Homilies for March 2016


Death and Resurrection: Crucifixion (detail) by Jacopo Tintoretto (1565),
The Resurrection of Christ by Noel Coypel (1700).

Rejoice Always

4th Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday–March 6, 2016

Purpose: It is always good to recommit ourselves during Lent; we are half way now and some people are already worn out with their prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Others have not done anything substantial yet.  Whether you have done much or not done anything at all, today is a time for us to recommit ourselves for the preparation for Easter

Readings: JOS 5: 9-A; PS 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2 COR 5: 17-24; LK 1-3, 11-32. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/030616-fourth-sunday-lent.cfm

Today is called Laetare Sunday. “Laetare” is a Latin command for all of us to rejoice, because there is something joyful that gives us hope, and a burst of energy, as we head toward Easter. Let us look at the readings and see how they make us joyful.

Lent is a 40 day retreat, and our readings act as lessons in basic Christian virtue. You want to learn how to be Christian? Study the readings especially for this Sunday. In today’s Gospel, we find one of the most important lessons of being Christians:  it is the story of the prodigal Father. We usually say “prodigal son.” “Prodigal” means to be woefully extravagant. If someone says you are “prodigal,” it means that you are woefully extravagant in whatever you do.  So who is the really big person here? It is not the selfish son—he is a really big sinner, but that is not extravagant; to be a sinner is kind of narrow.  It is the father who is prodigal—he is extraordinarily forgiving, and that is what this story is all about.

I have always had a problem with authority, but it is not a rebellion against authority. My problem is I wanted those in authority to like me, and to say I am a great person to coach, or a great student or, in the priesthood, to say I am holy; I wanted to be admired by those in authority.   I like to be admired by authority but I do not want to be too close to authority because I like to be admired from afar, and to be admired you have to keep your distance. Yet, what I have come to learn is that if you want to be loved, you have to be up close.

Jesus tells this story to those who are self-righteous, those who think of themselves as better than others. Some of us may be in that group. Jesus tells us of a man who had two sons. The younger son said to his father, “Father, give me a share of your estate that should come to me.” When do we get our estate from our parents? When they die.  So the younger son is saying to his father, drop dead!  I do not care if you are alive or dead, I just want what I want, even if it means you are dead.  It is a very serious thing for a son to say to his parent.  The father gave him the money, and so he went to a foreign land, and he spent all the money on a wild life … and now it is all gone. And then the famine hits.

Do we in the modern West really know what a famine is? It is hard for us to imagine even one day without easy access to all the food we could desire.  Do we even know what the significance of “swine” is in our Gospel today?  For both famine and swine are quite significant to the message Jesus is telling us.  Famine means no food, and swine refers to “pigs.”  There is a famine, and the young man does not have a job, and no money, so the only place he can work is at a pig farm, where he feeds the pigs the pods they eat. And he wishes he had some of those pods. Now you know that the Jews do not eat pork. So for a Jew to have a job in a pig farm is falling as low as you can fall.  This man betrayed God, his true Father, and now he is working with the pigs, the natural contrary to what the Jews held up as being divine.

But Jesus tells us that the younger son finally comes to his senses. Now when he comes to his senses, he does not feel bad about what he did. He just wants a better life.  It is a natural sense not a supernatural sense. It is not because he feels so bad about how he treated his father, or that he loves him so wants to go back. He wants to go back because he is starving to death.  I sometimes go to confession not because I am so sorry for my sins, but I just do not want to go to hell.  Our consolation is that this not wanting to go to hell is enough in God’s eyes! “I do not want to starve” is enough for the Father to take his son back. “I do not want to go to hell” is enough for the Father to take us back as well.

The Father takes his son back and overreacts—he runs to the son when he is a long way off. In ancient Jerusalem, you do not run anywhere, especially if you are the elderly patriarch. The son should come to him, but the father runs, and embraces him, and kisses him—this son who has been living with pigs! The father then gives him the best robe, and the symbol of authority, the ring on his finger—the seal of the father’s house—and he is reinstituted as a member of the family. He is also given sandals, which means he is not stuck there: “If you want to go, you can go; you have sandals on your feet.”   He calls for the fatted calf to be prepared for a celebration, and the son says, “I have sinned against heaven and against you, and I do not deserve to be called your son; I deserve to be treated like a slave.”  Does the Father let him be treated like a slave? He does not. The Father celebrates his son’s return to his senses.

Now, the eldest son comes in and finds outs his brother, who he thought was dead, is alive. He becomes angry, and stays outside, and does not come to the party. The father leaves the house to go and beg his eldest son to join the celebration. But the son says, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you, and you have not even given me a young goat! I have done everything you asked, and you have never celebrated with me.” He is mad.

So we see there are two ways we can live so we do not need God. The younger son lives a life so bad that he does not need God. The older son lived a life so good that he does not need God. Sometimes, we live so good that we anesthetize ourselves into thinking that we do not really need God.  The Father said: “You are my son and everything I have is yours.”  The son saw it differently; he saw it as a slavery. He did not receive the admiration he wanted. That can be the problem: we live like slaves, hoping for admiration from afar. But Christ has come so we can be his own Father’s sons and daughters.

How often has your desire to be admired kept you from the love of the Father? How many times have you fallen into the trap of desiring to look good for others, or even to look good for ourselves, so that you do not rely every day on God’s grace? How often have you wished you did not have to struggle with this sin, or wish you were good enough to live independently, and be admired. But we should want to be loved by God, and not admired.

Maybe you subtly think: “I will be a saint someday, and I want the priest to admire me.” It can be really embarrassing to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and confess the same things, over and over again, and be forced to admit that we are not worthy of admiration. The confessional is where the desire to be admired by the Father, and by others, goes to die. When we allow it to die, we finally grow close to God. We stop living like a slave when we admit that we need a Father in heaven, we need God’s grace.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy reminds us that God is waiting for us with open arms, just like the father of the prodigal son. You have a Father in heaven that desires to embrace you in the sacrament of confession, and there is no sin—no sin!—too big for the mercy of God. We do not have to live anymore as slaves, because we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” So let us rest in the truth that God forgives always, and let us never tire of asking for forgiveness.

Pray now that you are able to accept that God is your Father. You may have been a slave for him, but he does not want you to be slave; he wants you to be his child. “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends” (Jn 15:15).  It is your Father in heaven who has brought you here because he desires to be one with you in your lives, as a Father with his children forever.


Not New Land, But New Life!

5th Sunday of Lent—March 13, 2016

Purpose: There are two movements in the season of Lent. The first four-week period is a mode of conversion, and a time to look at ourselves, and to examine whether we are taking serious the commitment we have made to the Lord Jesus in our Baptism. It is a period of renewal and reconversion. The last two weeks focused more on the Passion of Jesus, and showed us, in a clear and graphic way, how much God loves us. Today’s readings are in the middle in the themes of the scripture readings, emphasizing how God’s promises are still coming true and will, one day, be brought to perfection.

Readings: IS 43:16-21; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5,6; PHIL 3: 8-14; JN 8: 1-11 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031316-fifth-sunday-lent.cfm 

Today’s first reading is from the book of the prophet Isaiah. The reason it is presented in Lent is to remind us of the baptism that will be celebrated at the Easter Vigil when our new brothers and sisters are received into Christ’s Church, so the theme is a baptism theme.   For us to understand this reading, we have to understand its historical context, which is that it takes place during the Babylonian captivity.  The Jews, because of their infidelity to God, had been led as captives into Babylonia. Isaiah refers here to a new Exodus.  You remember the first Exodus was from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.  This new Exodus that Isaiah speaks about in today’s reading is the movement from Babylon back to the Promised Land, back to Jerusalem.  Let us look at it more closely.  “Thus, says the Lord, who opens the way and the sea,” referring to the Red Sea.  Recall that when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, they escaped across the desert; then they came to the Red Sea, and the power of God parted the Sea, and they passed through it.

The Israelites were slaves for 400 years. All they knew was slavery. Yet, it was not simply a bodily slavery filled with hard work and daily toil. It was also a spiritual slavery, surrounded by pagan gods, and void of their own customs and worship. These Hebrews were thus oppressed by images of other gods: sun gods, river gods of the Nile, a frog god. But right in the midst of this, comes the one and true Lord God saying, “I want to set you free.”  He goes through the 10 plagues that will strike Egypt, and we think it is God drilling them in a fight—he takes on the river god with blood, and he takes on the frog god, and there was a sheep god, and finally the 10th plague comes. For this plague, they are told to take a lamb, and kill and eat it, and anoint their door posts with blood. They believed there was something holy about this sacrificial lamb, and were instructed to mark their houses with its blood. Why?  Because God knew something: he knew he could take them out of Egypt, but he had to take Egypt out of their hearts. And that is the point of Lent: to bring us to a new way of life by removing our heart’s self-imposed idols.To free the Hebrews, God lead them out of slavery by crossing the Red Sea. To free Christians, God leads us out of spiritual slavery by crossing through the waters of baptism.

In fact, the crossing of the Red Sea has always been a symbol of baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we pass out of slavery in Egypt, to freedom from sin. So the passage in the Old Testament is seen as a passage from death to life that takes place at our Baptism. “Thus, says the Lord who opens the way and the sea, and the path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horses and powerful armies, how they lie prostrate together never to rise, snuffed out and punched like a wick.”  This is again a reference to the Egyptian army pursuing the Jews in the Red Sea. Only when defeat seemed imminent, when the pursuers were in the heart of the sea, the waters flowed back, and they drowned. These Egyptian mercenaries symbolize sin which pursues Christians, and it is the waters of Baptism which destroy sin, and brings us new life.

The prophet Isaiah goes on to say—and this is the most significant part of the reading—after having reminded them of the past, God tells them not to remember the events of the past, or the things of long ago; do not stay fixated there, for “I am doing something new.” The Lord is telling his chosen people that it is important to remember the past, but not to merely be nostalgic about the past, because what is important now is that God who did these things, will do them again in your life, and in your time.  He was promising them a New Exodus from slavery to freedom. The reason we have these readings is that the Lord is promising you and me a new Exodus, from the life of sin to a fresh beginning, because God always desires to do something new. Our faith is not a faith from something of the past. Although we believe history is very important because it reveals God’s love for us, more importantly we believe that what God did, God does, and will do.  Unless we move to experience that reality in this moment, we are missing a very big part of salvation.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is a movement for each of us to experience what God did in the past, and continues to do in the present: set people free from slavery to new life to restore, renew, and reinvigorate us. The woman caught in adultery in the Gospel today is restored to new life by the mercy of God. Now, Our Blessed Lord is left alone with the woman.  The young woman shaking and scared heard Our Lord say, “Has anyone condemned you?”  If no one cast a stone at this woman, neither would Jesus, and with a shaking voice, and tears running down her eyes, she responds to his question, “No, none, Lord.”  Her faith in Our Lord was justified as he said in reply, “Neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and sin no more.”  Our Lord is not favoring sin, he in fact condemns the sin, but not the sinner.  By destroying the sin, he is bringing the sinner back to life.

Brother and sisters, Our Lord is calling us to greatness, and that is only achieved by our contrition, and our choice to receive the fullness of his Divine Mercy, and to live a life of union with Jesus Christ, free from all grave sin, and a desire never to commit a venial sin out of our free will.  It is Jesus who provokes you with the choice for the fullness of life that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who reads in your hearts the most genuine choices, the choices the world rejects. It is Jesus Christ who stirs in you the desire to do something great for your lives, in following an ideal that will not settle for mediocrity!  It is making choices for Our Lord, and living for him, that we truly become great through love.


Hosanna in the Highest

Palm Sunday—March 20, 2016

Purpose: This week marks the beginning of the ultimate cosmic battle. It is truly a titanic clash. It will be played out in the sacred liturgies of this Holy Week: Good against Evil, Truth versus Lies, the Light against the Darkness. It is the final fight between Love and Hatred.  It is Mercy versus revenge, God versus Satan, Heaven against Hell, Life takes on Death.  There is a battle waging, and a war going on, and the most important question of all is: On whose side do you long to serve?

Readings: IS 50: 4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20,23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; LK 22:14—23:56 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/032016.cfm

Do you notice the different contrasts in the Passion of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? There is a litany of conflict in the Passion, a tale of tensions in the Passion. We see, for instance, the betrayal of Judas vs. the loyalty of Jesus. We see the bragging of Peter’s “Lord, the others might abandon you, but I never will!” versus the humility of Jesus. We see the carefree, lazy sleeping of Peter, James, and John contrasted against the intense agony of Jesus in the garden. We see the disciples fleeing while the Lord alone remains.  We see the convenient lies of the world, over and against the eternal truth of Christ. We encounter the triple denial of Peter, versus the constancy of the Master; the accusations, mocking, spitting, and the punching of the soldiers stilled by the silence of Jesus. The calm quiet of Jesus speaks more eloquently than the chants of the mobs. We are privy to the release of the terrorist, Barabbas, while the crowds continue to condemn their innocent Christ. We see the cowardice of Pilate defeated by the steadfastness of Jesus. The jeering of the executioners is drowned out by the patient suffering of Christ. It is ultimately the crowd’s hate versus the Son’s love for the world, the darkness covering the earth engulfed by the light of the world.

Therefore, the question we can ask is: on what level is the battle taking place, and where would we be in this battle? Where would I be? Today, everyone is shouting “Hosanna in the highest,” and yet five days later on Good Friday they shout, “Crucify him!” Where would I be, and what would I do? This is our examen.

People have often wondered how this happens. We might think of it as two different groups of people, when we look at the Jews and Romans in the first century, and compare Palm Sunday with Good Friday. Our temptation is to draw a line outside of ourselves, and to say that on one side of the line are the good people, and on the other side of the line are “those” malicious sinners.  But in today’s Gospel, we see that these are the same people. Here is the real truth: the line is not outside of us at all. The line is inside each one of us.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (d. 2008) spent years in one of Stalin’s gulags. He was falsely accused, and sent off to the Soviet prison camp, and he saw what you would see in any prison camp: bad people who would be cruel to the prisoners, and he saw the prisoners—many of whom were falsely accused—who seemed clearly to be the good people. But then, he realized that there were cruel guards who were also kind sometimes, and kind prisoners who were sometimes cruel. He started looking at himself and had this profound insight: “I lay there rotting prison straw, and I sensed within myself some stirring, and gradually it was disclosed to me the line separating good and evil does not pass through the states, the line separating good and evil does not pass through classes, nor political parties, but the line between good and evil passes through every heart, through every human heart, and all human hearts, and this line shifts throughout the years, and that even with hearts overwhelmed with evil, only one small bridge remains, and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”

My temptation is to label those on the one side as “the bad ones” and those on the other side as “the good ones.” But Solzhenitsyn had this insight that is absolutely true: that inside of me passes the line of good and evil, and so inside my heart there is good, and also inside my heart there is evil.  Herein, the line oscillates: sometimes I choose good, and sometimes I choose evil.  Again, the temptation is that if we could just draw it somewhere else, we could track down the bad ones. Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us, and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

We could round up the bad guys and destroy them. No problem. But if I look inside myself and discover the truth of who I really am, there is not some dramatic evil there, but I am looking into my own face, into my own heart.

In this Year of Mercy, we will see who triumphs: always, the Merciful Heart of the Lord triumphs. In our lives we pray to trust in his Divine Mercy, and continue to grow in his goodness and mercy. Pope Francis said, “It is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension. But we must! … ‘Oh, I am a great sinner!’ ‘All the better! Go to Jesus: He likes you to tell him these things!’ He forgets, he has a very special capacity for forgetting. He forgets, he kisses you, he embraces you, and he simply says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more’” (Jn 8:11).


Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Our Lord—March 27, 2016

Purpose: The Gospel of John and, in a way, the whole of the Christian story, ends with the promise of new life, and the fact that our life has true meaning. The Resurrection means that human life, however fragile, and even wounded, has meaning.  The Resurrection means that our lives have meaning. The Resurrection means there is a destination; it means that Christ is both the hope, and the realization, of a life that has no fear, no doubts, and no end.

Readings: ACTS 10: 34 A, 37-43; PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23; COL 3: 1-4 or 1 COR 5: 6B-8; JN 20: 1-9 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/032716.cfm

A pious practice which has fallen out of custom is the greeting among Christians, which I do all the time this time of year: “The Lord is Risen!” Our response to that is to say, “The Lord is truly Risen.!”  I once again address you brothers and sisters in the Lord, “The Lord is Risen,” “the Lord is truly Risen.”

I visited a suffering friend who was incapacitated, and every time I went to visit her, she had me always read the same book. Visit after visit, I read from these pages, but it seemed like I would never finish it. Relieved we were getting close to the end, the next time I came to her room, she wanted to start over from the beginning.  I asked her why she wanted me to keep reading from the same book, over and over again.  She said she enjoyed the book but she was afraid that if she read the last chapter she would not want to read the book any more.

We got the last chapter today in the scriptures. We know how the greatest story of all time ends. It ends with the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  We know how this great epic, this greatest story ever, is completed: with the good guys winning. It ends with life defeating death, with truth triumphing over lies.  It ends with love winning over hate.  It ends with hope over despair, and faith over doubt.  It ends with Jesus over Satan.  It ends with light over darkness, and life over death.  We are an intimate part of this story so, in Christ, we also know how our own story is going to end. Spring always follows winter, and this morning promises that for those who wish to live in Christ, Easter will always follow Good Friday. And that is why we gather today, and every Sunday: to celebrate how Easter is not something only of the historical past, but that today, we, too, hare in is Christ’s life and Resurrection, thereby knowing how our own story will end if we stay close to him.

I guarantee that every person in this Church this morning has experienced obstacles. I guarantee that every person in this Basilica has experienced suffering, you have experienced loss, and every one of us, to one degree or another, has experienced betrayal and heartbreak. If the Resurrection is not real, then your obstacles mean nothing; if the Resurrection is not real then your sufferings mean nothing; if the Resurrection is not real then your heartbreak means nothing. But, the good news is that the Resurrection means that your life, your suffering, your promises, and your joys all mean something because you have eternal meaning. None of us are going to live for only a time, but forever. Now, we have something to hope for: a destiny that is (literally) heaven because you have been grafted onto Christ, and onto his Resurrection. You can place all of your hope in this firm foundation. This reality should bring energy into our lives, and we see this in the Gospel from St. John.

One last thing to notice here is that everybody is running. Sometimes in the details of the Gospel we find very important facts. This would be especially true of St. John’s Gospel. Notice how all the central characters are running. In the first case, we have Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ corpse only, but she finds the stone rolled away. Her response is to run from the tomb in confusion. It is a typical response of the early Church to the Resurrection of Jesus.In all of the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection there is some confusion because people do not expect this to take place. It was an unexpected event for them in their relationship with Jesus. So in her perplexity, Mary runs, but in so doing she encounters Peter, and the disciple who Jesus loved, and she described to them that the tomb is now empty. In response, they run, not away from the tomb as Mary did, but towards the tomb. There is something about the Resurrection of Jesus that brings this kind of energy and life to his disciples, to us.  On this celebration of Easter, we should look at our own lives. The Resurrection does not bring us confusion. It brings us hope, but it also leads us to run, and to run with enthusiasm, in the living out our Christian life. Run with enthusiasm to others to share with them the Good News that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But remember that you never run alone: you have been made one with Christ in the baptismal promises we are about to renew. As the Father’s own beloved children, especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, sin no longer has a hold on you. Sin no longer defines you, for that is why your brother Jesus died, so you did not have to be stuck in sin.  We are not yet perfect like him, but today we are invited to let the reality of the Resurrection change our lives, and to make the conscious decision that I refuse to let what God did this morning to be wasted on me. “The Lord is Risen!” “The Lord is truly Risen!”

Fr. Donald Brick, OCD About Fr. Donald Brick, OCD

Fr. Donald Brick, OCD is a member of the Discalced Carmelites, and rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill, which is located in Hubertus, Wisconsin.