as other solemnities of Our Lady, because it gives us, her children, an opportunity to honor Our Heavenly Mother, giving joy to her Immaculate Heart. It is important to help Catholics understand the theological significance of the Divine Maternity of Mary, but for our time, it is as equally significant to encourage a genuine filial devotion to Mary as Our Mother. (CCC 963-971, 2041-2042)
Balance, demonstrate, and refute
Purpose: a) To help balance the shift towards sentimentalism at Christmas, b) To demonstrate that both faith and reason must work in harmony, and c) To refute the errors and misconceptions of the secularists who attack Christianity.
January 6, 2013 – Solemnity of the Epiphany
Readings: Is 60:1-6, Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13, Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6, Mt 2:1-12
Christmas is the most popular of Christian feasts because it speaks so directly to the heart. Our hearts are moved by the tender scene of the Christ Child in the manger on that starry night in Bethlehem, surrounded by his Mother, St. Joseph, and the shepherds in silent adoration. The beauty of Christmas decorations, the melodies of traditional Christmas carols and hymnody, the taste of rich, delicious food, and the embrace of family members fill this holiday with emotion and cherished memories.
But the risk is that this holiday, so pregnant with theological meaning, can be reduced to pure sentimentality. This is what we have witnessed in our contemporary culture—Christmas is more about feelings, and the traditional symbols associated with the holiday have been dismissed or stripped of their deeper meaning. But Christmas as a feast is meaningless without the truth of the Incarnation; we hold this day special because the precious child in the manger is indeed God, the Word made flesh.
This reduction of Christmas to sentimentality adds fuel to the fire, as it were, of the secular attack on Christianity and Christian values. If Christmas is stripped of its theological meaning in the minds of many, then it is easier to denounce Christianity as a myth, or accuse Christian faith of being founded on subjective emotion. This accusation of emotionalism is quite common among many secularists, but we understand, and must be able to explain to others that Christianity is grounded in both faith and objective reason.
This is where the Solemnity of the Epiphany can help us to better explain and defend the rationality of the Faith. The Magi were surely guided by the Holy Spirit, but they still relied on the power of reason to look at stars, and to analyze the prophecies. From what Scripture tells us, they must have been intelligent, and well-educated men, who were well-versed in astronomy and knowledgeable about Jewish Scripture. Both their faith, and their reason, led them on the journey to seek the new born king.
The worship of the Magi shows that faith is necessary to believe in the divinity of the Christ Child, but that faith in the Word (Logos) become flesh is rational. Faith and reason must work together, or else the Christian faith runs the risk of being reduced to personal opinion and sentimentality. If the Word of God has truly become man, then faith is about more than personal feelings, it is about objective truth. The solemnity of the Epiphany shows us that it is reasonable and necessary for the wise men, and for all of us, to bow down in worship before the child lying in the manger.
This Christmas season, in our preaching, we should be willing to “challenge” our congregations with real theology, to show them the rationality of our faith in Jesus Christ. That is why I highly recommend Pope Benedict’s new installment of his Jesus of Nazareth series, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. In this book, the Holy Father does a magnificent job of looking at the events surrounding Christ’s birth from a perspective of both devotion, and rigorous theological and exegetical insight.
From my experience, Catholics really are open to homilies that challenge them to go deeper, and that have a certain gravitas. Not that we need to give theological lectures each Sunday, but we need to give them the tools necessary to better understand their faith, and to enter into dialogue with others about what we believe as Catholics. In our highly-educated society, we do our congregations a great disservice to feed them sentimental pablum (esp. on solemnities such as Christmas and Epiphany). As pastors, we must be willing to give them the truth of the mysteries of the Faith, in all of its depth and richness.
A proper understanding and celebration of the Solemnity of the Epiphany can help us to ease the shift towards saccharine sentimentality during the Christmas season, and achieve a balance between the head and the heart. (CCC 156-159, 528)
Understanding John the Baptist’s message, and salvation’s nuptial dimension
Purpose: a) To encourage Catholics to look at this passage with new eyes, b) To explain St. John the Baptist’s comments in light of the Old Testament, and c) To explain the nuptial dimension of salvation.
January 13, 2013 – Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7 (or Is 40:1-5, 9-11), Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 (or Ps 104:1b-2, 3-4, 24-25, 27-28, 29-30), Acts 10:34-38 (or Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7), Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
It is very easy for Catholics (laymen, priests, and religious alike) to take for granted the meaning of certain scripture passages, particularly ones with which we have become familiar. Take for example the passage we hear from today’s Gospel. St. John the Baptist says: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals” (Luke 3:16). He is, of course, referring to Christ, and we generally assume that St. John is expressing his humility in comparison to Christ, who is the Messiah.
While this is a legitimate interpretation, this passage has a much more theologically profound meaning. Years ago, I came upon a book by the now-deceased, Spanish biblical exegete, Luis Alonso Schökel, entitled: I Nomi Dell’Amore (The Names of Love). In this book, he presents exegesis of various biblical themes related to marriage and love. In one chapter, he focuses specifically on the above passage from today’s gospel.
Schökel begins by noticing that the Baptist’s reference to untying sandals occurs five separate times in the New Testament (cf. Matt 3:11, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:16, John 1:27, and Acts 13:35). The repetition of this passage shows that it must have a profound significance for the apostolic Church. In order to grasp the proper understanding of this passage, Schökel points out three contextual clues.
First, in John 1:30, St. John the Baptist speaks of Christ as: “This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’” The word translated as “man” here is not the Greek word anthropos, usually translated as “man;” instead, it is translated as aner, normally translated as “male,” thus implying gender.
Second, the Greek word, ikanos, used in the synoptics and translated as “unworthy,” or “unfit,” has juridical or legal overtones. So, it seems that the Baptist considers himself unworthy according to some type of Judaic law.
Third, in the Gospel of John, the last recorded words of St. John the Baptist are: “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He, who has the bride, is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore, this joy of mine is now full” (John 3:28-29). Along with the other two contextual clues, for Schökel, the nuptial overtones of St. John’s language here lends to interpreting this text in light of the Levirate Law of the Old Testament.
The Levirate Law (derived from the Latin, levir, meaning “a husband’s brother”) is the name of an ancient custom ordained by Moses, by which, when an Israelite male died without issue, his surviving brother was required to marry his widow, so as to continue his brother’s family through the son that might be born of that marriage (cf. Gen 38:8; Deut 25:5-10, Ruth 4). But, if the surviving brother refused to marry the widow, a rite called halizah would occur. The book of Deuteronomy describes the halizah rite:
And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders, and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then, the elders of his city shall call him, and speak to him: and if he persists, saying, “I do not wish to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, “The house of him that had his sandal pulled off” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).
The sandal is the key—it is symbolic of the aner, who has the right to marriage. The one who wears the sandal is the Bridegroom. In saying that he is not fit (juridically) to remove the sandal from Jesus’ foot, St. John the Baptist is saying that Jesus is the bridegroom, and that he, Jesus, is the one who has the right to marry the bride, Israel. Even more, he is saying that Christ does not intend to repudiate Israel, but to enter into covenant with her.
This interpretation of this passage is not new, as Schökel points out. Several of the Church Fathers all saw the levirate law being referred to in the passages about John the Baptist. For example, St. Jerome writes: “being as that Christ is the Bridegroom, John the Baptist is not merited to untie the laces of the bridegroom’s sandal, in order that, according to the law of Moses (as seen with Ruth) his house will not be called ‘the house of the un-sandaled.’” St. Cyprian wrote that this is why both Moses (cf. Ex 3:2-6), and Joshua (cf. Joshua 5:13-15), were told by God that they had to remove their sandals; although they might have been prophets, they were not the one who had the right to marry Israel, the Bride.
Explaining such intricate exegesis to the average lay Catholic might seem a bit daunting. However, I have preached on it several times before, and the people were delighted that they could see this passage in a new light. In addition, they came away with a deeper desire to better understand Scripture in all of its richness. (CCC 535-537, 717-720)
Scriptural basis for Mary’s ability to intercede, Marian catechesis, and devotion to Mary during this Year of Faith
Purpose: a) To propose a scriptural basis for belief in Mary’s intercessory power, b) To offer a brief Marian catechesis based on today’s gospel, and c) To encourage increased devotion to Our Lady during this Year of Faith.
January 20, 2012 – Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Is 62:1-5, Ps 96:1-2, 2-3, 7-8, 9-10 , 1 Cor 12:4-11, Jn 2:1-11
In our diocese, it is customary, at most wedding liturgies, for the newly married bride and groom to present roses to Our Lady, and to consecrate their marriage to her. I usually take a moment before the presentation to explain to the congregation what will happen, and to give a small Marian catechesis based in John 2 (The Wedding at Cana). Over the years, I’ve gotten numerous positive responses to this catechesis from Catholics, and non-Catholics alike. Although this Sunday we are not celebrating a wedding liturgy, the gospel is “The Wedding at Cana.” It is an opportune time to help our congregations better understand the role Our Lady should play in their lives, and particularly in their marriages.
First, we notice that St. John tells us that “the mother of Jesus” was at the wedding at Cana in Galilee (in fact, she is mentioned before Jesus and his disciples). Jesus was invited to the wedding, but so was Our Lady. In the Sacrament of Marriage, couples invite Christ to be a part of their wedding, but how many invite Our Lady? Our Lady needs to be a part of our marriages, and our lives as Catholics. We need to be willing to invite her.
Second, observe that it was Mary who noticed that the wine ran short. This shows Our Lady’s solicitude for the needs of the couple, even in the smallest and seemingly insignificant things. In fact, Our Lady is aware of their need even before they are. If we invite Mary into our marriages and our lives, she will pay great attention to providing what we need to find true happiness.
Third, what does Mary do once she perceives that the wine had run out? She goes immediately to Jesus. She does not try to rectify the problem herself, but she goes to her Son. This is a beautiful example of Our Lady’s willingness to intercede on our behalf. Mary is the intercessor with her Son for this couple, just as she is willing to intercede for her children on earth today. If Mary is willing to intercede for the couple without them even being aware of it, how much more will she be willing to intercede with Jesus if we ask her?
Fourth, upon hearing her request, Jesus seems to hesitate at first (“My hour has not yet come”). However, he ultimately listens to her request, working a miracle for the couple. This demonstrates the power of Our Lady’s intercession with her Son. Jesus is always willing to hear, and to respond, to the requests of his mother, especially if it is for our genuine benefit.
Finally, Mary tells the servers: “Do whatever he tells you.” Our Lady always defers to Jesus. A couple, or an individual, that relies on her intercession never has to worry about her taking all of the attention. She will always put the focus on her Son. From these words, we can see also that what is most important for Our Lady is that, in all things, we are obedient to Christ, doing whatever he tell us.
The story of the Wedding at Cana gives us solid scriptural basis for the intercessory power of Our Lady, and for her role in the lives of Christians everywhere. Especially as we begin this new calendar year, and continue in The Year of Faith, it might be a good idea to encourage the faithful to renew devotion to Our Lady in their lives, and in the lives of their families. This is not only so that Mary might intercede for them, but more importantly, that she might guide them to Christ, teaching them to be more like him.
We make this our intention, along with that of Pope Benedict, who entrusted The Year of Faith to Our Lady on October 4th of last year, and echoed this same sentiment. He said: “I also wish to place in the hands of the Mother of God this special time of grace for the Church, now opening up before us. Mother of the ‘yes’, you who heard Jesus, speak to us of him; tell us of your journey, that we may follow him on the path of faith; help us to proclaim him, that each person may welcome him and become the dwelling place of God. Amen.” (CCC 956, 2617-2619, 2634-2636)
To counter privatizing faith, understanding both our need for the Church, and the commuity of Christianity
Purpose: a) To counter the prevailing privatization of the Faith, b) To offer a deeper understanding of the meaning of and the need for the Church, and c) To explain the communal dimension of Christianity.
January 27, 2012 – Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10, Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 15, 1 Cor 12:12-30 (or 1 Cor 12:12-14, 27), Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21.
One of the most consistent challenges that I have faced during my years as a priest is the pervasive attitude among many Christians of “Jesus—Yes; Church—No.” People have no problem following Christ, but they often reject the Church, or even have outright disdain for it. The roots of this attitude in our culture run deep—from a distrust of organized religion, to the “privatization” of faith. Even Catholics tend to be impacted by this mentality. Focusing on today’s second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, can help us to explain to our congregations the necessity of the Church.
In this reading, St. Paul deepens the analogy by saying that we are all parts of Christ’s body, the Church. This reflects the communal dimension of Christianity. We do not exist as individual believing monads, solely in relation with Christ. Through our relationship with Christ in baptism, we also exist in relation to all other Christians, who are also members of his one Body. All of these different members play different and essential roles in the body. As St. Paul tells us, “the body is not a single part, but many.” We exist in communion together as members of Christ’s body.
The truth is that our faith only exists and grows while in communion with others. The first reading, and the Gospel, both testify to this reality. In the first reading from the book of Nehemiah, Ezra the priest reads from the law to the people. In the Gospel passage, Jesus reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah to those in attendance at the synagogue. They both read from the Scriptures, and others hear the Word proclaimed to them.
This reminds us that we did not come to believe on our own, but that we heard the Word of God communicated to us through others. Even the person who believes in sola scriptura has to admit that he did not receive the Bible directly from God, but that he receives it through the lived history and belief of the Jewish people,e and the apostolic church. And, we must realize that others will not come to belief, unless we are willing to evangelize, bringing the message of Christ to others.
The irony is that, while many Christians want to deny the reality of the Church, the enemies of the Church today have a firm grasp of the meaning of the Church. The persecutions that Christians face today, and will continue to face, are not aimed at primarily this or that individual believer, but at the Church as a whole.
The faithful need to be aware of this. If we shall persevere, we will not only need to rely on God’s grace, but also on each other. We need to stand together in charity, communion, and courage as the Body of Christ. To achieve this goal, it will be necessary for us to form our congregations, not only in fidelity to Christ, but also to form them in a proper ecclesiology.
Fortunately, and seemingly providentially, this is a subject on which Our Holy Father has written extensively. His book Called to Communion is a concise classic on ecclesiology. In addition, Maximilian Heinrich Heim’s Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology Fundamentals of Ecclesiology is the magisterial synthesis of his thought on the Church. Both serve as fine resources for priests in their own study of ecclesiology. (CCC 956, 2617-2619, 2634-2636)