For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for November 2013
Christ’s invitation to Zacchaeus by Tissot
Your House Today!
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time—November 3, 2013
Purpose: Today’s Gospel is very conducive to leading parishioners this morning in a contemplative application of the story’s main movements. We all seek for Jesus, he arrives, and then calls us to let him come to our homes, our hearts. We usually bumble about until he calms us down long enough to assure each of us of his love and care.
Readings: Wis 11:22-12:2 ● Ps 145:1-2,8-9,10-11,13, 14 ● 2 Thes 1:11-2:2●Lk 19:1-10
The story of Zacchaeus is a perfect opportunity to lead parishioners in a lectio divina. We empower our people toward greater prayer by teaching them how to engage scripture as their own lives’ stories and, thereby, give them the tools to pray more deeply outside of Mass, and throughout the week. It is a good habit to take a homily, every now and then, and not simply preach about the scriptures but to teach our congregants how they can more productively pray over otherwise unencountered scenes from Jesus’ earthly life. For the mysteries of the Bible may not have been written to us, but they were written for us and they are given to us as truths in which to see the movements of our own hearts.
Do any of your Masses this weekend provide the proper setting where you could have your congregation silence themselves?
If so, try having them contemplatively enter this exchange between Christ and Zacchaeus. Have them close their eyes and imagine they are somewhere familiar—in front of their homes, outside in a locale dear to them. Now, have them imagine they hear that Jesus Christ is just a few blocks away. Ask them, “How would that make you feel? To hear that Jesus of Nazareth is coming toward you? Would you feel anxious that he was so near, excited that you finally get to see him in his humanity, or would you actually be surprised that he exists?” Wait 20-30 silent seconds for this encounter to unfold a bit.
Next, have them imagine Jesus right in front of them, looking intently into their eyes. “How does Jesus seem to you, how does he look? What feelings well up in you when you see him beholding you as you are?” From this exchange, read again the exhortation to allow Christ to come to one’s house, possibly even substituting various names for that of Zacchaeus: “Joe, John, Mary, Julie, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” How would you receive Jesus—with trepidation or with total excitement? Point out how those around Zacchaeus grumbled that the Lord of all life was going to his house and not to theirs. “What would your neighbors say about you if they knew Jesus was coming to your house this very day? What would their first impression be?” “What do your neighbors have ‘against’ or ‘on’ you that would cause them to guffaw at Jesus’ selecting you as his intimate companion?” Give them the space to dwell on those “voices” we all carry about.
Often, when those voices of accusation and condemnation come, we resort to a contractual model of religion. We barter with God, and tell him that even though I may have fallen short in the past, I will be sure to do better from here on out. This is precisely what Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, does next.
Zacchaeus falls back into business mode, trying to impress Jesus with all that he has done, and all that he will do. He cannot accept Jesus as pure gift, but resorts into remuneration mode, back into a mentality of merit and repayment: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor.” How do we try to impress the Christ, what promises do we make him if he will only do what we want? Conclude by reminding all present that Jesus does not respond to Zacchaeus’ trying to buy his attention and, perhaps, even affection. Jesus sees through our faulty way of thinking that we must merit his presence, and simply says to each of us, “Today salvation has come to you.”
The story of Zacchaeus this Sunday is a chance to introduce people to lectio. We do well to teach them how to enter into scripture contemplatively, and to apply ancient encounters and exchanges to each of our own lives today.
Overall, the readings converge at the theme of grace. In Wisdom, we hear that God has made all things, and all that exists is dependent upon him; in 2 Thessalonians we are once again taught that it is God, not only the one who makes each of us worthy of his call, but also the one who brings to fulfillment that initial promise. All the good, and all the beauty, in our lives is a matter of God’s grace, and our consequent collaboration with him; the only thing we have absolutely for ourselves is our sinfulness. This is why it is Jesus who calls Zacchaeus; it is Jesus who comes to us. We can only allow him into our lives because he first seeks, he first knocks. And this Sunday is a unique occasion to invite those who have come to Mass to reflect deeply how the Lord desires to make their home his own.
Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church §2712, 2412, 2708
A Heart United, A Family Forever.
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time—November 10, 2013
Purpose: When one loves rightly, there is no competition between love of God and love of creatures. I am commanded to love those in my life by loving them as God loves them, to align my desires with God’s desires. In this way, I shall come to see at the end of my life that there was no such thing as a “human love” and a “divine love.” By loving all now, as God does, I shall be united with both God and them forever.
Readings: 2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14 ● Ps 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15 ● 2 Thes 2:16-3:5 ● Lk 20:27-38
Today’s readings converge at the point of family—of choosing and claiming our spiritual family as God’s children over and against our merely biological family. In the old covenant, God’s grace was dispensed primarily through natural ethnicity and kinships. God chose Israel and the Jewish people, by the very fact that they were the children of Abraham, and thus blessed in a way that other tribes were not. Yet, the moment God became human, his covenant became literally Catholic—a universal promise to all people that God is now present in their midst. If this is true, our old identities must be transformed: we are no longer simply the child of this family, no longer simply a citizen of this or that community, not just a member of that political party, and so on. Now we realize that we have been made for nothing other than life in heaven.
Accordingly, we can look upon God, and the human family, in the same way no more. God is no longer tied to a particular people but now to the entire human race. That is how we are to interpret those places in Paul where he teaches that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28; cf. Rom 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11). To interpret these passages correctly is not to say that there are no longer historical (personal, gender, social) differences, but that God no longer distributes his grace determined by these differences. All are now one in Christ!
This is what makes the opening reading from Maccabees (a family name traceable, appropriately enough, to the word “hammer”) all the more remarkable. In the reading in 2 Maccabees, we hear the story of Judas Maccabeus who led a revolt against Antiochus Ephiphanes IV (King of the Greek Seleucid dynasty, covering most of modern-day Turkey and beyond) defeating his army in 161 B.C., so as to free the Jews from foreign domination.
The lesson here for us Christians is obviously what the Apostles themselves knew very early on as well: it is better to follow God than to capitulate to man (cf. Acts 5:29). It is ironic that we are a people who claim to have a unique friendship with one we know created the world, rules all things providentially, who became one with us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and with one who has pledged his own sacred body and blood to us at each moment of our lives, and yet, we still fear to trust him completely. We are still afraid of death.
However, this is what we proclaim as Christians: that love is infinitely stronger than death and we have been lovingly made members of an eternal family. God is now our true and everlasting Father, Mary is our Mother, and all the saints are our newly-acquired siblings. This is why we hear the Apostle Paul refer to those in the Church at Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters.” These Christians are closer to him than any would have been to their own naturally-born siblings. It is the Faith that thus binds, and Paul realizes that not all have such life within them.
This might be an opportunity to comfort those before us by reminding them that this world was never meant to be their true home. Instead of feeling sad and despondent that we are not closer to others (especially our members of our immediate families), or that we find many aspects of our lives lacking, perhaps we could see these tears and aches as the realization that we know we are not made for earth only, and that our true destination and character is still to come. As Tolkien realized, as opposed to the elves who could not die, death is the “great gift” of humans because it finally transposes us from this “veil of tears” into an everlasting community of joy.
That is where today’s Gospel strikes. We are to live in this world as if we were already claimed for heaven. Even the closest possible human relationship, the sacrament of matrimony, is to be lived sub specie aeternitatis—with the realization that your spouse on earth is not your eternal spouse but a living icon through which you are to see your eternal love. Marriage’s ultimate purpose is for you to hand your spouse over to Jesus each day, and to assure that your life together is cemented by Jesus’ love and care. This is why matrimony is a sacrament: even on those days where you feel like being selfish and vindictive, the grace is offered you to become other than you might feel at any unfortunate particular moment.
When Luke says the married are like the angels in heaven, it is important to stress what this means. The elect are like the angels in heaven, not because they leave their bodies behind, but because there will not be marriages celebrated in heaven. Nothing makes me more upset when I hear well-meaning (but poorly catechized) Christians assure someone that their deceased loved one is “now an angel.” No! Angels are spiritual substances who were created without bodies, and who never will have bodies; we humans are incomplete without our bodies, and will one day enjoy glorified and resurrected bodies. Angels cannot become human, humans do not become angels. The point here is that, if lived rightly, marriage fulfills its purpose by one’s getting one’s spouse to heaven. For Christ must be the first and the form of all our loves, the union by which all the cares and affections in our lives are brought together.
Toward the end of his classic, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts a young, grieving mother named “Pam” who is claiming that the love she has for her son, who died at an unfortunately early age, is what should grant her heaven. The angel of God points out that the lavish attention she showed her son, Michael, was never, in fact, true love, but her own possessiveness: “You’re treating God as only a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for his own sake.” “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a mother.” “You mean if I were only a mother. But there is no such thing as being only a mother. You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer.”
Today’s homily, then, can focus on how we Christians are currently landlocked, but are given the grace to live as if we were already in heaven. Heaven is not a place, but that relationship with Jesus Christ which transforms our every thought, word, and action here on earth. Christ does not want to take away our families, and our deepest desires, but to become the “glue” that holds them all together. As long as our hearts remain divided between creator and creatures, we will never be happy. Once we surrender all of our seemingly “human” loves, and plunge them into the Heart of Christ, thus allowing him to become the love that unites us to even the most natural of our affections, our world becomes consecrated. For this reason Jesus asks us today to put him first in order that we may love ourselves and others, not only rightly, but eternally.
Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church §1601-05, 1618-20; Lumen Gentium §7 (“The Eschatological Composition of the Pilgrim Church and its Union With the Heavenly Church”)
Serving God in Greatness
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time—November 17, 2013
Purpose: Change is the one, sure condition of the Church militant. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, however, Jesus is portrayed as one shoring up his followers in confidence, and in the stability of his love, so as to be able to endure any affliction or challenge. Today, St. Paul asks us to take inventory of how we are working for the Kingdom, while the Gospel asks us to put all of our trust in Christ, and his promises that he is the Lord of all things, even the trials and tribulations of our age.
Readings: Mal 3:19-20A ● 2 Thes 3:7-12 ● Lk 21:5-19
Today’s readings open with an ominous warning of blazing fire. We learn quickly, however, that these are not the kinds of flames that devour and destroy, but which heal those who stand in awe of God’s name. Pope Emeritus Benedict offered that such fire is really the love of Christ, who is out to burn all detritus and waste from our beautiful souls, offering the opinion:
… that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (Spe Salui §47).
Made in his image and likeness, we are made to become one with God (cf. Gen 1:26-27). In our sins, we play around with the possibility that maybe this or that creature could replace God as our model and goal. We think, “Maybe that career, or that romance, or that amount of money, could be the thing which could truly fulfill me”, and so we latch inordinately on to sex, money, and honors. This is precisely why we need the purgatorial fires of Christ’s love. Only in the surety of perfect love are we free enough to allow ourselves to be transformed, however “painful” that process might be. When we know we are loved, we open our hearts and, thus, allow them to be repaired.
Paul can thus be straightforward with his “brothers and sisters” at Thessolonica, challenging them to greatness because he loves them. He calls them to work tirelessly for Christ; personifying the fires of the first reading, Paul realizes that all else must burn away as one gives one’s life to labor with Jesus. He, therefore, exhorts all of us to toil with unquestionable example, and undying solicitude, for those in our care. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola has the retreatant imagine, “Christ our Lord present and placed on the Cross.” Gazing upon this supreme act of love, Ignatius asks one then to:
- Look at myself: What I have done for Christ?
- What am I doing for Christ?
- What ought I to do for Christ?
And so seeing him as such, and so nailed on the Cross, to go over that which will present itself. The Colloquy is made, properly speaking, as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant to his master; now asking some grace, now blaming oneself for some misdeed, now communicating one’s affairs, and asking advice in them.
Notice how St. Ignatius defines prayer as simple conversation between friends, as well as between one who needs advice and counsel, and one who is able to advise and absolve perfectly. It is in such friendship and trust that true conversion takes place.
Today, we hear echoes of these solemn admonitions in Pope Francis’ simplicity and desire for all clergy to live more simply and more credibly in the eyes of the world. The Holy Father teaches by example: that all the ordained should live without undue privilege, and with more deference to conform to the lives and challenges of those put in their care. The day of the pampered cleric is, hopefully, over and all who are now called to the priesthood are willing to lay aside their riches, honor, and pride.
The Gospel, accordingly, teaches us to consider people over places, and human dignity above religious ritual. “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” As beautiful as our church buildings are (and should be), as lovely as the prescribed rituals of our Church are (and must be), we are always to be reminded that, in the end, only the holiness of persons matter. For the Christian, there are technically no holy places, only holy people; what makes this pilgrimage place or worship spot “holy” is not the topography, but the Person of Christ in the Eucharist, around whom all liturgical space is to be built. Of course, architecture and ceremony can be ways of realizing sanctity, but they can also be possible impediments and distractions to what really is important in the Christian life. Once again, C.S. Lewis is so good on a topic so essential:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But, it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ uere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden (The Weight of Glory).
God saves the world, not as spirit, and not from heaven. By assuming to himself the very stuff you and I take for granted each day—our humanity, our relationships, our worldly activities, the care of our bodies, and training of our minds, and so on—the Son of God redeemed the world by offering his mortal body to the Father. This is the true notion of sacrifice and, thus, the true purpose of religion: to consecrate ourselves in Truth, and thus be offered as a gift to the Father by pouring ourselves out in the service of his people, and to the glory of his name.
This Sunday’s readings, hence, instruct us how we cannot become saints in part. The fire of God aims to burn away all that is not yet his in our lives. We can spend this life in the pursuit of the popular small goods, like social invitations, buildings, degrees, and material comforts, or we can spend our lives heroically in imitating Paul, and all the great saints, by serving God in benignity, humility, and the confidence that comes from knowing that he is Lord of heaven and of earth.
Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church §675-77, 2302-06
Hail, Jesus, King!
Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe—November 24, 2013
Purpose: To invite all to see Christ as the King who chooses to rule through love, and not by force or threat. He is the perfect image of the Father, but also the Son of Mary, who in his very person unites all contraries and reconciles all tensions.
Readings: 2 Sam 5:1-3 ● Ps 122:1-2, 3-5 ● Col 1:12-20 ● Lk 23:35-43
To counter the ever-increasing nationalism Pope Pius XI sensed in Europe, he instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. This Solemnity was meant to teach the entire world that there was ultimately only one ruler, only one sovereign—the God-man, Jesus Christ. In the encyclical which inaugurated this feast, Pius XI tells us that he chose this year to proclaim Christ’s kingship because it is the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicaea, where Jesus was definitively proclaimed “consubstantial” with the Father and is, thus, worthy of our absolute devotion.
… by reason of the keenness of his intellect, and the extent of his knowledge, and also because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all mankind. He reigns, too, in the wills of men, for in him, the human will was perfectly and entirely obedient to the Holy Will of God, and further by his grace and inspiration, he so subjects our free-will as to incite us to the most noble endeavors (Quas Primas §7).
In 1969, Pope Paul VI changed both the name and the date of the feast, but the meaning remains the same: Today is a day to hail the true King of all! Yet, this was not a realm obvious from the beginning. From Eden to Calvary, God slowly disclosed the nature of his realm, and the purpose of his rule.
For this reason the Church gives us readings which show us the “progression” of God’s Kingdom. In the Old Testament prophets, like Samuel, we hear of the Kingdom being one of “bone and flesh,” one tied to the land of Israel. As such, the original vision of God’s Kingdom was still very much one of natural kinship and provincial protection. In Christ, this understanding is amplified universally to include every man, woman, and child. Whereas the kingdoms of old were terrestrial, and determined by bloodlines, Christ’s Kingdom is one of love. This love of the New King is now manifested as his adopting many brothers and sisters into his Father’s patrimony—making otherwise unworthy servants into his own brothers and sisters. This is the beauty of adoption: all depends on those who adopt, and not those who are adopted. We have been made members of Christ’s Kingdom, not out of anything we have done, but out of his immeasurable love for each of us. The power and glory are all his; the Good News is that he has chosen to share it with us.
In all likelihood, it is a first century baptismal hymn which Paul incorporates into his letter to the Colossians. Here, God is thanked and praised for unifying all things in Jesus Christ, and for even conforming us to such perfection. Through his holy Cross, and in his holy Church, Christ has reconciled all things: now, through his death is found life, in his mortality is found eternity, in his humble service is found greatness, in his humanity is found divinity. Christ is the great promise to us: even though we may now know mockery, derision and even, perhaps, forms of martyrdom, in that darkness and in those deaths, we shall come to know God’s reconciliation and redemption more powerfully and personally.
Accordingly, the Gospel today reminds us that the Kingdom of Jesus is not one simply of command and might but, first, one of weakness and vulnerability. It is a crown of thorns before it is a crown of gold. Such a new sense of rule ushers in a new liturgical year as well, as Christ the King always leads into Advent: our savior comes to us weak and dependent upon our desires to care for him, and to make him known in this world. He is a King, not a micro-manager, and he is willing to share whatever he can—his work, his mission, his very body and blood—with his members. On the Cross and in the Cradle, Christ undergoes a second kenosis, a continual outpouring of his glory so that the inglorious might come to him without fear.
This selection from Luke reaches its crescendo with Christ’s promise that those who come to him will be with him in paradise. So, we need again to stress how heaven for the Christian is not simply a place “out there,” apart from the trials and the crosses of this present life. Instead, heaven is a living, robust relationship with Jesus who longs to inform every moment and movement of our day here and now. We will be with Christ the King forever (cf. Thes 4:10) and in Christ and in his Church, forever begins today!
Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church §440, 2616.