Homilies for February 2023

For the Fifth Sunday, Sixth Sunday, and Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time; Ash Wednesday; and the First Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time – February 5, 2023

Readings: Is 58:7–10Ps 112:4–5, 6–7, 8–91 Cor 2:1–5Mt 5:13–16    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/020523.cfm

This past Thanksgiving I had the chance to prepare a meal for my Dominican community. I was in charge of the main event: the turkey. Fortunately, cooking is one of my favorite hobbies, so in preparation for the big day, I compiled a list of recipes that got good reviews online. While each of the recipes themselves were unique, they had one thing in common: nearly all of them called for a liberal use of salt for seasoning. I discovered that when one brines (salts) the turkey a day in advance, the end product is indeed better.

In today’s Gospel, Christ calls us “the salt of the earth.” Salt is not only good for preserving foods, but as I discovered at Thanksgiving, it also has the ability to bring out their complex flavors, sometimes in ways that we had never known before. How can we apply this insight to our lives?

On the day of his election to the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI said something that I will always remember:

If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

When we first encounter Jesus, we may begin to contemplate what it may be like to follow him. In following Jesus, will I risk giving up my personality, my life goals, my friendships? What will it mean for my reputation? Will following Jesus mean giving up things that I treasure? In calling his disciples the “salt of the earth,” Jesus invites us to witness, by both word and example, the joy of living with Christ, bringing the Good News of Jesus to every aspect of human life and society.

So often, our task in witnessing to Christ before others is to show, as Pope Benedict said, that a life in following Jesus is not bland, boring, or without adventure. On the contrary! When we make the decision to follow the Lord Jesus as His disciple, it is then that we are able to see God at work in every area of our life. When we “salt” our families, our careers, and all our personal ambitions, the “flavor” of life is enhanced.

That is not to say that a life of discipleship is always easy. Jesus also calls us “the light of the world.” At our baptism, we (or our parents and godparents on our behalf) received a candle lit from the paschal candle. The priest says, “Receive the light of Christ . . . this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly so that . . . enlightened by Christ, [you] may walk always as children of the light and, persevering in the faith, may run to meet the Lord when he comes with all the Saints in the heavenly court.”

It can be easy to recognize God’s presence in brightness, when things are going well in our lives: when our families are flourishing, our careers provide fulfillment, and our relationships provide friendship and intimacy. But what about in the darkness, in the times when things are not going well? How could God possibly be present when we experience the loss of loved ones, divorce, or furlough? Our faith teaches us that God is present through it all, but sometimes we only recognize Him in hindsight. As “the light of the world,” Jesus commissions us to bring the light, to be instruments of His grace to all the dark corners, but also to allow our brothers and sisters in Christ to be that light for us when we find ourselves in darkness.

The laity, in particular, play an important role in bringing the light of Christ to our world. Empowered by the sacrament of Baptism, the laity are called to sanctify the world through engaging in the ordinary concerns of life. Each Catholic can prayerfully ask the question, “God, how are you calling me to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in my spheres of influence?” If we are faithful, God will gradually reveal his purposes to us. May each of us have the grace to ask and the courage to respond when we hear God’s response.

Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time – February 12, 2023

Readings: Sir 15:15-20Ps 119:1–2, 4–5, 17–18, 33–341 Cor 2:6–10Mt 5:17–37  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/021223.cfm

Jesus gives us the interpretive key to this long passage in verse 17 when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus’ original hearers, an audience primarily made up of Jewish men and women, would have recognized that he is making a messianic claim: He is the one whom God promised to send. In His very person, Jesus is bringing to fulfillment the Kingdom of God. For example, in Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses says, “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.” Likewise we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy made in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,” King David’s father, “and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”

Jesus is trying to tell us how we are to interpret his coming: not to abolish everything that God had done up to that point in the history of salvation, but rather to fulfill it. In the Old Testament, God calls and chooses His people, he establishes a covenant with them, and only then does he give them the precepts of the law. Or, put another way, God first establishes a relationship with his people, and then he teaches them how to live in that relationship. The law teaches them how to conduct themselves before God and among one another.

In a similar manner, Jesus first calls his disciples to himself; he establishes a relationship with them. Then, here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to teach them. At this point in Jewish history, many saw the law of Moses as an end in itself. Think for example, of the Pharisees, who prided themselves on observing every detail of the law. Jesus, on the other hand, teaches that while the observance of the law is good (because it was given by God), its observance is meant to always lead us back to love: both love of God and love of neighbor. In other words, by observing the law externally, we interiorize what it is trying to accomplish.

Once we understand this, we can read Jesus’ teachings with fresh eyes. When he says, “You have heard it was said” followed by “but I say to you . . .” we see Jesus pointing us to the ultimate end of the law. For example, he calls us not only to observe the commandment not to kill our brothers and sisters, but to do something deeper: to avoid unjust anger with our fellows. Likewise, we are not only to observe the commandment to not commit adultery, but to avoid the lustful gaze that leads us to see others as less than who they truly are: beloved daughters and sons of God.

Truly Jesus is calling his disciples to something greater than a mere cursory observance of rules. He is inviting us to reflect upon how our behavior impacts our relationships, both with God and with others. Jesus is calling us to do what St. Paul invites the early Christians to do throughout his letters: to “put on the mind of Christ,” allowing our relationship with Jesus to mold and shape our hearts and our wills and make us more like himself.

When we place Christ at the center of everything in our lives, we begin to realize that following his teachings, even the difficult ones, is not so much about observing rules. Instead, we begin to desire the same things that Christ does because he is our close friend, and we want what he wants. The motivation behind living the Christian life becomes not so much an obligation as a daily observance of living in a way that glorifies God in everything we do.

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time – February 19, 2023

Readings: Lv 19:1–2, 17–18Ps 103:1–2, 3–4, 8, 10, 12–131 Cor 3:16–23Mt 5:38–48    bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/021923.cfm

I remember the first time I read the Bible from cover to cover. I found Genesis and Exodus enthralling. There were lots of interesting stories and the narrative was easy to follow. Then I began reading the Book of Leviticus, the book from which today’s first reading is taken. Suddenly I found myself somewhat lost in paragraph after paragraph of laws and prescriptions about the sacrifices prescribed by God, cleanliness, and a lot of other rules that seemed obscure and completely disconnected from my own life, making it very difficult to follow.

Then I got to chapter 19, part of which we hear at Mass today. In verses 1–2, we hear, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.’” This, my friends, is the most important part of this chapter because it is the reason behind all of the law of Moses. God, whose essence consists in supreme holiness, has chosen this people to be peculiarly his own. He has freed them from their captivity in Egypt, and is now leading them through the desert into the promised land. Along the way, he instructs his holy people on how to be in relationship with an all-holy God and with one another. When we read the story of the Old Testament, it can be easy to get caught up in the details of the law, losing sight of this great truth: the reason God calls His people to observe these laws is because He is holy, and He desires them to have a share in His holiness.

Whenever he teaches, Jesus, who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, uses the same pedagogy. He teaches us to observe, not only the commandments that were once taught to the Jewish people so that we can share in His holiness. He also teaches us to go beyond the letter of those laws and arrive at the heart of the matter: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus desires us to grow in the perfection of love in our hearts, that love which we received on the day of our Baptism when we became God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Many times, when we hear his command to “be perfect,” in our minds and hearts we actually hear, “be a perfectionist.” I have seen many people struggle with this misperception. It is one that can ultimately lead to anxiety since, as human beings, we still deal with the effects of the Fall. Perfectionism is, at its root, reliance solely upon oneself. We give in to a false belief that we have to do everything correctly in order to be lovable. Many people find that even when they do things correctly, their accomplishments are never “good enough.”

When Jesus calls us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is inviting us to place our trust in God, rather than ourselves. Just as God gave the Jewish people the law so they could share in His holiness, He who is the source of our perfection desires to share His divine life with us. He who calls us to perfection also gives us every grace we need to grow in holiness.

This is especially important in our dealings with others. Both teachings that we receive from Jesus today have to do with love of neighbor: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Likewise, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Let’s be honest: if we try to rely solely on ourselves to observe these commandments, we will inevitably fail. But God, the source of goodness, holiness, and perfection, delights in giving us the grace to realize that which is impossible.

In your dealings with others this week, pay close attention to those people with whom you struggle the most. Perhaps God is giving you opportunities to grow in love. You need only to ask him for patience and trust to treat others with the same love and concern that God gives to each of us.

Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2023

Readings: Jl 2:12–18Ps 51:3–4, 5–6ab, 12–13, 14 and 172 Cor 5:20—6:2Mt 6:1–6, 16–18  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/022223.cfm

In our zeal to begin this holy season of Lent, we can often ask ourselves “What will I give up this year?” We may look at some of our bad habits, or decide to try and focus on one area of sin in our lives. The question that we can often fail to ask ourselves is, “Why?” By this, I mean, why is it so important to us to enter into these forty days at all?

Most good Catholics will tell you, “It is so we can prepare ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection at Easter.” While that answer is technically correct, it is also somewhat limited. Yes, we want, by God’s grace, to grow in holiness and virtue. But Lent is a lot more than a forty day self-improvement program. St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians can help us better understand Lent:

Brothers and sisters: we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).

Paul is appealing to the community at Corinth to be reconciled to God, not merely so they can “feel good” about themselves. He says that their way of life is meant to be a witness so that other people can come to know Christ through us. That is, after all, what an ambassador is: an official representative in a foreign land.

Think about the implications of that for a moment: by your baptism, God has chosen you to be his official representative to those who do not yet know His Son. You may think, “But I am not a priest or a missionary.” Yet, here it is, written down in the word of God at the beginning of this holy season of Lent.

Hearing this, some of us may feel inadequate or unworthy. How could God ever use an ordinary, broken person like me to reach other people? The answer is that God does this all the time. Take the apostoles for example. The number of times in the Gospels that St. Peter experiences “open mouth, insert foot” moments are a bit humorous. Or consider that the apostles often bickered among themselves about who among them was the greatest. I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the Gospel writers, I might have selectively redacted the story so as to leave out my own embarrassing follies. Yet, they didn’t do this. They chose to leave these accounts in the story, and in doing so, they illustrate that God can do amazing things even through broken, sinful people like us. At the end of the day, it isn’t about our unworthiness; it is about our resolve to cling to Christ and be open to the movements of His grace in our lives.

That is what this season is truly about: We engage in acts of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer so that we can open ourselves more fully to the saving grace of Jesus, and be transformed into better witnesses for others. Have we ever stopped to consider that when deciding our Lenten penance? Have we prayerfully asked God, “What sins or vices in my life prevent me from being an ambassador for Christ?” Make that your Lenten penance this year.

First Sunday of Lent – February 26, 2023

Readings: Gn 2:7–9; 3:1–7 • Ps 51:3–4, 5–6, 12–13, 17 • Rom 5:12–19 or 5:12, 17–19 • Mt 4:1–11  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/022623.cfm

One of the great Eastern saints of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, once famously said, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed.” He says this in reference to Jesus, who, when he chose to become incarnate, took to himself every aspect of human nature with the exception of sin. In other words, because Jesus has a human nature in addition to His divine nature, he is like us in every way; he has a human body and soul. He has a will, an intellect, and emotions. And this reality is important, St. Gregory tells us, because if Jesus had not assumed every aspect of human nature (except sin), then those aspects of human nature would not have been redeemed with his passion, death, and resurrection.

I share this, not merely because it is an interesting theological belief that Christians hold about Jesus, but also because it helps to explain our readings for this week. Every first Sunday of Lent, we read an account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. We may ask ourselves, if Jesus is God and he is without sin, why would he experience temptation? For the same reason that Jesus assumes every aspect of human nature: that he may redeem all of humanity.

Temptation is a part of every human being’s life because, as we heard in the first reading from Genesis, we all suffer from the effects of the sin of our first parents. When we experience temptation, we can be assured that Jesus went before us and experienced the same temptations that we do, yet He was victorious. By allowing himself to experience temptation like the rest of humanity, he is able to redeem it.

That is what St. Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans that we hear today: “For if, by the transgression of the one [Adam], death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).

Truly we have received this grace through faith in Jesus. Lent is a season when we are invited to put that grace into action by examining our lives, and seeing those areas where we still need Christ. Many times we go about this by choosing a Lenten penance — deliberately depriving ourselves of things in our lives that may prevent us from allowing Jesus in more fully. Yet, so often, we can focus so much on trying to live our Lenten penances perfectly that, when we fail, we can become discouraged.

Here is the good news: Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He is not surprised when we fail or fall short. When you inevitably find yourself struggling with your Lenten penance, the most important thing to do in that moment is to run to Jesus. Ask Him for the grace to start again. He who allowed himself even to experience human temptation will provide us with whatever aid we need.

That is one of the special parts of belonging to a Church that observes liturgical seasons. “Living liturgically” means allowing ourselves to enter into the mysteries of salvation history over the course of an entire liturgical year. Lent, in particular, gives us a chance to open ourselves more fully to Jesus so that we can celebrate the upcoming holy days of his passion, death, and resurrection.

Fr. Brent Bowen About Fr. Brent Bowen

Fr. Brent Bowen, O.P. is a Dominican Friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great. He is a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Catholic University of America as well as a speaker for the Catherine of Siena Institute. He has a BS in Air Traffic Management, and Master’s degrees in Business Administration, Theology, and Divinity.