For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for May 2013
Jesus Ascends into Heaven
6th Sunday of Easter—May 5, 2013
Not as the World Gives
Purpose: This Sunday’s Gospel captures the heart of the Christian faith: “We will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Christianity is not a law-based religion or one that uses strict moral bookkeeping as its indicator of spiritual progress. Christian holiness is a matter of something entirely new—a matter of becoming wholly united with God as he dwells in and through each of his followers, thereby forming that “one Christ” which is his Body, his Church.
Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 ● Rv 21:10-14, 22-23 ● Jn 13:23-29
The first generation of Christians needed some time to figure out the “newness” of their recently-begotten faith. This time of decision making was not without its tensions and struggles. Yet, the Holy Spirit led the Apostles to set the faith in the way God intended and, foremost in this new founding, was the Apostle Paul. St. Paul was so open to the Spirit, he refused to allow communities to revert back into their desire to put the Jewish law at the center of their new life in Christ. For the first Christians wanted to keep a hold of the law because it was unambiguous, achievable, and certain. This temptation to put plans above people, and actions over being, is perennial. Why so? The law is easy: we remain in charge of our lives and we determine how we stand with the divine. Love is a new way, a way that demands not our determination so much as our receptivity, not so much our exertion as our vulnerability. Love is terrifying (how often we hear the Lord tell us, “Do not be afraid”) precisely for that reason, we are no longer at the center of our lives, but now are called to find our welfare in the heart of another. Love demands that we let go of the illusion of self-centeredness and thus become participants in the life of another, in the divine life of God.
This is why even the liturgy is new for the Christian people: no longer a matter of determining and enacting the rituals precisely so as to curry the quasi-magical favor of the divine, but now a means of personally appropriating liturgical rites and symbols. Notice what John is doing in Revelation. He demands that the new temple is not a place but a person, not the edifice Jews longed to see in the heart of their ancient city Jerusalem, but it is the Lord’s very person. Even paradise is now something new: no longer a distant destination but a living relationship. Heaven is now, ultimately, Christ’s divine humanity here, eternally presented in terms of light and the Lamb who was slain, but who now rules forever. The glory of God is now this invitation for all to approach and to see his life and labors through temples and created things (e.g., sun and moon).
Again, it is St. Paul who expresses this theology first: we are the new and living temples of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). This enjoys a long pedigree in Christian thought. Ignatius of Antioch insisted that he was Theophorus, the God-bearer. Origen taught that the true heavens were the Christian people gathered in worship. St. Augustine knew that liturgical accoutrements mattered only when they became assumed and appropriated by Christ’s followers: “Imitate what you celebrate and become what you praise” (sermon 345.5), “Be what you proclaim” (sermon 34.6). This is where the spirituality of all the great saints and mystics converge: they know they have been chosen so as to allow Christ to dwell not only in and through them, but as them. This is essential to understand if our congregations are ever going to embrace and live the faith fully. Christ did not come to live a mere 33 years on this earth, but to dwell in and through every baptized member of his body. He not only came, he comes, even now, in the way we choose to live his life. He can come in glory and light, joy and integrity; or, he can come impaired and less than recognizable when we choose to lead sinful lives, unworthy of those who bear his name. How could we, today, forge a greater connection between what people say and see at Mass, and who they are becoming? Images abound: becoming God’s light in the world, his Word to those with whom we are in conversation, his Eucharist to those who hunger for more.
So, as we either build up to the Gospel in our homily today, or choose to focus singularly on it alone, we should stress two main points: (1) humanity’s love of God means keeping his word; and (2) God’s love for humanity means his coming to dwell within us. First, to keep God’s word is not simply a matter of textual adherence, but a way of living, that consistently closes the places in our lives where an obvious gap exists between who we are called to be as saints, and where we find ourselves today. Perhaps, we could invite our congregation to an examination of conscience: “Where do you hold on to God’s word? Where in your life do you think and act like Christ? Where do you still put your own opinions and desires first? Where do you expect God to agree with you, and not the other way around?” Second, use the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the supreme moment of Holy Communion, as the great instance of how God hungers to dwell in his creatures. He loves us more than we love ourselves and, just as bread utilizes many grains of wheat—ground, kneaded and baked—to make one loaf of bread, the Lord longs to unite us as one in the same way. He “grinds” us by destroying our self-centeredness; he “kneads” us by adding to our souls the waters of baptism; and he “bakes” us in the fire of his Holy Spirit. We are to become his presence so the world may know that, even though he has ascended to the Father, his adopted brothers and sisters, his Mystical Body, make the presence of the Eucharist real by becoming Jesus’ hands and eyes, his feet and his words in this world. Here, is the peace the world can never know: that in our living outside of ourselves, we find freedom; in dying to the false comforts and familiarities of sin, we become fully alive; in keeping God’s word, we inherit eternal life.
Suggested Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §478, 575, 598, 616, 2666.
Ascension of the Lord—May 9 (unless this Solemnity was transferred to Sunday)
Looking Backwards, So As to Live Above
Purpose: If Christ has truly ascended into heaven, so have Christians. We are no longer meant only for this world but, on this day, have also been made heavenly beings, the children of God. Today, we can stress how the restless heart will never be content resting in creatures, and that the discomforts of living in this world are not signs of failure but of grace, reminders that we are made for heaven.
Readings: Acts 1:1-11 ● Eph 1:17-23 / Heb 9:24-28; 10:10-23 ● Lk 24:46-53
Some in the Church will celebrate the Ascension today; others will celebrate it on the coming Sunday. Either way, we begin with St. Luke’s opening of the Acts of the Apostles. Addressed to Theophilus, a name meaning “Lover of God,” this work is thus given to all who constitute Christ’s body, intended as a record for all those who love the Lord. At the onset, Luke begins by reporting how Christ ascended to the Father, after a relatively lengthy discourse on reading the “signs of the times,” and on our need to receive the Holy Spirit, if we are going to be able to carry out our vocation to evangelize. What is intriguing here is how the “power” of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, does not give us extra-human telepathic powers to know the future, but something even better, the grace to become his witnesses throughout the whole of the earth.
Here, perhaps, we could get those at Mass to see how the spiritual life is one primarily of retrospection. As C.S. Lewis suggests, “The doors of the spiritual life open only backwards.” That is, we grow in holiness as we come to embrace more truly all that God has done for us. We grow in our trust of God by seeing how God has never really abandoned us, and to see how the Lord has been present, in one way or another, in every scene of our life up to this point. The future is not something the Lord ever offers us: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons … But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” How do we examine our consciences in gratitude at the end of each day? How do we see God’s blessings throughout our lives? Do we take the time for daily reflection, perhaps for an annual retreat? Could we ourselves use part of today’s homily to show our people how to examine their consciences?
If so, perhaps we could take them through the five main points of the Examen, as Ignatius of Loyola conceived of it.
- Settle into a comfortable place and recall how you are, right now, in the presence of a loving and providential God.
- Review the past 24 hours, giving thanks to God, our Lord, for all the many benefits received.
- Now, ask for the Holy Spirit to descend into you, allowing you to see the actions that stand out to you from this day, as the Holy Spirit sees them. Ask for the grace to know your intentions and what it was you were trying to accomplish in those events that come back to you.
- Review one or two of those scenes from the day. Take the time to “walk- around” what prevailing emotion or experience emerges that day. Why am I feeling stressed? Why did I act that way with that person with whom I am normally quite happy to see? Why do I have this unexplained sense of joy or peace today? And so on.
- End by simply talking to Jesus about what just happened, and what you are facing the next day. Offer him your stress or joy, your co-workers or families, whatever it was you spent time walking around just minutes before. Ask him to bless and to consecrate these very real and very concrete circumstances of your everyday life. Now, simply pray for light come tomorrow. Some like to pray over the next day’s calendar and meetings. Ignatius then suggests one ends with an Our Father or Hail Mary.
Jesus never promises us details about the future, but simply invites us to “come and see.” No destinations, no Google Maps, simply the trust offered those who are humble enough to allow him to lead.
From here we could expound accordingly on the virtue of hope (Ephesians) as the virtue of the traveler forced to live, day-to-day, in a world of temporal uncertainty. Hope affords those of us on pilgrimage the serene assurance that the destination has already been provided, and now one must simply allow oneself to be led by the Spirit. If Hebrews is selected as the second reading, one could frame the Ascension of Christ as God’s invitation to see how the sacrifice of Calvary is now completed, as the Son and the Father are reunited in heaven. This sacrifice, which has transformed all things, continues in this Mass, where we are elevated to the Father as his children.
Finally, the Gospel provides, of course, the definitive scene of Christ’s being “taken up to heaven.” This could provide the crescendo of our reflections: in Christ, we are no longer merely terrestrial beings. We constitute a body whose head is now in heaven and, therefore, we are no longer to think like mere mortals, to act like self-centered horrors, and to seek satisfaction in things that are ultimately dust. Do we take the care needed to foster such a sense of heaven in our lives? Do we insist on prayerful contemplation each day? Do we carve out room for intentional silence each day so as to hear better the call of Christ from heaven? Do we think of heavenly or earthly things, watch “heavenly” or “earthly” shows, visit internet sites worthy of eternity or not? There is a real opportunity this day to get people to understand the trials and woes of this world, not as places where they are failing necessarily, but as places where God is, indeed, calling them higher. He is calling them out of thinking they are to live for only 70 or 80 years; calling them out of self-loathing and internal division, out of their despair, loneliness and the temptation to think that this world is all there is.
Suggested Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §572, 601, 652, 2177, 2625, 2763
7th Sunday of Easter—May 12 (if the Ascension was celebrated on Thursday, May 9)
Vis Unitiva: The Unifying Power of Love
Purpose: Love is a unifying power (vis unitiva) in that it unites otherwise separate, if not disparate, others. By looking up to heaven, both Stephen and Jesus, aim to catch others up into their gazing upon the Father. Both are today represented as “martyrs,” witnesses, to the Father’s love. These readings thus aim to bring our parishioners into a greater understanding of how they, too, are to be caught up in this great movement of love, from the Father, to the Son, to his Church.
Readings: Acts 7:55-60 ● Rv 22:12-14,16-17, 20 ● Jn 17:20-26
The readings, today, begin with a mad rush, but end with a gentle prayer: from Stephen’s stoning to Christ’s intimacy with the Father, we see how “unworldly” Christian love really is. Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin could not stand hearing what they considered to be blasphemous, Stephen’s equating Jesus with their one true God (“the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”). Such an incarnational theology brought God to close, and seemed to multiply divinities, challenging both the transcendence, and the monotheism, upon which Judaism is rightly built. God is wholly other, and there is only one God. What these religious leaders could not, however, fathom was the consubstantiality of Father and Son (with the Holy Spirit uniting them equally). How often do we use our perceptions of error to act on our own pent-up frustrations and hatreds? How long must these men have hated Stephen?
The word “martyr” is used over 400 times in the New Testament, truly a central image for the early Christians’ description of what it means to belong to Christ. What did such witnessing entail? First, there was a close and dear knowledge of the Lord’s life and ways within oneself, which was a kind of incessant awareness transforming our moment to moment existence. Second, this interiority led to external courage, and the desire to make Christ known in whatever way his Spirit was bidding at that time. At some moments, it may mean patiently and prayerfully waiting, at other times, it may mean speaking boldly even to the point of death.
But, martyrdom is not an end in and of itself. St. Augustine knew it was the cause, not the pain that made the martyr (causa non poena martyrum fecit), and the readings today reflect this. We end not with Stephen’s death, but move on to John’s vision of the Church. “Come, Lord Jesus”— Maranatha—”Come, come to your bride, the Church, our souls, and give us your very life!” This is precisely what Jesus does in the Gospel: he comes to us and, simultaneously, brings us into his own communion with the Father. The Church is the extension of Christ’s own body and, therefore, the only place of holy communion. We must, therefore, exhort others to see that martyrdom is never an isolated act, but a communal giving of self. The Christian is never alone, never acts in seclusion. Can we get people today to see that they are never alone, never separate from one another, the saints, the Trinity? Loneliness is the greatest illusion the enemy uses today to try to convince people they don’t matter, that they have to work everything out for themselves.
Against such a lie, we must get others to see that only by handing themselves over to Christ and to his body, can they find true freedom and security. On this Sunday, we might get our congregations to think alongside spiritual master, Jean Pierre de Caussade, in his book, Abandonment to Divine Providence. This work provides guidelines by which one can grow in sensing God’s direction throughout the day, as well as how to unite boldly one’s own will with God’s desires. The first point is in trusting that nothing is done, nothing happens, which God has not foreseen from all eternity. Everything in my life happens because God has directly willed or, at least, passively permitted it. Would not our lives change dramatically if we would believe that everything that happens to each of us is, in fact, an invitation from God showing how he neither wills nor permits anything to happen in each person’s life, other than what will draw each one of us closer to him? All things in my life are a result of the Father’s love, and his glory in Christ, for all those who love him in return. Once this trust has been established in my life, I can move on to seek true freedom and joy. How so? According to de Caussade, we should hand ourselves over to God in every circumstance of our lives. We do this, not only by seeing all things in our lives as God’s invitation toward greater union with him and the saints (passive submission), but also to seek actively God’s will for us in each moment of our day (active abandonment). We must begin to see ourselves as those in whom God labors, longing to love those he intentionally puts into our day. We are the God-bearers whose only ultimate vocation in life is to become Christ to the world.
This will not be easy; it will take martyrdom. John of the Cross realizes that “The divine awakening produces in the soul of the perfect, a flame of love which participates in that living flame, the Holy Spirit himself … this is the operation of the Holy Spirit in the soul that is transformed in love, that his interior actions cause it to send out flames … This flame wounds the soul as it is given, but the wound is tender, and, instead of causing death, it increases life; for the soul is holiest that is most wounded by love” (The Dark Night of the Soul). Invite others this day to see where they do trust Christ, and have handed themselves over but, also, ask them where they are still unwilling to suffer the tender death of abandonment. Where are they already one with Christ, and where do they still resist the unifying power of love?
Suggested Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §877, 1258, 2473.
Pentecost Sunday—May 19
Purpose: Pentecost was first celebrated, obviously, in Jerusalem, as we read in Acts 2 today, soon becoming one of the more important liturgical feasts in our Church. Why so? Pentecost is to the Holy Spirit what Christmas is to the Son: a divine person’s definitive break into the created order, now inviting other (created) persons into greater life-giving communion.
Readings: Acts 2:1-11 ● 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Rom 8:8-17 ● Jn 20:19-23 or Jn 14:15-16, 23b-26
The Spirit has never been missing from creation. He is first noticed hovering over the primal waters in Genesis; we see how he came to the patriarchs, the priests and the prophets of Israel, dwelling in such diverse figures as Samson and King David. Yet, today, there is something new, something more personal, reciprocal. It is one thing to be inspired, even “taken over” by God. But, it is something altogether different to have God’s Spirit dwelling personally within our souls, enabling us to unite our intellects and wills freely to him throughout each moment of the day.
This is one way to approach these festal readings today: the Spirit comes today as the Son, who, likewise, was never really absent from his people. He comes at his nativity, in a new and definitively “enfleshed” manner. Yet, the Spirit’s “incarnation” is not manifest in one man, but in the Church. Whereas, the Son “hypostatically” united himself to one human nature in the womb of Our Lady, the Spirit comes to one mystical body, Christ’s Church. “Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.24.1). The Spirit is the love poured into the hearts (cf. Rom 5:5) of those he adopts as children of the Father, making us other Christs by grafting us as branches onto the great Vine. The Spirit is thus the one who extends and continues the Body of Christ throughout all time, and into every corner of the globe (cf. Acts 1:8). As any great protagonist’s arrival, the Spirit’s entrance, today, is marked by fire and by wind, by these “symbols” of ardency, lissomness, and movement, outwards and upwards. Here, the followers of Christ truly become Catholic, universal, as they are now sent to all peoples. There is now one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12), infinitely greater than the geography of Israel; the New Covenant is for all, “whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Cor 12:13).
That is why Paul also reminds the Romans that before God broke into this world personally and irrevocably, humanity suffered under the Law because without the grace of Christ, without being able to realize God as one’s own loving Abba (cf. Rom 8:15), we were craving sin, still “debtors to the flesh” (Rom 8:12). The Spirit liberates us from these fallen desires by uniting us, not only to God, but to God’s people. In this, I refer to the efficacy of the Holy Spirit as the “three C’s”: communion, conviction, and conversion. First, the Spirit is the one who eternally unites the Father and the Son in the Love who is the Trinity; therefore, in time (in what theologians call, the “economy” of salvation) it is fitting that the Spirit continues this same sort of uniting. Whereas the Spirit is the infinite communion between divine persons, in time, he connects human persons to divine persons, as well as to other human persons. This is the Church: a people bound in love to God, and to one another. Second, the Spirit never condemns us of our sins but, instead, convicts us (cf. Jn 16:8) showing us where God is not yet done with us, and where his love is burning all the more ardently. If our people ever feel mocked or belittled by their sins, this is not coming from the Holy Spirit but the enemy; the Spirit’s pricking of conscience is always done in hope and in love. Finally, the Spirit is given to the members of Christ’s body, not simply for their own personal sake, but for their courage to convert the nations. The good Spirit is always the Spirit of constant conversion, of speaking boldly to ourselves, and to others in the world, that they are made for holiness, created for Christ!
All these themes are contained in the beautiful Sequence for today’s feast: Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Let us not rush over this. The Holy Spirit comes (“Veni“) into our very selves so that we experience the Father anew, and render our lives sweetened by his presence. The Spirit is, therefore, our light, our comfort, our solace, our innermost selves. He is the divine breath which Christ imparts upon us, giving all the power to loose and to bind sins, sending all throughout the world. Jesus gives us his Spirit, not only to ensure his love, but to assure us of his love; we now have the same communion with the Father, the same “Advocate” which Christ enjoyed while he preached and prayed on earth. We are made other Christs in this Spirit, for we now enjoy the same divine gifts and power. So, if we do not choose to preach directly on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, perhaps we could run a brief catechesis in our parish bulletins this week on the “sevenfold gift” mentioned in the Sequence: fear of the Lord (timor Domini), piety (pietas), knowledge (scientia), fortitude (fortitudo), counsel (consilium), intelligence (intellectus), and wisdom (sapientia). We could describe what each gift is, or perhaps more importantly, show that through Christ’s imparting of his Spirit into each one of us and onto his Church, he longs to share his own divine life with all. This is the good news: we no longer have to live merely as fallen, wayward humans. We have been given God’s own Spirit, a spirit of adoption and filial boldness. In the same Spirit, we have been brought into divine communion, convicted that we can indeed be saints, and converted outward for the salvation of the world. Come, Holy Spirit!
Suggested Readings from the Catechism: §731-32, 1287, 1830-32, 2632.
The Most Holy Trinity Sunday—May 26
The Inner Life of Our Maker
Purpose: The movement of the liturgical year comes to its crescendo today. We prepare for Christ’s coming in Advent, celebrate his appearance at Christmas, go out with him in the desert during Lent, are with him in his abandonment during the holy Triduum, rise with him on Easter, go up with him on the Ascension, let the Holy Spirit come down upon us at Pentecost, and now, today, rejoice in this “three-persons” God, who, we now understand, has been at work all along.
Readings: Prv 8:22-31 ● Rom 5:1-5 ● Jn 16:12-15
We begin every prayer, and every liturgy, by revealing the inner-life of our Maker—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We remind ourselves of his presence as we pass every Catholic church and tabernacle. We pray this threefold life at the beginning of every rosary, every hour of our breviaries, and at the close of each day. This is our life, this is our God: perfect love manifest as life-giving unity between persons. But, how can we get the average parishioner to appreciate the infinite profundity and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity? Try this.
Ask how many people are present in the parish today? At any given Mass, how many people are in attendance? 500? 1000? Now ask how many “humans” are present. Laughter, and then the same number repeated. Stop and ask, how many persons are God? Three. But how many Gods are there? One. See the hitch? You and I have our own humanity, and if I do not like this homily, or if I do not like you, I can “pick up” my humanity, and go home. You and I have an autonomy which, in our American way of thinking, might appear, at first blush, to be a good thing. Don’t you and I usually equate autonomy with perfection? The more proficient I become at this or that, the less I need others to show me what to do. The more individually wealthy I become, the less I need to rely on others for help. And so on. Yet, it is not that way in God: the Father has a unique identity as Father only because he has a Son. The Father does not have his “own” divinity, but shares the divine nature, godliness, while perfectly in communion with the Son, and the Spirit. The nature of God is not exclusive to any one person, with the result that the persons of the Trinity have a unique identity, not because of their substance (divinity), but because of their relationship with one another. The Father is identifiable as Father only vis-a-vis the Son, the Son vis-a-vis the Father, and the Spirit receives his particular identity only as the Love between them, the Gift uniting Giver (Begetter) and Receiver (Begotten).
If we can convey such a mystery, we can then invite our congregation to imagine how they understand perfection. Most of us instinctually think of perfection as autonomy, not as dependence. We think of perfection as moving away from others, standing out. But, it is not that way with God. Divine perfection is revealed today as reliance on the other, as the need for relationship in order to understand fully who I am. This is the Christian paradox: the self is made only for gift, and one cannot truly know oneself, cannot truly flourish as a person, until one learns how to make oneself gift (cf., Gaudium et Spes §22). Today, we could thus emphasize the Church as the place where one learns to make oneself a gift for others, in service, through intercessory prayer and Mass attendance, through acts of charity at home and throughout our communities.
Sin arises in most of us when we feel that we are unable to make ourselves gift. We fearfully hold on to our petty little selves because, at least, there we will not be open to the risk of loving. C.S. Lewis is unmatchable here: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket— safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy or, at least, to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love, is Hell” (The Four Loves).
Use the homily to focus a few minutes on the security and confidence the Gospel is meant to convey this day: all that the Father is belongs by nature to Christ, and all that he is and has, is now ours by grace. We can never be taken from the Lord’s hands. When we realize this more and more, we can quit trying to define ourselves, make ourselves determine our own way. We are to be led into the vulnerability of Christ, first and foremost, by realizing that our welfare is not something discoverable within our little selves, but is found in the well-being of another. This is the movement of true love, not only outward, but upward as well. When we risk the “dangers and perturbations” of love, we risk losing our illusion of self-rule and autonomy. Like the Trinity, you and I are made for eternal communion, to come to know and find ourselves only through a sincere gift of self. Truer strength could not be given.
Suggested Readings from the Catechism: §232-37, 2205, 2655.