Sunday, August 26, 2012


As predictably happens every three years with this Sunday's second reading, one of our readers at Mass today asked with great trepidation whether we'd be using the long form or the short.  When I told him we'd be using the long one, he pointed out that today just happened to be Women's Equality Day, and he found this all a bit ironic.  I pointed out that, when we actually take the time to understand it on its own terms, Saint Paul's message to the Ephesians is a far more radical call for real equality than this world has heard in a very long time...

   Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

It’s great having a newly ordained priest around, isn’t it?
Not only am I impressed and inspired
by Fr. Tom’s great eagerness and energy,
but I keep learning new things from him.
In fact, Fr. Tom just shared with me that this Sunday
has been given a new name of which I had previously not been aware:
“Bruised Rib Sunday.”
It arises from today’s second reading…
…and all the elbow jabs that start flying
between husbands and wives in their pews!

Such a strong reaction to a difficult teaching is nothing new.
Just look at the gospel.
After Jesus’ declared that his flesh is true food
and his blood true drink,
some of his disciples—
not newcomers or casual listeners,
but those who’d followed him for some time—
are heard to ask, This saying is hard; who can accept it?
And as a result, many no longer walked with him.

In general, when you’re wrestling with a difficult question,
it’s best to consult with the experts,
and so I have two experts for our consideration this Sunday.

The first has been around a little while:
Saint Thomas Aquinas,
who was a professor of theology at the University of Paris
all the way back in the thirteenth century.
Commenting on this Sunday’s gospel passage,
he once lectured to his students:
          A saying is hard either because it resists the intellect
          or because it resists the will,
          that is, when we cannot understand it with our mind,
          or when it does not please our will.  
To put it another way:
If a teaching doesn’t sit right in your gut,
the real problem isn’t in your stomach:
either it’s in your head because it disagrees with what you know,
or it’s in your heart because it disagrees with what you want.

The Church has a long list of doctrines and disciplines
which people find controversial.
I find that most of people’s strong, negative reactions to them
are based on two things: misinformation and raw emotion.
We wouldn’t want anyone to make an important decision
based on either of these in other circumstances,
so why should we in matters of faith?

If you’re struggling with a teaching of the Church,
the first thing to do is get your head around it.
If you’re getting all your information
from news briefs on TV, in the newspaper, or on the Internet,
then that just might be the root of your problem!
Controversy is (literally!) their business,
and they have a vested interest in stirring the pot.
Don’t settle for sound bites or someone else’s take on things.
Educate yourself.  Go to the source. 
(For that, I highly suggest the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
Getting accurate information
is oftentimes enough to clear things up.
The teachings of the Church 
haven’t developed rashly or haphazardly,
but are the result of centuries of thought and prayer.
They’re not rooted in human opinion, but in divine revelation.
We shouldn’t jump to quick conclusions
that they’re wrong and we know better.
We should take some time to make sure that we really understand.

And if you’re still struggling with a teaching of the Church,
then you need to try and get your heart around it.
This calls for soul searching and honesty.
I know for myself 
that when there’s something which I find challenging,
it’s usually because it touches a part of my life
where I actually need to be challenged.
Do I find a teaching hard
because it gets in the way of other things I want
or tests my cherished assumptions?
What are the true priorities and principles
around which I've ordered my life?
When calling for the Church to change,
is it simply because I am unwilling to change?
If we dare to pray that the Father’s will be done,
then we must allow God—when necessary—
to bend and shape our own.

Let’s apply this lesson from Aquinas to the second reading.
What’s the only line anybody ever remembers?
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands.
There go those bruised ribs again!
Which makes it pretty clear
that this is a kneejerk (elbowjerk?) reaction, an emotional response.
If we want to bring our hearts—our wills—along,
then let’s get our heads—our minds—around it.
That one line—Wives should be subordinate to their husbands
would have been the least controversial of all in Saint Paul’s day.
Why?  Because that’s just what everybody expected him to say…
...and expected him to stop right there.
You know what line would have caught their attention—
and which snuck right by us?
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
That was a radical—I’d even say, subversive—idea!
In a society based on inequality between men and women,
adults and children, citizens and foreigners, masters and slaves,
such mutual deference was completely unheard of…
…but it is at the very heart of the Christian life.
Paul doesn’t linger on what’s expected of a wife.
But he goes all out on what’s expected of a husband,
who’s called to much more than subordination:
a husband is called to total self-sacrifice
like Christ, he must be willing to give up his very life,
loving and caring for his wife as if she were his own body.
If we know full well that somebody’s willing
to do or give up absolutely anything and everything for our benefit,
then it’s a joy—not a drawback—to surrender ourselves.
That’s precisely what the Church must do as the bride of Christ;
this great and awesome mystery
is also precisely what ought to distinguish Christian marriage.

Hopefully even that brief study of this text and its background
helps you think and feel a bit differently…
…or at least put those elbows down.

So much for the insights of our first expert.
Our second is more contemporary.
Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology 
at Harvard University
and is widely known for his studies of human happiness.
Using his own students as guinea pigs,
which reach striking conclusions 
about what makes us happiest.

It seems that people are happier
when they make a decision that can’t be changed,
rather than when they make one which they can later reverse.
When people have the opportunity to change their minds,
they spend a lot of time worrying if they made the right choice
or if they should go back and decide again differently.
Our culture tells us that we should keep our options open,
that we shouldn’t limit our choices or restrict our freedom…
…but science seems to indicate that commitment
is a surer recipe for happiness.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to faith.
Joshua lays it out before all of Israel.
They must make a choice and stick with it.
They can’t go on proudly saying they’re the Lord’s chosen people…
…yet still clinging to their former ways
and still serving the false gods of their neighbors.
Which will it be?
They can’t have it both ways.
And Jesus does much the same for his apostles.
Watching many disciples turn away, he asks that haunting question,
Do you also want to leave?
Simon Peter sees where true happiness lies.
Where else would we go?
We have come to believe
that you are so much more than a mighty prophet.
You are the Holy One—God himself!
Yes, your words may be hard…
…but through them you alone have the power to give us life.

So when a teaching of the Church, whatever it might be,
just sticks in your craw—or even causes minor bruising—
remember to take some time to consult the experts.
Don’t settle for easy or hasty conclusions,
but make full use of your mind and your heart.
And above all, be sure to see things in the light
of your committed decision to follow Christ.
Subordinate yourself in reverence to him
who is head of the Church—his bride and his body.
It’s the only sure way to taste and see the Lord’s goodness—
to find real happiness in his company,
both now and forever.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Chew on This

   Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Have you ever watched 
a dog chewing on a bone?
It’s a slow, 
drawn out process,
as if there’s nothing else 
going on in the world.

Have you ever watched
 a teenage boy eat supper?
(I mean no offense—
I used to be one!)
The food goes down so fast 
you’d think he’d inhaled it.
It’s simply a matter 
of refueling the machine.

Jesus has talked a lot about eating lately.
Following the multiplication of loaves and fishes,
this is the third Sunday in a row
that we hear from his sermon on the bread of life.

In the original Greek of this Sunday’s passage
from Saint John’s Gospel,
we find two different words for eating.
Four times, Jesus uses the verb phagein,
which indicates the way humans eat:
chewing with your mouth closed.
Whoever “eats” this bread will live forever.
But four other times, Jesus uses the verb trogein,
which indicates the way animals eat:
gnawing on something…taking us back to that dog with a bone.
Whoever “gnaws on” my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

No wonder Jesus provoked
such a strong reaction among his Jewish listeners!
On the surface, his language is—quite frankly—pretty disturbing.

This little lesson in New Testament Greek
prompts an important reflection:
How do we approach the Eucharist—
as fast food…or slow?
The best way for me
to guarantee a compliment on my homily
is to keep it short.
And that also goes for the whole Mass.
A few times this summer,
when the temperature rose above 90 degrees,
I was right there with you!
No one comes more overdressed to this dinner party than me.
But—in general—what’s the big hurry?
Why this rush to eat and run?

I think some of it has to do
with our Catholic sense of obligation.
We Catholics are obligated to attend Mass
on all Sundays and certain holy days.
That’s how we interpret the third commandment.
It’s the Church’s longstanding teaching
that for us to intentionally skip Sunday Mass
without a serious reason is gravely sinful. (cf. Catechism 2177, 2180-2183)

For centuries, this precept has helped to fill the pews.
But—if not properly understood—
it can mess up our thinking quite a bit.
We’re not obliged to come to church
in the same way we’re obliged to show up for work
if we expect to receive our paycheck.
If we’ve come to think of the Mass as something
we need to check off our religious to do list,
a way to punch our spiritual timecards and so avoid the fires of hell,
then it’s little wonder we’d just want to get it over with
as quickly as possible.
There…I’ve fulfilled my obligation!

It’s getting pretty rare these days,
but occasionally I’ve run into families
who’ve maintained a custom of eating a big Sunday dinner.
Mom—maybe Dad—goes all out in cooking the weekly feast,
and everybody comes together
to share a long, leisurely meal.
The good food is a big part of it.
But even more:
it’s chance for the whole family to come together
to talk about the week; to talk about old times;
to talk about the future and their dreams for it.
It isn’t written as a law,
but there is clearly an obligation to come and eat Sunday dinner.
One has a duty to the family…
…but it isn’t fulfilled merely to stay out of trouble.
It’s about love.
It’s about belonging.
It’s about—pardon the expression—eating like that dog:
slowly, intentionally,
as if there’s nothing else going on in the world.

That—my friends—is our obligation to the Mass!

The Lord has built his house for company
and set his table for feasting.
He sends out messengers with the invitation:
Come, eat of my food and drink of my wine!
Leave behind foolishness; progress in wisdom;
here learn the secret to life!
If you want to fill yourselves,
let it not be on the worldly bread
which generations have eaten and still died.
Fill up on me.
Draw your sustenance from me.
The food I give has the power to make you live forever.
And if you want to drink up,
don’t get drunk on wine.
Instead, become intoxicated with my Spirit,
for I have the ability to not merely lift your feelings,
but to raise you up on the last day.

In the Eucharist,
God is giving you something to chew on.
Even during the dog days of summer,
be sure to take your time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

I fondly recall my father singing this song (well, the refrain, anyway) when I was a child, with both great affection and great gusto.  Little did I know that I was in such good company: it seems that St. Thérèse of Lisieux used to sing it along with her friends, having learned it from her mother.  The story behind this beautiful French hymn to Our Lady is a rather touching one, and its text seems most appropriate to me on this great solemnity.

The Mother of God's high destiny is ours, as well: to be raised in the full integrity of our humanity--body and soul--to heaven.  Where Mary has gone--now dwelling in complete, eternal union with her divine Son--we long one day to follow.

We sang this (although not nearly as well as Patty Griffin does, who first heard it as a lullaby sung by her French Canadian grandmother) at the end of the holy day Mass here at Notre Dame...

J'irai la voir un jour
Au ciel, dans la patrie!
Oui, j'irai voir Marie,
Ma joie et mon amour.

               Au ciel, au ciel, au ciel,
               J'irai la voir un jour!

J'irai la voir un jour!
C'est le cri d'espérance
Qui calme ma souffrance
Au terrestre séjour.

J'irai la voir un jour!
J'irai m’unir aux anges,
Pour chanter ses louanges
Et pour former sa cour.

J'irai la voir un jour,

Cette Vierge si belle!

Bientôt j'irai près d'elle

Lui dire mon amour.

J'irai la voir un jour!

J'irai près de sa trône

Recevoir ma couronne

Dans l'éternel séjour.

J'irai la voir un jour!
J'irai, loin de la terre,
Sur le coeur de ma Mère
Reposer sans retour.
I will go to see her one day,
In heaven, in my homeland!
Yes, I will go to see Mary,
My joy and my love.

               To heaven, to heaven, to heaven,
               I will go to see her one day!

I will go to see her one day!
It is the cry of hope
That calms my suffering
During my earthly stay.

I will go to see her one day!
I will join myself to the angels
In order to sing her praises
And to form her court.

I will go to see her one day,
This Virgin so beautiful!
Soon I will go to be near her
And tell her of my love.

I will go to see her one day!
I will go near her throne
To receive my crown
In eternal rest.

I will go to see her one day!
I’ll go, far from the earth,
To rest without return
On my Mother's heart.

Fr. Pierre Janin (1853)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Make a Stink

I can almost smell you from here...

   Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

There was a couple at the 4:00pm Mass yesterday—
they were there last Saturday, too—
that I only see at this time of year.
(They belong to another nearby parish.)
Even if I didn’t already know them personally,
even if they weren’t wearing
their bright red “Eat at Joe-Joe’s” T-shirts,
I would still have known that they were at Mass
while on break from working at a food stand
down at the Franklin County Fair.
How would I have known?
Because I could smell it!
The distinct aroma of fair food—
from sausage to cotton candy to fried dough—
just tends to cling to you.

Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians:
Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Part of the great beauty of Catholic worship—
the divine wisdom of the Church’s sacramental system—
is that it takes into account the whole person.
The liturgy is not merely an intellectual pursuit:
a matter of absorbing words and concepts,
and then turning them over in our minds.
No, as we sang in the psalm:
we’re here to “taste and see” the Lord’s goodness—
to partake of a feast for all the senses.
Oh, our communion with God is spiritual, to be sure,
but it comes to us in the form of bodily food:
the taste of wheat as we eat the Bread of Life.
Sight comes into play as we see
the flicker of candles, the color and fold of vestments,
images in statue and stained glass.
We also hear words and music and silence.
We touch the hands of our neighbors in peace,
and even daringly reach out to touch the very Body of Christ.
But smell?  That’s a sense we don’t often take into account…
…and yet even our noses come into play liturgically.

When Saint Paul writes
of the “fragrant aroma” of Christ’s sacrifice,
he’s probably calling to mind 
the huge amounts of incense
used in the Jerusalem temple.
(In the temple, 
the priests burned incense by the shovelful;
I get complaints when I use just a teaspoon!)
Christ’s self-offering in love 
to God on our behalf
should be understood to rise to the Father
like a billowing cloud 
of sweet-smelling smoke.
We aren’t simply to keep burning incense;
we are to imitate 
the pure and pleasing sacrifice it signifies.

The liturgy also gets smelly when we use Sacred Chrism—
one of the Church’s three holy oils,
consecrated by the Bishop and perfumed with balsam.
The Church uses Chrism
in some of its most sacred ceremonies
when someone or something is permanently set aside
to be an image of Christ:
at Baptism; at Confirmation;
in the dedication of a Church or an altar;
twelve years ago today,
my hands were anointed with Sacred Chrism
as I was ordained a priest.

Did you ever have a great aunt who wore too much perfume?
You knew she’d been around, even if you didn’t see her,
simply by sniffing the air.
Or if she gave you a hug, 
the scent would cling to you for hours.
That’s how Chrism is supposed to work!
We Christians—called to be other Christs—
should have an “odor of sanctity” about us:
should be so holy that others can—well—smell it.
That doesn’t mean we are to make a big show
of living our faith in the world.
But if we do as Saint Paul encourages us—
if we remove bitterness, anger, and malice from our midst;
if we are kind, compassionate, and mutually forgiving—
then others will sense—will smell
that there’s something different about us.
And God will smell it, too,
rising up to heaven as a fragrant aroma.

As a priest—as your priest—
my hands have been set aside in a particular way
to carry on the ministry of Christ:
to make of his people, with his people, and for his people
a living sacrifice pleasing to the Father.
Please pray for me that all I lift up in offering with these hands
will be acceptable in the sight of God.

While fair food has a distinct and alluring aroma,
most folks will say that the smell of fresh-baked bread
is one of the most irresistible of all.
It was bread delivered by angels
which strengthened Elijah to overcome his discouragement
and continue on his journey.
It is Jesus—the living bread come down from heaven—
that fortifies us not only to cross the deserts of this passing life,
but to attain to that life which lasts forever.
The Father draws us here—draws us to his Son—
by the smell of this heaven-sent bread.
May the holy aroma of the Eucharist cling to each of us
in a way that stimulates the senses of those around us—
above all, in a way that pleases the very heart of God.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fair Day

A visit from my sister, niece, and nephew yesterday had Fr. Tom and I taking in the joys of a gorgeous afternoon at the Franklin County Fair.  A few highlights...