Homilies for January 2023

For the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, the Feast of the Epiphany, and the Second Sunday, Third Sunday, and Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – January 1, 2023

Readings: Nm 6:22–27Ps 67:2–3, 5, 6, 8Gal 4:4–7Lk 2:16–21    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/010123.cfm

This day is the beginning of a new year, 2023. Our year of grace began with the first Sunday of Advent, but for millennia, today has been the day when the number turns over and many people make resolutions to become better, wealthier, wiser, craftier, or whatever fulfills a primary motivation. Whether or not the month is named after the Roman god of beginnings, Janus, I think it’s helpful to understand the radical difference between that Roman demon and the woman we celebrate as the true patron of beginnings, Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, whose Son, Jesus, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of everything.

Our scriptures today speak of blessings, which in Hebrew is a berekah. In common usage, a blessing is like our prayer before meals: “bless us, O Lord.” But to the Jewish and Christian mindset, it is so much more than that. It’s a kind of way to recall and re-present the covenant made between God and man, to make it present in a later time, and to extend it toward future good. Look in the twenty-seventh chapter of Genesis to see how seriously we must take the blessing, in this case the paternal blessing of Isaac toward his first-born, who was supposed to be Esau. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, conspired with her son, Jacob, to take the first-born blessing, and they accomplished their goal through a series of lies that took advantage of the blindness of Isaac. The berekah of Isaac over Jacob essentially transferred the covenant blessing between God and Abraham, a promise of land and posterity, to the next generation. The theft of this blessing could not be undone and led to an almost fatal estrangement of Jacob and Esau.

So when the high priest, Aaron, speaking for the Lord God, spoke a berekah over the descendants of Jacob, the people of Israel, he was acting as a father giving an inheritance to his children. It was first a promise of protection, then one of grace, and finally of peace, shalom. That’s a peace that equals freedom from war, certainly, but also good rains, good crops, sturdy flocks, and all the blessings of right relationship with God and His people. It’s economic, societal, and national strength and happiness. That’s what the true God has for the people He loves.

In our psalm, we sing of the benefits of God’s blessing upon us, but it’s a blessing to be extended to every nation, to all who rightly worship the one true God. The joy promised to Israel was to be given out freely to the ends of the earth. That is what God has for every people who turn to Him.

St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, reminds all of us — Jew and Gentile — of what the fatherly blessing given by God to His people consists of. In the fullness of time, in what was ironically called the Augustan peace in the Roman empire, God gave His best. God gave the blessings of blessings, His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the New Adam, born of the New Eve, the Blessed Virgin Mary. By His Paschal Mystery, His life, death, and Resurrection, He gave us the sacramental means to be united to Him in His death and resurrection. That makes us His brothers and sisters, adopted children of the Father. We are redeemed from slavery to sin and death, and taken up into the embrace of the Blessed Trinity so that in eternity we can enjoy the ultimate blessing. We affirm with St. Athanasius that God became man so that man could become Divine.

St. Luke’s Gospel anchors that reality in a specific historical moment, the moment when Jesus, as a tiny infant, shed His first redemptive blood and became ben Israel, a son of the Jewish covenant. And there He was called Yahshua, literally “the LORD saves,” because by His precious blood, shed selflessly for us, the Lord truly saves us from slavery, from sin, from death, to abundant life.

At this moment we celebrate the presence of the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, the Theotokos, God-bearer, the virgin Mary. St. John would later write of two other critical scenes in the story of our redemption, “the Mother of Jesus was there.” St. Luke simply tells us that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She cradled the moment, sealing it in her memory so that she could relate it all years later to Luke, who then wrote words commemorating the completion of the covenant, His holy Gospel.

The Roman’s phony god, the demon Janus, fit very well into the pagan notion of the “gods.” For those who did not know the all-loving God of Israel, gods were beings like supermen, very powerful, quite unpredictable, and very easy to anger. If you messed with their desires, you could end up impoverished, stranded, even dead. They could smile on you or frown in disgust, so you offered them gifts to keep them satisfied. Your best hope with regard to the divine was to be left alone. Janus symbolized that in effigy by wearing two faces, one looking left and the other looking right. He is master of time and of movement. “He presides over the concrete and abstract beginnings of the world, such as religion, [even] the gods themselves. . . he too holds the access to Heaven and to other gods: this is the reason why men must invoke him first, regardless of the god they want to pray to or placate.”1 His temple, if you could call it that, was a kind of gate in and out of Rome. When Rome went to war, the gate was open. In peace, the gate was shut. The commentators tell us that for Rome, the gate was almost never closed.

By way of contrast, the Church invokes the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as we begin this new year. She gives us the God-man, Jesus Christ, the very face of the Father, whose only desire for man is goodness, mercy, justice, and peace. If you mess with Christ’s law of love this year, your conscience should bring you back to relationship with Him through repentance and confession. Yes, Jesus is very powerful but very difficult to anger. We offer gifts of time, talent, and treasure not to placate Him but to show our love for Him and for His people, especially the poor. Following Jesus and Mary, our best hope is not to be left alone, but to be ever closer to Mary and her Son. Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, has only one face, a face of mercy, of compassion, of forgiveness, of healing. And Mary is ever at His side, interceding for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

So perhaps on this first day of a new year, as we bid farewell to maybe one of the most difficult years of our lives, a year of pandemic, fear, oppression, and global disturbance, we should pray, or even sing, the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester: “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day.”

Feast of the Epiphany – January 8, 2023

Readings: Is 60:1–6Ps 72:1–2, 7–8, 10–11, 12–13Eph 3:2–3a, 5–6Mt 2:1–12  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/010823.cfm

Little eight-year-old Anthony was so excited about Christmas. For the first time he and his classmates had speaking parts in the grade-school pageant. Hundreds of people watched as he and his three companions approached the living crèche. He announced to all in his clearest voice: “We have seen his star in the east, and have come to pay Him homage, bearing gifts of gold, common sense, and fur.” Not bad choices for the depths of winter.

The Feast of Epiphany remembers an event of the past, but an event with a meaning for every Christian in every age. Let’s look at the gifts that these Magi brought to the Holy Family, to Jesus the Messiah, and ask how we can respond to the challenge that this festival presents to us in our twenty-first century. And even without gold, frankincense, and myrrh for you to take away, perhaps I can leave you something more valuable: a stimulus to the wonderful Christian common sense we all received in baptism.

“Gold I bring to crown Him again, king forever.” The newborn king of the Jews was clearly different from the children that King Herod’s wives had born over the years. He was laid in a manger cushioned with straw, not in a cradle lined with silk. Jesus was to be a leader unlike any of the ancient tyrant kings, who treated their subjects like slaves. In fact, he defined his leadership with the words of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel: The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to lay down His life for the salvation of the world. He defined his disciples’ leadership in the same way: If you would be a leader, he told them, you must be the servant of all.

We may not run from this challenge of leadership. Nobody can plead, “I’m not ordained. I don’t have to do that.” When you were baptized, when you were confirmed, you were anointed to be a leader — in your family, your school, your company, your church, your community. And the anointing that we clergy gave you at baptism and confirmation was a sign of strength, the same anointing given to King David and Solomon and Josiah and Jesus, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian is to participate in the servant-leadership of Jesus, even to the extent of suffering for the spread of His kingdom.

What shall you do this year to activate that ministry of leadership? Let me suggest you search your heart for the one thing you know you can do and should do. You don’t have to run for public office, but you can volunteer to lead Eucharistic adoration, or the neighborhood watch. You could become a telephone chair for a parish or school committee. You could lead a group to the pro-life rally this month. You could find a political candidate whose principles are those of Christ and become a precinct worker. If the only thing you can do is write letters and make phone calls, you can be a valued leader for Christ, spreading His influence, His kingdom.

Incense, the next Magi gift, has been used in worship for thousands of years. It truly symbolizes all men and women raising prayer and praise. That is the function of the priesthood — praying and praising, offering intercession and repentance and praise and thanks to God. When the Magi brought frankincense to Jesus, they were acknowledging His true priesthood.

Jesus’s priesthood was acknowledged amidst controversy. He was, everyone admitted, of the line of David, of the tribe of Judah. But the tribe of Levi was the priestly tribe, the ones who ministered in the Temple. How, then, the early Jewish Christians asked, could Jesus be a priest?

The author of the Book of Hebrews answered that by appealing to the psalms, the song collection of the Jewish people. Because Jesus was the direct lineal descendant of King David, he was a priest of Jerusalem, the city of David. Before the Jews came to Jerusalem, the kings of that city were also priests of the true God. When Abraham came to Jerusalem, the king Melchizedek offered sacrifice of bread and wine to God in his honor. Jesus, heir of King David, was also heir of Melchizedek, a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. We celebrate that each Sunday, each feast day at Vespers when we recite that psalm: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” And every time we pray the ancient and beautiful Roman canon, Eucharistic Prayer I, we remind ourselves of the sacrifice of bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, as we offer a sacrifice that only looks like bread and wine, that really is the body and blood, soul and divinity of the high priest, Jesus Christ. This sacrament makes us the Body of Christ, former Jew or Gentile notwithstanding, fellow heirs to the kingdom of God, as St. Paul tells us today.

We too are priests, every one of us, by virtue of our baptism. What shall we resolve this day to do to activate that ministerial priesthood? We stand at the entrance to this new year making resolutions to be better, active members of the Body of Christ. First of all, we must do what we in our commitment to Christ promised to do: attend Mass every Sunday and holy day. The Mass is the sacrificium laudis, sacrifice of praise, the highest act of worship.

And our attendance is not enough. Christ calls us through the Church to actual participation, engaged participation, through response, song, and interior acts of praise and worship, not just external signs. Start a prayer list. When someone asks you to pray for a sick friend, or for a good job, or for the repose of someone’s soul, write that intention down on the list and pray for those people every day. Get in the habit of praying the Rosary as a family. Get a copy of the Liturgy of the Hours, even the short ones that come in a little booklet monthly and pray it at least once a week. Volunteer for Eucharistic adoration. Pray for justice in our country. And I’m omitting so many worthwhile ways to be a priest — look in the Sunday bulletin or parish website for priestly actions that fit your own personal incarnation of Christ the priest.

And for you young men who are wondering what you will do with your life, why not do something particularly meaningful and effective, and begin to discern your own call to ministry? I promise you, as a Catholic priest, diocesan or religious, you will never lack for something important to do.

Myrrh. Myrrh is another sap-based substance that we have always associated with Jesus’s being man, being mortal, being born to offer his life as a sacrifice for us. It is particularly important to Jesus’s prophetic role because prophets, who speak challenging words to sinners, are often called to give up their lives, not just in ancient times, but today as well. I think often of the German-speaking Father Jacob Gapp, who wouldn’t stop preaching against Nazi intolerance, and who was imprisoned and beheaded for his witness. We probably won’t have to go all the way to the scaffold in our witness, but whatever challenge lies in the future, Our Lord will give us the strength and conviction to follow His call.

But myrrh has yet another use if you believe the herbalists. It has been used for thousands of years as a medicine. “Researchers have found two compounds in myrrh that are strong painkillers, another that may help lower cholesterol, and, most recently, a potent anti-cancer agent that shows particular promise for treatment of breast and prostate cancer.” This news from 2001 simply shows that myrrh speaks to the prophet’s role as comforter. In other words, the prophet is called, in the words of the journalist called Mr. Dooley, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

We are all called by our baptismal consecration to be prophets, witnesses to the judgement and compassion of God, just as Jesus was. How shall you prophesy to this age, to the people of God? Search your hearts. When someone leads a worthwhile, God-inspired effort for social justice, follow and support that leader. When someone writes an anti-Catholic or anti-Christian screed in the paper or a blog, write a letter to the editor, or post a charitable response on the website. When you hear a friend is in the hospital, visit your friend. Volunteer to teach religious education classes, or to sponsor someone in the RCIA. Ask about prison ministry. Contribute to the foreign missions. Help build a Habitat house. Be a prophet. Fulfill your Christian vocation.

Someone once said to me, “Can’t we just go to Mass and pray and avoid sin and leave everybody alone and hope that they just leave us alone?” Yes, we can do that, but there are two problems with that approach. First, it’s not what Jesus did, and our call is to imitate Jesus. Second, it will mean that our world, God’s world, will keep getting meaner and less just and more selfish, because there will be a lack of prophets, priests, and leaders to show it the way of Christ. I’m pleased to tell you that this person is now an active member of a parish, involved in multiple ministries as prophet, priest, and leader. Think, beloved of God, what this city or county would be like if every one of the Christians in this parish took up this challenge to do one thing in each of these three vocations this year! The gift that Jesus requires today is not material valuables. What He wants is your commitment to act in our day as He did in His.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 15, 2023

Readings: Is 49:3, 5–6Ps 40:2, 4, 7–8, 8–9, 101 Cor 1:1–3Jn 1:29–34  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/011523.cfm

Isaiah begins his 49th chapter with a declaration that has new meaning in the United States of America, whose Supreme Court has recently told the truth about the so-called “right” to murder tiny children before birth. He tells us, “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name and made my mouth like a sharp sword.” And then we read the words we heard in the first lesson of the feast, that the prophet was formed in the womb to be the servant of the Lord.

Ultimately these words were applied to the Lord Jesus, as the one that would gather together not just the tribes of Jacob, the Israelites, but serve as an attractive light to all the nations, so that His salvation would be available to every person on earth. Satan, the diabolos, is the great divider. When you come to Jesus Christ, you automatically are drawn near to other Christians, maybe of a different race, age group, political party, or anything else that divides us. Christ will divide good from evil and truth from falsehood, but in Him we are one Body, the Body of Christ.

This gathering is celebrated by St. Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth. Now Corinth was a special case among those communities Paul founded, or organized. Situated on a major trading route between the east and west of the Roman empire, it represented the confluence of many cultures and many religions. Corinth was for that age rightly called “sin city,” because of the many temples to many gods, some staffed with temple prostitutes of all varieties, and taverns with lots of cheap alcoholic drinks. It would seem like the last place on earth for a strong Christian community, but that’s where Paul had an extended stay, making many friends and preaching some pretty strong sermons. He may have later written as many as four epistles to the Corinthians, perhaps put together in the two letters we have in the New Testament.

Today we hear just three verses from the very front of his first letter. In it, he establishes his credentials as one called directly by God on the road to Damascus years earlier. He says that this call was to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, just as valid an apostle as any of the twelve chosen originally by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. He identifies what he has established as the goal of the followers of Jesus in Corinth — to be holy. Moreover, as Jesus was given to us to bring all the tribes of the earth together, Paul reminds the Corinthian brethren that, as holy ones, they will be united with all everywhere who call on the name of Jesus, who is Lord of everyone everywhere. And he ends with a blessing of grace and peace from the Father and the Son. The density of teaching and blessing in just three lines is simply breathtaking.

Paul had good reason for being heavy in the beginning of his letter. There were leaders in Corinth who were trying to discredit Paul as a “nobody.” Very quickly we will be informed that the Corinthians had an unusual combination of spiritual gifts. But instead of those gifts bringing them closer together, they were dividing into disciples of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas. Some were falling for the so-called wisdom of false teachers, and others were falling back into sexual immorality, and trying to justify that behavior with nonsense like “it’s just sex” or “a man has needs, after all.” We’ll learn from the letter that Paul will have nothing to do with such rationalizations and divisions. He will remind them at what price Jesus brought the Holy Spirit to the world, and the value of His sacramental gifts, particularly the Holy Eucharist.

Our Gospel is the story that John the evangelist calls “the testimony of John” the Baptist about Jesus. There is good reason to believe that he was in fact present at the events related in this Gospel, because he was a disciple first of the Baptist. Jesus’s cousin, John, recognized Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” These are the words used by the priest at Mass or the minister at a service of communion as he holds up the sacramental species before the congregation. Why is that? G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he became a Catholic. He answered, “Because I want my sins to be forgiven.” As we gather for Mass, as we come to receive the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus at communion, we are acknowledging our sinfulness and seeking what we know to be His gift — the forgiveness of every venial sin. We acknowledge that we are not worthy to have Jesus under our roof (the roof of our mouth) but that we know by His word and sacrament our souls will be healed of every trace of those sins.

John goes on. He didn’t actually realize until Jesus came to him in the area of the Jordan River just who his cousin was. But the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at His Baptism, and “it remained on Him.” That means Jesus was animated in His human nature by the same Spirit that had enlivened Moses and Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah and all the Old testament prophets, up to and including John the Baptist. Moreover, God had revealed to John the Baptist that this One, who was revealed as the Father’s Son in the Baptism event, would have the power to give the Holy Spirit when He began baptizing. This is the same power shared with Christians who baptize others, and is the means by which the Church grows, the first sacrament of initiation. John had heard the voice from heaven, and so he affirmed that Jesus was, in fact, the incarnate Son of God.

As we continue in our journey through the year of the Lord, 2023, we also face the wonderful reality that next Sunday is the first January 22 in fifty years in which the horrible decision Roe v Wade has not been considered the law of the land in the United States of America. But there is still much that the Holy Spirit is stirring us to accomplish to promote human life, and respect for human life, in our communities and states. But many of us, perhaps, did not think we would live to see that wonderful result from the Supreme Court. We must take heart that the Lord of Life is still with us and still holds each of us in His Hand, from conception to natural death.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 22, 2023

Readings: Is 8:23—9:3Ps 27:1, 4, 13–141 Cor 1:10–13, 17Mt 4:12-23 or 4:12-17    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/012223.cfm

The prophecy of Isaiah continues the hope that has been established during the Advent and Christmas seasons, the hope for a truly Messianic king, a ruler of perfect justice and peace. But in the time of Isaiah, when the good king Hezekiah was born from the loins of the totally corrupt king Ahaz, this was a prophecy of the future, partially fulfilled by Hezekiah but totally done by his descendant, Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary.

To position the teaching Isaiah wanted to impart to his listeners by this story, the prophet looks back in Israelite history to the time of the Judges (chapter 7). Remember that the time of the Judges, before kings Saul and David, was seen as an era of anarchy in the Levant, when “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). One of the best remembered tales from that period was of the judge Gideon, whom the reader meets as he is beating the edibles from grain in the most unsuitable of locations in a winepress. An angel appears to him, tells him the Lord is with him, and calls him “mighty warrior,” to which Gideon objects. He protests that the Lord had left them under the oppressive hand of Midian, who would regularly swarm into Israel and steal all the food crops. The Lord says through the angel: “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of the hand of Midian.” Gideon objects all the more, saying he is — essentially — a nothing man in a nothing clan in a nothing tribe. But the Lord repeats his call, and after three miraculous displays Gideon goes out and puts together an army to face the Midianites.

But that was not the end of the story. Because the Lord saw that the defeat of Midian at the hands of thirty-two thousand armed men would not be seen as God’s work, Gideon sends home all who “trembled with fear” and thus lost two-thirds of his force. The Lord told him “there are still too many,” and Gideon tested them for their situational awareness, and lost all but three hundred. With this three hundred, and some very clever tactics involving infiltration of the enemy camp and a surprise attack, Israel destroyed the enemy and captured and killed their two leaders. But the victory was characterized by the shout raised by the soldiers when they attacked the enemy: “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon.” Three hundred defeated several thousand because their sword was divine.

So Isaiah is telling his listeners in a time of terror that the Assyrian yoke that the Israelites bore in Isaiah’s day, and the rod of their Assyrian taskmasters, would be smashed, just as happened to the Midianites in the time of Gideon.

Now St. Matthew’s Gospel picks up this theme of the lowly unknown being the agent of the Lord’s victory, by quoting this passage from Isaiah about the “land of Zebulon and Naphtali,” two tribes that had disappeared long before the time of Jesus. John the Baptist has been arrested. The echo of his prophecies demanding Israel return to God and right worship and right living have faded. The prophet to whom John had been pointing as the “Lamb of God” was another nobody from a nothing town that was even a common joke to the Judeans: “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But Jesus knew Himself to be the very light predicted by Isaiah many generations earlier. So He picked up the mantle of John, His cousin, and began to gather the community of believers. He called Peter and Andrew, fishermen, who immediately left their nets and followed. John and James, sons of Zebedee, called soon after, left nets and father and followed. Then they electrified the whole land of Zebulon and Naphtali with teaching and preaching and “curing every disease and illness,” both physical and spiritual. Thus began the most eventful three years in the history of the human race.

Jesus came to bring together the whole human community, beginning with the Jews, but eventually reaching all around the world. Saint Paul, writing about twenty years later to his immature church at Corinth, hammers home this theme, this call. “Agree in what you say,” he declaims in his first letter to them. There should be no divisions in the community. “We aren’t divided,” they protest. No, Paul says, Chloe’s messengers have ratted you out. There’s a Pauline faction, an Apollo clique. There’s one that fancies Cephas as their model, and another that just calls themselves “Christ people.”

But that’s nonsense, Paul objects, because Christ — whose body the Corinthians are — is not in any way divided. There is one Christ, one Messiah, one Jesus, who died a torturous death at the hands of the Romans to win salvation for all who would believe. It was with the baptism of Jesus that they all were brought into the Church, cleansed with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Anything less would rob the death and resurrection of Christ of all its power, all its meaning.

So on this day, exactly four weeks after we celebrated the birth of Jesus, our Redeemer and Unifier, we should all rededicate ourselves to coming together frequently — at least weekly — to celebrate the Resurrection with the Eucharist. And in this triennium celebrating the sacrificial re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection two millennia ago, we need to declare to a needy, hurting world that God is truly with us, really present sacramentally, the whole Christ under the forms of bread and wine. He will empower us to change the world by right praise and right living in the Spirit of Christ.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 29, 2023

Readings: Zep 2:3; 3:12–13Ps 146:6–7, 8–9, 9–101 Cor 1:26–31Mt 5:1–12a    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/012923.cfm

Dr. Erik Routley was an English congregationalist minister who was also a great church musician and lecturer. He told a story during a workshop I attended decades ago about his congregation leaving church on a Sunday. He noticed one of his young parishioners carrying a new English translation of the Scriptures, and asked her how she liked it. “It’s fine,” she told him, “but the translation tricks me into believing that I actually understand what is being taught.” And that’s the problem with today’s Gospel.

You see, we have probably heard St. Matthew’s list of the beatitudes so many times in our Christian life that we are lulled into believing that we really do understand Christ’s teaching. But the Church does two helpful things for us that might move us to realize what Christ is really doing with and for us here. She thrusts the Gospel into our faces at least once every three years, right at the beginning of the year when we might be thinking about improving our social and spiritual lives. Not only that, the Church also gives us other Scripture passages that will aid us in our learning and changing our behavior.

Saint Paul loved the church at Corinth. It wasn’t the place an advertising maven would have chosen for a model parish, but Paul loved those people. As we read today, they didn’t boast a membership that could have held the Athenian philosophers spellbound. Not much worldly wisdom. There’s some archaeological evidence that at least one of their members was an administrator in the city, but most were without authority or financial assets.

But they were rich in spiritual gifts. People came to them with illnesses, and left in health. They came in despair and left with hope. They were hearing the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, and were turning over their lives to Him as their Lord. They were modeling themselves after Jesus, who had emptied Himself of power and glory to become a nothing carpenter in a nothing town in Galilee, the nothing region of Palestine. And yet He, the God-man, after suffering the most demeaning of passions and deaths, was raised up and given by His Father the name above every other name. He became our wisdom — divine wisdom — and our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. No secular power would understand the joy that the Corinthians experienced, and that we may experience once Christ is the center of our lives.

The prophet Zephaniah, living dozens of decades before St. Paul, spoke of a time in which a remnant of the Israelite community would follow the law of loving God and neighbor totally. It’s like he was able to see what the early Christian communities were putting into practice after the ascension of Jesus and giving of the Holy Spirit. Notice what was going to be absent in those communities: wrongdoing, cheating members out of what they were due, lying and deceit. I don’t think it’s wrong to believe that in this third decade of the twenty-first century, we are routinely lied to by the secular media, the abortion industry and their political allies, many of the social media sites, and extreme politicians both left and right. Imagine with Zephaniah a society in which nobody lied or even practiced withholding the truth from those who deserved to know it. In pastoral terms, they could pasture their flocks with nobody to bother them.

With that in mind, we can more easily pray Psalm 146 with today’s liturgy. The refrain, taken from Matthew’s Beatitudes, pins Christ’s first berekah as the truth that ties today’s Lectionary selections together. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Remember that good Jews were careful not to abuse, or sometimes even use, the name of God, so many will and did substitute the word “heaven” for the word “God.”) The virtue of spiritual poverty is the glue that makes all the other beatitudes work together.

In the psalm, we sing about the active agent in everything good that happens to us. It is the LORD. He is faithful; He facilitates justice, nourishment, liberation. The blind — whether in their physical eyes or their mental ones — receive their sight. Those who are bowed over, their backs defeated by physical or spiritual slavery, can look up to their new Master. The LORD loves the good and protects the stranger and exile. The weakest become God’s protégés — the widows and orphans. Those who would wickedly oppress the poor and downtrodden are themselves made helpless by the loving Master, who rules forever.

If we are poor in spirit, what can we do that we cannot do with masses of physical wealth? We don’t have to worry about being robbed of goods we don’t possess. If we grieve over evildoing, whether done to us or someone else, we are free to accept comfort from others. Because God and the Christian community all exercise the “preferential option for the poor,” those who are poor in spirit have first claim on consolation, on “land,” or goods that can be cultivated to care for the community. If we are poor in spirit and pure in heart, our vision is not clouded by pornography and the need to treat other humans as objects for our own pleasure, so we can see the Lord, have moments of spiritual clarity, more frequently. If we are poor in spirit, we have no territory to defend with our last breath, so we can help others to make peace with each other.

And if we are poor in spirit, if we spend our time and energy allowing the Holy Spirit to make us over into images of Jesus and Mary, His Mother, what can persecution take away from us? We cannot be canceled by some clique if we don’t have any status to lose. If our lives are owned by Christ, then even injury and death are blessings, not curses. They cannot insult us if we don’t care about insults; they cannot kill us if death only means falling asleep to awaken in the dawn of the Risen Christ.

  1. Augustine, City of God, VII 9 and 3; Servius Aen. I 449; Paulus ex Festus s. v. Chaos p. 45 L.
Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham was ordained in 2002 and recently celebrated twenty years of diaconal service. He is retired from Catholic school teaching and administration but still serves part-time at St. Pius X parish in San Antonio, TX. He has been married to Carolyn since 1971; they have three daughters and ten grandchildren.


  1. Avatar G. Poulin says:

    It’s not “Blessed are the spiritually poor.” It’s “Blessed are the poor, spiritually.” And since Jesus is talking exclusively about his own followers throughout the Beatitudes and promising future rewards to them, the meaning of the first Beatitude is “Christians are spiritually blest, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Poor ones” is just another term of endearment that Jesus employs in referring to his disciples, just like “little ones”, “little children”, “little flock”, and “the least ones”.

  2. Avatar Deacon Russ Morey says:

    I am speaking from my heart now. I am touched by your words, Pat. Thank you!