Homilies for February 2016

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by James Tissot

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time—February 7, 2016

The Apostles: Guided by the Holy Spirit

Purpose: In order to hear God’s call and respond, we cannot depend on human insight alone, but must allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit as the Apostles were.

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Every day we are faced with thousands of decisions. Some are almost inconsequential, while others can impact the rest of our lives. For us, as disciples of Christ, they are all a part of the central decision to follow Jesus above all else. At times, it can feel overwhelming, especially when those very consequential decisions have to be made, and we don’t know what’s best, or where God is leading us. But, thanks be to God, we aren’t left to make those decisions completely on our own. In fact, it’s when we try to make those decisions without turning to God and seeking his guidance that life becomes particularly difficult. On the other hand, when we take time for prayer and discernment, asking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and trying to follow him in our decisions, a life that might be filled with difficult decisions can still be very peaceful, because we know we aren’t on our own.

For those first disciples whom Jesus called to follow him, a very concrete decision had to be made. Before the call even came, we hear the account of Jesus in Simon’s boat. He gives a command, clear and simple, yet challenging: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” They’ve been working hard all night, and, after all, this is their profession, not Jesus’, so human reasoning could respond with skepticism at this man who seems to think he knows better. We could easily imagine Simon responding, “we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing … I’m not going to do it again.” But that’s not what he says. Instead he replies, “at your command, I will lower the nets.” And what happens? A miraculous catch of fish more abundant than the nets could hold. Simon immediately recognizes the power of this man before him, and, in astonishment at the miracle, says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He recognizes his own unworthiness, and, perhaps, there was some doubt in his mind that he’s now ashamed of. The decision to do something as mundane as lower the nets once again gave this man the ability to make the crucial decision to leave everything and follow him.

So we might ask, “How do I do that?” We’re here because we’ve already made the decision to follow Jesus, but that decision isn’t a one-time thing. It’s something we’ve got to keep doing. Consider just one thing God gives us to help make that decision. It’s something—or, more precisely, seven things—you probably had to memorize somewhere along the way. They’re the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they aren’t just something we had to learn to pass a test. They’re central to understanding how God continues to guide us through. For those first disciples, it was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to recognize Jesus and respond to his call, and today the Holy Spirit continues to inspire us if we are willing to receive him.

Consider again the decision Simon had to make. No human wisdom told him it was the right thing to do. Rather, the Holy Spirit, through his gifts of Wisdom and Understanding, moved Simon to respond the way he did, “Master … at your command, I will lower the nets.” And his response upon catching the great number of fish wasn’t only natural surprise, it was the Fear of the Lord that made him fall to his knees before the God-man, the same one before whom the Seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” And when the disciples made the decision to leave everything and follow Jesus, they surely required the gift of Counsel to see that it was the right decision, and the gift of Fortitude to follow through with it. They required Knowledge to receive the words, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men,” and Piety to humbly submit themselves to God’s will. In all of this, it was not human insight alone that guided them. It was the Holy Spirit alive within them.

We, too, have received the call from Jesus Christ to come follow him. The decision we make each day is either to keep following him, or to go our own way, but we don’t do it alone. He continues to give us the Holy Spirit to guide us each day. God gives us Wisdom to see the world as he sees it; Counsel to know right from wrong, and Understanding to know ourselves truly; Knowledge to understand the mysteries of God; and Fear of the Lord to adore in awe before him; Piety to place our trust in him; and Fortitude to strengthen us along the way. In all things, he guides us so that we, like those he first called by the shore of Galilee, can continue to follow him. 

Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church. §733-736, 864; Luis M. Martinez, The Sanctifier (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2003); Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Christian Perfection and Contemplation (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.), 272-277

Ash Wednesday—February 10, 2016

Recognizing Christ’s Ultimate Sacrifice for Each of Us

Purpose: In Lent, we must keep the Cross before our eyes so that each day we can draw closer to God and move further away from our sins, in preparation for the great feast of Easter.

Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

We are all going to die. That reality is one that has motivated every major quest of mankind, either trying to avoid it, or searching for meaning in it. Today, we enter into a season that calls to mind, and more than that, actually relives the reality that even God himself was not willing to be exempt from this fundamental human experience. In death, humanity is tempted to see its final limit, the point past which nothing else is possible. Throughout history, great men have tried to overcome death, or at least, to forget about it for a while, but the reality stands ever-looming, and must ultimately be acknowledge for what it is: inevitable.

In this season of Lent, the Church asks us to do something very difficult. We temporarily put aside the joy of Easter Sunday, and our knowledge of the Resurrection, to walk with Christ and allow ourselves to tremble again at the Wood of the Cross. But we don’t do so out of morbidity or hatred of life. Rather, we do so to gain the perspective of those first disciples who walked with Christ toward his Cross in Jerusalem. They were there, if at a distance, when he hung his head and breathed his last. And they witnessed something beyond imagining. What seemed to be defeat was swallowed up in victory. The cry of “all is lost” was replaced by the victory shout of “We have won!” And why? All because that “bleeding head so wounded, reviled, and put to scorn” did not hesitate to enter into our world of suffering and sin, in order to raise it up at last to him.

And so we see that, entering into this season of penance is far from an obsession with death, or a doubt about the Resurrection. It is quite the opposite, preparing us to celebrate all the more fervently the feast of our triumph when Easter arrives. We kneel before the Cross of Christ because that is where we find the consolation of a God who suffers with us. By our sinfulness, the only thing we can really call our own is that we have placed him on that Cross, but by his love, the only Love which can truly deserve the name, he has overcome the power of death itself. And he did so through the Cross, through the death he chose to suffer. We can never forget or ignore that Wood made beautiful by the Body of our Savior.

This is the great gift which God holds out to us, and which St. Paul urges us not to receive in vain. These 40 days are all about purifying our intentions, cleansing us of whatever keeps us far from God, and opening our hearts to receive him more perfectly. As the Lord proclaims through the prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” The death of Jesus on the Cross was for me and for you, individually. If I were the only person in the world in need of salvation, Jesus would have submitted to undergo the exact same Passion just for me, and the same can be said for you. Each of us can look at him and truthfully say, “He is doing this for me.” How could we waste this opportunity to turn away from our sins, and turn back to him? Back to our God who is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”

When we consider all of this, isn’t it strange that we, humanity, could still be so cold, so ungrateful, so unloving, so sinful still today? How can we remain unmoved in the face of such great love, such self-sacrificing redemption? I don’t believe it’s because we think about these things and choose to reject his love; at least, that’s not very common. Rather, we all too often simply don’t think of them at all. Certainly, when we stop to contemplate our Lord’s passion today we can’t help but feel his love burning in our hearts, but tomorrow, unless we renew those thoughts, we’ll forget, and the flame will die down again. Then, in a few days, when some strong, attractive temptation comes along, we may give in without a thought of Jesus and his sufferings, and the smoldering spark of love that still remains might be extinguished altogether.

Today, then, and each day this Lent, we must keep the Cross of Christ, that glorious symbol of our salvation, before our eyes. Through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving we can turn back to him and beg, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” And if we do that, when Easter arrives, we truly will have reason to rejoice. We will relive the experience of those first disciples who saw the triumph of life over death, the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it all begins today, as we set that glory aside for a time, for “Behold, now is a very acceptable time … now is the day of salvation.”

Suggestions for Further Reading: Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), Ch. 25, 26.

First Sunday of Lent—February 14, 2016

True Strength Comes from God Alone

Purpose: Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we learn dependence on God and obedience to his will, which allows us to be victorious in temptation.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. And so we mark that event every year with our own observance of 40 days. Today we go with him again, into the desert, and there we can also expect to face our own temptation. Whenever we make an effort to grow closer to God, to leave behind habits of sin and grow in virtue, we can be sure that opposition won’t be far behind. Adversity is a part of life, and certainly Jesus was not exempt from it. As the letter to the Hebrews tells us “we have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, tested in every way, yet without sin.” Having experienced our weakness himself, Jesus shows us that adversity does not mean failure, and certainly does not have to mean sin. In fact, temptation itself can be turned into something great. 

When our Lord was led into the desert, he faced those three temptations we just heard in the Gospel. In each of them, there is one thing in common: the temptation to put something else in the place of God. And truly, that is at the heart of all our temptations. The wound of original sin makes us still want to turn in toward ourselves, rather than looking toward God. We are easily led to believe that the happiness we desire will only be ours if we go out and get it. And, if God appears to delay in giving us what we want, it only reinforces the conviction that we must do it on our own. To help us counter that attitude, the Church recommends to us three timeless “tools” that we practice particularly during Lent. They are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Prayer is, first of all, essential, because it is a recognition of the fundamental reality that God is God, and I am not. By turning to him, we turn out of ourselves, bringing him our needs and desires, reaffirming our trust in him, and, quite simply, praising him for his goodness. Fasting, then, puts into the flesh what we say in our prayer: that the things of this world cannot ultimately satisfy. By purposely withdrawing from certain material goods—food and drink, and any other thing we give up during Lent—we say, through our actions, that those things are not as important as our relationship with God. And finally, almsgiving goes one step further by not only denying ourselves certain things, but actually giving away what we already have for the sake of others. If I cannot part with even some of what I have, for fear that I won’t have enough or out of a strong desire to have even more, then my actions say plainly that I am still more dependent on myself than on God.

These practices have the effect of teaching us the same kind of obedience we see in Jesus. “Son though he was, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” That word “obedience” is a very unfashionable one these days. Society tells me that I must be free to do what I want, what my heart desires. But where does that get us? Perhaps satisfied for a time, but never truly happy. In fact, it seems, when we look around, that those who have the most “freedom”—the means to get whatever they want, the time to spend however they want, the lack of obligations to hold them down—are the ones who have the hardest time finding real, lasting happiness. What first appears to be strength can actually become the greatest weakness.

But the obedience we see in Christ teaches us where true strength comes from, the strength to persevere in pursuing the only thing that brings real, lasting happiness: God alone. The only thing that can dampen true happiness is my sin, and the further I move from God, the more easily I become enslaved to my temptations and become accustomed to that sin. But prayer, fasting, and almsgiving remind me that God’s strength is greater than my weakness, God’s knowledge surpasses my ignorance, God’s love is greater than my indifference. In the end, the only temptation we need concern ourselves over is the temptation to not place ourselves in God’s hands. Throughout this Lent, we journey with Christ again and, like him,  find ourselves tempted. In that temptation, we have only to turn to our great High Priest, who intercedes for us with the Father, by whose love, death has been destroyed and sin overcome, in whose Passion, we glory as our sole hope, and to whom we say, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world!”

Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church. §396-409; Michael E. Giesler, Guidebook for Confessors (New York: Scepter, 2010)

Second Sunday of Lent—February 21, 2016

The Great Privilege of Receiving the Holy Eucharist

Purpose: In the Transfiguration, Christ prepared his Apostles for the trial they would undergo, and does the same for us in the Most Holy Eucharist.

Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28b-36

The Transfiguration took place only a short time before Jesus entered into his Passion, and ultimately offered himself up to death. He knew the trials and temptations his disciples would very soon experience, and was moved to strengthen them before the burden ahead. The effect on the Apostles wasn’t that, from this moment on, they were only faithful and never wavered. After all, at the foot of the Cross, it was John alone who, of the twelve Apostles, remained. God’s grace, always available to us, doesn’t simply override our human nature. The Apostles were still human, and despite this and many other privileged encounters with God, they were still quite capable of giving in to fear and not turning to the help of God’s grace.

In our lives of faith, we can experience something very similar. God reveals himself to us in some unmistakable way. We encounter him and all doubt is cast aside. Then, almost in the blink of an eye, we find ourselves struggling once again and unsure of whether God is even there. It’s in those times, down in the valleys, that we must remember the experience of the mountain top.

It’s hard to even imagine what the Transfiguration looked like. We’re told that “his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white,” but, surely, any picture that tries to capture this scene must fall short. Even in our imagination, we can only, at best, get some sense of the overwhelming experience. But even more, surrounding the Transfigured Lord stood Moses and Elijah. They too appeared in glory, speaking with Christ about his impending Passion, which “he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Don’t miss the symbolism here. There is Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, and gave them the Law at Mount Sinai. And there is Elijah, the great Prophet taken up to heaven, whose return was announced by Malachi before the coming of the Lord. The Law and the Prophets find their fulfillment, their perfection, in the person of Jesus Christ. And not only in some vague sense, but quite concretely. Together on the mountain top, they speak of his death on the Cross. Indeed, it is on the Cross, in his death and Resurrection, that Christ would perfectly reveal the plan that had been hidden in God for generations, the plan for our salvation.

And this is where the whole scene of the Transfiguration becomes even more spectacular for, indeed, we have something far greater set before us right here. Today, on this Altar, Jesus Christ will come to us in a way that surpasses even his transfigured human body. In the Most Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, he comes to us and says once again, “Take and eat … take and drink.” Not only Moses and Elijah, but the whole Heavenly Host stands with him. Of course, the difficulty is that we can’t see this reality as the Apostles did for that short moment. We cannot look upon the Eucharist with our eyes and comprehend its reality, precisely because it so surpasses our earthly existence. We must see through the eyes of our faith, which tell us that what Jesus Christ has promised, he can and does provide. When we see that reality, then we, like Peter, will also say, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

In this gift, made available to us here as often as we come, we receive the same gifts the Apostles did that day, and even more. We, like them, are fortified against the assaults of temptation. We, like them, are powerfully assisted in bearing the daily crosses of life. We, like them, receive a foretaste of the heavenly joy and bliss promised to us. But we do not need to climb a distant mountain to see that great promise come to fulfillment. We have only to ask for the grace to see what has already been given to us, and that we have the great privilege of coming to this Altar to receive.

Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church. §554-556; Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 305-318

Third Sunday of Lent—February 28, 2016

Our Sharing in Christ’s Suffering

Purpose: The sorrow we experience as a consequence of sin in the world can be united to the Cross of Christ, who brings new life where there appears to be none.

Readings: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

When the crowd approached Jesus with news of the Galileans massacred by Pilate, he answered plainly, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” In doing so, he challenged the mindset that suffering is a direct punishment for sin, but didn’t dismiss it out of hand. In reality, sin does bring with it a punishment. “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” So what are we to make of this? It raises a question that many of us might struggle with: Why does God allow suffering?

In a world beset by suffering, we might go to Jesus like the crowd. We might ask, “Is all of this suffering a punishment for something?” The parable of the fig tree gives us something of an answer, and a very hopeful one at that. In another place, we are told that the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and again that, “chastised a little, they shall be greatly rewarded.” It’s true, our Lord allows us to suffer—sometimes a great deal—but it isn’t without purpose. Like the fig tree, which had to be cultivated and fertilized so that it might produce fruit, so, too, we can actually grow through the experience of adversity. It is, in fact, because he loves us that God allows us to experience sorrow in this life, precisely so that we can come to know true joy.

We have an advantage over the crowd in the Gospel because we now understand the mystery that has been revealed, namely, the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. It is there, in the Cross, that everything is given new meaning. Cardinal Newman wrote, “Ten thousand things come before us one after another in the course of life, and what are we to think them? … Let me ask, what is the real key, what is the Christian interpretation of the world? … Crucifixion of the Son of God … His Cross has put its due value upon everything … the trials, the temptations, the sufferings of our earthly state.”

I’d like to offer just a few words of suggestion, particularly for those who are experiencing some sort of suffering, and are having a hard time seeing the hand of God in their lives. And these aren’t my thoughts, but those of one of the great spiritual writers of our time, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who left these words in the book, Tears of God. He tells us, first of all, to “spend a little time with a picture of Christ condemned, Christ beaten, Christ crucified, in your mind.” Remember that for Jesus, his Mother, and his followers, those events weren’t a lifeless drama as they can often seem for us who hear them read over and over. They were real life. Put yourself into the moment with them.

Then, focus in particular on the Blessed Mother. The hymn, Stabat Mater, (the one we typically sing during the Stations of the Cross) powerfully expresses what our response should be to her, and encapsulates her own experience of suffering and loss. And, of course, also spend some time thinking of how Christ felt before Pilate, when he was scourged and beaten, as he was carrying the Cross, and ultimately hung upon It. You may even find that, as you ask these questions, your own grief will be given some new perspective. That isn’t to say it becomes insignificant, but that you aren’t alone in it. It’s part of the incredible mystery of our faith that our suffering is, in fact, part of Christ’s suffering too.

Then he says to pray quietly and allow the sufferings of Jesus to enter into your mind and soul. Perhaps you’ll find some aspect of his Passion that you can identify with your own suffering. Whether it’s great or small, known to everyone, or to you alone, in that moment, every one of us can say to Jesus, “I am so grateful that you’re here with me.”

Finally, don’t forget the triumph of the Resurrection, and the fact that all our sorrows are only for a time. It may be difficult to find joy in them, but don’t forget them. Turn to God’s word, which speaks so beautifully of our eternal destiny, of the heavenly life we long for. Read those descriptions often because that’s where we’re going. The words of Jesus don’t tell us that suffering will be instantly relieved. But they do tell us that, despite our sufferings, we have the sure and certain hope that they will one day end, and we have the ability to overcome them just as Christ himself overcame death. To do so, he had to enter into suffering and embrace it, and, if we do the same, we can be sure that the victory, too, will be ours.

Suggestions for Further Reading: Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., Tears of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 55-63; Catechism of the Catholic Church. §1501-1505.

Third Sunday of Lent, Year A Scrutinies—February 28, 2016

Only Christ’s Living Water Will Satisfy Our Thirst

Purpose: We are made to thirst for God, and that thirst can only be satisfied by the true life-giving water, which is his grace. This is true of those preparing for baptism, but also remains true for all people.

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

Throughout Scripture, there are certain ideas that come up over and over. They have an immediate meaning, and, very often, a deeper meaning that develops over time. As we follow them through the course of revelation, they can tell us a great deal simply by their presence. One such example is found in the Gospel passage we heard today: water. And, of course, tied very closely with the image of water is the absence of water, which leads to thirst. We might think of the beginning, when God created the world, of the Spirit hovering over the waters, and how the waters were separated from the dry land. And, of course, by simply looking at the world around us, we know that water is essential for life, that where it flows, new life springs up; and that where it’s absent, life can’t be sustained for long. For the Israelites, wandering through the desert, the absence of water caused them to cry out for God. And their doubt in God’s ability to provide it, pointed to an even deeper thirst that we often see connected with water throughout the Scriptures. For instance, the Psalmist cries out, “My soul is thirsting for you, my God.” Obviously, his thirst is not physical, cannot be quenched by any earthly drink. His thirst is for the consoling presence of God. Even more, on the Cross our Lord himself said, “I thirst.” He certainly did suffer physically on the Cross, but Jesus did not thirst for water. He was thirsting for us.

We can see how, over time, the desire for water becomes a sort of analogue with new meaning. And so, too, water itself takes on new meaning. Through Ezekiel, God promised to “sprinkle clean water” upon his people, and we’re all familiar with the words of Psalm 23, “to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul.” Just as physical water is an essential element to the life of the body, so it becomes a symbol of that which is essential to the life of the soul, namely, God’s grace.

It is this deeper sense of water, our desire for God, and his desire for us, and the free gift of his life within us, that Christ helps the woman at the well discover. This woman was thirsty, but she didn’t know where to look for satisfaction. As a Samaritan woman, she is symbolic of all those living outside of God’s covenant, but Christ invites her in. And the way he does so is profound: Jesus asks her for water. He approaches her thirsty and says, “Give me a drink.” It was St. Augustine who said, “Christ allowed himself to thirst for us, so that we might learn to thirst for him.” In taking on our condition, Jesus puts himself on the same plain as all who thirst. To this Samaritan woman, he is truly able to say, “the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” not as one distant and removed from her situation, but as one who has learned to drink the true life-giving water. And, so, she is able to respond in faith, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty. 

In this Mass, we’re celebrating the first scrutiny for those preparing to be baptized at Easter. They, like the Samaritan woman, have sensed a deeper thirst that nothing in this world can satisfy. They have found the One who shares their thirst, and, simultaneously, can satisfy it. Once again, Christ allows himself to thirst for them so that they might learn to thirst for him. In a few moments, I will pray over them the following words, “Grant that these catechumens, who, like the woman of Samaria, thirst for living water, may turn to the Lord as they hear his word, and acknowledge the sins and weaknesses that weigh them down.” It’s a beautiful prayer that we, as a community, make for them.

But it’s also a prayer that, in a sense, we can make for ourselves. We all know the experience of physical thirst, what it feels like to be without water, that very essential element of life. And we also know the experience of spiritual thirst, the desire for something deeper than this world can offer. It’s the desire that Christ alone can satisfy. Try as we might to fill it up, it isn’t until we hand ourselves over to Christ that we can be truly fulfilled. And so, we come again today to the source of living water, and remember the promise he has made, that “the water {he} shall give will become in {us} a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Suggestions for Further Reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church. §1213-1284, 2560; Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 86-99; Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 238-248


Fr. Daniel Richards About Fr. Daniel Richards

Fr. Daniel Richards is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a 2013 graduate of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and is currently assigned as parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Gettysburg College.