For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for June 2013
“Christ of St. John of the Cross” by Salvador Dali, and consecration of the Eucharist.
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi)—June 2, 2013
The memorial is first of all a sacrifice.
Purpose: The Eucharist is truly both a “sacrifice of praise” making present the one sacrifice of Calvary, and a common banquet in the Risen Body and Blood of Christ, bringing the Church together as one and nourishing us for our daily living. On this solemnity, we should all meditate and give thanks for the twin reality that feeds our faith, hope, and charity.
Readings: Gn 14:18-20 ● 1 Cor 11:23-26● Lk 9:11b-17
When I was a young theology student in the 1970s, there was a boiling controversy about the Mass. One school, which was rooted in Catholic tradition, emphasized the sacrificial element of the Mass, that it was a perpetuation of “the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages.” The other, which seemed to be more modern and relevant, emphasized that the Mass was a community meal in which the unity of the Church was celebrated and effected, “a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet.” As time went on, of course, we realized that the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, is both, and the Catechism uses both sets of language in describing the sacrament.
In thinking about the divine, human nature frequently makes the same mistake we have always made. We think of God as just a really big, really powerful, really old “guy.” We imagine God to be a superman, like us but only better. That is exactly backwards. We try to make God over in our image, but the reality is that we are made in God’s image, and we are challenged and empowered by God to be remade daily more like himself. That is the work of grace in our lives.
The error was almost bred into our DNA from the start. Humans try to make “deals” with God. We offer God bulls or goats or grain or wine and expect God to give us rain, or dry weather, whatever we need to grow crops or mine metals. In our ignorance, humans even tried human sacrifice. But God is not like us. God doesn’t want our livestock and poultry and money. He wants a free offering of our lives. He doesn’t want our property; he wants all of us. And that’s not because he needs us. It’s because we need him.
For three thousand or more years, Abraham has been the ideal of that kind of offering. The Book of Genesis shows Abraham always listening to God, and doing what God asks. In this reading, which is a very old story, perhaps gleaned from the archives of pre-Jewish Jerusalem, Abraham is seen as a kind of warrior prince, who, having defeated a coalition of robber-kings, and retrieving his nephew, Lot, and many other captured people, comes to worship. The priest-king who offers a symbolic sacrifice of bread and wine is Melchisedek. Abraham tithes to this priest a portion of his personal wealth. Melchisedek is an important forerunner, modeling our future Savior, Jesus Christ, because of the bread and wine he offers, and, like Jesus, he is a priest of the true God, who is not of the tribe of Levi. In fact, it is clear that he is not even a Jew. We commemorate the offering of Melchisedek every time the celebrant prays the Roman Canon, or Eucharistic Prayer I.
St. Luke, a disciple of St. Paul, had often heard Paul’s teaching about the Eucharist, which Paul got directly from the Risen Christ. The words “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” are a clear testimony of the sacrificial nature of the Mass. The Holy Eucharist is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, and a celebration on earth of the eternal Liturgy of heaven, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. St. Luke relates the story of the feeding of five thousand men and their families, but begins by telling us that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed curing. That is an important prelude. When we receive communion, we are not being rewarded for being good. The Eucharist is a way in which Jesus today touches us and heals us. The Eucharist is a way in which Jesus embraces us and takes away our venial sins. And the Eucharist is a kind of “food for the journey,” a true spiritual food that enables us to do good and avoid evil in our daily lives.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §1322-1347.
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time—June 9, 2013
“See, Your Son Lives!”
Purpose: Through our belief in Jesus Christ and our participation in the sacraments, we gain everlasting life in Christ. We are strengthened in Christ’s Risen Body and Precious blood that we receive in the Eucharist giving us the the grace we need to receive the promise of eternal union with the Trinity.
Readings: 1Kings 17:17-24 ● Gal 1:11-19 ● Lk 7:11-17
Throughout history, there has never been a good time to be a widow, particularly in a society in which women neither worked nor owned property. The women in today’s Gospel and Old Testament readings both had only one son, and both lost them to death. Without the sons’ support, widows frequently ended up begging or in wretched moral condition, their lives a shambles–if they even managed to survive. It is not surprising that the pagan woman of Zarephath, who had been fed miraculously for many months because of the presence of the prophet Elijah, might feel that her good fortune was being offset by the death of her son. Her faith was blown out by that event like a candle flame.
But it was the presence of the prophet Elijah, and the more-than-a-prophet Jesus, that was the turning point in both stories, and the key event of both women’s lives. The contrast between the healing actions of Elijah and Jesus is even more striking. Elijah invokes the Lord, and stretches out three times over the lad’s body to warm him. The divine power comes from outside the prophet. Jesus, on the other hand, filled with the same compassion as Elijah, himself works the miracle by his own power. He commands the dead youth, who is identified by St. Luke as monogenes, or “only-begotten,” to arise, and he does. Jesus is acclaimed as a prophet, but he proves himself far more than a prophet. He himself is the “Only-Begotten,” the Son of God, and Second Person of the Trinity.
The same divine power has been ever active in the Church Jesus founded. Just a few weeks ago, we heard the story of Peter raising the disciple Tabitha/Dorcas from death. Paul raised Eutyches after that. Death, which had no power over the sacrificed and risen Christ, shows itself never to be the ultimate victor, even over those who are not resuscitated as these were. All who believe in Christ (live Christ’s life) and are baptized (participate in the sacraments) have everlasting life in Christ. In his Risen Body and Precious Blood, the communion we are soon to share, effects a strengthening of that life, that grace in us, a life and grace that is the promise of eternal union with the Trinity.
The power and grace of God has also been effective in preserving the Church’s existence, just as Jesus promised (Mt 16:18). Professor James Hitchcock, in his masterful History of the Catholic Church, chronicles the many times the Church has been assaulted to within an inch of its life, only to see the power of Christ bring her back stronger than ever. The Judaizers fought to keep the Christian Way as a minor Jewish sect, but God raised up St. Paul to combat and defeat them, inspired by the Holy Spirit, bringing the Gospel to all the nations. The Arians tried to deny the full divinity of Christ, but St. Athanasius, and many other great teachers, faced exile and persecution in order to preserve the truth. Under threat from schism, Islamic onslaught, Protestant persecution, the French Jacobins, the German Nazis, the Russian communists, the Church reeled, prayed, and came back strong.
In our day, governments around the world, controlled by secularists and business interests alike, see the teachings of the Church as uncomfortable and regressive, particularly in the realms of population control and human sexuality. They pass laws and regulations to make us complicit in evil–contraception, abortion, sterilization, oppression of the poor and dispossessed. But the promise of Christ is immutable. He will protect and enrich us. Skirmishes may be lost, but the battle with the powers of hell is already a foregone conclusion. Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §434, 671, 828, 1524.
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time—June 16, 2013
“Your Sins Are Forgiven”
Purpose: Jesus came preaching salvation by the “forgiveness of sin,” a battle he won through his life, death, and resurrection. Our fight against our personal sins begins with Baptism’s removal of original sin, and continues the struggle against sin through growing in our faith in Christ with the help of the grace received through the sacraments.
Readings: 2 Sam 12:7-10, 13 ● Gal 2:16, 19-21 ● Lk 7:36-8:3
Sin is the one consistent reality in human history. It is self-defeating and self-destructive. Sin consists of the sinner looking to his own comfort, convenience, and pleasure, with not even a nod to the needs of other humans or the law of God. That law, which every human knows, which is written on every human heart, is summarized in the maxim, “do good and avoid evil.” The application of that law, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is common to every human culture.
Thus, King David did not need the 60- plus regulations of the Jewish law, operating in the time of Christ, to know that he should not have committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. He did not even need the Ten Commandments to understand that he shouldn’t have sent Uriah to his death to cover up the original crime. All these would have been obvious, because he would not have wanted Uriah to do those things to him if the roles had been reversed. But he did it anyway. King David, the ideal king of the Old Testament, the first king in a long dynasty that culminates in Jesus Christ, was an adulterer and murderer. It was a scandal that issued in a generation of familial bloodletting.
Yet, when the prophet Nathan stood before David and accused him, “You are the man,” he did not plead excuses, or temporize, or pass the guilt down. He admitted his sin, and repented. And God did not smite him. Nathan pronounced the absolution: “God forgives you.” Truly, punishment would ensue, years of punishment. But he knew the divine forgiveness, and wrote psalm 32, today’s psalm, as a thanksgiving offering.
The sinful woman who cleaned and anointed the feet of Jesus, too, knew that forgiveness, in ways the Pharisees did not. Pharisees treated sin differently. They tried to separate themselves from sin by avoiding public sinners, and by incorporating into their own lay lives the rules of ritual purity given by Leviticus for priests. But in the process, they forgot that love of God and neighbor is the fundamental requirement for a holy life, and they neglected both. They confused changes in external behavior with the change that is really needed for holiness–the metanoia of the heart.
Jesus came, as Zechariah his cousin prophesied at the birth of John the Baptist, to give his people knowledge of salvation “by forgiveness of their sins.” If sin is the problem, obliterating it is the precondition for the redemption of the human race. That is the battle that Jesus came to fight, and that is the contest that he won through his passion, death, and resurrection.
The internal change that we need to become holy begins with the destruction of original sin at our baptism. We continue that change as our faith grows. That is why St. Paul says we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Such faith is more than a recitation of truths we believe, and it is more than a single act of trust in Jesus as our personal savior. No, faith is a way of daily life, by which we accept from Christ’s hands, through the sacraments, the forgiveness we need, and take from him the power we need to do good and avoid evil in the future.
The contrast between Nathan and Jesus is striking. Nathan told the repentant David that God forgives. Jesus simply says, in his divine power, “your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees, scandalized, knew that he was doing more than speaking about God, he was speaking asGod. If we hear that voice of forgiveness in our lives, we can be certain that through the ministry of the Church, the same forgiving, healing Christ is in our midst.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §430, 976, 984, 1441.
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time—June 23, 2013
Looking Upon the One Whom We Have Pierced
Purpose: The stunning image provided by Christ of what he meant by being called, “Messiah,” was portrayed to the apostles by Jesus in his stating that he must “suffer, be killed, and rise on the third day.” These same apostles had the courage, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, to follow a similar path of humiliation, leading to death. But they also were given the promise of salvation for that suffering. Everyone wishing to follow Christ must be willing to stand before a disbelieving world, and risk the consequences for speaking the Truth that Jesus preached, knowing that we too have the promise of salvation for our efforts and suffering.
Readings: Zech 12: 10-11 ● Gal 3:26-29 ● Lk 9:18-24
I think that most adults have experienced at least one or two events in their lives that must be called “gut-wrenching.” Emotionally laden, personal circumstances don’t happen every day—the death of a parent, spouse or child, the loss of a job, the arrival of a subpoena are quite rare. More often, we are turned upside down in our emotions by something that happens to others. If alive and aware at the time, one remembers vividly the feelings engendered by a presidential assassination, the Challenger disaster, the events of 9-11, the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis. The Greek Bible, which was the early Christians’ bible, had a word for the inner part of man that feels for others, splankna, which one translation renders as “bowels of compassion.”
Today’s Old Testament reading brings that to mind. The prophet Zechariah, who was given to visions of God and God’s people, speaks of a human victim—probably an Anointed One, a Messiah—who was murdered. And he tells us, in words familiar to any Catholic, “they shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” As we look upon the image of Jesus on the cross, pictured today as Paul vividly displayed him in the first century, we see the wound left by the Roman lance. How can we not be moved in the innermost portion of our soul and body? Because we have pierced him by our sins, and because he, knowing he would be so treated, willingly came to free us from our sins precisely by that piercing.
The first-century Jews, after a hundred years of oppression by the Roman pagans, were understandably sick of the presence of foreign troops, the fawning over the Roman procurator by their leaders, the crucifixion of anybody who failed to obey, and the eviscerating taxes. They yearned for a Messiah who would unite them, arm them, and expel the invaders. Peter, speaking for all the disciples, answered Jesus’s question “who do you think I am,” with the stark reply, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus did not contradict Peter. Instead, he completely reversed the definition of “Messiah.” The Messiah must suffer, as he later told the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He would be killed by the Jewish leaders and then rise again on the third day. Moreover, no disciple would be greater than this Messiah-Master. Every disciple must be willing to undergo the same humiliation and death—and resurrection.
Each June, we have the privilege of celebrating a whole month devoted to worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Solemnity is celebrated about the time we also commemorate, in the great Liturgies composed by Thomas Aquinas, the Body and Blood of Christ, “Corpus Christi.” The two festivals are two sides of the same divine coin–a coin of compassion. The Sacred Heart is the heart pierced by the lance. From that Heart came the water of baptism and the precious Blood of Eucharist. St. Faustina’s vision is of two divine rays of red and white streaming from the side of the Risen Christ. To a world riven by the sinful actions of humans, Christ, who ever-intercedes for us before God, offers in his boundless compassion, the graces of forgiveness, justification, and spiritual power to anyone who is willing to receive them.
I have found these images profoundly attractive to those who are seeking meaning in their lives. Many of them have an image of God derived from a stern and merciless human father. The idea that the true God would become human, and have such a heart of compassion that he would suffer and die in our place, and offer u—through our own suffering—a meaning, purpose and saving path, is beautiful and compelling. Each day, we should pray that God show us ways to share his merciful love, his “bowels of compassion,” his Sacred Heart.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §430, 478, 976, 984, 1441.
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time—June 30, 2013
Freed Does Not Serve the Flesh; Serve One Another in Love.
Purpose: No one wants to suffer, but as Christians, that is what we are asked to do. We each are called in our individual lives to a particular path and discipleship. In calling others to follow him, Christ is very clear that we are not to turn away from what may seem difficult, but trust that we will be helped to follow him in our lives, no matter how uncertain the path, or how difficult it may be to give up the things in life we might prefer.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 ●Gal 5:1,13-18 ● Lk 9: 51-62
In my lifetime, the world language, which at one time was Latin and more recently was French, has become English. That is fortunate for us native English speakers, but unfortunate in so many other ways. St. Paul’s letter today gives us a good example of words from other languages that do not translate well into English. One of these words is the Greek term, sarx, which is rendered “flesh” in many translations. The problem is that most folks think that this (hold up arm and pinch skin) is the same flesh Paul is writing about. And it leads people to think that Paul holds the body to be evil. That’s just not true.
There is a battle going on inside us, but it’s not between our soul and body. It’s between the tendency to selfishness and sin, which is the real meaning of sarx, and the God-given grace put into us by the Holy Spirit. Sarx battles against pneuma, our God-centered spirit. That struggle began inside me, and inside you, when we began making free decisions. On the one hand, we know that it is better for everyone for us to think, decide, and act in love. On the other hand, it is often easier and more pleasurable to make decisions based on self-interest, or what we think is our self-interest. That’s how we get into trouble; that’s how we make self-destructive and other-destructive decisions. The rebellious flesh is what must be crucified so that we can be led by the Spirit to always do good and avoid evil, submitting all our decisions to the Law of Christ.
Today’s Scriptures show four men making decisions in the face of a challenge and summons by God. The four responses to God’s call are different, and they tell us something about how we might respond to God’s call. That call might be a life calling to ministry, orders or marriage, or something more temporary. We should read and reflect on these four Biblical situations so that we will be more ready to answer when God calls on us.
Elijah was the greatest prophet after Moses, and he lived in perilous times—not unlike our own—when to be a follower of God’s Law often brought one into conflict with the ruling authorities and the culture. As his ministry was coming to full maturity, he heard the call of God to recruit a disciple who would take his mantle. That man was Elisha ben Shaphat, and his importance to the history of Israel cannot be ignored. Fully nine chapters of the Old Testament are devoted to his life and works. When Elijah called him, by literally throwing his mantle on Elisha’s shoulders, he asked only to return and assure the comfort of his family. A kind of celebration ensued, so that Elisha could wrap up his responsibilities to his kinfolk, and then follow God’s call.
Three anonymous Jews are profiled in Luke’s Gospel story. The first man, perhaps inspired himself by God’s Spirit, tells Jesus that he will follow the Lord wherever he might go. Jesus does not answer him either way, but reminds him that his disciples, like Jesus himself, live a life of radical renunciation of comfort. There would be no den, no nest for the disciple.
The second responds to Jesus’s stark command, “follow me.” He protests that his father is still alive and he has responsibilities to care for him until his death. Jesus answers him with an even stiffer reply, even a rebuke, “let the dead bury their dead; you go proclaim the kingdom.” He reminds the prospective disciple, and us, of the urgency and importance of the Gospel message. Souls are in peril; they need to hear the good news of the compassionate love and mission of Christ.
The last man tellingly gives the same response to Jesus that Elisha gave Elijah. But Jesus’s judgment on the act of saying “goodbye” is different than Elijah’s. He reminds the man in a way that evokes the Genesis story of Lot’s wife, that looking back from the mission is a sure way to avoid being worthy of God’s kingdom.
Each of us is called to be part of the great effort to reach the lost, which is called the “new evangelization.” May we keep our hands to the plow, looking forward to our leader and brother, Jesus Christ.
Further reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §915, 1709, 1809, 2515, 2555.